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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Shutter

Shutter has a lot of problems, but let's start with just one: the idea of 'spirit photography' on its own just isn't that scary. So you can take photos of ghosts - you can take photos of teapots too, but that doesn't make them scary. And as for the idea that ghosts are all around us and we can only see them via 'spirit photography', this is supposed to be a horror movie. Just the idea of ghosts on its own isn't exactly breaking new ground in terror. Which brings us to the second problem this film has, namely the plot. On the surface it's not that bad: a newly married American couple (Joshua Jackson, AKA Pacey from Dawson's Creek - and Australia's own Rachel Taylor) move to Japan, whereupon the wife starts to freak out while the husbands work photographing models reveals both some ghostly photos and a somewhat sleazy side to his personality. And it's during those early scenes that this works at its best... which means there's the occasional tingle of mild unease. But as soon as it becomes clear that this haunting is happening for a reason all the tension drains out of the film. Ghosts haunting people for no reason is scary stuff; ghosts haunting people because they did bad things is basically a TAC commercial warning you not to do bad things. And that leads us to the third and biggest problem this film faces: it's just not scary. You'd think ghost photos could provide at least one decent scare - just show a happy couple all alone, they take a photo, then one of them walks off into the kitchen while the other looks at the photo and sees that it shows a ghost IN THE KITCHEN!!! But not here. Feel free to make up your own shutter-related pun to explain why this isn't worth your time.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

The Counterfeiters

The phrase 'total war' means exactly that: war fought on every level with the aim of forcing the other side to surrender. And one of the more dangerous theatres of war is the economic one. After all, without money to buy equipment and pay troops it's extremely difficult to keep a war going. So while much of the (deservedly) positive press about The Counterfeiters has centered around its fresh take on the horrors of the Holocaust, it's also an absorbing look at a battlefront many viewers would never consider as a theatre of war. Based on a real account by a Holocaust survivor, this explores the secret currency counterfeiting unit established by the Nazis during World War II and the Jewish prisoners selected to work in this unit re-creating first the British Pound and then the US Dollar. Karl Markovics plays the role of the expert forger (and Jew) in pre-war Berlin who ends up in a concentration camp, only to be chosen for his special skills to work in the pampered unit where the horrors of the death camp are kept at bay - so long as they get results. The film's central issue - is it better to survive, even if it involves helping an evil regime, than die with your morals intact - is never far from the film's surface (when the prisoners arrive at the unit they're given civilian clothes clearly taken from inmates the Germans have killed), and it's re-enforced by a strong performance from August Diehl's performance as a Jewish printing expert who prefers death to supporting the Nazi regime even when his sabotage threatens all their lives. Moral questions aside, it's also a gripping thriller the equal of anything out of Hollywood and a well-constructed character study. With this year's blockbuster films looming on the horizon, it'd be a shame if a film as good as this one was left buried in their wake.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

21

There's something always a little... off about big budget Hollywood movies telling us that greed is bad when they're written by, directed by and starring people who make more money than pretty much anyone reading this. Fortunately, 21 is too busy being flashy to spend much time hammering home its tired message that making money is evil because it causes you to lose touch with who you are (seriously: as if everyone making this movie didn't ditch their old friends as soon as they started making it big in the movies). Unfortunately, 21 is also too busy being flashy to do pretty much anything else, which is kind of a problem when a movie goes for almost two hours. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a nerdy maths whiz at M.I.T. struggling to scrape up enough money to go to Harvard when his professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) invites him to join a little card-counting club they've got going on. Card-counting is a way of tipping the odds in your favour when playing blackjack, AKA 21, and with Ben's brain on side this card counting crew can fly out to Vegas and make some serious money. Which they proceed to do, until the inevitable rift within the group causes Mickey's dark side to show itself. Of course, by then Ben is getting it on with a fellow card counter played by Kate Bosworth, so it's not like he really has much to complain about. With a by-the-number plot that's pretty silly the moment you think about it (if they have to be so careful about their identities in the casinos, why do all the casino greeters know who Ben is? Why, for that matter, doesn't he think of a better place to hide his profits?) but plenty of glitz and glamour as the crew live it up in Vegas 21 is as slick and enjoyably forgettable as movie-making gets.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #428)

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Smart People (2)


Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a bitter dried-up academic, still grieving for his long-dead wife. He hates his gum-chewing students, and finds his colleagues insufferable. His one sympathiser is brainy teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). She’s a friendless Young Republican who thinks stupid people have no right to exist. The problem of course, is that these Smart People are completely clueless when it comes to love and life.

Enter Uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He’s Lawrence’s adopted brother, a shambling middle-aged stoner who needs a place to stay. He’s determined to corrupt his young niece. Adding to the disruption is young doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an ex-student who still harbours a crush on the grouchy slouchy prof.

Directed by Noam Munro and nicely written by novelist Mark Poinier, Smart People is full of good dialogue and great performances – especially from the charismatic Haden Church. Unfortunately, the film is so good at setting up Quaid as an irretrievably damaged man, that it’s not believable when he finally submits to love. And the idea that an intelligent young woman would want to have his babies is frankly unconvincing.

Rochelle Siemienowicz (This review appeared in The Big Issue, #303)

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Iron Man

We're getting to that stage in superhero movies where all the big names have pretty much been taken and we're getting down to the guys who've never really made it past the pages of comic books. But just because you've never heard of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, doesn't mean he's not perfect action movie material: super-smart arms dealer Stark (Robert Downey Jr) undergoes a change of heart (literally) when he's ambushed and captured by the comic-book version of the Taliban in Afghanistan. With an electromagnet implanted in his chest to pull shrapnel away from his heart, he's set to work building weapons of mass destruction for his captors, only to turn the tables and build himself a cybernetic suit of Ned Kelly armour and bust out of his cave prison. Back in the US and looking a little shaky, both his assistant 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his business partner (Jeff Bridges) are worried about what Stark's building in the basement - but as it turns out, they're worried for very different reasons... Fast paced, and with just the right mix of humour and cheesy seriousness, this is about as note-perfect a superhero film as you could hope for. That said, there's a big difference between a mid-level special effects film and one of those Hollywood blockbusters where money is no object, and there's no denying that Iron Man falls into the former camp. The action is well shot and exciting and the many effects as the Iron Man suit flies around dealing damage are all well handled, but this is a superhero film made on a budget and occasionally there's just the faintest wiff of financial limitations. Fortunately, there's also a big difference between the usual B-grade cast that populates superhero movies and Robert Downey Jr, who gives perhaps the best performance yet in a superhero film. Going from a decadent playboy to a slightly less decadent crusader with a glowing super-powered heart gives Downey plenty of opportunity to be funny while hinting at a darker side, and even if this was a movie about a playboy arms dealer without a robot suit his performance would make it riveting viewing. The suit might get all the action, but it's the man inside that makes Iron Man a great superhero film.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

What Happens in Vegas

On the surface there's no real reason why a movie should look like a stinker simply because it stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. They're both solid performers, and they've both been in decent films. But this one looked terrible from the poster alone and sitting through it doesn't just confirm that bad impression - it adds in hitherto unsuspected layers of awfulness (not to mention numerous close-ups on Diaz, who seems to have managed to somehow varnished her face). The set-up is both painful and dull: Jack (Kutcher) is a lazy slacker, Joy (Diaz) is a high-powered workaholic, and when they both go to Vegas to forget their problems (he's been fired by his dad, her boyfriend's dumped her) of course they get drunk and married to each other. It's a mistake and they both know it, but then they manage to win three million dollars on the pokies on the way to getting a quickie divorce and before you know it a judge (Dennis Miler) is ordering them to spend the next six months married to each other before he'll even consider splitting up the cash. The barrage of nasty tricks they play on each other to try and get the other to leave could have been mildly funny in a lighter, warmer film, but these two might as well be hacking at each other with rusty garden tools for all the fun on offer here. There are no twists, no likeable performances, no decent laughs, and no reason not to leave this loser in Vegas where it belongs.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Made of Honour

People go to see a movie like Made of Honour for one reason and one reason only: to get exactly the same thing they've had a dozen times before. A surprise twist in a film like this is a seriously bad thing, and so the news that this features nothing but tired cliches, week-old plot points, and an ending so rock solid obvious you don't have to even see the film to know how it wraps up should be taken as a good thing. Even the starting point is old news: super-rich New York layabout Tom (Patrick Dempsy) has been best friends forever with Hannah (Michelle Monaghan). She provides companionship and emotional support, while a stream of bimbos provide... whatever else he needs. But when she goes to Scotland for work for six weeks, he gradually realises that he wants to keep her in his life on a permanent basis. Which makes her return with a Scottish stud on her arm a bit of a problem. With a rush wedding on, Tom figures the only way to win her back is the break the happy day up from the inside - and as the maid of honour he'll be able to do just that. Yawn. There are a grand total of zero surprises here (even the moment when Dempsy juggles crockery is kinda blah), but you don't want surprises - you want a rocky road to love where things all work out in the end, and that's exactly what you get here. Fortunately both Dempsy and Monaghan have charm to spare, and turn what could have been a lifeless clockwork film that simply goes through the motions into...well, a watchable clockwork film that still just goes through the motions. The soundtrack's not bad though.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Smother

Diane Keaton used to be funny but these days she's just plain weird and if you have any doubts on that score just check out Smother - a film in which she plays an annoying, overbearing mother and somehow manages to be annoying in a variety of completely wrong ways. She's just slightly out of phase with everyone else in this admittedly thin story, but the result is a performance that isn't intentionally comedically exasperating but instead just downright painful. In a better film it might not have mattered so much and in a worse film no-one would have cared, but this tale of Noah Coooper (Dax Shepard), a youngish guy who gets fired, has his wife (Liv Tyler) let her dorky cousin (Mike White) come to stay and his insane mother Marilyn (Keaton) turn up looking for somewhere to live all in the same day is pretty much a surprise-free slice of mildly humorous comedy with hardly a memorable feature to praise or damn. Sure, in a great comedy Keaton's twitchy, skittish, nutty performance could be laughed off. But this is tepid at best, a stale collection of obvious gags and clumsy set-up wrapped in a sappy belated coming-of-age tale as Noah gradually discovers all the usual things about life and love. But if this still sounds like it's worth a look... well, you'd better bring a pillow.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #427)

Prom Night

There's no question that Prom Night is bad: the real question then becomes how bad is Prom Night. Is it the worst movie of the year, or can it's rock-bottom ratings across the board somehow be, if not justified, then at least excused? Because if part of what makes Prom Night so darn bad the way that it takes the most tired and stale cliches of the slasher genre and presents them to the viewer without the slightest hint of style or wit, could there in fact be some justification for such an approach - past the usual "we can make some money out of this"? Well, maybe. See, while this is an amazingly bad, not at all scary, and outright dull slasher movie - and it takes some kind of skill to make a film where human beings are in mortal danger this dull - it is also a slasher movie clearly aimed at people who havened seen too many slasher movies. Anyone over the age of 17 simply doesn't care about prom night, so to make a movie where a bunch of teens at their prom night are half-heartedly stalked by a creepy ex-teacher obsessed with a fairly dim and not that hot-looking blonde indicates that you're making a slasher movie for teens, and young teens at that. So perhaps the total lack of wit and style (not to mention zero gore) here could be a conscious decision to try and strip the slasher genre back to basics and introduce the genre to a new audience taking their first baby steps into a new an scary world. If so, it still fails utterly: this is dreck whether you're 14 or 44, and why anyone would pay to see this when John Carpenter's original Halloween is readily available on DVD is a far bigger mystery than which one of these bland yet annoying teens the knife-wielding teacher will bloodlessly gut next.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Frote #426)

Smart People

There's a certain kind of unease you get from watching a movie where the characters are meant to be really smart but everything they say or do is kind of dumb. Usually it's in bad murder mysteries involving so-called criminal geniuses (like every movie in the Saw series), where everyone stands around talking about how amazingly brilliant the masterminds' schemes are while any half-awake member of the audience figured out what was going on a good half hour ago. But Smart People has an even bigger problem, in that it doesn't have any gratuitous killings to distract viewers from the fact that English lit Professor Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is actually pretty dumb. Not because he's still moping around after his dead wife, or that when he does finally strike up a relationship of sorts with his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker, who we're expected to believe is under 40 here) his pompous windbaggery is enough to drive her away, and she's clearly dim even for a doctor. Not even because he lets his supposedly dimmer but clearly more on the ball brother (the always fun Thomas Hadyen Church, who's increasingly the Bill Murray you get when you can't afford Bill Murray) move in with his obviously dysfunctional family, including his super-smart Republican robot in the making daughter (Ellen Page). But because in-between doing all that he never gets the chance to actually seem smart. The joke is clearly meant to be that all these "smart" people are really dumb when it comes to running their lives but, well, they're just all-round dumb no matter how many references they make to great literature or high brow culture. Which makes this would-be smart indy film (which, to be fair, does feature a lot of good performances) pretty dumb too.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #426)

Untraceable

t's time once again to act all horrified by the extremes to which people will go - in this case, on the internet – while watching said extremes just a little too closely. It's nothing new, especially if you've endured any of the recent run of horror movies where torture is lingered over a little too lovingly, but at least Untraceable has the (limited) dignity to limit the viewers exposure to each individual horror to a few brief glimpses. Jennifer Marsh ( Diane Lane ) is an FBI Agent investigating a killer with a twist: not only does the killer put their brutal crimes up on the internet for all to see, his murder devices are actually connected up to the net so the more hits his site gets, the faster his victims die. So if people would just stop watching, the killer would go away - and if people stopped watching movies like this, we'd get the same result. Don't hold your breath. Lane gives a performance that's better than this fairly trashy film deserves, and not surprisingly there's a certain grim fascination with the internet snuff sequences: if they didn't hold at least some interest, the whole movie would collapse. But the plotting is so painfully obvious and cliched there's just not a whole lot of suspense here even when the internet killer moves into Marsh's real world to bump off some very obvious targets. Still, if "slickly competent" sounds like a compliment to you then feel free to take it as one here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #426)