Tuesday 21 July 2009

Brüno (2009) - ickleReview (cinema)

Brüno, after Ali G and Borat, is the third of Sacha Baron Cohen's comic TV characters to be given his own full-length feature film. Like Ali G and Borat, Brüno also works better in small doses. Don't get me wrong: this is a funny - and at times hilarious - film. But too much of it is uncomfortable viewing and it left me feeling a bit bleh when I left the cinema. I quite like to see taboos being broken and boundaries stretched; I'm fond of a bit of bad taste. But I'm not sure any of these characters is suited to the sustained narrative that movies demand. (Compare how Jackass: The Movie (2002) didn't quite make a successful transition on to the big screen.)

Brüno is an overtly gay Austrian fashionista, who claims to be only 19 years old. He is the host of Funkyzeit mit Brüno, "the top-rated late-night fashion show in any German-speaking country, except Germany". In order to generate a plot for the film, Brüno is sacked after causing mayhem at Milan Fashion Week for wearing an all-velcro suit (one of the funniest scenes in the film, like Borat in the antiques shop. Sacha Baron Cohen is a master of slap-stick - a legacy of his training with one of France's best clowns). Brüno therefore decides to leave behind the "shallow" fashion world to become a celebrity in Hollywood. Cue a number of set-up skits with agents, fortune-tellers, TV focus groups, anal bleachers, swingers, usw. It's best left unsaid what he does in each of these situations so that the shock-value of his comedy isn't spoilt.

The most pointless aspect of the film is the creation of the character Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), Brüno's assistant's assistant, who follows him to Hollywood. Brüno didn't even know his name before. Lutz has a heavy crush on him. As with Borat, one of the filmmakers must have thought it was necessary for Brüno to have a side-kick. (Borat gave us Azamat Bagatov (played by Ken Davitian), with whom he had the naked fight throughout the hotel.) Most of the Lutz scenes are unfunny and boring. They needn't have bothered.

Nugget: good in parts, but not entirely satisfying.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Hot Fuzz (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

A comedy about a high-flying London policeman (Simon Pegg) who gets transferred from the Metropolitan Police to a quiet Gloucestershire village because he so out-performs his colleagues he makes them look bad. Amusing stuff by the makers of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, but at 121 minutes it's far too long, overstaying its welcome by at least half an hour.

Nugget: hardly unmissable.

Eastern Promises (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

A British-made Russian mafia movie set in London by the makers of A History of Violence (2005). A midwife (Naomi Watts) gets involved with Russian gangsters when a young prostitute dies during childbirth leaving behind a diary in Russian, which implicates members of the ruling mafia family. Viggo Mortensen plays the ruthless driver and hitman, a real bad-ass. Armin Mueller-Stahl is the menacing godfather figure.

It plays with some of the clichés of the modern gangster movie genre (I'm thinking The Godfather trilogy (1972-90) and Goodfellas (1990) rather than The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)) but it is refreshing to have a new setting (London) and a different kind of gangster culture (Russian). The tattoos they have tell their life story and play a significant role in the plot. At times it's comical like a Guy Ritchie film with stereotypical baddies in black leather coats and non-Russian actors putting on that Russian accent. The plot feels predictable at times. I saw a number of things coming and was annoyed when a subtlety of the plot was reconfirmed in the dialogue in case anyone had missed it. That said, there were a few unexpected twists and a pleasingly ambiguous ending.

Nugget: shot inobtrusively with unflinching gorey scenes and an interesting take on twenty-first-century people-trafficking. It would be interesting to see a Russian-made mafia movie.

Coraline (2009) - ickleReview (in-flight movie)

Clever animated adaptation of a novel by Neil Gaiman, aimed at kids but also appropriate for adults. I don't agree with some critics who claim it's "too scary for kids". I agree with Mark Kermode that's it's good to be scared.

Coraline (not Caroline) moves with her parents to a big old house in Michigan. They are too busy to give her any attention, so she explores the house and its surroundings by herself, discovering a tiny door which leads to another world in which her parents appear to treat her better but have buttons for eyes.

The story cleverly avoids the old it's-just-a-dream cliché, although it does threaten to play with it at some stage. The visuals are delightful, but I'm not sure it would be all that much better in the 3-D version. Some of the scenes seem to be contrived specifically for 3-D e.g. the removal men unloading the lorry towards the camera at the beginning.

Nugget: reminiscent of Tim Burton's visual style in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which makes sense because Henry Selick directed both movies (duh!). Voice artists include Teri Hatcher as the mother, Dakota Fanning as Coraline, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Ian McShane, and Robert Bailey Jr. as the local weird boy, Wybie Lovat (short for Wyborn i.e. "why was he born?"). Interesting to note that Robert Bailey Jr. is a black actor playing a white kid: how often does that happen?

He's Just Not That Into You (2009) - ickleReview (in-flight movie)

Tame, generic romcom with an all-star cast including Scarlett Johansson, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Connelly, Busy Philipps, Kris Kristofferson, and Luis Guzmán. It brings nothing new to the table but instead peddles the same old bullshit about the game men and women are supposed to play in dating, relationships, and marriage.

The film is structured with inter-titles like "...if he's not calling you", "...if he's having sex with someone else", and "...if he doesn't want to marry you" (lifted straight from the book), and "real-life" documentary-style interviews, which is an idea stolen from Nora Ephron's infinitely superior When Harry Met Sally... (1989), which remains by far the best film in this genre.

As Roger Ebert pointed out, there is at least one good line from Drew Barrymore's character:
I had this guy leave me a voicemail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies.
Nugget: I only watched this because I was on a transatlantic flight and because it had Scarlett Johansson in it. She plays a similar role to her Woody Allen characters in Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): naïve, voluptuous, a siren of adultery. It passed the time, but I wouldn't pay to see it. The flight-edited version contained some amusingly obvious over-dubbed swearing e.g. Aniston saying "bullcrap" instead of "bullshit". Based on the self-help book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, which sounds like one to avoid.

Everything in This Country Must (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

Short film based on the short story by Irish writer Colum McCann, another one of those token Irish writers which many United Statian universities feel they must have on their faculties. A brilliantly controlled piece of filmmaking about the occupation of British soldiers in the North of Ireland during the Troubles and their uneasy relationship with the locals. To say any more would spoil it.

Nugget: a clever piece of adaptation whose only weakness was the use of a brief voice-over to preserve some of the short story's prose and narrative voice. One United Statian member of the audience I saw this with at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo unbelievably didn't get the frying pan of how the two halves of the film were related. There's always someone...

Following James Joyce, Dublin to Buffalo (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

An enjoyable documentary about the life of the twentieth-century Irish writer James Joyce, tracing the path of his biography from Dublin to Trieste, Zurich, Paris, and ending in Buffalo, where the bulk of his manuscripts are held. Directed by Stacey Herbert and Patrick Martin, the film features talking heads of Joyceans and academics talking about yer man (90% of whom I've met on the Joyce conference circuit). A joy to watch.

Nugget: suitable for the novice with still enough to interest the expert (mainly the curiosity of seeing familiar faces on the big screen).

Looking for Eric (2009) - ickleReview (cinema)

A Ken Loach film about a depressed postman called Eric from Manchester whose two stepsons take advantage of him and whose wife has left him. He has a good group of friends at work who try to raise his spirits, but it isn't until the Manchester United legend Eric Cantona comes to him in a cannabis-inspired vision that he begins to rebuild his self-esteem and take back charge of his life.

Cantona gives an amusing performance as a slightly exaggerated version of himself as footballer-philosopher-god. He becomes a mentor for his namesake, Eric, a life coach, if you will, an imaginary friend. The hilarious climax nicely overcomes the darker side of the film, which at times is reminiscent of Loach's Sweet Sixteen (2002).

Nugget: not just for Cantona and Manchester United fans. A grand ensemble piece with a beautifully balanced performance full of pathos by Steve Evets as Eric the postman. One of his stepsons, played by Gerard Kearns, appeared in The Mark of Cain.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Mark Kermode doubles as Russian mafia hitman?

Mark Kermode and Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai in Eastern Promises (2007).

Not content with reviewing films on Simon Mayo's Friday afternoon Radio 5 Live show, Mark Kermode has recently been seen threatening blonde midwives outside Russian family restaurants in south London.