Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Date Movie (2006)

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, generally speaking. Neither am I fan of ‘teen’ movies or gross-out comedies. From trailers and press coverage, Date Movie is probably the last film anyone would think me likely to sit through. However, two friends were going to see it and invited me along. My expectations were ridiculously low and sadly, not even they were met.

This film is meant to be a parody of romantic comedies. I’m surprised they’ve managed to get away with such blatant false advertising – aren’t parodies supposed to be funny? The set pieces range from disgusting, to stupid, to mildly amusing. I could count the number of times I laughed on one hand. Not only were the individual skits unfunny, as a whole they weren’t particularly coherent, scenes randomly thrown in for the sake of another film reference. So many of the scenes felt completely redundant.

Had the parody been successful, this no doubt could’ve been a funny film, as there is plenty of room to parody romantic comedies. Instead of being observant and witty, this film aims to use the simplest and most ridiculous ‘parody’ cliches. So many of the scenes were so similar to the originals that they barely merit being called parody – a large portion was simple, unfunny mimicry.

The funniest part of this film was a construction worker shooting himself in the head with a nail gun, not five minutes into the film. I only wish I’d done the same.


Monday, March 27, 2006

The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener is part romance, part thriller based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré. Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat who is forced to become a man of action in order to discover the truth about the murder of his wife, played by Rachel Weisz, uncovering a deeper conspiracy the more involved he becomes.

This film wasn’t as I expected. I expected to watch a fast-paced thriller full of political intrigue and plot twists. While all this does feature in the film, it takes a good 45 minutes or so to shift gears. The beginning of the film is slow, exploring the character background and motivation. It is not until the later portion of the film that the story telling becomes linear, making it difficult to follow at times.

The cast is superb, both Fiennes and Weisz proving themselves to be two of Britain’s best actors at the moment. The supporting cast is also strong, featuring some familiar faces such as Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite.

Fernando Meirelles, who shot to fame with City of God, proves once again to be a fine director. The stark contrast between bleak, rain-soaked Britain and bright, colourful Africa is visually striking. The flashbacks are handled well, never becoming too confusing.

The film’s main weakness is its handling of its dual identity – on one hand there is a love story and on the other a thriller. There are times when the two stories seem unbalanced, as though there are two films within the living space of one. The film does feel long at certain points, but in the second half the action is engaging enough to keep the viewer in their seat.

The film’s ending succeeds in being both bleak, yet satisfying, as corruption is uncovered but that does not equal a happy ending. Despite being based on fiction, the film’s plot is based enough in the real world to make the viewer stop and think about its content, which in my mind is always a good thing.

The Constant Gardener is an interesting and engaging film, which suffers only slightly from a slow start. The strong lead performances, masterful direction and interesting plot elevate the film to something more than a generic thriller.


Hannibal (2001)

The Silence of the Lambs is generally considered to be a modern film classic, amongst critics and cinemagoers alike. There was much expectation then when a sequel was released ten years later. The reaction to this new film was far from positive. The general consensus was that Hannibal lacked the intelligence and subtlety of The Silence of the Lambs, opting instead for gratuitous violence and gore. Anthony Hopkins and Frankie Faison returned from the original cast, while Julianne Moore took on the daunting task of filling Jodie Foster’s shoes as Clarice.

As with The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name. Hannibal, the book, is a very different creature to Silence of the Lambs, the book, so it’s only natural the film is different too. As an adaptation of the novel, the film fails miserably, but this is a very good thing, as an adaptation that stuck more closely to the source material would’ve made a far less enjoyable film. The book’s ending in particular split the fans; personally, I prefer the ending of the film (bar the final scene, which I rather pretend never happened).

It seems to me that Hannibal has been unfairly criticised in the shadow of The Silence of the Lambs. There is no denying that Hannibal is an inferior film, but nonetheless it has its own merits. The cast is still strong. Julianne Moore does a fine job as a very different Clarice to the young woman of Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins is as wonderful as ever, even if the Dr. Lecter of this film is a hammier character than he was in The Silence of the Lambs. Gary Oldman is suitably insane as the film’s hideously disfigured antagonist, Mason Verger, as Ray Liotta is suitably vile as resident creep, Paul Krendler.

Ridley Scott’s direction is at times beautiful, helped greatly by the stunning scenery of Florence in early sequences. There is much more gore in this film and it does occasionally feel unnecessary – slow motion effects feel over-used in the film’s first major sequence; a gruesome shoot-out. Much of the violence is taken directly from the book, however.

Hans Zimmer’s haunting score is sublime, making use of classical pieces as well as original compositions. The soundtrack also includes an aria specially composed by Patrick Cassidy, Vide Cor Meum, which uses words taken from La Vita Nuova by Dante Aligheri, a figure mentioned often in the film.

All that’s needed to make this film good is to forget about the sheer brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs. Neither particularly demanding nor subtle, the film is a great piece of popcorn-cinema; something some might argue was done with the book. The increased presence of Dr. Lecter himself might be simply to please mass audiences, rather than present a new and original story. Whereas this film is not a prime example of cinema like its predecessor, it is, in its own right, highly enjoyable.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

The novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ by Lawrence Sterne is widely considered to be unfilmable. This film is a mockumentary about an attempt at adapting and making a film of the novel. Steve Coogan takes the lead role as himself and as Tristram Shandy. It also stars Rob Brydon as the ‘co-lead’ amongst a whole host of British comedy talent.

The film boasts a wide range of comedy styles, from the integral banter between Coogan and Brydon to the more surreal moments, reminisent in style of ‘Scrubs’, at times. Much of the film’s comedy lies with referencing British pop culture, which probably diminishes some of the funnier moments for foreign audiences. For example, a running joke in the film involves Steve Coogan’s most famous incarnation, Alan Partridge. I’m not sure that those not familiar with the character would get the most out of the joke.

The comedy is not entirely verbal, however. While it is mainly banter, quips and mannerisms that makes the film incredibly funny, the funniest scene had to be one involving a hot chestnut, providing some hilarious visual humour. Much of the supporting cast is firmly rooted in the comedy world, so there’s not a problem of unfunny people in a funny film.

The film is an uplifting one, with Steve Coogan learning some valuable lessons during the shoot of the film. Best of all, these deeper ‘messages’ aren’t in the slightest bit didactic or out of place, rather they are simply the experiences of one man, showcased for us to see. These moments are never overpowering, the very successful comedic aspects being absolutely paramount.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Walk the Line (2005)

I hadn’t originally intended to see Walk the Line at the cinema, thinking that it wouldn’t really interest me. However, a few friends had nothing but good things to say about it, so I decided to give it a go and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Walk the Line chronicles the life of musician Johnny Cash from his childhood through to his marriage to singer June Carter. Carrying much emotional baggage from his childhood, Johnny makes his own success but also nearly brings about his own downfall by turning to drugs and alcohol.

Joaquin Phoenix shines in the lead role. Much speculation was made about Phoenix’s mental state during filming, due to parallels drawn between Cash’s life and Phoenix’s life, both men losing a brother at a young age. I’m not going to pass comment on speculation, but it’s possible that a similar experience helped Phoenix become Johnny Cash, as the performance he puts in is truly compelling and believable. Reese Witherspoon does a fine job as June Carter, although I didn’t find her performance to be particularly outstanding. I haven’t seen any of the other female performances nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, so I can’t comment on whether or not she deserved to win. The supporting cast is mostly spot-on, Robert Patrick proving particularly impressive, but there are a few weak moments from some of the less prominent characters.

Naturally, music plays a large role in this film. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon perform their songs and play their instruments in the film. This is impressive in itself, without beginning to realise that they succeed in sounding like those that they are portraying. The use of performance scenes is highly effective and never becomes tedious. I can imagine it becoming difficult to sit through if the music is not to a viewer’s taste, however.

The script is strong, both in terms of dialogue and in the way in which the film plays out. The dialogue never becomes overly sentimental, even though it quite easily could have done so. Overall the scenes play out well, but there are times when the action tends to drag, making the film feel longer than its 130-minute run-time. The direction is at times stunning, the opening sequence standing out in particular.

The film easily handles the more difficult aspects of Johnny Cash’s life and often succeeded in making me grin at its happier moments. All in all, Walk the Line tells the story of a passionate, albeit troubled, man in a manner that is both entertaining and evocative.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

The 78th Academy Awards, 2006

Just to break off from reviews for a moment - here's an article I wrote for The Courier, the student magazine of Aberystwyth university, as a summary and reaction to this year's Oscars.


Every year the glamour of the film award season culminates with the Oscars, the epitome of Hollywood glitz. This year, Brokeback Mountain lead the competition with 8 nominations, though was closely followed by films such as Crash and Memoirs of a Geisha. This made the contest one of the most open for years, despite some of the categories being easy to predict.

Lately the ratings for the Oscars ceremony have fallen in America (and assumedly in the UK – why else was it shown on Sky Movies and not the BBC?). One wonders why, but perhaps it’s because viewers will tune in to see the pretty dresses and then switch off once the boring stuff starts. Well, this year a new host was roped in, Jon Stewart, of ‘The Daily Show’ fame. Stewart is a political satirist above all else and no doubt his some of his comments during the Oscars will have ruffled some middle-American feathers, even though he was far less scathing than most had expected.

But who cares, because we’re only watching for the pretty dresses, right? Reese Witherspoon dazzled in a vintage gown while Rachel Weisz looked fantastic in black, while 7 months pregnant. There did seem to be an distinct lack of good fashion from the ladies this year, most opting for middle-of-the-road attire. There were a fair few misses though – Charlize Theron’s monstrosity of a gown in particular, considering she normally gets it so right. There was a strange trend amongst the paler women – Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Uma Thurman – all wore very pale dresses, making them look particularly washed out. Many of the men turned out in fine form – Ludacris and Terence Howard looking particularly dapper!

However, some of us do stay up all night because we care about the awards themselves. This year was particularly exciting, even if many people had assumed that Brokeback Mountain would sweep the board – it didn’t. Four films shared the highest number of awards: Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong. No doubt it will be the first two which will be most talked about, having won the bigger awards. Brokeback Mountain won Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay (Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty) and Best Score (Gustavo Santaolallo). Crash became the shock winner of the night as it won Best Picture, the award most assumed would be won by Brokeback Mountain. Along with the top honour, Crash won Best Original Screenplay (Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco) and Best Editing (Hughes Winborne). Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong both won three awards each, all in the technical categories. It should be noted that in terms of a nominations-to-wins success rate, King Kong came out best – winning three of its four nominations.

There were no surprises amongst the acting categories. Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor, for his portrayal of Truman Capote, the favourite in a very strong group of nominees. Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress in a weaker category, for her role in Walk the Line. George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor, for his role in Syriana. Was this to make up for Good Night and Good Luck winning nothing, I wonder? Rachel Weisz won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Constant Gardener, bringing home at least one award for the Brits.

Other notable winners were Wallace and Gromit – I defy anyone not to be pleased about this - winning Best Animated Feature, Tsotsi winning Best Foreign Language Feature and March of the Penguins winning Best Documentary Feature. The only decision that didn’t seem quite right to me, personally, was The Chronicles of Narnia winning Best Make-Up. I loved the Narnia film and all, but I honestly thought that Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was far more deserving, especially as it wasn’t even nominated in the Visual Effects category.

This year the main contenders were very political, very issue-driven films. Of the five nominated for Best Picture, two deal with homosexuality, one about racism, one about McCarthyism and the remaining one deals with the Isreal-Palestine situation. None of these films were huge box-office successes – King Kong made more at the box-office than all five nominees combined. Hopefully, the high level of coverage, not only during the Oscar season, but during the entire awards season will bring these films’ to people’s attentions.

As much as I loved Brokeback Mountain, I was glad to see Crash awarded with the top honours, as it is a truly wonderful film. I was sad, however, to see Munich leave empty handed as the film blew me away. There had been problems with the copies of the film sent to Academy members for consideration – it’d be a shame if this was the reason it garnered so few nominations. I was surprised not to see Eric Bana up for an acting nod. It’s possible that in its attempt at being more liberal Hollywood has only shown hypocrisy, however. Brokeback Mountain was highly praised and yet gay actors have been playing straight roles for years – where are their nominations? Many cynics think that Crash only won because it is based in LA and therefore it proves that the industry is a very insular one.

Personally, I think so long as the films that are awarded are deserving, it shouldn’t matter why it won. It’s nice to see films that are commercially smaller being awarded and gaining attention this way. The same furor will come around next year, with the speculation starting months in advance. Here’s hoping the competition for the 79th Academy Awards will be as good as it was this year.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The vast majority of people have come to know Brokeback Mountain as ‘that gay cowboy film’, while filmmakers have insisted it is far more than that. Its content and subsequent controversy has helped create a significant amount of hype surrounding the project and its release. For a lot of people, I think this hype will in fact have been detrimental to their enjoyment of the film. We are not given some over-blown, purposefully controversial film; rather we are given what is, simply, a love story.

Our protagonists are Ennis and Jack, who meet while working as sheepherders in Wyoming. A relationship develops between the two men, until they must leave and go their separate ways. The film follows their lives over some 20 years or so, as they both marry and start families, only to still meet up for ‘fishing trips’.

The film is a very quiet one. For the first 10 minutes one starts to wonder if there is going to be much dialogue at all and it is almost half an hour before anything other than chit-chat and sheep watching takes place. Very little happens throughout the film, we simply follow two intertwining lives. Despite this, we care enough for the characters for it to remain engaging and interesting.

The film’s greatest strength is its leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Both actors bring their characters to life – Ledger as the brooding Ennis and Gyllenhaal as the idealistic Jack. On the surface it seems that Ennis is the realist and Jack is the dreamer and yet we see that Ennis is the more emotionally volatile of the pair. The subtleties of the characters add greatly to our appreciation of their story. Ledger particularly impresses as a man of few words and yet he succeeds in conveying the complexities of the often-confused Ennis. The supporting cast is also strong, Michelle Williams standing out as Ennis’ wife.

Both the direction and cinematography is strong. Ang Lee beautifully presents us the wonderful environment that these two men find themselves in. There is a real sense of isolation in amongst the stunning scenery of Brokeback Mountain and yet a sense of peace too. The sparse musical accompaniment ensures the film is filled with a quietness that, for the characters, is, at times, awkward and at others, comfortable.

The direction, along with a strong script, ensures that this film is more than a run-of-the-mill romance. This is certainly helped by its strong performances. The story is touching and at times particularly poignant. However, I feel the hype surrounding it is not entirely deserved (is such hype ever deserved?). This film may be groundbreaking insofar that its romantic leads are both men, but beneath that it is simply a very well told love story and nothing else. This is not to say that the film does not deserve the immense praise it has received, it might just be that films equally as good, if not better, are being side-lined by the press, in favour of hype.

Brokeback Mountain is a touching story strengthened by its execution on screen, particularly by the superb performances from Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Where it could’ve been made in a way that deserved its surrounding controversy, thankfully it was not. Instead of playing up its more controversial elements, it presents them as they are – not controversial at all – and so we are left with a story both sad and beautiful, regardless of the sexuality of the protagonists.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Munich (2005)

Never before has a film affected me as much as this. This film is proof of how powerful cinema can be and how important it is that films such as this are made. I did not go into the cinema expecting this to be an easy ride, but I did not expect it to be as difficult as it turned out to be.

The film deals with the aftermath of the massacre of 9 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That massacre is a well-known event, whereas the covert and bloody aftermath is not. The film is presented as being ‘inspired by real events’ and is based on the book ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas. While certain creative liberties may or may not have been taken in the film and in the material it is based on, the film is still a harrowing portrayal of the nature of terrorism.

The film follows Avner (Eric Bana) as he is chosen to lead a select group of men to kill 11 men believed to have been responsible for the planning of the massacre at Munich. What begins as a taut thriller soon becomes something far surpassing the boundaries of genre. It soon unfurls its true colours as things spiral out of control and Avner begins to question his own motives and the motives of those who gave him this mission.

The group consists of ordinary men – a toymaker, an antiques dealer – and each has his own motives for joining as well as his own doubts. The acting is superb all round, but Eric Bana truly shines as Avner. We see him descend from eager soldier to the mere shell of a man, haunted by what he has done. I am truly surprised that he has not received any nominations in the recent flurry of awards, as his performance is astounding.

Along with a fine cast, the script is beautifully written, making us believe that these are people we are watching on the screen, not characters. The dialogue is engaging and even during some of the longer speeches it never becomes laboured or false. In portraying the story there are no ‘good guys’ and no ‘bad guys’. Although we are mainly given the Israeli perspective, they are not portrayed as heroes, and neither are their opponents portrayed as villains. Whereas we begin with Avner as a typical leading man, by the end we glimpse the opposite end of the gun, when he himself becomes a target.

The violence of the film is graphic, but not gratuitously so. The more action-orientated scenes are handled with great adroitness, adding to the emotional impact of the story. We see the team’s targets eliminated, one by one, and we see the toll it slowly takes on Avner. Even when he leaves the mission and returns to his wife and baby daughter he cannot escape the horror of his actions and the actions of others. For every man he kills, there is a replacement.

This is one of the strongest messages of the film – the pointlessness of it all. The killing leads to more killing, which leads to more still. One scene which has stayed in my mind the most is that of Avner telling one of the men at his command not kill a young boy who has just seen his parents killed by the raiding soldiers. Avner may have saved the boy’s life, but that boy is just as likely to grow up hating men like Avner and perhaps even becoming a terrorist himself. Violence begets violence, an eye for an eye – and yet the world never seems to learn.

Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in this film. From askew camera angles to clever cross-cutting of scenes, all is executed with precision. One of the most harrowing sequences is the encounter with another assassin, possibly one of the coldest moments of the film as Avner’s mission goes from professional to personal. Speilberg would be fully deserving of the Oscar, should he win the award. Spielberg has once again teamed up with John Williams to provide the music, who as usual delivers a haunting and beautiful score.

The final scene of the film is between Avner and his previous ‘employer’, in New York. In the background we see the skyline, with the Twin Towers standing proudly in the middle. The film ends with this skyline, reminding us of how starkly topical this film is, though it is set in the 1970’s. This film is an eye-opener, a kick in the gut. I would urge everyone to see this film, because although it is deeply difficult, it is also tremendously important.