Friday, June 27, 2008

Unbreakable: the love in continues ...

Damn near 1,000 words on 'Unbreakable' last night and I didn't even mention the look of the film, the extended takes or the performances.

Quickly, then, before I descend into the purple realms of sycophantic fan-boy prose:

1) The look of the film. Eduardo Serra's cinematography: autumnal; richly evocative of the characters' doubts and their loneliness; dark when it needs to be, but without tipping entirely into gothicism.

2) The extended takes. Further proof that Shyamalan has no interest in MTV-style cutting or show-offery. The man gives his actors space to work and the opportunity to realise the full potential of their performances. His commitment to extended takes, in 'Unbreakable' more than anywhere else, is comparable to Tarkovsky.

3) The performances:

(i) Bruce Willis builds on his introspective, controlled turn in 'The Sixth Sense' to deliver what is arguably a career best; restrained and disciplined.

(ii) Samuel L. Jackson is simply peerless. In a filmography stuffed with iconic moments (from "I don't recall asking you a goddamned thing" to "AK-47, when you absolutely positively gotta kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitute" to something about some motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he achieves his apotheosis in 'Unbreakable'.

The scene in question introduces us to Elijah. He's about to sell an incredibly rare drawing, pre-dating the first issue of the comic book the character debuted in, to a yuppie positively dripping with cash. "Jeb's gonna love this," the yuppie enthuses.

"Jeb?" Elijah repeats, an icy tone creeping into his voice. "Is this a child we're talking about?"

The yuppie affirms that, yes, the aforesaid Jeb is his young son.

Elijah rounds on him. "Do you see any Teletubbies in here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name printed on it? Did you see a little Asian child with a blank expression on his face sitting outside on a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put a quarter in it? No? Well, that's what you see at a toy store. And you must think you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb."

Samuel L. Jackson hobbling around on a cane, his bones in danger of fracture if he starches his shirts too much, and he's still being a badass, voice dripping with contempt.

And doing so without using the word 'motherfucker'.


Thursday, June 26, 2008


Okay. I'm just going to come right out and say this:

In my humble opinion, 'Unbreakable' is M. Night Shyamalan's best film. If I wanted to be cynical, I could add that there's probably not that much competition, since 'Signs' didn't quite deliver and 'The Village' signalled a certain transition in terms of audience anticipation. You know: the moment it went from "wow, it's a new M. Night Shyamalan film, I must get me to a cinema" to "it's a new M. Night Shyamalan film, hope it's better than the last one".

But such things are easy to say in retrospect. Coming, as 'Unbreakable' did, just a year after 'The Sixth Sense', it was hard not to think of Shyamalan as the next big thing in American cinema.

If 'The Sixth Sense' was a slow-burn, character-driven, thoughtfully-directed piece of old-school film-making, then 'Unbreakable' was all of these things and more. Chief amongst its achievements is this: it stands as a weighty, intelligent, meticulously thought-out piece of work ... on the foundations of, frankly, Shyamalan's most far-fetched plot.

Now just hold it right there, buddy, I hear you cry. Surely nothing surpasses 'Lady in the Water' in terms of the just plain bonkers. Perhaps not, but 'Unbreakable' - if only in terms of narrative concept - certainly equals it. Think about it: 'Lady in the Water' is about a depressed janitor who discovers that a fairytale has come to life in the swimming pool of a residential apartment block; 'Unbreakable' is about a depressed security guard who discovers that he's actually a comic book hero.

The suspension of disbelief is just as great in either film; the difference is the way Shyamalan approaches it. 'Lady in the Water' acknowledges from the outset that a suspension of disbelief is de rigueur; it presents its story in bold strokes and primary colours; reminds us with every scene that, hey, this is just a fairy tale.

'Unbreakable' goes about things very differently. It takes as its main character a regular guy with regular problems. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard at a football stadium, every game he patrols a reminder of the promising career he had as a sportsman in his youth prior to the car accident that consigned him forever to the humdrum existence of a troubled marriage and an awkward relationship with his son. He's introduced on a train, heading back from a job interview; the first pro-active thing he does in the entire film is surreptitiously slip off his wedding ring as an attractive woman settles into the seat next to him.

Minutes later, David experiences a moment of clarity: he senses something, knows that his life is about to change. The next we see of him, he's in hospital, a doctor bemused that not only is he the only survivor of rail accident, but he hasn't sustained even the mildest injury. His wife and son arrive at the hospital and he leaves with them before the conversation can continue.

Later, leaving a remembrance service for the victims of the crash, David finds a note under the wiper of his car asking him how many days in his life he's been ill? He raises the query at work; his boss begrudgingly offers him a rise ("clever way of asking for it"). Perplexed, he asks his wife if she's ever known him to suffer even a cold or a sore throat? Apart from two near-death experiences - one in a swimming pool as a child, the other the car accident - nothing has ever affected him, up to and including the train wreck.

The note leads David to Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), owner of an art shop called Limited Edition, so named for a limited edition comic book his mother gave him as a child ("they say this one has a surprise ending") as a sop to the illness that keeps him from the company of other children. Elijah has incredibly brittle bones; the smallest slip or tumble results in multiple fractures. The kids, as he reiterates momentuously at the end of the film, call him Mr Glass.

Elijah is almost a dark prophet; he chisels away at David's ennui, his surrender to a stagnant life. He asks questions that, finally, David cannot ignore or get around. His son believes Elijah from the outset and becomes dangerously convinced that David has superhuman powers. This leads to two standout scenes - one involving an exercise bench, the other a loaded gun - that are as squirmily tense as they are dramatically compelling.

Finally, David accepts who he is, and acts on it, but there is one more revelation to come ...

There are those who find the ending abrupt - and it is. But, I think, deliberately so. Shyamalan has said that his script was originally to have followed the traditional comic book three-act: the origin of the superhero, the application of his powers to the betterment of mankind, and his battle with a nemesis; but that the first act became the focus of the movie. Viewed in this light, 85% of 'Unbreakable' deals with the first act, 10% with the second and 5% with the third. Yes, the ending's abrupt, but watched a second or third time (and 'Unbreakable' definitely improves with repeated viewings), the clues are all in place. It was always heading towards that conclusion. Shyamalan's genius is to deny the catharsis of an actual climactic smack-down between superhero and nemesis.

Why? Take your pick: because he's not making a day-glo FX-laden comic book movie; because his protagonist, for all that he takes on the mantle of protector of the innocent, remains a regular guy; because the film is about the asking of questions, particularly that of one's purpose in life, and Shyamalan wants some of those questions to follow you out of the cinema.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Sixth Sense

One of the most pleasurable cinema-going experiences is seeing a film without any prior knowledge of it, not having read a review, seen a trailer or been exposed to a single opinion. You watch with a completely open, unprejudiced mind. You get to discover the film. If it has a startling plot twist or narrative development, or a sucker-punch ending, the effect is that much more powerful.

I saw 'Seven' first time round without knowing anything other than Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman were in it, and with a Sunday afternoon to kill, that was good enough for me. I remember checking out the poster in the cinema's foyer, squinting to read the director's name. David who? I wondered, and went and got my ticket and took my seat.

An ex-colleague told me he watched 'From Dusk Till Dawn' without the slightest inkling that it was going to turn into a vampire movie at the half-way mark. No idea! I wish I could have experienced it like that.

With 'The Sixth Sense', all I knew was that it had paranormal subject matter and there was a twist ending. Even knowing that was knowing too much. As the opening credits rolled, I thought to myself: Right, then, let's see if I can second guess it. Ten minutes later I was thinking to myself -


- Yeah, got it: Brucie's a ghost. And spent the rest of the movie being proved right. And didn't take much away with me when I left the cinema. A friend of mine has a diametrically opposite memory of his first viewing of 'The Sixth Sense': the twist blown by a blabbermouth DJ as he listened to the car radio while driving to the cinema.

Watching 'The Sixth Sense' for maybe only the third time over the weekend, I re-evaluated it and found myself wishing, like my friend, that I'd known the ending from the off. That way I could have saved myself a wasted two hours playing smartarse and being disappointed when the film-makers didn't deliver something beyond my educated guess. I could have appreciated how finely nuanced the performances are and what a generous actor Bruce Willis is in his scenes with Haley Joel Osmont, letting his young co-star set the pace; playing off him. How brilliantly Toni Collette nails the harrassed, nervy single mother, portraying not only her character's stressed brittleness, but her desperate affection for her troubled son. Alongside 'Japanese Story', this represents the finest work she has done onscreen.

I could have appreciated how atmospherically shot it is, Tak Fujimoto's autumnal cinematography setting the tone; Shyamalan's use of colours as clues remaining just the right side of clever-cleverness.

I could have appreciated how restrained and confident the direction is, Shyamalan taking his time establishing character and setting. If there's anything that redeems even his lousiest films (because, oh, the mighty was soon to fall!) it's his commitment to slow, calm, studied pacing. Compared to the frenetic MTV-style of chopping and splicing so beloved of that Satan of contemporary cinema Michael Bay - the venal epitome of a generation of directors who cut their teeth making music videos - Shyamalan's approach to film-making is thoughtful; careful. Old school.

Fortunately, over the weekend, I sat back and appreciated all of these things. And believe me, when I slid the DVD into the player, my thoughts were along the lines of: Right, then, let's see if this is really as good as its adoring aficionados make out. I now find myself thinking that, yes, it is. But not for the reason that most people remember it. The twist ending is the least thing 'The Sixth Sense' has to offer. Watch it for its craftsmanship; for what it says about family, memory and human frailty.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Not Happening

Wow! And I thought I didn't like 'The Happening'.

Lou Kije has started a site, The Not Happening, dedicated to encouraging audiences to walk out of the film, protest its dire shortcomings and petition Rupert Murdoch for their money back.

This is not just shouty prozelytising. Mr Kije writes as a film fan, a man who has watched thousands of movies and has now - for the first time in his life - felt compelled to walk out of a cinema.

His postings are lucid, intelligent and basically take an objectively-wielded scalpel to Shyamalan's movie.

I feel kinship with Mr Kije - I started my first film blog, MovieBuff, after I was so incensed by 'The Village' that I needed a platform to fulminate. Hence this post: visit The Not Happening. Leave a comment if you agree.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do not go gentle into that good Night

Okay, Neil, write out one hundred times: "I did not start this blog to slag off movies."

I did not start this blog to slag off movies.

I did not start this blog to slag off movies.

I did not start this blog to slag off movies.

I did not start this blog to slag off movies.

I did not -

Oh, screw it!

I went to see 'The Happening' this afternoon, and I'm not happy. I'll tell you how unhappy I am. I'm unhappy enough that I almost titled this post 'This Happening's just not happening, dude'. That's how unhappy.

I could easily type up a checklist right now, an enumeration of all the things that don't work about the film - from the appalling dialogue to the wonky acting by way of Tak Fujimoto's curiously lacklustre cinematography - but that would only skim the surface.

What really annoys me is that it could have - should have - been so much better. Here's an example: Zooey Deschanel's leaden line-reading of "Just when you thought there couldn't be any more evil that could be invented" (a howlingly awful sentence) while the camera frames her in a bland, unflattering composition. Let's break these elements down: Deschanel is one of those captivatingly attractive actresses who isn't merely pretty - there's something radiant about her. For a lensman to make her look dowdy takes a special (lack of) talent. Yet Tak Fujimoto is the man who shot 'Something Wild' and 'The Silence of the Lambs'. Bad dialogue notwithstanding, Deschanel's performance throughout is wooden - and yet she's vibrant and sassy in, say, 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'.

And if I've not mentioned the bad dialogue enough already, here's one more go-around: 'The Happening' is indubitably the clunkiest script M. Night Shyamalan has ever written, eclipsing even the breezeblock-like exposition of 'The Village' ("he found one of the suits we kept under the floorboards"). And yet Shyamalan's screenplays for 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Unbreakable' develop their themes with subtlety and sureness of touch.

The people involved in this film have talent. Granted, Shyamalan's career has pretty much defined 'up and down', but for all his tendencies to self-indulgence he is quite obviously an intelligent man; and at his best, a highly capable film-maker. I'm hesitant even to criticise him for self-indulgence. Quentin Tarantino is the very embodiment of directorial self-indulgence and the same critics who are quick to knock Shyamalan are just as eager to laud Tarantino.

Subject of which, an argument can be made for both men delivering their best work with their first two features (if, that is, we discount the little-seen 'Praying With Anger' and 'Wide Awake' (shelved by Miramax for three years) and count 'The Sixth Sense' as Shyamalan's debut).

So, before I take my axe and get to work on 'The Happening', I'm going to revisit M. Night Shyamalan's previous work. Is 'The Sixth Sense' the masterpiece many would have it? Could 'Unbreakable' be his best film to date? Were the first warning signs there in, well, 'Signs'? What's the connection between 'The Village' and my debut as a blogger? Is 'The Lady in the Water' really the disaster everybody has it? Will I find anything positive to say about 'The Happening'?

The Shyamalan-a-thon starts tomorrow.

There will be spoilers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summer of the superhero (1): Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk

Empire magazine has this to say about 'Iron Man':

"[It] is an origin story is more ways than one ... Origin stories are tricky things - they often feel like feature length pilots. And where is it written that comic book franchises need origin stories. Looking just beyond the genre, it didn't hurt Indiana Jones, Connery's James Bond or Captain Jack Sparrow that they arrived on our screens fully formed."

Well. What can you say to that? Nothing really, except to state the obvious:

Indiana Jones is Indiana Jones. James Bond is James Bond. Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow. None of them have alter egos. All superheroes, however, do have alter egos. They have to, otherwise they wouldn't be superheroes. The very point of the superhero is the concept of a secret identity. Therefore Superman is Clark Kent and Superman. Batman is Bruce Wayne and Batman. And for this work, for character motivation to be established, and for the crucial dramatic dynamic between the two halves of their personalities to function, you have to explain why Clark Kent became Superman or Bruce Wayne became Batman*.

Two effortlessly entertaining blockbusters, adding up to four and a half hours of big-screen fun, exploit the dynamic between public persona and iconic alter ego to brilliant effect.

Empire's bone of contention vis-a-vis Jon Favreau's 'Iron Man' - an odd choice of director, but by God he makes the material work! - is, actually, precisely its strong point. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr, following up his storming comeback turn in 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' with another storming turn sure to put him right back in the A-list) is an arms manufacturer: clever, cocksure, terminally irresponsible, Downey plays him like a child revelling in the sheer fun of playing soldiers ... except imagine a child who's grown up to earn unprecedented wealth, drive an Audi R8 and hang out with centrefolds.

Then, in the film's most compelling section, he learns a swift lesson on the nature of responsibility when he's captured by terrorists and forced to build a weapon they can deploy against Stark's best customers (the United States military). Stark responds by creating an armoured (and armour-plated) exoskeleton which also has the capacity for flight, and blasts his way to freedom. Returning to America, he realises that (a) some dodgy corporate dealings within the company have seen arms shipments sold to the selfsame terrorists who imprisoned him; and (b) his ad hoc invention is possibly the greatest weapon he's yet created. Rather than let it become public (or even shareholder) knowledge, he keeps it under wraps ... and re-invents himself as Iron Man.

'Iron Man' isn't quite a straight-up classic of its kind (all its best scenes are in the first half; the climatic smack-down is nothing compared to Stark's escape an hour beforehand), but it works because the script pays attention to who Stark is, who he becomes and why. And because Favreau draws good performances out of quality actors: Downey Jnr owns the role the way Johnny Depp makes Jack Sparrow completely and utterly his own; Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant as Stark's Miss Moneypenny-style PA, 'Pepper' Potts - there's a palpable chemistry in their scenes together; and Jeff Bridges adds a measured amount of gravitas as the Machiavellian Obadiah Stone.

Canny casting is the key, also, to Louis Letterier's 'The Incredible Hulk'. Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner, a scientist seeking a cure to the gamma poisoning that provokes his transformation into something big, green and afflicted by serious anger management issues every time something gets his goat. Genius casting! Edward Norton has always excelled at playing schizophrenic characters. Remember 'Primal Fear', Norton's rivetting performance making an otherwise by-the-numbers courtroom yawnfest compelling whenever he was on screen? Or how about 'Fight Club'? Norton wears the hounded, world-weary character of Banner like a ragged old coat. Liv Tyler, as Dr Betty Ross, provides the human element, much as Paltrow does in Iron Man; while William Hurt and Tim Roth are value for money in fleshed-out, well-considered supporting roles.

'The Incredible Hulk' isn't an origin story per se, but delivers the Banner/Hulk backstory with admirable speed and efficiency during the opening credits sequence. This achieves two objectives: it allows us to (a) disregard the earlier movie, Ang Lee's 'Hulk' - at best, a noble failure - and (b) narratively speaking, cut to the chase. For 'The Incredible Hulk' is essentially a chase movie. Banner wants a cure so he can live a normal life; the military want Banner so they can use what's inside him to create an army of 'super-soldiers'. No quarter is asked or given. The stakes are raised when General Ross (Hurt) uses fanatical soldier Emil Blonsky (Roth) as a guinea pig in an attempt to engineer another creature with the Hulk's physical prowess. But power corrupts, Blonsky is consumed by his dark side, and the Abomination is born.

Ang Lee's take on the Hulk was misconceived: a bright green blob that bounced around like a screensaver on crack. Letterier's is the real deal: muscled, veiny, dark green to the point of shadowy, and - crucially - fucking angry. Again, it isn't without flaws. As with 'Iron Man', the denouement is overly protracted, but a cracking script and genuine chemistry between the characters lift it well above the usual standard of comic book movies. Nifty last-minute vignettes link the two movies (although you'll need to stay until after the end credits with 'Iron Man') and point towards an upcoming Avenger adaptation.

In the meantime, however, there's Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' and Guillermo del Toro's 'Hellboy II: the Golden Army' to look forward to, hugely anticipated sequels to two of my favourite comic book adaptations, both reuniting original cast and original director.

It's gonna be a good summer!

*Subject of which: 'Batman Begins', which is arguably the best comic book adaptation yet produced, is an origin story all the way down the line - and it took a defibrilator to waning heartbeat of a near-dead franchise.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

100th Post: PERSONAL FAVES: Ratatouille

'The Incredibles' was a work of genius, the film that got me genuinely enthusiastic about Pixar. The follow-up, John Lasseter's 'Cars', attracted some of the most indifferent reviews the studio has yet received. Its main failing - so the critical consensus seemed to have it - was that it wasn't 'The Incredibles'.

Personally, I enjoyed 'Cars': even if it's not the out-and-out masterpiece its predecessor was, it's still a damn good film - with a great ending. And there's no arguing that the level of animation raised the bar yet further.

Then came 'Ratatouille'. It arrived on a wave of publicity that made the marketing campaign for 'Revenge of the Sith' look reserved. It had a title that didn't exactly roll off the tongue (the posters featured a pronunciation guide!) and it was about a rat who enjoyed cooking.

A rat? I thought. In a restaurant? This doesn't look good.

I was wrong. I was about as wrong as I've ever been about anything. 'Ratatouille' is Pixar's cleverest, most nuanced, most imaginative, most beautifully animated work to date.

Where to start on what makes it so great?

Brad Bird's script and direction. The very idea of a rat taking advice from the ghost of a dead chef as he teams up with an incompetent dishwasher/garbage boy to create culinary masterpieces which turn around the fortunes of an ailing restaurant calls not so much for a suspension of disbelief but a bloody great industrial crane to winch up the audience's disbelief, lower it onto one of those low-loaders that are so big and so wide that the truck towing it needs a police escort, and haul it off to a warehouse the size of Texas. Bird achieves this by taking time to establish character and situation, the main character here being Remy the rat (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt).

The first act sets up Remy as a connoisseur of good food, his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) as an archetypal rat living off the barely edible (Remy's attempts to broaden Emile's palate provide much of the comedy in the early scenes), and their over-bearing father Django (Brian Dennehy) as the pack leader. Django scorns Remy's dietary refinements and insists that Remy is just a rat, the same as the rest of the pack. The conflict between them - family vs. individuality; the human perception of Remy as vermin vs. Remy's desire to integrate with a world beyond the pack - gives the film a surprising depth and poignancy, particularly when Django shows Remy a shop window filled with traps, poisons and the dangling corpses of rats thus disposed of.

Human machinations are just as insensitive elsewhere. Remy's infiltration of a farmhouse kitchen (Django and the pack are all nested in the rafters) sees the little old lady who lives there go psycho with a shotgun, almost demolishing her home in her obsession with blasting the rodents. Fleeing the carnage, the pack heads for a nearby river where Remy becomes separated from them. Washed up in a sewer beneath Paris, Remy goes above ground, guided by the spirit of deceased restauranteur Gusteau (Brad Garrett), and finds himself embroiled in shady dealings at Gusteau's old restaurant, where current chef Skinner (Ian Holm) plots to retain ownership of the establishment when he discovers Gusteau had a natural heir.

It is against this background that Remy forms an unlikely partnership with Linguini (Lou Romano), a complete clutz working a dead-end job at the restaurant. They hit a winning streak with Remy's inspired creations, but things are complicated by Skinner's increasing suspicions, the attentions of vituperative food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a prying health inspector and a budding romance between Liguini and fellow chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo).

Then the pack find Remy and again he is torn between dedication to family and the desire to prove himself ...

'Ratatouille' has an intricate, multi-layered script. Sure, there's plenty of fast-moving set-pieces - most notably a chase through the streets of Paris and a mass raid by the pack on the restaurant - but Bird's emotional investment in his characters is what counts. Just as attentive and detailed is the animation, which even bests that of 'Cars'. Instead of waxing lyrical about how astounding textured everything is, let me just say this: halfway through seeing 'Ratatouille', sitting in Nottingham's Cineworld and my stomach growling even though I'd eaten before coming out, I turned to Paula and whispered, "We're going a restaurant the moment this ends." The cooking scenes are so evocative you can almost smell the food.

Some films make me laugh, some make me cry. Some films transport me in the world they create. Some make me feel infinitely better about things. 'Ratatouille' does all of these - there's a lovely vignette where a simple meal evokes a childhood memory that's damn near had me blubbing on more than one occasion - as well as making me hungry. I can't think of any other film I can say that about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Three years ago, I wandered half-heartedly into a screening of 'Robots' with a friend of mine, our choice of film a second best after the preview screening of 'Constantine' that we'd got ourselves hyped over proved to be sold out.

Okay, we thought, so there's this young robot who leaves his parents and heads off for the big city, all full of dreams and ambitions, only to find that things aren't as he imagined them. But he has his friends. And he has integrity. And he has heart. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Lachrymose, morally trite kiddie-fare, right?

Au contraire. 'Robots' turned out to be the funniest, cleverest, most brilliantly realised (both narratively and visually) piece of animated film-making I'd seen since 'The Incredibles' (my immediate thought was that Blue Sky, the people behind 'Ice Age', looked set to give Pixar a run for their money). Of course, it wasn't too long before Pixar came out with 'Ratatouille' - up next in the 100 faves project - and reminded everyone who might have been remiss enough to have forgotten that they pretty define animated film-making.

But back to 'Robots' ...

The vocal cast is top-notch: Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Robin Williams, Jim Broadbent, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes and Paul Giametti. The look of the film is fabulous: a fully integrated world of delightful retro stylisations which subtley reference everything from 'Metropolis' to 'Forbidden Planet'. The in-jokes cover just as broad a spectrum, a spot-on '2001: A Space Odyssey' send-up rubbing shoulders with any number of 'Star Wars' homages (I seem to recall that the 'Episode III' trailer was shown with 'Robots').

The narrative clips along at a fast enough pace to prevent the under-fives from getting bored, but director Chris Wedge and his screenwriters invest time in the characters, a decision that pays dividends when the idealistic Rodney Copperbottom (McGregor) and his plucky band of friends are outnumbered by the villains at the end. The climactic fight (oh yes, it may be U-rated, but 'Robots' contains scenes of "ass-whupping") is a bravura set-piece, managing to generate real tension, while at the same time firing off throwaway gags in all directions: one minute it's 'Braveheart' revisited, the next there's a Britney Spears song and dance number ... then it's back to the dust-up.

An hour and a half after slumping sullenly into our seats, me and my friend came exited the cinema beaming, in agreement that 'Robots' was a delightful, hilarious discovery. A week later we got round to seeing 'Constantine'. Oh dear, oh dear. We exited that one wondering why it is that the imagination, wit and attention to detail which Hollywood lovingly applies to films made ostensibly for children is so often absent in the productions it tailors to an adult audience.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Did a bad bad thing

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned,
Find me guilty when true guilt is from within.
- Metallica

A couple of months ago, during a notably boring day at work, I created a companion site to The Agitation of the Mind. A dark side. A twisted side. The blogosphere equivalent of the B-side.

You don't want to admit that you listened to it, let alone that you liked it, that you tapped your foot to it.

And maybe - to reduce my blogging efforts to a Russ Conway analogy - that's why I did nothing with Guilty Pleasures (thusly did I christen this blog's bastard sibling): I saw from the outset that Guilty Pleasures would forever be the 'Pixilated Penguin' to The Agitation of the Mind's 'Side Saddle'.

But I started The Agitation of the Mind in order to write about cinema - to celebrate it. The only criteria was that it inspired a reaction in me.

But what about bad reactions? Guilty reactions? Cold shower and two dozen strokes of the birch kind of reactions? Those would require another blog. A blog that didn't mind adding the works of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin to the Amazon Rentals list. A blog that was completely unabashed in admitting that it's seen at least two Lindsay Lohan films on the big screen.

A blog that, sometimes, wants a little sapphic vampirism, exhibitionism, explotiation and downright bad taste, if for no other reason than to clear the palate between 'proper' films.

Thus it is that I invite you to either:

Hit this link and check out my less-than-cerebral musings on 'Ma Mere';


Completely ignore this post, cling on to such tenuous misconceptions as you have that I am a worthy film critic, and wait for the next article.

Your call.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Coffee and Cigarettes

Think of the unlikeliest subject for a feature-length movie - the slowest, talkiest, most static premise imaginable - and you'd be hard-pressed to top Jim Jarmusch's 'Coffee and Cigarettes'*.

Having already redefined the portmanteau film with 'Mystery Train' and 'Night on Earth' - as well as stamping his quirky, indie sensibilities on the western with 'Dead Man' and the gangster flick with 'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai' - 'Coffee and Cigarettes' sees Jarmusch assemble his most impressive cast yet for arguably one of his most small scale films.

All it is, essentially, is a sequence of eleven vignettes which throw together unlikely pairings in cafes, bars, hotel foyers and roadhouses, who sit and talk over a cup of coffee and a smoke.

Kinda boring, right?

Wrong! It's who these people are and what they talk about that counts. Variously satirical, cynical, charming, funny and poignant, each episode has its own flavour, its own mood. All the characters, most of whom we only get to meet for a few minutes, are vividly sketched and finely nuanced. The black and white cinematography is richly textured. During the last few episodes, Jarmusch revisits key phrases and themes from earlier in the movie, a device that would have felt contrived in the hands of many directors but here seems natural and unforced.

And then there's the cast. Bill Murray goes on a caffeine binge while GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan try to calm him down by suggesting herbal remedies; Cinque and Joie Lee (Spike Lee's children) try to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee while Steve Buscemi harangues them with Elvis-based conspiracy theories; White Stripes siblings Jack and Meg debate the scientific validity of the Tesla coil; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits conduct a chess-like game of one-upmanship over whose songs are represented on the jukebox in a grubby little diner; and Renee French patiently resists the bumbling overtures of diffident waiter E.J. Rodriguez.

The longest and most acidic scene has Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina essay a masterclass in actorly egomania and Hollywood insincerity. Elsewhere, in a vignette that neatly 'rhymes', Cate Blanchett plays both herself and a socially embarrassing cousin from the wrong side of the tracks.

A hymn to the simple addictive pleasures of caffeine and nicotine, 'Coffee and Cigarettes' constantly delights, surprises and rewards.

*Having said that, 'Tape' pretty much achieves this. For the unintiated (oh, you lucky lucky people), 'Tape' is a film by Richard Linklater wherein Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard sit around in a motel room and blather interminably. It has a running time of less than 90 minutes and feels longer than Wagner's 'Ring' cycle - played twice.

Monday, June 02, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Blazing Saddles

As with my article on 'The Train', posted i.m. Paul Scofield, I've abandoned the random selection process for this week's personal faves write-up in order to pay tribute to Harvey Korman who died five days ago at the age of 81. A veteran of film (his first appearance was in 'Living Venus' in 1961) and TV (a ten-year stint on 'The Carol Burnett Show'), his signature role will forever be Hedy Hedley Lamarr in Mel Brooks's madcap comedy classic 'Blazing Saddles'.

Now, there's two ways of writing about 'Blazing Saddles'. I can either ...

a) pen several hundred words of po-faced prose, for example: when Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man forced to suffer indignities as part of a railroad work gang, is arrested following a retributive attack on racist gang boss Taggart (Slim Pickens), he is saved from the hangman only by the intervention of corrupt politico Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Harbouring a fiscal interest in the planned railroad course, particularly in a profitable tract of land around the small township of Rock Ridge, Lamarr manoeuvres incompetent Governer William J Le Petomaine (Mel Brooks) into appointing Bart sheriff of Rock Ridge, a move calculated to offend the decidedly white and puritanical citizenry and provoke a wholesale exodus. When his plan backfires and Bart, with the aid of washed-up former gunslinger The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), earns the grudging respect of the townsfolk, Lamarr calls upon voluptuous German torch singer Lili von Shtupp (Madeleine Kahn) to ensnare him ...

... or (less boringly) ...

b) quote twenty great lines at random and leave you to dig out your DVD copy, kick back with a beer and laugh yourselves hoarse all over again.

Let's go with (b).

1. Lamarr: My mind is aglow with whirling transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapour of invention.
Taggart: Ditto.
Lamarr: Ditto? Ditto, you provincial putz?

2. Reverend Johnson: Now, I don't have to tell you good folks what's been happening in our little town. Sheriff murdered, crops burned, stores looted, people stampeded and cattle raped. The time has come to act and act fast. I'm leaving!

3. Taggart: I hired you people to get a little track laid, not to jump around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots.

4. Lyle: Come on, boys, the way lollygagging around here with them picks 'n' shovels, you'd think it was a hundred and twenty degrees. Why, it can't be more than a hundred and fourteen!

5. Bart: Excuse me, sir, he specifically requested two "niggers". To tell a family secret, my grandma was Dutch.

6. Lili: What's your name, cowboy?
Tex: Tex, ma'am.
Lili: Well, Tex Ma'am, are you in show business?
Tex: No.
Lili: Then get your frickin' feet off the stage!

7. Bart: Since you are my guest and I am your host, what would you like to do?
The Waco Kid: I don't know. Play chess? Screw?
Bart: Let's play chess.

8. The Waco Kid: It got so that every praire punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out The Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B DeMille. Then one day I was just walking down the street and I hear a voice behind me say "Reach for it, mister". I spun around and there I was, face to face with a six-year-old kid. I just threw down my guns and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass.

9. Gabby Johnson: The sheriff is a ni-[CLANG].

10. Taggart: I know how we can run everyone out of Rock Ridge.
Lamarr: How?
Taggart: We'll kill the first born male child in every household.
Lamarr: Too Jewish.

11. Lamarr: I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west. Take this down. I want rustlers, cut-throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes. Mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits. Muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, asskickers, shitkickers and Methodists.
Taggart: Could you repeat that, sir?

12. Charlie: Hey Bart, is it me or is the world rising?
Bart: I don't know but whatever it is, I hate it! ... Say, Charlie, what is it when it's not exactly water and it ain't exactly earth?
Both: Quicksand!

13. Lamarr: Now go do - that voodoo - that you do - so well!

14. The Waco Kid: What did you expect? Welcome sonny, make yourself at home, marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers, these are people of the land, the common clay of the new west. You know: morons.

15. Lamarr: My mind is a raging torrent flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into waterfalls of creative alternatives,
Taggart: Gol-darn it, Mr Lamarr, you use your tongue purdier than a twenty dollar whore.

16. Lili: It is twue how they they that you people are gifted? ... Oh, it's twue, it's twue, it's twue!

17. Lili: Would you like another schnitzengruben?
Bart: No, thank you. Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben.
Lili: Well, how about a little ...
Bart: Baby, I am not from Havana!

18. Bart: Hey, where the white women at?

19. Le Petomaine: Thank you, Hedy, thank you.
Lamarr: It's not Hedy, it's Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.
Le Petomaine: What the hell are you worried about. It's 1874, You'll be able to sue her.

20. Bart: My work here is done. I'm needed elsewhere. I'm needed wherever outlaws rule the west, wherever innocent women and children are afraid to walk the streets, wherever a man cannot live in simple dignity, wherever a people cry out for justice.
Townsfolk: Bullshit!
Bart: All right, you got. To speak the plain truth, it's getting pretty damn dull around here.

'Blazing Saddles' is quite simply one of the funniest movies ever made, with an inspired ending that's as demented as it is subversive. 'Young Frankenstein' and 'The Producers' are arguably cleverer, but 'Blazing Saddles' is a 90-minute overdose on laughing gas, and amongst a plethora of rip-tickling turns (Wilder, Little, Brooks and Kahn are all on top form), Harvey Korman all but steals the show.

(in memoriam Harvey Korman, 15 February 1927 - 29 May 2008)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Morgan Freeman

I can't think of many actors who bring such a well-balanced sense of gravitas, dignity and wry humanity to their performances as Morgan Freeman. In honour of his 71st birthday, here are five of my favourite Morgan Freeman moments:

1) "Rehabilitated? ... To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did? ... There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit." - 'The Shawshank Redemption'

2) "I sure do miss my bed." "You said that last night." "No, last night I said I missed my wife, tonight I just miss my goddamn bed." - 'Unforgiven'

3) "Only took me six days. Same time it took the Lord to make the world." - 'Driving Miss Daisy'

4) "One hundred and ten. Get a job, punk." - 'Million Dollar Baby'

5) "Gentlemen, gentlemen. All these books, a world of knowledge at your fingertips - and you play poker all night." - 'Seven'