Thursday, December 29, 2005


1996, US, directed by Doug Liman

Nearly ten years on, Swingers remains remarkably fresh for a film that seemed to be very much of the male-bonding zeitgeist, a mixture of terminally hip rat-pack posturing and distinctly uncool relationship angst, mostly from the perspective of Mikey (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script), who straddles the uncomfortable border between depression and obsession six months after a break-up with his long-time girlfriend. He's a recent arrival in Los Angeles, plumbing the lower depths of the comedy business, in the company of fellow East Coast transplant Rob (Ron Livingston) and budding producer/self-styled player Trent (Vince Vaughn, who seemed poised for instant stardom after this film, rather than the half-decade of wheel-spinning that followed), among other hangers-on. It's not surprising that Mike's rise to the top is less than meteoric: his daily routine alternates between bouts of self-pity and nights on the town chasing down the hippest spots. Favreau's script skewers male vanities and self-deceptions remarkably well (although Mike's more irrational tendencies are mildly alarming), while Vaughn, in particular, makes excellent use of some memorable lines: 'You're so money and you don't even know it!' It's fun, too, to see the film send up other indie hits like Reservoir Dogs with both affection and purpose, while there's a sort of bitter-sweet affection for Los Angeles that surely springs from the writer's own experiences on the fringes of 'The Business'.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Batman Begins

2005, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Proof that it is possible to make an intelligent movie about a comic book hero: the key to the franchise renaissance is the surprising emphasis on relative realism. Batman Begins carefully grounds the powers of its hero in a reasonably credible version of the world, rather than ascribing them to more standard science fiction sources, as in, for instance, the recent Spiderman movies. In narrating Batman's rise from the troubled psyche of the rich, rudderless Bruce Wayne, director Nolan also has some genre-blending fun: Wayne's physical skills are learned in a kind of shaolin temple, with all the ninja-kicking action that implies, while his accoutrements mostly come from the secret labs of a trusted employee of his dead father, one Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman having a lucrative good time), a clone of James Bond's good friend Q if ever there was one.

Nolan develops an aesthetic entirely different from that invented by Tim Burton for the 1989 film that set the series in motion: this new Gotham drips with menace and thwarted potential, with no hint of (deliberate) camp. It's a dystopia more like that of a film like Seven than the average comic book backdrop, and it's that sense of very real threat that gives the film much of its bite. The film is also anchored firmly in the post-9/11 world: the central villain is motivated by belief rather than by the more traditional dreams of vast wealth or untrammelled power; it's rather bracing to be confronted by such themes in the context of a film like this. Batman/Bruce Wayne is played with great conviction by Christian Bale but there are also several excellent supporting turns, not least from Michael Caine, who does much with the part of the Wayne family's beloved butler.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The School of Rock

2003, US, directed by Richard Linklater

The School of Rock was conceived as a vehicle for Jack Black, and it works well, channelling his energies to highly entertaining effect. He plays Dewey Finn, a musician perpetually on the verge of abject failure, whose desperate need for rent money impels him to pose as his roommate when the phone rings with a job offer at a prestigious local academy (realism is not high on the agenda). The children in the academy are suffering under the weight of rules, parental expectations, and classical music classes, and the free-spirited Dewey is convinced that they can release their true selves through rock and roll, and sets up a secretive class project, 'Rock Band'. The storyline is patently absurb, of course, but Black's exuberant performance and the excellent ensemble of youthful actors (all talented musicians) drives the film; the often very witty script helps, too. Director Richard Linklater must take much credit for reining in Black's wildest tendencies (ensuring that Dewey Finn stays on the right side of obnoxious), and for coaxing a string of likeable turns from the younger generation, who had little to no experience before the camera. Part of me can't help thinking it's a shame to see one more independent cinematic mind co-opted by the studio system, but at least The School of Rock has more vigor, and considerably more charm, than most Hollywood pap.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Infernal Affairs II

2003, Hong Kong, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak

While Hong Kong films are best known for their gunplay, this one engages the brain, too, if only to keep track of the serpentine plot developments. A worthy prequel to the 2002 smash hit, the second part fills in much of the background, adding layers of intrigue as we navigate the years from 1991-1997 (and the impending handover to Chinese control). The film interweaves the experiences of Yan, a police mole in the triads, with those of Lau, a gang member who has infiltrated the police, and who has begun to work his way up the ladder. There are multiple cross-cutting plotlines and revelations, shedding new light on the events of the first film, although it can be quite a challenge to keep the various characters straight, particularly given the 'double mole' plot at the heart of the film. The young actors who play the youthful Yan and Lau do a fine job, although the real enjoyment comes from watching veterans like Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang, while several of the smaller roles, especially on the gangland side, are also well-played. While this sequel isn't quite as slick as its predecessor, co-directors Lau and Mak are absolutely at home with the mechanics of film tension, and ratchet things up to extremely enjoyable effect in several bravura sequences, with cross-cutting action as the various plot strands unfold in parallel; their camerawork is as polished and mobile as before. For a franchise film, there's also a surprisingly vivid sense of place, whether it be the homes of wealthy gangsters, or the back alleys of Hong Kong, filled with small restaurants and shops.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Lot Like Love

2005, US, directed by Nigel Cole

An Ashton Kutcher movie that's let down by the script and not the star? While Kutcher isn't my cup of tea, despite the occasional amusing moment in That 70's Show, here he's surprisingly charming, as is co-star Amanda Peet. However, neither of them can do much with a script and a director so indulgent with the running time (which could have lost 20 minutes and subplots to spare). The two seem to have real chemistry, but the plot advances so fitfully that the character development never convinces. Set over a six-year span, the film tells the tale - with multi-year gaps - of the mostly off-again attraction between two 20-somethings, but so much of the story transpires offscreen that the abrupt changes in the characters' lives after each hiatus rarely convince. No matter the obstacles thrown their way, there's never even a hint of doubt at the outcome - with the old-school red-herring at the end visible a mile off.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Friday Night Lights

2004, US, directed by Peter Berg

Like many sports movies, this is less about the on-field action than it is about Life, particularly since the many football plays are often compressed into rapid-fire montages, with the exception of the last game, which occupies the final quarter of the film. Life, in this case, is more particularly life in hard-scrabble Odessa, west Texas, a part of the US that takes its football very seriously indeed (the H.G. Bissinger book on which the film is based is as much social study as sporting history). As Odessa's economic fortunes have declined, the town has concentrated ever-more of its energies on the fortunes of the high school football team, with the seniors, in particular, under immense pressure from virtually everyone in town (these folks put the fan in fanatic). The film follows the real-life 1988 season, where great expectations appear to be dashed early on with the injury of a key player (played, with great verve, by Derek Luke). Since football dominates the routines of the players almost to the exclusion of all else - we never see them set foot in a classroom - it's inevitable that their life-lessons are acquired through the prism of sports. Their coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, perfectly cast), is the prime adult presence in their lives, shielding them from much of the circus that surrounds them, but also imparting what wisdom he can in the pressure-cooker atmosphere. While sports movies are generally about triumph over adversity, there's a bittersweet air over everything here, a sad sense that nothing in life is ever going to have quite the same electric charge as a senior year of high school football. Director Peter Berg has an excellent eye for the details of Odessa's football obsession, and an affection for his mostly unknown cast, who acquit themselves well; his occasionally hyperactive camera is the only unwelcome distraction.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dear Frankie

2004, United Kingdom, directed by Shona Auerbach

Dear Frankie is a sweet-natured little fable in the middle of a typically British kitchen-sink setting - in this case, working class Glasgow. Frankie is a deaf nine-year-old who lives with his mother and grandmother, and who believes that his father is a sailor on a merchant ship by the name of the Accra. He writes letters to his absent dad, and receives replies filled with exotic details and carefully-chosen stamps. The wrinkle, however, is that the letters are written by his mother, who is unwilling to share the truth, that Frankie's dad is a rotten piece of work, whom she fears. Inevitably, the real Accra eventually shows up in Glasgow and, in a panic, Frankie's mum has to hire a stranger to play the part of a father for a day. The story suffers from a few too many holes - even in the circumstances, it's hard to understand why Frankie's mum sustains the fiction for as long as she does, nor does Frankie's deafness serve much more than a symbolic purpose - but there is considerable charm in the details of Glasgow life, which appears to centre on the chipper and the pub, and in an array of fine, nuanced performances, from Emily Mortimer (as Frankie's mother), Mary Riggans (as the grandmother) and the charming Gerard Butler, as the one-day dad, to single out only the most prominent (Jack McElhone is fine as Frankie, although he mostly just has to look appealing, since he has but one line). Director Shona Auerbach keeps the film grounded enough to avoid an excess of sweetness, with an ending that, plot quibbles aside, seems true and satisfying.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Constant Gardener

2005, UK, directed by Fernando Meirelles

Someone clearly forgot to give Fernando Meirelles the standard movie playbook on the adventures of white folk in tropical locations, for he's crafted an arrestingly original film from John Le Carré's book; only Graham Greene provides an adequately acid precursor, particularly in the form of Phillip Noyce's 2002 version of The Quiet American. This is bang-up-to-date tale of drug-testing by Western pharmacutical companies in Kenya, with minimal regard to medical ethics. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a minor British diplomat in Nairobi, recently married to a vibrant young woman (Tessa, played with great commitment by Rachel Weisz), who quickly involves herself in local health politics and upsets more than a few people in the process. The film opens, more or less, with Tessa's death, in suspicious circumstances, and the remainder of the action cross-cuts scenes from her marriage (Justin and Tessa marry so quickly that their marriage is more the tale of their getting to know one another) with Justin's attempts to find out the truth about her. In the process, he displays a far more steely streak than we - or perhaps he - imagined him to possess. Unlike many films set in exotic locales, Africa is anything but a backdrop: Meirelles shoots in some of Nairobi's grittiest slums, and there's a grim, absolutely unsentimental realism to everything we see (hardly surprising from the (co?) director of City of God). Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast as the increasingly dogged Justin, and he's surrounded by a cast of fine character actors, particularly Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley, all of whose characters have their hands dirty to varying degrees; Huston, in particular, is outstandingly unsettling. This is a rare piece of genuinely political filmmaking: deliberately unsettling, with a grimly unhappy conclusion that underlines at least some of the realities of the West's relationship with Africa.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States