Sunday, 26 July 2009


Plundering his back catalogue (meow) of characters for the big screen has yielded Sacha Baron Cohen mixed results. Kind of like the attire sported by his latest creation, Brüno, the results have been outrageous, colourful, memorable and offensive, even if, curiously, his best creation, Ali G, didn’t translate to cinemas successfully at all.

Following on the heels of Kazakhstan patriot Borat is the gay Austrian fashionista, for who outrageous is too slight a description. Taking the candid camera, mockudrama concept not one but a hundred steps further into the extreme, Brüno is simply so ridiculous that it very often touches the realm of the sublime.

Whereas the moustachioed, well-intentioned Borat was a somewhat sinister and creepily plausible klutz, Brüno is Cohen’s most OTT creation yet, giving its creator a get-out clause in a sense: when the character is this extreme, you can’t help but laugh – and laugh even more at the people being set up for the fall.

Cohen’s greatest enemy now of course isn’t audience apathy but the fame he has generated for himself. The comedian’s face is now more recognisable than prior to Borat’s release and he has to work three times as hard to make his gaffes work. Of course, all this serves to push the film into more ribald territory.

Following the collapse of his TV show Funkyzeit after an aborted gatecrash of Milan Fashion Week, Brüno leaves his pygmy lover (seen in a series of outrageously explicit clinches at the film’s start) and make it big in Hollywood. Keen to become ‘the biggest Austrian star since Hitler’ and ‘the gayest since Schwarzenegger’, along the way, Brüno has an epiphany of sorts: Hollywood’s successful leading men (including Kevin Spacey) are straight. The mesh-shirted Austrian realises that the key to American success may lie down the heterosexual route...

Cohen’s film makes pertinent political points in amongst all the hilarious so-called sexual ‘deviancy’ by highlighting middle America’s very problem with sexuality in its own right (a great number of Brüno’s targets seem to become angry simply on the reveal that he is homosexual). After the more scattershot (but also more spontaneous) Borat, it’s refreshing to see a more direct message in force here, even if the film does feel more scripted and essentially ‘Hollywood’.

While it’s all to easy to anger Americans by singing an opposing national anthem in the middle of a rodeo as he did previously, here Cohen has done his homework, digging out some more unnerving dupes. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, aspiring parents of hopeful celebrity babies are put through the wringer, being asked if their children are comfortable with lit phosphorous or going seatbelt-less on a speeding motorbike. All of them answer yes with assuredly straight faces.

Elsewhere he baits an all-black audience on a low rent talk show with his adopted black child OJ (‘Madonna’s got one, Angelina’s got one…’); their reaction to what unfolds at the end of the interview, is what’s most telling. Sometimes Cohen forgoes any kind of message in favour of pure shock value, giving invisible fellatio to Milli Vanilli (the film’s most explicit scene, even though everything is imagined) and gate crashing a swingers party in full, erm, swing. This is where, more-so that Borat, Brüno will divide most; it’s certainly more confrontational and full-on, Cohen stooping to astonishing heights of bravery in order to goad his targets. As awful as Bruno is though, it's just impossible to take him seriously... Isn't it?

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Crash! Bang! Wallop (what a video!) The immortal words of Alan Partridge there but ones that can also be applied to Michael 'take some Ritalin and siddown' Bay's latest two and a half hour colossus, Transformers 2.

It's subtitled Revenge of the Fallen. The only revenge on the minds of the audience however should be that being hatched against the director for inflicting such bilge on us. Crammed with the latest CGI Hollywood has to offer, an easy on the eye cast and the luxury of an inflated running time, the tools are there for Bay to lead us into prime blockbuster territory. Instead, he's made an absolute stinker, one of 2009's worst movies thus far.

True the first Transformers (from 2007) hardly qualified as a masterpiece but it was passable fare, elevated by a surprisingly engaging Shia La Beouf performance. This time though, not even La Beouf (with added perma-tan) can draw us into this mess of convulted plotting, aggressive sound design and a frankly insulting lack of aesthetic continuity that jumps from space, to the bottom of the ocean, to college, to France and back again, for the tedious purposes of a papyrus thin narrative.

After the foe of the heroic Autobots, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) was banished to Davy Jones' locker at the end of the first film, humanity has been aided by a crack transformers team, headed by leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), in weeding out remaining Decepticon infiltrators. On hearing the ominous words 'The Fallen is coming' however, Prime is forced to seek out Sam Witwicky (La Beouf), currently upping sticks to college. Will Sam once again team himself with his old allies to battle a new, more powerful enemy?....Well, what do you think?

No more space should be wasted in attempting to unpack the dog of a script, safe to say it won't be the against-the-clock machinations of the plot keeping viewers in suspense; it'll be in knowing how much of the film is left.

True Bay has never been comparable with Bergman and the like but here he appears to have regressed into the state of 12 year old boy with a $200 million budget. Women characters appear to be ogled, nothing more (lip-glossed Megan Fox, returning from the original, first appears in denim shorts draped over a motorbike); two 'hero' transformers speak like black rap artists for no reason, while another speaks like Ray Winstone; the effects are busy but made redundant thanks to shakey close-ups and 'Baymotion' (Bay's annoying emphasis on slo-mo). Throughout there is a baffling lack of, well, entertainment, or even successful humour (humping dogs are randomly thrown in, presumably because that part of the script didn't go through the shredder).

Steven Spielberg should be deeply ashamed of giving executive producer backing to such garbage, especially given that he created what is arguably the finest effects film of the 90s, Jurassic Park. There, Spielberg generated real human investment and tension, and that in what is just a standard monster movie. Here the characters emerge from the Washington Space Museum into a desert. When the director himself can't even notice such howlers for the effect of being stoked on his own adrenaline, he's no longer providing popcorn entertainment; he's stealing the money from our wallets.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Public Enemies

‘I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars….and you. What more do you need to know?’

What indeed. Uttered by an effortlessly charismatic Johnny Depp in the role of public enemy number one, John Dillinger, a similar pithy epithet could be levelled at the whole of Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies. After all, what we're presented with is a historical biopic that seems to skimp on the bio, the history and anything approaching detail.

Ah but those familiar with Mann’s back-catalogue will have seen this coming all along. Enemies is not a historical biopic. In fact, it’s more of a companion piece to Mann’s classic De Niro-Pacino starrer Heat, uncannily so.

It’s 1933; with the Depression biting the American Midwest hard (lending the film a helpful topicality), Dillinger is a successful bank robber making a mockery of the justice system while becoming something of an outlaw hero to the average Joes on the street.

Keen to nip criminal enterprise in the bud, self serving J. Edgar Hoover (a heavily latexed Billy Crudup), instigates a new FBI task force designed to hunt Dillinger down. The man spearheading the operation is dapper Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), killer of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With limited resources but steely resolve, Purvis becomes utterly devoted to catching his man.

Dillinger meanwhile is enjoying the fringe benefits of his dangerous labours, remarking to one of his men, ‘We’re having too much fun today to think about tomorrow’. But, as fate would have it, he finds love with a luminous coat-check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and soon difficult choices have to be made…

Stop when this sounds familiar? Yes, Public Enemies is Heat for the Prohibition era. Director Mann has always marked his movies with singular themes and motifs but Enemies could have been cut from the same celluloid as Heat. Philosophical ruminations on life and death? Candid conversations with a loved one about finding future redemption in an ill-defined destination? A hunter who lives and breathes to catch his quarry? All are present (ideas having also been shared in Last of the Mohicans and Collateral to name but a few).

What makes it fascinating (and prevents it becoming a mere clone) is the combination of the period setting (all chrome cars, bowler hats and Tommy guns) and the striking hi-def cinematography. It is at once a historical film and a film made by Michael Mann (stunning images like a gangster’s muzzle fire illuminating his bullet-ridden body could only come from this most macho of directors).

The clichés and imagery are therefore in place to suggest a standard crime drama but Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti have bolder things to suggest with their pacy, hand-held lensing. It’s almost a documentary snapshot of the time, filtered through the director’s unmistakable sensibility. Let it also be said no-one films (or hears) a gunfight like Mann does: the central forest-based set piece rivals Heat’s street-as-war zone for sheer blow-your-socks-off power.

There are flaws. It’s somewhat too long and rambling, seeming to end about 10 times before it actually does. Bale also suffers with a one dimensional cipher character (although it’s a much, much better, more humane performance than his mechanical turn in Terminator Salvation). Purists will also no doubt have a field day picking out the historical inaccuracies.

Some will also suggest that more focus should go on Dillinger’s gang, especially the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, channelling his vicious This is England energy). But that would be to miss the point. What’s in the background, people, incidents, places, are mere buttresses for Mann’s central relationship between Depp’s Dillinger (refreshingly absent of the actor's usual eccentric quirks) and the outstanding Cotillard as Billie Frechette. When they talk candidly in the dark to the strains of Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score, you almost want them to reach their own little paradise, so electric is the chemistry. Just don’t mention Heat. Oh….