Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg & Lionel Wigram
Based on the Work of: Arthur Conan Doyle
Producers: Susan Downey, Dan Lin, Joel Silver & Lionel Wigram
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
Year: 2009
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12A
Duration: 128 min

I'm no Sherlock Holmes purist, in fact I've never read any of the original stories, but on hearing the news and watching the first clips from this 're-imagining' I wasn't impressed. Taking a classic, dignified and very English character and whacking him in an action packed Hollywood blockbuster just seemed like a terrible idea. However, after giving the film a chance (I figured Robert Downey Jr. is always worth watching) I was pleasantly surprised.

Thankfully the writers decided against ravaging one of the classic tales and instead crafted something new, pitting Holmes (Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) against the evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), master of black magic. After putting him behind bars and sending him to the gallows at the start of the film, the mysterious villain miraculously rises from the grave, striking terror into the hearts of Londoners across the city. Along the way, Watson attempts to retire from the sleuthing business to marry his sweetheart and Holmes crosses paths with an untrustworthy old flame, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams).

It's not the most enthralling of stories, but it's functional enough. What drives the film are the performances from Downey Jr. and Law. The banter between Holmes and Watson is priceless, both actors are clearly having a lot of fun with the roles and the man-love chemistry keeps things crackling throughout. Downey Jr. in particular is a joy to watch as he turns Holmes from a true English gentleman to a frequently drunk and highly eccentric out-cast that still comes across as a genius. It's a testament to his talents that this works beautifully. His detailed dissection of every aspect of the world around him provides some memorable moments, especially in some of the fight scenes.

On the topic of fight scenes, these were moments that stood out most as being out of place when I saw the first trailers. In the context of the film these are generally well handled though and due to the aforementioned fight dissections, fitted the character. One scene with Holmes taking part in a bare-knuckle boxing match felt totally unnecessary though and didn't seem to service the plot at all. It shows how he can use his powers of perception in this context, but this had already been done elsewhere in the film. It just feels like a scene from one of Guy Ritchie's previous films stumbled into this one. Speaking of which, other than that example I was actually surprised and pleased by Ritchie's relative restraint. Films such as Snatch and Lock Stock are overloaded with stylistic flourishes, which work well in those contexts but grow old easily and tend to distract from rather than enhance the other elements of the film. Luckily in Sherlock Holmes, the style is there but curbed enough to never feel over-baked.

Similar to the experience I had with Zombieland, this is a film that is never mind-blowing or game-changing, but delivers a very enjoyable couple of hours that doesn't try to be something it isn't. A pet peeve I've had with blockbusters of late is that many of them forget their primary goal; to be fun. I appreciate that adding depth and gravitas to a film is not something necessarily negative or to be frowned upon, but when I'm watching a $200 million popcorn movie I expect a good time and not something long-winded and overly serious. Emotional drama doesn't always settle so well when it's mixed with CGI explosions and men dressed in spandex. Sherlock Holmes happily takes very little seriously and breezes along. It is maybe slightly too long and there's a relative lull towards the end, but for the most part it wastes no time in consistently delivering humour, excitement and some impressive set-pieces.

Maybe my fairly low expectations clouded my judgement, but I can safely recommend Sherlock Holmes as top-notch entertainment. I imagine lovers of the books will be disgusted, but they'd just be missing the point. Bring on the sequel.


Friday, 29 January 2010

Attack on Leningrad Review at Row Three

I posted a review of the straight to DVD release Attack on Leningrad at Row Three:

Sunday, 24 January 2010


Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Chan-wook Park & Seo-Gyeong Jeong
Based on the Novel by: Emile Zola
Producers: Chan-wook Park & Ahn Soo-Hyun
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin
Year: 2009
Country: South Korea
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 133 min

Chan-wook Park's latest genre bending film is the vampire comedy/drama/horror Thirst. Due a DVD and Blu-Ray release in the UK on January 25th, this is a film to please fans of Park's Vengeance Trilogy, serving up similar doses of extreme violence and rich black humour. Personally I'm one of these fans so I lapped it up.

Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song) is a dedicated priest who wants to help people more practically, so signs up to a vaccine research programme for a deadly virus. The vaccine doesn't work though and as his condition reaches a critical point doctors give Sang-hyun a blood transfusion, which although miraculously curing him, has the adverse affect of turning him into a vampire. His transformation gives the well meaning man not only a lust for blood, but also a craving for sins of the flesh. This causes him to embark on a sordid affair with an old friend's unhappy wife (Ok-bin Kim), who longs for a more exciting existence and when she discovers Sang-hyun's secret she wants to share his infliction.

As with all of Park's work, Thirst is a very dark and original film with some disturbingly beautiful imagery. On a visual level the film is outstanding, serving up a grimy, shadowy world that the director has clearly meticulously planned for all departments as it has his signature all over it. It certainly doesn't feel like a retread of his previous work though, with a little more focus on black comedy and no themes of vengeance of course. As with those films this again gets pretty hard-hitting and disturbing in the latter third, but the final scene turns all of this on it's head with a perfect blend of black humour and touching drama.

It's not always perfectly balanced though, with a few pacing issues and some confusing plot elements. In general the film could have been trimmed down a little, there are so many ideas in there I think losing a few wouldn't have harmed the film. An extended sex scene in the middle felt overly drawn out for instance. These are minor quibbles though when a film is this successful in subverting genres and offering up an original cinematic experience as opposed to the cookie-cutter trash that Hollywood so often churns out. Although I've not seen them and many journalists have made this statement already, I imagine this is a hell of a lot more mature and challenging than Twilight and it's sequel for instance.

It's an incredibly visceral experience as you'd expect from the man that brought you the hammer fight and live octopus scenes in Old Boy and the frighteningly brutal scenes of revenge in Sympathy For Mr (and Lady) Vengeance. I didn't find any of Thirst to be as uncomfortably nasty as some of those films though, with the humour and fantastical genre leanings being more apparent. That said, it's still awash with blood and it does get grisly at times with some painfully realistic neck and bone-breaking scenes standing out in particular.

Although I didn't find it quite as powerful or memorable as Sympathy For Mr Vengeance or Old Boy, I would say this is Chan-wook Park's most entertaining film and deserves as much success overseas as those found. Anyone who isn't familiar with his work should remedy that immediately and catch this on DVD or Blu-Ray when it hits the shelves tomorrow, you won't regret it.


DVD features: There aren't many features on the UK release, just a trailer and an interview, but the interview is a decent addition offering a brief but interesting insight into Park's filmmaking techniques. The Blu-Ray version also has edited highlights from an NFT Masterclass, but I only managed to get my hands on the DVD so I couldn't tell you if that's any good.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner
Based on the Novel by: Walter Kirn
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Jeffrey Clifford & Daniel Dubiecki
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Year: 2009
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 109 min

Up in the Air is a film that I didn't want to like when I first saw it's trailer. It was one of those trailers that seemed to give away the whole plot and the central theme of George Clooney's character's commitment issues were so laboured I thought the actual film would be the same. However, I'm a sucker for good reviews, so on the strength of it's overseas buzz and award wins I had to go and see it.

The film focuses on Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who spends most of his life travelling around America on business. His business is an unusual one, he is sent around the country to fire employees for bosses who don't have the guts to do it themselves and as the film is set in the present day, i.e. the time of the credit crunch, business has never been better. Bingham is content with his life, he has no ties, a new low-maintenance 'girlfriend' and no interest in his family back in North Wisconsin. He's also on the verge of reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles, an achievement he has dreamt of for years. However, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a new overenthusiastic member of the company he works for threatens to unsettle his perfect existence when she revolutionizes the 'firing' industry by offering the service via video-conferencing. Disgusted by this, Bingham takes her on a cross country business trip to show her the truth about their job. Along the way, as Natalie becomes more disillusioned with life, Bingham starts to see the cracks in his.

Well I can safely say that the trailer was clearly edited by idiots, because it did no justice to this film which I found very hard not to like. Up in the Air is one of those films that keeps threatening to get cheesy and sentimental but always manages to avoid it, which is probably why watching small chunks of it doesn't work. The ending especially, without wanting to give anything away, was surprisingly downbeat. Only a couple of scenes with Bingham's family and one or two moments with Natalie seemed ever so slightly mawkish. That's not to say that the film is usually bleak and cold though, it is a very entertaining, funny and at times warm experience. The writing is sharp and witty with plenty of great lines, proving that Reitman doesn't need Diablo Cody to deliver the goods. In fact, I think Up in the Air is an improvement over Juno, which was very good, but all the sassy teen talk got a bit grating at times.

George Clooney has been getting most of the coverage and awards buzz surrounding the film and rightfully so. As I'm sure most critics have pointed out, he's perfect for this role and is not necessarily doing anything new, but it just couldn't have worked as well with anyone else. He's eminently charming as always, but carries off the extra layers of subtle isolation and fear that are demanded of the role without making it too obvious. It's a performance that deserves to win a few awards even though it doesn't contain any grandstanding and doesn't seem like much of a stretch for Clooney. The rest of the cast are pretty solid too, with a host of surprising cameos filling the soon-to-be ex-employee rostrum. I wasn't a massive fan of Anna Kendrick though, she's generally pretty good but felt a little caricatured at times.

As I mentioned earlier Up in the Air is a film that's hard not to like. It's funny, well made and makes some fairly thought-provoking points on the way we live our lives. Just make sure you avoid the trailer.


Friday, 8 January 2010

Fish Tank

Year: 2009
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writers: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Griffiths, Kierston Wareing

Before I start my review I'd just like to apologise for the lack of reviews on my blog recently.  I've been posting most of my articles on Row Three and with Christmas and everything it's hard to keep up both.  What I will do in the future is post reviews of anything Row Three has already covered on here and continue to link to my Row Three write-ups too.  I should have done that with Where the Wild Things Are and A Serious Man, but I didn't get round to it.

Anyway, Fish Tank.  This is a film that received a veritable shower of glowing reviews and accolades around it's festival screenings and eventual release, so I was pretty keen on watching it.  I must say however, I wasn't without my doubts when I stepped into the theater the other day, as I'm generally of the opinion that gritty urban dramas have been done to death in this country.  Ken Loach and Mike Leigh in particular have successfully mined so many corners of the UK's council estates and flats that I didn't think much more could be done on the subject.

Well the plot doesn't offer anything particularly new.  Mia (Katie Jarvis) is an underachieving working class teenager living with her unsupportive mother and brash younger sister.  Struggling to get a handle on life she falls on dance as her only escape.  Her mother's new boyfriend Connor (Hunger's Michael Fassbender) abruptly enters their life and Mia falls for him as object of passion as well as a father figure through the support and attention he gives her.

As the description above suggests, this isn't a totally original story and to be honest most of the strands lead to predictable outcomes, but Fish Tank is one of those films that is so well-handled that everything just falls into place beautifully.  I watched this with a few others who disagreed, but I felt that writer/director Andrea Arnold managed to make choices that sound cliched and cheesy on paper work perfectly on screen.  The drama never builds to unrealistic levels either, keeping things subtle but quietly moving.  It's also very nicely shot (in 4:3 strangely enough) rather than just going for the drab, lifelessly grey effect that many films of this ilk opt for.

One of the main reasons the film works, other than the superb direction, are some of the performances.  Lead actress Katie Jarvis is a revelation, always fascinating to watch and not always entirely likeable, creating a believably flawed central character.  Michael Fassbender plays Connor as a charming rogue with a simmering sense of doubt over his intentions for Mia.  The role isn't as showy as his awesome turn in Hunger, but he does an excellent job of balancing role model and sleaze-bag.  The scenes between him and Jarvis crackle with intensity and form some of the film's strongest moments.

I wasn't a big fan of all the characters though.  I felt the mother was very one-dimensional and the sister, although occasionally funny, tended to get on my nerves in the wrong way and I felt the performance was too forced in an otherwise subtle film.  Also, the predictability of much of it occasionally bothered me and a scene at the end of the film verged on being cheesy due to some overly blunt lyrics in the soundtrack.  Saying that I still found that moment curiously moving even though it was a little contrived.

Fish Tank is a film that will not be to everyone's tastes, it has shortcomings but mostly it overcomes these with some tremendously assured direction and fine performances.  It's a film that keeps things small and low key but is always engrossing and genuinely touching.


Wednesday, 6 January 2010

New Year 'To Watch' List

I've posted a huge list of my unwatched DVD's on Row Three for people's views and opinions of what I should and shouldn't watch.  Feel free to pop over and let us know your thoughts.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Review of the year

Since I only got this blog up and running in September and recently I snuck off to Row Three for most of my articles I figured instead of a standard Top 10 of the year, I'd do something a bit more substantial and give you a rundown of all the new releases I watched in 2009.  It wasn't an amazing year for films in my opinion, although I missed a bunch of supposedly strong ones (Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Moon, Let the Right One In, Fantastic Mr. Fox etc.).  It still contained some very good films though and several surprises from the horror festivals I attended this year (many thanks to all you festival organizers out there and to Justin for dragging me along to them all!).

So here you go, I've included my top 10 write-up from Row Three, then I'm going to go down in order of preference through the year with headers for marks out of 10:

Films I Watched in 2009 That Were Released in the UK (or Premiered) in 2009

Top 10:

1. The Wrestler – I can hear a lot of you muttering that this was from 2008, but it got released in the UK in 2009 and that's when I saw it so I don't care. A powerfully raw and emotional film that really touched a nerve with me. It's been a long time, if ever, that I've felt so strongly for a character. Mickey Rourke and the film itself were robbed at the Oscars so I'm putting it at the top of my list to make up for it - that and the fact that it actually is my favourite film of the year.
2. In The Loop – The finest British film I've seen in a long while, it is satire at it's most furiously paced and hilarious best. Peter Capaldi is incredible in one of the most deliciously foul-mouthed roles I've ever seen.
3. A Serious Man – The Coens do what they do best, mining a seemingly mundane setting/theme for rich black humour and crafting some fantastic characters along the way. Fred Melamed's Sy Ableman is so good he alone would make the film worthy of a mention.
4. Avatar – Yes, it's not without it's flaws as a film but as a filmgoing experience it was unparalleled. Exciting, often beautiful and deeply immersive thanks to the impressive effects and use of 3D, it's the best blockbuster I've seen for a while.
5. Lake Mungo – A film that took me by surprise after it opened a relatively small horror festival in the UK, Lake Mungo is a creepy, yet moving horror film. It's one of the first fictional horror 'documentaries' I've seen that actually looks and feels like a real documentary. It has some narrative flaws and is not a perfect film, but it's quietly powerful and some of it's scares still haunt me three months later.
6. District 9 – It's quite inconsistent and satirically blunt, but it's also a fresh-feeling and exciting blockbuster that I thoroughly enjoyed. I found lead actor Sharlto Copley to be infuriatingly caricatured in the film's first 20 minutes, but his performance gradually develops into one of the breakthroughs of the year, at least in a blockbuster role.
7. Where the Wild Things Are – A little slow and overly minimalist in terms of plot, yet Where the Wild Things Are is still a beautiful film. What struck me most was how effective it was in capturing the feeling of being a child coming to terms with the struggles of life.
8. Paranormal Activity – As with Avatar, this isn't without it's problems, but is an incredibly memorable cinematic experience. It's been a long time since I've been this gripped and terrified by a film and I think it helped that I watched this early on before the hype-machine took over.
9. Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl – Incredibly daft and utterly bonkers, Vampire Girl is a hell of a lot of fun. Much in the vein of Machine Girl, this is an orgy of over the top gore effects and inspired lunacy that is an acquired taste, but if you can let it in you'll not regret it.
10. Up – It's not the best Pixar film by any stretch, but when it works it's a moving and entertaining adventure that still impresses. The opening 15 minutes are incredible, reducing many to tears before the film had really got started. The rest of the film struggles to recapture this and turns a bit silly at times, but it's still better than most.

And the rest (in order of preference and score categories):

The Disappeared

Star Trek
The Forbidden Door (AKA Pintu Terlarang)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (UK)
Bodyguard: A New Beginning

Terminator Salvation
Tamami: The Baby's Curse
Home Movie

Dogs of Chinatown
Looking For Eric
My Bloody Valentine 3D

Drag Me To Hell
Les Dents De La Nuit

Last of the Living
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The Assessment (AKA Headhunter: The Assessment Weekend)

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