Friday, 4 December 2009

Film Review: Harry Brown

(Directed by Daniel Barber, running time 103 minutes)

It’s been nearly 40 years since the British crime classic Get Carter, in what became an iconic role for veteran actor Michael Caine. After all these years, with many film roles ranging from action to comedy, thrillers to dramas, we all in the UK still can’t get enough of the vintage cockney accent. So when I learn that Caine is back again in a lead role for a gritty British crime thriller, I can’t help but rub my hands in anticipation... let’s just hope it’s not a disappointment.

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a retired ex-royal marine with his wife on her death bed, spending his last days in run down flat on a crime ridden inner-city estate ruled by gangs of teenage thugs and drug dealers. If things couldn’t get any worse, his last remaining friend Leonard (played by David Bradley), after constant harassment from the local gangs led by young thug Noel Winters (played by Ben Drew), is brutally beaten and stabbed to death after a confrontation. With only himself left and the police seemingly doing nothing, Harry sets out on a violent vendetta against Noel and the gangs.

Now already I have a slight issue with describing the synopsis, since that’s as clear cut as I would like to make it. In truth, there are multiple developments in the story with enough exposition to explain the dark events that unfold. And this film is very dark. From the very beginning, the audience is painted a picture of the most squalid and run down section of London imaginable, no doubt directed at those of you who might have lived in a pleasant rural village most of your life. What’s emphasized most of all however is the teenage thugs that seem to be the embodiment of all things “chav” and “yob”. It’s almost scary how believable these gangs are, especially since we don’t want to believe such people could thrive in a supposedly developed country. Yet they do. But before you start clenching your fists, the film doesn’t leave out the parents in this social matter. Noel’s father for example is in prison, implied being even worse than what is shared on screen while another seems to have been sexually abused by every foster family that took him in. With such unstable backgrounds, it’s nice to know youth violence isn’t completely white washed because Harry Brown is clearly making a political and social comment on modern affairs, and to do this well you have to be rational about it. To put in bluntly, the world around Harry is both dark and gritty yet real and heart breaking.

Yet despite the film’s good intentions, it’s Michael Caine we came to see. Simply put, Caine is definitely giving it his best and it shows. Despite at first appearing as nothing more than a typical old age pensioner, Caine quickly becomes Jack Carter of the 70s, even though he’s now in his 70s. After accidently stabbing a mugger in self defense, the character Harry is quick to return to his World War II days. He then proceeds to harass, taunt and even torture various gang members, all maintaing his status of quiet old man on the estate, hence why the police hesitate at first. Through all the turmoil that arises (especially towards a particularly heavy climax), Harry Brown is a very likable character, and to pull this off despite the inevitable debates over vigilante justice that will arise as a consequence has to say something about how well Caine can still pull off such performances.

Even with a great lead, the message of Harry Brown is a fickle one. Although I mentioned how the antagonists aren’t depicted so black and white, how they should be punished on the other hand is as simple as pulling the trigger. By all means, in most films the audience is supposed to cheer on the final execution, which seems all you can do with such sickening characters on show, but given the concerns raised about the state of the country in the film, there are moments that make you wonder if it was written by an editor for the Daily Mail (even I left the cinema with tight fists). Further more, while Caine is excellent, the film is not Get Carter or the Italian Job. By this I mean the film is so dark and violent in it’s gritty modern setting, there’s no time or space for the dry wit or irony, and considering Caine is essentially playing the same role as the previously mentioned, there’s not even one line to drag the film from it’s depressing little corner that can be disappointing for fans of the classics. Don’t get me wrong, there are one or two lines that, to be low brow, just ooze with cool but because of the tone of the film, almost every thing about it is sad. Saying this now, you should prepare yourself for a heavy ride.

Harry Brown is an odd ball when it comes to its message and while you get what you’d expect from a gritty crime drama/thriller; being dark, violent and crude, because of such a heavy tone, that’s all it is. But what you do get is a well constructed revenge piece/general social statement and above all else it’s hard to complain when Michael Caine still reigns supreme in a leading role that might very well be his last of its kind.

Also stars Charlie Creed Miles, Emily Mortimer and Liam Cunningham.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Film Review: Paranormal Activity

(Directed by Oren Peli, running time 86 minutes)

WARNING: Due to the shaky camera technique used in the film, some may experience nausea at one point.

I don’t believe in ghosts, and if they were real I can’t understand how they have power over the living. Because of this, if I were a character in a horror film I would obviously play the skeptic who appears in just the first quarter only to be killed off as a result of his own cynicism. What is a text book example of horror film cliché here, thankfully doesn’t apply much elsewhere in the latest of shaky camera faux documentaries; Paranormal Activity.

The set up couldn’t be any more simple: young couple Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as actors) are haunted by an unknown spirit and film each night’s sleep while at the same time their constant personal difficulties and unease from an ever increasing, you guessed it, paranormal activity. Besides some quick exposition explaining that Katie of the two has been haunted as such before, the film jumps straight ahead with character interaction by day and long still horror sequences at night, with the latter as the clear highlight.

Where other shaky cam formats like The Blair Witch Project rely on distorted movements and cries from a cast of teenagers to induce horror (a rather feeble attempt in this one’s opinion), Paranormal Activity however removes the shaky element most of the time in favor of wide angle lens shots of the couple’s bed room at night as they sleep while at any moment something out of the ordinary could phase one square foot of the screen. It is at these moments where the film truly shines as a more competent form of film horror in a cluttered industry of cheap shocks and over the top gore. Further more, not only does more actually happen than the Blair Witch in both horror and well placed dialogue, but we can see clearly what to be afraid of (the activity, not the ghost, you never do) even when the camera is shaky and the audience can understand it through and through. The paranormal activity in question starts out as nothing more than a flickering light and swaying door before making it’s presence known further like making loud footsteps and noise, among some other really unusual and sinister happenings I won’t spoil for you. Every time these moments occur and become more extreme, I found myself and those around me more fixated on the big screen than usual. Our intentions were to spot the activity as it develops but half the time you won’t, which of course makes it all the more shocking and thus likely to make you jump from your seat. And this is coming from someone who has been borderline completely desensitized in the horror genre.

But this film is not without shame, primarily in the dialogue department during the day. While the two lead characters and brief minor roles are believable enough in their delivery, I have to remind myself that not only are these people being terrorized by a malevolent spirit, they 100% believe it. As a result I find the segments where they talk with friends and each other about other matters rather odd since real people as they’re trying to portray would be entirely fixated, enthralled or even insane over the notion of genuine contact with the other side, let alone whether it’s out to get you or not. The character Micah jokes initially too much about the situation and is, at first not likable as a consequence. Further more at one point during the day time segments, Katie outright says she can feel the entity looking at her while breathing over her shoulder... hair moving and everything. So why is it Micah isn’t phased nor does anything paranormal happen during other mid-days, particularly towards the end?

But I digress since this is most likely me just nitpicking. Most of the dialogue does actually contribute to the plot such as why they don’t simply just move house or use exorcism, instead of just confirming that the characters are feeling scared... which we already know of from the very beginning. Paranormal Activity as it stands is one of the better examples of it’s (sub)genre, relying on building real tension and surprises instead of resorting to throwing the camera in people’s darkened faces. If you’re not a fan of this style of film making before, I doubt it will change your mind but at least you can take comfort in knowing someone did try harder.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Film Review: 2012

(Directed by Ronald Emmerich, running time 158 minutes)

DISCLAIMER: Before I dive in let me get one thing out of the way: I do not believe in the 2012 predictions nor should any of you. There is no evidence the Mayans ended their calendar for this reason (with no other reason to believe them even if they did) and no scientific evidence to support other predictions of impending cataclysms. It is purely fiction.

So we meet again Mr. Ronald Emmerich, back after the ludicrous Independence Day, misunderstood Godzilla, poorly executed Day After Tomorrow and downright confusing 10, 000 BC? And now you’re taking on the next Y2K? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, even if it may be a well executed disaster. Considering all of these films are hardly Oscar Gold, to go into the cinema with expectations beyond “big dumb action flick” only to then complain about it would be on par with visiting France and being surprised and annoyed by all the French people. By no means does that spare this film from a critical lashing, just don’t say I or even the film trailers didn’t tell you so.

It’s 2012, the always tolerable John Cusack plays amateur novelist Jackson Curtis, divorced whose two children live with their mother and cut in step father... *Strains* I’m already annoyed by how cliché this set up really is. Before the exposition can sink in further, on a camping trip Curtis is warned by new age doomsayer Charlie Frost played by Woody Harrelson (arguably the most likable and entertaining character who isn’t even used beyond the first half) of the impending apocalyptic prophecy handed down from the ancient Mayan people among other civilizations. Shortly after Curtis connects the dots including the rich and powerful leaving urbanized areas, disaster abruptly unfolds with California sinking into the ocean in a scene thats as jaw dropping as it is over the top. If that wasn’t enough to raise a few eyebrows, Yellowstone super volcano erupts engulfing most of America while the rest of the world follows suit, all the while Curtis and family journey to China where an ark project is about to be launched saving the soon to be remnants of humanity.

While this set up appears as a half-baked excuse to travel round the globe just as it goes to pot (and it is), to mix it up we cut to and fro from other would be survivors as they deal with the constant raging chaos. While the spotlight is primarily focused on the US President played by Danny Glover (a’la Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact) and pre-disaster concerned scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (a character who screams “know your place Miiister Siiientist!”), we also get two jazzmen on a damned cruise, a Chinese monk leading his family through the backdoor of the ark and of course random cut aways to famous locations in the process of natural demolition. It’s a nice touch, especially with the ones you know are doomed from the beginning, taking away the cliché foundations the rest of the films rests upon. Others on the other hand do nothing but support it, such as dire European accents, impossibly good plane driving from someone who claims to be a learner and of course the coming together of a once broken family... did I already mention cliché? Dam. All in all the characters shouldn’t annoy you too much... unlike the dim-witted ignorant “douche-bag” teens of Transformers.

But of course you’re not here for the exposition (at one point I said in my head “I don’t care about how you weren’t around for the kids, I just saw the whole Vatican turn over!”), you want destruction on the grandest of scales and if you were disappointed with there lack of in The Day After Tomorrow, this should quell your catharsis. Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are part of the main course with plenty of landmarks to knock down and as it stands I wouldn’t have it any other way. When they’re not laying on the exposition, the special effects crew are hammering in as much worldly mayhem as possible to create the ultimate disaster flick. And while you get a good sense of the world actually ending, it’s also not edited in an overly fast pace manner to the point of breaking the sound barrier, allowing the many destructive set pieces to make their full impact you came to see.

Like I said from the very start, this is a film of simple tastes. You go for the mass destruction and you get it... a lot. In fact you would be better off to set your exceptions and standards even lower, because in all honesty it’s well executed and might even surprise you. Like all disaster flicks, the plot is so cliché the word loses all meaning and the dialogue can get hammy at times but at least it doesn’t try to make you laugh or be “down with the kids”. I know it might not be saying much but this is one of the better Ronald Emmerich films, IE a fine example of a movie-goer’s guilty pleasure.

Also stars Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton and Oliver Platt.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Film Review: Public Enemies

Look its Michael Mann directing another film! And look Johnny Depp is in it! And look again its Christian Bale... AGAIN... Well sounds like a good enough set up right? Those with a knowledge of previous Michael Mann films (to name a few couple; Heat and Collateral) know he’s done his share of fast paced and crime driven while heavy in drama so naturally a film set in the 1930s based on the true story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, is like bait for this director. Well put it this way... there’s a shoot out in the opening five minutes.

While Johnny Depp is paraded as the role of John Dillinger is every preview know to Mann (ha see what I did there? Forget it), once again with have Christian Bale, fresh from the last multiple blockbuster films as the lesser known FBI agent Melvin Purvis, with the obvious stances as “public enemies” to eachother. But by no means is it all about them, at the same time we’re quickly introduced to other Dillinger cronies and of course the inevitable love interest Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard. So where does this leave them? After a semi-successful prison break, Dillinger is back in town and robbing banks left and right, each in a matter of minutes while Purvis is put on the case but what appears to be a rather slow “by the book” anti-crime agency. Fast forward and we have Dillinger swaying the likes of Frechette is a rather chauvinistic manner... although we have to keep in mind that this is the 1930s and women are still push overs (and in Johnny Depp’s case still would be). Without ruining any of the plot, the film then goes into a tug of war with bank robberies and FBI leads pulled off and hindered by the opposing party leading to what is a rather unconventional climax if you didn’t know much about the real life story.

Beyond the character plot itself, we are given a vintage 1930s backdrop from both the city and country settings conveying a real old modern styled feel you’d come to expect. All the men where brown and black suits and talk fast and all the women are dressed up and buried in make-up, with crudely built cars, oddly shaped rifles and “swinging” soundtracks. Believable setting, check. Believable characters on the other hand? Many people (fangirls) came to see Depp, the actor who while is painted by some (fangirls) as a handsome front man, actually can and has acted well and in all seriousness (fangirls aside) he pulls it off here. Playing a real life person is always tricky, more so if that person has historical visual and audio recordings, but its safe to say that Depp has adjusted his voice accordingly to the character and setting, being well mannered but cocky and a hard ball at times, with the ability to show emotion where its needed, and since its a Mann film its usually when someone has been shot dead. His other cronies are more two dimensional but interesting enough characters in their own right. For example there’s John (again?) “Red” Hamilton, a loyal co-robber and all round hard man, a long with Baby Face Nelson who to put it bluntly is a psychopath who would shot a fleeing civilian just because he not shooting at anything else and thus also making him the screw up! In the case of Billie Frechette on the other hand, you’d think the love interest would be tacked on but no, its kept in moderation and you can feel sympathy for this woman to an extent, particularly towards the end, but is sadly less memorable than the rest of the cast. In terms of shoot outs, well there’s not much to say, they’re hard to screw up in a mainstream film by an established director in the field. While there’s a good ratio of action and drama, one instance in the first half however seems dragged out. While not a total complaint, it breaks flow and fragments what can be a complex plot line if you as such as miss three minutes.

Now on to Christian Bale... He’s become a fickle actor to me since the films that put him on the map, like American Psycho being the best example for this one, but now I’m starting to think he’s coming down with “Nicholas Cage Syndrome”. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, like Nicholas Cage once was, Bale seems to be appearing in an awful lot of films recently (more so if you watch the independent), Terminator Salvation only being roughly a mouth old, if even that. As a result, he’s become so established its hard to dive into the story if you can only see Bale and not the character he’s playing. Someone like Depp on the other hand, as well known as he is at least there’s space between his roles. But even if you haven’t seen those other Bale films, there’s another issue I have. Now I know its good for films to avoid being so black and white in characterization but when everyone is getting shot on a regular basis, who’s side am I supposed to be on? While there’s the obvious fact Dillinger and co are bank robbers, the law is not particularly within the law itself at times, with blackmail and beating women coming into an equation at one point. For me this adds realism and no doubt prevents it becoming a cliche case of cops and robbers but being objective about it, bleak could be another description for certain people... although in my view those are the people who shouldn’t be watching this sort of film, Johnny Depp or not...

Public Enemies is one of the better Michael Mann films and stands on its own in the midst of a summer blockbuster onslaught, with the setting providing its unique selling point. If you came expecting a series of violent shoot outs, you won’t be disappointed. If you came for the thrilling plot, you won’t be disappointed. And if you came for Johnny Depp, you won’t be disappointed...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Film Review: Brüno

Those familiar with the work of Sacha Baron Cohen are also familiar with his three alter-ego stereotypes; Ali G (black-rapper wannabe moron), Borat Sagdiyev (ignorant racist foreigner) and in this highlighted instance, Bruno (flamboyant perverted homosexual). Now all of them off the bat come off as horrible characters bent on shocking and offending... and I wouldn’t have it any other way! While Ali G Indahouse was a conventional comedy flick, Borat’s big screen outing on the other hand was a unique laugh a second mockumentary that surprised even the most high brow of critics, so naturally a Bruno incarnation would be an equal affair of offensive comedy material in real life situations?Well, there’s good news and bad news in the case of Bruno.

The GOOD news is all the in your face comedy and taboo shock value from Borat is retained, only in a different style of character. After a brief (and camp) opening sequence, the flamboyant Austrian fashion (I want to say) critic flaunts his overly out of this world fashion show and his life with his, as he puts “pigmy” lover, a long with a anal sex scene best described as the ZZ Top spinning guitar trick. After crashing a cat walk, his show is cancelled, pigmy gone rogue with Bruno going off to make it big in America. Already you’ll notice the same plot line as Borat but this time his follower is a rather timid assistant Lutz. Despite the similar set up to Borat, its the only, if not the best way to get the unsuspecting public and celebrities pranked in a variety of situations.

And boy there are a good few. If you weren’t put off by the unconventional anal sex in the introduction then what about a real penis flailing around to the beat of techno before light CGI makes the top shout? And I saw this on a cinema sized screen... you could actually feel the mental reactions of the surrounding audience, but of course no one could look away (even the jock guys at the back) because its almost a surreal moment considering this has got to be a first for mainstream cinema, and this is just one scene. Clearly the intention of the film (besides comedy of course) was to take those with any hang ups over homosexuality and hammer the subject matter into their eye-sockets. Without ruining anything to those who have yet to see it, lets just say the ending achieves this in an excellent (if boarder-line suicidal) gay statement leaving a previously overly aggressive testosterone induced southern American in tears.

Other great examples of vintage Sacha’s real life humor include an inappropriate pass at Ron Paul (funny even if you don’t know who that is), a “bitch-fest” with a drill instructor, adopting and parading a African baby in front of a full African-American audience and causing silence and tension with a trio of hunters.

The BAD news is, the majority of the sketches are randomly placed. While Borat went across America under the guise of reporting US topics. In Bruno however, he jumps from point A to B so fast its hard to tell at times where he is and thus who he’s making fun of, which somewhat hinders the illusion of its being a documentary. Secondly the jokes are too far apart, most delivering punch line humor with a large build up while Borat injected humor into even the most mundane of sentences. And of course there’s the simple truth of the subject matter... Now of course many will say they have no problem or nothing against homosexuals but when push comes to shove many of the “in your face” jokes will cause a cringe more than a laugh for some people, the problem being its just hard to tell who they will be. Arguable the humor is so gay it could turn a gay man into a homophobe at times but then of course you remember its just a joke on stereotypes (so forget about it).

Bruno is a solid effort and worthy follow up to Borat, but in all honesty Bruno is far from the superior film. Borat was more original for its time while Bruno has many recycled elements. But of course I don’t want to put down the film, it achieved what is was out to do, causes laughs in inappropriate situations and sticking a giant middle finger up to the nay sayers. Its offensive and cringe worthy but then again thats the whole bloody point and the reason you came to see it in the first place!