Sunday, September 30, 2007
Earlier this year, I reviewed the latest film from Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower. The film he directed before this was the 2004 martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers. The film was itself a follow up to Hero, released in 2002. Nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography, the film is similar more to Hero than it is to Curse of the Golden Flower. Set during the Tang Dynasty of 9th Century China, the government is struggling to suppress a rebel group calling themselves the House of Flying Daggers. The group act like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Two police men, Jin and Leo are tasked with finding the rebels in order to destroy the group. To do this, Jin seduces a blind dancer, believed to be a key member of the House of Flying Daggers. Jin breaks the girl out of prison after she attempts to kill Leo. Together, Jin and the girl, Mei make their way across country to find the rebels. But Jin finds himself developing feelings for the girl, something that will jeopardise his mission.
As with Curse of the Golden Flower, the first thing that is most striking about House of Flying Daggers, is the visuals. The cinematography in this film is stunning. Every frame is rich in colour and detail. There are quite a few battles throughout the film (none of the scale of the last battle in Curse of the Golden Flower), and all of them are filmed in a dream like quality. Yimou does seem to over do it a little with the slow motion and CGI moments, however these don’t really detract from the overall effect. The stunts in the fight sequences are amazing. Western audiences have become accustomed to these types of sequences ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hit the screens. But the effect of them in this film is no less diminished by this fact.
The weakness of this film, however, lies in the screenplay. It’s a pretty basic story, when you boil it down. It tends to get a little melodramatic at times. Yimou wrote a better film in Curse of the Golden Flower. The performances in this film, however are quite good. Actress Ziyi Zhang (who also starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is brilliant. She handles the transition between vulnerable and deadly quite well. Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin is also very good. The essential thing between the two actors is chemistry, and there’s plenty of that here.
Overall, I feel that House of Flying Daggers is the weakest of the three Yimou films. While it’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, the script is a little bit of a letdown. However, the visuals and the fight sequences are both stunning and brilliantly choreographed, and these factors in themselves are what makes this film worth checking out.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
2007 seems to be Year of the Rogen. Having already scored a huge hit with Knocked Up, actor Seth Rogen turns his hand to writing for his second smash hit of the year, Superbad. Superbad is similar to Knocked Up in that it’s a comedy that aims squarely for the gross out humour market, however, where as Knocked Up was about thirty-somethings, Superbad is made specifically for the teen audience. It takes up the mantle where the American Pie franchise left off, and continues the tradition with gusto.
Two slacker friends, Seth and Evan have come to a crossroads in their lives. They are approaching the end of their school years and must face the prospect of leaving each other to go to separate colleges. It’s a situation neither of them have really come to terms with yet, but as with all young males, they hide their fears behind a mask of bravado. However, they have more immediate problems. Neither of them wants to go to college as virgins. But all is not lost. Their mutual friend, uber-nerd, Fogell, has acquired a fake ID. This ID, and the alcohol it can help them obtain, is the key to gaining access to a party. A party where there are girls. To the boys, alcohol and girls result in the high possibility of getting laid. And so the boys embark on their odyssey to obtain $100 worth of booze and hit the party, for sexy results!
Okay, there’s one thing that is essential when approaching this film. There is absolutely no point in going into it with any ounce of pretention. And if you’re easily offended, stay away. Superbad aims low, and hits the mark pretty much every time. Where as Knocked Up had it’s morals, as well as it’s gross out humour, Superbad is mostly just gross out humour. And profanities. Endless profanities! That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities (in terms of morals). It does make the point that alcohol isn’t necessarily the ideal way to win a girl’s heart... or pants. But this isn’t a message movie. It’s a comedy, and in this respect, it’s very successful.
There’s no denying that the three lead characters of Evan, Seth and Fogell (played by Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse respectively) are instantly likable. Each is quite different but all of them are very believable. Which isn’t surprising since Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg based the characters and situations on themselves. Casting is essential and there’s no complaints there. Cera is essentially reprising his role of George Michael Bluth from TV’s Arrested Development. He’s incredibly comfortable in the role (ironically, of the overly-nervous teen) and suits the character fine. Jonah Hill is great as Seth. It would be easy to see the actor as a John Belushi for the 21st Century. And newcomer Mintz-Plasse is brilliant as Fogell. He spends most of the film sharing the screen with writer Rogen and Bill Hader as two cops as irresponsible and immature as the teenagers.
I’ve read some reviews of this film that were very stuffy and mean-spirited. They accused Superbad of being incredibly misogynistic. But those reviewers can pull their heads out of their asses. While the boys are obsessed with getting laid, and spend the entirety of the movie trying to achieve this goal, I think that pretty much is exactly what most teenage boys are aiming to do. But there’s no point in getting bogged down in the politics of a movie like this. It’s a comedy, and at the end of the day, it’s about laughs. And there are plenty. Is it better than Knocked Up? I don’t know. The jury’s still out on that one. But at the end of the day, it’s hilarious, and definitely one to check out.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Shane Meadows is quickly becoming one of the top writer-directors in the industry. His films are imbued with a reality that is very reminiscent of films of Ken Loach. After making the brilliant 2004 film, Dead Man’s Shoes, Meadows gets personal with the film This Is England, a semi-autobiographical account of a twelve year old’s experiences of 1983 Britain and the skinhead culture that was prevalent at the time. It was a time where Britain was struggling with crises both at home and abroad. Crises that made many people question their national identity and their position in society.
This Is England opens with a montage of television images from the early 1980s. Unemployed miners, National Front marches, royal weddings, people playing with Rubik’s cubes and Space Invaders and images from the Falklands War set up the era we’re being transported to. We meet Shaun. An only child, he lives with his mother. His father recently died in the Falklands. Shaun is bullied in school, he’s picked on for his hand-me-down clothes, a symptom of his family’s poverty. Shaun falls in with a gang of skinheads who accept him as one of their own. He immediately finds a place with the group of misfits. However, the situation turns sour when Combo arrives on the scene. Having been recently released from prison, Combo has learned some pretty controversial views while locked up, views he shares with the gang. While giving one particularly racist speech, he invokes images of the soldiers dying in the Falklands, something that really hits home with Shaun. Shaun becomes somewhat of a protégé for Combo. However the volatile nature of Combo, and deep insecurities in him put him, and those who associate with him on a course for tragedy.
While I’m sure it wasn’t Meadow’s intention when making This Is England to make a film that reflects the state of society today, there are definitely parallels with attitudes of the time and the attitudes of some now. However, this film isn’t some sort of moral lesson. It’s an incredibly personal account of Meadows’ experiences during a time of great social upheaval. These experiences are documented brilliantly by Meadows’ script and direction. There is rarely a moment in the film that doesn’t feel incredibly authentic. As Shaun is accepted by the group of skinheads, you do really feel the loyalty and friendship that exists between the friends. Even when Combo appears, you still have a sense of the loyalty that existed before he went to prison for Woody, the ‘leader’ of Shaun’s friends. As Combo delivers his state of the nation speech to the young, impressionable youths, the tension is palpable. The scene reminded me of a similar one in American History X, however, Meadows direction creates a far more believable scene.
Meadows’ cast is also outstanding. Newcomer Thomas Turgoose is instantly believable as Shaun. He’s an angry, volatile, impressionable child and Turgoose perfectly captures his innocence when he’s with a girl for the first time, and the rage he exhibits when attacking Combo for mentioning the Falklands or instigating a racist attack on a shopkeeper. Credit must also be given to Stephen Graham (Snatch, Gangs of New York) as Combo. It would be very easy for someone to play the racist bad guy as a one-dimensional caricature, spitting national pride and racism in equal quantities. Instead, you can see Combo’s a very damaged character. Rejected by a girl he was infatuated with and searching for something to cling to, racism is his outlet. The rest of the cast, made up of unfamiliar faces are all excellent as the people inhabiting the era.
Few films capture reality as convincingly as This Is England. From the script to the cast and the direction, there is very little to take away from the film. It’s clear from the film that the events in it come from a very personal place for Shane Meadows. While the film doesn’t tackle the social questions on a large scale, it’s a story about people from a small town, Meadow’s definitely touches on the highly questionable ideas raised at the time. Questions that are being asked once again by some due to the volatile politics in the world right now. But at the end of the day, This Is England is a film. And as such, it needs to entertain. And there’s no worry there. Meadows is a brilliant writer and director and This Is England confirms this.
Monday, September 17, 2007
The western has been out in the wilderness for a while now. It’s a genre that had it’s golden age in the 1940s and 50s through the films of John Ford and star John Wayne. Sergio Leone delivered some of the greatest westerns in the 1960s, but since then, the genre has become cinematically unpopular. However, two films, released this year are thought by some to be signalling the re-emergence of the western. The second, released later this year, is The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. The first of these two films, however, is James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 film of the same name, 3:10 To Yuma.
Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 To Yuma is a simple story. Two men, with polar opposite views on life are set at odds as one of them struggles to deliver the other to trial and execution. Dan Evans is a veteran of the American Civil War. He lost a foot during the war and lives on a simple cattle farm with his wife and two sons. Evans doesn’t feel like much of a man. His farm is to be destroyed to make way for a rail line. His eldest son views him as spineless and his wife doesn’t think he’s up to much. He is given the opportunity to prove his worth as a man, and save his farm when Ben Wade, a notorious thief and murderer is captured and must be transported to a town called Contention to catch a train to Yuma where he will stand trial. Few men want to take on the dangerous task, as Wade’s gang want to set their boss free. But Evans, and a posse of men not used to handling a gun escort the criminal across the desert where a battle of wills breaks out between Evans and Wade.
The immediate strength of 3:10 To Yuma is the casting of the two central characters. Christian Bale, who cannot seem to put a foot wrong in terms of film roles plays Dan Evans. Bale has the talent to seamlessly take on the persona of every role he accepts, and he’s brilliant as Evans. He’s a man who isn’t strong in character. But he accepts the task of transporting Wade to Contention and is determined to see the task completed. If not for the cash, to prove to his eldest son, and himself that he can stand tall as a man. It’s the more difficult role to play in comparison to Ben Wade. Wade’s character is a lovable rogue. He’s a joker and a philosopher, an artist, but also a vicious killer. To be honest, it’s a role that is a bit confusing. We’re given flashes of Wade’s viciousness. We’re given glimpses into how bad a guy he is. But at the same time, we’re also expected to believe he’s got an artistic and philosophical side. It’s a bit of a cliché. However, Russell Crowe plays the part perfectly. You can’t knock him, as he didn’t write the role, but he plays it well. It is the easier of the two roles to play though.
The rest of the cast is filled with some excellent actors. Serenity’s Alan Tudyk plays the nervous Doc Potter, a comic relief role, but one Tudyk plays very well. Peter Fonda is the grizzled bounty hunter Byron McElroy. But it’s Ben Foster as Wade’s right hand man, Charlie Prince, who steals the show. Prince is a psycho with something that boarders on love for his boss. Foster has carved somewhat of a niche for playing these types of characters and clearly relishes the role.
But this isn’t just a character piece. It’s an action film too, and in this respect, Mangold doesn’t fail to deliver. The script, by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas grips you from the very beginning, and aside from one or two plot contrivances that require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, is very strong. It’s not perfect, but there’s never a boring moment, so you can’t really hold the weaknesses against it. There are some great action sequences, including a coach chase and a couple of shoot outs, standards of the genre. Overall, 3:10 To Yuma is a very good, if not perfect film. It definitely belongs up with the best of 2007. So far, it seems that the later half of 2007 is going to be the stronger in terms of film.
Charting the entirety of the history of American film would be an extremely difficult task. Tackling one genre alone would be a mammoth task. The British Film Institute instead asked one of the greatest living directors to discuss American cinema from a personal point of view. So in 1995, Martin Scorsese wrote, directed and introduced his own personal look at the history of American film in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
We’re all perfectly aware of how good a filmmaker Martin Scorsese is. For the last four decades he has created some of the greatest movies the art form has ever produced. What he gives us in this four hour documentary is a look at the films that have influenced him ever since he first sat down in a cinema. One of the great aspects of the documentary is that Scorsese doesn’t discuss the obvious films (Gone With The Wind for example) that you’d expect to pop up in documentary. Instead, the films that Scorsese chooses range from the very obscure like King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd, to the well known, such as Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.
The film is broken into chapters, which, if you plan on watching it in stages, makes it very easy to follow. In these chapters, Scorsese examines the role the director takes in bringing a movie to the screen. He examines the studio system and how certain directors broke the conventions of the studio system and changed the face of cinema. Scorsese lavishes praise on the pioneers of cinema including D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles and F.W.Murnau and Stanley Kubrick while introducing films by less well known directors such as Delmer Daves and Jacques Tourneur.
In three chapters, Scorsese takes a look at three genres that define American movies. The western, the gangster movie and the musical. Scorsese looks at each of these genres in great detail, exploring the evolution of each of these genres in terms of American movies. One very interesting examination is about the western, focusing on three films by John Ford. Using 1939’s Stagecoach, 1949’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and 1956’s The Searchers, Scorsese looks at how the protagonist in each film (all played by John Wayne) changed from optimistic good guy to shady anti-hero with the evolution of the genre. It’s this kind of detail that makes this documentary so compelling.
If there’s one criticism I have of the film is that it’s (despite it’s 225 minute running time) too short! Scorsese ends the film during the 60’s, explaining that it would be unfair of him to dissect the evolution of American cinema during his own career, and the career of his contemporaries and friends. It kind of leaves you wishing for a sequel, which will examine the period of cinema we might be more familiar with. However this is a tiny criticism.
For anyone interested in film in any form, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is essential viewing. Scorsese’s love and enthusiasm for the art form is infectious, and it gives you great ideas for films to hunt down and watch. It’s impossible to cover everything in the documentary, it’s that extensive. Over 100 movies are mentioned in some capacity, so it takes some watching to take it all in. I’ll probably watch the documentary again some time in the future. But it is a fantastic documentary and something for film fans and casual watchers alike.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Bobby and Peter Farrelly first came to prominence in 1994 with Dumb And Dumber, a film that helped in the meteroic rise of Jim Carrey. In 1998, they hit the big time with There’s Something About Mary. But in between these two success, the writer-director brothers had a bit of a miss-fire with the bowling movie, Kingpin.
Roy Munson is a young bowler who becomes state champion in 1979. In the final, he faced bowling legend, Ernie McCracken. McCracken, the sleaziest of sleaze-bags sees his chance to take advantage of the naive Munson and uses him to hustle some unsavory types out of some money. McCracken leaves Munson to the mercy of the gangsters and they take Munson’s hand as payment fot the cash they lost. Seventeen years later, Munson, now a one-handed alcoholic bowling supply salesman spots a young Amish man with a talent for the ten pin game. Munson convinces the Amish man, Ishmael to take to the professional bowling circuit to raise money to save his family’s farm.
I have to admit, I’m a pretty big fan of most of the Farrelly brothers films I’ve seen. While they’ve never been the types of films to challenge the intellect, they’ve got their own niche, and the gross out humor in these films always raise a chuckle. So I’ve been looking to watch Kingpin for quite a while. I just never got around to it. And to be honest, I wasn’t really missing anything. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film, it’s just not as funny as Dumb And Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, or even Me, Myself And Irene.
The cast, led by Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson and Randy Quaid are perfectly fine. Harrelson’s a very decent actor, and can make the switch between the naive young Munson and the world beaten older Roy Quite well. Quaid, who had experience with the National Lampoons movies and Saturday Night Live is also perfectly fine. But if there’s one reason to watch the movie, it’s Bill Murray’s turn as Ernie McCracken. Murray, one of the greatest comedic actors of all time, steals every single scene he’s in. His character is kind of like the worst aspects of every sleaze-ball Murray’s ever played rolled into one character. However, his character isn’t in the film nearly enough.
I can understand why Kingpin isn’t accepted as a Farrelly great. They did well with Dumb and Dumber. And it feels like this movie was an exercise in working out the kinks before they hit pay-dirt with There’s Something About Mary. Not awful. But not particularly good.
Monday, September 10, 2007
... And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. According to actor Shia LaBeouf, this is the title of Indy 4. Not quite sure what to make of it yet. My first thoughts are, it's not as good as The Temple of Doom, no way near as good as The Last Crusade and light years away from Raiders of the Lost Ark (which, for the record, is one of the greatest movie titles ever. Fact). While this is apparently 'official,' I wouldn't be surprised if the title is changed between now and the movie's release on May 22nd 2008. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull just isn't exciting enough. While it does have that kind of Saturday matinee serial movie kind of feel to it, it just doesn't quite seem to fit in with the saga. At best, it sounds like the middle movie in a trilogy. At worst, it sounds like fan fiction. Watch this space.
*EDIT: It is official. The news is up at indianajones.com. So it IS Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Ho hum.
*EDIT: It is official. The news is up at indianajones.com. So it IS Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Ho hum.
Friday, September 7, 2007
Here's the poster for Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, There Will Be Blood. I wrote before about the trailer for this film and how it has a very Malick feeling to it. Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis. If there's a more mouth-watering cinematic prospect than that, I've yet to see it. Anyways, I love a good poster me, and the poster for There Will Be Blood is particularly spiffy. Roll on January '08 for this one.
Monday, September 3, 2007
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that fast food doesn't exactly fit in as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Yet it seems that, despite various news reports, advertisements and, well, common sense, some people still consume large quantities of quick, easy, hideously unhealthy food. Hell, I'm as guilty as anyone of occasionally indulging in a quarter pounder with cheese. In 2004, documentary film maker Morgan Spurlock undertook an experiment to see just how detrimental to a person's health a 30-day diet of only McDonald's food would be. Cutting out all food except that purchased at McDonald's, Spurlock would test the effects of this diet on his body and document the journey in Super Size Me.
At the beginning of Super Size Me, Spurlock enlists the help of three doctors who will test the effects of his crazy diet on his body. His first group of tests prove that he is in very good health. His cholesterol, body fat and blood tests all prove that he is a man without much to worry about when it comes to health. Spurlock eats one last healthy meal, cooked by his vegan girlfriend, and begins his grand experiment. He sets himself a few rules to stick to during the experiment. He must eat all items on the McDonald's menu at least once during the 30 days. He must eat three McDonald's meals a day. And whenever he is offered, he must accept the 'Super Size' option. But while Spurlock enjoys the immediate effects of the McDonald's only diet, as the experiment progresses, it's effects begin to take their toll on his mind and body.
Super Size Me was a hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and allegedly caused McDonald's to become a lot more health conscious. It's easy to see why having witnessed the effects of Spurlock's self-destructive and crazy diet. While it would be very far fetched to believe that anybody would actually have a diet that only consisted of McDonald's food, there are a great many people who eat in McDonald's many times in the week. This is something the Spurlock points out himself in the movie, and it's this one point that sums up his approach to the film. Spurlock never comes across as preachy or holier than thou in the film. He puts himself in the firing line. He's the guinea pig. He never attacks or approaches his targets aggressively. While he does have points to make, he makes them even handedly. It's an approach that is different than Michael Moore's, who's approach always seems more aggressive.
Spurlock intercuts his personal story with a series of talking heads, experts who give us the facts and figures when it comes to the problem of obesity in the United States. The corporations (who, again are the evil overlords, but then, they're behind everything, aren't they?) target the population in school, before the kids can decide for themselves what is healthy. Getting them at this age sets them up as customers for life. It's an alarming idea and while the schools in this country, at least, don't approach childrens' nutrition in the same manner as the States, you do wonder how long before this becomes standard practice here. One thing that I'm sure of, is that fast food will be a rare treat in my own kids' diets. Spurlock's wit helps keep you interested and entertained. While facts and figures can get monotonous after a while, Spurlock's film making ensures the film doesn't become boring. A very interesting documentary with a message all of us can learn from.
Sunday, September 2, 2007
There have been a great many of Stephen King's books and short stories that have been adapted into movies. Some have been great, like The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Carrie. And some have been, well, crap. Needful Things, Children of the Corn and, um.... The Lawnmower Man (shudder). Certainly, when it comes to adaptations, King must be one of the most adapted of authors. Over the years, I've enjoyed a great many of these adaptations. So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I went to see his latest adaptation, 1408, directed by Swedish director, Mikael Hafstrom.
John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author who specialises in the paranormal. As the film opens, we meet Mike as he researches his latest book, a kind of tourist guide to haunted hotels. It quickly becomes apparent that Mike was once a legitimate novelist. However, over the years he's become disillusioned, and while researching and documenting paranormal phenomena has become his job, he maintains a stark cynicism towards not only the spiritual world, but also the existence of god. After an accident while surfing, Enslin receives a post card from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. The postcard reads only 'Don't enter 1408.' Naturally, Enslin's interest is piqued and he sets about booking a night in the Dolphin's 1408. There, he meets Gerard Olin, the manager of the Dolphin. Olin is vehement that Enslin does not stay in 1408. Over the years, the room has seen many bizarre deaths, and Olin does not want to clean up another. But Enslin is adamant, and gets his wish. He books into the room and begins a night that will test his sanity to it's limits.
Having grown up on a strict diet of horror movies, I've become very disillusioned with Hollywood's treatment of the genre over the last few years. I guess in a way, that disillusion is somewhat misplaced, as the horror genre has always been on the fringes of the mainstream. The great horror movies have been made by unknown directors (some of whom forged very successful careers in the industry), passionate about creating films to terrify audiences. But over the last few years horror has simply become a place where film makers can chuck buckets of blood at the screen, causing audiences to squirm with disgust rather than terror. So it's nice to see there are still, occasionally, films made that rely on psychology and good old fashioned camera and editing tricks (and a bit of CGI for good measure) to get scares out of the audience. 1408 isn't the scariest film I've seen. But it's still pretty good.
To be honest, 1408 is more of a psychological thriller than a horror movie. Parallels can be drawn between it and a previous (and much better) Stephen King adaptation, The Shining. They're both about authors. They're both about hotels. They're both about a father's relationship with his child. But that's where the similarities really end. 1408 is pretty much a one man show. Cusack is alone in the hotel room for almost the entirety of the film. The room is pushing him to the limits of his sanity. It wants to torture his mind to the point where he will kill himself. Cusack's performance is what the film really rests on. He has nobody to work off. He has to create the tension and drama pretty much alone. And it's to his credit that he does this quite successfully. Cusack's one of the most likable actors working (who doesn't like Cusack, honestly?!) and while Enslin isn't a particularly nice guy, you do find yourself sympathetic towards the guy. Samuel L. Jackson's role as Gerard Olin is little more than a cameo, but it's a pivotal cameo, as he sets the scene for Enslin and the audience and he does this very well.
Halfstrom's direction is pretty good. He sets up the scares pretty well. He keeps the film focused on Cusack's battle of wits with the room and occasionally throws the odd CGI moment in without making them too jarring. If there's any fault in the film it's that, after a very good first hour, the last act sort of loses it's way a little. It's a shame really, because if it had stayed as taught and smoothly flowing as the first half of the film, 1408 could have been a classic. It's nice to finally see a horror (or psychological thriller to the more pedantic of readers) that doesn't go for tired, repetitive, hackneyed blood and guts garbage that's about as scary as a teddy bear... unless that teddy bear gets up and walks towards you. And it's good to see a pretty decent Stephen King adaptation. But I still wait for one of those rare movies that literally terrifies me to my core. Not since Hideo Nakata's Ringu have I experienced it, and it didn't happen with 1408. An excellent John Cusack performance, and a pretty good if not great film.