Yes, faithful readers, I've been neglecting you. My sincerest apologies. In this little update, I'll be reviewing (some in more depth than others)...
The Damned United
Monsters vs. Aliens
... with more to follow in the next post.
As ever, reviews may contain some mild spoilers, but where I can, I try to avoid telling you everything that happens in the movie. So instead, sit back and read as I tell you what to watch!
THE DAMNED UNITED
Who's in it? Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon), Timothy Spall (Sweeney Todd), and Colm Meaney (Layer Cake)
What's it all about? England's top young football manager, Brian Clough (Sheen), has a score to settle at the beginning of this film. His longstanding rivalry with fellow manager Don Revie (Meaney), has led him to take charge of Revie's old club, Leeds United, and made him determined to outshine his predecessor. As his short stint in the job begins to go badly wrong, Clough remembers better days as manager of Derby County.
Any good? Faithful readers, you may well have a sense of my personality from my writing and interests. If you're imagining the "last picked for the football team" stereotype, you're probably about right, and now I'm no longer at school and thus don't have to play the game at all, I'm left with a general indifference for the sport as a whole. So bearing in mind that I really don't care about football, it's remarkable how much this film made me care about Brian Clough. I, like Clough, hail from Middlesbrough, and found the man absolutely fascinating- the clips are up on YouTube from his interviews, and he's something of a local legend anyway in these parts. There was a wonderful marriage of egotism and charm about him, something which Michael "If He Was Real, I've Played Him" Sheen brings to life on screen with innate skill in The Damned United.
First and foremost in what I enjoyed about this film was how likeable Sheen's Clough was, and it's the performance that the entire film hinges upon. I don't mean to undersell the superb supporting cast, but they are underused in comparison to Sheen's overwhelming presence, as a character and as an actor. Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney are somewhat underused, but then it is a film about Clough in the end. While The Damned United didn't quite match the other Sheen-Morgan collaboration this year, Frost/Nixon, it's still an enjoyable film that doesn't rely on its audience's knowledge or enjoyment of football. I have neither and I thought it was a blast.
Who's in it? Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Christopher Carley (Lions for Lambs), and an otherwise largely unknown cast.
What's it all about? After the recent death of his wife, embittered veteran Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), lives alone in a neighbourhood now predominantly populated by minorities. When his young Hmong neighbour attempts to steal his prized '72 Gran Torino, he reluctantly sets out to reform the boy. Over time, Walt has his eyes opened to the virtues of the community and finally sees past his deeply rooted prejudice.
Any good? All the reviews have made note of the fact that Gran Torino is apparently Clint Eastwood's last as an actor. Presumably he will continue directing either way, but if this is his swansong in front of the camera, it's very fitting indeed. The film has been described as "Dirty Harry meets Victor Meldrew", but that's putting it too simply. It is in fact a stunning character study as Eastwood presents the audience with this grouchy, patriotic old racist, and we absolutely love him. Some of Walt's epithets in this film would be stunningly offensive, but his ignorance is played for laughs by Eastwood. That's not to say that Walt isn't seen as a rather sad figure- he's almost a relic of times gone by, but he's not going out without getting a few good shots at society as it is now, first. A recurring shot is of Eastwood staring at some symptom of the world having changed and letting out a disgruntled, Rorschach-like "Hurrrrrm".
My review of Eastwood's direction is of course just as flattering as that of his acting. As with his other effort of the last year, Changeling, this film is beautifully shot. It's a grey pallete, and there's not an awful lot of scope for visual bedazzlement in a suburban area of America, but as always with Eastwood, the film looks terrific. On the other hand, I feel bound to criticise one decision he's made- to cast unexperienced actors as the members of the Hmong community. These actors were actively encouraged to ad-lib in the Hmong language in order to achieve a sense of realism, but unfortunately, their lack of acting experience is evident. Extremely so. There are a couple of moments with Thao, Walt's protege of sorts (played by Bee Vang), that come across as uncomfortable, and those moments did take me out of the film at vital points. Their delivery of lines is perhaps not as natural as it should be, and this is where the film falls down slightly. Their inexperience is made particularly prominent in comparison to Eastwood's strong performance.
I'd be a little hesitant to call this the performace of Clint Eastwood's whole career, long and varied as it is, but it's certainly his best in a long time. In the end, Gran Torino is slightly let down in places by the lack of experience that the supporting cast has, but the slack is picked up by the stunning lead performance and by a script that is both witty and poignant by equal measures. That it was ignored at the Oscars this year was nothing short of criminal.
Who's in it? Nicolas Cage (Bangkok Dangerous), Rose Byrne (Sunshine), and Chandler Canterbury (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
What's it all about? A class of children in 1959 draw their visions of the future for a school time-capsule project. Fifty years later, John Koestler (Cage), is the college professor whose son brings home one student's work- a sheet of paper filled with seemingly random numbers. When studied more thoroughly, Koestler realises they somehow predict every major global disaster since the day they were first written. With just three dates left that have yet to come true, finding the meaning behind these predictions becomes a matter of life and death.
Any good? I really tried hard to make the above section sound interesting. This is a disservice to you, the reader, if you've been enticed to see it as you may well have been by the copiously repeated trailers for the film that also make it look interesting. To compensate, you have a photo of Nick Cage looking a bit silly to go with this review, as Knowing is a front-runner for the worst film I'll see this year. While not utterly boring, the best thing it has going for it is the special effects, which in this day and age isn't an awful lot to distinguish it from any other blockbuster. This is certainly no Jurassic Park, and it's only in a couple of sequences that the CGI is well-used. While the other instances look good, they're needless and in the case of the ending, downright silly. Without explicitly spoiling the ending, it's oddly reminiscent of a certain blockbuster sequel released last summer, the ending of which was panned by fans and critics alike. Why director Alex Proyas thought it was a good idea to ape this ending, but make it even more out of the blue and jarring than it was in the Nameless Blockbuster Sequel, is beyond me. The other notable incidence of CGI silliness is a burning moose, which is rather more chucklesome than the direction of the scene it appears in should suggest.
And then there's Nicolas Cage, a man who used to have a career made up of hits and misses but now seems to have utterly discarded any attempt at the former in order to make such "classics" as Next and that remake of The Wicker Man. Knowing is cut from the same cloth as the former of those films, but it has all the unintentional hilarity of the latter, which was one of the funniest horror films I've ever seen. Cage phones in his performance and has here changed my mind about him- to me, he's no longer a good actor making bad choices like some performing equivalent of Flint Marko in Spider-Man 3, but instead has become outright annoying. After two hours of this tripe, I just felt that it was unfortunate that I had no way of knowing (pun intended, but it feels hollow), just how bad this film was going to be beforehand, or I might have gone to see The Haunting in Connecticut instead (review coming in a later post). If you must see Knowing, I advise you to wait and rent the DVD rather than fork out more to see it in the cinema. Equally, I advise you to reconsider and do something more fun like seeing how many numbers you can write on a bit of paper before you want to kill Nicolas Cage for influencing the advice that led you down that road. You'll find the main date missing from the list is the release date of this film.
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS
Who's in it? Lending their voices here, in true Dreamworks big-name hunting fashion, are Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases), Seth Rogen (Zach and Miri Make A Porno), and Hugh Laurie (Street Kings)
What's it all about? Susan Murphy (Witherspoon) is hit by a meteorite on her wedding day and enlarged to fifty-feet tall by an irradiated chemical therein. As a result, she's imprisoned by the US government with a small team of other monsters captured by the state in order to protect ordinary people. However, an incoming alien invasion puts her and her fellow monsters in the frame to prevent humanity's destruction by a mad tyrant.
Any good? Monsters vs Aliens is more or less on the crest of the 3D wave that's sweeping through cinemas of late. Gone are the red-and-blue glasses of old to be replaced with digital projection and a 3D experience that's more immersive as opposed to just pointing things out of the screen at the audience. This means I'm obliged to mention the 3D factor in the review, so here's getting it out of the way quickly. It's in 3D. And it looks very good in that format. Now we can get down to the business of pointing out that this is a Dreamworks film. As far as I'm concerned, Dreamworks hadn't made a really good animated film since Shrek, and I hoped that last year's rather excellent Kung Fu Panda was indicative of an upturn in quality. One lame Madagascar sequel later and my optimism had dwindled a little. The key problem with Dreamworks is that the voice talents it employs usually aren't all that vocally talented, and are instead bankable box office names in live-action films. This was most abhorrently exhibited in Shark Tale, the most bizarre Will Smith vehicle ever. Plus, Finding Nemo had already done the fish thing much better. But let's be honest, who is saying they want to take their kids to "the new Reese Witherspoon film" as opposed to "the 3D film with monsters and aliens"?
This is a trend in animated films that was really kicked off by Robin Williams being by far the most brilliant thing about Disney's Aladdin, and seems to have been bucked by Dreamworks' main competitors, the general animation-extraordinaires at Pixar, but continues to see animated films built on the star appeal of the voice actors. Don't get me wrong, Reese Witherspoon isn't miscast here and actually does alright, and Seth Rogen, Will Arnett and Hugh Laurie are all brilliant for this kind of thing anyway. But Stephen Colbert, one of my favourite comedians going, plays the US President here for all of five minutes. Yeah, it works as an in-joke as he was at one point running to be President at the end of 2008, but it's what I call "Monkey Syndrome" (named for Jackie Chan's three lines as that character in Kung Fu Panda), in that he's a relatively big name who doesn't really contribute an awful lot. His few scant moments are actually amongst the film's highlights though, as is the general imagination on show.
Anyone thinking "But Mark! No good Dreamworks films since Shrek? What about the Shrek sequels?", I'm about to answer you. What the first film did very endearingly was to gently and subtly parody Disney fairytales, whereas every Dreamworks film since has referenced pop-culture and movies with sledgehammer-subtlety. While that's worked in some cases, and indeed been quite funny, only Kung Fu Panda and this film have really successfully got belly-laughs from originality as opposed to a reference to Star Wars or something. Although the movie references come back a couple of times here, Monsters vs Aliens is widely very imaginative and very funny. One of the aforementioned monsters that Susan befriends is Insectosaurus, a 350-foot tall grub who's manouvered via his sensitivity to light- arguably the best of the monsters and employed to great effect in the first big fight scene. To conclude though, while Monsters vs Aliens isn't quite the film I expected, it's a funny and innovative homage to B-movies that's definitely worth catching in 3D.
Who's in it? Billy Crudup (Mission: Impossible 3), Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children)
What's it all about? It's a labyrinthine plot, but here's my best attempt at condensing it. It's 1985, and the Cold War is staved off only by the existence of Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), a god-like being who serves as a walking nuclear deterrent. This is a world where masked heroes are outlawed, and when one of them is murdered, his former teammates are drawn into a conspiracy that could lead to the end of the world. With me? Good.
Any good? The word that's been bandied around in every review (or at least every review that wasn't so obsessed with a certain dangling blue appendage) of this adaptation is "unfilmable". Part of me agrees with that, having finally seen Watchmen. Admittedly I was waiting for a much shorter time than those who first read the book years ago, but I firmly insist that the graphic novel is one of the truly great works of literature. Ever. And its intricacies and hidden depths are what makes me think an adaptation would best serve the source material as a high-budget TV miniseries of some sort. But that's a post for another day. This is the film version of Watchmen and it is the best adaptation of the book that we're ever likely to see. Director Zack Snyder, if nothing else, has a massive appreciation for the book. Shots are sometimes taken directly from frames in the comic book, and the music is well-chosen and tactfully deployed to evoke the moods of times gone by. However, watching as a filmgoer rather than a fan of the book, his reverence for the story is almost the film's downfall. The running time is north of two and a half hours, and much of that is given over to exposition and flashbacks. While this is fine in comic format, it's a little more jarring on the big screen.
Casual audiences have given the film mixed reviews, and I believe it's for the very reason that it's more of a love-letter to fans of the source material, at the expense of those unfamiliar with the story. It would be patronising to say that these audiences don't understand the film, but in fairness, some may understandably be confused. For those who can keep up however, Watchmen is utterly epic. Snyder's previous film, 300 is sometimes given this label on account of it being a sword-and-sandals type film. But where 300 is a collection of fight scenes first and a story second, Watchmen is as introspective and as thought-provoking as it gets. That said, some of the fight scenes and violence from the comic is unnecessarily exacerbated by the addition of gore in scenes that had a more cerebral bent to begin with. This is perhaps Snyder's forte and doesn't detract from the narrative enough to call it a major problem, just an unnecessary addition. However, some of the changes installed by Snyder that other fans seem to be up in arms about are actually pluses as far as I'm concerned. Where a giant squid was instrumental as the means to the ending of the graphic novel, Snyder recognises how this would not translate to screen as well and actually improves upon the ending ultimately.
However, the most remarkable part of Watchmen is its cast. They bring the characters to life, both as drawn/written on the page and as people the audience can believe in. Or not believe in, given the harsh nature of some of them, particularly Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays the Comedian's cynical sadism with gusto, and Jackie Earle Haley, who gives one of the best performances of the year so far as Rorschach. Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup are just as engaging to watch, but that makes the somewhat weaker performances by Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode slightly more prominent. On the whole though, Watchmen has the advantage of being released in a year when the only other major superhero film being released is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and thus it's likely to retain the place it deserves in the filmgoing public's memory as a thought-provoking (if just a little unwieldy), and well-made comic book epic.
Right, the next post will have, at the very least, reviews of The Boat That Rocked, Crank: High Voltage, The Haunting in Connecticut and Race to Witch Mountain. Also coming up is a comparative review between what I saw as the two big "bromance" films of the last week or so- I Love You, Man and Fast and Furious.
Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.