Quite a few movies watched, this week, but only one which I would recommend with any great conviction. Certainly, nothing has come close to toppling Margaret as my favourite film of the year so far...
Pitch Black (2000)
The movie which made Vin Diesel's name (now there's a claim to fame!) sees a group of space travellers crashland on a barren planet, with no signs of the planet's former (human) inhabitants. At first the group believe that the fearsome prisoner Richard Riddick (Diesel) is all they have to be concerned about, but they soon realise that the planet is infested with a fearsome and aggressive alien species, whose only weakness is a fear of the light. I'd heard a few people speak favourably of this film, and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed with what I saw. The first half of the film is a rather slow paced space soap opera, with the crew of the ship endlessly debating about whether or not they can trust Riddick. The characters are rather broadly drawn, with one guy in particular, a prissy, snobbish, English antiques dealer, practically having an arrow pointed over his head marked 'cannon fodder'. When the alien attack does finally materialise, there are a few impressive shock sequences, but I felt the concept of an attack by creatures who thrive in the darkness was handled more effectively in Neil Marshall's The Descent (which admittedly is a more recent movie). All too often, I was very aware that I was watching some pretty average actors being menaced by CGI effects which are starting to show their age. I very much doubt that I'll continue the journey with the sequel to this movie, The Chronicles of Riddick.
Steven Soderbergh's latest effort is an attempt to inject some realism into the action movie genre. He has casted real life mixed martial artist Gina Carano and let her loose on a number of serious dramatic actors, including Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor. It sounds like a bit of a strange concept, but by and large, I'd say he pulls it off. The plot is a little perfunctory - it's your basic spy/action movie set up: Carano plays Mallory Caine, a secret agent betrayed by a rogue element within her government, who is out to wreak revenge on those who she holds responsible. All of this is just a way of getting Carano into situations where she can beat the living daylights out of some deserving adversaries, but these scenes feel more brutal and realistic than comparable sequences in, say, the last few Brosnan Bond movies. For a first time actress, Gina Carano certainly holds her own in such illustrious company, and though the film's no masterpiece, I definitely enjoyed myself. Apparently, Mr Soderbergh is about to get out of the old directing game, hang up his clapperboard and run an emu farm in Kentucky (OK, I made the last part up, but the first bit is true). I wouldn't say I've loved everything he's done, but I can't deny that he's made a number of excellent movies (sex, lies and videotape, Traffic, Out Of Sight, Ocean's Eleven...) I just hope that Haywire is part of a generally upwards trajectory for his final few films, and he goes out on a high note.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
In which a group of fun-loving youngsters heads out to an out of the way ranch for a weekend of drinking, smoking and generally getting up to no good. Unfortunately, the kids' shenanigans seem to have disturbed a mysterious, hooded psycho, who has decided to bump them off, one by one... I've been known to enjoy a good slasher movie, but to be honest, I think the genre may have peaked quite some time ago. I can't think of too many from the last ten years which really make the cut (See what I did there? Brilliant, eh?). Off the top of my head, Switchblade Romance is the only one which I can remember really enjoying. Anyway, ATBLML isn't a complete disaster - it isn't as bad as Friday the 13th Part V, say - but it's nothing special, and never as clever as it seems to think it is. On the plus side, Amber Heard gives an appealing performance in the lead role, the movie is well shot, considering its low budget, and there's a (somewhat) surprising twist in the tale. On the down side, in common with many a slasher film, other than Mandy herself, most of the teen characters here are obnoxious, self-obsessed idiots. While this does have the advantage that you aren't too sorry to see them get their comeuppance, it also means that getting through the 'getting to know you' character scenes at the start of the movie are a real chore. In any event, the main problem here is that the movie just isn't frightening enough. Sure, there are a few unpleasantly graphic death scenes, but for me, the most effective part of a slasher film are those scary and suspenseful scenes where the killer stalks the victim. In this respect, Mandy Lane is sorely lacking. Given a choice between this type of modern slasher flick, and the '70s classics, I'll take Halloween or Black Christmas any day of the week.
Cell 211 (2009)
This recent Spanish movie is set within the claustrophobic confines of Zamora Prison, where new prison guard Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is having the worst first day on the job in history. After being accidentally knocked unconcious, he is set down to rest in an empty cell, but soon finds himself behind enemy lines as a prison riot erupts, led by the charismatic but short-tempered inmate Malamadre (Luis Tolar). If Juan is to survive his ordeal, he must pose as a prisoner - and pretty soon, he's facing suspicion from within the ranks of the rioters. All in all, this was a well acted, decently directed drama, but to me, it all felt a bit like a Spanish episode of Oz, the HBO drama series. Now, I do like Oz, but I felt at times that the show went a bit too far in search of new storylines, which sometimes meant that things became quite implausible. Cell 211 suffers from the same problem - though it builds up a believable world inside the jail, certain plot twists which occur detract from the believability of the story, so the tragedy facing the lead character never quite had the impact on me that the filmmakers (I feel) were aiming for. It's solid enough then, but not in the same league as the undisputed heavyweight champion of prison movies, Un Prophet.
Fire in Babylon (2010)
This excellent documentary looks back to the glory days of West Indies cricket when, from the mid 1970s until then early 1990s, the team were unbeaten in Test match series. The film charts the team's progress from the 'Calypso cricket' played by earlier West Indian sides, who were regarded as talented, but lacking in the application to succeed, through to the ruthless and fearsome team which was built on the back of some of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. Many of the leading lights from the era get to have their say, including the likes of Sir Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. What is particularly interesting is the way the filmmakers highlight the way that the upheaval social injustices in the region at the time spurred the players on, with the West Indians being particularly motivated to defeat England, their former colonial masters. Highly recommended for any cricket fan.
The Descendants (2011)
After a lengthy absence, director Alexander Payne has returned with this latest effort, a film which has attracted a great deal of critical claim in the US, as well as being nominated for four Oscars. It's all about the travails of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), who is forced to make some difficult decisions when his wife suffers a near-fatal boating accident. He has to take care of his two feisty daughters (played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and deal with his aggressive father in law (Robert Forster) and the Nelson Muntz lookalike his daughter is dating. While all of this is going on, he's responsible for negotiating the sale of a large parcel of land which his family owns, which requires getting the approval of the various cousins who all have a stake in it. On top of everything else, he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a local estate agent - and with his daughters' encouragement, he decides to pay the guy a visit... To some extent, I can see why the film has attracted such praise. The acting is pretty solid across the board, with Clooney and Woodley offering particularly good performances. Payne succeeds in portraying how life goes on in Hawaii, away from the touristy areas, and the film incorporates some beautiful shots of the unspoilt Hawaiian scenery. However, for me, this is a bit of a step down for Alexander Payne. I'm a big fan of Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, and that's largely because of the wonderfully sharp scripts, which display Payne's caustic wit and ear for dialogue. Though it's great to see Alexander back making movies again, Descendants feels rather blunt and dull in comparison.