Tuesday, 19 July 2011

FILM: Horrible Bosses

When King of Kong director Seth Gordon discovered hot-sauce salesman/arcade cabinet megastar Billy Mitchell, he revealed to the world one of the greatest comedy villains of all time. Certainly, a bit of editing and squaring him against all-round super nice guy Steve Wiebe (who incidentally cameos here) embellished his Grinchiness, but in true 'stranger than fiction' fashion, you really couldn't invent a better antagonist. And Horrible Bosses proves it.

Our three leads are your typical average joes and best buds for life who meet in a bar every night to drink brewskis and shoot the shit about how work sucks and just y'know hang out and stuff. Jason Bateman plays 'the Jason Bateman role' i.e. boring everyman with a bit of a nasty streak, Jason Sudiekis plays the (only in the movies) 'ladies man', and Charlie Day plays the 'Zach Galifianakis was busy role'. It's perhaps just as well for Day, as he's the only one of the principals to leave much of an impact.

Each of them have problems with their superiors, be they mean, sex-obsessed, or incompetent, and so they decide, with disturbingly little encouragement, to bump them off. Yes, they're all arseholes to an extent, making the lives of their employees miserable in different ways, but it's hard to know who to root for when our three 'heroes' are themselves pretty horrible people. Kevin Spacey plays Buddy Ackerman from Swimming with Sharks (again), Jennifer Aniston plays the 'horny dentist/teacher/best friend's mom/etc role', and Colin Farrell plays, as the posters call him, a "total sleazy tool".

Thing is, Colin Farrell is peculiarly the most sympathetic of the six goodies/baddies. His actions can largely be attributed to his coke addiction, fuelled by his boss/father's disappointment in him, who has instead effectively adopted the Sudiekis character as his heir to be. So when his father dies (what is it with Donald Sutherland recent run of popping up at the start of films only to be killed off shortly after?) and he becomes the boss, he embarks on a self-destructive course of revenge and greed to run his father's company into the ground. It's a Shakespearean tragedy, albeit focused on someone with a penchant for gaudy Oriental paraphernalia. And at least he isn't trying to kill anyone. Strange too that he's branded the sleazy one when it's Sudiekis who spends the entire film acting like a creepy sex-pest, hitting on every skirt that comes his way and, unbelievably, scoring as much as James Bond manages in a typical 007 outing.

As with most modern American comedies, what follows eschews a tightly plotted narrative, witty zingy dialogue, or expertly played pratfalls in favour of CRAZY characters stumbling into CRAZY situations, followed by SHOUTING and SILLY VOICES. Plot holes and bizarre character motivations are par for the course (e.g. why all the recon missions and breaking into their bosses homes when they can get all their intel watching them at work?), so long as it gets you to an extended fit of everyone flapping their hands in panic, with much of it covered in the trailer anyway. In fact, the majority of the genuine laughs are courtesy of Jamie Foxx, with some perfect comic timing as their potential hitman for hire, and a few throwaway exchanges that hint at a smarter script lost amid the supposed big pay-offs and awkward race gags.

Beyond that, it's fine forgettable fluff, buoyed along by the supporting cast and guest appearances, but for a film about plotting murder against your superiors, it's strangely lightweight and inconsequential. For a darkly comic take on events spiralling out of control, there's always Very Bad Things. For a work sucks/evil boss masterclass, there's always Office Space. But if you are strangely desperate for a collection of disjointed mildly amusing set-pieces to pass the time, I guess there's Horrible Bosses.


Monday, 21 February 2011

FILM: Confessions

Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold. In which case, Confessions (告白) operates its vengeance at optimum temperature, as this is as chilly as revenge gets. The premise is certainly a juicy one: a high school teacher resigns when her young daughter is found dead - and two of her students are to blame. But this is not some whodunnit murder mystery. The opening scene, a lengthy and dense lecture from the teacher (played with calm and quiet intensity by Takako Matsu) to her class, sets up the story and identifies the culprits pretty early on. No, writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamizake Girls, Memories of Matsuko) is far more concerned with the repercussions and ramifications of the reveal.

And these ripples become ever bigger, spreading out in very unexpected directions. The film hops back and forth prior to, during, and after the incident in question as each of the principal characters 'confess' their side of the story, and explain the reasons for their dubious actions. Even so, the characters behave and situations manifest in completely unbelievable ways. What begins as a dark tale of difficult subject matter quickly chucks logic and realism out of the window and settles for the kind of suspension of disbelief you would normally expect from a Michael Bay film. In fairness though, it's based on a book, so I can only assume it's all there in the source material anyway. Or maybe I'm just naive in thinking humankind doesn't operate the way it does here.

In any case, I probably shouldn't be surprised, given the incredibly arresting visual style, that it has little grounding in reality. And by golly is this directed to within an inch of its life. The lighting, the cinematography, the editing - all remarkable. The frequent slow-motion reaches near Darkplace levels of over-reliance, but Nakashima's film is often beautiful to behold, existing in a hyper-reality which perhaps excuse the often preposterous motivations of its characters. And anyway, Park Chan-Wook has been getting away with revenge-happy flights of fancy with no less ludicrous machinations, so I don't know why I'm getting so hung up about it. But while it's tempting to label this 'Sympathy for Vengeance-Sensei', it has a mood and an outlook all of its own, bleak and unsettling, but not gritty or gorenographic. Likewise, there are hints of Battle Royale, Suicide Club, and All About Lily Chou-Chou in its less than sunny depiction of disaffected youth, but the adults in Confessions are hardly bastions of moral standing either (I mean, trying to outwit a couple of thirteen year olds is hardly the typical 'against all odds' challenge to seek retribution, is it?).

Yet for all my misgivings, there is just something about Confessions that hooks you in and refuses to let go. The unpredictable plot, the excellent performances, the big-screen visuals, the cracking soundtrack (featuring Boris, Radiohead, and The xx). It's a film that's hard to shake off, one that I can't get out of my head, and now that I have a sense of where the film's going, its tone and intention, perhaps only a second viewing will determine if I truly loved it. Right now though, it's a very strong 'like' but I'm looking forward to seeing it again, and make up my mind, as soon as possible.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

FILM: Black Swan

Subtlety is not Black Swan's strong suit. The themes, the metaphors, the characters - they all pretty much identify themselves in the film's first five minutes, like some abstract role-call. At first watch, it seems ludicrously clunky, but on reflection, it seems like a statement of intent - "Let's announce what the film's about now, get it over with, and just enjoy ourselves, okay?". It's like a stand-up firing off all the punch-lines at the start of their routine, with the rest of the show built purely on call-backs. But the key theme running through the tale, the lightness and darkness of one soul, duality and dichotomy, can be extrapolated as a commentary on the film itself. Much like the confused Nina (Natalie Portman) who's drive to change from 'White Swan' to 'Black Swan' leaves her a little worse for wear, so too does Black Swan come unstuck by being neither classy or trashy enough.

To marry a grainy, realistic aesthetic with the high melodrama and fantastical flourishes is certainly an interesting idea, but it is perhaps better in theory than it is in execution. The fault does not lie with the direction - Aronosky's knows how to fill a frame, with tight, claustrophobic shots following the back of the protagonist's head working to as great effect here as they did in The Wrestler. Nor does it necessarily lie with the thrills and spills, with tastes of wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror among the "did you just see that?" visual trickery.

But it's the incongruity of the two combined that just does not sit right. Had Black Swan been a more subdued character study of obsession and paranoia, it would have been a more satisfying experience. So too if it had gone the other extreme, and fully revelled in the giallo excesses it merely hints at. With all the tension and creepy imagery running through Black Swan, I had hoped that a truly bizarre gothic finale, or some Grand Guignol moment of bloody terror which may have excused the overwrought emotion, heavy-handed visual pointers (LOOK AT ALL THE MIRRORS! THE MONOCHROME! THE TATTOOS!) and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, but alas, one is not forthcoming. To reference Cronenberg again, The Fly struck the balance of emotional depth and pure grue perfectly (and it's high art credentials were enshrined with composer Howard Shore's opera adaptation).

Yet, there is still so much to like about Black Swan that one can forgive what it does or doesn't do, as clearly this is how it is meant to be. Much like last year's Shutter Island, it's ripe old hokum but enjoyable and exhilirating both because of and despite of this. It's a thrill-ride disguised as something deeper to appease the arthouse pallet. It's about ballet, you see, yet still probably has as many yuks and gags as Drag Me To Hell, with a dark, and oddly cheeky, sense of humour on occasion.

Yet at its core has a potentially Oscar-winning performance from Natalie Portman. And if she goes home with the gold, it would be throroughly deserved, as she completely gives it her all. Of course, the hours of training each day over a year's worth of preparation would have been for nought had she stumbled when it came to playing the transformation of Nina from naive sheltered waif to unhinged cauldron of anxiety. And although Nina is a hard character with whom to empaphise or fully understand, it is difficult to see how much more committed she could have been to the part, proving that the Star Wars prequels hadn't sucked the life out her. Kudos also to Barbara Hershey as her overbearing mother, Mila Kunis as her would-be rival, Winona Ryder's washed-up has-been, and Vincent Cassel's posturing sex-squid of a director - rather cookie-cutter characters all, barely sharing more than one dimension between them, but equally played at full tilt.

If you go with the flow, and don't expect anything deep and meaningful, you'll find a rollicking yarn, filled with frills and spills. It will leave you with some pretty vivid and memorable images, but where it should get under your skin or twist your brain, it simply skims the surface, albeit with grace and poise. In the end, exciting and entertaining though it is, Black Swan at the same time delivers too much and not enough, ending up neither black or white, just a little grey.


Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010: Music of the Year

I spent every one of the preceding three hundred and sixty five days, now lost to the annals of history and all things intangible, filling my earholes with someone else’s made-up words and noises, and now I present to you ten such collections over that course of time that particularly tweaked the part of my brain that responds favourably to music.

10. The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

Little Jack White has so many thumbs in musical pies at any one time, it seems like everyone forgets to bat an eyelid his way when he unleashes yet another rock glob on the populous even if it is still royally deserved. So, with a quick turnaround second album from the other band that isn’t The Raconteurs, it was like Consolers of the Lonely all over again. Which is a shame, as it is rollicking good fun from start to finish, with piss and vinegar seeping from its wet black jeans. Not a pretty image, but an image nonetheless.

> > > Hustle and Cuss

9. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

I’m pretty late to the LCD Soundsystem party (a great oversight on my part), but thankfully rectified with Mr James Murphy’s third (and final?) outing of liquid crystal disco. It sounds effortlessly cool, but there’s so much going on, it’s just plain fun to listen to, dance to and do just about anything to – be it the washing up, filling out an application form or being attacked by PANDUHS!

> > > Drunk Girls

8. Fukurouzu – Loop Suru

A pure punt of a purchase based on hours spent in HMV and Tower Records in Shinjuku and Shibuya at their countless listening posts sampling as much as was currently riding the Japan-o-charts, and it’s only really a mini-album, comprising seven tracks from this new indie group. But every track is superb, each different but just as good as the last. I look forward to whatever they do next.

> > > Dekinai

7. PVT – Church With No Magic

An interesting departure from 2008’s brilliant O Soundtrack My Heart (under their then-name of Pivot), with a darker moodier synth-led atmosphere and added lyrics, though ultimately the singing is just another layer of sound than making their output any more conventional. In fact, it’s probably a harder sell than their instrumental-only work. Still, despite the decidedly iffy title track, Church With No Magic (the album) is an overall success from a band that won’t let expectations get in the way of invention.

> > > Window

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM

Sure, she’s not the greatest singer, but, aware that her personality and heritage are integral to her success, she clearly knows who will best utilise these to create terrific tracks. 5:55 saw her collaborate with Air, Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker. But this time around it was Beck on songsmith duties (a role repeated as principal penner for Sex Bob-omb in the year’s third best movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World), and such a creative union brought about this rather fine selection of ditties.

> > > Heaven Can Wait

5. MGMT – Congratulations

With many a semi-psychedelic catchy-riff festival anthem under their belts (despite still being a disappointing live act) from Oracular Spectacular, follow-up Congratulations could have easily been more of the same. Instead, they went and did something even better, creating a spiralling dizzy mix of magic and wonder that harked back to decades gone by with both joy and sadness. A surprising and mature album that defies the flash-in-the-pan success I expected from them. Congratulations.

> > > Congratulations

4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Blah-blah-blah, not as good as Funeral. Blah-blah-blah, no-one liked Neon Bible anyway. Well, The Suburbs, on its own terms, is a plenty good album. Sure, it could probably lose a few tracks around the middle, but it manages to capture a different feel to their previous offerings, yet still remains distinctively Arcade Firey. There are obvious highlights (Ready to Start, Rococo, Empty Room, Sprawl II) from the get-go, but as a whole, it’s a definite grower and one I’m looking forward to returning to in the months and years to come.

> > > The Suburbs

3. World’s End Girlfriend – Seven Idiots

Is there no end to this man’s mind-boggling talent? A release on his new Virgin Babylon Records label and a late entry into my top ten, it’s also my favourite Japanese release I’ve heard this year. A throwback to the electro-scrambling of his earlier work but still retaining the classical beauty and dark atmosphere of Hurtbreak Wonderland, Seven Idiots is hard to pin down, but an irresistible treat for WEG acolytes, and probably as good as any place to begin for the freshman.

> > > Les Enfants du Paradis

2. Yeasayer – ODD BLOOD

If I still had albums on cassettes, Yesayer’s latest would be one worn-out tape this year, which would have required a lot of unspooling and respooling when not jammed into my chunky old walkman. Luckily, the digital age avoids such wear and tear, so I was free to enjoy every one of the wonderful songs in ODD BLOOD on heavy rotation. Refreshingly upbeat and positive, it’s stirring stargazing stuff.

> > > Ambling Alp

1. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

My new favourite lady of song and dance, and while I would usually do that terrible thing one does about things they love by secretly hoping it’s never popular so it can be your own special thing, I wish Ms Monae every success that comes her way. In this day and age of Lady Gaga left right and centre, here’s an artist with style AND substance. And some killer moves to boot.

The ArchAndroid represents Suites II and III of her Metropolis saga (begun with the equally wonderful The Chase EP), featuring a time-travelling plot of forbidden love, the suppression of robotkind, and t-t-tipping on a tightrope. But what really marks The ArchAndroid out from the pack is the diverse range of musical showmanship and craft throughout the album, hopping from genre to genre with every track, yet all tied together by the narrative through-line and Monae’s incredible range. Rock, jazz, classical, folk, funk, soul, electronica…all bases covered, all boxes ticked, all with relish and fun, but with surprising depth and meaning.

It’s wonderful to have an artist so resolute in breaking down boundaries, avoiding categorisation and celebrating differences rather than conforming to mainstream expectations or whatever is ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ in any given week. What the world needs now is a little bit of Janelle Monae.

> > > Tightrope

If the list and YouTube links were not enough to satisfy, I’ve also knocked up a playlist featuring tracks from some of the albums above, as well as a bunch of my other tip-top tracks of the year, in a handy one-size-fits-all Spotify playlist.

LISTEN NOW: 20x2010

Thursday, 30 December 2010

2010: Films of the Year

I must admit, the year of some lord two-thousand and ten was not a year of super-frequent cinema attendance as usual from yours truly, with a decent portion of my new release watches viewed at home, in-flight and, in the case of two Top 10 entries, last year at the London Film Festival. Nevertheless, here is a countdown of the ten films that really got me during the past twelve months – plus a rundown of some of the other titles that piqued my interest. Woweee!


Gaspar Noe’s follow-up to the incredible/incredibly upsetting Irreversible is a true cinematic experience. The packed opening night screening I went to at the Curzon Soho was the special extra-long version (160 mins) with Noe introducing, And yes there were a fair few walk-outs, which led me to wonder why anyone there paying to see it on opening night at a sold-out screening of an extended version with the director failed to understand what they were getting themselves in for. I couldn't tell if they were bored or disgusted. Probably both.

Much like Antichrist was a mix of the stunning and the silly, so to does Enter the Void create an atmosphere unlike anything else - it's languid, hypnotic, and dreamy, yet also uncomfortable, seedy, and garish.

If the story itself is peculiarly simplistic, albeit mixing the past, present, and afterlife, one could argue that it's a case of style over substance, but in many ways, the style is the narrative - without the camerawork and special effects creating the sense of the POV of afterlife, there'd really be no sense in telling the story.

It is an exhausting watch, following mostly unlikeable self-destructive characters for over 2 and a half hours of despair and pretentiousness, and no amount of visual trickery and incredible shots over neon cityscapes will make the content within anymore palatable. With all the swooping and soaring, there's a very real threat the camera's going to disappear up the director's arse at any time - and it certainly comes close (though there is a neat meta gag too). Therefore, not everyone's cup of tea. But in summation...

Profound? Hardly. Ludicrous? Absolutely. But one hell of a trip? Definitely.


This year’s Children of Men in that it’s been all but forgotten, ignored by all the awards and industry back-slappers, which is a shame, as it’s a very well-made adaptation. Perhaps it lacks tension and surprise if you are familiar with the source material, but its curious blend of bleakness and hope translates perfectly to the screen thanks to a fine cast and crew. Full review nyah.


While mainstream Hollywood sags and flags in its poorly-received attempts at the comedy spoof, it was superior sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio and this sterling independent effort from Scott Sanders and lead Michael Jai White that proved the subgenre can still produce the goods when treated with care and attention. Wonderful music, cracking dialogue and lots of smack getting laid down. There are lulls in the jokes, when it just lets the flavour its trying to recreate speak for itself but when Black Dynamite hits, I laughed louder and harder than in any recent film. Destined to become a cult classic.


David Fincher regains his mojo after the over-egged, over-long, over-sentimental, over-everything Benjamin Button with an engaging, sparky snapshot of modern history in the making. A movie about Facebook starring Justin Timberlake sounded like an awful prospect, but by letting the story (or at least the differing accounts of the same story) speak for itself, it becomes a gripping account of how events not only changed the lives of the protagonists but, by extension, my life and the lives of the majority of those who went to see The Social Network. Maybe the Battleship film with Rihanna won’t be bad after all, right? Right?

In any case, it’s probably the one of the big award front-runners and if it snatches top prize, it deserves it – excessive CG ice-breath and misjudged trip to merry old England notwithstanding.


Chris Morris is a genius. That has been established before. But Four Lions is still a great achievement even based on his past pedigree. Both achingly funny and achingly sad, it rises above any controversies that could have easily been levelled against it with its well-judged tone and three-dimensional characters.


Not actually released yet in the UK (and a 2009 release to boot, so I don’t even know what rules I’m following any more), but what sounds like the set-up for a goofy Hollywood sex comedy (inflatable doll comes to life) is in fact in the hands of director Hirokazu Koreeda (director of Nobody Knows and Still Walking) one of the most moving and strangely beautiful films I have seen in a long time, and certainly one of the best to come out of Japan in a while. "Sex Toy Story" may be a glib throwaway summation at first, but it certainly mirrors some of that franchise's melancholy, and themes of abandonment and neglect, with elements of Pinocchio and Amelie as well. At times funny, at times unsettling, at times poignant, Air Doll is buoyed by an exquisite central performance from Korean actress Bae Doona (The Host, Linda Linda Linda, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), with wonderful music from one of my favourite Japanese musicians, World's End Girlfriend. Ultimately, it's a 21st century fairytale about the loneliness of modern society, the objectification of women, and the nature of humanity.


While some film-makers are happy to play around with heroes and villains, goodies and baddies, black and white, Bong Joon-ho once again proves that you can still create a satisfying piece of work where nothing is clear-cut or necessarily what it seems. And the director of Memories of Murder and The Host delivers his best work to date with a constantly surprising tale of a mother (the wonderful Kim Hye-ja) seeking justice when her son is arrested. From its arrestingly odd opening onwards, it’s a low-key but stunning film that is hard to shake, months and months after my first viewing.


2010 was the year of Scott Pilgrim. Well, the box office would clearly think differently, but for geeks, it was a chance to see the film, play the game, buy the soundtrack and, most importantly, read that flaming final chapter in the comic book saga. And of course, the only reason I picked up the comics in the first place is because it was announced Edgar Wright was to direct it - without the film, I wouldn't have read the books, as I'm not a big comics reader. Same with Watchmen. So ultimately in my eyes, the film is just a happy bonus at the end of what was a very good (but by no means perfect) series of graphic novels. Still, as a fan of the comics, my final thoughts?

In adapting the film, it's clear a decision was made that in the running time you wouldn't be able to have all the character development, emotional weight and narrative arcs of the books, as well as all the fights, video-game references, and music, so they sidelined a fair amount of former in favour of the latter, which was the better decision, as it's the more visceral exciting stuff which is more cinematic and is more of 'the hook' of the comic.

There is perhaps too much sidelining of character (largely with the other members of Sex Bob-omb at the expense of the less interesting Stacey - though strangely, Young Neil emerges as one of the most rounded of the additional cast), and it would've been nicer for a few more scenes to allow the story to breathe a little. But really, if I was going to the cinema to see a Scott Pilgrim movie, I'd want to see fights and video-game references and music, and if it also managed to capture just some of the emotional noodling, episodes of self-doubt, and getting it together of the original material (which I think it did), then all the better for it.

I was concerned about Cera, but while I don't think his portrayal is exactly comic-book Scott, I think he is a fine actor, and didn't rely so much on his weedy insecure persona (except when the jokes demanded it). It probably means in the long run, I can re-read the comics and not think of Cera, and ultimately, appreciate both as separate entities, even if the development of both mediums were concurrent and shared material with one another.

In fact, I was more originally concerned about Edgar's direction, after the rather shoddy and poorly edited action sequences in (the admittedly lower budgeted) Hot Fuzz, but I think he really came on leaps and bounds as a director of both action and comedy, and I loved all the little visual clues (the repeated numbers, love-hearts and X's) that always mark his work as distinctive from the rest of today's workmanlike comedy directors.

Ultimately, it's a rich, vibrant approximation of the world of Scott Pilgrim - because of the material, you'd only be able to make a very good film, rather than a truly great one, and I feel that's what has been achieved. Hence, it’s the Todd Ingram of my Top 10.


Like five great films wrapped into one awesome one, there’s not a great lot else to say about Inception that hasn’t already been said elsewhere at great length by everyone. What I will say though to all the haters and backlashers…fuck you. Yes, you. Fuck you very much. Quit your whining, your complaining, your bitching. No-one deserves a film quite this good. Not you, not I, not anyone. Christopher Nolan adapted The Prestige, rebooted Batman and remade Insomnia – feel free to bring those to task for not living up to their original material if you so wish. But Inception is an original piece of work and your hang-ups are not justified. Stop moaning about how it’s not like what dreams are like, or it’s not weird enough, or the ending undermines the rest of the film, or the characters aren’t interesting or whatever little thought occurs to you today. Rest assured, the film is EXACTLY how it is meant to be, a work of a director with a singular and uncompromised vision. If you didn’t like it, just say you didn’t like it. But don’t take all the enjoyment out of those who did like it by waffling on about how it’s not as big and clever as it thinks it is. Go watch fucking Transformers 2 and Sex and the City 2 instead then, you pissing cockpockets.


Full review nyah, but suffice to say, Nicolas Cage is astonishing, wild and unhinged, a moral black hole, snorting and smoking his way through a murder investigation without a care in the world. It's surprisingly light and breezy, with little sermonising or counterpoint to his wicked ways, just copious amounts of substance abuse and filthy language. Hysterically funny, it's like Bad Santa with a badge and a gun.


That’s the pick of the bunch, but honourable mentions must also go to a triple Adrian Brody fix of the long overdue The Brothers Bloom, worthy follow-up Predators and the commendably weird Splice. Plus, there was the fun Whip It, the ripe and juicy Shutter Island, the spiky yet sweet I Love You Phillip Morris, the nice and neat Cemetary Junction, the atmospheric Winter's Bone, the surprising Exit Through the Gift Shop, the dark and disturbing Dogtooth, the darker and disturbinger The Killer Inside Me, and the exhilirating Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. And let's not forget scary sequel [REC] 2, silly sequel and reason why 3D can be good #1 Jackass 3D, and sorta sequel and reason why 3D can be good #2 Piranha 3D. And the reconstructed and remastered Metropolis was a highlight.

Mild disappointments included Monsters, Toy Story 3, Up in the Air and Kick-Ass, which were not really as super-awesome as the press enjoyed saying they were. More disappointing but somewhat expected I guess were video-game vapidnesses Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D ( a step-up from the other sequels maybe, but, honestly...) and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which given the budget, cast and crew should have been at least fun, but was just plain boring.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

FILM: I Saw The Devil

Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival, with an introduction and Q+A with director Kim Jee-Woon, I Saw The Devil sees one of the key crop of Korean film-makers (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good The Bad The Weird) put his A Bittersweet Life lead Lee Byung-Hun up against Oldboy's Choi Min-Sik, in his first film for four years, in a bloody and violent revenge tale that pushed the boundaries for even the Korean censors. With all these elements in place, a surefire success then? Well, almost.

The set-up is pretty standard fare: a special agent's fiance is brutally murdered by a serial killer, and he takes it upon himself to find the culprit. It's not long before he's identified and caught up with his target, and after a savage brawl, he leaves him for dead. Or so it appears. And it is here where I Saw The Devil takes a different approach to the serial killer thriller, as our 'hero' starts to play a dangerous game of oneupmanship with the killer, in an effort to draw out his suffering for as long as possible, and our 'villain' becomes the victim. This flipping of convention is most interestingly utilised in the familiar stalk-and-slash scenes, but in this instance, it's the serial killer who is under attack, tip-toeing in the shadows to find out what 'that noise' was. One running gag has them continually refer to each other as 'crazy bastard'.

Still, for all it's role-reversal, its central themes are hardly original, focusing on becoming a monster to fight a monster, and how the further down the path of revenge one travels, the more hollow one becomes and how it affects the people around them. Therefore, don't expect a particularly contemplative study on the nature of vengeance (particularly when Park Chan-Wook cornered that market years ago). And no surprises it's not going to end in sunshine and rainbows, then.

What it does have going for it though is in all the trimmings (and I'm not talking about the cuts in its home country). It's as stylish and assured a piece of work as you'd expect from Kim, with some exceptionally well-shot sequences (including the best vehicle interior tussle you're ever likely to see), packed with energy and enhanced with a rich pallete of colour (and yes, a lot of red). Choi Min-Sik typically gives it his all as the killer - no motive, no reason, no cute affectation or signature, just an utterly abhorrent individual with an unquenchable desire to cause young women as much distress and pain as possible. And the film is certainly unflinching in its detail; as the game between the two antagonists escalates, so to does the torture inflicted, resulting in some real 'look-away-now' moments.

But in its escalation, the situations become ever more absurd, and I Saw The Devil reveals a darkly comic vein. Of course, the balance of horror and comedy is a fine one, and amongst the yelps and screams from the audience were hearty guffaws as well as nervous titters. It is a handy trick to alleviate the tension from becoming too unbearable and Kim employs it throughout. However, sometimes the humour is incongruous with the genuinely upsetting scenes of abuse and abductions carried out by the killer, much as its venture into out-and-out horror territory towards the end feels at odds with the more grounded earlier scenes.

So, I Saw The Devil is a peculiar beast, a Jekyll and Hyde piece of work - grim but funny, predictable but unexpected, unoriginal but unconventional. Its not as deep as it thinks it is, but its still rich, thrilling, vivid and entertaining. At close to two-and-a-half hours, it may be more than the less hardy cinemagoer can take in one sitting, but if you have the nerve and can switch off the brain, it's a gripping ride.


Wednesday, 28 July 2010

FILM: Gainsbourg

As far as musical biopic subjects go, Serge Gainsbourg seemingly had it all, but considering director Joann Sfar (adapted from his own graphic novel) has stated that the film is based solely on what Gainsbourg himself had discussed in interviews, this being the 'untold story of a musical icon' as the UK posters proudly suggest is not strictly true. Yet, Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) is no traditional warts-and-all rise-and-fall story, nor is it a misty-eyed suck-up love-in. Instead, it's a rather scattershot and surreal look at the life and loves of one of the most influential and brilliant musicians and poets in modern times, from his days as a tiddly kiddly in Nazi-occupied Paris, to his bedraggled twilight years.

Rather than offering anything particularly revelatory or meaningful, it settles on offering us a series of snapshots and tales from the whole span of his life, leaving more of a greatest hits package than a typical narrative thread. There's the bit when he writes this famous song, and here's the bit he walks headfirst into this scandal, and then there's when he performed this classic number. It pretty much lets the man himself do the talking, through his words, his music and his actions, rather than viewing his life with any objectivity or context.

If it all sounds rather oversimplistic, it isn't strictly so, because of the various fantastical elements and flights of fancy peppered throughout. Most notably, Gainsbarre, an imaginary caricature that haunts Gainsbourg, is a latex 'inner demon' of sorts that's perhaps more prominent than it ought to have been, played by the go-to guy for becostumed prancers Doug Jones. Visualising doubts and feelings in biopics is nothing new, and while there are some nice moments where it all comes together quite beautifully, for the most part, it all feels like unnecessary.

But despite all efforts to distract, it's still a colourful and enjoyable couple of hours, even if it's a surprisingly lightweight and unsubstantial film, and a little too often preoccupied with ideas that don't quite work. Hard to know who'd be ultimately satisfied - newcomers will get a flavour of the man and his music but not much substance, while fans will appreciate the nods and references but twiddle their thumbs plodding through the well-documented episodes in his career and life. Still, it's worth a watch if only for what is a superb central performance from the uncanny Eric Elmosino. And the soundtrack, of course.