Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9

"Get your fokkin' tentacle out of my face!"

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood

Rating: 9/10

It’s mid-August, summer blockbuster fever is at its peak in the U.S. and along comes this scantily marketed, starless alien movie from and unknown director set in Johannesburg and bullets straight to the top of the box office! Sounds like science fiction to me. District 9 boasts only one star name and that is Peter Jackson, who produced the film.

The success of District 9 is certainly deserved but mystifying nonetheless. The story begins with the legally dubious evictions of aliens (yes, extraterrestrials) from a camp they have lived with since their arrival on our planet. They are being moved from mixed race slums (slums they share with humans) to an alien-only camp. As has been seen in human-kind for so many years, when underprivileged people are stuck into a slum, it soon becomes a ghetto and often, the minority is treated as a villain. This is the case here as the so-called “prawns” are villainised by their neighbours. The first act is a harrowing exploration of the very un-humanitarian treatment of the prawns during the eviction. However, as the second act kicks off, our hero (if this film could boast one) Wickus gets squirted by some alien black oil and begins to turn into a prawn. Most of the second act is a chase as Wickus, in all his dim-witted confusion tries to escape the giant corporation who want him to activate the alien weapons now that he shares their DNA.

There is no one thing that District 9 does right. I does everything right. It is a harrowing drama, it is an inter-species buddy movie, it is a wonderfully gory sci-fi flick and it is a killer action movie. In fact it is hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it. I can imagine some people might have trouble with the upsetting parallels between the “prawns” and some of our very own species’ more impoverished people and the treatment of them by society; especially in the gruesome opening act, where these refugees are murdered with such relish by the MNU (Multi-National United).

Kudos must be given to the film’s star Sharlto Copley, a South African actor in his debut role. His character of Wickus is so multi-layered and morally ambiguous that it would take a genius to pull off the role. Copley gives it socks and although we see the big bad G-man at the start trying to prove himself, his character develops to reveal an unsure, big-hearted young man who tries to break the chains of his own prejudice throughout the film. His performance is hilarious and, this might not be the P.C. thing to say but the South African accent is probably the most amusing accent in the world.

This is the perfect anti-dote to big Hollywood heartless blockbuster (G.I. Joe, I’m looking at you!). Although it feels like Hollywood and its special effects and CGI have set a new standard for the big studios, this is very deliberately an anti-Hollywood movie. It has political subtext aplenty and it ensures that audiences can see that blockbusters can have the perfect balance of brains and brawn. Never descending into preachiness, District 9 gives us politics but never at the expense of brilliant gore and fun.

- Charlene Lydon

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Written by: Abdel Raouf Dafri

Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric

Rating: 9/10

The second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s epic telling of French modern-day outlaw Jacques Mesrine’s complicated, compelling life picks up where the first left off; with Jacques being extradited from Canada to France. Where the first film focussed on his audacity and wily ways, the second part focuses on his growing addiction to fame and notoriety. The first part of the film begins with a note on how every story has many different perspectives and that this is just one perspective on this man’s life. This is re-examined when Jacques becomes so infuriated at General Pinochet stealing his spot on the front page of the newspaper that he decides to write an autobiography. The script, whose source material is the autobiography up to this point, calls the books authenticity into question and suggests that Mesrine exaggerated a lot in order to garner more attention for himself.

As Jacques Mesrine begins to age, he begins to get more and more desperation to give his life meaning or, it could be argued, media relevance. He dreams of being considered a revolutionary and tries to make his crimes politically engaged, most notably the kidnapping of a notorious slumlord and the murder of a right-wing journalist. However, the film takes great pains to ensure that the audience knows that Mesrine’s motive is purely self-promotion.

Most of the film’s third act leads up to Mesrine’s death scene (which we have already seen at the start of the first film). A remarkable climax ensues, which shows the police setting up an extremely elaborate scenario in which to assassinate him. A now pudgy and still short Jacques Mesrine walks down a street and we see hiding policemen cower in fear beside him. This is an interesting view of his stranglehold on the world and how intimidating a figure he had made himself. The sequence follows his every step, quite monotonously and tediously, until we see in gruesome detail the aftermath of the police’s assassination.

The second part of this film doesn’t quite live up to the breathless exhilaration of the first part, but it keeps building on the character and allowing him to change and develop which is admirable. As in the first movie, Mesrine shows a soft side, only to prove it doesn’t run very deep. This happens on a number of occasions and it suggests on several occasions that although he may know that to be human means you have to love and be loved, Jacques Mesrine is not capable of it, as much as he tries.
This is a brilliantly made film. Stylish, yet never at the expense of the story. The performances are top-notch and there are enough political and spiritual implications here to keep this movie on your mind for days afterwards. However, politics and spiritualism aside, this is a cool movie with lots of gore and lots of action. It is by no means short of entertainment. As with the first film, I whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone, even those of us who aren’t fans of the genre.
- Charlene Lydon

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Written by: Abdel Raouf Dafri

Directed by: Jean Francois Richet

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cecile de France, Gerard Depardieu

Rating: 10/10

On it’s release in France last December, Mesrine: Part One – Killer Instinct grossed an incredible €18,000,000, pushing a certain High School Musical 3 completely out of the box office equation. Telling the story of France’s most notorious gangland superstar Jacques Mesrine, Killer Instinct has garnered huge praise in its home country and has been wowing festival audiences on the international stage.
Killer Instinct begins as so many biopics begin, with the main characters death scene. Mesrine notoriously died in his car under a hail of bullets from unknown assassins on a busy Paris street in 1979. It then skips backwards to Jacques as a soldier in the Algerian War. The sequence, while a little out of place is a great starting point in getting to know this very complex character. After his return to France, Mesrine soon becomes involved in the swinging sixties decadence of Paris and the sinister underworld that comes with it. It is clear that he has a certain moral greyness to him and also a quick-witted resourcefulness that moves him quickly up the ladder.
After a whirlwind romance, he marries a beautiful young Spanish girl and they quickly start a family. This prompts a brief attempt at trying to go straight, but Jacques quickly returns to his criminal gang and any romantic notions of being a husband and father are soon blown away.
The action moves to Quebec, Canada in the third act where Jacques and his new flame Jeanne (Cecile de France) get in most spectacular trouble with the law. The film’s denouement brings the audience through one of cinema’s most memorable prison escapes, memorable in its simplicity and audacity.
It is difficult not to compare this to Michael Mann’s recent Public Enemies but this is not an exercise in style as Mann’s film was. Although visually engaging, this film does not get bogged down in being “cool”. The film is concerned only with bringing the audience into the murky world of Jacques Mesrine and the film attempts the very difficult task of making us understand this vicious, heartless, romantic, arrogant, self-obsessed, sensitive gangster.
The cast is flawless. Each character is memorably played, especially the women in Jacques’ life. Vincent Cassel puts in the performance of his career (and that’s no easy task for an actor as accomplished as he) as Jacques Mesrine. The film clocks in at just over two hours and it is one of the most intense, exciting and brutal pieces of cinema you’ll see all year.
The film ends as Mesrine is just becoming the notorious superstar he eventually rose to be. With much of the story left to be told, the filmmakers leave us panting for more. Luckily there is not a huge gap in the release dates between movies.
Mesrine has universal appeal. It is not just a genre piece. It is an exciting, action-packed examination of a truly fascinating man. With flawless performances and unrelenting pace, Killer Instinct should have you hooked from the first scene to the last.

- Charlene Lydon 21/8/09

Inglorious Basterds

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Christophe Waltz, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurier, Daniel Bruhl, Diane Kruger.

Rating: 6/10

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if there were only good movies and bad movies? Mr. Tarantino has, yet again, frustrated the hell out of this reviewer by delivering a film which is in equal measure both exhilaratingly clever and incessantly indulgent. That’s the conundrum of Quentin Tarantino. We all know he’s got skills, and he’s got a certain trademark visual and rhythmic style but does he always have to sell his trademarks so heavily in every movie?

Inglorious Basterds is a particularly frustrating piece of work. The plot of the film follows a bunch of American Nazi hunters, the titular Basterds and a female (incognito) Jew who runs an art cinema. Both factions are, unbeknownst to each other, plotting to use a particularly high-falutin’ film premiere to blow up several of the most important Nazi leaders, including Der Fuhrer himself.

The plot is beautifully woven and the stories are intertwined nicely and delicately. Mathematically, everything in the script fits neatly together perfectly. However, as the long, drawn out scenes of Tarantino’s trademark witty banter continue to slow down the film, the audience can’t help but lose interest somewhat. The film feels as if it is compiled of about twenty very long dialogue sequences, and at a running time of over two and a half hours, one can only feel that there’s nothing but benefit in cutting a good 45 mins of useless, but oh-so-edgy dialogue out of it. Each sequence does push the story along, but only after putting the brakes on the pacing for at least ten minutes.

Negative aspects aside, there’s plenty to admire about Inglorious Basterds. The best thing, by a million miles, is Christophe Waltz’s maniac Nazi Hans Landa; a brilliant character, an even more brilliant performance and a crazy twist in the tale that truly makes it all worthwhile. In fact, it is all the European actors who stand out in the film. The supporting cast are great for the most part, despite a very conspicuous and unfunny cameo from Mike Myers. The American actors are quite irritating in their brashness (though I’m sure that’s the point). Brad Pitt’s southern drawl grates after about two minutes and his is a one-joke character. He’s a meat-head and a brute and likes to say “killin Neeeh-tzees” a lot. Tarantino insists, again, on casting his friend Eli Roth, who is actually a worse actor than he is director, as Donny Donowitz a notorious Nazi killer. In fact most of the scenes of the Basterds play out like Team America.

The cinematography in this film deserves definite mention, Tarantino sticks to his signature palette of rich primary colour and it works to tremendous effect here, with the cameras eye particularly focussed on swastikas, which appear in almost every scene. The film’s design, costume and movement are beautiful and luxurious to behold. As usual, Tarantino goes for the pop culture soundtrack which is jarring and doesn’t work as well as it does in his previous films, most likely because this is such a period setting. He also chooses to do things like introducing certain characters with their own freeze frame with their name blasted across the screen, and a very intermittent narration from Samuel L. Jackson. Because of their sporadic nature, these features seem really out of place and work to no great effect. As usual, style over substance.

Stuck in development hell for years, it’s a dreadful shame that the director couldn’t just rein his ego in enough to pare it down and make it the brilliant film it should have been and very nearly was. Some poor choices aside, it has a really great plot, a fantastic breakthrough performance from veteran German actor Christophe Waltz and beautiful cinematography. A very strange ending may leave you either stumped or exhilarated, depending on your mood by the end.

- Charlene Lydon

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

Written & Directed by: David Twohy

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Steve Zahn, Timothy Olyphant, Kiele Sanchez.

Rating: 7/10

How much you like this film depends on how much you like films that sell themselves solely on the fact that there is going to be a twist at the end; and how much you enjoy the twist when it inevitably occurs. The set-up is classic. A couple of newlyweds, Sidney (Jovovich) and Cliff (Zahn) decide to spend their honeymoon backpacking to a paradise beach in Hawaii only to find on their arrival that there has been a grisly murder and police are looking for a young couple as suspects. They have, of course, encountered two other young couples, both of whom are oddly threatening, but possibly harmless. There’s Nicko and Gina a fun-loving, outdoorsy couple, but Nicko’s tall tales of being an “American Jedi” and Gina’s ability to gut a goat soon raise Sidney and Cliff’s suspicions. There’s also the creepy and clearly disturbed Kale (Hemsworth) and Cleo (Shelton) who are shadowy and suspicious, but are they dangerous?

The setup creates immediate tension and it’s only in retrospect that I realise how few scares there are in this film and how few actual threats appear throughout. The sense of looming fear is built up through the audience’s own paranoia as they try to figure out who the murderous duo is. Credit is due to writer/director David Twohy for managing to create this much tension without the cover of night. The entire film is set during the day, and in perfect sunshine. Few other films have used this conceit successfully and there’s irony to be found in the fact that this is the director of Pitch Black which works upon the opposite gimmick of being stuck in the dark.

Apart from some very irritating and sooo 90’s ironic dialogue about movie structure and plot devices between the characters this is a decent thriller with a lot going for it. However, I personally found the twist to be a little hokey and when the third act got into full swing it just started to get ridiculous. However, ridiculous can often lead to some really cool gore, which was the case here. An average suspense-thriller with a better than average cast (Olyphant and Sanchez are particularly great as the couple with the ever-evolving personas), A Perfect Getaway is by no means a great film but it is definitely an entertaining one.
If you’re looking for something to watch on a Saturday night you could do far worse than this.This is definitely an enjoyable piece of cinema, if not the most challenging. After a good first and second act it descends into madness in the third act and all plausibility goes out the window. On the other hand, it is well-crafted, nicely acted and delivers the tension required for a thriller of this kind.

- Charlene Lydon


"I'm not your fucking Mommy"

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: David Johnson

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder.

Rating: 7/10

Orphan is a remarkable thriller, one of the most sadistic to hit the cinemas in a long time. There have been so many evil children movies that it’s hard for one to set itself apart. This bizarre mix of ridiculous schlock and intense family drama is difficult to swallow but never fails to entertain.
The Coleman family are introduced as a picture perfect American family. A beautiful house in Connecticut, beautiful parents Kate and John and beautiful children Daniel and Maxine. Kate had recently suffered a stillbirth and in order to soothe that pain, they decide to adopt a child. They find a perfect addition to their family in a local orphanage in the form of beautiful, creative, charming Esther, a 9 year-old Russian girl. However, soon after they bring her home they start to notice some strange things about Esther.
What happens next is a series of nasty events that divide the family. The sense of “other” surrounding Esther allows the audience to believe that John could keep excusing suspicious events and slowly but surely start to believe that Kate has gone mad. Esther wears strange clothes, speaks with a foreign accent and has different mannerisms than her American counterparts. This sense of “otherness” is most evident with respect to the Coleman’s eldest child Daniel. He is disgusted with Esther and refuses to tolerate her quirks. Immediately a division is caused in the family.
The remarkable thing about this film is the sense of unease created by domestic dramas. The veneer of perfection at the start quickly peels away to reveal that Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose actions led to an accident which left Maxine deaf and it is suggested, it caused their child to be stillborn. It also becomes apparent that John has been unfaithful and that their sex life is suffering as a result. This family drama acts as a wonderful way to build tension, as if a murderous child isn’t enough.
The third act is where things start to get really weird! Esther’s true intentions are revealed to the shock of the audience and there’s a killer twist which in some ways explains the outrageousness of the events of the film.
This film is genuinely creepy with some delightful gore and an ice cold colour palette that suits the tone of the film really well. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to create a clinical and very polished world within the film. The design of the Coleman family home brings to mind 1980’s David Cronenberg with its grave austerity and chilling lack of comfort. Apart from visually, the film also delivers a stern, smoothly pace. It moves slowly, but never at the expense of entertainment or drama. At almost two and a half hours, this is a slow burner and one that ultimately pays off as it reaches its climax.
From the stunning opening sequence to it’s very bizarre conclusion this is a striking film, but be sure to check your disbelief at the door as this is one preposterous story! Ultimately it is enjoyable and boasts some fantastic performances from its leads particularly a 12 year old Isabelle Fuhrman who, I must say, must have very obliging parents to allow her to play this extremely risky role. If you want a good slow-burning thriller, there’s a lot to like about Orphan. However, be warned, it gets very, very strange.

- Charlene Lydon

Friday, August 07, 2009

RIP John Hughes

"Demented and sad...but social"

Seriously folks, was there a better writer in the history of Hollywood? I know, I know, he made kids movies and he made teen movies and some of his latter year work was sub-par at best but if one looks at the actual quality of his writing, during his glory days John Hughes' contribution to cinema is hard to fault.

On hearing about his recent death at age 59, I felt more incredibly sad than I thought possible for a has-been filmmaker who was well past his sell-by date. "Why?" I asked myself. And then I started thinking about those films that have been part of my life for as long as I have existed. Those films that I enjoyed as a kid, but also the films I found later in life that just feel like home to me. John Hughes is known for being in touch with teen angst and writing realistic teenagers but what I really think his skill was, was writing people. Every character he wrote was charismatic, interesting, unusual and each character no matter how small was full of quirks and...well, character. Think of such people as Mr. "Bueller, Bueller". Or Long Duk Dong. Or the inimitable Duckie. Or Edie McClurg's chirpy car rental agent in "Planes Trains and Automobiles". These characters are memorable. But most of John Hughes' appeal was his ability to create characters you really care about. No matter how quirky, small or downright unlikeable his characters are, you still care about them.

In "The Breakfast Club" he manages to do the impossible and create characters who are stereotypes but write them as real people who, despite their labels are fundamentally the same as each other. Boiled down to their lowest common denominator, this jock, brain, prom queen, criminal and weirdo are just teenagers, dealing with all the crap that comes along with it. How's that for a statement on humanity? You may think that John Hughes made films for the MTV generation but what set him apart was his ability to find the tragedy and the joy in every character. His power as a writer was that he could show all manner of human stuggles wrapped in the fuschia taffeta prom dress of a teen comedy. Just because Duckie is the nice guy friend, doesn't mean Andie will necessarily choose him over rich-boy Blaine. And it doesn't mean that Blaine is a bad guy. Convention was a tool for John Hughes. A tool which allowed him to reveal the more unpoetic aspects of human nature.

What about the dark side of children as "Home Alone" shows how far an innocent little boy will go to protect his home. OK, so it isn't "Straw Dogs" but I can tell you which film made me laugh, cringe and cry more. Possibly his most gloriously multi-layered character is Ferris Bueller. How much do we all love Ferris? It's impossible to think of a more revered movie character. Yet, look at him. He's a total brat. He whines that he got a computer instead of a car for his birthday. He terrorises and abuses his best friend Cameron and he shows no regard for anything or anyone except himself. So what makes him likeable? Who knows! It's that magical ability that John Hughes had for creating characters and fleshing them out so well that you feel like you know them. Despite his flaws, there's not a person alive who doesn't want to take a day off with Ferris Bueller.

Apart from his undeniable skills as a writer, it's also important to note his skills as a director, particularly in relation to actors. Again, let's consider "The Breakfast Club", almost completely set in one room with five characters. Works a charm! John Hughes is known for "finding" people and making them stars. Just looking at his repertoire of actors it is difficult to deny this fact. But look at how many of his actors have gone downhill since he found them. The cast of "The Breakfast Club" is a prime example. Correct me if I'm wrong but for all concerned this was the peak of their creative work. Same goes for "Weird Science", "Ferris Bueller" and "Sixteen Candles". And as huge a fan as I am of Steve Martin, it has to be said that the performance Hughes pulled out of him in "Planes Trains and Automobiles" was darker and deeper than Martin usually goes, and he's also on the top of his comic game.

Reflecting upon John Hughes post-humously it strikes me that he may seem like the 80's equivalent of Judd Apatow or even Robert Luketic, but the fact is, he's the father of them all. He effortlessly weaved heart into his stories, rather than forcibly throwing in a sappy third act. That was John Hughes' power. And not only that but let's not forget the power to entertain!

- Charlene Lydon