Saturday 18 October 2008

Burn After Reading

Screen Fever Score: 7/10

The Coen Brothers’ new movie is an almost perverse about-face in the wake of their Oscar-winning, weighty adaptation of No Country for Old Men, released just nine months ago in the UK. Where No Country was enigmatic and considered, foregrounding subtlety over show, Burn After Reading is broad and crude, placing its big-name cast front and centre. This is, I think, a good thing. While it is tempting to wish for more of the same after feasting on the greatness of No Country, it’s reassuring to know that the Coens are the same contrarians they’ve always been, and although Burn After Reading is unlikely to make anyone’s Top 5 Coens’ list, it is not without its pleasures.

The story is a lolloping thing, but chiefly centres around CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who as the film begins is receiving the unwelcome news of his effective sacking. To add to his woes, his wife is an ice queen (Tilda Swinton, naturally) who is planning to divorce him as soon as possible and is also carrying on an affair with George Clooney’s womanising Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer. Things will soon get worse for Cox, as Chad and Linda, two hapless employees of Hardbodies Gym (played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) find a CD of his tell-all CIA memoirs, leading to possibly the worst blackmail attempt in the history of spy movies. Yes, this is the Coens’ take on cool espionage movies, except in this case everyone involved is at least two sandwiches short of the proverbial picnic.

There is a distinct sense in Burn After Reading that the Coens are wilfully pushing their own well-worn characteristics as near to breaking point as they can, particularly with their returning cast members. Clooney plays less a character and more a collection of tics and quirks, obsessing about food, floors and “getting a run in” after sex, while McDormand brings the bug-eyed naivety of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, but the writing here has none of the human warmth that made that character so effective. The newcomers to the Coen family fare better: Malkovich is excellent in what seems like his first proper role in years, his outraged intensity perfectly fitting the bill. Pitt is also very good, revelling in Chad’s dumbness, but also more subtly pulling off the none-too-easy task of provoking us to warm to an essentially one-dimensional character.

As with all of the Coen Brothers’ films, there are suggestions of meaning beyond the film’s surface, particularly in the maudlin and pensive atmosphere created by Carter Burwell’s score. Unlike their best comedies though – I’m thinking of The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? – the disparate elements of Burn After Reading don’t add up to a hugely satisfying experience. That said, the film’s ending is perfect: as plot turns become progressively more ludicrous one begins to wonder if there is any point to the story, but a masterful final scene featuring a movie-stealing J.K. Simmons answers that question and ties things up beautifully.

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
UK release date: 17 October

You can also read this review on

In Search of a Midnight Kiss

Screen Fever Score: 9/10

This micro-budgeted drama, set in LA over New Year’s Eve 2005, has an air of over-familiarity to its set-up; Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a lonely, out-of-work writer posts a desperate message (“misanthrope seeks misanthrope”) on an internet dating site, and hooks up with Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a beautiful, sharp-tongued, aspiring actress with serious relationship issues, and the two wander the city’s streets, hoping for some kind of connection as the new year begins. Last year’s indie hit Once and Richard Linklater’s classic Before Sunrise immediately spring to mind, which goes some way to explaining why Midnight Kiss was largely ignored by audiences, despite some glowing reviews, on its cinema release earlier this year. Its arrival on DVD will hopefully see it recognised as a great movie in its own right, as despite its similar feel to these others it has an equal charm all of its own.

Opening with a montage of kissing couples, captured in gorgeous black and white and set to lazy jazz music, Midnight Kiss acknowledges its debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan from the off. But as we swiftly segue into a painfully embarrassing scene with Wilson caught masturbating over a Photoshopped picture of his roommate’s girlfriend, it becomes clear that this film will tread a less lyrical, more brutally real path than Allen’s classic.

This initial transition demonstrates the two extremes that Midnight Kiss successfully unites; the characters spout some breathtakingly crude dialogue, but there’s a sweetness to the central relationship, as we witness two lost souls slowly finding each other, ensuring it’s never offensive, just authentic. It’s also very funny, and writer-director Alex Holdridge has a great ear for naturally flowing dialogue, making the characters very easy to spend time with.

Added to this, the two lead performances are perfectly pitched; McNairy as the decent, quietly spoken guy whose life is plodding along, but under the surface he is crying out for something more, while Simmons is beautiful and mouthy, her spiked put-downs hiding a brokenness that we know will eventually be exposed. They come together wonderfully, with McNairy’s comic timing particularly great as Wilson double-takes in response to Vivian’s frankness.

At the heart of the film is an understanding that everyone needs to be accepted as they are in order to feel truly loved, and the beauty of this graceful ideal is summed up in a discussion that Vivian and Wilson have about the ‘anonymous postcard project’. Holdridge then clearly demonstrates how difficult it is in practice, as Wilson reveals a deeply personal secret and Vivian reacts in disgust; the exact opposite of the attitude she has just praised. It’s in this moment that Midnight Kiss goes beyond being a nice, warm relationship movie (which it is), to digging into deeper, more profound areas of what it means to really love and be loved.

The DVD also comes with a handful of deleted scenes, the best of which gives us just a little more chat between Wilson and Vivian, and a very short Making Of where Holdridge calls the film “a plea for people to be a little bit nicer to one another”. Best of the extras is the commentary, with pretty much everyone involved in the film talking about how they made it happen on such a tiny budget; really interesting stuff full of inspiration for anyone trying to get their own movie off the ground.

Dir: Alex Holdridge
DVD release date: 6 October

Thursday 25 September 2008

Tropic Thunder

Screen Fever Score: 8/10

Ben Stiller gets back behind the camera with hilarious results, guiding himself, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr as three egocentric actors who stumble into a real-life conflict while filming Tropic Thunder, the 'greatest war film ever'. It's thrilling to see big budget production values on what is essentially a very silly film, and Stiller takes every opportunity going to poke fun at the movie industry, most effectively with Downey Jr's character, the jaw-droppingly self-involved Kirk Lazarus. It's not a perfect film, but it is a very funny one.

Read my full review on Future Movies

UK Release: 19 September
Cert: 15

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Pineapple Express

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Seth Rogen and James Franco star in this odd mix of stoner comedy and 80s action thriller from producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad). While it's got some very funny moments and a great performance from Franco, it's all over the place in terms of tone and storytelling, so the end result is less than the sum of its parts.

Read my full review on Future Movies

UK Release: 12 September
Cert: 15

Thursday 31 July 2008

Man On Wire

The great movies keep coming. Man On Wire is an excellent new documentary, getting it's general UK release this month after picking up heaps of praise and awards at festivals around the world. You can read my full review on Future Movies at the link below:

Man On Wire review

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit
Cert: 12A
UK release: 1 August

Monday 28 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Screen Fever Score: 10/10

A genre-busting script, breathtaking visuals and across the board top-drawer performances, composed into a spectacular whole by the best British film director working today.

Full review:
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So speaks DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s great white hope for change, early on in The Dark Knight. While his statement is proved true for more than one character by the time this brilliant film reaches its gut-wrenching conclusion, it seems that director Christopher Nolan can cheat his own film’s logic; with The Dark Knight he emerges as the moviemaking hero of 2008. As the film smashes box office records worldwide, and industry analysts begin to whisper about it being a possible challenger to Titanic’s unshakeable (until now?) position as the highest-grossing film of all time, Nolan can rest in the knowledge of a greater achievement; he’s brought uncompromisingly intelligent film-making into the realm of the big dumb summer blockbuster, and the crowds love it.

From the moment the film opens it’s clear that Batman Begins was a jumping off point, but with The Dark Knight Nolan is flying. Literally, as breath-taking IMAX-filmed aerial shots of Gotham city roll out an eye-popping canvas, as if he is telling us to prepare for an epic. And with a multi-layered story that creates one tension-point after another, encompassing moral quandaries as removed from simple black and white sermonising as is imaginable, an epic is exactly what he delivers. As has been noted elsewhere, The Dark Knight has more in common with brooding crime sagas like Michael Mann’s Heat than any previous comic-book film, but it’s a mood that fits this scenario perfectly, and allows the film to travel to unprecedented levels of intensity. At the centre of this maelstrom is Christian Bale, the support to Nolan’s arm without whom this whole operation would fail. As the film progresses and the line of separation between brooding Batman and formerly fun-loving Bruce Wayne is all but erased, Bale makes every scene count and proves himself to be the definitive Batman.

But as Batman Begins clearly signposted, this film was always going to centre on one iconic villain. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker has already been heaped with praise, and I can do nothing but add my voice to the throng; he so inhabits this reinvented character that it is often difficult to believe this is the same Ledger we have seen in previous films. What makes the performance so good is that Ledger and Nolan have fearlessly reshaped the Joker character as we know him, coming up with an interpretation that is more purely terrifying than any we have previously seen, but is still unmistakeably The Joker. It absolutely confirms the promise that Ledger had shown in recent roles, that he was becoming one of the most interesting actors of his generation, and only increases the sadness of his passing.

In any other film a performance of such intensity would surely lay waste to the rest of the cast’s chances of recognition, but nothing could be further from the truth in the case of The Dark Knight. There are seven names above the title on this movie’s poster, and each one of them well and truly earns their top billing. This is partly thanks to the brilliantly written and structured script, which balances enough plot-lines to fill three movies but still does justice to each significant character, with even potential ‘filler’ characters Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) given key scenes that are not only integral to the plot but equally serve to flesh out their characters in the brief screen time they occupy.

Working from this great foundation, each cast member lifts their game and brings their best, but while Ledger will take the lion’s share of column-inches, it is actually Aaron Eckhart who gives the best performance in the film. Audiences leaving the cinema will marvel at the screen-burning presence of The Joker, but it’s Dent’s story that will haunt them long after the credits have rolled. Eckhart’s contribution cannot be overstated in this; just as Dent wins Bruce Wayne’s admiration, so Eckhart wins the audience’s, and when his character’s journey turns dark, all we can do is look on in wrapt devastation. Conversely, the handling of Dent’s storyline reveals one of the few flaws in the film, as a key twist is rushed and doesn’t quite convince. The reason why this hiccup doesn’t hurt the film more is because of the quality of Eckhart’s performance; he keeps the audience tied to the story across this slight filmmaking fumble.

Beyond the A-grade acting, the film is a stunning achievement in every aspect of its construction and execution; there is no weak link in this creative team. From the impeccably structured script through the amazing IMAX cinematography to the dark and thunderous score, The Dark Knight is a piece of ensemble (in the furthest-reaching sense of the word) filmmaking on a par with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, in that every department and player has grasped the vision and fully contributed, with exemplary results.

This kind of second-to-none teamwork doesn’t just happen; it requires a director of rare ability, and The Dark Knight confirms Christopher Nolan as one of the greatest living directors of spectacular cinema. While it has been clear since he first caught mainstream attention with Memento that his is a singular directorial vision, no-one would have predicted that just eight years on he would not only be confidently spearheading the biggest comic-book movie franchise of the 21st century, but simultaneously reshaping the genre and breaking new ground in just how big, literally, narrative cinema can be. The box office success of The Dark Knight will give him the clout to now do whatever he wants and, judging by his track record, I can think of no other director working today more capable of taking that kind of freedom and using it to produce even better things.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Cert: 12A
UK release: 24 July

Sunday 27 July 2008

Baby Mama

My review of Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and the back-to-brilliant Steve Martin is featuring on This'll give you an idea of what I thought:

"Fey and Poehler are very funny together, and the scenario gives them plenty of opportunities to show it...but it’s as much the supporting cast that make this such an enjoyable film; Sigourney Weaver has a handful of hilarious scenes as the ridiculously amoral head of Kate’s surrogacy agency, Chaffee Bicknell (note to comedy writers: a really silly name goes a long way), but it’s Steve Martin, back from the brink and funnier than ever as Kate’s New Age guru boss, who steals the show."

Read the full review here

UK release date: 25 July
Cert: 12A

Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging

My review of Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham)'s new teen comedy is featured in the current issue of The List. Here's a snippet:

"Chadha pitches the tone just right for a young female audience, addressing some of the hang-ups and dramas of early womanhood with a surreal and winningly silly tone, but scuppers a lot of this good work by opting for a conventional Hollywood-style story arc and a conclusion that’s positively dripping with cheese."

Read the full review here

UK release date: 25 July
Cert: 12A

Thursday 17 July 2008

Summer Hours, Transsiberian and Encounters at the End of the World

I have a few reviews from the Edinburgh Film Festival published this week on Edinburgh Festivals Magazine's website. Below is some more info and links to the full reviews.

Summer Hours (pictured above) - "Olivier Assayas’ new film could easily be dismissed as “too French” by UK audiences, considering its preoccupation with talking, drinking and generally not doing much. But Summer Hours is a film of considerable depth and maturity, and one that, if anything, actually demands repeat viewings in order to fully appreciate its quality."
Read the full review here
Summer Hours is on selected UK release from 18 July

Transsiberian - "Writer-director Brad Anderson’s last film was the tense and compelling The Machinist (2004), which starred an impossibly gaunt Christian Bale and worked as a nightmarish journey into one man’s troubled mind. For his follow-up he opts for a bigger cast and broader canvas, but the end product is not half as original or effective as could have been expected."
Read the full review here

Encounters at the End of the World - "There is a lot of fun to be had with this film before it reaches its more reflective conclusions, not least when Werner Herzog encounters a lone scientist who spends his life studying Antarctica’s penguin community, and asks him whether he has ever seen evidence of gay relationships amongst the birds. As Herzog is keen to point out, this ain’t March of the Penguins."
Read the full review here

Thursday 10 July 2008

Recent Round-Up: The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock & The Mist

The Edinburgh Festival caused me to be away from updating these reviews for longer than intended, so as a way of getting back up to speed here’s my brief verdicts on the biggest movies of the last few weeks, with two notable exceptions. The first is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which was so bland and boring that it should have been called The Nothing Happening, and the other is Prince Caspian, which I still haven’t found the time or sufficient enthusiasm to go see yet. So with that sorted, here goes…

The Incredible Hulk – Marvel’s so-called ‘reboot’ of the Hulk franchise, after Ang Lee’s largely unloved 2003 effort, has a few good things going for it, but didn’t do much to convince me that its central character deserved another movie attempt. On the plus side, Ed Norton is always watchable, and his Bruce Banner is certainly more compelling than the version played by Eric Bana in Lee’s film. The film also has some exciting action scenes, particularly at the beginning, where director Louis Letterier keeps the Hulk hidden in shadow for his first freak-out, which works well.

But the film suffers from some long dull stretches, where it retreads the old Jekyll/Hyde split personality trauma that the first film already well and truly covered. Okay, it’s the defining aspect of this character, but couldn’t they have come up with a more interesting plot in which to explore it? Towards the end of the film there is a noticeable development in the Hulk’s character, suggesting that he can become more of a harnessed, morally-driven being in further adventures. This seemed to me a good direction in which to take the character, but why take 90 plodding minutes to get there?
Screen Fever Score – 5/10

Wanted – The trailer promised jaw-dropping action, but while Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) delivers some undeniably exhilarating scenes – particularly an initial car-chase sequence that threatens to explode right out of the screen – Wanted is empty-headed and instantly forgettable. The story has James McAvoy’s office drone Wesley recruited by the smokin’ hot Fox (Angelina Jolie) to fulfil his destiny and join a team of assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). It’s Matrix rip-off territory, but where The Wachowski Brothers brought a sense of philosophical depth and internal logic to their far-fetched action adventure, Bekmambetov doesn’t even pay a passing nod to the notion of coherence. The result is completely unbelievable, even on its own terms, and by the time the stupid plot twists kick in Wanted starts to really test the patience; you’ll find it hard to care who lives and dies by the end. As it piles on the excessive profanity and countless bullet-in-the-head shots, Wanted becomes less and less fun.
Screen Fever Score – 4/10

Kung Fu Panda – Now this is more like it. With a central character you can root for, some great laughs and some butt-kicking action scenes, Dreamworks’ latest animation hits all the right buttons. Jack Black is perfectly cast as the voice of Po the Panda, the kung fu geek who ends up training alongside his martial arts heroes under the tutelage of the Dustin Hoffman-voiced Master Shifu. Black’s unique bombastic delivery suits the hyper-enthusiastic Po to a tee, although his funniest dialogue is right at the beginning of the film in a dream sequence filled with “awesomeness!” The script raises consistent chuckles rather than big belly laughs, and the animation is simply amazing, making the fantastic fight scenes really feel alive. Fun for all the family.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

Hancock – I also enjoyed this a lot, so don’t listen to all the harsh reviews it’s been getting. Will Smith and Jason Bateman are both great as the titular alcoholic superhero (Smith) and the PR guy who tries to reform him (Bateman), and the film is a much more interesting take on the superhero genre than most of the recent comic-book adaptations we’ve seen. It’s refreshing to see a superhero film that acknowledges the audiences familiarity with the conventions of the genre; we are introduced to Hancock fully-formed, there’s no time wasted on ‘how he got his powers’ nonsense – it just throws the character at us and expects us to keep up as the story unfolds.

Most of the criticism the film has received is to do with a major twist two-thirds of the way through the film, but I don’t think this is as much of a problem as many critics would have us believe. The seeds for the twist are laid very early in the film, and it isn’t as much of a tonal shift as has been made out; the film has a dark streak running through it from the start. There are some big laughs to be had early on, but the film never pretends to aim for straightforward comedy. It’s more complicated than that, and the twist is a natural progression along these lines. Hancock tries to be a bit original, and in the realm of summer movies that deserves praise.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

The Mist – This latest film from Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile director Frank Darabont is another Stephen King adaptation, but it’s much more representative of the ├╝ber horror-writer’s signature style than the aforementioned epics. The Mist is a no-nonsense, old-fashioned B-movie scare-fest, complete with giant bugs and splattery gore. But this is no slapdash, thrown together affair; it’s tightly constructed, creepily atmospheric and has a terrifically shocking ending. It seems clear that, having taken the critical and commercial failure of his Jim Carrey starrer The Majestic on the chin, Darabont has gone back to stripped-down basics and rediscovered his raw passion for movie-making.

Unfolding almost in real time as the population of a small community hole up in the local supermarket, surrounded by an inexplicable mist containing all manner of horrific beasties, the film is gripping and very scary, and even has an effective underlying social commentary. It won’t be in cinemas for half as long as any of the aforementioned blockbusters, but it’s superior to all of them, and represents a very welcome comeback from Darabont.
Screen Fever Score – 8/10

The Incredible Hulk (12A), Wanted (18), Kung Fu Panda (PG) and Hancock (12A) are on general release now.
The Mist (15) is in selected cinemas now. Don’t miss it!

Edinburgh International Film Festival –
Top 5

It’s almost two weeks now since Edinburgh’s Film Festival wound up its first year as a June event. By all accounts it was a success, although I must admit that it didn’t feel quite as busy as the organisers are claiming it was, despite what I thought was a really good selection of movies. Yes, there were some disappointments – The Wackness, Stone of Destiny and much-hyped British debut Better Things were the biggest let-downs – but overall I got to see a lot of very good films; in fact, compiling a top 5 has been a little harder than I initially anticipated.

After much internal debate, here’s my pick of the five best films of the Festival, and more importantly, why they make the grade:

1. WALL-E – It may have been the most mainstream movie of the Festival but Pixar’s new film was also the best, representing another step forward for the already impossibly high-standard-setting animation studio. Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton takes the story of a cute little robot, left on earth for 700 years to clean up after humans have pretty much destroyed the planet and done a runner, and crafts a tale of loneliness, friendship and adventure that is both profoundly moving and bursting with stunning visual creativity. Added to this, WALL-E is a movie in love with the movies, packed with references to classics of the silver screen, with each homage incorporated as a relevant storytelling element, never feeling self-indulgent or unnecessary. It’s a true masterpiece, and my favourite film of the year so far.

2. The Visitor – Much smaller in scale than Pixar’s animation behemoth, this character-focused comedy-drama is equally accomplished in its writing, confirming Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) as a writer-director of considerable human insight and compassion. Eternal support actor Richard Jenkins is perfect in the lead as Walter Vale, a bored Connecticut University academic whose life takes a turn for the interesting when he discovers a refugee couple living in his New York apartment. After initially throwing them out, Walter has a change of heart and begins an unexpected friendship with the djembe-playing Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Things are complicated when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation, but while the film does tackle political issues, it is primarily about people, and McCarthy handles the balance of personal and political masterfully. Also featuring a brilliant performance from Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother, The Visitor is a true gem, and I would highly recommend seeking it out, as it’s in UK cinemas right now!

3. Man On Wire – The best of an excellent selection of documentaries at the Festival, James Marsh’s film presents a man and a feat that both have to be seen to be believed. The man is Philipe Petit, a French tightrope-walker of singular vision and enthusiasm, and the feat is an almost unbelievable wire-walk that he accomplished in 1974 between the newly-constructed World Trade Center towers. The fact that Petit and a handful of friends managed to break into the towers and successfully set up and carry out the illegal act is jaw-dropping enough, but the way it is retold here clearly conveys the profound emotional impact it had on everyone involved, and the film itself becomes more than just a historical document; it’s a powerfully inspiring piece of cinema.

4. Let The Right One In – This is a low-key Swedish character drama with a difference; it’s also a vampire movie. Almost sluggishly paced in its first hour, director Tomas Alfredson takes his sweet time in building the atmosphere in this story of a bullied 12-year-old who befriends the slightly odd girl next-door, but patience pays off as he uses the very low budget to stunning effect. It’s a film of creeping unease rather than high pitch scares, and concludes with a final set-piece that made me want to stand up and applaud. Apparently that’s exactly what happened at the critics’ screening, which is an event largely unheard of at film festivals. The film doesn’t seem to have UK distribution at the moment, and appears to have already been snapped-up for an English-language remake, but hopefully this original version will find its way to cinemas soon, as it’s really quite special.

5. Summer – Robert Carlyle is an actor that I’ve always found likeable but never amazing, but in Summer he gives, for my money, the best performance of his career. He picked up the Festival’s Best Actor award for his heart-breaking portrayal of Shaun, a man who we meet in a beaten-down state, brought low by the hand life has dealt him. Kenny Glenaan’s film flits back and forward in time to build up a picture of Shaun’s life, and occasionally the story is almost too sad to bear, but Carlyle brings such a recognisable warmth and longing to the character that we can’t help but stay with him. A much-needed note of hope at the conclusion slightly softens the film’s emotional wallop, but overall this is a deeply moving tale of loss and frustration, and Carlyle deserves heaps of praise for his amazing work in it.

So that’s my verdict. Just missing out on inclusion were Shane Meadows’ new one Somers Town, the lovely Amy Adams comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and an excellent British debut called Dummy, all of which are well worth investigation too. For now though, that’s my Festival experience wrapped up. Roll on London…

WALL-E (U) is released nationwide on 18 July.
The Visitor (15) is out now in selected cinemas.
Man On Wire (12A) is released nationwide on 1 August.
Let The Right One In and Summer have no scheduled UK release date.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008

Hey y'all, just a quick update, sorry I haven't posted any new reviews for a few weeks. I'm currently checking out all I can at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and you can read my daily reviews over at in the Blog section.

I'll have a round up of my Picks of the Fest right here after it's all over.



Wednesday 4 June 2008

Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan

Screen Fever Score: 4/10

It tries to do for Genghis Khan what Braveheart did for William Wallace, but lacks the stunning action or heartfelt characterisation. This is a beautifully shot but uninspiring history lesson.

Full review:
Kazakhstan’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar shows that there’s more artistic ambition to the country than Borat suggested. But while Mongol has the scale of a Hollywood epic, it is a curiously hollow experience, leaving one unsatisfied and none the wiser about the driving motives of this fascinating historical figure.

Beginning with our main character Temudjin, who will become Genghis Khan, trapped in a dank cell, the story promptly zips back 20 years to properly introduce us, setting up an engaging first hour, with young Temudjin played by an excellent child actor called Odnyam Odsuren. As the film rolls into its second hour though, the cracks begin to show. Perhaps it’s a sign of Mongol being cut down from a much longer film, but whole chunks of time seem to be missing, making it impossible to determine from one scene to the next whether we have moved forward a day or a year. Writer/director Sergei Bodrov also has an infuriating tendency of cutting away from the action when Temudjin is in life-threatening situations, and then picking up the story later when he is safe, leaving us to assume that he somehow must have escaped! These bizarre time shifts and narrative jumps work against the story making any kind of overall sense, and compound its lack of emotional impact. There is supposed to be a passionate love story at the heart of Mongol, but it left me cold.

Bodrov’s aim must have been to create a Mongolian Braveheart, but where Mel Gibson’s epic gave us a strong central character and incredible, visceral action, Mongol has swathes of exposition with zero human insight and blink and you’ll miss ‘em battle scenes. In this era of action on a Lord of the Rings scale, Mongol’s three brief clashes are disappointing. The final battle in particular is a real let down, ending abruptly in order to bring some very predictable thematic repetition into the story.

Equally, those looking for some insight into the historical person of Genghis Khan will be left wanting; this film covers plenty of events but makes no attempt to get into the heart and mind of Genghis, so we get to the end of the film pretty clueless as to why he lived as he did.

Where Mongol succeeds is in its appearance, the beautiful cinematography creating a strong sense of something grand unfolding. The beginning of the film is particularly lovely to look at, and there is also one striking use of the reverse zoom effect that Hitchcock patented in Vertigo. If only there was something worth watching going on amongst the breathtaking views.

Director: Sergei Bodrov
Writers: Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun, Odnyam Odsuren
Cert: 15
UK release: 6 June

Saturday 31 May 2008

Sex and the City

Screen Fever Score: 7/10


A refreshingly grown-up take on love and relationships which, while not quite at home on the cinema screen, is much better than most Hollywood rom-coms.

Full review:
Last week’s return of Indiana Jones was a momentous occasion for me, a movie event I’d been waiting many years to see realised, and one which when it finally came brought equal amounts of pleasure and disappointment. It didn’t escape my attention that the arrival of Carrie Bradshaw et al on the big screen was an equally anticipated event, albeit by a different, and perhaps even more demanding, audience.

But this time I was in a rather different position. Having never seen an episode of the smash hit TV series, I approached this movie as just another of 2008’s slate of summer blockbusters, while also wondering if my unfamiliarity with the show would make its near two and a half hours a pretty redundant experience. Happily, the film was most welcoming to a Sex and the City virgin; an opening montage featuring some thumbnail sketches of the characters and a quick blast through six series’ worth of feelings, frocks and that other f-word did a fine job of bringing me up to speed.

Initially the story centres on Carrie’s impending wedding to John James Preston - more commonly known as Mr Big – but as events unfold SATC’s focus expands. While this firstly feels like a mis-step, it ultimately makes for a better film. After a first hour that deftly balances character stuff, fashion stuff and fun stuff – including several trying-on-outfits scenes that show 27 Dresses how it should really be done - the film comes to something of a standstill as the girls hightail it to Mexico. While the change of situation allows for some fine comedy moments, the attempts at more serious reflection fall flat, and it’s a relief when they finally get back to New York and things get interesting again. It's here that the film settles into four distinct story strands, each eventually heading to satisfying and not-wholly-predictable conclusions.

Despite its title, the film isn’t really about sex. There’s still a fair amount of bedroom action in it, but each narrative strand is actually more focused on the pleasures, struggles and challenges of trying to make a long-term grown-up relationship work. Writer/director Michael Patrick King’s great achievement is to tackle this theme in a mature and complex way (particularly in the Carrie/Big and Miranda/Steve threads) without ever losing sight of the need to also be funny and entertaining. In this respect SATC sits head and shoulders above countless empty-headed romantic comedies, and it is a unique pleasure indeed to enjoy a summer event movie for the quality of its writing, complemented by a cast who really know their characters inside-out.

The flipside of this is that the material is not particularly cinematic, and King does nothing to pull the show out of its small-screen roots; only a handful of shots really benefit from big-screen projection, and for the most part this would work just as well as a one-off TV special. Also unsatisfying is an occasional reliance on unconvincing plot turns in order to get the characters into particular situations. Most frustratingly, the key moment of the story centres around a missed phone call, which feels too much like an easy get-out for the writer.

But these are not major complaints, and overall Sex and the City is an unexpected pleasure, offering warm humour, excellent performances and a little insight. Judged against any recent film of its type, it proves that the movies could really learn something about good writing and believable storytelling from the ‘lesser’ world of television.

Writer/director: Michael Patrick King
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Catrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Jennifer Hudson
Cert: 15
UK release: 28 May

Sunday 25 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Screen Fever Score: 7/10

Harrison Ford returns to the role of his life with solid-gold movie star style, but Steven Spielberg can’t quite match him, making a film that’s too much whizz-bang visuals and not enough heart. It's fun, but not a patch on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Full review:
I should really have learned by now, after a good few decades of movie watching, that the biggest of blockbusters will most likely fail to live up to expectations. Especially if it’s a long-time-coming sequel to a much-loved series. Still, I couldn’t help hoping that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might just break the mould, and actually be the Best Movie Of All Time. It’s probably not surprising to you to hear that it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even the best film of this year so far, and by my current reckoning it will probably end up fighting Temple of Doom in the film annals for the dubious honour of “least-good Indiana Jones film ever made”.

So that’s the hard part out of the way, but thankfully, it’s not the end of the story; because even though Indy 4 isn’t a classic, it does offer a lot to enjoy in the way of old-fashioned action thrills – at least in the moments when Spielberg keeps away from his pesky box of digital effects trickery.

The story begins, after a scene-setting credits sequence, in the usual Indy style, at the tail-end of an adventure we never see the start of, with Indy, 20 years older than we remember, being dragged out of a car boot in the Nevada desert. Time has moved on since his wartime adventures, so now the baddies are Russian, and our grizzled but still instantly recognisable hero is their captive. By his side is a new colleague, Ray Winstone’s cowardly Mac, and in his face a new nemesis, Irana Spalko, a fantastic Cate Blanchett boasting a severe haircut and a ridiculous Ruski accent. The stage is set, and the action kicks off. The story that unfolds incorporates old and new characters; Shia LeBeouf cements his movie star status as young rebel Mutt, Karen Allen makes a welcome return as Raiders’ Marion Ravenwood and John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have small but significant roles as key characters (although ‘plot devices’ would be a better description of their impact in the film).

But even with its glowing cast list, Indy 4 is really a one-man show, and it primarily reminded me why Harrison Ford really is a world-class movie star. He is Indiana Jones, and even after 19 years away he is in complete command of the role. His performance in Crystal Skull offers up a plethora of iconic moments that confirm why we love these movies: a moment in his study with Mutt when Indy’s eyes light up at the prospect of a new adventure; a hilarious exchange with old flame Marion as they face certain (ahem) doom in a sinking bog; and of course, trading punches with a pesky Russian soldier who will just not give up. Ford convinces in every moment, getting to display a lightness and sense of humour that we haven’t seen from him since, well, the last Indy movie.

But if Ford slips back into character like he’s never been away, the same can’t be said of Spielberg. While there are some knock-out moments of big-screen magic (Indiana Jones encountering a nuclear mushroom cloud being the most jaw-dropping) Crystal Skull too often feels forced, like Spielberg is trying to recapture the spirit of the earlier films, but it’s not coming so naturally any more. Occasionally the tone is too silly, as when Mutt swings through the jungle with a tribe of monkeys in tow, and at other times action sequences seem to lack the intensity of Jones’s former escapades. The cliff-top jeep battle should be the most exciting, thrilling piece of action escapism that we see in 2008, but it comes off as flat. Even while watching it, it’s the idea of what’s happening that is more exciting than the actual execution of it on-screen. This isn’t helped by some very scrappy green-screen work, which pulls the audience out of the action all the more.

But a less than top-of-his-game Spielberg is still preferable to the majority of mainstream Hollywood directors working today, and Crystal Skull’s first half in particular contains some golden material, mainly resulting from the change of time period. It’s 1957, Elvis’s Hound Dog soundtracks the rip-roaring opening scene and Indy first encounters Mutt in a classic ‘50s diner (just think; set 2 years earlier we could have conceivably been seeing Indiana Jones come face to face with Marty McFly – now that’s a mash-up I’d pay good money to see!). Said diner is the starting point for one of the best set-pieces in the movie, as Indy and Mutt instigate a fight in order to elude some shady KGB men, consequently jumping on Mutt’s bike and starting a breakneck chase through Indy’s college campus grounds. The chase has a touch of the Bourne films about it in its audacious staging, but the sheer sense of fun is classic Spielberg. It ends with a pay-off line from Indy that is the icing on the cake of Crystal Skull’s most enjoyable sequence.

Sadly, as the film progresses Spielberg relies more heavily on CG effects to achieve his goals, resulting in a big finale that sees Indy sidelined in favour of a screen filled with digital effects that are all spark and no fizz. To Spielberg’s credit, the very end of the film is perfect, with a final exchange between Indy and Mutt that’s warm, funny and knowing in all the right ways. It’s that spark of humanity that makes the Indy movies so great, and it’s that which is crucially missing from Crystal Skull’s key grandstanding moments.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LeBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Cert: 12A
UK release: 22 May

Thursday 15 May 2008

Smart People

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Too many over-familiar indie movie trappings to be essential viewing, but worth checking out for its well-written characters and great performances.

Full review:

A little film with a big cast, Smart People could easily be dismissed as yet another self-involved indie flick in the style made popular by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach et al. But under the familiar surface are some interesting and well-drawn characters, brought to life by strong performances from Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page in particular. The film, from debut directing/writing team Noam Murro and Mark Poirier, takes a gently humorous look at the lives of a family of intellectually ‘smart’ people who, it becomes painfully clear, have no idea how to engage with the real world.

Quaid plays Lawrence, a widowed university professor who lives a selfish existence ignoring the emotional needs of his two teenage children, and is none too pleased when his adopted slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) turns up in need of somewhere to live. Matters are complicated further when Lawrence ends up in the ER after some ill-advised trespassing, and there encounters Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an old student of his and now head of the ER. A romantic connection of sorts ensues, but only serves to highlight Lawrence’s complete inability to connect meaningfully with others.

Similarly stunted in her emotional growth is Vanessa (Page), Lawrence’s daughter, an uptight and old-before-her-time Young Republican whose sole focus is on getting a perfect score in her SATs. Vanessa’s quick wit and sharp tongue make her immediately reminiscent of Juno MacGuff, but in truth she is a much more complex character, in denial of her own neediness, leading to a fumbling attempt to get closer to the bemused Chuck. Page’s performance is marked by the same skill and subtlety that earned her an Oscar nomination for Juno, and is one of the film’s highlights.

Some over-familiar indie movie elements make Smart People difficult to warm to, particularly the seemingly obligatory intrusive acoustic soundtrack, and the initial feeling that we have seen these characters before. In the case of Chuck that’s not too far from the truth, as Church is basically doing the same slobby thing he did, to similarly entertaining effect, in Sideways. There’s also some fudging of issues in the latter third of the film, with things working out much too easily for all concerned; a little more reality wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nowhere near top of its class then, but Smart People has enough interesting elements to mark Murro and Poirier as a creative team to watch.

Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker
Cert: 15
UK release: 16 May

Thursday 8 May 2008

Speed Racer

Screen Fever Score: 7/10
Go Speed Racer go! Although stretched out too long and boasting a visual style that takes a little getting used to, Speed Racer is a big shiny blast of a blockbuster.

Full Review:
First a confession. I’m one of the few people in the world who is quite fond of the Matrix sequels. Yes, they are flawed, yes, they’re too long and oh yes, the rave scene in Reloaded is a shameful and embarrassing few minutes of film. But for all their faults, they also contain some of the most thrilling action scenes put on film since, well, The Matrix first burned up our multiplexes. So I always get excited at the prospect of seeing whatever The Wachowski Brothers do next. When I saw the brain-frazzlingly bright zips and spins of the Speed Racer trailer, my appetite was well and truly whetted. Could they transplant the kinetic blast of adrenaline that characterized The Matrix films’ best moments into the cartoon world of 60’s kids animation Speed Racer? Would it be as good? Is there life after Neo for The Wachowskis?

Having sated my appetite with a pristine IMAX-vision screening of Speed Racer, I can answer my questions thusly: yes, not quite, and definitely. When Speed Racer puts pedal to metal it’s a thrilling and spectacular joyride.

The story focuses on the eponymous driver (Emile Hirsch) and how his racing bids for glory pit him against the multi-billion dollar might of Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Industries and a bit of a cad. Fortunately Speed has a loving family on his side, as well as the assistance of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). Structured around three major race sequences, and set in an entirely digital, fluorescent-themed environment, the film is a visual head-rush, and in the first instance it’s a little hard to tell what on earth is going on. Stick with it though, and soon your brain catches up with your eyes. By the time Speed makes it to the central, life-threatening cross-country rally, known as The Crucible, you’ll be feasting on the Wachowski’s gleefully gravity-defying camerawork, as cartoon-like cars fly from both ends of the screen and impossible zooms catch the determination in the eyes of the drivers.

It’s all two-dimensional stuff (quite literally), and the performances of the talented cast are suitably primary-coloured. Particular mention should go to Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie and Paullie Litt as Spritle, his younger brother; Ricci looks like a real-life cartoon character as it is, and her spirited performance sums up the film’s innocent and simple tone perfectly. Litt brings great comedy timing to what could have been a really grating character; it’s quite refreshing for the comic relief to be genuinely funny in a big-budget blockbuster.

Where Speed Racer suffers is in the Wachowski’s lack of subtlety in dovetailing action and plot development, making the film a rather bumpy ride, narratively speaking, and pushing the running time needlessly over two hours. The opening race when commentators conveniently spell out Speed’s troubled backstory is clunky, to say the least, and the final third also packs in far too many emotional family scenes - I could definitely have lived without Susan Sarandon’s “your racing is, like, art” speech.

But primarily this is a film about the rush of the moment, and it has loads of visual highlights. The Wachowski’s bring out different colour themes for each race, and throw in neat little touches all the time; look out for the switch to heat-sensitive vision during Racer X’s gangster ambush. Speed Racer won’t change the filmic landscape in the way that The Matrix did, but it will brighten it up for a few hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Directors/Writers: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon
Cert: PG
UK release: 9 May

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Iron Man

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Solid comic-book entertainment, led by a great performance from Robert Downey Jr, but with no stand-out action sequences or memorable moments that haven’t already been played to death in the trailers. Iron Man is not going to be remembered as one of the summer’s best.

Full Review:
Iron Man is the first of 2008’s big summer blockbusters out of the gate, putting it in something of an unenviable position. If it’s great, it sets the benchmark for the rest of the summer’s movies to live up to, a la Spider-Man in 2002, but if it’s no good, or even just okay, it will soon be superseded by next week’s multi-million dollar spectacle. Taking into account the fact that Indiana Jones 4 is just around the corner, my money is on the latter outcome being Iron Man’s fate.

Plot-wise, it’s an origins movie, tracing Tony Stark (Downey Jr)’s transformation from weapons-manufacturing playboy to renegade metal-coated defender of war refugees by way of a swift lesson in the evils of war. A war that, he realises, he has provided much of the firepower for.

Kidnapped by Afghani terrorists, trapped in a cave and commanded to create a super-missile for his captors’ evil ends, Stark instead uses the materials provided to build himself a bullet-resistant iron suit and makes good his escape. This scenario unfolds – along with a bit of flashbacking character introduction – during Iron Man’s first half hour, and it’s very enjoyable stuff. Downey Jr is a quirky, atypical headliner for this type of film, and he delivers the witty lines with panache but also brings the right amount of gravitas when required. There’s also a fair amount of genuine tension and threat in this first part of the film, but this soon evaporates once Stark is back in his Malibu home and sets about building an all-new Mk. II Iron Man suit.

What follows is standard comic book hero-origins stuff: Stark slowly perfects his new power-suit, while in the background his shady business partner Obadiah Stane (a lip-smacking Jeff Bridges) does shady things, his best buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) turns up every now and then to have a “what the hell’s wrong with you” conversation and his beautiful and long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) continues an on-off flirtation/disapproval with him. It’s slick, professional and entirely by the book.

That isn’t to say that it’s not enjoyable, but it’s a crowded field out there for superhero movies these days, and Iron Man isn’t stylish or unique enough to stand out from the rest. This is partly due to director Jon Favreau’s lack of visual flair; none of the images he constructs linger in the memory, and I found myself longing for more movement from the camera. The script can also be blamed, not in terms of dialogue, but more because in focusing so completely on the transformation of Tony Stark none of the other characters - except perhaps Potts, a restrained and very likeable Paltrow performance - get any kind of development. The recent spate of quality comic adaptations (Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman Begins) have demonstrated that you can do origins stories while also fleshing out fully-formed villains, providing a real sense of conflict. Iron Man’s writers aren’t as skilful, so when the villain of the piece is unveiled, it’s a foregone conclusion, a non-event, and there’s never any question as to whether he will be defeated or not.

Iron Man is not a bad film; it's full of very funny dialogue, has excellent and seamlessly incorporated visual effects and serves as a fine introduction to a character who will soon return to movie screens (Iron Man 2 is already slated for a 2010 release). But the fact that its sequel will undoubtedly be better doesn't let it off the hook; this is just good, it should have been great.

Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard
Cert: 12A
UK release: 2 May 2008
Watch the trailer here