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Knowing (2009) March 30, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 5 comments

Directed by: Alex Proyas

If career sabotage was his intention, I might be able to forgive Nicolas Cage’s recent choices.  The ill-fated Wicker Man remake, a woeful Ghost Rider [review] adaptation, and the lacklustre sci-fi thriller Next [review], don’t exactly make for enticing viewing.  Watching them is like watching a person on autopilot, blankly wandering through whatever bizarre circumstances he has found himself in that week, with the longing hope that something better is just around the corner.  This particular bend finds Knowing, an end of days thriller with pretensions to the popcorn action flick.  ‘What happens when the numbers run out?’ reads the tagline.  It’s not looking good.

Cage plays astronomy professor John Koestler, a man contemplating the emptiness of life after his wife dies in an accident leaving him to raise their son, Caleb.  Everything changes for John when Caleb brings home an envelope from his school’s recently opened time capsule.  The 50-year-old message looks like a random series of numbers, but John uses his analytical mind to notice a pattern in the digits.  The letter correctly predicts the date and number of deaths at every major accident for the past half decade - and there are still three disasters left.  John takes it upon himself to try and prevent these events from happening, but quickly realises that he alone may be unable to alter the disastrous pre-determined future.

Many point back to Leaving Las Vegas and the vintage comedic Cage from Raising Arizona as examples of when he used to be exciting, but we really don’t have to dig that deep.  His hypersensitive writer in Adaptation, his obsessive conman in Matchstick Men, the calculating arms dealer from Lord of War [review], and depressive TV personality in The Weather Man, are all examples of post-nineties performances from an actor who can, if he chooses to, still deliver the goods.  But notice that what links these films is a heavy emphasis on character over flashy gimmicks, which makes Knowing (AKA gimmick movie of the year), a hugely disappointing choice.

Everything in the film is a device, either to forward the pretence of a plot, or to establish some half-baked character trait.  It also deals heavily in standard film building blocks: so there’s plenty of single parent anxiety, a main character with very specific job knowledge, a conveniently placed news report that gives away the ending, and the classic ‘colleague who denies it all despite overwhelming evidence’.  Plus, any originality in the concept is slightly eroded by the fact that it feels like we’ve seen this kind of thing before - pattern-based mystery thrillers all blur into one once you’ve seen The Number 23 [review], Final Destination, The Da Vinci Code and everything in between.

But to discount the film entirely based on this fact is unfair.  Knowing does have a rather neat central premise, and one which feels open to plenty of possibilities.  Where the film fails is in expanding on those possibilities, and seems happier to just walk a straight line right to its story-negating conclusion.  The script does one rather brave sidestep towards the end, and it certainly won’t work for everyone.  I’m still unsure as to whether it helps more than it hurts, because while the surprise of a head-spinning genre crossover is completely welcome, it also takes the story to a new level of ridiculousness.  Does the film, as some have suggested, not know what it want to be, or does it know exactly what it’s doing with this sudden left-turn?  I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

Where the movie really comes to life is during its disaster sequences.  I, Robot director Alex Proyas has put together a movie which at least looks good throughout, and this visual style is most affecting when we witness the destruction and death of two large-scale accidents first hand.  Being put ‘in the moment’ by camerawork is something that is often talked about, but Knowing really achieves that difficult feat.  There are some genuinely horrific moments which effectively convey the general pandemonium of such desperate situations.  Special effects come to the fore here, and look appropriately spectacular, but it also means some of the small effects shots don’t get the time (or maybe money) that they required.

The story is credited to Ryne Douglas Pearson, but the final screenplay has three other credited writers: Juliet Snowden, Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine.  Despite all the hands on deck, the dialogue is sometimes slow and plodding, with no interest in diverging from standard writing conventions or straying from the beaten thriller path.  It is functional, but nothing more.  The same could be said about the performances with Nicholas Cage, Rose Byrne and Nadia Townsend all going through the motions but never fully committing to such strange material.  Oddly, it doesn’t affect the movie too much, so far removed are the characters from the most interesting parts of this movie.

Knowing has moments of thrilling entertainment, much more so than many of these mind-bending effects films.  The rest of it, however, is a bit bland, discounting the controversial last 15 minutes which will give some a chance to reassess their view of the film, and others an opportunity to vent relentlessly on its inherent stupidity.  For the brief action sequences alone this isn’t a complete waste of time, but nor is it a must-see, while Nicholas Cage proves once again that his tent pole movies (see also: National Treasure: Book of Secrets [review]) never live up to his smaller character roles.  It shouldn’t take a prophetic number puzzle to decipher the right course of action for his future.

Knowing is currently on UK general release.

Death Sentence (2007) March 24, 2009

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Directed by: James Wan

Ever since the success of Death Wish in the mid-seventies, Hollywood has been taking the revenge thriller out for a spin every few years, lest it become rusty and start to creak.  Unfortunately, creakiness is a necessary pre-requisite of these works, and it always ends up finding its way to the fore, creating the kind of woollen jumper plot holes that cynical film fans love to pick apart.  Death Sentence is exactly this kind of movie, but one which at least embraces its genre without caution or self-awareness.  Is this the revenge of revenge?

Kevin Bacon plays family man Nick Hume, whose son Brendan is brutally murdered during a gas station gang robbery.  Naturally shaken by what he has witnessed, Nick cannot accept a simple three year jail term for the killer.  Instead, he chooses to take matters into his own, vengeful hands, forcing bloody war on the dangerous thugs in an attempt to right the wrongs enacted on his son.  But gang leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) is unwilling to go down without a fight.

So why such fascination with the vigilante?  It makes sense from a cinematic standpoint, after all, a revenge motive allows for sympathetic broken heroes, clouded judgement decisions, and a discarding of the logic that plagues so called ‘real life’ dramatic works.  Certainly, there are elements of that here, but only with suitable artistic licence do these things really come alive.  It’s nice then, that Death Sentence isn’t afraid to go the extra illogical mile, whether the end result of that choice is good or bad.

In the lead role, Kevin Bacon is pretty effective.  The worst point you could make about his character is that he’s a little awkward in the transition from mild-mannered parent to killer, but only to the extent that these things often are.  It takes a lot to keep you interested if the character slow-burns his way there, and since the down moments aren’t ever as strong as the up ones in Death Sentence, it’s probably for the best that he makes the improbable leap almost immediately.

The script by first-time writer Ian Jeffers is purely functional, and while based on a book by original Death Wish writer (and therefore patron saint of the revenge flick) Brian Garfield, the story does just enough to keep Bacon on the well-worn path from loving father, to weathered vigilante.  The only upset is a rather nicely pitched end to the second act which may well cause some contention, leaving even the hardest of the revenge movie fan-boys questioning the film’s logic.  It naturally leads to the most audacious - but for those who know the genre also the most necessary - ending cue.
Director James Wan has put together a very stylistic film, maybe even a little overly so at times.  His camera is often liberated from a single position, a fact that he makes great use of through some impressive single-shot sequences.  At its best moments, such as during the extended car park sequence, it’s like being right in the action; at its worst, like watching the film on a looping rollercoaster.  Still, he keeps it together for the most part, and the movie has a rather distinct visual style, if one that has been borrowed slightly from the likes of Guy Ritchie and Co.
It’s also surprisingly visceral in its depiction of violence, although that’s brought into perspective slightly when you consider that Wan is the original writer and director of Halloween’s premiere mainstay franchise, Saw.  What you might not expect is a similar attention to music, but there’s certainly plenty throughout this film’s 106 minutes.  Aside from a rather ominous piece of scoring that underpins the movie, some will find the accompaniments too song-laden, like there’s a running Rock Radio station in the background.  Music use can be a little heavy handed, but at least the choices are well intentioned.

Between the cinematography, the unhindered violence, and the flexible logic barometer, Death Sentence sits quite closely to another recent brutal thriller, Running Scared [review].  That particular Paul Walker vehicle was surprisingly affecting, and there’s a hint of that here too, just without the same level of consistency.  Hindered by its very genre, it’s a tale that rarely strays outside the lines, so while you could argue that there are a couple of standout scenes, the rest falls directly into a well-worn formula.  If only there had been a little bit of the vigilante attitude applied to the story, we may be looking at a film that’s as dangerous and daring as it clearly wants to be.

Watchmen (2009) March 19, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 6 comments

Directed by: Zack Snyder

If ever a movie deserved the ‘long awaited’ moniker, it is surely this one.  The seminal graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons has been buzzing on and off like a badly wired fluorescent light for the past two decades, with numerous directors attaching themselves while the rights flipped back and forth between studios.  Some fans have waited on tenterhooks the whole time, while others believe that a film adaptation shouldn’t even be attempted.  Then there are more still who will tell you that it can’t be done; no way, no how.  But here it is, all the same.  And as success, disaster, or unholy mistake, there’s one undeniable fact: the film’s got guts.

Set in an alternate 1985 where superheroes have changed the outcome of the Vietnam War and President Nixon kept control of the White House indefinitely, the story catches up with the now-defunct Watchmen – a group of heroes since outlawed by stringent government rulings.  With the world inching closer to possible nuclear conflict, the masked vigilante Rorschach has more pressing issues on his mind.  Someone has been murdering the old heroes, including an ex-colleague, The Comedian.  Determined to settle the score, Rorschach warns the others: Nite Owl II, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre II, and the all-powerful Dr Manhattan.  But as his investigation deepens, it doesn’t provide the vengeful satisfaction he was hoping for.

For those uninitiated in the graphic novel, the first thing to note is that this is probably not the movie you’re expecting it to be.  Superheroes in cinema have traditionally meant an old-fashioned good versus evil storyline, a strong-minded central character with a hint of self-doubt, and some action-packed set pieces to blow the budget on.  Even above-the-curve efforts like the spectacular Dark Knight [review] contained those elements, and that film raised the bar for the whole genre.  Watchmen won’t be raising any bars, however, because it’s just not competing in the same commercial space.  It’s a movie built inside the Hollywood system, yet so gobsmackingly uncommercial that it may as well employ bodyguards to work the theatre doors, weeding out those who don’t meet the correct temperament requirements.

This is where the aforementioned gutsy resilience comes into play.  On paper, this is the movie that Warner Bothers and Zack Snyder could never make: a 162-minute, politically-laden character piece, with lots of dialogue, not a great deal of action, no stars in the cast, and a philosophical moral question at its core.  “Blow this, let’s make Spider-man 4!”  Right?  Well apparently not, as that is exactly what has been brought to screen in lavish detail by Snyder and his crew.  Any doubts about the film’s unwavering commitment to its source should be laid to rest right now.

As a result, Watchmen is set to throw its audience off track, pushing a noir-fuelled detective story and contemplations about the state of humanity, over flashy stunts and attention-grabbing explosions.  The script, by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is happy to take its time, fleshing out each of its beautifully flawed central characters with time-hopping flashbacks.  There’s potential for confusion here, especially if you’re not paying attention, and the refreshing lack of spoon-feeding means you’ll want to keep up.  But the screenplay is clear and perfectly understandable, while those who decry the cuts made from the novel need only glance at the running time to understand that this is hardly a bare bones version. [For those who shun brevity, a three-plus hour director’s cut is on the way]

So it’s long and heavily layered, but these are effects mandated by the source.  Any shorter and much of the depth would be lost, any longer and all feeling in one’s lower region might go the same way.  Where the film diverges a little more is through its visuals, which are expertly handled by director Zach Snyder, and cinematographer Larry Fong.  Not everyone was so approving when the director of 300 [review] and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake stepped up to take on Watchmen.  It’s absolutely to his credit that he has managed to find a neat balance between his own personal style (including his beloved slo-mo sequences), and the compositions of the original artwork.  The film presents a visual spectacle throughout, and is without doubt a gorgeous movie to watch, even if everything else goes over your head.

There’s more to enjoy too from the cast, where the previously mentioned lack of ‘stars’ doesn’t mean there’s a lack of talent.  Jeffery Dean Morgan stands out as the deeply flawed Comedian, while Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy [review], Little Children) stays more level headed as Dan Dreiberg AKA Nite Owl II.  Meanwhile, the fantastic Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) barely appears in person, but is not to be overlooked as the mild-mannered CGI rendition of Dr Manhattan.  If you’re going to remember one character though, it’s likely to be the temperamental Rorschach, played with pitch perfect vocal inflection by Jackie Earle Haley.

Music also makes up a large part of the overall mood, with the choice to use popular songs that often relate directly to the story through title or lyrics.  Sometimes, they work outstandingly well, such as during the best sequence in the movie: a five-minute opening credit piece which munches through plot exposition, providing flashes of the Watchmen’s predecessors up to the current day, all set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”.  The music often sits on top of the images rather than blending in, and while this effect is probably intentional, it’s not going to sit well with everyone.  But this is not the film’s biggest failing; that is reserved for the lengthy conclusion, featuring a cleverly constructed moral dilemma, but which pays so much attention to its characters motivations and intentions, that it never really holds the weight of consequence.

Watchmen is about so much more than what you see on the screen.  There are concepts and ideas here that make this an adult-oriented film for reasons much subtler than the graphic violence and sex.  It may not be the masterpiece fans consider the graphic novel to be, but many should at least see that, by Hollywood terms, the film is astoundingly brave.  To get this story made, in such an unabashed manner, is close to a miracle: it’s essentially a $120 million, ideologically complex art house picture.  If you’ve been waiting, then wait no more - Watchmen demands your attention.  Just don’t assume that this superhero story is playing to the mainstream.  It sees their true face.

Watchmen is currently on UK general release in standard and IMAX formats.

Marley & Me (2008) March 12, 2009

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Directed by: David Frankel

2009 may be Year of the Ox according to the Chinese calendar, but in cinemas it seems to be strictly the Year of the Dog.  In the first three months alone we’ve seen canines take over the family movie market, with silly outings like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Space Buddies, sitting alongside the kid-friendly Hotel for Dogs and Disney’s animated adventure Bolt.  But just when it looks like it’s time to have this genre neutered, along comes a genuinely sweet and emotional entry that bravely attempts a more mature approach.  So mature, in fact, that Marley & Me may well have outgrown its all-inclusive family classification entirely.

Its story opens with two newspaper writers, John and Jennifer Grogan, who have recently married and moved to Florida to start their life together.  But when Jenny’s thoughts turn to children, John decides that maybe a dog would be a more manageable way to stall the responsibilities of becoming a father.  Their choice: Marley, a cute puppy who quickly grows into a riotous destroyer of all things furniture.  His complete lack of discipline and control aside, Marley is given a loving home at the Grogans’, eventually becoming part of a larger family who deal with the ups and downs of owning “the world’s worst dog”.

The most unfortunate aspect of the plot is that to openly comment on it is to involuntarily reveal something of a spoiler.  Without delving too deep into the reasons why, it is worth noting that Marley & Me is a very emotional movie and one which intersperses its comic optimism by plucking at your heartstrings.  There’s no denying the film’s potential as a fine family movie, and its PG certificate is appropriately awarded, but there are moments which may upset younger viewers, especially if they’re used to the carefree storytelling of other films aimed at this age group.

This isn’t the only argument against taking youngsters, however.  Being based on a true story, and subsequently the book of that story, means the movie is told from a rather adult point of view.  The most courageous thing about Marley & Me is that it subverts the urge to dumb down the book’s tales of the Grogans’ life problems, in order to appeal more generally to all-age audiences.  There are scenes, especially in the second hour, which deal with marital stress, lack of self-worth, conception difficulties, and a brief moment of violent crime, that would probably be lost on some of its youngest viewers and may even lead to boredom after the upbeat, comic opening.  In a world of identikit family films though, this movie at least bothers to challenge the perceptions of what ‘works’ in the genre, and its success at toeing this line deserves commendation, not derision.

After all, it never oversteps the mark, and there’s always a distinct Disney-esque opinion offered to even the most dour moments.  “Mend it, don’t end it”, says Owen Wilson during his mini marriage crisis, which sums up the film’s outlook perfectly.  Plus, it would be unfair not to mention how funny and sweet the movie is during the rest of its running length.  The scenes that encompass Marley’s bad behaviour make up the quota of slapstick joviality, while the rest of the laughs come largely from the supporting characters, especially Alan Arkin, who plays John’s boss and newspaper editor Arnie Klein.  Just like his role in last summer’s Get Smart [review], his initially cynical demeanour leads to plenty of opportunities for comic deconstruction.

Which brings us to the central cast, headed by Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston playing John and Jenny Grogan.  Both are comfortable comic actors and both exude a great amount of charm as the rather too perfect couple.  Wilson plays John in his usual laidback style (that surfer dude persona just doesn’t go away) while Aniston has the more manic role, but handles her later scenes of anxiety quite nicely.  The pair also seems to have good chemistry, which helps in a story that focuses itself on the strength of their relationship.  Throw in a minor role for Eric Dane as the object of John’s professional jealousy, and Kathleen Turner playing a strict dog trainer, and you have a comic cast that is as solid as any you might come across.

Writers Don Roos and Scott Frank adapt themselves well to an unfamiliar genre.  With Roos past work including Single White Female and Diabolique, he proves already adept in the art of book adaptation.  Frank, on the other hand, u-turns on his recent thrillers The Interpreter and The Lookout [review] for, ironically, a film with more action than both of those credits combined.  Meanwhile, The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel holds the reigns with a relaxed grip, happy to let the story take centre stage rather than apply any unnecessary glamour.  Still, his use of handheld cameras help keep scenes in motion, and there’s one rather inspired sequence of events which show the passage of time without resorting to an “8 months later” caption.

Marley & Me is not without its flaws, most notably its tendency to try and cover a lot of different issues, subsequently extending its running length to five minutes shy of two hours.  But rest assured, when it chooses to, this story could melt even the hardest of hearts.  Using animals in this way could be considered emotional blackmail and I’m sure that it would elicit some reaction even if the rest of the movie was awful, but the fact that it is so warm hearted and unafraid of the realities of life, means you can only respect its bravado.  This is a film for the whole family, but not necessarily for every family, so do some research before you go.  For those who are ready though, Marley is sure to set tails wagging all over the country.

Marley & Me is currently on UK general release.

Everything’s Gone Green (2006) March 7, 2009

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Directed by: Paul Fox

As a second feature for director Paul Fox, and a debut for writer Douglas Coupland, Everything’s Gone Green is a prime example of indie under-exposure, or maybe just bad promotion.  Lost amongst the fray during its limited select-cities US release, any resurgence on DVD has been hindered by its marketing placement as a slacker/stoner comedy, of which it is neither.  And while it comes hard to recommend for wide appeal, there are intentions and ideas here that should find it an audience, despite all the hindrances.

Its story follows Ryan, a hapless twenty-something whose life is going nowhere fast.  After being dumped, fired, and made to believe his family might have won the lottery (they hadn’t) all in one day, Ryan contemplates the hopeless emptiness of his life.  His fortunes change slightly when he gets a job working for the lottery magazine – a role that sees him interviewing and taking pictures of lottery winners.  He also meets Ming, a local film set designer with whom he strikes up a friendship.  Unfortunately, Ming’s ambitious boyfriend latches on to Ryan, and tries to convince him that he could use his position at the lottery magazine to help launder gang money.  But will this unlawful act and the prospect of cash really make Ryan happier with his life?

What Fox and Coupland have really come up with here is a quiet comedy - not something that pushes its humour in your face, but rather settles for a naturalistic, simple comic undertone that holds its place throughout the film.  This can make the more explicitly wacky sequences stand out a little uncomfortably (a scene involving an adult web site, for example), but for all its forays into traditional comedy set-ups, the movie still exhumes a melancholic mood that forms the basis for Ryan’s dissatisfaction with life.

The script isn’t particularly inspired, but the cast help inject a some life into it, with Paulo Costanzo holding the lead role particularly well, and never overplaying his character’s depressive state of mind.  Casual viewers may know him better from college comedy Road Trip, or maybe Friends TV spin-off Joey, but his involvement here shows an aspiration above those previous projects, and an ability to match it.  Steph Song plays her love interest character with a relatable sweetness (you can understand why Ryan likes her), while JR Bourne is slightly less convincing as the underhand Bryce - the biggest corrupting factor in a story that appears to deal mostly in corruption.

What the film has going for it is a strong desire to ensue its low-budget roots through cinematography and clean-looking visuals - a feat which it mostly manages, albeit without entirely disguising its indie credentials.  Helping out greatly is a beautiful looking Vancouver setting that, for once, is actually playing the part of Vancouver (there’s a nice knowing joke about Vancouver doubling for random US cities in the film too).  Add to this a soundtrack of typical low-fi ballads and tranquil guitar melodies, and you’ve got the perfect accompaniment to a movie that drifts through its narrative in a way that will anger as many as it enraptures.

If there’s one thing you take from Everything’s Gone Green, it’s that the film is one of many unfinished thoughts and ideas.  From all the various plot strands that are opened and never fully addressed, to all the character traits that are introduced without being appropriately utilised, the whole thing is one big hanging thread, including the unapologetically open conclusion which acts as a hopeful final beat.  It’s not entirely convincing and might disappoint even those who like a degree of ambiguity in their narratives.  But for all its failings, there’s still the prospect that a more complete movie might be on the way from those involved here.  Until then, ignore the marketing and take in this relaxed tour of Vancouver.  Stoners and slackers need not apply.

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