Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Dark Water (2005)

These American re-makes of cult Japanese horror films caused a bit of a stir a few years ago. I can understand people getting in a twist about it, especially if they fail to judge the re-makes on their own merit. Sure, the originals are cool and edgy and Japanese, but it doesn't mean that the American versions can't offer something of their own. I think that something is what a multitude of Hollywood Horror films have been doing for decades. That is, moving away from the safe, glamorous, well known parts of the US, in to 'middle America', the unknown, the sticks, that place where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I think 'The Ring' did this brilliantly. 'Dark Water' makes a good go of it too. The film is set in New York City. But not the New York that you or I know from the movies. As Ceci, the daughter of Jennifer Connelly's Dahlia points out, the place that they move to isn't actually in the city. They move to Roosevelt Island, in to a crappy, run-down apartment block. The ceiling in their new apartment leaks murky water. Dahlia has a lot on her plate as she juggles a messy divorce, her daughter's new imaginary friend and the incessantly leaking roof.

It is, admittedly, not the most thrilling of introductions to a film, but I think those that stuck with it should feel rewarded. As Dahlia's situation worsens, the tension in the film grows. There is a relentless unease to everything that happens, it verges on creepiness and keeps everything from that point feeling pretty tight. On it's own merit, this works well, but it doesn't live up to to Hideo Nakata's original. Watching that, you'd wish for relentless unease, because Nakata offered up a relentless feeling skin crawly feeling. The re-make doesn't have an adequate substitute for the creepy girl in a yellow raincoat and suffers for it. Similarly, where the original built to a dramatic crescendo as all the pieces fell in to place, the re-make seemed to just peter out.

On the whole though, the film works. Jennifer Connelly is as watchable as ever. John C. Reilly is fun, as are Pete Postlethwaite and Dougray Scott. I really liked Tim Roth as Platzer, Dahlia's lawyer. He felt a little underused, though I'm not sure what more he could have offered other than being her shoulder to cry on.

Dark Water never really hits the heights of the original J-horror flick that was based on. On its own merit though, it's not as bad as some critics made out. It offers moments of tension, fright and unease, but just failed in following these elements through to a level where they could have really unsettled the audience.

Connections with other films in The Gallery: Jennifer Connelly - Pollock (2000) as Ruth Kligman

Links: Dark Water (IMDb) Trailer Trailer (Original) Hideo Nakata

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Speed Racer (2008)

I think this Speed Racer review might glow as bright as the colours in the film itself. I loved it.

I wasn't really that familiar with the Speed Racer background. I'd seen the cartoon a couple of times, but I can't say that it was a big part of my childhood. It's fair to say that it's not a plot with a lot of depth, but the introduction to it is fast and furious, setting a pace for the plot that is maintained through to the checkered flag and beyond. The Speed Racer virgin shouldn't have any trouble getting to grips with the story. Indeed, they won't have to to stay confused for long, as the film's pace helps to make the, almost marathon, 135 minutes fly by. On first glance, that length seems excessive for what is essentially a family film. The Wachowski Brothers ensure that very little of that time is wasted. There's no laborious love story, no frustrating loss of ability driving ability by the main character, just balls to the wall fun.

The plot revolves around Speed Racer, the middle child of a racing family. Pops Racer is the developer of the Mach 5, a car that was poreviously owned by Rex Racer, Speed's brother who died in a race crash a few years ago. Speed now races the car and attracts the attention of major sponsors after victory in his debut race. The main suitor is Royalton, but is unable to lure Speed in to joining him. Speed prefers to stick with his family and with the racing ethos that has seen them produce to of the finest car racers in recent memory. At this news, Royalton reveals to Speed Racer that the entirety of racing is fixed by big business and that, if he competes on his own, he will never have a chance of winning. This spurs Speed in to teaming up with the mysterious Racer X in order to put an end to the corruption in racing once and for all.

The film looks amazing. The visuals are more than vibrant, I loved the use of bright colours. These combine well with a generous use of light trails and some cel shading to make the races a particular joy to watch. The climax of the final lap of the final race in the film is the best, breathtaking, example of this. In-lin with the visuals are the joyously sweet moments throughout the film in which family values and morals in the face of corporate capitalism is, admittedly, shoved down the audiences throats. It was over the top, but I enjoyed it, the family were just great to watch.

I've been vaguely aware of some rather tepid reviews for the film this weekend. I can only speculate that these were as a result of it being so over the top and larger than life. I only see this as a good thing, helping to enhance the fun, silliness and the laughs. Speed's brother, Spritle and his pet chimp, Chim Chim, are the main source of these laughs as they terrorise pretty much every character in the film with their scampish fervour. Roger Allam makes an excellent villain as Royalton, treading a fine line between exuberance and cheese, fortunately erring on the side of exuberance more often than not. Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman work well in their roles too. Emile Hersch as the title character is good if not excellent, but I think Matthew Fox really steals the show as the mysterious Racer X. Admittedly, it's not the most dynamic or testing role, but Fox was genuinely watchable, carrying a cool mystique throughout.

There are a couple of downsides. Royalton's courting of Speed drags on far too long for a plot thread that basically results in nothing. Further to this, there are too many factions involved in the racing corruption to keep track of. It was difficult to figure out which side everyone was on, though it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the film. Finally, some parts of the film were a little heavy for this type of family film. Indeed, a rating of PG seemed quite generous, especially considering some of the film's more violent moments.

I think The Wachowski Brothers have unashamedly created something big, bold and in your face. The races and other action scenes are superb to watch, perhaps topping the standard for this type of scene set by The Phantom Menace a few years ago. I had a lot of fun and I think anybody that can watch it without taking it too seriously will too.

Links: Speed Racer(IMDb) Speed Racer (Wikipedia) Trailer

Monday, 14 April 2008

Delicatessen (1991)

Before I talk about Delicatessen, I want to talk about an experience I had seeing the other joint venture between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. That being The City of Lost Children, starring Ron Perlman. It was perhaps one of the more intrepidly romantic events of my film going life, as I trundled along to a local Arts Cinema to see this film that I'd heard interesting things about. The problem is that the theatre only had the film on VHS, rather than on actual film stock. Now, we all know that VHS was never the greatest format and I can't say that it really did itself any great favours when its picture was projected on a 40 ft screen and its sound was forced through a state of the art surround sound system. The City of Lost Children, much like Delicatessen, has a thick, dense and dark bleakness to it, which I can't really say helped the VHS projection's cause. It was an awful way to see a film! Anyway, who am I to complain when admission was just £1?

Fast forward three years to last night, when I finally got the chance to sit and watch Delicatessen on DVD. It astounds me that the same Jean-Pierre Jeunet could have a hand in this and then go on to direct one of the brightest, most colourful pictures ever committed to film. That's range and talent for you. Delicatessen is set in a miserable post-apocalyptic future, where The Butcher keeps a boarding house and employs unsuspecting handymen to maintain it, before killing them and feeding them to his cannibal tenants. Yeah, that kind of dark.

But it's not all bad. In fact, it's kind of good. Fun and harrowing, the tenants and The Butcher are larger than life, quirky and charismatic despite the awfulness outside of their doors. There's a kind of mad cap humour to it, seemingly lifted straight from a bunch of old cartoons. In particular, there's the scene where The Butcher is enjoying a tumble in the sack with his wife, their motions make the bed squeak in a rhythm that is maintained as the shot cuts to the other tenants who each add their own sound to the melody. The butcher's daughter plays her cello, an older tenant beats a rug and Louison paints the ceiling. The scene formed the trailer for the film's North American release. See it for yourself here:

Lousion is our main character and the next victim for The Butcher and a boarding house full of hungry tenants. He is played by Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of Jeunet's other productions, including Amelie and the aforementioned City of Lost Children. Louison is a recently retired clown, having quit the circus when his chimpanzee sidekick was killed and eaten. Long story short, The Butcher's daughter, Julie, falls in love with him and seeks help to save him. That help comes from the Troglodytes, underground rebels that literally live underground. Their assistance adds to the mayhem in a climactic scene that sees the boarding house blown up and then flooded.

The real strength of this film is in its range of characters. They exist in an awful, awful world, but they all instill a sense of optimism in the audience through their vibrancy, even as they seek to commit awful acts against the other tenants. They're the real colour in the film. One tenant believes that she's gone mad as she hears voices all around her when she's alone. This drives her to several failed suicide attempts. These attempts aren't sad or depressing, they're more desperately funny, black comedy at its smartest and purest.

Admittedly, the second third of the film flounders as the plot moves on from the humorous set pieces of the first act to begin setting up the climax. It's a shame, because the first act had a great deal of potential and seemed to promise to continue in the same vein. Instead, it seemed to lose focus before regaining composure for a satisfying conclusion. Regardless, this is certainly one of the better black comedies that you could wish to see and recommended viewing for anyone that wishes to study the influences on French cinema in the past fifteen years.

Links: Delicatessen (IMDb) Jean-Pierre Jeunet Marc Caro Dominique Pinon

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Pollock (2000)

Directed by and starring Ed Harris, Pollock is a biographical drama detailing the life of famed American artist, Jackson Pollock. Pollock has been sat in my LoveFilm list for two or three years now, eventually making it through my letter box this weekend. I can't recall exactly what made me want to see it, though it is certainly note worthy in a number of aspects. Most notably, the film was Ed Harris' directorial debut. It was the only film that he had helmed up to 2008. His second film as director, Appaloosa, is currently in post-production.

In addition to Harris in the lead role as Jackson Pollock, the film stars Marcia Gay Harden as Pollock's wife, and artist in her own right, Lee Krasner. Notable members of the supporting cast include Jeffrey Tambor, Bud Cort, Val Kilmer and Jennifer Connelly. Pollock took a modest box office and received two Academy Award nominations. Harden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Ed Harris lost out on the Oscar for Best Actor to Russell Crowe for Gladiator.

I knew little of Jackson Pollock before this and Harris does well to introduce the character. Jackson Pollock is clearly remarkable. Talented but often overlooked by the critics, he fights alcoholism and an awkward immaturity that leads to fitful tantrums.

Harris defines a clear separation between the art and the booze, showing how Pollock's best work is done sober. He goes so far as to show Pollock being physically unable to commit paint to canvas while drunk in a scene in which he'd become enraged by a critique of his work.

Most interesting for me was Pollock's childishness and his relationship with his wife. This is best summed up by the scene in which Pollock states that he wants children. Lee refused, stating that she had enough trouble looking after him. Indeed, Pollock seemed unable to take care of himself, even unaware that he needed to take care of himself. He initially relied on one of his brothers and his sister-in-law, before eventually relying on Lee. I'm not sure it was love, more of an acceptance of her care in the place of his mother. It was most unusual to see his childlike glee at seeing his mother after several extended absences in the film. He seemed unfazed or unaware of the alluded to length of time that he'd been away from her, only delighted that she was there at that moment in time.

The city was clearly a bad influence on Pollock. He and Lee eventually marry and move out in to the country where, free from the distracting hustle and bustle of New York City, he is able to connect with nature, give up the booze and develop the style that would make him famous. That style should be familiar to most. He creates his art without the brush touching the canvas, instead using the brush like a stick, dripping and splatting paint on the canvas. Harris is generous in giving a few scenes to simply watch Pollock create art, showing how he works to create the pieces. Pollock seems frustrated by people trying to make sense of his work. His childishness comes to the fore in this, as he simply likes to paint, creating something where there was nothing.

Perhaps the best scene in the film takes place in the first third. Pollock is commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim to create a mural for her house. He makes a giant canvas and places it up against the wall in his studio in his New York City apartment. He spends weeks getting the measure of the canvas, just watching it, taking in the potential, before suddenly it all comes together and he puts brush to canvas for the first time. Jeff Beal's soundtrack comes in well at this point to create an excellent synergy between musical and painted art.

It's the art that often takes centre stage throughout Harris' shots. Pollock's deep, layered colours being the focus point of many scenes, despite merely sitting in the background, on a wall as a human drama unfolds in front of them.

In the end, Pollock returns to the booze as the critics find new artists to favour. His relationship with Lee Krasner goes in to meltdown, but she refuses to leave him, keeping her faith in his art, even as he became unfaithful, hurtful and hateful. She outlived him by nearly 30 years, producing some of her own best work in that time according to the film's epilogue text. I really liked Marcia Gay Harden in the role, she was headstrong, but loving and seemingly willing to take a back seat on her own career to help her husband develop his. I wasn't sure that I'd seen much of Harden before, but I had actually seen her a couple of months ago when I saw Miller's Crossing on DVD. More recently, she appeared in Mystic River and the 2007 adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist.

Pollock never really hits any spectacular heights, though it is an always intriguing examination of a creative soul. Marcia Gay Harden in the role of Jackson Pollock's wife was a particular highlight and well worth the Academy Award that she received for it. Ed Harris clearly has a talent for directing, though this film was born out if his own passion for the life and work of Jackson Pollock. It'll be interesting to see what he can do with a subject matter that he is not so close to.

Connections with other films in The Gallery: Jennifer Connelly - Dark Water (2005) as Dahlia Williams

Links: Pollock (IMDb) Pollock (LoveFilm) Trailer Jackson Pollock Lee Krasner

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The Gallery

For this introductory post, I thought I'd explain what I hope this blog will be, as well as my reasons for creating it.

I think it's easy to forget the sheer depth of films that are produced each year. Usually in the course of a particular twelve months, we only get a chance to see the blockbusters and the films that are big at the box office. Over the following years, we take the opportunity to see the films that we missed the first time around, either on DVD or on TV. Some films don't even get seen at this stage and disappear, forgotten, in to the ether. It's those films that I'd like to showcase here. The films that are off the beaten path of mainstream cinema, those early works by a particular director, break out films for our favourite actors, the odd and the unusual, the intriguing and quirky and the films that passed us by for a good reason. ;)

Personally, I've become very intrigued by the possibility of exploring cinema in more depth, making connections between an actor or a director's past and the work that they're doing now. A lot of this has come as a result of my running of a movie review group on the Newsarama Forum. I've found so far that the selections for that group have been films that I likely wouldn't have seen otherwise. I'd like to use this blog to take that a step further and go and discover those types for myself. In the process, I'd like to examine and showcase them here so that other people can learn of and discuss these forgotten gems for themself.

I got in to blogging around 6 months ago when I set up The SG-B, a blog I've been using for discussion of my journey through watching all 200-odd episodes of StarGate SG-1. I've become a bit frustrated by it as it's not really opened up the opportunity to examine and analyse the episodes that I hoped it would. Because of this I've let the quality and quanitity of posts drop. I hope that this will allow me to take the quality of my blogging to the next level.

I've got a few ideas of films that I'd like to feature in this blog initially and I'm sure I'll come up with some rules for the types of film that are eligible for being featured in the coming months.