Coming soon...

Monday, May 28, 2007

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006) - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Post World War 2 Germany was divided up by the victorious Allied powers. One half, West Germany, became a democratic capitalist country, while the other, East Germany fell under communist rule and became a police state, where the government ruled every aspect of society, down to the lives of each of the country's individuals. Das Leben Der Anderen, or The Lives of Others is set in 1984 in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany to you and me. Captain Gerd Wiesler is an officer for the State Police, the Stasi, and is assigned to conduct surveillance on Georg Dreyman, a playwright who lives with his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. Dreyman is one of the few artists the Stasi trusts to remain loyal to the government. But as Wiesler conducts his surveillance, he becomes emotionally involved in the lives of his subjects, and begins to question his actions and the actions of his government.

The Lives of Others took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in the 2007 Academy awards, and certainly is an accomplished work. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is a portrait of a man, a servant of the state, who begins to regain his humanity when he becomes emotionally invested in the lives of people he is supposed to perceive as enemies of the state. He is an empty man, with little warmth in his life. The only intimacy he finds is through prostitutes. But as he observes (or rather listens to) the intimate details of these people, his cold indifference is broken down and he begins to build his emotions again.

Ulrich Muhe is the heart of the film and he plays the role perfectly. He's a stoney-faced, humorless man, questioning the loyalties of everyone, and carries out his job with ruthless efficiency. However, as his emotions begin to creep back in, we see Muhe's facade break down ever so slowly. It's a brilliant performance. In fact, the entire cast is very good. Von Donnersmarck's script is tense and compelling, with moments of humor and tenderness punctuated with tension filled elements of a solid thriller. However, the climax of the film is somewhat cliched and overly sentimental, and this slightly detracts from the overall experience. His direction is very good, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere both in Wiesler's surveillance, and the overall life in the GDR. But at 150 minutes, the film does tend to drag at times.

Overall, The Lives of Others is a very solid drama about a subject not often tackled in cinema. No doubt it'll get a US remake somewhere down the line. Sure, it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, however, I feel that Pan's Labyrinth, which it was up against was a better film and deserved the award. But that's typical Academy. Fantasy never gets Oscars. Excellent performances, good direction and a good script, but a slightly disappointing ending and an unnecessarily long running time slightly detract.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ZODIAC (2007) - David Fincher

In 1995, David Fincher made a huge impact with a film that dealt with a particularly nasty serial killer in Se7en. In Zodiac, Fincher returns to this subject matter albeit using the real life case of Zodiac killer and the policemen and reporters who struggled to find the faceless killer. Based on the Robert Graysmith book of the same title, Zodiac recounts the events that gripped the people of San Fransisco in the 1970's, as an unknown serial killer took lives at random and taunted the police by sending letters and cyphers to be published in a few newspapers. At the San Fransisco Chronicle, a reporter named Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr.) and Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), then a cartoonist for the newspaper, take on the case and soon become obsessed with finding out who Zodiac is. Meanwhile, Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case and set about trying to piece together the few clues left behind at the crime scenes as to who the mystery killer is. However, evidence doesn't add up, and both teams find that discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer is quickly becoming an obsession.

If you're going to the cinema expecting a film similar to Se7en, you'll be disappointed. But that is the only disappointment you'll suffer in this film. While the serial killer element is similar between each film, where as Se7en was a straight up thriller, Zodiac is a character study of how an obsession can affect your personal life. The three central characters of Avery, Graysmith and Toschi each find themselves consumed with finding and stopping this killer. But each of them deal with the obsession in different ways. Graysmith, the young, squeaky-clean boy scout states puzzles as a past-time, and this is the ultimate puzzle. Avery, a cocky, self-important opportunist, strives to solve the case ahead of the police, and thus push his profile. And Toschi, the original inspiration for Dirty Harry, is a cop looking to solve a case he cant let go.

Fincher's attention to detail is absolutely fantastic, creating the atmosphere of the late 60's- early 70's in a manner that recalls another great newspaper film- All The President's Men. While this isn't the same film as Se7en, Fincher still manages to throw in some white-knuckle moments, something he has quite a talent for. Where as some of Fincher's work had really showcased his flare for style, Zodiac shows just how good of a story teller he is.
Mark Ruffalo is the best of a great cast. He presents us with a Toschi who's determination to solve the case is apparent, but never borders on irrational obsession. His career takes a bit of a beating because of the case, which also wears down his partner, but Toschi, ever the cop, never gives up. Robert Downey Jnr. is again on form as the arrogant Avery, who's obsession leads to a breakdown in his personal life, something I'm sure the actor can relate to. And Gyllenhaal brings a youthful innocence to the character of Graysmith, graduly building on the obsession until it nearly costs him everything. Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue and Philip Baker Hall also turn up in small roles, and are all on top form. Only Chloe Sevigny seems to be relegated to the fretful wife role as she watches her husband, Graysmith's obsession overtake him.
At an arse-numbingly long 2 hour 38 minute running time, Zodiac might leave some viewers shifting in their seats. But for those looking for an excellently written character study and thriller, Zodiac will reward them. After a 5 year hiatus, David Fincher is back. And we're all the better for it.


Monday, May 21, 2007

BRAZIL (1985) - Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam once again brings his weird and absurd vision to the screen in his 1985 film, Brazil. Gilliam's warped vision of the future is of a society where bureaucracy has run amok. Everything requires paperwork, and even the simplest procedure is wrapped up in red tape. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a bureaucrat working in the Ministry of Information. It's a boring job of paperwork and procedure. There is nothing exciting for Lowry, except for trying to sneak in a movie under the nose of his weak and slightly dumb boss (Ian Holm). However, Lowry lives a second life, one in his dreams, where he is an armored super hero, complete with Icarus-like wings. He soars a beautiful and vibrant skyline, where he sees visions of a woman, whom he must free from imprisonment in a cage. One night, Lowry's air-conditioning breaks down. He calls Central Services, but due to a recent series of terrorist attacks, they are unable to see to him. On the scene arrives Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), a renegade handy-man and anarchist to boot, who fixes Lowry's AC and disappears into the night. And in Lowry, a sense of adventure is born. He begins to see his woman in his dream in reality and sets about hunting down the mystery girl down.

Gilliam's films are always a visual feast, and none so more as here. His vision of the future is a cold, sanitized retro-futuristic mix. Every image and scene is rich in detail, and although this is my first viewing, I will definitely be checking it out again, as I'm sure I missed plenty following the plot. What's remarkable about the film is how prophetic it is, and how much of the themes in Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown's screenplay resonate today. The government is obsessed with knowing everything about everyone. Privacy is almost non-existent. When someone is arrested, they have a sack placed over their heads and are locked up indefinitely without trial. Sound familiar? This leads to an underground movement of terrorists determined to free the people. But the film is about Lowry, so these details serve the film rather than being the entire focus of the story.

Jonathan Pryce plays Lowry as a meek, almost cowardly character. He turns down promotion and is quite happy to live a quiet, anonymous existence. It's only his obsession that drives him to become proactive. The cast is peppered by familiar faces, including Holm, Michael Palin and Jim Broadbent. However, Robert DeNiro's cameo as Harry Tuttle is the standout in the crowd. His manic anarchist handyman is a kind of paranoid James Bond, turning up, getting the job done, and disappearing without thanks or payment. It's great to see a comedic DeNiro role that doesn't leave you rolling your eyes.
Gilliam's film, is as always, incredibly beautiful. I can understand some not really taking to his 1984-esque vision of things to come. However, the film is quite accessible (unlike the recently released Tideland) and holds plenty for those willing to give it a shot.


Heroes use zimmer frames!

The old men of Hollywood never say die. They're made of sterner stuff than the pampered pretty boy actions 'heroes' of today's cinema. They may be hitting the time when they should be shuffling off to the post office to collect their pensions, but these hard asses are going out in a blaze of glory. Willis, Ford and Stallone are not quite ready to throw in the towel. Their backs may be bad. Their hips may need replacing, but you better believe they ain't done yet. And here's the latest hero to come out of retirement.

John Rambo.

That's right. The Vietnam vet, who so valiantly fought alongside the Afghan Mujahideen is back in a metal-hammering, fish-skewering, head-chopping, dialogue-mumbling bullet-fest. And man alive, it looks bloody! This will be no PG-13 film, kids, so keep away! Stallone already brought Rocky out of retirement in a very entertaining manner. Wonder if he can pull it off again with this one-

We all pray that John Matrix comes out of retirement next, to let off some steam.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Harvey Dent & The Joker revealed!

So here we have the first views of Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. And... drumroll please... Heath Ledger as The Joker. It seems the Warner Brother are finally taking the marketing of a film seriously. The Dent image was released on a mock-up election website for Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City. Hopefully this will just be a splash page for a more comprehensive Harvey Dent election website.

The Harvey Dent for District Attorney site

Meanwhile, another site has popped up over the weekend. A website that has been hijacked by the Joker, asks viewers to enter a code and an email address in order to reveal a pixel of what may very well be the final look of Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime. The net went on a frenzy of email entering and pretty quickly, the image of The Joker was revealed-

The Joker hijacked site

Personally, I like the way Nolan and his team are going down the scarred route with the Joker. It fits in more with the vision Nolan created with Batman Begins.
So far, Warner Brothers are going down a good route with this film. They seem to be taking the marketing of this film very seriously, something Warners don't have a very good history of doing. Hopefully this trend will continue not just with this film, but with others too.

Retro Cut!! THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) - Ingmar Bergman

Released in 1957, The Seventh Seal is director Ingmar Bergman's most famous and iconic film. Set medieval Sweden, during the time of the Crusades, the film is an allegory on the human condition, and calls into question the existence of God, a question that was very personal for the director. The film centres around a night and his squire returning home from the Crusades. The knight, Antonius Block is confronted on a beach with Death, who has come to claim him. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, with Block's soul being the prize. As the game plays out, Block travels the countryside, witnessing the ravages of the Plague, which is claiming a vast proportion of the people. Along the way, Block and his squire, Jons, encounter a troupe of actors, a blacksmith and his cheating wife, who join their journey, and a witch who is to be burned at the stake after being accused of brining about the plague.

The Seventh Seal is the first of Ingmar Bergman's films I've seen. I thought I'd start with the most famous of his films, and it has been a rewarding experience. From the get go, it's clear this film is going to be abstract. How often in films does the central character decide to play a game against something as intangible as Death?! It's clear from the script that the nature of the existence of God is a big issue for Bergman. The central character of Block is looking for signs of God's existence everywhere he travels. He has seen quite a bit in his travels and has become disillusioned with the purpose of the holy crusade, and it causes him to question his faith. There is little evidence for the existence of God in his travels within the film, and this causes him great sadness. Block is brilliantly portrayed by Max Von Sydow, who you'll recognize as the title character in The Exorcist. The rest of the cast are equally excellent, particularly Gunnar Björnstrand as Block's squire.

Bergman's direction is fantastic. The cinematography is stark and the shots excellently crafted, while the film is heavily symbolic. Scenes swing from very dramatic to comedic, as the themes are played out through the cast of characters. The question of the existence of God is never quite answered fully. While there are fragments of universal truths peppered throughout the film, you get the impression that Bergman never fully answered his own question in the film. However, the journey is the attraction here, and while some may find the religious aspect of the film a little much, the cinematography and craftsmanship of the film are just as much an attraction as the themes themselves.


Friday, May 18, 2007

TRANSFORMERS... may be good!

Good lord, can this be true?! After years and years of watching the crap that Michael Bay has unleashed upon us unfortunate audiences, he may, MAY have produced something that might be all right.

I've been iffy about this since day one. The creative decisions in making this movie have been less than ideal, but this could be a case of the end justifying the means. This final trailer for Transformers is actually promising! Of course, we'll only have to wait til July 4th to find out if this potential stinker is any good. But going by this trailer, there may just be a shred of hope for the film. Christ, I never thought I'd see myself writing that about a Michael Bay film...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Here's the first official image released by Warner Brothers for the Batman Begins sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT. Personally, I'm pretty damn excited about this one, and I don't get excited by superhero movies. The sequel, directed by The Prestige and Memento director, Christopher Nolan sees Batman going up against everyone's favorite comic psycho, the Joker, played by surprise casting, Heath Ledger.

Ain't It Cool News reports (somewhat unreliably) that the first teaser for The Dark Knight will appear in front of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this summer. I find this pretty difficult to believe as shooting has only just begun. But we'll have to wait until July to know for sure. Watch this space!

Warner Brothers Dark Knight website

28 WEEKS LATER... (2007) - Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

In 1968, George A. Romero introduced mass audiences to the zombie in his brilliant Night of the Living Dead. Since then, the zombie has evolved and changed, going through many incarnations and changes. 2002 saw the release of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... with a different take on the classic lumbering undead. This time, the 'zombies' are not like their classic forefathers. These are people are not the undead. They're very much alive, however, they're infected with a virus called 'rage' and behave quite differently to zombies. This month sees the release of the sequel to 28 Days Later... 28 Weeks Later...
28 Weeks Later... picks up six months after the events of 28 Days Later... By now, the rage virus has been contained and eradicated and the US army is taking steps to repopulate London. They concentrate on first repopulating an area of London designated the Green Zone, the Isle of Dogs. Outside this area is still undergoing clean up operations and thus is forbidden. Among the first people to reenter London are siblings, Andy and Tammy, eager to be reunited with their father, Don (Robert Carlyle). Don is one of the people who survived the virus and the onslaught of infected, something we're shown in the prologue. Things seem to be returning to normal. But after going for a jaunt in the forbidden zone, Andy and Tammy set in motion a series of events that lead to a reemergence of the rage virus with disastrous consequences.

I really enjoyed Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... The film was a brilliant sleeper hit that managed to be fresh and original to the horror genre, something that is quite rare these days. When 28 Weeks Later... was announced, I was apprehensive. But director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has created a very worthy sequel in this film. The early part of the film takes up the mantle left by Boyle (now Executive Producer) and shows us more images of deserted London but now with US soldiers cleaning up the carnage left by the disaster. However, once the action starts, the film takes off at full tilt and doesn't let up until the end.
The major criticism with the film, is that there is little room for character development. While we're given a brief insight into Don, Andy and Tammy's family, once everything kicks off, this is abandoned. The film favors action and spectacle over story, but this isn't too bad a thing, and provides plenty of quite impressive entertainment. There's even a nod to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but taken to quite a gory level!
The performances are quite good, given that there's not much to be done once the chasing and shooting begins. Support from Rose Byrne as a US doctor named Scarlett and Jeremy Renner as a sniper named Doyle are quite good, and Robert Carlyle, as always, is fantastic. Fresnadillo's direction is a little distracting at first. He favors the low-lit frenetic approach to the scenes of close proximity to the infected. This is a little jarring, but I suppose that's the effect, to confuse and frighten the viewer. However, he doesn't always rely on this technique and the action is quite enjoyable. The violence and gore factor is extremely high too, which is expected in these types of films.

It's been quite a while since I've enjoyed a horror film at the cinema. And it's great to have a film that is extremely entertaining, though not without it's faults. There is an undercurrent that draws parallels with the US and British invasion and occupation of Iraq, but this isn't too prevalent as the film is dedicated to the spectacle over the message. Overall, a great piece of entertainment. A little light on story, but a visceral, loud, violent, gory piece of filmmaking.


Sunday, May 13, 2007


Coming up with a Top 5 for drama films is difficult as all films, by their very nature are dramatic. So, to successfully complete this category, I discounted all films that could be slotted into a genre, as in gangster, sports, etc...

So here, in chronological order, are the Critical Mass Top 5 Drama Films

1. On The Waterfront (1954) - Elia Kazan.

Terry Malloy, an ex boxer turned longshoreman is unwittingly involved in the murder of his childhood friend, orchestrated by his boss, Johnny Friendly. Malloy meets the dead man's sister, who, along with a local priest convince Malloy to testify against Johnny Friendly and the mob.

Based on a series of articles in the New York Sun called 'Crime on the Waterfront,' many of the characters in the film are based on real life people. In fact, the film is somewhat auto-biographical for director, Elia Kazan. Kazan testified as a 'friendly' witness during the House Un-American Activities Commission where he named many of his contemporaries as Communist sympathisers. The film is a justification of 'squealing' to expose corruption and elicits sympathy for the sqealer.
The film earned 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Eva Marie Saint and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, who's performance as Terry Malloy is one of the greatest performances by a film actor.

2. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) - James Foley.

Depicting two days in the lives of four desperate real estate agents, Glengarry Glen Ross depicts the lengths these desperate men will go to close a sale. Blake, sent to the real estate offices by Mitch And Murray, tells the salesmen in no uncertain terms that they close or they lose their jobs. And to the closers go the Glengarry leads, gold dust to the desperate men. But when the leads go missing, everyone is under suspicion and tensions come to boiling point.

David Mamet adapted his play for the screen and director James Foley gathered what can be considered as the greatest cast in cinema history. Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Jonathan Pryce are all on top form as men under incredible pressure. Alec Baldwin appears for only seven minutes in a role written specifically for him, but this cameo is unforgettable. With a script that is profane, dramatic and often quite humorous, Glengarry Glen Ross is a modern masterpiece.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - Frank Darabont.

A young, successful lawyer, Andy Dufresne, is tried and convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Sent to Shawshank prison, Andy is initially rejected by his fellow prisoners who think he's the kind of prisoner who wont survivor the unforgiving environment. But Andy never lets go of hope. His defiance against overwhelming oppression endears Andy to his fellow prisoners, and he strikes up friendship with Red, the most pragmatic prisoner in Shawshank.

Adapted from Stephen King's short story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the film was a slow burner, virtually unnoticed at the cinema. A life-affirming, inspirational piece of classic cinema made in modern day, the two central performances from Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Red and the study of their friendship are the key to the film. The direction by Frank Darabont, cinematography by Roger Deakins, music by Thomas Newman, coupled with the fantastic cast make The Shawshank Redemption one of those rare films that are hard to find a flaw with. Despite the poor run at the box office, word of mouth helped the film do very well on video, earning it status amongst the great films of cinema history.

4. Magnolia (1999) - Paul Thomas Anderson.

Set in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Magnolia tells a number of different stories that are interconnected by coincidence. Two dying men try to reach out to their estranged children. One, a television producer dying of lung cancer who's nurse contacts his estranged motivational speaker son. The other is the host of a game show who's daughter is battling psychological issues and a cocaine addiction. Meanwhile, two whiz kids deal with issues of their own. One is a former whiz kid who's life has gone downhill since he found fame, and the other is a child under enormous pressure from a father who cares more about wealth and fame than the well being of his son.

Summing up Magnoila is an extremely difficult thing to do. The film has no one plot line, and is instead a multi-layered series of plot lines that slowly intertwine and build to a brilliant and quite strange conclusion. Dealing with a number of themes, the one theme that dominates is what it means to be a man. The ensemble cast which includes William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and a career-best Tom Cruise all put in brilliant and devastating performances. While some have accused the film of being quite pretentious, the fact of the matter is Magnolia is one of the finest films of the end of the twentieth century, and presented Paul Thomas Anderson as the heir to Robert Altman's throne as king of the ensemble film.

5. Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama Too) (2001) - Alfonso Cuaron.

Two teenagers, Julio and Tenoch are abandoned by their girlfriends, who leave Mexico to travel Europe for the summer. At a wedding, the two boys meet Luisa, the wife of one of Tenoch's cousins. The boys tell Luisa that they're heading off on a road trip to a secret beach (which they've made) on the Mexican coast and invite her along. At first, she politely refuses. But after a drunken confession of infidelity from her husband, Luisa rings the boys and tells them she'll come along. And so the three head aimlessly out of Mexico City for the fictional beach. Luisa wants some excitement to her life, the boys both want to bed Luisa. But the trip presents the boys with revelations about their friendship and experiences they may not be ready to deal with.

Y Tu Mama Tambien is a drama that can be seen as the anti-American Pie type of movie. Both a road-trip movie and a coming of age movie, the film is extremely honest in the exploration of the boys' relationship with each other and Luisa. The teenagers are young and inexperienced, and eager to a fault to impress Luisa. On the other hand, Luisa who is bright and confident on the surface, hides a sadness and loneliness underneath. Alfonso Cuaron emerges as one of the great directors of the 21st Century and one of the big three (along with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu) leading the recent Mexican invasion in the film industry. He handles the subject matter quite brilliantly in a film that both celebrates youth and mourns the loss of innocence that comes with age.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

2046 (2004) - Wong Kar-Wai

2046 is Wong Kar-Wai's follow up to 2000's In The Mood For Love. Having gone through a tumultuous production process of delays, rewrites, recasts, shutdowns and re-edits, the film was finally released in 2005.

Set in 1966, Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung reprising his role from In The Mood For Love) returns to Hong Kong after spending some time in Singapore to forget the heartbreak he suffered after his affair with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). He no longer works as a newspaper columnist and has become a writer, creating erotic stories while engaging in affairs with plenty of women. Clearly the trauma of his relationship with Su Li Zhen has taken it's toll.
After escorting a performer back to her hotel room, number 2046, Chow feels drawn to the hotel, and the room in question. It's former occupant is seemingly murdered and Chow demands that he is allowed to occupy the room. However, it needs refurbishing, so the landlord allows Chow to take up residence in the neighboring room. Here, Chow observes and interacts with the occupants of room 2046, a number of women whom Chow becomes infatuated with.
The film centers on Chow's relationship with a hooker named Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang) and the landlord's daughter (Faye Wong). After suffering a significant amount of emotional damage due to his relationship with Su Li Zhen, Chow treats Bai Ling with indifference, offering her money after sleeping with her and refusing her longing to take their relationship beyond casual sex. When Bai Ling leaves, Chow turns his attentions to the landlord's daughter, heartbroken when her Japanese lover leaves her. Chow takes it upon himself to help the girl through this, keeping his growing feelings for her to himself, a move that seems to torture him.

The most striking thing about 2046 is, as with In The Mood For Love, the amazing style in which it's presented. This is a film about love, loss and regret, and is presented in a dreamy atmosphere which makes it the perfect companion piece for Mood. The cinematography by Christopher Doyle (who has stated 2046 was his last collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai) is stunning, and Wong Kar-Wai's composition is perfectly matched to Doyle's style.
The film is intercut with scenes of the science fiction novel Chow is writing, set in 2046. And while these scenes are set in the future, and shot as such, they are not at all jarring, and compliment the rest of the film perfectly. The acting from Leung and Zhang is excellent while being subdued. Chow is a slick character, a changed man from In The Mood For Love, but Leung still retains the subtlety in his performance he brought to the previous film.

Once again, Wong Kar-Wai has created a fantastic piece of dreamy cinema. His choice of music is perfect to the imagery which is possibly the biggest draw of the film. While I didn't find the film as tightly edited and slick as In The Mood For Love, it is a fantastic sequel to that film. But make sure you see them in order to get the full effect.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) - Sam Raimi

And so the first of the huge summer blockbusters arrives on our screens in the shape of everyone's favorite friendly neighborhood webslinger in Spider-Man 3. While I've never been such a massive fan of Spidey, I did enjoy director Sam Raimi's vision of Spider-Man in the first movie, and was thrilled by the much stronger second movie. The trailers for Spider-Man 3 looked extremely promising, and excitement up to release grew to the point of hysteria. And then the movie got it's release. Initial reports on Spider-Man 3 were sketchy, so I entered the theatre with a little trepidation. But I sat back and allowed for the fun to begin. Two hours and twenty minutes later, I fell out of the cinema in a stupor of shock brought on by what can only be described as one of the most tedious and disappointing films I've seen in quite a while! Where, oh where did it all go wrong?!

Spider-Man 3 opens with Peter Parker on a high. New York City is deeply in love with Spider-Man, his girlfriend Mary-Jane Parker makes her debut on Broadway and thoughts of marriage swim through Parker's head. Life is great. But forces begin to conspire against Spidey. Parker's best mate, son of his former enemy, Harry Osborn is plotting revenge on Peter for killing the Green Goblin. The man who killed Parker's Uncle Ben has escaped from prison and is on a path that will have him collide with the webslinger. Add to this an alien symbiote that's just itching to combine with Parker and a rival for his job in the Daily Bugle, and things are heating up for young Parker.

Flint Marko, the man who killed Uncle Ben (how's that for a totally contrived plot twist) literally stumbles across a molecular particle experiment and becomes fused with sand, giving birth to the Sandman. Why this experiment is conducted at night and in a facility that is heavily guarded by um... a wire fence is never fully explained, but we'll let that one go for now. Parker and Osborn, the new Green Goblin, have an arial scap and Harry ends up with a highly convenient case of amnesia. He and Parker are friends again. Parker has a few scrapes with Sandman, eventually merges with the alien symbiote and goes emo for a while, has issues, dances for a while, removes the symbiote and ends up in a confrontation with Sandman and Venom, the result of combining the symbiote with Eddie Brock, Parker's rival for the job at the Bugle.

Convoluted plot, eh? Damn straight it is, and we're subjected to it for the best part of 2 hours, 10 minutes before being given a by-the-numbers battle and a ridiculous conclusion. The biggest problem with Spider-Man 3 is the plot and pacing. There is no logical path to the story and the plot and subplots meander in and out of each other to the point of tedium.
They say a superhero is only as interesting as his villains, and never is that point more relevant than here. Marko, as the main villain is not developed at all. We're given a brief insight into why he's a criminal at the beginning of the movie, but beyond that, he isn't explored at all. And the creation of Sandman is extremely weak. He literally falls into his creation and this is glossed over by some fairly mediocre special effects.
The reborn Green Goblin, who was presented to us briefly at the end of Spider-Man 2 disappears due to amnesia. In a move that is more suited to afternoon soap operas, Harry Osborn once again becomes a side character only returning to the screen towards the end of the movie and making a character choice that is both ridiculous and tedious.
And as for Venom, well, he pops up towards the end. I'd imagine all the fan-boys who salivated at the thought of this character being brought to the screen will be bitterly disappointed at how little this character is used.

Sam Raimi really made an impact with his two previous Spider-Man films. His direction was slick and exciting while keeping things fun. But here, he's running on fumes. None of the actions scenes are a departure from what we've seen before. And in a third movie in a saga, this is almost unforgivable. When the action is set aside (which, unfortunately is for most of the film), we're subjected to scene after repetitive scene of Parker being arrogant and Mary-Jane looking forlorn. Even when Parker goes emo and starts to show an edge, Raimi delivers one of the most ill-advised and badly executed scenes in recent cinema history. I know what he was trying to do, but he fails miserably at it.
Acting wise, Tobey Maguire is his usual bland self as Peter Parker. Even when he has the opportunity to get a little badass, his facial expression fails to change. Only a change to his hairline lets us know he's being moody. Kirsten Dunst is equally bland as Mary-Jane Parker (except she gets to have her singing voice badly dubbed). Thomas Hayden Church is woefully under used as Flint Marko. The rest of the cast, including Topher Grace as Brock, Bryce Dallas Howard as love rival for Mary-Jane Gwen Stacy, and James Franco as Harry Osborn are all inconsequential. In fact, the most interesting part of the movie is a little cameo by cult favorite, Bruce Campbell doing his best Monty Python routine as a French waiter. But then, anything Bruce does is going to be great.

Overall, Spider-Man 3 is a terrible disappointment. After two great films, Raimi really drops the ball with this one. Sloppy direction, dull acting and a dreadfully boring script make this a really unsatisfactory third chapter in the Spider-Man saga. But it'll make a truck load of money and already, another three Spider-Man movies are greenlit. Hopefully they'll be a helluva lot more interesting than this one.


Sunday, May 6, 2007

AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003) - Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

Most of the comic-book movies released these days deal with rubber or spandex clad super heroes who battle with evil villains for truth, justice, the American way and whatever other superlative that is threatened in fantastical vision of the world. However, since the 1970's, Harvey Pekar has been the unlikely 'hero' of an underground comic that deals with the monotony and struggles of every day life. But Pekar isn't just a fictional character. He's a real man with real issues and the characters he is surrounded by are the cartoon manifestations of Pekar's friends and family. In 2003, Pekar's comic books were turned into a film by documentarians, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in American Splendor.

The first thing to mention about American Splendor is the way in which Berman and Pulcini approached the subject matter. Doing a straight up documentary about Pekar and his life would seem rather flat and formulaic. Filming the comics as a biopic would run against Pekar's sesibilities and the way he does his comics. He himself expresses concerns in the film about selling out. So what the filmmakers have done is to combine the methods into a film that mixes dramatized sections of Pekar's life with stylized interviews of Pekar, his wife Joyce and Pekar's friends. This is a very interesting approach to the film as it breaks the fourth wall between the film and the audience. Pekar himself narrates throughout the film while Paul Giamatti plays the dramatized version of the comic writer.

Harvey Pekar is a file clerk in Cleveland. Other than his job, there's not much to Pekar's life other than reading and collecting jazz records, which is something of an obsession for him. He meets illustrator Robert Crumb (author and illustrator of the infamous Fritz the Cat comics and spearhead of the underground comic scene of the 1960's) who soon after becomes a celebrity due to the successes of his own comic. This inspires Pekar to start writing his own comics, dealing with his own life in a truthful and cantankerous manner. But Pekar doesn't glamorize himself in any way what so ever, and soon his comics (illustrated by different artists in different ways) become a hit, leading to fame for Pekar and eventually a recurring spot on the David Letterman show. Pekar meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), an eccentric fan of American Splendor and the two get married and begin their hum-drum life together.

American Splendor is a genuinely humorous look at an average guy who finds an outlet for the seemingly hopelessness of his life and the observations he makes, in a medium usually reserved for the likes of Batman and the X-Men. Giamatti is yet again brilliant as Pekar, capturing the demeanor and gruffness of Pekar and presenting us with an extremely grumpy, yet totally endearing character. Hope Davis is equally brilliant as Pekar's oddball third wife. The style of the film is pretty refreshing from what is usually expected from a biopic, and while you're taken out of the drama when the film cuts to the real Pekar and his friends, this technique (coupled with the narration by Pekar) doesn't take away from the film, but rather contributes to the overall effect.
While I missed this film on initial release, I'm glad to have caught it now. Especially seeing as the big movie of the moment is Spider-Man 3, another comic book movie, but of a completely different style. Compelling, and funny, American Splendor is a great watch, and a great take on a type of movie that has been done to death in recent times.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

The unfortunate case of Live Free Or Die Hard (Or How I Learned to Stop Having Faith and Hate Hollywood)

PART I (originally posted on April 5th 2007)

And so we see why cinema is getting worse and worse every day. This trailer looks terrible. Sure, if you're into 'splosions and the kind of 'realism' reserved strictly for Michael Bay type films, the trailer probably gave you a hard-on. But this, and every trailer for 'Live Free or Die Hard' look NOTHING like a John McClane film. Die Hard was about a blue-collar cop facing off against a bunch of international thieves. He was in WAY over his head. He was an average guy, flaws a-plenty, losing his temper, almost crying at points, but still, overcame the obstacles and saved the day.

Now, we have this superman. Crashing cars into helicopters, taking down harrier jump jets, blowing shit up and cracking wise. Sure, the cracking wise is essential to McClane's character, but the rest of it is bullshit. Where's the wife-beater? Where's the alcoholism? Where's the dirt, grime and fu ck you attitude we've come to know and love from this character? Instead we have a shadow of McClane. A leather-clad, grinning imitation of his former self, PC-d up and shaven headed for this brain-dead generation. God forbid he'd have thinning hair. That'd be too real. And then, the worst part is, they throw in a dumb-ass computer geek character to ya know, appeal to the younger demographic. To bring in the kids. Someone they can identify with. We identified with McClane in Die Hard. All you have to do is stay true to the character, and all will be well.

Now, I'll admit, Die Hard 2 and Die Hard With A Vengeance had elements that were different from the McClane of Die Hard. But it was still McClane. This new version has nothing but the wise cracks. And that ain't good enough.
I'll admit, I may be jumping the gun. We've yet to actually see the film. But what we have seen of it is a bad indication of what is to come. I sincerely hope that the film proves me wrong. I want to see Johnny boy fight his way out of another mess. I want him to overcome the odds and beat the Euro-trash bastards with a yipee-ki-yay motherfucker! But I fear that what we'll be seeing will be a caricature of our former hero. A shadow of the bare-foot, thinning hair, wise cracking, Roy Rogers loving blue collar cop. You want to make a Bruce Willis over-the-top action flick? By all means, I'll pay to see it. But don't call it Die Hard.

PART II (originally posted May 3rd 2007)

Last month, I posted a little tirade on the state of the upcoming Die Hard sequel, Live Free or Die Hard. Having given out about the piss-poor state of the trailer, and how the film was shaping up to be a Die Hard imitation rather than a Die Hard film, I signed off with the following quote-

I'll admit, I may be jumping the gun. We've yet to actually see the film. But what we have seen of it is a bad indication of what is to come. I sincerely hope that the film proves me wrong. I want to see Johnny boy fight his way out of another mess. I want him to overcome the odds and beat the Euro-trash bastards with a yipee-ki-yay motherfucker!

Well it seems, we wont even get to see McClane kick some ass. Well not some hardcore kicking, anyway. Maybe a bit of a slap, and a telling-off. For, according to a quote from McClane himself, Bruce Willis in trade publication, Vanity Fair, Live Free Or Die Hard may very well be tailored to appeal to a PG-13 audience. That's right. All you parents are going to able to bring your kiddies along to the film as it is being cut for an age group that weren't even born when Die Hard was released in 1988.
It seems that Fox aren't willing to take the chance on a film rated R (or 15's here in Ireland and the UK, depending on the film). Because, you know, there's just way too much money to be made by tailoring the film to a younger audience. It doesn't matter that ALL THREE PREVIOUS DIE HARD FILMS were rated R. In this age of money obsessed film studios, making something with cahonies, just isn't going to bring in enough green.

Now, I was pretty pissed with the way Live Free Or Die Hard was shaping up. But man alive, I was more than willing to go see it for myself. However, now that the film is being neutered for a young audience, I will find it hard to bring myself to attend. I mentioned before how [Fox] throw in a dumb-ass computer geek character to ya know, appeal to the younger demographic, but I seriously did not expect them to take it this far. People my age, heck even a few years younger than me, grew up with Die Hard movies. Yet now we're being subjected to this shoddy treatment? We should be the ones the movie is aimed at. We're the loyal fans. And Fox is willing to sacrifice our loyalty for the sake of a few bucks? For shame.

Sure, the movie wont diminish the quality of Die Hard. But forever, fans will mention the Die Hard saga with a little grimace of pain. Live Free Or Die Hard will be associated with the previous movies. It's inevitable. If it's just a bad film, so be it. But one that's stripped of the balls of it's older brothers for the sake of cash? Unforgivable. This is Die HARD we're talking about. Not Die Soft.

And then we have Grindhouse. Many of you Yanks will have had the privilege by now of seen Messrs Tarantino and Rodriguez double feature complete in it's 191 minute entirety. 2 feature films, 3 fake trailers, absolute value for money. Something original. Reviews have been mixed, but for the most part, very positive in terms of the scope and originality of the film (for an homage to a long-dead genre, that is).

Yet somehow, the film didn't do too well at the box office in the States. And in a move that is absolutely appalling in it's indifference towards the art of cinema, Dimension Films, the studio behind Grindhouse, has decided, in all it's wisdom to ship Deathproof and Planet Terror to the rest of the world as two separate features. The whole purpose of the venture was to recapture the essence of the 1970's exploitation double feature. But none of us in Europe or the rest of the world will get this opportunity. Because in a move that is motivated purely by money (and don't pretend for a second it's something else), the film is going to be cut up and shown in different releases.

I, for one, was looking forward to paying to see two movies for the price of one. I wanted to get absorbed into the experience these directors were trying to bring to us. But now, I, and everyone else outside the US wont get the opportunity. Is there a possible solution to this dilema? Yes. But it's not ideal. It's barely acceptable. The solution, as I see it, is to wait until the Region 1 DVD release of Grindhouse (presuming it wont be butchered in that format too) and watch it on the small screen. So no cinema viewing for me.

Why is it that Hollywood is so motivated by cash and not art? Everyone would love to be rich, that's true. But would releasing films as they are originally envisioned really mean that the studios would lose money? Would having a little courage to release movies that aren't suitable for children mean that the film would be a failure? I really don't think so. Ticket prices are high as they are, and most people take a trip to the cinema quite often. There's money to be made here, without having to take the safe route.

Film-making is an art. But when money becomes the primary focus of those with the means to create art, the art itself is going to suffer. Sure, these are just two films. But they are just examples of a bigger problem. The sacrifice of originality and courage in film-making for the promise of a quick buck. And it's a very very sad thing to see happening to an industry that can produce such amazing works of art.