Film review: Batman Begins

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Batman Begins

Waiting in the line for my ticket to Batman Begins, I heard a mother in front of me with four-year old in tow complaining that the film was rated M, and how ridiculous it was that a ‘comic book film’ was rated for Mature audiences. I couldn’t help myself. “It isn’t a film for kids” I said. She and her husband looked at me like I was an idiot.

When the lights came up and all the stupid—and borderline criminally negligent—parents ushered their terrified little children out of the cinema, I took solace in the fact they would be up all night trying to get their poor little kids to sleep. I do feel sorry for the kids though. Not only because they’d be having nightmares, but because they were cursed with such dumb, unimaginative people for parents, who couldn’t comprehend that anything in ‘comics’ could possibly explore adult themes.

Thankfully, Batman Begins turns away from such stupity (we were looking at you, Mr Schumacher) and gives Batman the treatment he deserves. Of all the films so far, this one comes closest to the Batman of the 70s I grew up with—the dark, haunted avenger of the crime- and drug-ridden streets of Gotham. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s the closest you’ll get. Of course if your idea of Batman is Adam West doing the batsusi and wrestling rubber sharks, you’re going to be very disappointed.

Director Christopher Nolan brings the shadowy, overcast realism of his previous films Memento and Insomnia to the Batman legend, and it’s just what the doctor ordered. The whole film is far more believable than previous efforts, despite the now de rigeur Gothic look of Gotham, and it is further grounded by a story that concentrates on Bruce Wayne more than his alter ego. Perhaps a bit too much, as the first half of the film is just a little too drawn out. At 141 minutes the film feels a bit long and a bit choppy—about three quarters of the way through I thought I was heading for the climax when in fact there was quite a way to go. However Nolan successfully manages to bring what is really two complex films, an origins story and a villainous plot, to the finish line together—albeit in a very noisy and chaotic way.

Thankfully in between the intense action sequences we get some good acting, and liberal dashes of dark humour too. There are a few histrionic lines, but on the whole an essential humanness remains, even in the face of Batman’s cape-wearing antics. Michael Caine sails beautifully through the role of Alfred, Morgan Freeman brings just the right note of good-humoured world-weariness to Lucius Fox, and even Katie Holmes is refreshing as the honest lawyer (hey, it is a fantasy after all) Rachel Dawes. Cillian Murphy at first seems too young for his role as Dr Jonathon Crane of Arkham Asylum, but he plays the part with such intensity and presence that he gets away with it. Also good to see back on the screen is Rutger Hauer. Liam Neeson, unfortunately, continues what seems to be a run of lazy performances as Ducard. But Batman himself? Despite being cursed with a far too distinctive mouth (“hey, you’re Bruce Wayne, I recognise you by your weird upper lip!”), Christian Bale makes a convincingly troubled Caped Crusader.
Just remember, Batman isn’t for kids. Thank goodness.

Four utility belts out of five.

Film review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith


Star Wars Ep III

To paraphrase a friend, what a complete load of Sith. George Lucas fails utterly to pull a rabbit out of his hat for this, the third and last interminable, overblown, badly acted and scripted—and the worst crime of all, boring—episode in the Star Wars merchandising franchise. If this is the future of cinema, God help us. Have a brief look at the fan sites and you’ll discover such hysterical comments as “the best movie I’ve ever seen!” I can only hope that particular kid gets out and sees a few more movies.

I’m waiting for someone to sit through the last three ‘prequels’ and count how many times there is a scene where several of the actors walk through some endless city corridor, or board a spacecraft, while regurgitating the same old dialogue about senates and republics and votes to set up the next video-game-like action sequence. There are so many bad decisions being made here, but let’s start at the place where Lucas should have started, and stayed for a lot longer—the script. Rumour has it Tom Stoppard was drafted in this time around to help with the leaden dialogue; but if so then Tom was having several off days in a row, for there is little improvement. Some scenes, such as when Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side, are frankly laughable; bad writing, wooden acting and even cheesy special effects blending into something that looks like a first year high school film project. Proven professionals—McGregor, Portman, Jackson—are here forced to chew on hackneyed dialogue and work in front of blue screens, and come out looking like friends drafted in as the actors (only Ian McDiarmid manages to inject some much needed ham into his role). I’m not exaggerating that much; the recent fan film Star Wars: Revelations is on par in acting and script quality.

I think one of Lucas’ mistakes is to assume that we like these characters because of their relation to those in the original films. Skywalker, (the young) Kenobi and Padme are cardboard cutouts going through the motions. Unlike the vivid characters of Han Solo, Luke and Leia, with their chemistry, their verbal sparring, their triumphs and tragedies, there is no one here we care about.
But the action, you say, what about the action? Well, there’s plenty of it—plenty of sound and fury, to paraphrase the Bard, signifying nothing. Lucas paints his screen canvas so thickly with frantic detail that the eye isn’t given a moment’s rest. There is no light and shade, no focus or subject, to what is happening on screen. Lucas is like an spoilt kid showing us all his expensive toys; but what happened to the role of a director? A director should expertly control our eye and our emotions. What we here is nothing but a multi-million dollar headache.

I’m giving Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith one star in recognition of all the hard work that so many people lavished on the film, but this last episode is ultimately doomed by its creator’s overweening hubris. Go watch the A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back again; and dream of what could have been.

One faulty breathing apparatus out of five.

PS Give me the gritty, smartly written, well-acted sci-fi of the new Battlestar Galactica, or Firefly, anyday.

Film review: Kingdom of Heaven

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Kingdom of Heaven

Gladiator Mark II. Ridley Scott on autopilot. Orlando Bloom commercial. Can you tell I was disappointed with Kingdom of Heaven? After a spectacular trailor I held high hopes for this film, but with the possible exception of some impressive battle scenes, Scott’s new by-the-numbers historical Mills & Boon is a disappointing cinema experience. Sure, as we’ve come to expect from Scott, it looks great. But the casting of wooden Bloom as front-and-centre hero is only one of many flaws.

Orlando Bloom (Balian of Ibelin), whom Peter Jackson had the sense to give very little screentime to in Lord of the Rings, seems to sleepwalk almost every scene in Kingdom of Heaven, like a good-looking extra accidently finding himself promoted to leading actor. Around him old hands like Jeremy Irons (Tiberias) and Liam Neeson (Godfrey of Ibelin) casually chew the scenery, but baby-faced Bloom stares impassively at everyone and everything. No doubt there’s a lot of drama playing out behind those big eyes, but virtually none of it is finding its way to his face. Watching him stirring the defenders of Jerusalem with a rousing speech is nothing short of cringeworthy—not that he is helped by such Shakespearian script nuggets as “Come on! Come on!” “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” this ain’t.

From scene to scene we follow Bloom through virtually the same plotline as Gladiator, tossing aside historical accuracy left and right as he does so, miraculously transforming himself from village blacksmith to engineer, scholar and leader of men in a few months. Of course this isn’t meant to be a documentary, but the history of the Crusades is so full of drama on a personal and epic scale, why did this story have to be dumbed down to such an extent? I suppose we can only be thankful that Scott gives a reasonably accurate depiction of the largely thuggish behaviour of the Christian invaders, and the honourable Saracen leader Saladin (well, at least until he finally got so sick of the Christians continually invading that he was eventually forced to be as brutal as they were).

Kingdom of Heaven is far less than we should expect from a film-maker of Scott’s calibre. Let’s hope he turns off the autopilot next time around and doesn’t churn out Gladiator Mark III.

Two and a half seige towers out of five.

Film review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

How do you make a comedy funny when everybody knows the jokes? I suppose this was just one of the many challenges faced by the makers of a film version of Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If Adams was still alive, I imagine the solution would be to write a lot of new material in the spirit of the original. There are a few new concepts in this film, but with the possible exception of the creatures that slap you in the face when you have an idea on the Vogon planet, they fall flat.

Adams spent many years trying to make a film version of his hugely popular story, a process he apparently likened to “trying to cook a steak by having a succession of people come into the room and breathe on it”. After seeing this very flat and lifeless film, the steak is still way underdone. The film has a lot of problems: amateurish and uninspired TV-style direction, hammy acting (Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox is especially annoying, and Zooey Deshanel’s Trillian is just—nothing), cheap sets and low production values. The biggest mistake was the desperate attempt to squeeze the original, wandering plotline of the book into a movie-like framework, complete with neat romance arc and ‘watch out for the sequel’ closing dialogue. Instead of plunging head-first into the chaotic madness of the book’s language, the English team try to do an ‘American-style’ film, with predictably tired results—surely past failures like the terrible Mr Bean should have warned them off this approach.

I wanted to like this film, I really did. But Hitchhiker’s is lacking in real inspiration, and ends up only a small cut above the low-budget TV series version. I suggest reading the books again.

One and a half bowls of petunias out of five.

Film review: Enduring Love

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Enduring Love

I read the book by Ian McEwan some time ago and was impressed at its multi-layered, subtle portrayal of obsession. Director Roger Michell has travelled a long way from his best known work on Notting Hill and delivers a get-under-your-skin, though slightly pedestrian, telling of McEwan’s tale.

Anyone who has read the book will tell you how shocking the open scene is, and justice is done to it here with choppy editing and a complete lack of music. The latter is a blessing since the music throughout is one of the worst features of this film, going from a bland but good enough three note signature to a terrible ‘English drama on the telly’ theme that cheapens the whole production.

Anyway, Joe (an excellent Daniel Craig) and Claire (Samantha Morton) are lovers enjoying an idyllic picnic when Joe suddenly finds himself part of a terrible incident involving a hot air balloon and the age old question of ‘when to let go’. One of the other men involved in the incident is a lonely obsessive called Jed (Rhys Ifans finally getting to show his range as an actor), who becomes convinced that he and Joe are meant to be together. His habit of referring to Joe as ‘Joe Joe’ was particularly disturbing to my girlfriend as—phonetically—that’s the nickname I have for her.

Enduring Love would have a very hard time delivering the subtleties of the novel, and one has to wonder why Joe never calls the police at any point, but on the whole the film is creepy and engaging enough, with a touch of complexity in its meditations about the nature of love. English films featuring well-off upper middle class intellectuals getting their comeuppance seem to be a bit too common, and Joe’s sketchily developed career as a university lecturer going on and on about ‘what is love?’ doesn’t work, but the film’s gritty realism is mostly effective (Bill Nighy is especially sympathetic as Joe’s friend). Ifans plays Jed with frustrating intensity and absolute conviction. But it’s the two main protagonists, and their existence on two opposite ends of the concept of love that in a strange way almost brings them together, that makes this more than just another stalker story.

Three ripcords out of five.

Film review: Constantine

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Keanu Reeves isn’t much an actor. There I said it. I mean, someone has to say it, right? Surely the only way he has become so successful is due to some form of mass hypnosis?

He seems like a nice guy, and he does try in Constantine (“hmmm, I’m a chain-smoker, so I better make my voice extra gravelly this time”), but he just can’t carry it. It’s a shame, because a better actor could have brought far more gravitas to this role, and done better with the flashes of humour in the script that Reeves flattens. Ewan McGregor springs to mind. John Constantine is an interesting character with a lot of potential—a chain-smoking exorcist who ‘deports’ half-breed demons back to Hell. This film version is loosely based on a comic character that first appeared in Swamp Thing who looked like Sting and was of British working-class background (I told you it was loosely based).

First-time film director Francis Lawrence, whose previous experience has been in music videos, does a good job, refraining from hand-feeding us the story and bringing Constantine’s dark city streets to life. But the film is too long, dragging out the final denouement long past the point where we know what is going to happen. As a result I felt forced to sit and watch the last surprise-free, talky fifteen minutes play out, which overshadowed my enjoyment of the rest of the film. It’s a shame because most of the elements are there. The effects are excellent and not overplayed, there are some nice ideas and the world of the film feels consistent. Rachel Weiz does a good job as the woman trying to save her twin sister from eternal torment, but Tilda Swinton in particular shines with androgenous beauty and abrasive wit as the archangel Gabriel.

The film has been repeatedly compared with The Matrix because Keanu walks around in a black coat, but the real reason is that John Constantine seems like Thomas Anderson all over again—only with a more gravelly voice.

Three bugs out of five.

Film review: House of Flying Daggers

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House of Flying Daggers

Looking back at my review of Hero, the last film by Zang Yimou, I see I gave it a rating of four … well, I may have to posthumously up that to four and a half, because House of Flying Daggers, while not quite as stunning as that film, is still certainly worthy of a four rating.

House of Flying Daggers is set in 859 AD, during the declining an corrupt Tang Dynasty. Local deputies Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are ordered to capture the new leader of a mysterious group called the House of Flying Daggers who are stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Jin follows a lead to the local brothel and there encounters Mei (the beautiful and talented Ziyi Zhang), a blind dancer who is not all she at first seems. Ziyi Zhang spent two months living with a blind girl and observing her mannerisms, and the research pays off in her performance.

There a quite a few twists and turns in the ensuing story, and sometimes the melodrama typical of this genre threatens to overwhelm it, but if you enjoyed Hero all the same delights are here to be swept up into: the stunning balletic action sequences, the beautiful cinematography, the spectacular colour and movement. Because of their similarities it is difficult not to compare House of Flying Daggers with its predecessor, and it is perhaps not as perfectly stylised and the plot not as engaging as Hero despite the love story centre stage. Some of the tragic ‘will I or won’t I’ moments could have done with editing. I left the theatre a little unsatisfied as was hoping for everything to go up a notch from Zang Yimou’s last film, but perhaps that’s asking too much. House of Flying Daggers is still an incredible achievement from a master of the Wuxia (martial arts) genre.

Four giggling courtesans out of five.

TV Review: Battlestar Galactica

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Battlestar Galactica

With the spate of ‘re-imagining’ going on these days, it’s the luck of the draw whether your childhood memories are going to be skewered through the heart or not. They blew it with Lost in Space (though I hear there’s a new pilot, directed by John Woo and written by Doug Petrie of Buffy), but, while Battlestar Galactica never held as great a place in my sub-teen heart, this time they’re right on the money. The new four-hour pilot held me spellbound from start to finish.

Despite the public complaints of a few oldies like Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo from the original series—since mollified by a role in the new series), Battlestar Galactica goes back to the start of the ‘saga’ and turns a pretty wimpy premise into a hard-hitting, gritty, modern sci-fi drama. The characters are real, the script doesn’t hold your hand and treat you like an idiot, and there’s an excellent balance of human drama and gung-ho action. Executive Producer Ron Moore gives a few respectful nods to the original series and then takes it to a new level of sophistication.

Commander Adama is played with stoic, battered intensity by Edward James Olmos (of origami-folding Blade Runner detective fame). In one scene we see him fighting hand-to-hand, but no fancy martial arts moves here; the scene is shockingly effective in it’s violent realism as he desperately struggles to win. Far from squeaky clean ‘models in space’, the characters are fallible (an alcoholic second-in-command) and interesting (the newly appointed president dealing with responsibility and newly-diagnosed cancer), and scenes don’t always play out the way you expect. Changing Starbuck to a woman was a masterstroke, as was upping the level of intensity to make her abrasive and confrontational rather than just cheeky.

The effects by Zoic Studios are stunning. They pioneered this kind of ‘hand-held in space’ camera work on the sadly short-lived Firefly, and there’s no doubt they are doing the best and most original effects work out there right now. Unlike Firefly, there is sound in space this time, but cleverly the sound is ‘compressed’ for the space scenes, an effect like listening to loud noises through earplugs, which gives us an eerie, spacious counterpoise to the action.

I’m looking forward to the start of the mini-series in a week’s time—here’s hoping they can keep the quality at this high level.

Four rag-tag heroes out of five.

Film Review: Sideways

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I read an article in the paper recently that there was no history of exploring male friendship in cinema, citing the storm and bluster of films such as Top Gun as examples of the kind of competitiveness that infuses male relationships on the screen. Maybe, but for an example of real male friendship, look no further than Sideways.

The latest film from the director of Election and About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, is about Milo (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), on a week’s holiday in Californian wine country to celebrate Jack’s impending marriage. Milo, wine connoisseur currently on depression medication, is still grappling with his divorce of two years ago, and Jack, slightly has-been TV and commercial voice-over actor, is determined to get laid (as many times as possible) before he gets married. In between drinking a lot of wine, they meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Virginia Madsen).

Beyond the clichés (men only talk about sports, men don’t express their feelings for each other etc) men have friendships every bit as emotionally complex as women. It’s just we don’t often see them explored on the screen in as real a way, and with such subtlety, as this. Milo and Jack are flawed, but very real people, and there are times during the film when we don’t really like them. Milo is depressed, drinks too much, and can’t move on emotionally from his wife; and Jack is like a middle-aged man with all the enthusiasm and emotional immaturity of a kid.

There are many moments here I recognised from my own life and friendships. Payne is making great films because these people and characters are so recognisable, and like life, the situations they get into and the choices they make aren’t neat and packaged and end happily every after. We recognise life as the struggle it often is, but then are reminded of our opportunities to see and appreciate the simple beauty in the everyday. With wine, you can swig it down or you can linger over every mouthful and examine every nuance—the trick is not to drink the same way all the time.

The acting in Sideways is effortless and the chemistry between these players a delight, especially between Giametti and Madsen, whose moment together out on Stephanie’s porch was so real it made me hold my breath. Like a fine wine, there are many layers of complexity to enjoy.

Four and a half pinot noirs out of five. And remember—don’t drink and dial, kids.

Film review: The Incredibles


The Incredibles

I saw The Incredibles over a week ago now, so I’m unforgivably late for my review!

Look, this one’s easy. It’s a Pixar film. They can do no wrong. And let me tell you why, it’s not a magic formula. They don’t do things the way the rest of Hollywood does. They work long and hard on an film until it’s perfect. They come up with one strong, original concept and build a story around it; a story they develop to perfection before everything else. They give that story layers of meaning so you can enjoy it whatever age you are. The animation is inspired and informed by the great animators of the past. They give each film time (four years in this case) so the team can work, polish, perfect and work some more until it’s the best it can be.

All processes that on the surface seem obvious, but are ignored everyday by disorganised, uninspired people in seach of the fast buck. An attitude by no means exclusive to the film industry …
Contrast this with the boring, uninspired cash-in that Shrek 2 was (I’m not even going to bother reviewing it here) and you can see what I mean.

Put the ingredients together with a dash (excuse the pun) of pure genius and you have The Incredibles. It’s fast-paced, touching, funny, exciting, stylish, clever and beautifully made. Everything you’ve come to expect from a Pixar film.

Four and a half flabby bellies out of five.

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