Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Review - Babel (2006 - Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Babel has been on my pile of things to watch for a while. So when it came up as Gael Garcia Bernal's entry into the FA Cup of Actors I was marginally pleased. I say marginally, because since Gael Garcia was entered into the FA Cup - due to his gritty connections (Amores Perros) - I've seen him in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Apart from the quality title I can't say that I was that bothered by it. As for Mr Bernal: he just spent the whole film grinning inanely like a gormless idiot. I think he's got his work cut out if he's going to impress me in Babel.

Babel, like Amores Perros, is a set of four interlinking stories that centre around the after effects of two little lads in Morocco being given a rifle and deciding to test out its range on a moving bus. And in a similar fashion to running with scissors, shooting at buses turns out to be a dangerous pastime. (Funnily enough the American government label it instantly as a terrorist incident. As would the UK government.) The other three stories deal with two American children being looked after by a Mexican nanny, a Japanese deaf and dumb girl, and an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) who are travelling on the ill-fated bus.

I never really like anthologies. They always have their fair share of duffers and Babel, despite having the links between the stories, suffers from the same ailment. My favourite of the four tales has to be about the Japanese girl Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) and this has got the most tenuous link to the other stories. It's very touching and I found myself wishing away the other bits to get back to Chieko. 

Gael Garcia appears in the Mexican nanny scenes. This little tale plays out like a Mexican version of Casualty. Amelia's (Adriana Barraza) son is getting married and there is no-one else to look after the children. So she gets her nephew (Bernal) to come and pick them all up and take them to Mexico for the wedding. We are then treated to some quality child care. By far the most offensive part is when Gael Garcia swings a chicken round by its neck and then rips off its head, sending it on its way to do the funny headless chicken dance so beloved of many Doncaster Rovers players. And this is all in front of the children. This wasn't done for real in the film but Gael Garcia admits to being a chicken killer in real life. Being a vegetarian, this hasn't done him any favours with me but at least he's willing to kill his food himself rather than having the Morrison's butcher do the dirty deed. 

Anyway, chicken swinging aside, let's get back to the wedding. All the way through these scenes, I was just waiting for something to go wrong. And goes wrong it does. Just as we'd seen some quality chid care we then get some of the highest calibre orienteering. It's all a bit laughable really and spoilt this section of the film for me. It could have been rectified with the removal of one shot of a police car driving down a road. And I would have been happy.

Apart from decapitating fowl, Gael Garcia is more in the Y Tu Mama Tambien mode of gormlessness. It almost feels that he didn't have any acting to do: just get him drunk, give him a gun and let him loose at a party. Babel hasn't done anything to raise my opinion of laughing boy.

But I was quite impressed by Pitt and Blanchett. I don't mind Brad Pitt, especially after his turn in Fight Club, but I can't say that I'm that keen on Blanchett. I always feel that she's acting and being generally very actorly. Yet in this, she managed to grow on me, especially in a scene where she needs a widdle. Both Pitt and Blanchett were spot on in the way they managed to do this with some modicum of dignity.

Babel deals with the butterfly effect, well, that is if a butterfly took up a rifle and started shooting at buses. One incident in Morocco has an effect than spans the whole globe. Yet the children involved in the stories are all dealing with neglect in some form or another. And just as the story of the Tower of Babel has God splitting up people and giving them different languages, the stories here are told in four different languages. All clever stuff.

But did I like it? I've struggled giving it a rating because I enjoyed it for the most part but I wouldn't want to watch it again. Again it's one of those films that I can see why people would rate it more highly. I reserve the lofty ratings of 7/10 and above for films that I will rewatch at some time or another so Babel has to make do with:

(NB I was thinking of giving it an extra point on the rating due to the inclusion of a game of volleyball but sadly it wasn't played by a group of attractive naturists (bit of an oxymoron there). So sorry Babel, no bonus point.)

If you like this you could also try:
Amores Perros, 21 Grams.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Review - Miami Blues (1990 - Dir. George Armitage)

I put Jennifer Jason Leigh into the FA Cup of Actors hoping that Last Exit to Brooklyn would miraculously pop up as her random entry in her first round battle against Jamel Debbouze (Outside the Law reached the giddy heights of 7/10). But no, Miami Blues is her chosen film, something that I'd never heard of. Starring Alec Baldwin, its not the type of thing that I'd normally watch. (Plus Alec isn't even my favourite of the Baldwin brothers. And no, it's not Daniel, William, Stephen, or erm... Mike, either. My favourite would have to be Adam Baldwin from Serenity and Chuck. Shame he's not related.) 

Fred Frenger, Jr. (referred to as Junior, a bit like Junior Giscombe) has just got out of prison and decides to go on a one-man crime spree. As a twist he tends to steal from other naughty people. He meets a prostitute called Susan - as occasionally happens - and they fall in love. (Funnily enough the prostitute happens to be Jennifer Jason Leigh, who despite always getting her top off at the drop of a hat, still comes across as a quality actress.) Susan knows nothing of Junior's slightly dubious activities and dreams of a perfect family life. Things are not all rosy though, Junior is being chased down by jaded grizzled cop, Sgt. Hoke Moseley, (Fred Ward of Tremors fame) a man who has not only got a brilliant name, but also a set of false choppers. (Sadly, not a collection of Vindec High Risers.)

As you may have guessed from the inclusion of false teeth Miami Blues has a certain level of endearing quirkiness to it that I wasn't expecting from an Alec Baldwin film. Junior commits a murder early on in the proceedings, but it's not the usual kind of murder, I'm not even sure if it's a murder at all: he kills a Hare Krishna by bending his fingers back. Now, I know that this violent act may cause some slight soreness, but death is maybe taking it a tad too far. The quirkiness doesn't end there. Sgt. Moseley and Susan meet in a supermarket and she gives him a recipe for Vinegar Pie. And that isn't even a savoury pie, it's sweet. For a recipe of this disgusting sounding dessert, click here. It looks rank.

As previously stated Alec isn't my favourite Baldwin and his performance here does nothing to greatly improve things. Given that, he actually does quite a good job of switching between a fellow who yearns for a normal family life and a complete finger-bending psychopath. But there's one scene in particular that is cringe worthy. He is lying on his bed pretending to be different shady characters. It looks like something that he just started doing for a laugh and the director got the camera rolling. Perfect fodder for outtakes. Not for the proper film. (And it's high time I started including some screen shots from the film. I'll put in a few to catch up.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh meanwhile does a great job. She plays it in an ambiguous fashion that can be read as Susan just being extremely naive, or that she knows about Juniors dodgy ways but puts it to the back of her mind so that she can pursue her dream of a happy family life. As for Fred Ward, he's as watchable as ever and should probably have a place in a future FA Cup of Actors.

Despite the occasionally violent scene (a machete incident is particularly noteworthy) Miami Blues feels pretty light and fluffy. It's enjoyable enough and better than I was expecting, but it's no classic. Average is the best that I can say. (Although when I'm watching some films, I dream of seeing something average.)

(The mathematically able amongst you may have worked out that Jennifer Jason Leigh is out and rank outsider, Jamel Debbouze, charges through into the second round. He could be one to watch, that sneaky little tinker.)

If you like this you could also try:
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Something Wild.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Review - Here Comes the Devil (2012 - Dir. Adrián García Bogliano)

I'd really enjoyed Bogliano's Cold Sweat, so I was looking forward to this, his next film. I was a tad on the disappointed side to see that times have obviously got harder for Bogliano. The budget for Here Comes the Devil  must have been a fair bit less than Cold Sweat. It's closer in style to a soap opera than a film. Saying that, it's the kind of soap that I'd like to watch.

A family is on a little trip to Tijuana when they happen upon an ominous boulder strewn hill. As often occurs the two children go off to explore the hill while Mum and Dad partake in some saucy business in their parked car. The children don't come back. Mum and Dad are understandably put out by this turn of events and involve the local police. And I'll leave the plot there, because what follows is probably not what you would expect.

Here Comes the Devil starts off in true exploitation style with a completely unnecessary scene of two ladies treating each other to massages of an intimate nature. After a brief violent occurrence these characters are pretty much forgotten about. Also in true exploitation style are the crash zooms that Jess Franco would have been proud of. What we have so far then is a soap heavily tinged with expoilation. But is it any more than that?

To be honest that would have probably been enough for me but there is more to had from this film. As I was watching I always thought that I knew where it was heading. Yet I didn't. It didn't usurp my expectations in any major way that would have really piqued my interest, but it did enough to make it more than the average horror fare. One moment at the end in a cave had me convinced that I knew what was going to happen next (in true Scooby Doo style this time). What followed actually caused a little shock that left me suitably impressed.

For a horror film there's not that much in the way of gore, it's more a dread filled feature. What bloodletting there is, is quite well done though. A scene with Mum and Dad and a local panty-sniffer ends with a gore sequence that looks like it comes straight from a Fulci film (admittedly, it's not quite as drawn out, but what is?). This excessive scene shows that the director isn't afraid to gore out and the sense that something bad may happen in the latter half of the film is all pervasive.

In the end Here Comes the Devil would have benefitted from a larger budget to sort out the look and the acting. As it is, its cheerful disposition and plot let it get away with a fair bit. I have to say that I enjoyed it, although not quite enough to lift it into the upper stratosphere of a seven or more out of ten. For Bogliano's next project it would be nice to see him given some more cash (just a smidgen, but enough to do a professional job - we don't want to spoil him).

If you like this you could also try:
Cold Sweat, Pieces.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Review - King of Thorn (2009 - Dir. Kazuyoshi Katayama)

I was expecting great things from this. King of Thorn: a tale of one man's fight to turn a struggling South Yorkshire market town into a thriving canal boat metropolis whilst wearing a shiny king hat. Wait, it says here that it's about a horrific virus that turns people to stone (the Medusa virus) and some nonsense about some people getting cryogenically frozen until they can find a cure, but when they wake things have gone a bit pear shaped. So nothing to do with reopening Woolworths then. Shame.

Actually it starts off really well. The virus is suitably chilling and the way that the story of Sleeping Beauty is weaved in to the characters being frozen, maybe for a hundred years, is all quite intriguing. When Kasumi, a young girl selected to be one of the survivors, wakes up things really kick off and I was thinking that this could well be an anime to buy and add to my collection. Many questions are raised during this first part: is it all a dream, what has it all got to do with a game that a little boy is playing, and has the shady corporation created the virus for its own evil ends? All questions that initially kept me engaged.

Then it all dissolves into a big mess. The story quickly becomes virtually unintelligible and I couldn't have really cared less about answering the questions. I could roughly follow the plot but it was hard work. All of the talk about dreams, games and Sleeping Beauty quickly becomes overdone and increasingly tiresome. It doesn't help that it's way too long at nearly two hours. Things are explained (kind of) at the end and it hints at something altogether better if the script had been a tad clearer. It's based on a manga by Yuji Iwahara, and it's entirely possible that a familiarity with this would help massively.

The traditional 2D animation is gorgeous and almost worth watching for that alone. There's something about watching a new anime on shiny blu-ray. Everything is so crisp and fluid. Then we get to the abomination that is the CGI animation. Now, I happen to think that CGI can work really well within anime; just look at Oblivion Island, Appleseed: Ex Machina or Vexille. But here it's terrible. It looks like it's running at a frame rate of 12 frames per second; it's all so jerky. This completely trashes the quality feel generated by the 2D work.

The best thing about King of Thorn has to be Marco Owen, a prisoner who is chosen for the project. He's massive and charges about punching and shooting stuff. And he says his name a lot. Things generally pick up when he gets into some action.

Apart from a promising start and Marco Owen things are pretty bleak. I normally save anime for times when I want to watch something that will at least get a 6/10 rating. This has left me feeling rather disappointed. 

If you like this you could also try:
Origin: Spirits of the Past, Princess Mononoke.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Review - The Swimmer (1968 - Dir. Frank Perry)

(Sorry the birthday celebrations are a tad on the late side but I've been mildly poorly the last couple of weeks. Anyway, let's rejoice three years of obscurendure goodness with Doccortex's review of The Swimmer - evlkeith.)

A cult classic and for years a film I thought was my all time favourite. It’s surprising that it’s taken me twenty years to return to a film that I watched many times in my youth, but what we find agreeable in our late teens seldom holds our attention as we enter middle age. So did The Swimmer fill me with a sense of depression in a similar way to watching Billy Liar recently? Or is this a timeless piece of film-making that comes with a free pair of rose coloured spectacles? Well the answer is a bit of both really.

It’s a journey film centred around aging suburban socialite Ned Merrell negotiating his way home via a ‘river’ made up of his neighbours’ swimming pools. As he visits each of the pools he meets characters, friends and acquaintances from his past life, reliving the events and attitudes that have shaped his current situation. There’s a colourful collection of his former golf buddies, girlfriends, baby sitters and even a couple of naturists. Slowly but surely the real story is revealed through these encounters.

Burt Lancaster is suitably gregarious and simultaneously confused. At times he looks like he’s in some drug induced state of bliss and at other times he looks absolutely gormless and I’m not convinced whether he actually intended to represent himself as either. There’s a slow motion scene where he trots around a horse’s show jumping pen in his swimming trunks with an attractive baby-sitter in tow (let’s face it who hasn’t), and it’s hard to tell whether it’s Ned Merrell or Burt Lancaster undertaking the smug middle aged dressage. It’s a great performance, but I’m not sure how much was acting, how much was meant and how much was showing off.

The crux of my confusion with the film lies in the difference of perception between my twenty-something self and my current self in the here and now. In my youth Ned Merrell looked like a avuncular old player, a wide boy who had fallen on hard times, and I pitied him. Now he looks creepy, an old has-been praying on women to boost his own ego, luring ex-baby sitters into his bizarre swimathon plot and he even throws in some mild racism. This is what becomes of the all American capitalist pin up boy, and at the end I feel no pity, just a feeling that he got what he deserved.

Yes, it’s still a great film, but it’s darker and weirder than I remember. Maybe great films grow and mature with us. Perhaps it’s a measure of personal growth or my personal cynicism. Whatever your age, gender or perspective it’s a seductive watch and a stretch of water we should all dip into from time to time.

If you like this you could also try:
Elmer Gantry, Story of a Love Affair.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Review - Outside the Law (2010 - Dir. Rachid Bouchareb)

Outside the Law (or to give its original title Hors la loi which sounds like it's from a way dirtier genre) is the entry of cheery rank outsider Jamel Debbouze in this year's FA Cup of Actors. Debouzze was entered into the competition by Doccortex because he'd seen him in Days of Glory and quite liked the little fellow. I have to say that I was a bit sceptical, mainly due to this picture:

But the lad's done well. Outside the Law is a pretty decent film. In fact, a very decent film. Well above the standard of film making that I'm used to. Everything about it reeks of professionalism. Let's start with the script. It is based on the real events surrounding Algeria gaining independence from France. It does so through the eyes of three brothers: Abdelkader, a local leader of the FLN, determined to free Algeria, Messaoud, a soldier who comes back to be Abdelkader's right hand man in an honourable struggle, and Said (Debbouze) who starts off as a pimp then graduates to owning his own cabaret theatre and boxing empire. He's not too bothered about independence, he's more concerned with wearing a nifty hat and smoking big cigars. 

The director has an unintrusive style that draws the viewer into the events. No fancy tricks here, he just cracks on and tells the story. Despite being 138 minutes long my attention was held throughout, which is pretty good considering my threshold is normally 90 minutes. The only problem I had was my own ignorance of these events which made some of the early scenes quite hard to follow. But it's not the film's fault that I'm a thick northerner.

I do actually have a couple of legitimate problems with Outside the Law though. Firstly - and this is a picky "matter of taste" technical issue - I didn't think that there was enough contrast in the image. I had recently watched To Catch a Thief on blu-ray and the textures looked so crisp and, well, textured that I was mightily impressed for such an old film. Outside the Law meanwhile looks a tad pale and washed out in comparison. The textures in the shanty town are all present and correct but didn't wow me. A little tweak to the contrast during the grading process would have sorted this out. Other people may like this look but I wasn't too keen. 

Secondly, it was not as emotionally affecting as I thought it was going to be. I had empathy for the characters but I didn't care for them as much as I should. The only scene that helped to endear them to me in the slightest was at a wedding where the three brothers do an amusing dance. Funny, but not quite enough to make me really bothered about them.

Now let's get to Debbouze. I've really warmed to him and his cigar smoking ways. The other two brothers are generally very serious and Debbouze adds a touch of lightness to the proceedings, although he's still able to turn on the emotion when he needs to. All in all he's a likeable fellow who I think has earned his place as part of the obscurendure family.

You may feel that my final rating is a bit on the harsh side and you'd be right. It's a really well made film with an engaging story that many people will rate more highly. So why the low score? It's just not my cup of tea. Even with the above problems fixed it would have had a limit of 8/10. Doccortex meanwhile, will probably like it a lot more than me. I've no doubt he'll give it a watch and tell you in a comment what he thinks about it.

Nevertheless, it's a very respectable score for Debbouze and Jennifer Jason Leigh has certainly got her work cut out. (I'm secretly hoping that Debbouze makes it through so I can watch another of his offerings, but we'll see...)

If you like this you could also try:
Days of Glory, Waltz with Bashir.