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.


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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Monsters vs Aliens 3D (2009)

April 9, 2009

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Everything I know and hold to be most true about modern animation films has already been captured here.  I know that I’ve linked to that blog just a couple of days earlier but it’s my favourite.  So there.

I’m not going to say much about this because it’s rubbish.  Even the kids who packed out the cinema I saw it in were saying things like “it wasn’t very funny” and “I nearly fell asleep” as I left.  These are people who will happily eat their own snot, it’s not a tough audience.

It looks great and the 3D- which is the main reason I went- works well when used (there are long stretches where they appear to have forgotten the opportunities that 3D gives).  Champion twat Seth Rogen is probably the best thing in this, which is saying something.  His gags are awful but at least he sounds like he believes in them.  House M.D.‘s maverick Doctor Hugh Laurie plays a mad Doctor.  Oh yes.  The kids really aren’t entertained and where there should be subtle jokes and nods to the adults to complement the slapstick, there are shoehorned references to every Spielberg or DreamWorks film the writers could remember and really poor puns.  There is an army chief who is supposed to resemble Lee J. Cobb in Dr Strangelove.  He is called W. R. Monger.  See what they did there?  And the bad guy- I’ve forgotten his name- looks just like Tim Currie, only with four eyes.  Just like him!

And so, aside from a nice nod to 50s B-Movies in the footage shown in the mock war room (they must’ve watched Strangelove a lot) and the fact that it is in digital 3-D there isn’t much to commend it. 1/10

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The Great Escape (1963)

March 28, 2009

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With Elmer Bernstein’s Western-style theme tune, a name like The Great Escape and those big fuck-off red titles you know where you are with this from the start.  It’s a bombastic, unsubtle, flag-waving crowd-pleaser.  There’ll be no ambiguity or equivocation here. This is a regression to childhood; the Allies are Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, Winker Watson and Kevin McAllister while the prison guards are their hapless parents and teachers.  And that also tells you what this isn’t, this is by no means a serious historical document.  It very well may be a dramatisation of a novelization of real events, but that’s like relying upon a blurry photograph of an artist’s impression of a bank robber to identify a suspect.  No, whatever the titles may have you think, this is a fantastical exercise. Of course, that’s not a criticism- it’s a defence.  Critics of the lack of authenticity in this film really should avoid cinema as a medium of entertainment.

What you can justifiably put the boot in about is the almost total lack of plausibility- the claustrophobic tunnel-digger, the blind forger, the American flier in chinos and a sweatshirt who got shot down clutching a baseball mit, James Coburn’s dreadful broad Orstrialiurn accent, the secret still that even the prisoners can’t find which produces enough moonshine for three hundred men… It just depends how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief.  Me?  Well, in the right mood I’ll accept it- even if it does make being a prisoner of war look like more fun than a night out with Keith Moon.

But whether it’s any good is the most important question and, well, it’s okay.  It’s the best part of three hours long and there only a few dull passages- for example, the first half hour seems to fly by with all of the characters being introduced in turn, but the next half-hour on the complexities of hiding different coloured dirt and how to get a camera out of a prison guard drag.  What’s more the sheer volume of characters makes it a challenge for John Sturges to introduce them all- giving Cavendish a scarf and Henley a polo-neck may help us distinguish between them but that’s no use if we don’t know which is which.  And that’s the best thing about the film, the clarity of characterization.  God only knows what kind of a challenge it must be keeping such a huge cast of star egos happy with their screen time while keeping the film under five hours long.  Sturges does that really well here.  Whoever is directing The Expendables will find that out for himself soon enough.

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The next best thing about the film is linked with that.  The next best thing about the film is Steve McQueen.  Okay, I’m biased, I love Steve McQueen but he is genuinely the most watchable thing on show here.  It isn’t his acting, which is competent enough, it is his charisma and sheer screen presence.  I suppose the fact that he is swaggering around in what looks like his own clothes and had the whole iconic motorbike sequence added just because he likes motorbikes helps.  John Sturges, deliberately or otherwise, just lets him stroll onset and steal the film from everyone else.  No-one remembers Charles Bronson and John Leyton rowing away at dusk in beautiful soft-focus, but everyone remembers the motorcycle jump.  I suppose that means that Sturges’s decision to humour him paid off, even at the cost of completely overbalancing the film.

Despite the best efforts of arch overactor James Garner and dear Dicky Attenborough, Donald Pleasance is the only man who comes close to McQueen when it comes to creating a memorable character.  He is thoroughly lovable, a perfect English gentleman designed for Hollywood consumption.  Splendid.

What is most usually overlooked about The Great Escape is the amount of time that is spent on largely unsuccessful post-escape events.  The Elmer Bernstein theme and the very phrase ‘great escape’ represent- in the minds of the majority- Allied supremacy over Nazi tyranny; like the Dunkirk evacuation or Custer at the Alamo or even Balboa’s first tilt at the world title, glorious failure is much more memorable than mere success in Hollywood’s estimation.

So it’s mostly crap, but enjoyable, iconic, quotable crap that everyone needs to have seen to understand the intercontextual references that appear in countless other books or films or songs or TV shows. The Great Escape is far more than just a film, it is a part of our cultural heritage.  6/10

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Spellbound (1945)

March 28, 2009

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Hitchcock was such an ‘of-the-moment’ film-maker that there aren’t many who compare with him today in terms of using or risking their status to try and push the audience into new and uncomfortable territory.  Some of his work ends up being timeless as a result (Vertigo is a great example, North By NorthWest being another) and some is pretty badly dated.  Spellbound with its then novel and now well-worn themes of psychoanalysis and Freudian guilt falls into the latter category sadly.  I’m not sure that it’s really fair to judge a film on the basis of how well the basic premise has stood the passing of over six decades, how was Hitch to know that daytime TV would be filled wall-to-wall with cod-psychology and blithe misreadings of Freud and Jung reducing everyone to the role of pseudo-shrink?  That said, I am really only interested in how the film entertains or informs or affects me and so, fair or not, I’ll judge it on its merits in my opinion.  There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that too.

And Spellbound is very good, especially when it gets going.  The opening has been a little too successfully aped by Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety for me to be really swayed by it, sadly (High Anxiety by the way, is the opposite of Spellbound as it falters after a promising start).  Opening with Ingrid Bergman analysing the neurotic, misanthropic Mary Carmichael (played with relish as a latter day Countess Dracula by Rhonda Fleming) we learn about Bergman’s emotionless professionalism and you just know that her icy exterior is long overdue for being thawed by the right man.  At this point Gregory Peck enters the fray- it is a wonderful set-up, the only disappointment being that the on-screen chemistry between them doesn’t match that between her and Bogey or her and Cary Grant.  Now, you can be churlish and criticise the idea of them falling in love in less time than it takes me to choose what socks to wear on a given day, but what’s the point?  I just consider that you accept it and see where the movie takes you and- if it is a flop- use it as a stick to beat with later.  And so the scene where Peck and Bergman first meet sees them both in close-up; her in soft-focus him depicted with the hard lines of a real man, Miklós Rózsa strikes up the string section and the whole thing is sorted in the minds of the audience.  I would usually hate this but what I find forgivable about it- praiseworthy even- is that Hitchcock is simply getting the romantic interlude out of the way as efficiently as possible in order to get on with the thriller.  The scene proceeds to do just that as a neurotic and agitated Peck- who has already been depicted as “much younger than I imagined” and being very vague on the subject of his most recently published book- overreacts furiously to Bergman drawing a picture by tracing her fork upon the table linen.  There you go in one scene Bergman and Peck have fallen in love and Hitchcock has flattered the audience that they’re so smart knowing that he isn’t who he says he is.  Brilliant.

The plot proceeds apace, frosty analyst turned giddy schoolgirl Bergman is enraptured by Peck (has anyone in celluloid history attempted to say the word ‘liverwurst’ seductively before?) and they kiss in his room.  Now, I’m a little uncomfortable with one of Hitchcock’s conceits here- close-ups of his eyes and then her eyes are followed by a graphic of doors opening.  It’s all just a little too literal, or is because of the intervening years?  Have I been conditioned to demand more subtlety when that kind of pellucidity was precisely what contemporary audiences needed?  I’ll let it slide.

Right, so it becomes clear that not only is Gregory Peck not Dr Edwardes (odd spelling that) but that he may even have murdered Dr Edwardes and taken his place.  Peck disappears but leaves a note under Bergman’s door leading to a brilliant scene where several policemen and psychiatrists are standing just inside her doorway on the note which she can see but they haven’t yet noticed.  The tension is maintained superbly for what seems like an age before Bergman is able to retrieve the note- unbearably it is handed to her by Dr Murchison (Leo G. Carroll)- and follow Peck to a hotel in New York.  From there, in typical Hitchcock fashion, the chase is on.  Peck and Bergman are always- by design or by good fortune- half a step ahead of the police as she tries to break through his psychological blockages and prove his undoubted innocence (“I couldn’t love a man who is capable of such crimes” she says, well that’s all there is to it then).  At the same time Peck has no real belief in his innocence and while the audience can’t really believe he did it- he’s the hero for crying out loud- it is the most obvious and likely explanation for it all.  And to amplify that doubt Hitchcock shows us flashes of Peck’s temper, frames him with a cut-throat razor and a zombie-like stare and casts doubt upon his story left, right and centre.

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Bergman takes Peck to the home of her psychoanalytical mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Checkov, the best performer on show by a country mile) and while they wait for him to return with two strangers it becomes apparent that the men are policemen investigating the death of Edwardes.  Trapped, unable to even communicate both are struck dumb with terror as the policemen chat affably throwing their unease into even sharper contrast- it is the best sequence of the film- and the tension continues until Dr Brulov returns.  The policemen, it transpires, are unaware of Peck and Bergman’s supposed implication in the murder and are merely there to investigate the professional tension between Brulov and Edwardes which had almost escalated ino violence recently.  Now this is really clever, if this was a whodunnit the smart money would be straight on Brulov- especially when it becomes clear that he knows far more about Peck and Bergman’s arrival than he had initially indicated.  Seeing Peck with the razor Dr Brulov talks to him calmly and offers him a glass of milk.  He’s drugged him- with milk!  As if he was B.A. Baracus or something.  Brilliant.  “I ain’t getting on no psychoanalyst’s couch fool!”.

When Peck awakes, he recounts his dreams for the two Doctors to analyse and here we enter the most famous (and most unaccountably derided) sequence of the film- the Hitchcock/Dali dream sequence.  Okay, so a four year old could analyse the ‘hidden’ meanings (whoever could the mysterious ‘Proprieter’ be?) it doesn’t matter- what is important is the beauty of the sequence and, most importantly of all, the sheer chutzpah of its inclusion.  I’d defend this until my dying breath- if only more filmmakers had Hitchcock’s balls!

The climactic sequence of the film is filmed dramatically as Bergman desperately tries to undo her act of inadvertently convincing Peck and the policemen of his guilt- she is shown in stark monochrome uplit against dark backgrounds frenzied and hopeless.  And then, when all hope is lost, the truth falls into her lap by chance.  Agatha Christie once said “if you want to know who the murderer is in any crime novel, pick the most unlikely character.  He did it” and that holds true here.  Admittedly it isn’t the most unlikely person on screen, the fat cockney feller getting out of a lift in a brief cameo has absolutely no chance of reappearing, it is a convincing and plausible ending which gives Hitchcock an excuse for one last piece of bravura film-making, the big hand.

Oh it isn’t a perfect film, the ski-ing sequence (for example) is dreadfully executed and a lot of the great things here- especially the framing of Gregory Peck as a did-he didn’t-he murderer would be far better realised in Psycho but for the tension, for Rózsa’s great score (love that theremin work), for the brief-but-brilliant childhood memory sequence and for the breathless and intriguing narrative I loved it.  8/10

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Duplicity (2009)

March 24, 2009

I have a weakness for caper movies.  Perhaps I fancy myself as an arch-mastermind or something, I’ve never really thought about it.  Whatever the reason is, I gravitate towards them and have a propensity to really enjoy them.   This one is shit, though.  It’s not the best premise in the world- two ex-intelligence agency spooks make a killing in corporate espionage by playing one business off against another- but I’ve seen great films with far less of a plot than that.  And in Roberts, Owen, Wilkinson and Giamatti the acting talent is certainly there.  Visually too it’s fine if all-too-similar to a dozen other movies you’ll see this year.

But it’s so leaden-footed, it lacks any zing!   The (frankly all-too-obvious) denouement takes forever to arrive and underwhelm you.   And the circuitous route the movie takes to get there- with it’s chopped-up time-line and twist-on-a-twist narrative- is tedious and banal.   The screenplay isn’t complicated, it’s just really badly transferred to the screen.   Tony Gilroy’s direction is lazy, the soundtrack is flat and uninspiring, the stars are sleepwalking with Wilkinson woefully underused and the film ends up a flabby mess.

And it’s such a shame because a good, punchy movie about big corporations screwing themselves up through myopic greed could have really ridden the zeitgeist and got bums on seats.  Duplicity isn’t anything like as clever as it would like to think, nor anything like as inscrutable as the ham-fisted direction makes it appear. 2/10

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