20 November 2008

The Reel Deal #1

This time around...
Ghost Town


So as n of these are like those really big event type films that have warranted their own posts in the past, I'm going to make a big post that reviews both, you lucky people. It's a mixed bag here, so enjoy, as I tell you what to watch. I said, enjoy!


Who's in it? Ricky Gervais, (Stardust) Greg Kinnear, (Baby Mama) Tea Leoni, (Fun with Dick and Jane) Aasif Mandvi, (Spider-Man 2) and Kristen Wiig, (Forgetting Sarah Marshall)

What's it all about?
Bertram Pincus, (Gervais) in addition to being the most implausibly named man in the world, is also a dentist whose people skills leave a lot to be desired. When complications during a routine operation lead to a near-death experience, he's left with the ability to see ghosts, wandering about the world with their unfinished business. Dragging him into the duty of resolving said business is Frank, (Kinnear) a smooth talking albeit deceased love-rat who wants Pincus to prevent his widow Gwen, (Leoni) from remarrying.

Any good?
The label 'romantic comedy' usually flashes warning bells for me. Not because I'm particularly detached from my feminine side, but because modern romcoms, like modern horror films, they're almost always crap. The only truly great romantic comedy I've ever seen is Shaun of the Dead, which is so good because it avoids cliches by dropping a whole bunch of zombies into the mix. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Ghost Town uses much the same technique, only with ghosts instead. There is the odd cliche, as is inevitable in this genre, but it has to be said that the romantic subplot doesn't really register until the second act of the film, with more out and out comedy characterising the first half an hour.

The issue of course with this being a romcom is Ricky Gervais in the leading role. He's admitted himself that he's not as good an actor as he is a writer, and he's very much hindered in that early part of the film by the prepossessed image that we've got from his earlier material. Later, he's not exactly leading man material, and at times you wonder if he was perhaps miscast when he's supposed to be romancing Tea Leoni. Nevertheless, he does turn in a rather good performance on the whole, and it's not so difficult to imagine his Hollywood success continuing. Tea Leoni is surprisingly charming as Gwen, while Greg Kinnear is much the same as usual with Frank- his talent for playing smarmy self-confident characters is probably as prolific as that of Gervais, and the two play off each other well.

As a point of interest, Ghost Town is the directorial debut of David Koepp, a writer who previously brought us Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and regrettably, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He also co-writes the film, and it's in that capacity I wonder what the hell he was thinking. The plot and dialogue is sound, but it's like he went out of his way to think of the most awkward names for characters possible. Bertram Pincus doesn't roll off the tongue and not does Frank Herlihy. There's such a thing as being too original with names, and it jars a little in this film. I can't recall Gwen, who we're intended to believe is falling for Pincus, ever actually mentioning his name, because you can imagine how awkward it would sound. In this respect, she sounds like a woman who's forgotten a guy's name but doesn't want to embarrass herself by asking it. While Koepp does apparently think British people still call their kids Bertram, I can't fault his direction in this film. There are some beautiful shots and a great soundtrack that never really intrudes on the action, as some films are guilty of.

To end on a positive note, Ghost Town is easily the sweetest film I've seen this year. There's a scene towards the end of the film that had me feeling all warm inside, which is no mean feat for a cold bastard like me. The film is funny, charming, and rather brilliant. It's the kind of film I wanna watch at Christmas, because it left me in such a good mood coming out of it and also because it's reminiscent of films like It's A Wonderful Life, and to a greater extent, Harvey. Critics have pointed out the difficulties of making it in Hollywood when you're a British comedian, but if Gervais wants to really make a start, this was the right choice.


Who's in it?
Josh Brolin, (No Country for Old Men) Elizabeth Banks, (Zack and Miri Make A Porno) James Cromwell, (Spider-Man 3) Jeffrey Wright, (Quantum of Solace) and Richard Dreyfuss, (Poseidon)
What's it all about? Believe it or not, this is the perhaps premature biopic of that clearly popular and much loved statesman, George W. Bush, (Brolin) cutting between the feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the lofty expectations held by his father, (Cromwell) in his youth, and his tenure as the 43rd President of the United States.
Any good? To immediately dispense with a perhaps inexcusable pun, director Oliver Stone has created a film that beats around the Bush. There, now that's out the way, to the business of what's wrong with it.

Put simply, this is an extremely premature film. Bush doesn't even hand the keys to the Oval Office over to Obama (yay) until January, and yet Stone thinks he can make a reasoned portrayal of the man's entire life already. Indeed, he doesn't even manage that, missing out on dramatising key moments in Bush's administration, such as the controversial recount in the 2000 elections and 9/11. Instead, we seem to cut between two periods- Bush Sr. telling him what a dick he is, and the senior members of the administration as they make the decision to invade Iraq. Oh, and said senior members eat dinner. A lot. There are a ludicrous amount of dinner scenes in this film. If Stone had had just one of these scenes, in which Cheney or Rumsfeld or whoever is calmly discussing the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, it would've been effective. By the tenth of these scenes, you're hoping Bush will choke on his food again, just to shake things up a bit.

The retrospective scenes are not much better. As mentioned, this film is just too premature to actually say anything conclusive about Dubya's life, and so Stone boils a lot of it down to the simple idea of Daddy Issues (TM). If the film had played it for laughs and portrayed Bush as a complete idiot, it would be worse, but it's utter conjecture to make his entire motivation something like "I'll make my daddy proud, I'm gonna be somebody! Hell, I'll be President!" The shifting around between the past and the present makes the aforementioned omissions from the timeline all the more jarring- would it not have been simpler to go for the traditional cyclic narrative? Show the ending scene (spoilers- it's Bush dreaming of playing baseball in a suit) first and then showing the rest from the beginning, in a linear order? I'm not one to go for simplicity over innovation, but when that innovation just doesn't work, it becomes more doubtful.

The saving grace of this film in fact is the performances of the cast. Josh Brolin does such a good Bush impression, you're submerged in it. You never think something along the lines of "He was good in The Goonies" or "Screw you, I'll go watch No Country for Old Men". It's a truly compelling performance that may well get an Oscar nod in the New Year. In fact, most of the cast are dead ringers for their real life counterparts, particularly Toby Jones as Bush's best buddy and possible evil dwarf, Karl Rove. Other notable performances are Richard Dreyfuss, who doesn't appear in enough movies these days, as a pitch-perfect Dick Cheney, and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell. Now the problem with the latter performace is the material he's been given to work with. Powell is a decorated soldier, and yet Stone portrays him as a total pussy. Yeah, fair enough, his reserved opposition to the invasion of Iraq is covered, but he's stifled by the others all too easily. Same with Brolin, whose performance would be the best of his career were it a better script. If this film had been made by someone else, a few years from now, Brolin would be a shoo-in for that Oscar. Instead, what we've got is a great performance in an ultimately pointless film.

It's impossible to escape the sense that Stone simply rushed this out to get it released in time for the recent presidential elections, more or less marking the end of Bush's two terms. Perhaps he's similarly planning to rush out films about the lives of the 40 presidents he hasn't done films about yet, (having previously directed Nixon and JFK) but I for one won't be going to see the frighteningly-possible biopic, Barack when it comes out in 2010, because it'll probably boil Obama's whole life down to being a wimpy kid at sports. The rating below is for the performances in this film alone, but don't even get me started on the totally random casting of Hornblower as Tony Blair. Was everyone's favourite Blair actor Michael Sheen simply unavailable, or did he object to the film being made at this point on grounds of common sense? If that's the case, Michael Sheen, shame on you! Dubya (apparently) only wants to play baseball and please his pappy!

Until next time then, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,

4 November 2008

Quantum of Solace- Review

The title's baffling! The hype's massive! And the name's Bond. James Bond.

That's right, Quantum of Solace has opened in the UK, (two weeks in advance of the USA, I might add- fuck you, Americans!) and I went to see it on Saturday night. It's had somewhat mixed reviews, but this is the one franchise that is absolutely critic-proof. Case in point- Die Another Day. So when everyone loved Casino Royale- and quite right too- it was merely an added bonus. As ever, I'm not going to compare this film to its predecessor because that's not the way to review films in my view. Also because it's not quite as good, but then I really liked Casino Royale. The review may potentially contain mild spoilers, and major spoilers for Casino Royale, because I assume you've seen it if you're reading a review of the sequel.


Who's in it? Daniel Craig, (The Golden Compass) Olga Kurylenko, (Hitman) Mathieu Amalric, (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) Judi Dench, (Notes on a Scandal) and Gemma Arterton (Rocknrolla)

What's it all about? Unlike most Bond movies, this is a direct sequel to its predecessor, picking up with 007 (Craig) going after the mysterious organisation responsible for blackmailing and indirectly killing the love of his life, Vesper Lynd. His search for revenge brings him into conflict with an apparent environmentalist called Dominic Greene, (Amalric) who seems to be involved in an oil scam and the reinstatement of a deposed Bolivian tyrant. Along with Greene's on-off girlfriend, Camille, (Kurylenko) Bond is forced to go renegade as his search for revenge threatens to consume him.

Any good?
Daniel Craig keeps telling us that the title Quantum of Solace, taken from an Ian Fleming short story that has nothing to do with the plot of this one, refers to what Bond needs in his relationship with Vesper. Apparently a relationship can't survive without a quantum of solace, which Bond doesn't have because Vesper is dead. So the relationship technically can't survive already. Oh dear, I've picked apart the very title already. So within the film's context, Quantum is the name of the aforementioned organisation that wants... something- more on that later. The solace does eventually show up too, but to elaborate upon that would be a spoiler, so I won't. To call this Quantum of Solace therefore makes... well, not very much sense, but there we are.

Looking at the film as a whole though, it's a terrific way to spend 106 minutes. It's said that every Bond film is around 20 minutes too long, so it's great that they were sensible enough to pick up the pace here and shave off that last 20 minutes. It's action packed, and retains the sense of high drama that seems to characterise Daniel Craig's Bond. The former of these aspects do fall down when held to scrutiny however. Director Marc Forster has previously done fare like Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner. So he knows his stuff, drama-wise, but he's not an action director in my view. Everything feels overedited, with some action sequences being so confusing that you can't tell who's winning any given fight. Some downright dumb camera angles are employed at times- Bond changing gears at one point is shown with a close up of his thigh rather than of the gearstick. Forster does a wonderful job with the film as a whole, but it's these sequences that let the film down somewhat. Not good in a Bond film.

Everything else though is rather good. Starting with the cast. Daniel Craig is by far the most emotionally vulnerable Bond we've ever seen, which befits the fact that he's just started this job one film ago, given the whole reboot. At the same time, he's hard as nails, and no matter what his detractors say, that's a good combination. Jeffrey Wright is underused but brilliant as Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA poker-buddy from Casino Royale, and Giancarlo Giannini also returns as George Lucas-lookalike, Mathis, having an important role to play rather than being shoehorned in as part of the "look the whole gang's back!" trope. Mathieu Amalric does very much as Mads Mikkelson did with his turn as a Bond villain, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Literally, towards the end of the film, as he starts beating someone up with a big stick. Stressful situations do that I suppose, but at least Amalric manages to restrain himself rather than strip Bond's clothes off and hit him in the bollocks.

The women are of course a huge part of the Bond films, and so they deserve appraisal of some kind too. Judi Dench comes back to do her semiannual job of being furious with Bond again, and there's a great scene that exemplifies the reliance and trust between the two about midway through the film. Perhaps not what you have in mind when I say Bond girl, but she's been there since Goldeneye with Pierce Brosnan in 1995, so she lays a better claim to the title than Gemma Arterton for instance. Billed as one of Britain's rising stars in films, she's depressingly bland in this one. True, her role as Agent Fields would never have scope for an Oscar-calibre performance, but her lines seem to be delivered as though Marc Forster is holding them up on cue-cards off-screen. Olga Kurylenko, being the alternative here as "the chick that Bond doesn't bang" as Camille is a sharp contrast to Miss Arterton, giving a nuanced performance that won't put her in the Bond Girls Hall of Fame, but it's not like that's something all actresses aspire to anyway. I stress that Agent Fields is a negligible role, and that's not Gemma Arterton's fault particularly, but I reckon if she was as good as the hype suggests, she'd have made it more memorable.

The plot, as some reviewers have complained, is intricate but not nonsensical. Those critics who say otherwise might like to look at the one where Roger Moore goes to the moon, or the one where Pierce Brosnan has an invisible Aston Martin. A nice twist in the middle left me pleasantly surprised, as I didn't expect an earlier joke I made about audacious Bond villain plots afte seeing the the trailer to be borne out. On film though, it does serve as a nice callback to some of the more silly plans that villains in this franchise have been known to concoct.

However, the aforementioned oddity of a title aside, it's difficult to know what Quantum actually wants. At least with SPECTRE in the older films doing a Pinky and the Brain and doing the same as they do in every film- try to take over the world!- you know where you're at. If anything, Dominic Greene in this film seems to be working on his own. Sure, he alludes to his organisation making his actions possible, but we don't really see a thing of them. Perhaps they're setting up for another sequel, which I think is a bad idea to be honest. Setting up Quantum to be like SPECTRE is fine, but Bond should not go down what I call the Pirates route. I love the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but feel the sequels were ruined by some odd desire to unify all the films in a story arc rather than be three standalone films in the vein of the Indiana Jones films. Bond films are the apotheosis of the standalone adventure, with their polygamic protagonist never bringing so much as a love interest along to a subsequent film. It's not spoiling too much to say that Bond gets some form of closure on the Vesper issue in this film, and I thought that was great, but we don't need another direct sequel.

All in all, I reckon comparisons can be drawn between this and the hands-down best film of the year, The Dark Knight, but for the wrong reasons. While it is a great film- innovative and not afraid to be dark or to upset audiences- Quantum of Solace is at the end of the day, a Bond film. I love how the newest Bond films are experimenting with what we expect from the franchise, but I suspect this isn't quite what audiences wanted from 'that difficult second film.' I'm fine with Craig's broodyness, and it was great to see him throw some quips and typical 007 moments in here and there this time around, but let's see him a little more at ease with himself and the world next time around, please. He's apparently got his quantum of solace back, and yes, I am equating that to him getting his mojo back cos God knows what else it's meant to be, so let's see something more fun come The Property of a Lady or Risico... whatever they call it.

I did consider doing reviews of one film for each Bond, having went out to buy two of my favourite Bond films, From Russia with Love and Licence to Kill, on DVD yesterday, but then realised this would mean sitting through the apparently interminable On Her Majesty's Secret Service, something that most film fans seem to be advised against. So we'll see if that comes to pass or not. If not, the next review will likely be Ghost Town, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, Choke and/or W. If I'm feeling generous.