Saturday, May 02, 2009

April Round-Up

Monsters vs. Aliens
Monsters! Aliens! 3D! DreamWorks' new animated offering seems like a pretty hard package to mess up, and yet filmmakers Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon have done just that, turning in a lazy, quip-laden offering that commits the same crimes as the duo's earlier Shark Tale and Shrek 2. Badly stretched even at a brisk 90 minutes, the script is little more than a succession of gags, one-liners and tired pop culture references – some of which hit their mark, most of which don't – and the choppy plot is poorly conceived and unsatisfying. One sequence set on the Golden Gate Bridge does impress, but for all of its spectacle the film is bereft of imagination, and the characterisation is particularly disappointing. The only figure who manages to raise a couple of chuckles is Seth Rogen's BOB, and that has more to do with the actor's delivery than the character itself. The 3D is effective, although it's not as wholly immersive as it was in the beautifully crafted Bolt (which outdoes this shoddy effort in every single department), and even the extra dimension can't lend any depth to this empty, disposable product.

Tony Manero
This curious film from Chile stars Alfredo Castro as Raúl, a sociopathic nobody who is obsessed with John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever character. Raúl dreams of performing Manero's famed dance routine on a local TV talent show, but he needs to kill in order to finance his ambition, and we are invited to view his story as a microcosm of the ruthlessness prevalent under Pinochet's regime. This allegorical angle is interesting, but not quite interesting enough to carry a film with an emotional void at its centre. Castro, who looks a little like a depressed Al Pacino, plays his character in a single register, and Raúl never comes to life as a compelling protagonist. Tony Manero is occasionally brutal – one early murder comes out of nowhere and is unblinkingly shot – and even when Raúl isn't committing crimes, the film has plenty of incident that will leave an unpleasant aftertaste, such as Raúl's failed sexual encounters, or his spiteful act of defecation. Writer/director Pablo Larrain possesses a singular vision and he had the balls to follow through on the darkness of his story, but he doesn't give us sufficient reason to go there with him. So much of Tony Manero seems aimed at repelling its audience, and it frequently succeeded in pushing me away.

The Damned United
Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen have carved out quite a comfortable little niche for themselves with their semi-fictional explorations of famous figures' private lives, and after turning Tony Blair and David Frost into appealing mainstream entertainments, their latest offering tackles Old Big 'Ead himself: Brian Clough. Cutting back and forth between Clough's rise to prominence at Derby County and his disastrous 44-day stint at Leeds United, The Damned United sticks closely to the structure of David Peace's novel while lightening the tone, which was a necessary move. Whereas Peace wallowed in the darkness and misery of Clough's situation, Morgan and director Tom Hooper have produced a polished and affectionate drama which is built upon two contrasting relationships. The film's emotional core is provided by Clough's bond with his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), which contrasts with the deep rivalry he shared with former Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meany), and the performances across the board are excellent. The Damned United is impressively shot, with Ben Smithard delivering some vivid and atmospheric visuals, and the picture is an effortlessly slick mover, but it's Sheen who really holds things together. He once again proves that he's an excellent mimic, but he doesn't settles for mere mimicry, finding a resonance in the vulnerability and self-doubt lying under Clough's legendary arrogance. He's great to watch, but I do think Sheen needs to start thinking about roles outside of this field, to avoid being typecast as the go-to biopic guy, and to prove his versatility in other ways. Will the real Michael Sheen please stand up?

There can surely be few more pertinent or difficult subjects for a documentary filmmaker to tackle than religion, and that's why Religulous is such a frustrating experience. Larry Charles' film follows American comedian Bill Maher as he travels the world, exploring a variety of religions, and pitting his own sense of doubt against the blind faith shown by those he meets. Maher is a funny – if rather smug – guide, and Religulous is a very funny film, but one wonders how amusing it is meant to be. There's a tension between Maher's gags and Charles' jokey captions, and the often serious nature of the discussions being held between Maher and the people he meets. Moreover, the film's frantic desire to fit as much into its running time as possible means it only scratches the surface of most of the issues it touches upon, and it frequently feels haphazard in its construction – surely the time spent talking to a pothead in Amsterdam could have been put to better use by expanding on some of the film's more interesting digressions? The net result is a movie that is a little too glib and eager to please for its own good, and it doesn't do enough to build towards Maher's big climactic speech, leaving it feeling tacked-on and lacking in weight. I enjoyed Religulous while I was watching it, and it certainly asks the right questions even if it doesn't hang around for the answers, but I couldn't help feeling that a much better movie could have been edited together from the footage Charles and Maher shot.

State of Play
State of Play is not a particularly exciting, interesting or imaginative movie, but it is superbly acted and competently directed, and that's enough to set it apart from the average Hollywood thriller. Adapted from Paul Abbot's fine 2003 BBC drama, the film's biggest flaw lies in its attempt to squeeze a whole miniseries worth of action into a two-hour picture, making the story feel rushed and cluttered, hampered by twists and revelations that don't really convince. Similarly, the characterisations have been boiled down to their clichéd essence, but the actors filling those roles are good enough to make them feel like more than stereotypes. As the old-fashioned, honest Washington Globe reporter, Russell Crowe gives his best performance in years, and he has a nice chemistry with Rachel McAdams, who plays the newspaper's young political blogger. Much of State of Play feels like a lament for the old values of journalism being eroded by the instantaneous reaction of new media, and Helen Mirren is excellent as the newspaper's editor, who respects Crowe's instincts while knowing a sensational exclusive could drive up the Globe's flagging sales. Solid support is provided by Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn and a particularly good Jason Bateman, and Kevin MacDonald handles the drama in an efficient manner, but State of Play never comes close to providing the kind of excitement this director could generate in his documentary work. One Day in September and Touching the Void were masterful pieces of filmmaking, and in moving away from that field, I would have hoped MacDonald could graduate to something a little more edifying than classy hackwork like this.