Sunday, 28 March 2010


Dave Lizewski is a typical high-school geek character. He wears glasses, reads comics and spends his time at school doodling and staring, glassy-eyed, down his breasty teacher's top. Frustrated with being repeatedly mugged, he buys a green one-piece suit and sets out to protect the innocent and find missing pets. He's almost immediately smashed up but, after recuperating, find his damaged nerves allow him to take an ass-kicking with little pain, so sets off to do it all over again - quickly becoming an internet sensation despite being beaten to a pulp again. After biting off more than he can chew while attempting to impress a pretty classmate, he meets Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed and ultraviolent but lovable 11-year-old, and her father, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). These two have a long-standing vendetta against a local mobster, whose attention they soon catch when they destroy his lair. Then the trio's evil counterpart - a GTR-driving, cape-wearing, iPhone-toting kid - lures them into the mobster's trap. Much violence ensues.

Kick-Ass has been hailed as an instant classic, and it's not difficult to agree. It has the potential to join the likes of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Back to the Future as a film to stick on once or twice a year on a lazy weekend afternoon. It's funny, shocking (in a gasp-inducing, not disturbing way), and consistently entertaining. It's visually stunning, particularly when providing the backstory in still cartoons, the point-of-view sweeping around beautifully inside some of the frames. The soundtrack, too, is punchy, upbeat, and at times joyous: a scene in which Sparks' 'This town ain't big enough for the both of us' plays out stands out in particular. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could dislike Kick-Ass.

And yet this proves only my lack of imagination.
Josh Tyler on Cinemablend, for example, is disturbed by the violence both wreaked and received by Hit Girl - particularly the latter - saying that Kick-Ass:
presents it as light entertainment and then seems to sneer at anyone who might think otherwise. Kick-Ass revels in it. Kick-Ass fucking enjoys it. Kick-Ass seems to want you to enjoy it and call me old fashioned, but I find that kind of depraved and sick. 
I can see his point, but I don't agree. For one thing, we identify with Hit Girl, not the character carrying out the beating. The effect of that scene is to remove any sympathy the audience might have had for the mobster, not to glamourise child abuse. Indeed, this is the point the BBFC make in their explanation for granting Kick-Ass a 15 certificate:
...those doing the beatings have been clearly established as evil characters and the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy for the victims rather than revel in the violence being inflicted. At the same time, the audience knows that the highly skilled good guys are likely to regain the upper hand very swiftly.
Kick-Ass features both more-or-less realistic violence - the sort that is quick, brutal and instantly renders the victim incapable of anything more than collapsing or dying - and comic-book sequences in which our heroes run up walls, take out numerous individuals at once whilst dodging a hail of bullets, and utilise frankly unlikely technology. Some might see that as an incongruous mix, but I thought it worked perfectly in the film. It's not as though the audience is unable to suspend disbelief just because it has an initially realist tone. Likewise, the critics who frown upon the film for being lightweight are missing the point. Kick-Ass is a lightweight and exhilarating comic extravaganza.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Shutter Island

It's difficult to describe Shutter Island's story without giving too much away, and the less one knows about it before watching the better. The movie begins with Teddy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his sidekick Chuck meeting for the first time on a boat en route to the eponymous island some time in the 1950s. They're U.S. marshals, a fact which every review I've read states as though everyone knows what that means. Even after watching Shutter Island, I wasn't entirely clear, so I looked it up. They carry out enforcement on behalf of the courts, apparently, although that doesn't make it much clearer. Anyway, these marshals are visiting the island to investigate the disappearance on one of its inhabitants, a woman who drowned her children and has thus been locked up in the island's asylum, which houses dangerous criminals with refractory mental illness. The woman appears to have evaporated through the walls, as the psychiatrist (and head of the asylum) played by Ben Kingsley puts it. Teddy and Chuck soon find themselves trapped on the island as a wild storm develops, their investigation frustrated at every turn by the island's reticent inhabitants. They uncover inconsistent morsels of information, and it's clear that something strange is happening. The truth, it transpires, is not what Teddy was expecting...

The spooky noir setting and various vivid Lynchian dream/hallucinatory sequences, along with solid acting and faultless direction by Scorcese, add up to a superb-looking and feeling film. But Shutter Island is much more than the sum of its superficial parts. It has an exciting and engaging story, but the really thrilling aspect is its exploration of profound themes -  madness, violence, guilt, grief, reality, memory - which comes to a head in a three or four stunning dialogue-driven sequences between Teddy and various other characters. For Teddy is investigating what it means to be human as much as he's investigating the disappearance of the madwoman - and what he finds is fascinating.

Shutter Island is the best film I've seen this year, and certainly the only one I'd be tempted to go and see a second time. I think it's been underrated by many reviewers, and I don't quite understand why. I thought it was a masterpiece. 

Saturday, 20 March 2010


It's 24 December. 14 year old Jodie normally lives with her Dad (Ray from Life on Mars) but is being dropped off at her mum's house on a middle-class Wirral estate, against her will, for Christmas. Her mum, Beth, is a lawyer who sacrificed her relationship with Jodie for her career - a relationship which doesn't improve when Jodie immediately catches her in flagrante with Keiron, a stranger (well, a bloke from various British soap operas). Jodie storms off to her friend's house across the road. Almost immediately, a bunch of soldiers descend on the cul-de-sac, forcing everyone into their homes and shooting a local Asian doctor (prompting Kieron's tabloid-knee-jerk assumption that Al-Qaida have descended on suburban Merseyside). The bloody deaths keep coming at some pace, and it turns out the trigger-happy army isn't the only deadly force Beth will have to overcome to find and protect Jodie.

For the look and feel of the film, think Brookside with blood, filmed in natural - that is, not very much - light using a presumably fairly cheap digital set-up. (You can see the pixellation on the cinema screen.) Terror and quasi-zombie elements aside, the relationships between the major characters - not to mention whole sections of the script - could have been lifted straight from the erstwhile C4 soap.* That's no bad thing, as it helps establish the everyday normalcy of the setting, enhancing the identification and fear factors when the cadavers start piling up and chaos reigns. And it won't disappoint those who like their horror violent and blood-soaked, receiving an 18 certificate from the BBFC for that reason. As their classification decision accurately puts it:
The strong bloody violence and gore occurs throughout the film and includes two throat slitting scenes where blood pumps from victims’ necks, several bloody shootings and some close up detail of gory injuries, including spurting blood pooling in open wounds and pumping from arteries. There is further gory imagery, including blood spatters all over domestic environments, sight of very bloody dead bodies and characters covered in blood.
Salvage opened in cinemas yesterday and is released on DVD on Monday (though it's already available to rent and buy on iTunes) - more information, and trailer, on the official site. In London, it's only showing at Empire Leicester Square and Mile End's Genesis - and the latter only once, a screening that attracted a grand total of five cinemagoers. Including me. All men, all on our own - of course. But at least I had a row of seats to myself and no-one was eating popcorn or giggling.

It's a shame, however, because Salvage does deserve a wider audience than that. The occasionally limping build-up gives way to a fast-paced gorefest of an ending, and clocking in at only 80 minutes long viewing it hardly takes a huge chunk out of the day. The lack of lighting was my main problem with it, though I may be out on a limb here given that I thought that Alien and The Descent both suffered from the same problem. So, while it may be too late to catch it on the big screen, it's worth bunkering down with the DVD - lights off and volume high!

* Having written that, I found one reason for the eerie similarity: it was filmed on Brookside's set, according to iMDB!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Green Zone

In this military thriller Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a Chief Warrant Officer with the US Army tasked with raiding Baghdad bases intelligence sources have named as WMD sites. Disillusioned after several false leads, Miller begins to investigate the source of this intelligence. He makes an important discovery and finds himself involved in an internecine battle between Pentagon and CIA officials with different ideas about how best to deal with the aftermath of the fall of Saddam. Eventually he manages to catch up with the supposed source of the WMD intelligence and all hell breaks loose.

Comparisons with The Hurt Locker are inevitable, and Green Zone comes out of that with honours but without victory. Although the handheld, frantic action-chasing-fighting sequences are engaging it never reaches the white-knuckle level that The Hurt Locker manages throughout. And in some ways the fact that Green Zone does have a point to make detracts from its worth as a movie in its own right. The Hurt Locker had an easier job, its narrative free from any obligation to engage with the worth or otherwise of the war itself and therefore able to keep the tension constantly ratcheted up. It's hard to imagine a better way of making the political points that Green Zone manages in under two hours of film - and the story ticks along, never becoming too clunky or trite. Given the subject matter, that's quite an achievement. Just don't expect to be blown away.

Alice in Wonderland

I went to see Alice last Saturday at the IMAX in 3D. The 3D was good for the chasing sections - although it made this viewer feel a bit queasy, given the overwhelming and inescapable size of the screen - but seemed rather pointless for most of it (unlike in Avatar, which really did suit the 3D throughout). I suspect that - again, unlike Avatar - it would be just as good, and possibly better, in the standard two dimensions.

Technology aside, the plot is far too much standard Hollywood goodie/baddie fare and the general tone not nearly whimsical enough. I may not be familiar enough with Through the Looking-Glass to pick up all the references to the original - the film is based on aspects of both books - but the Wonderland sections were disappointingly straight, failing to convey the lovely absurdity of the books.

Some of the various star turns were better than others. Alan Rickman's caterpillar worked well, although Matt Lucas' delivery of the Tweedles' lines was a bit poor. However, Mia Wasikowska was charming as Alice. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter were exactly what you'd expect from a Tim Burton film. I admit I'm not much of a Burton fan at the best of times, and those who are may have more positive views on Alice.

My verdict: it's OK at best, and just about worth seeing if you've already seen everything interesting that's currently showing.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Single Man

The only Christopher Isherwood work I've ever read was Down There on a Visit. And I can remember only a couple of things about that book, the standout being men copulating with chickens. 

Sadly, there is no such interspecies mating in A Single Man, Tom Ford's adaptation of Isherwood's novel of the same name. However, it does feature a superb performance from Colin Firth as the bachelor in question. The film is set over a single day in his character George's life, a few months after the death of his longtime male lover in a car accident but including flashbacks to key moments in their relationship. The scene in which George hears of his loss stands out as a superb portrayal of a man overcome by shock, grief and the knowledge that nothing will ever be the same again, yet forced to converse politely and pragmatically with the tragic news' messenger.

However, to pick out specific scenes from the film is, in a way, to do it an injustice. It is a brilliantly tight, coherently structured film that yet allows for an unhurried and revealing look at the character and state of mind of its hero. Within minutes of the film starting, I was confident that everything to follow would be worthwhile. The experience is like reading some of the later David Lodge novels: it inspires complete trust in the storyteller. This is an incredible accomplishment for a directorial debut.

With this in mind, I recommend going to see A Single Man knowing as little as possible about it (beyond the premise outlined above, which you learn in the first few minutes anyway), sitting back, and appreciating the ride through the day, the character and the story.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones is a grating and unlikeable film. One reason for this is illustrated by a sequence near its start when, as it attempts to establish the context of the tale, we are shown an episode in which Susie borrows the red family convertible to rush her choking brother, in stunt-driver speed and style, toward hospital. The point of this is to emphasise the dull normality of her suburban life. In movie-world, of course, this sort of happening is par for the course. But if this really were normal life and this really happened to a normal teenager, it would be the most exciting thing that had ever happened to them or anyone they knew. Susie would still be reliving it as she walked through the cornfield months later where is met by the man who entices her into a den before murdering her a short way into the movie.

In other words, the choking episode fails completely to achieve its supposed purpose. And the rest of the film equally fails to convince. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie’s parents – the former bent on uncovering his daughter’s killer, the latter on the run from her grief – perform well. The generally high standard of acting and superb production values, as well as one particularly tense scene in which Susie’s sister breaks into the killer’s home, give us a glimpse into what could be a decent thriller - were it not for the awful nonsense that constantly invades the drama on earth in the form of Susie’s semi-departed spirit.

For Susie spends the few years over which the action takes place flitting between exploring an afterlife elsewhere – consisting largely of a computer-generated cornfield and a bandstand – and watching the aftermath of her death unfold back on earth. We are given very little insight into the structure of this afterlife or its relationship to the real world, and so it seems flimsy and unsatisfying – an impression strengthened by the lurid cartoony visuals of Susie’s heaven. The afterlife sequences are therefore an unwelcome intrusion into the rest of the action rather than, as is presumably intended, the basis from which we identify with Susie, helping us view events back on earth through her eyes.

The story, for what it’s worth, follows Susie’s discoveries about her afterlife and its other inhabitants in parallel with her family members’ various efforts to identify her killer, cope with their grief, and grow up around Susie’s absence: these paths forming the figurative ‘lovely bones’ which grow around the hole Susie's death left behind. That metaphor is a good guide to the movie itself: it seems to aim at something profound and meaningful but misses, coming over as clumsy and confused.

To be fair to Peter Jackson, the source material is no better. Many critics have noted that the novel is almost unfilmable, but few if any seem to share my opinion: that the project was doomed not just because the novel had elements difficult to translate between literature and the screen, but because the novel itself is irritating, unconvincing, and would have been better left alone.

Official site, Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert review, Andrew Collins review (scroll down).