Friday, 27 June 2014

Review - Thick as Thieves (2009 - Dir. Mimi Leder)

We finally reach the last review from the first round of the FA Cup of Actors with Radha Mitchell's replay with David Warbeck. Surely Mitchell has to go through after Warbeck's pathetic attempt at goal with Rat Man. Let's see if she can pull a half decent performance out of the bag with Thick as Thieves

Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas star as a couple of thieves intent on pilfering some Faberge eggs (an interesting true fact is that Faberge could see that they were heading down a path of business suicide producing beautifully ornate eggs so they decided to start knocking out mass produced aftershave in the form of Brut to keep the loan sharks at bay). Radha Mitchell enters the fray as the Goddaughter of Freeman and as love interest for swarthy Banderas. Predictably, Freeman doesn't approve.

As you'd expect from the people making this film, it's entertaining in a 'just let it wash over you' kind of way. The heist is nothing special but contains all of the requisite parts: casing the joint, preparation and actually carrying out the robbery including some completely rubbish red lasers that Giant Haystacks would be able to walk through without tripping the alarm. How they don't manage to get the prone form of Banderas sliding along on a skateboard type contraption, I'll never know. There's nothing here that you haven't seen a thousand times before.

In fact, the whole film is a bit lacklustre. I think this is partly due to the script and the casting. The writing lacks any real kind of wit and doesn't give the actors any help in building on-screen relationships. It doesn't help either that there isn't any chemistry between Mitchell and Banderas or for that matter, any rapport between Banderas and Freeman. It's not that any of them does a bad job individually, but when they are put together, they don't gel.

It's a bit like Costa Rica's recent performance against England: they know they're through and so they do the least they can do to secure the top spot in the group. Everything about Thick as Thieves plays it nice and safe, keeping it tight at the back but with no real inclination to surge forward and score. The director also did Deep Impact which I quite liked, although on the strength of this I can see why she hasn't done any more features.

As for Radha Mitchell, I'm more used to her being terrorised by various nasty creatures such as Pyramid Head or a huge crocodile so it was a minor surprise to see her saucing it up here. In a night club, she has to perform a slightly embarrassing dance with Banderas while he stands there still, pretending that he hasn't got any slinky latin dance moves just waiting to burst out from his hips. But to balance this, she does get a classy shot in her underwear. Acting wise it's not her best performance, yet it's not offensively bad, nice and safe like everything else.

All of this adds up to the fact that she's through to the second round. But like Costa Rica, she needs to up her game to fight off the much stronger threat of Ellen Page.

If you like this you could also try:
Rififi, The Killing.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Review - Rat Man (1988 - Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo (as Anthony Ascot))

Here we go then with David Warbeck's effort in his first round replay against Radha Mitchell. The title didn't really inspire me but I thought that Rat Man may contain some entertainment value in terms of sheer stupidity. Added to that it was written by Dardano Sacchetti so it could feasibly be okay.

Rat Man just cements my feeling that Dardano Sacchetti and Lucio Fulci did their best work together. Apart, well this is the kind of abomination we get. (Fulci can't claim to have done any better on his own, see Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 for evidence.) At least Rat Man has some semblance of a story. Well, vaguely anyway.

A mad scientist fellow decides it would be in the best interests of society if he could cross a rat with a monkey. Amazingly enough, especially with the film's title, he succeeds. He is so pleased with himself he thinks that he may possibly get a Nobel prize. What for? For creating a creature that lives in sewers and shows its backside to passersby? Mmm, maybe. The titular Rat Man escapes from his minuscule cage and goes on a rampage of scratching. (In a bid to further increase his chances of gaining the Nobel prize the scientist gave Ratty poisonous claws. Great.) Fred Williams (David Warbeck) and Terry (another one of Fulci's chums, Janet Agren) are on a search for Terry's model sister who is busy working with a photographer. In Ratty's stomping ground. Or should that be Ratty's pattering ground?

This is a bad film. Not quite up there with the aforementioned Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, but still, it's very bad. Obviously this is an exploitation film. It has gratuitous nudity and also the use of one of the world's shortest men, Nelson De La Rosa, who later went on to work with Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau, possibly inspiring the character of Mini-Me. He plays the title role, replete with savage looking rat teeth. But despite being an expoilationer, it's not particularly funny. In general, it's dull. It follows the pattern of a character going off on their own, then getting clawed and severely deaded. Repeat until asleep.

David Warbeck does nothing to improve the proceedings. In his defence, he doesn't get masses of screen time. We spend most of our precious time with Terry's sister, Monique and her photographer chum. It's similar to Rutger Hauer's role in Hemoglobin. Do the job. Get Paid. Go home. Forget it. It doesn't look like a phoned in performance. More like it's been texted.

Any gore? After all it's only just been released uncut by Shameless. Not really. I only watched it yesterday and I can't remember anything that should have troubled the censors. 

It's not really a disappointing film because I wasn't expecting that much. But due to the lack of fun I found it a completely tiring experience. I can't see Warbeck recovering from this. It seems as though he's just given Mitchell a free pass to the next round.

If you like this you could also try:
Pieces, Willard.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Review - City of Men (2007 - Dir. Paulo Morelli

I’ve been craving a good old fashioned grit-fest and wasn’t disappointed by Morelli’s City of Men. There’s Brazilian gangsters with guns, women with guns and children with guns, all blasting each other in a favela based battle for the supremacy of their home area on a hill. The only person without a gun is a children’s football coach and I don’t need to tell you what happens to him. Woven into the mayhem is the a story of friendship, struggle and discovery for the two central characters Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) that provides the necessary hope and warmth to lift this above usual gritty fair. Don’t get your hopes up however, there’s no-one in underpants shooting machine guns, a complete absence of prostitution and a mysterious lack of the ubiquitous handheld gritty camera work.

Cut through all that gritty shooting and this is a lovely story. The tale of two boys in Rio de Janero as they graduate from boys to men is both warming and disturbing as they unlock the secrets of their past, against the background of poverty, deprivation and flying bullets. In a way they circumvent the violence, the drug gangs and the intimidation and live their lives in a separate bubble where hope, humour and love triumph over the general sense of nastiness. Both boys put in determined and believable acting shifts and are always natural, likeable and in the end we really care about their fates.

All the other characters may or may not be ‘actors’ as is often the norm in South American grit-drama, but all are enthralling and never break the veil of reality. The city is almost a character in its own right and from the sunshine of the beach to the ramshackle homes in the favela, the director lovingly depicts and portrays both its visual beauty and its inherent issues with equal measures of sensitivity and shock factor. It’s an intelligent piece of film making that allows us to understand the actions of the characters even if we can’t empathise with them.

All in all, it’s a great film, and as with all the best gritty films it tempers all that unsavouriness with lashings of hope. It’s a recipe for a satisfying viewing experience for grit-fans across the globe. It’s nowhere near as good as City of God, but it’s head and shoulders above the likes of Gomorrah. Add some brutal Elite Squad style cops, a seedy nightclub lavatory scene and Gael Garcia Bernal in a Zorro mask and you’d be looking at a 10/10, but as it stands, it’s a…

If you like this you could also try:
City of God, Gomorrah.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Feature - The FA Cup of Actors - Second Round

So the review of Mr Smith goes to Washington marks the end of the first round of the FA Cup of Actors (apart from the inevitable replay). Through this little competition I've seen some pretty good films (Outside the Law and my favourite so far, Our Children) and I've also seen some dire offerings (Night of the Living Dead: Reanimation springs to mind). Hopefully the latter half of the competition will introduce me to some more brilliant films. Optimistic fool.

Let's have a look then at how our plucky actors line up in the second round:

1. David Warbeck/Radha Mitchell vs. Ellen Page
2. Jennifer Connelly vs. Marc Singer
3. Émilie Dequenne vs. Barbara Crampton
4. Jamel Debbouze vs. James Stewart

We'll get the Warbeck/Mitchell replay out of the way pretty soon and then we can crack on with the second round proper. 


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Feature - Eldritch Horror Review

As a minor departure from our usual filmic goods, I've decided to review a board game that I'm playing at the minute, a board game that has me completely addicted: Eldritch Horror.

Eldritch Horror is a streamlined version of an older game, Arkham Horror but is sufficiently different to make owning both desirable. Both games are about a group of investigators who come together to defeat one of H.P. Lovecraft's Ancient Ones. Along the way they have to find clues, solve mysteries, shut gates to other worlds and kill nasty monstery type things. The main difference between the two games is that Arkham Horror is set in Arkham, (obviously) whereas the events in Eldritch Horror span the entire world.

The main game mechanic in Eldritch Horror is simple to pick up: work out how many dice you need to throw, depending on what you're trying to do, throw the dice and then count the number of successes rolled. For the most part, rolling a 5 or a 6 counts as a success. Cards that can be gained by the investigators give them weapons or spells, along with other items. Many allow the player to roll more dice or re-roll dice where necessary. Conditions can also be given to investigators such as leg injuries or hallucinations that are generally bad. In fact the only good condition is being blessed which means that rolling a 4, 5 or 6 is a success. (On the flip side being cursed reduces the successes to 6s only.)

There are three phases to the game: Action, Encounter and Mythos. The Action phase allows the investigators to move, rest, trade and perform other actions (hence the name). In the Encounters phase the investigators encounter something on their space, which could be fighting a monster, closing a gate, getting a clue or even one based on the specific location. Finally the Mythos phase is where the game really fights back against the players. New gates are spawned along with the obligatory monsters and for the most part, bad things happen. 

As you may have picked up from the last paragraph, this is a cooperative game. The players all work together to beat the game. It is suitable for 2 to 8 players, but 4 players seems to work really well. (There are also supplementary rules for solo play.) There are eight investigators to choose from and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. You can generally look at their stats and decide what they will be good at whether that is gaining clues, fighting or casting spells. I know some people play this by picking an ideal team using the available investigators but I prefer to randomly select them. It seems to throw up some interesting combinations of characters that initially seem to be destined for failure but miraculously work well together. The game allows opportunities to fine tune characters by building their stats, to make them even better at their job.

Eldritch Horror is a finely balanced game. It would be dull if the investigators won every single time. This doesn't happen. A game can be played for three hours. And then you lose. (In Arkham Horror games can easily stretch to five hours which makes the losses even harder to bear.) But when I lose, I set up another game straight away. Most of the games seem to be extremely tight which can make for some quality tension. 

Great games should teach us something about life and the main thing Eldritch Horror rams home constantly is perseverance. The game regularly batters you into thinking that there is no way of winning, everything goes against you and all seems lost. Yet if you keep going to the bitter end it's amazing how many times you win or come really close. There are other life lessons to be learnt such as co-operation, prioritising and how to slaughter a Star Spawn using a shotgun.

Eldritch Horror is a pleasure to play. The artwork in the game is gorgeous, especially on the locations and all of the components are well made. It feels like it has been play tested to death. My one concern is that it sometimes feels too harsh, initially the restrictions on movement make winning appear impossible and there is one card that can make a player lose six health, which is more than most characters have. But overall the game appears to be fair. Luck is obviously involved but it is definitely possible to improve your chances of success through shrewd choices. Strategies can be employed, especially the ways that investigators can work together, to make winning more achievable. As the players' skills and knowledge improve the rule book has suggestions to make the game even harder which adds to its longevity.

If you're completely new to board games of this ilk that have a little more depth than Guess Who, then this is probably a quite good place to start. The rules are pretty long but they are relatively easy to learn. It's a great game that has already given me many hours of pleasure. Despite this being so good I can still recommend Arkham Horror too. The games take longer - making the stakes higher - and the expansions available add new boards and cards. Right, I'm going to leg it now to see if I can batter Azathoth into submission with a politician, a psychic, an astronomer and an actress.


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Review - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939 - Dir. Frank Capra)

I thought James Stewart had fluffed it in his attempts to triumph in his first round FA Cup of Actors match against laughing boy, Gael Garcia Bernal. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is so saccharine sweet in the opening scenes that I thought I was in danger of redecorating my fine room with regurgitated Super Noodles. The children in particular are completely cringeworthy, almost making it unwatchable. Luckily things improve.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of what happens if you take an ordinary bloke (James Stewart in one of his many 'everyman' roles) and make him a senator. (A similar idea was explored in Harold Lloyd's The Cat's Paw albeit with the added threat of beheadings.) Jefferson Smith is chosen by a group of corrupt politicians and businessmen led by Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines) who need someone naive to go along with them and vote as they do. They especially need him for putting through a bill for building a local dam that will provide a fair bit of work (and money) for Taylor's company. Smith has different ideas.

Being a Frank Capra film you can pretty much tell where it's going right from the off. Yet I couldn't help but getting carried along with Smith's plight. He's got a bit of a Naruto type personality in that even when the odds are completely stacked against him, he won't give up. The latter half of the film has him holding the floor of the senate for hour after hour to prove his point. The rules state that as long as he doesn't leave the room or sit down he can carry on speaking. Which he does. For a long time. The whole issue of toileting never comes up. Maybe he just has a sneaky little trickle like the woman in Threads

The script is great and has moments of brightness followed by everything going wrong with Smith getting hammered by the Taylor political machine. (His goons go so far as to use their trucks to ram paperboys off the road. Not polite or particularly pleasant.) There's also time for a small portion of love story with Smith and his aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) who initially is in league with Senator Payne but - amazingly enough - gets won over by Smith's boyish charm.

Supposedly on its initial release it didn't go down too well with the Senate. They didn't like the fact that it made them all look like corrupt mouthpieces led by outside industries and vested interests. Erm, surely that's the definition of the word 'politician'? 

James Stewart is perfectly cast in this role. Now I know he goes a bit creepy and obsessive in Vertigo, but from this performance it is hard to imagine him having a single corrupt bone in his body. My favourite moment has to be when he gets settled in for the long haul in the Senate, takes out a flask and sandwiches from his bag and proceeds to eat them as the Senators return to listen to his rather long speech. I chuckled.

So despite having a massively shaky start I was won over by this tale of one man going up against the might of politicians and big business. As relevant now as ever.

(So that puts James Stewart through to the next round and Gael Garcia Bernal is out. Hooray! To say that I was gutted in the first minutes of this film, what with the prospect of having to watch another Gael Garcia effort, is an understatement. But quality shone through. Phew.)

If you like this you could also try:
Anatomy of a Murder, Mr Deeds goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Feature - Battle of the Seasons Update

It's time to see how well the ladies have done as we pit the Ladies' Night Season against all of our other pleasant seasons.

12. The Luc Besson Season = 2 (Average rating for the entire season)

11. The Musical Season = 3.2

10. The Sword and Sorcery Season = 4.4

9. The 80s Prison Season = 4.6

8. Year of the Dead = 5.3

6. The Gritty Season = 6.4

4. The Buddy Movie Season = 7

3. The Mark Dacascos Season = 7 

2. The Christmas Season = 7.3

1. The Fog Season = 8

(The Mark Dacascos Season is placed above The Buddy Movie Season due to it having five films in it, compared to The Buddy's three.)

Mid-table obscurity beckons for our ladies with an average score of only 5.4. Nothing to challenge either The Fog Season at the top of the table or lovely Luc Besson who will surely be propping up the bottom of the table for the rest of time. Not sure what the next season is going to be yet but I've got a few ideas...