Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shaken, Stirred, and Still Sexy

Quantum of Solace
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton
Grade: B

Defiance may still represent a worthy 2008 farewell for Daniel Craig but it also plays a key role in his more renowned blockbuster, a second outing as James Bond, and the franchise's 22nd offering Quantum of Solace. While, prior to 2006's Casino Royale, many die-hard 007 fans were left outraged and panicked at the appointment of Craig in the part, the success of his Bond remains a rather double-edged sword. This man is packed with attitude, charisma, a ruthless edge that's much wilder than Connery, Moore et al. but achieves impact through a relative abandonment of the grace of his predecessors in favour of coarse, arrogant necessity. For some it may be a bitter pill to swallow but it's interesting how this man has shaped Bond, changed the nature of his world, and sought to make his filmmakers obedient recipients to his call. Daniel Craig didn't edit this film but you feel like every burst of action, chase sequence, explosion, is somehow a product of the volatility he has brought to James Bond.

Quantum of Solace doesn't do any backtracking from the path Casino Royale so brusquely lain, and neither does it make any attempt to create a tale as epic or glamorous. Instead it modestly builds upon Casino, beginning with the Bond tradition of a high-speed chase to represent the organisation's chasing of leads. But as soon as that's done we get a development; M is nearly killed by one of her own personal bodyguards, and we quickly learn that there's a major criminal organisation that the British Secret Service know hardly anything about. This admission, as it turns out, is a lot bigger than it at first appears. Solace is the picking up of the pieces, the entrails of the storm, the consolidation, and as such the leads are sparse and there isn't really a clear sense of the scope of the criminality Bond is up against.

Resultantly Solace can sometimes feel stingy and slight in its compactness, giving us a very lineated systematic storyline and barely ensuring that there's enough to think about. But the quality of its troublesome collection of characters; from vengeful Bond girl Camille (Ukrainian Actress Olga Kurylenko playing a Bolivian of all things), to Swept Away's Giancarlo Giannini returning to reprise his Casino role (this time on the side of good), and most notably Mathieu Amalric's excellent turn as a villainous third-world exploit artist, provide a more than hefty sense of notoriety for Craig to digest and decode.

At just under two hours this particular 007 installment feels like a bit of an excursion, an epilogue. The events of Casino has clearly left Bond's heart and pride sorely tested, and this only forces him to become more immersed in his work. But the problem is that his task is a vague and unfocused one. This film is cohesive but what it's detailing definitely is not. Quantum of Solace reads as a preachy and pedantic title yet emerges as pretty apt -- not because the film is as firm and definite as its name (it simply isn't) but because the solace is the main element to extract from it. James Bond is alive; sexually charged, laying the smackdown, doing his job even when his employers would prefer otherwise, shaken and stirred. But make no mistake, this man is recovering, and Quantum is just the sort of firecracking stop-gap he needs.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Terror... in 150 Minutes

The Baader Meinhof Complex
Directed by Uli Edel
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Jan Josef Liefers
Grade: B-

The word "terrorism" injects fear into hearts and minds the world over, but "terrorism", contrary to what we're told, is a complex, deep, and really quite vague term. Uli Edel understands this, and at times dares to glorify it as a daring, exciting venture that acts as a challenge to the dominant oppressive social rule. He does this by exposing us to this straight away, and in more ways than one. The film opens on a nudist beach, cocks aloft (OK, not quite) and tits ablaze; exposure at its most natural and reputatively radical. That Edel endeavours (and seems to enjoy) waving this radicalism with the punch of patriotist flag-happiness is to an extent forgivable, and in fact allows the first half of the film to flourish.

Edel makes a dense subject magnetic and energetic, and the editing in this film often feels so vehicular and mammoth, Malick-style epic but within such a confined political study, and often confined setting. I loved the starkness of the film's pallette, which you can guage from looking at its poster, and significantly Edel guides the look and feel of the film without drawing attention to quite how radical he's being visually; often as radical as the politics Baader Meinhof is so keen to illustrate.

At 150 minutes though, you really have to wonder if this generous running time achieves a patient portrayal or lingers and drags like heavy machinery. I'm willing to concede that it's horses for courses on that point but, for me, the last hour was a slow one, unaided by a shift in tone towards the end that becomes a lot more resigned, both in terms of its characters and what fate will befall them and the realisation that their politics is becoming a lot less coherent. The treatment of the characters is also problematic. Their individuality gains importance in the film's final act but throughout The Baader-Meinhof group are depicted as just that: a group. The one character it does treat individually, Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck), makes such a dramatic shift from working mother to gargantuan rebel that you just wish that there had been more about the characters (their background, social status, personality) to speculate on where this form of activism comes from, and the people that are drawn into it. Lord knows, there's time to do this, but there's an annoying reluctance to let us into the frey that mirrors the rigid unwillingness of society to acknowledge the roots of such a 'leftist' activist organisation.

I'll end with a likeness. Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose had the over-eagerness of a virile, horny teenager, itching to please, passionate, involved. The Baader Meinhof Complex familiarly rides a plaintive coaster, sticking to what it knows best but containing itself visually and thematically. There's wild abandon there; and one wishes that it shows as much fearlessness in its exploration of character as it does with its politics, but this all lurks beneath a sinister desire. If it was to be put in the context of the socialist radar Baader and Meinhof were undoubtedly a part of, this film is like the beginning of reform. Occasionally uncertain, but with penetrative direction and the very best of intentions.

Friday, November 28, 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...La La La

So here we are. It's that time of year again, although you wouldn't think it, would you? This year's Oscar race is frankly as flat as a pancake, and it'll take a lot of these unproven December releases to come up trumps to make this year's competition as juicy as last years. But still: a race is a race is a race, and it's time I made some official predictions.

I'll start by saying that Slumdog Millionaire looks like a frontrunner at this stage. It's got raves, positivity, a wonderful poster. Is is too Field of Dreams? Time will tell, but for now it's nailed on for the nomination. As is Milk, which could prove to be one of the few buzzed about films of the year that actually gets universal praise -- if early word on the other contenders is to be believed, anyway. The Dark Knight made gazillions, and feels like a pulpy Michael Mann film rather than a comic book movie, so I wouldn't put it far behind.

As for the rest, we'll see. Nothing save that batman film and Wall-E made any impact before Autumn and it's pretty much guesswork as to the other two BP slots. I'm going for Benjamin Button because it's gimmicky, has a good cast, a good director, and there's something about the trailer that's kinda Forrest Gump about it. With a hint of Golden Compass. I know, it's weird. Edward Zwick's mediocre late-year released Blood Diamond stole in to grab multiple nominations in a fairly weak 2006, and so what will his Defiance achieve in an even weaker 2008? I say it might just make a lasting impression with its New Year's audacity.

But there are other contenders; Aronofsky's The Wrestler seems incredibly heavy but no doubt popular, Revolutionary Road seems depressing but high-brow, and Doubt's trailer wails "take me seriously" with the force of a pissy banshee. Wall-E is the film I really want to triumph, and it could just become the second Animated Feature ever to be nominated in this category. Wouldn't that be lovely?

Other observations.... Eastwood's gonna get nominated somewhere. Sally Hawkins is seriously on the brink of being ousted by the star power of Anne Hathaway, unless Jolie's performance is too much for them, but I doubt it. Robert Downey Jnr. had a major year, and so a nomination for Tropic Thunder in a very weak category seems entirely plausible. Totally regretting not seeing that at the cinema now, by the way. Oh, and it's looking increasingly like Best Actor will be the most exciting race (Rourke, Penn, Di Caprio or Langella?) and Supporting Actress will be the most boring (surely Viola Davis is gonna grab that?).

Predictions follow in full. *** = lock ** = likely * = need to keep campaigning


*The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
**The Dark Knight
***Slumdog Millionaire

Alternative: Wall-E


*Darren Aronofsky - The Wrestler
***Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
*Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino/Changeling
**Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight
***Gus Van Sant - Milk

Alternative: David Fincher - The Curious Case...


**Leonardo Di Caprio - Revolutionary Road
*Daniel Craig - Defiance
**Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
***Sean Penn - Milk
***Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Alternative: Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino


*Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky
*Angelina Jolie - Changeling
*Kristin Scott-Thomas - I've Loved You So Long
***Meryl Streep - Doubt
***Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road

Alternative: Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married


*Josh Brolin - Milk
*Robert Downey Jnr. - Tropic Thunder
**Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
***Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
***Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road

Alternative: Liev Schreiber - Defiance


***Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
***Viola Davis - Doubt
*Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler
*Kate Winslet - The Reader
*Elsa Zylberstein - I've Loved You So Long

Alternative: Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Improbably President, Improbably Interesting

Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Thandie Newton
Grade: B

The very essence of "Dub-ya", a moniker we're encouraged to adopt when looking at the poster of W. (which gives us that uniform pronunciation at face value), is that George W. Bush is not just a name, and at the very least had enough humility for a nickname. Indeed, the beginning of W. feels so geared towards pushing this empathetic view of the man as an irresponsible, beer-swilling Jack-the-Lad in the 1970's that I did rather wonder if the film was a little heavy-handed in its attempts to create as rounded a portrayal as humanly possible. And in the end it feels almost as token as the dead brothers of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash in recent biopics, but I say almost because a) these scenes at least feel like a prelude to Bush Jnr's almost conciliatory delve into the political spectrum, and b) because as W. soldiers on it becomes less and less of a biopic than an examination of recent American governments and the true derivation of their aggressive foreign policy.

But that doesn't mean to say that W. spurns the traditional biopic hallmarks, letting a thoroughly bored Elizabeth Banks wander through this film in two-minute pockets and generally shedding very little light on Laura Bush or her marriage to George. It also hops back and forth in time restlessly, and there was a point towards the end that I began to think it was to its own detriment, but W. deserves credit for spanning thirty years and making each segment of time seem definitive, if visually rather plain. James Cromwell as Bush Snr. is more than a little stolid in a role that requires as much sternness as you'd expect from both a disgruntled father and an old-guard republican, and the repetitiveness of the father and son exchanges expose screenwriter Stanley Weiser's lack of insight as to just what on earth went on between the two, which feels like it ought to amount to something more sinister and a lot less bland. What we do learn is that "Poppy" was perturbed by his son's inability to hold down a job and find a suitable path in life, but W.'s familial vanilla is arduous to pore over, and the urge to purse your lips Miranda Priestley-style and exclaim "Am I reaching for the stars here?" is an increasingly overpowering one.

Still, routineness is perhaps a concession W. must and is certainly willing to make, and it's a blot on a largely successful canvas. This political drama manages to make an issue discussed to death (the Iraq war) feel as alien to us as all those pre-20th century empirical battles, where world leaders seemingly preferred quarrel to peace. Contemporary politics is hard to demonstrate, not least because we're so familiar with how it's perceived and presented - particularly in the media. For all of the fluency that Stephen Frears' The Queen exhibited it couldn't shrug off all those blatant stereotypes that we associate with the Royal Family and the government. But if life is a cartoon nobody told Oliver Stone, or the makers of W., or indeed the actors portraying the members of the presidential inner-circle, who (save Thandie Newton's hilarious face-pulling as a supposed Condoleeza Rice) carry off a debate that feels authentic and remarkably original. Its very presentness and the problems that that poses is indicative of how, in many ways, the entire setup of this film seems to work against success - not least because it's about someone who very few people like (twenty-odd percent of Americans according to opinion polls, and precious little outside of the continent). As it turns out, sitting around a table discussing weapons of mass destruction and, on occasion, the dreaded oil issue, feels a lot less self-conscious than you (or certainly I) might have imagined.

It might look as if Oliver Stone is winding down with age, tackling tricky subjects with firm neutrality (see World Trade Center), but in this venture he's proven right. Contrary to popular belief "Dub-ya" is not the spawn of the devil and is in fact as clumsy as he sounds. Portraying George Bush as a simple, passive and often ignorant President is the best way to go, and it works. Do I feel like I know the most powerful man in the world a little better now? Maybe. Not an awful lot, that's for sure. But it at least makes him, and our current political climate, clear and accessible. I'm a firm believer that fictional roles generally offer a bigger challenge to actors, but it would take a lot to convince me that there's a bigger burden to bear for an actor this year than Josh Brolin's task as the detested Pres. Brolin has an admittedly modest gamut but, then again, it's difficult to believe Bush himself has vast emotional capacity, and so the real task is very similar to Mirren's turn as Elizabeth Windsor in that he has to get us to relate in some way to this political nightmare. He has the hot-headed exasperation of a young tearaway, and even when he becomes the familiar grey-haired awkward figurehead it feels like his early days have somewhat shaped him and in a way still linger in his blunt, decisive, even impetuous nature. He gives Bush an intricacy and depth (of development if not personality) that emerges as something surprising. Defiant really of the measured, uniform, and sometimes rigid format W. can't shake off.

As the wheels begin to come off of the Iraq War wagon we're given a metaphoric sequence. Bush is chasing a baseball hit to centre field, and as he pauses to measure up the catch the ball disappears entirely. He's lost it; his grip is gone, judgement forever tarnished. It's an unapologetically basic attempt to demonstrate the realisation of a complex and dire situation, but by that time is a more-than-fitting method of displaying the man's self-evaluation. Like "Dub-ya", what you see is what you get. Devoid of much in the way of artistic swagger it's the perfect way to tell this particular story. Brash, uncomplicated, together.

An American in Paris.... or Her Friend?

The Hottie and the Nottie
Directed by Tom Putnam
Starring: Paris Hilton, Joel Moore, Christine Lakin, Johann Urb, Adam Kulbersh, Greg Wilson
Grade: D+

If asked to describe Paris Hilton in three words (expletives excluded) one might come up with something along the lines of: superficial, shallow, self-important. The Hottie and the Nottie is all of these things -- the cast list is littered with characters such as "cheesy guy" and "extremely unattractive guy" for a start -- but it's not because of Hilton, who plays the routine and frankly passive character of the 'beauty' with a nonchalant smugness. Her presence in the film feels just that; a participation rather than a performance, and so she can hardly be at fault for what the film doesn't do right, which is rather a lot.

For all the accusations of anti-feminism and shallow politics (largely deserved) Hottie at least recognises its characters' prioritisation of appearance, and (dare I say it?) the vanity of the L.A. lifestyle. The first scene of the film contains an advertisement for abs-toning
equipment for example, and is perhaps the closest it gets to satirising the pre-dominantly shallow goals of its hapless male would-be predators. But no, The Hottie and the Nottie is crucially unable to be as offensive an exercise in gender politics as you may have heard, because its men: the Hilton-obsessed Nate, his token overweight best friend Arno, and former model Johann, the chiselled threat to Nate's quest, all feel like lost puppies. It feels as if Hottie wants us to feel this collective sense of comradeship between the guys and it's probably a fault of the script that we don't, but both the "Hottie" and the "Nottie" (played by Christine Lakin) fulfill their roles in the title of the film by emerging as the surprisingly decisive members of the debacle.

Still, the tiny successes of the film remain a consolation to the filmmakers' inability to create a lively, interesting, flexible setting for its events. But whether it be a beach, boat, or yoga mat that has to be a part of Paris' pouting, the lack of a convincing or genuine romance is enough to deter even the most die-hard of rom-com fans from venturing near a Tom Putnam film again. His actors range from mediocre to ineffectual; the attempts at comedy are often grotesque (I'm talking infected toenails), and when the half-time "You're not who I thought you were" scene arrives, and Hilton's irritated Cristabel spits out the words "It's over" to a forlorn looking Nate, you'll hope she's talking about the film.

The simple design of Hottie's poster illustrates Hilton's half-naked posing as "hot" and Lakin's paper-bagged head as "not". Trust me, it doesn't pay to grin and bear it. The Hottie and the Nottie is best experienced under a cover of darkness, and preferably with earplugs.

Hottest Track: Florence and the Machine - Dog Days Are Over

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hottest Disc: Out of Control (A Commentary)

OK, so I couldn't really let Girls Aloud's new album, Out of Control go by without commenting on how insanely amazing its collection of tracks is. I proclaimed Tangled Up as my favourite album of last year but this is a markedly better effort, laced with pop classics and packed with attitude.

Here's a vague commentary:

Leading single The Promise, which I'm still not sick of after weeks of radio airplay (which is saying something) is interestingly not really representative of the album at all, which has a lot more going for it musically. The Loving Kind, which was written by the Pet Shop Boys (!) follows it and acts as an opium-style antidote to the sharp, addictive sound of the first track, numbing and captivating -- kind of like a more chilled out version of Call the Shots.

Rolling Back the Rivers in Time wakes you up, with its fierce vocal introduction and curious, plucky rhythm. I like it (especially in its latter stages) but it still remains one of my least favourite tracks on the album, and feels like one of the more generic 'pop' songs. Not a ballad but the closest you're gonna get to one on this particular CD. I also feel it should be towards the end of the album. But then the religious choir intro of Love is the Key adds yet another dimension to Out of Control, and the "oh oh oh, oh oh oh" backing (which I could literally sing to forever) and sassy, cutting beat provide one of the highlights of the album. "I'm mocha choco latte, you're more espresso shot" is also classic Girls Aloud.

Turn to Stone follows. It's at this point in the album where the electro really kicks in, and it quickly turns from a great, exciting effort to something seriously world class. Prickly, popping and with a lingering, gorgeous vocal tone it sets up the near seven-minute Untouchable, which is not a moment too long. "And in my dreams it feels like we are forty storeys tall" the girls swoon, and the track as a whole acts as the intoxicating, punch-drunk confession of love, even if seemingly flanked by songs which have the word in its title. But just as we're adapting the electro cuts out and we're treated to a fun, provocative R n' B number, Fix Me Up, which feels so horned-up. The delivery of the line "I got the bug. Feverish in the mornin'. Night or noon or evenin." is HOT.

The girls return with what is probably the best track of the lot, Love is Pain. Probably because the vocals are integrated so effectively within the song. The almost withdrawn, reluctant use of the line "It don't matter to me" catchy but (with the absence of any ballads) one of the most emotional moments of the album. It also ends with a resonant, fading chant of "Love is pain". Gorgeous.

If you think the five are broken by love though you're wrong, as track 9 is Miss You Bow Wow, and represents the parts of Girls Aloud we already love. Love Machine-esque with a lively beat and punchy, funny and inspired lyrics such as the hilarious, "I remember livin' the dream. Twenty minutes in a hotel bar, then I slip into your girlfriend's jeans". Who writes this shit? Love it. Revolution in the Head is next, a song I'm warming to but still don't enjoy that much. Its opening is undoubtedly very cool though. The last two songs are catchy. We Wanna Party has the lyric where "Out of Control" originates and is a fitting end to the album, but eleventh track Live in the Country is better, with the sound of bees buzzing, pigs snorting, and a chorus that ranks among the best Girls Aloud have ever produced.

Rating: A

You can listen to all of the tracks here


It's just been made official. Obama is president.
I won't pretend that I think the world is going to be an amazing place after this but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and something I'll always remember as a significant part of history.