Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Book Pt III - Review Revue: Selected Review Films

Better Mus Come
Better Mus Come begins with a poem before proceeding to a shootout at a political rally - in between there's a young single father trying to care for his son in a harsh innercity slum.
Its a very appropriate opener for a highly stylized, and ultimately successful attempt to capture the paradoxes that characterize Jamaica, which most of us take for granted, but which perplex foreigners.
Its 1978, and tensions between the two political parties are red hot, red with blood and muzzle flares. But the film is viewed notthrough the prism of the politicians - who appear only fleetingly, but through the young men  - and women - who their outsize ambitions and lust for power manipulate and hold captive.

For the next 20-40 minutes, the story unfolds largely in vignette form, darting and skipping furtively from scene to scene like a gangster trying to evade a police raid.

Thereafter, the narrative gradually but noticeably becomes more sure-footed and the film progresses more fluidly to its tragic conclusion (that's as much as I'll give away for those who haven't seen it). Indeed, there's lots to like about this movie, not least - understandably - the music (both the score and the soundtrack are fabulous.

Also, Better Mus Come reaffirms Jamaica as one of the most  - if not the most - 'cinegenic' (my coinage) of locations. Even the grimiest slum scenes have a vibrance about them that cannot be put down to mere artifice. the actors all perform creditably - Sheldon Shepherd in the lead role has a good future ahead based solely on his presence (here's hoping he can actually get some roles) and Ricardo Orgill as the "resident hothead" and Everaldo Creary as the part-time DJ and jokester with a brutal streak, also light up the screen.

Better Mus' Come's arrival on the Jamaican scene is both auspicious and ironic. Auspicious because it breaks a long drought for indigenous feature films and heralds a mini-wave of renewed cinematic interest in Jamaica (at least two other Jamaican-themed featured are set to roll out shortly). Ironic, at least form the party political point of view, as its strong undertone of disenchantment with the then ruling party is now mirrored with the opposite party, the electoral tables having been turned  (but then, what's new?).

As to how it'll play overseas, that's a different question. It's well made, but somehow doesn't seem to be the stuff of which Hollywood Reporter front pages are made. Cliched as it may sound, Europe seems a better bet, or even Canada, and foreign language re-dubs could well find a comfortable home in South America.

Its not the Jamaican classic it aspires to be, but Better Mus Come is a timely and worthy addition to the annals of Jamaican film.

Two contrasting movies, both brilliant, about the power of dreams and ideas. First up, on a misty morning in August 1974, lifelong wire-walker Philippe Petit and his accomplices (mostly French, but a couple of Yanks as well) completed one of the most stunning feats of daring in modern history: he walked a tightrope stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. James Marsh's retellling of the momentous feat is itself one of the most deeply affecting films I have seen in a long time.
Most gripping of all is the painstaking and fateful process by which Petit and his band of lawbreakers (the film's title comes from the police entry on the official arrest warrant, in the section, "nature of complaint")and the visuals of Petit "reaching the clouds" (the film is adapted from his book by that title) are truly awe-inspiring. rent it, borrow it - heck! steal it even, but see this movie.

Of more current vintage, director Christopher Nolan, with great help form his cast, handily proves, once again, that the term "smart action-thriller" need not be an oxymoron.

The plot centers on the ability to enter other persons' dreams and thereby alter the dreamscape and remove vital information therefrom. Quite handy for the elegant but clearly illegal business of corporate espionage, which is what mostly occupies the time of lead character Dom Cobb (Leo Di Caprio). But of course, things aren't quite what they seem.

Nolan's fight and action scenes are as visually arresting as anything out of Hong Kong or Hollywood, but the action never overwhelms nor interferes with the writer-director's mission of exploring the power of ideas and the unfathomable maze that is the human mind.

As stated before, the cast is uniformly good, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ken Watanabe are the standouts as well as Frenchie Marion Cotillard.
treat yourself to a movie that satisfies on all levels. Head to the Palace circuit and see Inception. 

With great help from his cast Christopher Nolan once again handily proves that the term "smart action-thriller" is not an oxymoron

Runaway [music video]
Kanye West epitomizes the dichotonous nature of today's hip-hop. Like jazz, it has proven, over a relatively short existence, an able adapter, incorporating numerous other genres. Like its genetic twin, dancehall, it can also be maddeningly one-dimensional and crass.

Such is the nature of West who, on this wanna-be magnum opus designed to hype the market in advance of his new full-length CD, My Dark , Beautiful, Twisted Fantasy, displays a penchant for both high art and lowbrow "hoodisms"

Nowhere on this 3-min long-form video is this more evident than in what I call the "ballerina sequence" . As dancers in black tutus pirouette and cavort elegantly within sight of  a long banquet table at which the diners are all dressed in white, West raps "24/7, 365 p---y stays on my mind"

The story itself is simple - a Phoenix like creature (female) flames to earth, where she has to grasp the complexities of her new environment and where she also falls in love with West.

Visually lush, sonically diverse, and intelligently crafted, Runaway can be forgiven its excesses, especially since its creator so willingly acknowledges them in the first place.

Of course, it was already more than obvious that iconic wizard Harry Potter and his cohorts Ron and Hermionie had already grown way past their Hogwarts undergrad roots.

But this, the first half of a split final instalment (part II is slated for Summer 2011) essentially confirms that the trio is no longer at the institute of wizardry and witchcraft. They're not on their own; much of the expanding cast that saw them through the last couple of Potter flicks is back, except, of course for the venerable Dumbledore, even though the story's resolution hinges in part on him (or something of his).

In any case, evil takes no rest and the chillingly ruthless Lord Voldemort is gathering his own forces for the final assault on goodness and in particular, on the wizardly boy wonder. Voldemort's growing strength pushes the 'kids' further out into the Muggles world and thus into greater exposure.

This means, among other things, more adult disguises and more hyped-up action (chases, battle scenes, etc). Some posted reviews have cited this new Potter as slow, but from this vantage point, its not the pacing that's the problem; its the soul, or lack of it. There's a 'let's just do it and get it over with' air that pervades the film, particularly in the interactions between Harry and Ron, who make a bit of a Steinbeckian pair (broad-shouldered Ron towers like a Lennie over the more wiry, Lennie-like Harry).

As usual, there are good performances from the repertory players (Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy and helena Bonham-Carter all shine in their respective roles) and Alphonse Cuaron's direction is generally sure-footed.

Simply, the new Potter, as the "beginning of the end" won't disappoint hardcore Harry-philes and won't prove intimidating to the scattered few newbies left.  

How far would you really go for love? Would you bust your wife out of jail?
That's the premise of this intense and sometimes credulity-stretching film from Paul Haggis (Crash, In The Valley of Elah), with Russell Crowe the doting husband and father who is jolted into action following on the arrest and imprisonment of his wife for the murder of her boss.

Through research, Crowe's character, John Brennan to "escape expert" (read jailbird) Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson, making the best of his five minutes) who advises him to plan down to the minutest detail. John takes this advice to heart, and the film's middle third is taken up with the minutiae of mastering guard and delivery schedules, disposing of his house and preparing for the getaway. Moreover, this segment shows John's increasing isolation from his parents, and even from his who is, naturally, unaware of the plan, and is going stir crazy.

Indeed, the last three Days only really gets going within the last 30 minutes, when Brennan actually springs his well-laid plan into action. Of course, the unexpected surfaces, and Brennan has to think on his feet. The audience is swept along in the pursuit, with the police and authorities perennially a few steps behind the couple, and with the wife (Elizabeth Banks) nearly sabotaging the whole thing on her own.

An Oscar-winning screenwriter( Million Dollar Baby) as well as a director, Haggis is adept at layering his story's revelations, but ultimately we don't quite learn as much about the hero and about his relationship with his spouse as we would like. Things are suggested, possibilities raised and scenarios are painted, but the full narrative punch somehow seems to elude us.

Nevertheless, while at times formulaic, 'Three Days' is never frivolous and as suspense action-thrillers go, will more than serve in this pre-holiday period.

So, until the inevitable Sorcerer's Apprentice sequel, audiences are thrown this tired bag of bones to chew on (and the Sorcerer's Apprentice was hardly a worthwhile meal in the first place).

This time around, modern-day NYC has been forsaken, its back to medieval Europe, in the grip of the plague while many, many leagues east, knights hack the 'infidels' to death under the urging of chain mail-wearing priests. Sorcerers and zealots good; witches, bad. At least that's the comparison that's being begged by this set-up. Cage here is one of the aforesaid knights, renowned for his battlefield skills and valor, but disgusted by the killing and distrustful of his masters' religious zealotry.

He, along with his compadre (well played by Hellboy's Ron Perlman) choose to desert the Crusading army, and spend days wandering through death and desolation before alighting upon a town, decimated by the plague. Here, they are "unexpectedly" pressed back into serving the church, this time to deliver an accused witch (Claire Foy, from "Little Dorritt") for "trial" at some far-off monastery, accompanied by a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore) an aspiring knight, a wily salesman (read "con") and a town elder who has lost his entire family to the contagion.

All the visual bells and whistles are there, particularly in the cliamactic scene when things get really ugly, and  director Dominic Sena (who previously worked with Cage in Gone In Sixty Seconds) clearly knows how to get maximum mileage from the assigned talent.

The problem is Cage himself. All the promise of Rumblefish and Birdy and Racing with the Moon and Raising Arizona has just been thrown out the window and then trampled on. It appears, especially since the blockbuster success of National Treasure, that Cage is content to shoulder a kind of "occult-lite" formula, bringing little to these films other than his mere presence, which I guess in itself accounts for bang atte box office.

 This writer certainly wasn't expecting him to stay in the same quirky mode of his earlier work for his whole career, but this is worse: big-name schlock done purely for expected profit. Whatever the current state of his finances (reports abound of money disputes and impending bankruptcy), its sad to see good talent squandered in this way. he needs a "Refresh" and soon.

But, with the Ghost Rider sequel filming as we speak, creative renewals will just have to wait

The Hangover Part II

Producers and execs: "Okay, so we made hundreds of millions with the last one. How do we top it?"

Answer: "Why, with penises, of course!"

One can almost hear the conversation unfolding in the Warner Bros. "Situation Room". Faced with honing the formula without making it unrecognizeable, director Todd Phillips and writers Craig Mazin and Scott Armstrong set out to exploit the still considerable shock power of the male organ. This time, when the guys wake up with temporary amnesia after a night of pre-nuptial debauchery, they find themselves in a Bangkok dive; instead of a tiger, they're greeted by a monkey and, shortly thereafter, by the partially obscured penis of "international criminal" Mr Chow (Ken Jeong) with whom they had a drug-related run-in in the first movie.

Needless to say, the situation snowballs rapidly from there: Stu, the dentist, and the groom in this instance, has a tattoo on his face; Alan, the zany-raunchy idiot-savant of the first movie now has a buzz cut in contrast to his  bushy sideburns and beard, and Phil.....well, more on him later.

The challenge this time around is to find Stu's future brother-in-law, Teddy (Mason Lee, the son of "Brokeback Mountain" director Ang Lee), himself the favoured son of the Thai immigrant family that Stu is set to join.

The quest for Teddy leads through Bangkok's seamy nightlife, where one of the city's notorious "lady-boys" (let's call them "intersexuals" - female faces, breasts and  - you guessed it - ding-a-lings) confesses to  a night of wild abandon with Stu with the following classic zinger: "I shoot load in you, you shoot load on floor." Bradley Cooper, as Phil, takes on the role of straight man with even more assurance than he did two years earlier and Zach Galifianakis smartly tweaks his "stupid is smart" schtik to suit the needs of the new locale.

Armed with that knowledge, they journey from Bhuddist monastery to city centre high-rise to riverside cafe until the mission is accomplished. But whilst the film's pace is zippy, and the scenes in which Mr Chow - inevitably - reappears are almost worth the ticket price, a good portion of the thrill is understandably gone from this sequel. That air of "will they or won't they make it?" has essentially been replaced with "what other crap will they get into now?" The waste of Paul Giamatti, as an undercover Interpol agent, is almost unforgivable.

Still, if you're a big  fan, this extension of Hollywood's newest franchise offers just enough high-speed chase, ridiculous culture clash and super-raunch to meet your expectations. The rest will be scratching their heads every so often and wondering, in the words of the cast....."What tha --?!"

[Author’s Note: oddly enough, it was this review post, of a film I was markedly disappointed by, that pushed my blog views to the level they are now. I remain gratified, if mystified by the popular reception of this nearly botched sequel]

With no fewer than 20 previous features with the same title, one could well be forgiven lowering expectations for this thriller, even with Ryan Gosling in the starring role.

But this spacey, yet intense work, from Danish import Nicholas Winding Refn not only shows Gosling, the hot Hollywood property of the moment, firmly in control, but more than adequately challenged by Albert Brooks, near flawless as the urbane yet sadistic loan shark who dogs him almost from the beginning.

Our hero (he's never actually named)  in fact moonlights as a wheelman (that is, he drives a getaway car for bank robbers, etc) in between doing movie stunts and working for a local mechanic, who calls him only "The Kid". In his apartment building, he meets Elise (Carey Mulligan) a young mother who's awaiting her partner's release from prison, but not, as it turns out with great eagerness. The two engage in a wonderfully underplayed semi-platonic affair.

Two dark threads interwine with this urban idyll. First, the mechanic fancies himself a stock car owner with the Kid at the helm but, of course such things need money, and lots more of it than he can lay his hands on. Enter Brooks, who routes his operation through a pizza parlor owned by an outcast Jewish mafioso (the suitably creepy Ron Perlman).

The second issue is that Elise's spouse, a small-time hood with the oddly statesmanlike name of Standard Gabriel, has been sprung, but he still owes protection money to another bad guy, who's now demanding (with a serious beating as persuasion), that he rob a certain local pawnshop as part settlement on his "debt".

Seeing the distress that Gabriel's position places on mother and son, our hero chips in - he offers to drive the getaway car, of course. This brings him into contact with said bad guy and the luscious but hapless Christina Hendricks (Oh the fantasies...but, we digress), a gangster's moll who even the gangster is apt to ignore.

Of course, the job is a set-up. It yields an indeterminately large sum of cash, but also precipitates a high-speed chase and marks the step-up point in the movie's violence quotient. Gabriel is shot dead at the scene, and not too long after that, the luscious redhead is dispatched with a shotgun blast to head.

Gosling, forced to keep his head whilst all about him are losing theirs, demonstrates he knows his way around guns and improvised weapons the way he knows his way around cars. Also, as tender as he was with Elise, he's not above slapping said gangster's moll half silly, in order to get at the truth.

Laconic, and with a seemingly permanent half-smirk throughout the proceedings, our hero might seem hard to like, but Gosling does a good job of humanizing him and investing him with a strong, but off-kilter sense of morality.

The "Miami Vice-style" titles and cinematography may be a bit off-putting, depending on your visual taste, and there's also the near cheesy New Wave soundtrack (I'm not knocking New Wave). But beyond that, Drive is a film in which heart and mind are aligned to offer some real surprises - most of them welcome.

Take it for a spin and see.

There Be Dragons
"In a child's heart, there are many seeds; who knows which will bloom"

With strong shades of The Kite Runner, Writer-producer-director Roland Joffe (The Mission) delves into the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to produce a stirring missive on faith, betrayal, shame, forgiveness and redemption.

The story actually starts in the 1980s, with a writer trying to piece together the strands of myth concerning a Catholic priest who braved both the Fascists and the Communists in doing good and ministering to the locals, the movie's main sub-plot.

The priest, we learn, is the childhood friend of a Fascist who has infiltrated the ranks of the Communists, seeking to avenge the death of his industrialist father. On the way he also falls in love with the paramour of the Communist leader.

Their adult paths scarcely cross and Joffe weaves a complex yet compelling tapestry as the son slowly uncovers the sins of the father. In a film world where war scenes have overblown, technologically dictated snoozefests, the conflicts here retain the full measure of immediacy and urgency. The film's religious thread, while strong, never overwhelms, and the characters always come off as flesh and blood human beings rather than one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs.

Oscar Wilde is quoted in the movie ad saying "every saint has a past; every sinner a future." the two types meet, meld and transform each other in this slept-on gem of a movie.

Soul Surfer
Its pretty much all there: the set-up, complete with engaging surf action scenes, the breathtaking scenery of Hawaii, the congeniality mixed with intensity as the subject - in this case, champion pro surfer Bethany Hamilton - makes her climb up the rung to sporting glory.

All that's really missing from this affable sports story is the "villain". Understandably, given the need to hew close to a PG-grade rating, the shark which essentially sampled Hamilton's left arm is not even shown at the point of attack - a steadily darkening pool of blood alerts us to the tragedy that sets the story in motion and the beast is only seen a few scenes later, hanging upside down from the end of a line.

Its only substitute is a rival surfer, Malena, who mercilessly muscles Bethany out of choice waves whether she has two arms or one. Dennis Quaid and a badly aging (had to say it) Helen Hunt play the parents who try to navigate their own roles amid the tragedy and the new world of adjustments in its aftermath. And there are brothers, family friends and assorted personalities (media  and otherwise).

But the action of course revolves around Ann Sophia Robb ('Jumper" "Bridge to Terabithia") and she's more than up to the task, delivering credibility both on and off the water. There's also Carrie Underwood, a couple shades of bland as the "voice of wisdom" and leader of Christian relief missions in the aftermath of the tsunami of December 2005. Its on that mission trip - having skipped a previous one to Mexico, that Hamilton "sees the light" of her self-centred value system and regains her appetite for surfing.

As a diversion, Soul Surfer is useful enough; as a surf movie, it doesn't quite measure up to Rick Elgood's 'Surf Rasta" (did that one make to local screens?) or "Point Break" but apart from Christian groups and educators looking for uplifting fare to build sermons and ministries around, there won't be many people who find it essential.

Jackass: 3-D
The folks at MTV Films, producers of this vile and mindless bit of masturbatory diversion, trumpet the "3-D' aspect as if it could somehow lift this garbage to the level of tolerable.

It can't, of course, but the cast and crew obviously couldn't care less about the success or failure of 3-D, or any other device. Redemption, after all, is not what they're after.

Jackass is probably as fail-safe a movie formula as can be imagined: the same mentally regressive Neanderthals that have gone for the TV series and the previous films will almost certainly return for more erupting faeces, brawling midgets and jet-blasted subjects.

The best – no, the only - thing that can possibly be said for this Jackass is that it must have been more fun to make than it is to watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment