56 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Weekend (II) (2011)
Lost Weekend
5 December 2011
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.
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Star Trek (2009)
Rebooting the matinée
12 May 2009
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.
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Milk (I) (2008)
Pitch perfect 70s political biopic
23 February 2009
'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.
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300 (2006)
Laconically bold
11 July 2008
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.
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Dead Silence (2007)
One for the dummies
30 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Bobby (2006)
Tedious hagiographic ensemble piece
28 January 2008
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.
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Liberal guilt mates with Science Fiction
28 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Hostel (2005)
26 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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The Break-Up (2006)
Breaking up is hard to do - well
19 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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The Island (2005)
Marooned on a sea of superficiality
12 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Sunshine (2007)
Star turn with a few blind spots
7 April 2007
Those in doubt of miracles need, every day, just look upwards. For the last 5 billion years it has burned with a constancy, and may do for the same number again, that is the source of life for almost every living thing on this planet (and for all we know the universe). The basis of Sunshine is a 'what if' scenario where that light in the sky we take for granted should start to fail.

The reasons or consequences for the sun's failing light is not within the scope of Sunshine. There are no apocalyptic visions of earth and humanity a la Armageddon or Deep Impact. This is not a blockbuster in that vein. However, it is very much a homage to an earlier generation of sci-fi movies, inspired by the literature of Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov and others and in classic movies like 2001, Silent Running and Alien.

Sunshine takes you on a metaphysical journey in the claustrophobic environment of a spacecraft on a rather desperate mission to reignite the sun with a huge atomic bomb, which comprises all the nuclear fissile material left on earth and represents humanity's last throw of the dice for survival. Initially the crew have little to contemplate apart from the final messages they will send home and their chances of success, whilst studying with fascination the disc of the sun itself as the grow closer.

However, the discovery of a signal from the beacon of a previous failed attempt leads them to take choices which have consequences sending their mission spiralling out of control.

Sunshine has much in common with Boyle and Garland's previous sci-fi collaboration of 28 days later: a clever scenario, a plot driven by character exploration rather than pure action, imaginative art design, a strong reference to a previous genre - in that case zombie movies, and a weaker sequence near the end than the film's beginning deserves.

However, I found Sunshine a more enjoyable experience due to some fantastic effects and genuinely tense sequences. Whereas 28 days later's experiment with digital video was interesting but ultimately unattractive in a cinematic context, Sunshine has some beautiful composited shots, neat computer graphics that look like computer graphics and a stream of loving, mesmeric depictions of the Sun itself, which make it quite plausible that certain members of the crew would sit and gaze at it for hours.

Somewhat less plausible is the science - both that the Sun would die in this way, and that a bomb that we could muster, however gigantic, would have any effect.

Another aspect I struggle with is just how homage can stray into pastiche or downright plagiarism. Their is no doubt from where the screenplay derives its inspiration. There are plot sequences lifted almost directly from 2001, Alien, Aliens, Mission to Mars, Solaris and a number of others. The film however manages to blend them into a coherent whole and sustain the tension until the climax, although the final action setpiece is almost a direct rerun of 28 Days Later's mansion sequence.

I went to see it on opening night and I noticed some people leaving the cinema, obviously having go on the slightly misleading all-action thriller premise of the trailer shown on TV. But if you like your science fiction intellectual and beautiful you will want to experience Sunshine.
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Da Vinci in da U.S.A
28 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
National Treasure is so obviously inspired by the puzzle caper thriller phenomenon that was The Da Vinci Code, but without the main problems that would (and did) affect its reception in the Mid West: setting most of the story in cheese-eating surrender monkey land (France) and aggravating the god-botherers with various heresies about the Christian Church. But you know what, it's a much better movie because it knows its purpose is to entertain, not necessarily to reveal the supposed greatest cover up in human history. Nicholas Cage once again plays his reluctant, slightly unattractive but surprisingly adept action hero as he aims to convince the authorities that someone will be able to steal the 1776 American Declaration of Independence by, well, stealing the Declaration of Independence.

It's after this heist that the pace takes off. Cage has to stay one step ahead of the British, neatly echoing the root of the story, deliciously played as a bunch of working class English thugs led by Sean Bean, and also the law.

The chase leads the characters through a Da Vinci esquire series of codes, cyphers, secret passages and famous (to Americans at least) locations, with a smattering of real and imagined history. Curious to see the freemasons for once depicted as chivalrous heroes rather than a shifty bunch of overweight glad-handing businessmen.

Of course the delicious irony in this is that the treasure is not hidden on the back of the Declaration, it IS the declaration - the jewel of the 18th century Enlightenment, the spark that ignited the lamps of rationality, democracy, the division of powers and a secular state. The Declaration is America's great gift to humanity, and the story that the country 'without history' could also be hoarding a great stash of antiquity too is a delightful and enjoyable fantasy.
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Sumptuous Asian Cinderella
28 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Memoirs of a Geisha is very much a western film which basks in the spectacle of oriental exotica, as a backdrop for an archetypal western tale, the Cinderella Myth. The poor downtrodden girl, Chiyo, who emerges from poverty, destitution, sibling antagonism and domestic enslavement to beauty, acclaim and eventually claiming her 'Prince' against all the expectations of society, is the geisha of the title. Where Cinders wowed the ball with her pumpkin coach and crinoline, Sayuri arrives on the biggest pair of platforms you've ever seen and brings the house down with her dance as 'Japanese girl caught in a snowstorm'. Almost every scene along that path is painfully beautiful, evocative of what we think prewar Japan should be in terms of its paper houses, paper lanterns, little bridges and narrow streets. It's Japanese in the Western mind's eye in the way that Willow Pattern is Chinese. But while it may be unacceptably simplistic to some, it does bring out the undeniable difference in the world view in the formal and philosophical cultures of east and west. One element of the story I liked is that the whole impact of WWII, running concurrent to the story is completely obscured until it is over. Then the geisha is resurrected with a new purpose - as an attractive cypher for Japanese culture, literally a hostess for social and economic rehabilitation. It serves as an explanation of how we cannot quite relate to this vocation without seeing it as a respectable prostitute, because the film suggests it mutated into that at a time of national crisis. A bit long, a bit slow, but spiced up with a terrific performance from Li Gong as Sayuri's unbalanced Geisha nemesis, Memoirs is thought-provoking eye candy.
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Casino Royale (2006)
Greener, leaner and meaner Bond
23 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
We're living in a post-postmodern age: Post-totalitarian, post-911, post-Austin Powers...What to do with a franchise which had developed into an exercise of biennial money-printing and which engendered huge affection but also increasing comic irony with the movie-going public. The danger signs were there: 2003 Die Another Day took a bluf, self-parodying approach to the puns, gadgets and doomsday weapons lampooned by Mike Myers and got away with it due to slickness, spend, star turns from the likes of Halle Berry and the fading testosterone charms of Pierce Brosnan. But it felt like a last hoorah, and self parody can bring short term laughs in return for long term damage.

What they did was go back to basics. Take a new Bond back to the start of the story, strip away a large amount of the character's cartoon aspect, strip out the saggy excesses of the plots, characters and set-pieces and big up the rawer, less family-friendly aspects of international espionage.

Daniel Craig's Bond is a cruel man, with cruel eyes and he does nasty things to people on screen. This is not a character to engender familiar affection, but respect. As befits going back to the beginning of the story there is unrealised ambition, but also elements of self-doubt.

The script also allows him to make some big mistakes at several key points, some are based on judgement and experience, others plain naivety. But Bond bounces back here as he's always done, but more often using his fists and his malicious streak rather than some outrageous invention designed to get him out of trouble.

This is a Bond much more of an outsider, still inwardly socially awkward despite the developing veneer - 'there are dinner suits and dinner suits' observes Vesper Lynd sardonically, prodding that sense of residual inferiority absent from all this character's previous incarnations.

All of this is good. Much more of the iron fist than Brosnan's velvet glove, or worse, Dalton's limp civil-service handshake. It chimes in with a new sense of purpose and necessity that accompanies the concept of 'secret service' which has arisen since the growth in global terrorism. Since the return of Bond in the post-communist 1990s, the film's script had previously poked fun at Bond as being a 'relic' of the cold war, a silly establishment anachronism to be indulged. Suicide bombs, clandestine weapons programs and assassinations have turned on its head this view of spies and spying.

As terrorism is the underlying thread of threat in the film it is at once topical and believable. But in that there's a problem, at least from its appreciation on the pure level of popcorn entertainment. Bond villains have really lost their ambition - where once they planned to hold the world to ransom or even start a new Master Race in space, the height of their ambition is to fleece a few poker players in a tacky Yugoslavian resort hotel.

'If you fail, our government will have knowingly financed terrorism', chimes Vesper. Not exactly the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, and the stakes of the game are $150m. About the price of an NHS hospital, and the velodrome for the upcoming Olympics.

The set-pieces have been reigned in too. The opening free-running sequence is inventive and impressive, and the airport runway scene is fun. Unintentional satire too, given the obvious allusion to the prototype and the Airbus A380. Blowing up their new plane could lead the company to bankruptcy! Yes, and delays due to wiring problems can do the same...

After that the film distinctly loses pace which only accentuates its length. There was a palpable sense about 15 minutes from the end that the audience had had enough. It was a bold move to set such a long sequence of the film at a poker table, and it is relevant to the title, but there was just a few too many hands played. And at the end, after all the chips have been played I was expecting an underwater lair to emerge from the Adriatic, full of boiler-suited goons. But no, it was just a poker competition and, well done James, you won.

The ending gives a strong sense of linkage into a future episode, where the organisation for which Le Chiffre is working will reveal itself in more detail. Maybe there's a lair somewhere after all.
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Dressed for success
1 October 2006
Something rare and beautiful has come out of the film adaptation of Lauren Wiesberger's roman a clef novel about working as a PA on a high fashion magazine: we have a new camp classic.

The Devil Wears Prada will sit alongside 'All About Eve', 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' and, of course, 'Mommie Dearest' on the DVD shelves of gay men everywhere, to be quoted reverently and brought out for themed parties and such like.

Also, relief for Meryl Streep. After years of trying to shake her somewhat dowdy and severe image as an actress through various comedy misfires, she proves she can truly nail a comic lead by turning in a performance at once so effortless and so refined as Anna Wintour's wardrobe. Streep, as Priestley, incidentally is turned out like Cruella De Ville at a Versace fire sale.

It is in achieving this flawless level of studied hauteur and languid disdain as Miranda Priestley in delivering every sentence and every withering look as 'Runway''s iconic Editor-in-Chief, that will see Streep take her place on a pedestal along Bette, Liza, Barbara and Faye, and see Miranda Priestley ascend to the pantheon of great camp characters.

Everything else pales. The other leads are there to accessorize, which they do dutifully and with the minimum of distraction. Hathaway's character wrestles with her work ethic, her sanity, her common decency and the desire to 'get on' and at its most serious level 'The Devil..' is a study on how psychological and emotional manipulation can be so skilfully brought to bear to make someone surrender their free will : Andrea initially believes her bid to conform and impress Miranda, in some way, a challenge to her boss, likely to 'prove' herself, whereas it is very much just part of the process of moral capitulation that begins 'when you put on that first pair of Jimmy Choos'.
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The Queen (2006)
HM nails HM
16 September 2006
The single aspect of 'The Queen' that enabled it to break out of the confines of TV drama originally envisaged for it into theatrical release is Helen Mirren's performance as Her Majesty. She combines powerfully the familiar and iconic image we have of the stoic, stern-faced and incorruptible monarch with an interpretation of what might be lying below the surface of that steely exterior. She plays it brilliant both for sympathy and comic effect in equal measure. The span of the film encompasses the remarkable and traumatic week that immediately followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, where the Queen arguably faced the greatest 'threat' to her reign, in the form of anger and disappointment at her apparent refusal to emote with the public over the loss of a very troubled (and troublesome) ex daughter-in-law. Whereas TV drama would focus on a forensic examination of the events and motivations, 'The Queen' goes further in placing this event in the context of the Queen's entire life, her assumptions and values and suggesting it forced her to re-evaluate her understanding of what 'The British People', which appears to be the single most valued relationship in her life, expect of her. Heavy stuff, but the film motors along nicely bouyed up by some delicious comedy (The Queen Mother having the details of Diana's funeral - bastardised from her own plans relayed to her) and dramatic tension focused on the exchanges between the ageing Queen and her insufferably young Prime Minister (call me Tony) which comes as close to brinkmanship as royal protocol allows. The portrayal of Blair by Michael Sheen, who also played him for Brown/Blair drama-documentary 'The Deal' is interesting. It has now de rigeur to portray Blair as opportunistic and unprincipled, but here he is used to represent a view which is broadly supportive of the monarchy as constitutional concept, but earnestly wishes it to 'modernise'. Back in 1997, with Blair elected on a wave of poopulism there was some genuine fear that the monarchy and the Royal Family specifically were in for a taste of some very radical modernisation down the line. Events proved otherwise, despite the odd ritual humiliation of the Queen having to sing Auld Langs Syne and play to a more politically correct agenda, the Palace has been left much alone. Some of the later dialogue has been given serendipitous irony as the 'Teflon Tony' of the film's period is now experiencing first-hand the true vagaries of popularity, with factions within his party now attempting to oust him as suddenly as the Queen predicts may happen to all leaders. It is highly likely she will still be around, as Queen, to ask his immediate successor and others whether they wish to form Her government.
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Dead again
27 August 2006
George A Romero was an iconoclast when he first realised monster movie as social commentary (or is it the reverse?) back in the late 60s with Night of the Living Dead. Since then he's replayed the riff three times, with successively larger budgets, cinematic ambition and audience anticipation. While Land of the Dead is indeed watchable and mostly entertaining it is not worth of the acclaim given to the first two films. The film is obviously set some years after the history of the previous films when the recently dead began resurrecting as zombies and began devouring/infecting the living with catastrophic effects for civilisation. However, at the start of this film we see some sort of surviving society, with the living barricaded into the business district of an American city, which is dominated by a skyscraper patronised by the rich and fortunate few. They are able to maintain their decadent and unlikely lifestyle by funding raiding parties who scour zombie territory for supplies. At the same time, the zombie population seems to be evolving into a community of its own, expanding on the 'memory' behaviour seen in the previous films, and one 'daddy' zombie in particular seems inclined and capable of helping it 'fight back' against the raiding parties sent from the city. This dichotomy of a society decaying while one possible emerges is the backdrop to two hours of action-horror, with enough gore, effects and minor plot twists to maintain attention, but with a distinct sense of deja vu. Much as John Carpenter seems keen to remake Assault on Precinct 13 every year, Romero returns to the basic premise of the siege storyline with every 'Dead film. In terms of satire, the era when Romero made the first film was one where the topics of Vietnam and civil rights were precedent, and their are allusions to both. But it was in Dawn of the Dead he hit the spot with a witty and prescient satire on consumerism, which indeed appears to have zombified a generation of American adults. In Day of the Dead there was the height of the Cold War to contend with. You have the feeling Romero has been relishing his opportunity to score some points at the expense of the Bush administration, the War on Terror and the perceived growing inequalities of American society, which are exemplified in the proto-fascist city state created by Dennis Hopper's character and the obscene behaviour of the designer-clad residents of Fiddler's Green. But it's a point made to some extent at the price of credibility. Romero uses the term 'today' to date the action of the film, and if that is to suggest that he's holding up a mirror to our current society, it's a simplistic vision. In the context of the film, it creates doubts about whether the state of affairs would be sustainable and also enigmas like whether why paper money, which would surely be worthless in that scenario, seems to hold such value for several main characters. There is some frustration that the volume and pace of action does not really give us an opportunity to explore the experience of the city society, which is only really viewed from the perspective of the tower people. This is a problem caused by Romero's expanding vision: in the first film the social environment was a house with half a dozen characters, then a mall, then a nuclear base. In this film conveying a whole post-apocalyptic society was beyond his skill, budget, screen time or intent, so we get nothing more than a tantalising vision.
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Sideways (2004)
An amusing inebriates road trip
27 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
One thing I could not get out of my head watching Sideways is - how drunk must these guys be when driving? Miles and Jack, well I'd expect nothing less. But the lovely Mia and the feisty Stephanie seemed to be tanking it down and getting behind the wheel regularly. As I yearly like to do the drive between LA and SF, and have stopped before at Solvang, I'm going to be a lot more careful in future! I think Sideways benefited, in Oscar year, from the phenomenon of Los Angeleans (on the Oscar judging panel) loving localised reflections of themselves. It's a pretty good movie, but is it that good? As Miles might analyse it, it's lacking in sufficient 'body' whatever general and profound extrapolations on life, failure and relationships one might want to see there. There are frequently amusing vignettes but no great revelations and, mirroring the characters' attitude, a lack of ambition from a film-making perspective. Which is in its way healthy enough, but does it make it worthy of an Oscar? I also began to tire of the overplayed 'life as wine' metaphor, which is pretty much done to death by the midpoint of the movie: okay we get it already! If the ending plays awkwardly it's because it's a little bit too convenient, and also because we've realised, before Mia, that Miles is actually an extremely boring and self-absorbed individual and how long will it be before he's stealing from her purse? But then perhaps its refreshing to see people making the wrong big decisions in movies.
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The Descent (2005)
Has its ups and downs
18 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Down is the appropriate direction with respect to the ambitions of British cinema since the heady days of 4 weddings and a funeral, when it seemed that combined commercial and critical success was within the grasp of UK film production. The followed the days of lottery funding and a slough of boring dramas and horror movies with poor production standards and less imagination. The Descent represents the recovery position for any non-Potter/Grant/Dench film - a tight original concept on a low budget. The originality is represented in the setup of an all-female potholing movie, where the characters use the physical risks and challenges to offset the barely disguised emotional tensions between them. The makes for a tense and delicious first hour as the girls struggle into the depths of an undiscovered cave space. The cinematography explores a range of phobic territory - from the claustrophobia of a crawlspace to the dark unknown of a cavern entrance, and succeeds in generating a great empathy with the immediate predicament of the characters. Developing any kind of emotional attachment is not so easy, as most of the women are outwardly brittle, stoic and engimatic - a bit like men really. half way in it seems The Descent is going to be a rather special thriller, with the natural environment providing the menace. Then, rather abruptly, the film introduces a horde of cannibalistic troglodytes, who set out to devour each of the party in turn a la Jason/Freddy - fill in your favourite monster movie. It's not that the grand guignol is that bad - and there is the ultimate gore moment in terms of a bath of blood - and there is some message about primality being made. It just seems a prosaic way of releasing the tension built up exquisitely in the first half by turning it into a haunted house movie. As you would expect there is an unexpected ending, but the film had gone off the boil for me about 20 minutes before its inevitable shock.
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Vietnam 'simulator'
7 August 2006
It's clear from many of the reviewers who were there, that they feel We Were Soldiers is authentic in many respects to the soldier's experience at that stage of the Vietnam War. As a mid-30s Brit living in London, whose biggest daily hardship is an overcrowded tube, I know I'd be on shaky ground tackling those aspects of this movie. But it's not a documentary - it's a movie and on some level it is intended to be both an artistic artefact and a piece of entertainment, and is not above criticism as either. What intrigues me is what it says about Gibson, because ostensibly although it is not about Gibson (it's about 'the men') Gibson's presence is a transcendent factor. Somewhere along the line this handsome, cheekboned 'Australian' matinée idol has become a chunky, stoic and troubled American who is increasingly marching to a different drum to mainstream Hollywood. 'Braveheart' could be said to be the turning point (another Wallace collaboration) where Gibson also wanted to showing the graphic slaughter of a 'real' battle, but which took on the entire historical context of the Scottish Wars of Independence in an a flagrantly unauthentic manner. With 'We Were Soldiers' the obsession with battle accuracy is maintained and the historical/political context almost entirely dispensed with. This might be unsettling, for those who think soldiers must always be thinking why they are being sent somewhere to do something, but the case Gibson makes (basically through 2 hours of cinematic attrition) is that soldiers are thinking of staying alive and/or through obeying orders. There is in some way an attempt to encapsulate the entire 'Vietnam experience' in two hours; reckless battle tactics, unprepared men, hostile terrain, a disciplined committed enemy, reliance on increasingly indiscriminate air support and of course, the role of 'the media' which is depicted with a conspicuous lack of sympathy near the end of the film. But the visual experience is of a maelstrom, once the battle begins, and after a while it is wearing. There is no character identification really outside the two leads and the graphic brutality is instructive without being revealing or, to be nakedly honest, that entertaining. It becomes more of a simulator than a film.
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Closer (I) (2004)
Unbelievably drab
6 August 2006
It's clear from Closer just how drab Americans think we brits are. We live in a drab city, with drab weather, wear drab clothes and have drab, superficial relationships. Closer is like one of Woody Allen's down movies on downers. It's devoid of both wit and emotional intelligibility. I'd go further and say its artfully fake, with the conceit of a big name four-hander cast attempting to wallow in indecipherable emotional intensity for the sake of creating the sheen of an art-house effect. The script reference to an 'Elle Decoration' inspired bathroom is resonant to the entire motivation of the movie - it's relentlessly superficial, watching it is like having a conversation with a model in a New York cocktail bar. Loft apartments, photography exhibitions, arguments at the opera, the damien rice soundtrack: two hours of middle class tedium. Ironically, the film is peppered with endless references to sexual activity, obviously engineered to provoke some kind of polarised reaction from its audience, but there isn't actually any on-screen sex, which, given the billing of the stars might have redeemed some of the entry fee in curiosity value. Clive Owen perhaps deserves some kind of honorable mention as he battles to give some sort of 3-dimensionality to his rather sad sex-obsessed doctor character, and Portman threatens to be interesting on a couple of occasions. However, Law is consistently bland and Roberts, trying to play serious, looks as if she is medicated during most of her scenes. The script and plot is laughable, inexplicable and relies on the simply unacceptable coincidences happening after unsettlingly long gaps of time. The characters do the most bizarre things, justified in terms of emotional cowardice or obsessive love, but having 'done' both of those to some degree in the past, I didn't buy any of their actions or motivations. By the end of the movie, when one combination of the couple has got together/broken up yet again, I was literally begging for the credits to signal the end of my involvement in these dreary fictive lives.
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2 August 2006
Superman is indeed back, and the delight Bryan Singer obviously felt in being responsible for his return is communicated through a film that is as rich and subtle as it is visually exciting. This is action movie-making with both a heart and a brain: plus around $200m to play with.

Part of the delight is that Singer deploys his train set in many ways which fans would do themselves, many of whom have nostalgic childhood memories of being taken to Richard Donner's 1978 original version. From the blood-quickening homage to its comet-like opening credits roll, to the posthumous reprisal of Brando as Jor-el it's an affectionate and deferential reworking of Donner's original gilded with spectacular and extend cgi sequences which envision those superhuman qualities in a way wires and blue-screen filming never could.

There is some long-delayed directorial truth and justice in this, as Donner was unfairly sacked from the helm of Superman II because the producing Salkinds wished to take the franchise down a 'campier'; route that led to the critical and financial debacle of Superman III and the absolute farce that was Superman IV, which was the artistic equivalent of kryptonite to the franchise in Hollywood.

But Warners and Singer combined realise just what a fantastic creative source the Superman myth is, and all that it needs is lots of money and healthy dose of respect, Warners supplied around $200m of the former and Singer does the latter by not attempting to undermine or update the character's core values.

Apart from the much discussed religious allegory/symbolism, there are other interesting themes. Singer takes delight in representing applied physics, which is at the heart of how the superhuman fantasy first engages the young: As they become fully aware of their own human limitations of strength, speed and agility, imagining what it would be like to be completely unrestricted by those laws and expanding on that, what that would make them in a society of normal men. The sense of space, time mass, velocity and vibration is conducted brilliantly throughout the film, not just via special effects but also by the imagination of screenplay and cinematography.

Brandon Routh matches the youthful Christopher Reeve curl for curl, but it is Kevin Spacey who offers a truly great performance as Lex Luthor. The buffoon crook portrayed by Gene Hackman, entertaining for all that, is replaced by a complex, psychopathic personality, given the space to expand on his own delusional self-vision as a modern day Prometheus 'bringing fire to the people'.

Superman and Luthor represent the spectrum of alienation from humanity; one distanced by all aspects of his identity and physiology, the other by his complete absence of empathy. Spacey plays it straight throughout and succeeds in recreating Luthor with a new sense of menace, even as he reprises the same basic plot ideal of the original movie.

A huge amount of thought has gone into the art direction and dialogue which are peppered with references to Superman plots and images harking back to the earliest comic book days. The movie is also more beautiful than a superhero action flick desires to be, as beautifully composed as it is dynamically stirring.

The overall length, periods of character exposition and old-fashioned feel (Space Shuttles in peril?) may have contributed to Superman Returns under-performing, just a little, its backers expectations. The sequel hangs in the balance by just a few million box office, but it is likely to be green-lighted given Singer's obvious enthusiasm (he promises a sequel as spectacular as Star Trek II was to the original movie) and the fact its mediocre performance was due to unhappy release timing in competition with the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut and Pixar's Cars.

If that prediction is borne out, good news, as Superman very much deserves to return again.
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No fun with J.Lo and Jane
18 July 2006
Once upon a time there was a great actress. No really, a great actress, from a family embarrassed with acting talent. In addition to humour, intelligence and a kind of steely beauty there was clear intelligence and sophistication in her screen presence. We're not talking about J.Lo here, by the way...And then the actress met some guy with a moustache who owned a lot of television and his gain was our loss. Fast forwarding from the 70s, Jane Fonda decides to get back into acting - and cosmetic commercials. As she chose Monster-in-Law as her comeback, I guess money is a motivation somewhere down the line, or perhaps that unpredictable, perverse Fonda streak in choosing a lightweight rom com as the vehicle, or even hubris in imagining her input could 'make' Monster-in-Law other than the complete also-ran comedy the script must have screamed it would be. You don't need to know the plot - truly: it involves J.Lo, an eligible man and an unlikely transit towards the inevitable married bliss found in the final reel. Jane Fonda provides the primary obstacle in the form of his neurotic,scheming mother who will do anything in her power to drive them apart. The formula of comedies like My Best Friend's wedding - the use of the gay best friend as comic foil - for example are lifted wholesale. There is also the vaguely distasteful return of the comic black foil to the white principals, with the Ruby character - how weird to see Hanoi Jane of all people play off her in that way. However despite the banality of the script, and the weedy and weak-willed leading guy who inexplicably keeps on being referred to as a hunk, the jewel that is Jane Fonda still manages to shine through in some form. She looks amazing, delivers a crap script about as well as it could be delivered and never once looks like she feels she's slumming it. 3.9 of those stars are for Jane Fonda and the sheer kick out of seeing her on screen again. Let's hope she's up for a run of new movies and she picks more flattering fare in the future.
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An epic tale from B.P (Before Pixar)
30 April 2006
Well, not quite. Pixar was very commercially established, if not quite a household name when Dreamworks invested in Prince of Egypt, but it was the Disney model they were seeking to emulate, and basically outdo in this retelling of the story of Exodus. Looking back on it, it is something of a shame that it represented one of the last of a breed of somewhat serious family animation films combining the look and feel of cel animation with the best that computer animation technology had to offer and that point. Since that point, and in the face of diminishing returns for traditional stories retold in animation, the Pixar/Shrek model has been dominant and looks set to be. However, Prince of Egypt will remain a classic, whatever trends and fashions prevail. Its pastel colours and pencilled line make it feel like a breathing, moving version of those kids bible stories books you may have been given in your youth. Throughout there is artistic and stylistic inventiveness, from the hieroglyphic dream sequence to the Magician's production number. The narrative, if there was any danger of it being dry and dusty is remarkably robust and the adoptive brother and demanding father angles play to modern sensibility, along with a moral racial subtext that is quite definitely late C20 America. It is the set pieces that propel the movie into a special place. Behold the power of CGI! Enabled to part the Red Sea in a moment of climactic spectacle Cecil B De Mille could only have dreamed of. But there are more subtle, equally powerful sequences like the depiction of the burning bush and the plague on the first born that are about as affecting as a cartoon can hope to get. See this movie even if the subject matter has no apparent interest for a masterclass on feature-length animation.
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18 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
After an aborted plan to film ALW's most 'cinematic' of musical productions, what persuaded the composer, backers and stars that the time was right for Phantom: The Movie. One suspects the outrageous, and somewhat unexpected success of Moulin Rouge, which shares its Parisien theatrical setting and essentially the same central story - a woman's choice between passion and security. Except this time she chooses the maharajah/Count in preference to the penniless sitar-player/manic genius with anger control and facial disfigurement issues, which is entirely in keeping with its bourgeoise values. But where Moulin Rouge dazzled with its pacing and spectacle, Phantom drags and fatigues with its chocolate box sets and spinning cameras. Joel Schumacher brings his action movie box-of-tricks to provide a visual counterpart to the frequently ridiculous bombast of Lloyd Webber's arrangements but souffles don't keep their shape for two hours and neither does this. A director and actors can only work with the source material they have, the problem is that Phantom has aged badly from when, in the Mid-1980s, it was the height of theatrical chic. Rather like the costumes on a repeat of Dynasty, there is a somewhat delicious sense of guilty pleasure and disbelief at our erstwhile tastes. And there is no hint of deprecating irony in a cast with some fine actors obviously under strict orders to play it straight. Alan Parker's Evita and even Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar were able to do this with a relatively straight-face and come away with some dignity, but perhaps this was because their source material, musically and literally, was younger and sharper-edged. Although POTO attempts to satirise elements of operatic culture, mostly through the role of diva Carlotta, the dated nature of its own score, demonstrating a number of ALW clichés is ripe for its own lampooning. For a musical to work on film, the medium itself must add some additional dimension that a theatrical setting cannot offer, but POTO adopts a largely proscenium, and prosaic mode to deliver its gaudy sets and songs.
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