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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is sorely tempting to bill Day Watch as Russia's answer to The
Matrix, but despite the film's impressive energy and vision it is too
incoherent to deserve the title.
The premise is that the population of Moscow is peppered with vampires - both good and evil - who live in an uneasy truce. It is the job of the Day Watch to patrol the streets and make sure the blood-sucking does not get out of hand.
Like all sci-fi, it is set in a world with different rules to our own. The problem here is that these rules, if they are explained at all, are made clear only after they become relevant to the characters' fates.
The film is, therefore, stuffed with deus ex machina moments. The hero, played by a dogged but charismatic Konstantin Khabensky, will be running for his life when suddenly he makes a miraculous escape by leaping into an advertising billboard, which, it turns out, acts as a portal to a train station.
Or the good guys will be bracing themselves for a head-on collision with a speeding truck only for their vehicle to turn out to be pretty much invincible.
Or all will apparently be lost only for a character to deploy a hitherto unused gadget that freezes time, allowing the hero to save the world.
And the conclusion, although neat, falls into the "... and it was all a dream" category that my creative writing teacher cautioned me against using when I was nine.
Despite natty special effects and charming Russian quirks, it would have been a tall order to suspend disbelief for 90 minutes, let alone the 140 minutes shown here. It is an interesting cultural experience, but as a film it is deeply flawed.
David Fincher does a stand-up job of recreating 1960s San Francisco in
this meandering real-crime thriller, but at two and a half hours it is
simply too drawn-out to be enjoyable.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes increasingly obsessed with the activities of Zodiac, a serial killer with a penchant for confessional letters. He sees the letters at first hand when they arrive at the newspaper, hovers around the desk of the crime correspondent (Robert Downey Jr) and is ultimately moved to research the killings himself for what becomes his bestselling book on the unsolved murders.
But while the story unfolds fairly evenly and with an impressive attention to detail, it is hampered by the inconvenient truth that Zodiac was never arrested, let alone convicted. It rather limits the story's progression, given that the police are no nearer to catching their man at the end than they are in the middle. The result is an epic accumulation of circumstantial evidence that, despite heavy doses of foreboding bass notes, is mildly intriguing rather than exciting.
The last time Hollywood had a go at making a film of the Zodiac killings it came up with Dirty Harry, whose titular hero takes down his quarry with as much observance of due process as his .357 calibre Magnum will allow. Naturally, a realistic portrayal of the story isn't going to feature such pyrotechnics, but watching the cops capitulate to the goddam pencil-pushers at City Hall does not make for riveting viewing.
Not that realism prevents Fincher from nailing his colours firmly to the mast when it comes to his preferred suspect, mind. I was almost convinced myself until one of the closing captions mentions that a recent DNA test all but exonerated him. But still, he's dead, so he's hardly in a position to sue.
Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, as the dogged cop leading the investigation, put in creditable performances here, but Fincher should have known that the story was only worth 90 minutes.
There is a word, memorably coined by Hugh Grant, for this type of film:
Euro-pud. Take some public money from a European government, select a
writer-director known principally (if at all) for his foreign-language
films, and assemble a cast of one American star and an assortment of
European actors. Scramble, and serve in a handful of continental
cinemas that need films on the cheap.
Raoul Ruiz's biopic of Gustav Klimt feels like what it is - a polyglot project made to please a national government rather than a cinema audience. It is by turns boring, uninformative, poorly acted, directionless, non-sensical and crass. John Malkovich, in the role of the titular Austrian artist, spends the vast majority of the film looking bored or dead, perhaps appropriately, since the translated script portrays Klimt as a world-weary man condemned to a creeping death by his syphilitic encounters with prostitutes.
Other characters dart in and out of his life with befuddling rapidity, either making imperious statements that are in no way profound or laughing at things that aren't funny. They also appear to be mounted on lazy Susans, as one of Ruiz's irritating motifs is to wheel the camera around his actors so that the background is a dizzying whirl. This, like his other themes (breaking mirrors and requests for water), are so heavy-handed that you wonder if his inspiration was an essay written by a teenage history of art student.
The film is also knee-deep in absurdity, only some of which is intentional. Klimt has two ludicrously staged fist fights on the streets of Vienna, and there is one dreadful scene in which an unexplained stranger is meant to be doing shadow puppetry. It is difficult to suspend disbelief as the prancing figure on the screen is clearly not the man's waggling fingers, but Saffron Burrows's backlit silhouette. Malkovich is obliged to play along, however, and slithers around in front of it, casting no shadow of his own.
Arguably the worst scene features Klimt chatting to Egon Schiele in a bar as the lights go out and a crazed tramp enters, apparently to act out a piece of performance art about war. Schiele leaves in plain view, and yet at their next meeting Klimt exclaims: "What happened to you? You disappeared."
Bags of full-frontal nudity and occasionally brave efforts at acting fail to disguise a film that, ultimately, tells us little about its subject or his art. He was, we are told, foul-mouthed, delusional and constantly thirsty. I'm not even convinced this is accurate. It is a film that desperately wants to be Amadeus, but ends up being like Jefferson in Paris. Pointless and contrived, this is Europud at its worst.
How can one sum up the pervasive awfulness of The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen? Perhaps it is best to quote some lines from a
scene in which the crime-fighting league is reeling from an ambush by
the villainous "M".
A despondent Dr Jekyll suggests that they are finished. "No," responds Tom Sawyer, a rifle-wielding Victorian CIA agent. "We're alive. If M has any idea to the contrary, that gives us an edge."
Captain Nemo, the bearded owner of a vast and unconvincing solar-powered submarine (I jest not) is unconvinced. "The sea is vast, he could be anywhere," he says.
A good point, but Sawyer is unabashed. "Yeah, well, I'm an optimist, now maybe that's a crime to you twisted so-and-sos but it keeps me from going crazy... Because we'll get out, man... at least, I will. That other agent I told you about was my childhood friend. We were agents together until the Phantom shot him dead. Now you can be done, but I am not. I will avenge his death."
Illuminating exposition as this is, Dr Jekyll is more interested in a piece of East vs West philosophising. "It's not about any one of us, Tom, it's bigger than that."
Sawyer: "Yes, it is, Jekyll! The fate for the world is in our hands... the world! So M tricked you. He brought you all together and you walked straight into his trap. But the way that I see it, that's the part he did wrong... He brought you together."
Jekyll: "He has a point."
James Robinson's back-of-a-napkin script is as bad as anything ever written, but it finds its equal in the quality of the acting and directing. Sean Connery is probably the most charismatic of the bunch, but he delivers one of the blandest performances of his career. His bewigged African adventurer, Allan Quartermain, mainly resembles a fumbling geriatric who looks like he needs a stick to help him walk - until there is a fight scene, at which point he is replaced by a breathtakingly obvious stuntman.
The prize for worst performance is a toss-up between Tony Curran, the cheeky-cockney Invisible Man (who would be better cast as the Inaudible Man, in my opinion), Peta Wilson, a vampire who can't see a giant blood spot on her face despite staring at herself in a compact mirror, Jason Flemyng, who is outacted by his make-up, and Shane West, a character supposedly based on the Huckleberry Finn character Tom Sawyer but who shares no characteristics whatsoever.
The story, in which a clutch of heroes are banded together to overcome a megalomaniac's deadly plot, is fairly standard stuff. What really nails the film to the ocean floor is the reliance on very, very bad computer-generated imagery (CGI). Why, when the solar-powered submarine appears, does all the water flowing off it disappear half way down the side? Why does no one standing next to it get wet?
Why, when Mr Hyde is running across the rooftops of Paris (where he has fled to avoid British authorities and in no way merely to give the characters somewhere new to go), does he not obey Newton's third law?
But the worst aspect of the film is that it is a travesty of its source material. It has taken Alan Moore's much-loved and subversive graphic novel and turned it into a bit of froth on a par with Van Helsing. Stephen Norrington, who I see from IMDb has gone back to his job as a make-up artist, should hang his head in shame.
It is a pleasant surprise to see Rupert Grint get to grips with some
proper acting. Only the most ardent Harry Potter fan would claim that
he was any great shakes in the Potter franchise, so watching his
affecting performance here is a relief as much as anything else.
He is the put-upon teenager who manages to break free of his stifling mother (Laura Linney) when he goes to work for a has-been actress, played to hammy perfection by Julie Walters. Like Driving Miss Daisy and Transamerica, Driving Lessons is a film about two people with differing world views thrown together in the confines of a car.
The acting is deft and the dialogue is strong, but ultimately it doesn't do anything new with the genre. While Driving Miss Daisy tackled race and Transamerica dealt with gender identity, Driving Lessons is much less ambitious. It is, at most, the reconcilement of a conservative middle class religious boy with a flamboyant middle class atheist woman. The denouement is neither as dramatic nor as poignant as we have come to expect from this type of film, but that is as much to do with writer/director Jeremy Thorpe's choice of subject matter as his handling of it.
Moreover it is not, as other reviewers have suggested, a family film, unless your family has started using the c-word (one mention, as an adjective) and the f-word (all over the place).
It is a lovely film as far as it goes, but Thorpe, in his directorial debut, never quite shakes off his L-plates.
The best that can be said of The Weather Man is that it is
unconventional, but this alone is not enough to save what is ultimately
a rather aimless portrait of upper middle class American life. Dark
comedies must be either funnier or more subversive than this to be
Its bland message - be the best you can be - is an underwhelming conclusion to what, at times, promised to be a savage black comedy, a satire, or at least a parody of suburban living.
Nicolas Cage is arresting as the titular weather man, disillusioned with the jolly facade he has adopted for his well-paid job. The public, if they don't hate him enough to bombard him with fast food, see him only as someone who can tell them what the coldest day of the week will be - a perception all the more demeaning because his predictions are just a guess.
The exploration of his relationship with his dysfunctional family is gently perceptive, but it leads nowhere exciting. His troubled relationship with his father, a successful author played by Michael Caine, should have been the poignant hub of this film. It is, mercifully, not overly sentimental, but nor is it particularly engaging. Ho hum.
If any other director had created a series of films as unerringly
graceful and pitilessly ponderous as James Ivory's oeuvre he would be
accused of being stuck in a rut. But at least you know where you are
with the Ivory tinkler.
His latest period drama is set in mid-1930s Shanghai, a teeming metropolis where the blend of exotic cultures is overshadowed by Japanese imperial ambitions. We are introduced to Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former diplomat who at first appears to be a drunk until we realise he has lost his sight in an accident. He meets Sofia (Natasha Richardson), a member of the exiled Russian aristocracy who supports her family by working as a dancer at a seedy clip joint.
In her, Jackson sees the centrepiece of the nightclub of his dreams, where the erotic meets the tragic. He bets everything he has at the races and wins, allowing him to create the White Countess club and install Sofia as his hostess.
This, you imagine, is the setting for a will-they-won't-they romance as volatile as Shanghai itself, but Ivory's direction turns a subtle courtship into an imperceptible one. Consequently the film is rather empty, leaving us only with Jackson's friendship with a shadowy Japanese man who, as anyone with any historical knowledge will guess, personifies the threat of a Japanese invasion.
Beautiful as the film is, its director has once again failed to provide a particularly stimulating narrative drive. I'm not asking for love scenes and gunfights, but I do want something to distract me from the elegant backgrounds. Even as someone who loves the romance of pre-war China, I was too often bored. It is nowhere near as dull as Jefferson in Paris or The Golden Bowl, but substantially more so than The Remains of the Day or Howards End.
Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Richardson's mother on and off screen) help sustain interest and Ralph Fiennes is dependable as the lead. But even they cannot raise this from the status of most Merchant Ivory productions: a film best watched on television one rainy Sunday.
A squeaking wind pump, a dripping water tower and the baking sun. The
beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West, in which three hired guns
wait wordlessly at a train station for their target to arrive, is one
of the best openings in cinema history. It is every bit as tense as
Sergio Leone's finale in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which he
filmed two years earlier.
But good as this Western revenge saga is, it is not as accessible and a good deal slower than the other films in Sergio Leone's series of Westerns (namely A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). What many reviewers describe as its "operatic" and "epic" nature can also be read as "occasionally mawkish" and "overlong".
That said, this story earns its status as a classic for combining the gun-toting fun of westerns with the grand theme of the end of the Wild West, brought about by the arrival of the railroad. The railroad is the villain here as Henry Fonda plays an unscrupulous blue-eyed bad guy paid to force landowners to sell up cheap so the rails can pass through.
Charles Bronson is a darker take on Leone's man-with-no-name character, but it is debatable whether that makes him more interesting then Clint Eastwood's version.
The main characters each have a theme tune, opera-style, which is an interesting motif, but quite an irritating one when you have heard the harmonica tune for the 30th time.
A fine movie, but claims that it changed the western any more than Leone's previous films or that it is better than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Pauline Collins, who shone so brightly in Shirley Valentine, fails to
rescue this lamely scripted and poorly acted British comedy. The plot
concerns Mrs Caldicot, a widow who is tricked out of her house and into
a retirement home, where she is sedated and forced to sign over her
property to her son.
She soon realises that she and her fellow residents, who are also sedated to keep them quiet, are being treated unfairly and foments a rebellion against the home's smarmy manager.
But this comedic take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is mired in pantomime-quality acting and naive plotting in which old people are never disorientated or distressed, and journalists pay for scores of pensioners to be put up in a country house hotel.
I have no idea what Vernon Coleman's novel was like, but it is unlikely that the set decorator who adapted it made many improvements.
It made just £16,400 at the British box office. I would be surprised if most of those who parted with their money did not ask for it back.
How could King Kong go wrong? It has all the elements of a classic
blockbuster: a successful director, a starry cast, whizzo special
effects and a big gorilla.
The characterisation might not be amazing, but it isn't bad for a special effects romp. The plot is relatively simple, but not mind-numbingly formulaic. And the action scenes are sufficiently tense to make you jump in the right places and imaginative enough to make you wonder what is coming next.
So it is odd that you leave the cinema thinking: "Not bad. But a bit long."
The fundamental flaw is that Peter Jackson has used action as a substitute for drama. No matter how impressive the special effects, they are drained of tension because deep down you know nothing is at stake. Lots of people are crushed and eaten, but they are all minor characters and faceless minions. It is clear that the characters you care about must survive because the plot requires they return to New York.
To Jackson's credit, he develops the relationship between his heroine Ann Darrow and the gorilla very well. Where he fails is the romance between Darrow and Jack Driscoll, the hero. It is a courtship based on her girlish infatuation with his writing and his goo-goo eyes over her golden looks. It's not exactly Shakespeare in Love. Come to think of it, it's not even Doctor in Love.
So we are left caring for a gorilla who is obviously doomed. He is no more likely to settle down in New York than he is to catch a passing ship back to his island.
There are also a variety of plot holes that, without a drama to distract us, become amusingly obvious. When the captain orders the crew of his marooned ship to "throw everything overboard that isn't bolted down" in the hope that the ship will float off the rocks, it is strange that he does not add "apart from the giant arsenal of undoubtedly heavy Tommy guns that might come in useful if we change our minds and go back onto the island".
It is also remarkable that the primitive inhabitants of the island, who have a knack for spectacular engineering projects, magically disappear the moment the plot no longer requires them.
That said, if you enjoy action for action's sake (and I do) then there is much to relish in this film. Just make sure you go to the loo beforehand and save some of your popcorn for the third hour.
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