Sunday, August 20, 2006

Snakes on a Plane Review

Ahem, well there are snakes. And they're on a plane.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Dear God, There's A Lady In My Water!

I also saw Nacho Libre which will be a quick review so they're both in one post...

Nacho Libre is very hit and miss. Many gags fall flat on their face, indeed there are what feel like long sections without any gags at all. But then at other times I found myself laughing out loud, even if most of the belly laughs come from Jack Black doing a silly "Mechico" accent. What can I say? My comedic needs are small. Black plays Ignatio, a put upon helper at a monastery that houses orphans. Ignatio dreams of becoming a wrestler and creates his alter ego Nacho. Along with his partner Esqueleto (a very funny Hector Jimenez) they form a tag team and begin to take on a variety of oddball pairings, with varying degrees of comedic success, on their quest to become as famous as the greatest wrestler of them all, Ramses. Nacho Libre has emerged in what feels like a real dry spell in terms of comedy and as a result is very welcome. It will hardly go down as one of the great comedies but there is just enough to keep the viewer laughing and Nacho's big heart and good intentions will keep everyone onside. At times Black's mugging becomes grating, performing"silly" songs he wrote in a "silly" voice making "silly" faces as he does. He's such a big silly! But at others his gift for comedy lifts the film. Jared Hess ( director of Napoleon Dynamite) creates the appropriate chaotic tone and a good supporting cast ensure Nacho Libre will have you leaving the cinema smiling.

A quick little bit of backdrop is required next. When I first read about Lady in the Water, a bedtime story about a lonely janitor who finds a water nymph in his pool, alarm bells really started to go off. Particularly given that this was M Night Shyamalan's next film I thought that the guy was becoming a victim of his own ideas and unfortunately believing the early hype that surrounded him. Early trailers did nothing do change my mind and the reviews have been at best mixed. It was therefore really only out of a love of watching Paul Giamatti that I went to see the film, even though I was desperately trying to keep my mind open as I went in. And I'm very glad I did. Lady in the Water is that rare thing, a film that surprises you in a good way. Now I'm going to qualify that immediately. Lady in the Water is a film that many people will not just hate but I'd say, really detest. Its talk of narfs, madame narfs, scrunts and a whole host of creatures that won't be found in any dictionary I'm aware of will be an immediate barrier for some. Its optimism will be deemed calculated and mercenary, the fact that everyone in the story simply accepts what's happening on faith and there are no "I can't believe this is true" scenes will be called unrealistic. But the clue is in the "bedtime story" tag. Accept what it is, go with the story and you may find yourself imersed in a very unique film, one that is mercifully devoid of a last minute twist, one that is beautifully shot by DP Christopher Doyle and one that boasts a fantastic central performance by Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep. Heep is janitor of The Cove apartment block who finds himself living in a real bedtime story as Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Happy Days actor and some time director Ron Howard), a creature we are told will bring optimism and hope to mankind, appears in his swimming pool to connect with one of the building's tennants. Other people we are told have important roles in sending Story back to her world, unharmed by the scrunt that is after her. Scrunts are dog like creatures with grass for fur that makes them all but invisible when, well, when they're hiding in grass... See? Already I'm sure many of you are clicking that big X in the corner of the screen and wondering why you've given this review so much time when you could have been watching Dirty Debra's webcam.

The film is far from perfect. The building is populated by a variety of characters that aren't really characters you see, they're archetypes from stories, and each of these people will have a role to play in the film. This story within a story idea, the fact that the story we are watching is a commentary on the nature of story telling itself and the people populating it are storytelling devices works with mixed success. Shyamalan often confuses stereotype for archetype, the group of stoners for example, the traditional, conservative Korean Mother. Worse still is Bob Balaban's film critic who seems to have no other purpose in the film other than to be a way for Shyamalan to voice his dislike of film critics. It's clunky, irritating and apparantly forgetful of the fantastic reviews Shyamalan has enjoyed for much of his career. If people hated The Village Night, maybe that's because it was shite? And not because we "didn't get it?" Worst of all is Shyamalan's insistence of casting himself in roles of increasing importance. The narf is here to connect with a man whose writing will change the world. Oh Night no...oh you haven't...oh God you have... Yes the weirdly expressionless mug of the auteur/wanker takes centre stage this time in a dreadfully ego massaging piece of stunt casting that for me seriously undermined what is one of the film's many great ideas, that something you do now will have huge impact in years to come, you just don't know it yet.

Lady in the Water is a very brave film in that, rarely has someone set themselves up for such a fall as M Night Hitchberg does here. The critical backlash, which has begun in earnest, will I am sure, convince filmgoers to stay away in their droves. But this is annoying because I am equally sure that if a first time director had made this, the reviews would be very positive, telling us this is a director with imagination, visual flair, willing to take a chance and do something different. Shyamalan is all those things and crucially he is one of very few directors working in mainstream Hollywood with near total creative autonomy working on original material. Yes he has his influences that he wears on his sleeve, no his films aren't perfect, and yes the man has ego problems and issues of self importance. But in a time when studios are apparently only willing to greenlight comic book adaptations, sequels, remakes, TV adaptations or, as a last resort if there's nothing left to plunder, book adaptations, someone like Shyamalan is very important. I will stand up and say I hated The Village as much as anyone. Boring, plodding, unbelieveable, dreadful dialogue. But that twist held the kernal of something interesting for a different film. The Sixth Sense is a wonderful film, Unbreakable is let down by a weak ending but for me it's a very good film, Signs blows it completely by the end but for the most part is creepy, scary and alot of fun. The man has good ideas, puts interesting spins on old stories and themes and in the end is a good storyteller. And let's not forget his films make money. Even his considered disappointments The Village and Unbreakable made $256 million and $248 million worldwide respectively on mid range budgets. There's many a $100+ million budgeted Poseidon or Van Helsing that would kill for those returns. This film hasn't done particularly well Stateside and after the critical drubbing he received for The Village I hope he won't feel compelled to tread safer ground for his next film. Sixth Sense 2 or something

But a film must of course be judged on its own terms. As I said Lady in the Water is not for everyone certainly but if you want something a little different, a little unusual, something that takes a leap of faith, then I would recomend it. The heart of the film is Giamatti. His tender, believeable, charasmatic performance anchors the film and sells every potentially laughable moment, in a way a lesser actor could not. Great cinematography, a nice score by regular Shyamalan contributor James Newton Howard, a good pace and in the end, a good story built on a great central idea make Lady in the Water a surprisingly enjoyable film.

If you're in the mood that is.

Damn that Shyamalan. Nothing's ever simple.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Chubby Checker could do it. Why can't I?

Do not read this post if you haven't seen the film Seven. I need to talk about its ending and I will give it away. It's a cracking film so don't let me spoil it now. Go no further my friends!!

Is that enough of a gap? Couple more lines methinks!

Okay here we go! I was talking with a friend the other night about Seven. I refuse to write Se7en, the way the marketing people did. I love the film and had recently rewatched it. My friend hadn't seen it since the cinema and said he loved it up until the end. The problem my friend, also an aspiring writer, had is that for him it's obvious and signposted. In the car journey, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is taunting Mills (Brad Pitt) about how he can't wait for Mills to see the huge surprise he has planned, he says this a number of times. My mate's argument is that we've essentially only been introduced to 4 characters. Mills, John Doe, Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mill's wife Tracey, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Now old Gwynny has been on the periphery of the film, we know she's pregnant, the huge surprise serial killer Doe has orchestrated will have particular resonance for Mills... so guess what the end is? The van turns up, "What's in the baaaax?" And there's a head in the box. My mate saw it coming, found it obvious and reckons it undermines all the good work the film has done up to that point. Now I definately have sympathy for that view. The film has worked so hard that it's going to be very difficult to come up with a 100% satisfying ending. For me, once I saw the guy take out the box I knew there was a head in it and it didn't take much guessing to work out whose it is. But ultimately I like the ending. I think it's brave to let the killer win. Even though he dies, he has got exactly what he wants. I like the way the use of the seven sins is resolved, in particular making Brad Pitt's character the embodiment of wrath. And, even if you've seen it coming, cutting off the protagonist's wife's head and posting it to him in a box is a pretty dark way to end a film.

But of course all conversation about that film makes me think of my own work... The problem is I am trying to make work an ending for my horror film. And my mate's comment that because we've only seen 4 characters, three of whom we're currently watching so clearly this surprise is related to the fourth, has resonance for my own ending. Viewed that way, the end is apparent long before it ever happens. Indeed viewed any way, when I read through it today I thought immediately it's signposted. It's potentially a really good twist ending. Not a twist for a twist's sake, but one that makes narrative sense, makes sense for what the story is and what it's about and puts what's gone before in a slightly different context. Not to the extent something like Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects twist endings do, but it definately gives you a feeling of, "He was fucked from the start." But in a good way. I hope. The problem is I need to have a particular character turn up in the script, disappear, then come back at the end revealed for what he really is. Currently it's badly done for a couple of reasons. The first is that he has no dramatic function other than to serve the twist which is fatal. The second is what my mate identified in Seven. There are 4 characters. This guy is coming back and if I'm following this story at all, I think I see how he'll come back.

So how do I make it work? Fuck knows. I've had a pretty good day's writing, I've improved alot of what I've written, solved another major problem that's been bugging me. But I'm on page 78 and I'm starting the last act, where everything is about to come together on what is meant to be the day of Armageddon. It can never be too dramatic. And I need to know how it's going to fit before I can properly start to write it. Our Mr Twist is about to reappear you see. So I need to come up with a convincing way of placing him in the story, giving him a dramatic function we believe then at the end reveal what he really is and what he's doing.

Fuck this is hard! But then I guess if it was easy everyone would be doing it right? Maybe I need to think out of the box.

"What's in the baaaaax?"

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Crockett and Tubbs via Toni and Guy.

I remember when I went to see Alexander at the cinema, quite the experience as anyone who has seen it will testify. I remember thinking that I will never again see Colin Farrell sport hair like he had in that film. Magnificent, flowing locks that were given as many opportunities to flap in the wind that could be reasonably motivated. Well clearly someone watched Alexander, thought similarly, took it up as a challenge and presented their ideas to Michael Mann during pre-production on Miami Vice. There is a 5 minute section about 40 minutes into Miami Vice that, when it is out on DVD, will be a chapter in itself and will doubtless be entitled, "The Three Stages of Crockett's Bonnet." Stage 1 is admiration. Farrell drives Gong Li to Cuba in a speedboat, for no discernable reason other than to let us bask in the beauty of the Farrell Mullet billowing in the wind against the sunset. What woman could possibly resist such a mane? None. Which brings us neatly to stage 2. Washing. Farrell and Li end up in the shower together and as the water hits the hair, it seems to suddenly fill the frame, regardless of what angle Mann shoots it from. It also seems to end up at Farrell's knees and Li tries her best to find the bizzarre follicle explosion occurring in front of her sexually attractive. Stage 3, drying. Arguably the most entertaining scene of the film, Farrell sits on the bed, Li produces a towel and in much the same way one might dry a poodle after its bath, she begins to towel dry the mullet which by this stage had me thinking that it was surely deserving of its own credit. It was, after all, the only interesting thing in the film.

Miami Vice is drivel. Beautiful drivel to be sure. One expects any Michael Mann film to be, if nothing else, gorgeous to look at. And that it is. But that is all it is. It starts off interestingly, with no credits, no idents for the production companies, no intro of any kind. We're plunged into the middle of an operation in a nightclub with Crockett and Tubbs, or as one reviewer described them, "Florida's scuzziest drug dealer and a black Fu Manchu." I'll get to Jamie Foxx's goatee shortly. This opening goes nowhere as an old informant contacts them as the latest covert operation he is involved in is going seriously haywire and our heroes leave the club to find him. The "bad guys" do "bad things" and Crockett and Tubbs now embark on the most unconvincing undercover work ever filmed as, looking increasingly like police officers with each passing second, they manage to infiltrate an enormous international drugs network, Farrell fails to teach Gong Li how to speak intelligible English, Foxx scowls and wears shades, they drive fast cars and speedboats and... yep that about covers it. The story is incoherent, with the dialogue at times impossible to understand, either growled out by Foxx and Farrell or else mangled by Li. Though when lines of dialogue were audible it made me feel like I really wasn't missing much when they weren't. "This is like gravity. And you can't fight gravity." Fuck, he's right! You can't fight gravity! The climactic gun fight, though decently staged and surprisingly gory, though all the more believeable for that given the weapons they were using, is a huge let down. Of course not every gun fight can or indeed should be like the famous one in Heat as De Niro and his crew are confronted by Pacino and his as they leave the bank. That still ranks in my top ten action sequences for sheer tension, energy, spectacle and emotional investment. However while the mechanics, location and dramatic function of the action should differ, surely some tension, energy, spectacle and emotional investment are useful regardless of the circumstances?

I didn't think much of Collateral when I first saw it. A subsequent viewing on DVD did nothing to change my mind. But in the light of Miami Vice I feel compelled to revisit it. There is no denying Michael Mann's credentials. Throughout the 90s he made consistently great films, Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider which is one of my favourite films of all time. He also gave us Manhunter which, despite being painfully 80s, is still a great thriller and a great adaptation of Thomas Harris' source novel. Mann wrote Heat, co-wrote The Insider with Eric Roth, co-adapted Last of the Mohicans, co-adapted Manhunter so he has a proven track record as a writer. The first little blip for me was Ali. Though certainly good, it was somehow unsatisfying. The downward spiral continued with the ludicrous Collateral and now he finds himself thoroughly swimming through the quagmire with Miami Vice. There are flashes of interest. Crockett and Tubbs are not your standard buddy pairing. Indeed they communicate very little with each other, an idea which could have been very interesting but as it is onscreen, just feels flat. The story and script simply aren't there. As I mentioned above, the film looks fantastic, shot on Mann's beloved new HD by Director of Photography Dion Beebe. He has a way of framing a shot, of capturing a moment, that is simply unlike any other director. A Michael Mann film can be recognised after a few seconds by its look and that is one of the hallmarks of a great director in my opinion. Unfortunately another hallmark is to make great films and this is very, very far from a great film. That above everything else is what makes Miami Vice so disappointing. I write this review as a genuine fan of the director.

I really want to see Mann bounce back with something special. When his visual style, his way of telling a story and the themes that interest him collide with strong material, the results are fantastic. The only thing on display here that is in any way fantastic, is the phenomenol use of what grows so abundantly on Colin Farrell's head.