Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Film review : Apocalypto

I'm sure we all agree on one thing before I even start this review - Mel Gibson is a right-wing religious fucknut who doesn't deserve any of our hard-earned cash just for the privilege of watching his crummy Hollywood morality plays. Right? Well, put it this way - if you can distance the man from his art for long enough to take in the crunching, technicolour trampling of the senses that is 'Apocalypto', you might just forget about old Gibbers altogether and concentrate how fucking stellar his new project really is.
Personally, I steered clear of 'The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre' when it came out cos I wasn't too keen on all the talk of live-action scourging and feverish Catholic guilt trips. However, one of the things I did like the sound of was a big-budget Hollywood colossus of a film entirely subtitled in Aramaic - thereby putting it out of reach of the sort of lazy fucking plebs who never go to see any foreign language productions cos reading subtitles is 'too much effort'. In turn, the dialogue in 'Apocalypto' is 100% ancient Mayan, all part of a scheme to make this as 'realistic' as possible - being no scholar of Central American civilisations, I'm not going to pontificate on whether this is accurate or not, let's just say it looks fucking AWESOME. Another bit of good news is that the picture isn't weighed down by the obligatory presence of some woefully out of place Hollywood eye candy with a six-figure price tag - you not gonna recognise any of this lot, but so much the better because they certainly look the part and as spectators we are transported back several centuries with precious little anchor in standard Hollywood fare.
The costume department must have blown a fucking war-debt budget on this, but boy was it worth it - literally every single extra is decked out in breathtaking style, all clanking nose-piercings, intricate tribal tattoos and wacked-out make-up and jewellry - as for the more central characters, the peaceful tribes ooze crinkly peace-pipe wisdom whilst the warriors make Peter Jackson's Uruk-hai look like a Christian rock band by comparison. Once you're drawn into the hypnotic primitivism of it all, you're knocked sideways by some bone-crunchingly brutal fight scenes, reminiscent of the combat segments from 'Braveheart' (which were pretty much the only saving grace from that otherwise overrated caber-tossing vanity project). The jungle practically fills the cinema, and when we are finally led out into widescreen territory for the immense temple altar sequence, I guarantee you are going to be left drooling into your Kit Kat balls, unable to pronounce the one sentence forming in your mind : 'FUCK ME, THIS LOOKS AMAZING'.
I am not winding you up here - I was expecting this stuff to look good on the big screen, but 'Apocalypto' is nothing short of shit-your-pants visually mindblowing. If you're gonna see this film, grab yourself a seat up close to the screen in your local multiplex and get them to crank the sound up - I remember being two rows from the front for the T-Rex chase scene in 'Jurassic Park' when that came out and fucking bricking it, but that pales into comparison with the thrills on offer here. Spears whizz, clubs pulverise and blood 'n' guts fly all over the place as we are drawn deeper into this tangled, slobbering maelstrom of all-out jungle acrobatics - I started thinking back to the crazy pursuit scenes in 'King Kong', but whilst that was arguably even more breath-taking and lightning-fast, 'Apocalypto' wins the ground back by being all the more human, and the action stays amazing without straying too far outside the realms of the physically feasible.
Hey, we can all pick holes and there may be some here but I'm not gonna look for 'em - Gibson's critics will probably spend weeks ripping this to bits looking for underlying Christian dogma (which may not be entirely absent) or further evidence of the director's none-too-PC opinions, but it has to be said that his subject matter and the entirely Hispanic cast are treated with a surprising amount of respect - maybe spending so much time in the press for his pissed-up Jew-bashing instead of getting to talk about his own films has led Mel to realise that he has enough enemies already. Either way, as a previous Gibson-hater, a stiff dose of 'Apocalypto' was enough for me to revise my opinion of the dude - he may still be a stiff-backed traditionalist stuck out in Hollywood La-La land with his wife and 18 children, but the guy can certainly deliver the goods when it comes to producing bombastic big screen thrillercoasters such as this. Miss out on this in the cinema and you'll fucking regret it.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Cinema pix of 2006

Films of the year

As an accompanying piece to my musical picks from last year, I thought I'd post a list of my favourite films too - whilst there's probably a fair few cinematic events that have passed me by, I reckon I've taken in quite a few films over the course of the year so it's good to compile what was good and what wasn't. Infact, I haven't even gone to the bother of making a list of the films I totally hated cos there haven't really been that many - disappointments maybe but nothing that really brought out the bile in me (apart from maybe that fucking Woody Allen film about tennis, that was a bag of shite and no mistake). Otherwise, I rarely come out of the cinema at the end of a film feeling like it's been a total waste of time - I go pretty much once a week on average, and I generally feel like it's worth it even if the film turns out to be a bit crappy. Let's face it, I have that kind of time to waste....

So, in the spirit of the late Alan Freeman who joined the choir invisible a few weeks back (rest in peace big guy), let's count down my pick of the cinematic pops of 2006 in dramatic reverse order. Not 'arf!

10. Hostel

Shlock horror films seem to be getting increasingly brutal these days, with the bar on exactly how much gore, guts and cock'n'ball torture you can show on screen being constantly raised (à la the somewhat hackneyed series of 'Saw' films). There's no genius involved in bombarding people with so much gruesome violence that they end up blowing chunks in the cinema - if you're going to turn up the gore, that doesn't you don't need a decent plot and some new ideas to make a good film.
'Hostel' rules because it modernises the gore genre to focus on a new source of fear - namely, what can go wrong when you're travelling. Two American college students interrailing around Europe are enticed to visit a mysterious hostel in rural Slovakia where sex is supposedly on permanent offer, only to find out that it is infact just a front for a sinister factory for human experiments! Yoips!! The main roles are pretty convincing as Yank meatheads looking for a good time, and your sympathy for them only kicks in when things start to turn nasty - which they do, in a BIG way. The veritable rollercoaster of blood'n'guts that follows gets so out of hand that you're kept glued to the screen thinking 'but surely they won't....', only to discover that they totally will. But there's a humourous twist to all the splatter, and in the end they manage to balance the different elements to create a gap-year nightmare scenario that makes you laugh and bawk in equal amounts. Also commendable for having the best 'accidentally chainsawing your own arm off' scene in cinema history.

9. The Host

The monster film genre has been left aside over recent years, but this Korean update on the genre proved so humungously popular in its homeland that it overshadowed all the Hollywood cash-cows to become the year's biggest hit there. Basically, the plot revolves around a mutated seamonster created as a by-product of nuclear pollution that crawls out of the ocean to terrorize civilians - the last line of defence turns out to be a fairly dopey Korean family who are forced to work together to combat the hideous beast.
Recent Hollywood monster projects often end up turning into one long showcase of how bitchin' their special effects department is, but this film manages to keep the monster believable-looking without letting it overshadow the rest of the film - the human cast are equally important, as is the level of slightly off-kilter humour (if you saw 2005's 'Old Boy', you'll probably know what I mean there). This reminded me a lot of 'Starship Troopers' - if you can imagine the Korean Simpsons taking on one of the aliens from that film, you've probably got a pretty good idea of what makes 'The Host' so fucking cool.

8. Hard Candy

What gets termed 'daring cinema' can often turn out to be nothing more than an oppurtunistic search for some taboo that hasn't yet been broken on the big screen - in this case, Internet paedophilia comes under the microscope. This could have turned out as sanctimonious drivel, an extended version of some Dawson's Creek morality play but in the end it turns out to be a lot more complex than that. Some films allow you to sit back and be gently guided through the content without ever being asked to form any kind of conclusion - on the other hand, 'Hard Candy' lets you settle in your seat and then once you're off your guard, it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until the credits roll. If you've seen Takashi Miike's 'Audition', you'll be familiar with the sensation of being drawn into an ethical Venus flytrap and slowly chomped upon for upwards of an hour - however, if the aforementioned film was typically Japanese in its cold, clinical stance on its subject matter, 'Hard Candy' is much more forthright and accusatory, to the point where you're pretty much exhausted upon leaving the cinema.
Basically, a predatory 30-something guy lures a 14-year old girl into meeting him after chatting her up on the internet, but when he gets her back to his place she drugs him, ties him up and spends the rest of the film torturing him. As spectators to all this, we're left watching the two of them interract for the bulk of the film whilst trying to decide whether or not the guy deserves what he's getting - and don't think that you're going to be led by the hand into your ethical conclusions either, the film keeps on throwing curveballs until the final moments.
'Hard Candy' is notable for being the first film I've seen that touches on this kind of topic, and whilst it isn't totally flawless, it is certainly compelling. I spent most of the picture nervously chewing the plastic lid on my coke, tensed up into a ball on my cinema seat - not the experience everyone is looking for when they buy their ticket. Nevertheless, you have to admire the nerve of the directors for tackling such a touchy subject head-on - it reminded me of reading Lionel Shriver's 'We need to talk about Kevin' earlier in the year, in that the creator makes it impossible to come away from their work without strong feelings about what you've just witnessed. Fucking strong stuff but worth a go if you're ready to rise to the challenge.

7. The wind the shakes the barley

Speaking of dodgy subject matter, you don't get much more of a delicate source of inspiration than Britain's relationship with Ireland - we haven't seen a whole lot of films about said matter because it is very difficult to take a standpoint that isn't going to piss a whole lot of people off in a big way. Having said that, we're dealing with Ken Loach here - never one to shy away from sticking his head in the lion's mouth.
I had my reservations about this film before going to see it, never having been much of a fan of Loach's stuff in the past - his tendency towards depicting social struggles as divided camps of cackling tyrants and po' exploited workers doesn't always come across as entirely convincing. Having said that, I went to see it anyway and was pleasantly surprised - all the piffle in the British press about it being 'pro-IRA' is a load of old shite, for once we actually get Loach splitting himself neatly between the different camps and giving an enlightening, harsh but fair portrayal of the historical period. The only criticism is perhaps that it's too dour and depressing, but I for one am fucking glad he didn't fall into the usual trap of cramming in a whole load of blarny bullshit and fiddly diddly folk music to lighten the tone. The acting's great, it's beautifully shot to bring out the rain-soaked wilderness of the location and the temptation to dumb down the subject matter in order to cream in Hollywood profit has been resisted to create something much more powerful. Maybe not Palme d'Or material, but definitely the biggest surprise I got in the pictures this year.

6. OSS 117

'Casino Royale' fell just outside my top ten, despite featuring a great new Bond actor who, like myself, is blond, Northern and buff as fuck. Well, alright, he is perhaps slightly more buff than me, but I still feel some affinity with Daniel Craig (and he's in another film in this list anyway so I didn't totally ignore him).
In it's place then, is this French comedy which nicely sends up the spy thrillers of the 60s (including a hearty slice of Sean Connery as JB). Basically a remake of the comic book character, 'OSS 117' features an old-school French spy sent on mission to Egypt - however, instead of the consummate professional you might expect he turns out to be a backward, ill-informed gonk who manages to offend everyone he meets and makes a total fool out of himself. For my taste, Frog comedian Jean Dujardin doesn't always hit the mark in his other work, but in this one he is the perfect choice (not least due to a close physical resemblance to old Sean) and this turned out to be one of the funniest things I saw this year. Add to that the superb reproduction of the comic book style in the film's decor and costumes, and this is one great example of how good French comedy can be when they hit the target.

5. Münich

Spielberg claimed that this was somewhat of a labour of love for him, chronicling the Israeli rection to the hostage siege at the '72 Olympics - in any case, he certainly managed to milk the idea to make a cracking action flick. This has all the marks of a MASSIVE film - political intrigue, stunning location shots, rapid-fire actions sequences and a five-man Israeli hit squad that work their way across Europe blowing people up for nigh on three hours. OK, there's some trademark Hollywood slushy stuff in their ('it's hard being a hitman - you never get to see your wife & kids, boo hoo hoo etc') but overall this is one enjoyable ride, and the combined cast turn out well - it's good to have a bit of charisma in the likes of Eric Bana and Daniel Craig instead of a wall of Hollywood beefcake à la 'The Departed' (which would have made this list too, were it not for the fact that Scorcese totally lose control of the film to his cast). No such mistakes here, and Spielberg manages to weave a complex frame of plot twists around this humungous action project to great effect. Granted, it made me want to travel Europe and eat nice food more than it piqued my interest in international terrorism, but I certainly felt satisfied when I came out of the cinema.

4. Borat

To be fair, I had seen the best bits on the internet before the fucking thing came out in the cinemas, but that didn't stop me laughing at them all again as soon as I got to see the full-length version of this wee masterpiece. Sasha Baron Cohen was maybe taking the easy way out in certain aspects of the project, playing up the dumb foreigner role for some cheap laughts, but to rip on him for that would miss out on how clever this whole project was - not to mention how close he comes to getting his 8-foot Kazakh ass kicked several times during the filming.
There's been no small amount of debate over whether or not it's morally upstanding to laugh at a culturally backward Kazakh reporter, or indeed whether it's OK to dupe a bunch of generally well-meaning Yanks into getting filmed with the rise taken out of them so we can all laugh at the whole thing - personally, I think it was just a good way of holding a mirror up to people's attitudes and making it really fucking funny at the same time. Whatever, your standpoint on the whole project, I challenge you to watch the 'Kazakh national anthem' scene at the rodeo and not fucking laugh. SBC came out tops with this one, and what's more he's boffing Shannon from 'Home and Away'. I say reeeeeespect!
3. Wassup Rockers

Larry Clark came back in 2006 with this, his latest fiction/reality blur about skateboarding teenagers trying to get their end away. The coolest thing about using locals in your film instead of trained actors is that they always look the part, and in this case Clark had clearly been hanging out in South Central with a bunch of Latino punk teenagers in tight jeans who in turn became the subject matter for his latest flick. I love all Larry's stuff for his great eye for detail and ongoing fascination with adolescents, but in the past he has probably scared off a fair few viewers by cramming in a few too many tattooed crackers choke-wanking to female tennis before striding off naked to murder their grandparents with a cake knife. No such worries here though! We get a wee bit of sex and violence all the same, but the main focus is on the skaters themselves during their jolly adventure in Beverly Hills - it's almost like a Famous Five story, but with more fighting, fucking and triple spammy wheel-drops. Plus, the music is totally ace.

2. Walk the line

Hollywood biopics generally suck ass, especially music business ones - 'Ray' brought the standard up a fair bit but this one topped even that to give Johnny Cash the cinematic treatment he deserved. When you're dealing with a legend, best rope in someone who can actually act to play the lead role rather than drafting in some 2-D Hollywood poster boy just to fill the cinema with 14-year old girls (remember Val Kilmer in 'The Doors'?). Joachim Phoenix did a sterling job, Reese Witherspoon didn't stray too far from her standard delivery but did the business nonetheless, and the film neatly traces Cash from his bumpkin origins through his early sessions and tours with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis etc...right through to his marriage to June Carter and full transformation into the man in black. Then it ends before the whole thing starts to suck. The perfect cinema companion to Johnny's music, a fitting eulogy to the man himself and overall one deftly packaged product.

1. C.R.A.Z.Y.

Always hard to pick a outright winner, but if there was one film where I came out thinking 'that was fucking BRILLIANT' this year, this was the one. I don't know how much this was promoted outside Francophone countries, but it totally took off here and blew most domestically produced films out of the water. Basically the story of five brothers and their family life in 70s Québec, 'C.R.A.Z.Y' focuses it's attention on Zach, the fourth of five sons, and his teenage identity crisis, arguments with his dad and general transition to manhood. Any French director would have turned this into a tedious existential drama full of close-up shots of people picking their noses, but from the outset you can tell that this is distinctly North-American in style and content - the directing style reminded me a bit of 'Requiem for a Dream' but without all the crack whores and amputations. The pace is well-balanced throughout and the moments of humour and emotion never threaten to overtake the whole thing, with the result that you end up really quite touched without ever feeling like they're cranking up the melodrama too much. I hadn't really seen much Québecois cinema before and this certainly caught me off guard - picture a remake of 'That 70s Show' with better acting and everyone speaking some kind of bastardized French that they had to subtitle parts of even in my local cinema in Paris. Funny, touching and wholly engrossing from start to finish, this blew my mind more than anything else I saw this year and I totally recommend you go seek it out right now.