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There are so few films of distinction about gay relationships that one which is even half insightful gets lauded as something greater than it actually is, and such a film is 'Weekend'. This slight affair covers the 48 hour period where two guys pick each other up in a bar, rapidly develop an emotional attachment for each other, spill out some of the details of their somewhat alienated lives and then. Well, I won't spoil the plot. Not that there is a plot in the conventional sense. Which is my gripe. The normal standards by which we measure feature films when we visit the cinema tend, as gay men, to be lowered just because it's a film dealing with 'gay issues'. Engaged as I am to see gay men talking about gay men (and in this film the main topic of conversation between these guys is that they are gay men) I actually like things to happen in films. I like plot twists and subtle characterisations, memorable lines, striking shots. Weekend has none of these things. But it does have plenty of that quality that seems to hang over all gay movies. It has angst - lots of it. We are reminded in almost every shot what a burden it is to be gay. How lonely, how weighty, how alienated and how painful. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it's not. One can redeem Weekend in various ways. You can say it follows to an extent the rules of the Dogma 95 movement in its unrelenting realism, and the writer/director has striven to get a sense of authenticity in the nature of the two guy's awkward emotional exploration, lacklustre sex and bad quality instant coffee. You might also call is subtle and thought-provoking in its drawn-out wordy scenes and oblique camera angles. You might even say it's the gay 'Brief Encounter' if you connect with the two boxed-in main characters. But actually, in truth, it's just a rather boring movie about two characters who happen to be gay and don't do very movie.
Star Trek (2009)
Rebooting the matinée
Part and parcel of the PR bandwagon for 'Star Trek' were reports of Trekkers (a devotee corrected my previous use of the term 'Trekkie') weeping in the aisles, collapsing in ecstacy etc. at preview screenings. I suppose that's to be expected. It's been a long time since a movie featured the original characters and there was always something slightly antiseptic about the TNG cast and the movies spawned from their series. Such was the pre-release feedback from that constituency I was expecting to be blown away, rather than, as happened, leaving the cinema entertained and engaged, with slight nagging doubts. The most major of these is how cavalierly this reboot rewrites the entire Star Trek universe, details of which, of course, cannot be revealed. It also uses the laziest of sci-fi clichés in order to twist a plot around. When you see the movie you will understand instantly what I mean by this. Otherwise, it's most pleasant aspects are the rich, warm tones of its cinematography and retro stylings when it comes to the likes of uniforms, 'ray guns' and starship interiors which appear to feature copious amounts of pipework. This is as much a homage to an earlier generation of science fiction movies as to the original Star Trek TV series. One irritation is Abrams love of shaky camera work, which sometimes, when combined with overwhelming pyrotechnics makes it difficult to see what's actually going on. This is where JJ Abrams has fixed his vision. The reboot aims at recreating the intimacy of the TV series, dodging behind rocks and acrobatic hand-to-hand combat rather than the 'epic' and cerebral tone introduced by the movies of the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately the plot is not that strong. As in other recent 'reboots' of Batman and Superman, the initial exposition of story drags a little as characters are introduced. I have my doubts as to whether the actors are able to either inhabited these much-loved characters effectively and also give them new life. In this first movie, Spock and Kirk aside, perhaps, they seem to be pale imitations. Simon Pegg's Scotty, especially, was a disappointment. The thing about Star Trek is that it's such an assured franchise, the producers know they can refine and enrich their re-imagined ST universe over several more films, and this one gives them a relatively strong platform to do this from.
Pitch perfect 70s political biopic
'Milk' follows the brief political career of controversial and charismatic San Francisco gay politician, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978. Milk has since become an icon of gay political activism and a defining figure in the monumental civil rights changes of the 1970s for gay men and women - though he was not universally regarded by his peers during the time.
Sean Penn offers an awesome performance of humanity and sheer acting craft in depicting a character who is only off-screen for seconds, while contemporary newsreels intersperse the dramatic action to provide the historical narrative context. Milk is engaging, lovable but flawed and self-absorbed.
More detail of his complex character is related in Randy Shilt's book 'Mayor of Castro Street' which is an essential companion if you are drawn into the story of the man and the issues. I cannot see why you wouldn't be, as it's a fascinating story of time and place.
The Castro itself is the other star not on the bill. This compact district of Eureka Valley west San Francisco effectively became the world's first gay ghetto back in the early to mid-1970s, in an episode that made it a haven for unhappy,alienated and horny(!) homosexuals from across the USA whilst at the same place dispossessing its traditional Irish-American population. The film tries, in the brief space it has, to document this social upheaval as it plays out.
Anyone that knows the Castro (as a visitor - guilty!) can see quite a few scenes were filmed on it, adding a piquancy to the story and another example of the love lavished on the film by its cast, crew and its director Gus Van Sant. Personally, I dislike many of his films finding them elliptical and pretentious, but 'Milk' is pretty straightforward and has a mainstream feel. Maybe a little too much like a 'studio' movie, but at least the stylistics don't get in the way of the story telling.
Probably most astonishing is how recent these events actually though some of the sentiments expressed feel they come from another time completely. But then, as it was still technically illegal in the early 1970s to serve alcohol to a homosexual in a San Francisco bar, should we be surprised.
300 is at once mesmerising and uncompromising. It is a stylistic and creative vision which will knowingly be hated by some, but is consistent throughout. The most controversial aspect of the film is its undeniable post-911 political overtones, explicit right up to the final declaration of the final battle between 'mysticism and tyranny', reason and freedom.
Those decrying it for its 'cheesy' dialog and 'lack of plot' absurdly miss the point. Many of the lines of dialog are lifted directly from Herodotus and Plutarch - blame ancient literature not Hollywood.
300 is hewn in the epic tradition, not so much the 1950s Charlton Heston kind, but in the original Greek poetic tradition, where the actions are heroic, the odds multiplied, the lessons stark and the characters dazzling. 300 faithfully follows the tradition on all of these counts. In addition, the cultural observations on Spartan life are in many cases supported by contemporary accounts, mostly external as Sparta had a strict non-literary tradition.
In historical reality, it was clear the Leonidas last stand was as much a tool of Greek national propaganda, in order to rouse the fragmented states to defy Xerxes' divide and conquer strategy.
It's ironic, perhaps intentional that a Scots actor, Gerard Butler is chosen to play the heroic role very similar to that of William Wallace in Braveheart, though Leonidas is much less the reluctant hero.
There has been considerable complaint about the lack of accuracy in the depiction of battle - a criticism also laid at Braveheart, which took massive license in that department. True, the stylised slo-mo orgy of violent action bears little relation to historical Spartan battle tactics, but uses no less hyperbole than the historian Herodotus himself (the 'Father of Lies') would have approved, had he the budget. History back then was a form of political art, not the preserve of accountants.
Viewing 300 through the prism of our current age does make it seem risible and clichéd, but remove that layer of judgement and understand the integrity behind it and its a remarkable artefact.
Dead Silence (2007)
One for the dummies
It makes sense to give Dead Silence these three marks because I did watch to the end. There are many others films from which I've hopped well before the denouement, so there has to be some residual attraction that merits a view to the end credits. I can't for the life of my think what it is. From the producers of what started as the thought-provoking and original SAW, and rapidly became a derivative set of money-grabbing sequels, comes something equally derivative but from an earlier era. Dead Silence has the production values of a mid-budget slasher, with the sensibilities of a Hammer movie from the mid-60s. It is so utterly cheesy in its choice of motifs, it's kitchen-sink use of moonlight graveyards, Gothic mansions, foggy lakes and haunted theatres. There is also a whiff of the restless spirits/harrowed corpses of the Ring series. If the plot were not bad enough, the acting and script drive an extremely wooden stake through the heart of the movie. There's Donnie Walhberg's hammy cop with his ridiculous electric shaving fetish and the panopoly of stereotype creepy townsfolk. So much of the time what the characters were saying didn't make any sense, and the embarrassing attempt at a familial sub-plot - I hate my daddy because he sent me to boarding school is toe-curlingly handled. The leaden dialogue, predictable set-pieces and cardboard characters make it as sophisticated, and as scary, as a live-action episode of Scooby Doo. I am only disappointed that old man Withers didn't do it, but I suppose old Mary Shaw will have to do.
Tedious hagiographic ensemble piece
What is it about L.A and ensemble films? The Player, Short Cuts, Crash...Emilio Estevez makes a ham-fisted attempt to fashion a memoriam to the ill-fated brother of JFK using the multi-strand plot and character technique associated with Robert Altman. But Estevez clearly lacks Altman's ability to maintain interest and build character through the use of trivialities, revelations and encounters as the film progresses.
The premise is the 'last day in the life of' Bobby Kennedy as he campaigns in the California Primary of 1968. Except, it's the goings on in the Ambassador Hotel, where he will be shot that evening, that feature rather than the character itself. It's a structural device, perhaps even influenced by the obvious and somewhat alienating reverence that Estevez has for Kennedy.
Excerpts of speeches and public reactions to his visit are inter-cut into the movie, that almost portray him as this Ghandi-like presence, on the cusp of commencing a national transformation that will not only end the war in Vietnam but apparently bring an end to 'hatred and violence' and a new sense of community. What is overlaid across the film with the intent of being inspirational, often comes across as simplistic. Estevez simply does not have a sufficiently detached critical sense to connect to more sceptical viewers. L.A liberals and ageing hippies will of course by weeping into their popcorn buckets.
However, there are a couple of nice turns, which you inevitably get in a film with such a cast. Mentionably, Sharon Stone, whose jaded beautician provides a relatable, pathetic character amongst a range of cyphers who are basically inserted to represent the body politic - old and young, black, white and Hispanic, druggie and idealist.
The final portion is compelling and well shot but the rest of the movie, despite it's attempt to portray America poised on a knifedge, as Kennedy would have it, lacks zest.
Children of Men (2006)
Liberal guilt mates with Science Fiction
The original P.D. James book about an apocalyptic global loss of fertility has been hijacked by Cuaron to produce a contemporary satire on Iraq, globalisation and terrorism, in a way I found crude, simplistic and intrusive. The white fertile heroine of the novel has become black, purely to make a point about race and immigration, an issue that saturates the content of the film and overpowers the central intriguing premise of a world without children. It's an ironic inversion of the apparent liberal ideal of colour-blindess, and made even more ironic by the portrayal of the equal dogma of Left and Right portrayed by the fascist regime and the revolutionary Fishes. Cuaron has purged his text of situations and character traits that don't suit his political agenda. True, he does make a pacier, more visually engaging film than the original book would have offered, and there are some tour de force sequences - the car reversing scene and a very Kubrick-esquire urban warfare scene. But I found the constant equivalence of Nazism to the current iraq conflict and security situation insulting to the intelligence. A man stands hooded like the Abu Ghraib prisoner, illegal immigrants are detained by the dept of 'Homeland Security' and most offensively, the adverts asking the public to be vigilant about immigrants are the same as those used in the wake of the London Tube bombings. Cuaron seems overburdened by liberal guilt and anger, which he indulges in two hours at my expense. And that of Universal - the film unsurprisingly recouped less than half of its production budget in the US, given its sentiments. Maybe it did better in Iran - if indeed a permit was granted for it to be shown. Cuaron doesn't need to look into the future to find fascist regimes. They're here and now: unfortunately, he's looking in the wrong hemisphere.
I cannot decide whether Hostel is a commentary on the history of European torture and an analogue to the Holocaust, or a nasty, sadistic, cynical and juvenile mix of soft-porn and gore designed to appeal to, and up the ante for the 'Saw' cinema-goer market. Who knows what went through the mind of its creator. Reviewers comment on the realism of the effects. Well it was realistic enough for me. How do they know what the bottom portion of a leg separated by a chainsaw looks like unless they've seen it? What is obvious is that Hostel uses a very American POV about Europe, to the point of satire. The Czech Republic, a perfectly charming recent addition to the European union is depicted as a grimy, post-Industrial hellhole generally populated by the criminal, insane, perverted or a combination of all three. One thing to consider is that torture, an unavoidable part of our European heritage - and now our heritage industry - is an aspect of life that America as a nation, is too young to have experienced. Of course, now they are making up for lost time, and the irony is that some former East European states are giving them the facility to engage in it. Then again, who knows? Also, torture, beyond its role as an instrument of the state and ideology, but as a hobby pursued with a complete lack of humanity, has happened within our lifetime, where some of the events depicted here, may well have happened. Is this film making us remember that, or forgetting it? Certainly, anyone who regards the blowtorching of an eyeball as entertainment, has, in my opinion, deep issues. Likewise projectile vomiting brought on by sheer terror, and other episodes of voyeuristic sadism. I found all of those deeply disturbing to watch, as much as because they had nothing to do with the plot, but were designed to be enjoyed in their own right - to give the viewer a rush. Sadism one step removed. Sensation has to be the lowest form of artistic merit. I just hope some viewer isn't inspired to try and go one better in terms of realism.
The Break-Up (2006)
Breaking up is hard to do - well
Two other movies came to mind during the course of the Break Up. 'War of the Roses', naturally and, you might think bizarrely, 'A Streetcar named Desire'. There are definitely shades of Stanley Kowalski in Vince Vaughn's Gary Grobawski, and as Tennesse Williams' did 50 years ago, his Polish heritage is used as a short-hand for boorishness and chauvinism. The same poker game features, and if Stanley had access to an Xbox 360, we can assume he would have spent hours on it while Stella left his beers on the coffee table. Rather than shaping up to be a standard battle of the sexes (he's too lazy, she's too controlling) turns out to be the story of a woman who has made the fatal mistake of falling for the charms of that breed of noughties man child, who are little more than toned down remakes of their 1950s forebears. This realisation for the audience, and eventuality herself explains the refreshing ending, which teases you with the very potential of it being utterly conventional before both parties walk in opposite directions. Oh, and is it funny? In parts, in a restrained way, although those expecting lots of slapstick derived from two people in a state of deep dislike sharing an apartment will find it doesn't deliver in that vein. However, it was one relationship I was prepared to stick with until the bitter end.
The Island (2005)
Marooned on a sea of superficiality
The Island reinforces just how bad a film director Michael Bay can be. The previous low water mark was his ability to turn the most traumatic and emotive event in American history (the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour) into a three hour snoozefest.
The Island is not anywhere near as soporific, but is deeply banal. Somewhere deep in its core there is an interesting sci-fi idea and perhaps even an ethical dilemma to be addressed. But its smothered under endless pop-video stylings, an insipid screenplay, interminable and overblown action sequences and actors struggling to offer performances and create characters in the director's entirely two-dimensional universe.
Bay is the apotheosis of the bad director, the prime role in the malign ecosystem of American cinema with bad films being created to feed the appetite of audiences conditioned to bad, but expensive movies. The tradition of the blockbuster began in the 1970s, when the movies retained some measure of substance and the director's were somewhat talented and idealistic. 'Product' like The Island can only be the product of cynical, tired and unchallenged minds. Having said all that, the film had as bad a run at the American box office as everywhere else, so perhaps audiences retain a modicum of good taste.
The product placement begins almost before the initial credits have rolled as Lincoln Six Echo rummages around for his missing Puma tennis shoe. We see he appears to be living in the near future in a post-apocalyptic refuge which appears to be a hybrid of a David Lloyd health Club and a city centre shopping mall.
Inmates are subject to dietary, exercise and strict no touching rules, ostensibly for their own health but, as eventually revealed, because they are nothing more than organ donors to be harvested for rich clients as required.
That's the interesting bit over with. Inevitably, they are able to escape about half way through the movie (the envy) to find they are actually living in a bunker somewhere in the desert and a short maglev train ride to L.A. Why maglev trains stop at one-horse desert towns is not made clear. Whatever the explanation, it's more plausible than the idea that an industrial holocaust on this scale could go undetected whilst apparently staffed casually by locals.
The second half of the movie is a series of very long, headache- inducing action sequences which, predictably, the pair survive. Ewan McGregor also has a narcissistic episode when meeting his clone double - an opportunity the film can't be bothered to make more of. I have no issues with action movies, but can I have a bun with my burger? The ending requires, of course, that the whole dystopian edifice is torn down, providing another FX extravaganza. Personally, I thought the whole model-based sequence for Logan's Run in 1976 was more interesting to look at.
The Island steals heavily from Logan's Run, and THX 1138 and is in many ways as much a pastiche of movie dystopian features as it is a rehash of the style used by Bay in previous movies.
And there is no Island. It's just an illusion.