Friday, May 30, 2008

Irresistible, Hilarious and Horrific

Last Wednesday afternoon, I went along to the Cineworld multiplex here in Dublin to book two tickets for an evening screening of the "Sex & The City" movie. Two things surprised me. The first was that the film was on in 5 screens, there are 17 in Cineworld Dublin. The second was that all screenings were either sold out or front row only. This should not really have surprised me, as even though this is the summer of hype when it comes to summer movies, "Sex & the City" is perhaps the most hyped of all. More so than "Indiana Jones" because while "Sex &The City" has it's fans and history, it is still it's first cinema adaptation. It has become an event, it will be an experience you are guaranteed to not love but adore. A long one at that, as it is 2 and a half hours long. That's like watching 5 episodes back to back. I loved "Sex & the City" when it was on TV. I didn't realise how much I loved it or, like a scraggy old dog, question why I loved it so much until I read Sinead Gleeson's article entitled "Sex and the So What?" on her Sigla website. In the article Sinead says that she couldn't care less about the film and, how as a woman she refuses to be tied in to the whole pop culture that the show had become by the time the series was concluding on television and now is being revisited in cinemas. Sinead's opinions are well stated and the article is one that that has got plenty of people posting their own opinions. Most, though not all, agree about the depiction of a Manhattan and it's inhabitants that the TV show created. I didn't like the TV series of "Sex &The City" when it was first screened but grew to love it. I hated the way the characters would stop the story and spoke to camera and viewer. It was all too Woody Allen. I felt it tried too hard to impress. I loved the fact that different people I know liked one character; usually Miranda, and didn't like another; usually Carrie. It was the men in the 4 main women's lives that I usually wasn't overtly fond of. It took me until the last series to like Steve Brady, I never really cared if John or Mr. Big came back into Carrie's life or not. Anyone who would let an Aidan or Berger go, was some kind of fool in my eyes. I always found Harry annoying and while Stanford was ok he was too whiny and prissy for me. But it was these characters that made the main female characters seem a little bit real as I always thought that all four of the female characters are stereotypes and we never like stereotypes. When I was growing up as a country child who never left Kilkenny much in the 1970's and 1980's my favourite shows were "Charlie's Angels", "Hart to Hart" "Dallas" and "Dynasty". All these shows were American, glamourous, colourful and, to me, very exciting. They might as well have been made on Mars. They were other worldly. Back then and unlike nowadays, there were very few millionaires in Ireland. In the America of the 1980's, at least on television in Denver and in Houston there were many. I was not the only child to watch these shows so in the 1990's when even a poor waitress like Rachel Green and her friends could have gorgeous apartments in Greenwich Village and more so when the women of "Sex & The City" came along we were given a new image of success and wealth. For the first time Irish people in their 30's, even 20's, could have a glamourous, gorgeous lifestyle. "Sex & the City" was a fantasy land with a little bit of reality. As the show progressed it was put on a pedestal by magazines like Britain's "Heat" and "OK". Young women were told on a weekly basic to invite the girls around, drink wine and watch the show. As "Sex & The City" was something that could be viewed as a single episode or as a series it was perfect entertainment for the 1990's. It was something you could dip in and out of, if you missed a show our friends, the internet or magazines could tell us all we needed to know. Only a fool would think that the four main characters were always lovely, always perfect. They were all snobby and elitist in their own ways. Back in 2004 Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, both film studies lecturers edited a book of articles and essays on "Sex & The City" called "Reading Sex & the City" This is an academic text written by people who are loud and proud fans of the show. It is highly entertaining and it was in reading Sinead's article that I remembered reading it. In the book they acknowledge that the show is of it's time, the relationships that the women have with each other and the many men in their lives and how, less so, they have connections with their families, Miranda was a case in particular. What I loved also was the concept of Samantha as a "gay man". I think why I loved the show so much is because I watched it at a time when I was fairly unhappy in my own life, when it was easier to stay in on a Friday night than face a bar where you don't even drink. It made me want to go to Manhattan and love it and I did. It still makes me hope that there must be gay men in Dublin who want to simply go on a date. Some of the women's encounters reminded me of how I met guys over the years in Dublin or episodes my friends have had. These, looking back was what made living in a city exciting and silly and fun and strange. What always came across to me was the way the 4 women met up and dissected their experiences. For many years now I have known my friends Tom and John, each Saturday we used to meet up, have lunch, go to a movie, have dinner, go for a drink and whatever happened to us in between we would chat about. Watching "Sex & the City" this was played out for me again, except in my own living room. Tom has since moved away and I don't see John as often but they are still two of my dearest friends. I think this was how thousands of friends related the show to their own lives over the years. Britain and Ireland became wealthier in the 1990's and just like it wouldn't be possible to meet our friends every weekend, the fantasy of 4 people meeting every week in a jungle the size of Manhattan was ready made for the romantic viewer. In one bookshop I worked in Candace Bushnell, the author of the original book came in one day and I got her to sign the only copy of "Sex & the City" in the shop. She wrote "To David, Drink Cosmos! Candace". Drink cosmos! If only she had known, I would be on the floor after two! The original book is very different to the show, a long way from the marketing of it's film adaptation in 2008. The re-issue of the book has a rather dull cream white cover, very different to the Neon lights of the accompanying movie tie in book. On the back of the earlier book jacket is a quote by Bret Easton Ellis; "Irresistible, hilarious and horrific, stylishly written... Candace Bushnell has captured the big, black truth". That was back in 1996, a time was Bret wasn't out as a bisexual man and a time when Candace would have had no idea what a marvel and monster in equal measures her Carrie had become.


There was an interesting piece of movie news on the great British gossip site Digital Spy this week where Steven Spielberg said that he always becomes a recluse during the weekend of his latest movie release. The only thing that he is interested is on the Monday when the offical weekend box-office tally is released. That story is here.
In the end, "Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the Crystal Skull" made $126 million in it's first 4 days of release in America. It would not be the best first 4 day opening record, instead it is the 6th. Speilberg like Madonna never likes to be second or third in anything, 6th must be a whole other story. This total included a full day of screenings on the previous Thursday. Here in Dublin, the film played in 8 screens in Cineworld alone and it's first screening was at 12:10am on the Thursday morning. "Sex and the City" has already used up some of those screens since Wednesday but "Indiana" should still be number one this weekend, worldwide.
It is no surprise that Spielberg is so concerned with how much money the fourth Indiana will make. "Jaws" is credited as being the first ever "Summer Blockbuster" and since then whenever Speilberg has made a big budget movie each one has to be bigger than it's predecessor. It is said that "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will have to make €400 million alone in the USA before Speilberg makes a profit. This is very possible but already not a sure bet.
The other person who will also make the most from the profits is George Lucas. It is Lucas whom I also feel has prevented the film from being one of the potential biggest hits of all time. I say this because Lucas was the originator for the story and while he didn't write the screenplay he is said to have had the final say on the plot and story development.
I saw "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" on it's second day of release on a great big cinema screen and I loved it. It is easily one of the most entertaining films I have seen, well, since "Iron Man". There were moments when I remembered being captivated by something in a summer blockbuster back to when I was in my twenties, being a teenager and being a child. That is what Speilberg does best, he reminds us of when we were children while giving the children of today a love of cinema, great big summer blockbuster cinema that is.
My childhood was a "Star Wars" childhood. The first 3 "Star Wars" films will always be Lucas's gift to cinema but I hated the 3 films that came later. It is Lucas who brought the "sci fi" element into the newest "Indiana Jones" film and that, as far as I can see, is the one factor that fans, old and new, have disliked. You can almost imagine Lucas convincing Speilberg that the storyline was brilliant. Prior to the release the main concern was would Harrison Ford still be convincing but by setting the story years after "The Last Crusade" it is stated straight away that Indiana, the character, is also older.
After the "bomb in the desert" scene early in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" I realised that the film was going to be a summer movie where anything is possible. Speilberg knew that 2008 was going to be the summer of "Batman" and "The Incredible Hulk" so he had obviously decided to make Indiana into more a superhero that just a hero. For the past few years movie goers have had mainly CGI images where the acting talents or abilities of a stunt man aren't as important as they once were. I don't think Speilberg ever thought that it would be "Iron Man" that was going to be "Indiana"'s greatest nemesis at 2008's box office. "Iron Man" is currently the 38th most successful box office hit of all time in America which has now made $261 million. It is well ahead of Spielberg's last big budget blockbuster "War of the Worlds" which is the 50th most popular with a total box office gross of $242 million. At the time both critics and audiences loved the majority of "The War of the Worlds" enjoying the build up to the impending carnage and destruction and then the amazing special effects and then were let down by the ending and the fact that Cruise leads literally all his "loved ones" to safety at the end. There are also many ridiculous moments in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", the Waterfalls sequence wouldn't have looked out of place in a "Scary Movie / Naked Gun" type spoof movie.
Now that the film is in cinemas there is little that hasn't been kept a secret in the reviews about the plot of which Speilberg and Lucas were so serious about not being let known in advance. The worst thing I think that Lucas did, while in Cannes, was saying that there "may" be an "Indiana 5" where Mutt, played by Shia LaBeouf would take a more central role. Why would a "side kick" character ever take over from the series hero? By saying that there was no surprises in one of the film's revelations. LaBeouf is good in the film but he's not brilliant. I had to laugh when Mutt made his entrance on his motorbike a la Marlon Brando in "The Wild One", the only thing to say on that is that he is no Brando. The ending of the film leaves a potential fifth film a very real possibility but is one that Speilberg should not rush in to. The "Jurassic Park" sequels, especially the third are proof that maybe the first is best and best left at that. There is rumoured to be a fourth "Jurassic Park" film in production so God knows what that will be like.
One review called Cate Blanchett portrayal of Irina Spalko, the "best Bond villain that was never in a Bond movie". She is without doubt a highlight but there are also lots of good reasons to see the film. The clips below of the film and it's also features on location production footage. Go and see it but don't expect it to be the best film ever and you will really enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Speed Racer

15 minutes into "Speed Racer" I began to wonder what was wrong with the critics who have written mainly negative reviews and indeed the audiences in general who have not made "Speed Racer" into a huge summer movie hit.
An hour into "Speed Racer", I could exactly why it has not been the huge success it should really be.
"Speed Racer" looks amazing. At least for the first half hour of the film. It is co colourful, that it is like lying down on the ground in Times Square and looking at all that rainbow neon. What makes it all go wrong is a messy plot and a film who tells it's audience that corporate greed is wrong while there is blatant product placement ads for name brands like Cheerios and Motorola in many scenes.
The colours of the world of "Speed Racer" are amazing. This is colour that is the core of how today's popular culture is marketed, a Jetsons futuristic world, a Tim Burton suburb in space. The clothes, buildings, billboards and of course the cars: everything in "Speed Racer" is loud and bright and beautiful. Speed's car is the only thing that is not a bright neon colour, plain white with a simple red M, similar to the McDonald's golden M.
The beginning of the film is similar to Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" as the young Speed Racer sits at a school desk and dreams of fast cars, his own need for speed. The actor playing Speed Racer, Nicholas Elia, is so full of energy and his love of fast cars, his father's motorcar business and most of all, his race driver big brother Rex Speed all help to start the film brilliantly. Sadly, as the grown up Speed Racer, Emile Hirsch never really continues that passion for car racing that his character should have. He says the lines but I found I never really believed him. This is very disappointing as Emile Hirsch is a great young actor who was powerful in Sean Penn's "Into The Wild", a film where he stole every scene. It is interesting that both Zac Efron and Shia La Beouf were originally considered for the lead role of Speed Racer. There was no way that La Beouf was going to not act in this years "Indiana Jones" but Zac Efron may have been a more suitable choice for this bright, glossy movie as he played his part well in "Hairspray", a similar bright and breezy movie, in 2007.
The first race scene in the film mixes a race that Speed is competing in and one that his brother and hero, Rex had done years previously. Both of their cars race almost as one and it is a marvel to watch visually. As each of the main supporting characters watch the race, their own individual memories about either Rex or Speed intertwine in the story. While this is actually well done but it would be easy for younger viewers to get confused so early in the story.
Later, when a seemingly well meaning business man Royalton, played by Roger Allam, arrives, his introduction to the story and his offer to get Speed to race for his company seems to go on forever. This is a film built on speed and therefore when the story slows to relate a plot narration the film as a whole gets dull quickly.
There is a huge array of supporting characters. John Goodman plays Pops and Susan Sarandon is Mom, they are typically Hollywood fatherly and motherly where required. The rest of Speed's family consist of his younger brother Spritle who is played by Paulie Litt. It is not always the nicest thing to criticise a child actor but without doubt, Spritle is by far the most annoying character in the film, Paulie Litt plays the part of Spritle as if he has only watched episodes of "The Little Rascals", teamed with a chimpanzee called Chim Chim who is always dressed in children's clothes, they are, sadly, the film's Jar Jar Binks. Speed's kinda-girlfriend Trixie played by Christina Ricci (looking fab), who has loved him from early school days, appears to live with the family as does, mechanic Sparky played by Kick Gurry who looks and sounds like the singer, Darren Hayes.
Scott Porter playing Speed's older brother Rex, who also stars in the current remake of "Prom Night", is only in the film at the beginning, is an actor born to star in a blockbuster. He has classic good looks and Matthew Fox who, as the mysterious Racer X just may be Rex, is like a poor replacement. After "Vantage Point" this is the second film this year in which Matthew Fox is just ok in. Keeanu Reeves was supposed to play Racer X but I feel would have not added anything extra to the role.
"Speed Racer" is over 2 hours long but could easily have been half an hour shorter. Some scenes drag on forever and it is similar to the Pixar animated film "Cars" in that some car races could also have been dropped. Incidentally John Goodman had a cameo as the voice of Monster Truck in "Cars".
It is ironic that it is in the actual car races that "Speed Racer" is the least exciting. no matter how thrilling the film makers think they look we know nothing will really happen to Speed Racer, all will be well. A lot of money from the rumoured $120 million budget must have been spent on these scenes but there is no tension or real excitement in any of them. Because there are several races in the film there are various other competitor drivers. Most of them are either cardboard villain types or in the case of fellow car racer Taejo Toyokhan, as played by Rain, a pop star most famous in Asia, this film is used to create a career for him in Hollywood. Rain's first scene, where is being beaten and threatened to be fed to Piranhas by a Reggie Kray type East end villain, is very out of place in what is essentially a film for young children.
"Speed Racer" sadly is a film where it can be said that, "Video Games Killed the Movie Star". The Playstation type graphics constantly overshadow the whole film, the actors no matter how good they can be, (Hirsch, Sarandon) have no choice but to do their scenes and look pretty. Speed, himself should be at the centre of the story but often seems to be a supporting actor. As an example, in the scene where Royalton visits the Racer family and put the main part of the plot in place, Mom and Pops are centre camera while Speed stands in the background.
The end of the film leaves the story wide open for a sequel but as more than one reviewer has said where can Speed go from here? "Speed Racer" doesn't deserve to be the flop it will be but the USA summer box office is more competitive every year. If a movie fails after it's first weekend, it never has the chance to regain it's losses as each Friday a new film comes out that pushes the others onto fewer and smaller multiplex screens. When I went to see it today, Wednesday, there were only 10 other people in the cinema. To date, "Speed Racer" has made $30 million in the USA. "Iron Man", the film every new movie this summer, will now have to compete against, has made $226 million.
The "Speed Racer" website is here.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Presets

My favourite music charts, in the world, has to be the Australian singles chart . The ARIA singles chart is fantastic as it consists of various different genres of music and there is consistently a strong emphasis on pop, Australian artists and the best of America's Billboard Hot 100 chart. The current number one on the ARIA chart is Madonna with Justin and Timbaland too! with "4 minutes". But elsewhere is everything from Rihanna ("Take a Bow", "Don't Stop The Music") to novelty ("Psycho Teddy") to Irish (Brian McFadden's "Like Only a Woman Can") and blasts from the pop past (Vanessa Amorossi with "Perfect", remember "Absolutely Everybody", the best pop song EVER at the time in 1999, a hit in 2000). Further down the chart at number 41 is one of the most amazing songs I've heard this year. It's by The Presets and the song is "This Boy's in Love". This is no Burt Baccarach cover but more Thomas Dolby meets John Lydon's P.I.L. meets Depeche Mode. In other words there is a very strong but brilliant 80's electronic influence. "This Boy's In love" is taken from the band's number one second album "Apocalypso". In December 2007, The Presets released "My People", as "Acocalypso"'s first single release and it got to number 19 on the ARIA singles chart. The video for that song is also below. "My People" was written by Julian Hamilton and is about the boat people who arrive on Australian shores and how that country's population and government treats them. More about the song here Both videos are powerful, the best I've seen since Gotye's "Heart's a Mess" last year. The Presets are a Sydney based duo consisting of Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes and were formed in 2003. Their debut album "Beams" was released in 2005. The Presets website is right here. There are currently 17 singles by Australian artists in the ARIA Top 50 singles chart, of which The Presets have two. Well established artists like Kylie Minogue, Delta Goodrem and The Veronicas all have had several hit singles from their most recent albums in the chart over the past few months but there are newer artists like Axle Whitehead and The Galvatrons also in this week's chart. The most recent chart topper was Gabriella Cilmi with "Sweet About Me", which is also doing well in Europe; number 20 in the UK this week. Each week, songs by Australian artists are highlighted (by a little red dot) as you read the chart and it's great to see a record industry promoting their own and celebrating all types of music. The Australian ARIA charts can be found here. Thanks to Connell for drawing my attention to them last year.