12 08 2008

Tom Cruise as a Nazi might pique a bit of interest in Valkyrie, but seeing that it’s a Brian Singer film has got me fully on board, and the cast has officially elevated me to excited: Stephen Fry, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin McNally, Ian McNeice and more.

There’s also a bunch of German actors, including Christian Berkel from Black Book. Makes you think, if every actor over here gets a go on the Bill, does every German actor eke a living as Nazi soldiers? And which type are they? Square-jawed Prussian types who don’t really like Nazism, weaselly SS-types, or hearty fat chaps?


the departed

16 06 2007

Martin Scorsese 2006


ocean’s 13

16 06 2007

Steven Soderbergh 2007

The problem with these big cast franchises is the Star Trek problem of finding everybody something to do. The focus isn’t as firmly on Clooney this time as he isn’t the originator of the plan, so the others have a bit of breathing space. Matt Damon comes off best; a leading man elsewhere, he has so far been the junior member of Ocean’s crew, but 13 is his coming of age. With a big fake nose.

Carl Reiner essays a far more successful English accent than Don Cheadle’s weirdly-accented Basher, who spends most of his time fiddling with a large drill but is compensated with a flamboyant scene pretending to be a stunt motorcyclist. Bernie Mac, however, only gets one decent line for a film’s worth of hanging around. Shaobo Qin displays a bit more attitude and there’s plenty of life in the running gag that he doesn’t speak English. Eddie Jemison is saddled with being the least cool of the gang, although nothing is ever what it seems.

Scott Caan and Casey Affleck are the best served outside of the leading troika, with a whole subplot involving their infiltration of a dice factory and their involvement in industrial relations proving a comic highlight.

At the heart of it all is Elliott Gould’s Reuben, whose heart attack provides the catalyst for the job. He doesn’t do much but drift around in his pyjamas, but you feel for him anyway.

Reuben has been laid low after Al Pacino’s casino boss screwed him over in a business deal. Affronted, Ocean’s crew decide to take him for everything he’s got. For once, it’s not about winning everything, as making sure the other guy loses everything. What this adds up to is a series of complex cons to make sure that the casino’s grand opening breaks the bank.

This means several additions to the cast, including a criminally underused Eddie Izzard and a typical hard-luck turn from David Paymer.

The marquee names are poorly treated, however. Pacino’s Willy Bank is more clown fish than shark. Despite all the Godfather references, his meeting with Andy Garcia is disappointingly limp. We only know he’s tough because he’s Al Pacino, rather than from anything in the script.

Worse is Ellen Barkin, whose supposedly icy enforcer Sponder comes across like Cameron Diaz’s halfwit aunt. Olga Sosnovska’s Debbie is much more interesting. Her role should have been expanded to take over Sponder’s, giving a slinky frisson to the Ocean/Rusty/Linus troika and perhaps tempting Ocean and Rusty from the straight and narrow with their respective partners (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts, neither of whom show up here).

Julian Sands is also criminally limp in a role that David Thewlis, say, would have seized by the scruff of the neck (were all the decent British actors too busy with Potter…?)

More knockabout than previous entries, 13 virtually invites you to disengage your brain and just feel the comedy, as the dialogue and story is frequently impenetrable until the second viewing. Fortunately it is pretty funny, and pretty charming, but despite the complexity of the various scams the whole thing still tends to flabby – just like the leads.

el topo

10 06 2007

Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

While it is thoroughgoing bonkers, don’t be put off by the film’s mental reputation. There is a logic to the narrative, albeit an elliptical, right-angled unlogic. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the Western, but filtered through the unconscious of a child, or a madman.

El Topo, a black-clad gunslinger, crosses the desert with his young son and avenges the massacre of a town by some giggling, scuzzy bandits led by a powdered Colonel. He leaves his son with monks and returns to the desert with a woman who will only love him if he is the best gunfighter. So he takes on four master gurus of the gun to prove himself. Shot and left for dead, he is revered as a god by a group of deformed exiles trapped in a cave. Upon waking from his coma, years later, El Topo decides to dig a tunnel so the cave-dwelling freaks can be free. To finance this effort he and his dwarf lover entertain the corrupt citizens of a nearby town. Predictably disaster and death are never far away, in an apocalyptic climax that would have had even Peckinpah scratching his head.

Many Western conventions and tropes are present, but often skewed, exaggerated and rendered abstract. The central figure is a black-clad Man With No Name. Outlaws are filthy, lascivious and bestial. Authority figures are corrupt: The Colonel is vain andmegalomanical, the town Marshals are obese sadists (and homosexual predators). The townsfolk are incestuous, slavedealing degenerates.

What’s worse is the townsfolk commit the ultimate sin of hypocrisy. The women of the town call themselves the “Decency League” but appear in the mise-en-scene of the bordello, enslaving, molesting and then sentencing black servants to death. The menfolk live in fear of the women but conceal an orgiastic speakeasy. The local preacher leads the crowds in games of Russian Roulette, which is to him a show rather than a religious service.

By contrast, El Topo, a stone killer, is an honest man. He avenges the massacre of a village with no personal motive for gain. Later he takes up the cause of the freakish exiles as a shot at personal redemption for his duplicity in killing the gunfighting masters.

Peckinpah would have approved of the portrayal of women: hypocritical grotesques or beautiful, seductive betrayers.

The characterisation of the guru-like gunslingers of the desert gives the film a spiritual angle that sets it apart from the nihilism of the spaghetti Westerns El Topo closely resembles, giving it the feel of an Asian fairy tale. There’s a messianic subtext as well: the Colonel asks El Topo “Who are you to judge me?” and gets the reply “I am God.” He shows the power to bring forth water from the desert, a power he bestows on the woman after ravishing her.

After defeating the masters, El Topo cries out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? “, only for the women to inflict the stigmata upon him in a gunfight.

But later, when he is revered as a god, he denies it. “I am just a man” he says. A man near impervious to bullets, but yet a man.

It’s no surprise that Jodorowsky went into comics later. The desert setting, oblique dialogue and grotesque characters lend the film an otherworldly, post-apocalyptic aesthetic. El Topo himself is a visual treat, whip thin in black leather and hawk-like eyes.

There’s a delight in visual detail like a bandit wearing three ever-smaller sombreros, or the graphic design simplicity of the eye symbol on the church, or El Topo’s incongruous umbrella. The character of the Double Man is pure visual audacity: a man with no arms carries a man with no legs on his back, thus forming a whole being.

The Mole. A tale of man becoming a god of the gun. No surprise he loses his humanity and must earn it once again. No surprise it ends in fire and flame.

spider-man 3 (sam raimi 2007)

4 06 2007

Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
James Franco

It’s very brisk, innit? Plot point/plot point/plot point/fight scene/plot point etc. The acting is delivered in a broad, almost old-fashioned kind of way, that, along with the slapstick/slapdash attempts at comedy remind you that this is, in fact, a kid’s movie. The musical interludes (I know! WTF?!) and effects sequences are so disconnected from the actual human acting bits that they feel imported from a whole other film. Quite a weird film.

There’s too many contrivances and coincidences. The Venom symbiote comes from space: so a meteor just plops down near where Peter (Maguire) and MJ (Dunst) happen to be. The plot calls for MJ to become disillusioned with Peter: so they just happen to bump into Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a restaurant. The plot calls for Peter to realise what he has become under the influence of the symbiote: he and Gwen just happen to turn up at the bar where MJ now works.

Worst of all, when the plot calls for Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock (a man with a number of legitimate dramatic reasons to follow Spider-Man around) to bond with the symbiote, we are asked to believe he has suddenly found religion, and has chosen, of all the churches in New York, the same one as Peter Parker.

The characters are subservient to the plot structure, and the plot subservient to the effects. It should be completely the other way around.

The special effects aren’t even that captivating (with the notable exception of the stunning realisation of the Sandman). The big action set-pieces are weightless and cartoony, like video-game interludes. The change between ‘real’ acting and CGI fight is so marked, it’s like the grain change in old sitcoms when the characters step outside the soundstage.

Worse, the effects wranglers mistake dizzyingly fast movement across incomprehensibly large spaces for spectacle, so it’s hard to see what’s going on, and harder to care.

A fight in the subway tunnels – when at one point Spider-Man grinds Sandman’s head to powder against the side of an onrushing subway train – is the only point where the excitement and drama of two people in conflict is enhanced by the effects, rather than the scrap acting as a showcase for the digital trickery of cartoon characters bouncing about a cartoon storyboard city.

Even an effects-light stand-up fistfight between Parker and Franco’s vengeful Osborn feels overedited and overcooked, and would have benefited from a Bourne-style stripping down.

And why, exactly, is James Cromwell even here? As with Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano’s thankless appearances in Daredevil, maybe Cromwell has one patrician eye on the future franchise paychecks.

James Franco’s performance is ten times as seductive as Maguire’s, and spending half the film grinning like a head-injured four-year-old is a waste of his slow-burning charisma. Having the whey-faced gimlet-eyed Kirsten Dunst within fifty miles of him is a waste of my time and yours.

Thomas Hayden Church is wicked, though. The Sandman effects are consistently gobsmacking, combining with his new granite physique to create a memorable character through the synergy of acting and effects.

Meanwhile Topher Grace’s camping-it-up works well but Venom’s rubberiness doesn’t, while Maguire’s doughy Peter Parker seems like a completely different entity to the loose-limbed Spider-Man.

But forget the kid’s stuff. The big question is, as ever: does it work as an allegory for Iraq (another one!)? Of course it does (doesn’t everything?). Six years after the Twin Towers fell off-screen and were digitally erased from in the first Spider-Man film, the threequel is all about the danger of revenge as a long-term motivation.

The black suit represents vengeance. Vengeance feels good; but it transforms the wearer into an unrecognisable monster. And anyway, the act being avenged wasn’t as simple as we thought. Vengeance is simple: black and no white. Real life is in colour.

It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man’s triumphant return to the good – in red and blue – sees him swoop past an enormous US flag, while the closing voiceover talks about personal choice. Hurray!

So, not exactly great, but with yawnsome effects comes pleasing weirdness.

doctor who 3.8: 42

29 05 2007

Ironic that, just as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine echoes elements of the Doctor Who episode The End of The World, 42 turns up and is basically Sunshine with the brakes off.

If Sunshine wasn’t so fresh in my mind, I might have enjoyed 42 a bit more. Sure, it’s solid and entertaining, and holds its own in visual and effects terms with the much larger-budgeted film, but the breathless real-time gimmick doesn’t really nail you to the floor. The main problem yet again is that it’s just too reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen before: not just Sunshine, but last season’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Both those episodes generated more tension with slow-burning atmospherics than 42 does with all its sweaty histrionics.

As such, the highlight is the slowest, stillest moment, as Martha falls into the sun while the Doctor looks on despairingly. It’s a moment of real anguish that kicks proceedings into top gear.

The following scenes with the Doctor possessed have potential – the Doctor as the villain of the piece! – but instead the momentum dissipates as the Doctor flops about looking ill. A missed opportunity.

I quite liked the pub quiz gags, but it didn’t seem the most logical security measure… Just another example of bad spaceship design, which to me encompasses anything that has no basis in logic and exists solely to create drama. Like a handle… on the outside of the spaceship. On the outside… andjuuust out of arm’s reach. What idiot designed this spaceship?

Churlish to question such things, perhaps. But it’s all tied up in the suspension of disbelief. I’ll buy time travelling aliens, hospitals on the moon, and zombie scarecrows, as long as the door handles are in places that make sense. It’s the trivialities of everyday life that sell the big fictions.

Environmental message aside, it’s all on the surface. None of the subtexts and ambiguity that made The Satan Pit so interesting. Passably entertaining, but hardly the answer to life, the universe and everything.

this is england (shane meadows 2007)

29 05 2007

Thomas Turgoose
Stephen Graham
Jo Hartley

Best film of the year. Yeah, I said it.