[Movie Review] Man of the Year

Man of the YearStarring: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Jeff Goldblum

Director: Barry Levinson

Genre: Drama

Cert: 12

Released: 2006


Sometimes things just don’t work.  Here in Ireland, for example, we bought and abandoned millions of Euros worth of electronic voting machines because they were found to be unreliable and could be interfered with so as to affect the outcome of an election.  And while that is fact, Barry Levinson (director of “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog”) brings us “Man of the Year” – the story of a comedian wrongly elected President of the United States.

Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is the Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert of this fictional tale.  Dobbs hosts a TV show where he pokes fun at the politicians he feels are letting down America.  An off-hand remark from an audience member prompts him to run for President as an independent candidate.  While seeming short on policies other than challenging the lobby group funding and affiliations of Democrats and Republicans, he charms America with his humour and calls for change (probably written before Obama trademarked the concept).  Incredibly, he wins the election.  

But, unknown to him, a computer glitch within a new electronic voting machine system by a company called Delacroy, has wrongly elected him.  Days prior to the election, computer programmer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) accidentally discovers the problem and reports it to her boss James Hemmings (Rick Roberts).  Hemmings ignores the warning as he knows it is too late to make modifications without seriously damaging the company’s credibility.  He brings in Stewart (Jeff Goldblum) to help silence Eleanor but she is already worming her way in to the affections of President-Elect Dobbs.  Can she get the truth to Dobbs before Delacroy get to her? 

Maybe it’s the eternal question of whether or not someone finds Robin Williams funny.  I don’t.  And he’s not helped here by a very uneven script where his frequent digs at politicians range from mildly amusing to amateur.  He does fire the occasional solid one-liner (“I had sex with a prostitute when I was 21, I was so bad, she gave me a refund”) and makes well-delivered observations during a political debate where his retort to his opponent declaring his support for hydrogen cars is “that’s weird, because you’re backed by oil companies.” 

But this is basic stuff and as you watch this very average comedian become President of the United States you are hoping there is something a little meatier to get your teeth in to.  Unfortunately that won’t be found in the parallel plot line involving Eleanor and the computer bug that has devastated democracy.  I don’t think a film like this needs to be overbearing in its technical jargon but the specific glitch she discovers is eye-rolling in its simplicity.   

Christopher Walken goes through the motions as Dobbs’ agent and Jeff Goldblum (who doesn’t seem to age) is so much better than this minor role as a sort of corporate “fixer”.  

There’s little here to raise the pulse and if I were you I’d rent “Bulworth” instead.  As I said, sometimes things just don’t work.

1halfstar

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[Movie Review] In Bruges

In Bruges

Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Genre: Thriller

Cert: 18

Released: 2008

 

Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are two very different people.  They both kill people for a living – working for Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) – but have little else in common.  Ken is older, has been a killer for a long time but enjoys tranquillity and sight-seeing.  Ray is new to the game, is easily bored and has a habit of getting himself in to surreal scrapes.  

When a hit in a London church goes wrong they flee to Bruges in Belgium for a fortnight and are told to await a call from Harry.  While Ken enjoys the serenity of the city, Ray gets involved in ludicrous disagreements with American tourists and angsty midgets.  Things pick up for him when he meets Chloe (Clémence Poésy) on the set of a Dutch movie shoot.  With both men now happy to stay in Bruges, it seems their two weeks will pass satisfactorily.  But Harry has news for them and soon the peaceful city will become bullet-ridden and blood-stained.  

It takes a little while but when “In Bruges” finds its feet, it’s irrepressible.  The awkward opening – dominated by Farrell’s Irish brogue – soon gives way to some darkly comical scenes as Ray and Ken, along with the viewer, become acquainted with the city.  Much credit goes to writer-director Martin McDonagh who has created a gangster movie in the ilk of “Layer Cake” and “Sexy Beast” but yet one which feels fresh and original – his Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (and similar awards from BAFTA, Phoenix and the British Independent Film Awards) underlining this.

Gleeson and Farrell were both deservedly nominated for Golden Globes (with the latter winning).  Farrell bounces around the screen early on with what seems to be adult ADHD but before long the script allows him to expand his performance, shedding the quirkiness and introducing haunted and emotional sides.  Gleeson is as masterful as ever, one of those actors who always seem effortlessly on the money.  

Ralph Fiennes plays the violent but principled gangster who is not impressed with the behaviour of his hitmen.  I haven’t seen much of Fiennes since his “Schindler’s List”, “Quiz Show” and “Strange Days” run about 15 years ago (less said about “Red Dragon” the better) and he is almost unrecognisable with his thick cockney accent and cropped hairstyle.  His supporting role is played to perfection, balancing his violent ethics alongside some delicious dark humour.  

While you can probably call a few of the major plot turns they don’t by any means damage what is an incredible 100 minutes or so.  “In Bruges” is one of those special movies that doesn’t come along too often and simply can’t be missed.

4halfstar

[Movie Review] Outlaw

OutlawStarring: Sean Bean, Bob Hoskins, Danny Dyer

Director: Nick Love

Genre: Drama

Cert: 18

Released: 2007

Nick Love follows up his violent football drama “The Football Factory” with “Outlaw”, a further look at society’s moral decay and the reaction it provokes from seemingly up-standing citizens.  

The film separately follows several different characters subjected to extreme violence and offered no recourse in law.  Gene (Danny Dyer) is violently assaulted by thugs in front of his wife-to-be, Sandy (Rupert Friend) is left scarred after a separate attack and lawyer Cedric Munroe (Lennie James) has his life turned upside down when a violent criminal he is prosecuting sends his people after Munroe’s family.

The above people are all connected through fairly-unstable security guard Simon (Sean Harris).  Simon befriends returning British paratrooper Danny Bryant (Sean Bean) and solicits his help in wreaking revenge on society’s miscreants.  Danny agrees; motivated by his experiences at war, anger at his wife’s infidelity and frustration with the system that he feels has left him an outcast in his home country.

The motley crew get valuable help from former cop Walter (Bob Hoskins) who has been reduced to chauffeuring and is bitter about the way he was treated by a police force he says is corrupt.  With Walter passing on the information and then helping them cover their tracks, the gang go on a vigilante rampage targeting the very people who had damaged their lives with impunity.  The media make celebrities out of them but Walter’s nemesis, Sgt Grieves (George Anton), is determined to track them down. 

To say “Outlaw” is good for about five minutes isn’t far from the truth.  I didn’t see Love’s earlier work but if “The Football Factory” was polluted with illogical characters and guileless plot as this one is then I won’t be going near it.  

The vigilante film has been done exceptionally well before – look no further than “Death Wish”, “The Crow” and even Kevin Bacon’s watchable “Death Sentence”.  But “Outlaw” fails on a fundamental level with a narrative that defies logic at times.  

Sure, I’ve said that Danny Bryant is motivated by anger and frustration but that’s my assumption more than anything.  The other characters aren’t any better and their leap from a bunch of pansies to extremely violent vigilante gang in the space of a few frames is completely unbelievable and shambolic in execution.

You can see it all crumbling from halfway in and, by the end, it’s unintentionally funny and a very sorry mess.  Avoid – this is arguably as offensive as the yob culture it points a very blunt stick at.

1star

[Movie Review] The Watch

Starring: Clea DuVall, Elizabeth Whitmere, James A. Woods, Victoria Sanchez, Morgan Kelly
Director: Jim Donovan
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 12
Released: 2008

Cassie (Clea DuVall) is struggling to finish her psychology thesis on post-traumatic stress disorder in children and is relieved when Professor Bateman (Matthew Kabwe) grants a one month extension to his students. Finding it hard to focus on the thesis, Cassie decides to accept a four week assignment as a “firewatch” officer – a person stationed in the woods who alerts the ranger if they see a fire. She reckons the secluded nature of the job (she will live alone in a log cabin for a month) will not only give her time to work on her thesis but also help her attempts to overcome her own inner demons – a deep-seated fear of the dark that dates back to her own abduction when she was seven.

She is greeted by the slightly-aloof ranger Rhett (James A Woods) who helps her settle in to her post. But before long strange goings-on haunt Cassie. She sees shadows outside her cabin, furniture is moved around when she’s asleep and the only interaction she has are radio conversations with a fellow lookout called Polly. As the days pass, Cassie begins to have flashbacks. Could the creepy events be linked to her abduction nineteen years before?

For a low-budget TV movie “The Watch” does a lot of things right. The cinematography (by Manfred Guthe) is wonderful with a great use of autumnal colours and some beautiful pseudo-panoramic shots across the forest. Indeed, there is much to admire. The story is well-paced and doesn’t always choose the obvious plot device, leaving you expecting a horror cliché several times during the movie only for nothing to happen. This is, oddly, quite satisfying.

Director Jim Donovan is 37 years of age and has been directing since the mid 90s. Although mainly involved in TV series, “The Watch” could be a breakthrough movie for him. He does well with the material and teases some genuine tension in key scenes. It’s clear he enjoys working with James A Woods (they have previously worked together in “Naked Josh” and “Seriously Weird”) and the character’s ambiguity is played off well by both director and actor.

So, why the low mark? It was all going steamingly well … until the last 15 minutes. Donovan is let down by writer Ben Ripley (“Species III”, “Species 4: The Awakening”) who totally drops the ball, letting the story fizzle out disappointingly. We got from creepy psychological thriller to Scooby Doo in the blink of an eye. You’ll see a lot worse than this on TV but be prepared for the ending.

1halfstar

[Movie Review] The Prestige

00230_0011Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie
Director: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Drama
Cert: 15
Released: 2006

“The Prestige” opens with Robert Angier (Jackman) drowning in a water tank, watched by arch-rival magician Alfred Borden (Bale). Borden is subsequently found guilty of his murder and is sentenced to death. While in prison he is approached by an aristocrat’s solicitor (Roger Rees) who offers to pay Borden for his tricks, intimating that the money would go towards looking after his daughter.

And – with this being a Christopher Nolan (“Memento”, “Insomnia”) film – we backtrack in time to turn-of-the-nineteenth century London where Borden and Angier are getting their start as illusionists under the watchful eye of Cutter (Caine). An illusion goes wrong and Angier’s wife, Julia, drowns. Angier pins the blamely firmly at the door of Borden and so begins a lifelong war between the two illusionists who not only aim to sabotage each other’s careers but also try to out-do each other by performing the ultimate trick: The Disappearing Man.

With Cutter by his side the showy Angier becomes obsessed with working out how Borden performs it, eventually leading him to renegade scientist Tesla (Bowie). Meanwhile Borden now has a wife and child and his career is taking off. The stakes are high and both men become obsessed with being the best – but how far will they go?

Bale and Jackman are the stars with perfectly-measured performances. Caine and Bowie perform well despite being overshadowed and Scarlett Johansson puts in another strong turn as the mistress. Nolan handles things expertly as you might expect, even managing to pull off the arguably slightly-over-scripted ending. But, even so, the twists, turns and surprises make this a remarkably entertaining flick and arguably Nolan’s best to date.

4halfstar

[Movie Review] 29th Street

29th StreetStarring: Danny Aiello, Anthony LaPaglia, Lainie Kazan
Director: George Gallo
Genre: Comedy
Cert: 15
Released: 1991

“29th Street” is the semi-autobiographical account of the life of Frank Pesce (who stars in the role of his own brother in the movie), a directionless, young Italian-American who hits it lucky when he is entered in the first ever New York State lottery.

Everyone is convinced that Frank is going to win such has been the amazing luck he has experienced during his life. Compare this to his hard-working, blue collar father who has endured, rather than enjoyed, his.

While the screenplay is solid and deals well with the opposing issues of love and resentment, it’s the two central performances that primarily shine. Anthony LaPaglia (playing Frank) became my favourite actor once I saw this movie in 1992. His ability to play different shades, delivers goosepimples as he delivers his lines. It’s a masterful performance by a man as relatively inexperienced as he was then.

Screen veteran Danny Aiello (playing his father), is perfectly cast as an honest but occasionally maladroit man whose influence over his family visibly decreases by the day.

“29th Street” is an engaging sleeper hit.

4star

[Movie Review] Closer

CloserStarring: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen
Director: Mike Nichols
Genre: Drama
Cert: 18
Released: 2004

Obituary writer Dan (Law) and Alice (Portman) observe each other from a distance on the street and get so caught up in exchanging smiles that Alice wanders aimlessly in front of a car. Dan brings her to hospital and romance is born. We jump forward in time where Dan is sitting in a studio being photographed by Anna (Roberts). We learn that Dan has written a book based on the life of Alice, who he now lives with, but he’s taken with Anna and kisses her, even when Alice is only a few dozen feet away in another room.

Four very unpleasant charactersDan plays a part in Anna meeting Larry (Owen) when he interacts with him in an internet chatroom, pretending to be a sexually provocative girl called Anna. He sends Larry to a local aquarium to meet ‘her’ the next day. When Larry gets there he happens to bump in to Robert’s character and the two of them hit it off. What are the chances?

With the characters introduced, the rest of the movie trails their complicated and inadvertently intertwined lives. Dan loves Anna; Anna might feel the same way but she’s loathe to admit it. Dan does seem to love Alice and Larry does seem to love Anna, but when Larry meets Alice at one of Anna’s exhibitions he doesn’t hold back in showing his immediate attraction to her.

Marber’s play has been universally praised so I’m in no doubt that it’s a great picece of work and all that. But looking at it purely in it’s movie guise, “Closer” doesn’t work. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s a completely unenjoyable piece of junk.

Hands off, Jude. That ain't the babysitter.The movie is about four very troubled people who find each other, fool themselves in to believing that this is happiness when in fact they just end up wanting what they don’t have. They think the truth will set them free (‘without the truth, we’re just animals’ – Dan) but in fact it seems to lead to their downfall at different times. Each one seems adept at reading the others. They can spot a lie and choose to embarce that lie rather than ignore it. They’re probably very good at spotting a lie because their lives are built on them. In certain ways the characters are all weak, perhaps a microcosm of humanity.
Marber’s diaglogue is very realistic but this realism comes at a price – namely, vulgarity. I’m no prude but the constant use of sexually explicit phrases in the conversation was just downright unpleasant. Recognising the intense performances, occasional wit, quality dialogue and interesting direction (events skipped, leaving it to the viewer to work out what happened from the dialogue), is one thing, but actually feeling entertained at the end of the two hours is another thing altogether.

It might seem somewhat dense to award a star and a half to a movie that is based on one of the most acclaimed stage plays of recent years. It must be some play – but a good movie it does not make.

1halfstar