Saturday, 30 June 2012

Killer Joe

William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” is not for the faint of heart, or possibly even the strong of heart. I count myself in the latter category, and yet there were moments in “Killer Joe" where my stomach felt less than stable. An adaptation of a stage production penned in 1991 by Tracy Letts (also the film’s screenwriter), it is Friedkin’s second collaboration with the celebrated playwright, the first being his previous feature, 2006 horror-thriller “Bug.” Like “Bug,” “Killer Joe” is littered with sudden bursts of blood-splattered grisliness, the kind involving bruised knuckles and crushed-up cans of pumpkin puree. In “Killer Joe,” the violence is played partly for laughs and partly for shock value. In “Bug,” I wasn’t so sure of the first part.

The poster tells us that “Killer Joe” is a “totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.” I will not object to a single word of this. Its primary setting is indeed a trailer park, and its characters are indeed rednecks - or, if you will forgive the judgemental phrase, trailer trash. Our protagonist of sorts is Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, “The Darkest Hour”), an amateur drug dealer living with his alcoholic mother in humdrum Texas. Amateur at his profession to a near-fatal fault, Chris is thousands of dollars in debt to the dangerous Digger Soames (Marc Macauley, “Dolphin Tale”). “You asked for an extra week,”says one of Digger’s biker henchmen. “That was three weeks ago.”

Chris is part of what you might call a broken family. His father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, “Sideways”), is a welder living in a dingy trailer park with Chris’ stepmother, Sharla (a fearless Gina Gershon, “P.S. I Love You”), and teen sister, Dottie (Juno Temple, “St Trinian’s”). These characters, who aren’t likable so much as engaging, are well-defined by Letts’ script and their performers: Ansel is a quiet man of limited wit, speech and ambition; Sharla is dubiously loyal and spectacularly skanky, greeting us with her bottom half completely unclothed; and young Dottie, a sleepwalker, is a vulnerable, child-like, almost angelic virgin whose age remains entirely unmentioned, which I strongly suspect is a deliberate tactic by Letts and Friedkin.

Thrown out by his coke-nabbing mother one wet and stormy night and forced to move in with pop, step-maw and sis (who are all convinced he hit his mother, again), Chris hatches a plan and shares it with Ansel. Y’see, Chris has discovered that if dear old mother were to meet her maker, little Dottie would receive $50,000 in insurance money - $50,000 that could be split between the family and used to free Chris from his recent money troubles. Enter Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, “The Lincoln Lawyer”), a Texan detective moonlighting as a professional hitman. “Killer” Joe wants the $25,000 for his "services" paid up front and is about to walk away upon realising that Chris and Ansel are strapped for cash. That is, before he sets eyes on a scantily clad Dottie dancing across the street and asks to take her virginity as a “retainer” until the money is paid in full. Chris and Ansel hesitantly accept.

Predictably, the operation doesn’t quite go according to plan, though not in the most predictable ways. Things spiral wildly, violently out of control and hidden motivations are slowly unearthed, as is always the case when blood money is close at movie characters’ grubby little hands. Ambitiously, the film lunges face-first into the diverse territories of gritty family drama, bone-breaking action and pitch-black comedy, often in single scenes. It is Friedkin, whose direction is bold and unflinching, who helps maintain the consistent, unwavering tone, even when the film is both sincere and mocking at the same time. As in “Bug," his direction is also unflattering to his cast: Hirsch spends much of the film with nasty black-and-blue bruises decorating his face, and Gershon, as I mentioned earlier, is introduced to us - if I may borrow a phrase from “Bridesmaids” - beaver-first.

As Joe, McConaughey is a striking presence indeed, armed with all the devilish charm and quiet menace of Lord Lucifer himself. Sporting a pair of aviator shades, black leather gloves and the inevitable Stetson, Joe is a picture of cool and confidence, a fact of which he is all too aware. He is slick and slimy, sinister and gentlemanly, capable of wooing a young lady and caving in a grown man’s skull with a tin can swiped from the kitchen worktop. Previously trapped in a seemingly inescapable rut of fluffy Hollywood rom-coms (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Failure to Launch” and “Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past” instantly spring to mind), McConaughey gloriously reinvents himself in “Killer Joe" with a performance that is gutsy, enrapturing, sociopathic and commanding to the point of hypnotism.

Take, for example, the scene in which Joe takes Dottie’s virginity. He arrives on the trailer’s doorstep, calmly knocks on Dottie’s bedroom door and patiently awaits her presence in the living room. Clad in a tanktop and a pair of denim shorts, Dottie slowly enters the room and informs Joe that she changed out of a black dress at the last minute. Upon seeing the black dress, Joe requests that he see her in it. Dottie turns towards her bedroom to change. “Where are you going?” he asks. He wants her to change then and there right in front of him. She obliges. He turns his back to her, closes his eyes and begins removing his handcuffs, police badge, etc., from his belt. “Remove your brassier,” he orders, still turned. She does so. Joe unbuckles his belt and orders Dottie to remove her panties. She does so. Mysteriously, Joe seems to know the exact second at which a hesitant Dottie has completed her tasks. Dottie slides on the black dress. Joe turns. And then... well, I shan’t spoil it.

“Killer Joe” builds to an unhinged climax that is bombastic but contained. As luridly comical as it is utterly revolting, it is an extended scene that would solely earn the film its 18/NC-17 rating, and then some, if it weren’t for the rest of the film’s plethora of full-frontal nudity and neck-snapping violence. As I’m not one to divulge any spoilers of the films I review, I shall remain sparse with the details, although if you’ve heard anything about “Killer Joe,” you’ve probably heard something or other relating to this scene. What I will utter is a warning: Reader, I would strongly advise against bringing a bucket of KFC chicken into the theatre with you if/when you see “Killer Joe.” If you must, make sure you have it all gobbled up before the arrival of the third act. If not, your snack may become... unappetising.

Six years ago, “Bug” marked something of a return to form for Friedkin, who was previously remembered only for having directed “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” forty-or-so years ago. “Killer Joe,” his 19th film, is a bigger return to form: it is a raw, encapsulating and provocative little tale of murder, incest, double-crosses and Kentucky-fried chicken legs. As I have already said, it is not a film for the faint of heart, but for those with hearts strong enough to endure its gleeful sleaziness and mischievous depravity, “Killer Joe” is a blast and a half.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is based on a true story, in a way. Part biopic and part action-horror film, it takes more than a few creative liberties in telling the life story of America’s 16th president, reimagining him as a professional slayer of demonic bloodsuckers. Apparently, when not governing the US of A, Mr. Lincoln would routinely visit vampires’ places of work with the intention of chopping their heads off with a silver-edged axe, often finding himself in high-stakes scuffles with the snarling beasts. I must say, I dread to think of the effect the film will have on history students’ final exams. Examiners shall surely be amused, if not utterly horrified, by claims that Lincoln's abolition of slavery was not just in the name of freedom but was a desperate attempt at ridding the vampire nation of their main food supply.

Playing Lincoln is Benjamin Walker (“Flags of Our Fathers”), who has presumably been cast for both his striking physical resemblance to the man himself and his stunning athleticism. His role is a physically demanding one, which not many actors who have played Lincoln could honestly say about their role. This Lincoln twirls an axe between his fingers like a baton-twirler wielding a metal rod. He leaps between tumbling train carriages atop a burning bridge. He even chases down a chuckling vampire while skillfully running atop a stampede of computer-generated horses. Again, not many actors who have played Lincoln could truthfully say they’ve done any of that in the role. Benjamin Walker can.

In “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," Honest Abe’s story begins in Perry County, Indiana, where his beloved mother is nibbled upon during the night by an intruder while nine-year-old Abraham watches in horror. This intruder is Jack Barts (Martin Csokas, “Dream House”), a sadistic land owner to whom Abraham’s father owes a hefty debt which he cannot pay. Jack is of course a vampire, but little Abraham doesn’t know this yet - he is in fact unaware of their existence. Abraham’s mother dies from the bite (strangely, she doesn’t rise from the grave as a member of the undead - I think I may have missed something), and Abraham swears bloody revenge.

Seven years later, Abraham is ready to exact his vengeance, but upon confrontation he is very nearly killed by the vampiric Jack. Luckily, he is saved from near-death by a heroic Englishman named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper, “The Devil’s Double”). Henry informs Abraham that he is a vampire hunter and takes Abraham on as his apprentice, training him in the art of vampire-hunting. And so Abraham becomes a killer of all those who are fanged and blood-thirsty, knocking on vampires’ front doors with his fingers tightly clenching the wood of his trusty axe (which triples up as a shotgun and bayonet. Handy).

Director Timur Bekmambetov has worked with vampires before, in his “Night Watch” and “Day Watch.” The vampires of those films were interesting: they were a nation of super-powered beings split into two opposing forces, the Light and the Dark, abiding by a truce that had maintained peace between both sides for centuries. The vampires of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” are much less interesting: they’re standard-fare vamps, invisible in mirrors and transforming into CGI-rendered grunters whenever bearing their sabertooth-like fangs. The only thing I found interesting about these creatures of the night (and day) was their resistance to silver. I was of the belief that werewolves were the only mythical beasts who objected to the presence of the precious metal. Apparently not.

As in most vampire movies, there is a head bloodsucker in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” He is Adam (Rufus Sewell, “Amazing Grace”), who is about as intimidating as any villain named Adam could possibly be. Adam is a plantation owner using black slaves as finger food and who is manipulating the American Civil War to his species’ advantage, filling the Southern forces with those of his own kind. Abraham has many violent run-ins with Adam and his cohorts, all shot with a slick visual flair by Bekmambetov and spoiled by dimly lit 3D. I slid down my 3D glasses a number of times during the film and discovered the image was much clearer and less murky without them, though of course more blurry. 2D seems to be the better format in this case.

Some may be of the opinion that the real Lincoln must be spinning in his grave as a result of this film. I disagree: I think Lincoln would be flattered by its claims that he was an action hero. He may not be so flattered by how the film short-changes him as a character, mind: we know very little about Walker’s Lincoln outside of his thirst for vengeance and his stubborn determination to wipe out the vampire species. Walker is capable under the man’s iconic top hat but, given that Lincoln is one of the most intriguing characters in American history, there should really be more to him. There is also a passionless love subplot shared between Abe and future wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, much prettier than the real Mary Todd), who as a character exists only to be threatened and placed in a position of danger.

Speaking of danger, there’s a notable lack of claw-biting suspense in the film’s many action sequences, chiefly because we all know how Abraham will meet his maker, and it ain’t in amongst a stampede of horses or underneath a runaway train. The axe-to-face action is perfectly well choreographed and captured with a very deliberate awesomeness by Bekmambetov, but I’d have liked to have been sitting on the edge of my theatre seat at some point, with the sense that anything could happen during the course of the film and that history could truly be rewritten on-screen. Disappointingly, that sense never came and consequently my arse became numb on several occasions. Unlike for Lincoln, there was no one sitting behind me with a gun, ready to pull the trigger, about to end it all.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” originates from a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who serves as the film’s screenwriter (his other works includes the ingeniously titled “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”). I have not read his book, but I have heard from reliable sources that it tackles its preposterous premise not with its tongue in its cheek but with a straight face. This cinematic adaptation does the same, and I admire it for that: its makers could have very easily gone down the lazy route of farcical historical parody, but resisted. What I don’t admire is that it offers plenty of style but very little of anything else, the film truly enjoyable only during its brief spurts of “Matrix”-influenced bullet-time action. It’s a dramatically bloodless affair that - thanks to murky 3D - doesn’t even have the advantage of looking very good.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

The films of Wes Anderson exist in their own little world, and what a strange little world it is. As shown in his “Rushmore" and “The Royal Tenenbaums," it is an eccentric, colourful world populated with flawed individuals who wander about in unfashionable clothing and whose every reaction is almost a non-reaction. It is soundtracked by laid-back folk tracks and British rock tunes. It is dryly comical, not that its glum-faced populace notices too much. Ever the auteur, Anderson lets us view this world from a meticulously chosen vantage point from which the composition of everything in sight appears strangely symmetrical, which gives it an aesthetic that is amusingly, boldly artificial.

Colour-coded and filmed with a controlled energy, it is a world that is practically animated, though Anderson has only attempted one animated film in his 16-year career: 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which showed that Anderson’s unchanging visual sensibilities are a natural match with stop-motion animation. But I think I prefer it when this world is presented in the live-action format; a real-life setting with characters made of flesh and blood serves only to enhance its curiously kooky qualities. I don’t think I’d turn down a trip to this weird little world, although I wouldn’t want to stay for too long - I’m not certain I’d want its unique idiosyncrasies to rub off on me too much.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson’s latest, takes place in this world, and arguably displays its quirky characteristics to a larger degree than Anderson’s previous works: all of the clichés so commonly associated with his style are flaunted in full force here, and charmingly so. It sees Anderson revisiting adolescence, a topic he last explored with habitual hilarity in his second full-length feature, “Rushmore.” It’s also quite possibly his most charming and accessible film thus far, though not his best: I, and I believe few will object to this, would gladly hand that award to “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Still, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a wonderful, whimsical creation.

“Moonrise Kingdom" is set on an island just off the coast of New England and a few miles away from reality. This island is not a particularly large one, but it’s big enough for someone to hide in for a day or two and go unnoticed. It is the year 1965, though really it could be any year. Twelve-year-old orphan and unpopular boyscout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) flees the island’s Camp Ivanhoe in search of adventure, freedom and love. Joining this capricious little rogue is another twelve-year-old, the bookish and watchful Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who runs away from home. Suzy is living in a lighthouse on the island for summer with her three younger brothers and her dysfunctional parents, attorneys Walter (Bill Murray, in his sixth collaboration with Anderson) and Laura (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”), who see their daughter as a “troubled child.” Perhaps they are right: she reminded me of a young Margot Tenenbaum, which I’m not so sure is a good thing.

In typical Andersonian style, young Sam and Suzy act not like innocent youngsters but like fully grown adults - they’re like the bleachy-eyed alien children from “Village of the Damned.” Sam smokes a corncob pipe. Suzy wears blue eye shadow. They’re already in love, having fallen for each other while penpalling, which they have done very regularly since their first meeting a full year ago: Suzy was performing in a church play and Sam snuck off backstage, where he became entranced by her. The production was of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which contained superb on-stage flood effects. Perceptive viewers will recall that Bob Balaban's delightful on-screen narration mentioned in the opening moments that a storm will strike the island in three days - the storm of maturity?

A local search party is launched to find Sam and Suzy, led by Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton, “The Incredible Hulk”) and Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, “Red”). The boyscouts join in too, though they treat the operation like a manhunt, arming themselves with axes and bows and arrows, and see Sam as a fugitive. The two runaways, meanwhile, set up camp atop a cliff, and later inside a secluded cove, which they name Moonrise Kingdom. Sam is burdened with all the camping duties, wielding ropes and survival gear, which he uses with much skill. Suzy, meanwhile, has brought with her a collection of sci-fi books, a portable record player (with extra batteries), her pet kitten and, of course, her trusty binoculars.

Sam and Suzy share a riveting romance - this, in spite of the fact that they are yet to enter their teenage years. They share sweet moments: Suzy teaches Sam to dance to Françoise Hardy in the Moonrise Kingdom cove; Sam listens intently as Suzy reads him her books; they kiss, and Sam questions her about French kissing. “The tongues touch each other,” explains Suzy. And they French kiss. Gilman and Hayward are talented young actors, appealing and magnetic both when together and when separated, though mostly they are together. Sam and Suzy act as the heart of “Moonrise Kingdom,” and a big heart the film has.

Along with our young hero and heroine, the adult stars of “Moonrise Kingdom” fully indulge in the deadpan technique that has become an integral staple of Anderson’s projects. Norton and Willis, both newbies to Anderson’s world, make for an excellent team-up as an inexperienced but dedicated scoutmaster and a lonely, melancholy cop, respectively. Murray, who has appeared in each Anderson film since “Rushmore,” projects sadness and gains sympathy, his character, along with the brilliant McDormand, stuck in a dead-end marriage that no longer brings him happiness, or perhaps it never did. Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin") takes a terrific turn as a professionally concerned social services officer known only as Social Services, who unites the older and younger generations through their hatred of her - they believe she will inflict electric shock therapy upon young Sam, and no one wants that to happen.

Each frame of “Moonrise Kingdom" is gorgeously composed and each movement of the camera is skillfully co-ordinated. I’d call the visuals “quirky,” but I don’t think that would do them justice: the look of “Moonrise Kingdom” is a thing of startling, irresistible beauty, capable of wowing and tickling, sometimes achieving both at the same time. Consider, for example, a moment which sees Sam and Suzy stepping aside to talk over their upcoming elopement. Their brief, heart-to-heart conversation is probably important and dramatic, yet we do not hear a single word, for not only is it muted, but our attention is focused entirely on the young trampolinist skillfully demonstrating his athletic abilities on the right hand side of the frame. Few directors would get away with or even attempt such a thing, but Wes Anderson does both, and we adore him for it.

By now you probably know if you love or loathe Anderson’s style. I count myself in the former category, but I know many who would count themselves in the latter. If you’re on my side (not that we’re picking sides here), you should find “Moonrise Kingdom” an utter joy. If not, I believe its winning humour, wry imagination and subtle poignancy may very well win you over, though I can’t be certain: people can be very stubborn. “Moonrise Kingdom” is a film about young love, and reader, its magical charm and enchanting little oddities made me fall head over heels in love with it, and made me feel oh so young.


Saturday, 16 June 2012


David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” is a difficult film to fault: its casting is inspired, its actors’ performances are superb, it is technically brilliant and it enthrals as soon as the beguiling opening titles - consisting of splashes of earthy ink being splattered across the bottom half of a mustard-yellow piece of parchment - grace the screen. But “Cosmopolis” is also a difficult film to like: after all, how can one like a film that is so cold and impenetrable that it effectively dares to be disliked? But I did like it, I think, and in some ways I enjoyed its coldness and impenetrability, though “Cosmopolis” is not the sort of film to be enjoyed, per se - it is to be experienced, and what a stimulating experience it is.

Based on a 200-page novel by Don DeLillo, “Cosmopolis” takes place over the course of a single day, but this is no ordinary day - it is the day Eric Packer orchestrates his own financial downfall. Our tightly wound protagonist, Eric is played by teenage heartthrob Robert Pattinson, who once again attempts to pole-vault away from the glum-faced corniness of the blockbusting “Twilight” saga; here, he is successful. Eric is a Wall Street trader and, at just 28 years young, is already a multi-billionaire: he notes early on in the film that not too long ago he was younger than everyone else around him. “One day it began to change,” he says. Now he’s just younger-looking than everyone else around him.

Eric wants a haircut, and requests that he be taken from the east side of New York to the west side, where the trimming shall take place. His over-protective bodyguard objects: the anti-capitalist protests surrounding the President’s arrival in town may prove dangerous for Eric, as well as a reported “credible threat" against Eric’s life, but Eric insists: he wants a haircut. He travels across NYC in his garishly white stretch limo, the inside of which serves as the primary setting for much of the film’s action. I say action, but the film is determinedly driven by its dialogue, which is about as easy to keep up with as a greyhound chasing after an artificial hare through the intricate passageways of a full-size hedge maze. But while you may not entirely comprehend all that the characters are talking about, you’re nevertheless utterly captivated by the way in which they talk about it - its obliqueness is oddly compelling.

Eric’s limo is quite the vehicle: its insides are decorated with rich black leather, the top seat serving as a throne for Eric to slouch in. An advanced touch-screen computer system stands at the side, allowing for Eric to keep tabs on the stock market while swigging back glasses of scotch. There’s a toilet, which slides away underneath a secret compartment once its user has finished their not-so-private business. The limo is an eerily quiet setting, allowing for Cronenberg to indulge in dead, awkward silence during those rare times when Eric ceases his incessant jabbering - not even the sounds from outside enter the limo. This provides a startling disconnect between Eric and the increasingly anarchic streets of Manhattan slowly passing by outside, which at times looks strangely, deliberately artificial, more like a back projection than a real-life background.

En route to the barber’s, Eric picks up and converses with a few business associates, some of whom are more expected than others. You may recognise a few names here. Jay Baruchel (“Goon”) steps in for a chat as Shiner, a tech-savvy computer geek, as does Samantha Morton (“John Carter”), playing Eric’s notably outspoken theoretical advisor, Vija Kinsky. Emily Hampshire (“Snow Cake") plays Jane Melman, Eric's chief of finance, with whom Eric casually converses in the back of the limo while a doctor performs a prostate exam on him during another daily check-up. “You have an asymmetrical prostate,” the doctor tells him. Eric looks puzzled, and ponders the meaning of this for quite some time.

I was shocked to discover that Eric has a wife. Her name is Elise, and she is played by Sarah Gadon (“A Dangerous Method”). Eric and Elise have apparently been married for a few weeks now, though judging by the emotional distance of their conversations you’d swear they’d never met before. Eric is frank with her: “When are we going to have sex again?" he hounds her in the back of a taxi cab. He later comments in a diner: “You have your mother’s breasts. Great stand-up tits." Moments earlier, Eric was having sex with his middle-aged art consultant, Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche, “Dan in Real Life”), in the backseat of his limo. I never thought I’d see Juliette Binoch riding Robert Pattinson in the backseat of a limo, yet Cronenberg delivers.

One particularly pleasurable performance of many comes from Paul Giamatti (“Rock of Ages”), whose role I shan’t give away. He’s one of the few associates of Eric to appear in more than one scene, although his first appearance is so brief I doubt many will even notice him: he’s part of the outside world that Eric so blissfully fails to acknowledge. His second appearance comes during the film’s climax, which is set in a derelict tenement building and which puts a comical new spin on the word “handgun.” This climax is stupendously riveting, thanks in large part to Giamatti’s tormented performance, so much so that it works rather beautifully as a one-act play: I’d pay good money to see it on the West End.

“Cosmopolis,” like Cronenberg’s last feature, 2011’s “A Dangerous Method,” is one of the more cerebral works from the Canadian filmmaker, a far cry from the visceral body horror of his “Videodrome” and “The Fly.” And yet it is as disorienting a watch as any of his prior works, transporting us to a limo-sized world of rapid-fire conversations, passionless sex and brief spurts of grisly violence, and in which the cold and isolated Eric Packer is the hero. As Eric, Pattinson is a gripping screen presence, rock-solid on the outside and brimming with destructive self-loathing on the inside. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Cronenberg and Pattinson work together again: they prove themselves to be a ferocious pairing.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Rock of Ages

In his joyously vibrant comedy musical “Hairspray,” backing dancer-turned-Hollywood-movie-maker Adam Shankman transported us to 1962 Maryland, where racial segregation sadly ran rampant. In “Rock of Ages,” Shankman transports us to 1987 Los Angeles, where many things run rampant, not least of all the devil’s music - or rock and roll, to be less damning. Like his 2007 mega-hit, Shankman’s latest is a musical and sees its inspiration in the form of a critical darling of a broadway production. Unlike in “Hairspray,” the transition from stage to screen in “Rock of Ages" is not successful, or at least not nearly to the same extent that it was in “Hairspray,” in which the transition was almost seamless. Side note: “Hairspray” would be an appropriate title for “Rock of Ages,” in which the hairdo-sustaining liquid in a can is part of the air the characters breathe.

Slap-bang in the centre of the City of Angels stands a nightclub named “The Bourbon Room.” Frequented by long-haired headbangers and protested by outraged Christians, the Bourbon Room specialises in showcasing heavy metal and glam rock, and is owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”), who shares a touching bromance with his right-hand man, the appropriately named manager Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand, “Arthur”). The club is about to host a hotly anticipated, revenue-boosting gig by a world-famous rock star, but we’ll get to him later.

Our heroine is Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, “Footloose"), a curly-haired blondie and small-town girl (livin’ in a looonely wooorld) from Oklahoma. We meet young Sherrie as she travels to L.A. on a bus, in which she spontaneously belts out the lyrics to Night Rider’s 'Sister Christian’ - her fellow passengers join in, as does the driver, which I’m sure violates one or two safety rules. Sherrie dreams of being a singer, but first she must start at the bottom: after being mugged on the street, aspiring rock star and lowly busboy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta, “90210”) helps her get a job as a waitress at the Bourbon Room. Romance blossoms between the pair.

Now, onto that world-famous rock star. Stacee Jaxx, the lead singer of fictional rock band Arsenal, is played by Tom Cruise; it’s the A-lister’s most gleefully outrageous performance since playing hairy-handed movie mogul Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder.” Sporting a navy blue bandana that keeps his untamed mane at bay, Stacee is an unashamed rock god whose tattoo-splattered torso never goes unexposed and who is forever doped up on a substance we never see him consume. He wears a bejeweled codpiece, sleeps with his nose clenched between busty pairs of groupie boobies, owns a trouble-making pet monkey named Hey-man, and frequently spouts faux-philosophical nonsense: apparently, Stacee will set The Bourbon Room on fire, literally, to please the “fire phoenix.”

It turns out Cruise is a talented frontman too: he struts about the grubby main stage of The Bourbon Room with an irresistible no-nonsense, rock star gusto, flaunting the fashion sense of Iggy Pop (sweat-smothered chest and all) and belting out power ballads with the screech of Axl Rose. And “Rock of Ages” is at its entertaining best when its diverse and wonderful cast is rocking out to the spine-tingling guitar strums and ear-splintering drum-thumping of beloved rock anthems by Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and REO Speedwagon. A highlight (for both the right and wrong reasons) sees Catherine Zeta-Jones (playing the music-loathing wife of Bryan Cranston’s music-loathing L.A. mayor) thrashing about the aisle of a chapel to the tune of Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,’ intercut with a googly-eyed Cranston being spanked by his mistress over his office desk. This is quite the sight.

But alas, “Rock of Ages” suffers from the “Mamma Mia” effect, i.e. it far too often feels like we’re sitting in a smoky bar, watching a bunch of drunken mega-stars taking turns at helming the microphone during karaoke night, the theme being the super sounds of the ‘80s. This isn’t helped by the sheer relentlessness of the admittedly stirring soundtrack, with musical numbers coming thick and fast, and exasperatingly so: a Journey track is followed up by a Poison track, which is quickly followed by a Scorpions track, which is then immediately followed by a Starships track, with barely any room to breathe between the numbers. And it all culminates in an epic medley of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ which I don’t think many would hesitate in saying we’re all a little sick of by now - damn you, “Glee,” and all that slavishly followed you.

Worse still, the film’s central romance, shared between Sherrie and Drew, is lousy and unconvincing, even if they do scream the lyrics to ‘I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You’ into each other’s faces behind the Hollywood sign. Their performers, up-and-comers Julianne Christian and Diego Boneta, do show a talent in both the singing and acting departments, but there’s a problem with their characters: together they lack a spark and individually they aren’t particularly interesting. So, when Sherrie is forced to work in a strip club (where men pinch her bum - the horror!) and Drew is forced to join a cheesy boyband (think the early - and modern - days of New Kids on the Block), the heart-wrenching drama intended by Shankman and his writers flops like a headbanger’s mullet.

The poster for “Rock of Ages” states that the film is “nothin’ but a good time.” I won’t object to this too much: “Rock of Ages” is never boring, and does serve as adequate, campy entertainment - watching Tom Cruise and Malin Akerman having sex atop a pool table while both sing ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ could be nothing else. But rarely does it click like Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” did so gloriously in 2001 and, clocking in at just over two hours, it goes on (and on, and on, and oonnn...) for far too long - methinks some of those relentless musical numbers could have hit the cutting room floor. Still, I’m sure the broadway production rocks.


Sunday, 10 June 2012

Red Tails

“Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards in the face of danger. They are therefore unfit for combat.” This was the conclusion reached by a US Army War College study conducted in 1925. These words are projected verbatim across a black screen at the very beginning of “Red Tails,” a film centred on the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilot squadron. On a daily basis, these men faced unthinking racism in their attempts to take to the sky in defense of their country during World War II: they were thought of as incompetent, unintelligent and cowardly by white officers, and were therefore routinely subjected to racial discrimination. Heroically, they overcame this ignorance, went on to destroy 112 German planes in the air and 150 on the ground, and ultimately changed the face of the American armed services forever. Pretty good for a bunch of “negroes,” I think you’ll agree.

But “Red Tails” isn’t too interested in what is the all-important meat of these men’s glorious story, for it is a film with its head in the clouds, literally: it is far too interested in the explosive aerial combats in which the Tuskegee Airmen fearlessly took part during WWII. Any depictions in the film of the racial prejudice these men fought against alongside Nazi forces serve merely as a distraction from the airborne warfare and sometimes as a lazy attempt to rile us up: white officers deny them access to their apparently white-only officers’ bar (“Go home, nigger,” casually remarks a pool-player), yet welcome them with open arms following word of one successful mission. Still, those aerial combats sure are cool, aren’t they?

Their story, as shown in “Red Tails,” begins in Italy, 1944, where they take part in low-stakes ground attacks against German supply trains in hand-me-down aircrafts. They are under the guidance of Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr., forever sucking on an unlit pipe), who is growing increasingly tired of his dedicated squad’s courageous actions counting for zilch. Meanwhile in Washington, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard, “Iron Man”) attempts to attain better resources for the Tuskegee Airmen, in spite of the stubborn resistance of Col. William Mortamus (Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad") - he’s in strong agreement with the conclusion of that US Army War College study.

Eventually, the Tuskegee Airmen are awarded a high-profile assignment: providing air support during an attack against Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, who are led by German ace pilot Pretty Boy (Lars van Riesen), characterised as a snarling Aryan. This is where “Red Tails” spreads its wings, with speeding bullets tearing their way through aircraft metal and the aircraft themselves ducking and diving between the clouds of Italy at a hundred miles per hour. The special effects work by Industrial Light and Magic is spectacular, animating the flying machines with a startling realism and a convincing physicality. These dogfight sequences are both gorgeous and exciting; if only the action on the ground below was nearly as stirring.

Several subplots are interwoven throughout the narrative, some more effectively than others. An effective one focuses on Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), a cocky pilot and loose cannon whose recklessness in combat is an irritation to whiskey-chugging superior Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker, “The Secret Life of Bees”). Another, much less effective subplot revolves around Lightning’s infatuation with a beautiful Italian local, Sofia (Daniela Ruah), who lives with her elderly mother and who is wooed by Lightning’s American charm - unbelievably, their romance is sparked when Sofia, standing in her back garden, spots Lightning’s plane flying by and waves at him.

It is of note that “Red Tails” is executive produced by George Lucas (the creator of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” as the television spots proudly gloat), who has been trying to get the project off the ground for 23 years - after almost a quarter of a century, he has finally succeeded, in some ways. Lucas’ influence and presence is evident and felt throughout the film: the same wooden acting, laughable dialogue (“Die, you foolish African!") and overuse of CGI that plagued his “Star Wars" prequels are available by the shedload and displayed in full force throughout “Red Tails,” only here they’re attached to a telling of the legendary story of real-life war heroes.

And while the film is officially directed by first-time filmmaker Anthony Hemingway, one struggles to shake the feeling that this isn’t Lucas’ production: the film, after all, was funded entirely by the man, and his name has been splattered all over the promotional materials. Plus, the film features the same sense of pulpy adventurism showcased in his “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” trilogies, which clashes with the film’s determination to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen with heartfelt passion and to do them the justice they undoubtedly deserve - it achieves neither and, like an exploding Nazi fighter plane, comes violently crashing back down to Earth.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is worthy of a great movie adaptation, and “Red Tails” is not this. I struggle to call it even a good adaptation: it strives to be both an inspirational historical piece and a heart-racing action blockbuster, and fails at both. But it was made with the best of intentions, and I appreciate that. Lucas apparently had great trouble getting the film made and released in theatres due to, he claims, studios’ resistance to producing a big-budget movie with a black-centric cast. I can think of a few other reasons...


Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Innkeepers

The Yankee Pedlar Inn of “The Innkeepers” is a real place, which some viewers may find discomforting to know. The primary setting of Ti West’s haunted hotel horror picture, it stands 100 miles north of Manhattan in Torrington, Connecticut, where it has stood for well over a century since its erection in 1891. West’s film was shot almost entirely in the 60-room hotel, in which West and his crew stayed during filming of his third feature, 2009’s “The House of the Devil." West claims to have experienced peculiar goings-on during his stay, which went on to serve as the inspiration for “The Innkeepers.”

The building has long been said to be haunted, though conclusive evidence of any supernatural presence within the resort is yet to be found. One thing is for certain: the Yankee Pedlar Inn shall surely enjoy an enormous boost in revenue thanks to the film’s release, along with a slight decline: I can’t imagine those of a more spiritual persuasion wishing to spend a night in a Yankee Pedlar room after seeing West’s film and witnessing the skin-crawling horrors contained therein. Still, people can be daring, although perhaps not enough to venture anywhere near the building’s basement.

“The Innkeepers” sees the Yankee Pedlar on its deathbed: after decades of success, it is now living out its final weekend before closing up shop forever. Only two employees remain in the building: college drop-out slackers Claire (Sarah Paxton, “Shark Night”), about 20, and Luke (Pat Healy, “Rescue Dawn”), about 30. With just two guests to care for (a stressed-out mother and her young, easily scared boy) and the third floor shut down, Claire and Luke don’t have very much to do around the place, although Luke still forgets to load the rooms with fresh towels every now and then.

In their spare time, of which they have much, they bicker away at the front desk (think Dante and Randal from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks"), playfully mock what few guests they have and, interestingly, hunt for ghosts around the Yankee Pedlar. Just like the real thing, the hotel of “The Innkeepers" is said to be haunted. Here, it is by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, aka “the widow of the Pedlar,” a honeymooner who hanged herself in one of the upstairs rooms in the 1800s when her husband abandoned her. Madeline’s body is supposedly buried in the basement, dumped there by the hotel owners. Claire enjoys reciting this story to the younger guests, shining a torch on her face for effect.

For their amateur ghost-hunting escapades, Claire and Luke toy about with video cameras and EVP monitors, and upload any notable finds onto their website, as primitively designed by Luke. So far, their finds have amounted to moving doors and floating orbs, easily explained away as gusts of wind and airborne dust. But they’re adamant that there’s something roaming the unpopulated hallways and stalking the dusty rooms of the Yankee Pedlar, and they’re dead-set on finding it - that is, if it doesn’t find them first.

Like he did so successfully in “The House of the Devil,” West makes “The Innkeepers” a slow burner: by limiting the fright factor for the film’s majority, he allows his film to slowly but surely creep up on its audience, like a spectre in the night, before the real scares begin. After a relatively frightless (but almost entirely engrossing) 70-or-so opening minutes, “The Innkeepers” descends into a climactic crescendo of gut-wrenching terror and ends on a note of hard-hitting heartbreak. The film features a tense and gripping build-up with a pay-off as rewarding as it is utterly terrifying.

As the film’s writer, director, producer and editor, West allows us to care for and sympathise with his characters during this suspenseful build-up. Part-time innkeepers Claire and Luke, as played with charming ease by Paxton and Healy, are a likeable pair who enjoy each other’s company just as much as we enjoy theirs - that is to say, very much. Claire, a scrawny asthmatic clad in torn jeans and a loose-fitting hoodie when not in the hotel’s official purple uniform, is more so our protagonist (or “scream queen”), with Luke acting as the slightly nerdy sidekick. There are glimmers of romance between the pair that one can briefly glance, though these are not dwelt on: I liked that.

Along with the grouchy mother and scaredy-cat son, there are two more guests who book a room in the Yankee Pedlar over the course of the story. One is Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis, “Top Gun"), a washed-up soap actress turned psychic healer in town for a conference. Claire is a fan of Reese-Jones’ glory days, and can’t help but squeal with delight when called up to her room to deliver towels. Reese-Jones knows more than she lets on. The other guest is an unnamed, mysterious and frail old man (George Riddle) who stubbornly demands that he be placed in Room 353 for the night. The room is unfurnished, but he doesn’t mind. After all, he won’t be staying there for very long...

Unlike the barely noticeable Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and the snowed-in, isolated Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” the Yankee Pedlar Inn is a very accessible and very public building. It stands in amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life; yellow taxi cabs drive down the road outside every few seconds; pedestrians walk by the front door all throughout the night and day - indeed, anyone could walk in at any moment. And as you’re startled by ghostly apparitions in the dark and dingy basement below, screaming your lungs out for help and for dear life, you are faced with the knowledge that there are people casually strolling down the street above you with the power to help, yet they cannot hear you, or perhaps they choose not to. In some ways, I think that’s more haunting than simply being alone.

“The Innkeepers” is an effective horror picture directed with a quiet style and grace by Ti West. It is a traditional, old-fashioned ghost story unafraid to introduce modern elements to its production: instant messaging, web design and online pornography enter the narrative, plus an internet prank provides one of the film’s biggest scares. And scary it is, West cranking up an aura of dread and paying it off with nail-biting, hair-raising terror. Plus, like so many great horror films, it incites fear into the everyday, in this case a hotel: book a room soon after seeing “The Innkeepers” and I shall take my hat off to you. Enter a hotel basement, and I’ll eat that hat.


Saturday, 2 June 2012


Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” intrigues with its opening scene and sustains this right up until the end credits, perhaps even after this point: hours after seeing the film, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. A semi-prequel to Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece “Alien,” it begins rather appropriately with the silent introduction of an extraterrestrial being, but not the one of “Alien” that haunted our nightmares. This alien is tall and humanoid, with a pale complexion and the darkened eyes of a great white. Adorned in a monk’s robe, it stands atop a gargantuan waterfall in the early years of Earth, where it is shown to poison itself. Its apparent sacrifice and subsequent tumble into the flowing waters below breathes human life into our planet. Already, “Prometheus” is stirring.

We travel forward to the year 2089 and find ourselves in the mountainous landscape of the Isle of Skye in bonny Scotland. Here, archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, “Devil”) discover a cave painting depicting humans worshipping a constellation, the same constellation they have seen etched into the cave walls of other ancient civilisations, none of which ever shared any contact. Shaw, whose neck dangles a crucifix, sheds a tear at the sight. Investigation into the skies above shows that this constellation exists in a far-off corner of the universe, and that sitting within it is a sun similar to our own, and a moon capable of sustaining life. Intriguing.

We jump forward four years to 2093, and we are voyaging through the unending darkness of space (where no one can hear you scream), following this constellation along with the spacecraft Prometheus, named after the titan who stole fire from the gods. Aboard are Shaw and Holloway, who awake from cryogenic suspension along with a ragtag crew of scientists of various different fields who are ready for anything, except what they find. Their mission, to see what the hell’s out there, is funded by now-dead multibillionaire tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, unrecognisable under old-man make-up), and overseen by stony-faced executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, just as much of an ice queen as she was in “Snow White and the Huntsman”).

Also in amongst the crew is David (Michael Fassbender, “Shame”), whom Weyland comments in a grandiose hologram presentation is the closest thing he has ever had to a son. David is an android, much like Ian Holm’s Ash in “Alien” and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in “Aliens,” although much more the former. As the crew hibernate for two years on the ship, we are shown David’s daily routine: he keeps the craft in ship-shape condition, cycles in the gym while shooting hoops, learns archaic languages, dyes his hair an Aryan blonde and, interestingly, studies and mimics Peter O’Toole’s performance in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” As David, Fassbender is a striking, almost hypnotic presence, lifelike yet not entirely human: of course, one wonders if David shall honour that time-old movie tradition of a robot that suddenly develops a mind of its own. I shall say no more.

Prometheus lands on the alien moon, dubbed LV-223 by us Earthlings, and what a sensational sight it is: a dusty, almost dead terrain, it is a world of skull-modeled mountains and suffocating, shard-splintering sand storms. The only sign of life spotted by the crew is a magnificent temple that looms large over what looks like a runway. That is, until they enter the dark and murky tombs below, where a whole assortment of tentacular grotesquery is set in horrible, violent motion. But I won’t let loose any specific details: “Prometheus” is one of those films that benefits from a lack of prior knowledge, although come to think of it, the same could be said of any film, could it not?

If you’ve seen “Alien,” and I implore you to if you have not, you may recall an ominous figure discovered by the Nostromo crew in a derelict alien ship mere seconds before that infamous facehugger greeted John Hurt with a big, wet, impregnating kiss on the lips. Labelled by fans as the “space jockey,” the figure (designed by H. R. Giger) was the long-dormant skeleton of a giant being sitting in a pilot’s seat, a hole in its chest and an expression of anguish and terror permanently attached to its snouted face. Much debated since the film’s release in 1979, the origins of the space jockey are one of the many topics explored in “Prometheus,” which answers several oft-repeated queries surrounding the “Alien” quadrilogy, and ultimately probes even more questions in a manner that is as fascinating as it is frustrating: it’s often like a stereotypical priest, answering questions with more questions.

But these are not the truly big questions raised in “Prometheus,” which gallantly leaps face-first into themes of existentialism and faith, though perhaps its leap isn’t far enough, nor forceful enough. Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script boldly journeys into treacherous territories that are frankly out of its depth, ending up crippled under the immense weight of such earth-shattering questions: why are we here, who made us, and why? Still, one must admire and commend their ambition in attempting such a feat: most big-budget studio blockbusters wouldn’t dare poke or nudge such controversial subjects with a 10-foot pole for fear of having them stir from their slumber and bite them in the ass.

“Prometheus” unashamedly takes on board much of the same narrative structure as “Alien” and James Cameron’s action-packed sequel, “Aliens:” a crew of intrepid space-travellers step foot on an alien planet, are handed much more than they bargained for and are forced into a desperate, seemingly unwinnable fight for survival, which of course sees many of them meeting their makers, although here they do that in more ways than one. We even have our own Ripley, with Rapace’s Shaw undergoing a convincing, deftly handled transformation from bookish, religious science geek to axe-wielding heroine: Rapace is well cast. But this, dear readers, is most definitely a Xenomorph of a different colour.

The film, in contrast with its predecessors’ claustrophobic moods, is an epic spectacle, frothing at the seams with beautifully rendered special effects and showcasing a grand, breathtaking scale. It is crammed full of beguiling elements that maybe don’t mesh together as well as they should, but they’re enthralling and approached with a nail-biting, nerve-shredding intensity by Scott. Mysterious life forms slither through thick tar; a giant, monolithic face of stone watches over a cemetery of leaking urns; dead alien bodies litter the passageways of an intricate underground cave system. All of these beg the inevitable, irresistible, mouth-watering question: just what exactly is going on on LV-223?

But don’t ask me: I’m divulging no spoilers, or as few as I can. What I will say about “Prometheus" is that it is an overwhelming, wholly engrossing experience assembled with intelligence and imagination. It has the power to surprise and astonish, and it uses this often. Like so many of Scott’s films, it is a technical masterclass, but unlike his “Alien” it lacks a focus and spirals wildly out of control during its third act. Still, I remained intrigued, and “Prometheus” is nothing if not intriguing.