Friday, 27 April 2012

Samsara Trailer

A beautiful teaser trailer for SamsaraRon Fricke's follow up to the acclaimed Baraka. Samsara hits cinema screens August 31.

Damsels in Distress (2012)

Image: Sony Pictures

We have a confession to make. Before Damsels in Distress, we’d never seen a Whit Stillman film. And while we’re sure that there’s a fair few of you in the same boat, the writer/director has a fan base that’s remained loyal since the release of his last film The Last Days of Disco in 1998.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has barely arrived at Seven Oaks College before she’s collared by Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and asked to join their clique. They have made it their mission to improve the lives of as many students as possible, particularly airheaded frat boys who can barely function and suicidal broken hearts. But can they maintain their upbeat attitude when they find their own hearts in jeopardy?

Damsels provoked a strikingly split opinion when it was unveiled as the surprise showing at the London Film Festival last year, seemingly irritating as many as it enchanted. It certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a broad audience. You’re either on board, or you’re not. During the first quarter of an hour or so there’s a strong chance you’ll take against its kooky (yes, we all hate that word) nature and its droll deadpanning. Or you’ll find it fresh, funny, and charming in a way that so many American independents aspire to but so few really achieve.

The first part of the film is fairly streamlined, as Lily becomes involved with the girls, their Suicide Prevention Centre (complete with donuts that are only available to the genuinely suicidal due to an agreement with the baker) and their attempts to bring a waft of fragrance to a frat party. The second half becomes increasingly fragmented, as Stillman tries give equal attention to both Gerwig (Greenberg) and Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love). In fairness, they’re both excellent. MacLemore and Echikunwoke have less to play with (nice and naïve and dry-witted and judgemental respectively) but they’re both very funny. The film could have been trimmed during its second half, but it never stops being entertaining.

What’s perhaps most refreshing about the film is, despite the fact that it’s conscious of how witty and playful it’s being, it’s surprisingly sincere. The group is the closest thing the film has to a pretty girl clique, but they’re no Mean Girls. Their goodwill isn’t a façade, they’re genuinely trying to help people improve themselves, and they feel that it’s the dumb and the depressed that need guidance. There are dumb jocks (the excellent Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen) to laugh at but there’s something charming about their desire to improve themselves. Thor (Magnussen) may not know the names of the colours, but, as he points out, he’s at college to learn. Even the rat playboy operator types (Adam Brody’s sharp dresser with a vague job title and Hugo Becker’s French intellectual whose interests in theology and sex overlap) have their moments of tenderness.

There’s still plenty of dark humour, even if most of it is delivered with a cheery serenity (with the notable exception of Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza, who pops up as a belligerent diagnosed depressive). It’s also aware that stating a desire to improve someone’s life is arguably a narcissistic act. But in the end, it’s a film that adores its characters and wants you to feel the same, rather than laughing at their belief that life can be improved through soap and tap. Violet’s life goal of starting a new dance craze is silly, but it’s also sincere. It’s also very, very funny.

With great performances from Gerwig and Tipton, Damsels manages to be effortlessly light, breezy, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, and completely charming. It’s excellent.

4/5

JH

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Avengers (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Avengers Assemble, one of the year's most anticipated movies, has finally hit the big screen. A few years ago we fell in love with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), last year we were charmed by Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), but I was slightly uninspired by The First Avenger, Captain America (Chris Evans), and up till now Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk hasn’t seen the light of day. With a bunch of mixed feelings and much hype in the air we went into this.

Having lost the battle the first time around, Thor’s adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), returns to earth in hopes of destroying mankind once and for all, with the help of a special cube. Hoping to stop him in his tracks is boss man Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a few Marvel-ous superheroes.

Now, I hate to start with the negative, but anyone who has seen Loki in action in Thor will be able to guess within seconds of him revealing himself as the nemesis in this film which team will come out victorious. While the archenemy doesn’t appear completely inept, sadly Hiddleston isn’t that good at playing bad and isn't at all convincing, so it’s difficult to believe that so many heroes are needed to restore order.

That aside, it’s nice to see so many Marvel characters share the same stage. Some, however, shine more than others. Iron Man and Hulk get most of the funny lines and big laughs while the other two are often the butt of the jokes. This isn’t really surprising, though, as the latter two, Captain America in particular, are nowhere near as super. But egos (or Stark's ego) aside, they work well together as a team.

Rounding out the cast is the ever-present Mr Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, reprising her role as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as master archer Hawkeye, and a few other good men and women.

With a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film does plod along at a surprisingly slow pace considering nothing of importance is going on to justify it, so director Joss Whedon could have kicked things into gear a bit sooner. Ultimately though it’s a fairly enjoyable ride, if a little over-hyped.

While The Avengers has some funny moments and the actors seemingly bring their A games, this Marvel spectacular isn't quite equal to the sum of its parts, and it's perhaps true that too many superheroes have slightly spoilt the Assemble. That being said, The Hulk is definitely the stand-out character and we’d go as far as to say that Mark Ruffalo and his green-bodied monster deserve their own movie. 

3/5

FG

Spiritismes: An Interview with Udo Kier (Part II)

Udo and fellow Spiritismes cast member Kim Morgan

'Nothing can be too much.'

After some intense business where he had to pretend to be struggling through a jungle, Udo bounded backstage once more to continue our chat. It looked like he had hurt himself breaking branches, he was sopping wet, and the emotions he had called up seemed like they must be taking some brutal toll on him. Is it, we put to him, really tiring to do?

'No! If it were tiring I wouldn’t do it, would I? No, it’s fun – it’s a lot of fun! It looks physically more difficult than it is, and emotion is just like, you know…you’re allowed, in a Guy Maddin film, to do things that in another film they would never let you. For Guy Maddin, I think, acting wise nothing can be too much. For Lars Von Trier, if I took ten per cent of what I am doing here he would say it was too much!'

Another director he has worked with is Dario Argento, appearing in his classic film Suspiria and follow-up Mother of Tears.

'It’s always a short scene. Basically, as an actor, it’s like a visit to the set! In Suspiria I was working with Fassbinder in Germany and [Argento] wanted to meet me, and said "I really don’t have any role but if you like you can do this", and when I saw Suspiria I realised that I explained the whole story. He likes me, obviously, to explain the film. The monk in Mother of Tears, it’s the same thing.

I work with a lot of directors. Lars Von Trier’s favourite line to actors is “Don’t act!” and in a Guy Maddin film – “Act!”. So that is the difference. But it’s good that every director has a different way of directing, because everybody works differently.

Udo as Dr Frank Mandel in Suspiria, and Padre Johannes in Mother of Tears

'What I see around me, that is my acting school…'

Do you have a particular ethos as an actor? 'No…what I see around me, that is my acting school. I’ve never been to acting school, I was discovered in London when I was 21 for my first film, Road to St Tropez, directed by Mike Sarne, who was a very popular singer at one time. And I learned – I was lucky that I worked with great actors, really good actors, and I learned. I learned from the best. If somebody’s bad I ignore it, because I don’t want to get any bad habits. I like it – talent is something you cannot learn. Very ironically I became a professor in Brunswick in Germany teaching theory of acting, and I have never been myself to an acting school! Of course, they knew that…What is important is that you have fun and are willing to learn, and that’s what I’m doing.'

I asked why he seems to end up in so many horror films. 'You know me from horror films because you like horror films! I have done other films…' I worried I might have offended him, but he flashed a grin: 'I like horror films because it’s a fantasy person. Dracula never existed – there was a Count Dracul in Romania, who was very rich, and he was hated, and if the people didn’t say hello Count Dracul would nail their hat onto their head. I like to play a fantasy person that never existed, because you have so much freedom to create something new.' 


Udo in Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula

'You play what? You play a Nazi on the moon?!'

As a final question I asked, following on from our discussion of horror and fantasy films, about his involvement with the film Iron Sky.

'Iron Sky was…somebody just called from Finland, they called my agent, and it was actually three years before they made the film. Everybody did ask me – my friends asked me – “What is this film Iron Sky? You play what? You play a Nazi on the moon?! What is this film?”. I got tired of explaining about the film, but just before I was really forcing them to take my name off the project my agent called and said “They got the money, they pay you the money, you start shooting!”

Udo in Iron Sky

It was a kind of an interesting year, because I made seven films, one after the other. The first was in China, playing a mayor of a city in America, playing [adopts accent] very American. Then I went to Winnipeg to play in Guy Maddin’s film Keyhole, with Isabella Rossellini, and do a lot of short films. Then from there I went to Lars Von Trier playing a wedding planner, then I went to Istanbul playing Bela Bartok in the Turkish film Görünmeyen…'

[Here Udo posed for our rather fantastic top photo, mimicking his character in Melancholia in being unable to look at the bride, here played by Kim Morgan]

'Then from Istanbul I went to Prague, playing the Pope in Borgia, which was an English German Spanish co-production, which is why the actors were mixed. I did that, and then I did a film called Berlin Project which I have never seen, I don’t know what’s going on with that film. And then I went to Frankfurt just before Christmas to shoot Iron Sky, the part which is supposed to take place on the Earth. So Frankfurt is standing for New York, or Washington, or whatever. And then after the holidays we shot in Australia, we shot in the studio.

The film was voted in Berlin at the Film Festival as the most popular film for audiences. People were standing in line, I’m not saying that because I was in the movie, but it was really a big hit. Huffington Post put a clip with me on, and said it was the funniest and craziest film of the year. And the Guardian in London put me on their Oscar list for Melancholia as Best Supporting Actor. So there you have your interview!'

With that Udo was off to the set again, this time to be repeatedly hauled up off the ground by a witch-haired Elina Löwensohn. All in a day’s work, of course, for Mr Kier, a truly unique actor and genuine cult legend.

Udo and Elina Löwensohn 

MP 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

This Must Be the Place (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Given the number of po-faced biopics that we’ve seen over the last few months, and with doubtless many more on the horizon, it’s a great relief to see a film like this from Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo). Simply put, there just aren’t enough films about aging rockers hunting for Nazis in America’s heartland.



Retired alt-rock star Cheyenne (Penn) is living in retirement in Dublin with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand). He travels to America to visit his dying father, who he discovers was searching for the Nazi war criminal that tormented him at Auschwitz. Cheyenne decides to take some positive action and sets off to track him down.

While Penn’s striking performance has quite rightly dominated much of the discussion of This Must Be the Place, it’s a pleasure to report that the film itself is worthy of his fantastic turn. It’s almost split into two halves, with the character study of the depressed rock star and the offbeat, Wim Wenders style road movie. Cheyenne’s a character that comes close to falling into parody, with his cramped walk, his high-pitched voice, and that odd-combination of childish naiveté and the fact that his sheltered existence is the result of a lot of bad living. But Penn’s performance is always heartfelt and Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello clearly feel a great deal of affection for the character.

Cheyenne’s a lot sharper than he lets on, too. Jane may be the victor in their verbal sparring and their sports activities, but they’re definitely a partnership. When he meets with famed Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), he’s quick to note the elder man’s concern with reputation and appearances. The hair, the eyeliner, and the lipstick may seem like a defence mechanism against a cruel world but they’re just as effective as a smokescreen for his detective work.

While the first half is often funny, it does go on for a little too long and the film really comes to life when Cheyenne hits the road. While Sorrentino does use the “look how odd he looks here” gag a few times too often, it works because underneath the make-up, the character is a slightly bewildered, heart-sick man who has reached middle age and doesn’t know where he fits. It’s refreshing to find that the people he meets on his journey aren’t the usual succession of stereotypical oddballs. Instead, there’s a retired history teacher, a single mum, and an inventor. OK, the last one’s quirky, but given that he’s played by Harry Dean Stanton there’s no reason to complain. They each have their quirks, to be sure, but they’re identifiably characters rather than types.

It’s a little long, but it’s so vibrantly colourful and shot with wonderful energy by Sorrentino that it never drags. The performances are all pitch-perfect (Penn aside, Kerry Condon and McDormand deserve special mention). It’s funny, beguiling, and finally moving. Oh, and David Byrne pops up as himself. What’s not to like?

Penn is superb in this excellent offbeat road movie.

4/5

JH

Wandering with The Wicker Man

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

Yesterday we attended a screening of The Wicker Tree, thematic sequel to 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. Presenting the film and answering questions was Robin Hardy, director of both films and writer of The Wicker Tree, which he adapted from his own novel, Cowboys for Christ. 82-year-old Hardy spoke about his love for this genre he has effectively created, and gave away some hints about his plans for the third installment in the loose trilogy, The Wrath of the Gods, which he hopes to film in Shetland to take advantage of their Scandinavian cultural heritage.

MP 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Three years after the Kate Beckinsale-free Underworld prequel Rise of the Lycans, the actress has squeezed herself back into the leather cat suit to strut around, jump off buildings, and kill some werewolves. But does her return herald an improvement?

The humans have found out that vampires and lycans exist and decide to eradicate them. Selene (Beckinsale) is captured and frozen by evil scientist Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea) but is mysteriously released twelve years later. She rallies the remaining vampires to keep a powerful young girl safe and find out what Lane is up to.

The five screenwriters should perhaps have been a sign that all was not well but even by the series’ not exactly sparkling script standards, Underworld: Awakening moves mechanically towards its big action finale with a gloomy sense of inevitability rather than energy or purpose. There are absolutely no surprises between Selene’s imprisonment and the final assault on the compound. The film also suffers from the lack of Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen and their enjoyably hammy villainy. While Beckinsale’s leather-clad gun-toting “death dealer” may get the teenage bums in seats, this definitely is lacking in actors capable of delivering the clunky dialogue with anything other than laughable earnestness. We do at least have Rea (Interview with the Vampire) as the sinister doctor and Charles Dance, who struggles a bit with his vampire teeth as coven leader Thomas. The rest of the acting talent is negligible to say the least.

Despite their hokiness the previous films weren’t completely without their charm but this functional fourth instalment relies too heavily on the appeal of Beckinsale’s return. The idea to create a new mythology and a new world isn’t a bad one in itself but they could have gone about it with a bit more vigour.

The weakest of the series with a script that’s seriously wanting in action and lacking any fresh spin.

1.5/5

JH

21 Jump Street (2012)

Image: Sony Pictures

After the disappointment that was The Sitter, we weren’t exactly itching to get out there and watch another Jonah Hill comedy. Especially one that was based on a TV show that we’ve never seen and co-starring Channing Tatum, who had yet to show any comic aptitude at all. So imagine our surprise when 21 Jump Street turned out to be really very funny indeed.

Rookie cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are sent on an undercover mission to infiltrate a high school drug ring. But the nerdy Schmidt suddenly finds himself in the cool clique, while dumb jock Jenko finds himself an outcast with the science nerds. Can their newfound friendship survive high school a second time?

First of all, let’s talk about Hill and Tatum. Their chemistry together is superb and the balance of their friendship is played beautifully. Hill’s character is more awkward and less abrasive than his characters in films such as Superbad, and Schmidt’s excitement at being friends with Jenko is touchingly reciprocated when Jenko realises that life after high school is not easy for someone who never bothered to study. Tatum riffs on the dumb jock persona he’s built up beautifully, displaying real comedic chops and willingness to look stupid. A lot of the comedy comes out of the fact that they’re both as awkward and easily hurt as each other, with Schmidt finally getting to be cool and Jenko finding out how painful it is to be shunned.

Character analysis aside, it’s really very funny. The return to high school is given a nice twist, with the cool kids all about recycling, getting into a good college, and driving hybrid cars. Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim, Rampart) gives another great performance as Schmidt’s love interest Molly, a role which allows her to play both charming and wise-cracking as well as getting to have a truly impressive freak-out. Then you’ve got Ice Cube as the angry black captain who embraces his stereotype, Rob Riggle (Step Brothers) as the blow-hard gym teacher, Dave Franco (Fright Night) as the laconic cool kid drug dealer, Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids) as the science teacher lusting after Jenko, and a cameo from the master of deadpan Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), who gets the best remake joke.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller make an impressive live-action debut after the animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They handle the comedy, the action, and some pretty inspired hallucination sequences with great skill. There’s not a lot more to say about the film, really, except to reiterate what a pleasant surprise it is. They’ve taken an old TV show and turned it into a hilarious comedy about friendship and high school. And Channing Tatum? Who knew?

It’s genuinely funny, and Tatum is hilarious.

4/5

JH

Monday, 23 April 2012

Contraband (2012)

Image: Universal

Mark Wahlberg’s a tricky one to predict. While he’s capable of putting in great work in films like The Fighter and The Departed, he’s also prone to taking lead roles in dull action thrillers like Shooter and Max Payne, so with this remake, of the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, we went in not knowing which Wahlberg we would get.

Contraband finds Wahlberg as renowned ex-smuggler Chris Farraday, who gets roped into one last job when his young brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) ends up owing dangerous criminal Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) a whole lot of money. Can Chris get the job done and not only save Andy’s life but his wife Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) as well?

While Contraband doesn’t offer anything particularly new, it’s certainly a competent thriller. Wahlberg (also on producing duty) knows what he’s doing in films like this and seems very comfortable in the lead: Good dad, loving husband, has turned his back on his criminal past but slots right back in for one last job. The plot does take a little while to get going as the filmmakers try and establish a bit of dramatic credibility but it only really comes to life about halfway through with a decent action set-piece in Panama.

The cast is surprisingly solid, including Ribisi (The Rum Diary) playing yet another in a series of oddly-voiced sleazebags, Ben Foster (Rampart, Alpha Dog) as Wahlberg’s partner in crime, J.K. Simmons (Juno) as the foul-mouthed fly-in-the-ointment ship’s captain, and Diego Luna (Milk), who pops up as a volatile and hairy Panamanian crime lord. Beckinsale, meanwhile, doesn’t get a huge amount to do apart from receive increasingly nasty threats from Ribisi.

It’s a fairly decent thriller that's not as thrilling as it should be and it doesn’t quite make the emotional connection that it’s obviously keen to, but it’s well-made and there’s enough good actors on hand to keep it interesting enough.

Average stuff. If you’re looking for a decent thriller, you could do worse, you could do better.

2.5/5

JH

The Raven (2012)

Image: Universal

There was great potential for an entertaining whodunit in The Raven’s plot: Edgar Allan Poe finding himself caught up in a series of brutal murders based on his stories. The casting of John Cusack was also encouraging, so as Poe fans we went along hoping for a good time.

Poe (Cusack) has returned to Baltimore broke and drunk. When a fiendish killer begins staging brutal murders torn from the pages of his tales, he is called in by Fields (Luke Evans) the chief detective on the case to consult. But things get personal when the killer kidnaps his fiancée Emily (Alice Eve).

If this all sounds familiar, well, it is. The Raven is at best an entertaining detective thriller that benefits from a period setting and using some of Poe’s grislier, more inventive murders to distract from the fact that it trots out a lot of the expected genre clichés. The script is incredibly clunky at times, while director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) seems disappointingly incapable of conjuring a decent gothic atmosphere. Surely a story about Poe haunted by his own writing deserves to be a bit more chilling.

Luckily there is Cusack, who gives the role his all and delivers a passionate, funny, and effective performance. Poe’s egotistical but tragic, and Cusack obviously has a lot of fun sinking his teeth into the part. It’s a shame that he’s not really matched by Evans (Blitz) or Eve (She’s Out of Your League), though Brendan Gleeson lends a bit of dramatic heft as Emily’s wealthy Poe-hating father.

It’s not a disaster, and Cusack’s performance makes it worth a look for genre fans. But despite some enjoyably nasty surprises, The Raven is a missed opportunity.

An on-form Cusack, a sense of humour, and a plethora of references for Poe fans are what The Raven has going for it. But the script and direction fail to rise to the occasion.

2.5/5

JH

Friday, 20 April 2012

Babycall (2012)

Image: Soda Pictures

Arriving on UK screens with little fanfare, it’s probably safe to assume that the reason why this Norwegian chiller landed a theatrical release here is its star Noomi Rapace. That’s not to say that the film is undeserving, but we imagine the distributors are banking on the recognisable face and undeniable talent of Ms. Rapace to draw in the cinemagoers.

Rapace stars as Anna, a single mum who has been moved into a new apartment with her son by social services. Her abusive ex doesn’t know where they are but Anna is clearly still traumatised. She refuses to let Anders out of her sight, even to go to school. When social services threaten action, she relents and buys a baby monitor, or Babycall, and lets Anders sleep in his own room. But the Babycall starts picking up sounds of a child in distress and Anna begins to wonder what’s real and what’s in her imagination.

Babycall is a well-made thriller from writer-director Pål Sletaune that benefits greatly from a superb performance from Rapace. The actress gets to show off her range with a vulnerable, fragile turn. While she’s best known for playing the fiercely strong and independent Lisbeth Salander, she’s terrific here as a damaged woman unsure of herself, attempting to open her life up and start again but constantly terrified of what might happen if she lets her guard down for even a moment.

There are some very-well played scenes between Anna and the shy Helge (Kristoffer Joner), the man she meets at the electronics store. Like Anna, Helge is a little socially awkward and has trauma in his past. The tentative courtship between these two nervous people is nicely played and well-written and it helps to give the film a centre to root for.

But things fall apart as Sletaune introduces the supernatural element. While his restrained approach works quite well for the first hour or so (Dark Water is a clear influence), it can’t hide the fact that the pieces don’t quite fit together. As the film finds Anna increasingly confused and unmoored, Sletaune can’t keep his grip on the several subplots and possible red herrings. Finally there’s an ending that you might see coming but that certainly doesn’t fit into the puzzle of the rest of the film.

When it’s a relationship drama, Babycall is very well acted, well observed, and well written. But the central mystery slips out of the filmmakers grasp and makes for a disappointing finish to an enjoyably subdued film.

See it for the first hour and for a wonderful performance from Noomi Rapace. It’s just a shame that the final act doesn’t fit in with what came before it.

3/5

JH

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Image: Colombia Pictures

None of us were particularly impressed by Ghost Rider. While it wasn’t a disaster, we wouldn’t say that it was crying out for a sequel. But the choice to hire Crank helmers Neveldine and Taylor got our attention. If anyone could inject a bit of life into the franchise, surely it would be the men behind the lunatic Jason Statham actioners.

Eastern Europe. French monk Moreau (Idris Elba) tracks down Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) to offer him a deal: rescue a kidnapped child and Moreau’s order will give Johnny back his soul. Tempted by the opportunity to no longer, nightly, turn into a skeletal biker demon on fire, Blaze agrees. But the Devil (Ciarán Hinds) wants the boy for his own nefarious purposes.

After an impressive pre-credits sequence in which Elba and Buffy’s Anthony Head spectacularly fail to protect said child, things sadly go downhill pretty fast. It was evident with the Crank films that Neveldine and Taylor are more interested in amusing themselves than the audience, and their snarky sense of humour doesn’t help to make Ghost Rider 2 any more entertaining. They bring their trademark brand of extreme cinematography but as a result the film often looks cheap when it needs to be big. Animation works for explaining Blaze’s backstory but their decision to keep bringing it back is just misguided. Add a half-baked storyline and you’ve got a something of a mess.

Those expecting Cage at full-blast will be a bit disappointed. It’s a mostly subdued turn, though he does thankfully bring the madness for a scene or two. Elba’s stranded with a silly accent but at least he gets the best action sequence in the movie. Johnny Whitworth (Pathology) hams it up as the evil American mercenary who gets a Satanic helping hand, and Violante Placido (The American) has little to do as the film’s only female character. At least there’s a bizarre turn from Hinds (The Woman in Black) as the Prince of Darkness, gurning and growling like he knows exactly what kind of film he’s in, and Christopher Lambert pops up as a tattooed monk.

Not as funny as it thinks it is and certainly not that exciting, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is definitely not the shot in the arm Johnny Blaze needs. But we’d be lying if we said it didn’t get a reluctant smile or two out of us.

There are couple of moments which save it from total infamy but generally this is a disappointing non-starter, which is a shame given how much Cage obviously loves the character.

2/5

JH

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Wonderful World of Tim Burton

From The MoMA to The Cinémathèque Française, Paris. The Tim Burton Exhibition will be running up until the 5th August 2012.

Images: FG & MP/Fohnhouse

John Carter (2012)

Image: Disney

There seems to be a lot of discussion about how well John Carter will perform at the box office. There’s concern that it might not connect with a big enough audience to justify its reported $250 million budget. Could Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch carry a tent-pole blockbuster? It’s based on the much-loved and extensive series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so could it appease fanboys and still appeal to the mainstream? There’s even been a last minute title change.

John Carter is a reluctant Civil War hero who is transported to Mars. He’s taken in by an alien tribe led by Tars Tarkis (Willem Dafoe), and learns that a civil war is raging between the two humanoid civilisations of the planet. The brutish Sab Than (Dominic West) has set his eye on crushing his peaceful enemy and marrying their princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Will Carter stick to his selfish plan to return to Earth, or will he help the beautiful princess?

Having never read the books, we only knew John Carter by reputation. Watching it, however, it’s striking to see how influential the series has been on science fiction over the years. The basic story may be a little familiar but director Andrew Stanton (making his live action debut after Finding Nemo and Wall:E) is committed to bringing the world of the books to life.

For a start, it looks stunning. The architecture and landscape are astounding, the battles are impressive, and the motion capture/live action blend is seamless. There’s also a very solid leading performance from Kitsch, who makes the grudging hero bit work for him (the character’s similarity to Han Solo wasn’t the only thing that made us think of Star Wars while we were watching it). He’s ably backed up by Collins, faring much better here than she did in Wolverine, who makes Dejah more than a match for Carter. The quality of the supporting cast is impressive, including Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston, Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, and Thomas Haden Church. The best of the bunch is Dafoe, who has a lot of fun with his role as the proud Martian warrior Tars.

And fun is thankfully something that Stanton did not forget. For a film that leaves its action set-pieces until quite some way into the proceedings, the need for a sense of excitement and adventure is crucial and it’s a relief to report that it is there.  John Carter is not perfect. It is a bit slow at times, there’s not nearly enough villainy (it’s mostly Strong telling West to have patience), and it could be a little more evenly weighted between the first and second halves. But John Carter takes itself seriously, it takes its time, and it does not talk down to its audience, which is presumably why they’re worried about it. But it’s refreshing to see such a big movie which refuses to be condescending.

To be fair, it might not be for everyone. But we think it won’t just be genre fans that will be able to enjoy this ambitious and entertaining film. Highly enjoyable.

3.5/5

JH

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Spiritismes: An Interview with Udo Kier (Part I)

Image: Nicole Dunham/Fohnhouse

'It was something new for me…'

He might have a face and accent perfectly suited to horror movie villain roles, but Udo Kier also has a wonderful ability to send up both himself and everyone around him. 'You get four questions,' he told me, as we headed to the actors' room to talk, 'Just four'. He then proceeded to hold up a newspaper and tell me that the interview would consist of him reading me the news. When I began asking questions, though, his absolute professionalism was clear.

This isn’t the first time Udo Kier has worked with Guy Maddin – so how did this collaboration come about? 'Well, I narrated two of his films. Brand Upon the Brain was the first one – I got a call from the Cinematheque in Los Angeles and they asked me if I could narrate a film, that Guy Maddin wanted me to do that. I didn’t meet him, he was in Canada. The first reaction was no, because I’ve never done that before, but then when I heard that Isabella Rossellini had done it, Geraldine Chaplin, Tom Waits, everybody, I thought okay, I’ll give it a try, which I did. It was something new for me – you have to imagine, it’s on stage, the film is behind me, silent, black and white. I’m sitting in front of the screen, on my right hand side is an orchestra for the music, and on the left are three or four people for special effects noises. I have a monitor in front of my face and I read the text, and if the people are supposed to say something then I do all the voices.'

Udo in Keyhole

'Guy heard what I did, and then he called me and said that he liked it very much and he was going to do a film soon called Keyhole, with Isabella Rossellini, and asked if I would play the doctor. I said yes, so then I went to Winnipeg. There was a big studio, I think they made trains there before. There was the set – a haunted house – and then there were some students of his, and I was shooting three short films a day. Then, because [Guy] couldn’t control it like he wanted to, we stopped.'

'It’s a dream…'

'Then I saw him again, we became friends, and he said he’s doing a project with four museums, four countries, starting in Paris at the Centre Pompidou where we are sitting now, to do 17 films here, a part of the festival at the Centre [Nouveau Festival]. Everybody can come and watch, everybody can take pictures. Of course, at the beginning…' His expression suggests that this was annoying at first, but quickly softens. 'This is my eleventh day…as an actor you have to get used to it. There is noise, even when you talk. Of course, when you do a studio film, or any film, it’s absolutely silent. Everybody can take a picture…I’ll be wondering how many pictures of myself will be on the internet soon!'

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

'I enjoy it – I’ve always wanted to meet Geraldine Chaplin, and now we work together. Charlotte Rampling I worked with before in Melancholia. I do all his [Lars Von Trier’s] films, so far, except Antichrist and The Idiots, because in one there wasn’t a part and in the other they were speaking Danish. For an actor it’s like an exercise – it’s a dream, to be able to play every day a different person. You play a killer, you play a priest, you play everything possible. This is only 17…I don’t know the stories but I will be in at least 50 more. So that’s the story!'

[At this point Guy Maddin arrived and asked if Udo minded being soaked for the next scene. Not wanting to damage his own suit, Udo proposed that only his face and hair be symbolically wet, which Maddin loved, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship at work between director and actors].

'There is intellectual craziness going on…'

You’ve worked a lot with Lars Von Trier, how does the working relationship compare to that with Guy Maddin? 'Well, it’s totally different! I mean, they’re both perfectionists, but their way of working is totally different. Lars would not allow to improvise anything, for example. Lars Von Trier has the whole script in his hand. Fassbinder was like that. I remember with Fassbinder once, I put one sentence more than there was, and he left the camera and didn’t talk to me all day! But Guy loves when the actors offer things.'

Kier in Melancholia

'There is intellectual craziness going on, as you have watched here. It’s great! If you did this with amateurs, it wouldn’t be…but if you do this craziness with Geraldine Chaplin and Charlotte Rampling, they are really world famous, and it’s fun to do it! They all take it very seriously. I take my job seriously also, and I’m going now to make up and will talk to you later!'

TO BE CONTINUED…

In part two of our exclusive interview with Udo Kier he discusses working with Dario Argento, where his acting inspiration comes from, his role as a moon-dwelling Nazi in Iron Sky, and more!

MP

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Dream House (2011)

Get...out...

Image: Universal

Dream House has arrived with a lot of baggage. There’s the fact that stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz fell in love on set (with Weisz leaving husband Darren Aronofsky). There are also those reports of enforced reshoots, studio interference, and there’s the fact that the stars have refused to do any publicity for the film at all. Not exactly a good sign, but we tried to reserve judgement.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a New York writer who quits his lucrative job to move to the suburbs with his wife Libby (Weisz) and two young daughters. But all is not what it seems. A terrible murder was committed in that same house five years ago. Neither the police nor the next door neighbour Ann (Naomi Watts) is willing to give Will a straight answer. Does he want to know the truth?

If you saw the trailer for Dream House, you know the first major plot twist (and can probably guess each subsequent one). But the reveal the trailer spoiled arrives roughly around the half hour mark and if you know it’s coming, it’s very difficult to put your prior knowledge aside and enjoy the film. We won’t discuss it, and to be honest you’re going to need every bit of enjoyment you can get. Whether director Jim Sheridan, who is far too good for this, can place all the blame on Morgan Creek (who have a history of interfering with horror films, most notoriously William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III) or whether the script was terrible to begin with, we’ll never really know.

Based on the evidence onscreen, it’s safe to assume the script wasn’t exactly stunning. It’s a generic, if starry, ghost story. Craig gets better as the character gets more interesting, finding some pathos in a weak script. The same cannot be said for Weisz, who only really seems like she’s enjoying herself when she’s actually making eye-contact with Craig. As for Watts, the apologetic look on her face could just as well be directed at the audience as to her co-stars, and she’s only on screen for about ten minutes. 

At times it’s so bad that it seems like the cast and director are deliberately sabotaging it, but there are moments where you can see promise. It’s possible that, if it had been left alone, it could have been an enjoyable little ghost story. As it is, Dream House is a lacklustre, uninspired chiller with awful dialogue and uninspired twists. It’s left to Craig to keep you involved, but there’s a real sense that everyone would just as soon forget this film ever existed.

Skip it. The troubled production history is much more interesting than the finished product.

1.5/5

JH

Friday, 6 April 2012

Headhunters (2012)

Image: Momentum Pictures

After the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo we’ve seen an incredible rise in popularity of Scandinavian thrillers, with The Killing and Borgen making a splash on our TV screens. Author Jo Nesbø’s novels have been among the more successful imports and we were interested to see what this adaptation of his book would deliver. 

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) has problems. He’s married to a beautiful, successful woman and he’s one of the best head-hunters in Denmark. But he has low self-esteem and lives beyond his means to keep his wife in luxury, supplementing his income by stealing prospective employees’ valuable art when he knows they’ll be away. But when he tangles with the ex-military Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), he ends up in over his head and on the run from his relentless foe. 

During the first twenty minutes, there isn’t a whole lot to separate Headhunters from other con/thief movies, apart from the fact that the main character isn’t particularly likeable. Roger justifies his actions several times by pointing out how unattractive (and short) he is, but we see him cheating on his wife, he reacts badly when she asks him why he doesn’t want children, and there’s also the fact that he’s a thief. When the dashing but clearly dastardly Clas shows up, we’re almost rooting for him more than Roger. 

But when the second act begins things get a lot more interesting. Roger is pushed into increasingly bizarre, darkly comic situations that show a wicked sense of humour lacking from many films of the same genre, with the Coen brothers a clear influence on director Morten Tyldum. It’s also totally engrossing to see Roger fall ever deeper into his nightmare, not just because of the inventiveness of the punishment but because there’s a distinct feeling that he deserves it. Hennie is excellent as the wily Roger, trying to keep a level head as every option slips away from him. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Coster-Waldau as the evil Jaime Lannister, and he brings a similar well-groomed menace to his character here. The women of the film don’t fare as well although, given that it’s presented from the perspective of the not-particularly-likeable lead, that might be the point. 

As the film progresses there are a couple of regrettably sentimental moments and it’s occasionally a little too close to its Hollywood counterparts, but this is an impressively inventive, surprisingly funny film that’s definitely worth hunting down. 

Give it time. From an unpromising start Headhunters quickly shows a sharp, nasty sense of humour that puts it above a lot of recent Hollywood thrillers.

4/5

JH