Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Curious Case of David Fincher's Latest Film

With less than 48 hours to go until the oscar winners are announced, I finally got to see David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a 'digital presentation' at my local picture house in Clapham.

I wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of Fincher. I loved Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, but thought Panic Room was an extremely average 'thriller' best suited to TV prime-time. And I think all of Fincher's films are too long. Benjamin Button clocks in at just under 3 hours so the director's rather self-indulgent trend doesn't seem to have been broken with this latest oscar-nominated offering.

I left this film until last because of the luke-warm reviews from the British critics - the vast majority of whom seem to think it should NOT have been nominated for an oscar. I'm sorry to have to say I agree with them. OK, maybe it's worthy of a technical oscar for the special effects, but 'Best Film' or 'Best Director'? Gimme a break!

I thought Forrest Gump, which many of the critics have compared this film to - it shares the same writer - was a seriously over-rated film (not a bad one, just not one that deserved the 'Film of the Year' oscar) and alas, Benjamin Button plays out like Forrest Gump II, but without any of the original's charm or humour. Ridiculously neat and tidy, and overly-sentimental, one-sentence platitudes are laid on with a trowel in a series of anecdotes that make little sense, have little commonality, and just give the impression that the script-writers had no idea how to tell a basic story. Things pull together in the second half, when we finally start on the main story (a life-long romance) but it's not hard to see why friends talk about having walked out of the film before it finished - I nearly did the same myself, I found the first half so disjointed and irritating.

As the film opens we have a dying Daisy, played by Cate Blanchette, asking her daughter to read out loud a diary in her bag. The diary is that of one 'Benjamin Button', who turns out to have been the love of the dying woman's life, and the film then progresses as a series of 'out loud' readings that translate into episodic flashbacks, interrupted every 10-15 minutes by trips in real time back to the dying hospital bed scene. These constant interruptions become increasingly irritating because there's really nothing to say at the hospital (apart from one very obvious, cliched revelation about the daughter's father mid-way through the film), and the film-makers have to invent a rather silly 'Is Hurricane Katrina going to hit the hospital before Daisy dies?' sub-plot to try and justify the constant switches between the past and the present. This sort of tired story-telling has been done so often before we feel we're watching a re-run of countless other movies - except the constant time switches were justified in other films. Here, it becomes very obvious that they are only needed because the flashback scenes are so disjointed and irrelevant to each other (and also to the main romance theme that will start about an hour into the film) that the editors had no way of putting the various clips together so that they made any kind of sense.

The central conceit of the film - that Daisy's life-long love Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a child who ages backwards, starting the film as an 'old man' baby and growing eventually into an Alzheimer's inflicted 5 year old - is surprisingly easy to take on board because the effects and make-up are so well done. However they just come across as a gimmick that wasn't really needed to tell the central message of the story, which seems to be about 'the meaning of life, death and loss'. The effects scenes in the latter part of the film don't work quite as well as the earlier ones - there's something not QUITE right about the 20 year-old Pitt compared with the 80 year-old one, so that just as one is starting to become immersed in the central story, one is taken out of it somewhat. Admittedly, things have come on quite a bit since the last time this sort of effect was used (to show a young Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men III) but it's hard to see it as much more than a mildly diverting gimmick that utlimately lessens the film rather than enhances it. And it's scary to think that in 20-30 years time, given the current rate of progress, punters will probably be able to see the likes of Richard Burton or Steve McQueen at any age in their career, playing new parts in new movies!

I'm glad I stayed to the end of the film, if only because the performances from Pitt and Blanchette are as perfect as one would expect them to be. But the whole thing felt like the pretentious, overlong, nonsensical piece of film-making many have accused it of, and it's hard to understand why this has been nominated in the 'Best Film' or 'Best Director' categories. Even in a digital presentation too much of the cinematography felt too dark and at times impenetrable (I'd even go so far as to say 'poorly lit') and overall I was disappointed with what felt like a wasted opportunity to tell a genuinely moving story.

Hopefully the American Academy will reflect the decisions made by the British Academy at last week's BAFTA's, and just give the film a few 'technical' oscars. Anything else would be a grave misjustice.

We'll all find out tomorrow morning (here in the UK - tonight for US readers) who the real winners are. I think this is the first year I've seen ALL of the films nominated, with a trip to Clapham Picture House later today meaning that I will also get to see all the Oscar-nominated short films as well. My gut feeling is that the supposedly leaked letter showing the oscar results (which the BBC have reported is a hoax) will reflect the final results. There's one or two minor disappointments in that list for me personally (most notably in the 'Best Film' and 'Best Actor' categories) but nothing too upsetting compared with past crimes (Chicago as 'Best Film'? - give me a break!) I almost wish I didn't have to work tomorrow so I could stay up all night and watch the results come in.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ChannelFlip's Film (DVD) Review Show

A few days ago I had an email from Ian Christie, CEO of ChannelFlip. It looked like one of those blanket emails I get occasionally, and asked if I'd be interested in a partnership deal that involved embedding a video player in my web site to promote a film review show the channel runs that could earn me advertising revenue.

I've had similar requests in the past (especially when my web site was attracting ridiculous amounts of traffic when I was producing the Lord of the Rings web logs) and have always turned them down. I've always thought there's something a bit tacky and desperate about blogs and web sites that carry advertising material. They annoy readers and usually turn out to earn the web site author mere pennies in revenue anyway.

Ian's note about the target audience for the film review show being 'savvy young men' (that'll be the 'young, dumb and full of cum' audience filling our multiplexes with endless American 'humour' and dumbed-down action movies then!) sounded alarm bells from the get-go. However, having only just blogged about the lack of a good DVD review show on the web I decided to have a look anyway.

I nearly gave up when the latest show kept giving me a 'Video not found' error every time I clicked to watch the latest show (a review of Don't Mess With The Zohan), but fortunately the problem seemed to have been rectified when I tried again 24 hours later, and I have to confess at the end of my first viewing I was left rather impressed.

The show, presented by Justin Gayner, is horribly mistitled in my opinion. As a film review show it lacks the appropriate timing of the excellent Spill site which publishes amusing cartoon-based reviews of films in the week of American release. And the iPlayer can always be used to watch the British Film 2009 if films are your main interest. ChannelFlip's show is actually more of a DVD review show since it typically reviews 'films' a week or so after they've come out on DVD, months after the theatrical release. The first editions of the show suffer from the usual 'how do you make a talking head interesting?' problem (an issue I struggled hopelessly with when I posted early 'alpha' editions of 'The Shiny Discs Show' around this time last year). This 'talking head' problem is one that even professionals on multi-million pound salaries haven't been able to solve, as viewers of Jonathan Ross' well-scripted reviews on the BBC's Film 2009 will testify, but it's good to see that more recent editions of the ChannelFlip film show have latched onto the fact that a few appropriately timed After Effects animations, as well as the usual film clips, can dramatically improve the pacing and entertainment value of the show.

The presenter is passionate and energetic, can write, and clearly knows his stuff, although admittedly the somewhat theatrical presentation style will not be to everyone's taste (I'm a bit bored with this shouty 'Project! Project! Project!' style myself if I'm honest).

But, all-in-all I do think the show has pretty much got it right, which is a bit scary when you're about to launch your own effort into what you thought had been a pretty empty playing field. The ChannelFlip film show doesn't outstay its welcome, running for a pert five or six munutes, is entertaining and amusing for the most part, gives more of the flavour of a film than a purely written review can do and, perhaps most importantly of all, doesn't freeze or stutter while you're trying to watch it. You can also subscribe to it via iTunes. All-in-all it's a pretty impressive debut.

Regular readers will know that I'm not keen on American comedies of the type that unfortunately make up the two most recent shows, but if you look back you'll see that the programme makers have shown great taste in the past, highlighting some really excellent films. I've chosen to embed (above) the show that reviewed one of my favourite films of last year - Man on Wire - from a few episodes back, so that you can watch it directly (click on the image up near the start of this blog entry). If you like what you see make sure to pop over to the ChannelFlip web site to see more of the same, and find a link to subscribe via iTunes.

ChannelFlip also produces short web shows that cover comedy, the web and gadgets amongst other things. Well worth checking out if you get the chance. In the meantime I like the show enough to have added it to my iTunes feed so that's a recommendation right there.

In the meantime,, when it finally launches, will be premiering with a weekly show of about the same length (just under 10 minutes), but will be focussing entirely on Blu-Ray reviews, with a main 'Blu-Ray of the week' review, a quick precis of the other releases of the week, a look at the sales chart and a brief news section covering upcoming releases. I'm also looking to launch in simultaneous web/video and pdf editions so that those who don't have time to watch video can read at their leisure. Look for an official announcement about the launch here at the end of March.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

And the award goes to...

It seems fortuitous that on the day I've set aside for the BAFTA's (don't get excited I'm just watching it on TV like everybody else - the days of being shoved into a pen on a red carpet and shouting myself hoarse trying to get a celebrity to look my way for a photo are thankfully long past) this blog should get an award from "Premio Dardos".

'What's that?' I hear you ask (I had to ask it too!). Well let me quote from Steve's blog (Steve was the guy who nominated me) The Last Picture Show:

"The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

It seems rather odd to win this award in the year I've done least blogging. I was proficient (at least with my shiny disc reviews) until February last year when I decided there was a 'gap in the market' for a VIDEO review of weekly shiny disc releases. Too many people are jumping on the video bandwagon (when actually the information would be quicker to impart and more useful in simple, written form) but I genuinely think film/DVD/Blu-Ray reviews can be done better via the video medium (if only to include clips and give a genuine flavour of the product being reviewed) and here in the UK fans are not being catered for at all by the main broadcasters.

Of course if I'd known work would get so manic, and the hurdles would be so large, I'd probably have abandoned the whole idea, but with work drying up on March 6th I'm cautiously optimistic that will formally launch its weekly Blu-Ray Review show at the end of March.

Anyway.... If this blog entry reads like it's being rushed - it is. This year, instead of waiting for a DVD release after the gongs have all been given out I've tried to see all the oscar-nominated/BAFTA-nominated awards BEFORE the ceremonies, even though that's meant far more trips to the local cinema than I'd normally indulge in. Today is BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) Awards day of course. For what it's worth I'd like to see Danny Boyle win 'Best Director' for Slumdog Millionaire, Milk walk away with 'Best Film' (it was emotionally the most engaging - Slumdog was too ridiculous a fairy tale with cartoon charicature 'evil' grown-ups and silly question coincidences meaning it failed to totally win my heart) and most of the acting awards too, with the possible exception of 'Best Supporting Actor' which Heath Ledger deserves for The Dark Knight, not because he's dead but because if you can't see the genius present in such diverse performances as The Brothers Grimm, Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight then your eyes must be closed! Alas, one nominated film Gomorrah remains to be seen (which thanks to having to work Saturday I only discovered had been delivered - on Blu-Ray - last night) and with just a few hours left until the BAFTA's start broadcasting I'm cutting it a bit fine!

However, to complete my 'award recipient' obligations, here are the 'five best blogs' I subscribe to in my RSS feed. I follow these guys religiously, and nominate each of them for a 'Dardos Award':

Brian Sibley: The Blog

Not strictly-speaking film-related, but a mish-mash of the many subjects that Brian's interested in. He's a huge film buff of course, and regularly appears on shiny disc as the 'talking head' film expert, especially where Disney, Tolkien, C S Lewis or Wallace and Gromit are concerned, as well as having been a broadcaster at the BBC for many years and a brilliant author too. His latest blog entry has a beautifully written and insightful review of the new Disney 3D CGI film Bolt on it - so go check it out. I feel very blessed that Brian is a mate and I get the chance to discuss movies with him regularly (although I'm sure his partner David gets bored to death as we compare notes), but his dedication to his blog, always updated daily, never fails to impress me and is what causes me to make my first award.


is not so much a blog as a film site. Run by Richard, up in Scotland, its my main news source and although Richard and I have had lots of disagreements (I think we just like different things!) his hard work and passion are always evident. He's actually down in London to blog about the BAFTA's today, and his dedication (he has a full-time job and filmstalker is just a hobby) never fails to impress me. He runs a great site and loves talking to his readers.

Blowing My Thought Wad

is always a good read, from a writer who knows his stuff and knows good quality when he sees it (although I'm struggling to forgive him for his dissing of The Dark Knight and over-enthusiasm for Wall-E which I thought was fundamentally flawed in structure, pacing and story-telling :-P). Blogger 'Good Dog' at least makes me feel I'm not totally alone in thinking that the Americans are the only ones producing good drama these days and that Doctor Who and Torchwood are for the most part an infantile embarrassment to our notion that we Brits can produce good drama. Of course it helps that at times he's almost as cantankerous as me ;-)

Reel Fanatic

is another great read, from a passionate film buff. I don't know how the writer, based in the States, manages to hold down a full-time job, and still post a daily critique of film and television news and events, but he does a fantastic job of it, and unfailingly responds to any and every comment made too. A real class act! Add it to your daily RSS feed checks!

The Last Picture Show

This one's a very recent discovery, and looks like a bit of mutual back-slapping on my part since the author, Steve Langton, nominated my blog for an award. Truth is Steve's love of film shines through his every post, and I also enjoy following him on Twitter. Steve's based in Derby, not far from where I attended university (Loughborough) and shares my love of great punk bands that I saw perform live at many venues in the area in the late 1970's. The fact that he has such great taste in films as well is a bit of a bonus.

That's it. Gotta go. The Gomorrah Blu-Ray is calling.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

First off, let me "'fess up" and admit that this isn't really a film review - it's a Blu-Ray review. Although Vicky Cristina Barcelona is officially released to UK cinema's this Friday (6th February), the region-free US import has been available with 'next day delivery' for the UK from movietyme for a couple of weeks now, with the film having received its Stateside theatrical release way back in August last year.

The Blu-Ray is over-priced at around £21 - especially since it's a vanilla disc with no extra's at all - but that's what you get with the falling value of the pound, and at least you're going to get a crystal clear picture if you decide to opt for the Blu-Ray over a trip to your local flea-pit. One note of caution on the picture quality front though - the film looks like it's been 'Tango-ed' because of the ridiculous colour grading that's been performed on the film, presumably to make it clear the movie takes place in a hot country.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona promotional picture

The film's title summarises the story perfectly: it's about two friends (Vicky and Cristina) and their trip to Barcelona! Vicky is straight-laced and conventional, having a last holiday with her best friend Cristina, before she gets married to a rathr dull lawyer. Cristina is her opposite - a, promiscuous, artistic, 'free spirit' who has commitment issues and, it transpires, low self-esteem despite obvious talent. The film is essentially the story of the two girls meeting a Spanish artist Juan (Javier Bardem) who cheekily introduces himself by suggesting the two spend a weekend with him 'making love'.

Cristina is attracted, Vicky is appalled and Juan's ex-wife, who has disappeared abroad after trying to murder her husband, returns not quite sure what she thinks.

The marketing of the film has been interesting, to say the least. Despite being a Cannes Film Festival award winner, the standard film trailer (not included on the Blu-Ray but which I caught at the cinema last week) and all the advertising I've seen makes no mention of the fact that this is a film written and directed by Woody Allen. I suspect this sublimation of the writer/director is deliberate, given the extremely negative reviews his last few films have received.

As the title suggests the film sees Allen moving on from London (where his last three films were made) in favour of Spain, and the move seems to have done him the world of good. Most critics are lauding this as a 'return to form' for the elderly director with 43 films to his name, although a few are at pains to point out that this is still a long way from the director's peak a couple of decades ago.

Javier Bardem shows surprising leading man charisma, turning a character that might have seemed seedy in other's hands, into a sexy, passionate, noble type whose purpose in life seems to be to bring out the best in others. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the impact his character has on the lives of all the people he meets improves their lot, even if it means characters completely change what they have perceived to be the important things in life up to their point of meeting him. If nothing else, this film proves that Bardem's award-winning performance in No Country For Old men (aka 'the performance with the silly wig') was no one-off fluke. Given Allen's notorious difficulties in dealing with actors (he allows no rehearsal time and allows only one or two takes) the results on display here are quite astounding.

Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall give strong, totally believable and sympathetic performances as the Cristina and Vicky of the title, but when Penelope Cruz turns up in the second half of the film, as Juan's psychotic ex-wife, she totally steals the film (and not JUST for her much publicised 'lesbian kiss' scene with Johansson's character). She is at turns fiery, sensitive, bonkers and amusing, often within the same short scene.

The film does rely a little too much on narration to 'fill in the gaps', and feels particularly artificial in that you can 'hear' Woody Allen reading it even though it's actually Christopher Evan Welch performing the role. But this is a small criticism when so much about the film is so enjoyable. Allen is careful not to judge any of his characters, or even indicate which of the two widely different world views held by Vicky and Cristina are the 'right' ones, leaving the viewer free to simply fall in love with the characters and the simple story he's set up.

I found the film a subtle, beautiful piece of work - albeit one that is rather like a rather exotic, but light desert: very enjoyable at the time, but not anything that strikes you as particularly substantial or necessary when reviewed in the cold light of day. While Allen's touch is deft, and his choice of music sublimely in keeping with the film's mood and themes, for me it's the ensemble cast that steal the picture and make this a 'recommended' viewing.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Although Revolutionary Road has garnered a few award nominations, it hasn't grabbed any of the really big nominations, and so was not on my list of films that I really needed to see BEFORE they hit shiny disc.

However, a particularly gruelling week at work, followed by some tedious study on Saturday morning left me wanting some escape from all the drudgery and so I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go and see the film at my local cinema, The Clapham Picture House, now thankfully outfitted with pristine digital projection.

Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road

Despite a high rating on imdb the response from the British critics seems to have been somewhat luke-warm, with one or two pathetically resorting to mean-spirited attacks on Leo DiCaprio's 'weasily' face as some sort of critique. Nearly all reviews have emphasised the bleakness of the piece, with many concluding that this new essay on American Suburbia, set in the 1950's, is a much lesser work than director Sam Mendes' earlier 1999 treatise on the same subject, American Beauty. Seemingly Revolutionary Road is in dire need of some of the black humour that helped elevate that piece. So, I was all set up for a film of unremitting despair and dreariness. Thankfully I got a beautifully directed and acted piece about the break up of a marriage in the 1950's, which had real intelligence and depth and - weren't you paying attention critics? - several moments of black humour too.

As the film opens we meet Kate and Leo's characters, April and Frank Wheeler, strangers flirting with each other across a crowded room, quickly falling in love. Most reviewers have tried to play down the hype around this reunion of Winslet and DiCaprio - their first film together since the collosally successful Titanic - pointing out that these are two very different characters from the star-crossed, iceberg-bound lovers who many wanted to see reunited again. The couple will indeed spend most of this new film's running time tearing each other apart. That being said, I think these could very well be the same couple, with the film effectively showing that romantic feelings (or lust) do not necessarily make the best starting point for a good, long, happy marriage. We're not long into the film before realising the couple are having problems. April has aspirations to be a professional actress, but her first amateur dramatics production is a disaster, with her own performance being the worst thing about it; whilst Frank is stuck in an office job he hates but suffers in order to provide for his family and young children. He finds himself so miserable and unhappy that it's hardly surprising he ends up having a one night stand with an infatuated doe-eyed secretary. Marriage-wise, things can clearly only go downhill from here.

Unfortunately, this first, short section of the film suffers greatly from comparisons to Mad Men, the Emmy-award winning series about ad men in the early 60's. The characters look and act the same, the set design (particularly of the offices and restaurants) look and act the same, and the basic story seems to be the same. All that's missing are the more soap-y elements necessary to keep a show running over 13 hours of prime-time TV. So comparisons are inevitable when the film starts off failing to offer anything different.

Fortunately things take a turn about 20 minutes in, and from then-on the film becomes a gripping, acting tour-de-force as the lives of the young married couple who feel they are 'special' compared to those around them, unravel.

When April sees a chance for the family to escape their dull, suburban, unhappy lives, by escaping to Paris for a new life, it seems that maybe there will be a 'happy ever after' ending after all, despite their seeming naivety about what awaits them in Paris. Neighbours and friends are incredulous, if a little envious, but events soon conspire against the couple as multiple chickens seem to come home to roost at the same time and the planned escape starts to fall apart in spectacular

Most reviews have centred on Kate Winslett winning performance as a depressed housewife, but for me DiCaprio's performance is the real relevation, and the far more interesting performance of the two. He has a much less sympathetic character to play but beautifully expresses the pain, sadness and anger his character experiences without resorting to histrionics. He is never less than 100% convincing, and the pain in his eyes is hard to bare. The actor has come a long way from the ridiculous 'pauper' acting as Jack that he gave us in Titanic.

Winslett delivers, as one would expect her to, based on previous form, but I couldn't help feeling this is the same Winslett act we've seen so many times before -Kate doing her teary, worthy, Oscar-nominated thing. It just felt a little too 'clever' to be entirely believable for me.

That being said, I was gripped by the film, right to its rather startling and abrupt end. The film takes its time to tell its story and tells it well, and the cinematography, from stalwart Roger Deacon is
stunning. It may not be a 'feel good' movie, but it's nowhere near as bleak as some critics have implied, and we're blessed that Hollywood can turn out strong, intellectual fare like this amongst all the banality
of gross-out 'comedies' and mindless action flicks that are guaranteed to put teenage bums on seats and turn a hefty profit.