Tuesday, 28 September 2010


'From an early age, my mother always told me about the devil...' OK that quote's paraphrased somewhat but, as a piece of opening narration, it tells you one thing absolute: we're in ponderous, patronising M. Night Shyamalan territory, where brows are never furrowed enough, and where the brood is put in brooding. Yes, it's Devil, his new film as co-writer and producer but, crucially, not as director. What it is, is the first from his Night Chronicles production label, proposing supernatural events in banal, contemporary scenarios.

It starts with a flamboyant credits sequence that, oddly, is the most memorable thing in the film (bar the aforementioned 'Book at Bedtime' sanctimony). Gliding across an expense of water, we track upwards to view the Philadelphia cityscape upended, the skyscrapers all pointing downwards like the swords of Damocles. Accompanied by Fernando Velazquez's thunderingly Herrmannesque score, it's a bracingly off-kilter way to begin, but perhaps inevitably, everything that follows fails to scale such unpredictable heights. Instead, it's content to cook up a moderately fiery premise: five strangers, trapped in a lift, who find that Satan is among them.

Of course, it's preceded in typically eccentric Shyamalan fashion by a poor sap leaping off the towerblock in which the people find themselves stuck. And of course, only Chris Messina's troubled cop (he lost his wife and child in a car accident, you see) can save them. Meanwhile, within 5 seconds of the monitor going a bit fuzzy, Jacob Vargas' god-fearing security guard (he of the dreaded narration) is raving fire and brimstone about the presence of Lucifer. God forbid he experience the iffy Freeview TV service in the UK.

In the end, it's Shyamalan's absence behind the camera that saves Devil from being a complete disaster. For all the turgid, bombastic qualities inherent in Mr Sixth Sense's script (co-written with Hard Candy's Brian Nelson), helmer John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) just about manages to keep it afloat as a competent Friday night chiller, bringing a degree of visual economy to the table and playing efficiently (if not spectacularly) on widespread fears.

He largely keeps Shyamalan's irritating emphasis on wide-eyed symbolism in-check, but nevertheless has to compete with his compadre's screenplay that threatens to pull it into ever more convoluted territory (Is it a morality tale? Has everyone in the lift been gathered for a reason? Are the people in the back getting it?) Nevertheless it's brisk at 80 minutes, there are some witty jokes early on when the real threat appears to be from the omnipotent muzak, and the performances are solid, even when the tone is haphazard. While it's not exactly heaven-sent, Devil is far from hellish.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Other Guys

The Other Guys aims to riff on the classic buddy cop formula. In fact, the real team machinations are the ones going on behind the scenes. It is, after all, the latest from the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay stable, film making pals who have cornered the market in the part-improvised mainstream bromance comedy. Anchorman is arguably still the funniest thing they've done - to the extent that everything else has felt like leftovers. The Other Guys, sadly, does nothing to change that.

It's a peculiar waste of potential. Rather than take newly minted satirical potshots at this most lampooned of genres, it chooses, frustratingly, to instead hang Ferrell's now tired passive-aggressive routine and familiar in-jokes on the cops and robbers framework. What then, does this have to distinguish itself from efforts like Step Brothers and Anchorman? In truth, zip. Guys largely fires blanks, aside from a moderately engaging opening that features two characters who unfortunately don't survive beyond the first act.

They are embodied with zeal by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, as, respectively, Highsmith and Danson. Passing off millions of dollars worth of damage in the opening credits sequence, which sees them collaring criminals by ploughing a car into a bus, as small fry compared to the service they've provided New York, these are the guys heralded as heroes back in the precinct. Then we're introduced to the eponymous 'other guys': mild desk jockey Allen Gamble (Ferrell, who may be channelling a quieter character but is exactly the same in every other aspect) and louder, brasher Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), who hates the restrictive nature of office work, imposed as a punishment for having plugged baseball star Derek Jeter in the line of duty (that joke fails to cross the pond successfully).

Both Gamble and Hoitz are then forced to step up the plate when their heroes unexpectedly depart the film in a bizarre scene that strives for a kind of surreal wit that's way above the material. Taking up their investigation, both Ferrell's meek accountant and Wahlberg's twitchy man of action trace leads to shady British businessman David Ershon (Steve Coogan). This is where the film starts to unravel quicker than the proverbial string at the metaphorical cat show. The indications are strong that Ferrell and Wahlberg will make a good team and energise the film after its subversive opening. But after the initial sheen has worn off (Ferrell, initially, represses his emotions; Wahlberg channels his Departed character and shouts - a lot), a niggling feeling starts to settle that all of this is far too complacent for its own good.

And, annoyingly, those doubts are well founded, with a roll call of jokes either cribbed from recent successful comedies, or new ones simply repeated ad nauseum. Hence Ferrell gets to finally unleash his manic energy and scream in Coogan's face in a variation on the good cop, bad cop; while an initially promising pairing between Ferrell and impossibly smoking Eva Mendes as his wife eventually outstays its welcome. Wahlberg's deadpan bemusement at unfolding events simply isn't enough to sustain the frequent periods of slack, smug familiarity, especially when supporting players like Coogan and Michael Keaton (as the police captain who also works at Bed, Bath and Beyond) are utterly neglected.

So what happened? Is it a product of poor editing? Were the best bits cut out, to form a separate DVD a la The Legend of Ron Burgundy? The bizarrely out of place presence of political statistics over the end credits would certainly seem to indicate yes. Frankly guys, you may be slapping each other on the back once the cameras have stopped rolling...but don't expect us to unconditionally give out our love from the cinema.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Having whipped up a storm on the European art-house front, the big-screen adaptation of the first book in late author Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was released to much acclaim in the UK earlier this year. Now, the franchise thunders on apace with its follow-up, The Girl Who Played with Fire, expanding, in classic sequel fashion, on both the characters and the global underbelly of sexual violence that Dragon Tattoo disturbingly eked out.

There's just one vital thing missing: atmosphere. Dragon Tattoo, for all its flaws (namely clunky plotting stemming from the baggy novel) wove a darkly intoxicating world in that classic, dour Swedish fashion, where any number of snowy, chilly landscapes is well-matched in the haunting, austere close-ups of its leading actors. This time round, what new director Daniel Alfredson (taking over from Niels Arden Oplev) gains in pace, he loses in credibility. So relentless is the onslaught of revelations, double-crosses and cupboard skeletons that it threatens to become laughable.

Thank goodness then for the leads, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, reprising their roles as, respectively, enigmatic hacker Lisbeth Salander, and the world weary journalist, Mikael Blomkvist. This time around, steely, tenacious Salander returns to Sweden from her excursions abroad, to remind her repulsive rapist guardian, Bjurman (Peter Andersson) of the importance of submitting appropriate behavioral reports. It's when she's back on native soil that a newly employed journalist at Blomkvist's Millennium Magazine is found murdered, one who had been investigating apparent sex trafficking. When Salander is fingered for both his and Bjurman's deaths, she is forced to go on the run and delve into her own torturous past, one that had previously been just hinted at in horrific, fiery dribs and drabs.

While Salander learns horrifying truths about her own upbringing, on another front, Blomkvist makes ever more repulsive psycho-sexual discoveries, the likes of which have formed Salander's icy, mechanical resolve towards men. It's a potent brew, and Alfredson's compressed narrative isn't quite up to the task, betraying its made-for-TV origins. By the time a Dolph Lundgren lookalike turns up, unable to feel pain, one expects Salander to raise a Roger Moore-style eyebrow. It's never quite able to rise like a proud phoenix from the ashes, instead just barely coming to the boil. There's smoke, but no real fire - except when it comes to the performances.

Residing over it all is the magnificent Rapace, who gives arguably the breakout female performance of the year: afflicted but never a victim; sexy but not sexualised; who receives no quarter and gives none in return. In spite of the overwrought nonsense cluttering up this second entry, Salander is the moral heart of the piece, a wonderfully potent creation and a subtle one too. Rapace seizes the role with open arms, moving beyond mere cosmetic alterations to expose the concerns at the heart of Larsson's work. It's just a shame that the story contrives to largely keep her and the suitably understated Nyqvist apart, distancing us from that core of humanity needed increasingly as the plotting becomes ever more overheated.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

John Williams Spreading His Magic for Final Potter

Well, this news will be music to the ears of Harry Potterites and Muggles alike - John Williams is returning to do the score for Deathly Hallows Part II! To be perfectly frank, I never thought I'd see the day, so firmly ensconced was I in the belief that Williams, in his advancing years, would remain exclusively faithful both to main collaborator Steven Spielberg and his concert work. Given his terrific, bracing score for Azkaban (Williams was clearly energised by Alfonso Cuaron's spirited direction that, for a non-Potter fan like me, lifted the film from a series of stilted line-readings into gripping drama), I'm sure film score fans, Potter fans and general audiences alike are relishing the return of the world's most famous score composer to the fold. Can he conjure up a masterpiece to stand alongside classics like Jaws, ET, Raiders, Jurassic Park and the like? We shall see. In the meantime, we have Alexandre Desplat's upcoming effort for Deathly Hallows I to look forward too, a composer whose work I very much admire.

Here's the full story:


Monday, 13 September 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

There's a wonderful moment in Edgar Wright's landmark pop-culture series Spaced where Simon Pegg's Tim and Jessica Hynes' Daisy are squabbling over his love-life. Intercut with the frenetic, chop socky action of Tekken III on Tim's Playstation, Daisy appears to gain the upper-hand in their verbal jousting, her image pixellating in front of us and a portentous voiceover announcing: 'Daisy Steiner - WINS!'

It's the kind of fantastically witty blend of plausible reality and cinematic/videogame universe that has since become Wright's stock in-trade, continuing with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But imagine that one scene blown up to fit to an entire film - and one comes closer to understanding the surrealism of Wright's latest, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Adapted from Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels (which have been compressed to suit the narrative), it's wish fulfillment for adolescents who want the jocks and frat guys to dissolve into extra lives after a firm right hook, before walking away with the girl.

Far more than Spaced or either of Wright's preceding films, Pilgrim's appeal is far more specific to a particular audience; one can sense the generational divides forming in the cinema itself. It perhaps lacks truly global appeal, being located entirely within its own heady universe that will alienate as many as it will entice. Box office takings have subsequently proved slim in the USA alone. That it works at all is testament to Wright's firm handle on proceedings, from visual and verbal wit, to casting to the obvious respect for the source material. For those on the right side of the fence, Pilgrim is terrifically entertaining.

Superbad's Michael Cera is a refreshingly deadpan cert in the title role, an invigorating, offbeat contrast to the colourful kookiness that erupts around him. We begin with his aspiring rocker Scott Pilgrim enjoying a tentative relationship with 17 year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Giddy at the slightly unsavoury notion of dating a high-schooler, his muse, gay roommate Kieran Culkin, is somewhat more cynical, as are his bandmates and sister Anna Kendrick. But Pilgrim's life is turned upside down when the girl of his dreams manifests herself - literally, at a party: luridly follicled Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), coming over all Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine.

So begins a whirlwind romance...Before Ramona drops the bombshell that Pilgrim will have to defeat her seven evil exes (not simply ex-boyfriends, a great running gag) in battle. Swallow this without a burp as do the film's characters, and you've pierced its armour, able to relish Wright's energetic pacy direction that may mark the most successful fusion of live action and comic book to date. Phones ring onomotopoeically; fists connect with faces to exaggerated 'POW' effects; and metaphorical battles are cleverly visualised in lavish CGI.

It's a film that forces one to accept it on its own terms but thankfully Wright has assembled an excellent cast that provide a much needed sense of stability, particularly in the supporting arena, where Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman (as the videogame 'Boss' figure behind the whole Evil Ex scheme) and Johnny Simmons are noteworthy standouts. As a skewed coming of age romance filtered through the world of Nintendo and Sega, Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall's confidence and perception is notable, not to mention their understanding of their core audience. Yet it's undeniable that what Wright has gained in budget and visual lustre he may have traded in universal appeal; time will tell if a cult following is due. For the moment, on the global scale of 'No Clue - Get's It', place Wright's oddball, energetic effort right in the middle.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Secret In Their Eyes

Cinema is often compared to the process of memory. Perhaps it's the mapped sequence of events that subconsciously speaks of birth, life and death, existence captured within a cinema lens within a limited time frame. Often though, cinema's used as an excuse to blow up as much stuff as possible, at a cost that would cripple a Third World country. The Secret In Their Eyes, in all its velvety, leisurely glory, falls very much into the former camp; if ever a contemporary film could be said to both draw on, and reflect, the power of memory itself, this is it - and there's nary an explosion in sight.

Right from the opening scenes, Eyes weaves a rich, engrossing spell. Amid a dazzling mix of shutter speeds and frame rates, only Ricardo Darin's world-weary justice official Benjamin Esposito and his great love Irene (Soledad Villamil) are perceptible among the blurry masses on a train station. Then there are the eyes; as the film's title indicates, the peepers say it all, in this case immense sadness, as Esposito departs on his train to an unknown destination, leaving Irene behind on the platform. It feels like a particularly lucid dream, one that reverberates in the mind after waking up, an appropriate set-up for a film dealing with the consequences of the past, and their impact on the present.

In a fluid move indicative of the film's style, we then move up to the present day, as a much older, retired Darin rues the path of his life. Attempting to write a novel with no success, his nagging doubts resurface in the form of the 1970s case he deems unsolved, and which is forming the basis of his manuscript: the horrendous rape and murder of a young girl. Rekindling the chemistry with Irene who still works at the justice department, Benjamin ploughs back into his past, that classic 'uncharted territory' as L.P. Hartley termed it in The Go Between. Blurring old and new expertly, it becomes apparent how the spiraling horrors of Esposito's decades-earlier investigation have infected his every piercing look and wrinkled jowl.

Winner of this year's Oscar for Foreign Language Film (seemingly from under the nose of excellent efforts like Un Prophete), Eyes is not just a meticulously crafted, meditative drama, but a gripping mix of several genres, from noir to romance to Girl With a Dragon Tattoo-esque psychodrama. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent Stieg Larsson adaptation, a journey into increasingly psychosexual darkness peppered by a unexpectedly snappy sense of humour that belies its glum Argentinean Mystery With Subtitles label. Boasting terrific performances and at least one moment of jaw-dropping camera work, it's a classy, old-fashioned affair.

Yet it's Darin and Villamil's heart-rending, decade-spanning romance, acute melancholy written in every aside and gesture, that anchors the film as it moves into increasingly troubling territory. It's a love story rife with missed opportunities and suppressed tenderness. Yet, at one point, a key character says: 'We filter out our bad memories, and keep the good ones'. Just as Darin and Villamil cling to that intangible principle of happiness, so it's important that galvanizing cinema like The Secret In Their Eyes mustn't vanish from our collective cinematic consciousness.