Sunday, 30 November 2008

Choke Review

I was prompted to write this review after reading a short summary in The London Paper which briefly surmised Choke as an "enjoy con-artist comedy". Following their 'logic', I guess you'd have to describe the Chuck Palanuik's other film adaptation as "an amusing fighting film".

Now, the film does feature 'con-artistry' (from both the protagonist and his mother), but it's far too simple a way to sum up the film. I'd dub Choke a 'comedic incestual exploration of modern-day sexuality, mother issues and faith' - at best, the 'con-artistry' features in less than a quarter of the film.

While I'm defending the film's themes, it doesn't mean I was amazingly impressed by this Palahniuk adaptation. Unfortunately the music (an integral part of Fight Club - see Pixies - Where is my Mind?), although standout in places (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Satan Said Dance) was too sparse, and often scenes which would have been enhanced by musical accompaniment were strangely silent.

Although I disagree with the con-artistry part of the description, the comedic elements of the film are brilliantly handled, with particularly help from Rockwell's bemused Victor Mancini, experiencing anal bead indigestion, being asked to 'fake rape' an obsessively clean woman who can't stand mess, and dealing with the slightly dim-witted stripper who in response to Victor's statement 'blonds have a higher risk of cancer' dyes her hair brunette.
Speaking of the cast, Rockwell (see above picture) perfect slips into the role of Victor Mancini, bringing both his zany (see Zaphod in HHGTTG) and serious (see Matchstick Men and parts of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) sides to the everyman GenXer. Kelly Macdonald as Paige Marshall didn't quite work (although this may have been down to the script rather than her acting)- lacking the confidence from the book which meant she wasn't as believable as a doctor, which meant the twist at the end of the film was more obvious. Angelica Huston as Victor's mother Ida was unused and didn't have much to work with at the start of the film as a result of being sedated and bed-ridden. However, as we began saw the flashbacks of her and Victor's past, she was fun to watch in her wacky, slightly off-balance from reality way (reminiscent of her role in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).

In terms of comparisons to the book, a few details are missed out on screen, such as the Mother's hypnosis of men (allowing them believe they are sleeping with famous people), Victor seeing everything in medical terms (illness, anatomy) and Paige claiming she is from the future - all of which touch on the idea of perception of reality - an important issue in the book. So although Choke manages to cram in most of the scenes its source material, it often forgets to go into the themes - which are the best and most original bits of the novel. A good example of this is the airplane sex, where we learn of Victor's first sex act- the film treats it lightly and we don't see the meaningless of it portrayed in the book. That being said, the colonial theme park museum is well depicted, visually odd and different, acting as a parallel for the sexually repressed society which Victor riles against.

The ending was unfortunately quite rushed, without the book's strange religious babel-esque castle built of rocks as well as the bizarre 'sent from the future' Paige, which leaves the reader creepily confused about what is real at the end of the novel. The film instead lets us have a more cheerful ending with Victor and Paige getting together. Overall, it covers enough of the book (adding its own to the comic scene) while retaining its own originality to be a good film, although I think that it could have been much more. Now, I hope they can finally adapt Survivor (by the same author)!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Brixton Academy, London, 20 November 2008

Ryan Adams recently took a break from his disturbingly productive writing/recording process (10 albums in 8 years - 1.25 albums per year!) to tour his latest release, Cardinology. The album's title is a good indication of his developing relationship with his band and according to Pitchfork his recordings may simply be known as 'The Cardinals' from now on.

So does all this actually mean anything? Well, as the bespectacled Adams took to the elaborately set stage - complete with 2 intricately neon-blue lit Roses from the artwork for the Cold Roses LP (the first album he recorded with the Cardinals) artwork and a sizeable Cardinals logo - it does seem he's back to being part of a band (like Whiskeytown before) as opposed to being a solo artist. He was 'tightly knit' with the band, and happily ceded the spotlight to the Caridinals' lead guitar, Neal Casal to sing 'Freeway To the Canyon' and 'Grand Island'. Much like Conor Oberst (see my earlier review), the band suits him, they sync and play off each other making it particularly enjoyable to watch them live (although, unlike Conor, Ryan has been with his band for 4 years now).

The sound at Brixton during the first few songs (Cobwebs, Everybody Knows and Sink-Ships) was poor, with level problems, but this thankfully fixed soon after. The setlist comprised of more recent songs (particularly off the newest release) interspersed with older tracks, such as 'Come Pick Me Up' (which received a decidedly good reaction from the crowd) 'Wonderwall', 'La Cienega Just Smiled', 'Desire' and 'Please Do Not Let Me Go'. The standout track was the energetically raw 'Crossed Out Name', which was surprisingly ten times better than the soft 'ballad' CD version. It has definitely made me see the CD track (which I did, upon listening, originally enjoy) as a poor sibling to the superior live version.

Although focused on the music (most songs led directly into each other without pause), Adams did engage with the audience - letting them know he'd "never had so much f***ing fun in London!" along with "I love what you're wearing, I love what you did with your hair this year". I particularly appreciated the grunts he gave in response to certain audience members' loud, garbled requests for songs. As the gig went on he began to lighten the mood by splitting up the snogs with sarcastic retorts such as "one more song that will make you want to kill yourself!" which went down well with the fans. The evening drew to a close with the encore of the brilliantly subtle 'I See Monsters', which was well chosen to wind down the gig, while Adams was aptly illuminated in a green light.

Despite the often unappreciative crowd around me (with some not particularly engaging with the newer tracks) , the sheer number of songs (26) combined with the band's cohesion and energy (with many tracks differing from the CD versions), made it a memorable, if not mind-blowing performance. My fingers are crossed for a live release of the tour featuring 'Crossed Out Name'!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Quantum of Solace Review

Can the series continue Casino Royale's lucky streak?

Much like the opening titles, the film was viscerally and visually impressive, but altogether lacked a coherent theme. However, this is not a negative, and in fact I believe it was intended to show the loss of Bond's direction, purpose and role in the world - in the wake of losing Vesper Lynd.

I applaud the writers (among them Paul Haggis of Crash fame) for having the film follow-on directly after the first of the new Craig series of Bond, as although many previous films in the long-running franchise have been held in high regard (Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Goldeneye and more) they did lack in continuation and I feel that the protagonist suffered for it. While it was bold for them to kill off Bond's newly married wife at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, set to Louis Armstrong's 'We Have All the Time in the World', we didn't get to see the aftermath- which we finally get to do here. Over both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace we can see the character progressing, developing and growing, instead of knowing of him ("the name's Bond...") we actually get to know him, or at least start to. As soon as the film begins the action is thick and fast, and although quite frequent, it remains intriguing and holds your attention. The intro car chase doesn't overstay its welcome and is bluntly and aggressively filmed in a highly realistic fashion. Soon after we are treated to an almost ballet-ic dance between Bond and the rogue MI6 agent, with a swinging scaffold set - almost 'pendulaic' (like a pendulum) in style. The choice of locations and sets (see above) is almost imaginative and inspired, with the generally unseen locale (on screen) of Haiti, along with Bolivia providing a stunning backdrop to the film (although both Haiti and Bolivia scenes were filmed in Panama, while Chile also doubling for Bolivia in other scenes). Along with the impressive vistas of Italy and Chile, the music also makes the film worth seeing in the cinema (it's the experience that counts!). Jack White's theme tune works well in the opening titles (a lot better than in the slightly dull music video) as well as when it's subsequently reused (in a trimmed down form) in later scenes.

Slightly uninspired was the antagonist in the film - Dominic Greene, who seems to be the second in a line of dark-eyed slightly strange-looking Europeans (La Chiffre) who has attempted to best Daniel Craig's Bond. That being said, he was sufficiently slimy and underhanded to be an ample wearer of the 'baddie crown', particularly shown in his interactions with the main female character in the film, Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko).

Having only been alerted to Olga by her underwear shots in the national papers (following the announcement she was cast this film) along with her role in the abysmally reviewed computer game-adapted film Hitman, I was expecting little of the Ukrainian actress. However, she was refreshingly independent, managed a decent Spanish accent and remained mostly distant from Bond, which I felt was a good move considering her distrust of men and his getting over his love. I also liked the fact that her burn scars on her back, which were alluded to by her past, were not pointed out in dialogue, and the film felt much more realistic for it. On the other hand, the other female character Bond encounters (aside from Judi Dench's always well-performed 'M') , Strawberry Fields, didn't really bring much to the rule (to be fair, to role was very small), although I did appreciate the Goldfinger reference - with her corpse turning up covered in oil, much like the golden corpses of the 1960's film ( a comment on oil being the new gold?).

The relatively brief return of Mathis helps remind us of how much this film is rooted in its preceding counterpart, and their parting final scene together was touching, but quite blunt and rawly depicted. Another returning character is that of Felix Lighter, who has much more 'difficult' relationship with Bond, which I enjoyed as it's more politically realistic than the prior Lighters of past Bond films, who usually offered free-for-all, no questions asked US assistance.

Speaking of politics, the plot is quite aggressively politically charged (for a Bond film), with military dictators, coups and juntas, along with criticism (welcome and accurate) of US involvement/ assistance in them, for their own gain. The film also includes the concept of eco-terrorism and the environment, with the victims of the 'baddies plans' being local, poor Bolivians -as opposed to Western nations under threat (as is often the case).

Now, getting to the protagonist- Craig aptly plays the tortured angry man, disillusioned with the 'correct protocol', although the character emerges more stable towards the conclusion of the film- dealing with Vesper's former lover without resorting to murder. Bond realising his plight through witnessing Camille's personal vendetta against the general who killed her family was subtle and a nice touch. I particularly enjoyed the short moment of bonding between the two characters, when he cradles her during the hotel fire, much like he cradled Vesper in the shower scene in Casino Royale (he also cradles Mathis earlier in the film...is this a sign of a new cradling, hugging Bond?). Overall, he emerges more focused at the end of QOS, engaged with unravelling the secret organisation with (as Mr. White puts it) "people everywhere". Let's hope as we delve into the who, what and why of Quantum (as we're likely to do so in the future sequel) they can continue to make Bond relevant and engaging in a narrowing market for action films.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Be Kind Rewind - DVD Review

Worth rewinding?

Finally got around to watching this Michel Gondry piece as part of my momentous (most likely in vain) attempt to get through my ever increasing DVD collection- was it worth it?

The film starts off a little shakily, with little of the visual charm and innovation we've come to expect from M. Gondry (Beck - Deadweight, White Stripes - Hardest Button to Button, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and many more) but the characters grow into their roles and Jack Black becomes decidedly less annoying as the film progresses. Mos Def 'deftly' handles his part, pulling Black back from 'comic sidekick overload' (although he cannot prevent him from physically overloading magnetically). The setting and location -Passaic, New Jersey, is a refreshing one, and although it is introduced to us in the wake of regeneration, it still retains a run-down allure.

The magic really starts with the 'sweded' film production (kind of amateur 'on a shoestring' remakes of popular films) - with possibly the most amazing and inventive use of Christmas tinsel and pipe cleaners I could have ever imagined - as ' stand in' proton beams in their remake of Ghostbusters! (see below picture!) The sweded Men in Black (upside down rocket car) is ingenious, while the 2001: A Space Odyssey upside down rotating exercise scene mimics the original concept of how it was actually filmed (using a rotating set on which the camera is fixed). The Rush Hour 2 (although I haven't seen the original, I still enjoyed) - 'falling off building bit', using a children's town square play mat to skew the perspective was also particularly memorable. The subsequent addition of Alma as the female in their pieces is actually a nice touch, as she brings a welcome kooky charm to their productions.

With the intervention of Sigourney Weaver's lawyer (shutting down the sweding due to copyright infringement) it leads Mos, Jack and co. to create their own feature - 'The Story of Fats Waller' (who was earlier placed in the film as Mos' childhood hero and supposed cultural icon of Passaic) . Everyone in the community scraps together to help the production in order to raise money to save the store- (which could have been too 'feelgood', but just about straddles the tightrope of schmaltz and charm) and again we're witness to more magical film-making scenes. Great examples include the use of extras' fingers (both black and white) as moving piano keys, pizzas being depicted as blood spatters on walls, along with cardboard 1920s car cutouts being dragged along by extras.

Aside from the film making magic, the central theme of Be Kind Rewind is the concept of truth, and whether if you believe in it enough it really matters if it's not true. Mos Def's character grew up with the false idea that Fats Waller had lived in his video store, and although he finds this out, he still goes ahead with his film based on the false premise, as it doesn't really matter. He makes these 'sweded' films, which people 'pretend to believe' are special Swedish versions, but are actually are filmed in their neighbourhood - which they know, but ignore because it doesn't matter and is a nice figment of imagination to indulge. The film is about maintaining childhood innocence, with the sweded films allowing the characters to return to their childhood, pretending to fight ghosts, although they are also filming it.

The ending - culminating in the town authority's attempted demolition of the video store, could have been 'cliched' (with the authority realising their mistake and deciding to save the store), but bravely they left the video store's fate hanging in the balance - placing more emphasis on the Fats Waller 'film' (and the process of making it), rather than on the physical store. Overall, a quirky, strangely original 'small town movie' (despite it being an urban cityscape of NJ) - with occasional glimmers of greatness. Be Kind Rewind's charm (both visual and in the writing and themes) overcomes its shaky start and simple story.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Can Heroes course-correct its flightpath?

Can the show redeem itself in its second episode?

In my last post, I was pretty harsh on the series premiere of Heroes, which I really wanted to enjoy but kept feeling it had completely lost its way as one of the top TV shows of the last few years. That being said, I did voice my optimism for the follow up episode - entitled 'The Butterfly Effect', and my fingers are crossed in the hope it can rescue itself.

Ignoring the slightly winy opening scene with Claire, the show gets back on track with Angela Petrelli's hauntingly spooky premonition of the future with dead heroes (Hiro, Claire) strewn across the floor of a hospital while Nicki, Adam, Maury and Knox look onwards menacingly; Silar then puts her hand on his shoulder from behind. However, as we've come to know, visions of the future are ten a penny in this show, and whether they turn out to be true is anyone's guess!

After divulging her dream to 'future Peter', Angela goes on to explain the secret of The Butterfly Effect and although the scene takes place in an apparent version of Hiro's timeline web (which is a great set), the whole concept is overused in sci-fi (see the average Ashton Kutcher film) and doesn't really add to the story whatsoever.

Speaking of things which don't really add to the show, Suresh is still as annoying as in the previous episode (the character, acting and motives taking a complete nosedive this series), but at least his screen time (which involved a brief sex scene) was was kept to a minimal 3 minutes and 16 seconds! Claire's 'lost her way' arch (mentioned briefly earlier - she is finding it all too much and isn't feeling pain anymore) is also testing my patience, but I can forgive it, as much like Suresh, only a small segment of this episode is dedicated to it.


Silar's attempted apprehension by Company agents set to the upbeat, uptempo Brighton Port Authority's 'He's Frank' (also on the Heroes OST) redeems the character, (particularly in light of the prior episode) with its amusing comi-tragic take on a serious murderer taking a stroll through an Americana suburb; the switch of the camera viewpoint to the agents' COPS-esque TV camera (see above screengrab) adds to the surrealism and is particularly inspired, plus its hints at the return of humour to the show.

Parkman, who only briefly appeared in the last episode before being disappeared by Peter, (in a distinctly deus ex machina way) returns with a brilliantly comedic introduction (my second laugh of the show)- where he believes, in his dehydrated, delirious state, that a turtle is talking to him, and although this wouldn't be surprising in Heroes, it is in fact his soon-to-be spirit advisor, Usutu (wearing a decidedly 90s looking Universal Studios orange t-shirt!).

Speaking of (criminally!) underused characters, Noah (horned-rim glasses) returns this week, (the last episode heavily missed his presence) attempting to finally kill Silar and set to rest his vendetta of the first series. We also see the last of Bob Bishop, and learn that his power, unexpectedly, was a 'Midas' touch. I mention both of these characters together because I feel it is a shame that Bob has departed, as both Elle and him played a different take on the father/daughter relationship in comparison to Noah/Claire, and I feel that both sets of characters may started out on similar ground, but they ended up being so markedly different because of the divergent paths taken in their lives.

The episode culminates with a showdown of Noah, Silar and Elle in Level 5, while we're reminded that 'present Peter Petrelli' is still trapped in the body of a large menacing-looking inmate, which adds a tragic touch to all the dramatic events. However, Elle's explosion uncannily sets loose the convict 'villains', which sets up a 'freak of the week' scenario for the coming weeks. This results in Peter being forced to watch his fellow inmates' carnage (towards the end of the episode) in a particularly meaningful scene, setting the future tone for this series of Heroes, aptly named 'Villains'. The show then culminates with a creepy Norman Bates-esque Silar being told by Angela that he's the 'good one' out of the Brothers Petrelli, before revealing that she's his real mother (is everyone on the show related?!).

Other brief points include the Nicky Sanders/Tracey Strauss plot- hopefully this will go somewhere interesting, and at the least it gives Ali Larter a chance to play a different character. Lindeman (another supposedly dead character)- eerily 'hovering/haunting' in the background, is an intriguing insertion of religion into the show and lets hope they take it somewhere in this series.

So, to answer myself, Heroes has 'course corrected' and although it still falls slightly in a few places (Suresh, Claire) overall it's an overwhelming success and I really want them to carry this level of storytelling through to a great conclusion for the series, or to the show as a whole.