Friday, 24 September 2010

The Other Guys

In The Other Guys two cops, played by Will Ferrel and Mark Wahlberg, make a bid for justice and glory when they stumble upon a huge financial conspiracy while investigating a permit breach. The British conspirator, played by Steve Coogan, owes money to various foreign gangsters and plots to steal billions of dollars from hard working public servants to pay them back. Gamble (Ferrel) and Hoitz (Wahlberg), the eponymous other guys, try to stop them despite their bosses' lack of interest.

The film uses this story to make some hard-hitting political points about the state of the financial industry and its impact on the man on the street. At least, it does over the end credits - as everyone switches their mobiles back on, gathers their belongings and leaves the cinema. In the meantime, The Other Guys uses its story to deliver a sequence of scenes often either mildly amusing or jarring and confusing. There are, however, one or two scenes of genuine comedy - particularly those involving the cops played by Samuel Jackson and 'The Rock' whose place as Manhattan superstars the other guys aim to take when the prior top guns are rendered unfit for action. This goal is pursued enthusiastically by Hoitz, reluctantly by Gamble, and much of the dramatic tension and comedy is based on this disparity.

Although it's not a particularly memorable film, I've spent a lot of time thinking about The Other Guys over the few days since I saw it, trying to work out what I thought of it. And I'm still not sure. Though completely aware that I was watching a film throughout the screening, never losing myself in the drama - often a bad sign - I wasn't bored, and in fact found almost every scene more or less entertaining. I can't say it's a good film, because the story is too jagged and the character development so back-and-forth that it lacks much coherence. But watching The Other Guys is a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Last Exorcism

I am usually careful not to spoil films when I review them, but in this review I am going to spoil The Last Exorcism (and, to some extent, Rec and The Prestige) in order to explain what spoiled The Last Exorcism for me.

It's a film I've been looking forward to for months, largely because of its association with Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies I love (and am planning to explain why in a forthcoming post on here). Discovering that Roth only produced The Last Exorcism rather than directing it dampened my enthusiasm slightly, but he's been promoting it relentlessly on twitter and elsewhere, and the trailers and reviews I'd come across looked very promising.

One of the things I really like about all of Eli Roth's films so far (that is, Cabin Fever and the two parts of Hostel) is the lack of any supernatural element to the horror. I don't mind good supernatural horror - I quite enjoyed Paranormal Activity, for instance - but it doesn't give me the delicious squirmy fear that a good naturalist or realist horror does. So obviously, with The Last Exorcism, I was anxious that it treat its subject matter with the appropriate skepticism and that the horror derive from the very real insanity, fear and violence of pseudo-possession and exorcisms.

And, for the vast majority of the film, that's exactly what it does. It's shot in the handheld mock-doc style of Rec and The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Of those films it's closest conceptually to Rec, an excellent Spanish horror based around 'found footage' from the cameras of a TV documentary crew following firefighters who get inadvertantly quarantined in an old building with a secret. In The Last Exorcism, a two-person camera crew is following Cotton Marcus out to his last exorcism. Marcus is a charismatic evangelical preacher who retains a fondness for his flock despite having gradually lost his faith. He has performed many 'exorcisms' in the past, ridding people of their demons with the help of gadgets and legerdemain. Now he's going to demonstrate how this trickery is achieved by taking on one last case: Nell, a teenage girl from a strict religious background whose family are all dealing with various issues following the loss of their matriarch two years earlier.

As is necessary in order for the movie to work, the characters are all well-played and believable. More could have been made of Nell's brother - it's unclear why he is initially very resistant to the exorcism but mollified when he discovers it's all a fake, and exploring this further would have been interesting. But that observation demonstrates the depth of the characters in this film, especially when compared to a horror film as laughably characterless as The Collector. For the majority of its running time, The Last Exorcism's only weak point is that it regularly betrays its mock-doc premise by adding non-diegetic scare music and offering shots of some scenes from more than one angle. But, though noticeable, these errors of judgement do not spoil the film.

What spoils the film is the ending. It really is a shame because the action is well-paced, the scares are properly creepy and the story is engaging. Marcus investigates the family's extranuclear relationships and discovers there are mysteries other than those of the girl's "possession". And by 80 or so minutes into the film, the mystery appears to have been solved, the girl "exorcised" and the documentary finished.

And then, on their way out of town, a new clue which overturns Marcus' previous explanations surfaces and the crew turns back. And they find that in fact she really was possessed and the locals are forcing her to undergo a medieval ritual involving fire, flesh and chanting. And it's rubbish, and it turns what could have been a really good horror movie into a flop. I hated the ending for the same reason I hated the ending of The Prestige: both films lead you to believe that these characters inhabit the real world, and then suddenly pull the rug from under you and yell Ah! It was magic, after all! Well, that's  not an explanation. And these are terrible ways to end otherwise fine films. The Last Exorcism ought to have taken a leaf from the book of Rec: supernatural scares can work if introduced late into a film. But they need to be sufficiently ambiguous to be consistent with what came before. Otherwise you just end up wishing, as I did after watching The Last Exorcism, that they'd deleted the the last 10 minutes or so. Had it finished as the crew left town the first time, the film would have been whole, consistent, tight, and much much better than it actually was.

It's this lost potential that makes The Last Exorcism such a waste of a strong story and some great footage. But I know many reviewers have lamented the ending despite otherwise enjoying it, and hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this and go on to create something that fulfils the potential that The Last Exorcism had.

Monday, 13 September 2010


"Who is Salt?" the adverts ask. Is she a KGB operative who has infiltrated the CIA? Or a loyal special agent double crossing the Russians? Either way it's not very 2010, but this 80s throwback action movie is far better than the creaking yawnfest that was The Expendables. Between jumping from one truck to another to escape her former intelligence buddies, trying to save her innocent scientist husband and assassinating key political figures, Angelina Jolie spends most her time simply kicking the crap out of people. The tech stuff is a bit naff in this film, as so often: an fMRI scanner that appears  to be invisible, work from a distance of several metres and instantly tell whether a new subject is lying is the most egregious example. (Also worth a mention, the fingerprint scanner that insists on tracking across the subject's fingers slowly like a knackered Canon photocopier.) But on the whole, while never entirely engaging, this film does what's asked of it. In that respect it's better than the aforementioned Sly Stallone offering by a country mile. But Salt is only really worth watching if you've already seen Inception - perhaps twice - and have an urgent need to see some goreless, harmless ass-kicking.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Expendables

Tattoos! Knives! Guns! Beards! Just four of the things you'll catch regular glimpses of as The Expendables meanders lumpenly across your field of vision. They're all attached to erstwhile action movie stars including Sly, Dolph, and Arnie - apart from those adorning the odd current star (Jet Li, Jason Statham). Make no mistake, these are men. They don't cry, they don't get scared and they don't have any desire that can't be satisfied in a vehicle workshop.

In her seminal 1985 book Between MenEve Kosofsky-Sedgwick described homosociality, the desire for platonic friendship with the same sex. Although these relationships are - like that between a politician and his special adviser - non-sexual, Sedgwick describes how, for example:

What goes on at football games [and] in fraternities.... can look, with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly “homosexual”... For a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, already-always-crossed line from being “interested” in men.
You can tell this book is from the 80s because of its trendy deconstructive langauge. Similarly, you can tell The Expendables is from the 80s, culturally if not literally, because of its stars, its south American dictator baddie, and its action-man dialogue. The dialogue in particular is so terrible, and so poorly delivered, that if this film had any hint of a sense of humour you might mistake it for an 80s action movie pastiche.

Anyway, the reason I mention Between Men is because the characters in The Expendables are profoundly homosocial. Their views of women are obtained solely from fairy tales. They're incapable of conversing on any level other than grunts and punches. Visibly more relaxed in the company of their bicep-flexing colleagues, they bemoan their bad luck with the ladies between knives thrown at a dartboard, deep down relieved that they don't have to make forced conversation with members of the fairer sex. When Bruce Willis makes a jibe to Arnie and Sly about their sucking each others' dicks, I almost expected them to get down and do just that. Not even a slight shift in optic required here. (What a scene that would have been!)

With all the narrative complexity, subtle thematics and polished segueways of  a Dan Brown novel clunking from one hackneyed scene to the next, the film fails to be saved even by the fight and chase scenes (which are of course the whole point of the movie). The Green Zone style shaky handheld camera means you never get the opportunity to admire the grand scale of these set pieces. So I'm afraid there really is nothing to recommend this film. Do yourself a favour and watch Commando instead - or, better, 
dig out Total Recall and enjoy an 80s action movie with a story, some three-dimensional characters and a sense of humour. 

Friday, 3 September 2010


Madeo (Mother) tells the story of an amiable but misguided simpleton, Do-joon, who finds himself arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl after being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time early one morning. The police, having found circumstantial evidence of his involvement, close the investigation. Do-joon's quiet but determined mother sets about investigating the background of the murder victim in order to identify the real culprit. She teams up with Do-joon's best (and only) friend and together they beg, connive and torture information out of the girl's associates and other witnesses, along the way discovering the truth about her lifestyle, her death, and the reason for Do-joon's identification as the killer.

Mother takes you on a journey, but not an exhilarating one. To call it an emotional rollercoaster would imply a greater range of peaks and troughs, and a faster pace, than it has. The experience is closer to driving the length of an emotional A13: sweeping gently up and down, occasionally passing through more or less grim territory, but an oddly interesting and satisfying journey nonetheless - one which includes wince-inducing moments along with laughter, mystery and intrigue.

I was surprised to learn that Won Bin, who plays Do-joon, is a popular actor and model in Korea. It's hard to imagine Kate Moss or Danny Dyer portraying characters with a mental age in single figures (deliberately, at least). Kudos to him for taking on this role, and pulling it off so well.

It's filmed on a good-quality digital format (compared to, say, Salvage), but I still found the pixellation a little distracting. Although this minor issue will be resolved if you're watching the DVD or Blu-ray transfer (unless your telly's enormous), I'd still recommend that anyone wanting to see it do so at the cinema. Perhaps I'm guilty of assuming that everyone shares my fickle attention span, but I need to be forced (by virtue of having no distractions) to concentrate on a movie this subtle and languid. It's worth being forced, though, since the story is ultimately gripping, surprising and satisfying.