Tuesday, February 19, 2008

That's all for now...

Ah, springtime. Frosty mornings, longer evenings, and the promise of summer fast approaching... Unfortunately all this has an ominous feel when you have a dissertation to write by September! Time is precious between now and then folks, so you're going to have to make up your own minds about what to watch from now on, cos I'm hitting the pause button on the blog for a while. (Don't worry, I have every confidence you'll manage.)

If you've read any of the reviews here over the last year or so, thanks for stopping by.

Stay classy.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sweeney Todd

The verdict: A very likeable bloody musical with Tim Burton's unmistakeable signature, and two outstanding central performances.

The rating: 7/10

Oh great, so Johnny Depp can sing as well now? Way to make the rest of us all feel even more inadequate there Johnny. At least none of us were in 21 Jumpstreet though, eh!? Hehe, score one to Paddy... (Uh, yeah, that sure showed him... - Ed). Johnny's Keith faux Richards schtick has made him a household name, but in Sweeney Todd, he demonstrates a real ability to sing capably, while also appearing to do an impression of David Bowie..

To the marketing men, Tim Burton's musical horror may look like something of a risky undertaking. First, much of the dialogue is sung, by Depp, Bonham Carter, and even Alan Rickman.. The main risk however, would appear to be the gore factor, which is very high, especially by musical standards. However, this short-sighted view, although to be expected from movie marketeers, overlooks the fact that Steven Sondheim's musical has a great deal of success to its name, and more importantly, that audiences are far more willing to take risks with their cinematic input than they are often given credit for.

To keep the marketeers happy however, Depp is the most 'bankable' movie star of this decade, and the story is tailor-made for Tim Burton's shadowy eye. Ably assisted by Dante Ferretti (production design) and Dariusz Wolski (cinematography) the crew have put a darkly threatening, monochrome London on screen, where a pall of black smoke fills the sky and the grey concrete walls of mazy alleys encroach, and are filled with shadows.

This view of London fits with how Benjamin Barker (Depp) would see it, returning as he is to the city after fifteen years of foreign false imprisonment. His mission, as he makes clear right from the off, is to get revenge on the man who separated him from his wife and child. He rents a room over Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop, and begins plotting a grisly revenge on the judge who wrongly convicted him. He insists he is no longer Benjamin Barker, and takes the name of Sweeney Todd, a name that Depp delivers with just the right dose of menace.

Once Todd is reunited with his trusty razors, its not long before the first splatters of blood hit the screen. However, Todd and Mrs. Lovett suddenly realise that they need to dispose of the body, but what with meat being so expensive these days, and what with Mrs. Lovett's pie shop doing such terrible business lately and all... perhaps you can see where this is going?

The simple story of revenge is played extremely well by Depp, with the setting and his pallor and performance evoking obvious memories of Edward Scissorhands, even if Sweeney Todd's character, and uses of his blades are entirely different. However, the extra layer of the story, the symbiotic business relationship between the barber and the pie shop, is a delicious satire on consumerism, and fits the mischievous mood of the piece perfectly.

The songs are undramatic, and these are not the razzamatazz musical numbers from 'Chicago' or 'Dreamgirls', not by any means. Generally, the songs are introspective, hushed numbers, where the characters quietly vocalise their thoughts, without pomp or ceremony, and this should placate those audience members who wouldn't normally go see a musical. Depp and Bonham Carter deliver the songs very capably however, and their two central performances are thoroughly deserving of any award nods they get. Of particular note is Bonham Carter's song of an imagined future together with Mr. Todd, where she pictures them travelling for a seaside holiday, a very funny moment.

This is a very professionally made, off-beat and likeable movie, and the two perfectly cast central performances are worth the admission price. The story features enough strong characters to hold the interest until the unconventional ending, and the mix of dark comedy and grisly action should keep even ardent anti-musicalists happy. It's well written, well performed, and has a real depth of production talent on show. What's not to like? Two thumbs up from PCMR.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country For Old Men

The verdict: Fargo's Texan cousin, featuring less comedy, and a very very bad man. I may be a self-confessed Coen-head, but this is a thoroughly entertaining movie of genuine quality.

The rating: 8/10

Looking at the cast and crew involved in 'No Country For Old Men', you'd be forgiven for wondering just how good this movie could be... First, the Coen Brothers. They've been going through what by their standards would be called a bit of a lean spell lately, but that's only because their first eight movies were modern classics. ('Big Lebowski' and 'Fargo' are PCMR's personal favourites.) If the Coen's played football, they'd be Brazilians in the 70's: self-assured, accomplished, and at the top of their game. In more recent years however, much like the Brazilians, the Coens have inexplicably been finding it difficult to replicate former glories... (Cue gravel-throated trailer voice - Ed) Until now, that is.

Josh Brolin has the lead, and blow me down if he hasn't had a great twelve months. As if 'American Gangster' wasn't a big enough movie to be in, he had to go and work with the Coens as well, the big show off. (And if that wasn't enough, Oliver Stone has recently signed him up to play George Bush!) This is a far more interesting part for Brolin than his American Gangster role however, and he does admirably well, playing as he does the regular John, a cowboy named Moss, who stumbles across two million dollars in the desert wilderness.

Next we have Javier Bardem, who plays the remorseless Anton Chigurh. Regular readers may or may not remember, but last year, PCMR sang the praises of Bardem for his performance in 'Before Night Falls', and I reckon he's a genuine star on the rise. This guy is a proper actor, and has been working for many a year in Spanish language productions. The quirky 'Live Flesh' and the brilliantly melancholy 'El Mar Adentro' are recommended Bardem performances, but in an inspired piece of casting, Bardem plays the very very bad man in this movie, and to chilling effect. Bardem spends almost the entire movie in pursuit of Moss and the two million dollars.

And then there's Tommy Lee Jones, who by is hitting a real professional peak at this late stage of his career, with this movie, and an Oscar nomination for 'In the Valley of Elah' to boot. With a face more wrinkled than a prune in a hot bath, he is the grizzled Southern sheriff, a man named Ed Tom, and he provides the narration - and soul - of the movie.

The movie is essentially a pursuit, with Jones' sheriff monitoring the chase from a safe distance. Chigurh (Bardem) sweeps slowly through the southern countryside like an virus, never in a rush, but remorselessly killing pretty much everyone he comes into contact with. Of real note is an inspired scene in a remote gas station, where Bardem makes faintly threatening small-talk with the owner. Afer a few moments, it becomes chillingly evident that the sub-text to the conversation is whether or not Chigurh should kill this man, and his answers may help him survive. Bardem is frightening.

For appearance's sake, Roger Deakins provides the colour and light, as he does on all the Coen Brothers movies, and he manages to work on two scales, creating some truly memorable moments on the wide dusty Southern plains, and ensuring the walls close in around the audience in the tautly crafter indoor scenes. The moments in the chase where Bardem and Brolin are in close proximity to each other are also perfectly staged and paced to heighten the tension.

As for sheriff Ed Tom, well, as his heartfelt narration of the opening sequence explains, he remembers a time when a sheriff didn't even need to carry a gun. The encroachment of Chigurh's violent crimes 'ain't just one thing', but are part of a 'rising tide', a wind of change that seems to be sweeping simple men like him aside. As an aging law man, he feels ill equipped to fight this type of bad guy, but will he eventually catch up with Chigurh? If so, can he win the fight against this bad bad man?

Bardem is fantastically evil, and should win the best supporting actor Oscar this year if there's any justice (which of course there isn't - Ed). Brolin is also very good as the honest cowboy, understandably taking a risk that might put him and his wife (Kelly MacDonald) in danger, but might also set them up for life. Jones is the heart and soul of the movie, but 'No Country For Old Men' is so densely packed with memorable moments, idiosyncratic turns of phrase, beautifully framed images, it is as immersive as a movie can get.

Some may baulk at the 140 minute running time, but not I. The relatively sudden ending had its critics in the cinema I attended, but I took this as a clear indication that a second viewing is in order. Like so much of the Coen's best work, this movie deserves it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Mighty Heart

The verdict: At times powerful, this movie tells a story worth hearing. Although flawed, it features an accomplished central performance from Angelina Jolie.

The rating: 6/10

A Mighty Heart tells the story of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist kidnapped in Karachi, and the efforts of his pregnant wife and the Pakistani authorities to find him. Daniel and Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie) reported from Afghanistan after September 11th 2001, and then moved to Karachi, Pakistan - a city with strong connections to the Taliban - when most foreign journalists had packed up and gone home.

With Marianne almost five months pregnant, the couple are also due to head to Dubai, but Daniel (Dan Futterman) has arranged a last meeting with a certain Sheikh Gilani the day before they are due to leave. Danny goes to great pains to verify with embassy personnel that what he is doing is not a crazy idea, and he arranges to meet Gilani in a public place on their advice. However, Danny does not return home that night, and Marianne has to call for help the next day.

When Pakistani CID and American FBI and embassy personnel are alerted to the American journalists' situation, the investigation kicks off. Marianne is all too aware of the dangers faced by her missing husband however, so she alerts her employers, The Wall Street Journal, and they too begin working to find Danny. Day by day, as the investigation progresses, the pressure grows on Marianne and those around her. With every passing moment, the search becomes more of a political issue, and increasingly pressurised at ground level. In a telling moment, as hope of Danny's safe return is gradually ebbing away, Marianne is advised by the chief FBI investigator that she can't crumble under the pressure. Everybody else can, but not her.

Directed by the eclectic Michael Winterbottom, the movie is scripted by John Orloff, based on Marianne's book. It is essentially a story of a woman's personal strength at this most traumatic of times. Her will to continue searching for her husband in Karachi, a massively sprawling city of nearly 12 million people, and fully cognisant of the chances of his safe return, is impressively portrayed by Angelina Jolie in a performance that holds the movie together. This is her search, and noone would have blamed her for falling apart, but she does not. Far from it, she applies herself to the search, postponing emotion until the search reaches an irrefutable conclusion.

The movie avoids getting embroiled in politics, focussing instead on the emotional bond between a loving husband and wife, and Marianne's simple natural desire to get her husband back safely from a difficult situation. Politics are presented merely in the context of the search, how they provide clues and obstacles to Danny's recovery, and this keeps the essence of the story at a human level.

Jolie is quietly impressive in the lead, and delivers an understated performance of real strength and contained despair, apart from a small number of scenes where an eruption of emotion are fully justifiable. Winterbottom performs well too, capturing the sprawing chaos of Karachi extremely well, with unstaged city scenes repeatedly seen at ground level, almost always from a moving car. Orloff's script approaches this very human story in a pragmatic manner, with barely contained emotion and the desire to get this man back the common thread holding these characters together.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. The shaky-cam shootout sequences felt somewhat tacked on after the tense investigation scenes, and some of the moments featuring the Pakistani CID's interrogations jarred a little for me. Also, I felt that some of the supporting cast weren't quite up to the challenge of this demanding script.

That said, 'A Mighty Heart' is a story well told, and certainly one worth hearing. It doesn't quite reach the dizziest of heights, but Marianne Pearl's strength is inspiring, and Jolie's performance certainly reflects a respect and desire to do her story justice.

So, all told, a qualified recommendation from me for this one. It's flawed, but there's also a lot to like.

The Man From Earth

The verdict: Absorbing, small-scale, dialogue-driven yarn which plays with the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief. The movie asks a simple question: do you believe this man?

The rating: 7/10

The Man From Earth is undoubtedly clever, and a story I really enjoyed, but it is such an unusual movie that I would hesitate to unreservedly recommend it. Let me explain: you see, I've seen some movies in my time that I thought were clever, and a fair few that I thought were pretty dumb as well. In the main, precedent shows that the dumb ones have a bigger audience, and while I'm not going to moan about this, it does make me hesitant to tell you to see this movie without qualifying my recommendation. (I mean, what do I know, you might be paying to see 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem' this weekend.)

First qualifier, this movie is set almost entirely in the central character's living room, with the excepton of a small number of outdoor scenes. Second, it's a science fiction story, but there are no action scenes, CGI effects, or aliens to speak of. Now, I would think of this as the better type of science-fiction, less reliant on smoke and mirrors than on the audience's capacity to understand the story... then again, only about twenty-seven people saw 'Primer', so again, what do I know!? Final qualifier - and this is the deal-breaker really - 'The Man From Earth' is based on your willingness to keep an open mind in the face of a claim that appears to be completely impossible, and run with it, just for the craic.

The movie starts with Dr. John Oldman's colleagues intercepting him at his home as he attempts to quietly pack up his possessions and move away. They quiz him as to the reason for his sudden departure after ten years teaching at the local college, and to their dismay, he reveals that he must move every ten years, for fear that his secret is discovered. After much pressing, he tells them that he has been alive since cro-magnon times and does not age, which effectively puts him at 14,000 years old. His university colleagues are both hostile and curious in the face of his story, but as they quiz him on the details of his past, it becomes clear that his words can neither be proved nor disproved. The thing is, the story-teller's responses to their questions are compelling and flawless, so the audience runs with what they see as an interesting tall tale for a bit of fun. However, as the discourse continues, the question is raised, is it possible that Oldman (ah... old.. man... ahem - Ed) could actually be telling the truth?

If the idea of a story like this makes you cringe in embarassment, then fair enough, but I was willing to run with it, and the experience was rewarding. The cast are likeable, and Oldman's story is unbelievable, compelling and challenging in equal measure. The film could easily be a play, and reminded me in its scope of something like 'Twelve Angry Men' (although the comparison to one of the best movies of all time is probably a little unfair.) David Lee Smith is very good in the lead as the compelling story-teller, and although his audience are generally wooden enough, they are generally likeable, and their academic contributions bolster Oldman's story, given that the audience members are, respectively, an anthropologist, an historian, a religious historian, and a psychologist.

If you've read Richard Dawkins 'God Delusion' book, are a fan of science fiction, or occasionally take a chance on movies without CGI, then I'd recommend this film as a diverting, off-beat little bit of fun. Otherwise, for risk of you beating me up for my lunch money, I should probably recommend you steer clear. All in all, PCMR gives a qualified recommendation for 'The Man from Earth', a movie I thoroughly enjoyed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

He Was a Quiet Man

The verdict: Dark, off-beat character study of office frustration. While not terrible, it's derivative of a number of better movies.

The rating: 5/10

He Was a Quiet Man is a dark tale of despair told from the perspective of Bob Maconel (Slater), a man who has reached a pretty bleak point in his life. Right from the opening scenes of the movie, this character is portrayed as a downtrodden lonely outcast, and immediately after arriving into his office cubicle (at a company named A.D.D.), he begins loading a gun, quietly assigning each bullet to one of his neighbouring colleagues. Events take a strange twist soon after these scenes, however, and the movie does not at all follow a beaten path.

Christian Slater is almost unrecognisable as the monosyllabic, mustachioed office worker so lacking in social skills, he seems to blush when anyone addresses him directly. He lives alone, has a dead end job, and is treated pretty badly by his young upstart of a boss. He's also patently losing the plot, the first clue given when we overhear his goldfish advising him to pull the trigger...

This movie is surprising in parts, and almost holds the interest until the end. The main problem I had with it was the debt it owes to a number of movies which are unfortunately better than this. For a start, Falling Down did a better job of portraying the mundane despair of the blue-collar worker. Also, there are a number of scenes set in the company boardroom, with William H. Macy as the chief executive with questionable motives, and these scenes evoke memories of Network, where Peter Finch's madness was exploited by television network executives. And then of course there's American Psycho, a much richer movie in terms of it's protrayal of similar themes: office based one-upmanship, male competition, loneliness and fear of insanity.

Slater gives a decent performance in the lead, but we learn little of his character's background, so it is difficult to know whether to be on his side or not, especially considering he's about to commit a spree killing in the movie's opening scenes. Elisha Cuthbert delivers decent support in a difficult role, but the dream-like narrative was overly ambitious for me. Also, the office characters were exaggerated stereotypes, but given that this story is told by an untrustworthy narrator, we can possibly excuse this, and call it dramatic licence.

If I was you, I wouldn't go out of my way to see this one, but if you enjoyed all three movies I referred to as my suggestions for director Frank Cappello's influences (American Psycho in particular), then you might find something to enjoy here. Otherwise, I reckon it's a little too off-beat, meandering and derivative for most people's tastes.

Monday, January 14, 2008


The verdict: Sub-par stoner comedy with a few good gags, and a couple of decent performances. More like super-average.

The rating: 5/10

The Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow axis marches on. After the one-two of The 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up, they quickly followed up with what looked like being the sucker punch: Superbad . Written by Rogen this time, with Apatow producing, it unfortunately fails to live up to the promise of the previous two movies.

It's a teen gross-out comedy, with Arrested Development's Michael Cera in one of the leads. Sounds good, right? Well, unfortunately, the ideal audience for Superbad is either under sixteen years old or drunk. If you're neither of these things, I don't think you'll like it.

For a start, there have already been so many other movies with this kind of story, summed up by imagining one nerdy kid saying to another "dude, we totally need to get laid before we finish high school." 'Superbad' follows on from a less than illustrious, but long line of similar gross-out comedies, some of which were funnier.

Cera is likeable as Evan, Jonah Hill less so as the loud-mouthed Seth. The two are on a quest to get beer, and are aided by their mate with the fake i.d., Fogell, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Not a name that you'll remember easily, but while Cera unfortunately only gets a few decent scenes to work with, the Fogell character generates most of the funniest moments in Superbad, f'sho.

The thing is, it's dumb, incoherent, and generally populated with idiots. Now, sometimes this is a starting point for good comedy, but not in this case. It has a few warm moments to counterweight the many many dumb, crass jokes, but not enough plot to make it interesting.

Superbad was a huge hit last year, but didn't come close to living up to the hype for me. Then again, I was sober when I watched it...


The verdict: Heartfelt, bittersweet comedy with a likeable ensemble cast, and a really great lead performance.

The rating: 7/10

Before I start, let me just say, any movie that can incorporate a pie-eating contest is alright by me.

Right, so 'Waitress' tells the story of Jenna, a southern girl who has somehow ended up working a dead end job, married to the wrong guy, and without much happiness in her life. She works at a local diner, doing what she loves best: making pies. Now, by all accounts, Jenna's pies are pretty great, good enough to win competitions maybe, so she plots to scrimp enough cash to get to a local competition, where the prize is $25,000 - enough for her to start a new life maybe... Unfortunately, she suddenly realises she's got one in the oven, and I don't mean a souflee.

Waitress is such a simple slice-of-life story, that I don't want to give away much more, but it is set primarily in the Diner where Jenna works, and despite the relatively serious subject matter, is actually a bittersweet comedy. The other two waitresses at the diner (played by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines, and writer/director Adrienne Shelly) share their relative highs and lows in finding a partner, while dealing with their demanding customers and loudmouth boss as best they can.

All the central characters share something in common - the simple need to be loved, and they're all finding the answer to this need in weird and wonderful places. Now, I'm aware that this description sounds dangerously close to 'romantic comedy', but don't be fooled readers, Waitress is better than that short-hand description might suggest. For a start, it's very well written, creating a relaxed, off-beat mood right from the kick-off. It's undemanding, warm, and full of likeable, flawed characters, with the likeable ones figuring things out as they go, and the rare one or two who remain stuck in their rut.

Keri Russell is great in the lead, and Hines and Shelly give decent support. Nathan Fillion plays the new doc in town, doing himself no harm, and even Matlock shows up! Yep, that's right, Andy Griffith plays the grumpy old diner regular, with enough Schadenfreude to make a paparazzi journalist look like a boy scout.

The balance between comedy and drama plays out well, and you should be interested in what happens to Jenna, as Keri Russell is more than watchable, and her character is realistic and likeable.

Somehow, this movie appears to have been completely overlooked last year, but for an off-beat, relaxing dvd that the missus would like as well, you could do far worse than 'Waitress'.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

The verdict: Polished Hollywood fare. Hoffman steals the show and Hanks is great, but the movie, although diverting enough, isn't brilliant.

The rating: 6/10

Now, if Hollywood ever needed to put an Oscar-worthy 5-a-side team together, they need look no further than the cast and crew that was assembled to tell the story of Charlie Wilson's War. Team CWW already has a fair collection of golden paperweights between them…

But before we get into all that, here’s the skinny: Charlie Wilson was a Texas congressman who managed to – almost single-handedly – arm the Afghans in the late eighties, allowing them to successfully defend against a Soviet invading force. All this, using American money and weapons of Soviet origin, provided by a thoroughly unlikely alliance between Egypt and Israel.

The movie is scripted by Aaron Sorkin – he of 'West Wing' fame, and directed by a certain Mike Nichols (you may remember him from such movies as 'The Graduate' and 'Catch 22'), so our team of super-friends is off to a pretty good start already... As for the people in front of the camera, Tom Hanks plays the quick-witted, Texan congressman who likes to sip whisky at ten a.m., and is a celebrated lothario on Capitol Hill. Wilson is assisted in his political machinations by the thoroughly undiplomatic CIA man Gust Avrokatos, played with portly aplomb by Philip Seymour Hoffman. As if that wasn’t enough, Julia Roberts even pops up, and for a moment you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the next Danny Ocean flick..

Thankfully it's not as vacuous as the Ocean franchise, but the sum of the efforts of all these a-listers is unfortunately not as impressive as you might expect. Hanks is perfectly cast, and as likeable and vulnerable as ever in the lead role, but he shouldn’t win any Oscars with this performance. Unfortunately, Julia Roberts is miscast in my book, she's simply too glamorous for the role, which needed someone with a little, well.. older, like Michelle Pfeiffer perhaps. Our Joolz seems trapped in her Danny Ocean school of acting, where simply being there with the right hairdo is enough to keep the audience happy (she's capable of better than this). Unfortunately for Julia, her male co-stars are far from phoning it in, so she appears wooden in comparison.

The standout performance is Philip Seymour Hoffman's though, and right from his first moments in front of the camera, Sorkin’s sharp dialogue allows Capote-man to almost literally chew the scenery. His character rapidly becomes the liveliest and most interesting in the film, and he has the best chance of an Oscar of anyone in the CWW team.

The first hour of the movie is great, but towards the end, it devolves and almost fizzles out completely by the end, due to a montage! Yep, as Team America said, when you need to move things along, you need a montage. Unfortunately, after 75 minutes of CWW, there was still a fair chunk of story to tell, so this dirty device is employed. The montage sequence detracts from the impact of the movie, placed as it is less than ten minutes before the end.

That said, CWW is enjoyable, polished Hollywood entertainment, with enough quality to be watchable. Unfortunately, it doesn't ever reach the high standards that its cast and crew might lead you to expect.

Charlie Wilson's War is in cinemas now

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Kingdom

The verdict: Slick, tense thriller with plenty of smarts and bucketloads of action.

The rating: 7/10

Nothing at all to do with County Kerry, 'The Kingdom' tells the story of the FBI's attempts to investigate a large-scale attack on an Western housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabian. Ronald Fleury (Foxx) heads the investigation team pushing to put their boots on Saudi soil, but the the complex political backdrop, as well as high-profile nature of the atrocity, means that they are not entirely welcome.

The American brass are initially unwilling to send FBI investigators to Saudi on the grounds that they are targets for the fundamentalist Muslim attackers who committed the original atrocity, and that their presence would render the situation even more unstable. The Saudis, for their part, are unwilling to allow interference in their own investigation, especially from non-Muslims. The presence of a female investigator is also a cause for some concern. Cue some serious political wrangling from Fleury.

Once in Saudi, the team are reluctantly assisted in their investigation by a Saudi Colonel, played with real presence by Ashraf Barhom, and the initially frosty association between Foxx and his guide slowly develops into a mutually beneficial working relationship. You know, the old 'frosty at first' kind of deal.

The movie is essentially a tense investigation book-ended by two long action set-pieces, and this structure works well. The investigation is well scripted, and builds the tension well, with all five central characters likeable enough to win the audience over. And why not, when the supporting cast is this good? Chris Cooper is amiable enough as the bomb site investigator, and Jennifer Garner works well; even if she does spend a lot of the movie crying, each episode of tears is thoroughly warranted. Jason Bateman too, continues his career resurgence with a creditable performance as the comic foil, and he has some great one-liners, which serve as a welcome coping mechanism for the audience as the tension builds. Jeremy Piven also has a nice turn as an American foreign department official, popping up every now and again to try and persuade the team to return home, before they do any political damage.

As for the action, well there is a moment about an hour into the movie where things suddenly take a turn into '24' territory, but it works very well. The action is visceral, realistic, and very much in the Paul Greengrass style, with hand-held shaky-cams following the cast, and everything ticking along at a relentless pace. Bullets, grenades and rockets fly, and we are right in the thick of it.

I have reservations about Jamie Foxx as a leading man, but he does a decent job here, despite still needing serious elecution lessons. The script is tight, with almost every central character likeable enough to root for. My only quibble was the Saudi Colonel. Foreign heroes in American movies must be god-fearing, squeaky-clean and have young kids for some reason, and his presence in the movie unfortunately reminded me of the away missions on the old Star Trek shows. Imagine Kirk (Foxx), Bones (Bateman), Spock (Cooper) and Uhura (Garner) beaming down to a planet with an anonymous red-shirted crew member, and you get the idea of the Saudi character's precarious position, right from the opening scenes.

That said, this is a quality movie, a diverting, well-written, actioner with a liekable cast, and PCMR heartily gives it two thumbs up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Irish Blog Awards 2008

With the Writer's Guild Association threatening to prematurely bring the curtain down on the Oscars this year, it's reassuring to know that at least the Irish Blog Awards, that much-heralded bastion of glitz, glamour and razzamatazz, are still going ahead.

Never one to turn down the opportunity for a shameless act of self-promotion, and always in need of a good paperweight, PCMR would like to draw your attention to the fact that nominations are now open. Should you feel the desire to vote, perhaps I could direct you to recommend your humble reviewer for the 'best popculture blog' section? Don't feel under any pressure though... (Ah, reverse psychology... it can't fail! - Ed)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Resident Evil Extinction

The verdict: Surprisingly entertaining zombie romp. Sit back, turn down your brain activity, and enjoy.

The rating: 6/10

Yep, that's right, six out of ten. What am I talking about, Willis? Well, as B-movies go, this one's a cracker. It might have hammy acting, cheesy bad guys and the misfortune to be based on a video game, but this movie has something in its favour: it's bags of fun! Paul Anderson, the man behind the scripts for 'Event Horizon' and 'Alien versus Predator', has taken this franchise - itself on the verge of extinction after the second sub-par episode - and somehow managed to make it anarchic, interesting, and most importantly, thoroughly enjoyable.

The opening sequence quickly and succinctly reminds us of the qualities that made the game so involving: claustrophobia, mystery, and an equal mixture of fear and curiosity in relation to what's behind that next door. However, the opening also has some surprises to offer, nodding to the previous two movies, but giving a clue that in this episode, things are going to be veeery different.

For the uninitiated, Resident Evil is the story of the dastardly Umbrella corporation, who carried out all sorts of experiments on unwitting subjects with something called the T-Virus. Now, this virus had the unfortunate effect of turning people into the flesh-eating zombie undead, and in the first movie, the t-virus spread throughout a small town named Raccoon City - also the location for the original game.

When this movie starts, however, the T-virus has become a global pandemic, practically wiping out every living thing: human, animal and plant life to boot... Only a handful of survivors remain on the desertified planet, scavenging what resources they can to survive. Our central character Alice (Milla Jovovich) is a survivor of Umbrella experiments, and has retained some interesting side-effects...

Immediately after the enclosed surroundings of the opening sequence, things go a bit bananas, and we're suddenly transported into an 'Evil Dead meets Mad Max' scenario: a convoy of survivors (including one or two from the first two movies) are struggling to stay alive, hunting for gasoline, food, and safe shelter from the annoyingly persistent chase of the hungry undead.

Meanwhile, back at the Umbrella HQ, the dastardly Dr. Isaacs continues the wicked experiments, as the coprorations' resources dwindle, and his employers exert more and more pressure to find the cure for the T-Virus... Isaacs believes the key to finding the cure is in Alice's blood, he just needs to find her..

Ok, I get it, you either like this type of movie or you don't, but compared to something like 'Transformers' or '28 Weeks Later', for me this was much, much more rewarding. The script is neither pretentious nor self-conscious, and doesn't cop out by trying to be post-modern or ironic. Instead, Paul Anderson delivers a punchy, pacy flick with a relentless sequence of action-packed set-pieces that - for the most part - forego building tension and just get stuck into the good stuff. The climax is satisfying, and even leaves an appetising cliffhanger, leaving the door wide open for an equally anarchic fourth instalment.

It's thoroughly flawed, more than a bit mixed up, and suffers a little from an identity crisis: (is it a zombie western!?) but this shouldn't deter you from enjoying it, as it's simply great fun. For a low maintenance Dvd night in, 'Resident Evil Extinction' comes recommended from me.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Eastern Promises

The verdict: Well realised, immersive, slightly off-beat tale of Russian gangsters in London. It's violent, and even features naked fighting... but Mortensen is frighteningly good.

The rating: 7/10

Eastern Promises may sound, as someone pointed out to me today, like a 'special interest' movie, or perhaps the new slogan for Turkish Delight, (ah, remember them? - Ed) but don't be fooled readers, for it's actually the title of the latest movie from the fledgling Cronenberg-Mortensen Axis of Quality.

You may have gathered by now, but I'm trying to catch up on some of the better movies from 2007 that I missed due to assorted reasons associated with living in the real world (tsk, lame excuse - Ed). Anyway, Eastern Promises was very near the top of the list, and it didn't disappoint.

I probably wouldn't be alone in associating Cronenberg with his legacy of above average psychological horror flicks from the eighties and nineties. Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, the marvellously surreal ExistenZ, and of course Crash (yuck - Ed) shocked and provoked audiences with their schlocky, sinister atmosphere, but movies like 'The Naked Lunch' and more recently 'Spider' have hinted at an ambitious streak in Cronenberg, perhaps a desire to move away from the horror genre and tackle more mainstream material.

Now, he hasn't quite done that, but he certainly hasn't sold out his roots in violent, provocative cinema either. With the excellent 'A History of Violence', however, Cronenberg recruited Viggo Mortensen, headed in a slightly different direction, and made something remarkable. 'History of Violence' was notably different in themes from his previous work, but still retained the signature style and tense atmosphere that elevated his horror movies above the average. Eastern Promises continues that trajectory.

Mortensen returns as a London-based Russian gangster named Nikolai, working for a shady restauaranteur named Semyon. Meanwhile, Anna (Naomi Watts) is a mid-wife working at Trafalgar hospital. When a 14-year-old Russian girl dies in childbirth, leaving no clue behind as to her identity save a diary written entirely in her mother tongue, the paths of these two characters begin to cross. The diary is essentially a Pandora's Box, with Watts warned repeatedly to stay away and let it be. Thankfully however, she ignores these warnings, and the audience is plunged into this dark, previously unexplored corner of London.

Mortensen turns in a really great performance as Nikolai, sporting a marvellously quifftastic hairdo, and all the lazy inscrutable mannerisms of the Russian bodyguard who might want to toast a drink with you, or perhaps cut your fingers off.. who knows what that shrug of his shoulders could imply. Vincent Cassel is also excellent as the closeted, foppish, yet extremely dangerous son of Mortensen's boss. The boss man himself - Semyon - is played by the formidable Armin Mueller-Stahl, one of those faces you'll recognise, but if you can place, you're doing better than me. (Shine? - Ed)

The film moves along at a deceptively lazy, yet steady pace, and this languid style is reflective of Semyon and Nikolai (Mortensen)'s dispositions in the movie... they may appear to move slowly, but you need to watch them closely...

Much of the movie is set indoors, and this adds to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. There is only ever a small number of central characters involved, and we gradualy become more and more involved with each, adding further to the tension. London is the setting, but there are no romantic aerial shots of Big Ben, the Eye or the Gherkin. This London is always at street level, the London of the resident as opposed to the tourist. Only for Naomi Watts' accent, we could well be in Russia.

Although Cronenberg has retained his penchant for ultra-violence and gore in a couple of scenes, he has answered a question I asked of Ridley Scott in a review of American Gangster. What can you bring to a genre that's been pretty much done before? Well, look no further, because Cronenberg has brought something entirely original. It's claustrophobic, immersive, and well-researched. Watch out for Mortensen's tattoos, the breathtakingly violent naked sauna knife fight, and the guy in the barbers in the very first scene. I won't say any more.

Your gran wouldn't like it, but I did. It's violent, but a great story. Mortensen is great in the lead role, and and Cassel, Watts and Stahl deliver in support. The ending isn't the best in the world, but I was willing to overlook this considering the entertaining hour and a half that came before. If you enjoyed 'History of Violence', PCMR recommends you check this one out immediately.

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2008

Be gorra and be the hokey, sure doesn't time fly and indeed and it does. Ah yeah, seems like only yesterday PCMR sat down in the sold out Savoy One to gorge on the delights of 'Curse of the Golden Flower', one of the best films of last year in my book. And of course there was 'Metropolis' at the National Gallery, another one of my movie highlights of 2007. For a full run-down of PCMR's adventures at the festival last year, have a look at these little beauties.

The 2008 festival runs from February 15th to 24th, and there is a sample of the schedule alread up on the official site. PCMR can at least tell you that 3Epkano are back, this time to provide the live soundtrack to 'Pandora's Box' in the Savoy... sounds promising!

There's even an opportunity to work at the festival this year. For those interested in doing a bit of film-related volunteer work, while possibly getting loads of free cinema tickets (PCMR does not guarantee you will get any free cinema tickets - Ed) check out the official JDIFF site.

Keep an eye on the site, the full schedule's sure to be up in the next few weeks... but fear not! If you can't make it, PCMR will be there to report on the best of what's there.


The Verdict: Passable, if predictable tear-jerker, with one outstanding performance. (Not Ikea Knightley).

The Rating: 6/10

What's that? Surprised that PCMR took in a romantic period drama? Well, every now and again, one of these movies comes along that achieves a certain level of omnipresence, making it increasingly difficult to avoid. However, the straw that broke the camel's back for me was surely the golden globe nomination for Ikea Knightley (Tip o' the hat to Mark Kermode for that joke – Ed). Curious at this decidedly queer turn of events, I thought it wise to investigate.

Right, so movies like 'Atonement' require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from audience members like me. More, say than from proper fans of the romantic tear-jerker genre, so my views may be tempered by a degree of reticence towards, for example, an upper-class 1930's English countryside setting. Or, say, posh kids who say words like ra-ther, with the emphasis on the 'ther'.

Ok, this taken on board, 'Atonement' is the story of Cecelia (Ikea) and Robbie (James MacAvoy). Cecelia (or 'Cee' to her chums) is a toff, and Robbie is an orphan rapscallion, taken in by Cee's benevolent Father and happily given a splendid education, but he's still a bit rough around the edges you see, sort of a rough diamond type of fellow. The story of these two is initially told from the perspective of Cee's younger sister Briony, who is 'somewhat fanciful', and fond of writing stories. Now, Cee and Robbie totally fancy each other right from the off, and unusually for the British period drama, their love is 100% requited.

Yep, this pair actually get together, but almost instantly after their first clinch, the movie's potential for drama shifts from the unrequited love scenario to the tragic separation scenario. I'm not sure if the awareness of this fact will spoil the movie for the target audience, because most of them will watch Atonement mainly to have a good little cry. (... not that there's anything wrong with that. - Ed)

That aside, Knightley and MacAvoy are quite good, but really only have straight-forward enough romantic roles to tackle (Passion, tragedy, that sort of meat and two veg stuff). The real star of the movie is Romola Garai, who plays the 18-year-old Briony. She is believable as the repentant, sorrowful sister hoping for redemption for a mistake she made as a child.

The celebrated long Dunkirk beach shot (which you may or may not have heard of) is impressive, but these shots usually just make me feel like the director is showing off. For example, 'Snake Eyes' had a 15 minute opening shot, which was certainly impressive, but Da Palma couldn't make the rest of the movie any good. In Atonement, the long expansive shot of the beach didn't make me feel like I was there, and didn't shock me as to the horrors of war. Nope, it only served to make me more conscious that I was watching a movie. Bad thing for me.

The first hour is enjoyable, the second less so. If you like this sort of thing, you'll probably cry a little, but I don't think Atonement will stand the test of time as a classic by any means. Knightley didn't do enough to warrant a Golden Globe gong for me, but admittedly she did look great, and wasn’t quite as annoying as in some of her previous movies. MacAvoy didn't do himself any harm, but Garai was great. This isn't my favourite genre, but I'm pretty sure that romantic period dramas have more to offer than Atonement.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

American Gangster

The verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable. 'Serpico' meets 'Blow', with Ridley Scott directing Denzel as a bad guy. At 150 minutes, perhaps a little long for some, but not for me.

The rating: 7/10

American Gangster... now here's a genre that's been done before. Da Palma's 'Scarface' charted the ultra-violent rise of a disenfranchised immigrant to 1970's American drug overlord with hees leetle friend. Michael Mann's 'Heat' was a cop and robber character study, toying with the audience's desire to root for the good guy. Sidney Lumet's 'Serpico' was also set in the 70's, and focussed just on the cops, with Pacino this time surrounded by corrupt cops, and very definitely the one to root for. However, the gangster genre was arguably defined immutably by Coppola's 'Godfather' trilogy, and rubber-stamped for good measure by Scorcese with 'Goodfellas'. (Jeez, Al Pacino's made some good movies! - Ed)

So where do you go from there? What can even Ridley Scott bring to the table that we haven't already seen before? Well, casting Denzel Washington as the ganster is an excellent start, and pitting Russell Crowe against him as the embattled moral crusader surrounded by dirty cops is another plus, but when the story is based on fact, well, that adds even further to the mystique.

Set in 1970's New York, the drug enforcement agency is riddled with corruption, and heroin is the drug of choice on the streets. The good guys are far from clean, with institutional payoffs the order of the day, from beat cops to judges. Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) makes a name for himself in the force as a bit of a Serpico when he and his partner turn in a million dollars in drug money, rather than distributing it around 'the guys'. As a result, he becomes a pariah, and is eventually recruited for a special task force to tackle the drug problem, without involving dirty cops.

Meanwhile, Lucas (Washington) is importing heroin directly from Vietnam, and is bringing heroin to the streets of New York that is purer than his competitors and at a lower price. Interestingly, Lucas dissociates himself from the evil that he purveys with the conviction and eloquently persuasive language of the successful businessman. He is giving his customers the product they demand, at higher quality, and at the right price. They don't care who he is, any more than he cares who is in charge of the national dairy board, right?

The inevitable rise of Lucas to crown prince of Harlem is charted alongside Det. Roberts travails to find the man behind this new heroin product spreading like wildfire on American streets, known as 'blue magic'. Lucas proves hard to catch however, as he spurns does the ostentatious pimp stylings of many of his competitors, and leads a relatively austere existence, albeit with more of the trappings of wealth than De Niro's character in Heat, for example.

This involving story trundles along at a nice pace, and we're in the hands of Ridley Scott here for god's sake, so the length of the movie (two and a half hours) wasn't really an issue for me. The only issue I had with 'American Gangster' was the scope. It is attempting to be an expansive epic in the same vein as 'Goodfellas', but is not quite as tight. The twin track of the stories means that two central characters require equal, and separate development for the story to work, and essentially each character story could have been the lead in a movie of his own. Frank Lucas' story would work in the same way as 'Blow', which was a very similar story of a man named George Jung, the guy credited with the rise of Cocaine in New York in the 1970's. Meanwhile, alongside this, as I've said, Roberts' story is similar to that of Pacino's character in 'Serpico'.

Putting all this aside for a moment, 'American Gangster' is a very enjoyable movie in it's own right. Denzel is excellent as the nuanced bad guy, and should definitely experiment a little more with this type of character. Russell Crowe is also in his area of expertise here, as the troubled good guy, and reminded me of how great he was in 'The Insider'. The setting is excellently rendered on screen, and I wouldn't want to have lived in the projects or anything, but 1970's harlem is a great backdrop for a movie like this.

As a footnote, Cuba Gooding Jr. is in this movie, and he doesn't suck! Unbelievable though it may seem, readers, I shit you not!

This streak of originality aside, although American Gangster is a very enjoyable movie, and will be in most critics 'top 10' lists of the year, it's unfortunaely not imbued with enough originality or style of its own to topple any of the existing giants of the genre.

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