Archive for May, 2012

Men In Black 3 ***

Why in the world would you go to see Men In Black 3? It makes no sense. You hated Men In Black 2, and the film the franchise sprung from, Men In Black, is now so old your kids think you’re a loser for even knowing about its existence. So why, why in the world, would you go to see Men In Black 3?

There are three answers to this question. The first is simple: you wouldn’t. Fair enough, go have a beer and then see The Woman in Black. Problem solved.

The second is more complicated: you’d see it because you saw the first two and feel the need for closure. Bizarelly, this is the correct answer.

The third is, because it’s there. It works okay on that level too.

Men In Black 3 is way quirkier than your run-of-the-mill quarter of a million dollar movie. Director Barry Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer on Misery, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona and Blood Simple – amongst many other major cinematic achievements – and there is no doubt he has a signature, comedic camera style that works for his material. Favouring a fish-eyed lens, close-up style, he punches Will Smith’s expressive face into our laps – and I chose to see the 2D version (the film is also offered in 3D and, I suspect, it might do well in that format).

The plot – which supposedly involved horrendous script problems during pre-production and production – lets Tommy Lee Jones work as few days as possible, by contriving a storyline that sends Will Smith back to 1969 to confront Jones’ character “K” as a younger man – played not by Jones but by Josh Brolin, playing Tommy Lee Jones as a 29 year old. This is all sorts of fun, and it is all sorts of fun. In fact, along with Rick Baker’s once-again wonderful, idiosyncratic, extremely funny alien creations (one of the conceits of the franchise being that there are all manner of aliens living amongst us, doing everyday jobs and employing everyday habits), it’s Josh Brolin doing a forty-year-old’s-29-year-old-Tommy Lee Jones that makes the film as nutso, and fun, as it is. (The movie actually playfully acknowledges the fact that Brolin is so obviously not 29 years old with a cheerful “Damn, you’ve got some city miles on you!” from Smith).

Will you laugh out loud, a lot? Probably not. But will you chortle inside? I reckon. The main thing is, will you feel warm towards these characters, who should have long passed their used-by dates? The surprise answer? Absolutely.

Bel Ami *** (out of five)

Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s second novel, published in 1885, Bel Ami is a good film, with some very strong elements, let down rather tremendously by a seriously amiss piece of central casting.

The source material is excellent stuff. Titled Bel Ami, or, The History of a Scoundrel when first published in England in 1903, it’s a thrilling page-turner; the story of a somewhat poor but desperately ambitious clerk living in Paris who essentially sleeps his way to the top of society, it’s got everything: lashings of sex, intrigue, a glamourous milieu, politics, power and corruption, high stakes, and, in Georges Duroy, an irresistibly irredeemable cad of the highest – and by that I mean absolute lowest – order. You can imagine that a young Robert Downey Jr., Heath Ledger or Rupert Everett would have had a field day with the part; Daniel Radcliffe, I reckon, has the chops to have made it sing.

Pity, then, that the responsibility falls to Robert Pattinson, who is astoundingly not up to the task. To my mind, Pattinson, who I have only seen before in Remember Me (I have not seen any of the Twilight franchise) is many moons away from having the skills to carry a film. He misjudges everything. When required to be pleased, he smiles like someone who has been told they’ve won the lottery; when required to be disturbed, he pouts and sulks petulantly; when required to seduce a woman – the central requirement of this role – he leers at them with what almost seems like sneering contempt. Every woman in this film is meant to find Georges irresistible, but that’s hard to believe when he’s always making such ugly faces.

The nature of this material – indeed the “history of a scoundrel” – requires a strong focus on the lead character, and co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod dutifully shoot lots and lots of close-ups of Pattinson, which only compound the problem, as he’s especially unbelievable in close-up. The whole situation isn’t helped either by Pattinson being surrounded by excellent actors who are all in fine form: Uma Thurman (particularly), Kristin Scott Thomas, Colm Meaney, Christina Ricci and Philip Glenister all give intricate, strong performances that are ripe enough for the soapy material. It’s just such a pity they have to share all their scenes with an actor who simply isn’t in their league.

I loved watching the terrific plot unfold; the production design and music are exemplary, and it’s simply a fascinating world to live in for just shy of two hours. Pity that the name that almost certainly got the movie green-lit is the name that shouldn’t be above the title.

The Hardest Job Of All

Posted: May 23, 2012 in movie reviews

Polisse ****

Polisse is French multi-hyphenate Maïwenn’s third feature film as (co)writer, director and featured actress, and it’s her most ambitious, and successful. A slice-of-life look at the working and personal lives of Paris’ Child Protection Unit of the police force, it is deliberately episodic, extremely well acted, and feels properly and respectfully researched. It’s a bold film and it resonates long after it’s over.

Structurally, the film feels almost as though it were a television series that had been cut down into a longish (127 minutes) feature, as the story is composed of about a dozen different episodes, and they pretty much happen sequentially, with little overlap. So we might have our team of polisse dealing with an unrepentant father who essentially admits to molesting his daughter, knowing he’s got friends in high places, followed by an Islamic father who has arranged for his daughter to be married (against her wishes and therefore against French law); we might get closure on these stories, we might not. The film is not out to wrap up each dilemma for these extremely dedicated cops; it’s out to look at what these cops do and the impact it has on them – dealing, as they are, with some of the most distasteful, sad crimes in their community on a daily basis.

This stylistic choice is brave and not always brilliant; by the time we realise that not all of the stories are going to have conclusions, we begin to wonder why we’re getting so many of them: why not have fewer, but play them out? But that’s also why the film feels more real and immediate than television procedural cop dramas: not everything gets tied up in the real lives of the type of cops this film is portraying, or, if it does, it happens over real time, not TV time.

The film feels a little long; it may have needed one or two less stories or at least the more ruthless editing of an extremely long scene in the middle of the film showing the cops letting their hair down: watching people have fun isn’t particularly dramatic, even if those people are the defenders of Paris’ children. The ending is also, perhaps, not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. But more than many films, this is about the people and their chosen, terrifying, deeply troubling profession and how they deal with it, rather than intricacies of plot. It’s got great rawness and great honesty, a big heart and a sense of sincerity. I keep thinking about it.

Maïwenn is an extremely interesting artist. An actress since the age of five, with many television credits, she casts herself in her own films interestingly. Here, she plays a photojournalist assigned to follow the Child Protection Unit over the course of the year. Wanting to fit in, she dresses down, keeping her hair bundled up on her head and wearing fake glasses. When she’s called out on this, she reveals to her accuser, and to us – the audience – her staggering beauty. It’s brave to play the ugly duckling, knowing you have to live up to the beautiful princess part. It’s brave to write and direct a movie that’s about the people who deal with the people who do bad things to (very often their own) children. Polisse is a brave, and excellent, film.

Raw Fish

Posted: May 22, 2012 in movie reviews

Jiro Dreams of Sushi ***1/2

Jiro Ono is essentially considered the greatest living sushi chef on the planet, and this unassuming, very warm documentary takes a close look at the man, his restaurant, his admirers, his methods, and, perhaps most pertinently, his staff, which includes not only apprentices and established Shokunin (sushi chefs) but also his oldest son, Yoshikazu, who will one day take over the business – most likely only when Jiro is dead, for Jiro, 85, has absolutely no plans to retire, ever.

Jiro’s restaurant has three Michelin Hats, ten seats, and a starting price tag for a meal – which consists of twenty pieces of sushi – of $300. There are no appetisers; indeed, there’s no other food than sushi, and there are no choices – Jiro makes you what he can from the best fish available that morning at Tokyo’s famous Fish Market.

Jiro, Yoshikazu and the other characters we meet throughout the film are all warm, polite, and extremely dedicated to their craft, and, given their status as the best in the world, are worthy subjects for a slender documentary. Although mention is made of Jiro’s hardcore training regimen and “bad days”, we never see any side of Jiro other than that of kindly, incredible Grand master, and nothing is said about him by anyone in the film that does not infer anything but the highest respect. That’s okay, though; you’re not looking for conflict in a movie like this; you’re looking for a portrait of an artist and the depiction of an art, and we get all that in spades.

Director David Gelb, wielding his own camera (he’d have to – Jiro’s restaurant really is tiny!) takes us deep into the Fish Market, including some fascinating scenes of the fish vendors choosing their fish in the very early mornings and bidding for them at auction. We also follow Jiro on a little trip to see some old friends. For the most part, however, we’re in Jiro’s little restaurant, watching the sushi get prepared, finessed, and served. It’s not high action, but it’s loving, and you’ll want some – very good – sushi afterwards.

I found the film just nourishing enough for its slim 81 minutes. It’s an interesting exploration of a particular aspect of Japanese culture, which is fathers and sons working together. It’s a very likeable film, and sometimes, that’s enough. If you’re a Japanophile or a sushi nut, you’ll likely be in heaven.

The Dictator **1/2

It’s extremely disappointing to me that The Dictator is so strained. Sacha Baron Cohen is – with no doubt, no doubt at all – a brilliant, brilliant comedian, but something has happened; something has turned. His series Ali G and his films Borat and Bruno – all brilliant – have led, almost incredibly, to a flaccid, weak comedy that could have skewered the current state of international relations… but doesn’t. At all. The tone of The Dictator is less Network and more American Pie. And that, frankly, bites.

As an obvious attempt to join the ranks of The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s incredibly precise satire of Adolf Hitler, The Dictator fails on all counts. As a cheap-looking/feeling jokeathon, it mildly succeeds. I laughed out loud about eight or nine times, which is a strong stat, and some of those were very healthy laughs indeed. But boy, when this movie plants a dud joke, the embarrassment is felt all over the theatre like a bad smell (and this movie thinks bad smells are veeerrry funny indeed).

It starts extremely well, with a series of gags about the early life of Middle Eastern dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) that are smart and actually satirical, setting up the expectation that political satire is going to pervade the whole movie. And, indeed, as long as the movie remains in the fictional nation of the Republic of Wadiya – think Iraq under Hussein, pre-war – it’s pretty damn funny. A lot of Hussein-isms – the use of political doubles to foil assassination attempts, the development of a nuclear program, and an intense hatred of Israel – get skewered mercilessly and somewhat bravely. But by the end of the first act, the film jumps its own shark by contriving to get Aladeen not only over to the United States but to become unrecognised and lost in Brooklyn, and, from here on in, with some exceptional moments, the thing becomes one very laboured fish-out-of-water tale that throws jokes at the audience with a hit rate of about one in six.

This part of the movie – which is two-thirds of the movie – really does induce some cringes, and not of the good, The Office variety (or should I say, the Borat and Bruno variety). The substantially attended cinema audience I was a part of sat silently through many of the attempts at gags, and that silence was loud: everyone, you could feel, was aware that a lazy, unfunny joke had just been launched, surely at the expense of a better joke that could have existed, had the movie been willing to be smarter.

In support of Cohen, Jason Mantzoukas – an actor I know from television’s The League and the podcast How Did This Get Made, and whose career up until now has been confined to guest roles on television, web series and short films makes the greatest impact as Nadal, Wadiya’s chief nuclear physicist who becomes Aladeen’s unlikely alley in America. Anna Faris, a comedic actress of great ability, unfortunately seems hamstrung by her role as the owner of an organic produce store in Brooklyn – and Aladeen’s equally unlikely love interest. It’s a clichéd, obviously written role (wow, she doesn’t shave her armpits!), and I daresay Faris found it hard to make anything much out of it, especially against Cohen, who, I understand, is allowed free rein to improvise his scenes in any direction he chooses by director Larry Charles, while Faris seems to be lumbered with the script as written (resulting in some extremely disjointed cuts in their scenes together). The whole love story shackles the movie, forcing it to ultimately and ruinously fit into the strict confines of the rom-com genre, whereas Cohen has always been at his best, like any rubber chicken, when allowed to be free range.

Dark Shadows ** (out of five)

Tim Burton is not my favourite filmmaker. I liked Ed Wood but the rest have always left me feeling empty (and often bored). I find them all to have the same flaw: they feel like a bunch of scenes stuck together rather than real movies with a desire to carry the audience away with a story. The plotting, pacing, structure, arc – the storytelling – it all seems off. And I’m afraid Dark Shadows falls firmly into line.

It begins well. A prologue, set in Liverpool two hundred years ago, is exciting, and beautiful, and intriguing. I was into it. I was hoping that finally Burton was going to deliver a coherent narrative.

My hopes were dashed. The longer the movie plays, the more disjointed, episodic, and incoherent it becomes. It has no idea what it is. It’s certainly not a comedy (the audience I was with laughed once); it’s definitely not scary, it’s not an action film. There is a romantic plot but it is so often left at the sidelines that there’s no way you could call it a romantic drama. It’s an oddity, a weird, misshapen lump of a film that almost refuses to choose a tone.

Perhaps, in its way, it has pitched a perfect game – for it is based on an oddity, the cultish soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966 to 1971, accumulating 1,225 episodes, and growing increasingly bizarre, and increasingly based in the supernatural, over time. That television show is now hailed as a “cult, camp classic” and “camp” is probably the best, and perhaps only, word to describe this film version. But works of art become “camp” over time, through fandom and the changing tastes of different eras; when you set out to make camp, you can end up simply making a film full of hammy acting, and Dark Shadows the movie is full of hammy acting. Johnny Depp, playing a role – Barnabas Collins the two-hundred year old vampire – that he has supposedly wanted to play for decades, makes the absolutely terminal choice of giving Barnabas what must be the slowest speech pattern in the history of cinema. This is the kind of choice that you can’t suddenly fix during shooting, and – since Depp is the central character of the film – it slows the whole thing down to a very long hour and fifty three minutes. In one scene with Michelle Pfeiffer, she seems to slow down to match him, and it feels interminable.

The design, as always for a Burton film, is stunning, and all of the performers are lovingly photographed (Bruno Delbonnel), including Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, and a fun Chloë Grace Moretz. But the script and editing are woeful. Burton and Depp’s previous collaboration, Alice in Wonderland, made a billion dollars, and, obviously, he was allowed to do what he wanted here; he must have been, because no studio executive in their right mind would have let this script be filmed without a fight, nor let this cut of the finished product stand. Burton must have final cut, and he’s probably a filmmaker who would be better off if he didn’t.

Soap operas are designed to run and run. They don’t have endings in mind because they don’t want to end. They hurl events into the mix simply to keep the engine running. Films, by contrast, tell a specific story. Basing a film on the improvised, ever-changing, loose anti-structure of an entire soap opera is ludicrous – unless you’re Tim Burton, whose tastes run to the strange, and against mine.

All Grown Up

Posted: May 15, 2012 in movie reviews

The Woman In Black ***1/2 (out of five)

Daniel Radcliffe – a man whose good fortune surpasses yours and mine – has made a wise choice in picking The Woman In Black as his first major post-Potter starring vehicle. This stylish, old-fashioned, creepy and expertly crafted thriller fits him like a glove. Wearing his high-collared white shirt, tie, vest and long black coat very naturally, Radcliffe looks very much in place in the 1910s, the era in which this solidly entertaining mixture of ghost story and haunted house spooker is set.

I had a misspent celluloid youth and definitely discovered some hardcore horror movies too young – An American Werewolf In London, at age ten and in the cinema, was a mistake  – but this would be the perfect “intro” horror film for a twelve year old. It’s definitely creepy, occasionally scary, and has a few good jolts as well. The story’s themes are suitably adult for all to enjoy but not too intense for a young one (unlike, say, Rosemary’s Baby – kids shouldn’t really deal with devil-rape).

Radcliffe plays a young lawyer who has a mission to finalise details, paperwork and other outstanding issues in order to facilitate the sale of an abandoned old house in the northern marshes. Suffice to say, the house is haunted. Things get spooky.

Director James Watkins is, thus far, a genre filmmaker, specialising in horror. His first film as director, Eden Lake, and his most influential as a writer, My Little Eye, are both much edgier – and scarier – than this one. I suspect he was working within some set of limits. Radcliffe carries with him an unbelievably large fan base, of whom the aggregate could be supposed to be girls in their late teens and early twenties, who have grown up with him at Hogwarts, and do not want to see the kind of extreme horror that Watkins might have liked to serve up. Nevertheless, he still manages to get in a lot of chilly atmosphere, particularly involving spooky kids. Why are little girls, if cast and filmed right, the creepiest trope in cinema?

I had a great time watching The Woman in Black. It is magnificently photographed (by Tim Maurice-Jones) and, unusually for a horror film, it boasts really terrific supporting performances in the form of Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer, who is an actress capable of pretty much anything. I felt a little like a kid again – perhaps because the last time I read novels that were of this variety was when I was a kid. It’s a good clean, very British romp – the kind of horror movie you could take your mum to. As long as you’re not hoping to be scared to death, you’ll have a great time, too.

I wasn’t a Potter fan, but I’m now a Radcliffe fan. Let’s hope he keeps his choices real; I really don’t want to see him in a buddy cop flick with Bruce Willis. The Woman In Black is right in his wheelhouse.