Saturday, 30 April 2011

Arthur: A Blander Brand?

Russell Brand is a Marmite man. You love him or you hate him. Personally, I quite like him. I appreciate a man who packs a loaded vocabulary and isn't afraid to use it, and who looks like a rocknroll scarecrow but gets girls who look like Katy Perry. That is to be respected.

I enjoyed his (semi-autobiographical) turns as Aldous Snow in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek", but here he is attempting to carry a film all on his own lanky shoulders. Is he up to the task?

On this evidence, I would say yes. Brand is an agreeable presence, brandishing his lounging gait and whimsical eloquence like a pissed-up Willy Wonka, but that's not to say the film is entirely successful.

"Arthur" is a remake of a Dudley Moore film which I have never seen, so I won't be crying "sacrilege!" at any point in this review. It tells the story of a billionaire alcoholic playboy who must choose between embarking on an arranged marriage to save his inheritance or giving up his riches to be with the pretty-but-penniless tour-guide he has a crush on.

The main problem with the film is that it's not that funny. It's not hellishly unfunny, it's just mildly amusing. It's okay. Brand is likable, unless you're one of the many people who don't like him, in which case the movie will inspire naught but rage in you as he trundles around getting into wacky scrapes like the lovable drunken scamp he is.

Helen Mirren is typically good value as Arthur's nanny, Jennifer Garner gives good psycho hosebeast as his forcefully affianced, and Greta Gerwig is positively luminous as the cutesy-kooky tour-guide. Nick Nolte and Luis Guzman are in there too, but are both given little of note to do.

Most of the chuckles (and they are just chuckles) come from Brand's mouth, with most of the limp comic set-pieces falling flat before they even get going, and the film develops a Sandler-esque maudlin streak towards the end of the second act, meaning the meagre laughs dry up even further.

In the end, you are left with a light comedy that never really takes off. Could this be because of the 12A/PG13 certificate? In the attempt to appeal to a wider, younger audience, does the film hamstring the normally X-rated Brand funnybone? It is unclear, as Brand himself seems as at ease here as elsewhere, yet the film rests in an uncomfortable no-man's land, somewhere between good and bad, called "okay". And maybe that's the most offensive thing of all.

Thor: The Lion Viking

This was always gonna be the tough one for Marvel. Thor isn't a superhero, he's not some ordinary Joe who mysteriously acquires special abilities, he's the Norse God of Thunder and he goes around causing damage with his massive tool. It would have been so easy for this story to have ended up a pompous, camp, silly joke of a film.

What director Kenneth Branagh delivers, however, is a hugely entertaining fantasy adventure/fish-out-of-water comedy that never strays to the wrong side of self-importance or silliness.

Thor is a rock-hard fighter, poised to inherit the crown of his Anthony Hopkins-shaped father, Odin, and become lord of Asgard. Being a bit of a cocky gimp, Thor kinda starts a war against his father's wishes and Odin bitchslaps the superpowers out of him and hoofs him down to earth to mingle with the puny humans. Meanwhile, Odin's other son, Loki is eyeing the throne for himself...

The scenes in Asgard are all CG spectacle and theatrical set-design, but there is an attention to human (Asgardian?) drama that never lets the broad, classical story (father and son, betrayal, exile, redemption, revenge etc) be overshadowed by the digital glitz.

What could have come across like "Krull" with better special effects is actually an engagingly realised fantasy world peopled with generally interesting characters. Chris Hemsworth's Thor is all roaring and cheering and bellowing and back-slapping and hammering, Hopkins' Odin is noble yet world-weary, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is troubled and earnest, and Thor's backing singers Lady Sif and the Warriors Three come off like four buddy musketeers, with Ray Stevenson reaping many of the film's chuckles with his turn as Volstagg, a jovial, gluttonous, Viking man-mountain. Oh, and Rene Russo stands in the background not doing much as Thor's mum.

It is when Thor gets the boot to Earth that the movie really begins to open up, however, as he is discovered by a pretty young astrophysicist (just go with it) and her small team of researchers, comprising crumpled euro-ledge Stellan Skarsgard and peppy jailbait Kat Dennings. Natalie Portman turns in a solid but unremarkable performance as this astrophysicist next-door, but as complications arise for Thor and Loki, it becomes clear that this film is all about two people: Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.

(And Natalie Portman's lovely face, of course)

Hemsworth starts from the bluster and braggadacio of the Asgard scenes and gradually peels away layers of Godly behaviour to reveal the man - even the boy - underneath. He is equally adept in both the light-comic situations that arise as Thor walks the earth and the hammer-swinging fightoramas, as comfortable with the burgeoning Portman romance as with the fraught relationship with his father and brother. There's a moment where Thor, crestfallen at his lot and apparently trapped on Earth indefinitely, simply asks his brother "can I come home?" in the most heartbreakingly fragile manner. It's a key moment in what is sure to be a star-making performance. Hemsworth takes the most outlandish character and makes him sympathetic, charismatic and even believable. Thor is in good hands.

Hiddleston's Loki, meanwhile, mutates from the earnest counsel of the early scenes into a seething mass of self-loathing and vengeance. Hiddleston prowls around the screen, managing to remain sinister even in some oddball costumes, sneering like a young Jeremy Irons. In fact, the best way to describe it might be that Odin is Mufasa, Thor is Simba and Loki is Scar, and Hiddleston is a worthy successor to Irons' feline manipulator. The boy will go far.

Branagh handles the action scenes with skill, particularly a bash-up with some Frost Giants and a Big Fucking Monster early on, Thor punching his way into a SHIELD lab to get back his hammer (watched over by a mysterious chap with a bow and arrow, comic nerds!) and a showdown with a Big Metal Bastard What Shoots Fire Off Its Head. Occasionally he gets slightly bogged down in the effects and the CG turns a little muddy, but mostly it's solid stuff.

The key to the film is a lightness of touch, striking a similar tone to the "Iron Man" films and boding well for the oncoming cross-over in "The Avengers" (there's a Bond-style "Thor will return" legend at the end of the credits). Branagh never lets the film disappear up it's own arse, tempering any drifts into self-importance with a streak of self-awareness that engages to the end.

So Tony Stark and Thor Odinsson are present and correct. Now we just have to see if Steve Rogers can hold his own.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Blogalonga Bond #4: Thunderball

It's that time again. For the lowdown on The Incredible Suit's BlogalongaBond enterprise, go here. And please enjoy my tribute to a lesser-known member of the James Bond universe:


I have been neglecting this blog a little of late. This is due to a combination of lack of notable events in my place of work, my inability to watch the latest releases due to school holiday scheduling (we have films on from nine in the morning, meaning no time for print-checks), and the growing realisation that this soggy corner of the blog-swamp will soon be irrevocably altered.

I handed my notice in at work today.

I will leave my job on the tenth of June. No more will I shine a light through a window for a living. No more will I sit in a room with no windows, hearing only the incessant clatter of soon-to-be-obsolete machinery. I'm going out to face the real world.

This decision has been brought about by several factors, namely the impending projection shake-up which will see us replaced with robotronic light-shiners, and my rapidly approaching thirtieth birthday. When the digital changeover hits, I will have the choice of staying with the company and jockeying popcorn or managing shifts (both of which strike me as hellishly unsuitable for my temperament) or leaving anyway. So there is the "jump before being pushed" motivation.

Then there is the fact that I turn twenty-nine next month and have very little to show for my life so far. I've been a projectionist for nearly five years, and think it's time for a change.

So, I'm off to London to seek my fortune. I hear the streets are paved with gold and they make you Mayor if you bring a cat or something.

What does this mean for the future of The Intermittent Sprocket? I don't know. You may see some changes in the coming weeks. I might start writing about wider topics as my access to movies dries up, maybe TV or music or books or crisps or navel lint will become more prominent features. I don't know.

Everyone's flagging down the reboot bandwagon at the moment, so maybe it's time for The Intermittent Sprocket 2.0?

The blog will continue as is until at least the tenth of June, but after that, who knows?

For now, here's some puppets and TV's Kevin Bishop pretending to sing a song:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Movie Piracy

Here's a silly song I wrote a while ago, just in time for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" next month.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Source Code: Jake's on a Train Again and Again

(I saw this film nearly two weeks ago, but only just got round to posting this review. This is in no way a comment on the quality of the film, I'm just so damn lazy.)

Once upon a time there was a little film called "Moon". It was right good. The man what made it was dead into space things and science fiction and that - possibly because his poppa was a funky space-rock deity - and he wanted to make more films of that kind. Turned out, he couldn't afford to make the film he wanted, so he decided to take on a script that someone else had written and make that instead.

That's the story of "Source Code". Well, not the story of the film, but the story of the making of the film. Duncan Jones takes on a studio picture with a bigger budget and star, but can he maintain the heartfelt, humanistic sci-fi quality of his debut whilst giving us more bang for our buck?

Hell yes.

"Source Code" is about Shakey Jake Gyllenhaal playing a soldier who is transported into a stranger's body for the last eight minutes of his life, just before he was killed in a terrorist attack on a train. Shakey must relive this eight minutes over and over until he works out who did the bombing.

So, in lazy film-journo terms, it's "Quantum Leap" vs. "Groundhog Day" vs. "24" or something.

Shakey also has to deal with the shadowy authority figures who zapped him into this mess, played by Jeffrey Wright in grumpy mad-scientist mode and Vera Farmiga as a button-down military-type suffocating under the pressure of authority. They only communicate with Shakey by video monitors in his little time-capsule, and are extremely cagey about the hows and the whys of the situation that Jake repeatedly demands answers for. Is there more to the mission than meets the eye? You reckon?

As an aside, Vera Farmiga has such beautiful, sad eyes in this film that you know she's gonna turn out to be lovely in the end.

So Shakey keeps on leaping, hoping that his next leap will be the one home, all the while uncovering clues of varying veracity as to the identity of the bomber, flirting with the pretty lady sitting opposite him (Michelle Monaghan), and getting blown up after eight minutes. Can he solve the mystery? Is he able to change the course of events that have already happened? What are they not telling him, and why? Etc.

This is a tight little thriller built around an interesting conceit and a nigh-on note-perfect performance by Gyllenhaal.

Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley explore the high-concept in nifty and interesting ways, always coming back to Jones' apparent interest in the human element. Is Jake travelling through time? How does this outlandish technology effect people? Can life itself be recreated by science? How do we maintain our humanity in the face of this techno-revolution? The science may be ambiguous and a little hokey, but the big questions raised are interesting enough and the plot is so pacey (it's only about an hour and a half long) that it's difficult to pick faults.

Jones handles the transition to bigger budget with skill, delivering a number of special-effect money-shots that never detract from the intimacy of the tale.

The film belongs to the one-time Donnie Darko, however, as he is in pretty much every scene and we experience the whole wacky journey with him. Gyllenhaal's Colter Stevens is a masterclass in everyman determination, an ordinary grunt thrust into an outlandish situation, grappling with his mounting confusion and the conflicting emotions of his duty and his need to uncover the truth. He laughs, he cries, he flirts, he fights, he looks befuddled... Jake goes through pretty much every conceivable human emotion and is never less than thoroughly convincing.

He's backed up by solid turns from Monaghan (believable as a woman you could fall in love with in the space of eight minutes), Farmiga (all fragile nobility, suppressed emotion and hypnotic eyes) and Wright (bluster and pomposity on crutches), but they are supporting roles in the very literal sense, propping up the Shakey Jake Tower of Awesome. If Jones keeps getting performances like this one and the Sam Rockwell double-whammy in "Moon" into his films, we might start seeing some sci-fi at the Oscars for once.

As it stands, "Source Code" is a gripping little yarn with much to recommend it. It's not as good as "Moon", but it's an assured follow-up that confirms Jones has a bright future in which to attempt to outdo his debut.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Film I Always Go Back to: Hudson Hawk

This post is brought to you by the Kid in the Front Row blogathon.

Kid commanded me to write a post about a film with a special place in my heart. In his words:

"It's probably not your all time favourite film or the one you mention at party's, but it's the one you make your friends watch, or it's the one you throw on after a messy break up. Whatever it is -- I want you to write about that film you've watched 64 times even though it only has a 3.2 rating on IMDB. That film that SPEAKS TO YOU when you need to be spoken to. We all have one of those films."

I have many, but which to talk about?

The "Star Wars" trilogy, particularly ESB? The "Indiana Jones" trilogy, particularly "Last Crusade"? "Fellowship of the Ring"? "Back to the Future"? "The Deer Hunter"? "Wall-e"? The Burton and Nolan "Batman"s? "Tremors"? "Blade" or its first sequel? "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"? "The Last Boy Scout"? "Forrest Gump"? Any of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" flicks? "Fight Club"? "Ace Ventura"? "Dumb and Dumber"? "Jaws"? "Napoleon Dynamite"? "School of Rock"? "Evil Dead II"? "Duck Soup"? "Candyman"? "Heathers"? "Shaun of the Dead"? "Apocalypse Now"? "Edward Scissorhands"? "The Princess Bride"? "How to Train your Dragon"? "Aladdin"? "The Lion King"? "Beauty and the Beast"? "An American Werewolf in London"? Any of the "Monty Python" films? And OH GOD IT HURTS MY BRAIN.

So I decided to focus on a certain aspect of Kid's brief. The bit about the low score on IMDb. There is a favourite film of mine which is terminally derided in most circles. A film which I saw at a relatively young age, before I was aware that you weren't supposed to like it.

"Hudson Hawk".

"Hudson Hawk" was a flop and a critical failure upon its release in 1991, confounding audiences and its own publicity team by being an absurd comedy adventure instead of a typical Bruce Willis actioner. In fact, it is renowned as one of the most expensive and high profile flops ever, dismissed as a misguided Willis vanity-project and a waste of celluloid.

I wasn't aware of this hoopla when I watched it on video when I was about ten or eleven. I hadn't even seen "Die Hard" by this point, and had no idea who Bruce Willis was. I stand by the judgement I made then.

"Hudson Hawk" is a fucking brilliant film.

It follows Willis as Eddie, the titular Hawk, a cat-burglar just getting out of a long stint in jail. He gets blackmailed into returning to his old ways and soon finds himself embroiled in a labyrinthine plot involving the Vatican, rogue CIA agents, billionaires bent on world domination and Leonardo DaVinci.

I think Dan Brown based his entire career on this movie.

The thing that Brown missed, however, is that you can't play a plot this ludicrous straight. "Hawk" is one of the silliest big-budget adventures ever made, hanging its absurd twists and turns on an almost dreamlike structure where Eddie can leap off a building and literally land in the next scene in a completely different location, wearing a look that suggests he is as aware of the ridiculousness as we are. Where he can roll from an action scene on a hospital gurney into a waiting group of badguys, get knocked out, put in a box and wake up in another country.

The film is rife with inspired silliness: Vatican agents communicating via intercoms hidden in light-up crucifixes, CIA agents named after candybars, a pair of gangsters called the Mario brothers, and the ingenious gimmick that Hawk and his partner Tommy time their heists by singing swing standards of which they've memorised the runtimes.

The scene where Eddie and Tommy rob a museum whilst singing "Swinging on a Star" is the kind of thing that, had it been in a straight-up comedy or spoof, would've been lauded as genius. It takes place in a Bruce Willis film which he helped develop, however, so it is dismissed as an indulgence by the star who was dabbling with a career as a singer at the time. This doesn't stop it being fucking funny.

James Coburn (the "Flint" films being a big influence, apparently) plays a brilliantly twisted CIA defector, delivering lines such as "God, I miss Communism. The Red Threat, people were scared... the agency had some respect, and I got laid every night" with glee, but it is Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the villainous Mayflowers who really steal the show.

Grant plays Darwin as a slimy, swaggering, gleeful pervert, and Bernhard essays Minerva as a loud, obnoxious, childish pervert. Together, they shred the scenery like a couple of pantomime dames, Bernhard in increasingly outlandish costumes and Grant often literally climbing all over the set.

They are ably assisted by a script full of quotables, with each character spouting one-liners and witticisms too numerous to recount here. Just have a look at the IMDb quotes page and marvel at the sheer breadth of clever stupidity spat out in this film.

Willis and Danny Aiello as Tommy share an effortless chemistry as they bicker like a married couple and croon their way through burglaries and gunfights, but Andie McDowell does bring the tempo down a little bit as the wet-blanket love interest. She makes up for it with a fearless bit of drug-induced idiocy, however.

All in all, it's basically like a Dan Brown conspiracy story made by the Marx Brothers. I genuinely believe it just confused people upon its release, being too sweary and violent for family audiences, but too silly and childish for Willis' usual action crowd. Micheal "Heathers" Lehmann has barely directed since.

If you haven't seen it, do, if you have (and didn't like it) give it another shot.

I leave you with my highlights of the movie:

The aforementioned "Swinging on a Star" heist.

The entire ambulance/gurney sequence: the needles in the face, "ew, menthol", "Hey, Mister! Are you gonna die?", "Exact change?!"

"The Pope warned me never to trust the CIA!"

"Bunny, ball-ball!"

The entire paralysis scene.

"You won't be attending that hat convention in July!"

The Pope watching "Mr Ed".

And Pokie the elephant.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Sucker Punch: Game Over

So it looks like my inner child had to grow up sometime.

I made no secret of the juvenile glee that the promotional material for this film elicited in me, and I must admit that I even allowed myself the hope that the superficial pleasures of the posters, trailers and standees could just be the icing on a satisfying movie-cake.

Of course, this was wrong. The film has no more depth, emotion or entertainment factor than the dazzlement and titillation offered in the two-minute trailer.

The movie tells the story of Emily Browning's "Babydoll", a girl confined to an insane asylum by her wicked stepfather after her mother dies and she accidentally shoots her sister. Bummer. She has five days before she is lobotomised, so naturally she sets about escaping by imagining that the asylum is some kind of bordello and she and her fellow inmates are a "Charlie's Angels"/"Deadly Viper Assassination Squad"-type superhero team undertaking all sorts of wacky imaginary missions.

From the outset, the flights of fantasy are jarring and borderline nonsensical, and it becomes more and more clear that the fantasies of only one person are at work here: director Zack Snyder. His film seems to be set in the olden times - maybe the 1950s - and yet Babydoll's fantasies are filled with anachronistic weapons and references that a manga-viewing, video-gaming, comic-book nerd would take for granted, but a twenty-year old 1950s American girl would be hard pushed to come up with.

The soundtrack pursues this theme, laden as it is with hip covers of songs such as "Where is my Mind?", "White Rabbit" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" (some sung by Browning herself) that rob the film of any historical context whilst illustrating that Snyder's understanding of mental illness is gleaned entirely from pop-culture.

And, of course, there are the dubious sexual questions raised by the fantasy fetish gear and general representation of the young ladies in the picture. Snyder makes the leap into Babydoll's fantasy of the asylum as burlesque brothel with no explanation or logical reasoning, leaving us to assume that he believes that's where all female brains would head for in similar circumstances. Babydoll's fantasy missions all take place while she is dancing for the pleasure of some lecherous male, suggesting that - aside from dreams of physical strength or weapon-based action-fighting skill - the only tool she has to fight for freedom is the objectification of her body.

But surely this is supposed to be a piece of entertainment? To over-analyse the connotations and question the plausibility of its events is to spoil the fun of the film, right?

Nope. For a story so inherently ridiculous, there is a dearth of humour on display and a similar po-faced pomposity to that which you might find in a "Twilight" movie. As the story progresses, the movie becomes more and more callous towards its characters, but fails to garner an emotional response as we have had no chance to get to know anything about them other than the fact that they rock various scanty outfits really hard.

And what of the story? Much has been (and will be) said of the videogame-style plot-structure, and it is an obvious but accurate comparison. The girls are issued missions by gnarly Scott Glenn (Bill to their Vipers), playing a figment of Babydoll's imagination, before battling through various environments full of endless swathes of enemies in order to collect a certain item, usually after defeating a boss of some sort. Then it's all back to the bordello for a cut-scene.

The action-sequences are undoubtedly spectacular, featuring a plethora of memorable images (dragons and mechas and robo-samurai, oh my!) and some excellently choreographed and executed fighting from the Fit Five. Without a dramatic context, however, we can only observe passively until the eventual attempts to inject jeopardy and emotion fall flat from too-little-too-late syndrome.

I'm racking my brains for more positive points, but all I can think of is: It looks quite nice. The fights are quite good. The soundtrack is quite good, if a little incongruous. The acting is generally acceptable. Everything else just kind of isn't there.

People will probably try to compare "Sucker Punch" to "Inception", due to the dream-within-a-dream-fantasy-world type stuff, but it's probably more like what would happen if "Scott Pilgrim" lost its sense of humour on a "Shutter Island" full of ladies in their smalls.