Monday, September 26, 2011

The Guard

PCMR Verdict:A sharp script, a fun story, and Gleeson is excellent in the lead role. This is the movie equivalent of going for a quiet pint, and then ending up on session.

PCMR Rating: 8/10

PCMR doesn't envy the label of 'character actor'. For men, this label represents the velvet rope division between the elite group of VIPs with jaws just square enough and appeal just sexy enough to be called leading men, and the rest of us. It has less to do with acting ability, more with how traditionally good looking you are. Steve Buscemi is a character actor: you know, the one in Fargo who was “kinda funny-lookin'.”

There can't be many such equivalents in other professions. PCMR struggles to imagine people being refused the role of team leader in the I.T. department because they're not handsome enough. “It's just that, we think of you more as the team leader's best friend. You know... helping with his character's exposition, without stealing the limelight.”

Despite his undoubted talent, and being in possession of that ephemeral quality of innate likeability, Brendan Gleeson has found himself in the character actor bracket throughout the higher-profile side of his career. In his Hollywood roles, he has dutifully provided exposition opportunities to leading actors in an impressive string of high profile productions such as 'Braveheart', 'Troy', 'A.I.', '28 Days Later' and, more recently, three of the Harry Potter movies. (Surely, there is no better nod to one's standing in the Acting Firmament than a recurring Potter role).

In Irish productions, by contrast, Gleeson's place on the billing is often more reflective of his abilities, and he has taken the lead in some fine movies to emerge from these shores in the last twenty years: 'I Went Down' and 'The General', among others.

In more recent years for Gleeson, Martin McDonagh's 'In Bruges' has upset this dichotomy, providing him with a lead role in an Irish movie that has deservedly enjoyed international recognition. Also, it seems a family dynasty was created with that movie, because McDonagh's brother, John Michael, is the man behind 'The Guard', and in PCMR's humble opinion, it is just as good a movie, even if it is an entirely different animal.

Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a small-town country copper with a penchant for Dublin whores, who finds himself embroiled in a drug-smuggling investigation so big that the FBI are interested. Don Cheadle is the imported FBI agent who finds himself dealing more and more with Boyle, and tellingly, he declares that he can't decide whether Boyle is “really smart, or really fuckin' dumb”. It's essentially a cops and robbers story, with the gangster contingent including the workaholic, omnipresent Mark Strong, as well as a couple of other, more familiar Irish bad buys, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot (more character actors!).

It has to be said though, the story of the Guard plays second fiddle to the really excellent dialogue, which gives the characters... well, proper characters. The phrase 'inner life' probably best describes this by-product of good writing, where the actors have room to breathe around their lines, and the audience can enjoy guessing whether they're telling the truth, or leading someone up the garden path.

The excellent writing gives Gleeson all the material he needs to reminder us just how good he really is, and he's excellent in this. Cheadle does well in support, and the three gangsters (Strong, Cunningham and Wilmot in particular) all seem to be enjoying themselves, but Gleeson and McDonagh are the big winners here.

The Guard is punchy, witty film-making, and deserving of your attention. Gleeson is at his endearing, charismatic best, and if this doesn't get him bigger, better roles in Hollywood movies, then I'm not sure what will.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Source Code

PCMR Verdict: Everything is iterative: particularly this tidy, enjoyable popcorn actioner that shouldn't disappoint.

PCMR Rating: 6.5/10

Louis C.K. has a great bit of material where he makes an observation that has a hint of genius about it: "everything is amazing nowadays, and nobody cares." Think of how apathetic we have become to so much modern technology that enables our lives: things like high-speed broadband, routine air travel and, er, high-speed broadband on planes. (Nice - Ed) Louis' point - or at least PCMR's take on Louis' point - is that technology itself isn't a problem: it's just that we're so bombarded with technological progress these days, apathy has become an understandable coping mechanism. ("Oh look, there's another new version of iTunes? ... meh...")

The lesson here: over-exposure to technology - even the awesome stuff - can engender mental fatigue. A case in point related to movies: CGI.

'Rise of The Planet of the Apes' demonstrated how the technology could be used, both for good and bad, but surely one man above all has become totally synonymous with the abuse of CGI, and caused mental anguish to thousands of over-25's the world over in the process. 'Bay Syndrome' effectively defines this apathy towards movie CGI: after the 47th massive explosion, the CGI might still be as awesome as the 46th, but I just don't care any more.

Happily, Michael Bay had no involvement in Source Code. Instead, a certain Duncan Jones has the reins for this, his sophomore flick. If you've not seen his first, the most excellent 'Moon', then dear reader, I encourage you to take a two hour break from reading this review, and go seek it out. As a convincer, among its many great qualities, 'Moon' features the best use of emoticons in movie history. (Competing with..? - Ed)

And this is one of the fundamental differences between Jones and Bay: understatement. Or, to put it another way, Jones understands the power of technology in movies, and how to use it sparingly, to greatest effect. Kevin Spacey's GERTY robot in Moon only has a small number of simple smiley faces to express his so-called 'feelings', but the device is chillingly effective: when GERTY's smile changes to a frown, the audience's mood shifts with it.

The writing credit for 'Source Code' goes to Ben Ripley, and interestingly, he seems to share this understated approach. From early on in the movie, the dialogue encourages us to forget about the technology that is enabling this crazily imaginative premise. Jake Gyllenhall is constantly told not to think, just to 'do'. The focus is more on people and details than on expensive gadgets or green-screen whizz-bangs..

On the premise: in a nutshell, Gyllenhaal is repeatedly reliving 8 minutes on a train as someone else, in order to prevent a terrorist attack. It's unashamedly borrowing from a number of influences (Quantum Leap, 24, Groundhog Day, 12 Monkeys) but somehow it nimbly avoids being overly derivative.

Much of the credit for this has to go to the skill with which Jones reshoots the 8 minute iterations, with subtle differences each time they re-play. Credit is also due to the likeability of his main players. As befits an action-hero role of the "what's happening to me?" genre, Gyllenhaal is suitably grizzled and Keanu-confused (is that a real word? - Ed) Also, Michelle Monaghan manages to somehow resist being annoying, even as she repeats a line for the 7th time. And Vera Farmiga (who you might remember from 'The Departed') is very well cast as Gyllenhaal's military guide, who just might be sympathetic to his plight.

The story itself is tidy and lean, and should keep you guessing throughout. And, as the final credits roll, PCMR was left with the enjoyable head-scratching moments that only a time-bending tale can deliver. (Triangle, Twelve Monkeys, Primer etc)

So, all in all, PCMR enjoyed this one, missed it in the cinema, but it's a quality DVD night in.

(Oh, and as a reward for making it to the end, here's that Louis CK link)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

PCMR Verdict: Four hands good, two hands bad (except John Lithgow). Overall, not bad, but falls a couple of branches short of greatness.

PCMR Rating: 5.5/10

PCMR doesn't just watch movies all day, oh no. For 40 hours a week I work the stony grey soil of software development, yoked to keyboard and mouse, engaged in all manner of dark arts.

PCMR understands that most people aren't really interested in what a programmer does for a living. Occasionally though, this wisdom temporarily escapes me, and I embark on a futile attempt to impart some technical information that's 'really interesting'... you can imagine how it goes. Oh, I know, I really do, but I foolishly feel the need to retest the waters every now and again: "surely this is remarkable!?" (It really very rarely is)

You see, techno-babble is complex information, like comedy: you either get it or you don't. For those that don't, you can always explain it... but at the risk of further tumbleweeds... and so it goes with technical stuff. No amount of "but don't you see? That's amazing!!" will convince someone who didn't immediately marvel at your new fart machine phone app.

And so it goes with 'Caesar Begins', aka Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I enjoyed much of the special effects, especially in the prison-break sequence, and the motion-capture performances of the apes is genuinely interesting: this I get.

In this part of the film, Andy Serkis ably demonstrates that computer generated (mo-cap) characters can act, and act well. Unfortunately though, the human actors don't fare so well.

James Franco plays an incredibly irresponsible, and thoroughly two-dimensional scientist. (The whole 'apes taking over the planet'? That's pretty much his thing). His girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) is unquestionably a girl, and also quite friendly, but she doesn't really contribute anything at all, except hotness, and one timely diversion in the third act. Franco's boss is a risible corporate caricature, with some truly awful dialogue. Brian Cox, too, is present, but without much purpose, and his henchmen (Bad Cop and Not So Bad Cop) also make up the human numbers.

The exception is John Lithgow, who gives an effective turn as Franco's father, an alzheimer's sufferer, and the catalyst for the ultimately unfortunate research.

In the final third, special effects dominate once again, but when the camera flies freely, either scaling trees Avatar-style, or flitting around the Golden Gate Bridge at impossible angles, these CGI illusions are far less absorbing than the mo-cap of the second act.

So, Lithgow apart, the apes carry this picture, especially in the middle third. The thing is, for PCMR, there are too many flaws in 'Apes: Episode I' for it to earn a glowing recommendation. It's perfectly fine, but it ain't great.

It should deservedly pick up some technical Oscars, and it certainly is a great technical achievement, but technical achievement alone cannot elevate this movie above the 'just alright' category.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kill List

PCMR Verdict: Whoa, Nelly! This sure ain't a date movie, but it does manage to be compelling, shattering and original, dark, evil and twisted all at the same time.

PCMR Rating: 8/10

At its best, cinema is transportation. The best stories quietly shift spectators from their surroundings, and, for a couple of hours at least, send them somewhere else entirely. Of course, this displacement is nothing but a pleasurable illusion, in which the audience is entirely complicit. Willing, even. However, even with a willing audience, this most delicate form of transit can be brutally derailed by any number of small missteps in script, dialogue or story.

Occasionally though, the magic is maintained right through to the end, and this makes a film more memorable. Seven, The Matrix and Twelve Monkeys all managed it for PCMR, but everyone has their own personal list of flicks that were fully and completely absorbing for themselves. As I emerged from the cinema blinking and disoriented after watching 'Kill List', I found myself enjoying the singular feeling of being completely blind-sided: Kill List has a genuine claim to join PCMR's list.

Director Ben Wheatley has divined a number of influences for this confounding horror/thriller/domestic cautionary tale, but has somehow packaged them together into something new and interesting. It's best described as a horror, but frankly and violently resists traditional pigeon-holing.

It begins quietly, with an up-close view of a family, with all its domestic tensions, from a perspective not unlike Mike Leigh's. A row at a dinner party quickly gives way to guns in the garage, however, and suddenly there is blood on the screen. All too quickly, there are eerie Michael Haneke-style undercurrents in play which unsettle and swerve, before the movie shifts gear into full blown bloody violence, horror, and ultimately, the jaw-dropping finale.

In less certain hands, these shifts in tone might seem sudden or jarring, and perhaps shatter the illusion, but somehow Wheatley keeps momentum and maintains a compelling pace.

Kill List won't be to everyone's taste: it is shockingly violent, from early on. One scene in particular still sticks in the mind (pardon the expression) and even if the recipient arguably deserved the treatment being meted out, I still found it tough going. But hey, it's a horror movie, and I was horrified, so I guess it was doing something right!

So, all in all, if you're made of stern stuff, and can handle horror in small doses, then I would recommend Kill List, albeit with the above reservations! It deserves a wider audience, which it probably won't get, sadly, but at least Wheatley should get a crack at a few more movies: should be a name to watch out for in future.

(Recommended viewing in a crowded cinema by the way, if only for the reaction to the final credits!)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

PCMR Verdict: Good fun, bring low expectations and you'll enjoy your popcorn.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

The 80's was something of a heyday for low-budget horror. PCMR spent many a happy evening in my tweens browsing the local Xtra-vision with a few buddies, trying to resolve the weekly debate of whether '976-Evil' was going to be better than 'Braindead', for example. We'd either choose by the cover alone or by trailers, neither of which was foolproof. (That said, the terrible ones were usually more memorable.) Before Arnie and all those dumb 80's actioners came on the scene, horror was very much the coolest section in the video store.

Despite all those evenings in the horror section, the original 'Fright Night' somehow passed me by. I was vaguely aware that it was a vampire movie though, and with Colin Farrell in the lead 'vampire next door' role. I was quietly hopeful he might play it with his own accent. (A Dublin vampire would be bleedin' sound, so it would!)

Before giving the skinny on Fright Night, let me just set out my vampire stall. Like most right-thinking people, PCMR is of the opinion that movie vampires should be a little bit more 'Lost Boys' than 'Twilight'. So, no, Edward, when you step into sunlight you don't become an emo discoball. The, reality (ahem) is that you burn. Horribly. I know this is true because I've seen Near Dark and The Lost Boys. And Salem's Lot. And er, The Monster Squad. It's the rules, and you can't just go re-writing this stuff. And as my final word on this whole unnecessary debate, I'd just like to point out that I live on the street where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, so I win.

Happily, 'Fright Night' also subscribes to this old-school point of view, neatly ignoring the Stephanie Meyer (spit) 'vampire-as-emo-dreamboat' rulebook. The Fright Night vampire, thankfully, is a hungry, lecherous carnivore who will eat your mom if he's invited in. Colin Farrell plays the bad man without a hint of camping it up, which to his - and Fright Night's - credit.

Fright Night's teen hero is more than a little unlikeable, which means you're never quite sure if he's going to redeem himself, or get some of the just desserts treatment that's so often dished out in horror movies. Anton Yelchin plays it quite well, although the best the audience can hope for in this type of movie is that he's not annoying. (He's not). His hot girlfriend is also quite good (the amusingly named 'Imogen Poots'. Tee hee) and his mom is Toni Colette, who in Hollywood speak, is a banker. (Although not literally).

David Tennant also throws in a decent turn as a Russell Brand-ish Las Vegas Vampire Hunter, and sneakily gets a Hollywood movie under his belt, the wee pup. (And life after Doctor Who used to be so difficult). So a good cast then, and we haven't even got to McLovin yet.

All in all, Fright Night is a decent popcorn movie, and it manages to steer clear of enough vampire horror cliché to retain interest. The story rumbles along at a decent pace, with some decent twists and turns, but it's never really genuinely scary. The comedy's nicely played, and even though the plot has so many holes it's letting in an alarming amount of sunlight, the whole thing builds up to a satisfying finale.

So, all told, low expectations required, but it does the job.

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