Archive for April, 2009

Nasty, brutish and short

Posted in Film on April 29, 2009 by alexlarman

observeHere’s an article I’ve done for the Guardian about Crank 2 & Observe And Report. In case I am to be accused of gross hypocrisy – yes I laughed at both, and yes I felt deeply ashamed for so doing.

What’s the most depressingly, pointlessly offensive film you’ve ever seen? Offhand, I can’t think of a more repellent recent example than Crank: High Voltage – and that includes the films of Eli Roth, Gaspar Noé and Hannah Montana. A sequel to the silly, overblown but goofily enjoyable original tale of a hitman compelled to keep himself alive by constant jolts of adrenaline, the film announces its intentions from its opening moment, as our antihero, who has apparently died, is shovelled off the sidewalk and fitted with an artificial heart by a group of unscrupulous Chinese gangsters. He then spends the rest of the film attempting to retrieve his real heart.

Further extreme violence ­follows, one of the more charming moments of which includes a woman being shot in her breast implants and the ensuing leakage that follows. There are countless other scenes like this; throwing away the comparative restraint and good-naturedness of the original, the sequel seems content to wallow in mean-spirited unpleasantness, apparently on the grounds that not enough films these days feature, say, graphic genital torture or a man slicing off his own nipples.

The writers and directors of the Crank films bill themselves as Neveldine/Taylor, perhaps to split the blame. Although, predictably, a hardcore fan base has congregated to defend the film in excitable terms, its poor showing at the US box office speaks volumes, with the potential audience perhaps sickened by the film’s extreme misogyny and racism. Watching Jason Statham making jokes about “chinks” doesn’t make the film edgy or daring; instead, it places it in the same regrettable vein of humour as Bernard Manning and Love Thy Neighbour. One imagines that Neveldine/Taylor would never have dared to feature such racial slurs about black people; so why on earth is it acceptable to do it about another ethnic group?

However, this depressing trend in trying to appal rather than entertain audiences seems to be catching on. Danny Leigh’s article about the new Seth Rogen film, Observe and Report, made many salient arguments about the picture. Danny’s points, and the subsequent discussion, about the semi-date-rape scene that occurs about halfway through the film are all worthwhile, but I think that focusing purely on what might be the most self-consciously offensive scene (albeit one that was featured in the adult-oriented trailer) ignores the highly transgressive content of much of the rest of it. Racism? Violence against children? Alcoholism? Mental illness? Check, check and check again. On and on the laundry list of offence goes, dutifully ticked off with an air somewhere between gleeful and perverse.

The film’s comparatively poor box-office showing can be blamed on misleading marketing, attempting to sell it as a comedy in much the same vein as Rogen’s previous successes Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, whereas in fact the writer/director Jody Hill has publicly declared he sees the film as being closer in feel to Taxi Driver. (In fact, it’s more like an inferior version of The King of Comedy. It is possible to make a case for it being at least different to the usual comparable Hollywood fare, although, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in his review: “I’m all for bad taste and black comedy and gross-out … but it has to be funny.” The only laughs audible in the screening I attended were ones of shocked disbelief.

As Bradshaw notes, nothing should be off limits in comedy, and, indeed, films such as In Bruges and Pulp Fiction acquired praise for the way in which they brilliantly dovetail horror and hilarity. Yet neither Crank: High Voltage nor Observe and Report are worthy of comparison. Instead, the flashy, arrogant emptiness of both films reveals their creators to be little more than self-conscious provocateurs, trying their hardest to shock and disturb, but with less success than the gimmicks of a William Castle flick. The shopping-mall flasher whose actions become the catalyst of Observe and Report is an apt metaphor for these would-be titans of comedy: once you’ve got over the initial shock, there’s really very little to see.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Posted in Film on April 28, 2009 by alexlarman

x-men-origins-wolverine1X Men Origins: Wolverine is in many respects the archetypal summer blockbuster. It’s not bad exactly, but it’s bland, forgettable, guaranteed a certain level of financial success because of the in-built brand names and disappointingly short of the wit or excitement that would make it the kind of film that people recall fondly in years to come. I’ve always been faintly lukewarm about the X-Men series in the first place; the first one has a dodgy plot and feels very rushed but has amusing characters and jokes, the second one is a splendid adventure with clever social undercurrents, and the third one is, like all Brett Ratner films, a pallid imitation of the earlier films’ style and characterisation. This is somewhat on a par with Ratner’s film, if somewhat less annoying in its derivative nature.

Wolverine, as the title suggests, focuses on Hugh Jackman’s mutant character, a troubled, charismatic figure who, after accidentally murdering his father and then going on the run with his half-brother Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) becomes involved firstly in war after war, and then finds himself as part of a top-secret intelligence operation masterminded by the oleaginous William Stryker (Danny Huston). He eventually escapes from this organisation but soon finds, predictably, that he cannot escape his past, and that it is but a short skip to the ‘adamantium-plated body’ that enables him to sprout metal claws at will.

Unlike such reboots of series as JJ Abrams’ Star Trek or Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the film’s status as a prequel to the other X-Men films means that it has to dot all the I’s and cross the t’s of narrative, and so therefore you know at the beginning of the film which characters will live and which will die (essentially, if they’re not in the main X-Men series, goodbye!) There were rumours of reshoots, production troubles and clashes with the studio throughout, and the appalling special effects are perhaps testament to a rushed post-production schedule, as are weird narrative lurches which expect us to start cheering for previously despicable characters. On the other hand, the lead performances are surprisingly good for the material, with Huston a dependably hissable villain and Schreiber appearing to enjoy a break from more cerebral roles as an invincible mutant with some nifty retractable claws. Jackman is Jackman, and you already know whether you’ll warm to the character or not.

So, all things considered, hardly the catastrophe that some rumours had suggested, but definitely not as good as the Bryan Singer X-Men films. And also don’t bother sticking around for the final scene after the credits which, at the screening I attended, drew disbelieving groans at the lame shaggy-dog story it represented.

State Of Play

Posted in Film on April 24, 2009 by alexlarman

stateofplayusI can’t remember off the top of my head when an entirely mainstream thriller received such across-the-board rave reviews as State Of Play – indeed, the adverts plastered across the press have an almost bewildered air as they tot up the superlatives, high star ratings and lavish praise. And the good news is that it’s entirely deserved. While it’s probably not going to feature in the Oscar nominations next year, nor will box office records be smashed, this intelligent, exciting and gripping film will certainly go down as one of the year’s best films.

Based fairly closely (albeit with some major deviations) on Paul Abbott’s superb TV series of a few years ago, it follows Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) as he becomes embroiled in a sex scandal involving his old friend, ambitious politician Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), whose mistress-cum-researcher has apparently jumped to her death beneath a subway train. Closer examination, however, reveals that she was almost certainly pushed. But what does this have to do with a double murder and a shadowy firm of private mercenaries, Pointcorp, to say nothing of McAffrey’s ambitious young colleague Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) or the triangular relationship that he has with Collins’ wife, Anne?

Like the earlier series, which this stands as a companion piece to, rather than an inferior remake, there are two distinct levels on which this can be assured. As a paranoid conspiracy thriller, the odd slightly histrionic line – ‘This is wrath of God money!’ a minor character announces about Pointcorp’s potential investments – can be more than justified, as the superb, pacy direction of Kevin Macdonald (whose previous film, The Last King Of Scotland, was similarly excellent) keeps the levels of suspense and intrigue high, even down to the final ‘ta-dah!’ big reveal, which comes as a genuine surprise, despite being more than adequately hinted at beforehand.

The other level that this works superbly on is as character study. Crowe’s Cal is very different to the self-assured, chippy incarnation that John Simm played; he’s overweight, lazy, a slob, and more loyal to his friends than to his story, or at least he would be if he hadn’t had an affair with his friend’s wife. Had Brad Pitt played him, as was originally planned, it seems likely that vast swathes of plausibility would have fallen away. I’m an unapologetic Crowe defender – any man who, in the last decade or so, could have appeared in the likes of The Insider, LA Confidential, Gladiator, Master and Commander, 3.10 To Yuma, America Gangster and Body Of Lies, and been superb in all of them must be taken seriously as one of the great contemporary actors – but he’s especially good here, combining a sense of ethical ambivalence (we’re never quite sure, until the end, precisely where his loyalties lie) and a kind of doomed nobility and romanticism, clinging on to the tenets of print journalism while all around him corporations drop buzzwords and blogging reigns supreme. (The irony of writing this on a blog doesn’t escape me.)

However, the rest of the cast is as good. The friend I saw this with whispered to me, in disbelief, ‘Ben Affleck’s not terrible!’, and in fact Affleck is very good in a difficult role, which is never entirely sympathetic, but has to convey a sense of moral outrage at the compromising situation he finds himself in. Perhaps he’s a bit young to be playing opposite Crowe, but it’s still the best he’s been since Changing Lanes. There are great supporting performances from Jason Bateman as a sleazy, arrogant PR-cum-fetish club promoter and Jeff Daniels as a hypocritical politician, and Helen Mirren in the Bill Nighy role as the paper’s editor gets to drop some British swearing in to amusing effect. (Will Americans ever catch on to the word ‘wanker’ I wonder?) The appearance of Brennan Brown (best known as the imbecilic film executive Mr Dresden in the Orange ads) gets some big unintentional laughs, but hardly gets in the way of the film’s success.

So, all things considered, a superb film, and one that I imagine will be regarded fondly by journalists (lots of knowing laughs, even at a public screening) and the general public alike. Terrific stuff.

Star Trek & Crank: High Voltage

Posted in Uncategorized on April 20, 2009 by alexlarman

star_trekI went to the first UK screening of Star Trek the other evening. My expectations were low, to say the least; it never particularly interested me in any form before, and given that most of the things that JJ Abrams has been involved in previously have promised the world and ended up delivering a near-negligible amount (I think particularly of Cloverfield, but also of the oddly unfocused Mission Impossible 3, and probably of what will become of Lost) I thought it would be another vacuous, silly summer blockbuster.

It might still be a vacuous, silly summer blockbuster, but surprisingly it’s also a great deal of fun, done with a lightness of touch missing from many more portentous films. Abrams takes the now-fashionable concept of the ‘origin story’, following the adventures of the young Kirk, Spock, Bones et al, starting off from the heroic sacrifice of Kirk’s father (a scene so close to the finale of Armageddon that it comes as no surprise to see Abrams credited as a co-writer on the earlier film) and continuing as they train at the Starfleet Academy, and then launch into action against the nefarious Romulan villain Nero (Eric Bana, cast against type), who seeks revenge against Spock for some initially unfathomable reasons.

There is much excitement, with space battles, swashbuckling action, monsters, exploding planets, a very funny extended cameo from Simon Pegg as Scotty and the stately, highly iconic appearance of Leonard Nimoy as an aged Spock, trotting out some of the most famous lines in science-fiction history with all the gravitas that you’d expect. I wasn’t especially enamoured of Chris Pine as Kirk, but Zachary Quinto brings just the right air of faintly distanced brilliance and unequivocal loyalty to the younger Spock, and even the slightly bizarre appearance of Winona Ryder as his mother doesn’t distract too much. No doubt it will be a massive success, and one hopes that the sequels are this entertaining. 

I also saw Crank: High Voltage, which is a truly strange film. Sequel to a middling cult hit from a few years ago, with Jason Statham as the brilliantly named Chev Chelios, a hitman forced to produce incessant shots of adrenaline to keep his heart going, the follow-up begins with the apparently deceased Statham being resurrected by being given an electric heart (the original having been transplanted into David Carradine in Chinese make-up) and then forced to keep it going by any means possible. Written and directed by ‘Neveldine/Taylor’, as they bill themselves, the film gleefully abandons any notion of taste or restraint from the outset, instead pursuing sick, twisted laughs through a procession of moments of set-piece violence, misogynistic sex scenes, casual racism and some weird flourishes that verge on the inspired, such as Statham being transformed into a massive Godzilla-esque figure while he electrocutes himself repeatedly. Its insane brio is initially bracing, but by the end the regular laughs are so guilt-ridden that it’s impossible to leave the cinema without feeling somewhat soiled and ashamed. It also features an utterly bizarre cameo from Geri Halliwell, who at least differs from the other female characters in that she is not asked to take her clothes off or die horribly.

Let The Right One In

Posted in Film on April 14, 2009 by alexlarman

right1Vampires are big business, everyone knows that, and this is all the more true since the phenomenal success of Twilight; a success, I must note, that completely passed me by, perhaps because I’m the wrong gender/sexual persuasion to be seduced by the bouffant-haired charms of Robert Pattison. (And because, after watching a half-hour of the film, I walked out, mainly because I was bored beyond belief). Thankfully, Let The Right One In, although hardly the stuff of multiplex sell-outs, is a far more classy, intelligent and emotionally sophisticated piece of work that nevertheless contains enough spectacular scenes of violence and mayhem to keep a less demanding audience happy.

In early scenes that vaguely recall the work of Lukas Moodysson, young, blonde-haired and bullied Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is leading a sad existence, dividing his time between his vaguely abusive mother and ostracized gay father, all the while being tormented at school. Things appear to perk up when he meets a girl of similar age, Eli (Lina Leandersson), or at least they would do were she and her ‘father’ not vampires on a killing spree in the small Swedish town that they inhabit. Despite this, Eli and Oskar strike up a friendship of sorts, a relationship that becomes deeper and more important to them both the more bodies pile up in the town and the more horrific Oskar’s bullying gets.

Apparently the film is being remade for an American audience (by, of all people, the director of Cloverfield), and it’s easy to see what will be taken out. The film’s slow, deliberate pacing, which occasionally verges on the elliptical, might try the patience of an audience for the first half or so (indeed, it might be a better idea to go into the film completely blind, in which case I apologise for giving away the central conceit) would inevitably be jettisoned, and the strange, perversely sexual overtones that dominate most of the relationships within the film would have to be toned down. I have my doubts as to whether the Grand Guignol finale at a swimming pool – an immensely satisfying close that nevertheless goes considerably further than a Hollywood film would – could survive. So it’s in any viewer’s interests to catch the original film and enjoy a classy, intellectual spin on a horror film that never descends into ‘boo!’ scares but instead matches the blood and gore with an elegant romanticism and some unexpected but entirely welcome touches of black humour. Highly recommended.

Parky, Jade Goody & the modern media

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2009 by alexlarman

jade1I must confess to always having seen Michael Parkinson as a slightly marginal figure. His chatshow was occasionally interesting – I remember his interviews with Woody Allen and Meg Ryan as being fascinating car-crash viewing – but by and large there was an awful lot of sycophantic blandness. In retrospect, I suppose it’s easy to see why Jonathan Ross rose to become Britain’s most famous chat show host; he may have been just as much of a sycophant, but he at least papered this over with jokes, innuendo and of course the Sachsgate scandal, a tawdry little affair from which he emerged with no credit whatsoever.

Yet Parkinson has now emerged from retirement to weigh in on the Jade Goody saga, which he has described in an article for the Radio Times as  ‘a woman who came to represent all that is paltry and wretched about Britain today’.  This is in stark contrast to otherwise sensible people such as Stephen Fry getting carried away and saying absurd things like ‘she was a Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks’.

Parkinson’s main point of attack, rather than the hapless Goody herself, is the media circus that surrounded her throughout the last few years of her life. It proved a fascinating lesson in watching the systemic hypocrisy of tabloid newspapers and their columnists; firstly, you have her unlikely rise to fame thanks to her mind-bogglingly ignorant remarks on Big Brother, a programme that will now forever be associated with her, and vice versa. Then you have what promised to be a dramatic fall from grace thanks to her continued presence on Celebrity Big Brother and the so-called ‘racist abuse’ of Shilpa Shetty, which, as some of the more sober commentators noted at the time, sprang more from ignorance and stupidity than genuine malice. And then we have the third act, the unpleasant and tragic progress of which became increasingly unpleasant to watch as Max Clifford, Cassandra-like, made daily pronouncements on his client’s condition to the world’s media, who blithely parroted his utterances and endlessly referred to ‘Brave Jade’. Apparently he earnt £200,000 from his agency; I don’t believe it has yet been donated to cervical cancer charities.

There is too much that is unpleasant about the Jade Goody saga to take rational note of. There are the side characters like the ‘grieving husband’ Jack Tweed, a man facing another prison sentence for assault, to say nothing of her drug addict mother. And yet what really sticks in the craw is the craven acceptance of many in the media of the Clifford-dictated party line, that an ignorant, if savvy, young woman who was manipulated by those around her until her death was some sort of saintly martyr. Her death was a tragedy for her family, and it is, as Parkinson notes, as sad as any other 27-year old’s untimely death. But it’s about time that people started to draw a line under this tawdry business and moved on.

The Boat That Sank

Posted in Film on April 5, 2009 by alexlarman

boat1I know that expressing a public preference for the films of Richard Curtis is, like saying you are fond of Coldplay or murmuring your appreciation for Ian McEwan, seen as subscribing to a horrendously boring middlebrow ideology. The case against Curtis, the naysayers argue, is that he creates an absurd, patronising middle-class world, where the disabled, homosexual or blacks are hanging around smiling on the sidelines while his bumbling, socially inept but somehow charming heroes find true love with glamorous Americans, all the while making the kind of fist-in-mouth faux pas that have an audience either cringing or laughing in recognition.

This is true. What has hitherto also been true is that his films – for, and I’ll return to this later, Curtis is truly seen as his film’s auteur – are funny, create indelible comic characters and have spawned a host of pale imitators (Wimbledon, anyone, to name possibly the most egregious example?) Four Weddings was a breath of fresh air because it was witty, clever, elegant, was unafraid to introduce poignancy and tragedy into what might otherwise have been a broad and trivial comedy. Notting Hill, its follow-up, was slightly less good, suffering from a distended plot that lasted longer than it should have, but nevertheless contained numerous stand-out moments, mostly due to Rhys Ifans’ engaging performance as Hugh Grant’s imbecilic Welsh flatmate Spike. He almost certainly gave the first Bridget Jones film its most amusing moments (all involving Grant, his alter ego) and Love Actually, though it doesn’t completely work, has enough funny and/or poignant scenes to be an enjoyable rewatch.

He’s had a couple of lesser works, of course; The Tall Guy has its moments but the central romance doesn’t convince, the second Bridget Jones film is an unfunny retread of the first one, the Bean films are children’s work and nothing more, and his TV drama The Girl In The Cafe suffered from trying to yoke an exquisitely poignant, richly realised romance (Bill Nighy, take a bow, as ever) with a far less compelling storyline about global debt. But now, with his second film as director, The Boat That Rocked, the charming, witty and brilliant Mr Curtis has finally come a proper cropper. This boat sinks, both literally and metaphorically.

I write this more in sorrow than in anger. I watched the film in an audience of two; the other member of the audience was the actress Katherine Parkinson, one of the film’s stars, who looked somewhat embarrassed by her strangely conceived and indifferently acted role as the sole lesbian (and cook) on the boat ‘Radio Rock’, a pirate radio station in the 60s otherwise staffed entirely by DJs of varying degrees of priapism. A typically louche Bill Nighy, hogging most of the script’s funny lines, is the ship’s owner Quentin, who invites his young, recently expelled godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) on board, where the young man undergoes a sentimental education of sorts to the background of most of the iconic non-Beatles music of the decade. And that’s more or less it for plot. There are various incidents that pad out the running time, such as the British government’s attempts to shut the boat down (led by Kenneth Branagh’s stern, vaguely Hitlerian martinet) and the rivalry between the ship’s lead DJs ‘The Count’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gavin (Ifans, again, resplendent in velvet), but I’d be hard pressed to actually describe a storyline. Instead, there are a number of not-wildly-interesting vignettes, increasingly repetitive scenes involving Branagh and his deputy Twatt (Jack Davenport – and shamefully this joke is one of the very few that actually works, childish though it might seem) and occasional melodramatic plot developments.

The major problem, originally hinted at in Love Actually, is that Curtis simply isn’t a good director of his own material. Mike Newell gave Four Weddings And A Funeral a glossy sheen on an obviously low budget, and, with the exception of the dire Andie MacDowell (and arguably the OTT Simon Callow) got excellent performances out of a superb cast fully attuned to the ironies and witticisms of Curtis’ script. Ditto Roger Michell with Notting Hill. Yet Curtis’ problem here is that there’s no control on the material. Despite being a good 45 minutes too long, it still appears to have been cut down from a much longer film; characters who never appear are bafflingly mentioned (‘You’re just as useless as your father!’, Branagh yells at Davenport, and this is never followed up on), subplots are hinted at rather than developed, such as the rivalry between Ifans and Seymour Hoffman, and there is an irritating reliance on cut-aways to ‘everyday people’ that resembles the kind of imbecilic ‘all over the world’ technique used in disaster films to show people bonding together in peril. Perhaps conscious of this, Curtis constructs an absurd ending which is far too overblown and grandiose for the material, as well as copping out as regards the fate of a key character. He also fails to provide a decent come-uppance for the baddies, again presumably something left on the cutting-room floor.

And, most disappointingly of all, it’s painfully unfunny. The characters have potential, such as Rhys Darby’s irritating ‘Nuts’ Nutsford and Nick Frost’s unlikely Lothario, but they’re not developed to any level beyond caricature. The jokes simply aren’t present, on the whole. And Curtis’ famed gift for inserting poignancy into humour comes a cropper here, in the shape of the infatuation and then humiliation of the Chris O’Dowd character, which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth rather than a bittersweet one. And if you disliked the way in which characters in Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Love Actually were suddenly set up with unlikely love interests in the closing seconds, you’re not going to enjoy this one any more. It doesn’t help that Sturridge is pretty rather than dynamic, and in places he seems to be doing an impersonation of Hugh Grant, who I hoped throughout would make a surprise cameo as a louche aristocrat or something similarly pleasing. He doesn’t, although Emma Thompson has a strange small appearance as Sturridge’s half-cut mother.

It isn’t a complete disaster; the cast are too good for that, the no doubt expensive soundtrack often gives it a dramatic heft it wouldn’t otherwise have, and there’s the odd small moment that works, such as the scene when Sturridge confronts the out-of-it hippy Bob (Ralph Brown, channelling Danny from Withnail again) with his suspicions that he might be his father, and Bob can’t do anything other than relapse into embarrassed silence before changing a record. But it’s a major disappointment from one of British cinema’s most reliable writers. Let’s hope that Curtis’ next project is smaller-scale, funnier and for God’s sake cast Hugh Grant in it again.