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Dry River Road (October 27th 2009)

Leo Whitlock, the main character of Rory Haines’ short Dry River Road, is clearly a very troubled man.

He is living out of his car, shaving in the bathroom at a highway petrol station, and lying to his estranged wife about his (un)employment status. The reason for this, we don’t know. He is a veteran of the Iraq war, this much we do know, but after that it all becomes a bit muddy.

Is he a violent man? His constant badgering of Akeem for a job at said petrol station is pushy enough that it borders on the “one more rejection and he might just lamp you” side of things, but his absolute horror at what later happens might equally suggest otherwise.

He certainly isn’t the smartest man around; stealing money from a dead man, smearing blood on himself and tucking the murder weapon into his jeans doesn’t suggest that all his bulbs are burning at their brightest, but maybe he is really just that desperate.

Perhaps Leo has been dishonourably discharged from the US Army. This could explain his apparent lack of self-discipline (and vice-versa). It would also go some way to explaining why he is having such a hard time finding a job.

A dishonourable discharge may even account for the lack of contact with his wife and son, and why his wife has no interest in entertaining him at all.

Of course, what it all comes down to is whether or not Leo could ever make anything of himself. There is absolutely nothing here to suggest that he is comfortable with meeting the standards that society expects of him.

The case in point: his attire. He has gone to Akeem to ask for a job, but has completely neglected to spruce himself up in any effort to impress his prospective employer.

His absolute lack of respect for Akeem is symptomatic of something altogether more sinister. While we aren’t told of Akeem’s heritage, it is safe to assume that he is of Middle Eastern origin, and the underlying menace of the interaction between the two comes from Leo’s instinct to play with a small American flag while talking to Akeem.

Leo may not consider himself a racist, but his actions in the scene convey a sense of racial tension that could explain everything about Leo and his character.

The thirteen minutes that we see here are the thirteen minutes that change the life of Leo. The lack of any sort of “crash bang wallop” force-feeding of dramatic impact is one of the film’s major strengths.

Through both the way it is shot – conventional, trendy handheld style – and the lack of dictatorial music, the film manages to achieve both a subtlety and a harrowing bleakness that takes it to a higher level, particularly impressive given it is a first time effort from Haines, as well as a first time effort for writer Sohrab Noshirvani.

***½

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Hancock (July 9th 2009)

In amongst a spate of “serious” and “dark” superhero movies of late – The Dark Knight and Watchmen come to mind as primary examples – Hancock must have seemed like a breath of fresh air when the original trailers began showing; a comedy, not a spoof, about a pissed-off superhero who doesn’t care about the public he protects. However, after the initial 40 minutes of comedy antics and stunning set-pieces, the film takes a sharp left-turn that can only be described as inexplicable.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who was enjoying the entertaining, if simple, plot of Jason Bateman’s PR guru Ray trying to turn Will Smith’s Travis-Bickle-with-superpowers into your friendly neighbourhood superhero. While it wasn’t groundbreaking, the premise certainly had 90 minutes of entertaining material in it, and would have kept the laughs coming, which, let’s face it, is the reason why people went to see this film.

The turn it takes for the final act – introducing another superhero, and thereby completing ruining the original premise of the film – could have worked if this other superhero was a villain, but unfortunately between the three of them, Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan, and Peter Berg could not decide whether Charlize Theron was a supervillain or a superhero, and left her to rot as a cutaway character during the final “battle”. Not that it was much of a battle – a few guys with guns against a man who has pretty much every power in the superhero book is only going to go one way.

As much as the conclusion of this film was a disappointment, the preceding minutes were full of promise. The story was somewhat illogical (why did Hancock bother to be a superhero if he cared as little as he clearly did?), but entertaining nonetheless. The opening set-piece, involving Hancock flying around with a car in his hand, and, later, a bank robbery that Hancock foils in the midst of a hail of gunfire, were both stunningly put together by a director who certainly knows how to shoot action sequences, even if his dedication to anything much more meaningful is less than lacklustre, as anyone who has seen The Kingdom will attest to, I’m sure.

As well as these triumphs of CGI, the interplay and chemistry between Bateman and Smith is almost perfect. These are two of the finest comic actors working today – throw Paul Rudd into the mix and this film would instantly boast the greatest comedy line-up of any recent film – and their interactions are certainly no let-down. Smith on his own delivers some excellent one-liners (“I’ll break my foot off in your ass, woman” to a gawping woman in a bar and “Okay. Well, you should sue McDonald’s, ’cause they fucked you up.” To an overweight naysayer are my personal favourites), but it is when the two of them come together that they really shine. There isn’t much point listing them for two reasons. One, there are too many to list. And two, it is all about reactions and timing, something which doesn’t easily translate to a written medium.

Not only does Smith handle the comedy well, he also does well with the serious stuff. Although it is somewhat ham-fistedly written, Smith’s ability to control and display emotion brings out the best in some fairly poor dialogue later on in the film, such as the not-quite-classic “I gotta wonder what a kind of a bastard I must have been, that nobody was there to claim me. I mean, I am not the most charming guy in the world, so I’ve been told, but… nobody?” We knew from his performances in Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, and the equally film-of-two-halves I Am Legend that he was capable of busting some serious acting chops, but I always find it surprising to see the Fresh Prince breaking out the emotion.

Unfortunately, this film should not have been about emotion. Instead, it should have been about a pissed-off superhero being a pissed-off superhero and pissing off everyone else. If the script had stuck to its initial promise and delivered the redemption story that I, and I assume many others, was hoping for, this could have been a very good film. Instead it is a mediocre film, and will always be remembered, if at all, for how much of a letdown it was after the buzz that originally surrounded it. A massive disappointment, but still, somehow, a decent movie. Short enough to hold the attention of the youngest or oldest viewer, but long enough that you aren’t left wanting more (quite a feat at 88 minutes), this is worth a watch, but don’t get your hopes up too much.

6/10

The Uninvited (November 25th 2009)

The Uninvited is a remake of the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters. It is, somewhat a tale of two sisters. It is also the story of a crazy bitch whose craziness is apparently enough to explain every single flaw in the film.

The crazy bitch in question is young Anna, played fairly ably by Emily Browning (of Lemony Snicket ‘fame’). Anna is in a mental institute following an attempted suicide after the ‘accidental’ death of her ill mother. At the start of the film she is released back to her family, including new step-mother Rachel Summers (Elizabeth Banks – another example of a more than competent actor lowering themselves to a very poor standard), father Steven (David Straitharn), and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel).

The plot centres on Anna’s suspicion that Rachel had something to do with the death of her mother, as Rachel was nurse to the mother at the time of her death. She manages to get Alex on the side of her theory, but Rachel manages to get in the way every time Anna tries to communicate this to her father, or to (brief) love interest Matthew.

Given that this film runs at a very short 83 minutes, you may be forgiven for thinking that something would have happened by around the 50 minute mark. Not so. There have been a few scenes of tension between Anna and Rachel, as well as a fairly standard “Dad, I know you won’t believe me, but your new girlfriend killed our mum” “Don’t be crazy. You need to learn to love your new mum, because I love her, and you should be happy that I’m happy” type scene, but nothing else of any note.

All the supposed drama occurs in the last few minutes, and given how straightforward the plot has been up until this point, it seems fairly academic to point out that there is a twist at the end. It isn’t a great twist. Or even a good one. To reveal it, while doing you the favour of not making you watch this atrocity, would still be slightly amiss. However, it is safe to say that this is not a new twist. In fact, imagine a cross between the twist in Shrooms and the twist in the remake of My Bloody Valentine, and you are pretty much there.

The Uninvited is directed by The Guard Brothers – Thomas and Charles – a British pair who have only existed in the medium of short film before this, and while it may be slightly harsh, it would make sense for them to stay away from feature film for a while longer. The immaturity in their direction – somehow succeeding in creating a horror film devoid of tension, dread or indeed horror only adds to the failings of the script, written by Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard.

This is a terrible film. There is no disputing that fact. Like most films, this has a redeeming factor, in that the four main performances (Browning, Kebbel, Banks, Straitharn) were all more than competent. Good performances do not a good film make, however, and this has to go down as the worst film of 2009 to this point.

*

Paranormal Inactivity (November 28th 2009)

Last night I watched “the scariest movie of the decade” – Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity.

Quick plot summary – Katie thinks she is haunted. Her boyfriend Micah is skeptical. He buys a camera to film everything. Turns out she is haunted, just not in a very interesting way.

To clear up one major point: this is not the scariest movie of any decade, let alone one that has produced films such as El Orfanato, Rec and The Others. This film is tedious beyond belief. Episodic night-time scenes are not enough to maintain a narrative where the only other points of interest are Katie (Katie Featherstone) screaming “I don’t fucking care! I want that fucking camera out of my house!” and Micah (Micah Sloat) taking the piss out of a psychic investigator.

The handheld camera gimmick is now beyong the point of getting old. Blair Witch did it well; Rec and Cloverfield did it fairly well, even if it didn’t really feel necessary, Diary of the Dead was poor, mainly because of the arsehole holding the camera, and now Paranormal Activity, which is the worst of all. I don’t know if this is my interpretation or if it is intentional on the part of the directors of these films, but it seems to me that they believe this technique puts the audience into the action, therefore upping the intensity levels. Not so, Mr Peli.

To me, the use of handheld camera, especially in a film as dull as Paranormal Activity, gives the same effect as watching your boring friend’s boring home video, where he films his girlfriend all day, trying to get her to have sex in front of the camera. It’s not something we need to watch.

I’m not saying that a film has to be full of gore and screaming to interest me – I do think that this was better than Saw VI – but it has to be full of something. Reading Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian I was struck by his opening gambit: “It has been some time since I physically jumped at a scary movie. Horror has become a predictable genre – these days maggoty skulls can leap out of wardrobes all they want and we merely yawn. But in this film, all it took was one bedroom door to move 12 inches, unaided – just that, nothing else – and I felt like leaping into the arms of the person next to me.” Yes, horror is a very subjective genre, but I am yet to read a negative review of this film. I cannot be the only one who was not scared by this. And for the record, ghosts/supernatural beings are generally what gets me the most – The Blair Witch Project, El Orfanato and The Haunting are the three movies that have shit me up the most, and they are all about similar subject matter, and similar ways of scaring the audience.

Unfortunately, there is a sequel to Paranormal Activity, due in 2012, and it is safe to say that I will not be first in line.

The Lovely Bones (February 24th 2010)

27/10/2010 2 comments

The Lovely Bones seems like an odd film for Peter Jackson to make, much like Heavenly Creatures was in 1994. Instead of being known for oddball splatter films as he was then, he is now known to be the man who made Lord of the Rings and King Kong – two of the more epicly scaled projects of the last decade or so. So where does The Lovely Bones fit into this? It doesn’t. It is really a very small, confined story about one family and one paedophile, and while it uses a lot of CG trickery and other-worldly landscapes, it cannot be compared to Jackson’s previous two films at all.

That is not to say that this film is a mis-step on his part; it is a very well constructed and engaging story, and contains some moments that would rank among the finest of Jackson’s distinguished, and in my opinion unblemished, career so far.

Let’s focus on the CGI landscapes of the “in-between” for a moment.King Kong and, to a lesser extent, the Lord of the Rings trilogy were both criticised for slightly ropey CGI in places, but there are no moments like this in The Lovely Bones. Even the water effects – notoriously difficult to construct – looked fantastic here.

However, as everybody knows, good CGI is far from a backbone to build a film around; a lesson that Roland Emmerich might want to learn from. Thankfully Peter Jackson knows what he is doing when it comes to film-making and there is barely a flaw in this film. Even the casting of Marky Mark is spot-on, and when it comes to finding actresses to lend some emotional weight to your film, you cannot go wrong with Rachel Weisz. I do feel that Saoirse Ronan may be a tad young to carry such a big film, and at times she does seem to over-egg this cake somewhat. Having said that, she certainly isn’t bad, but perhaps she suffers from a slight lack of experience. She does, however, outshine the fairly sidelined love interest, a young man by the name of Reece Ritchie who seems intent on becoming the Asian version of Orlando Bloom, given his ridiculous “I am acting now” voice.

The main attraction to this film, for me, is Stanley Tucci. This guy has been around a while, but this is easily his most impressive role as George Harvey. He underwent something of a physical transformation for this role, and while they do seem to have played up to a fairly stereotyped image of a loner/paedophile, his creepiness really is a winner. Some of the involuntary noises his character makes when interacting with Saoirse’s Susie Salmon are truly disturbing.

As I said way back towards the start of this review, this film contains some of what I would say is Jackson’s best work. A scene where Susie’s little sister Lindsey breaks into Harvey’s house, only for him to return home, is comparable to Hitchcock’s absolute mastery of suspense. The tension is tangible and excruciating, and the thrill of the ensuing chase is joyous. Equally, a scene immediately following Susie’s murder is one of the more horrific things youa re likely to see in a 12A movie. She enters a bathroom that is caked in blood and dirt, with a faceless body in the bathtub. There is little to say that won’t ruin the scene, but it evokes the same feelings as the Pale Man scene in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

For all this eulogising, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a flawless movie. Rest assured, it is not. There is one moment that feels so out of place it could be easily mistaken for a different film. A montage of Susan Sarandon, playing Susie’s grandmother, struggling to get to grips with household chores, accompained by some fairly jaunty music is horrifically out of place in what is otherwise a sombre, serious film. If Jackson was aiming at some sort of tension relief or artful juxtaposition, he really missed the mark here.

Otherwise, The Lovely Bones is a very praiseworthy movie. It is no more than entertainment, but it is told so well that it needn’t be more than this. As long as Peter Jackson keeps making films, I will keep going to see them, because in the simplest terms, he is yet to make a bad one. Rest assured that this film could really be anybody’s cup of tea, and I would recommend to not judge it based on the trailer or the basic concept of it, as it is much more than either of them would suggest. Highly recommended.

8/10

Year One (November 10th 2010)

Harold Ramis. Jack Black. Michael Cera. Hank Azaria. Paul Rudd. Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Just some of the names that star in/direct one of the biggest comedies of 2009, written by Gene Stupnitsky (The Office) and Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Animal House to name but a few). Somehow, despite the stellar names and a fairly watertight premise, Year One doesn’t quite deliver.

Perhaps the episodic nature of Zed and Oh’s quest through the early days of man is to blame for the failings of Year One. The almost sketch-like quality of some scenes makes this play out as a cheap imitation of Monty Python more than an original comedy operating of its own will.

The joke writing is, as expected, fantastic. As are the deliveries from both Michael Cera and Jack Black, with it looking like the film was written specifically for the pair (a more than possible suggestion). Cera’s naive awkwardness combined with Black’s extroverted showmanship makes for an excellent comedic combination, and some of their exchanges deserve to have been put in a better film.

It is always slightly saddening to see TV stars toiling away in bit parts in movies that aren’t fit to wipe the shoes of the shows that comprise their day job. Here we have Olivia Wilde (Thirteen from House) and Xander Berkeley (George Mason of 24) in roles that are far beneath them. Berkeley spends his time on screen gurning like a fool, while Wilde’s input is apparently to look sultry and put on a fairly poor English accent, or at least I think that’s what she was doing.

Year One is by no means a bad film. In a year that has seen the likes of Bruno and Lesbian Vampire Killers, at least this manages to stay on the side of good taste. Having said that, it does seem to be stuck in the past. Cera’s other major feature of the year, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, symbolises a new wave of comedic films, supported ably by Sam Mendes’ Away We Go and (500) Days of Summer, from Marc Webb. These are comedies based around believable, likeable characters. Year One is a series of events that doesn’t lend itself well to the feature film format.

This is certainly not the worst film of the year, nor is it even close, but coming from the range of names that it does, Year One can only be seen as a disappointment. Jack Black will always keep people amused, but this film smacks of a lazy vehicle created solely for his improvisational comedy to take centre stage.

As I write this, I am aware that a sequel is on its way. One can only hope that a little more effort is put into it than there was first time round, and that there are less gaps in the script where it says “Roll camera on JB for five minutes, see if anything good comes up.”

**½

The Wolfman (February 20th 2010)

The Wolfman is an update of 1941’s The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney. This version stars Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving, and is directed by Joe Johnston, best known for the classics Jurassic Park III, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji, as well as being in line to direct the 2011 Captain America movie.

The story is a fairly basic plot of Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returning to England as an actor, only to be informed of his brother’s horrific murder. He travels to his hometown of Blackmoor to meet Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), his would-be sister-in-law, and hid father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) in an effort to solve the murder.

He quickly finds out that some kind of man-beast was involved, and is subsequently attacked by said man-beast. As is obvious based on the folklore of lycanthropy, he inevitably becomes the titular Wolfman. This really isn’t a spoiler – it happens half an hour into the movie, and is also the title of the movie.

Of course he eventually murders some poor folk, and is carted off to an asylum in London where he is poked and prodded by an apparently German doctor who concludes that he definitely isn’t a werewolf. He presents his case to a room of lesser doctors, while Talbot transforms into the Wolfman behind him. Thus follows what I call An American Werewolf in Latter-19th Century London – a ten minute segment where the final werewolf spree of John Landis’ classic is copied almost entirely, while a bearded Agent Smith tries to shoot him off the rooftops.

This particular pastiche could be seen as one of two things. Either you enjoy the referencing of a revered movie, or it doesn’t seem to be a pastiche, but more of a rip-off. Although it wasn’t intended, or at least I certianly hope it wasn’t, there is another such moment where two werewolves have a fight that looks a lot like some of the scenes from last year’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The final nail in the coffin of “seeing-things-we’ve-seen-before-that-didn’t-need-to-be-seen-in-this-particular-movie” is a horrific final 20 seconds before the closing credits; a horribly clichéd moment where the revelation of a certain character’s lycanthropic future is revealed is cringe-inducingly bad, and threatened to ruin the preceding 100 minutes.

The film in itself isn’t all bad however, but something about it just doesn’t work. There is apparently no wish on the part of Johnston or writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self to give the film any sense of genre. Seeing the name Andrew Kevin Walker on the opening credits did inspire hope, but looking back at Self’s credits of The Haunting and Thirteen Days it seems that the respective talents of the two may have cancelled each other out. As I said, the film doesn’t fit any genre, and while this might not be necessary for every film it really should be necessary in a film called The Wolfman. Where it should be straightforward horror, this takes up a position of halfway house somewhere between horror, period piece, drama and half-hearted love story, and suffers for it.

Horror movies aren’t exactly in vogue right now, at least not the kind of horror movie that I hoped this would be, but that should be no reason for bypassing the true nature of what this movie should have been. A slasher version of The Wolf Man would have been preferable to this, as would a comic-booky, outlandish, olde-worlde Legend of Sleepy Hollow style thriller, but going for this style just didn’t work.

It’s a shame because this was a massively anticipated movie and had great potential, especially with the somewhat wolfish Benicio Del Toro in the lead. Joined by Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, the cast was looking good, but Anthony Hopkins’ insistence on royally hamming it up in every scene possibly did some considerable damage to the film.

I’m rambling so I will conclude with this: The Wolfman is a decent movie, but it isn’t a horror movie. In fact, it isn’t any kind of movie apart from, as I said, a decent one. Del Toro is, as ever, fantastic and has done nothing here to harm his reputation. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece and you’ll be satisfied, but if you expect scary, suspenseful or anything superb (excuse the poor third adjective, but I was going for alliteration) you will be entirely let down. Have fun with it.

6/10