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Sunday, 21 February 2010

Valentines' Day


It's a rule of entertainment: first genres become popular, then they become formulaic, then they go out of style. Judging by Valentine's Day, the long, long reign of the romantic comedy is set to come to an end. What it looks like is what it is: an American version of Love, Actually, only set over the course of a single day (no prizes for guessing what day that is). But where the often sickening Love, Actually would occasionally throw in an unexpected storyline (the nude extras or Bill Nighy in the role that revived his career) or interesting twist (Alan Rickman cheating on Emma Thompson), this is mostly charmless and totally predictable right down the line.

If characters are single, who'll they'll pair off with is obvious from the first time they meet; if characters are lying or unsure about love, it's clear early on so their partners can move on; if you're a cute little kid wanting to give flowers to someone at your school, the least surprising twist is the one to expect, and so on. If the existence of gay men is a surprise to you the you might be mildly shocked with one or two of the developments here and the dim-witted teens played by Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner are pretty funny (the Twilight star gets the best line of the film: "I'm not used to taking my shirt off in public"), but otherwise this is just a delivery system for a collection of romantic cliches most greeting card companies wouldn't touch these days.

It's actually depressing to realise that with close to a dozen storylines here not one contains anything approaching a fresh insight into romance or relationships - but realistically, if you're planning to see this you almost certainly don't care. But be warned: you're going to owe your boyfriend big time after this.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #474)

Precious


You'd be forgiven for steering clear of Precious based on the plot alone: it's the late 1980s in New York City, and a isolated teenage girl with a shocking home life is rescued from grinding poverty and abuse by a gorgeous teacher who fills her life with hope. It was painful when it was called Dangerous Minds back in the mid 1990s and as stories go it hasn't gotten any better since: no wonder Oprah got behind this film.

But Precious forces life into it's many, many cliches by pushing them all as far as they can go - and then some. Precious herself (Gabourey Sidibe) isn't just poor: she's grossly overweight, has a down syndrome baby called Mongo - by her abusive father no less and she's pregnant with his second child. And things just keep on getting worse over the course of this film, but somehow the constant onslaught of bad news never gets tiring. Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique) is the scariest thing you'll see on screen this (or any other) year, a swearing, violent, TV throwing, baby dropping sexually abusive horror that'll haunt your nightmares. She's the best thing in this wildly uneven film.

From the early scenes where Precious steals dinner from a chicken shop through her wince inducing fantasies of fame until her mother's final shocking monologue to an appalled social worker (Mariah Carey no less), this film swings between being yet another trite "inspiring" tale of high school poverty to a raw knuckle attack on those very same stories. It's hardly enjoyable viewing, but in its intensity Precious is certainly unforgettable.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #473)

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Law Abiding Citizen


There are two kinds of vigilante movies: the ones where the hero - after seeing his or her family abused and murdered by criminal scum - declares war on criminals in general, and the ones where the hero declares war on the criminals directly responsible for his or her torment. One of the many reasons why Law Abiding Citizen doesn't work is because it's a strange mix of the two - but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

When nice guy Clyde Shelton (Gerald Butler) sees his family raped and murdered in front of him by a pair of home-invading thugs, he has ever right to expect justice. Slick lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), on the other hand, just wants to get the case out of the way so he can keep moving smoothly up the ladder. So surprise surprise, while the lesser of the two evil thugs gets the death sentence, the really nasty piece of work gets off because he cut a deal and gave evidence against his partner. Fast forward five years, Rice is now the DA, and when bad guy number two's execution goes horribly wrong no-one really cares all that much. When bad guy number one turns up chopped into little pieces tho, attention turns to Clyde - and so begins one of those games of cat and mouse that are totally silly the second you spend even one second thinking about them.

There are plenty of twists and turns here, especially once Clyde gets himself locked up just as the vigilante starts targeting members of the legal community, but in every single case the explanation is so ridiculous whatever tension or thrills this might have had vanish without a backwards glance. For example, it's one thing to kill someone with a remote-controlled robot in a graveyard, but how did the robot - which is basically a massive gun on wheels - get to the graveyard in the first place? Butler gets stuck playing a mild-mannered guy who is also a super-smart insanely evil genius, while Foxx is just a slick and unlikeable lawyer; can both guys lose? Actually, no they can't - no matter who wins, the audience is the real loser here.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #473)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Daybreakers


Resolutely old-school in its approach to vampires - they eat people, they don't have reflections, and they burst into flames if they try to get a suntan - while science-fictional in tone, with Daybreakers the Australian Spierig brothers (Undead), have created the kind of solid B-movie thriller that wins fans worldwide. There's only one problem: it's not all that much fun.

There's plenty to admire in this grim tale of a no-so-futuristic world where almost everyone has been turned into a vampire. The Spierig's have clearly spent a lot of time figuring out how this world works, from armoured and camera covered cars so they can drive in daylight to forest fires started by vampiric animals wandering into the sunlight. The characters are well thought-out too: blood scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a man-turned-vampire weighed down by the burden of having to drink blood to survive - if vampires don't drink blood they turn into mindless monsters, which is increasingly a problem as blood supplies are running out. Everyone’s a vampire, remember? His boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) is far more comfortable with being a vampire (he had a terminal illness when he was turned into one), so when Dalton stumbles into the grasp of a small band of non-vampires who just might have a cure for vampirism, it's a bit of a two-edged sword. No vampires means no worries about lack of blood; no vampires means you don't get to live forever.

It's this rigourous approach to plotting that makes this such a watchable film even as the relentless one-note nature of the story starts to take it's toll. Daybreakers takes itself totally seriously from start to finish which, considering it's about vampires milking humans for blood, does make you wish that occasionally someone would lighten up and crack a smile. Presumably Willem Dafoe (as the car-loving redneck who comes across a cure for vampirism) was meant to be that guy, but he turns in a sombre, desperate performance that, while totally appropriate for his character, isn't quite the barrel of laughs that this film occasionally needs. The end result is a vampire film that remains solidly consistent without ever really bursting into life. Which seems appropriate.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #473)