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The Departed (2006)
Not really a Scorsese film
The title above is nonsense, of course, as it clearly is a Scorsese film, both in tone and style. The problem, though, is it ought not to be.
For those who haven't seen Infernal Affairs the film on which The Departed is based - the plot revolves around two men. An undercover cop, infiltrating a mob gang in Boston (DiCaprio) and an undercover mobster (Damon), who has infiltrated the police force at the arrangement of the appallingly psychotic Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
Frenetic action ensues as the two warring tribes tear each other apart in order to find their respective moles. Meanwhile, both undercover men are struggling with their identity. But which one will crack first? Taking aside the remake issue for a moment, does the film work on its own terms? Partially. The story is excellent and involving, and while it is a long film at nearly 2hours 30min, it keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The characters are very well drawn, and there is clear movement in both characters, which helps to engage the audience. Leonardo DiCaprio is truly excellent as Billy Costigan, the mole for the Boston Police Department; and a special mention must also go to Mark Wahlberg, who manages to steal just about every scene he's in.
However, despite these notable strengths, I completely failed to leave the cinema feeling wowed. Entertained, with out a doubt, but this is a long way from being Scorsese's best work.
Part of the problem is the juxtaposition of violence and humour. While being an excellent director in almost every respect, Scorsese is no Tarantino when it comes to violence and humour. The humour worked fine on its own terms (Wahlberg, in particular, was hilarious) but it was used in a clunky way, and disrupted the mood and the pace of the film.
Another problem was Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello. Jack is unleashed in The Departed and not in a good way. He seems to think he's playing The Joker again. I'm not quite sure what either Nicholson or Scorsese though they were doing with all those rat imitations. In these circumstances, the insanity of the mobster would normally intimidate the other characters and the audience (c.f. Mr Blonde in The Reservoir Dogs). Here, either the chemistry between Leo and Jack was wrong; or the scene was badly written or performed (I suspect the later). It just didn't work.
So to the remake issue. In many respects, The Departed is a photographic negative of Infernal Affairs, which suffered from poor characterisation, but had spectacularly slick plotting, and a coherent tone.
It would be wrong to expect a remake to mimic the style of the original. But in this case, where style and substance are so inextricably fused in the original, it can be dangerous to mess with it.
Unfortunately, Infernal Affairs had Michael Mann written all over it. It needed a highly stylised treatment and, dare I say it, California. Something just doesn't ring true in The Departed. It was a good film, but something was just
Gedo senki (2006)
Suffocated by its source material
Films experiencing production hell are rarely as good as they might have been, no matter how good the director is (c.f. Gangs of New York and AI) and this one is no exception.
Taken on its own terms, Tales of Earthsea is a competent, if not breathtaking, start for Miyazaki junior, and bears comparison to the lesser Gibli canon without scaling the heights of its major work. It is unfair to compare it to My Cousin Totoro, Spirited Away or Graveyard of the Fireflies; but it is also a shame for the fans of Earthsea. They didn't get a top director at the top of his game.
The principal problem with the film is that it doesn't seem to know what to do with the books it is based on. Are they source material to be pillaged? Are they stories to be adapted? Are they concepts to be explored? In the end Miyazaki opts for a mix: the narrative structure is broadly based on the third novel (The Farthest Shore), with a significant sub-plots from both the first (The Wizard of Earthsea) and the fourth (Tehanu). Into the mix he throws some recognisable manga/anime formulae (the arch-enemy; the ronin henchmen; the violence) which cut across the major themes explored by the novels and alluded to by the film.
If this all sounds like a disaster, it isn't exactly. The plot functions: evil wizard, through pride, upsets the balance of Earthsea forcing archmage, Sparrowhawk, in the company of a young prince, to do battle to restore the balance, destroy the evil and face down their own demons. Had Miyazaki been more ruthless all would probably have been well for anime fans anyway. But there are too many blind alleys, lose ends and needless distractions all nods to the books - which make the first half of the film in particular feel like a second rate brass band meandering painfully around a Brassed Off version of Adagio for Strings. The narcotic Hazia, for example, which dominates the beginning of the third story, is introduced early in the film and then simply abandoned. Later, Tenar's back-story fades into nothingness leaving the audience with a forcible impression of a producer impatiently looking at his watch. The whole effect is not homage, but distraction and a film that it is at least 40minutes longer than it needed to be.
Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Earthsea novels, had suggested to (Hayao) Miyazaki that he create new story for Ged, uncluttered by her previous stories, set in the many years between the first two books. This would have made for a less ponderous film.
Regarding the technical side of animation; it appears the younger Miyazaki was aiming for the dreamlike quality of animation so characteristic of his father's work. Again, he has some partial success in this regard, although it is undeniably more clunky than other Gibli titles. But a lot can be forgiven for his reliance on hand-drawn animation, and there are some moments of real beauty windblown grasses, rocks on the seashore and chill sunsets. This, along with some strong characters and a much tighter second half, make Tales from Earthsea watchable film, if a slightly underwhelming one. But better than Disney. 6/10
Children of Men (2006)
More of a mystopia really
You certainly have to credit Children of Men with originality. Rooting a dystopian vision in a real life social or political problem is just so passé.
Apparently by 2027 women can't conceive anymore (isn't that always the way). Women have destroyed the world again; when will they ever learn? Civilisation has, predictably, broken down. The world beyond the English Channel has descended into howling, woad-smeared anarchy. Oh, and the government is evil because it doesn't like refugees.
The problem with Children of Men is that it seems to have been assembled backwards. Most dystopias start with a topical problem or issue they want to explore and then build up to an extreme conclusion. Orwell and Bradbury had totalitarianism; Huxley and Burgess had social dislocation; Atwood had chauvinism; Niccol had genetic enhancement. Children of Men, though, appears to have begun with its funky dystopian backcloth and then realised half way through that it didn't actually have anything to say. Thus we have to listen with increasing impatience to all this guff about hating 'fugees (this caused me a momentary confusion: "don't like The Fugees? So what, I mean, who does?")
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a liberal kind of guy; I like immigration (as I discovered the disconcertingly confusing contraction of refugees to mean). But this Salford Poly, bed-sit politics is a bit preposterous in a post-apocalyptic society don't you think? Somehow, I don't think Neil Pye from the Young Ones would have survived the post-infertility thought police holocaust. Just guessing.
What Children of Men does, it does quite well. It develops atmosphere and pace well and there are some good performances (particularly Clive Owen and Michael Caine) to set against the slightly hammy performances of the NUS fish warriors (I'm not kidding). But in the end it is impossible to escape from the infuriating, TV-shaking pointlessness of it all. Fecundity problem? For Pandas, yes. Are we Pandas? Government doesn't want to turn Britain into a hostel for the entire population of the world? How could they not; what would the Guardian say?
Esta película de Puta Madre!
Matador is one of the strangest, darkest, (and yet compelling) early films from Spanish master filmmaker Pedro Amoldovar.
It is completely nuts.
Pour in equal measures of sadism, masochism, bullfighting, perverted sexuality, and sexual violence. Add in a splash of comedy and soupcon of star-crossed lovers (if, for a moment, you thought pairing Tybalt and Lady McBeth qualified as star-crossed) and you have what passes as characterisation. Mix dark nights with gaudy flamenco colours and you have some striking cinematography. I'll come to the plot in a minute
Amoldovar was clearly enjoying Spanish cinema's new-found, post-Franco sexual and artistic liberalism. The prudish among his audience might suggest he was positively wallowing in it. Whatever the truth, Matador is a masterpiece of his style, if not, indeed, a whole style in of itself.
The plot or possibly a better description, the tapestry over which the characters move is a murder hunt. Very few prizes will be won, however, for guessing the culprit/s. Two people are quickly in the audience's frame because they are shown er murdering people on camera. A third person (Banderas, in to my mind his best Amoldovar role) confesses to the murders in a fit of insecurity and remorse over an attempted rape ("some girls get all the luck" comments a female duty officer dryly, proving that feminism wasn't that big in Spain back in the 1980s). Nevertheless, the net soon closes on the crushingly obvious culprits (who in the meantime have developed quite a crush on each other). As previously mentioned, completely nuts.
Matador's strengths are in its characterisation and its sheer bare-facedness. Amoldovar has, as usual, assembled a character list of freaks and proceeded to humanise all of them to the point where there is a genuine whiff of tragedy in the final act. To mention the great performances is really to rehearse the cast list. Assumpta Serna, Nacho Martinez, Antonio Banderas and Eva Cobo are all excellent. And it really is worth seeing, just for the young Antonio.
There are some interesting points made in the film about outsiders, liberalism, sexual politics and gender politics (as always with Amoldovar). I'll let you pick through them. It is, though, not so much a film as a giant red rag to the raging bull of conservatism, deftly whisked aside to the ragged applause of an admiring, if somewhat perplexed, audience. A positive Jimi Hendrix of a film, unpolished, with some definite dud notes, but undeniably the work of a genius. 8½/ 10
Jiao zi (2004)
I've swallowed worse
Ever wondered what the sound of the crunch of teeth on well, never mind. You'll find out.
You may not be surprised to know that this recent Extreme Asia flick isn't really about cooking. Well, not entirely anyway. You may be more surprised to know that it's not really a horror film. It is pretty disgusting though; so don't think about watching it unless you've got a strong stomach.
It's impossible to explain the plot in any detail without giving away the gruesome surprise. But fortunately our director, Fruit Chan, has explained all. It is, apparently, all about modern women's obsession with staying young. Well, possibly, although to judge by the camera-work it's more a feature length homage to Ling Bai's chest than her gift for experimental cooking.
What it really boils down to is that classic, older man married to older woman falls for younger woman who turns out to be old enough to be older woman's mother but has discovered an evil formula for staying young involving, well, never mind, you'll find out , story. Nothing complicated there.
Tony Leung Ka Fai gives Ling Bai's chest (along with the rest of her, his wife and his other lover) his customary and lascivious attention. So it's pretty much as you were all around.
But what the hell, I enjoyed it. It's well acted (with relish, in fact), pretty well plotted, has a couple of suitably gruesome plot twists and I felt genuinely involved with the characters. My faith in Christopher Doyle's camera-work has been given a partial rebirth after the cheesiness of Hero. And, of course - as a man it was nice to feel vindicated in the belief of ones total non-responsibility for at least one of the world's ills.
As a genuine discussion of the issues of feminine youth obsession, it might come across as a bit shallow. But then it's basically a fable. Fables need a simple message. And this film has just that: blame women.
So, if you're a woman, just remember this is all your fault. Nothing to do with men like Leung Ka Fai at all. It's you all down the line, you evil swine.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Alien, but a bit fishy
As concepts go, Deep Blue Sea's might be described as your basic no-brainer. "It's kinda Jaws meets Alien meets 28 Days Later" drawls Finland's answer to Michael Bay, Renny "The Marlin" Harlin; "Kinda, Samuel L meets uber-babe meets blond surfer dude meets wacky ship's cook with these cool one liners" he adds redundantly as the next Woody Allen Project is quietly shelved and the studio's finance director reaches for his corporate cheque book. Who said modern cinema was formulaic?
On the bright side, such sparse imaginative furnishing does leave room for putting ones feet up, getting in some popcorn-related girth enlargement, and deriving passing amusement from betting on who is gonna get scragged next.
And, believe it or not, working out who is live bait is no mean task, mainly due to a moment of inspired plotting early on, where a prominent member of the cast is sent for a figurative and literal early bath. Streuth, is no one sacred.
The plot? Ho, hum. Well, let's call it a premise rather than a plot. Marine-based scientists developing a cure for Alzheimer's genetically engineer huge, hyper-intelligent, hyper-aggressive mako sharks for ooh, something or other. Hey, what could happen next?! Can someone smell fish?
Actually Deep Blue Sea is not that bad for a brainless action movie. Harlin the Marlin at least copies effectively; so while the audience may be forcibly reminded of Alien, it could be a lot worse - it could be being reminded Alien Resurrection. Harlin also keeps us on tenterhooks with some well-paced action interspersed with a totally gratuitous yet very welcome shot of Saffron Burrows stripping down to her grundies. Once the fan has proverbially been hit, the audience finds out lots of lovely things about various cast members, which keep us at least half on the side of the tooth team; all things considered, just as well. Chomp, chomp.
So it depends what you want. Big it may be, but Deep Blue Sea is certainly not clever. Jaws was based on Enemy of the People; Deep Blue Sea
well, isn't. On the positive side, the sharks are lovely (no floating rubber in this film); the action is well paced and there is a certain, knowing, disaster movie tongue in cheek. Is this enough to salvage the wreck? Just about.
Kabul Express (2006)
Two great films neatly wrapped up in a terrible one
Kabul Express is not a hideous failure. It's just not very good.
Two Indian journalists head into war-torn Afghanistan to interview a Talib for an exclusive scoop back in India. Quickly they fall victim to the very thing they went to find, and end up on a nightmarish road trip in the custody their putative rebel, played very effectively by Salman Shahid. Along the way, sidekick Jai frequently berates hunk Suhel for "another fine mess he's got him into", starts a shooting war with his Talib captor about whether Kapil Dev or Imran Khan was the greatest all-rounder, and witness (and photograph) the death by beating of two runaway Taliban prisoners.
Kabir Khan might have made two good films out this material. Instead he chose to combine the two, which just didn't work. The opening moments of the film promised a harrowing docu-drama (including what looked like a real life execution of a veiled woman). In the next scene we have our two heroes doing a Laurel and Hardy routine. This pattern was repeated (and certainly repeated on me) for the rest of the film.
Juxtaposing violence and humour is no bad thing of course. But Khan lacked the inclination - or perhaps the experience - to make an effective black comedy. His film is at its most assured during its comic phases. Some of these touches are memorable (the cricket fight, the donkey etc). The film is at its worst when indulging in bizarre, cod-serious non-sequiturs on the futility of war, love or photojournalism usually from the mouth of the appalling (in this film) Linda Arsenio. Possibly it's not her fault her dialogue was also the worst in the film, but she didn't improve it.
The film could have been redeemed by a powerful message, but Khan couldn't quite bring himself to show a Talib fighter as a real human. So what we got instead was a cheap shot at the Pakistani government. To me, this symbolised the whole film. It was a missed opportunity. It had all of the elements for a great black comedy, and all the elements for a serious study of war. But in the end it was just a mess.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Full of Gillian-isms, Empty of Willis-isms - in a good way...
There is a story (possibly apocryphal) about an exchange between Bruce Willis and Terry Gilliam at the start of Twelve Monkeys. Gilliam (allegedly) produced a long list (think about the aircraft one from the Fifth Element) and handed it to Butch Bruce. It was entitled "Things Bruce Willis Does When He Acts". It ended with a simple message saying: "please don't do any of the above in my movie".
There is a fact about this movie (definitely true). Gilliam didn't have a hand in the writing.
I would contend that these two factors played a huge role in creating the extraordinary (if not commercial) success that is The Twelve Monkeys.
Visually, the Twelve Monkeys is all that we have rightly come to expect from a Gilliam film. It is also full of Gilliamesque surrealism and general (but magnificent) strangeness. Gilliam delights in wrong-footing his audience. Although the ending of the Twelve Monkeys will surprise no one who has sat through the first real, Gilliam borrows heavily from Kafka in the clockwork, bureaucratic relentless movement of the characters towards their fate. It is this journey, and the character developments they undergo, which unsettles.
I love Gilliam films (Brazil, in particular). But they do all tend to suffer from the same weakness. He seems to have so many ideas, and so much enthusiasm, that his films almost invariably end up as a tangled mess (Brazil, in particular). I still maintain that Brazil is Gilliam's tour de force, but there's no denying that The Twelve Monkey's is a breath of fresh air in the tight-plotting department. Style, substance and form seem to merge in a way not usually seen from the ex-Python.
Whatever the truth of the rumour above, Gilliam also manages to get a first rate (and very atypical) performance out of the bald one. Bruce is excellent in this film, as are all the cast, particularly a suitably bonkers - and very scary - Brad Pitt.
It's been over a decade since this film was released. When I watched it again, I realised that it hadn't really aged. I had changed, of course. And this made me look at the film with fresh eyes. This seems to me to be a fitting tribute to a film that, partly at least, is about reflections in mirrors, altered perspectives and the absurd one-way journey through time that we all make. A first rate film. 8/10.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
A fey, beautiful and dark masterpiece
Set during Franco's mopping up exercise after the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, dark fairy tale that, in a metaphor for Spain itself, teeters on the edge of nightmare dreamscapes of corruption, violence and the death of innocents.
This film is definitely not for young children. Although the fantasy sequences are gorgeously realised, and are fairy tales in the truest sense (in that they are dark, fey, dangerous and violent), most of the story (about three quarters of it, in fact) exists outside of the dreamland, in the even more frightening (and sometimes shockingly violent) world of a real life struggle of ideas and ideology.
Sergi Lopez is excellent as the brutal (and possibly sadistic) Falangist Captain tasked with routing out the remaining leftists from the woods and hills of Northern Spain. Into this precarious situation come his new wife (a widow of a former marriage, who is carrying his son) and his stepdaughter Ofelia (played to absolute perfection, by the then 11 year old, Ivana Baquero).
Uncomfortable with her new surroundings, suspicious of her stepfather and desperately concerned about the worsening condition of her mother, Ofelia uncovers a strange alternative world, and the chance to escape forever the pain and uncertainty of her everyday life.
Thus the film alternates between the world of Civil War Spain and the increasingly bizarre, dark and frightening world of the Pan's Labyrinth. As the twin plots progress, they intertwine, with the tasks of Ofelia becoming the choices faced by a Spain at the crossroads. The poignancy of the film lies partly in the fact that the victories of the child are reflected so starkly by the failures of the adult world.
Apparently Pan's Labyrinth won a 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes, when it was shown. This may be a little bit over the top. I suspect when the furore has died down some will choose to swing the pendulum back and criticise it for its more obvious faults. Much of the film is derivative. There are few ideas in the film's magical dreamworld that haven't been seen before. There are also few ideas in the film's depiction of the Civil War that can't be read in Satre or Orwell; can't be viewed in Picasso's Guernica; or can't be watched in Land and Freedom.
For all the evident truth of these observations, to accept them would be to entirely miss the majesty of Pan's Labyrinth, which doesn't lie in its originality but its absolute mastery of execution. People will watch Pan's Labyrinth in a way that most won't watch Land and Freedom. In doing so, they will also discover a world of fairy tales which existed before Disney sunk its claws into them: a dangerous world, where nothing is as it seems and every step is a possible death a place which may leave even adults shivering under the duvet, part in terror, part in wonder. And all this backed up by the finest cinematography I've seen.
The only real faults I am prepared to allow for this film is a slight tendency (particularly at the end) for a Narnia-like moralism, and the fact that the faun is, perhaps, is not quite wild enough! These are eminently forgivable, though. This is easily the best film I've seen this year, and a must see on the big screen.
Mad Mel's Mrs Dies Again! (This is not a spoiler)
You know, you'd have to be seriously worried if you were Mel's wife in film. Black men in 1970s action flicks have a more tenacious grip on life. At least they generally cark it at the end of the film, gallantly laying down their lives when victory is at hand so the goody-goody white boy can ride off into the white-only sunset with a tasty bit of crumpet.
Mel's wives/girlfriends/love interests rarely make it past the opening credits.
Yep, Mad Mel has lost his Mrs and is mean as hell. But this time its god he's p* ssed with. Can even Mad Mel mess with the messiah? Sure he can.
Oh, and there are some aliens as well Ho Hum.
Signs is the third of the almost invariably enjoyable M Night Shyamalan films. It is a long way from being his best.
This is not, as many have said, because the film contains little in the way of "twist". Last time I checked, many great films had no twist at all and were still great. And Shyamalan's style is far more dependent on building suspense than pulling an unusually coloured rabbit out of the hat at the end of the last real. But such is the joy of Hollywood. Make one film with a great twist, and be forced to repeat it.
Shyamalan once again does a great job with suspense. Once again, family is integral to the plot. But the real core of this film is faith. Mel, you see, has a dead Mrs, and he knows who's responsible. Apparently, it's none other than god. Phwewee, somebody's gonna get hurt. Reeeal Bad!
Okay, this is mildly diverting for a while. Mystic Mel does a pretty good job of the whole "I'm not wasting another moment of my life on prayer" thing. Possibly the pain of him having to say these lines happily coincided with the pain of the character. Or am I being cynical? Mel can certainly act when he can be bothered, as he frequently showed sometime south of 1986.
The supporting cast is also superb. Joachim Phoenix is excellent, as are the two kids. Cherry Jones does an excellent job as the benevolent, Fargo-esquire local copper shorn of all the Coenisms.
There was some great comedy. Mel walking into his living room to find Joachim and the two kids on the sofa with two boxes of bacofoil on their heads was a fantastic touch. And, dare I say it, Mel's personal leitmotif the untimely demise of his better half left a genuine lump in my throat.
But there are two fundamental problems with the film.
The first is the aliens. They just get in the way. Okay, they provide the basis for the suspense. Okay, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between faith in god and the nutters out looking for aliens in prairie country. And I suppose the fact that the nutters are right in Signs adds some significance to Mel's own character development. But I can't help thinking that it is attempting to juxtapose the essentially frivolous with the deadly serious - and not very well The Village does it much better. So, in M Night's film the nutters are right. But we all know (don't we?) that in reality, they're just nutters. So is it an apt metaphor or just all hogwash? The second problem is the finale. I'm biased possibly but to me it just didn't make sense. "The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away seemingly on the basis of his own personal whimsy". I'm not convinced that this is a good basis for the massive character shift undergone by Melvine the Terrible, and you're left with the conclusion that either he's not a very clear thinker at all, or he's been throwing a rather childish tantrum for most of the rest of the film. Neither lend the script credibility.
Watch the Village is my recommendation. It's a massively under-estimated film (possibly Shyamalan's best). In many respects it is a half-remake of Signs, and is somehow less trite.
A minor work of a very good filmmaker. 6/10.