Sunday, 15 June 2008

In Bruges

This weekend, I had the chance to check out this black comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen hiding out in Bruges after a job, with a Ralph Fiennes doing a creditable cockney geeza gangland boss, back in England calling the shots.

The stunning backdrops of European capital provide a counterpoint to macabre comedy, as Colin plays a young upstart, frustrated at being trapped, far away from home, as the odd couple have to play pretend as tourists, for cover, while waiting for instructions from the big boss man. It's a surreal trip in some ways, with fat Americans, a dwarf in school uniform, copious amounts of cocaine, and hookers down from Amsterdam all form part of the journey in a bitterly comic examination of the value of human life. It's not for the easily offended.

Farrell's acting is wayward at times, Fiennes does a respectable turn as something other than posh English gent, but Gleesons' avuncular character holds the piece together. In some ways a bit of a British gangster movie uprooted and plonked in a derided European city, the film feels like a stage play at times, and it comes as no surprise that it is the first feature for Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

It feels somewhat overwrought because of this, with self-conscious references to other movies such as Don't Look Now, and perhaps a few too many twists and turns, as a friend of mine suggested. In this sense it does feel like the film maker is a little too trying too hard, but he doesn't need to. Overall, a funny, well observed, thought-provoking 2 hours of viewing....

Hack Rating 3.5/5

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Top Five Slacker Flicks

Okay....So I've just had the pleasure of checking out Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. It's a surreal caper based upon a rather ropey premise which involves a plane full of rather jittery US citizens mistaking the word "bong" for "bomb". Much hilarity ensues.

I'd give it a Hack Rating of 3/5. But more importantly, here are my top 5 movies recommendations of the grand tradition of US movies featuring slackers and stoners.....

1. Easy Rider (1969). Original Stoner road trip movie starring Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper going "looking for America" on Harleys in the Groovy late 60s, and getting trolleyed.
2. Dazed And Confused (1993). Cult coming of age flick directed by Richard Linklater, set on the last day of school in 1976. Not too much getting stoned, but lots of slacking.
3. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. (1998) Johnny Depp as infamous Rolling Stone journalist Hunter S Thompson with lots of insights into 70s counterculture, and lots of mescaline.
4. Dude, Where's My Car? (2000) Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott as two stoners who wake up to find their car is missing, and spend the whole movie finding it.
5. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982). Written by Cameron Crowe, classic 80s school movie featuring an ensemble cast which included a host of young actors and actresses who went onto become household names, including Sean Penn, Nic Cage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Happy slacking....

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Gone Baby Gone

After the past several years pursuing a truly egregious career as a naff male lead in a series of critically panned turkeys such as 2003's Gigli and Surviving Christmas, people had begun to forget the promise Ben Affleck showed early in his career. Back in 1997, he co-wrote and starred alongside childhood friend Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, for which the duo won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Where did it all go wrong?

Well, after being somewhat eclipsed by his old Boston buddy and writing partner in recent years, Affleck has undergone a career revival in the past couple of years with the well received George Reeves biopic Hollywoodland, and now this, his co-written directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. The film was out in October 2007 in the Us, but delayed for release here in the UK for several months due to it's somewhat superficial similarities to the case of missing child Madeline McCann which has dominated tabloid headlines here in the past year.

So is it any good, despite sharing the same name as a Gnarls Barclay tune? Well, surprisingly, it's excellent. A brilliant performance by brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, a couple who work as private investigators, and are enlisted by a distressed family to intervene in the search for an abuducted 4 year old girl, who has gone missing in their local neighbourhood in Boston. They uncover a complex and murky plot involving drugs, money, and police corruption where no one is as they seem and not even the family involved can be trusted.

Casey's streetwise Patrick Kenzie is both canny and cool as he confronts drug dealers, neglectful family and ultimately, a corrupt police force in his search for the truth, and a great deal is lost and learned in the search for missing girl Amanda. It's compelling viewing, with a slightly unsatisfying ending, but infinitely much more thought-provoking and worthy than some of the atrocious Hollywood fodder Ben Affleck (case in point: Pearl Harbor) has been involved in during his career. Very enjoyable, intelligent, but ultimately bleak.

Hack Rating 4/5

Friday, 6 June 2008

Last King of Scotland

Hi chaps and ladies.....

Okay, so just watched Last King Of Scotland, featuring an Oscar-Winning performance for leading man Forest Whitaker - a bit of a chameleon, having appeared in movies such as The Crying Game, Platoon, and as jazz legend Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird. A Black Kevin Spacey, maybe?

Anyway, it's based on the 1998 Giles Foden book, loosely based on actual historical events surround the life of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the British Army trained, capricious mass murderer who famously ejected all the Asian population from the country in the 70s, as well as killing 300,000 people. It concerns the odd couple relationship between the big man and Scottish Doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McEvoy), who is also based on an actual person, Bob Astles, the President's physician, friend, eventual confident, and right-hand man.

Forest Whitaker's performance is as magnificent as has already been documented. By turns charming and friendly, he gradually reveals his murderous, capricious nature to Garrigan over the course of the movie, as McEvoy's character, a Brit abroad escaping from his oppressive father and prospectively boring life as just another GP, evolves from being a naive lad off on his jollies into someone who eventually becomes complicit in the murderous regime of his dictator friend, before the terrifying reality of his entrapment in the nightmare situation is gradually revealed to him.

With a plummy, posh English Gillian Anderson making a brief appearance as a missionary doctor making an appearance, the usual criticism of such movies depicting Africa come into play. Africans are depicted an unsophisticated, barbaric heathens, and the movie is very much presented through the White eyes of McEvoy, who does however distance himself from the overtly colonial attitudes of the English ambassadors who represent the British government's interests in the chaos of Uganda. The movie does make some concession to blurring the boundaries between civilised and uncivilised in the somewhat unsypathetic portrayal of Gerrigan, who is too busy having a fun adventure abroad to realise the seriousness of the situation faced by the native people (including one of the President's wives, whom he impregnates) of Uganda for much of the movie.

It's a good watch overall, worth the time for Whitakers' performance alone, which embodies a compelling mixture of charisma, capriciousness, charm and evil, though the lack of a largely sympathetic central character in McEvoy to balance proceedings means the film lacks a heart which stops one from truly loving it.

Hack Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Top Ten Movies

Ok, Hi people. This is a relatively young blog, so I guess it's a good starting point to get an idea of the sort of movies I love....well, I've got a wide taste. I tend towards character-driven, dramatic movies with intelligent plots, but I'm not averse to the odd action adventure movie, and even the odd chick flick. Here's a current top Ten of recent movies, with the emphasis on stuff from the past few years......

1. The Departed. Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen,......the list goes on. An excellent cast with Martin Scorsese at the helm in a US remake of top Jap flick Infernal Affairs. Absolutely amazing.
2. Oceans Eleven. Classy remake of the ratpack flick, with standout performances from an ensemble cast with an ice-cool George Clooney at the helm, and brilliant direction from Steven Soderbergh. Awesome.
3. The Matrix. Original free your mind movie which upped the ante for all action films for the following decade since it was released in 1998. A brilliant combination of thought-provoking and thrills. Let down by two lesser sequels, but still a great stand-alone picture.
4. Casino Royale. Adrenaline-charged reboot of the flagging Bond franchise with a more brutal, ruthless, and much less camp lead in Daniel Craig. Less Pussy Galore, more thrills galore.
5. Knocked Up. Intelligent, inciteful and hilarious twist on the boy-meets-girl chick flick where boy gets girl pregnant and they fall in love. Lots of fun.
6. Training Day. Standout performance from Denzel Washington as a ruthless, corrupt undercover Narcotics cop on the LAPD, with the callow Ethan Hawke coming of age in a single day. Gripping.
7. Pirates Of The Carribean. Worth the price of admission for Johnny Depp's Keef-sendup Captain Jack. Family fun for grown-ups.
8. Ratatoille. Another Pixar gem which is almost perfect in execution and storytelling. Touching, funny, and guaranteed to bring out the big kid in everyone.
9. Walk The Line. Joaquin Phoenix as the great Man In Black Johnny Cash in a moving love story, covering his early days struggling with drink, drugs, love and fame, and a lovely but feisty Reece Witherspoon testing him and saving him all the way.
10. Michael Clayton. Slow moving action thriller with excellent performances in a brutal, moving legal drama about US corporate corruption and the impact on human life.

There's a list, off the top of my head. If you want a recommendation, try one of that lot, not a turkey among em.

The Godfather Trilogy

To celebrate the release of a DVD box Set of the Godfather Trilogy, I decided to watch all 3 Godfather films in a marathon weekend session - nearly 9 hours of view pleasure.

I have to be honest and say I've never actually properly watched these classics of the genre, despite being an avid fan of the US Gangster genre - The Departed is probably my favourite movie of recent years. But The Godfather....well that's the original. The Don, you might say. Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 screenplay of the Mario Puzo novel about an Italian American mob boss surviving, plotting and manoeuvring in the murky world of the post-war US criminal fraternity is voted the No#2 Best Movie of All Time in the American Film Institutes' list of 100 Best Movies, and often cited as the Best . It also won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Marlon Brando's portrayal of the title character of Vito Corleone, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The follow up, featuring Robert De Niro as a young Vito, was released 2 years later to similarly rave reviews and awards, with a final instalment in 1990 following upstart Andy Garcia as heir apparent to Pacino's reluctant patriarch, receiving the weakest praise of the trilogy.

Much acclaim then for the series. Having said all that, my enduring memories of the films, trying to watch them late at night as an 11 year old kid, is a series of dull scenes of old men sitting in darkened rooms mumbling a lot, and stuffing a lot of food into their mouths. I didn't get it, but given my love for this strand of the US crime genre, which has gone from strength to strength in recent years with movies such as American Gangster, The Departed and Gangs of New York, I thought it an apt time to go back to the source.

Beginning with the first movie then. I guess what I failed to get a kid was the subtlety. The acting of all the players, but Brando and Pacino in particular, is superb. The action follows the battle for control of New York's criminal underworld, gambling, prostitution, and, in the late 40s, the burgeoning new business opportunity of selling drugs. The Corleones are one of the "five families" that share the goods but soon into the story Vito finds himself the target of an almost-successful assassination attempt by the rival Tattalia family. With his father hospitalised, shorted-tempered heir Sonny, played by James Caan, takes control of matters, leading to more trouble, and college-educated Michael (Pacino), despite being chided by his brother, shows his steel when he is compelled to become reluctantly involved, to save the family business.

As a study of old-school masculinity, family values, and dare I say it, the American entrepreneurial spirit, the film is peerless, Shakespearian in its' insight. Brando's portrayal of the fading but wizened patriarch is convincing in making us see how everyone on screen treats him with a mixture of fear, admiration and respect. Pacino, who was then an unknown, is also perfect as the reluctant but ultimately conformist son who shares his father’s astuteness, understanding of power, and capacity for ruthlessness.

So, overall it is as good as they say it is. The pace is leisurely by today's standards, the cinematography is such that it could have been shot yesterday, but the story is timeless.

Part II

So, on we go to Part II. This picks up 2 concurrent storylines: the origins of the young Vito Andolini (played by Robert De Niro) whose mother and brother is killed, and flees to the US at the turn of the century, just a 9 year old boy, where he is accidentally given the surname Corleone, the town of his birth. While we follow his growth into a man and gradually into the Don, we also pick up where the story leaves Michael, now the established, flourishing Don of the Corleone family, now in the late 50s, facing new challenges from his enemies and the authorities, and always plotting to stay one step ahead.

Like the original, the film climaxes in a bloodbath of Elizabethan proportions. As in life, often one is not sure who is friend or foe, but ultimately the most Machiavellian and ruthless character triumphs.

Part III

Critically and financially the weakest of the 3 movies, this film takes place in the late 70s, and was shot in 1990 by Coppola, who was forced to make the movie due to letting the studio down with the commercial failure of his previous movies. Not the best of reasons. The film essentially ties up the narrative strands of the previous movies, which appear to reward Pacino's ruthless character with untold riches and power. In the final movie, we see his regret, his suffering and the underlying religious themes (Italians are Catholic, after all!) of redemption and damnation.

Michael has become a respectable figure in American business and public life, donating generously to charity and ostensibly investing only in legitimate business. Inevitably, ageing and reluctant as he is, he attempts to finally close the door on his criminal activities and make peace with the past, but is dragged back into the criminal underworld via a feud with the young upstarts who see him as a fading patriarch, while Andy Garcia's virile young Turk steps in, as the illegitimate son of deceased Sonny, who seems inherited the raw masculine, ruthless streak that has both saved and condemned the family.

The trilogy shows us that human nature and families, it seems, mean that we make the same mistakes through history. And although it is tainted somewhat by a weaker final instalment, particularly with the miscasting of Francis Ford Coppola's daughter Sofia, it's certainly worth a weekend of anyone's viewing, and a timeless classic to boot. Just make sure you're old enough and patient enough to sit through it.....