Month: December 2011

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Based on the popular 2003 short Rare Exports Inc. by Jalmari and Juuso Helander, Rare Exports tells the tale of a privately funded excavation on the Korvatunturi mountain which uncovers the body of something or someone long though to be a myth. He knows when you’ve been naughty, he knows when you’ve been nice, he just doesn’t give a fuck. Whilst children and animals begin to disappear from a nearby village, the only person who seems to know what’s going on is little Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila). Mocked by his peers for believing in Santa Claus and ignored by a father whose inner demons are never explored, Pietari tries to become a one child army against the potential festive threat.

The idea of a muderous Santa is hardly new (thank you Silent Night, Deadly Night), but the treatment here is. In the film’s universe, mankind has chosen to forget about the bad things Santa Claus did and even where he truly comes from. The problem is Rare Exports, whilst enjoyable, is a strange beast. On one hand, it feels like an 80s classic in the vein of The Goonies. On the other, scenes of naked bearded men chasing children through the snow suggest otherwise. It has its dark moments, but it never plummets into gore. The black humour runs throughout, with the film’s denouement basically being the punchline to the film’s title.

And maybe that’s why I came out of it wanting more. The film is only short and good deal of it is spent building up to the reveal of Santa. And when he does arrive, the film decides to speed towards a ending before anyone has had chance to let it all settle in. That said, as an alternative to the usual Christmas fare, this is definitely one Bad Santa that’s worth checking out.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Whilst Australia waits patiently for the release of The Muppets, we can always fall back on Jim Henson’s back catalogue.

Unless you’re too full of tryptophan from the previous days feasting,  the plot to The Muppet Christmas Carol is well known. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) is visited by three spirits over the course of Christmas Eve, who help to bring back his festive joy.

As to be expected, aside from Caine, most of the main parts are played by the titular gang. So, we have Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as his wife, The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Statler and Waldorf as the brothers Jacob and Robert Marley (Yeah, I know…), even Kermit’s nephew gets in on the action as Tiny Tim. The spirits are new creations, with the Henson team having resisted the temptation to have them played by others in the Muppet canon. A move that works well. It’s hard to think the resonance of Scrooge seeing his potential would have been as strong if the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had been played by original choice, Gonzo!

Despite the prefix, Muppet, in the title, this is a very straightforward telling of Dicken’s classic. It’s not in the same vein as, say, The Great Muppet Caper, where Fozzie et al would break the fourth wall and give plot points away before they happen Caine recites lines from the set text with barely a knowing glance to the camera. However, don’t think it’s all straight faces, this is the Muppets. Expect talking vegetables, ice skating penguins, and hardcore republican Sam the Eagle desperately pretending to be English.

All in all, it’s a wonderful 90 minutes and deserves to be on anybody’s list of Christmas viewing. But beware, as this is a straight-ish tale… Tiny Tim will die. If you thought you couldn’t be moved by a felt pig and frog, then think again.

Puss in Boots (2011)

The Shrek franchise is the true definition of diminishing returns. The original Shrek was a true family treat. Fart gags for the kids, knob jokes for the parents. Then the sequel came along and, whilst we learnt again that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. By the fourth one, Same Old Shrek, the wheels were firmly spinning in the dirt. Shrek gone through so many life lessons, I was amazed  the married man with three kids had got through life without being killed crossing the street or opening a door.

The pop-references overtook the plot to such an extent that it became less about what was going to happen and more about guessing which of the latest blockbusters was going to get referenced against a backdrop of Eels songs. The last one being a genuine display of drowning in  a pop-culture stew. A stew made of gristle. And poo. And possibly some dead kittens.

Thanks heavens for Puss in Boots. A film which reminds you that you don’t need to play Lady Gaga and reenact the glasses of water scene from Jurassic Park. Antonio Banderas is brilliant as the titular hero who joins forces with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakos) and sultry Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to retrieve magic beans from bandits, Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris).

The film is a swift 90 minutes of genuine joy that doesn’t try to be overtly clever. If there are weak points, then it must be said that are probably one or two many action set pieces. I was too keen to move on to the next bit of dialogue. This a brilliant Christmas movie and hopefully, I mean this sincerely, it won’t lead to any sequels. None. No.

Dreamworks, don’t… Don’t cheapen the moment. Just embrace it. You’ve made a good film. Just savour it and go home. Please.

We Are What We Are (2010)

Mexico City, a man collapses and dies. His family are understandably distraught. Particuarly as he was the provider of the human flesh on which they feed to survive. The idea of cannibals living smack bang in the middle of a city is fairly novel (does Delicatessen count?), as is the idea that it is exclusively human flesh that they require. Killing humans for necessity raises a different set of moral issues than sadism or insanity would.

The family, remaining unnamed, begins to unravel. Consisting of a confused, homosexual, older brother, a possibly incestuous younger brother and sister and a shrieking harridan of a mother it’s no surprise that their downward spiral is entirely of their own making. It’s hard to imagine what the now deceased father used to do to hold the unit together? Threaten to eat them? They have none of the charm of say, the Hooker clan in Near Dark and earn none of our sympathy accordingly. Any flashes of cleverness are undone by the ninety minutes available. Alfredo’s sexuality? The ritual continually mentioned? The cops? All vanish as soon as they appear, seeemingly just to allow for a mediocre and scare free shoot out and mini chase that take up the final fifteen minutes. The last minute is smarter than the previous eighty nine combined, briefly holding a mirror up to human nature before it too disappears.

We Are What We Are is a grubby, unpleasant, claustrophobic little film. Uninspiringly shot (dark) and clumsily edited (possibly due to a loose and flappy script that never nails the story to any sort of wall) it should be at least partially saved by horror’s usual escape hatch. Unfortunately it’s not nearly gory enough, the monsters are on display but their acts are barely hinted at. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes of running time short, it’s over before it has any chance to build a sense of tension or a real sense of how this (hopefully) unique family exists. It’s not all doom and gloom though….

If the whole film is taken as a metaphor for the pressures and difficulties that mount up for a family living in one of the world’s genuine megacities then it would be a brave man who booked one way tickets to Mexico. Presumably, the only reason this film isn’t set in London is because everyone knows the residents there eat each other all the time. Even the title hints at a certain, inherently bad side to our nature that’s unavoidable and therefore excusable. Allegorically, this succeeds admirably in showing us the madness of overpopulation, the consumer lifestyle and intense city living. Unfortunately in it’s primary function as a film or a story it fails, being neither visceral enough to scare nor intriguing enough to hold the attention.

Drive (2011)

Drive is not a bad film. Far from it. You do find yourself caught up in the adventures of Ryan Gosling’s may-as-well be mute, The Driver.  But let’s not pretend we’ve travelled further than b-movie territory. The Driver is equal parts stunt man, getaway driver and racecar driver. Women want him, rednecks that hire him for robberies want to be him. He’s uber-cool. All this, despite wearing a silver jacket and constantly chewing on a toothpick like a nu-rave James Dean.

Into his life walks Carey Mulligan, who is only challenged by Emily Watson for most likely to burst into tears at the drop of a kitten. Mulligan brings with her a son and criminal husband who owes money to a local mobster. On attempt to woo Mulligan, Gosling offers to help the husband rob a pawn shop that will see his debt cleared. Then it all goes a bit Pete Tong. Not that the Driver listens to Pete Tong. He’s too fucking cool.

Walking around in skinny jeans and smiling like a 12 year old that’s got his first erection, Gosling borders on the edge of slapable. His ‘five minute’ speech being a particular low point of arsery. An over-rehearsed monologue that is sure to be recited by various university tits on a night in some pound a pint hellhole. That the film manages to make us care at least a bit for him by the end of the film is a feat in itself.

To say all this, suggests that the film isn’t worth watching. I guess if I’m criticising anything then it’s the reviews that have come before this. Drive is dangerously close to the cinematic equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. For all its plaudits and praise, underneath its aggressively faux-80s soundtrack, it’s really a wafer thin plot that would be sniffed at had it been done by other genre emulating directors. Cough, Tarantino, cough. There’s a boy’s club that suggests that if you don’t like Drive then you didn’t ‘get it’ because it’s arthouse. That Drive is classed as arthouse is amusing in itself, as it appears the definition of arthouse now means sloooowing things down for no clear reason. After a while, it starts feeling like a directors’ in-joke or, at the very least, a homage to Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace.

Some will be put off Drive because of what has been said before and it’s a shame. Once it gets into top gear, it is a tense little number that you’ll really enjoy. You’ll just wonder what all the fuss was about.

Paris, Texis (1984)

Staggering out of the desert sun like a less vengeful Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, Harry Dean Stanton steps into the shoes of one of the seminal, iconic, eighties characters. Travis Henderson, in his red baseball cap, battered suit and broken shoes sums up a decade of Americana in his purposeful stride, mournful stare and wholly confused brain. Alongside Blue Velvet (tied in here by a helpful Al from Quantum Leap, minus Ziggy), Paris, Texas paints the other side of eighties America with broad, delicate strokes that depict a land far away from Wall Street and communist paranoia.

Travis emerges in a small town you’ve probably never heard of (sic) in Texas with no memory of the past four years and an unwillingness to communicate. His brother, Walter (Dean Stockwell), comes to pick him up and together they return to his house in Los Angeles. Travis discovers his son, Hunter, who he abandoned four years ago has been practically adopted by Walter and his wife. Travis seeks to reconnect with his son and maybe track down Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski).

Paris, Texas is eye wateringly good to look at. Robby Muller and Wim Wenders fill a usually washed out landscape with primary colours; hazy purple sunsets, bright orange deserts, deep black tarmac and piercing blue skies are shot from angles that slowly reveal more and more of urban America’s encroachment onto nature. Texas looks like nowhere else on Earth, Alien and inhospitable, yet cities spring up in the windshield of driving cars or on the horizon. Pinnacles of steel and glass to match the tors and cliffs Travis is originally found amongst. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar score ebbs and flows as the story demands, reflecting both the film’s southern settings and the character’s broken hearts.

Travis starts out sad and confused, moves into touching and funny and ends up strong as a rock (and right). It’s a brilliant arc (sorry), paced perfectly and played out with such skill by Dean Stanton that multiple viewings reveal more and more. These craggy, hicky, worn and drawn guys are his stock in trade but Travis is somehow different and more. Three dimensional and so believable it’s a wonder you haven’t bumped into him in a bar.

By the end it’s doubtful whether Travis is even human, he feels more like an angel, sent to repair past mistakes and re-unite lost souls. That would explain his memory loss, his speechlessness at the start and certainly the film’s unwillingness to deal with Walter and Aurore’s loss of Hunter. The unification of the mother/son bond is the only concern here, overruling common sense at the cost of the lesser characters so we end up with a triptych. Travis, Hunter and Jane, not exactly together at the end but not far apart.

Perfect is a dangerous adjective to toss around when it comes to film, the never stopping march of time, public opinion and attitudes changing and well, sheer bloody mindedness can all skew a film’s worth but as it’s been 27 years since release then Paris, Texas is so close to being perfect you couldn’t squeeze a knife in there. Don’t try.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Dr John Watson (Robert Duvall) has begun to fear for Sherlock Holmes’s  sanity (Nicol Williamson) after he begins a campaign of victimisation against his old Maths tutor, Professor James Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). With the help of Mycroft Holmes, Watson manages to get Holmes to journery to Vienna, where he is committed into the care of Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).

If you hadn’t already guess, this film is so far removed from canon that it makes the Asylum Sherlock Holmes appear to be by the very hand of Conan-Doyle.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution doesn’t really go anywhere. The opening premise that it will pull back the curtain on why Holmes really disappeared for three years after The Final Problem is probably only of interest to Sherlockians. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of niche marketing, but then where does that leave the general public. Well, the movie seems to answer this by going ‘Sssh! Here comes a chase scene involving two trains, it’ll be really exciting, we promise.’ But it’s not, it just feels tacked on. In fact the whole things feels like it’s two movies spliced together. One, the dark machinations of a drug addled mind and the paranoia that comes with. The other, a bawdy romp.

Aside from the wafer thin script, the main problem appears to be the cast. Robert Duvall doesn’t really know how to play Watson. One minute stuffy and the other, stuff and nonsense. Laurence Oliver is wasted as the sought after Moriarty. His scenes adding up to nothing more than simpering and crying ‘that’s not fair’. Alan Arkin must have only flicked through the first half of the script, because whilst his eventual face off with Holmes is the stuff of a Victorian literature fan’s wet dream, Freud is eventually boiled down to nothing more than Dr Exposition. Arkin is a brave man when he manages to say ‘They’re not just horses! They’re the most intelligent horses in the world… AND THEY’VE BEEN TRAINED TO KILL!’ with a completely straight face. The only person who comes out with any credibility is Nicol Williamson who manages to bring life to Holmes despite spending most his time either with the DTs or fainting at inopportune moments.

Overall, it’s all a bit of a mess with a final twist that just seems completely unnecessary. Maybe one to watch when all other possibilities are exhausted.

Take Shelter (2011)

The question Take Shelter asks is; Is it insane to foresee, predict or imagine an apocalyptic event in the days of massive climate change, Japanese tsunamis, economic collapse and extreme right, mass shootings? Or to put it more succinctly; People thought Noah was crazy.

Michael Shannon, current holder of the “hey it’s that guy from that thing..y’know….with Michael Ironside in it…” game plays Dale a blue collar ™ dweller in a small town in Ohio.  He works a skilled manual labour job, loves his deaf daughter, has a homely, attractive wife (Chastain), hangs out with his buddy drinking beer and every so often experiences a dream or a vision of an apocalyptic event (like everyone in Ohio). The apocalypse takes the form of a coming storm with greasy rain and a horrible undercurrent of mass epidemic, social unrest. Birds swarm and flock and his dog attacks him. One dream is so vivid he awakes to find he has urinated in his sleep. Now, Dale’s family has a history of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. Fearing this Dale keeps his visions a secret from his wife and friends. Instead he begins to expand on an abandoned storm shelter in his backyard. It’s no surprise that Dale’s pragmatism (he’s blue collar remember?) comes into play, unable to cure his mind, he does what he can physically, preparing an area where his family can be safe. As the visions worsen, his fear of the storm overrides his rationality and concern for anything else. His love for his dog, his wife, his daughter and his friend are all jettisoned, as is his shame, so evident in the earlier bedwetting scene. Shannon pulls a performance out of nowhere here, playing Dale perfectly, at turns confused yet earnest, he has a furrowed brow exterior, trying to make sense of a world sliding into madness, his confliction bubbles to the surface in darting eyes and cheek tics. It’s wonderful stuff and a pleasure to watch someone batting one thousand at work.

Jessica Chastain, drum roll…..Tree of Life, The Debt, Texas Killing Fields, The Help, Take Shelter and soon, Corialanus have all, or will be released this year! Not a total dud amongst them, is perfect for this. Homely yet slightly ethereal, wistfully attractive and very, very ginger she gives Dale’s wife (Samantha) a sadness and desperation that is very much between the lines. Desperate for a normal life, yet coping with a disabled daughter and increasingly erratic husband, she’s by turns vulnerable then steely, knowing she only has herself to rely on on yet wishing it wasn’t so hard on this earth.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter has a stately (Biblical?) pace that feels almost Lean like in it’s willingness to hold a shot or at least not cut away just yet. Working for the most part it sometimes feel as if shots are being left just for the hell of it, lingering and lingering until they become unwelcome. It feels churlish to complain about something about which the lack of is so bemoaned (particularly after comparing it to Lean) these days but there is a tension ruining quality to some shots, dragging out a moment until the original emotion is lost. Fortunately, the premise and concise script never outstay their welcome, at least untill….

The double ending. Take Shelter appears to end on a note that would be satisfying and consistant with the story. Not exciting but plausable. Then it spends five minutes veering wildly and clawing at the exact opposite conclusion. Although done with speed and skill it’s unclear what the taste that’s left in your mouth is, surprise or very slight disdain. The second ending seems to exist solely for crowd pleasing purposes (and we’re complaining?) and although this may improve word of mouth for a derservedly admirable film, worthy of attention, the ending that sits right occured earlier. Keyser Soze is, here, most unwelcome.


Jackboots on Whitehall (2010)

Jackboots on Whitehall is a revisionist view of World War 2 in which Hitler devises his own Channel Tunnel  in order to gain control of England and Wales. Once there, Churchill rallies the citizens of London and encourages them to immigrate to a little place called Scot Land, where they will be safe from the clutches of National Socialism.

Jackboots on Whitehall is over-enthusiastically described as Team America meets Inglourious Basterds. Team America presumably because it has puppets and Inglourious Basterds because there’s Nazis. Well, if we’re going down that cul-de-sac of tenuous linkage, then EBFS will don it’s marketing hat and describe this  as Fingermouse meets Sound of Music.

With a eclectic cast including Ewan McGregor, Timothy Spall, Stephen Merchant and Alan Cumming, a pastiche of Braveheart and an absurdest humour in the vein of Monty Python, you would think that this has something going for it. Okay…

The one thing I can NOT take away from the creators, Edward McHenry and Rory McHenry, is the effort that’s gone into this homage of English propaganda movies of the 40’s and 50’s. So much time and attention has gone into the overall look of Jackboots, it makes it difficult to pick at the one obvious flaw. That being, the script. However, for all it’s 50’s Barbie dolls dressed as nurses and vicars with AK-47s, the fact of the matter is that the script is pretty limp and seems to hope that the audience will find it all terribly amusing because the lines are being uttered by Action Man. This a one joke affair that is stretched out so far I feared it would snap back and take my eye out.

The only other positive thing I can say is that Timothy Spall’s impersonation of Winston Churchill is actually better than the lisping effort he provided us with in The King’s Speech.

The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

The Inbetweeners Movie sees Channel 4’s award winning show plastered onto the big screen in what can be basically seen as a series finale. We find Will (Simon Bird), Jay (James Buckley), Neil (Blake Harrison) and Simon (Joe Thomas) packing their suitcases and heading to Crete for two weeks of sun, sand, sea and sex in celebration of finishing sixth form.

With its guranteed audience, fairly unoriginal storyline and soundtrack by Mike Skinner AKA The Streets, it’s very easy to be churlish and dismiss the whole affair. However, to do so would be to dismiss one of the better comedies to come out this year. Please note: I said ‘comedy’, so don’t tweet me about the worthiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Tree of Life. Neither of them are funny and, worse of all, neither of them have James Buckley as Jay, the human equivalent of a bullshit factory.

It seemed to me that Inbetweeeners focuses on Jay slightly more than any of the others. Even though initially he seems happy to spout off things that would make Baron Münchhausen and Bernard Manning blush, we slowly see him coming to terms with the fact that he really hasn’t contemplated a future after his friends got to uni, or settle down in Tesco if you’re Neil.

Okay, that may seem a rather deep way to look at a film with lines like ‘He shoots, he scores…. Right up the vag!’, but The Inbetweeners charm has always been that these guys aren’t 90210, perma-tanned, white teethed glasses of water, who need Damian Rice to sing about their feelings. They’re juvenile, they swear, they fight and they stick by each other without really knowing why. In short, they’re normal. When Jay drunkenly tries to tell Simon how much he’ll miss him, it is probably truer to a teenager’s verbiage than Superbad‘s ‘I love you’ scene will ever be

It’s not all perfect. Some jokes do fall flat on thier face and there was an uncomfortable silence in the cinema during those. The plot isn’t the freshest, but the journey to the somewhat predictable ending is so enjoyable you won’t care. The script sets up numerous clichés of teen movies and successfully shatters them. To say anymore, would ruin the fun. Though Simon’s attempt at a huge romantic gesture was a particular highlight.

For all my promotion, you’ll probably only see this film if you are a fan of the show. Which is a shame, because whilst it’s a fitting end to a well loved series, it’s also a rather acceptable way to spend 90 minutes of your life.