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The Boat That Rocked (2009) April 30, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , add a comment

Directed by: Richard Curtis

British comic mainstay Richard Curtis is the captain of this 60’s era ensemble comedy, a position he has held only once before, on his multi-threaded romantic tale, Love Actually.  It’s hard to believe that after nearly thirty years of writing and producing material, he hasn’t grasped the directing mantle with more vigour.  This particular comic endeavour introduces us to the first sparks of pop radio in the UK, and isn’t afraid to play fast and loose with history.  Maybe more incredulously, it is also a film that takes a few digs at the former antiquated attitudes of Curtis’ own workhouse, the BBC.  It may be considered dumping on your own doorstep, if it wasn’t so spinelessly flaccid.

Set during the height of the ’swinging sixties’, the story invites us aboard Radio Rock – a pirate radio station based on a ship in the North Sea, broadcasting rock music to a country starved of it by traditional music outlets.  The whole operation is only barely legal, and so, naturally, the Government are looking for a way to close the loophole and shut down the station for good.  On board are an eclectic bunch of DJs, all dishing out their own brand of stylistic, round-the-clock presenting.  New on deck is Carl, a rebellious student sent by his mother to meet godfather and station owner, Quentin.  Little did she anticipate, Radio Rock may not be the best place to straighten out an impressionable youngster.

To start, the film has a fantastic ensemble cast.  From British keystone talent such as Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, to newer comic stars like Nick Frost, Rhys Derby and Chris O’Dowd, the latter of which gets a much bigger part than expected and plays it wonderfully.  Also in the mix is Rhys Ifans, as a heartthrob legendary DJ, while his rival is played by the marvellous Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a role that isn’t too far away from his portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.  Then there’s relative newcomer Tom Sturridge, who holds his own but never shines as the story’s anchor, plus Gemma Arterton, who follows up her appearance in Quantum of Solace [review] by once again being named in a film in which she hardly appears.

Curtis’s script, while occasionally funny, is not exactly rip-roaring - an observation that goes for pace as well as laughs. With 129 minutes worth of screen time at its disposal, there’s really not all that much going on.  It is notable that most of the square-bashing is directed away from the BBC by making the Government, namely Branagh’s comic-strip bully Minister Dormandy, the focal point of villainy.  The episodic nature of everything bar this politics vs. the pirates storyline means that none of the sub-plots hold much relevance, from underplayed on-board romantic tensions, to a half-finished parentage story.

This is not the only misjudged aspect of the script.  A character named ‘Twatt’ hopes to emulate the old Blackadder ‘Darling’ gag, but quickly wears thin.  As does much of the plot, which is a little contrived; something that Love Actually managed to handle by offsetting itself using the more realistic and downbeat story threads.  There are many conveniences too, that are not well worked into the flow of the story, appearing awkward and unnatural.  Carl’s love interest Marianne (played by Talulah Riley) suffers from this effect, always popping up on-cue and only as needed.  Plus, you could argue that some of the boat’s more peripheral characters are a little stock (the stupid guy, the devilishly attractive guy, the confident one, the unconfident one etc.)

Without doubt the film’s most questionable facet is the needless sexism, something that’s well within the boundaries of offence for some audiences.  It’s understandable to want to put a bit of 60’s free love into a story so rooted in its time period as this, but there’s never even a hint that women aren’t solely existent to be promiscuous and subservient to men.  A sly nod and a wink from Curtis seems to have quelled the worst of the criticism, but it’s definitely a noticeable factor.  The worst of it - a scene which could be construed as attempted rape - is okay if you’re a national institution, it seems.  While, truthfully, the film is never that malicious, it does come off as a bit silly and short sighted.

On a more pleasant note, this is still a movie about rock and roll set in a radio station, so there’s at last some great music to enjoy.  That’s maybe a bit of a throwaway comment about a soundtrack which has the ability to pick and choose from a peak era for Rock and Roll, but the music does weave rather seamlessly into the action.  What we get is a constantly spinning turntable of tunes, including classics from The Kinks, The Who, The Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix.  Cat Stevens and Dusty Springfield take some of the lighter moments, but it all adds up to an eclectic sampler of the 1960’s most valuable entertainment resource.

In the end, The Boat That Rocked never really makes its mark.  Funny, but not hilarious; emotive, but not particularly affecting, the film actually craves some of Love Actually’s sentimental charm.  Still, the camaraderie of the shipmates often shines through to save even the slower scenes, and there’s fun to be had just hanging out with them, at least for a little while.  It looks as though a great time was had by all in making the film but it is far from Richard Curtis’s best material, which is a shame, because while the cast and the setting are absolutely buoyant, the plot suffers from far too many contrived holes in the hull.  It’s a fine vessel, but nowhere near as revolutionary as its ideals.

The Boat That Rocked is currently on UK general release.

State of Play (2009) April 23, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 1 comment so far

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

There are two BBC series-turned-films in UK cinemas at the moment, and, interestingly, they occupy polar positions in the adaptation spectrum.  In The Loop is Armando Iannucci’s big screen upgrade for his own television miniseries, The Thick of It.  Taking only one character, but the entire original cast, it remains a thoroughly British production by those who conceived and crafted the show.  State of Play, on the other hand, is a very different beast.  Here we see the star-laden American remake at work, taking the six episode 2003 drama of the same name, relocating it, and condensing the story down to fit a cinematic construct.  This latter approach always suffers from increased derision, but it also faces a tougher difficulty curve.  Thankfully, director Kevin Macdonald shows us the right way to do pull off such an arduous feat.

The story begins with two suspicious deaths - a thief shot in a quiet alleyway, and the aide of a congressman hit by a subway train.  Unrelated?  Maybe.  But when long-term Washington Globe journalist Cal McAffrey starts investigating the former, he finds himself being pulled, unexpectedly, into the latter.  With newbie political blog reporter Della Frye in toe, the pair uncover a plot that stretches into the upper reaches of Government, revealing corruption in the ranks and a threat to future national security.  Meanwhile, Cal’s former college room-mate, Congressman Stephen Collins, is being crucified in the media for a scandal involving his former aide - the very same woman who was found murdered.  As intensity around the investigation builds, Cal’s struggle to balance an old friendship with a present professional duty threatens his career, and then his life.

It’s no exaggeration to call the movie version a product of its writers, namely Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy.  State of Play manages to squeeze in a little bit of conversational politics from Carnahan’s Lions For Lambs [review], the power struggle dynamics from Ray’s Breach, and investigatory outsider characterisation from Gilroy’s fantastic Michael Clayton [review].  It may not be quite like any of these films exactly, but what it takes from each adds to a scripting style that is twisting, fast paced, and set in a world not too indistinguishable from our own.

The story takes its cues from the original series, with a similar set-up and denouncement but a differing (mostly shorter) route from A to B.  Not having seen the TV series means I can’t comment specifically on whether what is presented here is better or worse than in 2003’s State of Play (for that, read this more comparative review at 100Films), but what I can say is that in its fast moving 127 minutes we unravel the entire mystery surrounding a murder, discover a threatening national security proposition, witness the re-emergence and unspooling of an awkward love triangle, and turn from rookie reporter to front page by-liner.  There’s more than you think going on in this film, and it’s a wonder how any of it gets enough service to validate its inclusion.  Mostly though, it all fits together quite nicely, with even the most thankless plot contrivances such as McAffrey’s immediate dismissal of Frye eventually leading to a point of mutual respect, still gets the necessary attention.

Bringing these character relationships to life is an ensemble cast of extremely high order, and one which Kevin Macdonald should be thankful to have at his disposal given the late walkouts by original leads Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.  Filling their shoes are Russell Crowe, playing Cal McAffrey and sporting shoulder length hair that belies his credentials as a journalistic slob; and Ben Affleck, very much back in the game as congressman and political agitator Stephen Collins.  Crowe is a seasoned performer and does fine work as the down-to-earth reporter, playing the awkward divide between his job and his political friendship especially well; reports of Ben Affleck’s woodenness, on the other hand, are grossly overrated.  Some people just don’t like him, and that’s fine, but as part of the ensemble movies that he has returned to in the past few years, he works harder and more effectively than ever.  Only after playing George Reeves in the impressive Hollywoodland [review] did this fact truly come to light.

The rest of the cast includes many other names of note, with Rachel McAdams taking on the role of cub reporter Della Frye and conveying the character’s innocence without making her overly bullish or too retiring.  Meanwhile, Helen Mirren, known most recently for her more regal performances, gets to play angry and short-tempered as Washington Globe Editor-in-Chief, Cameron Lynne - clearly more fun than any uptight royals.  And there’s still Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ pained wife, Jeff Daniels as a shady political figure, and Jason Bateman getting to do his usual routine, this time as a slick PR agent.  Oh, and a special treat for anyone who has visited a UK cinema in the past five years from one actor who you’ll half expect to start selling you a phone at any minute.

In the director’s chair, Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void, The Last King of Scotland [review]) presents a film that is solidly handled and purposefully subtle.  The detail and thought has clearly gone into set design over shot design, knowing that this thriller won’t benefit much from overt camera moves and puzzling angles.  Locations such as the newspaper office especially, look authentic and meticulously constructed.  In fact, if there’s a criticism to be made, it’s only in the compression of the story arc to fit a single-sitting.  What seems to get lost is the threatening nature of the security plot uncovered by McAffrey’s reporting and political contacts.  The concept is one of disturbing thought, and it seems odd that McAffrey rarely reminds anyone of what is at stake, especially during the third act when he needs to secure a prominent figure on the record.  The film regards its character relationships in the highest order, so this detail may well have rudely interrupted that, but it goes without saying that a little more time spent indulging the overarching threat wouldn’t have gone amiss.

These are the sacrifices of a television adaptation, however, and so they must be accepted with a sympathetic grace.  What stands out is that despite the perceived ‘evil’ Americanisation of this beloved British product, State of Play remains a rather robust thriller, speeding along at a fair clip while twisting the knife slowly enough to give each reveal worthwhile screen time.  With such a fine cast and a more than capable production team, only the screenplay adaptation itself could have caused this project pain.  Luckily, that negative scenario never comes to pass, and we are left with a very enjoyable movie that will keep you hooked throughout.  And if you’re worried that this too readily validates the American remake concept in any way, take comfort in the fact that it took a Scotsman in the director’s chair to make it all come together.

State of Play is on UK general release from tomorrow.

I Love You, Man (2009) April 17, 2009

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Directed by: John Hamburg

If the recent indulgence in movies from director and producer Judd Apatow has shown us one thing, it’s that crude jokes and sentimentality can, in fact, work in harmony – sometimes.  Notice, though, that the strongest relationships formed in those movies are often between male friends: the proverbial ‘bromance’.  Did you really want Seth Rogen to father Katherine Heigl’s child in Knocked Up [review], or was it more entertaining to see him and Paul Rudd space out in Las Vegas?  The all-male poker scene is by far the most memorable and defining in The 40 Year Old Virgin, while movies such as Superbad [review] and Pineapple Express [review] are almost entirely bro-mantic in nature.  So instead of hiding behind pregnancy or alcohol or drugs, why not just come right out with it: “I love you, man”.

That’s pretty much the subject of this film, a dissection of the weirdness that exists in male friendships.  It centres on Peter Klaven, a struggling real estate agent who, on proposing to his girlfriend Zooey, realises he has no male friends to be his best man.  So, Peter embarks on a series of unsuccessful ‘man dates’ in order to find a new buddy whom he can pop the question to, as it were.  After a few colossal failures he accidentally meets Sydney Fife at an open house and begins to think he might have found ‘the one’.  But uptight Peter doesn’t know exactly how to react to this strangely free-spirited new guy-friend, while rocking out to Rush in Sydney’s basement starts to put extra strain on his relationship with Zooey.

Firstly, to see: ‘From the director of Along Came Polly and the writer of Doctor Dolittle’ (yes, both 1 and 2) is hardly a ringing endorsement.  But appearances can be deceiving, especially in the script department where this seemingly predictable plot often manages to twist its situational comic nature into genuinely funny outcomes.  Of course, it still manages to ring all the obvious old bells, and nobody is going to be too shocked by the ending, but for this particular narrative, the moments in-between are worth more than the story as a whole.  Director John Hamburg has admirably kept things tight too, bringing the whole flick in at an even hour and forty-five minutes.

Meanwhile, the cast really shine – especially Paul Rudd, who steps up from co-starring in last year’s Role Models with Sean William Scott.  Many will have seen his supporting appearances in what seems like almost every comedy from the past half decade, but this is a graduation to full-fledged anchor in a mainstream movie, and he holds it together perfectly.  Rudd fans will, of course, be aware that he has previously helmed some smaller films, playing unsatisfied husband in The Oh In Ohio [review] (a decent comedy let down by its lack of focus), and as compare-turned-narrator of sketch movie, The Ten (another comedy with high ideas but not enough homeruns).  As a jobbing actor he works incredibly hard it seems, but more notable is that he always gives himself over to a part, whatever the size.  That facet certainly bares fruit here, as Rudd makes highly amusing fodder out of his tongue-tied, socially awkward character.

Jason Segel is also a gift to the film, playing well away from the hypersensitive sop he embodied in Forgetting Sarah Marshall [review].  Here, he gets to cut loose and clearly enjoys doing so, whether it be freaking out locals on the boardwalk, or thrashing his axe in the purpose-build man cave.  As Peter’s fiancée, Rashida Jones does a fine job, stepping up from her role in the US version of The Office, meanwhile, it’s always a joy to see J.K. Simmons in a movie, even if he does seem to have become trapped in the malfunctioning father role from Juno [review].  There’s also support from Jon Favrau as tough guy and obvious foil to Peter, plus Andy Samberg tones himself way down and comes off great in a small part playing Peter’s gay younger brother. 

With such strong comic cast on board, it’s no surprise to see Larry Levin and John Hamburg’s script take on a much-welcomed extra layer of laughs, mainly from the performances of Rudd and Segel.  Eventually though, the movie does start to run out of plotting steam as the conclusion rears its head.  There are moments in the third act where cutting between Peter having a conversation with Sydney, then Peter having a conversation with Zooey, and then back again, gets awfully repetitive.  Crucially though, throughout all of this the laughter never stops flowing.  If there’s one thing that keeps this comedy boat afloat, it’s that there’s always a laugh right round the corner.  Even if you don’t exactly care what is going on, somehow you just don’t want it to stop happening.

Expectedly, the name Judd Apatow comes up a lot in discussion around this movie; mainly because it’s exactly his kind of film, with exactly his choice of cast.  Apatow actually has nothing to do with the project, but it’s certainly amusing to see how his influence has penetrated mainstream American comedy to the point of being a concise and informative point of comparison.  Even without him though, ‘I Love You, Man’ works, not because it is the best story, or because it has the most depth, but because it never gives up on its silly central premise and it has the script, and cast, to achieve a consistent level of laughs.  Call it a guy movie if you have to, this comedy should find fans with all types of audiences.  And to Paul Rudd, I just want to say… well, you know.

I Love You, Man is on UK general release from today.

Untraceable (2008) April 12, 2009

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Directed by: Gregory Hoblit

While there has been much discussion on the increase of movies dealing with subjects such as torture and death of late, it is unlikely that any film could match the horrifying material that is freely available on the internet. Movies such as Hostel and the Saw series play off the fact that they are a gory spectacle, and one which elicits interest from the depraved side of the human condition. In turn, the internet offers anonymity and distance from the content it delivers. Taking these two ideas and twisting them together nicely is Untraceable, a thriller with an ethically chewy concept, but no real bite.

The film introduces us to Jennifer Marsh, an FBI agent who works on cyber crimes with her colleague Griffin Dowd. Together, they go after identity thieves and play hackers at their own game, often with much success. That is, until they come up against a nefarious site that they just can’t trace: killwithme.com. The page shows a video feed of a restrained kitten, and instructions that imply the more hits the page receives, the faster the kitten will die. Finding it difficult to ascertain if the site is real or just a sick web stunt, Marsh and Dowd keep watch. Only when the page reappears a few days later with an unwilling human participant do things get serious. The rules stay the same: the more visits, the quicker the person’s demise. But can the FBI agents fight the increasing fascination of thousands of anonymous internet users, and stop the killer before he harms anyone else?

This story may, on paper, sound like an interesting social commentary on the ubiquity of internet access and the ways in which it can be twisted for evil. What it in fact turns out to be is simply the setting for a straight down the line crime thriller, complete with grossly over-the-top torture sequences and audience-baiting flashes of violence. If anything is disappointing here, it’s not the fact that the establishing sequences are so awkward, or that it reveals the identity of its killer too early, or that the ending is a hideously rushed cop-out; but the fact that such a modern and relevant subject matter becomes lost under a tired script and a half-baked back-story.

Let’s not get too presumptuous though, as Untraceable is not the first film to deal with this web-based murder theme. Earlier incarnations include My Little Eye, a reality TV angle on the same story of morbid fascination, and FeardotCom, a murder tale based around the visitors to a particular website. The difference is that those films were closer to being standard horror flicks than investigatory thrillers, and also that they both preceded the current audience desire for torture movies. Unfortunately, Untraceable’s needless pandering after this new, lucrative market only stops it from ever dealing with the real issue.

What the film delivers is a very linear set of deaths, each one occurring quicker than the last. Aside from a simplistic nod to the fact that word spreads fast online, the more interesting (but mostly unmentioned) struggle is in getting people to go against their own curiosity, even when their identity is concealed. Diane Lane’s character gets so far as to call everyone who visits the site an “accomplice” (although she visits herself often enough), and yet outside of this the subject of how involved the online community really are in these deaths remains quiet. It’s a shame that the killer never tests his user base and gives them more ownership of the deed (asking for message posts, for example). By keeping it a simple voyeurs game, the notion of whether the audience are the real killers is watered down slightly.

First-time story and screenwriters Robert Fyvolent and Mark Brinker, along with a third screenwriter, Allison Burnett, have come up with little in the way of interesting dialogue, instead spending time pouring over uninspired sub-plots that have no bearing on the story, such as the way Jennifer’s busy job makes her an unreliable mother. Meanwhile director Gregory Hoblit, whose previous feature was the similarly high concept but ultimately rather tepid Fracture [review], never takes any risks. Everything is competent, but nothing more. The cast too, while by no means bad, really don’t get all that much to work with. So we see little more than a single dimension from Diane Lane as a technology whiz and leading investigator, while Colin Hanks plays smart and side-kicky, and Billy Burke autopilots as a reliable but uninteresting detective.

In concept alone, Untraceable is still an interesting idea and one which brings the to mind the question “would I?” While it seems easy to answer on the face of it, maybe the best facet of this film is the ability to tap straight to the heart of the internet’s flaw: give people mass anonymity, and see the worst in them come out. Just watch the live ‘user comments’ when they appear in the movie – most of them are dead on, some maybe even a little tamer than you might expect. It’s probably not a coincidence that the rise of the internet and a renewed movie fetish for gory torture and unsavoury death have coincided. Untraceable is both based on, and victim to, this exact phenomenon – a piercing concept, played down for the enjoyment of the faceless many.

Eagle vs Shark (2007) April 5, 2009

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Directed by: Taika Cohen

Introducing: The quirky New Zealand comedy.  Hardly a genre of any note right now, but that’s not to say it won’t be in the future.  Ever since the Flight of the Conchords TV series took off in America there have been hints that maybe we’ve misjudged this region and its unique comic actors.  Just look at Conchords regular Rhys Derby, grabbing a supporting role in the heavily promoted Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man [review], and pretty much stealing the show.  While Eagle vs Shark doesn’t have quite the same Hollywood clout, it shares the use of a Conchord (this time it’s Jemaine Clement) and offers a chance for New Zealand films to show what they’re all about on a larger stage.  Quite an opportunity.  So why then, does it all feel so American?

The story is a simple one of boy meets girl, except boy is an inconsiderate nerd and girl is too socially awkward to notice.  So while Lily has her heart set on getting a date with Jarrod, he seems more preoccupied with taking his revenge on a high school bully.  Somehow, between the video game competitions, costume parties, and Jarrod’s bizarre family members, the two begin to fall for each other.  But the path to true love is a bumpy one, especially as Jarrod trains to regain his honour in the biggest fight of his life.

The first thing that hits you in the face is the feeling that you’ve seen this kind of thing before.  Peculiar characters, awkward situations, stuttered dialogue, and a general revelry in nerdish culture make Eagle vs Shark the kind of quirky movie that doesn’t just throw its characters into weird situations, its characters are the weird situation.  From Jarrod’s bizarre high school revenge plot to the odd collection of misfits that make up his family, there is an inherent unbalance in the film even before anything happens – the exact same kind of unbalance that features so prominently in the Hess brothers’ movies.

In fact, it’s probably not much of a stretch to say that Napoleon Dynamite is one of the main reasons for this film coming to the screen, so popular was its infinitely quotable script and offbeat characterisation.  Eagle vs Shark shares a spiritual bond with that movie, this time including a New Zealand setting and cast.  It’s a shame that the film didn’t choose to exemplify New Zealand cinema by being a little more original (like Flight of the Conchords is for TV comedy in general), but I guess you can’t have everything, and there are still plenty of positives to extract.

Firstly, the cast are smartly chosen, making light work of the difficult task presented to them.  These people need to be unusual, but they can’t be irritating.  Leads Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement, as Lily and Jarrod, seem perfectly suited to their roles as shy underachiever and boasting underachiever, respectively.  There’s a very defined style of humour throughout, but its one that the whole cast, including the supporting roles, seemed to have connected with.  Even amongst all the friends and family members (a surprising amount given the film’s indie roots), each finds their own angle on their idiosyncrasies – especially Jarrod’s entrepreneurial sister Nancy and her husband Doug.

Meanwhile, writer and director Taika Cohen has assembled a decent script, one full of irregular charm and occasionally funny moments and lines.  That it more regularly stumbles on smiles than out-loud laughs is not to say that it isn’t constantly entertaining, especially as it wraps up neatly before the 90-minute mark.  What is less successful, and probably the film’s biggest failing, is its story and characterisation.  Namely the fact that, even as a comedy, it is supposed to be based around the unconventional romance shared by the two leads, and yet their supposed love comes across as groundless.  The problem is only amplified by the fact that the sweetest relationship in the movie is between Lily and her brother Damon.  Such sincere family affection proves that the film has heart; it’s just directed to the wrong place.

Eagle vs Shark is a film rife with potential and, had it been released five years ago, brimming with peculiar originality.  Its slightly ill-conceived character problems do not ruin what is still a casually funny and sweet comedy, with a cast that should use this exposure to go on and do bigger things.  Even during the nicely conceived stop-motion animation segments, there’s a nagging background sentiment that also applied to Nacho Libre [review], the Hess brothers’ messy Napoleon Dynamite follow-up.  It’s all well and good to pitch yourself as the quirky outsider, but if you lean on those eccentricities too much, you only stand to alienate a regular audience.  Maybe the next breakthrough New Zealand production will offer something that America hasn’t already planted its flag in; until then though, we’ve got this: a backwards love story that sometimes quirks ‘till it irks.

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