Is Anybody There? (2008)

May 15, 2009

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I haven’t been able to get on here for a while- in fact it’s been a week since I saw Is Anybody There? and Goldfinger– which poses a bit of a problem.  My Goldfinger notes were about two paragraphs in and I’ve just tossed them off so that I can get to this film.  It’s not like I need notes to remember that particular film.  With Is Anybody There? I could have done with notes at the time, this is far from a memorable film.

So you’ve got Michael Caine as an ageing, retired magician (he seems to like films about conjuring these days) and young Bill Milner from the lovely Son Of Rambow as- guess what- a geeky outsider kid and they strike up a friendship and teach one another about life and love.  That’s right, they strike up the kind of friendship that is really unusual except in films where they’re ten-a-penny.  It looks quite nice; shot in a fuzzy, vaguely lo-fi, slightly off-kilter and- I suppose- quite trendy way.  There are a couple of good performances- I especially liked Anne-Marie Duff as Bill Milner’s mother- and some nice cameos from a couple of top-notch old players (Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Mavis from Coronation Street, Elizabeth Spriggs and Sylvia Sims).  And so I liked it for that.

But because it’s formulaic and a bit obvious and determinedly bittersweet I didn’t even remember it a week later, rendering these notes redundant, so it’s sort of okay but a poor utilisation of the superb talents on show. 4/10

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State Of Play (2009)

April 27, 2009

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There’s a few minor problems in making these notes.  Firstly, the film that the cinema listed as beginning at 19.45 was past the opening credits when I took my seat at 19.45 and who knows what I missed (not much I imagine in truth as big fat Russell Crowe- who looks increasingly like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion (see above)- was bribing his way onto the scene of the first crime scene as I arrived).  The second issue is that the film was followed by a televised Q&A with the director Kevin MacDonald and I want to satisfy myself that my notes reflect what I saw and not what I’ve been told I saw.  I’d forgotten until I saw the film that I’ve seen (at least some of) the original BBC series upon which it was based. Thankfully my recollections were not strong enough to spoil the plot or for me to draw comparisons with the original players. In fact the greater danger lies in my having seen Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men and The Parallax View; which are the more significant touchstones for the piece (Klute, another probable antecedent of State Of Play, is near the top of my teetering to-see pile).  The final problem is that- thanks to a combination of hectic work, golf, season 2 of The Wire, training for a charity run and socializing- I saw the film seven days before sitting down to complete these notes.

And while seven days ago I didn’t dislike it, on reflection I certainly don’t especially like it either.  The plus points are some strong acting performances (and I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome Crowe back to acting after his recent experiments with sleep-walking through films), some tight direction and editing and a really good pacy build-up to the climax.  Ah, the climax- I didn’t want to get to the climax straight away (and I swear that never normally happens!) but I may as well now.  In the enjoyable light comedy Paris When It Sizzles William Holden is talking Audrey Hepburn through the writing of a script (“aha! The twist… then the twist on the twist… and another twist” or something) and that’s what the ending of this film reminded me of.  I guess it’s true of thrillers in general but especially of this film- not every twist can be plausible and, when you’re ending on a solid and believable one, it doesn’t work to shoehorn in another one.  Especially if the tip-off clue isn’t much of a clue at all.  In State Of Play the tip-off is that a character reveals that she knows something which she shouldn’t leading Russell Crowe to uncover the whole thing.  But it doesn’t- not plausibly and his deduction is not the only (or even the likeliest) logical conclusion.  A solid but unspectacular thriller becomes, therefore, a flimsy melodrama.  It’s a real shame given the effort that had so clearly been invested in the piece.

The only other thing that stands out is that the soundtrack is absolutely fucking appalling- bombastic, overloud, generic and off-putting.  I was grumpy about it throughout and in the Q&A MacDonald indicated that he’d been unable to find a score which he thought was appropriate and the studio agreed with until the eleventh hour (he implied that he wanted something soft and piano-led).  He got what he was given I reckon, a shame.

Oh yes, and that feller off the Orange adverts is in it as a straight actor.  As is Jeff Daniels of one of the funniest films ever; Dumb And Dumber.

Anyway, 4/10 overall.  Solid except for Ben ‘Easter Island’ Affleck; he is appalling as ever.

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Crank: High Voltage (2009)

April 21, 2009

They say that ignorance is bliss.  I had no idea what Crank: High Voltage was going to be like or else I would never have gone to see it.  To those who say that ignorance is bliss I would say “you couldn’t be more wrong”.  I have made notes on (more or less) 150 movies since I began keeping a record.  Of those I gave 0/10 to a handful- four or five maybe and, indeed, tonight I re-evaluated a couple and revised their score upwards.  It is as if with Crank: High Voltage I discovered an tenth circle in Dante’s Inferno.  Some of the films I saw were just rubbish because they didn’t need to be any good to achieve their commercial aims (Lesbian Vampire Killers, My Bloody Valentine 3D), some were the product of people who had given up caring about film-making (Ashanti), some were puerile, lowest common-denominator rubbish (Borat) and some were mindlessly, ignorantly offensive (Slumdog Millionaire). This is like a compilation of the worst bits of the most craptacular films I have ever seen.  It is artless, witless, joyless, offensive, amateurish, nonsensical, banal, exploitative, nasty, backwards, overbearing, derivative, vulgar and, frankly, shit. Apparently this is a sequel- there were suggestions of a back-story throughout- and I’m perversely curious to know if it can possibly be anything like as appalling (in the truest sense of the word) as this.

This film is not only gob-smackingly bad (there are moments of literally jaw-dropping ineptitude from everyone present) and grotesquely, deliberately offensive (being offensive to everyone doesn’t even it out somehow, it simply multiplies it) it also has the temerity to masquerade as being inventive or cutting-edge by throwing in the kind of visual gimmicks (weird fonts for subtitles etc) that would see an Art School student repeating the year.  It even has a segment ripping off the likes of Aronofsky and Tarantino with Jason Statham’s character as a boy on a Jeremy Kyle-style chat show with Spice Girl (fairly suddenly) turned old woman Geri Halliwell.

The problem with Crank: High Voltage, apart from it’s utter shitness, is that it gives ammunition to the Mary Whitehouse brigade.  How can you argue that censorship is too restrictive and that art must be unrestricted to thrive and challenge and develop when you get the likes of Neveldine and Taylor (the Directors) using the freedoms that have been fought for to let Jason Statham grease the barrel of a shotgun and insert it into a fat bloke’s anus?  Argue that it’s funny and that I’m taking it to seriously if you wish, I’d buy it if that was an isolated incident, but it is simply the prelude to a conveyer belt of similar lowbrow, low-invention cack.

I have no problem with violence or gore or gratuitous sex and nudity or dumb explosions.  I can even live with sexism, racism, homophobia and other offensiveness if (seriously, that is a big if) it is necessary and in context and challenged or used to provoke debate or thoughts in the audience.  Where this lump of bollocks differs is that the violence and gore and gratuitous sex and sexism and racism and homophobia (which is the whole film, by the way) are glorified.  This is a film for fourteen year olds to wank to and aspire to.  This isn’t Nine Songs or Dirty Harry or Super Vixens or Saw, it is a pale imitation of the schlocky bits of them and films like them with all of the intelligence replaced by dumb visuals.

I am disgusted that David Carradine was involved (albeit only momentarily) in this.

I haven’t been able to express in any depth or with any clarity the myriad reasons that this horrible film is an abomination.  Genuinely I think it is a new cultural low-point.  I was taken aback so far by it’s uselessness that I was rendered speechless. -1/10.  Yes, minus one.


In The Loop (2009)

April 21, 2009

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“Even the posters are brilliant”

On the strength of The Thick Of It, which I utterly adored, this has probably been my most eagerly awaited cinematic experience of the year.  Normally, as anyone who knows me will testify, I would follow such a build-up with a sad recitation of my utter disappointment- such is my tendency to let excitement overtake any sort of realism- but not today.  I loved In The Loop.  You want funny?  This is it.  You want pointed?  Ditto.  Pertinent?  Yup, the hat trick!

I would exhort anyone to go and see this, for the scabrous dialogue and hilarious plot and on-the-money performances and- most importantly- for the brutal depiction of politicking in the 21st century.  Malcolm Tucker (the awesome Peter Capaldi) is as hilarious and vicious as ever but he’s now a small fish in a big pond as the film brings in the US military and some incredibly youthful Washington diplomats all of whom are headed by Tony Soprano and Sledge Hammer.

I write these notes as a reminder to myself but as I’ll be buying this on release I won’t need any reminders and in case anyone reading hasn’t seen this yet, I’ve avoided any spoilers whatsoever.  See it, love it- even the bits that are a little bit of filler- 9/10

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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

April 18, 2009

It’s a real minefield this.  It is definitely funny for a certain demographic (in a childish sniggering down your sleeve at the back of the class at the word penis way) and definitely offensive.  But the counter-argument, as I understand it, goes that it is offensive to everyone equally and that the offensiveness is simply a tool to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry in others.  Borat is defended as a kind of agent provocateur fearlessly exposing others by the act of making them feel comfortable in their ignorance by indulging in behaviour which makes them seem moderate in comparison.  Others may say that anything is fair game in the world of comedy and part of me agrees with that.  I certainly wouldn’t want to see the likes of Borat censored or banned on the grounds of bad-taste, who knows where that may lead?  No, that’s not what I would want at all.  But I don’t have to like it either.

I don’t believe for a second the idea that Sacha Baron Cohen is ultimately trying to do anything so laudable as expose hypocrisy in others, except to point at them and say “look, they don’t even react when I make Bestiality jokes“.  What he does, he does very well but the value of the thing isn’t worth the cost.  If you think a group of people are inherently racist and want to expose that, then reinforcing their repellent and closed-off world-view by portraying them as culturally and intellectually superior is a really dumb way to go about it.

The film itself is pretty muddled.  Cohen talks straight to the camera throughout and is accompanied by a documentary producer (played by Ken Davitian) and an unseen cameraman.  Sometimes the cameraman exists (“don’t film me, film him”) and sometimes he doesn’t (when Cohen and Davitian flee various locations and he films their departure objectively).  The weakness of the plot- go to various niche events and act like a prick so that other people are encouraged to make themselves look half as stupid- then stage an attempted kidnap of Pamela Anderson and get thrown out of a shopping mall- could be covered by the humour of the piece were that not so weak too.  I’m sure that it has thousands of avid fans, but then I’m sure that  American Pie 4 (or whatever number they’ve reached) does too.  That’s the level of humour on show here- fart jokes, gay jokes, naked jokes, sexist jokes.  Oscar Wilde it ain’t.  There is a scene where Borat hitches a lift with some beer-drinking fraternity boys and says ludicrous things to encourage them to do likewise and, being drunk and immature, they do so- advocating the return of slavery, for example.  And this is the problem and this is why the film is a failure as an exposé of latent xenophobia, homophobia etc- it is targeted at the people it is lampooning and leaves them with the wriggle room to enjoy it.  No-one who came into the movie theatre would have their preconceptions altered at all.

There’s no defence of this shit.  It is only funny for people who find the later Police Academy sequels funny and it doesn’t challenge bigotry at all, it supports it.  0/10.  Verily.


The Dark Knight (2008)

April 17, 2009

the-dark-knight-1“Fan-boys might want to look away now”

I’m really pushed for time this week, so my notes will be brief and lacking in support or explanation for any opinions offered.  The purpose of these notes is for me to not have to remember anything and so its a bit of a risk to note down how I feel and not why I feel it.  To myself in the future, I apologise.  Whilst I’m busy caveating, I should add that my first viewing of last year’s biggest film (that’s the kind of unsubstantiated guess I was on about, on reflection Mamma Mia! probably beat it) took place in three broken spells on the 320×240 screen of my phone.  Hardly ideal viewing circumstances.

The films I avoided last year because of the hype were Wall-E and The Dark Knight.  I wish I’d seen them both on the big screen now, but for differing reasons- in Wall-E‘s case it is simply because it was a beautifully constructed piece of high-art masquerading as a kids’ filmThe Dark Knight, however,  is very specifically designed for the multiplex viewer- with its dark look, booming sound effects and the huge visual impact of its explosions.  Seeing it on a phone (or even a big fuck-off telly) can never do that justice.

The film itself is a pale shadow of Batman Begins.  I know that it’s easy to slag off a sequel, but that isn’t what’s happening here.  The sequel, unusually, is the more lauded of the films.  For a long spell in 2008, an IMDB poll had The Dark Knight rated as the greatest film ever made- currently it is merely the 6th best film of all time according to voters there.  Personally, I greatly prefer the first film because a lot of the determination that was there to make a really good film first time around appears to have been lost in the desire to make a really great spectacle.  The subtlety and intrigue is gone.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was troubled yet driven, morally ambiguous and too immature for the role he had created for himself.  In this film he is a towering intellectual giant with a clear moral code and a ludicrously husky vocal delivery once he gets that suit on.  Far be it from me to suggest that someone has disrupted Bale’s process, but I much preferred it when his Bruce Wayne was a three-dimensional human.  I’ll never tire of that audio clip, by the way.

Fundamentally, Batman is James Bond in kevlar body armour.  He goes outside the law and employs astonishing gadgets to bring down world-threatening bad guys in the final reel of the film.  Michael Caine is M, Morgan Freeman is Q and Maggie Gyllenhall (a huge, huge improvement on Katie Holmes and the one aspect of the film where the quality is ramped up on the original) is Vesper Lynd.  And this is a pretty decent Bond film; the set-pieces are amazing, the villain is charismatic (but it isn’t quite worthy of the posthumous plaudits) and the suspense is held pretty strongly for the most part.  The problem, as is often the case with this type of film, is the plot- The Joker wants to create mayhem in the only city on the planet with a superhero by bankrupting the numerous crime overlords and turning the tough-on-crime District Attorney into a delusional psychopath.  Just because he can.  There are twists along the way, but they’re not interesting or surprising.  You know a twist is coming because it is signposted way ahead by the projected plot being that little bit too straightforward.  The intention is to lull the audience and then surprise them.  Well either I’m too cynical or there was too much lulling and not enough surprising.  Even weaker than the plot, though, is the dialogue, which everyone delivers as if they were Richard Burton on Richard III.  That is the weakest thing in the film.

The costumes and visual effects and lighting and stunts and all the dull stuff that only matters if the rest of the film is up to scratch are all great, I should say.  But it’s effectively just a very effective marketing tool and a great visual spectacle and very probably a great multiplex experience (if a little long) and not much of a film.  4/10

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Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2009) * Second viewing

April 14, 2009

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“Haunting blanched beauty”

The first time I saw this I was so enchanted by it that I concluded my notes with the words “If this film isn’t the best of the year, then I may not live through the one that beats it”.  I have to say that I was probably underselling it.  The first time I saw this- on a leaked screener played on a small screen- I probably didn’t truly appreciate the haunting blanched beauty of the film or its stunning soundtrack (by Johan Söderqvist).  Well I do now.

Tomas Alfredson’s film has been trailed over here as a pretty standard horror film (I haven’t seen the trailer but it is apparently very generic).  The poster, reproduced at the bottom, doesn’t give a sense of what is to follow at all.  I suppose the aim is laudable- get bums on seats and let the quality win them over- but filling screenings with people expecting eye-popping gore and sudden shocks doesn’t seem very fair upon either them or upon the people who might want to watch something beautiful and romantic and may then miss this on the basis that it is being sold as if it was The Omen Part 14 or something.  Tough call.

I’m not even sure that it is a horror film, even after seeing it twice.  There are horrific elements of course, but the film is more than that.  It is a coming-of-age film, a love story, a film about childhood and loneliness and resilience and pain and conventionality and unconventionality.  There is a theme in Sam Mendes’ overrated but nonetheless impressive American Beauty about seeing beauty where others don’t and that applies equally here.  Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is an outsider, bullied and ostracized by his classmates and misunderstood by his family but Eli (Lina Leandersson) connects with him in the same way that, we are led to presume, Eli connected with Håkan (Per Ragnar) before him.  What Eli connects with isn’t Oskar’s vulnerability or loneliness, despite this being their common ground, it is his latent rage (the first words Eli hears from him are “Squeal! “Squeal like a pig!”) and his total detachment from the conventional standards and expectations of the people around him.  When he strikes his erstwhile tormentor Conny (Patrik Rydmark), his immediate reaction to seeing the blood and pain is one of curiosity which turns to delight.  And this is the most interesting aspect of their friendship- Eli is the vampire with a capacity for violence which is tempered by a disregard for it while Oskar’s capacity for violence is latent and expressed only through his fascination with newspaper reports of murders and his knife.

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The theme of seeing the beauty in unexpected places extends to the visuals of the film itself.  The icicles on the climbing frame, Oskar’s snot running from nose to mouth, dripping blood in the snow, the hand-print fading on a windowpane, Oskar resurfacing in the swimming pool- no matter how mundane the subject, a perverse beauty is created by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Something that struck me on second viewing was the possibility that the very final scene (on the train) doesn’t happen.  What if Oskar dies and this is his dying thought?  He certainly appears to die- he ceases to struggle, he doesn’t inhale upon resurfacing, he has a beatific smile upon his face- but this is purely speculation.  The only real clue is the complete lack of reaction from Conny’s brother when another boy is dragged away by Eli- his hand doesn’t react at all- but is that really a clue.  It’s dodgy territory this, where does it stop; what if the whole thing was in his imagination?  I prefer the more literal ending.  It makes more sense that, with Oskar taking the place of Håkan, the story turns full cycle.  There are signposts to this throughout the film- Håkan’s jealousy of Eli’s new friend as he watches from the window, Eli’s tender gesture when he asks her not to see Oskar that evening, the way in which Håkan targets the ‘normal’ boys who would be Oskar’s tormentors and would have been his own.

My descriptive powers are pitifully inadequate for the task of conveying my admiration of Let The Right One In.  10/10

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