Sunday, 9 May 2010

REVIEW: "A Nightmare On Elm Street" (18)



You have to hand it to Platinum Dunes. They sure know how to polish a turd. It's just a shame that they're polishing it with someone else's diarrhoea. This is, after all, the production company behind such non-event reimaginings as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and (perhaps worst of all) last year's Friday the 13th rehash. And in a couple of years time they're going to subject audiences everywhere to a new take on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, perhaps the worst idea since Gus Vant Sant decided to splash his masturbatory Psycho fantasies all over the big screen. (Let's hope the sudden infamy of avian camcorder epic Birdemic has taken the wind out of those sails.) In all honesty, their neverending obsession with hoovering up the rights to classic horror properties & remaking them in perhaps the most brain-meltingly awful way possible puts them only a couple of notches above the efforts of D-list direct-to-DVD merchants The Asylum, producers of such as low-rent hatchet jobs as and the forthcoming Paranormal Entity, The Da Vinci Treasure and, yes, Titanic 2 (to be fair to the guys at The Asylum, who are really passionate about what they do and completely understand their audience in every respect, has there ever been a film with a title quite as tantalising as Mega Piranha?)

Having said all of that, the fact that their new-fangled A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't make you want to stick your face in the nearest smoothie-blender is a definite step in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, it's not exactly good. In fact, it's pretty damn despicable, but it's still probably the most watchable effort yet from PD. Admittedly that's like saying one giant sack of shit is only slightly less shitty than another. In any event, general consensus seems to be that it's an inferior retread of a horror classic. Let's be clear: time has not been kind to Wes Craven's film. The performances are cheesy, the special effects ropey and and the whole thing comes across as a cheap and cheerful exercise in pulp filmmaking. Ditto the remake - it does exactly what it says on the tin. If what it says on the tin is “Danger: Fucking Awful Movie.”

The main plot beats are familiar from the original...a group of teenagers are stalked in their dreams (IN THEIR DREAMS!) by a mysteriously scarred and surprisingly quippy psycho-killer called Freddy Krueger. One by one, and in increasingly gory circumstances, they start getting bumped off in the night. The implications are clear: if you sleep, you dream, and if you dream, you die....

Making his debut here is music video veteran Sam Bayer, the guy behind Nirvana's iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit video among others. Bayer clearly knows how to make things look real swell because the production values on display are superior to anything in the original franchise. The problem is that he directs it (yes!) like a music video, concentrating on the inherent prettiness of it all instead of making any attempt to deliver any genuine horror. The scares, for what they're worth, are of the standard jack-in-the box variety, lots of jumps but no real chills, and there's way too much reliance on CG blood 'n' guts - the lack of any real visceral threat downgrades the peril levels significantly. (Logic fans beware! In his review – which you can find right here – the News of the World's Robbie Collin points out an interesting thing: in the original movie, Freddy was a child killer, whereas in the remake he's a paedophile who never really shows any interest in killing his victims...SO, what's his motivation for dream-stalking them to death all those years later? Revenge? If he wanted that, surely he could just haunt the dreams of the kids' parents? Brain..hurts....)

Jackie Earle Haley is perfectly fine as a modern-day Freddy Krueger, the murdering paedo dream bastard it's okay to like. He never looks like he's enjoying it quite as much as Robert Englund, and he definitely cranks down the camp compared with the original series, but it's a solid turn that probably suffers a little in comparison with the sheer psychopathic relish he brought to his portrayal of Rorschach in Zach Snyder's Watchmen adaptation. The rest of the cast don't really figure, cast more for their 90210 looks than any requirement to bring any superfluous depth or motivation to their characters. But wasn't that the same with the original? The only reason Johnny Depp got cast was because he was pretty. To his credit, and like Craven before him, Bayer knows that the real star of the movie is Krueger. Sure enough, he wastes no time introducing his bogeyman in a full reveal right there in the opening sequence. Is he scary? Sort of, in a “he's behind you” kinda way, but anyone expecting genuine terror will be disappointed...Harvey Dent's scars in The Dark Knight were more fearsome. But that's the Nightmare remake all over – one knife short of a full set.

Friday, 7 May 2010

REVIEW: Hot Tub Time Machine (15)



It's official: John Cusack is the new King of Dumb. Last year he spent 2 1/2 hours running away from the apocalypse in Roland Emmerich's frankly amazing odyssey of chaos and destruction 2012. This time around he's travelling back to the 80s and rewriting (recent) history in the completely literal and nuance-free frat-buddy comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. And to think only 8 years ago he was making films about Hitler.

Frankly, it's a step in the right direction. After spending the last decade churning out such ill-advised box-office shockers as War Inc, The Ice Harvest & (the horror!) Must Love Dogs, Cusack needed a couple of hits, and while Hot Tub is no stone-cold classic along the lines of Grosse Point Blank, it throws up enough giggles with just the right amount of heart to remind us why we all fell in love with him in the first place.

The premise is simple and, to be perfectly honest, about as subtle as a jalapeno enema. A group of friends, all disaffected in some way with their respective love lives and careers, take a weekend break in a dilapidated ski-resort in an effort to cheer up their suicidal best friend Lou (Daily Show veteran Rob Corddry) and recapture the glory days of their youth. Over the course of one wild night, they check in, get drunk and find themselves transported back to 1986, where they're presented with one last chance to change their destinies forever.

So yes, it's not exactly The White Ribbon. In fact, it's barely Weekend At Bernies. Director Steve Pink (best known for writing the aforementioned Grosse Point Blank as well as High Fidelity, another Cusack high watermark) seems less interested in realistic character development than he is in jokes about straight male friends pretending to give each other blow-jobs. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Straight male friends pretending to give each other blow-jobs is, after all, hilarious. The humour is clearly gross, the plot ridiculous and a running joke about a one-armed bell-hop played by mad old Crispin Glover (presumably cast for his Back To The Future credentials) completely and utterly amazing. There's also a cornucopia of downright filthy one-liners that position Hot Tub Time Machine as some kind of Superbad for grown-ups (“Here's a question: was it morally wrong for me to exploit my knowledge of the future for personal financial gain? Perhaps. Here's another question: do I give a fuck?”) And pretty much everything uttered by Rob Corddry is genius (“Shia LaBeouf!”)...he's the Zach Galifianakis of this movie.

Perhaps the only thing that doesn't quite work is a wasted cameo by Chevy Chase who fumbles his way through a handle of throwaway lines and just comes across as shadow of his former bad-ass self. Fletch, Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation...it all feels like a very, very long time ago. Still, he's the not the star of the movie. That honour belongs to Cusack, who heroically presides over Hot Tub Time Machine with a straight face and charisma in spades. It may not be high art, but it's good to have him back.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

REVIEW: Kick-Ass (15)



Holy skull-crunch! The Daily Mail was always going to have a field day with this motherfucker. After all, like Watchmen and its graphic depiction of rape, torture and hot radioactive cock, Kick-Ass is not exactly your conventional, friendly neighbourhood comic-book movie. And after the dust settled on last year's Comic-Con in San Diego, where several scenes from the movie premiered (albeit rough-cut stuff with temporary soundtrack) to euphoric praise from the comic-book fraternity, it was always clear that while Kick-Ass was going to be an easy sell for the geek crowd, reeling in mainstream audiences would prove an altogether tougher challenge.

What's surprising is not that the tabloids have gone after the movie so passionately but that they're attacking it for the completely wrong reasons. The problem seems not to be with the almost relentless violence – the stabbings, shootings and (yes!) the skull-crunching – but the fact that a young girl, not even a teenager, says a very rude word. Once. The horror! Ban this sick filth! Etc. Put it this way, if they could give the a film an ASBO, then they definitely would. And if they did, then director Matthew Vaughn (here playing a blinder on the back of Neil Gaiman fantasy adap Stardust) should wear it like a badge of honour because the fact is that as well as being a completely and utterly genius action movie, Kick Ass is a remarkably moral film. In the universe of Kick Ass, the good guys get hurt, the bad guys get their dues and no matter what side you're on, family holds everything together. And at the centre of it, a comic-book store where the geeks hang out, the girls drink coffee and everyone (everyone) dreams of being a superhero.

Our guide through this ultra-violent world is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who one day decides to get his own back on the local scum and villainy by donning a rubber costume and taking to the streets as Kick-Ass, costumed hero and scourge of crims everywhere. Needless to say, he's rubbish, his first encounter ending up in a trip to the nearest ER.

But after a YouTube video of his misadventures transforms him into an internet celebrity, Kick-Ass soon secures the attention of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a father-daughter team on a mission of vengeance against local mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and before he knows it, Lizewski finds himself at the centre of an almighty battle royale in which he has to summon the superhero within, rise up to the challenge and defeat the bad guys once and for all.

In the title role, Brit actor Johnson (coming off the back of an acclaimed turn as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) plays it pitch-perfect, completely believable as an ordinary teenager playing around in a dangerous world he doesn't yet understand. He's the heart and soul of the movie and, weirdly, would have made a good Peter Parker.

Cage, meanwhile, goes all Adam West on our asses as the Batman-wannabe Big Daddy, a loving if psychologically unhinged father who's as comfortable taking his “Baby Doll” for ice cream as he is letting her shop for bazookas. He literally brings his daughter to the slaughter. The good news is that after a series of disappointing and occasionally just weird career choices (The Wicker Man, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing) Cage has suddenly found his form with a performance that harks back to that Wild At Heart craziness that made everyone fall in love with him in the first place. He also gets his own signature scene, an audacious warehouse take-down reminiscent of the drug factory massacre in Robocop.

And as the instantly iconic Hit Girl, tweenage assassin and all-round harbinger of pain, rising star Moretz (so adorable in last year's indie hit 500 Days of Summer) isn't so much lightning-in-a-bottle as carnage-in-a-can, serving up a body count that would make Rorschach blush and Charles Bronson proud. She gets the best lines (the aforementioned four-letter salvo) and the coolest kills (check out the way she dispatches the doormen in the most brutal lobby shoot-out since The Matrix) and is generally brilliant throughout. Think Dakota Fanning. With massive balls. And a Heckler & Koch USP Compact.

Arguably the real star of the movie, however, is Matthew Vaughn. The Layer Cake director here reveals previously unseen action chops, orchestrating some of the wildest on-screen havoc in recent years. This is hyper-kinetic, balls-to-the-wall stuff that takes big risks with a small budget. Take for instance the strobe-lit shoot-out that kick starts the final act of the movie. A mix of first-person shooter and slasher horror, it has a bravado that channels the spirit of early John Woo or T2-form James Cameron. And the final showdown, which recalls the blood-spilling chaos of Kill Bill Vol.1's “House of Blue Leaves” sequence, is genuinely jaw-dropping stuff, achieving head-spinning levels of annihilation and climaxing with a bona fide crowd-pleasing moment that pushes Kick-Ass centre-stage exactly when it counts. In other words, not the kind of thing you'd expect from the man behind Stardust. It's like finding out your dad's Santa Claus, or something. Yet despite the general gun-toting bad-assery of the action sequences, the screenplay by Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (based on the comic series by Mark Millar) never loses sight of its characters. Every time he's on the verge of being overlooked in favour of another Big Daddy/Hit Girl assault, the action always comes back to Kick-Ass and his journey.

The film is not perfect. Big Daddy and Hit Girl's back-story is fleshed-out in a cartoon sequence that feels more like clunky exposition than a natural reveal, its inclusion driven if anything by narrative economy & and a desire to get to the (literal) meat and bones of the action. Furthermore, in a movie whose success hinges on the reality of its fictional universe, the relationship between Kick Ass and his High School sweetheart (played by TV regular Lyndsy Fonseca) is never 100% convincing – one minute she thinks he's a stone-cold killer, the next she's inviting him to stay the night. Kudos to the movie for acknowledging that, amazingly, teenagers do actually have sex (you can't exactly imagine Peter Parker and Mary Jane fucking in an alleyway, can you?) but the leap is too much, too soon. And compared with mega-budget competitors like The Dark Knight, the scale of the film always feels, well, a bit small, its independent roots betrayed by a limited number of locations and and episodic structure. A good comparison is the first X-Men movie, which did a cracking job of introducing its characters but only ever felt like the prologue to a bigger story.

But these are minor quibbles. The fact is, you've probably never seen anything quite like Kick-Ass. It's a pop-art explosion of blood, sweat and tears that slices and dices its way through expectations like a kitchen knife through a kung-fu cucumber. And with the highly anticipated Iron Man 2 and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World due to hit later in the summer, 2010 is shaping up to be a bumper year for films that challenge not only the conventions of the superhero genre, but just exactly what you can get away with at the multiplex (let's be honest, 10 years ago, could anyone seriously have predicted that Robert Downey Jr and Mickey Rourke would be heading up the summer's biggest tentpole?) A genuinely independent vision from a director who's only just getting started, Kick Ass hits it out of the park, in the balls and up your bum. Your move, Edgar Wright.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

MODERN MYTH-MAKING 101: STEVEN SPIELBERG, STAR WARS & PARANORMAL ACTIVITY...


WARNING: May contain traces of SPOILERS...


There's a famous story, one of the most famous film stories ever, about the time George Lucas, still recovering from a shoot so arduous he didn't direct another movie for 20 years, invited a bunch of his favourite movie friends over for an early screening of Star Wars at his home in San Anselmo. Whether the story's true or not is not really that important in the scheme of things. Truths and untruths about the gestation of Star Wars have long since merged into one, overriding any sense of proportion about what is, in the cold light of day, an entirely pleasant piece of sci-fi fluff but little more. Anyway, to be fair, this really was a long, long time ago. Back in March 1977, in fact, before midichlorians, before Jar Jar Binks, before Boss Nass and the soggy swamp monsters of Naboo and all the other junk that came to represent the worst of the Lucasfilm pomp and excess derided by fanboys everywhere.

The screening was nothing short of a disaster. The editing was rough, the sound effects shoddy and the performances functional to say the least. Perhaps most crushing of all, there was just no sense of the scale of the thing. At this point in post-production, the ultimately groundbreaking visual effects by a fledgling Industrial Light & Magic were still nowhere near completion, so in addition to flogging a hokey B-movie narrative and showcasing some of the most chin-grindingly mundane dialogue ever committed to celluloid, the movie just looked cheap and incomplete, its visual spectacle a twinkle in the eye of its troubled creator. Lucas even had to resort to splicing B-roll footage of WWII dogfights into key action sequences in an attempt to replicate the unfinished shots and convey on-screen the very real, very intimate human drama of intergalactic warfare in a galaxy far, far away.

None of this went down particularly well with the cine-literate audience gathered in San Anselmo. The screening was so calamitous that George Lucas's wife Marcia allegedly burst into tears, declaring the entire project a write-off. "It's the At Long Last Love of science-fiction, it's awful," she said. Let's be honest, when your own wife hates your movie, you might as well just take taking a running jump off the end of the Hollywood sign and hope for a swift and merciful death at the hands of Pauline Kael. Brian De Palma famously didn't get it at all (but then again, Brian De Palma directed The Black Dahlia & Femme Fatale, so perhaps his scepticism shouldn't be taken too seriously.)

There was, however, one lone dissenting voice in the crowd and that belonged to Steven Spielberg, himself deep into post on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which even at the time was seen as the more serious, thoughtful rival to Lucas's indulgent space western. Spielberg fell in love with the movie straight away. It's no secret that Spielberg admired Lucas's simple, direct style of film-making, albeit begrudgingly. He's since gone on record as saying, "I was most jealous of George," he says, "because I thought and still do to this day, I just thought American Graffiti was the best American film I'd seen." There and then, he predicted that Star Wars would make over $100 million, and later that year he was proven right when Star Wars went on to join Spielberg's own monster hit Jaws as one of the biggest box-office bonanzas of all time.

The point is that when it comes to telling the difference between a hit and a flop, no one knows anything. Unless they're Steven Spielberg. For years now, Spielberg has been Hollywood's harbinger of box-office success. The guy simply knows what audiences want to see. Not niche, discerning, audiences, the kind of people who would rather eat a rat's ass than watch the latest Michael Bay. But mainstream, Saturday-night audiences, folk who only see a handful of movies every year at the multiplex and almost always with a massive bucket of popcorn resting on their lap.

Just ask Oren Peli, the writer/director of last year's breakout horror hit Paranormal Activity. According to reports, a screener of the movie made its way to Spielberg while Paramount were negotiating terms with Peli, specifically whether the movie should be remade on a bigger budget or put on general release in its existing cheap and cheerful form. Allegedly, shortly after watching the film, Spielberg noticed that the door to an empty bedroom had inexplicably locked, convincing him that the movie itself was haunted. Just to be sure, the screener DVD was returned to the studio in a large bin bag. Because we all know plastic bin bags are anathema to the supernatural, right?

Sure, Spielberg's reaction was nothing compared to Billy Graham's accusation that real life demons were living inside the reels of The Exorcist back in 1974. Even so, his close encounter not only convinced Paramount to take the movie to theatres without being reshot from scratch, it allowed him to pitch an entirely different, more cinematic ending to Peli for inclusion in the final edit. Several closing scenes were shot but after pretty extensive testing, it's Spielberg's ending that ultimately wowed cinema audiences over the world on the film's eventual release at the back-end of 2009. Why? Because it was better.

There are two "original" endings to Paranormal Activity apparently in existence. In the first, which downplays the "ghost story" aspects and pitches the film as a "real-life" slasher tale, a deranged Kate kills her husband Micah following an off-camera fight in the living room of the house and then gets shot when the police storm the house in the closing moments. The second ending shows Kate actually slashing her own throat on-screen after killing Micah, thus injecting some genuine gore into something that had, up to that point, been more about suspense than blood and guts. It's Spielberg's finale, however, in which there's no doubt whatsoever about Kate's possession, that delivers on the paranormal expectations of the title and allows the film to create its own new horror mythology i.e launch a franchise. And it worked. To the tune of $178 million worldwide. That's a lot of money when the initial cut of the film cost just $15 thousand.

Peli's next effort will be another low-budget "found footage" movie, this time telling the story of three teenagers who undertake their own investigation of Area 51...Maybe he heard that Spielberg knows a few things about alien movies...

(Incidentally, if want a completely different take on The Beard i.e. not the usual puffery you'll read in the mainstream film press, go and purchase the sensational Julia Phillips autobiography/bitchfest You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again with immediate haste. Phillips produced some of the biggest movies ever, including The Sting, Taxi Driver and Spielberg's own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and her memoir is a massively entertaining, no-holds-barred portrait of the coke-stained world of 70s Hollywood. Phillips died of cancer in 2002 but not before slinging an admirable amount bile and of ire in the general direction of the industry that made her. She was amazing, if a little cuckoo. I think she may have even been a Republican, which everyone held against her.)

Sunday, 21 February 2010

REVIEW: The Lovely Bones (12a)

When it was first announced that Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, former splatter master and all-round King of Geeks, was lined up to direct an adaptation of Alice Sebold's much-loved bestseller The Lovely Bones, there was a lot of speculation about whether the man who made a self-indulgent mega-budget remake of King Kong was exactly the right person to bring the story of murdered teenager Susie Salmon to the big screen.

It was never meant to be that way. Initially touted by producers as a small, low-budget production (estimated budget: $15million) with Ratcatcher's Lynne Ramsay attached to direct, the rights were lost when backers Film4 folded in 2002. Pretty gutting for all concerned - Film4 first acquired The Lovely Bones in 2000 when it was still an unfinished manuscript. No one had a clue the book would eventually turn into a minor literary phenomenon. Inevitably, a year later the project landed on the desk of Steven Spielberg (movie fact: 87% of all films in Hollywood end up on the desk of Steven Spielberg.) The Jaws director, who'd already made his own ghost movie with 1987's romantic drama Always, passed on the idea, allowing Peter Jackson and his own Wingnut Productions to acquire the rights and eventually the develop the script. Shooting finally commenced in 2007, although after years in development hell the budget had escalated to $65million, effectively turning a small-scale production into a major studio picture.

In actual fact, Jackson already had form with this kind of material. To this day many still regard his low-key 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures (starring newcomer Kate Winslet) as his finest non-Hobbit related moment. In that film, based on a shocking true story, the increasingly deranged fantasies of two teenage girls eventually lead them to commit murder in 1950s New Zealand. Critically acclaimed around the world upon its release, Heavenly Creatures won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, earned Jackson a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards, and secured his transition from Brain Dead gore hound to bona fide serious film-maker. In other words, it was a goodie. Sadly, although thematically in similar territory as Jackson's earlier film, The Lovely Bones isn't quite in the same league and seems destined to take its place as a minor work in the Kiwi's filmography .

Saoirse Ronan, prodigal child actress du jour following her creepy turn in Atonement, plays Susie Salmon, a 14-year old teenager in 1970s Pennsylvania who is murdered by her next door neighbour (Stanley Tucci in full-on "sinister paedo" mode.) But as her physical body passes away, and her remains locked in a corner of her killer's basement, Susie's spirit continues to live on the "in-between", her own personal version of heaven, a fantastical landscape made up of giant bottled ships and neverending corn fields. It's from this discreet, supernatural distance that Susie observes her family not only deal with their loss, but piece together the mystery of her death.

The film is a weird hybrid of suspense-fuelled thriller and sentimental family melodrama with a whole bunch of other New Age crud about life after death thrown in for good measure. When it's in thriller mode, The Lovely Bones is almost ruthlessly efficient, Jackson clearly in his element. Take, for instance, the sequence in the final act when Suzie's sister plays detective and, convinced of her neighbour's guilt, breaks into his house and hunts for evidence. It's an expertly-staged set-piece of nail-biting tension. Jackson really knows how to do "impending doom" better than any other mainstream director today, which means that every creak, every shadow, every break in the soundtrack - it all matters. Genuine edge-of-the-seat stuff, oddly reminiscent of the build-up in the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring although obviously on a much smaller scale. And there's just about enough of this good stuff throughout the movie to warrant the price of admission. However, despite the effectiveness of individual scenes, it never truly resonates as a whole and that's disappointing. In his previous films, whether it be zombie horror or fantasy epic, Jackson never did things in halves. The Lovely Bones, on the hand, is split straight down the middle. In other words, when the film's depicting events in the real world then it's good, when it's concentrating on the afterlife, well, that's another thing entirely.

The problem lies with the way he pitches the "heaven" sequences. Strongly reminiscent of the awful Robin Williams weepy What Dreams May Come, Jackson goes crazy with the green screen, coming up with something that's part-Lewis Carroll, part-Salvador Dali but much less interesting. In truth, these moments are actually a little boring, and not even that spectacular. Indeed, some of the CG looks pretty ropey. It's as if Jackson's trying to take basic human emotions and visualise them on an epic, almost phantasmic canvas. And it simply doesn't work, mainly because the film doesn't need them. In a novel, you can get away with long, internalised descriptions but in a commercial, story-driven movie, the narrative has to keep pushing forward or else the audience will lose interest and the movie won't play. Susie's voiceover is effective and tells you everything you need to know about her own particular afterlife, which means the literal depiction of heaven, if indeed that's what it is, is an entirely unnecessary distraction. And besides, the film never makes it entirely clear what impact Susie's afterlife is having on the real world. Perhaps it would have been a braver move to ditch the heaven stuff entirely and, like the book, simply let Suzie tell her story in words. (Apparently, when the movie's US release date switched from March to December 2009, Jackson took the opportunity to shoot some additional footage in order to flesh out these scenes. Big mistake - they needed less, not more.)

In addition to occasional CG wobbles, the film's other technical specs are also slightly all over the place. After investing so much time and money in wonderful production and costume design, both of which brilliantly evoke the small-town American dream of the 1970s, the digital cinematography lets everything down by going in and out of focus, apparently randomly, or appearing very blurry in some ill-advised extreme close-ups. The overall effect is jarring and proves that Jackon's still finding his feet when it comes to the digital video revolution. Apparently controlling your very own visual effects empire is still no guarantee of visual panache. (Seriously, some of the shots look like Inland Empire.)

Despite all this, the cast are great. As the movie's central focus, Saoirse Ronan nicely captures the hope of a teenage girl moving into adulthood, her Susie carrying just the right amount of wisdom and naivety to convey the promise a life not quite lived. And don't blame Ronan if, when invited into an isolated bunker in the middle of an empty field by a suspicious man in his late-40s, Suzie seems a little easily seduced. That's Jackson's fault. The film needed to work harder to make her abduction more convincing.

Successfully moving on from the double-whammy of shit and misery that was The Happening and Max Payne, Mark Wahlberg finds his feet here as a man whose obsession with catching his daughter's killer ends up driving his family apart. He nicely underplays throughout and it's a slight return to form for an actor who was, prior to this, on the verge of alienating his audience. Susan Sarandon has little more than a cameo, in all honesty, but she makes the most of it, getting the movie's only real laughs as Susie's eccentric, alcoholic grandmother. And Rachel Weisz comes and goes, literally in fact, as the family's oft-absent mother.

The real star of the movie, however, is Stanley Tucci. Everything you've heard about his performance is true. As a lonely man consumed by sinister desires, he dominates every scene in a charismatic, evil turn that threatens to veer into panto villain territory but stays just about restrained enough to be convincing. It's telling that despite being touted as an early awards contender, the only Academy Award nomination The Lovely Bones actually received in the end was Best Supporting Actor for Stanley Tucci. And if it wasn't for Christopher Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, he'd win it, too. (Interestingly, Tucci's wife had tried to convince her husband not to take the role on the basis that it was too harrowing.)

But ultimately this is Peter Jackson's film and he has to carry the can. He's taken a lot of flak for softening Sebold's novel, and shying away from some of the more distasteful elements of the story (you won't find any suggestion of Susie's rape in the movie.) Jackson's defended his adaptation by claiming that film is a visual medium and you don't need to see a lot of that stuff directly in order to get a sense of it. He's right, of course, and the criticisms are, for the most part, unfair. It's shame he doesn't follow his own advice when it comes to the supernatural sequences. In that respect, The Lovely Bones is an ambitious and admirable failure.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

WHEN MOVIES STOP MAKING SENSE


There's a really old method of torture called scaphism, that essentially involves being left to rot in the beating sun while insects use your rectum as an egg sack and turn your innards into a bowel smoothie. That the word "scaphism" itself derives from the Greek for "scooped" or "hollowed out" should give you some measure of its savagery. Death is inevitable but never sudden. It's long and arduous and immeasurably painful, and for those poor, pitiless victims, quite simply the feeling of being eaten alive.


Having said that, at least they'll never have to watch The Happening, the latest thriller from one-man incredulity factory M. Night Shyamalan. Because if there's one movie in recent years that faithfully reproduces in celluloid the flesh-eating, diarrhea-inducing fun of scaphism, then this is it. In many ways, it's a triumph, in that it's a film called The Happening in which nothing actually happens. It's like calling your movie The Day The Earth Stood Still and then having the Earth carry on as usual when the spaceship lands, as if somehow the annihilation of the planet was entirely secondary to completing a sudoku, or knocking one out over the latest issue of Record Collector.

The basic premise of The Happening is that plants have had enough of your shit and they just aren't going to take it any more. They're so angry at humankind for screwing up the planet that they unleash some kind of deadly toxin or spore into the air which causes general havoc and makes bad actresses walk backwards and kill themselves. Mark Wahlberg plays the worst science teacher in the world, Elliot Moore, a man so inept he goes around making unscientific observations like "the event must have ended before we went out today" while pretending that his wife, played by Zooey Deschanel, could ever love anyone so insipid. We follow him and a bunch of social inebriates around an assortment of fields and country lanes and other locales of terror and death, all the while hoping that, like Bill Clinton at a frat party, they do not inhale.
True, it's hard not to love any film that has, as its key action sequence, a scene in which the protagonist successfully out-runs the wind (the wind!) but even taking into account the usual suspension of disbelief that comes with genre twaddle, The Happening shows a disregard for logic that's borderline insane.

The movie's first big lie is a bit of a no-brainer, the idea that somehow plant life can consciously and collectively defend itself against the human race. To clarify, and I admit to you at this point that I'm not a botanist: plants cannot under any circumstances seek revenge against humankind. Even if they wanted to, and until there is definitive proof that plants have developed fully-formed consciences, it's unlikely they'll ever really "want" to do anything, there are just too many obstacles in the way. The inability to bear a grudge, for one. And unless you're either (a) a Triffid, or (b) Audrey 2 from Little Shop Of Horrors, then walking around, wreaking all kinds of freaky botanical mayhem and freaking out sexually frustrated shopkeepers, well, that's probably a non-starter too. Put it this way, no matter what you think, when nettles sting, they don't do it out of spite. A little schadenfreude, maybe, but never spite. (Let's be honest here, Audrey 2 was an anomaly - for all that "feed me, Seymour" rubbish, it's really anyone's guess as to whether the results could be successfully reproduced in laboratory conditions. And the Trifffids were an alien race intent on the invasion and ultimate destruction of Earth, so they don't count.) Anyway, the whole lack of consciousness thing? BIG problem.


The film's second big porky is slightly less frivolous, namely that science as you know it is ENTIRELY WRONG. Check out the classroom scene right at the beginning of the film, before all that crazy killer spore action kicks off, in which Mark Wahlberg's character argues that "science will come up with some reason to put in the books but in the end it'll just be a theory." Now presumably he got his degree from the same place as Gillian McKeith because this really is, to be perfectly frank, a schmorgasbord of piss and shit. At this point, I defer to the US National Academy of Sciences, which defines "theory" as thus:-


"Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena."

It's telling that Shyamalan uses a common misappropriation of "theory" rather than the more specific and, you know, scientific definition. More than anything, it exposes his suspicion that science isn't the best tool to help is unravel the mysteries of a complex and beautiful universe. Because of this reluctance to understand, and despite a convenient conclusion in which the inital threat abruptly and absurdly disappears, The Happening ultimately comes across as a very bleak film, one that suggests humans are incapable of establishing pragmatic solutions for any kind of anomalistic occurence. Instead, in Shyamalan's convoluted narrative, things just tend to "happen." Which is total guff as we all know. In the real world, things tend to happen for a reason and Newton's Third Law very much applies. In the real world, we have a process of evidence and observation. What's the alternative? God? No thanks. I've seen The Passion of the Christ and it wasn't pretty. In fact, it was the exact opposite of pretty. And by "the exact opposite of pretty" what I actually mean is "really fucking disgusting."


Interestingly, earlier in the very same classroom scene Wahlberg asks his students a very important question and that question is, "you're not interested in what happened to the bees?" And as everybody knows, the correct answer to this question is always, "frankly, Marky Mark, I lost interest in anything this film had to say approximately 20 seconds into the opening credits."


M. Night Shyamalan will return with The Last Airbender. It's about a kid who actually BENDS the air! Incredible. Oh, and by the way, Bruce Willis? TOTALLY a ghost.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

UP AND AT 'EM: WHY ANIMATION MATTERS IN THIS YEAR'S OSCAR RACE...

We're happy to be proven completely wrong on this but for the time being, fuck it, let's make a prediction: on 7th March 2010, at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, an animated film will NOT win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Now, under usual circumstances this wouldn't exactly be the scoop of the century, but the fact is that 2009 was a pretty bumper year for high-end, mainstream animation at the multiplex. On the other hand, early live-action favourites such as the Rob Marshall musical Nine (currently lumbered with a meagre 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones have underwhelmed critics, while others have simply fallen by the wayside (including, ironically, John Hillcoat's wonderful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) And with the record breaking success of James Cameron's mo-cap epic Avatar still perplexing the hell out of just about everyone, Hollywood's suddenly found itself in a bit of a Jake Sully-style identity crisis just in time for awards season.

The last time an animated feature even came close to picking up the coveted gold-plated statuette was in 1992 when Disney's Beauty & the Beast became the first ever animated film to be nominated for the main award. Sadly, despite securing nominations for 6 Oscars in total, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise's retelling of the classic fairytale had to settle for just 2 wins on the night, Best Score & Best Song, losing out in the Best Picture category to that year's juggernaut winner Silence of the Lambs. (In truth, the "Lambs" landslide wasn't completely unexpected in what was, overall, a weak year - also in the running were bland gangster epic Bugsy and dull-as dishwater Streisand drama Prince of Tides, both of which failed to excite audiences... JFK got the final nod, but its controversial subject matter was never going to go down well with traditionally conservative Academy voters.) Anyway, it was the start of something, and in the same year that Beauty and the Beast hit theatres, Pixar and Disney inked the deal which led to the production of the world's first fully computer generated feature film, John Lasseter's stone-cold classic Toy Story.


So much so that in 2001, the Academy Awards were forced to present an award for Best Animated Film Feature for the very first time. In its inaugural year, Dreamworks were triumphant with box-office smash Shrek (a franchise devalued with each and every instalment, like Lethal Weapon or Indiana Jones.) However, critics of the new award argued that by effectively ghettoising animated films within its own category, the Academy had severely damaged the chances of an animated feature being taken seriously in the main Oscar race. And so far, they've been bang on the money. Not one single animated film has been nominated for Best Picture since, which is a shame because the selection this year is, well, brilliant.

All in all, a total of five films will go head-to-head in the final shortlist for the Best Animated Feature category. Up's nomination goes without saying - it's almost unthinkable that Pixar would be excluded from the category they've helped to define since its inception (Pixar have 4 wins out of 6 attempts in this category: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E.) Similarly, it would be a massive shock if both the marvellous Coraline and Fantastic Mr Fox don't get nods for Henry Selick and Wes Anderson respectively, given the critical acclaim shared by both this year. Also expect Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki's gorgeous Ponyo to feature somewhere - weirdly, the last time 5 films were shortlisted for the Oscar was in 2003 when Miyazaki's Spirited Away took the prize (competition wasn't exactly fierce, the other nominees being Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Ice Age and Disney's epic flop, Treasure Planet.) There could also be recognition for the traditional Disney animation Princess & the Frog (the first hand-drawn effort from Disney since Lasseter took over the reigns at the House of Mouse albeit one that's disappointed at the box-office) and Sony's 3D sleeper Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.


All things considered, this will be the strongest ever year for Best Animated Feature nods, which could spell bad news for Up, easily the front-runner in this category given its pedigree. With so much competition there's a real chance the vote will be split between some very good, very classy movies. Check that list again. It's 100% ace.


Of course, there have been some good live action films. In the last couple of weeks, Kathryn Bigelow's searing Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker has emerged as the front red-hot front-runner, gobbling up pretty much every major critics prize it's been competing for. No doubt about it, this one's a heavyweight and probably the film to beat this season. Similarly, we reckon Jason Reitman's contemplative comedy/drama Up In The Air is a solid bet to take home something - the movie's had glowing reviews across the board and Reitman has previous following his last nod for Juno. The film's getting a lot of love from US critics right now and let's be honest, taking into account sterling work in Fantastic Mr Fox and The Men Who Stare At Goats, it's been a pretty positive year for George Clooney, who's sitting pretty for a Best Actor nomination. And then there's that giant James Cameron-sized elephant in the room. The one strapped with machine guns and pot pourri. Say what you will about Avatar, even the most cynical moviegoer would deny that it's now gone from folly to bona fide pop culture phenomenon. The 3D Smurftravaganza could even be The Hurt Locker's main competition depending on how sentimental the Academy's feeling this year.


However, despite a few big hitters, the usual crop of adult dramas has been, on the whole, disappointing. That could be why the Producers Guild of America has resorted to including genre movies such as Star Trek and District 9 in its final shortlist. Neither film has generated any prior awards buzz despite proving to be genuine crowd-pleasers and yet there they are, both standing tall, Na'avi-style, on the list. With 10 films making up the shortlist this year, Pixar have to confident that Up, one of the few non-arthouse movies that every major critic seemed to like, will have an opportunity to gatecrash the nominations and bag itself a Best Picture nod, regardless of how it performs in the Best Animated category.

So is Oscar finally ready to give Best Picture to an animated feature? No. No it isn't. Not unless your animated feature's called Avatar. But Up's very inclusion may well be enough to split the vote and cause an upset on the big night. Why? Because as far as Oscar is concerned, for the first time in years, animated films really matter.
Result.

(Btw, if you're looking for an outside bet, you'd do worse than put a few on Precious - full title: Precious: Based On The Novel Push by Sapphire - a movie that has buzz coming out of its ears.)

Monday, 11 January 2010

"MY NAME IS STUART TOWNSEND AND I WILL WIPE BUM FOR CASH"


Charlize Theron knows him as Charlize Theron's boyfriend. The rest of the world know him as that guy from that film once. Oh, AND Charlize Theron's boyfriend. And now the star of Queen of the Damned and all-round Icon of Cinema Stuart Townsend IS the man who's just been kicked off Thor the day before the start of principal photography.

The reason this is 100% newsworthy? Well, we've been here before... Cast your mind back and you'll remember that Stuart Townsend was famously cast as Aragorn in a small independent film called Lord of the Rings (you may have heard of it?) before getting the boot by a certain Kiwi director called Peter Jackson (you may have heard of him?) upon the realisation of a grave and monumental error. The part eventually went to poet, photographer, legend, Mr. Viggo Mortensen (you may have heard of him, too?)


The official reason for Townsend's departure is "creative differences" although rumours are all over the place that he showed up 6 hours for a crucial screen test thus provoking the ire of King of All Luvvies and saviour of existentialist Swedish cop drama Kenneth Branagh, the man behind the camera on Marvel's latest mega-project. Seriously - getting kicked off one multi-million dollar fantasy franchise is unlucky, getting kicked off two is just, well, plain rubbish.


Townsend had been lined up to play Fandral, sidekick of Thor. His replacement is Joshua Dallas, whose most high profile role to date was a turn in the recent Descent sequel. Oh, he also played "Node 2" in the "Silence In The Library" episode of Doctor Who. As Scotty says, "exciting!"


Of course, we may well be selling Townsend short here. It could just be that he simply is the single most uncompromising bad-ass in Hollywood. Either that or he's a total c***.

ANTICHRIST = AMAZINGCHRIST!

So I finally got round to watching Antichrist the other day and, well, I've really got to hand it to Lars Von Trier. Let's be honest, he doesn't exactly do things in halves.

Take, for example, Breaking the Waves, his breakthrough English language hit and darling of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. Frankly, it was beyond grim - it was double-grim topped with extra cheesy grimness. For an unrelenting two hours and forty minutes, no less. In 1998, Von Trier went one better with The Idiots, a staggeringly offensive film in which a bunch of middle class folk go full retard and indulge in hot spaz sex for a hefty chunk of the movie's not insubstantial running time. AO Scott of the New York Times described it as having "nothing on its mind besides the squirming discomfort of its audience." And he was quite right. Then last year, as if to rub it all into our disgusting, bourgeois faces, there was Antichrist.

To say that Antichrist split the critics down the middle is an understatement. In a lovely piece of Kubrickian symmetry, the movie finished up with a straight-down-the-line 50% average on Rotten Tomatoes. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple struggling to cope with the trauma caused by the death of their young son, it was the film that finally proved that Von Trier wasn't so much the enfant terrible of European cinema as much as its fucked up little cousin who may or may not be illegitimate. Some people thought it should be banned. And at its now infamous Cannes press conference, Von Trier was even challenged to justify the film's existence by one particularly hateful critic (hello, Baz Bamigboye!) Von Trier countered by declaring he was the best film director in the world, which is untrue, but a fairly typical and not entirely unexpected response from the Danish auteur.

Why the ire? Well, that's easy. The movie starts with a close-up penetration shot intercut with the accidental and violent death of a child. The action quickly moves to a cabin in the woods in which all kinds of allegorical horrors take place. These include a scene in which a fox eats its own intestines and some pretty horrific close-up images of genital mutilation in the film's surreal finale. It's horrible. It's unnerving. It's also pretty unforgettable. Like his Palmes D'or winner Dancer In The Dark, Von Trier's film takes its audience to an extreme place and leaves it there to fend for itself. And while it may be dripping with dread and terror, Antichrist is never a depressing experience. In fact, there's more despair in your average Rob Schneider movie or those strange American Pie sequels that always go straight to video (you know the ones, films like American Pie: Band Camp, American Pie: The Naked Mile and, perhaps most shockingly of all, American Pie: Excuse Me While I Skewer My Own Cock With A Pitchfork.)

Of course, compared to some of the more extreme Japanese horror films, like the stuff Takashi Miike's been putting out for years, Antichrist is about as offensive as the Garbage Pail Kids Movie (a whopping 2.7 on the IMDB - that's pretty terrible but still higher than several Uwe Boll films, dirge fans.) There is, however, another key reason people hate this movie and that's Von Trier's apparently rampant misogyny. The film really doesn't like women. How else could it justify a scene in which the primary character chops off her own clitoris? Ok, so she did smash in her fella's penis a few scenes before, but that's just fanning the flames...this chick's got issues. After putting Bjork through all kinds of torture in Dancer In The Dark, and subjecting Nicole Kidman to hell on earth in Dogville (actually, we'll forgive them that one) Von Trier's probably not exactly the most popular person down the Women's Institute these days.

But no matter. Dodgy sexual politics aside (and the politics are EXTREMELY dodgy, I'm just not the best person to comment) Antichrist is a cinematic experience as much as, I don't know, Avatar. Like James Cameron's space extravaganza, it doesn't necessarily have the greatest screenplay in the world (neither film makes that much sense) but it doesn't need it. It's more interested in the sheer visceral possiblities of cinema than anything else. Viewed purely in terms of genre conventions, Antichrist is a cracking video nasty, a twisted, gothic body horror laced with spine-chilling tension. The suggestion that Gainsbourg might not just be batshit crazy, that she actually might be possessed by the Devil itself is a pretty tantalising intepretation.


So the critics can say what they like about Lars Von Trier. Beyond the controversy, and despite all the hype that threatens to drown everything he does, the simple fact is that the guy can really make films.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

WE'VE SEEN THE FUTURE OF MOVIE MARKETING AND HIS NAME IS RONALD...OH, AND HE'S "GOING VIRAL"...



Forget the internet, the future of movie marketing is 100% tramp. That's according to Hollywood producer David Permut, one of the guys behind blockbusters such as Face/Off and the latest film from Superbad star Michael Cera, Youth In Revolt.


Top industry blog Deadline Hollywood reports that Permut paid $100 to a homeless fella called Ronald to hold up a Youth In Revolt poster on the corner of San Vincente Wilshire in exciting Brentwood, Los Angeles this weekend.

Here's the post.

Now we can't decide if this really is the wonderful idea it seems or simply the shameless exploitation of the under-privileged (the guy did get $100 out of it.) Either way, Permut's plan was hardly successful: the film opened with a modest $7mil this weekend.

For our part, we're excited by the movie, which is directed by Miguel Arteta, the guy behind indie staples The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck. The novel by CD Payne was a classic coming-of age tale (think Catcher In Rye reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk) and it will finally prove to the world that Michael Cera can play roles other than Michael Cera.

Youth In Revolt currently has a respectable 7.1 on the IMDB and hits UK cinemas on 5th February 2010.


FIRST THINGS FIRST...

We weren't around too much over Christmas. The truth is that we were far too busy stuffing our faces with mince pies and watching Blu Rays to worry too much about trivialities such as the internet or the multi-billion dollar global film industry (our Blu haul this year included Moon, Inglourious Basterds, Bourne trilogy and Fringe S1, just in case you're wondering.)

This was deeply wrong of us.

Rest assured, just like that albino dude in The Da Vinci Code, we're flagellating ourselves silly in penance as we write this. We will be around LOTS in 2010, however, and by way of an apology, here's a round up of some of the key Chrimbo releases:-

Sherlock Holmes = Good
Avatar = Better
Nine = gonna wait for the DVD

That's pretty much all you need to know.

So, what's new with you?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

THE WEATHER...WITH WERNER HERZOG


"I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony,
but chaos, hostility and murder."

Today's weather: HEAVY SNOW.