27 June 2009

The Reel Deal: And Back Down To Earth...

The title of this post refers to a line in Telstar (reviewed below), where the tone-deaf Joe Meek is dictating to his drummer and guitarist exactly what he wants them to play as they record the titular anthem, which made him a success. It can also refer to my return to form in a week where I've had to defend my views on Transformers 2, having unwisely forgotten that it's one of those films that internet fanboys will defend to the hilt. As the antidote to this rather depressing week, I went out and saw some films that were actually good.

And now of course, it only remains to review them- in addition to Telstar, I'm going to do the long overdue review of The Hangover, but first, onto a film that broaches the ever-so-popular vampire trope- Blood- The Last Vampire.

Reviews, as ever, shall contain minor spoilers, but not so far as to ruin your enjoyment of the films in question if you haven't seen them yet.


Who's in it?
Gianna Jun (Superman ieotdeon sanai, amongst other Japanese language films), Allison Miller (17 Again) and Liam Cunningham (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)

What's it all about?
Saya (Jun) is a vampire who lost her human parents to her own kind shortly after her birth. Raised by a kindly old man, she now works for a shady government department in post-WWII Japan. Her mission is to find and destroy bloodsuckers while also assauging her personal vendetta and hunting for the oldest demon, Onegin, who murdered her parents.

Any good? Anyone who's read the recent post I did about vampires is probably expecting a drubbing, but believe me, this certainly isn't the worst vampire film I've ever seen. The film is based on a Japanese anime film of the same name, but several changes have taken place. Like last year's Forbidden Kingdom, this is a very Americanised look at the martial arts genre, and that's most obvious for the inclusion of Allison Miller's casting as a plucky, (and more importantly American) army brat as a secondary lead. The crucial part of this is that she's the audience's insight into the scary world on "the other side of the looking glass", as Colin Salmon's creepy schoolteacher character intones at an early point in the film. Yes, Colin Salmon is here, and bafflingly, so are Liam Cunningham and JJ Feild- both British actors who play American in this film and don't have an awful lot to do.

As you might have guessed from the fact that this is based on an earlier film, it isn't terribly innovative. Nothing new is brought to the vampire characters except the nifty martial arts. On the contrary, the film is actually derivative of films other than the one it was based on- a scene where a truck is chased by a winged demon is almost identical to the similar scene in Underworld: Evolution. And more distractingly, there is some terrible CGI. Masses of special effects don't make films good as a rule (see last week's review), but when you see the unconvincing fountains of animated blood and Harryhausen-style creature effects, it'll take you right out of the film. Not to mention that Saya never once has a single drop of blood on her person during a fight scene- a practical impossibility given how much of it is flying around. Blood is an accurate title. The Last Vampire part, less so, given how many vampires Saya battles here.

Blood- The Last Vampire is the latest in a long line of vampire films that don't really do anything original with the trope, but it's not unwatchable. Enjoy the spiffy martial arts, if that's your thing, but substance is slightly lacking when it comes to the plot, which grinds to a halt for a whole twenty minutes midway through for some unnecessary flashbacks.


Who's in it?
Bradley Cooper (Yes Man), Ed Helms (Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay) and Zach Galifanakis (Into the Wild)

What's it all about? A groom-to-be goes to Vegas with his three best friends (Cooper, Galifanakis and Helms) for his stag party, only for the four of them to get catastrophically drunk. When they awake the next morning, hungover, they find the groom is missing, and it falls to his buddies to retrace their steps through the carnage of the previous night.

Any good? On paper, it doesn't sound that good. The Hangover could easily have been another of the dumber comedies that have come out in the last few years, aping Old School or American Pie. But in the capable hands of Todd Phillips, who actually did direct Old School, and the cast he has assembled, the film is much more. And it's much funnier too. While I don't think anyone watching this will ever have been so devastatingly inebriated as to borrow a baby, a tiger and a chicken and take them back home while on a night out, it's a high-concept comedy and you go with it because the performances are so endearing. That it remains funny and relatable even after Mike Tyson (yes, as himself), and the Chinese mafia come after the friends looking for revenge is just a testament to how well-scripted and performed this comedy is.

Bradley Cooper seems to have escaped the stigma of playing assholes from his earlier career, but while he's too good-looking and knowingly leading man material to be an everyman, the slack is picked up by his beta-male co-stars. Zach Galifanakis might not become a household name (try saying it three times fast), but you can tell from his performance in this that he's going on to big things in comedy. Ed Helms is endearingly impotent as the obligatory stuffed-shirt-learning-to-be-himself character, and holds his own in a script that's full of one-liners. Heather Graham makes an appearance as the wife he married while drunk and proves as she does in every film that she really ought to be getting more work in Hollywood.

Despite taking a little too long in the beginning to get to the start of the real plot, The Hangover is a wonderfully quotable and enjoyable comedy. It quite deserves to be the sleeper hit of the summer that it has become stateside, and I hope that the mooted sequel doesn't lose the charm of its predecessor.


Who's in it? Con O'Neill (TV's Criminal Justice), JJ Feild (Blood- The Last Vampire- see above) and Kevin Spacey (21)

What's it all about? Covering the first seven years of the 1960s, the film charts the rise and fall of the eccentric and flamboyantly gay music producer, Joe Meek (O'Neill), as he mismanages his production studio, offends his musicians and sinks more and more money into making insufferable bully Heinz Burt (Feild) into the UK's answer to Elvis.

Any good? If you're a fan of 60s music, then Telstar is for you. Joe Meek's hits- Jonny Remember Me, Just Like Eddie and the anthem of the title- may not have passed into the accepted canon of musical classics, but it's the story of the man that makes this film so fascinating. If I complained that The Boat That Rocked was guilty of forgoing any real historical context in order to make a film where some comedy actors danced around to pop music, then I have to applaud this film for doing the opposite. This is a harsh appraisal of both the period and of Meek's life. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, and this comes as a source of great turmoil at one point in the film for Meek, who's played larger than life by Con O'Neill. The best part of O'Neill's performance is that you want to like him, but can't. You're brought close enough to Meek to be shocked when the film turns on him, portraying him as an emotionally disabled, paranoid old man, spending his life worrying about people stealing his music after he faces plagiarism lawsuits over his most successful song.

This representation is not unique to Meek- director Nick Moran has made a film in which there are very few likable or endearing characters, and that just makes it all the more real as a biopic. JJ Feild's Heinz is terrific, going from clueless and stupid one minute to threatening and self-important the next. It's his character that leads Meek down the road to self-destruction, and the dynamic the two characters have is one of unrequited love and abuse. The supporting cast cannot be praised enough either, most notably in Kevin Spacey's performance. His role is small in this one, but more memorable than most of his other performances since The Life of David Gale, and the rest of the cast are at the top of their game too. Ralf Little and James Corden in particular show off acting chops that I didn't realise they had. The pacing seems to depart with the rest of the supporting cast in the last half-hour, and as electric as O'Neill is to watch, the film might comfortably have lost ten minutes and been even better.

Telstar is essential viewing for any Joe Meek fans out there, but I didn't know who he was until I saw this film, and I loved it all the same. Poignant, well-acted, and one of the best films currently on release. Sadly, it's not in wide distribution in the UK, perhaps due to it being released in the same week as a certain robot-smacking army-loving shitfest, but I strongly advise you to catch it when it comes to DVD if you can't catch it in cinemas.


Righto, that's your lot. The next review will likely cover Year One, Ice Age 3 and Public Enemies. Aside from the latter, there are few other films to look forward to this summer. I read a review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince earlier on, from someone who isn't a fan of the books or the movies thus far, and yet suggested it might be considered Oscar-worthy with the recent changes to the Academy's voting procedures for Best Picture. So hell yes, I'm looking forward to that.

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

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