Oct 26 2012

Review: Frankenweenie

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 11:44 am

As a filmmaker, Tim Burton is truly a strange creature. On one hand, he is unquestionably a director in the auteur tradition, shepherding projects that reflect his personal obsessions with misunderstood characters, classic horror and American suburbia (see: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Dark Shadows, Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow). On the other hand he’s also a blockbuster director-for-hire, willing to put his visual stamp on screenplays of varying quality (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes).

When he’s on fire, Burton is capable of crafting unforgettable movies that will send chills down your spine; but when he misfires, it results in a soulless celluloid stillbirth covered with his kooky glitter. And over the last ten years, there’s been a lot of wasted glitter. You could even argue that he’s not made a great film this century! But with this new animated feature, will Burton finally break his duck?

You know what? It very well could.

Adapted from his 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie feels out of place with Burton’s recent works, occasionally striking a similar tone to Edward Scissorhands (and that’s not a bad thing at all).

Young Victor Frankenstein (no relation) is a budding film-maker living in a suburban town. A shy boy, Victor has few friends beside his dog Sparky, which makes it all the much harder for him when the beloved pooch is killed in an accident. Grief-stricken and inconsolable, Victor is inspired by his science teacher to harness the power of lightning to bring Sparky back from the dead. Borrowing his mother’s kitchen appliances and employing a couple of kites, he’s able to turn his suburban attic into a makeshift laboratory and revive his best friend against the wishes of God.

Burton packs in a load of references to early horror films from Dracula to Gamera (Burton-regular Christopher Lee appears in the form of archive footage from Horror of Dracula on the TV). Even Victor’s classmates all look like students from Transylvania High. Considering the film’s target audience is probably around 12 years old, its reference to old films and use of black-and-white is something that’s incredibly bold. It’s almost like we’re back in the 80s, when family films weren’t afraid of being a bit frightening and dealing with heavy issues like isolation and death.

The voice casting sees Burton reunite with many actors with whom he hasn’t collaborated since the 80s and 90s. We’ve got Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice as Victor’s mother and classmate; Martin Landau from Ed Wood as his science teacher; and Martin Short (from Mars Attacks) in a number of roles including the town’s corpulent mayor. One notable omission from the cast, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is Johnny Depp. We went into our Burton/Depp theory with last week’s Dark Shadows review (which you can see here), so we won’t go into any detail here. Let us just say that there’s definitely a direct correlation between the quality of Burton’s films and the amount of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter featured therein.

There isn’t much in Burton’s original short that hasn’t made its way into this full-length version, down to the framing of individual shots; which explains why this film feels like a throwback (in a good way). The director is working in a world intimately familiar to him and it shows: the broad camp he brought to Dark Shadows is gone, as is the icy-cold detachment of Sweeney Todd. In their place, there’s the warmth that defines the finest of his films. According to rottentomatoes, this is his most critically praised directorial effort since Ed Wood and we can only echo their sentiments. Frankenweenie sees Tim Burton back at his best – let’s just hope he can keep it up.


Oct 22 2012

Review: Men in Black III

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 9:58 am

It’s been a while, but everyone’s favourite clandestine government agents are back for a third film! In case you haven’t been keeping track, it’s been ten years since Men in Black 2 stunk up the cinemas, leaving audiences baffled and angry. MiB2 was bereft of the wit and invention of the original,  instead treating audiences to more Frank the Pug and disgusting Worm People. Ignoring the need for a decent story, it was more concerned with upping the number of celebrity cameos – the worst of which was Michael Jackson’s (“Zed! Zed! Please! I could be Agent M!”). Fan reaction could not have been worse if George Lucas had inserted Jar Jar Binks and a gang of Ewoks into Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, the fallout of MIB2 meant that a lot of time had to pass before anyone could return to the franchise.

And with Men in Black 3, they have made a significant improvement on the second. Apart from Agents Jay and Kay (the returning Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones), there are no residual characters from the earlier films. The story finds Earth in a whole load of trouble when an intergalactic criminal called Boris the Animal escapes from Moon prison, travels to the past and kills Jones in 1969. As we know from all the time travel movies we’ve seen, this can only result in bad things: Jones doesn’t survive into the events of the first film and Smith never ends up being his partner. In fact, no-one in the agency even remembers him, with the exception of the new boss, Agent O — played by Smith’s I am Legend co-star Emma Thompson (is something going on that we should know about?).

To set things right and save his partner, Smith has no choice but to hop in the proverbial DeLorean and shake things up in the 60s, Big Willy Style.

Now, the time-travel plot device is not exactly new to the world of comedy sequels. You may recall Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me having a pretty similar storyline. In MIB3, the time-hopping story allows for all sorts of fun shenanigans to take place. First and foremost, the best thing about this film is Josh Brolin. Playing the young 1969 version of Agent K, Brolin does an eerily accurate impression of Tommy Lee Jones’ super laconic Texan drawl. It’s a performance so good that threatens to wipe Will Smith straight off the screen.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld and production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice) also have a great time elaborating on the MIB universe, creating a version of the agency in the 1960s complete with mini-skirts and enormous jet-age style machines: we discover that the original model of the mind-wiping neuralyzer resembles an MRI machine crossed with a centrifuge. The film also keeps in with the running gag that all celebrities are in fact aliens, including a trip to Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, where we learn the truth about the New York art scene!

Sci-Fi purists may bristle at the rather vague time travel implications; Smith seems easily able to vaporise aliens and interact with people from the 60s without threatening his own future. As the character charged with explaining the intricacies of time and space in the MIB universe, Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire) is an alien who can apparently perceive events from the all possible pasts and all possible futures. From a plot perspective, Stuhlbarg serves little purpose other than giving the agents an item they need, but his flashback-sequences-of-sorts are one of the films many new additions that work out.

As much as they’ve improved things since the MIB2 debacle, there are still things in this film that don’t work so well. Jemaine Clement’s turn as an alien bruiser is once sticking point that springs to mind. The make-up effects used on him are pretty terrifying, but his performance is really stilted and self-conscious, like a primary school science teacher playing Captain Hook in a community theatre Panto. And also, is it just me or has Will Smith lost a step? Maybe it’s because he isn’t playing the rookie anymore, but he’s a much more subdued presence in this film than he was the earlier entries. Maybe it’s his age, or maybe he’s finally grown tired of his wise-cracking Fresh Prince persona or maybe it just the fact that Brolin is so good that Smith is relegated to playing second fiddle.

This is a totally solid entry of a blockbuster franchise that is parsecs better than the execrable MIB2. It’s made -as they call it- boffo box office, taking in over $600million worldwide, which would suggest that we might be seeing more black suits coming at us before too long. But should they really make another one? As decent as MIB3 is, it has a pretty slight story that’s less of an essential sequel than it is an excuse for another joyride through the movie’s universe. It has a lot of great performances and plenty of novel, but it’s far from being essential viewing. Let’s put it this way: it’s perfect for a casual movie night, but you probably won’t be showing it to your grand kids in the year 2050.

For more blinkbox reviews, return to the blinkblog


Oct 16 2012

London Film Festival 2012 – Highlights

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 4:36 pm

If you’re a sophisticated cineaste living within the M25 (like we are) then chances are the BFI London Film Festival features pretty prominently in your events calendar. Now in its 56th year, no-one would argue that the LFF is one of the world’s most prominent film festivals. From an industry perspective, it’s not like Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Sundance, where the worlds’ most leading art film makers debut their new works.  Wong Kar-Wai or the Coen Brothers would no sooner enter their film into London’s main competition over those other festivals we mentioned. But by virtue of the fact that it’s not a keystone event for the film industry that it always ends up really being a terrifically well-curated festival designed with film fans in mind.

This year, the programme includes a number of World, UK and European premieres including acclaimed documentaries, comedies and dramas; a number of Sundance favourites as well as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or. In this article, we could tell you about the gala premieres enjoyed by big studio films like Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie or Mike Newell’s take on Great Expectations but we won’t.  Instead, we’re going to give you a run-down of the films that will likely be making their way to your local art-house cinema over the next year.

Compliance (USA) dir. Craig ZobelA film that proved too challenging for many audience members on its US release, Compliance asks its audience a lot of tough questions, the answers to which might shock us were we to answer honestly. In the very first scene, the manager of a small town fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd) is already having a pretty challenging day: she’s short staffed and a lot of her produce has been spoilt by a mistake the night before. When a man phones up the back office claiming to be from the police, Dowd does her best to deal with the situation. The man claims that one of her employees, a teenage girl (Dreama Walker), has been caught on camera stealing money from a customer and that Dowd needs to keep her detained in the back room until an officer can come down. Under his instructions, Walker has her phone and bag taken away — and eventually her clothes. It’s no secret that the film gets darker, as every other restaurant employee brought into this ‘interrogation’ seems to comply -in varying degrees- with the man’s orders.

At some point, audience credulity will be stretched to breaking point: how could anyone believe that a real cop would instruct a stranger to conduct a strip search? How could anybody do this to someone they know? It would be totally unbelievable… had it not actually happened in real life. In fact, similar incidences have occurred over 70 times in the US, according the film’s post script.

At times, Compliance is incredibly tough to stomach, in no small part due to director Craig Zobel’s economical script and the cast’s incredibly believable performances. More terrifying than most horror films we’ve seen, Compliance peels back some ugly layers on the human condition, confirming what normal decent people are capable of doing when they’re merely ‘following orders’.

Doomsday Book (S. Korea) dir. Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Ji-woonA collaborative project between two of South Korea’s most prominent genre film-makers, Doomsday Book is a delightful anthology of short films about the end of humanity. In Yim’s first entry, Brave New World, an awkward research assistant inadvertently ignites the zombie apocalypse when he throws out a fetid apple (it kinda makes sense in the film). I think it’s supposed to be a sly reference to an apple banishing Adam and Eve from Paradise but, whatever. It feels like the first act of a decent zombie film with a hurried second and third act tacked on. Still, Yim manages to keep the action fun with a number of funny character details including the researcher’s awful bourgeois family and his blind date with a girl who likes to capture every moment on her camera phone.

The second film comes from Kim (I Saw the Devil, The Good, The Bad and The Weird) and is set in a future where robots are a part of everyday life. When an order of Buddhist monks announces that one of their androids is in fact the incarnation of Buddha, the unit’s manufacturer gets pretty concerned. Consider the implications: if robots can do everything better than us, at what point do we become obsolete? A robot deity is probably a symptom of the human decline. This is indeed a beautifully made episode, even if its spiritual musings often flew over our heads. I suspect it would play better to an audience more familiar with Buddhist teachings.

Last of all is Happy Birthday, by far the wackiest of the three films. When a young girl accidentally breaks her billiards-obsessed dad’s prized 8-ball, she orders a replacement from a strange website. You can imagine her surprise when she finds the ball is in fact 10km wide and hurtling towards Earth. The world goes into a panic – we watch Korean news anchors count down their final hours on Earth: the weather girl is pretty psyched to be on TV but the co-anchor isn’t taking imminent extinction too well. The young girl and her family take refuge in an underground bunker and discover that they might be able to do something to stop the ball’s delivery before it’s too late. This entry deeply enjoyable, but strange in a distinctly Korean way. To put it in a way the public might understand: it’s like a slightly understated, 30 minute version of the Gangnam Style video.

All three of the shorts function well on their own but as a single feature, they lack the kind of thematic cohesion that would mark this out as a must see. Like with any anthology film, no matter how good, at some point you’ll find yourself checking your watch to see how much more there is to go. When the credits finally roll, there’s almost a sense of relief when you realise there isn’t another movie to come.

Amour (France/Germany/Austria) dir. Michael HanekeMichael Haneke, the peerless master of European cinema returns with perhaps his most affecting film yet. Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colours: Red) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) are a married couple in their 80s. Formerly piano teachers, they enjoy the spoils of retirement: reading books, drinking wine and attending concerts starring their former pupils. They’re living the kind of golden years you often see in insurance ads… that is until tragedy strikes. Riva is hit by a series of strokes and attacks, causing her health to deteriorate slowly but surely. Her condition robs her and her husband of their old lives. He looks after her the best he can, but even his best cannot stop his wife’s decline. It’s a really rough subject matter but Haneke handles it with sensitivity, framing scenes intimately, with great economy and a light touch.

The film takes place almost within their Parisian home, a lovely period flat that seems wonderful and luxurious at first, but soon becomes a prison for them both. The lead actors are absolutely heartbreaking, crafting two physical-taxing performances despite being well into their 80s. Amour really takes its audience through the wringer, balancing sentiment and emotion with moments of clarity and dry humour. Haneke deserves all the accolades he has received for this film: it’s undeniably great.

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia/Germany) dir. Haifaa Al-MansourThe first film ever to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, director Haifaa Al Mansour’s achievement is made all the more impressive by the fact that she is a Saudi woman. In a country where women still have to remain covered in the presence of men; she had to direct many of the street scenes from her production van via walkie-talkie. The film tells the story of a 12 year-old girl in the capital city of Riyadh: she lives with her mother and (largely absent) father in what looks like a fairly comfortable middle-class home. She’s sharp, rebellious and incredibly enterprising (she sells friendship bracelets that she makes at home and haggles with a classmate who asks Wadjda to deliver a letter to her boyfriend). We follow her quest to buy a new bike, something that sees her entering a Qur’an competition just so she can win the cash prize.

we see her at home and at school, where she’s witness to the kind of limitations placed on women in Saudi culture: because she isn’t permitted to drive, Wadjda’s mother relies on drivers to take her to work; when Wadjda’s school headmistress spot some men working on a distant roof, all the girls on their lunch break are forced to move inside. Although we get the impression that her father might be a nice guy, there’s an under-riding suggestion he might be forced to remarry because his wife cannot bear him a son.

Truly, women get a pretty terrible ride in Saudi Arabia but Al-Mansour’s film is never despairing or depressing. For all the knock-backs that Wadjda and her mother face, this is a warm and funny film that doesn’t pity its characters. It’s both enormously entertaining and hugely important, giving us an insight into a modern culture that we rarely see on-screen. This is truly an excellent family film that deserves to be seen when it’s released here in the UK. Seek it out, film fans!

Zaytoun (UK/Israel) dir. Eran RiklisAlthough its set during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese War, we see that there’s a third party caught in the conflict: the Palestinian refugees in Beirut. The Israelis have evicted them from their homes on the West Bank and they’re treated like dogs by their Lebanese hosts, some of whom seem to shoot Palestinian kids on a whim. Children like Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) are drafted into a ramshackle militia-of-sorts and told that one day, they will retake their homeland by force. But when the militia capture an Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff), Fahed sees an opportunity. In exchange for springing him from his cell and smuggling him to the Israeli border, Dorff agrees to take Fahed to his family home. What happens next is essentially the second act of a road trip movie, kind of like a middle-eastern Midnight Run, with the boy and the pilot learning that they are perhaps not so different after all! As their relationship develops, director Eran Riklis often hits upon buddy movie clichés that feel at odds with the charged political context of the story. The performances are strong, especially from the young lead but the anger of the opening act gives way to too many sentimental moments, compromising the powerful ending that Riklis is obviously aiming for.

Sister (Switzerland/France) dir. Ursula MeierTwelve year-old Simon lives with his sister (Léa Seydoux) in a run-down industrial town below a fancy ski resort. His sister seems to have trouble keeping jobs and steady boyfriends, so Simon earns some money on the mountain, stealing skis and ski-gear from rich tourists and fencing them in town. Meier does an excellent job contrasting the two worlds: affluent families enjoy themselves on the slopes while Simon hides in a toilet cubicle, eating swiped sandwiches and rummaging through his pilfered goods. It’s a pretty solitary existence, punctuated by lonely gondola rides back home. He has one friend, if you can call him that: a Scottish cook (Martin Compston) who buys his stolen skis. He tries to form a bond with a rich British woman (Gillian Anderson) on the slopes but their strained interaction ends uncomfortably when he insists on paying for her food. But even if Simon did manage to connect with any of them, it would hardly matter: come the end of the season, everybody leaves. Simon’s sister, for all her flaws, is all he has.

This could very easily have been a miserablist story about the haves and have-nots of the world, but Meier has instead taken a very compassionate, almost Dickensian approach to Simon’s character, revealing a brazen, confident young man in search of something he can’t seem to find. It’s an immensely well-made film that confirms Meier’s standing as a talent to watch for.

In the House (France) dir. François OzonArt House darling François Ozon follows up his broad 2010 comedy Potiche with darkly comic meditation on the art of writing. Snobbish High School literature teacher Fabrice Luchini is one of those educators who have long since given up on making a difference. The school administration has just implemented a new uniform policy that designed to ‘change the culture’ but Luchini has taught for long enough to know that it’s not the case: when given the assignment of writing about their weekends, most of his pupils submit two-line essays, mostly along the lines of ‘ate pizza, watched TV’. The only exception is Claude, the boy in the last row.

Claude has written an elegant confession, detailing his budding friendship with classmate Rapha; a relationship entirely predicated on a fascination with his family. Luchini probably knows that he shouldn’t encourage Claude’s borderline sociopathic behaviour, but he’s intrigued by the boy’s talent. Claude continues chronicling his experiences with Rapha’s family -–his obsession with the mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), his disdain for the father– while his teacher continues commenting on it as though it were prose exercises. And as Luchini points out to him, we as the audience/reader have started to question his writing: Do his essays actually reveal the truth of Rapha’s family? Which parts are more a reflection on its author, or indeed its intended reader? We’re really not doing the film justice with this explanation, but it tackles this lofty concept well, balance its more cerebral elements with streaks of black humour and middle class satire.

Ozon keeps us guessing what kind of film this will end up being: is it a comedy or perhaps a domestic thriller (let’s just put it like this: young Ernst Umhauer could easily play the title role in a French remake of We Need to Talk about Kevin)? It really is something special that a movie  about writing can turn out to be so tense! But the end of the day, In the House is a film that works better on an intellectual level than on an emotional one. For some viewers, this may leave them feeling cold but for others, it might be the kind of daring film-making they’ve been looking for.

*On a bit of a side note, Kristin Scott Thomas also stars as Luchini’s wife, the curator of a gallery that seemingly caters to the worst excesses of modern art schools. It’s no coincidence that she mainly appears in French films these days – English language films these days don’t provide many great roles for les femmes d’un certain age. British films really wouldn’t know what to do with actresses over 40, apart from making them the mother or the crazy aunt.


Oct 16 2012

London Film Festival 2012: Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 3:11 pm

The first film ever to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, director Haifaa Al Mansour’s achievement is made all the more impressive by the fact that she is a Saudi woman.

In a country where women still have to remain covered in the presence of men; she had to direct many of the street scenes from her production van via walkie-talkie.

The film tells the story of a 12 year-old girl in the capital city of Riyadh: she lives with her mother and (largely absent) father in what looks like a fairly comfortable middle-class home. She’s sharp, rebellious and incredibly enterprising (she sells friendship bracelets that she makes at home and haggles with a classmate who asks Wadjda to deliver a letter to her boyfriend). We follow her quest to buy a new bike, something that sees her entering a Qur’an competition just so she can win the cash prize.

we see her at home and at school, where she’s witness to the kind of limitations placed on women in Saudi culture: because she isn’t permitted to drive, Wadjda’s mother relies on drivers to take her to work; when Wadjda’s school headmistress spot some men working on a distant roof, all the girls on their lunch break are forced to move inside. Although we get the impression that her father might be a nice guy, there’s an under-riding suggestion he might be forced to remarry because his wife cannot bear him a son.

Truly, women get a pretty terrible ride in Saudi Arabia but Al-Mansour’s film is never despairing or depressing. For all the knock-backs that Wadjda and her mother face, this is a warm and funny film that doesn’t pity its characters. It’s both enormously entertaining and hugely important, giving us an insight into a modern culture that we rarely see on-screen. This is truly an excellent family film that deserves to be seen when it’s released here in the UK. Seek it out, film fans!


Oct 14 2012

London Film Festival 2012: Compliance (USA) dir. Craig Zobel

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 1:02 pm

A film that proved too challenging for many audience members on its US release, Compliance asks its audience a lot of tough questions, the answers to which might shock us were we to answer honestly.

In the very first scene, the manager of a small town fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd) is already having a pretty challenging day: she’s short staffed and a lot of her produce has been spoilt by a mistake the night before. When a man phones up the back office claiming to be from the police, Dowd does her best to deal with the situation. The man claims that one of her employees, a teenage girl (Dreama Walker), has been caught on camera stealing money from a customer and that Dowd needs to keep her detained in the back room until an officer can come down. Under his instructions, Walker has her phone and bag taken away — and eventually her clothes.

It’s no secret that the film gets darker, as every other restaurant employee brought into this ‘interrogation’ seems to comply -in varying degrees- with the man’s orders.

At some point, audience credulity will be stretched to breaking point: how could anyone believe that a real cop would instruct a stranger to conduct a strip search? How could anybody do this to someone they know? It would be totally unbelievable… had it not actually happened in real life. In fact, similar incidences have occurred over 70 times in the US, according the film’s post script.

At times, Compliance is incredibly tough to stomach, in no small part due to director Craig Zobel’s economical script and the cast’s incredibly believable performances. More terrifying than most horror films we’ve seen, Compliance peels back some ugly layers on the human condition, confirming what normal decent people are capable of doing when they’re merely ‘following orders’.


Oct 13 2012

London Film Festival 2012: Doomsday Book (S. Korea) dir. Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Ji-woon

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 1:07 pm

A collaborative project between two of South Korea’s most prominent genre film-makers, Doomsday Book is a delightful anthology of short films about the end of humanity. In Yim’s first entry, Brave New World, an awkward research assistant inadvertently ignites the zombie apocalypse when he throws out a fetid apple (it kinda makes sense in the film). I think it’s supposed to be a sly reference to an apple banishing Adam and Eve from Paradise but, whatever. It feels like the first act of a decent zombie film with a hurried second and third act tacked on. Still, Yim manages to keep the action fun with a number of funny character details including the researcher’s awful bourgeois family and his blind date with a girl who likes to capture every moment on her camera phone.

The second film comes from Kim (I Saw the Devil, The Good, The Bad and The Weird) and is set in a future where robots are a part of everyday life. When an order of Buddhist monks announces that one of their androids is in fact the incarnation of Buddha, the unit’s manufacturer gets pretty concerned. Consider the implications: if robots can do everything better than us, at what point do we become obsolete? A robot deity is probably a symptom of the human decline. This is indeed a beautifully made episode, even if its spiritual musings often flew over our heads. I suspect it would play better to an audience more familiar with Buddhist teachings.

Last of all is Happy Birthday, by far the wackiest of the three films.

When a young girl accidentally breaks her billiards-obsessed dad’s prized 8-ball, she orders a replacement from a strange website. You can imagine her surprise when she finds the ball is in fact 10km wide and hurtling towards Earth. The world goes into a panic – we watch Korean news anchors count down their final hours on Earth: the weather girl is pretty psyched to be on TV but the co-anchor isn’t taking imminent extinction too well. The young girl and her family take refuge in an underground bunker and discover that they might be able to do something to stop the ball’s delivery before it’s too late. This entry deeply enjoyable, but strange in a distinctly Korean way. To put it in a way the public might understand: it’s like a slightly understated, 30 minute version of the Gangnam Style video.

All three of the shorts function well on their own but as a single feature, they lack the kind of thematic cohesion that would mark this out as a must see. Like with any anthology film, no matter how good, at some point you’ll find yourself checking your watch to see how much more there is to go. When the credits finally roll, there’s almost a sense of relief when you realise there isn’t another movie to come.


Oct 12 2012

More American Pie: The Direct-to-Video Sequels!

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 11:34 am

It’s been 13 years since the gang from East Great Falls High School first hit the screens in the teen sex comedy American Pie. Sometimes awkward, occasionally raunchy and often hilarious, the film followed the misadventures of five teenagers who resolve to lose their virginity before Senior Prom. The main cast were likable and relatable, from sensitive jock Oz (Chris Klein) all the way through to awkward Jim (Jason Biggs) and his pie desecrating antics. The 2001 sequel saw the gang taking a vacation after their first year of college while 2003’s American Wedding centred on the nuptials of Jim and his band camp-attending paramour, Michelle.

And then in 2012, American Reunion brought us back to East Great Falls, letting us see how the characters had evolved, now that they were in their 30s.

But if you think the American Pie factory was lying idle for the six years between Wedding and Reunion, think again! In that span of time, they managed to make four entire spin-off films for the Direct-to-Video market. That’s right: four! They might not feature the original cast or possess anywhere near the production values of the theatrical series, but they all contain scenes designed with hardcore fans in mind: for one, the always excellent Eugene Levy turns up as Jim’s Dad in each one, dispensing awkward sexual advice to whosoever needs it.

But before you start splashing out your hard earned cash for another slice of American Pie, let’s take a look at each of them and find out which ones are made of delicious Granny Smiths and which ones are filled with disgusting yellow turds.

American Pie Presents: Band Camp (2005) – Rated 15
A (mostly) new cast turns up for this first DTV spin-off that focuses on Matt Stifler (Tad Hilgenbrinck), the younger brother of Seann William Scott’s character from the originals. As an aspiring Girls Gone Wild-style videographer, Matt is a real chip off the old block. When a prank he plays on the school marching band goes wrong, the school counselor (Shermanator from the original AP) dispenses justice by forcing him to attend the titular band camp over his summer vacation.


Now, far be it for me to criticize Shermanator’s ability as a disciplinarian, but sending someone to a summer camp attended exclusively by hot babes is not my idea of a suitable punishment. Needless to say, once Stifler II gets there, he’s back to his old tricks, setting up hidden cameras in the girls’ showers and playing disgusting pranks for his own personal edification. Stifler II is pretty much a faded carbon copy of Seann William Scott’s original, even down to his use of the same insults and his identical laugh.. The quality of the writing and acting doesn’t really hold up to the standard of the theatrical films, although it really picks up when Eugene Levy turns up as Jim’s Dad. That man can make even the cruddiest dialogue funny!

Jim’s Dad appears as… the camp’s Morale and Conflict Resolution Officer (or MACRO). As he swiftly explains, his daughter in-law (Alysson Hannigan’s character) was the regular MACRO but had to be somewhere else – which explains why he’s there. When Stifler II gets caught in a compromising position with a woodwind instrument, Jim’s Dad counsels him by recounting Jim’s famous incident with a pie. And I thought they weren’t supposed to tell anyone about it!

Embarrassing incident: After covering all the band instruments with pepper spray, Stifler II accidentally gets some of it on his nether regions. This leads to a sequence of events that ends in the entire school assembly seeing him wash his business in a water fountain.

Trivia: The director of photography’s previous credits includes classics like The Candidate, Dog Day Afternoon, Slap Shot and Beethoven. Having spent the bulk of his career lighting stars like Al Pacino, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, one can only wonder what went through his mind the moment he realised he was filming a teenage boy ejaculating comically into an oboe.
Rating*:

American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006) – Rated 18
If there’s one thing that the producers of the American Pie direct-to-video movies learned from the first film, it’s this: you can never have too many boobies. The Naked Mile (aka American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile, aka APP:TNM) cannot be accused of skimping on the nudity. Having dispensed with all the characters from Band Camp (aka APP:BC), we are introduced to Stifler’s cousin: Erik Stifler. Stifler III isn’t like the rest of his family, though: he’s a sensitive kid who’s in a committed relationship with his unfortunately chaste girlfriend. To let him blow off some steam, she gives Stifler III a ‘hall pass’ for the weekend so that he can go up to a local college town and participate in the titular ‘naked mile’, a loosely defined event that involves hot babes running through the street naked.

As you can see from the trailer, Naked Mile makes up for nice-guy Stifler III’s lack of douchiness by teaming him up with two pals who behave like sex-crazed bonobos. On top of that, once they turn up at the college, they meet up with another Stifler cousin, Dwight Stifler aka The Stifmeister aka Stifler IV. He takes the boys under his wing, exposing them to under-aged drinking and casual sex with college girls of questionable repute. He also drags them into a blood feud with a dwarf fraternity.

Jim’s Dad appears as… former Beta House alumnus and Naked Mile Master of Ceremonies. As it turns out, Jim’s dad returns to his Alma Mater every year. He gives the kids some advice about sex and girls, alluding to Jim’s pie-porking incident once again: Jim’s dad seemingly does not understand the meaning of discretion.

Embarrassing incidents: This film is much filthier than any of the other AP movies: there is an entire sting of visual gags ignited by a Viagra-related accident, culminated in a group of girls getting splashed by something that is definitely not beer. In the very first scene, Stifler III’s family walk in on him furiously conducting the one-man symphony. We don’t want to get into graphic details but let us just say that his elderly grandmother comes to a sticky end. Remember, this movie was given an 18 Certificate by the BBFC and it totally earns it.

Trivia: The de facto leader of Midget House is played by Jordan Prentice, who you may remember as the racist dwarf from In Bruges!

Rating*:

American Pie Presents: Beta House (2007) – Rated 18
A direct sequel to Naked Mile, we follow the continuing adventures of Stifler III and his pal ‘Cooze’ as they become college freshmen and pledges of Beta House, the party frat where Stifler IV still rules the roost.

This entry of the series is a much more focused affair than Beta House, taking direct inspiration from cult classics like Animal House, Old School and Revenge of the Nerds. Acknowledging that nerds are no longer the poor, maligned minority they were in the 80s, Beta House’s main rivals are a well-funded fraternity populated by  entrepreneurial geeks and gold-digging babes looking to bag a rich husband.

In order to join Beta House, Stifler III and the new pledges are given a list of tasks to complete. Most of these challenges are of a debauched nature, leading to a pretty bawdy second act. We learn that the Beta House charter largely involves bedding girls with high skirts and low self-esteem. Were we to look at this film from a feminist perspective, we would come to the conclusion that girls in this movie aren’t so much objectified as they are objects. Hopefully it’s becoming apparent to you that these movies are not suitable for movie night with your girlfriend. When the movie slows down and gives the boner gags a break, it normally segues into romantic scenes with the kind of super-soft focus and cheesy music that’ll make you think you’re watching a late-night movie on Channel Five.

But from a purely story structure perspective, this is the strongest of the spin-offs thus far!

Jim’s Dad appears as… the man chosen to officiate the climactic ‘Greek Olympiad’ between Geek House and the Sex House Beta House. In every one of these movies, Jim’s Dad seems to turn up at sex-based events all flustered and embarrassed, leaving us with the impression that he’d do literally anything to avoid spending time with his wife.

Embarrassing incidents: The obsession with reproductive liquids continues! After a disastrous first date in which his lap is burned by hot soup, Stifler III’s first date offers to apply some lotion on the affected area. However, in classic fashion, this results in his over-excitement! In fact, this trope gets a decent airing in Beta House. By the time we hit the 35 minute mark, we’ve seen him achieve release no fewer than four times!

Trivia: Beta House features an un-credited performance by Sima Fisher as ‘Fighting Blonde Stripper’. You may recognise her as ‘Dancer’ in Max Payne, ‘Cheering Stripper’ in The Love Guru, ‘Redhead Seductress’ in Death Warrior and ‘Acquaintance’ in Casino Jack.
Rating*:

 

American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (2009) – Rate 18
Ditching nearly every character from the previous AP films, Book of Love goes back to the basics to deliver the strongest of the direct-to-video American Pies. As with the original, the story follows a group of hapless high school virgins as they try to gain admission to the pants party. When one of them discovers an instructional guide to getting with ladies (previously featured in American Pie 1), the three of them think they’ve hit the jackpot!

As you can see, there are a lot of call-backs to the original trilogy: there are the house parties, the awkward adults, a foodstuff-related tryst and the emergence of another Stifler (Stifler V).

The lead actors are somewhat lacklustre, in particular Brandon Hardesty, whose singular talent seems to be his resemblance to Jonah Hill. The supporting cast, however, is very strong for such a modestly budgeted film: Eugene Levy returns once more, joined by 2 Broke GirlsBeth Behrs, Rosanna Arquette and Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds). The soundtrack is also packed with hit songs from artists like Katy Perry and Elliot Smith!

Fans of topless girls need not fret: there is a house party sequence in the middle of the film that prominently features a wet t-shirt competition and a bit where our hero throws up on a sexy lady!

Jim’s Dad appears as… the originator of the Book of Love! When the book is damaged in an accident, the kids enlist him in their quest to track down all the book’s contributors in order to recreate this tome of knowledge! We also discover that he’s the owner of a local carpet warehouse!

Embarrassing incidents: Rob (the main guy) carnally re-purposes a peanut butter sandwich and the smell entices the family dog to get in on the action. This happens in the first scene, boys and girls! There’s also a scene involving a geriatric Canadian prostitute and another one in which Stifler V gets intimately violated by a moose. In real life, this kind of assault would’ve ended in significant internal trauma and certain death.

Trivia: Watch out for a string of cameos from veterans of High School/College films and TV shows. If you ever wondered what happened to Screech from Saved by the Bell after his unfortunate foray into home-made sex tapes, this is your opportunity!

Rating*:

Band Camp, The Naked Mile, Beta House and Book of Love are all available on blinkbox. Do not watch if you are: a progressive female, a minor or with your parents.

*Ratings out of 10


Oct 12 2012

Review: Dark Shadows

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 10:05 am

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have now made eight films together as director and star: interviews with both of them would suggest that they are kindred spirits, sharing the same baroque humour and attraction to strange, misunderstood characters. In Dark Shadows, an adaptation of a cult TV show from the late 60s, they have found a project that has let them indulge in their mutual love for campy old school horror.

Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy landowner in 18th century America who seduces the family’s maid (Eva Green) only to spurn her immediately. As it turns out, she’s a witch who ends up driving his true love to suicide, curses Depp to everlasting life as a vampire and -as a kicker- buries him alive until he’s accidentally unearthed almost 200 years later. Hell hath no fury, etc…

When he awakens in 1970s America, Depp has a lot of adjusting to do. He returns home to his family’s mansion on a hill (Burton’s films very often feature mansions on hills) and finds his descendants in residence. The new Collins clan is made up of matriarch Michelle Pfeiffer, her surly daughter Chloë Grace Moretz, her card of a brother Jonny Lee Miller, his ‘troubled’ son, their live-in psychiatrist Helena Bonham Carter -bien sûr- and the manor’s caretaker Jackie Earle Haley. It’s a pretty big cast for any film; and in any regular movie, it would be hard to keep track of the characters. But with Burton’s gift for bold designs, each character is dressed and coiffed in way that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about them.

Indeed, Dark Shadows has given Burton the opportunity to show off the talents he’s best known for. In the small fishing community of Collinsport, he’s created an off-kilter suburban cheese dream of a town: with its pastel-shaded building and perfect rows of pine trees, the design calls back to his work on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Every frame is designed to within an inch of its life and completely covered in their creator’s fingerprints.

But as much as you can credit Burton for the successes of this movie, you also have to attribute its weaknesses to him as well. As good as he is with design; Tim Burton has rarely excelled as a storyteller. In Dark Shadows, Burton plays with a bloated cast but is really unfocused as to whose story he’s telling. After the prologue in the 1700s, the action cuts to the 1970s where he focuses on the mysterious young governess as she’s introduced to the Collins family. She’s told again and again that her 10 year-old charge is a real handful and deeply troubled but when we finally meet the young boy, he seems deeply normal in comparison to his family of grotesques. On top of that, as soon as Johnny Depp rocks up on the scene, the governess storyline is pretty much abandoned and she merely serves as a perfunctory love interest for the vampire.

One of the main plots involves Depp’s efforts to restore his family name by rebuilding the Collins family fish cannery, which as it would turn out, is in direct competition with a business run by Eva Green (who has survived for centuries in Depp’s absence). On top of that, we have sub-plots that involve Johnny Lee Miller’s terrible parenting, the psychiatrist’s efforts to ‘cure’ Depp’s vampirism and Depp’s attempt to woo the governess. The components could very well have worked by themselves, but the structure for how they’re linked is a complete mess.

We have a developing theory here that Depp and Burton might actually exert a bad influence on each other, like co-dependent drug addicts. If you would indulge us a moment: as we saw in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp is always fantastic in supporting roles. His Jack Sparrow was used in just the right amount in that film, whereas the sequels upped the volume of Captain Jack and gave us too much of a good thing. In Burton’s films, the same thing applies: Depp is cast as a supporting character but somehow ends up as the lead. Example: Willy Wonka shouldn’t be and wasn’t meant to be the main character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I don’t recall the Mad Hatter being one of the protagonists in any other version of Alice in Wonderland. As a result, both of those films were maddeningly unfocused as they flitted between Depp’s performances and the stories of the actual heroes. In Dark Shadows, too many characters are given huge character arcs that don’t land because there simply isn’t enough screen time to go around.

We’re only being picky because we feel that Dark Shadows could so easily have been a Burton classic. There’s so much good stuff going for this film: its popping visual style, talented cast and groovy 70s soundtrack; Johnny Depp is a complete ham but genuinely funny at playing this grandiose man out time; and Burton has created an unforgettable world as only he can. It’s such a shame that he has real trouble telling great stories within them. Dark Shadows is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just oh-so-slightly disappointing.

For more blinkbox reviews, return to the blinkblog


Oct 04 2012

Review: Looper

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 3:07 pm

At some point in most time travel movies, the characters will stop to discuss the mechanics of time travel and throw around terms like ‘time-space continuum’ and ‘temporal anomalies’. In one of Looper’s central scenes, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) starts asking his older self (Bruce Willis) about time travel only to have that line of conversation shut down: “we’ll be sitting here all day making diagrams with straws.” But the actual nature of time travel in Looper is deceptively simple and terrifically original.

As explained by Joe’s opening narration, time travel has been invented in the future and quickly outlawed by a government fearful of the possibilities. In the year 2074, the few remaining time machines are controlled by gangsters who use them to secretly dispose of bodies. The marks are hooded and sent back in time to 2044 where they’re met by ‘loopers’, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to the back of the victims. Joe is one such killer, whose light workload and sizable compensation has led to a hedonistic lifestyle complete with snazzy ‘retro’ clothes, flash cars, drugs and hookers.

This job, however, comes with one major caveat: when the bosses want to close a looper’s contract, they’ll send his older self back to be killed without warning. It’s something they call ‘closing the loop’. But when Willis’ old Joe arrives without a bag on his head, young Joe hesitates momentarily, allowing himself time to escape. Are you still with us? Honestly, it’s a lot simpler when you see it on screen. Willis looks to be on a mission to change some event in the future, while Gordon-Levitt has to now find a way to kill his older self before his employers catch up with him.

There’s been a lot of chat about the facial prosthetic used to make Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis. On one hand, we know what a young Bruce Willis looks like: we’ve all seen Moonlighting! The make-up artists have reshaped his nose, chin and eyebrows and the final effect is rather jarring. But after about fifteen minutes, you really start to forget about the make-up. Through his performance, Gordon-Levitt manages to bring the same sense of weariness and wry humour that defines the standard Bruce Willis character. It’s been a hell of a year for you if you’re name is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s had three movies come out in as many months with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic still to come this winter. With the diversity of roles he’s taken over the last few years, he’s managed to morph himself from a sitcom child actor into a proper grown up film star in tremendous style.

Writer-director Rian Johnson, who made his name with the high school indie-noir Brick once again shows his talent for infusing scripts with small details and character choices that really colour his world: Garret Dillahunt turns up at one point as a mob enforcer who we sense might actually be a nice guy; Jeff Daniels plays a despairing mob lieutenant from the future who’s been sent back to run the whole programme but would rather be doing anything else. Every little character seems to subvert expectations slightly and as a result, the people and the world of Looper feel properly fleshed out.

But (as it should be), the central conflict between the two Joes proves to be the central point of the film. They don’t share a significant amount of screen time, but they do play a complex game of cat and mouse, even as the younger Joe starts to have something of an ethical awakening. When faced with it, can he really bring himself to kill someone that he knows intimately (himself)?

But just when you might expect the film to ramp up to another level in the film’s final stretch, Johnson actually ramps things down. Instead of having increasingly furious sequences of the Joes chasing each other though Science Fiction city, the film’s pace slows down when Gordon-Levitt arrives on a farm run by comely single mother Emily Blunt. To tell you any more would be to walk firmly into spoiler territory, but let us say that it’s refreshing to see character valued over action and story over plot. Johnson is one of those film makers that always make such interesting choices. His films are rarely ever predictable on a moment-to-moment basis.

Now, the hype that seems to be surrounding this film is that it’s a mind-blowing five-star film, which it’s not. It’s very good, mind you, but if you go in expecting it to be the new Inception, then you will be disappointed. It’s not a big budget blockbuster; it’s a tight film with some pretty big ideas. See it with some tempered expectations and you’ll be delighted by its bold narrative, sharp wit and boundless invention.

For more blinkbox reviews, return to blog.blinkbox.com


Oct 04 2012

Manhattan Movie Map

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 3:02 pm

“Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin…”

- Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) in Manhattan

There is no city on Earth that has lent itself to film more than Manhattan, that small island between the American mainland and the Atlantic. It’s all things to all sorts of people: It’s a city of crime and a city of every day heroes; America’s greatest melting pot and the site of the nation’s greatest tragedy. It’s a place where millionaires and paupers often live less than a few hundred feet from each other. In When Harry Met Sally, it was the perfect backdrop to a decade-long romance, while in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver it took on the guise of a putrid underworld that somehow found its way to the surface. It been home to the neurotic intellectuals that populate Woody Allen movies (see above) and it’s the place where cabbies will try to mow you down despite the fact that you’re walkin’ over here.

As lifelong movie-fans, we’ll never pass up the opportunity to visit some iconic movie locales anytime we’re in  New York City. But you don’t manage to make your way stateside this year, we’ve got the next best thing: a virtual tour of our favourite cinematic locations on Manhattan.

Don’t forget to click on the icons for more information!


View Manhattan Movies in a larger map