Coming soon...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MOON (2009) - Duncan Jones

It’s amazing that films like Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation make truck loads of cash. They’re empty-headed, dull, idiotic movies yet they have mass idiot-appeal and therefore bring the feckless masses into the cinemas to gawp at the screen and marvel at the shiny things and ‘splosions. And then you have a film like Duncan Jones’ Moon. A film that is playing in three cinemas in this country, yet is probably one of the best films you’ll see this year. Have the general public heard of it? Unlikely. It’s a sad indictment of the cinema industry.

Moon takes place, surprisingly, on the Moon. Sam Bell is the sole operator of a mining operation on the dark side of the moon. His three-year stint in charge of the operation is coming to an end, and he is looking forward to returning to his wife and daughter on Earth. However, after an accident involving one of the mining machines, Sam wakes up to find he isn’t alone in the station. The other person in the station is himself.

You don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in order to distract attention from a badly-written story and hold the audience’s attention. Start of with a well-written screenplay and the audience will forgive all the little mistakes or limitations your budget will have when it comes to special effects. Moon has a brilliantly-written script, effects that involve miniatures instead of computers and a superb dual-performance from Sam Rockwell and it’s a genuinely brilliant film. Along with Sunshine and Children of Men, Moon is the best Sci-Fi film of the last ten years. It’s a film about isolation and identity and yet still manages to have a solid story that keeps you guessing.

Sam Rockwell’s performances as two versions of the same character are integral to what works about this film. I can’t say too much without giving story elements away, but his performances are essentially the same person with major changes, which affect the characters differently. It’s his ability to differentiate between the two characters that really grounds the film. Duncan Jones really captures the mood and feeling of the paranoid sci-fi films of the 1970’s, yet the film doesn’t at all feel dated in any way. Jones writing and directing certainly make him a name to watch in the future.

There’s not much else that can be said about Moon without giving away story elements, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s brilliant. Finally, a film that breaks the monotonous parade of shite that has been this summer’s films. Sci-fi at it’s very best, Moon will be in the top 10 of 2009. It’s a really, really great film.


SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) - Richard Kelly

When I first saw Donnie Darko way back in 2001, I was, like many other people, pretty blown away by it. It had all the right elements, and appealed to that dark, lonely side my of us have when trying to figure out who we are. So I eagrely awaited Richard Kelly’s Director’s Cut version. Which I bought upon release, watched once, and vowed never to watch again. Kelly had managed to completely suck all that was great out of the theatrical cut of the film. It was dreadful. So I was a little wary when Southland Tales came out. Through a series of unfortunate events, and warnings from friends, I never got to see the film. Until now. I was kind of hoping it’d turn out to be good. When you have certain expectations from a film, sometimes you can be pleasantly, or otherwise... surprised...

It’s July 2008, three years after a number of nuclear attacks on the United States. The US is at war, the draft has been reinstated and most of the country is a police state. A new substance called Fluid Karma has been developed to replace the need for fossil fuels. However, Fluid Karma and it’s application has caused a rift in the space-time continuum that threatens to destroy the world. Meanwhile, an amnesia-stricken actor named Boxer Santaros and his new girlfriend, porn-star Krysta Kapowski have developed a film script that begins to mirror events in Santaros’ real life. And police office Roland Taverner is really a neo-marxist impersonating his own twin brother in order to use Santaros as leverage for the neo-marxist plans to blackmail Santaros’ Republican senator father in law.

Sounds complicated? Yeah, it is. It’s also one of the most pointless, muddled, incoherent and needlessly dull films I’ve ever sat through. It’s mind-numbingly idiotic. If you read about films, you’ll have heard about Southland Tales’ adventure at Cannes. How it was booed, and some even went so far as to say it was probably the worst film ever to compete at the festival. That was before the film was cut by Kelly himself in order to make it less lumbering and more accessible. And THIS is what he was left with?! In some sado-masochistic way, I’d love to see what the original cut was like. Thought I really don’t think I could put myself through this film ever again.

The film attempts to satirise the course that the US was headed down directly after the attack on the World Trade Centre. The increase in security and the clamp-down on liberties of the average citizen. However, Kelly’s ham-fisted attempt at subtlety goes nowhere fast. His vision of the near-future (which is now actually the past) looks nowhere near believable. Visually, it’s pretty close to Paul Verhoven’s future in Starship Troopers, but where as that film’s satire fit in with the aesthetic of the film and was actually funny, Kelly’s vision (especially with the bafflingly dour narration by Justin Timberlake) is a mess of ideas that don’t gell.

The script... good christ, the script is a disaster. Most of the actors clearly don’t have a clue what their characters are babbling on about. The characters themselves are a mish-mash of cliches, and cardboard-cutouts that are neither believable nor edgy, nor funny. Events unfold in a way that either leaves you confused, or without caring an iota about what happens. And then, in the middle of the mess, Justin Timberlake’s Pilot Abilene bursts into a drunken mime of The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done, which makes for one of the most infuriatingly ill-judged and pointless scenes of recent cinema history. It’s up there with the emo-strut scene from Spiderman 3.

The actors. To be honest, you’re not going to really give a shit what their performances are like. You’re too busy writhing in agony at the sound of the dialogue to worry about how it’s delivered. I actually felt sorry for Seann William Scott, Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Clearly they saw Kelly as some sort of visionary genius and leapt on board thinking that it didn’t matter if they didn’t understand the script, Kelly knows what he’s doing. Nope. He didn’t. And the performances are ground-breakingly bad. But I really don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The characters are just so poorly written.

Kelly’s a director who got sweapt up in his own hype. He attempts to out-Lynch David Lynch and instead falls spectacularly flat on his face. His writing is an incoherent mess of biblical proportions and his direction is pedestrian and in no way innovative. At certain points in the film, I wondered if Kelly had ever even seen a film before making Southland Tales. The film didn’t kill his career, but in an age where people like Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers and Brett Ratner still have careers, that’s not really all that surprising. I should have listened to the warnings. Don’t make the mistake I did. Southland Tales is unwatchable.

Oh, and there’s a scene in which two cars have sex through their exhausts. I shit you not.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Right, so we’re at film six in the Harry Potter saga. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book, but not the penultimate film, as The Deathly Hallows is split into two parts, in order to fit all the story elements in. Or all the dollars they can squeeze out of us. But that’s probably just the cynic in me speaking. Taking place six months after Harry’s godfather Sirius Black was unceremoniously killed off, it’s a dark time for the kids of Hogwarts. Looks like bad boy Voldermort’s gonna wreck things up something awful. But while a dark tone overtakes the series, does the film hold up against the previous films?

Sirius Black is dead. Voldermort is gaining strength. And Harry can’t get a date. All in all, things aren’t exactly great for teenager Harry Potter. But we’ve all had to deal with those awkward teenage years where the undead murderer of our parents is trying to kill us with magic. Ho-hum! But the Dark Lord and his band of Death Eaters aren’t the only threat to the kids of Hogwarts. Raging hormones are sweeping through the halls of the school like the smell of a hundred unflushed turds and nobody’s safe. Harry’s fending off love-potion wielding wenches with a pointed stick... eh, his wand. While the real object of his affection is his best friend’s sister, and she has her tongue down the throat of another guy. While making eyes at Harry. It’s all very Dawson’s Creek. Meanwhile, Harry’s come into possession of a potions book that belonged to someone known only as the Half-Blood Prince. While the book does help Harry ace his potions class, his professor is a man of a questionable history, whom Dumbledore wants Harry to get to know. There is something in Professor Slughorn’s past that links him to Voldermort. Harry must find out what that is.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. I pretty much hated the first two films, and while the subsequent three films were far better, there’s always been something a little twee about the series. Maybe it’s the names of the characters and situations, that they’re all head-slapping puns. Maybe it’s the fact that all the heroes are kids. But then, you did have characters like Sirius Black and Mad-Eye Moody who were pretty badass. Anyway, it was with a sense of relief that I was told by a Potter-fan friend of mine that this story ups the ante somewhat. But that was the book. Something was lost in the film translation. I was aware of a pretty big story element that was going to happen and was ready for some gut-wrenching emotion. But really, I was left cold.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but it does have quite a few flaws that, when added up, detract from the overall experience. Primarily, there is a distinct lack of urgency in the film. Voldermort is gaining strength and his agents are attacking even the muggle world now. Yet, nobody in Hogwarts seems that worried about it. Sure, there is some talk about how the parents of the students are concerned about sending them back to school, but that’s about it. Dumbledore isn’t too concerned with Harry’s safety and stays in the background for most of two thirds of the film. It’s only in the final third of the film that he really leaps to life. And that in itself is a big problem. The majority of the film doesn’t seem to deal with any of the overall plot that runs through the entire series. I thought that Harry Potter dealt with the sole survivor of an attack by the evilest wizard in the history of magic and his attempt to defend himself and ultimately defeat the Dark Lord. What we have for the majority of the film is a series of bumbling encounters with kids driven by their discovery of hormones and the opposite sex. The whole Half-Blood Prince aspect is merely mentioned and feels like even a tertiary subplot. A more appropriate title would have been Harry Potter And The Sexual Awakening. But then that wouldn’t have gotten past the draft stage.

The great characters played by heavy-weight actors are also sadly missing from the film. There’s no Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black. There’s no Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eye Moody. There’s no Jason Isaac’s Lucius Malfoy. Even Ralph Fiennes, Voldermort is missing for Christ sake. Now, other than Moody, there are legitimate reasons as to why these characters are absent. But the film feels like it’s missing something without these characters. Only David Thewlis’ Remus Lupin and Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape pop up, and even those are mere cameos. I was informed Snape really comes into his own in this story, and after seeing the film, you can see how he would have, but his character feels castrated. It’s kind of a big disappointment.

I have to say, most of the actors who play the kids have really come into their own over the course of the series. In particular, Tom Felton who plays Draco Malfoy and Rupert Grint who plays Ron Weasley have come pretty far. Felton in particular has a pretty important role in this film and he carries himself very well, even when playing off a seasoned veteran like Alan Rickman. Even Emma Watson pulls of her wide range of emotions very well. The same can’t be said for Daniel Radcliffe, however. His acting started off bad and hasn’t gotten any better really. At one point, I thought I’d missed a plot point where somebody sucked out Harry’s soul, because Radcliffe emoted with all the soul of a marionette. Thankfully Radcliffe is surrounded by a pretty heavyweight cast, so he’s naturally propped up by that.

David Yates’ direction is good enough for the series. It’s not exactly ground-breaking as he seems to have lifted bits from Alfonso Cuaron and a great deal of other directors for this film. Which is ironic, as in the last film, I felt his direction was dull at best. In this film, however, at moments, I felt like a was watching a best of compilation of other directors’ work, and in one particular scene which shall remain unnamed, I thought somebody had accidentally spliced in some footage from Fellowship Of The Ring. Naturally, there are elements of each series that are similar. But for a director to use a shot that was pretty much identical to another film is just lazy. And it’s down to Yates that there was no sense of urgency in the film. Sure, there was a lot of plot to get through, and fair dues, the film never really ground to a halt at any moment. But the best bits were flashbacks, moments that involved Severus Snape and the Death Eaters. All of which were secondary to the main plot.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince isn’t a great film. And it is nowhere near as good as The Prisoner Of Azkaban, which is still by a great deal the best film of the franchise. But The Half-Blood Prince isn’t terrible either. I realise that there was a hell of a lot of plot to get through. But other films have had the same task and handled it far better. There is just something inherently lacking in this film. Maybe it’ll become clear after seeing The Deathly Hallows, which this film feels somewhat of a set-up for. But this film is just a massive anti-climax. As the film ended, I wondered where the hell the action that was in the last film went. Especially after the huge plot point that had just passed. If Harry was to get a report card after this year in Hogwarts, it would read ‘A lot of potential wasted. Must do better.’


BRUNO (2009) - Larry Charles

Sacha Baron Cohen has reached the zenith of his satirical interview technique. There’s nowhere else to go. When he first appeared on British television in his Ali G guise, the possibilities were endless. Nobody knew who he was, and people gave themselves over fully to his ridiculous interviews. But Ali G grew tired quickly, so to keep things fresh, Cohen created Borat, the Kazakh television interviewer and Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion icon. With Larry Charles, Cohen took Borat to the big screen in 2006, and in 2009, it’s Bruno’s turn. Borat was a huge success, but can lightning strike twice?

Bruno fronts the show Funkyzeith Mit Bruno, a fashion show where the titular character interviews the movers and shakers in the fashion world. But after a disastrous incident involving a Velcro suit at the Milan Fashion Week, Bruno is fired from his show, and loses his Philipino midget boyfriend. So, in an attempt to get back to the top, Bruno and his assistant, Lutz, hit the United States in order to propel Bruno back to the top of the celebrity ladder.

Plot details are really play second fiddle to the real draw from these films. And that’s the awkward situations Cohen sets up to play with his targets. And after seeing Bruno, it’s really amazing how far some people will go before they snap and can’t continue with the interviews. Borat set up some pretty outrageous situations. And got some pretty decent laughs out of them. But Bruno takes things to a whole other level. There are things in the film that leave you agape with shock that Cohen had the balls (no pun intended) to pull them off. There’s no question that he is pretty committed to his art and will gladly sacrifice his own safety in order to carry out an idea.

But is the film funny? When the film attempts to drive plot forward, no. Obviously, there has to be a plot, no matter how thin, to keep the film from just being a series of increasingly awkward interviews and situations. These moments can feel a little contrived when put next to the real-world situations. But when those situations arise, the film hits it’s stride. And when at these moments, it’s outrageous, shocking, and hilarious. There is one moment in the film that was so funny, I can’t remember a time when I laughed harder in the cinema. I won’t give anything away, but I had tears of laughter running down my face at the sheer craziness of the situation, and the thoughts that must have been running through the people who were the targets of the prank.

There’s not much that can be said about the film without giving too much away. It’s funnier than Borat, and at times, funnier than most written comedies. But reality is always funnier or more shocking than fiction. When the film deals with fiction, it’ll make you chuckle at best. But when it comes to the ‘reality,’ Bruno will have you cringing in horror and guffawing with laughter.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) - Michael Mann

I’ll start this off by saying this- Michael Mann is one of my all-time favourite directors. He consistently makes quality, intelligent films, and even his weaker films are streets ahead of most of the competition. I really enjoyed Miami Vice. Despite the negative reaction to it from some people, it’s still a very good film. And Heat is one of the greatest heist films ever. So, in a summer that has so far proven absolutely abysmal, the prospect of a new Mann film had me pretty excited. Public Enemies brings together two great modern actors playing out the story of 1930’s bank robber, John Dillinger.

It’s the 1930’s, and the depression has hit America hard. A wave of crime spreads across America and the criminals are becoming celebrities in their own rights. The leading name amongst the bank-robbers is John Dillinger. J Edgar Hoover is struggling to create the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to investigate crime across the United States. His primary goal is to take down Dillinger. In order to do this, Hoover gives the task to Melvin Purvis, a young agent who has just taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, another notorious bank robber. Dillinger wants one last job in order to disappear off the map with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette. And Purvis is determined to bring the criminal to justice. At any cost.

There are similarities that can be drawn between Heat and Public Enemies. Both films focus on two men, from different sides of the track. One a master criminal, one a lawman. Neither film paints the criminal as a simple bad guy. And both films have kick-ass gun fights in them. However, Public Enemies is by far the weaker film for a number of reasons. The main problem with Public Enemies is that none of the characters in the film are explored enough. The film is a presentation of facts that misses that very important to film detail, character development. Perhaps it was Mann’s desire to stick to the facts, but the lack of character development unfortunately leaves the film without much in the way of emotional impact.

Mann has recently decided to make the move to digital filmmaking. His first major foray into digital came with Collateral, a contemporary thriller about a hitman. He shot Miami Vice in digital. And in both those films, the digital worked very well with the story. Both were glossy films set in modern day, and the realism that digital brings complemented the stories. However, it for some reason fails in Public Enemies. At times, the digital works very well. At other times, it is a little to jarring. In one particular shoot-out, set at night, the action jumps from a wood, to inside a hotel. While outside, the digital works. However, when we cut to inside, the film looks like it was shot by somebody with a digital camcorder. It’s moments like this that confuse the viewer. And while the scene is action packed, it still takes you out of the film momentarily.

One thing that’s great to see is Johnny Depp finally acting again. After the rubbish pantomime performances in the appalling Pirates of the Caribbean series, Depp finally goes back to what he does best, acting. He’s cast very well as Dillinger. Dillinger was somewhat of a celebrity in his time, so it makes sense to have one of the most famous actors of our time playing him. While the character could have had more depth to him, Depp takes what he’s given and makes the most of it. Which is something that can’t be said for Christian Bale. Don’t get me wrong, Bale has delivered some great performances. But I’m beginning to have my concerns about his acting. After Terminator Salvation, and quite honestly, a flat performance here, I hope that it’s just the scripts that are letting him down. He’s not terrible in Public Enemies, but he’s just not as good as you’d hope.
Marion Cotillard, however, probably delivers the strongest performance in the film. Again, there’s not much for her to do. And after her lengthy enough introduction, she disappears for a great deal of the film. But in the second half of the film, in one scene in particular, she steals the show.

Public Enemies isn’t the great film I’d hoped it would be. But it isn’t terrible either. When measured against the likes of Heat, The Insider, Manhunter and even Miami Vice, it’s not close to Mann’s best. However, Michael Mann’s weaker films are still far better than other filmmakers’ best. And after weeks of what can only be described as shit, it’s nice to have a film that isn’t ludicrously bad. 2009 is proving to be a stinker of a year. But Public Enemies is one of the better films so far.