22 July 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


This blog hasn't been around all that long, so I'll quickly take you through my top five Harry Potter films... of the first five...

5. The Chamber of Secrets- A change in tone from the first film was really needed here, but Chris Columbus is unable to provide it. Though it's supposed to be darker and leaner, the same "throw everything at the screen" approach jars a lot more in this one. It's still enjoyable, but it's the most unwieldy of the series to date.


4. The Philosopher's Stone- Columbus got the tone just right with this one though, to create a modern family classic. This is the kind of film that'll be on telly every bank holiday in 20 years time, but could've benefited from slightly less reverent adaptation of the source material in order to improve the pace a little.


3. The Order of the Phoenix- The worst, slowest and most under-edited book of the series becomes one of the most enjoyable films. David Yates gives us the shortest Potter film, but he knows exactly what the story needs on-screen. He does struggle on account of the lack of actual events in this story, but it's certainly enjoyable.


2. The Goblet of Fire- A lot more action-packed than any other film in the series, and it's probably the most well-received film for that. By the logic of it being as good as the sum of its parts, it ought to be my favourite, starring David Tennant and Jarvis Cocker as it does. It doesn't trump Azkaban, but it's one of the highlights of the series.


1. The Prisoner of Azkaban- Alfonso Cuaron gives us the best film of the series to date. Brilliant, beautiful and memorable- he's not afraid to chop scenes to make the story more cinematic, and it pays off. Brilliantly acted, wonderfully directed- sublime.


So there we are with the films to date. And the biggest thing around at the moment is of course the sixth instalment out of eight (still not sure about them splitting the last book into two films, but there we go), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For those of you who merely, horror of horrors, skim these reviews to get my opinion (you know who you are!), I've seen the film three times in the week since it opened, so that should give you an idea of how I enjoyed it.

This is the point where I usually warn you that the review contains a spoiler or two, but nothing crucial, story wise. Instead I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you're a Harry Potter fan, and have either seen the film or read the book on which it's based. SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

Who's in it? Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys... and the last five Potter films), Rupert Grint (Driving Lessons... and the last five Potter films), Emma Watson (Ballet Shoes... and the last five Potter films), Michael Gambon (Brideshead Revisited) and Jim Broadbent (The Young Victoria)

What's it all about? Another year at Hogwarts, naturally, but now we're headed for the climax of the series. Having spent all of the last film being blissfully ignorant of everything that's happened to Harry (Radcliffe), the world can no longer ignore the return of Lord Voldemort, and now they're panicking. Dumbledore (Gambon) decides to take a greater hand in Harry's education, Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) get more and more hormonally charged and a returning professor (Broadbent) has a dark secret. Elsewhere, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape have secrets of their own...

Any good? The main criticisms levelled at Half-Blood Prince have whinged about two things- how inaccessible it is to newcomers, and how much has been changed from the book. Firstly, this is the sixth Harry Potter film- you can't just wander in and expect to know what's going on at this story-heavy point of the series. While I'm all for franchises that have sequels like Indiana Jones or James Bond, this is an eight-film undertaking, and we're beyond the point of standalone adventures. Secondly... it's the sixth Harry Potter film. If you can't deal with the changes from the book by now, then don't watch them- stick to the books. In any case, that's why a lot of so-called fans disliked Order of the Phoenix, and this has the same director, David Yates. For me, Yates is the right man to round off the series (and he will be), and many of his changes are perfectly sensible.

That said, the two major additions could have been executed better, in my opinion. The book has vague mention of a bridge being destroyed by Death Eaters before the narrative begins, in a scene where the Minister for Magic talks to the Muggle UK Prime-Minister. The film shows the bridge collapse, but omits the PM scene, which has the consequence of a barn-storming opening that seems to have little or no consequence on the rest of the film. Likewise, the attack on the Weasleys' house at Christmas adds a nice little action beat to a story that's largely cerebral, but seems ultimately pointless. Yes, it shows that Harry isn't safe anywhere, but readers will know that the house has to be repaired by the start of the next film. Such additions seem unimportant when you consider that the title is The Half-Blood Prince and certain details are cut from the final revelation that will leave people who have only seen the films wondering what a Half-Blood Prince is and why Snape is one. This is trifling when you see how the filmmakers focused on the bigger plot elements, and the fans would surely have been up in arms even more if the title was changed to take significance off that subplot?


While Chris Columbus introduced the story eight years ago with brightly lit corridors and whimsical loveliness at Hogwarts, Yates has followed JK Rowling's path of maturing with the initial target audience by toning down the lighting considerably for this one. Be that to emphasise the darkening world as wizards prepare for war or to provide hiding places for the adolescent fumblings of the now sexually mature students, the cinematography is, as ever, beautiful to look at. But this darkness only makes the comedy even more impressive- that Yates has counterbalanced the comedy and tragedy of Half-Blood Prince speaks volumes for his suitability to direct the ending of the series. Because I will say it, Half-Blood Prince is a very funny film, funnier in fact than some of the lamer comedies out this year. You'll laugh more at this for instance than at, say, 17 Again.

While it certainly has many comedic parts, it's considerably more scary than any of the other films in the series thus far, and with the exception of a couple of scenes in the last book, I can't see the next two films getting any scarier. It doesn't balance comedy and horror in the same way as Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, in which the scares are funny, and so I picked the picture above from a scene that illustrates the balance well. It's the midpoint between two very different scenes- the three friends have just left the local pub, and Hermione's stumbling down the snowy lane looking very tipsy indeed, her arms round her two best friends. A scream shatters the moment as just ahead of them, one of their classmates becomes an accidental victim of dark magic and is thrown into the air like a ragdoll, there to levitate in a wide-open silent howl. The tone changes within a second from funny to scary with much more effect than your bog-standard horror movie jump scare, and it's brilliantly directed. Yates also really gets comedy- this isn't the comedy you got in the first few films that was distinctly mawkish and "Oh, isn't Ron a pussy? Let's hear him squeal amusingly at mortal peril!"


On the contrary, the comedic side of things is achieved in no small part by the fantastic performances on show in this instalment. Daniel Radcliffe continues to be the one with the best acting chops of the three young leads, but Rupert Grint has become a formidable comedy actor. His timing and delivery is hilarious to watch throughout. The weak link is Emma Watson again, but she's become distinctly less stilted as the films have gone along, and she's about the only one of the trio I can't really see continuing to blaze a trail in acting once the films are over. Also problematic amongst the more prominent younger actors was Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. It feels natural that Harry should be attracted to her in the book, but there's a distinct lack of chemistry between Radcliffe and Wright, so it just seems sudden and out of place. I do blame this on a lack of foresight when initially casting her in the first film- Emma Watson is the one whose beauty is raved about, whereas the original characters had Hermione more on the plain-Jane side of things than the more popular and attractive Ginny.

Amongst the adult cast, the performances are terrific as expected, and Jim Broadbent is brilliant as ever, bringing two dimensions to Slughorn- the bumbling socialite who gleefully hobnobs with the best and brightest at Hogwarts, and a washed-up old man who's out of touch with all his old buddies and left trying to repent for his biggest failing in life, a secret he's kept for 50 years. As for the rest of the cast, the series' veterans, such as Dame Maggie Smith, get a lot more to do. Michael Gambon makes it count with his last proper performance as Albus Dumbledore. Everything I enjoy about his portrayal as opposed to Richard Harris' is brought to the fore in this one as he finally takes centre-stage. And as assassins gather all around him, Alan Rickman is another brilliant actor who takes a larger role here- his performances as Snape thus far have been consistently brilliant but increasingly thankless, but it's marvellous to watch him at work here.


However, the real revelation amongst the film's performances is Tom Felton's- no longer the sneering stereotyped bully, Draco Malfoy is a fully-rounded human being assigned to a mission he cannot possibly bring himself to complete. His performance here is just marvellous, and the audience will care about Malfoy in a way they might not have from reading the book. Specifically I'm talking about two scenes. Firstly, the scene where Malfoy sees that a classmate he inadvertently cursed while on his mission for Voldemort has made a full recovery, and flees to a bathroom to have a nervous breakdown, believing she'll name him and he'll be discovered. The intensity of this scene is the first time you really properly sit up and take notice of Tom Felton's acting, and it picks up for the second of the aforementioned scenes, after the big death in the film. Having been unable to finish his mission, he's led from Hogwarts, his home for most of the last six years, by the Death Eaters, as Helena Bonham Carter's delightfully deranged Bellatrix Lestrange gleefully smashes up the place. There's a shot that shows Malfoy watching her, and we see that he knows he's chosen his side in the wizarding war, and that there's no way back from this. Neither scene has any dialogue, but he acts it absolutely brilliantly.

There's a lot I want to mention about the film but haven't- the curse of being a real Potter-head whose favourite book of the series is the one on which this is based. Even though I'm winding down without mentioning the actor who played Gryffindor jock Cormac McClaggan, the terrific direction of the Pensieve scenes and the way the film finally makes Quidditch interesting beyond the novelty value of the special effects, you can take it as read that I really enjoyed this film. It doesn't trump the watermark of the series to date, Prisoner of Azkaban, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a film that consistently ups the stakes in anticipation of the inevitable final battle, and balances comedy with horror and tragedy better than any other film I've seen this year.



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Here's the part where I normally tell you what's coming next for the blog- that revamp is still on the way, pending the completion of artwork, but that aside, I can't really tell you what's left to review at present. This week's new releases, The Proposal and Bruno- Snipped (the version of the recent comedy that's been cut down to get a 15 certificate) don't particularly appeal to me, because both will instil me with a sense that I've seen them before, albeit for different reasons.

I know that next week we have G-Force, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Land of the Lost, all of which I will be reviewing, but that's next Friday. So at a guess, I'd say my post-mortem of the summer season will be next up on here. But who knows?

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

Thanks to Fearn Sobers for MovieGoat artwork- visit fesoes.net for more of her artwork.

18 July 2009

The Final Reel: Historically Challenged

Yup, this is the last time you'll see these blog posts headed with the admittedly not-very-good pun "The Reel Deal". That ship has sailed, and it's time for a rebrand, the theme of which has already been glimpsed in my Transformers 2 review. But for now, I'm going to review two films set around about the same time period, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Year One, both of which would come under rather intense scrutiny from any Oxbridge scholar looking into their historical accuracy. But then I suppose most Oxbridge scholars know that animals don't speak English, and so films are usually exempt from such quibbles. Let's just say Ridley Scott clearly never worked on either of these films.

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.

ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS


Who's in it?
It's a cartoon of course, so we get the returning voice talents of John Leguizamo, Ray Romano and Denis Leary from the first two and a new voice in the form of the excellent Simon Pegg.

What's it all about? Sid the sloth (Leguizamo) is getting broody as his herd moves on in life- Manny (Romano) is soon to become a father and Diego (Leary) is off to regain his self-esteem as a predator. He steals three eggs he finds embedded in the ice with the aim of mothering them, but discovers they belong to a dinosaur, who aren't as extinct as first thought.

Any good? I've been groaning for months at the mention of this film. I love the first Ice Age, but felt the second was a step too far. The only really accomplished studio when it comes to animated sequels is Pixar, and Ice Age: The Meltdown did nothing to change this. But most of all, that title. "Dawn of the Dinosaurs?!", I wailed. "Dawn of-- the Ice Age came after the dinosaurs! What's wrong with cinema today? I-- hey, where did all my friends go?" Having coaxed one of my startled companions back to the cinema, I went in with some trepidation. I expected little more than the first sequel, but this time in 3D. The continually irksome glasses aside, this film actually wasn't that bad.

It's certainly not comedic genius. The first film was really good, in my opinion- it seemed to show promising things from the then-new studio Blue Sky, and it's one of the better animated films of the last decade or so. This instalment doesn't measure up to that but it's certainly a lot better than its immediate predecessor, even if it does reprise the most annoying of the new characters from that film. For starters, they took the dinosaur thing in a direction I certainly wouldn't have thought they'd manage. Rather than just have dinosaurs wander around all this time, it emerges that they're hiding under the ice, a la Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. In aping that it's obviously not massively original, but it displays more thought than I anticipated. As far as plot goes, it's much the same as the previous two- the makeshift herd that comprises the main characters go on a trek to recover/deliver one of their friends to safety.

Nevertheless, it supersedes the second film because it's funnier, plain and simple. Yes, it's still not as clever in its humour as Ice Age, but makes up for it with copious amounts of Simon Pegg. Buck is a debonair weasel who guides our heroes through the underground world with more than an implied degree of madness, and Pegg voices him with great aplomb. The film is still a little too reliant on the continuing frustrations of Scratt, the acorn-hungry squirrel, who this time gets a female counterpart, imaginatively called Scratte. This brings nothing to the film that we haven't seen in the assorted Scrat appearances to date, but there's a genius interlude towards the end to the tune of "Alone Again Naturally" with its lyrics retooled from the acorn's point of view. I shit you not. More annoying and unfunny are the possums, Crash and Eddie, demonstrating Hollywood's continuing inability to create twin comic-relief characters that don't make me want to hurt myself and those around me.

As with several 3D animated films, the 3D doesn't really lend anything to Ice Age- Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but it's an inoffensive and mildly enjoyable addition to the series. There are too few big laughs for it to measure up to the original, but it's well-animated and Simon Pegg is the most enjoyable aspect.



YEAR ONE


Who's in it? Jack Black (Tropic Thunder), Michael Cera (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and David Cross (Kung Fu Panda).

What's it all about? A hunter-gatherer team (Black and Cera) are expelled from their tribe right before it is invaded and enslaved by soldiers from the city of Sodom. The pair ineptly careen from biblical event to biblical event in an attempt to rescue the tribe.

Any good?
Big budget comedies don't work. Perhaps I'm being absent-minded, but besides Tropic Thunder, I can't think of a single big-budget comedy from recent years that left any lasting impression. Jack Black was in Tropic Thunder, and yet here, he's doing a film that largely flounders. I did laugh occasionally, but not enough to call this a good comedy. I should say from the outset that I can't really criticise the film for not particularly sticking to the setting of its title like other reviewers have, because I'm an atheist and this is essentially based on the Old Testament- I already think its source material was a confused mess of mumbo-jumbo. Coming soon, Mark Harrison reviews the Bible, but now we're looking at this, which apparently aims to be a modern day version of Life of Brian. I hesitate to say that this is more like Epic Movie than Life of Brian, because as mentioned, I did laugh at Year One. Sadly it is closer to the works of Aaron Friedburg and Jason Seltzer than... who directed this? Harold Ramis?!

Harold Ramis, what are you doing? You directed Groundhog Day! To a lesser extent, you directed Analyse This! You're a fucking Ghostbuster! Where did you go so wrong with this? Just to put this in perspective for those of you who are scratching your head at the mention of Sodom in the synopsis, Harold Ramis has made a film where the heroes are out to save the city of Sodom- you know, the one God struck down and which later gave its name to practises inventively explored in Brüno- from slavery. Not that I'm anti-gay, but I didn't like the confused message they were trying to get across about Sodom. Jack Black rambunctiously says he doesn't see the bad thing about Sodom- are they saying standards have slipped in the last 2000 years? It only gets more garbled with an out-of-place subplot about the existence of God, and you suddenly realise that every good comedy in the last few years (with the exception of Tropic Thunder) has remained more or less rooted in the real world. Surreal historical comedy is more or less a dead genre, until the Python crew revisit it, and that's incredibly unlikely.

As for the cast, their roles are overwhelmingly limited to separate Bits, a la last month's Night at the Museum 2. Paul Rudd has a Bit, Hank Azaria has a Bit and Ramis himself has his own little Bit. And in the centre of the film we have Jack Black and Michael Cera, and you'll never believe what they do. Jack Black is rambunctious (hence the use of the word in the last paragraph) and outrageous, while Michael Cera is awkward and shy. You know, the kind of performances those actors have never ever given before. Although I like Cera usually, both his and Black's tried-and-tested approaches are wearing thin, and you wish Azaria, Rudd and Ramis- all much more gifted comic actors- had been around more. Instead, their roles are cameos that cast little bits of light on Year One, a film that is otherwise largely disappointing and utterly forgettable.



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Right, that's pretty much is for now. The next post is coming very soon and will cover one film all to itself- some little film called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That revamp is on the way, and will definitely be in place by the time we get to the next of these two-review-blogs, but you can expect that the Harry Potter review will have some artwork from Fearn Sobers eventually, if not at the time the review is first posted.

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

5 July 2009

The Future of Nostalgia

You might've noticed, but I didn't think much of Michael Bay's Transformers movies. Putting aside the ever-more perplexing sources of material for Hollywood blockbusters including toys (What? ...WHAT?!), it also occurs to me that Transformers is fundamentally an 1980s property. The animated film, released in 1986, was chock-full of power ballads and was pretty 80s all round. Weren't there a few other 80s properties brought back in Hollywood recently?

To be fair, the ones listed above are the less depressingly awful of the sequels and remakes that have been spawned out of the recent rash of 80s nostalgia. Yes, LeBeouf shouldn't have been allowed near it, McClane should've swore more, and the 3D didn't add anything to it (in that order), but I'd sooner sit through any of these films again than the upcoming remakes of Fame, Flashdance or An American Werewolf in London.

If you're reading this, and this wave of nostalgia for a decade that ended a mere 20 years ago has gone unnoticed until now, you may be wondering why this is so prevalent. More cynical people would call it a deficit of originality in Hollywood. I'm more of an optimist, believe it or not, and I think it's only a problem that certain producers seem to have. As far as I can see, most 80s remakes/sequels are coming out of one or both of these two causes.

1. A producer/director/star who was big in the 80s decides to stick to what they know and take their old mega-bucks concept out of mothballs, usually claiming that they want to advance their characters, i.e. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Rocky Balboa. These films don't always disappoint, but they're never quite the same as their predecessors, especially when the word remake or reboot is involved.
2. A producer being utterly lazy and reading nostalgic articles in entertainment magazines and then playing Eeny Meeny Miney Mo until they find a franchise they can convince you you've been waiting for the return of since... well, 1989, i.e. Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and most other American horror films today. The trouble with this type of 80s nostalgia is partly that it usually involves a franchise that never really went away (Freddy vs. Jason came out in 2003, and the last Halloween sequel before the remake was out in 2002), but mostly that the driving forces behind the "reimagining" are fuckwits who have precious little to add to the original idea.

I can say that John Carpenter's Halloween was a cool movie for free and in about five seconds. Rob Zombie apparently needed to spend $20m and 109 minutes doing the same.

But this is not a rant. This is me being genuinely worried about the future of nostalgia, as it were. As the 00s draw to a close, I can only assume the 20s will have a lot of remakes of remakes of reboots, should they turn to nostalgia. But more pressingly, next year sees the beginning of the 10s. It logically follows therefore that the next decade will see a wave of 90s nostalgia. Fuck yeah!

No, I'm not talking about the mooted remake of The Bodyguard with Hugh Jackman and Miley Cyrus, or that sequel to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that Kevin Costner keeps mentioning. I'm talking about the revival of the good stuff the 1990s gave us. I honestly don't think animated TV shows were ever better than they were in the 90s (80s cartoons advertised toys, largely, and 00s shows have actually been dumbed down again) and so I'm actually looking forward to the awesome live-action movies based on them, however much it seems to signal the death of originality.

Below you will find my own pitches. They may vary in quality, but you have to speculate to accumulate, and I like to think that this blog entry will be a solid investment so that if any of these actually happen, I can claim creative doo-dah of some kind. Some legal mumbo-jumbo! And furthermore, I would obviously like to see original films. But if there's no other alternative, I'd like to see...

"Sold!": GARGOYLES

Um... what? As much as I've said animated shows became more adult in the 90s, most of Disney's output remained kind of childish, except for this show. A bunch of warrior creatures are turned to stone in the Middle Ages, only to be resurrected in present-day New York to fight evil and kick arse. Obviously it's not The Wire, but it was gritty for a Disney show.



And why would they make a film of that? The premise might not sound all that good, but the show was surprisingly well-written, from what I saw of it. And in any case, there are much more rounded characters than Transformers ever had, and a better backstory to boot.

How would they do it? CGI/motion capture is pretty big these days- you might've noticed. Animate the titular gargoyles in whichever way is best and make it largely live-action. Bring in some "name" actors and get a director with a good track record. Someone like Jon Favreau (but not, I want to see him doing more Marvel movies next decade). Market it as a summer blockbuster and reinvent the story for a new audience. Big fucking statue monsters flying around New York is something I'd happily see in the cinemas, but there would have to be something behind it story-wise too. I'd hate to see it just become another Transformers.

OK, I'm gonna go over there now... Fair enough, but I remain confident that a film based on this could work.

"Eh?": FREAKAZOID!
Um... what? No one seems to really remember this one. Or if they do, they won't talk about it in public. The theme song explains the premise of this one best, so I'll just embed the opening credits below...



And why would they make a film of that? Because I saw two superhero comedies made this decade- Hancock and My Super-Ex Girlfriend- and they both sucked. Mystery Men aside, it's a sub-genre that's not being explored all that much. Next year brings Seth Rogen's Green Hornet, but it'd be fun to see a film based on this at some point. Hancock and G-Girl were both uninspired, so why not revive a character who has worked before?

How would they do it? As I said, it'd have to be a comedy. There seems to be a swarm of comedians working in Judd Apatow's stable, so my first guess would be to say they should be involved in some capacity. On the other hand, Spielberg was executive producer on this show, as with most of WB's animated comedy output, so it'd be good to get him involved on some level. I dunno, I think this one is very much borne out of how much I liked the series.

OK, I'm gonna go over there now... Yeah, I'm losing faith in the idea myself. But I do want to watch Freakazoid! again now. Where's the UK DVD release?

"Get out!": DUCKTALES

Um... what? The title explains this one. They're tales about ducks, centring around Huey, Dewey and Louie and their uncle, Scrooge McDuck. McDuck is more or less my favourite fictional billionaire ever. He dives into a vault filled with gold and fucking SWIMS in his wealth. Crazy duck bastard. And also, as if you needed reminding, it has the single catchiest theme song ever.



And why would they make a film of that? Because if Disney aren't making films based on theme park rides, video games, their own back-catalogue or more pressingly, Gargoyles, they should really be looking at bringing this series back in some form or other. It was Indiana Jones with ducks. How the hell can you go wrong? And that THEME TUNE!

How would they do it? Well presumably, live-action with CGI ducks a la Alvin and the Chipmunks. Shit, that's not a good way to sell it. The content should obviously be first and foremost, rather than the nostalgia kick. Hm... maybe DuckTales doesn't have that much potential. But it does have that theme tune. Get Fall Out Boy to do a cover version for the soundtrack- it'd be number one for weeks.

OK, I'm gonna go over there now... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I realise now that the whole selling point of the film would be the theme song. Can we ask Patrick Stump to cover it anyway?

Alright, so Gargoyles is all I've got. And that seems unlikely. Dammit.

I don't wish to appear ignorant of the really great original films that Hollywood does turn out every once in a while, or of the genuinely interesting and engaging approaches to pre-existing sources, like JJ Abrams' Star Trek or Chris Nolan's Batman films. But you have to wonder that with so few entirely original blockbusters appearing in the multiplex now, how bad are things going to be in 2029? Hollywood needs to start moving forwards rather than looking backwards, just for a change. Please?

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There'll probably be a follow-up post to this one coming in the next few weeks about unlikely sequels. Depends on a number of factors related to my planned revamp of this blog.

That's right, the next Reel Deal update won't actually be Reel Deal-y at all. I'm rebranding. More on that when it comes, but the next update is likely to cover two slightly historically-challenged films, Ice Age 3 and Year One. I'm also excited about the prospect of finally getting to see Is Anybody There? this week at a cinema out of town, so there'll be a quick review of that in a future update too.

Until next time, just try to get the DuckTales theme tune out of your head,
Mark

2 July 2009

The Reel Deal: Public Enemas

No, I liked it! Really! The wordplay refers only to the film that Public Enemies shares a post with this time around. Yes, when my forecast for reviews of Ice Age 3 and Year One was made, I'd forgotten about the fact that I was due to see an exclusive advance screening of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest, Bruno, on Tuesday night. Also, I had kind of anticipated seeing the other two films by now already. They'll be the next post instead, I suspect. They'll also link better to make a clever little title than say... Public Enemas. Apologies, but it's time to crack on.

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.

BRÜNO


Who's in it?
As with Borat, this is a film in which most of those who appear aren't in on the fact that Brüno is a comic creation, so it's largely a two-hander in the acting stakes between Sacha Baron Cohen (Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and Gustaf Hammarsten (Lägg M för mord and various other Swedish language films)

What's it all about? When Austrian fashionista and TV presenter Brüno (Cohen) is disgraced by a faux-pas at a fashion show in Milan, he decides to travel to America to make his name in Hollywood. Along the way, he shocks and offends everyday people as well as exposing the latent homophobia that many of them have, all the while becoming ever more shallow and crass in his quest for fame.

Any good? I can say with absolute certainty that Brüno will divide audiences. You will either see the film as horribly offensive or totally hilarious. And the deciding factor in your perception will almost certainly be a moment around 15 minutes in that sent members of the audience I saw the film with running from the auditorium. That everyone else stayed is either a testament to their liberal outlook on films or a sign that nothing in the film has more potential to offend that this particular moment. Part of me wants to prepare you by telling you exactly what this moment is, but I've decided it's better you find out for yourself. I've promised not to spoil anything in this review, after all.

So Brüno is, like Cohen's other creation Borat, a character from Da Ali G Show, and this film is of the same mockumentary cut as the earlier film used. One of the best parts of Borat was how its unwilling participants were exposed for their prejudices and general stupidity. Cohen was onto a winner then with the format of performing audacious and hilarious stunts in character and then putting them together for the cinema, and the formula holds true here. And so the main value of Brüno is in the way that it holds up a mirror to the specific contingent of America that features- in this case, homophobes, as well as stage moms, fashion models and celebrities. The banality and depravity of celebrity is exposed as it never has been before as one American Idol contestant passes judgement on the ultrasound scan of another celebrity- deciding whether she'd keep or abort the baby for the sake of an appearance on television.

That's not to say that Cohen is solely wrapped up in reflecting society's wrongs- the film is first and foremost a comedy, but there's a feeling of familiarity about the story that's used to link the crazy stunts this time around. It's very similar to Borat in this respect, whereas the rest of the film would seem to have stepped things up since that film. Of course no one's going to be complaining that you can predict where that story's going to end, as the climax of this film ties both to the story and to the outrage of the film's inadvertent contributors in a stunt that leaves you marvelling at how the crew escaped unscathed from an angry mob. I think more of this film's stunts were staged, owing to Sacha Baron Cohen's more widespread popularity, but some scenes are obviously completely natural because there's no way that those involved would agree to partake in such stunts.

Brüno isn't released until next Friday, so I'm in the unusual position of having seen a film in advance of its release. I'm pleased to report that Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat is as funny, if not funnier, than that film, but it's a lot more offensive than last time around, whatever your outlook on the topic at hand. This is not a film for the easily-offended, but everyone else will bloody love it.



PUBLIC ENEMIES


Who's in it? Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation) and Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose)

What's it all about? Bank robber John Dillinger (Depp), has eluded capture by crossing state lines in Depression-era America, escaping the jurisdiction of the authorities who pursue him. His rising status to Public Enemy #1 brings about the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, later to become the FBI, headed by agent Melvin Purvis (Bale), who gives chase with an alarming dedication.

Any good? Michael Mann is most applauded for directing Heat, lauded by many as the greatest crime thriller since The Godfather. Fitting then, that his latest should be similar to that film, dealing again with bank robberies and the authorities, but relocated to the Depression-era 1930s. In lieu of Pacino and DeNiro, Mann unites two more modern titans of cinema- Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. And what's more, he's got a shiny new toy to bring the life of John Dillinger to the screen. It's shot in a ultra-high resolution digital format that I wasn't quite able to absorb, thanks to the fact that I arrived late at a packed-out screening and was sat in the front row. Furthermore, the cinema weren't even screening it as a digital projection, thanks to the 3D charms of Ice Age 3 and the mind-numbing CGI terror of Transformers 2. And there's the problem for you- Public Enemies is a genuinely good film that's being released at a time when films don't want us to use our brains.

Yes, I did say the screening was packed out, and that's mostly because it's a film for adults when the alternative is CGI robots or CGI animals, but I do worry that Public Enemies won't find an audience. It's an incredibly intelligent film released in the currently dizzying heat of the summer, when people want popcorn-flicks. Well I don't like popcorn, but I did like this. Mann is a skilled director and he proves it once again with this. Depp, as ever, is charismatic and watchable as Dillinger, and distances himself enough from the audience for them to recognise that his character is morally grey rather than a likable scoundrel. Dillinger is a million miles from Captain Jack Sparrow or the other more mainstream characters Depp has played in recent years. It might be a while before I forgive Christian Bale for Terminator Salvation, but he turns in the kind of great performance we know he's capable of as Agent Purvis, playing it with the kind of intensity he always puts into such roles. And of course there's a sterling support cast, led by Marion Cotillard and the always-underused Billy Crudup.

One of the problems with the film, besides its ostensible likeness to Heat, is the runtime. At a certain point in this two hour crime epic, it begins to feel just a little repetitive. Yes, the action is well-directed, but it very much begins to feel like a shootout, followed by Dillinger getting away, followed by Purvis and his men killing at least one of his accomplices, followed by Purvis having a steely Dr-Claw-like resolve to do better next time, and repeat. In the midst of this, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Mann and Depp are deconstructing the man at the centre of the film. As Dillinger loses those accomplices, he becomes more and more vulnerable. It becomes lonely being Public Enemy #1, and we don't see enough of this sentiment before the end of the film. It probably would've suffered from a laborious period of Dillinger feeling sad and alone before the climax, but as it stands, it feels like something of an anti-climax. This isn't helped by the occasional character being forgotten, their strands of plot left dangling in the wind as the closing credits roll.

On the whole, Public Enemies is a well-directed, well-acted film that deserves to do well. And of course you have to wonder if it has a shot at the Oscars, now that they're considering more films for Best Picture each year. Try to catch it at a cinema screening it with digital projection if you can.


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Um... Year One and Ice Age 3 next, I think. I'm definitely seeing one of those two at the cinema tonight, and the other will likely follow in the next few days. And of course we're into July now, so it's all a big wait for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Less than two weeks to go...

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