Movie Review – What Just Happened

June 3, 2009

what just happenedThe long tradition of Hollywood poking fun at itself continues with What Just Happened, a movie that deals with a hectic week in the life of movie Producer, Ben (Robert De Niro), in Barry Levinson’s long awaited return to the big screen.

Ben is introduced to us as one of the 30 most powerful men in the business – a mover and shaker in the industry with respect, influence and power. That veneer is then quickly stripped away to reveal a man hopelessly compromised by the conflicting interests he has to juggle – charged with the management of almost impossible situations and yet in reality having little or no control over any of them.

He hides this ineffectiveness with activity. He is constantly in motion – always on the phone, taking meetings, or driving back and forth from one or another of the many disasters that are taking place around him. As a father he is more of a chauffeur – an interested bystander in the lives of his children and ex-wives. As a Producer he plays moderator between the ball breaking studio executives, and the childlike, tantrum throwing talent as they try to defend the artistic purity of their work.

Michael Wincott embodies that side of the business perfectly, playing the precocious, drug addled and temperamental Director Jeremy Blundell. Tip of the hat to Bruce Willis as well, who plays himself but is channeling Joaquin Phoenix as the star of an upcoming film with a determined vision of how his character should appear. Also keep an eye out for Stanley Tucci, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener and John Turturro who help round out a great supporting cast.

I loved the soundtrack – including the work of  Ennio Mariccone  is always a good idea in my opinion, and I thought the melodramatic strains of Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’ juxtaposed the absurdity of the scene it was playing in brilliantly.

As a satire, this doesn’t always hit the mark and at times looks a little stale around the edges. I’d be surprised if too many Hollywood types found this particularly biting – we have seen other films take a sharper scalpel to the gelatinous underbelly of the industry before. Having said that, this movie is accessible to folks who may not be thoroughly versed in Hollywood insider culture, and features some genuine comedic highlights.

There’s also a kind of sadness here as well. You feel for De Niro’s character by the time the credits roll. He is a man who is subjected to the whims and inclinations of some pretty unpredictable forces; agents who don’t like breaking bad news to their clients, Directors who refuse to let outsiders sully their work, actors whose creative sensitivity often places them at odds with the real world, and studio bosses who would happily cook and eat their own young if the bottom line could be improved by doing so.

Add to that the liberal use of both recreational and medicinal drugs, the regular therapy sessions and the complexity of his convoluted personal life, and what you get is a man forever torn between the competing pulls of art, finance, love and practicality.

Which is probably as a good a metaphor for Hollywood as any.

Rating – 6/10

Random Quote – “Hunter S. Thompson once said to me, ‘the movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. And then he added, ‘there’s also a negative side’.”

Random Actor You’ll Recognize From Somewhere Else – Kristin Stewart from Twilight and Adventureland plays Ben’s daughter Zoe here.

Previous Movie Review – State of Play


Iron Man 2 Update

June 2, 2009

Lots of hype around Iron Man 2 recently, with the shoot half way through completion and a number of key sequences already in the bag. has a bunch of photos from the set available here, and Jon Favreau has been keeping fans up to date with his daily twitters – a great source of information on the progress of the shoot itself.

The man in the iron suit.

Downey gearing up for round 2 of the man in the iron suit.

The star of the show, Robert Downey Jr has described the sequel as being “incredibly risky and artistic for a big genre movie”. Sounds to me like that might be code for them trying to go for some of that, you know, “story” stuff that can sometimes get in the way of a big budget picture. You can read the full interview here.

Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Terrance Howard was not signed for the sequel, amidst reports of cost cutting and dissatisfaction over his performance. That move had fans up in arms, but nobody was more upset than Howard himself, especially if you consider the fact that they always seemed to be hinting that the second movie was going to feature an increase in screen time for the character (“next time baby”). In choosing Don Cheadle to replace Howard though, they took an actor with an impressive pedigree, and the early reports from the set suggest he is filling Howard’s shoes admirably.

Sam Rockwell has pretty much been in from the start, and the addition of Scarlett Johannson in the role of Black Widow has been well publicised – but the secrecy surrounding Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo in the sequel has also come to an end, with the news that he has signed an incredible nine picture deal with Marvel Studios to play the role of Nick Fury.

Mickey Rourke is also in the mix, donning his own 23lbs suit to play super-villain Whiplash in between his time on the set of The Expendables. Good to see that the star of The Wrestler is a busy man nowadays. Amazing what a successful movie can do for an actors schedule.

Movie Reviews – State of Play

June 1, 2009

State of Play

This story deals with the death of the assistant to a US Congressman on the verge of a major inquiry into the corporate dealings of a private military contractor. Thanks to the efforts of investigative journalist, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), and online blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), it becomes clear that the circumstances surrounding the death are more than mysterious, and pretty soon forces are aligning to ensure that the true story never comes to light.

It’s not easy for the modern journo, and this movie gives us an inside look at the many problems they face bringing a successful story to completion – the age old tensions between journalist and source, the competing interests of journalist and editor, the moral ambiguity of journalists who withhold information from police, the often parasitic symbiosis between the media and politics and the contemptuous divide between old school investigative reporters and the growing legion of their blogging counterparts. Sure, Woodward and Bernstein had it tough bringing the Watergate scandal to light, but how would they handle the pressures from a sales driven media conglomerate ownership team who demand hourly updates of their stories online?

Crowe is great as the inquisitive, veteran journalist – gruff and disordered in his personal and professional life. An aging rock star of the newspaper industry’s once proud investigative circuit. McAdams brings the right mix of intelligence and enthusiasm to her role as the star of an online blog who is on her first foray into “real” journalism, and Ben Affleck more than holds his own as the conflicted Congressman at the heart of the whole affair. After some of the performances he has mailed in over the years, it’s easy to forget that Affleck can actually deliver when given the right opportunity.

Solid performances from an all-star supporting cast as well; Jeff Daniels, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright-Penn and Harry Lennix all produce noteworthy efforts, but it’s Jason Bateman who enters the story in the final 30 minutes and absolutely steals the show. Director Kevin McDonald shows the great eye for casting that he did in The Last King Of Scotland here, matching character personality to acting talent like a man who understands every nuance of his screenplay.

The pacing is perfect over the first three quarters of the film, building tension with twist after surprising twist as details behind the incident come to light. But I wonder if they didn’t go for one twist too many – one final, bet you didn’t see this coming effort that seemed a little forced to me.

This story was adapted from a UK TV series that was spread over six hours, so perhaps it was an issue of timing. Streamlining a mini-series into a 2 hour feature film, all whilst refreshing the tale with a modern take on military privatization and corporate skullduggery may have forced their hand slightly. The ending left me feeling like I was just coming to grips with the full implications of the previous plot twist when I was suddenly engaged with a new one. Of course, we can’t rule out that I might just be a little bit slow.

Don’t let that stop you from seeing this film though – because it is smart, often funny, and completely entertaining. A political thriller like they used to do it in the old days, featuring a great script, intriguing subject matter and a cast and crew who genuinely know their business.

Rating – 8/10

Random Quote – She had access to everything we were doing, and I believe they killed her for it.

Random Actor You Will Recognize From Somewhere Else – Michael Jace, who plays Julien in the TV series The Shield, pops up as a police officer again here.

Previous Movie Review – Angels & Demons

The Round-Up

May 30, 2009

The pick of this week’s internet rumours, rumblings and total fabrications. Reboots, remakes, prequels and sequels – is Hollywood so out of fresh ideas that a $70 movie made from the perspective of a zombie is about to be picked up?

Alien re-make, or prequel?

Looks like the Alien franchise will be the latest to get an update, with Fox head honcho Tim Rothman announcing that they have been in talks with Ridley Scott. It’s not clear however whether the talks have been about a re-make of the cult classic, or whether the project they are discussing is a prequel.

Ferrell keen to make Anchorman 2

Sweet Lincoln’s mullet!!! Will Ferrell, in Australia to promote his upcoming feature, The Land Of The Lost, dropped a number of hints to reporters that preparations for a sequel to the comedy hit, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy may be in the works.

That’s it, Reboots for everyone….

With Vampires suddenly all the rage again, it looks like the Buffy franchise is in for a re-boot, although this time with no attachment to Joss Whedon or the cast from the successful TV series.

Battlestar Galactica actress Kate Sackhoff also got the internet buzzing when she purchased a large amount of Daredevil comics that feature one of the Marvel characters – Typhoid Mary. Is a Daredevil re-boot in the works? Or, is this character research for the recently green-lit Deadpool movie? Or, you know, does she just like comics?

Colin set to be picked up by Hollywood

My favourite story from Cannes – Colin, a movie made in the UK, told from a zombie’s perspective and shot with a budget of 45 pounds has picked up a distributor in Japan, and may be close to landing a deal with a major American distributor. I can just picture Hollywood execs crying into their soy mocaccino’s latte’s as they heard the news.

Checking Out The Road Ahead

May 29, 2009

I loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – a bleak, broodingly creepy but fundamentally good hearted novel about a father’s determination to protect his son at the end of all things. It is unconventional though, and it doesn’t appear to be a book that would translate easily onto the big screen. It’s mysterious, haunting, and unrelentingly grim…I mean, this sounds exactly like the sort of thing Hollywood is going to balls up, right?

Maybe not.

Plenty can go wrong on The Road.

Plenty can go wrong on The Road.

Early reports suggest that this is shaping up to be a very literal, respectful adaptation of the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Let’s hope so. The last thing we need is a repeat of what happened with I Am Legend – where they changed some key facts and tacked on some cheery feel-goodery so audiences felt more comfortable on their drive home. The Road isn’t that kind of book, and shouldn’t be that kind of movie, and anybody looking for light entertainment would probably be better off watching something else.

I like the decisions they have made with cast and crew, eschewing star power and going for people they feel confident can capture the right tone. Charlize Theron is probably the biggest name in the movie, but her “serious acting” credentials are pretty well known. Viggo Mortinsen seems like an outstanding choice for the father, and whilst he may not be known too well outside Australia, Director John Hillcoat showed in both The Proposition and Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (largely unknown but brilliant Australian flick from the late 80’s) that he is a man who appreciates mood and pacing. Fans of Nick Cave may also be interested to hear that he is composing the score, a job that on paper suits the dark prince of indie rock well.

Esquire Magazine’s Tom Chiarella is calling The Road The Most Important Movie Of The Year, which may be stacking a little too much pressure on it, but the article makes for a great read. The big question on everybody’s lips though – will audiences respond to a movie this dark and moody? Or will generations of film-fans who are used to their post-apocalyptic mayhem coming with Terminator style special effects walk out wondering what all the fuss was about?

Trailer Addict has previews for anybody wanting an early look at the trailer from The Road.

Top Three Russell Crowe Performances

May 28, 2009

We’re celebrating Russell Crowe’s new film, State of Play with a podium dedicated to the actor/singer/occasional scrapper.

This was a tough list to put together, with so many solid performances throughout Rusty’s career. Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the podium include his work as Det. Richie Roberts in American Gangster, the Spaniard in The Gladiator, Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander, and finally, his work as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind – a role he was nominated for an Oscar for. Solid stuff.

3. Cindarella Man

Crowe is outstanding in his portrayal of the real life Cindarella Man, James J. Braddock, the depression era prize fighter who overcame injury and poverty to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. I’m a sucker for a good boxing story, and this happens to be a very good boxing story indeed. The film features great performances from Renee Zellweger and a vastly under-rated Paul Giammatti. Ron Howard is also at his best here – but the movie belongs to Crowe, who plays Braddock with exactly the right mix of desperation, humility and pride.

2. LA Confidential

Bud White is more than just a rage fuelled, mean son of a bitch, but that’s what you see at first. The rest Crowe lets out a piece at a time, adding complexity as the film progresses. You start with his hatred of violence against women, for reasons hinted at rather than explained, and as the movie moves forward you see more of what makes the character tick; his relationship issues, his drive, his integrity and courage. Crowe adds each of these layers with an understated intensity, an iceberg of a performance where you see the tip of an emotion and yet can still guess at the depths of what lies beneath. But you know, let’s not get bogged down too heavily with that sort of artsy bullshit. Let’s just say Rusty kicks ass in this film and we’ll move on.

Fightin' Round The World was precluded on a technicality.

Fightin' Round The World was excluded on a technicality.

1. The Insider

We are miles away from the Gladiator and Master & Commander here. No stealing the lady with his quick witted charms. No grabbing his sword and fighting off the barbarians with a display of shock and awe. Crowe goes out on a limb – overweight, middle-aged, socially awkward and filled with doubt – and yet his portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, a key whistle blower against Big Tobacco gives us a real life hero every bit as compelling as any of the other characters in the Crowe oeuvre. Rusty showed he didn’t need flash and special effects to carry a movie here, and more than held his own in pivotal scenes with Al Pacino. For mine, this is the standout performance in his career so far.

Previous Podium – Top Three Ben Stiller Movies

Movie Review – Angels & Demons

May 27, 2009

angels%20and%20demonsTom Hanks reprises his role as Professor Robert Langdon here, a sort of grown up Encycolpedia Brown who is doing for symbology today what Indiana Jones did for archaeology during the 80’s (ie; making a generation of film go-ers believe that the profession is much cooler than it actually is).

Professor Langdon caused all kinds of trouble for the Catholic Church in the last film, but they need his help this time around when an ancient enemy called the Illuminati shows up with a plan to kill the leading Cardinals during a papal election. A good thing they called him too, because in addition to his knowledge of symbols and what have you, he has managed to learn many crucial facts about Catholic art, history and architecture that happen to elude the poor suckers who have dedicated their lives to the stuff.

That’s all by way of story mechanics though – there is a lot of exposition that is necessary to the plot and this is how they do it. If this movie was going to be appreciated by anybody outside a small portion of the academic community, somebody was going to have to explain the history and significance of certain artifacts and documents as they appear on screen. Langdon does the job, with a little help from scientist Vittoria Vetra (capably played by Ayelet Zurer, although her character seemed a bit superfluous at times).

Ewan McGregor is convincing as the quiet, seemingly progressive and determined Carmelengo Patrick McKenna, and the cast gets a boost from Armin Mueller-Stahl who represents the aloof, conservative sub-section of the Catholic elite in his portrayal of Cardinal Strauss.

There is a hint of the Science v Religion debate here, but after the furor over the first film Ron Howard steers well clear of the all the tricky areas. The closest we come to a controversial topic would be some crowd fisticuffs in the middle of St Peters Square between dissenting groups of the pro and anti stem-cell research argument. They could have done more with this. At the very least they could have gone for some symbolism of their own and hired Richard Dawkins to play one of the villains. Instead, they took the safe road, and softly ventured the contention that religion and science should be able to happily co-exist.

No wonder the Catholic Church didn’t bother to muster its troops for a boycott campaign this time around. Truth be told, they come out looking pretty good in this one, and the Vatican City will probably enjoy a boost in tourism thanks to the prominent display of their amazing repository of art, and the jaw droppingly impressive architecture of many of their Churches (even though most of it was shot in a studio in LA).

The pacing can be a little uneven at times – one minute Hanks is running for his life with explosions erupting around him, the next he is flicking through an aged document with a pair of tweezers, discussing Michelangelo’s personal history. But the story moves inexorably forward, and there aren’t too many flat moments. The basic premise is a little preposterous, but that’s a common complaint in this kind of film. That aside, it’s entertaining, full of plot twists, and should feature enough mumbo-jumbo about secret societies and institutional cover-ups to keep Dan Brown’s legion of adoring fans happy.

Rating – 7/10

Random Quote – When you write about us, and you will, do so gently.

Random Actor You Will Recognize From Somewhere Else – Stellan Skarsgard, who I last saw as the Vinny Chase hating Werner in Entourage, does a good job as the chief of the Swiss Guard, Commander Richter.

Previous Movie Review – The Boat That Rocked

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen Update

May 26, 2009

Just under a month to go until Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen hits cinemas and the marketing campaign is kicking into overdrive.

You can find all the latest trailers and movie posters here.

The promotion isn’t going to be quite as big as initially planned however, with one of the key advertising partners from the first film, GM Motors, on the verge of financial collapse and is downgrading its contribuition to the marketing budget.

Don't worry - still plenty of Megan Fox headed our way.

Don't worry - still plenty of Megan Fox headed our way.

The studio is bouncing back with a viral marketing campaign that got underway last week. It’s a strategy that got them plenty of buzz in the first film, and they will be looking to repeat the dose here.

The release comes at a difficult time, surrounded as it is by big budget movies such as Star Trek, Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation. That aside, studio hopes remain high. Transformers was a box office monster in 2007, and plenty of pundits are predicting this to be another box office success story for Michael Bay.

What about the critical response though? Throughout his career Bay has been lampooned over his preference for action and glamour (not to mention product placement) over plot and character development. Admittedly, some of his films have missed their mark pretty widely (and I hated Pearl Harbour as much as everybody else), but his position as the favourite whipping boy of critics, bloggers and journalists alike puzzles me a little.

Sure, his films tend to lack depth, he has little time for subtlety and his action sequences can be preposterously over the top – but he also makes fun, entertaining flicks that look good and perform well at the box office. Still the critics attack him like a polar bear on a gravy covered seal.

It’s a phenomenon the man himself is well aware of, and as he outlines in this interview in LA Times, he is ready for whatever backlash comes his way. Michael Bay knows you hate him: “There’s a lot of poison on the internet…whatever”.

Movie Review – The Boat That Rocked

May 25, 2009

The Boat That RockedThe Boat That Rocked is the story of a pirate radio station that was based offshore the UK, broadcasting rock music during the 1960’s to a generation of fans who were left unsatisfied by the BBC’s limited rock offerings. The story is loosely based on true events, although, I’d probably focus more on the “loosely based” than “true events” part of that statement if I were you.

The ensemble cast does a good job of spreading the laughs around, with bigger stars like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy happily sharing the screen with relative newcomers like the reliably funny Nick Frost. Indeed, so keen were they to share the love that at times this film suffers from a surplus of side-stories in an attempt to get characters their allotted screen time. The result is that some of the scenes seem forced, with some sub-plots working better than others. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of the actors are just flat out stronger than others as well. Equality is not always a good thing.

Kenneth Brannaugh does a decent job as the British Minister in charge of shutting the station down, but the character is so clichéd and one dimensional that it seems like a waste of his talents. It’s like hiring Pavarotti to sing you Happy Birthday. Sure, he’ll do a good job of it, but if you don’t give him a song that will really show his range, you’re just not getting your money’s worth.

The tone of the thing is so damn upbeat that by the mid-way point I suspected Writer/Director Richard Curtis might have been loaded up on prozac for large parts of the shoot. This makes BlackAdder look like Schindler’s List. There is at least one montage of a dancing pub crawl that looked like it came straight from the cutting room floor of an Austin Powers edit. Which reminds me – this film could have done with a more judicious edit itself, because at 130+ minutes it runs the risk of seeming self-indulgent.

But that’s not to say there isn’t some good stuff here as well. The sound track is fantastic – a who’s who of the 60’s rock scene with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones all getting airtime. The cast of characters that live on the boat are funny and for the most part, likeable.  The movie also gets a lift in the final twenty five minutes, with some action sequences that inject life into the film just as it was beginning to sag under its own weight.

I walked out of this one not feeling particularly annoyed, or especially pleased. I’ve spent money on worse things. It is decent entertainment, and it is fun – but it could have been much more than that. It’s an interesting premise and features a great cast who obviously get along well together, but I get the feeling that this was probably more fun to film than it is to watch as a film.

Rating – 6/10

Random Quote – I find alcohol rather sharpens my mind…

Random Actor You Will Recognize From Somewhere Else – Rhys Darby, who plays the Manager in Flight of the Conchord’s plays the socially inept and largely unpopular Angus Nutsall here.

Previous Movie Review – Defiance

Gilliam, Parnassus and Quixote

May 23, 2009

Terry Gilliam’s new movie, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus has had its first screening at Cannes (outside of competition though), to luke-warm early reviews.

This movie is most notable as the final film of Heath Ledger, and given the extraordinarily difficult circumstances this film was made in, I think getting it finished and all the way to Cannes is something of a miracle. Large parts of the movie had to be re-written on the fly, and I think a few plotting/character issues can probably be expected (and even forgiven).

Gilliam is probably not crazy

Gilliam knows a thing or two about a crisis

Gilliam’s films are rarely made easily, and his well publicised aborted attempt to bring the man from La Mancha to the big screen was illustrated in the documentary Lost in la Mancha. But even with those experiences, the tragic passing of his star actor mid way through the shoot must have come as a blow on both a personal and technical level.

He is not the man to quit lightly however – the latest proof of which is the somehwat ironic news that he is going to once again attempt to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made. Johnny Depp is still attached to the project, but with with the enormously popular star committed to other productions, the scheduling difficulties are already beginnning.

Which, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly how Terry Gilliam rolls.