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Monday, August 24, 2009

IN THE LOOP (2009) - Armando Ianucci

British comedies tend to be one of two things. Parochial fare that even I have trouble getting, despite living in the country next-door to Britain. Or else rom-coms that even the most effeminate male will have trouble mustering a chortle to. But occasionally, they get things right. And when they do, the results are often fantastic. Enter Armando Ianucci, one of the co-writers on Alan Partridge (which, if you haven’t seen or even heard of, close this page down immediately and seek it out). His 2005 sit-com, The Thick Of It was critically acclaimed but seen by few, and I must admit I’m one of those that missed it. God bless downloading. In The Loop is a companion piece to the series and it was released earlier this year.

British Minister for International Development, Simon Foster makes a gaffe while on national radio. He says that a war, which the British PM and US President are currently secretly pushing, is ‘unforseeable.’ While this may seem trite, it doesn’t tow the party line, and the Director for Communications, Malcolm Tucker marches in to sort the mess out. Little known to either men, US Assistant Secretary of State, Karen Clarke plans to use Foster as a meat-puppet to stop the march to war. And so begins the satire of Anglo-American politics in this modern day.

What is most apparent from the start of In The Loop is the frankly shocking amount of profanities. While this may offend some, the profanities are so vicious, cutting and inventive, that they end up leaving you laughing your arse off. In The Loop is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in quite a while. But it’s not just down to profanities. That’d be a stupid reason to like a film. But not an unforgivable reason!

The performances in the film are all fantastic. The stand-out performance is from Peter Capaldi. He plays Malcolm Tucker, one of only two characters who makes the transition from The Thick Of It (although a great many of the actors in the film were also in the series as different characters). Tucker is one of the nastiest, most cruel characters you’ll ever see on screen. And his abrasiveness makes him highly watchable. Tom Hollander plays the hapless and Simon Foster, literally a puppet to all those around him. He’s pathetic and useless and Hollander carries this very strongly. His scenes with Capaldi are a vicious version of Laurel and Hardy. James Gandolfini is on the American side, as Lt. General George Miller, a man who has seen war and wants to do everything in his power to prevent further war unless absolutely necessary. Unfortunately he has only one scene with Capaldi, but it’s memorable.

It’d take forever to give everyone kudos for their performances, as they’re all equally brilliant. But a cameo by Steve Coogan in particular is a lesson in comedy performance. It’s a highlight. Ianucci’s script is the star of the film, and it’s to his credit that he gets such brilliant performances out of the actors delivering his lines. In The Loop is one of the best comedies of the last few years and well worth seeking out. With the new hope politics in the US, it may seem that the film arrived a little late, due to it’s savage cynicism. But in spite of this, the film is still outstanding. At this moment in time, it’s by a long shot, the comedy of 2009.


INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) - Quentin Tarantino

Whenever Quentin Tarantino releases a film, the nerd world goes hay-wire. Some fanboys are so inherently loyal to the man that no matter how bad a film he releases, they will sing it’s praises, even if they have no idea as to why they’re praising it. To be honest, I haven’t really liked a Tarantino film since Jackie Brown. The films he released before this were classics. The films after Jackie Brown are far from classics. But the Tarantino dream project that is Inglorious Basterds finally hits the screens after over a decade of speculation. Worth the wait?

France. 1944. The war is going badly for the Germans. D-Day is coming. For some reason that is never explained, Lt. Aldo Raine has gathered eight Jewish-American soldiers to undertake a mission in Nazi-occupied France. They are to kill, and scalp one hundred Nazi soldiers. The strategic value of this mission is moot. It makes for pure pulp story-telling. Meanwhile, a young Jewish-French girl named Shoshanna, who escaped certain death at the hands of the Jew-hunter Col. Hans Landa has come into possession of a cinema in Paris. It is here that she and the Basterds will cross paths on the night of the premiere of Josef Goebbels’ latest propaganda film, Nation’s Pride. A night that could provide the revenge Soshanna has sought for the murder of her family and a prime opportunity for the Basterds to end the war.

The name Inglorious Basterds has been bandied about Hollywood for well over a decade. It was Tarantino’s oft-mentioned dream project, and sounded like something only the nerdiest of film fans could hope to see. After all this time, it’s a little bit of an anti-climax to see Inglorious Basterds. It’s not a bad film, don’t get me wrong. It’s very enjoyable. But like Avatar is in danger of suffering come December, the film never lives up to the hype. Inglorious Basterds after all has a number of incredibly large flaws. And a great many of them are down to the casting.

Firstly, Eli Roth. I know he and Tarantino are friends. That’s great, and good for them. But casting as Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew was a bad mistake. The guy cannot act in any way. Every line he delivers is worse than primary-school nativity play over-acting. It is a prime example of why directors cast their characters and don’t just pick randomers on the street to flesh out their characters. Secondly, and most damningly, Brad Pitt. For some reason, as the film progresses, Pitt just plays Aldo Raine as Marlon Brando in the Godfather, but drunk and lairy. It’s less a performance than a series of bad acting decisions strung together with a ludicrous southern accent. However, having said that, he does have the best line in the film. One word. Which had the entire audience doubled-over with laughter. So fair dues to him for that. And finally, Mike Myers. What in the name of all that is good and pure was Quentin Tarantino thinking when he cast Myers as a British general. It’s hands-down the worst piece of out-of-place casting I’ve ever seen. You literally expect Myers to burst into Austin Powers mode at any moment he’s on screen. It’s shockingly bad and something I wish I could purge from my memory.

Having said all that, the rest of the cast is quite excellent. The entire film is stolen by Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa. He’s the embodiment of grinning menace. A sort of Cheshire cat with a luger and a hatred for enemies of the state. His performance is fantastic, creepy and the best thing in the film. Also well worth mentioning are Michael Fassbender as the British soldier, Archie Hilcox, Diane Kruger as German actress and spy, Bridget Von Hammersmark and Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfuss. When these characters are on-screen it takes the stink off the performances of those listed above.

Tarantino’s script is both excellent, and a problem at the same time. When it’s good, it’s very, very, very good. When it’s bad it’s either dull or baffling. The film is split into chapters. Some work, some don’t. The opening chapter, Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France is a masterpiece in tension and drama. It’s Tarantino at his best. No obscure pop-culture ramblings. Just unbelievable tension, reminiscent of any of the great moments in Pulp Fiction. It’s stunningly good. And then you have comedy moments that fall flat on their faces. You’ve the Basterds. I sincerely hope you’re not going to see these guys kick-ass. It doesn’t happen. In fact, most of them appear for a moment on screen and aren’t heard of again. It’s a shame. I had half-hoped for a Dirty Dozen-esque men on a mission type film done by Tarantino. That’s the fanboy in me struggling to break free. But this doesn’t happen. Like the last few of Tarantino’s films (and the next few if IMDB is to be believed), this is a female-revenge movie primarily. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s getting a bit predictable at this stage.

So after all this waiting, Inglorious Basterds is great, but at the same time, a disappointment for a number of reasons. Ludicrous casting, a sometimes genius, sometimes weak script, and an ending that is so far beyond ridiculous that you just buy it for what it is all adds up to an enjoyable if not classic experience. You get the feeling the film is slightly rushed. It starts so well, has some fantastic scenes that merely involve characters talking to each other and the tension is thick. But it’s let-down by the fact that Tarantino is never quite reigned-in. It happened to a terrible degree with George Lucas and Star Wars. Thankfully, though, Quentin Tarantino can actually write something half-decent. And despite how good the film is, it’s just disappointing to think of what Inglorious Basterds could have been.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ORPHAN (2009) - Jaume Collet-Serra

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I am actually flummoxed by this one. Orphan, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra seems like it’s meant to be a psychological thriller, but having watched it, the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s the cleverest advertised comedy of recent times. The trailer makes you think it’s a thriller, or even a horror, but it will have you rolling in the aisles! It’s ludicrously bad, and yet I was highly entertained. Oh, the confusion.

Kate and John Coleman seem to have the idyllic family life. They’re not perfect. He nearly had an affair. She’s a recovering alcoholic. But they live in an extremely opulent house with their two kids. They’re all grins and teeth. The perfect all-American family. But there’s something missing. Kate had a miscarriage. But she and John still have love to give. So they decide to adopt. While at Orphan-Con 09, an open house where couples come to shop for kids, they meet Esther, a precocious nine-year-old who seems to be highly intelligent, artistic and well-mannered. They’ve found their orphan. So they adopt the girl and take her home. And slowly, things start to go wrong. As the poster says, ‘there’s something wrong with Esther.’ And the Coleman’s are about to find out just how wrong things can go.

Every year, a few friends and I attend the Horrorthon in Dublin. A three-day festival of horror movies. Some outstanding, some utter tosh. Orphan is the kind of film that would perfectly suit the later part of one of the days. When the audience has sat through four movies and needs a pick me up. The kind of film that everyone is wary of, yet ends up just getting stuck in, cheering at the cheese, and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. And often times, these can be the best of all movies. They may be rubbish, but they’re damn fun. And there is no doubting, Orphan is rubbish. It’s ludicrous, ridiculous, unbelievable and badly executed. But despite all this, it was just fun.

The script is so far beyond logical that to actually be pissed off with it also defies logic. I’d imagine writer David Johnson had a ball writing it, imagining the looks on the audience faces as they watched the stupidity unfold. Either that, or he’s insane. The performances are pretty bog standard for this kind of film, except for that of Isabelle Fuhrman, who is outstanding. If she is not cast as a Bond villain in the next 007 outing, a prime opportunity has been missed. Her Russian accent and cold malice is perfect for the role. But in all seriousness, she’s by far the highlight of the film, and the only real reason to watch it. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are both pretty well-known faces and good actors. So you wonder why they, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who is on-board as producer are doing being associated with the film. Maybe they’re in on the joke.

Like I said, Orphan is rubbish. It’s packed full of clichés, predictable and ludicrous. And yet, I had a great time watching it. So that leaves me in a bit of a quandary. It’s shit, but it’s not as shit as Transformers 2. It’s nowhere near as good as some of the even disappointing better films of the year. Pfsh. Fuck it. Five out of ten.