Monday, August 30, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 68 of 100

Pop quiz: how many high school comedies are (a) not shit, and (b) genuinely funny?

Personally, I’m counting three: ‘Heathers’, ‘Mean Girls’ (la Lohan in excelsis) and today’s offering, ‘Superbad’. Perhaps the best title thus far from the so-called “Apatow train” – and, ironically, the one Judd Apatow had least to do with (producer duties only, no hand in the script or direction) – this lewd and lowbrow opus is well-written, perfectly played and funny as fuck.

The set-up is as basic as can be and hardly needs rehashing, but for the benefit of the uninitiated: best friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are about to graduate and go to different colleges and neither are any close to scoring with their respective crushes Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Marsha MacIsaac). However, two events coincide – their mutual friend and wannabe bad boy Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) gets a fake ID and Jules throws a party but needs someone to score booze for the guests – setting Seth and Evan off on a series of misadventures and landing Fogell in the company of two off-the-rails cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader).

Scripted by Rogen and Evan Goldberg and directed by Greg Mottola, ‘Superbad’ starts as it means to go on with Seth engaging Evan in an intellectual conversation regarding the best value porn site to subscribe to. Seth favours ‘the Vagtastic Voyage’ while Evan warns that with parental scrutiny of the bill, a more innocuously named site would be safer (“How about ‘Perfect 10’ – that could be a bowling site”) before opining that he finds pornography bargain basement and devoid of production values. “Well, I’m sorry that the Coen Brothers don’t direct the kind of porn I watch,” Seth snaps back, “but they’re kind of in demand.”

Ypu, this is the kind of movie we’re talking about.

I mentioned that ‘Superbad’ is lewd. Throw in rude and crude just to round it off. Twenty minutes in, Seth is regaling Evan (and us, the audience) with the tale of his pre-pubescent humiliation. Said faux pas involves the obsessive doodling of the male member, the secretive doing so during in class, the stashing of said artworks in a ‘Ghostbusters’ lunchbox and the discovery of his little pastime “just I was a finishing up a big veiny triumphant bastard”. Material of this is ilk is not big and not clever. It is, however, funny as a canister full of laughing gas.

Still, Mottola exerts enough control over the material, though, that he never lets things descend into ‘Porky’s’ style vulgarity. The characters are human. The situations are played for comedy in an organic and unforced manner; even the more slapstick elements never feel forced or overplayed. By the end, he even manages to find a human centre to the characters, never mind their potty-mouths and obsession with sex.

Notwithstanding that I err towards some recently expressed views on Acidemic as regards Michael Cera, I find him less annoying here than in other movies. That he’s part of an ensemble cast, the comedic high points and iconic moments generously partitioned out between them, helps. Jonah Hill achieves a Cartman-like level of foul-mouthed grotesquerie in the early scenes, but unlike Cartman there’s a barely-concealed vulnerability in evidence. Rogen and Hader make one of the best double acts in recent film history as the cops who virtually adopt Fogell … or, as they know him from his patently fake ID, McLovin (“We just cockblocked McLovin” is surely destined to live as one of the all time great lines). Mintz-Plasse as Fogell/McLovin plays a one-note character, but plays that note with such virtuosity the effect is magnificent. MacIsaac gamely pulls off the one scene that truly pile-drives into comedy-of-embarrassment territory, and Emma Stone plays the straight guy (uh, gal) with immense likeability and impeccable timing.

At the risk of incurring Mrs Agitation’s wrath, I have a bit of a cinematic crush on Emma Stone.

Ahem. Moving on …

‘Superbad’ does nothing new narratively, but it hits all of its marks in fine style and navigates a tightrope between non-PC mind-in-the-gutter ballsy humour and good-natured feelgood entertainment with such carefree aplomb that it’s impossible not to get swept along. Here’s to booze, chicks, pictures of dicks and the dude McLovin!

The Edge of Love

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 67 of 100

Whether John Maybury’s Dylan Thomas biopic ‘The Edge of Love’ even counts as a biopic in the traditional sense is something I’ll leave for discussion elsewhere. Focusing on Thomas (Matthew Rhys)’s life for just a short period of time during the war years, it backgrounds the famous poet and drinker quite considerably in favour of documenting the unlikely friendship that develops – and is ultimately compromised – between his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his old flame Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley).

It’s probably a blessing in disguise that Thomas’s part in the proceedings is less than central to the film since the fourth-billed Rhys turns in an indifferent performance that reduces the larger than life and unapologetically iconoclastic Thomas to some bastard hybrid of moist-eyed lapdog and naughty schoolboy.

What starts as a romantic triangle between Thomas, Caitlin and Vera becomes a rectangle with the entrance of Captain William Killick (Cillian Murphy), who becomes involved with Vera and is perforce drawn into Thomas’s orbit despite the immense differences between the two men. Murphy is as fine as ever, but his character is just as backgrounded as Thomas … at least until the based-on-fact but still cringeingly melodramatic finale in which, enraged by the taunts of Thomas and his arsey-versy intellectual friends, Killick sets out with a submachine and a grenade to teach them the reality of war.

The transition is jarringly abrupt: all of this after an hour and a half of prestigious, talky, worthy-but-dull filmmaking, wherein Knightley grimaces her way through an attempt at ’40s mannerisms (it says something that the usually bland Miller gives the film’s best performance), Maybury directs with an eye on self-consciously arty mise-en-scene and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman bathes everything in sepia to the point where ‘The Edge of Love’ comes across less as a movie than something preserved in aspic.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: Virginia Madsen in The Hot Spot

PERSONAL FAVES: Monty Python's Life of Brian

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 66 of 100

‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ is not blasphemous.

Okay. Wait a minute. Extinguish those burning torches. Lay down the pitchforks. Dissemble that large wooden cross and desist from waving that hammer and bag of six-inch nails around so threateningly.

It isn’t.

‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ takes the piss out of a lot of things.

It takes the piss out of committees and petty minded bureaucracy. Take the Judean Peoples’ Front (“Judean Peoples’ Front? Fuck off! Peoples’ Front of Judea”) … oh, do beg your pardon … the Peoples’ Front of Judea. What is it that makes the “what have the Romans ever done for us?” scene so funny? The fact that it’s so excruciatingly true to life. I’ve had the misfortune to sit on a couple of committees and it’s been my experience that committees, instead of pulling resources and ideas together and focusing on a particular plan of action and accomplishing a common goal, actually squander resources, deflate ideas, lose focus and accomplish very little in the final analysis. The Python boys understand this and the scene nails it.

It takes the piss out of authority, governing bodies and the legal system. Take the stoning scene; it’s the best example of petty rules and mob stupidity you could ever put onscreen without hauling in Ken Loach to direct two hours of miserablism.

It takes the piss out of pedantry and the pointlessness of an education system characterised by parrot-fashion learning by rote. Take the scene where Brian (Graham Chapman) is caught graffiti-ing a wall by a legionnaire (John Cleese). He incurs the legionnaire’s wrath not for his act of vandalism or the anti-establishment sloganeering, but for his bad grammar. His punishment? Write out the correct sentence ad infinitum. The punchline is the one of the most priceless visual jokes in the whole film.

It takes the piss out of speech impediments (“Fwee Woderwick!”).

It takes the piss out of the hard of hearing (“What did he say? Blessed are the cheesemakers?”).

It takes the piss out small-minded parochialism and the you’ve-never-had-it-so-good post-war British mindset:

Beggar: Half a shekel for an old ex-leper?
Brian: Did you say "ex-leper"?
Beggar: That's right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Beggar: Oh, cured, sir.
Brian: Cured?
Beggar: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Beggar: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! "You're cured, mate." Bloody do-gooder.

It uses the old “wrong man” set-up to generate most of its humour. Brian isn’t Christ (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”), he’s just mistaken for Him.

‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ is chock full of schoolboy humour (educated schoolboy humour, but schoolboy humour nonetheless). Every clever, subtle or sophisticated moment is offset by something profane or lowbrow. It’s gleefully politically incorrect and funny as hell.

But blasphemous? Nah!

Sorry; what was that? The crucifixion scene? ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’?




The Aviator

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 65 of 100

While there is plenty to love about ‘Gangs of New York’ – the vast sets, the awesome opening sequence, Daniel Day Lewis in excelsis – it suffers from Leonardo di Caprio’s central performance. I still identified him back then as the floppy-haired romantic lead (albeit with a handful of interesting indie turns in his filmography) whose poster was di rigueur on the walls of teenage girls the world over. In ‘Gangs of New York’, he didn’t have the physicality, didn’t have the threat. His was a role that the younger de Niro would have torn into. For that reason, ‘Gangs’ never quite achieved what I wanted it to – the status of late-period Scorsese masterpiece that I’d been waiting for over a decade.

When ‘The Aviator’ was released, I approached it warily. It was an inherited project – Scorsese had only intended to produce, with Michael Mann calling the shots; Mann, however, decided he didn’t want to make another biopic so soon after ‘Ali’ and Scorsese took the helm – and it reunited the director with di Caprio. I was blown away. Sure, there are some minor quibbles (it’s slightly overlong, the CGI during the flight of the “Spruce Goose” is a bit wobbly), but ‘The Aviator’ has energy, visual opulence and a to-die-for cast pulling out all the stops.

Di Caprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes completely sold me on him as an actor and he just seems to have gone from strength to strength since. Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Katherine Hepburn (I love the way Scorsese shapes some of her scenes, such as the banter on the golf course or the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue around the dinner table, as homages to Hepburn’s own movies), while Kate Beckinsale pulls off a sexy, sultry, don’t-mess-with-me approximation of Ava Gardner. Rounding out the cast are such luminaries as John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Frances Conroy and always excellent Ian Holm, one of my personal favourite actors. There’s even a cameo from No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow – she doesn’t do much, but she nails Harlow’s look perfectly.

Scorsese handles the long running time (a shade over two and three quarter hours) masterfully, structuring the first third as an exhilarating immersion into the world of Hughes’ key obsessions – aircraft, movies, women – and seducing the audience with his charisma and playboy lifestyle. This stage of the movie contains most of the spectacular flying sequences, culminating in the mechanical failure and devastating crash of a test plane that Hughes insists on piloting himself. The middle stretch is heralded by aftermath of the crash. Things go wrong for Hughes: he loses Hepburn; his relationship with Gardner turns into a miasma of jealousy and suspicion; senate hearings coincide with his deteriorating mental state and increasingly obsessive and reclusive behaviour. The final third charts Hughes’s hermit-like withdrawal from the world; his phobia of dirt, germs and human contact. Things are almost redeemed when he emerges to pilot the “Spruce Goose”, his most ambitious undertaking in the field of avionics, but history is waiting to write it up as a magnificent folly.

‘The Aviator’ is full-tilt filmmaking, often flamboyant and indulgent, but also intuitively attuned to character moments and not afraid to follow its subject into his darkest times. Scorsese eschews the mannered, plodding, heavily expository approach that typifies many biopics. He maintains focus and a linear through-line without ever sacrificing narrative drive, pacing or the audience’s attention span. If all biopics were this good, I probably wouldn’t be so reticent about the genre.

Visual Poetry: 800 Bullets

Saturday, August 28, 2010

800 Bullets

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 64 of 100

Carlos (Luis Castro) is a young boy whose businesswoman mother Laura (Carmen Maura) is more interested in lining up a deal for a theme park with an American conglomerate than spending any time with her son. Carlos’s father, a stuntman, died in an accident, the circumstances behind which Laura refuses to talk about, years before. When Carlos’s paternal grandmother tells him that her estranged husband Julian (Sancho Gracia) still works as a stuntman in Almeria, Carlos’s imagination is piqued.

On the pretext of attending a ski-ing holiday with school, Carlos (armed with his mother’s credit card) sets out to Almeria to find his grandfather – a man, he is told, who once worked with Clint Eastwood, George C. Scott and Raquel Welch. He fetches up at “Texas Hollywood” expecting it to be a still thriving film studio. What he finds instead is a crumbling wild west theme park at which Julian leads a ragtag group of wannabes, has-beens and never-were’s through their paces putting on shows for ever smaller groups of tourists.

Seeing beyond the shabbiness and Julian’s sometimes-friendly-sometimes-not rivalry with Cheyene (Angel de Anges) – as well as their shared disaffection with theme park owner and local mayor Don Mariano (Ramon Berea) – Carlos’s eyes are opened by their free-living, hard-drinking, rabble-rousing lifestyle. Bar room brawls? Check. Whoring? Check. Bad behaviour? Check. A huge raised middle finger to social norms and authority figures? Check check checkity check!

Naturally, when Laura finds him gone – and figures out very quickly when he’s ended up – the shit hits the fan. Not content with interrupting Julian’s wild west show and publically tearing him a new arsehole in front of the biggest crowd he’s played to in years, she responds to her business partner Scott (Eusebio Poncela)’s news that the theme park deal could be scuppered because the proposed site is off the market, by targeting Texas Hollywood. Suddenly out of work, enraged at Laura’s pettiness and facing his own guilt over his son’s death, Julian trades in his blanks for the 800 bullets of the title and takes the law into his own hands.

Alex de la Iglesia’s contemporary western is one of the most playful works in his filmography. It’s not quite as slapstick as ‘Accion Mutante’, but it has a wistful sense of nostalgia and a shabbily good-natured humanity which that film lacks. It’s also cynical and racy enough that the proceedings never get bogged down with sentiment. Take the scene where the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold Sandra (Yoima Valdes) catches Carlos peeking at a couple making out and decides to, ahem, give him his first lesson … a Hollywood director would have yelled “cut” before the scene had even begun. De la Iglesia, however, delivers a vignette that’s as touching as it is daring, never exploitative but beautifully observed.

‘800 Bullets’ moves effortlessly between perfectly nuanced moments of low-key character-driven drama and all-out comedic set-pieces. Early scenes deal out a melange of western movie clichés with the casual élan of a Mississippi riverboat gambler dealing cards. Later, de la Iglesia has huge fun incorporating these same tropes into a contemporary narrative. Flavio Martinez Labiano’s cinematography is widescreen poetry writ large, while Roque Baños’s soundtrack evokes every spaghetti western you’ve ever seen (the opening credits kick off to a blatantly cheeky steal from Ennio Morricone’s most famous theme).

A serious point threads through the frivolity. De la Iglesia captures a sense of society changing, the old ways becoming redundant and men outliving their times that is reminiscent of Peckinpah. A shot of a digger demolishing the gallows pole that’s one of the theme park’s attractions has a parallel in the earthmover crashing through Junior’s boyhood home in Peckinpah’s ‘Junior Bonner’.
De la Iglesia plays with the imagery and conventions of the western, but it’s plain to see he has a great love and respect for the genre. ‘800 Bullets’ is an exhilarating, often uproariously funny ode to the western in particular and the love of movies in general. Highly and unreservedly recommended.

30 Days of Night

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 63 of 100

On paper, David Slade’s Alaska-set vampire opus has the elements of golden age John Carpenter: a small community beset by supernatural forces (a la ‘The Fog’); a wintery, isolated setting (a la ‘The Thing’); a small group of protagonists pinned down and outnumbered (a la ‘Assault on Precinct 13’). When ’30 Days of Night’ was screened on Film Four last night, I was rubbing my hands in glee at the prospect of an old-school horror movie with the suspense factor ramped up to the max.

And to be fair, the first half hour works well. Slade demonstrates an admirable economy in setting up the locale and introducing his characters: we’ve got Sheriff Eben Olesen (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (the excellent Melissa George), his brother Jake (Mark Rendall), truculent loner Beau Brower (Mark Boone Jnr) and a handful of other townsfolk. A stranger shows up, massacres the huskies, sabotages the helicopter, fucks up phone and internet connectivity and essentially cuts the town off from the outset world.

All this on the last day of sunlight, when the residents are battening down the hatches for 30 days of – … well, the clue’s in the title. Eben arrests the stranger, but it turns out he’s only the vanguard. A bunch of vampires, lead by the ruthless Marlow (Danny Huston), hit town as soon as the darkness descends. Most of the populace are massacred (and drained of the old plasma) in short order, leaving a – yup! – small group of mismatched survivors under the increasingly strained leadership of Eben to hole up and try to stay alive.

The remainder of the film jumps from day seven to day eighteen to day twenty-seven. Some of the incident in these sequences seems to span two or three days. By my reckoning (although I must confess I gave the film less and less of my attention the longer it limped on), the vampires get their fill of virtually all the townspeople on the first couple of nights, then there are gaps of a week or so before they pick off one or two of the survivors. Which beggars the question: why stick around so long when the pickings are so slim? Moreoever – SPOILER ALERT – when the vampires decide to burn the place to the ground, both to drive out the remaining survivors and to cover their tracks, they do so on the last day of full dark. Why not do so earlier? Surely they’ve got a fair bit of travelling to do before the sun comes up. They did their main feeding the first two nights, why not make a sustained push to drive out the survivors, finish them off, burn the town and get the fuck out of Do— … er, Alaska by the end of the first week? Who knows, maybe there’s another small town cloaked in darkness for a month and they could stop off for desserts before heading back to wherever they came from? (The vampires speak something that sounds like a combination of Serbian, Vulcan and elvish, their horribly portentous dialogue rendered in subtitles.) END SPOILER.

‘30 Days of Night’ has a higher ratio of characters doing stupid fucking things than any horror movie I’ve ever seen. If the vampires don’t seem like the sharpest tools in the box, well they’re practically MENSA material compared to the people. The day seven incident where some old timer decides he wants to go for a walk – despite the fact that there’s a blizzard outside as well as a bunch of hungry fucking vampires – necessitating his son to race out into the street after him yelling “Daaaaaaaaaad!” at the top of his voice until the neck-biters descend on him, had me face-palming in disbelief. Later, Eben and his merry band up sticks from the attic they’ve holed up in and make a dash for the general store. You know, a place that’s full of food, drink, provisions, supplies. Cut to day eighteen. Apparently, there’s been no vampire activity for several days. Judging from how well stocked the shelves are, our heroes still seem to have plenty of victuals on hand. They’re warm, they’re safe, they’ve got twelve days left till the sun comes up and the bloodsuckers vamoose. So what does Eben decide? “We can’t stay here. We have to move.” No word of explanation, no murmur of protest. Seriously, not one of these goobers raises a hand and says, “Er, excuse me, pretty boy sheriff dude. One question: fucking why?” No, they just get behind numbnuts with the badge and gun and blithely risk life and limb as they make a pointless dash to another location.

I could go on. I could talk about the massive discrepancy in how long it takes a bitten human to turn. (It seems to be anywhere between seconds and entire freakin’ days.) I could bemoan the relentless seriousness of it all and the lack of emotional engagement with most of the characters (only Stella comes across as remotely empathetic and that’s mainly due to Melissa George’s performance). I could point out the misogyny: vampires can apparently feed off a male victim quickly and efficiently; to a man who’s just tried to kill them, they can administer the coup de grace swiftly; but when they’ve got a woman at their mercy, they slap her around for a while before breaking out the fangs. What the fuck, nosferatu dudes, isn’t it enough just to kill your victims?

I could go on, but I’ve already demolished my remit of sticking to short 500 word posts during this bank holiday weekend splurge of reviewing. Let’s leave it at this: ’30 Days of Night’ had the potential to be great; unfortunately, it just grates.