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Sunset Blvd. (1950)
"And must you chew gum?"
14 April 2008
It so happens that as I was watching Sunset Boulevard, I was chewing gum, and Gloria Swanson's clipped, derisive tone felt more like it was directed not at William Holden's washed up Joe Gillis in 1950, but at me, sitting on my couch in 2008. I didn't throw my gum away like Gillis does, but still, I did feel a little disconcerted. Norma Desmond knew I was chewing, and she didn't like it one bit.

But this is part of Sunset Boulevard's charm. While it's a movie about the ways movies had changed, were continuing to change, and those they left behind, it also shows us how, in some ways, they've remained the same. Its references to the WGA, popcorn cinema, and the tragicomic nature of washed-up celebrity feel oddly contemporary while simultaneously being firmly rooted in the Fifties.

While some of the period references to actors and directors went over my head - I'm no expert on the silent era - it didn't affect my enjoyment of them one bit. The fact that Wilder and his team were brave enough to include such comments gives the film a cool, relaxed feel even as the web that binds the characters draws ever-tighter.

It's fantastically acted too. Holden is brilliant as the struggling everyman who quickly realises that he's gotten way more than he bargained for, and Swanson is pitch-perfect as the faded screen star whose grip on reality has crumbled far quicker than the walls of her mansion, right down to the wide roving eyes and claw-like hands. They're well-supported, especially by Erich von Stronheim's eerily restrained butler Max.

Of course, great dialogue and performances are nothing without a plot to match. Despite the fact that the beginning reveals the end, Sunset Boulevard still manages to keep you hooked from the moment Holden sits at his desk for the first time right up until the movie's cruel, haunting, tragically human conclusion.

Very rarely do "old" movies actually live up to their reputations, but I'm pleased to say that Sunset Boulevard does, and it's a credit to Wilder's team's ability that this noir-drama stands the test of time. A truly great film.
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Tell No One (2006)
frantic, intelligent, and exciting: what more do you want?
28 February 2008
Tell No-one is the debut feature from Guillaume Canet, a guy arguably best known outside of France for being that bloke in The Beach who shouts "Francoise!" a lot. While he may not have seemed to be up to much then, judging from this stunning adaptation of Harlan Coben's novel of the same name, he certainly is now.

Tell No-one is the story of Dr. Alexander Beck, a man who gets an email from his wife. Boring, you say? Beck's wife was killed eight years ago in an attack that left him (in a sense) lucky to be alive. The email instructs him to "tell no-one" and with nobody to turn to, Beck throws himself into a desperate search for the woman he loved and lost.

What follows is arguably a typical array of thriller conventions: the secrets, the lies, and the inevitable betrayals, but what sets this movie apart is its pacing. Canet sheds some of Coben's superfluous subplots which ramps the tempo up so effectively that you soon forget that it's all in French. The move from the States to France also works in its favour, especially for foreign markets (as in the UK & US), as it makes the movie feel edgier and more unfamiliar than a standard American cop-chase movie. The combination of these factors give Tell No-one a freshness and intelligence that a lot of modern thrillers are lacking.

The quality of the acting (especially from Cluzet) and the dialogue, no doubt helped by Coben's writing, keeps the story believable as everyman Beck races ever closer to the truth, and to round it off, the score is great too, with clever use of familiar tracks to help keep the audience somewhat comfortable as Beck's search becomes more and more dangerous.

Tell No-one may sound like another average thriller, but its pacing and finesse place it head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.
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enjoyable but very average
28 February 2008
One Last Dance is the story of T, a mysterious hit-man contracted by a local mob boss to kill the people responsible for the recent kidnapping and murder of said mob boss' son. However, things don't quite go according to plan, and as the bodies piles up, T finds himself questioning just how close to home his next target will be...

Can you say cliché? Good, because that's what One Last Dance is almost exclusively made of. The characters are exaggerated types and the ordinary plot has delusions of grandeur. While the dialogue does have its moments, such as a particularly informative conversation on the finer points of making a cup of tea, most of it is faux-cool and decidedly average.

The movie isn't helped by director Max Makowski either, with his unnecessary just-out-of-film-school camera tricks and gratuitous use of CGI for the smallest of things.

Its saving grace is the performance of Francis Ng, who plays T with the right balance of world-weariness and romanticism essential for any hired killer, and when he's off-screen, you certainly notice his absence. Ng's T keeps holds your interest when the plot fails and keeps the film afloat.

Good hit-man movies are stylish, smart, and cool, but for all its glossy trickery and pop-culture references, One Last Dance is not.
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Wes Anderson delivers. Again...
31 January 2008
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzmann as three brothers who haven't spoken for years, on a train. In India. By Wes Anderson.

It's a good idea, isn't it?'s a great idea. Three good actors in three-well written roles in an open, exciting and unpredictable environment, while they're also stuck with each other in a cramped an uncomfortable train carriage. With more than a little baggage...

However, despite the bright, new and fantastically shot environment and the well-cast new member of the Anderson family, The Darjeeling Limited is what has become a typical Wes Anderson film. Despite its relocation from the suburbs, or more recently, the deep blue sea, it's still a film about a dysfunctional family and their endeavours to become...slightly more functional. The comedy is derived from sibling tension and the conflicts of the past, and even the music, that typical Anderson blend of quirky yet affecting relatively unknown tracks which is very good and works in all the right ways, feels comfortable and expected despite its "newness".

I seem to be griping because Anderson's fifth movie is as good as the others. And in a way, I am. The Darjeeling Limited is the work of a director who has found his groove (or in this case, his track) and doesn't show signs of trying to get out of it. As a result, not much of it really feels surprising. It's just as well he's good at what he does then, isn't it? It's the way Anderson handles the family drama that sets Darjeeling apart. While it's funny in all those idiosyncratic ways, making light of familial relations and awkward interactions, Anderson's warm, tender approach draws you into the lives of these characters. And, because of their respective flaws and quirks, they become more than characters; you can see them as people.

Anderson's movies have always had genuine heart buried not too far below the layer of offbeat style, so despite its familiarity, Darjeeling is arguably in this respect his best work. You can see a part of yourself in each of the Whitman brothers, and in cinema there is no substitute for that.
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flambling back when it was still cool
31 January 2008
Bob le Flambeur is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Bob le Flambeur, a reformed gambling man/con-artist who's down on his luck and dreaming of a big score. When an idle remark alerts him to the opportunity to take the Deauville casino for its entire 800 million Franc-vault however, he can't refuse...

It's a heist movie from the days when audiences hadn't been overfed on diets of second-rate cool like Confidence and the Ocean's sequels. While its age and our inevitable familiarity with this sort of criminal underdog movie make the story a little predictable, Melville's stylish direction gives it a freshness fifty years on that even its most recent of modern counterparts tend to lack.

And a lot of it is down to Melville's vision. His camera captures the essence of what makes these movies cool: the black and white noir atmosphere, the sharp suits, the hats, and of course, the obligatory drinking and cigar smoke, and combines them, often in single smooth shots, giving the characters and their environments an element of stylish cool that they'd otherwise lack.

As a result, it's a movie that places style over subplot, with the majority of the characters never really becoming much more than types or fringe players. However, the movie is tied together by Bob, the titular flambeur, played with understated flair by Alain Delon. He exudes a cool authority and dominates the film, and while he is clearly an addict, his apparently casual approach to his victories and defeats quickly draws you in.

While the story is predictable and precious few of the characters engaging, Bob le Flambeur is not the best film you'll ever watch.

But it sure is cool.
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big, messy, but enjoyable
2 December 2007
You can get a pretty good idea of Southland Tales from a quick description of its characters. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star in Richard Kelly's all-too-near dystopian future. But it's not that straightforward. Johnson plays The Rock playing Boxer Santaros, while Boxer is playing the role of a character he's researching, one Jericho Kane. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ageing porn-star with a business portfolio that includes energy drinks. And Sean William Scott? Well, he plays a cop's amnesiac twin brother, as part of a neo-Marxist scheme to overthrow the government. Or does he? And you thought Donnie Darko was confusing. Welcome to Southland...

The year is 2008. Justin Timberlake - did I forget to mention him? He plays a drugged-up Iraq war veteran with a huge scar on his face. Who sits in a huge chair with a huge rifle, guarding "Fluid Karma", an ultra-valuable perpetual motion wave machine that is the new form of power since oil has become rare and therefore massively expensive. Politics, anyone? Anyway, JT (who might be telepathic) narrates over an introduction comprised of graphic novel slides and MTV-meets-FOX news bulletins that guides us from our present to the "present" of Kelly's 2008 Southland. The passage of time has not been kind to the US; a nuke has gone off in Texas, and the country has become a police state. The most "recent" clip reveals that Boxer (played by Dwayne Johnson playing The Rock) has disappeared without a trace, which is where the movie begins. Or does it? By this stage, you just might have gotten the impression that Southland Tales is a bit of a mess. And you'd be right. Kelly's attempt at a politically-charged all-encompassing comment on the world that can also appeal to the youth of today does ultimately fall flat, but that's not to say it's without its merits. The satire's often sharp, and the way the movie skips from genre-to-genre (dystopian conspiracy to Scooby Doo farce to musical to action movie) works surprisingly well without jarring too much. The music, while not perfect (I'm pretty sure Black Rebel Motorcycle Club won't have the kind of comeback that allows them to host LA's 4th of July weekend party next year...) creates some of the movie's more memorable moments, such as JT's Killers dance number and the captivating three-way dance toward the end.

The deliberately exaggerated performances are, for the most part, very good, with Johnson capturing the action man (playing an action man - going through a crisis - playing an action man) role very well. The way he switches from the kind of guy who pours beer over himself as a form of refreshment to jittery neurotic mess is both funny and engaging, allowing you to see a little of the man beneath the steely facade.

Unfortunately, this is as close as you'll get to the characters. While the overplaying is amusing, it excludes you on an emotional level. Donnie Darko worked so well because it drew you in, but Southland seems to deliberately keep you at arm's length lest you miss out on some of Kelly's political messages. For all its mystery, intrigue, and action, it feels a bit soulless, and goes out with a whimper as opposed to the bang it so desires.

Southland Tales is an ambitious film, but a messy one, and while it may not work on the kind of level it's aspiring to, in a movie climate where so many films play it safe, at least Kelly tries. Very flawed, but entertaining nonetheless.
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Shooter (I) (2007)
Honour. Duty. Betrayal. Cliché.
3 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Shooter opens with Swagger (Wahlberg) in the middle of a failing black-op in Ethiopia. His spotter is killed, and he's left for dead by the agency that sent him in, leaving him to somehow escape the situation on his own. Cut to 3 years later, and Marky Mark is set up in a ranch in the snowy mountains in a remote location, sporting an awful haircut, and owning perhaps the best dog in the world. His reclusive existence is interrupted by Colonel Johnson (Glover), who arrives with a mysterious offer that he just can't refuse...

It sounds a bit...obvious, doesn't it? For a man who's been betrayed by his government once before, Wahlberg falls for Glover's dubious plan a little too easily. And it doesn't even seem like he's trying to conceal the duplicitous nature of the operation. Glover plays his role like Nosferatu in a suit; I half expected him to bite into Wahlberg's neck, although he obviously couldn't find the time in between his evil-caricature gestures and husky whispering. Taking the bait, Swagger sets himself up for quite a fall, and, luckily for us, quite an enjoyable film. Cue the government conspiracy and the one-man-killing-machine's mission to reveal the truth...

During his quest to clear his name, Wahlberg finds allies in the form of rookie FBI Agent Nick Memphis (well played by Michael Pena) and his former spotters' girlfriend Sarah, played by Kate Mara, and these two partnerships affect the film in quite different ways. When Swagger is teamed up with Memphis, Shooter plays out like an action-heavy buddy movie, but when Swagger's placed in the care of Sarah and the movie's romantic dramatic sub-plot is gestured at, it slows down awkwardly. We know Marky Mark has to recover from his bullet-wounds somewhere, but perhaps it could have been the recovery that was suggested instead of the awkward forbidden romance scenes that this pairing generates. The rest of the supporting cast are generally good, although a special mention should go to Elias Koteas for his role as Glover's oversexed supervillain henchman, who provides a great deal of sex-fiend-caricature entertainment. That being said, Wahlberg's presence is missed and the film appears to jar awkwardly and slow down without him. Without his moral outrage and willingness to shoot his way through his problems, the movie loses its momentum. While it handles similar issues to the Bourne franchise (government hunter becomes hunted) and attempts to make the same sort of contemporary political statements, Shooter doesn't quite have the same sort of grittiness. Instead, its polished look, complete with lush landscapes and Fuqua's sun-soaked direction, seems to nod continuously in the direction of Michael Bay. However, that's not a bad thing. The movie is very set-piece oriented, and Swagger's gung-ho approach keeps things moving forward at a relatively exciting pace.

The only problem is that it never really seems like Swagger's in any real danger, despite the fact that he's being chased by pretty much every law enforcement agency in America (social comment, perhaps?). This makes the film quite predictable, its sequences and dialogue clichéd, and its conclusion pretty much an obvious inevitability, but if you just sit back and accept it for what it is, you'll find Shooter an enjoyable, action-packed movie that's worth a look.
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The Haunting (1963)
dated and disappointing
1 November 2007
The Haunting tells the tale an experiment designed to discover the mysteries of Hill House, a sprawling Gothic mansion believed to be haunted because of its colourful history of death, suicide, and insanity. Dr. Markway (ably played by Richard Johnson) invites a group of people he believes to be sensitive to supernatural occurrences in order to monitor their responses to the house, and indeed, the houses responses to them.

We're introduced to Eleanor (well played by Julie Harris) as she attempts to escape her stifling home environment. After caring for her recently deceased mother for 11 years, she has grown sick of servitude, and longs to escape the confines of the home she shares with her sister and her husband. Despite being denied access to a car she half owns, she sneaks out of the house, and sets off to take part in Markway's experiment.

While ostensibly a film detailing the supernatural vigil held by Markway and his fellow guests, The Haunting is really a film about Eleanor's tragic quest to find her place in the world. 11 years of tending to her dying mother have stunted her emotionally, something which comes across in her interactions with Hill House's other guests (especially Theo) as well as Hill House itself.

She quickly falls under the spell of Hill House, identifying with the stories of its past, and also falls under the spell of the charming Markway, mistaking his pleasantries for romantic advances. It soon all goes wrong for Eleanor however. The sudden exposure to such a different environment from what she's used to begins to take its toll on her sanity, and the audience are invited to share her thoughts via Harris' voice-over.

This is where the film began to lose its grip on me. While I'm capable of appreciating her plight, I couldn't really identify with her or her somewhat flighty thought processes. Her interior monologue puts her across as an unhinged character, which she clearly is, but one that's far removed from a typical modern existence. Although the camera-work and lighting all remains very good, complete with Hitchcockian angles and heavy use of obscuring shadow, without an sympathetic main character it's not really much use. It seems as though there is a good horror story in the source material somewhere, and that this was probably the right way to tell it at the time, but for me it has lost most of its effectiveness as it has aged.

While the staircase set-piece is tense and well-paced, the terror lacks a physical immediacy that would make the film genuinely threatening. The internalisation of the house's effects exclude us, as we only really receive the events through Eleanor's maladjusted eyes.

I can appreciate the merits of the storytelling, I just couldn't connect to the lead character, which means I was left more than a little disappointed by this one.
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laughter in the dark
17 October 2007
Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Markovics) is a master counterfeiter, living a life of debauchery in pre-war Berlin, until his luck finally runs out, and he is captured and shipped out to the Mauthausen concentration camp. He witnesses the horrors of camp life; fellow prisoners are beaten, shot, and starved, but Sally, determined to survive, looks out for himself and uses his skills as an artist to secure a more comfortable lifestyle during his incarceration. After taking advantage of his talents, his superiors transfer him to Sachsenhausen, where he is to oversee the largest counterfeiting operation in history.

Here, Sally is provided with all the men and equipment he needs to crack the pound and the dollar; his criminal enterprises are now government funded. The price of failure is made clear, but the counterfeiters are also wary of the price of success, as once the currencies have been cracked, they will be surplus to requirements; their lives depend not only on their successes but also their failures.

This is where Burger (Diehl), the film's moral centre, comes into play. Unlike Sally, he sees the bigger picture, struggling to come to terms with the fact that while his work keeps him alive, it helps the Nazi war effort. Neither can he reconcile himself with the fact that while he lives in relative comfort other detainees, including his wife and children, live in squalor.

These moral dilemmas form the basis of the film, and in the face of the horrors of camp life, Sally tries to shrug them off with De Niro squints and smiles; the maxim that one must look after oneself is one repeated throughout the film. It's a very interesting idea, and it's one that is presented very well, both in terms of style and performance. The camera-work captures the bleak setting effectively, and the lead performances are uniformly excellent, but the use of tango for the score is inspired. The contrast between the music and the images adeptly complement the film's complicated moral tone. There is also a surprising amount of humour; while the bigger picture is indeed bleak, there are moments of comedy, and even if it is laughter in the dark, it is welcome and helps not only to carry the film along but humanise it and its characters.

The Counterfeiters is a very enjoyable film, which isn't something that can be said for many World War II "true stories". Its interesting exploration of adaptation and survival under extreme circumstances makes for an engaging story, and one that is definitely worth seeking out.
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Fracture (2007)
style with the substance to match
12 October 2007
Fracture is the story of Ted Crawford (Hopkins), a rich engineer who shoots his wife after discovering she is having an affair. When the police arrive, he confesses and hands in his weapon, and the case is passed on to hotshot DDA Willy Beachum (Gosling), who sees this, his final public service trial before he moves onwards and upwards, to be a slam-dunk case; but alas, thanks to Crawford's mind games, things are not what they seem and the case undergoes a series of twists and turns as Crawford and Beachum engage in a tense battle of wits.

The most obviously noticeable thing about Fracture is the how well-polished it all is. The whole thing looks so...expensive. The cars are expensive. The phones are expensive...even the cutlery during the Thanksgiving dinner scene looks expensive. Beachum seems to wear a new suit in every scene, and even the outdoor location shots look glossy; South California looks like it has been lacquered up especially for the camera lens.

It's all very smooth, well edited, cleverly shot, and well-paced, but without these two actors, this movie would have been nothing more than a glossy second-rate courtroom "thriller". Hopkins and Gosling take it to the next level with great lead performances. Hopkins clearly enjoys playing this sort of manipulative role, controlling events, making sly remarks, and winking in that very obviously shifty way, and he gets to drive flashy cars and live in a big house while he does it, which I imagine only increases the amount of fun he has. Similarly, the cockiness arrogance of DDA Beachum allows Gosling to strut around, make wisecracks, and generally be a smug git. While the Hopkins-Gosling clashes make the movie, they are ably supported by David Straitharn, Rosamund Pike, and Billy Burke, who all inject a bit more life and background into the film.

While the ride is comfortable for the most part, Fracture slips a gear towards the end; the shift from murder mystery to moral crusade feels a little bumpy, but nonetheless, strong performances and great artistic direction make Fracture a stylish, clever and enjoyable thriller that's definitely worth a look.
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entertaining but very average
1 October 2007
Is it good or bad things that always come in threes? It seems that in Hollywood these days, it doesn't really matter. So, after a decent zombie action movie and a terrible zombie/video game movie, we find ourselves with Resident Evil: Extinction.

It picks up where 2 left off. The virus has spread, lots of people are mostly dead, and the remains of humanity find themselves travelling the open roads or holed up underground. Think Day of the Dead crossed with Mad Max, and you'll have an idea of the tone the movie's trying to set.

The downfall of 2 was that it tried to be too much like the game, and 3 appears to have learnt from these mistakes. While there are lots of cute little nods to the source material, in the form of character names, little piano pieces, and claustrophobic corridors, the movie moves toward the standard zombie formula pretty quickly rather than going with the single character setup, although it does take a while for Milla to find another little gang of survivors and form our ragtag crew of zombie fodder; I guess the writers knew there really wasn't much material to work over in that respect.

Meanwhile, there is the same sort of clichéd corporate menace from Umbrella, with their serums and their cloning (yes, cloning, in a zombie movie, obviously a great idea) and their plans to turn the zombies into a free workforce (another stellar plan). It's a subplot quite obviously lifted from Day of the Dead, but it just feels a bit redundant, although I suppose it does give you someone to boo and hiss at when they appear on screen. You know, as if the zombie hordes weren't menace enough. Having said that, some of the zombies look a bit...weak. I understand that there are fewer and fewer people milling about waiting to be eaten, but a lot of them just look thin and plastic, which isn't *really* all that menacing.

Otherwise, Extinction features the same general ass-kickery from Milla, big action scenes, and mostly inept support from random stock characters. While Milla knows how to play this role, as do the other returning characters, but pretty much everybody else is just...bad. Check out the hospital scene near the start or the bit where that scientist guy "domesticates" a zombie for a host of examples of bad acting; these are definitely not thespians at the top of their game. Oh, and for more amateur points, don't forget that generic nu-metal soundtrack!

While it isn't great, or even good, it's okay, providing a reasonable amount of silly cliché-ridden entertainment thanks to its unashamed lifting of material from every zombie movie ever and attempts to come up with new and exciting ideas (clones! zombie birds!), but really it adds nothing new, and will hopefully mark the end of a relatively unsuccessful franchise, despite its somewhat open ending.
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1408 (2007)
different, subtle, and very, very good
4 September 2007
Please note that this review refers to the theatrical version, and not the Director's Cut DVD release which features a completely different ending.

Mike Enslin is a cynic. He is the author of books that detail and debunk popular ghost stories and haunted hot-spots, and it quickly becomes obvious that he is somewhat disenchanted with the life that he leads. That is, of course, until he receives an invitation to Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel, a room in which lies his and arguably John Cusack's biggest challenge yet.

It soon becomes apparent that 1408 is not your standard horror movie, as what follows, after an enjoyably creepy encounter with hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L Jackson), is essentially 90 minutes of John Cusack in a room. On his own. Save for, of course, whatever lurks inside 1408. It is a challenge that Cusack rises to expertly; we all know he's a good actor and a brilliant everyman (I don't remember a film in which I've wanted to see him crash and burn), but 1408 allows him to display his range to great effect as the room confronts him with the physical dangers of the present and the emotional tragedies of his past.

While it's relatively light on big scares, 1408 instead creates a powerful sense of unease that combines wonderfully with Cusack's portrayal of a man enduring his own private hell. Each challenge thrown up by the room takes the movie somewhere new and unexpected, ensuring that the movie never really gets tired or repetitive, and as a result each scene in the room is tense, surprising, and very, very creepy. However, that's not to say that it doesn't lose its way occasionally. Some of the CGI usage is quite ineffective, and about two-thirds through the movie it feels like it's about to go the wrong way, but it recovers well for the final act, and its haunting ending ensures that you'll remember it long after you leave the theatre.

A brilliantly acted, well developed version of King's short story, 1408 is a different type of horror movie, but in all the right ways. Very good!
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Disturbia (2007)
a simple story well retold
21 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
After the death of his father, Kale (LaBeouf) becomes angry and withdrawn. When he's failed in Spanish, he attacks his teacher, and is placed under house arrest for 3 months. Stripped of his mod cons (iTunes and xBox Live go out the window), he turns his attentions outside, and learns some disturbing truths about his suburban neighbourhood in a sinister take on the voyeuristic aspects of modern life.

After making some loose connections between an ongoing missing persons case and one of his neighbours, Kale enlists his friends to help him find out what's going on. However, Kale is powerless to really influence events; if he leaves his garden, the police show up. It's a tool that works to great effect in terms of creating tension, placing him in the same position as the audience. He can only watch events as they play out outside his window and hope they turn out for the best, as we can only watch events on our screens and (presumably) hope for the same thing.

There are obvious connections to Rear Window, the movie even being dubbed Rear Window for the MTV generation (although aren't we a bit past that now?), but while the original was a masterwork of suspense and doubt, Disturbia disposes of the subtlety and goes straight in for the kill with a surprisingly greasy David Morse and clichés aplenty (blood spatter, dark and stormy nights...).

Of course, it requires some suspension of disbelief (where does an unemployed teen get the money for video home security systems?) but it is nonetheless an enjoyable, well-paced thriller. Good stuff.
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Knocked Up (2007)
20 August 2007
Knocked Up is a comedy about pregnancy, love, and marriage, that has far more intelligence and emotional depth to it than somewhat its flippant title would suggest. Ben (Rogen) is a layabout bum who lives with his stoner friends, "working" on a celebrity porn movie website. Alison (Heigl) has just been promoted at E!, and when she heads out to celebrate, their worlds collide with disastrous and of course hilarious consequences.

The comedy is clever and insightful, loaded with little self-referential moments and pop culture references (the Munich one is particularly awesome), and while it occasionally veers toward the puerile, the movie's subject matter ensures that the humour remains considered and intelligent for the most part. The performances are outstanding, but not just in terms of comic timing. Rogen appears built for this sort of balanced role as he realises that he has to grow up to meet the challenges of relationships and parenthood, and Heigl is just as effective as she learns to accommodate Ben's lifestyle and releases her grip on her career. The support from Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann is also brilliant. While their conflict-ridden marriage doesn't make them the greatest of role models for Ben and Alison, it certainly provides lots of laughs, and the clashes between Mann's overly paranoid Debbie and Rudd's laid-back Pete provide an interesting projection of how Ben & Alison's relationship could turn out.

The Rudd & Rogen moments make for some of the movie's better lines, but their humour is finely balanced with that emotional depth that I mentioned before, making the characters far more than punchline machines, which benefits the movie immeasurably. The awkward intimacy of Ben & Alison's almost-forced relationship also provides touching and comic moments, as Apatow examines what happens "when life doesn't care about your plan". Even the serious, emotional scenes are laced with a sort of ironic, bittersweet humour, which again gives the characters a sense of realism but also makes the movie that bit more comfortable and reassuring.

A subject that could have been treated with a crass touch, Apatow remains in tune with his previous effort, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and chooses to focus on the impact the pregnancy has on the lives of the characters, allowing their actions and interactions to create the comedy as they come to terms with their new situation. His light touch makes Knocked Up touching, insightful, and very, very, funny.
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R-Point (2004)
scary but never o-t-t
19 August 2007
Six months prior to the beginning of the film, a group of recon soldiers are sent to "R-Point", a strategically significant island south of Saigon. Radio contact is lost, and they're presumed dead, until six months later ("present day" in the film's sense) radio transmissions are received claiming that the soldiers are alive and in grave danger. A squad of 9 soldiers, led by hardened veteran Lt. Choi, are dispatched to find them and bring them home.

What follows isn't an action-heavy horror movie, but a more tense, atmospheric exploration of the lines between the supernatural and reality. Surrounded by miles of jungle and rumours of ghosts, the soldiers begin to crack under the pressures of their situation and begin to turn on one another. It's difficult to describe what they encounter without making it sound trite or clichéd (R-Point is neither), but the physical pressures of the jungle combined with the psychological pressures of the legends of R-Point are captured brilliantly both by the camera-work and the actors portraying their private descents into madness.

Atmospheric and full of suspense, R-Point is tense, very creepy, and definitely worth watching. It never goes over the top and remains tight and controlled. Horror movies and war movies cross over well, it seems. After is, war is hell, and in R-Point, each soldier certainly goes through that.
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PTU (2003)
good but not great...
19 August 2007
We meet the PTU on one of their worse nights. Chasing a suspect, a police sergeant loses his gun, and streets away, the son of a crime lord is stabbed to death in a small restaurant. We follow the PTU in their attempts to both find the policeman's weapon and prevent the fallout from the murder escalating. While it sounds an intriguing premise, PTU is not the pacey action-thriller you might expect, but is instead a slow, dark, and tense journey through the HK underworld.

Some scenes are brilliant, the use of harsh light and almost omnipresent shadow works well, effectively capturing the mood of the underworld. There's some real artistry here, and it's for that reason that the pacing frequently seems to be a little slow; the scenes look so good that the camera lingers on them for perhaps too long, causing pacing issues in some sections. However, it does work well in terms of suspense as the film builds towards its inevitably violent conclusion.

On a negative note, the music is terrible, and significantly dates a film that's only four years old. You have to wonder if they ran out of action movie ambiance sounds and just hit the classic cheese guitar button instead, but I guess that's just an Eastern film meets Western audience convention clash. It does however, in my opinion, completely undermine the final scene, which comes across as faintly ridiculous instead of as a dramatic release.

While it suffers from pacing and score issues, PTU's style and sense of tragic irony are enough to make it enjoyable if not quite essential viewing.
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Edge of the seat stuff
17 August 2007
Jason Bourne sits in a dusty room in with blood on his hands, trying to make sense of what he's just done. Meanwhile, a CIA chief in NYC outlines the agency's response to what's just happened on screen. An American flag stands proudly on the centre of his desk in the foreground of the shot, but as he speaks, it slips out of focus as his plan veers into morally dubious territory, as if it doesn't want to be associated with the course of action the government man decides is necessary in the interests of national security.

This shot effectively captures the mood of the film. As well as portraying Bourne's quest to find out how he became Jason Bourne, Ultimatum is also an examination of the human costs of the measures taken to protect us in the interests of stability and security.

It is also probably the best film you'll see in the cinema this year.

It's just so intense. Bourne says to Simon Ross (Considine) "This isn't some newspaper story, this is real" and in the audience you almost believe him. The camera shakes, but remains steady enough for you to see everything and feel like you're there with Bourne as he tries to elude his pursuers, and the performances are so good that these guys seem as though they are the characters they're portraying, instead of just being actors performing well-written roles. The action scenes are so brutally fast-paced and well choreographed that they seem instinctive instead of planned to the minutest movement; the stunt-work is nothing short of amazing.

The pacing is just incredible. It keeps driving forward towards its conclusion, but not so fast that it leaves you struggling to piece together the plot; the script delivers the information you need as quickly and clearly as possible before moving on to the next tense action set-piece. While they're often simple (the Waterloo sequence is essentially just a man on a phone being watched by a man on a phone) they're charged with such dramatic intensity that you can't take your eyes off them. The film is just so focused on powering forwards that you can't help being swept along by it.

With its intense action set-pieces, brilliantly paced storyline, and intelligent examination of the decisions made in the name of national security, the Bourne series is one that accurately captures the ambiguities of our age. Ultimatum is its peak.
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The Number 23 (2007)
Descends into absurdity
8 August 2007
Despite the critical negativity surrounding its initial release, I was quite excited when I heard that The Number 23 was coming out on DVD soon; I was strangely drawn to the promises of trashy, pseudo-intellectual entertainment made by the trailer and its absurd yet curiously intriguing plot. Such promises are unfortunately unfulfilled.

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) receives a book for his birthday. As he reads, he notices some parallels between the life of the novel's protagonist, Fingerling, and his own. Not an uncommon experience, many readers would argue. However, little details and numerical coincidences pop up more and more, and soon Walter's simple life is consumed by the novel.

Soon, the lives of Walter and Fingerling blend together, allowing for some acting flourishes from Carrey as his typically oddball character descends into one of his typically neurotic characters at a questionably fast pace. His performance is well contrasted by Virginia Madsen, who takes on the role of his wife, and for the most part, the audience, as she criticises Walter's small revelations. Having read the book, she admits "I didn't get it". The idea is that by the end, we'll come around. But we don't.

For some reason, at around the halfway point, it lunges forward as if the middle act has been left on the cutting room floor, perhaps in a bid to keep the running time at an ADD-friendly 90 minutes. Carrey is suddenly a lunatic, despite being a little over halfway through the novel at best, and 23 turns into a Scooby-Doo-ish murder mystery as the family jump in the van and track down an escaped murderer. It just falls apart and leaves you wondering what might have been.

The expository ending ties up the loose ends re-establishes some coherency on the disorder, but nevertheless, the film ends with its biggest question left unanswered: if your surname was Sparrow, why would you name your son Robin?
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Creep (I) (2004)
works against its own ideas
20 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Creep is the story of Kate (Potente), an intensely unlikeable bourgeois bitch that finds herself somehow sleeping through the noise of the last underground train, and waking up to find herself locked in the tube station. After somehow meeting workmate and would-be rapist Guy on a mystery train that runs after the lines have closed, things go awry and she finds herself pursued by what lurks beneath the city's streets. Her story is linked to that of George (Blackwood), an ex-con working in the sewer system; they meet in the final third of the film, brought together by their attempts to escape the monster that pursues them.

The pair proceed through a set of increasingly unlikely locations; from the Tube station, they end up in the sewage works before somehow finding themselves in some sort of abandoned underground surgery. Most Tube stations don't have toilets, so how one has a surgery is beyond me. Naturally, the film cares to explain that the surgery doesn't have running water. Yet it has electricity? Just one of many inconsistencies that work against the atmosphere of everyday believability that the film tries to create.

The monster itself is a problem. There's a complete lack of reasoning for its actions, it just kills people for no obvious reason. And then of course it keeps some alive for no real reason either, perhaps just so that they can eventually escape and give the film an extra 15 minutes or so running time. I understand that natural evil is supposed to be scary, but then the film attempts to explain itself via a photo of a doctor and his son, and a few shots of some jars containing babies, and yes, it is just as tired and pathetic as it sounds. It also fails to explain how the creature has been underground long enough to lose the ability to speak, communicating only in raptor screams, but not long enough for its pair of shorts to decay. Hmm.

This doctor business leads to scene that is the film's desperate attempt to implant itself on your memory, and while it is gory and uncomfortable to watch, it just isn't enough. The final third of the film hinges on an emotional relationship that never existed, and the characters break down and recover for little or no obvious reason. George breaks down, unable to cope with something despite stating that he wants to escape so he can see his daughter again, and Kate becomes emotionally tough seconds after going to pieces over someone that ripped her off for a travelcard. Yeah.

After starting out as a "this could happen to anyone" movie, it quickly falls apart as it introduces ideas that make it more and more unrealistic. A complete lack of emotional interest in the characters and an absence of suspense make this one to avoid.
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Fantastically Overblown
12 April 2007
Blades of Glory is the story of Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrel) and Jimmy MacElroy (Heder), two rival ice skaters banned from competition after a podium brawl at an "Olympic" event. After Jimmy's stalker finds a loophole in the rulebook (yes, you read that right), the pair join forces to reclaim their rightful position at the top of the skating rankings.

While it follows the predictable rise, fall, and rise again pattern of most comedies, Blades of Glory is different enough to be memorable. The costumes are ridiculous, the set-pieces are brilliant (including a very awkward chase sequence involving a crossbow and an unfortunate mascot), and the performances, what these films hinge on, are excellent.

The Ferrel-Heder exchanges are drenched with homoeroticism, and their struggles to come to terms with each other's lifestyles (Ferrel: "I'm a sex addict. It's my cross to bear" and Heder: "If you can dream it, you can do it!") are funny enough to carry the film for large sections. The supporting performances of the Waldenbergs (Will Arnett, Amy Poelher, and Jenna Fischer) fill in the gaps successfully, their conversations charged with an unusual mix of villainy and incestuous desire. Then of course there are the skating scenes, which are quite a sight to behold, in all their spandex-and-diamonds splendour.

Overall, Blades of Glory is hilarious. Pretty much every aspect of it is fantastically overblown, and it keeps you laughing quite steadily for its 90-minute running time. Boom!
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Hard Boiled (1992)
7 April 2007
"Hey!" Chow Yun Fat says, covering a baby's eyes. "X-Rated action!" He's not wrong: Hard Boiled is a film clearly not afraid to embrace its genre's excesses. While most modern action films (Smokin' Aces for one) aspire to some sort of grand intelligence while providing shoot-outs and explosions, this film is a reminder of times when action films suffered no such pretensions.

Crowds of people are gunned down without explanation and the smallest things explode for little or no reason. The bad guys are massively exaggerated cutthroat caricatures and the good guys never miss. Scenes of Fat and Leung running down corridors are inexplicably shot in slow motion. And, for all of these reasons, it is amazing. It's fast, it's exciting, and it never lets up.

Hard Boiled is loud, exciting, and, thanks to quite terrible dubbing and a ludicrous early 90's soundtrack, often unintentionally hilarious. It is a film that places entertainment firmly ahead of plausibility and logic, and is quite frankly awesome for it.
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The Descent (2005)
Slow to start but worth the wait
5 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The Descent is the tale of a group of girls who go caving. Naturally, things aren't quite what they seem, and things start to go very wrong very quickly. The first section of the film aims to provide us with some background, some character development, so that we can differentiate between the girls later, when they're alone in the dark. As a result, impaling aside, this section's quite slow and drags on a bit. Once they go caving and the film properly starts though, it gets a lot more exciting. The scares are well paced, and they're effective even when it's pretty obvious that they're coming up; credit to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the caves for this. A lot of the film is without music, the silence truly eerie, and the lighting is also very effective. The use of headlamps and night-vision in certain sections makes sudden movement almost impossible to track and therefore quite scary. Nonetheless, it's still a little slow until the ego's take over underground. As the girls argue, they are being tracked by something that's been living in the cave and is none too pleased with their intrusion. Being stalked underground by a highly developed hunter is quite a freaky premise, and as a result you're left in a perpetual state of unease for the rest of the film as it turns from a girls night out into an underground zombie movie. This is a good thing, and it rattles along at a high pace for the second half, which makes The Descent tense, uncomfortable but ultimately enjoyable viewing. Worth it!
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Smokin' Aces (2006)
Falls flat at the last hurdle
28 March 2007
The Smokin' Aces you'll watch is a different film to the one you'll have come to expect from the trailer. While there are guns, explosions, jokes, and women, things aren't quite what they seem as it also comes with a misguided attempt to turn itself into an intelligent drama which unfortunately fails spectacularly at the film's close.

That said, for 90 well-paced, stylish minutes, people make jokes and die in exciting ways, so you can sit back, switch off, and enjoy it. However, once the shooting stops, it self-destructs by trying to smarten up with a ridiculous plot twist, as if it's apologising for the guns and partial nudity we enjoyed earlier. The subplots fail to come together and it just falls apart, leaving you disappointed. Problems aside, Smokin' Aces is an enjoyable ride. Just make sure you leave before it forgets it's just an action movie and tries to become something it isn't.
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Saw III (2006)
More disgusting than involving
28 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
A whimpering middle-aged man pulls against the chain around his leg that keeps him tied to the wall. Using his shoe, he desperately struggles to reach a torch inches out of his reach to shed some light on his situation. He reels it in, and we find ourselves looking at the remains of previous instalments of this horror trilogy; the hacksaw, a dead body, and of course, a severed ankle. Our whimpering middle-aged man looks at the ankle, at his chains, at his own ankle, and then his eyes rest upon the saw and I remember thinking "No. Not again. Not again." Not again indeed. He spies a concrete slab on the ground. After a period of consideration (which is clearly not long enough), he proceeds to crush his ankle, before twisting it out of the manacle with his bare hands. And to think I was relieved.

Saw III throws you in the deep end. After a few more woefully graphic set-pieces (including a rather nasty ribcage removing machine), it calms down a bit to reveal a plot. Amanda (Shawnee Smith) kidnaps a nurse (Bahar Soomekh) in an attempt to prolong Jigsaw's (Tobin Bell) life, while simultaneously putting vengeful father Jeff (Angus Macfayden) through a series of grim trials, and while these plot lines are fairly detailed, you're given the impression that the plot and the actors only exist as an excuse for the writers to show the grotesque scenes that characterise the Saw trilogy.

These moments crop up very often and are done very effectively. The quick cuts and close-ups reduce the audience to hiding behind their hands or wincing in a state of perpetual nervous discomfort, but they are thankfully well spaced out, allowing you some recovery time in between the film's more painful moments.

However, they're more shocking than scary, and that's where this film falls flat. While the first film had the ability to shock and surprise you, the third appears to have given up on scares and just focuses on the repulsive. While Saw III is certainly good at what it does, in light of its predecessors what it does doesn't seem to be enough.
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Hot Fuzz (2007)
28 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Hot Fuzz is the story of Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), hardboiled super-cop. Intimidated by his arrest record, his cameo-appearance superior officers (Martin Freeman, Steven Coogan, and Bill Nighy) transfer him from the busy streets of London to the sleepy village of Sandford to keep him out of the way and balance the books, because, to be honest, he's making the rest of them look bad. A big cop in a small town, Angel sees murders and conspiracies where the cameo cast of cops and locals see accidents, but, with the help of his partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), it's not long before he discovers that not everything in Sandford is quite what it seems.

Sound clichéd? Good. That's the point. Once settled in Sandford, Hot Fuzz becomes a vehicle designed to send up every action film that has ever taken itself even slightly seriously from Police Story to Point Break, and it does this brilliantly by simply taking everything from these films and pushing them that bit further, making them appear both ridiculous and awesome at the same time. The characters are massively exaggerated (especially Pegg's super-cop and Timothy Dalton's fantastically over-the-top super-villain). The action sequences are outrageous, exciting, and feature a surprising degree of rough justice, perhaps most notably in the form of an old woman getting karate-kicked in the face (or maybe a pub landlord getting his head bear-trapped…). The dialogue ranges from obvious parody ("Did you tell him to cool off?") to clever Pegg-Frost exchanges, and even the music is perfectly balanced between action-scene rock songs and mock-epic slow guitar pieces.

However, that's not to say that Hot Fuzz is non-stop comic action. The first half an hour or so seems a little slow, but there's no reason to worry; the cast are simply setting up jokes to be knocked down later on, and it is definitely worth the brief wait for the well-paced comic-action masterpiece that's lying just around the corner. As with Shaun of the Dead, the people behind Hot Fuzz are affectionately poking fun at a genre that they clearly love, creating a film that embraces its genre's inherent ridiculousness, and is all the better for it.
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