Sunday, 27 July 2014

Review - Brotherhood (2004 - Dir. Je-gyu Kang)

Undeniably epic, Brotherhood is a second dip into the dark, vast pool of Korean cinema and an enjoyable enough experience it is too. As with all war films, you’ve got to ask where it sits in relation to Band of Brothers, Private Ryan and Days of Glory? The film aspires to this level of greatness, but somehow fails, with the end result something weirder and at times more interesting, but not always in a good way.

There’s a definite touch of reality on show here. Soldiers, civilians, children and animals are blasted with bullets, bombs and copious amounts of blood. The only people immune from the flying shrapnel are apparently the two brothers at the heart of the film. They walk through the battlefields seemingly invincible, like east Asian versions of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. It makes for a preposterous viewing experience and adds a sense of unreality that permeates the whole film.

And here lies the main problem with the film. On the one hand it attempts to illustrate the true horrors of war (and for the extras it certainly succeeds), but on the other hand there’s the epic almost supernatural tale of the two brothers that veers from over the top joyfulness usually only witnessed in musicals, to full scale anti-communist propaganda. It’s an odd mix of fairy tale, human drama and bloody conflict that almost never gels.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of positives; the scale of some of the battle scenes is awe inspiring for starters. The acting of the two brothers (Jang Dong-Gun and Won Bin) is over the top, but never less than convincing, with younger brother Jin-seok displaying excellent character development as the film progresses. There’s moving scenes, especially when the anti-communist vigilantes grab Kim Young-shin, there’s dismay in the hospital scenes and complete abandonment in the finale. It’s enough to power you through the film without questioning the overarching oddness of the experience.

It’s not a great film, but it’s interesting and definitely different from the standard combat offerings. With low expectations and a pinch of salt it’s more than moderately entertaining and thought provoking. However be prepared for the ‘there’s something not quite right here’ feeling from beginning to end.

If you like this you could also try:
Days of Glory, Assembly, My Way.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review - Smart People (2008 - Dir. Noam Murro)

Probably not one of Ellen Page's most well known films - in fact, I'd never heard of it - and despite the fact that I was hoping Super was going to be randomly selected, this is the film I've got to watch and review for her second round match against Radha Mitchell whose entry only received a not very good 3/10 (Melinda and Melinda). 

So here we go. Wait a minute, it's got Sarah Jessica Parker in it. I have a not completely irrational dislike of Parker. I saw one episode of Sex and the City and despised it. Nevertheless, I will enter this review with an open mind. An open mind ready to slate Parker.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid - shame it wasn't Randy Quaid, purely to give me an excuse to type the word 'Randy' and if Randy Wayne (Hold Your Breath) had been in it too, I probably would have died from a nasty bout of giddiness) erm, where was I? That last brackety bit was way too long. Ah yes, Lawrence Wetherhold is a professor who witters on and on about literature (but not the name Randy) and gets a bit too academic. His wife has died relatively recently and he lives with his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) and his unwelcome adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Due to an unfortunate accident he meets one of his ex-students (Parker) who just so happened to have had a crush on him back in the day. Romantic happenings happen.

I bet even now you know the whole plot. And you've probably got it bang on. But, in a similar fashion to horror films, it's how you get there that matters, and the characters are all important in this film.

I like Dennis Quaid. He's a bit of an unsung hero of films. Recently I've seen him in Flight of the Phoenix, Horsemen and this. And he's been pretty solid in all of them. He's spot on here with his pompous behaviour and total lack of any lady wooing skills (he doesn't even wink and click). His character does undergo a change, as you'd expect, but it's a lot more subtle than in most films of this ilk.

Ellen Page, for once, plays a different character from her usual quirky teenager type. So different in fact that she takes her dead mum's clothes to a charity shop just so that she can get a tax break. Plus she's got a picture of Ronald Reagan in her bedroom. As a consequence, she's not as likeable as she usually is. But it makes a change from her normal performances. It will be interesting to see the roles she gets in later life and watch how her acting talents develop.

The front cover of the DVD makes Thomas Haden Church's character look like a comedy uncle who is incredible fun and really wacky and zany (a bit like Russ Abbot), the sort of comedy character that makes you want to peel your eyeballs with an angle grinder (again, a bit like Russ Abbot). Mais non! He's actually funny, but again in a subtle, dry way. His humour is very dry and he doesn't have to resort to gurning to get a laugh. A way better performance than the cover would suggest.

Parker. Here she comes. Dragging the proceedings down as usual. And she does. But it's not her fault. All of the other characters fit together well: Quaid and Church look like they could be brothers and Page does a grand job being the daughter (her brother crops up too, but not very often). Although Parker's performance is a little dull and she seems severely uninterested at times, she's not actually too bad. I didn't hate her completely after seeing this. The real problem here is that there is zero chemistry between her and Quaid. Due to this lack of chemistry it seems completely preposterous that they would ever get together, especially after his behaviour at the start of the film. Something went badly wrong at the casting stage.

Luckily it doesn't completely break the film. There's enough going on to keep the interest for the entire running time. I've actually watched it twice recently and I wasn't that keen initially but it's definitely grown on me. Easily enough for Ellen Page to cruise through into the semi-finals of the FA Cup of Actors.

If you like this you could also try:
Juno, The East, Super.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Review - Livid (2011 - Dir. Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury)

I need to recap on three points that I've wittered on about in previous reviews:

  • I don't like vampires and I don't like vampire films. Probably Near Dark is the best of a bad bunch.
  • I don't like flashbacks. I'd rather get on with the story rather than get back story. Prometheus was a complete waste of time for me.
  • I don't like horror films that fall foul of all of the usual cliches (as opposed to the unusual cliches?): irritating characters that behave in stupid ways and who deserve to die.
So here we have Livid, a vampire film, littered with vampires and populated with irritating characters that behave in stupid ways. I'm possibly not the best person to review this and you may think that a low score beckons. Yet no. Something saves Livid from a minuscule rating: that all important atmosphere.

Lucie (Chloé Coulloud) takes on a job as a carer for pensioners in their own homes. She is shown the ropes by Catherine Wilson, another carer who seems to be distinctly uncaring. They visit a creepy looking house where Mrs Jessel resides, an old lady in a coma. Wilson lets slip that the house contains hidden treasure. Later in the pub, Lucie tells the story to her irritating boyfriend William who decides, along with Ben (also irritating), that breaking into the spooky house and thieving the treasure sounds like a smashing idea. Reluctantly Lucie goes along with this (in a just about non-irritating fashion) and off they trot for some pilfering fun.

The above makes it sound that Lucie isn't too bad. And she isn't. She's one of the strong points of the film despite falling into the stupid category, "Hey baby, let's split up. I'm only going to search a dark room that contains a bizarre tea party tableau where the partcipants are all evil looking stuffed animals with a tendency to swivel their heads in a creepy creaky style. But don't worry, I'll take a torch." Okay, she doesn't quite say those words, but she may as well. Despite this I found myself caring for her plight. 

Going back to stupidity. The funniest stupid moment is when one of the characters get savagely attacked by someone who is obviously a wrong 'un. Rather than screaming, he tells the attacker to: "Cut it out." In a similar vein he could have tried to repel his aggressor by saying, "Hey mate, calm down," or better still, "Whoa there cowboy!" 

Has this done anything to improve on the whole vampire mythos? It tries a different approach that is marginally more interesting than the usual frilly shirt wearing romantically minded blood-guzzler. It's got some pretty nifty make-up effects and there is maybe one shot of the house at night that shows why they can't escape that impressed me mightily, but still, on the whole there's nothing that really sells vampires to me. 

The things that pulls Livid back from the brink, although they're not enough to give it an above average rating, are the textures and the lighting. Working together, they produce a pretty creepy atmosphere, not up there with Silent Hill, but not too bad either. This allowed the more irritating aspects to wash over me. The production designer and cinematographer both need a pat on the back for filling the screen with textures designed to be dirty, grimy and dusty. Admittedly, the house is sometimes lit by a ubiquitous torch but as Alien proves, it's better not to show too much. Inside, by the same directors, looked a little bit cheap. With the production values on show, this at least looks like it had a budget. 

Something that would have made Livid even better is some great music. The Beyond is generally stupid with paper thin characters and a daft plot, yet it's got a stunning atmosphere which is created through the visuals and the music. It all adds up to one of my favourite films (hence my 10/10 rating). Not that the music in Livid is bad, it's just instantly forgettable.

So for a vampire film filled with cliches and flashbacks it hasn't done too bad.

If you like this you could also try:
Here Comes the Devil, Silent Hill.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Review - Melinda and Melinda (2004 - Dir. Woody Allen)

Radha Mitchell managed to get through the first round of the FA Cup of Actors despite a relatively poor showing: 3/10 for Surrogates and 4/10 for Thick as Thieves. Her second round opponent, Ellen Page, has had a good rest since her first entry but Mitchell is thrown straight back into the action with Melinda and Melinda. Will those tired legs let her down or will quality shine through?

Directed by Woody Allen, Melinda and Melinda looks at what happens when you tell essentially the same story as a tragedy or a comedy (it's not exactly the same story but we'll come back to that later). It's all a little bit Sliding Doors and it gives Radha Mitchell a chance to show off her acting chops. Her performance is probably the most impressive thing about this film. Although it's impressive on a technical rather than an engagement level. She plays the two Melinda's in different ways: one is a likeable friendly lady who has problems but is getting on with life, the other is an irritating smoking obsessed curly haired neurotic. Yet the writing didn't lead to me particularly care about either of them.

The story starts with Melinda crashing her friends' dinner party. She's had a bad time with her relationship and needs a place to stay. Her buddies try to set her up with a lucky fellow. But obviously things aren't that simple.

As you can see from above, the story is pretty slight. This is a consequence of the fact that it's told twice. My problem with Melinda and Melinda is that the tragedy isn't that tragic and the comedy, while the better of the two, isn't that funny. In my mind a tragedy should have a really bleak ending, worse than the majority of things that generally happen in real life. Yet here the ending is a tad too pleasant for my liking despite being the downer that tragedies require. It also cheats on the endings because the finale of the comedy is upbeat. I would have liked to have seen exactly the same story told in the two different ways.

The comedy is okay but only ever managed to squeeze a smile out of me (rather than the belly laughs that The Sleeper promotes). I never like the idea of watching Will Ferrell in films. I don't know why but I'm not that keen. Yet I've liked him in the only two films that I've ever seen him in: Elf and this. I never said I wasn't highly irrational. All the way through his performance I could picture Woody Allen: the writing and Ferrell's delivery add up to a quality Woody Allen impression. This was probably the role Allen would have played in the days when he feasibly could have wooed Radha Mitchell.

One upside of Melinda and Melinda is that it has dispelled the horrible visions of Mitchell dancing with Banderas in Thick as Thieves. Here she gets to dance again, with another slimy character, but it's not disturbing in the slightest. This shows that the blame lies squarely at the unmoving feet of Banderas.

To surmise, Melinda and Melinda fails to deliver as either a tragedy or a comedy. And as a drama it fails too due to a lack of empathy for the characters. It seems that playing too many games in a short space of time has led to some serious crampage for Radha Mitchell. It's likely now that the semi-final beckons for Ellen Page (unless Inception or X-Men: The Last Stand come up that is).

If you like this you could also try:
Sleeper, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review - Bustin' Down the Door (2009 - Dir. Jeremy Gosch)

The cover promises a colossal rumble combining gangsters, grittiness and surfing, all narrated by Edward Norton. Sadly, it only delivers on the surfing and the Norton narration. This is a low key TV style documentary that charts the rise of surf culture and professional surfing on the beaches of Hawaii in the 1970’s. There’s a bit of ‘handbags’ at one stage, but no shots are fired and the whole thing hardly registers on the gritty scale. That being said, why did I end up enjoying the experience as much as I did?

This is a world I never knew existed. The main characters are now middle aged men, but have lost none of the cocksure bravado that made them surf pioneers, and they tell the story with a passion and optimism that drags you into their tiny little world. Suddenly, Rabbit Bartholomew, PT Townend and Mark Richards are your best buddies as they reminisce about more innocent times and an attitude that revolutionised the sport. It’s not unlike several of your favourite uncles telling tall tales about their youthful exploits, but in a specialised field that no-one else cares about, for instance taxidermy, teabag folding (I care about teabag folding, it's great - evlkeith) or extreme couponing.

There’s some pretty impressive surfing footage of the aforementioned middle aged heroes in their pomp. They do all kinds of tricky moves that I didn’t fully appreciate, usually in slow motion and more often than not, emerging from the inside the heart of a wave, and it’s impressive and often beautiful for the first one hundred times, but thereafter starts to lose its appeal. Don’t get your hopes up, there’s no gritty violence on show, no-one gets bitten by a shark or even stung by a jelly fish. This is documentary making of the slower paced variety, even by the standards of Werner Herzog, although admittedly less interesting.

There are basically only two reasons you’ll like this film; a) you love surfing, or b) you are a sad middled age man and can empathise with these guys as they tell their preposterous tales from their forgotten youth. Watch with non-existent expectations and you may be surprised.

If you like this you could also try:
Waveriders, The Endless Winter - A Very British Surf Movie