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Archive for March, 2010

Shutter Island: Martin Scorsese finally tips his hat to the horror genre with the terrifying thriller that is Shutter Island. While the film lends itself to a few logical fallacies here and there, especially during the twist at the end, it remains consistently entertaining. Scorsese has always played it easy with casting decisions, often employing the safest of actors. Between Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson he has four of the most consistent actors of the past two decades; not brilliant, mind you, but outrageously competent, no matter what their roles are. Truth be told, DiCaprio does overact a bit but he’s still compensating for Titanic, so we can steadfastly forgive him for impersonating a kid who just saw a unicorn wink at him. Mark Ruffalo, on the other hand, is almost unwatchable, with his portrayal of servility dangerously reaching Samwise Gamgee-level of unprovoked homo-eroticism. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, with their beady eyes writing stories with the mechanical grace of a typewriter, walk away with the finest performances of the lot…yes, even better than the sinister charm of Kingsley and Max von Sydow. Thrillers that invest heavily on the unpredictability of twists expose themselves to the risk of falling short of expectations, but here when Scorsese yells “peek-a-boo” at us towards the end, we end up feeling silly for not having predicted it. And that, my scholarly vermin, is the mark of a good thriller. Not great, mind you, but spectacularly satisfying.

Defendor: Sorry, my batty comrades, Dark Knight isn’t the greatest superhero film ever made anymore, Peter Stebbings’ Defendor is. Technically it is a film about a man trying to act like a superhero, but Defendor is no more a catharsis on fighting crime than films on men wearing bat costumes and tight underwear with customized logos are. It gets us drunk on the trusted concoction of comedy and tragedy and is likely to have the more sensitive ones reaching for a tissue paper/cigarette lighter/glass of whiskey towards the end. Woody Harrelson, in his best performance since Raymond Barnell’s The Big White, plays Arthur Poppington, a sweet-natured, slow-witted traffic worker by day and a delusional superhero at night. He truly is one of the best modern actors to have survived Hollywood and he shows it here by making us care about superheroes in a way that would have been difficult to fathom, considering the most critically acclaimed (and highest grossing) film based on a comic book is a two-trick pony. The truth is, The Dark Knight, without Heath Ledger or Maggie Gyllenhaal, would have been hard to digest; in hindsight everything else just seems too needy about wanting to reflect the global stand on terrorism.

Defendor wants to do no such thing. It is far too kind in its approach to nurse any profane moral agendas. It’s just a story about a simpleton looking to change the world, one dent on the bad guy’s forehead at a time. Arthur has no superpowers, neither the wisdom of wise butlers nor infinite knowledge of martial arts. He has a reluctant sidekick in the form of a crack-addicted prostitute, Ms Kat, which gives way for some wonderful acting by Kat Dennings who makes ghostly-pale look cherubic and unnaturally sexy. The vastly underrated Elias Koteas (from Law and Order: SVU) is deeply committed to playing a sleazy NY cop and ends up exactly as we would have wanted him to, hateful, violent and deserving of Defendor’s rage. Michael Kelly, who plays Arthur’s co-worker and friend, and Sandra Oh, who plays his psychiatrist, are promptly forgotten due to no fault of their own. Even the plot plays second fiddle to Woody Harrelson’s acting; only Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) and Patton Oswalt (Big Fan) have come close to giving a performance as honest and restrained as this one. A special word of mention to composer John Rowley too; his original musical scores are a perfect foil for us to pledge our allegiance to Defendor.

Tenure: Luke Wilson has this habit of playing small-town guys with big-time problems. In Mike Million’s Tenure , he plays Charlie Thurber, an English professor competing for tenure with his new colleague. His buddy Jay Hardley (David Koechner), when he isn’t busy trying to locate the whereabouts of Bigfoot, tries to help Charlie out, even at the expense of his own standing, however thin that ice maybe, in the college community. Gretchen Mol, who plays the new hotshot professor vying for the same tenure, looks absolutely gorgeous. Her melancholic expressions evoke a sort of longing that made Virginia Madsen unbearably beautiful to look at in Sideways. Shawshank’s mean prison warden – Bob Gunton – has a few great scenes as Mr Thurber, Charlie’s inexplicably morose dad. Everything is in fact fine and dandy until the very end where an explosion of clichés haphazardly brings the curtains down. Happy endings very rarely work because that isn’t how most of us look at the world. It wasn’t as though the Thurber family had suffered a tragedy grievous enough for the audience to want to see with the sun shining brightly on them right before the end credits roll; it just seems like the director took the easiest route by giving such unnecessary closure. Maybe he should have watched The Station Agent to understand how that is PERFECTLY done.

Leaves Of Grass: Director Tim Blake Nelson also happens to be one of my favourite comedic actors in recent times. His slow-burn timing of punchlines rivals that of the brilliant Michael Jeter and has worked fantastically well in films like O Brother Where Art Thou, The Darwin Awards and The Moguls. Unfortunately he’s about the only consistent performer in his latest film – Leaves Of Grass, which is quite surprisingly since it also stars Edward ‘Mr Consistent’ Norton in a dual role. Too bad a crappy accent and an all-too convenient storyline leaves him lurking about, looking like he wants to do little else than chew gum. In Leaves Of Grass, he plays both Bill Kincaid, a clean-cut Ivy League professor and his twin brother Brady, a free-spirited prodigious marijuana cultivator, two obviously polar opposites inexplicably brought together for devious purposes, thusly giving way to a heady mix of irony and poetic justice. Sheeeesh haven’t we seen this enough in Rajnikanth movies during the Eighties? To make it worse, Susan Sarandon shows up and spits existential venom every 15 minutes to thoroughly irritate me. Only Richard Dreyfuss as Pug Rothbaum – the angry Jew and Blake Nelson as Bolger – the redneck right-hand man, bring any sort of awesomeness, with their bug-eyed intensity.

Roger Ebert’s four-stars description definitely leaves me confused. He must have smoked some Grade-A weed to call it “a sweet, wacky masterpiece that takes all sorts of risks” because from where I stand, it is a sugary, tacky piece of lazy film-making. It just goes to show that films that rehash storylines, no matter how intelligent or well-crafted they are, will remain glaringly susceptible to staleness.

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Foals are a five-piece electro-pop outfit from UK. They make swank pop music, a recipe for tenderness that gives way to arrhythmic head-nodding. Sometime this February they leaked out a promotional track, Spanish Sahara, from their soon-to-released Total Life Forever album. It starts with the twinkling of keys, giving way to hollow reverbs, sweetly echoing in our ears; their singer Yannis Philippakis crooning promises about the Spanish sands, as electronic blips dart back and forth, daring us to dance to its dying heartbeat. If this doesn’t end up in my favourite songs of 2010 list, I’ll just extend the dam list to include one more.

*****

Synth pop band Hot Chip are one of those indie darlings kicking alternative dance music in its rear, making it step it up and evolve into something more euphoric, more magnificently shroud in rich layers of infectious harmonies. This is the kind of music that can be fully appreciated when interpreted through another art form; in this case, contemporary dancing. I’m as much of a dancer as Queen Elizabeth II is a nubile virgin, so I’ll let you find the suitable words to summarize how you may feel listening to it. Start with Hot Chip’s fantastic cover of Joy Division’s Transmission; an emerging rival to Nine Inch Nails’ Closer as the best dam Joy Division cover song OMG-ROTFL-WTF-ever ever.

*****

I don’t fancy post-punk and noise rock. Incoherence of sound, be it guttural vocals, erratic snare drum or shrill guitar solos, is acceptable to me only served on a gargantuan canvas of doom and gloom by experimental metal bands like Sunn O))), Neurosis or Electric Wizard. When a bunch of well-dressed kids sporting fancy guitars pretend they are too intense to make any sense, they end up sounding like Facebook status messages, vicious in content but superficial in spirit. Just like how social media forums aren’t as rebellious as they claim to be, post-rock music just isn’t as badass. Scarecrows On A Killer Slant by Liars, a dance punk trio comprising Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, Julian Gross, is an exception. Three sharp-dressed guys from New York, who look like they might lose a bareknuckle fistfight with the Jonas brothers, have crammed such fury into 4 minutes that it leaves us feeling exhausted. Their guitars groan, crash, and burn against manic percussion blasts, making our ears curl up in fear, as the vocalist angrily shouts, “How can they be saved from the way they live every day?” This is machine gun punk.

*****

Where were you, Maleficent Martini, a half a decade ago when I was listening to heavy metal with purpose? She’s the frontwoman of San Antonio dark wave metallers Maleficent and has a voice that is equally enchanting as it is blood-curdling, shrill, sensual and gnarly all at once. I tried listening to some of their studio tracks and while I wasn’t blown away I can safely say that they are light-years ahead of the theatrical sounds of Tristania, Nightwish or Lacuna Coil. Their awesome cover of the murderous ballad Where The Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue however did blow me away. Martini channels her inner Bob Dylan (of all people) as her nasal vocals, along with co-singer Mortimer Cain’s smothered growls, pierce through the guitar solos, telling Nick Cave’s story like it hasn’t been told before.

*****

Without cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller, Ra Ra Riot would sound like just another indie garage band. Not that it that wouldn’t have made for some interesting rhythm sections, but with the sweeping exoticism of those instruments they just sound infinitely better. The track Everest of their debut Ra Ra Riot EP is blistering evidence of this. A locomotive groove kickstarts the song, with the strings opening up ethereal spaces for the bass licks and percussion notes to run around in, without missing a beat. Wes Miles sounds a bit like a drunken version of Cedric Bixler (At The Drive In) but thankfully sobers up in time to hit the high notes.

Watch

Foals – Spanish Sahara

Hot Chips – Transmission

Maleficent – Where The Wild Roses Grow

Download

Ra Ra Riot – Everest (via beemp3)

Liars – Scarecrows On A Killer Slant (via Flux Blog)

Read

Interview with Maleficent Martini

Buy

Foals’ Antidotes

Hot Chip’s Warning

Liars’ Self-Titled

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The Blind Side: The Oscars sometimes reward actors for not screwing things up. This year the Academy honoured Sandra Bullock for not making John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side any more loathsome that it could have been. That she isn’t a gifted actress is a worthless secret; I mean, it’s not like she makes people want to slit their wrists, like Catherine Zeta Jones or Morgan Freeman sometimes do, but it is common knowledge that the woman can’t act for bollocks. Having said that, I am at peace with her Oscar victory; at least she isn’t one of those actresses who delude themselves about how good they are. Some might think they just honoured her to save us the embarrassment of having enjoyed Speed, but I can think of a better reason. Since its inception the Academy has been about everything else but actual cinema, I don’t see any problem in them handing out statuettes for sheer perseverance. Sort of like when Sydney Poitier got the Lifetime Achievement award. This woman knows a thing or two about perseverance. One of her films was actually alternatively titled The Internet and had a tagline that said, “Her bank account. Her identity. All deleted”.

As for The Blind Side, it is a based-on-a-true-story sports film with a big, booming heart, oozing feel-good arguments about social and economic disparities and its posterior crapping out pathos about paternal instincts. If you thought Million Dollar Baby could have won the Oscar if Maggie Fitzgerald got a surprise spinal fluid transport during the climax and won some championship to send you home, feeling like this world isn’t all that bad after all, you might enjoy Hancock’s feel-good sentiments. For those of us who wanted Steve Seagal to make a surprise appearance and judo chop Maggie’s respiratory tubes, turn a blind eye to this film. Check out Hancock’s A Perfect World. A place where kindred spirits won’t give you indigestion.

Delirious: Tom DiCillo’s Delirious could have been slightly better if it weren’t so desperate to be offbeat. Michael Pitt is cast as a street urchin stuck between a pop idol he loves (Alison Lohman) and a paparazzi photographer he owes (Steve Buscemi). It is a modern fairytale with all the interesting possibilities edited out. Everything, from the saccharine storyline to the overambitious acting and the sappy climax, reeked of desperation, giving rise to a tense notion that everyone involved in the film, for some reason, assumed it would have turned out immensely better than it actually did. Steve Buscemi is the biggest culprit here, with his dramatic portrayal of a paparazzi member, which comes across as being indulgent and tacky, considering Delirious is centered on the sticky moral quagmires he finds himself. The others fare none the better as they bring nothing remarkable to stop the film from boring the paint of our walls. Even the Elvis Costello cameo felt uninspired. Thank heavens director DiCillo had the forethought to give the underrated Kevin Corrigan enough screen time to make Delirious mildly watchable.

Reno 911 Miami: If you’re not into screwball comedies, move along, there is nothing for you to see here. Robert Ben Garant’s whacky film is based on Comedy Central’s improvisational mockumentary series and is dam proud of it. It pokes fun at a lot of things – Fox’s infamously wanton TV show – Cops, redneck machismo, bi-polar disorders and civic disorder, and takes nothing seriously. Thomas Lennon, who plays the gayer-than-thou metrosexualized chief of police and Kerri Kenney-Silver, “the hypochondriac with multiple psychological disorders, occasional night terrors, suicidal ideations and some symptoms of autism” are the most hilarious of the lot; even their grotesquely uncomfortable sex scene is funny enough to rise above, let’s say, Rob Schneider’s standards. To be fair it is infinitely better than stuff that passes off as slapstick humour in Hollywood. Edgier, more bizzare, and simply more convincing. Plus, the cameos are infinitely more hip. Rob Schneider gets Adam Sandler to act like a moron in his films for five minutes. Ben Garant has Patton Oswalt bringing the funnies for over an hour. Pshhh…no contest.

Fanboys: You don’t have to be a fan of Star Wars to enjoy Kyle Newman’s Fanboys – a film about guys ready to have kidney stones extraneously removed through their nostrils if it helped people understand just how awesome Hans Solo apparently is. Of course, some of the jokes may whiz past your head if you aren’t a self-fashioned sci-fi geek, but it won’t stop you from enjoying the inanity of it all. Fanboys has four friends taking a road trip across the country to sneak into Skywalker Ranch and steal a screening copy of his “new Star Wars film” – The Phantom Menace. So what’s funny about insanely obsessive Star Wars fans? I ask you, dear minions, what isn’t funny about straight-faced, strangely oxymoronic creatures intellectualizing real-life problems with Jar Jar Binks’ dialogues? Kyle Newman should be profusely thanking his casting directors – Anne McCarthy and Jay Scully – because if it weren’t for some good acting from the lead characters and the hilarious guest appearances, Fanboys might have just ended up looking idiotic. Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette and Jay Baruchel are convincing as clueless teenagers solving life’s most affordable mysteries. Dan Fogler, the fourth member of this motley-esque crew, is on fire, with his testosterone-fueled geekiness, making even shitty punchlines like “I only have one testicle” sound funny. Seth Rogen, as Admiral Seasholtz – the bucktoothed Star Trek fanboy, however gets in the best line. “Darth Vader has asthma, so name me one Star Trek character with a respiratory disease”.

The Crazies: Don’t you just hate it when hope floats and then crashes without a warning? I was giddy with excitement when I first heard Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell were cast as the lead couple in the remake of a George Romero cult classic. Olyphant and Radha are two of my current favourite on-screen performers and there isn’t a Romero film that I don’t love (yes, even Survival of the Dead), so if this one had sucked, my head would have spontaneously combusted. Thankfully it didn’t suck, but it did leave me thinking about how awesome it could have been if it were a bit more intense.  Maybe it’s just me; I could be too much of a “fan” to expect The Crazies to be anything less than spectacular. For what it’s worth, the acting was expectedly excellent. The foursome on the loose – Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson and Danielle Panabaker – aptly conveyed the terror unfolding before their eyes, paying attention to details,  delivering dialogues and posturing themselves without any unnecessary movement. Simply put, they acted like small-towners would in an apocalyptic situation and it made for an interesting character study. Too bad everything else about The Crazies falls woefully short. The unsatisfying end just adds my confusion. Seriously, how can the coming together of terrific actors, a legendary director and zombies not lend itself to unbridled awesomeness? The gods of cinema must be crazy.

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Director Wes Anderson chooses great music for his films. They mirror the eccentric, laidback vibe his films are known for. Whether it is composer Mark Mothersbaugh bringing alive Max Fischer’s torment in Rushmore or singer Seu Jorge covering David Bowie classics in The Life Aquatic, music has always been this director’s friend, breathing life into his vision. The Darjeeling Limited, released in 2007, has his most fascinating collection of tunes. The soundtrack uses excerpts from a bunch of Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory films from the Seventies, and also features The Kinks in their splendor and a great cover of Champs Elysées by French/Jewish songwriter Joe Dassin; for anyone who has studied in an Indian Catholic school, there is a nostalgic treat in the form of Udaipur Convent School Nuns & Students’ rendition of “Praise Him In The Morning”. The highlight however is the inclusion of the theme song to James Ivory’s Bombay Talkies (composed by Shankarsinh Raghuwanshi and Jaikishan Dayabhai Pankal); a breezy sing-along that carries along with it the casual vibrancy of a decade gone by. Smell the cheap cigarettes, the bell bottoms and socialist dissension of India during the Seventies. Take a long whiff…mmmmmmm good stuff.

*****

Newton Battenberg Faulkner is a singer-songwriter from UK. He has performed at Glastonbury and Lollapalooza, released a “critically acclaimed” album, toured with his anti-thesis John Mayer and James Morrison and has prominently been featured on BBC Radio 2. You probably haven’t heard of him because he is about marketable as soap made from the fat of celebrity animals. There isn’t room left for dreadlocked, guitar-tapping, post-Renaissance hippies in the music industry anymore, I guess. His debut Hand Built by Robots even debuted #3 in the UK Charts, with the single Dream Catch Me raising a few eyebrows in the industry. The real gem however is Newton Faulkner’s cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. While the acoustic arrangement is similar to José González’s version it distinctly sounds more engaging, with Newton’s vocals powering the simplicity of its rhythm. For the millionth time, minions, don’t associate popularity with actual talent. Sure, people would rather pay money to see John Mayer picking his nose backstage than see this guy fingerpicking harmonies out of thin air, but that’s just life or art or whatever else you want to call it. Don’t let that stop you from discovering music that doesn’t have a VJ introducing it on TV. You’d be surprised at how often public opinion amounts to little else than utter bullshit.

*****

With Mark Everett going country with his new End Times album, I believe there is a vacancy for the title of King of Pop. Damon Albarn just might be the one. His stellar work lately with bands like Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen have given him the right to go grab that crown, especially considering all the great music he has created through his first claim to fame – Blur.  Gorillaz’s latest album Plastic Beach will end up as one of this year’s most precious pop albums. It is infinitely better than anything else Albarn has put out through any incarnation for the past nine years. From the intriguing guest appearances to the treasure cove of catchy hooks, the album not only showcases their maturity but also has them hopping across genres like a frightened rabbit under a falling sky. Hip-hop, dream pop, post-bop, it’s all in there; a sprawling sonic landscape of music that has your feet tapping and your mind skipping to its insane beats. Tracks like “Cloud of Unknowing” featuring Bobby Womack and “Superfast Jellyfish”, with Gruff Rhys (leadsinger of Super Furry Animals and Neon Neon) and De La Soul, drift so far away from what we expect from pop music these days, gently abetting the de-compartmentalization of music and its boundaries. Like Helen Brown, writer for Telegraph, says… “He (Albarn) lovingly salvages the things they’ve left behind, like a hip, 21st century Womble.”

*****

American VI: Ain’t No Grave finds Johnny Cash posthumously giving us the chills. Since these songs were recorded during the American V sessions, in which he bared his soul, cold and sore, there is a general pale of gloom that has found its way into this album. His version of Claude Ely’s Ain’t No Grave chugs along like a funeral march for sad little locomotive engine, as the Man in Black, sounding more broken down ever before, predicts “when you hear that trumpet sound, I’m gonna get up out of the ground”. I guess “there ain’t no grave gonna hold” his spirit down.

*****

Peter Gabriel’s musical sensibilities started shifting towards the promised land of placid harmonies ever since the release of his 2002 album Up. It remains his most intense work to date, with its gorgeously haunting tracks – I Grieve and Sky Blue – weighing down on the speakers, spectacularly crushing them with their melancholy. Peter Gabriel’s 2010 album Scratch My Back is far more minimalist in its style and substance, slowly plodding its way into our hearts. Yes, it’s a cover album, but it sidesteps obvious classics and lays to waste any assumption of unoriginality, transforming feisty indie songs by bands such The Magnetic Fields, Elbow, and Arcade Fire into unearthly laments. His cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit is incredible, mostly because the former Genesis flautist sounds even more tortured than Thom Yorke. When he sings “fade out again” for the third time it really gets to you, with the violins coaxing us to drown further in its sprawling desolation. One of those moments when you wonder if music needs therapy.

Watch/Listen

Shankarsinh & Jaikishan – Bombay Talkies

Udaipur Convent School Nuns & Students – Praise Him

Newton Faulkner – Teardrop

Gorillaz – Cloud Of Unknowing, Superfast Jellyfish

Johnny Cash – Ain’t No Grave

Peter Gabriel – Street Spirit

Buy

The Darjeeling Limited Soundtrack

Newton Faulkner’s Hand Built By Robots

Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach

Johnny Cash’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

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Words don’t always do justice to Illaiyaraja. Like now, for instance.

Karpoora Bommai Ondru – Keladi Kanmani

Valayosai – Sathya

Kalyaana Maalai  – Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal

BGM – Mouna Ragam

Kanne Kalaimaane – Moondraam Pirai

Devadai Poloru – Gopura Vasalile

Siva Sambo – Ninaithalea Inikkum

BGM – Agni Natchathiram

Madai Thirandhu – Nizhalgal

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Man About Dog: We all know by now that Guy Ritchie inspired a bunch of British films with his flashy editing technique and reworking of Kurusowa’s improvisatory narration. He grabbed the crime drama genre by its neck and sliced and diced through its modus operandi of storytelling. Barring the travesty of Sherlock Holmes and Swept Away, his other films have stayed clear of turning redundant; so much so that aspiring directors have generously borrowed his ideas to try and make it their own. Paddy Breathnach’s Irish comedy Man About Dog is ritualistic in its adoration for Snatch, right from the hare-coursing and gambling plots to malevolent old men and vernacular jokes. While it isn’t anything as entertaining as Ritchie’s, you have to love them for trying. Some of the gags in fact are blessed with exquisite timing, especially when they involve Cerebral Paulsy (Tom Murphy), the spaced-out hash enthusiast. Not that its funny to see people do weird stuff on drugs; just that their response to stimuli naturally slows down enough to qualify as being comedic, especially considering the kind of situations these four guys get themselves into. The other two – Mo Chara (Allen Leech) and Scud Murphy (Ciara Nolan) – aren’t as funny but adequate in their roles as the ambitious lads looking to make a quick buck. Unfortunately the plots and sub-lots that run wild during the course of the film fall flat many a times. Unpredictability was what kept us on our toes in Snatch; if I knew beforehand that Mickey was betting against himself, I wouldn’t have had that satisfyingly stupid grin when Mickey’s friends blow Bricktop’s head off with a shotgun.

In Man About Dog, you can sort of figure out how things are going to turn out but thankfully it has enough working-class entertainment (like this one, for instance) to make this worth a watch. I never understand when people say “that film had a heart” but if it has anything to do with a bunch of nice enough people creating a fun, harmless movie about prize dogs and mad Irishmen, well you can fake breakdancing moves with your friends to its hearbeat. You’d also be well advised to check out Paddy Breathnach’s The Long Way Home and I Went Down, two great examples of Nineties’ British films. RIP Tom Murphy too.

Summer Scars: Extreme urban violence seems scarier to me when perpetrated by kids. Maybe I’m a closet pediophobic or maybe everyone should be working harder towards distancing their children from sharp objects and flammable substances, whatever that is, I believe that innocent minds when manipulated can have far worse consequences than ones already corrupted. That’s why films like Eden Lake scared the pants off me, as did a few others in the British hoodie genre. Julian Richards’ little indie film Summer Scars turns the tables on the hoodies. It transports a few of them into gorgeously lazy woodlands and lets loose a volatile drifter.

Richards has created a taut low-budget thriller that builds tension so effortlessly that we get caught up in the dilemas faced by its characters. Kudos to the younger actors for not going Haley-Joel Osmont on us and instead playing down their emotions as real kids would when they’re seriously frightened. Amy Harvey and Ryan Conway are especially good in making us care deeply about what happens to them. I guess, obscurity and simplicity has given them an air of genuineness that couldn’t have been taught in any acting class. However it is Kevin Howarth, who plays Peter – a volatile drifter, who makes Summer Scars a true stand-out in the crowded UK indie genre. He reminded me a lot of Paddy Considine in Dead Man’s Shoes; understated, intense and always a cigarette away from going completely nuts. Sometimes you even wonder if he really is a psychopath or just a serious man with shitty luck. The director cleverly keeps us guessing until a series of uncomfortable moments towards the end of the film. Also get your hands on Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek, a toned-down, but better-looking version of this.

Lake Mungo: Yay. Another ‘footage found’ film with plenty of chills! While neither as eerie as Christopher Denham’s Home Movie nor as tense as John Dowdle’s Poughkeepsie Tapes, it has so many wonderfully creepy things that you get sucked into it atmosphere. Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo revolves around the strange, sudden disappearance of Ms Arnold Palmer, and the spooky consequences that would have any parapsychologist frothing at the mouth with joy, but given that the Palmers are your regular friendly-neighbourhood family, has them scared shitless.  The best parts of the film creep up from behind during the beginning and the end, with an unnecessarily extended middle portion. The faux sub-plot of the resident psychic’s role in the haunting seemed a tad unnecessary too; much like the lengthy interviews with Timothy Treadwell’s plutonic friend in Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The other twists and turns are cleverly woven in, and like most self-respecting low-budget horror films, it uses the shaky, grainy camera angles to raise the level of suspense. Director Joel Anderson even makes Lake Mungo’s lack of originality ( it is loosely based on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Susan and Leland Palmer, remember?) seem less bothersome by giving it a perfect ending. This certainly isn’t some Discovery channel-produced “Unsolved mystery” . Lake Mungo is a faux documentary about grief and supernatural longing that could beat the crap out of Paranormal Activity in a fist-fight.

The Lookout: Joseph Gordon Levitt is getting really good really fast. Ever since he starred in Greg Arakki’s Mysterious Skin in 2004, he’s been on a roll, with his portrayals of downbeat characters. While his performances in films like Shadowboxer, Latter Days and Manic have solidified him as an actor who’s both consistent and talented, in films such as Brick, Mysterious Skin and now this, he’s so good that I worry for him. Young actors who show signs of greatness tend to fizzle out and lose themselves in mediocrity. I can only hope that he bypasses the Christian Bale phenomenon and stick to what he does best even when everyone else is telling him, oh man, you can do that in Hollywood too.

In Scott Frank’s moody thriller The Lookout, Joseph Levitt plays Chris Pratt – a teenager who has his life turned inside out following a terrible accident. Tragedy, pain pills and memory loss turn this once popular high school jock into a bumbling, insecure bank janitor. Brick meets Memento, anyone? Even Levitt’s ‘sad puppy look’ works to his advantage because he expresses it through his eyes instead of pursing his lips down or doing something silly. The story here is that he is conned into aiding a local gang rob the bank he works for. Sex, money and friendship are thrown at him in exchange for him playing a crucial part in their heist. Matthew Goode (as Gary), the brains behind the heist and the betrayal, Jeff Daniels (as Lewis), Chris Pratt’s older, much blinder roomie and Sergio Di Zio, who plays small-town deputy Ted, are really good in their roles. Lewis is a big ol’ optimistic mongrel, Ted’s a saturated do-gooder and Gary’s just an  asshole, all very believable and engaging to watch. Isla Fisher, unfortunately named Luvlee in this one,  deserves special mention. She plays the morally ambiguous girlfriend character and has figured out how to channel it on-screen, almost stealing the spotlight from Gordon Levitt. Almost. As for the young man, don’t you dare play Dick Grayson…ever.

The Descent Part 2: Something tragic has happened in the independent horror film circuit. Jon Harris has made its worst sequel ever (at least The Daring Dobermans made no bones about being silly). The first part of Descent was brilliant like few other modern horror films have been; claustrophobic visuals, fascinating thrills and flat-out great storytelling.  This one’s as bad as it can possibly be. Redundant visuals, predictable twists and awful dialogues. Worst of all, the clichés, good Lord, so many of them in this, right from useless cops, angsty Aussies to a bunch of storyline loopholes and frivolous false alarms. It is clear the director has opted for The Descent Part 2 to have wider appeal, and it might have been understandable if it didn’t eat so much into what made the franchise so great the first time around. Even the gore factor doesn’t help matters since the audience gets precious time in-between the running, the screaming and the freaking out to admire anything else. It even commits the ultimate crime that a sequel ever could, cheaply insinuating that Part 3 is right around the corner. Avoid this like a Chuck Norris’ high kick to the skull.

Next up, Crazy Heart, Home Sick, Leaves Of Grass, Delirious and City Island.

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A Serious Man: Some 30 minutes before the film comes to an end in a breathtaking display of disquieting beauty, Professor Larry Gopnik hesitantly breaks down in front of a receptionist, pleading his case, a life of anxiety and misfortune that too, to seek advice from a wise old Rabbi. “This is not a frivolous request. This is a ser- I’m a ser- I’m, uh, I’ve tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise the- Danny, Sarah, they both go to school, Hebrew school, a good breakfast… just tell him I need help. Please? I need help” he fumbles to the cranky bespectacled lady, which leads to the Rabbi nonchalantly turning down his request. The expression on Gopnik’s face needs to be stored alongside William Macy’s dejected broken-nose expression from Magnolia and Daniel Auteuil’s shell-shocked stare from Caché as a template for young actors learning how to turn in an honest performance without seeming theatrical about it. Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Prof. Larry, has rightfully had his performance praised to Olam Haba and back by movie critics all over; flat-out great acting that takes more than one viewing to understand the effort he has put in to do justice to Larry’s desolation. Halfway through the film I actually started rooting for his life to spiral further out of control just to see him suffer some more; Stuhlbarg is just fantastic as the modern-day Job who ironically gets screwed by everyone but his God.

Sari Lennick is suitably hateful as Mrs Gopnik, the pocket-size Amish version of the Desperate Wives. Fred Melamed is hilarious as Sy Ableman, Larry’s wife-grabbing friend; the way he flares his nostriles whenever he politely patronizes Larry is truly sleazy and worthy of a barrelful of laughs.  Richard Kind tunes in a seriously good performance, as well, as Arthur – Larry’s middle-aged sad savant of a brother. Thankfully, we don’t get a retarded feel-good Rain Man sequence…instead we get what Henry Thoreau once endlessly babbled about, the cold, inconsequential truth. Also, major kudos to the directors for not blowing the Arthur character out of proportion because it could have been the most convenient thing to do, considering how much of a hard-on a presumably intelligent target group of movie-goers would have for quirky, depressed savants.

The film itself is one of the finest that the Coen brothers have ever made. The all-round brilliant acting, ambitiously creepy music and the wry storyline lift A Serious Man above anything else the brothers have done since Barton Fink. Really funny stuff in here, as well, with the actors making the one-liners sound funnier than we could have imagined. IMDB says the Coen brothers now have their sights on Charles Portis’ True Grit, an unflinching Western tale of vengeance, and if it’s half as good as this one, I’d be much happier being a serious man.

Observe & Report: I love it when a film jumps at me, mauls every one of my misconceptions, leaving me wanting a fat guy with one of those “I Am With Stupid” T-Shirts next to me. Observe and Report is a film that can leave your head spinning if you watched it with preconceived expectations or rather the lack of. Considering that the film is directed by the guy who made the hilariously retarded The Foot Fist Way and starrs Seth Rogen, Patton Oswalt and Anna Faris, I wouldn’t blame you for having presumed that it was a PG 18-rated version of Steve Carr’s Paul Bart: Mall Cop which was released in the same year. Well technically it could be, but the adult rating has more to do with the spectacular brutality of the film’s catharsis than with any erstwhile penis joke or nipple slips. Observe and Report has some serious intensity going its away and barely pulls any punches with its storyline. The film follows Ronnie Barnhardt, a maniac depressive mall cop who takes his job very seriously, on a violent and complicated journey to rid the mall off a devious flasher. By vulgarizing the sanctity of the mall, which has been a warm spring of comfort in Ronnie’s otherwise miserable life – the flasher quietly sets off a tiny spark in Ronnie’s head that threatens to explode into a catastrophe at the slightest behest of a reality check. Seth Rogen gives his best performance since playing the crazy jock in Donnie Darko. I am dam near shocked that he could be this intense; his burst of anger are chilling as is the creepy romance he shares with Anna Faris, who much like Seth, hasn’t look this good since her indie days. Their “controversial” sex scene looks as deliriously uncomfortable as Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg going at it the second time around in Antichrist and just as necessary; definitely a contender for the creepiest scene of the year in a motion picture.

The supporting cast chips in nicely too, with Patton Oswalt, Ray Liotta (who does good cop-bad cop shtick all by himself), the Yuan brothers and Collette Wolfe doing their bit to make this film less about one man’s descent into madness. The ending works itself in quite beautifully, with Nada Surf’s version of Pixies’ Where Is My Mind playing in the background as the film’s twisted perception of poetic justice shows up one last time to say goodbye. Now, about those folks who have been talking about all the “unnecessary violence” portrayed in Observe And Report, I just wish they would pack their satchels and move out of the safety bubble they call home. Our world is genuinely screwed up and many a times comically so; I can only appreciate filmmakers for recognizing the irony. If Seth Rogen’s man-child antics and a few pools of blood are too much for them to handle, I can only imagine the torture they go through while reading the crime section of their local newspapers.  For the rest of you, minions, who enjoy sparse moments of beauty and peace so much that you are at ease with the high probability of the world clinically sucking the life out of you before you die, you’ll get a real kick out of Ronnie. Observe and grin.

Lars And The Real Girl: The emotional parenthesis that bookends Lars And The Real Girl is forgivable because this one happens to be Craig Gillespie’s debut feature film. Far worse crimes have been committed by directors the first time around, especially considering that Gillespie has indeed steered the film away from turning into an unfunny joke without a punchline. So we have Lars Lindstrom (a strikingly detached performance by Ryan Gosling) who orders this sex doll he finds on the Internet and falls heads over heels in love with it. The thing is to Lars it isn’t a doll at all, it is the soul mate that he has been looking for. Much to the horror of his brother and sister-in-law, Lars goes the distance and gives it a name (Bianca), a background story and a physical handicap to boot.

The problem with Lars And The Real Girl is that towards the end it tries too hard to give emotional closure to its characters. Lars learns a few of life’s lessons, his guilt-ridden brother (Paul Schneider) finally discovers the core of his essence or whatever, his over-protective sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) resolves a few issues, hell, even Kelli Garner, playing his sitcom-ish office colleague, finds love. A few things are done really nicely though. For instance the portrayal of Bianca’s funeral could have really sucked, but it didn’t – thanks to the script that skips right past the melodrama and the obvious surprises. The actors – Ryan, Emily and Paul – are pleasant to watch, be it in happiness or in sorrow, and at least look genuinely confused when things conveniently work out. I mean, it’s all nice and dandy and I am sure if I knew these people I’d be happy for them for the way things turned out, but as a movie geek, it left me a little disappointed. Simple mathematics, really.  Movie + Happy ending = No Thank You.

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant: Great. First Daybreakers, now this. This one’s remarkably more tragic for me since that it starrs Willem Dafoe AND John C. Reilly – two of my favourite American actors. If Cirque Du Freak didn’t take itself so dam seriously, it would have made for a fun hour and a half. You have John C. Reilly, one of the most obviously funny guys in Hollywood, a character for him called Larten Crepsley, a suave half-vampire who leads a carnival of freaks, and somehow director Paul Weitz decides to take the serious route? Quite possibly, some editor, whose wife ran over his dog with a truck, sat down with the script and cut out all the jokes. I know that the original novel (The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren Shan) wasn’t meant to be funny in any capacity but the text in it was offbeat enough to qualify as wry wit. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assitant is at best a vaguely-amusing fantasy drama with dollops of pop psychology thrown in for good measure. Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall is the only actor who shows any sort of commitment to calm us from the doldrums of his dialogues, but still itis neither significant nor long enough to make this worth a second glance even. Matter of fact even if John Tuturro unexpectedly showed up at your living room, sporting a bad-ass Mexican porn director moustache and juggling Oompa Loompas with their heads on fire, it still wouldn’t help.

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