Cinema review: The Happening

June 29 2008 at 9:57 pm (Cinema reviews)

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most interesting writer/directors working in Hollywood today. He plays by his own rules despite some very heavy criticism. He needed a hit after the misfiring Lady in the Water, so it’s unfortunate that his latest offering is another disappointment.

The good news is that he is still a good director. He carefully fills each and every frame with an overarching sense of tension and dread. The bad news is that this is overshadowed by some very poor dialogue and a bafflingly nonsensical central idea.

Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot Moore a high school science teacher who flees Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter when people start mysteriously committing suicide in and around New York.

It is soon established that what’s causing this ‘event’ is an environmental anomaly rather than a terrorist attack, which means that people don’t really know what they’re running away from. It’s all kept conspicuously vague – people keep saying that ‘something’s happening’ and going on about ‘events’.

The main problem, though, is that what’s going on is so farfetched that nobody can seem to explain it convincingly. In fact, huge passages of the script seem to have been copied and pasted from Wikipedia. And sadly, it would appear that bad writing makes bad actors. Mark Wahlberg is unconvincing as a high school science teacher. And is it just me or is his voice becoming more and more camp? The normally great John Leguizamo is wasted and Zooey Deschanel has little more to do than stare worriedly. Nobody really seems to know what they’re doing.

Shyamalan’s films have become a case of waiting for the punchline and this is no exception. With so much cryptic nonsense being spouted by everyone, you’re fooled into just letting it go, expecting it all to be explained in the final reel. The ‘important ecological’ twist (which is harder to swallow than outrunning the second Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow) is explained about an hour in, so you walk away feeling unsatisfied rather than wanting to join Greenpeace.

What we end up with is a showcase for some inventive suicides (a hairpin, a window, a lawnmower). Why people don’t just lock themselves in a death-proofed room is anyone’s guess. Instead these rational people become like terminally depressed zombie MacGyvers using anything they can get their hands on to finish themselves off.

The Happening should have been a return to form and in some ways it is a better film than Lady in the Water (at least Shyamalan has got over his vanity long enough to all but write himself out of this one) but the poor writing, dodgy acting and absurd concept make it at best a valiant failure.
Rating: 2/5

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Cinema review: The Incredible Hulk

June 29 2008 at 9:35 am (Cinema reviews)

Nobody seemed to like Ang Lee’s 2003 big screen outing for the big green anger machine so a sequel of sorts could have gone one of two ways: it could have been an improvement which would, of course have been easy, or it could have been more of the same. Thankfully, it is a better film but the improvements are so slight as to still make it a disappointment.

More a ‘reboot’ than a sequel proper, this film attempts to rewrite the Bruce Banner story. The back story is dealt with during the credits sequence a la Spider-man 2, throwing us straight into the action. Banner (Edward Norton) is hiding out in a slum in Rio trying to find a cure for his unique little, er, condition until General Ross (William Hurt) and his cronies track him down. There’s running and then Banner goes all big and green and throws his toys (and a forklift truck) out of the pram.

Then there’s more running, more talking, more going all big and green. The film goes through the motions with few surprises – once you’ve seen Bruce Hulk out once you’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s a pretty plodding affair – even the set pieces are tedious with the exception of a fairly decent scene at a college campus. The performances are OK except for Liv Tyler whose Betty Ross is a snivelling mess for much of the film.

So it’s a relief to see something a bit different thrown into the mix, namely Tim Roth’s gung ho soldier Emil Blonsky, so obsessed with Banner’s power that he wants to get him some of that. You know where this is headed – the whole film has been leading up to the big CGI smackdown finale.

But surprise surprise, the CGI is simply not up to snuff. One scene about half way through looks like it was lifted from Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the effects were finished. The cartoonish crescendo is simply ludicrous. An overreliance on slow-mo only serves to show how bad the CGI is. Emil Blonsky’s grotesque transformation into The Abomination is impressive but the fight between the two tantrum throwing giants is forgettable at best. In a film such as this when the effects are so important, why should we accept it when they are so bad?

What Louis Leterrier’s valiant but flawed effort proves is that sadly this iconic character doesn’t really work on the big screen. If Ang Lee can’t handle it, nobody else should even bother trying.
Rating: 2/5

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16-22 June 2008

June 26 2008 at 9:59 pm (The list)

Last week, I made up for the previous week’s laziness by ticking three films off the list:

Manhunter (1986)
I’d already seen Brett Ratner’s 2002 remake and really enjoyed it so I was somewhat confused back in 2002 as to why everyone dismissed it. The truth is, though, that it is so similar to Michael Mann’s early entry to the Hannibal Lecter canon that remaking it was, indeed, unnecessary. William Petersen is a better, more haunted Will Graham than Ed Norton, and while Brain Cox’s Hannibal Lecktor (an actor always worth watching) is not as chilling as Anthony Hopkins’, the presence of the character is so minimal that it makes more room for Tom Noonan’s deeply troubled Francis Dollarhyde. Personally I prefer Red Dragon if only for the ending, but Manhunter is still a great thriller.
Rating: 4/5

Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)
I must be the last human being in the Western world to watch Breakfast At Tiffany’s but I’m glad I finally got around to it. Blake Edwards’ charming film about the growing relationship between a New York ‘it’ girl and the struggling writer who moves into the apartment above hers may be a little slapdash but its influence cannot be denied. Audrey Hepburn is a delight as Holly Golightly (here a more acceptable socialite than the obvious call girl in the novel) and George Peppard is a wonder as Paul Varjak. Despite her many flaws, the film carefully manages to paint Holly in a sympathetic light, but the changes in tone (now slapstick, now melodrama, now screwball) jar with the rain sodden seriousness of the happy ending.
Rating: 4/5

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Howard Hawks showed off his passion for aviation in this hugely enjoyable film about an airmail service high in the Andes. While Cary Grant looks odd out of a suit, he is just great as the boss with a heart of stone. Having said that, there is a great cast of supporting players especially Richard Barthelmess and Thomas Mitchell. You know exactly where the soap opera story is going but it’s fun watching it getting there especially with the gripping flight scenes.
Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 772

The other, more recent, films watched last week were as follows:

Interview (2007)
Filmed in real time, this mercifully short film is about a political journalist (Steve Buscemi, who also directs) who was told by his editor to interview a famous soap star (Sienna Miller) despite knowing or caring nothing about her. The trouble is that ten minutes in the interesting central concept has already run out of steam and the film is reduced to two people being intermittently nasty and nice to each other for no good reason such are the shortcomings of the script. Buscemi and Miller do their best but the characters are so poorly written that they come across as being schizophrenic rather than scarred and haunted. It comes across as a filmed drama school exercise. Sadly this means that the neat little twist ending fails because you don’t really care about either of the characters.
Rating: 2/5

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
This film has no business being so good. It’s predictable, formulaic and unconvincing, and its ‘power corrupts’ message is hammered home somewhat. However, what raises it above the zillions of ‘rags to riches’ rom-coms is some great performances (especially from a brilliantly softly-spoken Meryl Streep playing one of the most terrifying bosses in recent screen history), and a sleek script. It’s not exactly groundbreaking but you just can’t help smiling while watching it.
Rating: 4/5

The Hoax (2006)
The truth is often stranger than fiction and in this case the truth is less believable. Richard Gere gives an impressive performance as Clifford Irving, the journalist who convinces his publishers that he has exclusive access to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. The publishers foolishly hand over a hefty advance cheque and leave him to it unaware that Irving has never even met Hughes. Together with friend Dick Suskind (a wonderful Alfred Molina) he pulls off all manner of confidence tricks to stay one step ahead of his publishers who become increasingly suspicious. It’s an incredible story and well told as a thriller. However, due to the sheer audaciousness of Irving’s scams and quick thinking, the film occasionally dips into knockabout comedy. Still, it’s worth watching to be reminded that Richard Gere is actually a good actor, and also to illustrate how powerful the written word can be.
Rating: 4/5

Juno (2007)
I bloody hate hype. Having ‘missed’ this film first time round (missed is in inverted commas not because of my laxness when the film was released in cinemas but because it never made it to Guernsey), I now have the uneasy task of watching a film that everyone who has seen it has gone on and on about for months. I did enjoy this film but I do have some serious reservations about it, perhaps because I feel almost forced to adore it by all the talk that has surrounded it. I’ll start with the good stuff.

The quality of the cast really holds this film together from the frighteningly talented Ellen Page to the would-be perfect mum Jennifer Garner and everyone in between. Despite all the nonsense dialogue, it’s a very efficient screenplay that goes places you don’t expect in this kind of film.

Now for the not so good stuff. I just cannot get past the dialogue. Sure it’s snappy and amusing but it belongs in Road Trip or Old School. I don’t want to come across as a square but people, not even teenagers, simply don’t talk like this. What’s more, Juno herself seems ‘shockingly cavalier’ about her predicament – a phrase she uses to describe her best friend’s reaction but is just as applicable to her own behaviour. Maybe this calm and capable manner is the way all teenage girls deal with pregnancy these days.

Presumably because of the subject matter and the great cast, Juno is a so-called ‘indie comedy’ that has crossed over into the mainstream giving it a much wider audience than it would otherwise enjoy. Other critics have lauded it for being full of heart but that doesn’t make it unique. I do love this kind of film but I fail to see what marks this particular one out from the rest. Maybe I’m just turning into a grumpy old sod.
Rating: 3/5

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Cinema review: Sex and the City

June 17 2008 at 11:02 pm (Cinema reviews)

I must begin by saying that I used to watch Sex and the City sometimes and I quite enjoyed it. And I have to admit that I also quite enjoyed this film, but I also have some big problems with it.

Let’s get one thing quite clear: this film hates men. It would be something of a sweeping generalisation to say that romantic comedies are enjoyed only by women, but never before has a film been aimed so uniquely at women. When I watched it there were about a dozen men in the cinema, but I’ve heard reports of entirely female audiences, not a Y chromosome in sight. If it sounds like I’m entering dangerous sexist territory, here’s why: the film actually inspires sexism.

Neither sex is painted in a very good light and as little more than thinly disguised stereotypes, but it’s inevitably men that come off worse. All the heterosexual males in this film are either idealised sex objects or pathetic, evil bastards. In fact, it is nigh on impossible to watch this film as a human being – it must be viewed from either a male or a female perspective.

That aside, it doesn’t really work well as a film. It suffers from the same problem as The Simpsons Movie last summer – a longstanding and hugely popular TV series transferred to the big screen but just ends up as an extended episode of the series. The Simpsons went from being a 20 minute cartoon to a 90 minute film. SATC stalwart director Michael Patrick King has stretched the winning formula by a similar ratio and made a film that feels about a fortnight.

However, despite all these problems, it’s actually an enjoyable film. For a start, all the ingredients that made the series so adored are here. The characters all have good stories and it’s nice to see them grow a bit even if all these women are still a little shallow and materialistic – even love is made out to be a commodity, like it’s a Louis Vuitton bag or a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it funny. Several moments that are hilarious, including one joke involving bowel movements which wouldn’t be out of place in a Farrelly brothers film. It’s also much more serious and touching than I remember the series – one scene between Carrie and Miranda is positively heartbreaking.

There has been so much expectation about this film that despite Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, this summer may always be remembered as ‘Indy vs Carrie’. And it would appear that Carrie has won. Whereas Indy 4 overpromised and underdelivered on a beloved franchise, Carrie and her crew gave their fans exactly what they wanted. Summer cinema tends to be largely a boy’s only affair – explosions, guns, superheroes – so this film is a fine example of blockbusting for girls.
Rating: 3/5

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9-15 June 2008

June 16 2008 at 10:20 pm (The list)

I was a bit lazy last week and only ticked one film off the list, but it was a doozie:

Notorious (1946)

I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s greatest hits but that’s clearly not good enough. Such was genius of the Master of Suspense that even his less obvious films are unmissable. How could I have gone this long without seeing every last one of Hitch’s films? Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are brilliant as T.R. Devlin, the government agent and Alicia Huberman, the socialite he recruits to seduce and marry the sinister Alexander Sebastian (played with despicable relish by Claude Rains). Hitch always attracted the A-listers, but no star, no matter how big, could ever match the director’s own sheer crowd pleasing magic. His great skill was in breaking a story down to its very basic elements so that focusing on even the most mundane of objects can elicit gasps – a wine bottle, a set of keys, a coffee cup. Thrilling, and a killer finale too.
Rating: 5/5

Shame list total: 775
Also watched last week:

Monster’s Ball (2001)
A very affecting and tightly written drama about family, racism and the need to connect. Halle Berry deserved her Oscar for Best Actress as a widow of a man executed on death row. Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle are all great as three generations of a family of ‘corrections officers’. Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction) is one of the most interesting directors around at the moment – Quantum of Solace (aka Bond 22) should be worth a watch with him behind the camera. Rating: 4/5

I also watched Sex and the City last week. A separate review will follow shortly – I need space to rant.

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2-8 June 2008

June 11 2008 at 10:47 pm (The list)

From the shame list last week were:

Pi (1998)
I was a bit disappointed by this. Yes, it’s well directed and Darren Aronofsky is a good director and gets across the paranoia of his protagonist with aplomb. The grainy black and white and bonkers camerawork brings us closer to the action and the fact that we’re never quite sure exactly what is going on or what people are talking about makes it all the more affecting. However, ‘paranoid’ thrillers are better when the audience thinks that the hero might not be paranoid after all. While the threat of some Wall Street big wigs and a Kabbalah sect might be very real, the central concept of ‘a meaning behind the numbers’ was stretching things a bit too far. I found it hard to care about what was going on since people were trying to find meaning in a place where, as far as I am concerned, there is none.
Rating: 3/5

Force of Evil (1948)
A solid noir that sees John Garfield sell his brother out and then try to undo all the wrong that he has done. It’s a very atmospheric piece or work, all the more notable for it being director Abraham Polonsky’s first of only three films. The tension builds at a steady pace with a brilliant denouement, but I’m frankly not a big fan of noir (not yet anyway) so I can’t in all honesty say that this did a lot for me.
Rating: 3/5

The Big Chill (1983)
Seven college friends from the 1960s hang out for a weekend following the suicide of one of their number. It’s a nice ensemble piece that doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t really need to. They talk, they drink, they smoke, they laugh, they have sex, they listen to a lot of sixties music, and only occasionally is anyone brave enough to broach the subject of Alex’s suicide. Of course, the film is all about nostalgia and growing up, and the balance between misty eyed comedy and soul-searching sorrow is dealt with very well allowing the film to come across a bit like The Breakfast Club for adults, which is no bad thing.
Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 776

Also watched last week:
Candy (2006)
This hard hitting Australian drama makes Trainspotting look like Airplane! Dan (Heath Ledger) and Candy (Abbie Cornish) are two junkies in love and resort to some pretty unpleasant ways of getting cash to feed their addiction. While it’s often uncomfortable viewing (the cold turkey scene is all the more effective than that in Trainspotting for not resorting to magic realism), the final message is a heartbreaking one of redemption at a cost. It’s worth watching for the affecting performances and as a poignant reminder of just how good Heath Ledger was.
Rating: 4/5

The Savages (2007)
Any film that has Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as brother and sister who don’t get along is bound to be good, and this is. Jon and Wendy are a couple of academics who rarely see each other until their elderly father falls ill and they have to work together to take care of him. With dashes of black humour, the film is a bittersweet look at the inevitability and sadness of old age. Linney is perfectly cast as the uptight sister while Hoffman gives a typically nuanced performance (and again proving that he is one of the best shouters in the business), but it’s Philip Bosco as the father who breaks your heart the most. Watching him live out his final days while his two children bicker and ignore him is truly tragic.
Rating: 4/5

Venus (2007)
A sweet film with a sobering and honest performance from Peter O’Toole, and an almost equally impressive turn from newcomer Jodie Whittaker. O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, an elderly respected theatre actor who, despite his age and decreasing health, still feels young at heart. When his friend Ian (a delightfully cranky Leslie Phillips) recruits a helper, 20-year-old Jessie, Maurice falls in love and embarks on an ill-advised and occasionally creepy courtship ritual. While some of the dialogue is unconvincing (it’s hard to believe that a 20-year-old girl would even entertain approaches from an elderly gent), it’s a warm-hearted tale of two people finding solace in each other.
Rating: 4/5

Waitress (2007)
This rich, warm romantic comedy may not sound as such on paper. Set in and around a diner in small town America, the luminescent Keri Russell plays Jenna, a waitress with a talent for pie making. When Jenna discovers that she is pregnant, she decides to run away rather than raise the child with her childish, controlling and abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, proving once again to be adept at playing scumbags). This is made difficult when she begins an affair with her married gynaecologist (played by the ever brilliant Nathan Fillion). The film is so good-natured that Jenna’s plight becomes all the more tragic. With a terrific script and wonderful performances from all, especially Jenna’s friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (the late Adrienne Shelly, who also wrote and directed), this is the perfect antidote to the kind of predictable rom-com schmaltz that is so rife at the moment.
Rating: 4/5

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
A fun, if miscast, look at some important events in recent American history. There’s a lot of flag waving, some decent laughs and a downbeat ending which adds up to one of the films main problems – it’s never quite sure what it wants to be. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great (as usual), but Julia Roberts is barely there and Tom Hanks just doesn’t look right as the hard drinking, womanising titular character.
Rating: 3/5

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26 May-1 June 2008

June 3 2008 at 10:19 pm (The list)

Only one film ticked off the shame list last week, partly due to my addiction to Britain’s Got Talent and partly due to the good weather which means I spent a lot of my weekend at the beach. Anyway, ticked off the list last week:

It Happened One Night (1934)
The first winner of the ‘big five’ at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay) and it’s easy to see why. This timeless comedy perfectly pitches Clark Gable’s slick know-it-all reporter against Claudette Colbert’s spoiled daddy’s girl as they meet and travel to New York together. It’s a great road movie with some charming comic set pieces. The two leads sparkle and their relationship is wonderfully developed with some good laughs on the way, especially from Gable.

Rating: 5/5

Total must sees seen: 222

Shame list total: 779

Also watched last week:

Eagle vs. Shark (2007)
I enjoy independent films but I find sometimes they can be a bit too ‘kooky’ for their own good. This New Zealand comedy is reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite which I wasn’t too impressed with. Loren Horsley plays Lily, a shy girl who gets fired from her job at fast food emporium Meaty Boy burgers. She’s in love with Jarrod, and after gatecrashing his party they start a relationship. Together they travel to Jarrod’s hometown so he can settle a score with his school bully.

There are some laughs but it’s all very subtle and everyone mumbles. The other trouble is that, like Napoleon Dynamite, Jarrod is a loser who thinks he’s a winner which makes him difficult to root for. In the end, it’s a rather sweet romantic comedy but it’s a bit haphazard.

Rating 3/5

What Happens In Vegas (2008)
It’s easy to be dubious of a film whose title alone inspires a bad review. Everyone who has seen this film chants the obvious mantra of ‘should have stayed in Vegas’. Sadly, that’s a pretty accurate summing up of this dreary walk through of every rom-com cliché you’ve ever seen. Ashton Kutcher gets fired and heads to Vegas to drown his sorrows. Cameron Diaz gets dumped and heads the same way to let her hair down. The two meet, get hammered, get married, get rich and try to get annulled. In a kerrayzee (and nonsensical plot twist) the judge will only let them keep the money if they attempt to ride out their marriage for six months. And ride it out they do, just like the audience does. It’s entirely predictable and thinks it’s much funnier than it is. Ashton’s constant shouting will make you feel woozier than watching Cloverfield with a hangover and Cameron’s reptilian smile threatens to engulf the entire film.

Rating: 2/5

Across The Universe (2007)
How can a musical that uses nothing but Beatles songs have slipped under the radar? It doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, set in the 1960s, Across the Universe follows Liverpudlian dock worker Jude to America to meet his father. While in the States, he befriends college student Max and falls in love with his sister Lucy. Cue lots of singing, dancing, drugs, psychadelia and Vietnam montages.

The main problem with this film is that the music is so familiar that you end up not caring about the story and waiting to hear the songs. After all, we all know which way the story is headed – the film might as well be called The Sixties: The Musical. Most of the characters are named after those in the Fab Four’s songs so you just know it’s a matter of time before someone starts singing ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Hey Jude’. Having said that, the performances are good and the songs are generally used well with some great directing – check out the brilliant ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ army recruitment scene.

As attempts to find a narrative through the Beatles’ music go, it’s well done but feels too long since we’ve been here before.

Rating: 3/5

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