Thursday, 26 March 2009

Gran Torino Review

Clint Eastwood has said that Gran Torino is his last acting role. I hope it isn’t because this is a man who is a delight to watch on screen. I have literally grown up watching Clint Eastwood’s movies - from the wonderful spaghetti westerns to ‘Dirty Harry’. From the buttock clenchingly climactic scene of ‘Unforgiven’ to the underrated ‘Perfect World’ - I always see a Clint movie. And why? Because this man is a genuine movie star and a great director. The words ‘movie star’ were coined with actors like Clint in mind. When you watch this man on screen, he tears it up and makes every scene his own. His career has had as many ups and downs as a rollercoaster but, like many of the characters he plays, he has shown a resilience to continue trying to perfect the art form that made him a household name. Right, I think that’s enough hero worship for now. Time to review the film!

First off, the advertising for Gran Torino is a little misleading. If you’re expecting a geriatric Dirty Harry, you’ll probably be disappointed. I laughed more in this film than I have in many of the recent comedies I have seen. The story is a familiar one and, in many respects, Clint is on safe ground. It basically revolves around recently widowed, racist and grumpy Walt Kowalski who finds himself living in a neighborhood of Hmong immigrants. He is a bitter, angry and very resentful man (sounds like me) spending his days pottering round his home, drinking, swearing, scowling and growling (I kid you not). He has little in common with his sons and seems to show no love at all for his grandchildren (although they are pretty disrespectful). The turning point in the film is when Thao, the teenage son of his neighbor attempts to steal his 1972 Gran Torino. To be fair to the boy, he is pressured into the stealing as an initiation (but it’s still no excuse really). Unfortunately for Thao, Walt catches him in the act. The gang pressuring Thao into the theft go a little nuts and start to attack him and his family and are stopped by Walt and his ancient Korean War rifle. This intervention makes Clint a local and reluctant hero. Thoa’s mother and sister insist that Thao work off his debt to Clint by working for him and this leads to an unlikely friendship between the two of them. It also shows the loneliness that Clint’s character feels and the warmth he is capable of – despite his persistent use of racist language and his grumpy exterior. The development of the friendship is critical to the film’s success and is managed masterfully and provides ample opportunity for laughs. When the turning point comes – it’s swift and brutal leading to the inevitable showdown.

The film is not without criticism – the supporting actors are not great. Their performances are very patchy. To be fair, they’re not actors and Gran Torino is their first film. Clint wanted to have a genuine feel to his movie and make regular people comfortable enough to be filmed. While this is laudable and works for the most part, there are some cringe worthy scenes that fall pretty flat. If you can get past this shortcoming the film works – and it works well. It’s funny, touching, poignant and ultimately satisfying. Oh, and there is that gorgeous Gran Torino. It’s as old as me and, some might say, just as sexy. Ahem.

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Watchmen Review - some spoilers

Watchmen is ‘superhero’ film that’s like no other in the genre. Directed by Zack Snyder and based on the 1986 comic, Watchmen takes place in an alternative 1985 – one in which the US wins the Vietnam war, Nixon is re-elected and the US and the Soviet are on the brink of nuclear war. Pretty catastrophic. Do not be under any illusions - Watchmen is a dark, violent film. The superheroes are as far away removed from the 'Superman' type hero as you can get. These are not the 'goody two shoes, lets help the needy' type characters you might expect. These are very flawed superheroes indeed (actually, they’re ‘human’). Ones, quite frankly, you'd be better off staying away from. And that's what makes the story so fascinating.

Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel, has taken the superhero concept and turned it on its head. What if superheroes were as flawed as normal people? What if they could be mean, murderous and psychotic? The story itself, at least in the graphic novel, is what makes Watchmen such a classic. It deals with issues of politics, religion, good and evil and all the shades in between. It deals with science, metaphysics, speaks of conspiracies, paranoia and revenge. For its time and even now, it is both smart and intelligent. Does it work on the big screen? Hmmmm almost, but not quite. It was always a tall order to make the film contain as much depth as the novel and in many ways I wish they'd made the film in two parts rather than one long bum numbingly one as I think it could have worked much better.

The film opens with a spectacular sequence that immediately grips you by the balls and doesn’t let go. One of the Watchmen - the Comedian - is brutally murdered. This unlikely murder sets off a chain of events where the now outlawed masked superhero Rorschach (played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley) sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. Unfortunately he's a paranoid psychotic and even his former crime-fighting buddies don't believe him. The story of each of the Watchmen is revealed in flashbacks that work very well and they don't interrupt the film's flow. We find out that the Comedian (played suitably menacingly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is anything but funny. For example, he tries to brutally rape a fellow watchman (Silk Spectre) and kills a woman pregnant with his child. And I love this about both the comic and the film (not his actions I hasten to add). It dares to be different. It sticks up two fingers to convention and grounds the characters in a bleak reality. Not that I'm a cynic or a pessimist (I prefer the term realist myself) but hey, the world is hardly a happy place right?

The story has such a strong resonance with the world we live in today and there is no denying that Zack Snyder has made a visual masterpiece but the script and some (in my opinion) odd choices of music let the film down badly. You can't help leave the cinema with a feeling that it’s a real missed opportunity. The first half is so good and then the film loses some of its momentum, creaks under the strain of what it’s trying to achieve, then it buckles and by the time the final gut wrenching plot is revealed - I felt a little bored and couldn't care less. Other than Rorschach and the Comedian, the other superheroes are just plain dull. We get to see Dr Manhattan's blue penis a few too many times and he really does talk loads of nonsense as he evolves into a supreme being, Nite Owl II is just impotent as a character (how the heck is this dweeb a superhero?) and Silk Spectre II is a beautiful woman is a skimpy outfit. Sure she can kick ass but that's about it. Along with Watchman Ozymandias, the characters don't seem plausible (yes, I know they're comic book characters). The biggest (unintentional?) comedy moment is Silk Spectre II having sex with Nite Owl II to Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. Oh dear. In fact for all his brilliance, the way Snyder introduces us to the plot central to the story makes it feel implausible and, well, pants. His attention to the story telling is not as acute as his attention to detail for the visuals - with the exception of Carla Gugino's make up when she's made to look older which is truly awful and actually looks like make up.

Overall, the positives just about outweigh the negatives - but not by much. And that's what I find so irritating about this whole experience is that Watchmen could have been so utterly, devastatingly brilliant. It could literally have been THE defining motion picture event of the year but it isn’t. Instead, it’s an overlong, overblown visual feast that leaves you wishing you could leave way before the end of the film. If nothing else, it might make you go to the comic shop and buy the graphic novel - which is no bad thing. As a film, it doesn't work. Masterful visuals and some wonderful performances have been let down by poor story telling and some poor performances. In a word, it’s inconsistent. But, Jackie Earle Haley is a great find for me. I’ll be watching him very closely.

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Monday, 16 March 2009

Drake! Check your camera! There seems to be a malfunction..

Sure, video in one direction is fine. But why not use a $45,000 storm trooper sphere camera to record in all directions, and create videos where the viewer can decide the direction of their gaze? Ok this tech has been lurking for some time, it is of course what you can play with for hours on Google street view, but I never saw it in video form before. Google street view is a series of still images stitched together which is impressive enough, but actual video? Cool! This is from the Immersive Media website where lots of other 360 vids await your amazement. What practical applications can we expect from this? Considering it demands total interaction (considered a pro, or selling point if you will) it's not likely to revolutionise our modern day entertainment media, which we like to keep interactive in a more immediate, sharey kind of way. For web documentaries and the like though this is amazing stuff. Hard to direct a viewer in the way you would a movie but as far as documenting scenes this is unbeatable. Now you can be a virtual tourist, travelling along any street or landscape, and appreciate everything just as you would if you were there. Or how about a wedding video in full 360 degrees? Want to film the audience and the choir and the backs of the happy couple all at once? I should think so! Although the kit is probably slightly out of reach for your average wedding videographer.

If you were to combine this kind of footage with the stuff Johnny Lee was up to with the Wii, what would happen? Would you be able to move the view around just by moving your head? And then you'd have to add in actual 3D footage. And a big spherical room to project the whole scene in! Yes, the future will bring in addition to it's ample gifts, the wonder of cricked necks from all the craning and turning the once simple and relaxing act of watching a video now entails. Still, although what the boffins will make of this amazing tech in unclear, what we can be sure of is that this is what the marines in Aliens would have had strapped to their heads, so Cameron should reflect on whether he should have had just a little more foresight into the future of camera technology.

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Friday, 6 March 2009

'The International' Review

Last night, in the plush viewing theatre at Sony Pictures London office, I was treated to a private screening of ‘The International’. Firstly, it’s a great cinema – the kind I dreamt about having in my house when I was younger (before the walls of reality came crashing down around me). The seats are HUGE, the leg room putting business class airline seats to shame and oh, did I mention the free food and drink? No? Well, there was plenty. Anyway, I digress before I’ve even started. Let’s get to the review of the film before you all think I’m bragging (which I am).

I knew next to nothing about the film before I saw it. The plot in the The International revolves around an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) and an Assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) determined to expose corrupt dealings in one of the world's most powerful banks. What’s this I thought to myself? Banks? Dodgy dealings? Is this a film or a documentary? The timing of the film’s release is exquisite given the current predicament of the global economy and those naughty bankers to blame. There are illegal activities galore - arms trading, murder and conspiracies to control governments. This film has it all. It’s certainly not a happy film. In fact its overall tone is very dark and depressing – you get a real sense that nothing will change and the poor good guy who wants justice will actually never win. Art imitating life perhaps?

The film itself is an odd mix of exhilarating 80% of the time (my heart was pounding in some brilliant set pieces) and then oddly flat. It could have been a great film but instead it will be one that divides public opinion. You’ll either like it or hate it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The Director (Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame) does a fine job in maintaining the pace of the film on the whole but only manages to muster some inconsistent acting from his two leads. Naomi Watts is largely wasted. Hardly any character development at all and really it’s no more than a short supporting role. No bad thing as I think she is pretty over rated as an actress (I can hear my fellow blogger Munial spluttering into his tea). This means Owen has to carry the film on his own. He almost manages this but at times the delivery of his lines are so deadpan, so unemotional and stilted. Come on Clive, I know you can do better - Children of Men being a good example. The supporting cast led by the ever reliable Armin Mueller-Stahl is excellent. The script is top-notch, almost minimalist at times and I’ve already recycled a few quotes from the film (always a good sign).

So, despite my criticisms above, I did enjoy the film thoroughly. I found it to be intelligent, thought provoking but/and ultimately depressing. A feel good movie it is not. Well worth watching in the cinema.

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Sunday, 1 March 2009

Heaven is where the DSis come from

Look here Nintendo. You had me at 'bigger screens' ok, no need for this bizarro alternate universe where everyone and everything is Daz white and people all use their DS's while grinning at each other. Those people are seriously enjoying themselves, especially the old couple at 2.31, pointing and laughing at their new digital photo frame. Jeepers, get a room.

Despite the god awful marketing, you will find me lining up on April 3 to pick up what will be my 3rd DS, that's one for each iteration. I remember thinking it was a risky purchase back when it first appeared, a real wild card in the Nintendo stable - will it be a natural replacement for the Gameboy or will it go the way of the virtual boy? Time has proven me a savvy consumer with a good eye for a winner, but even more time has proven me a sucker for shiny objects "now with bigger screens". Damn you ninty.

I do love my DS still though, having recently been spending a lot of time with the Korg DS10 (genius) and Professor Layton, and don't feel too ridiculous shelling out for another one with a few fairly pointless bells and whistles on it. Cameras aside, I'll definitely make use of the SD card slot and the web browser, despite no flash (damn!). The shop sound fairly handy too, modelled after the Wii shop which I have found pretty good use for, so I better cash in some more stars for points, if there are any to be sold yet.

This marketing is straight from Nintendo's dark new heart of inclusivity for all age ranges and genders, and despite the extreme cheese, you have to admit the DS has the gamut pretty well covered for everyone on the planet. It is still an odd realisation to be creating Kraftwerkalike electronica on the tube, only to notice that sat opposite a 6 year old girl in pigtails is holding the same object as you, albeit a pink one, mucky with glittery stickers, and playing with her pixelated dalmatians. Where will this Nintendomination of the planet end? At least a couple more DS versions away probably. The real big question is, do I trade in my DS Lite or just go ahead and buy another copy of Korg for some linked up, 32 pattern choons. That's going to be kind of tricky on the tube..

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