Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie Roundup

I've been watching way too many movies lately to review them all properly, so I'm going to take the easy, lazy way out by doing a brief recap.

(Image from IMP Awards)

First up, High Fidelity (2000), based on yet another book I haven't read. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a music aficionado who ekes out a living running his own little record shop with his friends/employees. The tale starts with Rob being dumped by his girlfriend, after which he proceeds to list the top 5 breakups of his life (top 5 lists being a recurring gag in the film) while struggling to make sense of why his relationships keep ending badly. Cusack's excellent in the role and the film itself is witty and more than a little insightful, making Rob sympathetic while also being up front about his (serious) character flaws. It's partly a rom com for guys with a male perspective on relationships, and partly a look at geekery and fandom (in this case, music geeks). An excellent supporting cast (Jack Black is surprisingly great) and musical choices make it worth seeing.

(Image from Imp Awards)

Arrietty (2010), the latest animated film from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, lacks the grandeur and depth of some of their previous masterpieces but is still an excellent, if slight film. Based on Mary Norton's children's book 'The Borrowers', it tells the story of a family of tiny people (think Lilliputians) who live in secret within the walls/floorboads of a rural home, surviving by 'borrowing' food and supplies. When Arrietty, the daughter, starts becoming friends with a frail, ill boy who moves into the house, she inadvertently puts her whole family in danger. The animation is gorgeous as always with the trademark Ghibli attention to detail and inventiveness on full display, making full use of the protagonists' ultra-diminutive size in relation to ordinary household objects. Captivating and sometimes moving, the film marks another worthy entry in a long line of excellent Japanese animated films that are worth watching regardless of your age.

(Image from Imp Awards)

It's always tricky explaining this film. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) is a French period drama/action adventure/martial arts/horror/fantasy film, and it's one of my favourites. I suspect it's one of those films you'll either love or hate. Told with somber seriousness, the story (partly based - very loosely - on true events) is fairly preposterous, as is the mish mash of genres. A creature, believed to be a giant wolf of sorts, is terrorising the countryside of the French province of Gévaudan. The King sends his Royal taxidermist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) to investigate and kill the creature. Accompanied by his Iroquois 'brother' Mani (Mark Dacascos),  de Fronsac finds romance, aristocratic snobbery, and potential conspiracy afoot in what at first seemed a straightforward assignment. And there's plenty of martial arts violence to boot! Visually quite sumptuous and let down only by some dodgy effects, the film exudes cool from beginning to end and easily overcomes its inherent silliness. There's a strong supporting cast including the luscious Monica Belucci (who features in one of the film's most memorable scene transitions) and the forever sneering Vincent Cassel. Tremendously good fun, I loved every minute of it!

(Image from Imp Awards)

From one outrageous movie I love to one I merely enjoyed. Drive Angry (2011) is a rare Nicolas Cage movie that I enjoyed watching, and not just because of the pleasing (and trashy) eye candy provided by co-star Amber Heard. Cage plays Milton, a dead man who escapes Hell to avenge the murder of his daughter and save the life of a baby kidnapped by a mad cult led by a ruthless maniac (Billy Burke). Accompanied by the aforementioned Heard whom he picks up early on in the film and pursued by Hell's  'Accountant' (a devilishly good William Fichtner) who is 'hell bent' (sorry!) on returning him to the afterlife penitentiary (Satan is the warden), Milton blazes a trail of sordid destruction as he pursues the cult. It's over the top in a similar way to Shoot 'Em Up was, and unapologetically so - there's a scene where Milton kills baddies in the midst of intercourse! Trashy, forgettable, but entertaining while it lasts, if you're OK with this sort of thing.

(Image from Imp Awards)

Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) is surely up there amongst the list of film's with the longest titles ever. One of Allen's earlier efforts, it's an adaptation of a novel that apparently has very little in common with its source material. The film is divided into several short sketches, each one entitled with a chapter of the book, such as 'What is Sodomy' and 'What Happens During Ejaculation'. As is the nature of sketches, some are far better than others, and this general rule of thumb makes the film a mixed bag in terms of quality. Having said that, none of them are bad, and the good ones are truly hilarious; the one featuring Gene Wilder as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep and the aforementioned 'goings on during ejaculation' tale are side splittingly funny. All of the sketches are related to sex in some way or the other; don't expect to be educated by any of them, but do expect Allen's trademark wit on display as he explores sex and sexual obsession through the prism of bizarre comedy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Attack the Block (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

Attack the Block (2011)

It's interesting thinking about this film post London riots. The protagonists are after all a bunch of inner city gang youths! It doesn't make me re-evaluate my take on the film mind you, but the timing of the film having come out just pre-riots is a tad amusing.

Running at a snappy 90 minutes, Attack the Block is an old school horror-comedy about an alien invasion of London, and more specifically a council housing estate (i.e. 'the projects'). It begins with a gang of kids from the building led by Moses (John Boyega) mugging a young woman, only to be interrupted mid crime when an alien crash lands mere metres away. They kill it, but it ends up being the first of many and soon the group are fleeing for their lives and forced to take up arms to defend their turf.

The film is superbly crafted on what seems to be a modest budget. It has a lean and focused script that, coupled with frenetic editing, relentlessly hurtles from one scene to the next, stopping only to set up characters and situations before the next set-piece It's economical storytelling, but no less effective for it. And the characters, despite being archetypal, are very well defined and funny, thanks in no small part to the excellent cast which is spearheaded by Boyega's charismatic performance.

It's funny but not campy - the horror sequences are genuine horror sequences, and there are gruesome deaths aplenty. Writer/director Joe Cornish, making his first feature film, strikes the perfect tonal balance between these elements in much the same way films like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead do. It's got story, characters, excitement, and humour, with a smattering of social commentary thrown in for good measure.

By making the most of dimly lit hallways and dark run down city streets, the film maintains an atmospheric visual style. The creature designs deserve a special mention as they are creepy and alien looking without seeming derivative or fake. The effects used to bring them to life belie the modesty of the film's budget; truly impressive stuff! It's all rounded off with an energetic soundtrack by Basement Jaxx, the aural icing on the cake.

Fans of horror comedies are in for a treat with Attack the Block. There's nothing particularly original about it but it's very well made and features an unconventional setting and characters, particularly for a genre film. It's definitely on my blu-ray list!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Image from IMP Awards

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's book upon which this film is based is a very slight one indeed, featuring only a few sentences of text to accompany its illustrations. The film adaptation by Spike Jonze, which is equal parts energetic and leaden, isn't exactly heavy on story either but does by necessity have more content than its source material.

Max (Max Records) is a young boy living with his single mum (Catherine Keener) and sister. He's a little wild and imaginative, and clearly feels alienated and is thus prone to moody tantrums and outbursts. When his mum brings a boyfriend over for dinner he has a particularly wild reaction and runs away, jumps into a boat and sails off to a strange land filled with large, furry creatures - the eponymous 'Wild Things'. The wild things are a familial community full of bickering and fighting but also affection and caring. Max enters their world and convinces them that he is a king (they're not to bright) and proceeds to lead them in various 'fun' activities.

The true substance of the film is the interplay between the creatures. They each appear to represent different aspects of Max's personality and family, and as he attempts to lead them he begins to discover the complexity inherent in all 'human' feelings and interactions. Yes, it's a 'growing up and learning about life' movie, but done like no other. It isn't a cutesy film by any means, with the creatures often being quite menacing and dangerous (whether intentionally or, as is often the case, accidentally).

Tonally it varies much like Max's moods, from the exuberant joy of just running through the woods to the bitter anger of having strangers being brought home; it does feel a little too dour at times though. The music by Carter Burwell and vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O add to the dreamlike atmosphere.

The visuals are stunning and often surreal, and real credit must be given to the way the creatures have been designed and realised. They are actors in costumes with CG used to animate their faces, and the end result is a physical and digital performance that feels completely believable. You simply forget that you're seeing an effect and accept the creatures as, well, creatures!

The top notch cast who wore the suits and voiced the characters contribute immensely to pulling off the illusion, particularly James Gandolfini as Carol, the wild thing who most closely mirrors Max's feelings of isolation and anger. Speaking of Max, the performance by Max Records (yeah they found a Max to play Max!) is superb and absent any of the 'mature beyond their years' personality traits that too many precocious child actors possess.

It's a very good film but isn't a wholehearted thumbs up. As I said sometimes it feels way too downbeat, and while it does attempt to reflect Max's own dynamic personality I'm not sure it fully succeeds. It also drags a little, probably because of its random non narrative nature. These caveats aside though, it does capture the feeling of being a kid and an outsider incredibly well, as well as the simplistic child logic understanding of the way the world works. I wouldn't really call this a film for kids - it's more like a peek into the mind of a child that is intended for adults.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Image from IMP Awards

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

If I had to use one word to describe this film, it would be 'whimsical'. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play two brothers, Bloom and Stephen, who are con men. Bloom is the chief protagonist in the cons who has to go out there and execute them, with Ruffalo being the 'storyteller' who chiefly works his magic behind the scenes. Also alongside them during their capers is the enigmatic Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), their demolitions expert.

After a brief and charming prologue covering their itinerant childhoods and how they got in to the con business, the story proper begins. They've been at it for a while and Bloom wants out of the business; he's tired of the phony life he's leading, but Stephen convinces him to stick around for one last job. That job is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a rich eccentric loner. Stephen creates a narrative for Bloom to act out - it's a long con designed to sweep Penelope off her feet and make her feel like part of an adventure, and in the process part her from her money. The con takes them globe trotting and along the way Bloom starts to actually fall for Penelope.

Rian Johnson's last film, 'Brick', was his breakthrough, a high school noir with snappy dialogue that deservedly earned him major kudos. His sophomore effort is radically different - it's bright and vibrant and quirky, but it still has the same genuine sense of danger and high stakes that made 'Brick' so engaging. It also has a similarly twisty plot, with cons within cons that approach head spinning levels. Plot heavy though it may be, characters are the film's focus, and in that respect Johnson succeeds admirably in giving his larger than life protagonists a sense of believability that transcends the quirkiness of the premise (much like a Wes Anderson film).

Brody is decent in what is ostensibly the lead role - I'm not a fan but he acquits himself well. Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the elder brother, appearing fun and relaxed and in complete control while possibly capable of violence if and when required. Rachel Weisz's role as Penelope isn't as well developed as the brothers but she infuses the character with a sense of enthusiasm and charm that is endearing.

It's a fun film that has a sense of melancholy about it, and also an element of darkness and danger simmering beneath the surface. The con is implausible but that's the nature of the story, and if you're willing to give in to the film's style there is much to appreciate and enjoy. Johnson proves himself to be more than a one hit wonder and I'm looking forward to his future offerings.