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Dandabelle Watches Stuff
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Apr 152017

Finally, an comic book film that hits all the marks –  The rumoured final outing of Hugh Jackman as that ever favourite X-Man, Wolverine, in 2017’s Logan.

James Mangold has continued the surety of his grasp from 2013’s The Wolverine in Logan.  However, the effort he invested in the high-gloss pulp of The Wolverine has been distilled into a raw and visceral tale of the denouement of some of the most notable X-Men in the mutant universe.  Firmly positioning itself in a gritty near future, Logan subsumes the flashier elements to the traditional X-Men outings and constricts the narrative to one of hard-edged desperation and survival; creating an incredibly elegiac bookend to Jackman’s tenure as cinema’s original Wolverine.

This is the kind of comic book film I have always desired.  Whereas I have fondness for Singer’s original X-Men and really liked his follow up X-2 in 2003, the X-Men universe has a firmly established, hyperbolic, super-saturated, comic book feel for these characters which all of the films to date have reproduced.  It’s eye candy at its best and I have enjoyed it greatly, particularly the lovely visual effects the franchise has treated us to, like Quicksilver jailbreaking Magneto from The Pentagon in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Yet recently, as with X-Men Apocalypse in 2016, the high definition mutant superhero universe has began to feel hollow, and the struggle vs payoff of the narratives seemed increasingly empty.  Interesting exploitation of time loop storylines and a recast set of younger actors aside, the yearly X-Men outing has adopted a slightly also ran feel, feeling increasingly like a repackaged treat from the year before.  Mangold’s Logan collapses the inflated fantasy of the past and turns the tone of the established universe on its head.  Having paid his franchise dues with The Wolverine, it is almost as if he is determined to paint the X-Men/Wolverine universe with a new palette; transmuting the accustomed operatic, pulpy edge of the universe with an almost western feel, highlighting parts of the story with weathered and beaten down elements in the cinematography and costuming.  The action is unrelenting.  The violence is unsparing, excessive and doesn’t blunt its edge by seeking refuge in cartoonishness, choreography or last minute comic relief from a fleeing mutant child as the oldest X-Men films do.  This Wolverine movie doesn’t just growl, it roars.

The creative team here have done a wonderful job of rounding out the present Jackman as Wolverine arc and have delivered the strongest of all the standalone Wolverine narratives to date.  Jackman plays his role with his usual verve and tightens his grip on the louche confidence of the early Wolverine delivering something far more grizzled and down at heels.  Mangold, no slouch at directing drama, brings these skills to the fore here and the movie flourishes because of it.  It is one of the most realistic and affecting of any of the X-Men films because it reduces its focus to the individual mutants themselves, disciplines the use of high concept plotting and draws upon the overarching ethos of the conflict between humans and mutants as little as possible to drive the narrative.  The ethical dilemmas, political machinations and morality conundrums which underscore all the films is largely set adrift by Mangold and, like a maestro who knows how to craft a nuanced tale, he wrangles the larger scale action in a way that keeps the emotional heart the story in focus and doesn’t let it be undercut by frenetic activity which is never far from the screen.

Mangold’s astute use of a near-contemporary time frame grounds the film nicely; the unmatched might of the baddies and the exploitation of people both human and mutant echoing the grim present we find ourselves in today.  This gives the story an enjoyable immediacy and realism which other films have missed the mark on.  Patrick Stewart takes his polished and statesman-like portrayal of Professor X and infuses it with Lear-like fragility which is essential to the emotional success of the story.  So much of his performance is wonderful that I don’t want to spoil it by describing more here.  Stephen Marchant also delivers a finely tuned portrayal of Caliban, his desert nomad appearance bringing echoes of Brando’s much maligned Island of Doctor Moreau costuming but he works it with aplomb.  The character of Caliban is a nice thematic nod to the Frankenstein-esque nature of the black-hats led by a restrained Richard E Grant as yet another monstrous man of science who wants to control mutants for his own purposes.

Something that I also enjoyed was the complete dearth of jumpsuits and fancy planes and other ephemera with which these stories usually abound. This has been replaced with an asceticism also reminiscent of the western genre.   Mangold makes several nods to the comic book origins of his characters including using an X-Men comic as a plot point.  It’s a wink to the origins of the story and it’s a nice respectful one.  It also is thematically on point with the story he is telling; this is what happens when we come to the end of our time.  This is where the fantasy and the reality of being Wolverine or Professor X and any of the mutants diverges.  This is what is left after heroic deeds have become apocryphal.  The choice of the writers to explore the ageing superhero trope had the potential to be dull; there are only so many punchlines you can get from an old creaky superhero who has fallen prey to time and wear and tear.  However, this is not that story.  The expository elements of the story are handled with aplomb, weaving the ageing of their principal actors in seamlessly with the story arc in a credible way.

Loathe to give any spoilers about the story, I will say that this film is a fitting farewell to Jackman’s time as Wolverine; it tops off the franchise beautifully and more than makes up for the well documented stumbles of the first instalment.  A solid second installation which redeemed the franchise has been instrumental in bringing us this satisfying final chapter.  There can be no doubt that anyone looking to fill Jackman’s shoes in a reboot of the character (let’s face it, they will definitely re-boot; the character and the universe makes them many millions of dollars) will have much to live up to.  Jackman and Stewart were absolutely correct when they said on the Graham Norton show that this was not your average comic book film.  This the kind of film we have wanted every time someone adapted a comic book character for the big screen.  This is a big boy comic book film without the booted and suited bluster of the others.  This is X-Men meets John Huston; Mangold’s nods to Paramount’s 1953 film Shane are no accident.  He is crafting a new ethos for the X-Men and the characterisation of Logan/Wolverine; who is a country and western song of tragedy in his every fibre of his being.  Finally, Mangold uses a beautifully apt musical cue over the end credits to cap off his tale and eulogise Wolverine in a most appropriate way.  How heartening to see a literate and intelligent translation of such a broad trope of a character created under the aegis of a franchise blockbuster.  It simply goes to prove that if you have the skills and the vision you can deliver a fine piece of cinema no matter the genre. 

Sep 272005

Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Starring the voices of:  Peter Sallis (Wallace), Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay, Nicholas Smith
Directed By:  Nick Park & Steve Box

Synopsis:  Wallace & Gromit try to protect the vegetable gardens of their village from the fearsome were-rabbit.

**One teeny tiny spoiler contained herein**

Okay, let me declare right from the outset – not only have I loved almost all of the animation produced by the Aardman studios, including the three previous Wallace and Gromit short films, but I am a huge stop motion/clay animation fan.  Harryhausen huge in fact.  So I was pre-disposed to love this film simply because I find the form of animation it uses inspiring and thrilling in a way that few other things can match.  However, I did feel some trepidation about this film.  I was afraid that Nick Park’s association with DreamWorks pictures would render his beloved Wallace and Gromit as toothless as the ho-hum hens from ‘Chicken Run’ – his first full length clay animation feature.  Yet, within five minutes of the opening credits I was relieved to find that Wallace & Gromit, in their first full length feature film, have lost none of their whimsical appeal.

Nick Park seems to have done a very savvy thing.  On the basis of the appeal of the Wallace and Gromit short films he was able to make a deal with the devil and obtain the financial backing for a full length feature.  However instead of testing the waters with Wallace and Gromit, Park made ‘Chicken Run’, an entirely unrelated story and with a new cast of characters.  This film, while certainly enjoyable, was Park’s crash test dummy to take on American audiences.  Hurtling towards them it represented a toned down version of Park’s trademark twee humour.  You could see Jeffrey Katzenberg’s fingers all over it.  It was still British, but not too British.  It had an American character (voiced by Mel Gibson) to help hook an American audience in.  It had everything that other Nick Park creations had except, for me, lasting appeal.  It was an enjoyable film with a few genuine laugh out loud moments, but it lacked the real cultural ethos of the Wallace and Gromit universe.  The particular quirkiness of Park’s previous creations had been sanitised, the action of the piece restricted, and while it was somewhat clever and amusing it simply had no heart – for me at least.

What am I trying to say?  Well lets face it, American movie producers have an uncanny ability to take something unique and funny and drain all the life out of it.  More so if they are actually paying the bills and are trying to make it palatable to every last snaggle toothed trailer park dweller who has a spare few bucks to spend on entertainment.  What I was afraid would happen was that after the acceptable performance of ‘Chicken Run’ the Wallace and Gromit film would have all the resonance of a hammer striking a piece of lead.  However, remember when I asserted that Nick Park had done something savvy?  Well, it would appear that he used the success of ‘Chicken Run’ (and it was a success) to ensure that he had an entirely free hand with Wallace and Gromit.  So while I could spy the fingerprints of the animators on Gromit’s face in some scenes, I could not detect a whiff of Katzenberg, Spielberg or Geffen.  As a result,’ Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ is “a cracking good film”.

What did I like?  Well, what was there not to like!  Were there crazy inventions?  Check!  Were there hilarious portrayals of quaint English folk and their special brand of mania?  Did all the humans sport grotesque slab-like buck teeth that make you both cringe and smile?  Check, check!  Were there a number of references to cheese?  Did Wallace pronounce things to be ‘cracking’?  Was there much hand waving and hi-jinks and did Gromit suffer bravely through it all?  Was there whimsy by the bucket load?  Check, check, check and check!

I don’t really want to reveal too much of the plot if I can.  I just want to emphasise that Nick Park and his compatriots really got this movie right.  Gromit, the silent protagonist, is as long suffering as ever as Wallace’s partner in…well life I guess.  They now run a successful security business and protect the gardens of their village against all marauders – which seem to mainly take the form of rabbits.  There is much enjoyment to be had from the rabbits which are, in trademark Nick Park/Aardman fashion, a good blend of cute and…well…ugly I guess (they have piggy little noses).  The rabbits and the advent of the titular were-rabbit are the backbone of the plot which centers around a vegetable growing competition held by Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter).  Add into the mix a slimy Lord Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and a gaggle of delightfully dotty villagers (the village priest is lots of fun and has what can only be described as an astounding white afro) and there is loads of fun to be had.

What I really enjoyed (and what was, in the main, missing from ‘Chicken Run’) was the minutiae of the Wallace and Gromit world.  The level of detail in each scene, right down to the wallpaper on the walls is astounding.  I can barely begin to comprehend the work that goes into dressing each of the scenes let alone animating the characters in it.  No wonder the film took 5 years to make!  I love that so much effort is placed on making the world believably real.  You can even see the actual fingerprints of the animators left in the clay of the models in some scenes.  This is no flaw.  It is exactly what was missing from Chicken Run and what makes clay animation so beguiling.  A sense of the tactile nature of the clay itself in the film is very important in my opinion.  Erasing these marks to make everything perfect is a mistake Park has not made this time and it makes a big difference.

You will need to see this movie at least twice.   Once for the story and once more for the little details that your eye cannot take in when concentrating on the narrative.  And then probably once again, just for the heck of it.  I still love watching the short Wallace and Gromit films.  Part of me was hoping for a glimpse of Shaun the sheep, or even an oblique reference to the evil penguin from ‘The Wrong Trousers’ in this film.  Park did not satisfy that hope but it was no real loss.  The film handles its load of expectation and delivers an entirely new story without having to resort to becoming self referential (as sometime happens if there is a dearth of good ideas).  Although I do have to say that Park has been unable to quite match the level of implacable malice shown by the penguin in any of his newer villains (Preston from ‘A Close Shave’ or Lord Victor Quartermaine in this movie).

I look forward to more adventures with Wallace and Gromit on the big screen with…I was going to say bated breath, but considering the time it takes to make one, perhaps not.  Definitely spend your dollars and go see this one at the movies.

Jul 202005

Sin City


Starring:  Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba,
Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Alexis Bledel, Jaime King, Nick Stahl,
Michael Madsen, Josh Hartnett, Carla Gugino, Benicio Del Toro, Powers
Booth, Rutger Hauer, Devon Aoki, Michael Clarke Duncan, Elijah Wood.

Directed By:  Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller.

Special Guest Director:  Quentin Tarantino

Synopsis:  The translation to live action of some of Frank Miller’s iconic Sin City comics/graphic novels.

There is only one word for this film – awesome.  There is also
only one word for director Robert Rodriguez – genius.  ‘Sin City’,
as a piece of filmmaking, is more exciting than most of the films that
have graced our movie screens at least the last 10 years, perhaps even
longer.  I think Rodriguez and his counterparts have
revolutionised genre filmmaking with this single offering in such a way
that his style will be copied ceaselessly, similarly to the Wachowski
brothers and their seminal film ‘The Matrix’.  To be perfectly
frank, this is the culmination of a great deal of promising material
from Rodriguez, who has in my opinion, failed to fully realise his
vision in his past works.  ‘Sin City’ puts this all behind
him.  In fact, should Rodriguez never produce another film of this
calibre during the rest of his career, he will still be tagged a genius
for this movie alone.  In fact this could be his Harper Lee “To
Kill a Mockingbird’ moment.  If he never released a film again,
this would stand as a testament to his talent.

‘Sin City’ is based on the Frank Miller graphic novels ‘Sin City’,
‘That Yellow Bastard’ and ‘The Big Fat Kill’.  This iconic series
of comics have legions of fans and it is easy to see why.
Featuring pulpy noir-ish story telling coupled with superb artwork,
these novels are engaging in a way that so much other published
material fails to be.  I cannot claim to be au fait with Miller’s
work and I haven’t read any of the Sin City novels but I think that the
translation of the material to the screen is certainly first rate –
particularly as Miller has a co-director credit in the film.

Lets talk cinematography.  I don’t think I have even seen a
director take such chances with black and white, light and shadow and
the medium of film since Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’.  ‘Sin City’
is ‘Citizen Kane’ on methamphetamine when it comes to
cinematography.  It is a moving comic book, with some of the shots
surely lifted straight from the graphic novels themselves.
Rodriguez & Miller use black and white in the main while
judiciously employing colour to punctuate the story.  I was so
engrossed in the look of the film that I almost was disappointed to
return to a world that used the entire colour spectrum.  The
lighting was delicious.  With certain shots so eerily similar to
an illustration that physical movement in the shot was
disconcerting.  Film noir aficionados will surely weep to see such
brilliant use of shadow.

The art direction was equally as satisfying.  Rodriquez employed a
mix of the modern and the vintage ensuring that the stories film noir
roots were pleasingly referenced, making me feel that I could have just
as easily been watching noir classics like “The Big Sleep’ , ‘Double
Indemnity’ or ‘The Third Man’.  Some of the set pieces were
brilliant in their simplicity.  Hartigans cell sticks in my mind,
particularly the overhead shots which played with the perspective and
elongated the cage making seem as if it was a pit.  I also liked
the use of visual effects, particularly the way certain objects were
overexposed and almost fluorescent (in the way that white glows under
an ultraviolet light), which reduced them to echoes of the 2D images
from the graphic novels.  For instance Becky’s jewellery, the
bandages on Marv’s face and the glowing lenses of Kevin’s
glasses.  Oh, and the representation of rain was stunning, giving
the film the texture of a graphic novel.  It was like Miller
himself was inking the raindrops in as they fell across the screen.

There is no doubt that this movie is the successful expression of Frank
Miller’s creative genius.  The source material is so robust and
his demand that the movie stay faithful to it has resulted in a perfect
fusion of genre’s and art forms.  Obviously Rodriguez’s past work
was a deciding factor in Millers agreement to hand over his work for
adaptation to the big screen.  Rodriguez’s ability to slam genre’s
together and make the resulting hybrid work as a film has been
developing with each successive project he has worked on.  Take
‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ as an example.  This is your typical road
movie which takes a right hand turn into vampire territory.
Certainly a flawed movie, possibly because the genre’s just didn’t
adhere as well as they should have to sustain the narrative, but it was
ambitious and entertaining and foreshadowed a formidable storytelling

So lets get down to brass tacks and discuss performances.  Sin
City could have been an technically interesting pile of crap were it
not for the terrific performances of the cast.  This film almost
comes close to having a cast of thousands.  Kudos to the casting
director that they lined up such great actors to play all the
roles.  As the film is split into three stories, you have a full
cast for each, with some cross over between stories by the significant
characters.  The first story is about Marv, a hulking street
fighter who seeks to exact vengeance for the murder of ‘Goldie’, the
prototypical tart with a heart, who is murdered in his bed while he
sleeps.  Marv has a face that looks as if it has been carved out
of granite and is played with great aplomb and gusto by that denizen of
the C grade movie, Mickey Rourke.  Now love him or hate him it is
undeniable that he is great at Marv.  From his throaty voice over
to the shambling gait of this monster of a man, Mickey Rourke totally
in habits this character.  It is a real pleasure to see him
capitalise on some of his talent.  His Marv is tough as
nails,  completely willing to slaughter whoever stands between him
and his ability to revenge the death of his beloved Goldie.  I
think Marv is my favourite character as his story, while littered with
the corpses of those who opposed him, is about an act of love.

The second story, which is split into two parts and bookends the third
and final story in terms of narrative structure, is about Hartigan – a
cop only ‘minutes away from retirement’.  Bruce Willis plies his
usual stock-in-trade as the incorruptible cop.  His performance is
less impressive that that of Mickey Rourke, although still good.
Placing his life on the line to save an 11 year old girl, Hartigan is
the epitome of the cop who will stop at nothing to protect the
innocent.  Willis traverses familiar ground here as the stoic
Hartigan, who demonstrates a level of self control unknown to the
common man when he resists the advances of the lovely Nancy (Jessica
Alba).  Nick Stahl has a dual role here as Roark Jr. and the
‘Yellow Bastard’.  He is basically unrecognisable as the Yellow
Bastard and his comeuppance is grotesque.

Rounding out the trio of leading men is Clive Owen who plays the
mysterious Dwight.  An avenger of brutalised women Dwight becomes
entangled in the murder of a cop played by Benicio Del Toro.
Dwight finds he has to help the ‘ladies’ of Old Town avoid being taken
over by the mob after they dispatch the cop and his thug friends.
Owen continues his golden run of roles with Dwight.  He is well
cast in this role and manages a good balance between hero and villain.
His scenes in the car with Benicio Del Toro are particularly funny and
his voice over has some of the best lines in the film.

Much will be made of the women in Sin City.  Firstly a la the
graphic novel tradition they all tend to have the proportions of an
exotic dancer – even those of them that aren’t strippers or
prostitutes.  So there is plenty for the eyes to feast on,
particularly in Old Town where all the hookers strut their stuff.
Jessica Alba is delicious as the grown up Nancy.  She looks great
as a blonde when shot in black and white (unlike her turn as a blonde
in the Fantastic Four – most ill advised).  Her tough but
vulnerable heroine is very watchable, not just because she is easy on
the eyes.  Alexis Bledel liberates herself from being squeaky
clean Rory Gilmory of the Gilmore Girls to play the treacherous
Becky.  Miller and Rodriguez leave the colour in Bledel’s eyes to
great effect.  Carla Gugino is underused but enjoyable as Marv’s
lesbian probation officer Lucille.  What a change from her role as
the mum in the Spy Kids franchise.  Devon Aoki (previously seen in
‘2 Fast 2 Furious’) is entertaining as the deadly assassin, Miho.
In fact the sequences with Miho are very bloody but lots of fun.
Finally Rosario Dawson is fantastic as Gail.  Resplendent in her
mesh and leather fetish wear, she stalks about the screen like a
lioness scenting a kill.  She is described by Dwight as a valkyrie
and she is indeed a fearsome warrior of a woman.  I think I
enjoyed her character as much as I enjoyed the brutal Marv.

Look out for Rutger Hauer as Cardinal Roark.  He has a small role
but it is good to see him on screen again.  I almost didn’t
recognise him with a bald head.  Elijah Woods plays Kevin – a
character I can only describe as, well, a ninja cannibal.  I know,
it sounds far fetched, but he is downright creepy in this role and a
thousand miles away from the amiable furry footed Frodo Baggins.
Josh Hartnett has what seems to me a rather pointless role as ‘The
Man’.  However I may be biased as I am not a Josh Hartnett fan by
and large.  Powers Booth is good as the corrupt Senator Rourke,
father of the repulsive Roark Jr.

Finally, be aware that this movie is a smorgasbord of violence.
It absolutely pulls no punches and it can be downright gory to the
point that the majority of the audience I saw the movie with openly
groaned at some points (myself included).  There is humour in this
film (gallows humour mostly), but it in no way diminishes the sequences
that contain real brutality.  Parts of this film made me flinch
but I just could not look away.  I was too entranced in the world
of Sin City.  I was immersed in the supercharged character
archetypes that seemed to be ink turned into flesh.  What a
vicarious pleasure to inhabit the world of these creatures of a dark
and dirty metropolis, where good guys can be stone cold killers and all
the women look like a million bucks.  I can only hope for two
things in the wake of this film.  Firstly, filmmakers will take
Rodriquez’s lead and start pushing the boundaries in what they try and
deliver to the screen.   Secondly that this is the first
instalment in a successful franchise.  Miller has stories left to

Feb 242005

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


Starring:  Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelian Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi

Synopsis:  When New York and other significant cities across the
globe are attacked by futuristic robots and famous scientists begin to
disappear, the dashing Sky Captain and reporter Polly Perkins are drawn
into a web of intrigue and danger.

The idea of this movie, developed by director Kerry Conran and producer
Jon Avnet from Conran’s original 6 minute short, appears on paper to be
a movie nerd’s wet dream.  It should have been the ultimate
marriage between style and substance.  Art direction echoing the
evocative images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Max Fleischer’s
Superman cartoons.  A self aware script peppered with cinematic
references that infused the best parts of serialised adventure shorts
and classic sci-fi into a rollicking, gratifyingly guilt-free exercise
in suspension of disbelief.  It should have worked
beautifully.  Unfortunately it was a rather hit and miss affair.

The biggest issue that I could identify with the film was the
performance of Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins.  Polly is
supposed to be the archetypal intrepid reporter.  She is meant to
be Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall rolled into one – fierce,
determined and sexy as hell.  Instead, Paltrow delivers a dull as
dishwater performance, almost devoid of any attraction and utterly
unengaging.  In some places her acting is downright hammy.
In the opening scenes Polly is caught amidst the first invasion of
mysterious flying robots that attack New York City.  As it goes in
most adventures of this sort, she is the right girl in the wrong spot
at the right time.  Camera in hand Polly leaps into the fray but
is hampered by her tightly cut skirt.  Cue the good old seam rip
that exposes a bit of thigh and proves to the audience what a fuss free
trooper our Polly really is.  Or as Paltrow plays it…cue a
rather inept display of being unable to run in aforementioned skirt,
some limp wristed hand flapping and a few feeble tugs at her hem to
split the pesky seam, no thigh, and no appreciable change in her knock
kneed gait whatsoever.  It is not that Paltrow didn’t deliver to
my expectations so much as she was so obviously overacting.  To
her credit, her performance in the later half of the film was markedly
improved, however she seemed utterly unable to reliably capture the
spirit of Polly Perkins as a character.

Jude Law plays the titular Sky Captain, a dashing hero who rushes from
his island base to help fight off the bizarre mechanical monsters that
menace New York City.  As a character Sky Captain is a mix of
Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and John Wayne – dashing, charming and willing
to crack more than a few skulls to emerge from a fight
triumphant.  Law is more successful with his task than
Paltrow.  He does manage to effect a rather dashing feel, his baby
blues and blonde locks helping enormously here.  However, without
someone who is bothering to pull their weight in the scenes with him,
even his performance comes over as flat.  This improves as the
movie progresses, with Law managing to acquit himself rather well,
although it is clear Paltrow was just wrong, wrong, wrong for the part.

Sky Captain is interesting technically in that it was filmed entirely
using blue screen with the special effects composited into the film
after principal photography was finished.  This accounts for the
gorgeous look of the film, which was my favourite thing about it.
I spent the first twenty minutes simply luxuriating in the art
direction (when I Gwyneth wasn’t making me wince).  So kudos to
the actors in that they had to act against nothing very much at
all.  The overall design of the film synthesized many of the
familiar images from famous sci-fi films.  The flying robots pay
homage to Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still for example.
The effects people should be commended for their brilliant work.

Giovanni Ribisi makes the most of his screen time as Sky Captain’s
nerdy genius and right hand man.  You have to love Giovanni Ribisi
– even if he did make The Mod Squad with Claire Danes.  He really
is the man.  An up and coming character actor who is a gem all of
the movies he makes.  From his cherubic face to his general
averageness he is worth his weight in gold and this movie is no
exception.  In fact Ribisi is an actor who almost guarantees that
I will seek out a film, whether it be at the cinema or DVD if he is in
it – rather like Steve Buscemi, for me he’s in the same category.

Also look for a cameo from Angelina Jolie.  Really she is the best
thing in the movie – gnawing on the scenery as Frankie.  She’s all
British accent and eye patch and lips.  Very enjoyable indeed.

The plot of the movie is very basic and firmly in the vein of the
Saturday morning serials – improbable escapes, cliff-hangers and all
sorts of soapish fiddle faddle that is diverting at first but tires
rather quickly.  The problem was that it was just not sharp
enough.  This film serves up a steaming heapful of cliché in a way
that is supposed to be post modern and nostalgic all at the same time,
but neglects to follow through with strong writing.  You can only
get away with that stuff if you have the sharpest of dialogue.

The real brow furrower with this movie was the reveal of the mysterious
evil doctor Totenkoph.  For some strange reason he is played
posthumously by the great Lawrence Olivier – for a motivation that
remained unknown to me other than the director was indulging
himself.  Certainly Olivier’s oeuvre really didn’t contain much
material of the same ilk as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or
the cinematic history it is drawing upon.  Perhaps his was the
only estate to give permission for his image to be used in this way, or
perhaps no permission was needed at all which made him a logical choice
over other long dead movie stars.  Again, the use of Olivier in
this role was interesting but ultimately this ploy failed to deliver
anything really noteworthy.  With all due respect to Mr Olivier, I
think they may have gotten a better performance from a live
actor.  In fact, simply by using a deceased actor for the role,
Conran gave away the twist in his tale’s tail.  One thing that
particularly perplexed me is that many of the younger audience members
simply would not have gotten the reference.  I don’t perceive that
Olivier is iconic enough for the general populous to appreciate the
device.  Although I could be mistaken on this account.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a film that will appeal to
nostalgia buffs – those people that remember and appreciate the short
movie serial format and who love the cinematic language of the old
sci-fi films.  It is kitschy and cute but ultimately doesn’t
deliver quite the same amount of enjoyment as the movies it is
referencing.  Perhaps this is an example of where a high concept
short film should have remained exactly that.

The Litmus Test


Feb 242005



Starring:  Kim Basinger, William H. Macy, Jason Statham, Chris Evans, Jessica Biel

Synopsis:  A suburban housewife is kidnapped and her only hope for rescue is a broken telephone.

Cellular is a popcorn movie that really delivers.  Director David
R. Ellis gives the audience about 2 minutes of exposition before the
movie cranks up the action.  In the first 10 minutes Kim Basinger
is kidnapped, manhandled and threatened with death.  Which may
please you if you are not especially a fan of Ms. Basinger.  I
have no particular problem with her myself apart from the fact the her
career has spanned some of the most appalling movies, with a few
notable exceptions  – L.A. Confidential being one.

Cellular’s basic premise is a locked room drama.  How can an
imperilled woman manage to save herself from kidnappers when she is
locked in a room from which there is no escape?  Writer Larry
Cohen inverts the premise of his screenplay for Phone Booth, by locking
a woman in a room with a broken telephone and giving the hero of the
piece freedom to roam, all the while attached to his mobile phone
(hereafter to be known as cellphone a la the American name for the
device).  Some brief character development lets the audience know
that Jessica Martin (Basinger) is also a 10th grade science teacher,
and hey presto, she has managed to use the smashed phone to call a
cellphone number.  Enter Ryan (Chris Evans), hero of the piece,
who at first thinks he is a victim of a prank call but who quickly
comes to realise that he is Jessica’s single avenue for rescue.

Okay, after reading the paragraph above you will surely know that this
movie isn’t in danger of being awarded the Oscar for Best Picture
(although the little golden man has been awarded for some big budget
popcorn previously – can anyone say ‘Titanic’). However, this movie
does what it needs to do and it does it well.  The bad guys are
threatening.  Jason Statham (The Transporter, Lock Stock etc. and
Snatch) is actually really menacing as Ethan, the leader of the ‘bad
guys’.  Basinger does quite a good job at being the woman under
threat…no one can tremble quite like Basinger and damn, if she
doesn’t look pretty good too!  The director, David R. Ellis, has a
long history as a 2nd unit director and stunt coordinator so the
mechanics of the action are well in hand, particularly in the driving

Chris Evans acquits himself well as Ryan, the hapless owner of the
cellphone whose number Basinger manages to call.  Relatively
unknown, he assumes the mantle of action hero with ease and a degree of
charming self deprecation and chutzpah.  His creates a believable
character in Ryan, a twentysomething with ex-girlfriend problems, who
manages to overcome his self centred attitude to life when the
circumstances demand it.  His heedless heroism is contagious and
Ellis knows exactly how to wring out every ounce of it.
Pleasingly, Evans does not take himself too seriously in the role, so
there is no heavy handed Michael-Bay-type flag waving or chest beating
to suffer through.  Also, for those of that persuasion, he’s not
exactly unattractive.  Popcorn and beefcake, my favourite dish.

William H. Macy is good as usual.  It is really a one note role,
but he’s such a consummate professional it doesn’t appear to be
so.  Strangely Jessica Biel has a nothing cameo of 5 minutes
screen time tops.  So I am not sure why she is there – unless
she’s a friend of the director.  Any passably attractive woman
could have played Ryan’s ex-girlfriend who is tired of him being ‘so

Are you getting a good picture of the plot now?  Woman in
desperate need.  Boy wants girl he lost back but he needs to grow
up.  Ring, ring, woman in need of someone reliable calling.
Car chases, explosions, car theft, sexy stunt driving, some cool
gunplay, woman in need gets some of her own back.  Handsome young
hero uses his head to save the day.  Ex-girlfriend suitably
convinced of hero’s reliable nature.  The end.

Don’t go into Cellular expecting anything and I think you will be
suitably satisfied.  Is it a long term pleaser?  Nope.
Does it make you want to see more of Jason Statham…yes please.
Does in bring anything new to the genre?  Not really.
Likelihood of writer Larry Cohen being obsessed with phones?  Very
high.  Size of the plot holes?  Large indeed.  The
scenes with the lawyer and his shiny new porsche?  Priceless.

The Litmus Test


Feb 232005

Finding Neverland


Starring:  Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Ian Hart, Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud

Synopsis:  The genesis of the tale of Peter Pan and how writing the story changed the author’s life.

Finding Neverland is based on the Alan Knee play of the same
name.  It tells the story of how J.M. Barrie befriended a family
of boys who then became the inspiration for the story of Peter
Pan.  So trot out the corsets because here comes another period
drama to bore you senseless…not!

I was going to let Finding Neverland go to DVD, but seeing as it was
one of the few things I hadn’t seen and something my compatriots were
willing to see, it became a cinema experience instead.  Which was
fortunate indeed.  Finding Neverland is a truly rare find these
days – a simply story told emotionally without lashings of false
sentiment.  Johnny Depp is simply wonderful as J.M. Barrie, a
Scottish playwright whose passion for storytelling is renewed though
his association with the Llewellyn-Davies family.

It is the contention of the movie (and of the play presumably) J.M.
Barrie’s great affection for the Llewellyn-Davies family that makes
Peter Pan such a classic.  The fanciful embroidery of the time
they spend together into a story full of mysticism and adventure is
something truly wonderful to watch and the touchstone moments in the
movie where the parallel’s between the lives of the Llewellyn-Davies
and the story of Pan are drawn is beautifully evoked by director Marc

Kate Winslet uses her porcelain beauty to great effect as Sylvia
Llewellyn-Davies, mother of the four boys.  Sylvia is Barrie’s
Wendy, the great love of his life, a woman with whom he can share his
true heart.  The scene with Winslet playing walk the plank with
Barrie and her boys (and who in Barrie’s imagination is dressed as a
pirate, dripping wet) is terrific and particularly underscores how
completely devoid of true passion Barrie’s marriage to Mary Barrie is.

Barrie’s association with the Llewellyn-Davies family still attracts
nasty innuendo regarding possible paedophilia in the relationship
(evidence proving this salacious inference has never been found).
Similarly, his association with the boys and their mother was a scandal
in his time.  Particularly as his generosity to the family, who
were languishing in genteel poverty prior to meeting Barrie, was seen
as an indication of Sylvia’s status as his mistress.  Marc Forster
goes to great lengths in the film to indicate that Sylvia and Barrie
were not lovers in the conventional sense.  Rather, their
relationship is portrayed as a deeply passionate but intensely platonic
one – much like the relationship between Wendy and Pan whose love for
each other is undeniable but certainly far from carnal.

Interesting for us Aussies is the casting of Radha Mitchell as Mary
Ansell Barrie.  She has the rather thankless task of playing
Barrie’s class conscious and socially ambitious wife, whose waspish
demeanour endears her to no-one, but whose plight is pitiful
nonetheless (never marry someone and assume they will make you better
person or that you will be able to change them).  Barrie it would
seem, made a very bad match in Mary, who bemoans his inability to
bestow upon her the wonder of his Neverland in the same way that he can
create it for the Llewellyn-Davies.  The sad truth is that while
she recognises his genius, and must have loved him once, he is totally
unable to provide her with the things she desires from life.
Similarly, she finds it impossible to free herself from the realities
of everyday life and join Barrie in his world of make believe.
One is given the impression that she was attracted to his genius but
found it much harder to live with than she ever expected.  Were I
to be uncharitable I would say that lacking an imagination of her own
she thought she would have one settled on her as part of the marriage
agreement.  For his part, Barrie must have simply assumed that she
could give up the security of the everyday without a backward glance
(as he can) to live on tales of ambrosia.  Whilst it would be
simple to construe Mary Barrie as an unsatisfied shrew, Forster uses
his deft touch with emotion to ensure that neither Mary or Barrie are
demonised.  They are simply people who were unwise in their choice
of partners, and who can claim not to have made similar poor choices

Director Marc Forster steers Finding Neverland with an even hand,
avoiding the caustic and excoriating extremes of emotion his previous
picture, Monster’s Ball, delivered.  In fact he brought me to
intermittent tears throughout the final 20 minutes of the film – and
not by playing on cheap sentimentality either.  The entrance of
Barrie’s special guests for the first performance of Peter Pan set me
off and the weeping continued through scenes filled with love and hope
and wonder (I know exactly how that reads, but trust me on this).
Forster allows the audience to really connect with exactly why J.M.
Barrie’s Pan continues to be so popular, and why even through he has
many other works to his credit, Peter Pan is his enduring legacy.
You can be left in no doubt that the creative urge behind Barrie’s Pan
was a deep and abiding love of the Llewellyn-Davies boys and their

Freddie Highmore delivers the best performance from a child actor in
recent memory as Peter Llewellyn-Davies.  Utterly without guile or
precociousness he is a child old before his time, wrestling with the
pain of his father’s untimely death and dismissing Barrie’s antic’s as
frippery.  Barrie’s attempts to encourage Peter to set his
imagination free forms the other significant relationship in the
movie.  This is not just a love triangle between Barrie, Mary and
Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies.  Barrie loves Peter and his brothers as
if they were his own sons.  Yet he somehow loves Peter more, for
the fierce determination he has to be grown up and put childish things
behind him masks his deep joy at creating imaginary worlds – a pursuit
he dismisses as a ‘just a bit of silliness really’.  To Barrie,
Peter is an echo of himself.  The shot of Highmore sitting alone
on a park bench, his feet unable to touch the ground, adrift in a harsh
adult world of loss, was simple and beautiful and brought forth more
tears (I know what a sap, but I can barely do it justice in text,
you’ll just have to see it for yourself).

Julie Christie puts in a fine turn as Sylvia’s mother Mrs. Emma du
Maurier.  Her vehement opposition to Barrie’s relationship with
her daughter and her grandchildren provides just the right amount of
dramatic tension.  As an aside I have to report that it was lovely
to see a beautiful woman age gracefully without the aid of the
surgeon’s knife.  Christie manages to retain all the luminous
beauty she displayed in Dr Zhivago despite being 40 years older.
She has great presence on screen, and is a formidable opponent for Depp
as Barrie.

Finding Neverland is not a big movie, full of flashy effects.  Nor
does it drip with manufactured emotion.  It is a simple story that
deals with an altruistic kind of love that is rarely seen these days,
on the screen or off.  It made me cry.  Go see it for

The Litmus Test

There is no real reason to go to the cinema to see this one, but it was
fun to watch the houselights come up and see lots of damp cheeked
people laughing at themselves and others because the movie has
surprised them into tears (the good kind).

Feb 232005



Starring:  Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh

Synopsis:  Two middle aged friends take a road trip through Californian wine country just before one for them gets married.

Alexander Payne makes interesting movies and Sideways is no exception.
Partly comedic, filled with pathos, and containing characters that are
a study in contradiction, Sideways tells the story of Miles and Jack,
college roommates who have washed up in the middle years of their lives
with little to show for their endeavours.  Miles is a failed
novelist who teaches high school and who is unable to recover from the
breakdown of his marriage.  Jack is a has been actor who makes a
living doing voice overs and who has asked Miles to arrange a final
bachelor blow out before his impending marriage.

Miles, played by the transcendent Paul Giamatti (whose performance as
Harvey Pekar in American Splendour was a triumph) is a study of
defeat.  Divorced, depressed and desperate he is pitiful and
frustrating in equal measure.  His insistent melancholy makes you
want to slap him.  His encyclopaedic knowledge of and appreciation
for wine is intriguing and it is in the discussion of wine that Miles
shines with true passion.  He is weak.  His theft of money
from his mother is revolting and heartbreaking.  His inability to
withstand Jack’s bullying drove me crazy.  Yet, he is without
doubt the most human of characters ever to grace the screen.
Giamatti’s performance makes it impossible to actually dislike
Miles.  His persnickety attitude does not stop you from
desperately wanting his tremulous feelings for Virginia Madsen’s Maya
to be returned.

Thomas Haden Church’s Jack is also a very human character.
However, he literally made me writhe in my seat with repressed
rage.  Where Miles was frustrating but ultimately sympathetic,
Jack is the perennial teenager.  A dyed in the wool hedonist and a
slave to his ego, Jack blithely jeopardises his relationship with his
soon to be wife with nary a qualm, and is quite content to let Miles
take the brunt of the consequences for his actions.  However
Jack’s zero tolerance for Miles self pity and gloomy countenance is the
catalyst for change, some of which is actually positive.  Hayden
Church’s performance is almost as impressive as Giamatti’s in that his
dubious TV roots (he starred in the sitcom Ned & Stacey) are swept
away by his convincing portrayal of Jack, a forty something

Payne’s direction is as even handed and assured as ever.  It has
to be when you deliver movies that are hard to categorise.  Movies
that make you laugh out loud, and cringe and want to beat up one of the
main characters aren’t easy beasts to manage, but Payne does a
beautiful job.  Sideways is marketed as a comedy – but its also a
love story and a road movie and a tribute to California’s wine
growers.  Payne embroiders on his common themes again in Sideways,
examining what it is to be alone and lonely and view the world with a
jaundiced eye, as he did with About Schmidt.  He brings the
satirical edge he unleashed in 1999’s Election to bear on the wine
industry in Sideways with amusing results.  The wine snobbery and
the rigid etiquette of wine appreciation all receive a gentle swipe.
Although it is worthy to note that Payne selected the wine list for the
film himself.

Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh provide rock solid support as the girls
Jack and Miles hook up with.  Miles, it transpires, has long
harboured an attraction to Maya but has been unable to capitalise on
it.  His week with Jack brings that attraction to the fore, but it
is doomed, as Jack is seeing her friend Sandra and neither of the women
know that he’s about to be married.  Madsen, who has received an
Oscar nomination for her role, is luscious as Maya.  She is a
woman whose palate and appreciation of wine makes her irresistible to
Miles while her philosophy on life makes her the perfect foil for his
rigid defeatism.  Sandra Oh is enjoyable as Stephanie whose
relationship with Jack ends in disaster – and I grimly enjoyed her
revenge upon him (I told you his character drove me crazy).

Sideways has the good fortune to possess some of the most sharply
hilarious moments ever witnessed on screen.  Miles desperate fight
for a drink at Frass Valley winery and his mission impossible to
retrieve Jack’s wallet force laughter from the audience even as they
cringe.  However, Payne knows when to turn on the emotion.
Scenes that could have played out for equal amusement are tightly
reigned to ensure that the audience is never far from the emotional
heart of the film.  Miles drinking the prize of his cellar from a
styrofoam cup reminds you just how desperate his emotional state is.

Sideways will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  It won’t be funny or
fast enough for some.  If you don’t want to think about the pain
that some people endure throughout their lives by simply being ordinary
and essentially undistinguished then this will not be the movie for
you.  However if you don’t mind your amusement tempered by
emotion, then Sideways is the film for you.  The performances are
outstanding and the dialogue is brilliant, sparkling and taut.  At
the very least it is watchable for one of the most memorable lines in
movie history:

Jack: “If they want to drink merlot, we’re drinking merlot.” Miles:
“No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any
fucking merlot!”

Look for poorly advised repeat performances of that little exchange in
restaurants and at dinner parties everywhere.  Poor unloved
merlot…I rather like it myself.

The Litmus Test


Jan 122005

Blade Trinity


Starring:  Wesley Snipes, Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Biel, Kris Kristofferson, Parker Posey, Natasha Lyonne

Synopsis:  Blade engages in a final battle against the vampire
menace by fighting the progenitor of all vampires, Dracula himself.

I will unashamedly admit that I am a fan of the previous Blade
movies.  Neither of them are masterpieces, and they are no match
for Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Near Dark’ in terms of exploration of the
vampire genre, however they deliver some excellent action sequences and
are generally enjoyable. Unfortunately, Blade Trinity fails to
capitalise on the previous success of the franchise and falls
disappointingly short in all the categories that make mindless action
films such great entertainment.

Blade Trinity is presumably the final instalment in the franchise as
this time Blade’s opponent is the originator of the vampire race –
Dracula himself.  Should he succeed, the entire vampire race will
be extinguished.  The vampires hope to use the original bloodline
of  Dracula to make themselves day walkers (a notion that is
downright creepy).  At least that is what I think the main plot
points were.  Unfortunately the plot of the movie was even
sketchier than is usual with an action film.  I am the first to
admit that whining about a lack of plot in a genre movie like Blade is
churlish in the extreme.  However for any action movie to be truly
successful it must have a clear story that is easy to follow.  The
viewer should be able to distil all the exposition down into a series
of plot points from which the action sequences will naturally
flow.  The story is so slim that Blade Trinity offers the viewer
nothing to work with.  As this is the 3rd chapter in the franchise
I was naturally expecting something that was a riff on all that which
had gone before, however such was the dearth of ideas that the only
thing on offer was a rather muddy and ill formed notion that Blade
would be fighting the ultimate evil.  Well duh!

The main problem with the film is the reduction of the character of
Blade to a monosyllabic shadow his former self.  Okay, so Blade
was never a man of a great many words, but Blade Trinity sees a
curtailing of his character that is extremely disappointing.
Whatever depth of character was present in the previous films has
disappeared to be replaced with a charmless and even worse humourless
Blade.  A Blade that can be made the dupe of vampires who trick
him into killing a human thus becoming the target of the FBI and a
pariah to the everyday world.  Wesley Snipes is so wooden he is
almost immobile, and without any smart dialogue his Blade pales into
obscurity beside the far more dynamic Nightstalkers played by Ryan
Reynolds and Jessica Bile.

Parker Posey, darling of the indie film set, plays Danica Talos leader
of the vampires who searches for and finds Dracula.  I don’t think
I have seen a hammier vampire since Paul Reuben’s turn as Amilyn in the
movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and at least he was meant
to be funny.  She looks great but has no real menace, not the way
that Stephen Dorff had as Deacon Frost in the original Blade.  She
is also saddled with some of the least threatening henchmen in movie
history.  Which offers no challenge to the good guys whatsoever.
Surely a tenant of any decent action film is that the villains should
be bad ass to the degree that it could be possible to believe that the
good guys will lose the fight. Can anyone say dramatic tension?

Blade Trinity sees the introduction of a new cast of supporting
characters for Blade – a group called the Nightstalkers who come to the
rescue when his lair is compromised and he is in need of a friend or
two.  By and large the Nightstalkers are a forgettable
bunch.  The wheel man and the gadget geek should have been wearing
T shirts emblazoned with ‘Dead Man 1’ and ‘Dead Man 2’.  They are
simply underused and all the good gadgety stuff is missing too.
Natasha Lyonne plays a genetic scientist (who happens to be blind… a
bit of an issue for someone whose profession is all about observing
phenomena using a microscope) trying to develop an effective bio weapon
to combat vampires.  Her character is a cliche to such a degree
that she actually caused me pain.  Why is she blind?  So she
can’t see the menace standing behind her.  Whe does she die?
So she can leave behind a recording that commences with ‘If you are
watching this…I am dead’.  Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder Party
Liaison) gets the best of a bad script and has all the good wisecrack
opportunities.  His action sequence work is good, but he is
slanted a bit too much towards comic sidekick/damsel in distress.
Plus watch out for an insult he gets to utter that should have shown up
in Bad Santa.

Jessica Biel joins the long line of action actresses who get to kick
ass, look pretty good and do a crying whilst in the shower scene so the
boys in the audience get their jollies (we girls get the rather
handsome and buff Reynolds…but does he drop trou for us?
No.)  Bows and arrows must be de rigueur for femme action heroes
cause Biel totes a rather impressive one, with a special zip sleeved
outfit to make shooting the thing possible (leather is very
restricting).  Apple must have handed over a nice chunk of dough
to feature Biel using iTunes to make playlists to listen to on her iPod
whilst ashing vamps – a very nice chunk indeed, as the script features
a direct reference to her doing this.  Although one wonders how
she manages to successfully fight off vamps that approach her from
behind as Jurassic 5 do their thang in her ears.

Finally the most problematic issue is Dracula himself (named Drake
whilst in human form).  The CGI for Dracula’s ‘true form’ is
uninspired and the actor who plays his human guise (Dominic Purcell)
is…well…thick necked and generally unimpressive.  I prefer a
stylish, menacing lord of all vampires myself.  Someone who makes
the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  Dominic Purcell’s
Drake is not scary.  He’s not awesome in the way that he must be
in order for the entire plot of the movie to successfully depend on
him.  A set of creepy contact lenses is not enough to instil fear
and fascination in the audience.  In addition, the continuity
regarding his vamp teeth is terrible.  At varying times in human
form he sports a single set of upper fangs, then a full set of upper
and lower fangs, then back to single.  Bah!  I would think
that vamp fangs would be more important than an afterthought in a film
about vampires.  Especially after all the trouble they went to
using CGI to show how Drake has these funky predator-esque super
mandibles in his true form.

Someone should tell the tinsel town moguls that you do not hand the
reins of a relatively successful franchise over to a newbie
director.  On paper it must have looked great.  David S.
Goyer has definite film crew experience and lots of screenwriting gigs
to his credit (he penned the original Blade screenplay and has writing
credits on the other two).  He even has a gig as a director for
2002 movie called ‘ZigZag’ which I have not had the opportunity to
see.  However this does not mean that you have the chops to direct
a genre action film suitable to the calibre of the Blade
franchise.  I think the script for this movie suffered because he
had to wear too many hats.  His direction of the action sequences
is okay, but rather formulaic.  His framing of Biel using her bow
was altogether too similar to King Arthur and other movies of that
ilk.  Zoom is a meat and potatoes device and Goyer didn’t do
anything especially breathtaking with it.  Similarly, the martial
arts and hand to hand combat sequences are rather pedestrian.  The
only thing he didn’t bore us with was bullet time, which he didn’t
use.  Although, to be fair the first action sequence has a nicely
executed car stunt.  The only word that works for the movie –
script, performances and directing – is undistinguished.  I was
hoping for more.

Litmus Test

DVD – hopefully the extras will be interesting.