Monday, 30 April 2012

That was the week that was (23 - 30 April)

Well, there's some good news and some bad news this week (though, as Malcolm in The Office once told David Brent, you may see it as some bad news and some irrelevant news).

First up, the bad news: this will be the last instalment of TWTWTW for the time being. I've found that it's becoming a bit of a chore to write up reviews of every film I see, to the point where I'm sometimes only watching a few films a week to save me having to to do a lengthy edition of the blog.

However, the good news is that this won't be the end of Kirk's Movie Blog - I'm still going to do a (much shorter) weekly entry, which will now be called 'The Week In Brief'. I'll list the films I've seen, add a few thoughts on anything movie related over the past week, and (introducing a new and exciting feature!) will include a movie quote of the week. This should hopefully take up much less of my time, so I'll be able to do my 'Listorama!' top ten lists on a far more regular basis.

Keep your eyes peeled for those changes, starting next weekend, when there will be a first edition of 'The Week in Brief', and a list of my top ten L.A. movies.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

As I've mentioned in the last two editions of TWTWTW, I've really been looking forward to seeing this one, and this week, I finally got the chance to check it out. It's a film where knowing too much of the storyline going in is likely to reduce your enjoyment, so I'll restrict my plot synopsis to events which take place in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Five college students are hitting the road and heading for the backwoods of America for a funfilled weekend in a strange old cabin (looking rather like the one used in the Evil Dead), oblivious to the danger that will soon be arriving on their doorstep. The five represent the usual stereotypes you tend to encounter in slasher movies - you have your obvious Final Girl, rather more proper and studious than her friends. Then we have the Nerd, the Jock and his girlfriend, the Promiscuous Woman. Completing the ensemble, we have the Obnoxious Comic Relief, in the form of a shambolic stoner who looks and acts rather like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. However, it's soon apparent that there's rather more to the story than initially meets the eye - our protagonists are being watched on camera by a group of scientists in some kind of industrial installation, with these scientists able to influence the environment and actions of the people they're observing... As I've mentioned, I enjoyed this one, on the whole. The script was generally pretty sharp - poking fun at horror movie tropes, and mixing in plenty of laughs. The big twist, when it is revealed, makes sense within the context of what you've seen leading up to it, and there's a fantastically over the top, bloodsoaked finale. On the other hand, the film isn't particularly scary - sure, there are one or two jump scares in the early going, but compared to a movie like Scream, which managed to include a couple of genuinely terrifying scenes as well as deconstructing the slasher genre, it isn't as successful. The acting is of variable quality - the cast members playing the college kids are generally fair to middling in their roles, but Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are tremendous fun as the wisecracking head scientists. The Cabin in the Woods probably didn't quite meet the levels of anticipation which had built up in my head, but it's still an interesting take on the horror genre, and well worth checking out if you're a fan of horror movies, Joss Whedon or both of the above.

Rating: 7/10

Marvel Avengers Assemble (2012)

My second encounter with Joss Whedon this week, and a second enjoyable trip to the multiplex. This much hyped superhero team up sees Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye join forces to fight against an invading alien force led by Thor's half brother, the trickster god Loki. It can't have been easy to develop a fast paced film which provides for each of these characters to get their share of screen time, but Whedon has accomplished it. What's even more surprising is that the film is genuinely funny, with a number of laugh out loud moments that met with great approval in the cinema I saw it in. The cast is strong, with standout performances from Robert Downey Jr (having fun in his role as the suave, charismatic Tony Stark), Mark Ruffalo (as brilliant as ever) and Tom Hiddlestone (on fine, moustache twirling form as the weaselly Loki).  Aside from its cumbersome title, there isn't too much wrong with the film - I suppose my only complaint would be with the villains of the piece. Though Loki makes for a fine bad guy, his partners in crime are an army of faceless aliens who don't really offer much of a threat to the Avengers, and chiefly serve to act as cannon fodder and provide our heroes with a chance to display their fighting abilities. Despite that minor flaw, it's a really entertaining, action-packed blockbuster, and sets a high bar for The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises to live up to later on this summer.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 23 April 2012

That was the week that was (16 - 22 April)

Well, due to unforeseen circumstances, I still haven't had the chance to see The Cabin in the Woods (as I mentioned last week, it's a film I'm really looking forward to). Fingers crossed, I'll get to see it on Wednesday. My anticipation may have reached dangerous levels by then, but hopefully I''ll be able to get through the next three days without encountering any spoilers.

Aside from gearing up to see TCITW, I've realised that it's been almost a month since I last did a top 10 list on this blog. I aim to rectify that situation in the near future - I just need to decide what my subject matter will be. I'm currently weighing up the respective merits of a top 10 Comedy movies, top 10 films set in LA and a top 10 Gangster pictures - one of those lists will be appearing on this blog sometime soon.

Unknown (2011)

For a guy I previously associated with acting in serious, dramatic roles, Liam Neeson appears to have changed his career path somewhat recently, and has become something of an unlikely action star. What with this movie, Taken and, er, Taken 2, he seems to be keen on roles in which he can head to a European destination and dish out a few beatings to nefarious locals. Anyway, this one has Neeson playing Dr Martin Harris, a successful American academic who has travelled to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a biotechnology conference. Before he can check his bags into his hotel, he realises that he has left a suitcase behind at the airport, and hails a cab back there so that he can retrieve his lost luggage. Unfortunately for Martin, he's involved in a near fatal car crash en route to the airport, and though his life is saved by the quick thinking of his taxi driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), he is knocked unconscious. He lapses into a coma, but on waking up he discovers that his place at the conference has been taken by an impostor - and that his wife no longer recognises him. In trying to solve this mystery, Martin stumbles upon a even bigger conspiracy, and with the help of Gina, aims to right some wrongs... I'd read some mixed reviews before seeing this one, but on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised. It's a thriller with an intriguing plot, some exciting set pieces and solid performances from Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger. There are some major plot twists here, though in order to avoid spoiling the story, I won't reveal them here. Although these twists do stretch plausibility to some degree, the frantic pace of the concluding part of the movie means that you don't really have too much chance to think about any inconsistencies in the plot until the movie is over. For me, the only major negative was the acting of January Jones: her work in this movie is almost unbelievably wooden, and nearly as bad as her breathtakingly awful performance as Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class. Now, I've seen her put in some really impressive work as Betty Draper in Mad Men, so I know she can act, but I'm damned if I can see any evidence of it in this picture. Fortunately, she's only a small part of this movie, and on the whole, this is a creditable thriller.

Rating: 7/10

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Kind of like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest for girls, though this one stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie instead of Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito. Ryder plays Susanna Kaysen, a depressed young woman who is checked in to a mental institution following a suicide attempt, where she gets to meet a whole bunch of crazy people, including the manipulative Lisa (Jolie), the childlike Polly (Elisabeth Moss) and the compulsive liar Georgina (Clea DuVall). Unlike the nightmarish asylum in Cuckoo's Nest, the doctors and staff in this movie are portrayed in a generally positive light - it's clear that they're doing the best they can to help the patients, and though they make some mistakes, their intentions are good. Watching this movie, I couldn't help but be impressed by Angelina Jolie's remarkable performance as Lisa. She's a fascinating character - charismatic, dangerous, alternating between being the one bright spot in Susanna's world, and a black hole of hatred, threatening to destroy everything in her path. For my money, she completely overshadows Winona Ryder's character, who is nominally the audience identification figure, but is ultimately a bit of a cipher, comparatively blank and dull. Despite this issue, I was thoroughly absorbed by this movie and while it isn't as great as Cuckoo's Nest, it's still a very well made picture. Thinking about it, my top two favourite films starring Angelina Jolie (this one and Changeling) both involve her spending most of the film in the nuthouse. Not sure what that means - Angelina's good at playing crazy people? I enjoy wallowing in other people's misery? Something to ponder on...

Rating: 8/10

Darkman (1990)

Before Sam Raimi got the chance to make big budget superhero pictures (with his Spider-Man series), he took up the chance to try the genre out for size with this film, featuring a hero created by Raimi himself. Darkman starts off life as a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), who is badly burned and left for dead by a group of evil gangsters, acting under the orders of local kingpin Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Westlake survives the attack, but his burns have left him horribly disfigured and unable to feel pain. He plots revenge against the criminals who left him in this condition, using masks made out of a patented type of synthetic skin which disintegrates after 99 minutes... This is a film which I liked well enough while I was watching it, but it hasn't left much of a lasting impression on me.  Neeson makes for a decent enough hero, and there's a pretty good supporting cast, who range from very good (Frances McDormand as Darkman's love interest) to pretty hammy (Colin Friels as villainous businessman Louis Strack).  From a visual perspective, it's an interesting midway point between the charmingly handmade special effects of The Evil Dead, and the highly polished CGI work of Spider-Man and Drag Me to Hell. The movie certainly isn't anything like as impressive as Raimi's first two Spider-Man films, but then this film didn't have anything like as big a budget as those movies, and it's enjoyable enough if taken on its own terms.

Rating: 6/10

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Way back in the '90s, before I'd even heard of the Internet Movie Database, I used Microsoft's Cinemania '95 as a research base for my growing interest in film. The CD-Rom was packed full of reviews from Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Pauline Kael, and I was able to find many gems by scouring its archives. One film which was universally beloved by all of the Cinemania critics was Cinema Paradiso - yet for one reason and another, I never actually got around to watching it until this week. Did it live up to the expectations I've carried around in my head during that 15 year wait? Well, to be honest, probably not, but it's still a very good film all the same. It's a coming of age story in which Salvatore, a successful Italian film director, looks back at his boyhood and adolescence in a small town in Sicily. He grows from being an irrepressible little boy to a rather more levelheaded adolescent and finally to a rather repressed and numb adult in the present day. The common thread which connects these three incarnations of Salvatore is his love of cinema. Back in Sicily, he begins working at the cinema at a very young age, mentored by the wise and kindly projectionist, Alfredo, continuing this job as he takes over as head projectionist as a youth, and then becoming a director as an adult. I guess what's most interesting to me is that as Salvatore grows older and becomes more successful, he loses much of the vitality that he had as a child; as a 6 year old, he has almost nothing, yet is full of hope and joy - aged 50, he has the world at his feet, but seems withdrawn and lost. As I mentioned above, this isn't just a coming of age story - it's also a love letter to a golden age of cinema. One of the saddest sights in the movie happens towards the end, where the Paradiso is demolished. Thinking back to the carefree, raucous days in the '40s and '50s when the whole town used to spent their evenings in the picture house, you feel a great sense of loss for this bygone era. My only issue with this one is that the second half seemed a little rushed to me - we rush through Salvatore's teenage years, and never get so see how he makes his name as a director. I saw the 2 hour cut (rather than the original 3 hour version), which might explain why the concluding half of the film felt a bit hurried. Still, it's a fine film, but perhaps not quite worth the lengthy wait.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 16 April 2012

That was the week that was (9 - 15 April): Bonus List Edition

Two important milestones have passed (or will pass) this week: firstly. I turned thirty a couple of days ago, so I am now officially old. Secondly, and more importantly, as of the 18th of April, Kirk's Movie Blog will reach its first anniversary. I've learned some interesting things in my first year of movie blogging, including the following:

1. Judd Nelson wears too many coats.

2. The Big Lebowski offers a definitive answer to the question: "Do strong men also cry?"

3. Taxi Driver is probably the best film I've seen over the last year. Birdemic: Shock and Terror is definitely the worst.

4. Eddie Murphy used to be funny.

5. Don't bother watching a movie on a plane if you're a fan of amusing profanities.

6. Dirty Harry is a fine film, but not a patch on McGarnagle.

7. Kill List is not recommended for those of you with a fear of hammers (Malleusphobics?)

8. Jude Law's Australian accent is pretty damn shoddy.

9. Watching 16 horror movies is a healthy and productive way of spending your week off work.

10. Hanna was my favourite film of 2011.

11. Margaret just might be my favourite film of 2012.

12. If you want to clear a large group of zombies out of your house, running them over with a lawnmower may be your best option.

13. Homer Goes To College is the most cromulent episode of the Simpsons ever.

14. If you only see one Finnish evil Santa Claus movie this year, make sure it's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

In other news, I'm really excited about going to see The Cabin in the Woods, but as not too many of my friends are fans of the horror genre, it looks like I'm going to have to wait until next weekend before I get to see it. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but it's a movie which apparently has some major plot twists, so in order for me to go in to the cinema 'fresh', I'm having to be very careful about the articles I read online. Both the BBC and the Guardian have run stories which contain major spoilers to the movie's plot over the course of the last week, and it was only by frantically clicking the 'back' button on my web browser that I was able to avoid having the film's surprises ruined for me.

Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) (2010)

This highly acclaimed movie from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami sees internationally renowned academic James Miller (William Shimell) in Florence to promote his latest book, in which he argues that copies of artworks have just as much intrinsic value as the originals. After the opening scene, in which Miller gives a speech setting out his arguments, the remainder of the film sees him spend a day out in the Tuscan countryside with Elle (Juliette Binoche), a fan of his work. Or at least, that's what appears to be the case for the first 45 minutes - at this point, things start to get highly confusing, as the relationship between the pair changes abruptly, and almost without warning, from that of a pair of polite strangers to the conversational patterns of a long established married couple. I've never been too great at picking up on the more subtle aspects of filmmaking - generally imagery and metaphors have to be made repeatedly and obviously for me to pick up on them. All the same,  if I was to offer my interpretation of what transpires in this movie, I would suggest that in the second half of the picture, the pair are attempting to see if Miller's theory will apply equally to human relationships as it does to art. By acting as a facsimile of a married couple, perhaps the pair can learn something about the value (and also the difficulties) of a long term partnership. After sitting through this movie, I can't honestly say that I enjoyed it all that much - I spent too much time in a state of complete bafflement to completely engage with what was happening on the screen. On the other hand, while I was confused, I was never bored with what I was watching, and both of the lead actors (particularly Binoche) give strong performances in their respective roles.

Rating: 6/10

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

As I've mentioned above, I'm really looking forwards to seeing The Cabin in the Woods, and this is another film which takes a fresh look at the rather tired horror film trope whereby a group of attractive but dimwitted students spend a weekend in the country and end up getting butchered by angry and/ or psychotic rednecks. This is something which I've seen before a number of times - such as in Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any number of Friday the 13th sequels, etc. etc. Anyway, with this movie, the tables have been turned - our protagonists are a pair of humble, likeable hillbillies who decide to spend some time in their holiday home in a dank, gloomy forest. Unbeknownst to them, however, a band of arrogant and foolish college students are also spending their spring break in the woods. Tucker and Dale have nothing but good intentions towards the college kids, but tragically, their friendly overtures are mistaken for murderous threats, leading to a series of unfortunate accidents, in which the youngsters contrive to find ways to shoot, skewer, burn and otherwise hurt themselves... I have to say that this is a really good idea for a film, but in practice, the results are just fair to middling. For a film billed as a 'horror/ comedy/ romance', it's never very scary, or romantic, and though there are a few funny moments, the humour on offer here is very hit and miss. I suppose that it's difficult to mash together the horrific and the hilarious, though that never stopped Shaun of the Dead (and to a lesser extent, The Cottage) from succeeding.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, 9 April 2012

That was the week that was (2 - 8 April)

Easter is upon us, bringing a much needed long weekend, in which I've done the following things: (a) went to Hereford to watch a really dire football match, (b) played squash for the first time in about five months, and (c) sat around the house watching quite a few movies, reviews for which are coming right up:

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

I've been a fan of (Bristol's own) Aardman Animations since the mid '90s, when they released a series of fantastic short films starring a Wensleydale enthusiast and his canine sidekick. This time out, our heroes are a crew of misfit pirates, led by Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain, and ably assisted by Number Two (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Despite their shortcomings as plunderers and swashbucklers, the Pirate Captain is determined to achieve his dream of one day becoming pirate of the year, even if he has to sell his beloved dodo, Polly, to do it. This quest leads him from his Caribbean stomping ground to smoggy old London, home of his arch nemesis, Queen Victoria. Now, I saw the movie in a packed out cinema, and it was noticeable that there weren't very many moments where the whole audience was laughing out loud - it isn't that kind of film. Instead, there are plenty of subtly amusing moments that make you chuckle, little references to various figures in Victorian Britain (Jane Austen, the Elephant Man), that kind of thing. It's also a film which will (I suspect) reward repeat viewing - the attention to detail in the creation of the backdrops to the pirate's adventures is fantastic, with all sorts of things going on in the background which you only notice if you're looking closely. Whilst this one isn't quite up to Wallace and Gromit standards (as it's lacking in big laughs), it's still entertaining stuff.

Rating: 7/10

Hugo (2011)

I was doing a pub quiz recently and was surprised to discover that it was this film, rather than The Artist, which was nominated for the highest number of Academy Awards at this year's Oscars. Of course, many of these were in the more 'technical' categories (Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing/ Mixing etc.), but it also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and won for Best Cinematography. All of which is kind of a long-winded way of saying that this is certainly a noteworthy picture, and one I should probably have got around to seeing sooner. The film is a bit of a departure for Martin Scorsese; we're a long way from the mean streets of New York City here, instead we're transported to the more genteel location of Paris in the 1930s.  Behind the scenes at the Gare Montparnasse we find young orphan Hugo Cabret, surviving on a diet of stolen croissants, working to repair a clockwork automaton left to him by his father, and generally doing his best to avoid the attentions of the rather unpleasant station inspector (played by Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo's life takes a turn for the better, however, when he befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the granddaughter of one of the merchants at the station. As the pair go in search of an adventure, they discover that there's more to Isabelle's grandfather (Ben Kingsley) than initially meets the eye... This is a film which works so phenomenally well visually that you're able to forgive any minor flaws it might have (the dialogue which is a little un-naturalistic at times, and the young leads have a few shaky moments, particularly in the beginning of the film). The cinematography here is absolutely top notch - the way the camera swoops around the beautifully recreated Parisian station is breathtaking. Almost every frame of the movie has been brilliantly composed, and it's just generally a treat for the eyes.  All in all, it's a fine picture, and one which fully deserved its recognition at the Oscars.

Rating: 8/10

Super (2010)

I've been burned by Rainn Wilson before. Sure, he's probably the funniest guy on the US version of the Office, but when it comes to starring in movies, he's like some sort of comedic black hole, sucking the life out of a picture. I mean, I'm one of the (approximately) five people who saw The Rocker, so I'm well aware of his shortcomings. Anyway, even though I probably should have known better, I decided to rent this one. The premise sounded intriguing - a regular guy decides to take the law into his own hands and become a superhero, kind of like Kick Ass, but more realistic. There's even a dependable cast of strong character actors in support - Kevin Bacon, Ellen Page, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo... However, in practice, the tone of the film is just massively misjudged. All it amounts to is Wilson's superhero running amok in a grim, post-industrial city, smashing perceived wrong-doers (whose crimes may amount to merely cutting in line) over the head with a spanner.  I like to think that I can appreciate black humour - I liked Observe and Report, which also took a darkly comic look at vigilante justice - but this film is just crushingly brutal and depressing, and includes hardly anything that even vaguely resembles a joke. Super? It's anything but. 

Rating: 3/10

The Omega Man (1971)

In which Charlton Heston stars as Robert Neville, a former scientist and one of the few survivors of a biological attack which has ravaged North America. He's free to roam the city by day, watching movies at empty cinemas, picking out clothes from deserted department stores and cruising around town in his convertible. However, at night time, he has to hole up in his heavily fortified apartment - because after dark, the city becomes the domain of 'The Family', a tribe of individuals disfigured and warped by the effects of the biological weapons. This group, outfitted in black monk's habits, blame the scientists for the downfall of civilisation, and want to take revenge on Neville. Now, I've seen the Will Smith movie based on the same story (I Am Legend), as well as the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror parody (the Homega Man), so I knew what to expect from this one. Still, as this was the original take on Richard Matheson's novel, I expected something a little better than what I ended up watching. In a number of ways, the movie has dated pretty badly - in particular, the gun battles and fake blood used look very unconvincing. By this stage in his career, Charlton Heston seems altogether too old to be playing an action hero, and his romance with a much younger woman left me feeling kind of grossed out. That's not to say it's a complete disappointment - despite his advancing years, Heston still has tremendous screen presence, which is very important, particularly in the early going, where he's basically talking to himself for the opening half hour. All the same, if I was to rank the three versions of Matheson's story I've seen, this would come in third (obviously, the Homega Man would top the list...).

Rating: 6/10

In A Better World (Haevnen) (2010)

The first of two Scandinavian movies I saw to finish off the week, this one was the recipient of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, beating out the likes of Biutiful and Dogtooth to win the prize. To be honest, I've now seen all three of those movies, and it's tough to choose the best one - if I was pushed, I'd probably plump for Dogtooth, but there's not much in it. What I can say is that the Academy didn't make a bad decision - this is a very well put together and acted picture. It's a film which tells two parallel stories: one involving a Swedish doctor posted in a refugee camp in Africa, and the other involving the doctor's son and his struggles with bullying at his school in Denmark. Both of these tales take on common themes - violence begetting violence, how to cope with the loss of a loved one and how to confront one's enemies. If I was to be over critical, I would say that the African story is underserved in comparison with the Danish one - we get around twice as much coverage of the issues facing the kids in Denmark as we do of the refugee camp. Nevertheless, it's a very strong film, with a number of compelling performances, particularly from Mikael Persbrandt (as the doctor) and Markus Rygaard and William Johnk Nielsen (as the two troubled Danish boys).

Rating: 8/10

Headhunters (Hodejegerne) (2011)

My movie of the week this time around is this brilliant Norwegian thriller, based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo. It concerns the life and times of a conniving, philandering corporate headhunter, named Roger Brown, who keeps his beautiful wife in the style to which she has become accustomed by moonlighting as an art thief. Using the pretext of a job interview with various wealthy individuals, he tricks them into revealing details about any valuable works of art they own, as well as their domestic security arrangements, then burgles their homes at a time he knows they will be away. Brown makes for a brilliant antihero, but he more than meets his match when he attempts to steal a priceless Rubens painting from Clas Greve, a Dutch CEO who is a former special forces operative. Pretty soon, he finds himself in over his head and on the run from this remorseless and cruel adversary...   This is a movie which really warrants the term 'thriller' - it's exciting, tense stuff from start to finish, with some scenes in the middle of the picture which almost defy belief.  Special praise should go to Aksel Hennie for his fine performance as Roger Brown. At the beginning of the movie, his character is a truly reprehensible individual, but by the end you can only admire the courage and resourcefulness that he displays in attempting to overcome a seemingly unbeatable opponent.  I really enjoyed this one - it keeps you gripped right until the end, with a plot that twists and turns and keeps you guessing until its dramatic conclusion.

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 2 April 2012

That was the week that was (26 March - 1 April)

Another pretty quiet week on the movie watching front - once again, I've been distracted by my current favourite TV show,  Breaking Bad. Sadly for me, I've now finished Season 4, and will have to wait a long time before I can continue the story of Walter White's seemingly endless downward spiral. Season 5 hasn't even started in the US yet, so I doubt we'll be seeing the DVDs in Europe until at least 2013. I'll just have to content myself with rewatching the first couple of seasons of the show - a happier time, when Walter and Jesse were just a pair of mismatched meth cooks, rather than the coldblooded sociopaths they have become in the most recent series.

This week was also only the second week thus far this year in which I've failed to make a trip to the cinema. I aim to rectify that situation next week, as I'm planning to see two very different films.  On the lighter side of things, the new Aardman picture "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!" is now out on general release, so I'm planning to check that one out on Wednesday. Any joy or merriment I experience from seeing that film will be short lived, however - I'm also intending to see Werner Herzog's sobering documentary about the death penalty (Into The Abyss) next weekend.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

A very unusual film, this one - set in Lapland, it's an alternative look at the story of Santa Claus. The premise here is that Father Christmas is real, and has been awoken from a centuries-long slumber by a careless group of engineers. Now, I thought Billy Bob Thornton was a bad role model in Bad Santa, but compared to the version of Saint Nick we see in this movie, he's a veritable saint. As one Finnish youngster discovers, the real Santa takes punishing naughty children far more seriously than dishing out presents to kids who've been good. Not only that, but he has an army of elderly, bearded elves who are determined to defrost their fiendish master and see him rule Christmastime once more. Only a small band of Finnish villagers stands in their way... Although it may have been more appropriate to see Rare Exports in the festive period in December, I still enjoyed this movie. It's unlike anything I've seen before, and provides a winning combination of dark humour, action and scares. Considering the film's low budget (1.8 million Euros), the CGI effects used here are really quite effective. My only grumble would be that some of the cast members aren't the greatest actors in the world, though weighed against this movie's merits, it's not really a big problem. I just feel sorry for the poor old guys who played the elves - standing around naked in the middle of winter in Finland can't have been too much fun. Anyway, if you only see one Finnish evil Santa Claus film this year, make sure it's this one. 

Rating: 7/10

50/50 (2011)

It must have been a bit tricky to pitch the concept for this movie to studio executives - I can't imagine that a comedy about cancer would have been an easy sell. Nevertheless, director Jonathan Levine does pull it off, more or less, handling the subject matter with sensitivity, whilst getting quite a few laughs. Our protagonist here is Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a level-headed young guy who works for a Seattle radio station, along with his brash, outgoing best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). Everything in Adam's life is turned upside down when he discovers that he's been diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer - one which gives him a 50/50 chance of survival. As I mentioned above, this movie generally works pretty well, with a decent script and some strong, believable central characters. The always dependable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good in the central role  - portraying a character who is flawed but still largely sympathetic. He's admirably backed up Anna Kendrick, who plays Adam's therapist/ potential love interest, and is sweet and funny. I was less sold on Seth Rogen's character, however. Though he does come out with a number of the film's funniest lines, at times his actions border on the cruel and obnoxious, particularly in the way he treats Adam's (admittedly selfish) girlfriend. If I was to be ultra critical, I did feel that while the film doesn't exactly gloss over the horrors of cancer, it's hardly an unflinching look into the dark side of Adam's condition. I suppose that taking a raw and unsanitised look into mortality and sickness would pretty much negate the possibility of finding any humour in the situation.

Rating: 7/10

The Awakening (2011)

A period ghost story in a similar vein to the recent Daniel Radcliffe picture The Woman in Black, this time we have a story set just after the First World War, with Rebecca Hall sent up North to a spooky old house in the bleak Cumbrian countryside. Hall plays Florence Cathcart, an educated woman and professional debunker of spiritualists, mystics and psychics. She is asked by a teacher played by Dominic West (aka McNulty in The Wire) to investigate a boy's boarding school which is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a former resident. As a believer in rationality and science, Florence is determined to prove that there is a rational explanation for the sightings of the spirit, but on arrival at the school, it is soon apparent that she may be in over her head... Now this is a film which I largely enjoyed for the first hour or so - setting a ghost story shortly after the First World War is a fine idea, and the movie explores some interesting territory in examining a time and place where almost every character has suffered pain and trauma - either directly through fighting in the trenches, or indirectly through losing a loved one. The film is well shot and handsomely appointed and Hall, West and Imelda Staunton (as the creepy matron of the school) are all very good in their respective roles. Unfortunately for me, the movie is completely let down by a frustratingly implausible and ridiculous ending. I usually try not to give away any spoilers to the endings of films on this blog, but in this case, I feel that I'll have to make an exception to explain myself. (*Massive spoilers ahead*). The big twist here is that Florence is the half-sister of the ghostly boy at the school - who was murdered when her father ran amok with a shotgun some twenty years previously. The school had been set up at the site of her former home, and Florence had been lured there by the school matron (who was the boy's mother and Florence's former nanny); the reason why Florence has been unable to recognise her brother, nanny and former home is apparently because the trauma of the incident lead to her 'blacking out' all memory of it. Now, I could maybe buy all that (though it does seriously stretch the bounds of plausibility), but we are also told that Florence was adopted after the incident, and indeed, she is living with those adopted parents in the opening scene in London, where they are privy to the conversation with Dominic West's character. Surely, having kept the tragedy a secret for twenty years and having seen the name and location of the school, her adopted parents would have said something to Florence to prevent her from heading up there? This twist ending is so absurd that, for me, it ruins all of the good work up to the point of the big reveal. It's a real shame - with a less gimmicky ending, the film could have been a success.

Rating: 4/10

The Lost Boys (1987)

This is one of those cult '80s movies which I missed the first time around, but have now finally had a chance to catch up with. The plotline sees a group of kids take a stand against a gang of teenage vampires who are causing trouble in a small seaside town in California.  Starring in the movie we have a number of actors who were big names at the time: Kiefer Sutherland plays David, the leader of the vampires, Alex Winter (aka Bill S. Preston, Esq.) is one of his acolytes,  Coreys Feldman and Haim play two of the kids who take on the vampires, and Jason Patric is Haim's older brother, a troubled teenager who is lured into the clutches of the gang by a beautiful young woman (Jami Gertz). It's directed by Joel Schumacher, so, as expected, it's highly colourful and stylish, albeit in a way that looks pretty dated nowadays. All in all, the Lost Boys is fun to watch as a sort of flashback to the wacky days of the '80s, and there are some truly awesome(ly bad) haircuts and outfits on display here. I have to admit that I loved one scene in particular: one of the vamps is dissolved in a bath tub full of garlic and holy water, leading to vampire blood exploding out of every tap, sink and plughole in the house (yes, I'm easily amused). Still, I'm not entirely sure that the film's as great as its many fans seem to think. I suppose it makes a big difference whether you initially see it as a kid - I'm prepared to cut movies like The Goonies and Flight of the Navigator a lot of slack, mainly based on warm recollections of watching them on VHS in the late '80s. I didn't have that kind of nostalgic emotional connection with this one, so I suppose it's inevitable that I can't rate it as highly.

Rating: 6/10