Sunday, December 31, 2006

Miami Vice, The Break-Up, Just My Luck and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006): Okay, Michael- can I call you Mikey? No? Okay- I'll level with you. You wanna shove your grainy camera up against Jamie Foxx's forehead? Fine. You wanna try and make me believe that Colin Farrell and Gong Li are so stupid they'd do everything but do it on the dance floor when they're supposed to be keeping themselves secret? Fine. You wanna reserve your blood for the delightful offings of the particularly bad people, because everyone knows the worst people die most violently? Fine. Michael, if you wanna do all that, that's fine with me- just don't expect me to give a damn! You see, Michael, I watched your latest film Miami Vice the other night, and I... well, I don't like being mean, so let's just say it didn't sit well with me. It was kind of, well, boring. I know you were going for the cool, calm and collected thing, Mikey- sorry, Michael- but goddamn, there was no need to set your camera to 'freeze'. I didn't even know it had that setting. Oh, and you know, I thought you'd chosen your actors quite well- Colin Farrell is a charmer, usually, and Jamie Foxx, well, he's a flippin' Oscar winner; and wow, you've got Chinese superstar Gong Li, man, and that Naomie Harris, well, she's one for the future, you don't miss anything, Michael! But damn, Michael, you could have written the damn thing better. I mean, I spent half the movie trying to figure out what the hell was going on and the other half not giving a f**k. Yeah, those black humvees are wonderfully shiny, I kn- yes, I do quite like the sight of Gong Li's behind, Mich- yes, Michael, Paraguay is pretty! But Michael, I'm not just after eye-candy, man. I want something to chew on. I want something I can understand, something I can get excited about, something that gives me an intellectual buzz. You don't have that here, Michael. You can write an occasional cracking line of dialogue, sure. And you can set-up a gorgeous, fluid shot. But no, Michael, I didn't care if she woke up, and I didn't care if he was heartbroken. And, quite frankly, I don't care if you never work again, because I'm really rather bored of this cops-and-robbers shit. Especially when it's as boring as this. Grade: C-]

[The Break-Up (Peyton Reed, 2006): I wasn't really expecting too much from The Break-Up, as promisingly bubbly as its director, Reed, had proved from Down to Love (and cheerleader comedy Bring It On, which I've not seen), and as large a soft spot for Jennifer Aniston as I ashamedly admit to carrying over from Friends. The Break-Up has the rather novel premise of skipping the part that most romantic comedies chew on- the love bit- and instead chronicling a rather messy and bitter separation. Of course, separation would be easy enough if they lived separately- they'd never have to see each other- but that'd make a rather dull movie, so our broken coupling here, Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston), are wedged into a plot that has both valiantly hanging onto their jointly-bought and refurbished condo, laying claim to different areas and generally trying to piss the other one off. It's rather hard to forgive the unfunny stereotyping of Brooke's "gay" brother (John Michael Higgins) and her colleague (Justin Long), but thankfully the focus on them proves brief and The Break-Up provides a sizeable amount to chew on- as long as you don't take the film's promoters at their word. I doubt that, if The Break-Up had been marketed as anything other than a romantic comedy then it would have made next-to-no money, but ultimately, The Break-Up is anything but a comedy- this is a bitter, tart and astute drama, always tinged a little too liberally with Hollywood convention but also pleasingly realistic, especially in its open-ended final scene. I give Vaughn and Aniston major points for starring in something so respectively daring- sure, in the world of film as a whole, The Break-Up is hardly a revelation, but in the dollar-centric world of romantic Hollywood, choosing something that will undoubtably piss a large amount of their viewership off is quite commendable. Our two leads are, happily, quite good in their parts, Aniston particularly tearing herself apart in one raw dramatic confrontation- and if you want some comedy to sate your appetite, Jason Bateman (a favourite of mine from Arrested Development) is wonderfully sardonic in a small part as the couple's friend and realtor, while Judy Davis steals her scenes as Brooke's pale-faced, bitchy boss. The Break-Up is a film that gives you more than you expect, although, really, if you read the synopsis, it's hardly going to full of laughs. It's like a small-scale, less black and more raw version of that infamous break-up story The War of the Roses (surely the inspiration), and compared to that it's both easier to watch and harder to deal with. Grade: B-]

[Just My Luck (Donald Petrie, 2006): I suppose that, really, I should just dismiss Just My Luck out of hand- 'oh, it's just a throwaway teen romantic slapstick comedy, don't be so harsh'- but the whole thing bothered me so much that I couldn't. I will easily admit to loving Lindsay Lohan- she's a smart, warm screen presence with excellent comic timing and still proves highly promising, as her performance in the late Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion this year shows us- but even she couldn't salvage anything out of this, and perhaps the film's biggest crime is that it actually manages to make Lohan an annoying presence. Fie the film that does this. But I didn't just have a problem with Lohan, I had a problem with the film's entire universe. In what world is luck's existance as a force so assured, so easily manipulated, as such that our central coupling- played by Lohan and wet-blanket Chris Pine- learn how to manage its transferance between them? And in what world are McFly, no less, so talented that they deserve a film which is basically built around them? I suppose it's my own fault, really, for caving into my curiousity about how a film starring Lindsay Lohan could possibly be so worthless, but if there's anything Just My Luck did manage, its demonstrating that. Grade: F]

[Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006): Pity the poor American dollar. So small, so thin, so harmless, and yet he is tossed around so thoughtlessly, abandoned in snowy streets, screwed up in pockets, handed over to cinema attendants in return for such a worthless slog as this. I'm sure you've heard, and many times, that this sequel to 2003's surprise smash-hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is only the third film to pass to $1 billion worldwide mark. I'm sure you've also heard that it's not really very good. Well, both of those things are true, and although I'm sure that many people would debate the second one- hell, it must have made all that money somehow- I really, really, can't. I enjoyed the first film, long and slow as it was, but the only need for a second one seems money, and, unfortunately, Dead Man's Chest is as hollow and dead as, well, the dead man's chest. I'm sure you've also heard that 2007 brings a third film, At World's End, and Dead Man's Chest is nothing but a piece of connective tissue, a long haul between two films that no-one really cares about- for these people, it's all about the destination, and, unfortunately, Dead Man's Chest is the journey. Pity poor Johnny Depp, for while his infamous Captain Jack Sparrow in Black Pearl was a delightful, unpredictable mad-cap confection, nothing in Dead Man's Chest challenges him- there are no surprises here, no lunatic, unweildly lines, and while Depp occasionally raises a chuckle- "an undead monkey!"- with his offbeat delivery, the spark has been quashed. This, of course, leaves the rest of the cast more open to scrunity, and it seems that Keira Knightley needs to get out fast, Orlando Bloom can't sell a joke to save his life, Jonathan Pryce needs to retire, and Jack Davenport should just sue for thankless employment. Maybe Dead Man's Chest wouldn't be such an insufferable slog if it wasn't so long, but, connective tissue or not, Verbinski somehow spins this confused tale out for two and half hours- when did it become okay to make films so needlessly long, I ask? Nothing in Dead Man's Chest ever merits even an hour, let alone two and a half of them, and I wonder why, exactly, such a joyless piece of work would have been successful had it not been preceded by what was, at the time, an original and surprising popcorn blockbuster. I doubt it, somehow. Grade: D+]

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Catching Up With The Duds: The Covenant, The Nativity Story and Driving Lessons

[The Covenant (Renny Harlin, 2006): It seems rather pointless to even bother reviewing a movie as minor, overlooked and derided as The Covenant, but, neverthless, I shall attempt it. For me, The Covenant was a gap-filler, a movie to see when I could find nothing else but didn't feel like going home yet. (Never mind that it actually turned out to be better, if only slightly, than the film that preceded it, the anaemic Nativity Story.) I had, indeed, read all the damning reviews and callings of awfulness, and it perhaps because of that that The Covenant didn't turn out to be quite as dreadful as I feared: make no mistake, this is dreadful, cliched filmmaking and a horrendous script, but it falls into the 'so-bad-it's-entertaining' category. Self-conscious, unintentionally hilarious lines like "Harry Potter can kiss my ass!" and "Dreamcacther is the shit!" make it clear that for some reason The Covenant wants to think itself amongst illustrious company, but with a cast full of fashion-catalogue actors whose chests do more acting than they do (you could do worse as far as teenage eye-candy is concerned) it was never going to come close. Nevertheless, the sheer awfulness of it all actually makes it quite entertaining, teasing its audience with strange, unexplained references that clearly want their own sequel (not gonna happen) and ending on such a damp squib of a note that you leave chortling. I suppose it says something about the lack of good comedy in the cinemas today that The Covenant is one of the funniest movies I've seen all year. Grade: D+]

[The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006): You'd think, wouldn't you, that by employing such an offbeat director as Catherine Hardwicke, famous for her striking portraits of disaffected youths in both thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, that the people behind The Nativity Story would have been aiming for much of the same in her tackling of the infamous story of Jesus' birth. After all, it does seem rife for re-examination- the film does mention, however briefly, the stoning Mary might recieve being pregnant not by her husband, even as she claims that her womb is swollen with the child of God. But, inexplicably, Hardwicke seems happy to tell this well-worn story straight, without any sign of her usual edgy techniques or insights, and this makes The Nativity Story an incredible bore. Why bother telling this story when every school does it every year- with a much smaller budget, yes, but at least they put their hearts into it. For not only is The Nativity Story an anaemic drag of a film, it's also totally empty, lacking any passion for anything at all, let alone a God. The settings are well re-created, but never does the film escape the feeling that just off the edge of the camera the real world is lying, so transparent is the acting and the photography. Keisha Castle-Hughes, in only her second role since her stunning debut in Whale Rider, is a pretty face but nothing more as Mary, while Oscar Isaac as Joseph is stolid and dull. Worst in show, as she increasingly seems to be, is Shohreh Aghdashloo, playing Mary's cousin Elizabeth who is also miraculously pregnant- but Aghdashloo's grotesque facial contortions and overbearing mannerisms may make you want to kick her straight into hell.Hardwicke, or her script (by Mike Rich), are convinced of the tale's spirituality, employing visions of the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) and a glowingly vast beam of light over the stable where Jesus is born. Never before have I believed so little in the tale of the nativity, and I'm an atheist. Grade: D]

[Driving Lessons (Jeremy Brock, 2006): The more I think about Driving Lessons the more I hate it, so I suppose it's a good thing that the entire thing is so slim that it doesn't come to mind too often. Harry Potter's Rupert Grint- the red-haired one- is a pale imitation of an actor in the role of Ben Marshall, a socially inept young adult with a domineering mother (a garish Laura Linney), who comes out of his shell when he goes to work for a fading grand dame actress Evie Walton (Julie Walters). Not only is Driving Lessons almost entirely predictable (though you'll never predict the height of the horrors in its finale), but it is a dreadful drive, filled with squealing overacting by Julie Walters, so maximised that Rupert Grint is barely noticeable at all. Never once does Driving Lessons approach anything like reality, from the dampness of Grint's father figure (a vicar, no less) to Linney's wildly played performance, complete with unrecognisable accent, and from Grint's loss of virginity to an older Scottish girl to Walters's failure at a rare public appearance due to Grint's disappearance. Whether Driving Lessons wants to be a reticent version of Harold and Maude (no, they don't have sex) or something entirely different, it's certainly not worth your time, or, indeed, anyone else's. Stay far, far away, and let's hope Grint gets himself a different instructor. Grade: D-]

Friday, December 29, 2006

Breaking and Entering, Casino Royale, Final Destination 3, and Miss Potter

[Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, 2006): Anthony Minghella returns to his low-key roots after Hollywood success with The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, but disappointingly that doesn't mean that he's recovered his talent. Minghella's vision of London is an odd one, where, sure, thieves and prostitutes exist, but they're never really bad or damaged people, just misunderstood. Minghella simply cannot grasp the darker side of the story he's trying to tell, swerving away from brief dalliances with it- Juliette Binoche's brief, angry run-in with her brother-in-law, who's corrupting her son- and seems so enamoured with the perfect little communual nature he's developed by the end that he goes totally overboard with a trite and unbelievable courtroom scene, followed by an even worse scene where someone changes their mind so quickly you'd think her neck had been snapped. I suppose you might want to see this for the attractive, respected cast, and while Juliette Binoche is superb and Robin Wright Penn does her best, Jude Law- given a monstrous part, make no mistake- is a repugnant and horrible lead whom is clearly supposed to be sympathetic in his deliberations between his Swedish girlfriend of ten years who has an autistic daughter, and the Bosnian immigrant mother of the teenager who broke into his office. It's not that Binoche's immigrant is a bad person, drawing Law's architect away, but that we are asked to be sympathetic towards this man, who selfishly becomes exasperated with his girlfriend when she has done nothing wrong except care for her daughter. Breaking and Entering is an unexpectedly bitter film, a bit like Todd Field's Little Children in that way, although thankfully Minghella does allow us a few glimpses at human connection- the relationship between Binoche and her son (the promising Rafi Gavron) is briefly seen but the warmest one in a film full of frostiness and distrust. If Minghella didn't thrust such a trite and 'upbeat' ending on us I might be more persuaded to take Breaking and Entering as a warning parable- the title, which ostensibly refers to Gavron's thieving habits, also seems to refer to twofold to Law's character: his pursuit into Binoche's withdrawn, private world, but also the wider difficulty of his invasion into King's Cross, an idea criticized throughout. But Breaking and Entering, for all its protestations otherwise, doesn't take place in King's Cross- it takes place in Minghella's fantasy world, one where lawyers are easily tricked and affairs are forgiven at the drop of a hat. It is not somewhere I want to be. Grade: C-]

[Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006): Casino Royale is too long, yes, but I honestly can't think of what part of it I'd cut out, so I suppose that maybe it's actually not. I'm sure you've heard, repeatedly, that this is a reinvention of the Bond series, a Bourne-ification, if you want, since Jason Bourne has surely become today's gold standard for spy films. Casino Royale doesn't quite reach the dizzy heights of either of the Bourne films, which are unmatched in their dark cocktail of amnesia, corruption and solitary existance, but I can't say that it doesn't come close. Bond has been stripped back to the essentials: gone are Q, Moneypenny, invisible cars and all those campy one-liners. Bond is serious, Bond is blond: Bond is Daniel Craig, who gives the infamous creation a harder-edge than perhaps ever before, but also a softer one- Bond's heart is hardened by his requisite two killings, then softened by Eva Green's gorgeous Vesper Lynd, sent to accompany him on a mission to combat the world's premier poker player, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). You might think, and indeed some do, that the middle section of the film is the boring part, because it majorly consists of a poker game- and yet Martin Campbell and his actors, and his camera, do their very best to keep the cards are gripping as the chases scenes, and it works. Casino Royale is a moral maze, one where the villain isn't really the villain and where the Bond girl isn't really a Bond girl. Campbell balances Royale's complications on a knife edge, keeping his audience riveted for two and a half hours- a running time which pained when Bryan Singer employed it for the lacklustre Superman Returns this summer, but Casino Royale is a paced, exhilirating thrill-ride, constantly flipping itself over- both literally and figuratively- and shifting expectations. The film ends suddenly, obviously setting itself up for a sequel, but simultaneously, so much and so little has happened in Casino Royale, and you're left with the strange feeling of being both satisfied and hungry for more. Grade: B+]

[Final Destination 3 (James Wong, 2006): Final Destination 3 was actually released in theatres, though the DVD is so lovingly crafted you'd never believe it. The film, see, comes on DVD with a "Choose Their Fate" option- you, as you watch the film, will be prompted to make 'key' decisions on things, leading to different events in the following film. This sounds like an interesting idea, especially within such a repetative series like the Final Destination films, which have finally given up trying to be intelligent and simply focus on the thrills. I must say, I enjoyed the first two films, intrigued by their phylosophical intrigues, slim as they were, and felt the two films entwinement with each other was quite complex. But Final Destination 3, save a couple of brief and explanatory words, is its own seperate entity, and therefore cannot pretend to be complex, and so they have clearly decided instead to advertise their delight in death and let you, the viewer, have a hand in choosing it. The problem with this is not the moral message behind it (though I suppose that's questionable) but the shoddy way that the makers of the DVD do it. One day, perhaps, we will actually be able to change films to suit what we want, but we're clearly not there yet. And as a straightforward film- which is how I watched it first time- Final Destination 3 is exactly what you'd expect- empty, badly-acted, slow and silly, although still creditably inventive in all the different ways it thinks off to off people. But, really, I need something slightly intelligent behind my death movies, and there's not an iota of that to be seen here. Grade: C-]

[Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006): Miss Potter has the kind of twinkly, romantic tone that can only come from a Hollywood-financed, British-made period film, and Babe director's biopic of beloved Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter provides just about everything you'd expect. Renee Zellweger contorts her permanently blushing face wildly as the titular character, giving the film a strange off-balanced feeling that co-stars Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson, as Beatrix's publisher and his sister, just about manage to off-set. For a person who grew up with the tales of Miss Potter around them there will be an undeniable feeling of warmth that spreads from the film's brief animation of her drawings, but this also raises the rather creepy idea that Beatrix is a little bit mad, something which is simply ignored throughout. Miss Potter, is, of course, constrained by the fact that it's based on a real person, but Beatrix's life doesn't exactly present a normal romantic plot- her true love dies and she moves to the countryside- and so it keeps the interest more than the standard film of this type. Miss Potter's biggest problem is the woman herself- Zellweger, who's become increasingly more lambasted with good reason, for her talent seems to have been squashed by an overbearing conviction in her own sweetness: she doesn't know Beatrix Potter at all, but she sure thinks she does. It's sad that McGregor and Watson have to play second-string to her but they do their best with underwritten roles, which are both cut distressingly short. Ultimately, Miss Potter provides an undeniable pleasantness, but there's really little within it- it's the kind of film that demands nothing, that you could take your grandmother to, and that you'll forget hours after seeing it. Grade: C+]

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

Whatever I may go on to say in this review, I cannot say the one thing you might be expecting: that I'd recommend you didn't see Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Perfume is a highly flawed film, yes, a disappointing one, a distressing one, but it's also a fascinating one, and I would insist that you form your own opinions. Granted, this is an idea that should really be active with any film, which in effect makes the writing of reviews redundant if their sole purpose is to advise people on what to see. But Perfume is not a generic film, it is not one that can be described passively in one word, and you have certainly not seen it all before.

You might have seen bits, however, and it's when Perfume suddenly runs into familiar story-telling territory that the disasters commence. The first hour and a half or so of the film is really quite gripping; never perfect but always dextrously playing with its audience, guiding them through a world that it both dark and campy at the same time, a world that always totters on the border it creates between the two opposites. Before any images have even appeared there is a voice, and this voice is immediately recognisable to any viewer, whether positive or negative, of Lars Von Trier's incisive Dogville, for that voice is John Hurt's. This is, unsurprisingly, a problem for Perfume, because Hurt's voice, while a perfect match for the skewered artificiality of Trier's work, doesn't fit a more straight-forward atmosphere, which is what Perfume is clearly aiming for. I'm not sure whether director Tom Tykwer realises this or not, but Hurt's voice, after the opening, is rarely heard again- all the better to slide into Perfume's grimy world.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (played for most of the film by Ben Whishaw) is born, repulsively, under a fishmonger's table, where his mother, having experienced several stillbirths, leaves the slimed baby to die under the table, meaning, of course, that she's executed when the baby suddenly starts crying under her table, lying as it is in a pile of fish remains. Immediatly the main theme, and raison-de-etre, even, of Perfume is established. Patrick Suskind's infamous novel was branded unfilmable by the reclusive author himself, and for twenty years he refused to sell the rights to his novel, despite the apparent interest of filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese. Suskind insisted that because his novel is concerned so fully with smell, it would not translate to film- and he had a valid point, because not yet has smell-o-vision been invented. Tykwer does just about the only thing he can and uses film's unique senses- vision and hearing- to create the most vivid impression he can on his audience, willing them to conjure the aromas themselves. He achieves this well in the first part of the film but as his story stumbles, so does he, repeating motifs uselessly and letting the plot run away with the camera.

Perfume is fine while it takes the audience into places they haven't really been before- a newborn baby on a heap of stinking fish, the untrained youngster recreating a difficult perfume perfectly before a master perfumier's eyes, a house on a bridge suddenly collapsing- but when the character of Grenouille moves it literally shifts the film, and in more ways than one. Grenouille, rather unsubtley, leaves a trail of death behind him even before he becomes the murderer of the title, as all the carers and guardians, good or bad, whom he leaves behind immediately die. What is this device suggesting exactly? That Grenouille was a murderer even before he actually killed someone? That his murdering ways are inevitable? Anyway, once Grenouille, having followed the apparently heavenly scent of a young girl selling plums (a haunting Karoline Herfurth), accidentally suffocates her and loses her scent, he becomes obsessed with capturing scent, social conscious and morality flying to the wind as he takes women and experiments with capturing their scent, becoming a feared murderer in the town of Grasse, to where he has followed Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), remarkably similar to his first victim in both look and, it seems, scent.

Perfume's problems, do, as I've mentioned, begin at this point, though to begin with they are simple difficulties, that of suddenly becoming a distressingly conventional serial killer hunt. These problems were not perplexing but saddening, but Perfume does not stay long on this track, instead diverting itself to something bizarrely different. To discuss Perfume's end would be to give it away, so I will say simply that it is one of the most unexpected, bizarre and entirely ludicrous conclusions to a film that I've ever witnessed- and yet it is not unpraisable. I have not read the novel, and so cannot comment on whether this ending worked well on the page, but while left me feeling baffled, perplexed and rather annoyed, I cannot claim to say that I, as yet, entirely understand what this ending meant. I think that even if it's message is more complex than I can give it credit for, however, Tykwer still muddles it, a strong vein of mysogyny and homophobia gleaming through it.

Perfume is not a good film, although it has many strong qualities- the photography is inch-perfect, working with the closeness of the image to highlight all the pores and hairs of the skin, maximising the idea of scent as best it can, while the music works well, and the performance of Whishaw is excellent- to balance with it's problematic negativities. I cannot say that I would encourage you to see it, but if you have any interest, go, and see what you think. You never know, you may come away from it thinking it smells of roses. Grade: C