Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review - Star Trek

What happened to original movies? When did we, the mass cinemagoing public, stop seeking out the new and different, and start being satisfied with the endless regurgitation of stories and characters, year after year? The summer release schedules have become the time of sequels and prequels, remakes and reboots, comic-book adaptations and TV show spinoffs. This year, we have been offered the chance to see how Wolverine became Wolverine, Michael Bay has returned to pummel our senses with his giant robots, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are still rummaging around some dusty tombs in search of a plot, and someone (or something) called McG is trying to prove that the
Terminator series can survive without James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger. As such, I have avoided most of the big releases this year; I simply couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to see something that already felt so familiar. But a few days ago, finding myself with some hours to kill in the West End, I succumbed, and broke my 2009 blockbuster duck with JJ Abrams' Star Trek.

Star Trek is not a sequel or a prequel. It's a reboot, the term used for a long series of films which has worn itself out, slipped into self-parody or irrelevance, and is now being rescued with a new beginning. The past few years have seen Batman and James Bond undergoing the reboot treatment, and with ten films and numerous TV series already under its belt, Star Trek would appear to be a perfect candidate for a similarly fresh start. Abrams' film features all of the characters from the much-loved original series, but he's taking us back to their younger days, to see how they first came together as the Enterprise's crew. In fact, he's taking us back even further than that, opening the film with a prologue set moments before the birth of James T. Kirk.

The captain of the ship at this time is Kirk's father George (Chris Hemsworth), and we join him just as his vessel, the USS Kelvin, has come under enemy fire from a vast Romulan ship, piloted by the vengeful Nero (Eric Bana, although you'd be forgiven for not recognising him). Nero's superior firepower cripples the Kelvin, and George orders the whole crew – including his heavily pregnant wife – to evacuate, while he remains on board, sacrificing his life for theirs. Such heroism sets quite a standard for a son to live up to, and when Abrams jumps forward a few years, we can see that young James Kirk doesn't really care about living up to his father's legacy. As played by Chris Pine, he's an obnoxious, arrogant jerk who is offered an unexpected opportunity to sign up for Starfleet after Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) sees him sparking a barroom brawl. Pike clearly thinks this kid has the right stuff. Personally, I'm not so sure.

The problem with Pine's characterisation of Kirk is that he's such a cocksure, unlikable figure for most of the film, it's hard to see him displaying the leadership qualities required to take command of the enterprise, and that's clearly a view shared by Zachary Quinto's Spock. The simmering tension between Spock and Kirk is Star Trek's central conflict. The logic-driven Vulcan disapproves of Kirk's brash, do-or-die attitude, and the scenes in which they clash with each other are among the film's best, with Quinto giving a note-perfect portrayal of the young Spock. It's quite a challenge for these actors, to step into roles already so well established, and for the most part, they handle the burden of expectation well. Some of them excel, such as Karl Urban, who is brilliant as 'Bones' McCoy, while others fail to make much of an impact, like Simon Pegg who is simply an irritant as Scotty. A few members of the cast might have made more of an impression had their parts been given a little more substance. As the sole significant female character, Zoë Saldana's Uhura should have been asked to do more than simply look sexy in a miniskirt and comfort her male colleagues every now and then, while Nero is an extraordinarily dull villain, and a dreadful waste of Eric Bana. You could have asked any actor in Hollywood to sit there shouting under all that makeup, and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference.

In general, though, the cast do a commendable job, and the blame for
Star Trek's ultimate failure cannot be laid at their feet. Instead, we must look at Abrams and the screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have based Star Trek's narrative around a ludicrous time-travel plot device. The motive for Nero's villainy – he has come back in time for Young Spock, because of a disaster Old Spock failed to prevent – is stupid on a number of levels, and this approach simply opens up a huge number of gaping plot holes. Why did they go with this ridiculous story? One suspects it was simply to allow the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, to make a cameo, but if that's the case then they really shouldn't have bothered. He mumbles his expository dialogue in stiff and dull manner, and the whole scene in which he appears – which also involves Kirk being chased by an alien monster – feels like an unnecessary sidetrack. The film is equally ill-served by Abrams' direction, which is relentlessly hectic, and it turns too many scenes into an incoherent blur of movement. He's guilty of doing far too much, of never allowing the film to settle, to breathe, and the distracting lens flare effect that half of the film seems to be affected by is more evidence of a picture that has been horribly over-directed.

Are these flaws critical? Not really, the film scrapes a pass on the charm of its cast and the enjoyment offered by some individual sequences, most of which occur in the picture's first half, before it gets bogged down in narrative complications. I was never a huge fan of
Star Trek in any of its earlier guises, so I haven't come to this film with the emotional attachment that many will feel, and for me it feels like just another blockbuster – slick, shallow and moderately entertaining. As a starting point for a franchise, one has to say it has plenty of potential to develop now it has negotiated the notoriously tricky origin story, and with this fresh-faced cast, it looks like the new Star Trek series is going to run and run. That is, until the time comes to rip it up and start all over again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review - Looking for Eric

Ken Loach has always shied away from using major names in his films, but for many people, one of the actors in his latest picture is a more iconic presence than any Hollywood star.
Looking for Eric is a film about two men called Eric. One is a postman (Steve Evets) who has reached breaking point. Struggling to raise two teenage stepsons alone, and pining for his first wife, Eric begins hoarding undelivered letters and crashes his car after circling the roundabout numerous times in the wrong direction. The other Eric in this amiable tale is a certain Eric Cantona, the brilliant, enigmatic, volatile Frenchman who was a key figure in Manchester United's domination of 90's football. When we first see him, he's just an image, staring imperiously out from a poster on Eric the postman's wall. He gazes up at his idol and, under the influence of some weed, begins unburdening himself, explaining his problems and lamenting his lot. The last thing he expects is for Cantona to start talking back

In true
Play it Again, Sam style, a stunned Eric turns around to find Cantona sitting in his bedroom; a little older, a little heavier, and wearing a thick beard, but most definitely the man himself. Cantona becomes a kind of life coach for Eric, listening intently as the depressed postman discusses his abiding love for Lily (Stephanie Bishop), and offering words of wisdom in his own unique style. "Without danger, we cannot get past danger," he announces, "He who is afraid to roll the dice will never throw a six." These nuggets of philosophy don't wash with Eric, though. "Leave it out" he exclaims, "I still haven't gotten over the bloody seagulls!"

There hasn't been a lot of laughter in Ken Loach's films over the years, and as a result, the uplifting tone of
Looking for Eric makes it an unusual, and refreshing, anomaly. Having said that, there's still plenty of darkness balancing out the film's lighter moments, the kind of emotionally wrought working-class drama Loach and his regular collaborator Paul Laverty are renowned for, and it's an awkward combination. At times, it feels as if Laverty has yoked together two or three different films, and tried to give each an equal share of the spotlight, resulting in a story that needs to negotiate some tricky changes of pace, and a few troublesome plot developments. Thanks to Loach's sensitive direction, and the enormous charm of the performances, they just about manage to pull it off.

This kind of tale might be uncharted territory for Loach, but he hasn't adapted his approach in any way. Aside from one funny moment – where Cantona turns on Eric's record player by pointing at it, before inviting him to dance – Loach doesn't bring any element of magic or fantasy into their sequences together, instead allowing the real and unreal to slip seamlessly into each other. So, we see Cantona accompanying Eric on his post round, while they discuss his greatest goals, propping up the bar when Eric goes to buy a drink, or taking him for a jog in the woods. The effect is utterly surreal, and it's very amusing too, particularly with Cantona proving to be a natural and wittily self-aware actor. His role is more than just a gimmicky cameo too, with his career and reputation being skilfully worked into the premise, in a way that's relevant to Eric's troubles. In one scene, Eric tries to guess which of Cantona's goals ranks as his sweetest memory. His volley against Wimbledon, perhaps? How about the 1996 FA Cup Final winner? Each time, Cantona shakes his head and says, "No." The memory he selects is a pass, which allowed Denis Irwin to score against Tottenham. "Without your teammates, you are lost," he advises.

It's a neat scene, and Eric would indeed be lost without his pals from the post office (including, oddly, John Henshaw, from the current post office advertising campaign), who rally around their distressed colleague and furnish the picture with a number of hilarious exchanges. This, I thought, was everything
Looking for Eric required: there's romance in the potential reconciliation with Lily, a comment on the nature of celebrity in Cantona's appearance, a touching portrait of friendship via Eric's relationship with his workmates, and maybe an examination of psychological issues through his unhealthy mental state. But the inclusion of a subplot in which Eric's stepson (Gerard Kearns) gets involved with a local gangster seems to throw the whole film off balance. Laverty and Loach may well argue that they would have been remiss to ignore gun crime in a film set in Manchester, and that's a fair point, but it doesn't belong here. A number of the sequences surrounding this strand of the narrative are Looking for Eric's least convincing, and I resented the fact that it was eating up time the film could have used exploring much more interesting avenues.

All of this leads to a finale which is frankly ridiculous. It makes the appearance of Eric Cantona in a postman's bedroom seem like an everyday occurrence, and it has the effect of further undermining the seriousness of the film's gun-related plot (if only all of Manchester's gun crime could be resolved in such a fashion). On balance, I'd say Loach and Laverty just about get away with it, but it's touch and go for a while, and they owe their leading man a huge debt of gratitude. No, not the footballer, I'm talking about Steve Evets, the virtually unknown actor who portrays Eric the postman. He plays the role with honesty and a complete lack of sentimentality, bringing a sense of careworn resignation to the character early on, before making us believe in the re-ignition of his spirit as the film progresses. His hesitant edging towards a reunion with Lily (who is also beautifully played) is the heart of the picture, and the reason it manages to overcome its occasional narrative wobbles. All of the attention might be focused on the legendary figure among the cast, but in the end,
Looking for Eric belongs to his lesser-known namesake, and that's exactly how it should be.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review - The Hangover

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, we are frequently told during Todd Phillips'
The Hangover, but the film's central premise concerns three guys desperately trying to figure just what exactly did happen during their Vegas bachelor party. After a night dedicated to celebrating Doug's (Justin Bartha) impending nuptials, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) regain consciousness in their hotel suite, with no memory of what they did the night before. The room has been trashed, one of the chairs is smouldering, there's a chicken wandering around, a tiger in the bathroom, and a baby in the closet. Phil is wearing a bracelet indicating he spent part of the night in hospital, and Stu is faced with a double whammy – he has lost a tooth and married a stripper (Heather Graham) – but the most worrying discovery is the fact that Doug is missing, and nobody has any idea where he is.

So begins a very strange odyssey, in which the three friends attempt to piece together the events of the previous night and locate the groom, running afoul of Chinese gangsters (led by a hilariously OTT Ken Jeong), taser-happy cops and Mike Tyson in the process. To reveal much more about the plot would be a mistake, because part of
The Hangover's considerable appeal lies in the way the film consistently manages to top itself in inventive ways, piling further pain and humiliation on its bewildered protagonists. This is a terrifically funny movie that sustains itself surprisingly well, mainly thanks to the detective element of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's screenplay, which drives the narrative from one comic set-up to another at a swift pace. In fact, Phillips manages to draw a fair amount of tension from the film's setup, with the wedding edging ever closer and with the boys no nearer to locating their missing groom. This is a great return to form for the director, who gave us Old School in 2003 before directing the twin debacles Starsky and Hutch and School for Scoundrels. He opens the film with an evocative credits sequence, and his handling of the action is focused and efficiently staged throughout, but his best work is done with the actors, with the central three playing off each other superbly.

Bradley Cooper's disrupted composure and Ed Helms' steadily increasing hysteria are fun to watch, but the film is comprehensively stolen by Galifianakis, who turns in a hilarious performance as bizarre man-child Alan. There's a wonderful innocence to his deadpan delivery, such as when he asks the receptionist at Caesar's Palace if Caesar actually lived there, or when he confidently states, "Tigers love pepper, they hate cinnamon." He can even make a gag about baby masturbation funny, and his
Rain Man spoof late in the picture is priceless. Regrettably, with so much male-based humour on show, the female characters are relegated to the sidelines. Heather Graham gets to do little more than smile sweetly and expose a breast in her brief scenes, but she could still argue that she gets better treatment than Rachael Harris, who plays Stu's girlfriend as a nightmarish, one-dimensional bitch, screeching at him relentlessly and turning away whenever he tries to kiss her. The film's retrograde depiction of its women is unfortunate, but any sense of disappointment is fleeting, because the laughs in The Hangover continue to come thick and fast, right up to, and including, the memorable closing credits.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review - Sugar

Judging by their first two pictures, the filmmaking career of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is going to be an interesting one to follow. They seem to be intent on taking established film genres and playing around with them, to present them in a new and unexpected light.
Half Nelson, the pair's directorial debut, was a fresh spin on the teacher-student dynamic commonly depicted in cinema, basing its story around the relationship between a drug-taking teacher and a young girl from a broken home. Their new film Sugar sets itself up as yet another sports film about a nobody who dreams of being a somebody; a talented baseball player with his eyes on the major leagues. But Sugar isn't really about baseball at all, that's just the world it happens to take place in, and it could just as easily be occurring in any sport or industry that offers a path to riches for the few, and obscurity for those who don't make the cut.

For Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), the dream is very real at the start of the film. Nicknamed Sugar (because he's sweet with the ladies, he claims, while others say it's because he loves dessert), Santos is staying at a training camp somewhere in the Dominican Republic, hoping to impress the visiting American scouts with his pitching skills. When a coach shows him how to throw a curve ball, he repeatedly practices the technique until his powerful arm catches a scout's eye. Sugar is signed up for a season in the US minor leagues with the Kansas City Knights, and this requires him to leave the town he has always lived in for a small farm community in Iowa. For anyone, that would be quite a culture shock, and
Sugar is superb in the way it depicts the challenges and pressures facing a young immigrant in America, and this, rather than baseball, is the film's real subject.

As such, Boden and Fleck spend just as much time exploring the day-to-day trials Santos experiences as they do charting his fluctuating form on the baseball field. He moves in with the Higgins (Anne Whitney and Richard Bull), a kindly elderly couple who habitually rent out rooms to the Knights' new prospects, and who offer him encouragement and advice when his game starts to slip. There's the promise of romance with their granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), but her mixed messages (she's a flirtatious evangelist) are doubly difficult to read for someone who doesn't know the language and is unfamiliar with the customs. For Sugar, the whole experience is overwhelming, and his form begins to suffer as he struggles with the burden of expectation placed upon him, resulting in him being dropped to the reserves; alone, frustrated, and facing the terrifying prospect of seeing his dream slip away. This is an extraordinarily demanding lead role, and after auditioning hundreds of non-actors in the Dominican Republic, Boden and Fleck struck gold when they found Algenis Perez Soto. He has a natural charisma and seems effortlessly comfortable in front of the camera, and he has the priceless ability to convey a multitude of emotions wordlessly, through his deep eyes and expressive features. Occasionally arrogant and cocky, frequently vulnerable and introspective, Santos is a complex and fully realised character, and Soto captures his spirit magnificently.

I was a fan of
Half Nelson, but this is something else entirely. As a display of directorial craft, it is so superior to Boden and Fleck's previous effort, it's hard to believe that we're talking about the same filmmakers. They immerse us in Sugar's world, creating an authentic, tangible sense of place in every scene, and making us experience the daunting stadia, the bustling arcade, or the wide, empty Iowa plains from his perspective. The tone is carefully measured, with the directors ensuring most of the clichés we come to expect in sporting films are skilfully avoided, and the pacing is faultless; allowing scenes to develop at precisely the speed and rhythm they require. Making an immeasurable contribution, cinematographer Andrij Parekh offers vibrant, evocative images everywhere, with the in-game sequences particularly benefitting from his compositional skills and attention to fine details.

The most surprising, and refreshing thing about
Sugar, however, is the surprising turn of events that occurs in the film's second half, when Miguel considers his options and comes to a momentous decision about his future. It's not the climax I had expected, but it is a brilliant ending nonetheless; one that widens the film's scope beyond the game of baseball, and offers a conclusion far more satisfying and moving than any we might have anticipated. "We've got seventy-five pitchers for less than fifty positions come April." A coach at the training camp says early on, "You do the math."; and Sugar superbly illuminates the cutthroat nature of a world in which so many youngsters are fighting for so few chances. One scene in the film's first half shows Miguel sitting with his classmates, as they learn the phrases they'll need to get by in the US: "Line Drive. Fly Ball. I Got It. Home Run." they repeat robotically. It's a baseball factory, a conveyor belt of talent, and there will be more following the same path with every passing year. One or two will make it, achieving everything they've dreamed of and securing their family's future, but for the vast majority of these hopefuls, life will be a lot closer to Sugar.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

May Round-Up

Sounds Like Teen Spirit
It's easy to approach Sounds Like Teen Spirit with a cynical mindset, but not so easy to maintain such an attitude as you watch the movie. This documentary follows a group of young contestants as they take part in the 2007 Junior Eurovision competition – an event which is every bit as tacky and cheesy as its adult equivalent – but first-time director Jamie Jay Johnson has no intention of taking a sneering, superior approach to the material. His is an affectionate film, overflowing with goodwill, and its buoyant spirit is infectious, primarily because Johnson has smartly picked subjects who are genuinely likeable and interesting characters. There's Marina, the pretty Bulgarian singer who has been deeply affected by her parents' breakup; Belgian band Trust, who are frequently distracted by thoughts of the opposite sex; Giorgios from Cyprus, the victim of bullies who possesses an unexpectedly powerful voice; and Mariam, who hopes to elevate the profile of Georgia through her performance. The kids cover a wide range of social classes (the cut from Marina's grand house to Mariam's cramped flat is startling), but they are uniformly comfortable and honest in from of Johnson camera, and it could have all gone horribly wrong if he had picked a less endearing entrant (the Ukrainian girl, in particular, is a horror). Johnson's attempt to draw parallels between Eurovision and global conflict is unnecessary, but for the most part his direction is confident and balanced; he lets his subjects carry the drama, and it's almost impossible to avoid getting emotionally entangled in the tense final scenes.

Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick)
Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments is a beautiful film. With its grainy, sepia-toned cinematography and authentic period detail, the film has a transporting effect, immersing us in daily life in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The drama we find there, unfortunately, is less compelling. It's a slightly soapy, melodramatic affair concerning Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), who is trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic, abusive womaniser (Mikael Persbrandt), and who finds a means of self-expression through photography. Her hesitant romance with fellow photographer Sebastien (Jesper Christensen) is played in a touchingly understated fashion, but the film's lack of heat eventually causes it to outstay its welcome. Even when Persbrandt is raging and threatening his terrified wife with a steam iron, the film never quite has the impact it should, because everything in Troell's film unfolds within very safe and conventional parameters. It's easy to see why Everlasting Moments was Sweden's official Oscar entry – it's classy, stately and predictable – although the three central performances are from the top rank.

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
On the subject of Swedish cinema, Let the Right One In has been receiving tumultuous praise over the past year or so, being embraced by mainstream audiences as much as films like this ever are. It's easy to see why it has been such a hit: Tomas Alfredson's picture is visually stunning, full of unexpected touches, and it wraps its vampire premise around an affecting teenage romance. The central characters are Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a pale, lonely boy who is at the mercy of the local bullies, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), the vampire who moves in next door, becoming both his friend and protector. Their performances are wonderful, and Alfredson's direction is imaginative, making this the first film since Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary to really revitalise the vampire movie. Let the Right One In is full of vivid imagery and standout sequences – from the semi-comic attempts by Eli's protector to find blood on her behalf, to the breathtaking swimming pool sequence – and yet, there's something unsatisfying about the picture as a whole. I just don't think the film hangs together comfortably, and its editing raises too many unanswered questions that detract from its impact, with the ending feeling particularly unfulfilling after what has gone before. It's a striking and original achievement nonetheless, and I would absolutely recommend seeing it before Hollywood remakes it and wipes away its intriguing idiosyncrasies. Let the Right One In might not be a great film, but on a scene-by-scene basis it's as good as anything I've seen this year.

The new British film Helen has been similarly overpraised, but while I can see why people have fallen for Let the Right One In, the critical admiration for this dull debut feature is baffling. Helen is a 17 year-old from a broken home, who steps in when the police stage a reconstruction of her classmate's disappearance. With no family of her own and little sense of her own identity, Helen begins latching onto the missing girl's life, becoming close with her grieving parents, and developing an unlikely relationship with her boyfriend. Directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, Helen goes for atmosphere and texture rather than plot. Like Duane Hopkins' recent Better Things, the film consists of artfully composed shots, with Ole Bratt Birkeland's camera moving at a measured pace around the characters, but these filmmakers lack the keen visual sense displayed by Hopkins, and their film is clumsy and banal in comparison. The young actors in front of the camera, who speak in a distracting range of regional accents (a legacy, one assumes, of the film's funding process), are without exception flat and stilted in their delivery, to the point where it appears they have been directed intentionally to play their parts in that fashion. What purpose that serves, I have no idea, and a similar air of pointlessness hangs over this entire tedious production.

This month's 3D offering is Coraline, the latest animation from Henry Selick, and as you'd expect, it looks fabulous. There's a real thrill to seeing such beautiful stop-motion animation on the big screen, as a refreshing break from the CGI onslaught, and for a while, this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book casts an intoxicating spell. The marvellous production design is accentuated by the film's third dimension, and Selick's direction is replete with inventive touches as he introduces us to a variety of eccentric supporting characters. There comes a point, however, when you feel the need for some kind of narrative to kick in, and Coraline's just doesn't hold up. As the titular character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) hops between parallel worlds, the film begins to feel a little repetitive, and it becomes obvious that there's not really enough of a story here to support the smart visuals. Selick fails to properly set up the quest Coraline must undertake to defeat the evil 'Other Mother' (Teri Hatcher), and the climax rushes by with unsatisfying haste. There are moments of magic dotted all the way through Coraline, but the film as a whole is disappointingly forgettable. On the question of whether Coraline is too scary for children, the answer is no, but it might well be too dull for them.