Saturday, 27 February 2010

Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane opens on a supreme moment of badassery: James Purefoy's charismatic mercenary dangling a poor sap by the throat at swordpoint. It effectively sums up the adolescent tone of this puerile but slickly unpretentious actioner, one that delves with aplomb into Robert E. Howard's pulp scribblings.

Purefoy's Kane, it turns out, owes his soul to the devil for some murky reason hiding in his past. Having renounced violence for fear of being damned to hell, he is eventually spurned into action once again when the forces of the evil priest Malachi kidnap the daughter of a family he's fallen in with. Yep, it's as ragbag a mix as that synopsis suggests, a fantastical brew of the plague, the Middle ages, dastardly baddies and sword n' sorcery.

Yet director Michael J. Basset (Deathwatch) keeps things pleasingly straight-laced in face of the inanity. Although the budget is low, the effects move along at a fair clip and there's a refreshing sense of nastiness in the bloodier sequences (one especially brutal dispatch near the start will evoke gasps). Perfect for ramping up that vital sense of good vs evil, eh?

But there's more than a whiff of familiarity about the whole scenario...and we all know what that breeds. Being so heavily indebted to 80s fantasy classics like Conan (also based on Howard), and Willow, means Kane inevitably feels like a wannabe riding its coat-tails, a fan dressed to the nines in his favourite fantasy costume. It's Conan's 'me man-you woman' stupidity revisited without a shred of irony, although there's plenty of colourful support from old-hands Pete Postlethwaite and Jason Flemyng.

The most pleasing thing of course will be the increased profile of Purefoy himself, a stalwart of British television who's long deserved his moment in the spotlight. Clad in black hat and cape and alternating evangelism with evisceration, he is a terrific screen presence. In these murky times of foggy morality, we forget how refreshing it is to have a hero who couldn't be clearer about which side he fights for.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Lovely Bones

It's unfortunate but Peter Jackson's adap of The Lovely Bones is a mess. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Jackson has made a colossal misjudgment but perhaps it's the effects-laden approach to material that needs feet on the ground...

Is intimacy the director's greatest adversary? Can he only paint humanity on the grandest scale, a la Lord of the Rings? Regardless, it doesn't work when tackling Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel, the story of 70's schoolgirl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who is raped and murdered by neighbour George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), although the film mercifully skips over the former. The novel's focus then shifts to her family, struggling to cope in the aftermath, while Susie narrates the tale from an in-between state.

The film's complete and utter failure to deal effectively with the challenging subject matter renders it somewhat tasteless. The fantasy sequences, sparse in the novel, now dominate, an ostentatious world of burnished cornfields, expanses of water and rampant shifts in the laws of physics. Does it look pretty? Sure. Does it tell us anything we need to know? Zip. Jackson is like a kid with a Christmas toy but his passion refuses to translate into anything beyond superficial. Likewise, although he evokes the period setting well-enough on Earth, it doesn't go anywhere beyond a few iffy haircuts (one scene where Susie escapes into a heaven-sent 70s magazine is unbearably tawdry, and symptomatic of all that is wrong with the film).

What makes it more frustrating is he has all the ingredients in place, chiefly an excellent cast, whom he fails to utilise at any level. The actors in the Earthly sections are washed-up flotsam and jetsam, entirely privy to the director's box checking. Mad dotty granny (Susan Sarandon)? Check. Mother who can't cope with trauma? Gold star. Eventual unspooling of the killer in ham-fisted fashion? You got it. Sarandon, Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz (as the parents) are utterly neglected. The complex mix of story strands, from Susie's desire for a first kiss to her sister's burgeoning sexuality becomes a collection of CGI sticks thrown into the wind.

It's not entirely without merit. Ronan as Susie does brilliantly battling against the tyrannical effects, a human heart in a plastic torso. Tucci also excels in a brave role as the unbearably sinister killer, although someone should tell Jackson that 'evil' (with Dr Evil-style raised finger to lip) doesn't consist of people staring out of doorways in every other scene. In the end though, The Lovely Bones' mangled attempt to convey feelings of grief, loss and redemption feel disappointingly skeletal.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Brits and The Hurt Locker win BAFTA Gold

Big congratulations are in order to all of tonight's BAFTA winners, manfully striving through Jonathan Ross' awful jokes and Vanessa Redgrave's interminable fellowship speech. Special big congrats from me go to Colin Firth, finally getting the material he deserves (work with Tom Ford again, Colin! Be sure the fridge man continues to pop around!) and Up, Pixar's latest masterpiece. The main talking point of course will be The Hurt Locker, scooping six gongs from under the nose of Avatar, including Director for Kathryn Bigelow. Is this indicative of the Brits' willingness to let more challenging material into the movie mainstream? The full list of winners is below

The Hurt Locker

Fish Tank

Duncan Jones

Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker

Mark Boal - The Hurt Locker

Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner - Up In The Air

A Prophet


Colin Firth - A Single Man

Carey Mulligan - An Education

Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

Mo'Nique - Precious

Michael Giacchino - Up

Barry Ackroyd - The Hurt Locker

Bob Murawski, Chris Innis - The Hurt Locker

Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg, Kim Sinclair - Avatar

Sandy Powell - Young Victoria

Ray Beckett, Paul N. J. Ottosson, Craig Stauffer - The Hurt Locker

Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andrew R. Jones - Avatar

Jenny Shircore - Young Victoria

Mother Of Many

I Do Air

Kristen Stewart

Friday, 19 February 2010

Anyone For a Film - Podcast 3

Dive beneath the waves, dress in a dapper suit and watch hairy Benicio Del Toro become even hairier in this weeks eclectic round-up of Ponyo, A Single Man and The Wolfman. With added BAFTA coverage!

Anyone For a Film Podcast 3.mp3

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Reel Retrospective: Midnight Run (1988): The Most Useless Bounty Hunters You've Ever Seen

Way back in 1988, another decade was ending...and Robert De Niro went out with a bang. Not with The Untouchables, no, no, no. Instead, he delivered his finest ever comic performance in Martin Brest's wonderful, and frustratingly little-heralded, Midnight Run.

It's enough to banish the memory of his tedious self-parodying in the Meet the Parents films. Indeed the entire key to Midnight Run is how straight De Niro plays the role: distance the character from nervy embezzler Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) and De Niro's Jack Walsh could slide quite easily into any number of violent, tough-talking thrillers.

But of course, it's the razor-sharp chemistry between De Niro and Grodin that ultimately keeps the movie buoyant - and ensures the former is on hilariously grumpy form for the duration. His Walsh is a veteran LA bounty hunter and former cop, with an ex-wife and daughter in Chicago. Contemplating retirement, his weaselly bookie/manager (Joe Pantoliano) persuades him to take a thankless job: a 'midnight run' to New York in order to pick up Grodin's embezzler, in trouble with Dennis Farina's menacing crimelord. All Walsh has to do, is bring Mardukas in and earn his paycheque...

Except when is anything ever that simple? No sooner has Walsh discovered Mardukas suffers from aviaphobia and won't fly (not even 'fistophobia' is a threat) than other disparate bands pick up their trail, including Farina's thugs, Yaphet Kotto's FBI agent Moseley (whose identity Walsh has stolen) and John Ashton's rival bounty hunter, Marvin. So begins a gripping and rib-tickling cross country chase as everyone battles to bring in their man.

The central 'bromance' (if you will) is of course the classic tale of burgeoning friendship between tough-talking De Niro and dry Grodin. George Gallo's witty script abounds in their foul-mouthed repartee ('Here come two words for you...shut the f**k up') while also digging out real pathos as Walsh vies with the notion he is selling his friend for yet more greenbacks. The fact the two men hate each other for much of the journey lends it a brilliantly caustic edge, and the clash between two very different types of actor is a joy to watch. Danny Elfman's atypically groovy score is also another real highlight.

The attention to detail waiting in the wings springs further unexpected pleasures. Every single scumbag and sleazeball is brilliantly drawn and guaranteed at least one line that will bring the house down. Notable examples include Kotto's miserable FBI agent always one step behind Walsh ('Is everyone at the FBI called Moseley?') to Farina's nasty piece of work ('Is this Moron Number One? Put Moron Number Two on the phone'). Gallo and Brest's obvious delight in fleshing out the archetypal buddy movie structure is plain to see, and there's a healthy sprinking of action as it nears the Vegas-set showdown.

Indeed, the final reels build tension astonishingly well for a mainstream comedy but it's the heartfelt mutual respect developed between two opposites that resonates the most. As Jonathan says to Jack, 'In another life...we probably would still have hated each other'. Are we going to see that 'other life' find its way to our cinema screens? It's a comedy scenario that, for once, is much warranted.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Anyone For a Film - Podcast 2

On the cards this week are reviews of Invictus (is the sequel, Benylin, due?), Precious and A Prophet...Plus a look at some 80s favourites due for a return to the silver screen...

Monday, 8 February 2010

Anyone For a Film - Podcast 1

Hello all and welcome to the inaugural Anyone for a Film Podcast (remember you were here, it's history in the making...). In this first edition I cast my eye over the 2010 cinematic year, and there's a bit of Jerry Goldsmith magic too...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Edge of Darkness

The 2009 version of Edge of Darkness marks two, much vaunted returns: that of director Martin Campbell to his 1985 TV springboard and Mel Gibson to the role of leading man. Yep, this is Martin Riggs' first time in front of the cameras since Signs, believe it or not.

Which of course has the unfortunate effect of exchanging atmosphere for star wattage. The original Edge is hailed as a milestone in British television, scooping six BAFTA's for its efforts. Now, we have steely, glowering Gibson in place of Bob Peck on a substandard, Taken-esque rampage around the less memorable, modern streets of Massachusetts. In place of the Thatcher-era, Eric Clapton/Michael Kamen scored nuclear intrigue of the original, here everything appears predictably slick and, well, ordinary.

Compressed into a two hour timeframe, there are echoes of last years State of Play, where several edges had to be trimmed and simplified from the source. Gibson is Thomas Craven, Boston police officer who, not long after he has welcomed his daughter home, sees her shot dead on the front porch. Delving into her mysterious recent history, he uncovers chilling corporate intrigue and conspiracy...

And that's as dynamic as it gets. The film is as one-note and predictable as Gibson's barely contained anger. He's done this thing loads of times before, not having a tremendous range, and, in fairness, he's rarely let off the leash enough here to give the film a much needed manic burst of energy. There are some striking moments - a horribly well timed car accident and a shot of a silhouetted Gibson, edge of darkness and all - but its all by-rote.

What's most frustrating is this familiarity has clearly been imposed from above - John Corigliano's reputedly stunning score was tossed post-production in favour of Howard Shore's mainstream, though no less effective, rumblings, making one salivate in thought of what could have been. Likewise Ray Winstone as shady operative Jedburgh is easily the best thing but seems to belong in another film altogether - his Cockney accented, wine quaffing ambivalence hinting at something wittier, smarter.

Then we get to the pervasive influence of Gibson himself. Although not directing, the themes of catharsis through violence and ham-handed religious redemption as seen in The Passion of the Christ and others have somehow again crept in. You can take Mel out of the film it seems, but you can't take the faith out of Mel...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Return of Sci-fi?

So the Oscar noms are in...and bar the usual nasty surprises (no Foreign Language nod for Let the Right One In?), genre fans must at least take pleasure in the recognition given to both Avatar and District 9.

Was 2009 the year that science fiction made a comeback? Serious, intelligent science fiction that is a smash with audiences while also gaining artistic acceptance? The respective picture/screenplay nods for the above would seem to indicate yes.

Pity about Star Trek, though....

Monday, 1 February 2010

Shutter Island: Scorsese's New Masterpiece?

So, with the recent news that Martin Scorsese's adap of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island has been moved back to March, film fans couldn't have their patience tested further. Cos believe me, having just finished the story, in the hands of a cinema master, this could be the latest benchmark in psychological terror.

Lehane's novel is the tale of two Federal Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) who are summoned to an eerie, isolated mental hospital to investigate the disappearance of a notorious murderess. Or are they? The sinister hospital staff, headed by Ben Kingsley, seem to have other plans...

In truth, the prose is shallow - an airport potboiler at best - but the mashing together of several distinct genres, from 50s hardboiled fiction to psychological drama to Gothic, is ambitious. It promises immense things once in the hands of Scorsese. One of the true pioneers of cinema as a visual medium, the book's abundance of storm-swept isolation, chilling dream sequences and heady misdirection have already proven fodder for the director, says Ruffalo, describing it as 'Scorsese's playground'.

So, can he turn an enjoyable, if slight, pulp paperback into terrifying art, a la Orson Welles and Touch of Evil? The evidence is all there to make it so...