19 June 2011

The Shadow Line

The Shadow Line is an ambitious seven part British crime drama written, produced and directed by Hugo Blick. It was first aired in May 2011 on the BBC and received mixed reviews from the Guardian's highly positive review and some glowing below the line praise at IMDB to absolute slatings by the Telegraph and The Arts desk.

The indications were good from the start with a lead role for one of my favourite British actors; Christopher Eccleston, an intriguing opening sequence and haunting title music from Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo.

The plot revolved around the murder of a notorious drugs baron and the parallel investigations into his murder by the police and members of the criminal underworld. The two central characters are DI Jonah Gabriel (played by Chitwell Ejiofor) and drug importer Joseph Bede (Played by Eccleston) never actually meet. Gabriel is put in charge of investigating the Harvey Wratten murder while Bede takes the initiative and attempts to pull of a huge heroin importation in order to retire from the game to care for his wife who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer's (played brilliantly by Lesley Sharp).

Stephen Rea put in a strong performance as Gatehouse, the ruthless and calculating killer at the heart of everything. Many of the critical reviews slated his performance however I found his character a truly sinister relentless and emotionless killer, not quite the calibre of Javier Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men but convincing enough for me.

Rafe Spall came in for some heavy criticism from the tediously smug and unbalanced review at the Arts Desk for his scenery chewing portrayal of Harvey Wratten's psychotic nephew Jay, however I found his acting quite enjoyable giving the early episodes a lot of colour. It is notable how his character calmed down as the series progressed towards the reveal involving Jay towards the end.

Another actor that came in for criticism was Richard Lintern who played Gabriel's superior officer, with this I agree, alongside Agni Scott's portrayal of Gabriel's mistress and Tobias Menzies portrayal of an investigative journalist that digs too deep, Lintern was one of the least convincing characters.

In my opinion the series had it's flaws, the plot wandered off implausibly on several occasions, to call it a touch unrealistic would be an understatement and there were a few sequences where the acting fell to bits, most notably the conversation between Gabriel's lover and his wife at the funeral of his lovechild that was caught in the crossfire during a confrontation between Gatehouse, Gabriel and Wratten's book keeper Glickmann (Played by Anthony Sher). I found the lack of visible emotion from both women remarkably unrealistic but bizarrely the scene that clearly stood out as the worst for me was the only thing that won unhedged praise from the hatchet job review at The Arts Desk.

Another thing that would me up about the terribly written, pretentious and sneering Arts Desk review was the fact that it didn't find space to even mention the camera work. Even if Blick's stark and often minimalist cinematographic style isn't your thing, failing to even mention it in a review shows that you must be so keen to give the show a kicking to make yourself look cool, that you can't even discern or describe one of it's key attributes. However given the fact that the Arts Desk reviewer started paragraphs with "But", overused "...." annoyingly and included this gem of terrible writing "The glib and sneering [Patterson] sneered glibly" I'm not surprised that he was utterly incapable of offering any useful views on the style and presentation of the series. For me the amazing quality camera work lifted the series way above the usual cop show drivel offered by British television and is the feature that will earn the show it's legacy (alongside the presence of Cristopher Eccleston of course).

To me the Wire is quite clearly the "gold standard" in crime drama and while the Shadow Line couldn't come close to it, no other crime drama since 2002 has either. I seem destined to suffer disappointment that every new crime series isn't as good as The Wire, however The Shadow Line was still seven hours of gripping and entertaining drama with an intriguing and labarynhine plot and countless wonderfully filmed sequences.

Overall review: 4 (what does this mean)

14 February 2011

The Cry of the Owl

I saw this film by chance and didn't know anything about it before choosing to watch it. When I saw that Paddy Considine had the lead role I was reminded of his phenomenal performance in the cult British film Dead Man's Shoes. The Cry of the Owl is an inferior film to Dead Man's Shoes, but that alone is no insult. I found it quite entertaining for an American psychological thriller, a genre usually rammed with predictable and artificial cinematic suspense, annoying unrealistic characters and cheap emotional manipulation. This film avoids most of the usual  traps, developing several realistic yet pretty unlikeable characters, not overusing dramatic tension and keeping well clear of the massively overused and simplistic good heroic protagonist vs evil psychopath theme.

I found the characters engaging because they were portrayed as realistic people full of faults and mental issues. Robert (Considine) had fled the big city after the breakdown of his marriage with the selfish and unsympathetic Nikki (Caroline Dhavernas) caused by his depression. He ends up in a confused relationship with the emotionally unstable Jenny (Julia Stiles) causing her ex-boyfriend Jack (Gord Rand) to turn nasty.

When Jack goes missing Robert becomes the prime suspect causing his employers, work colleagues and neighbours to shut the door on him. There are several plot twists but rather than using the usual trick of turning the dramatic tension up to 10 and then unleashing the plot twist, the twists in this film are done in a refreshingly understated way.

The biggest disappointment for me was the cliffhanger ending, but even this was reasonably well done linking back to several themes within the film rather than just leaving the protagonist in a dilemma to get people talking as they leave the cinema.

After watching the film I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes and found that it had a pathetic 14% rating with critics and 25% audience approval. IMDb gives it a much more reasonable 61% approval rating but I'm still shocked to find that this film is so unpopular when I found it quite enjoyable.

I read several of the negative reviews and none of them really stated anything specific that they disliked about the film, they just generally slated it and gave poor review scores. I think the problem is that the psychological thriller has become such a predictable genre that these critics may have gone into the film expecting something that fits the formula but when they were served up a bedraggled and depressed protagonist, an emotionally disturbed female lead with crazy mystical beliefs and a death obsession, a shrew of an ex-wife and a vengeful ex-boyfriend they found themselves scrabbling to identify which of the characters they should be rooting for and when it became clear that as in real life the film has no hero, simply a set of characters suffering a range of mental health problems they decided that they didn't like it at all.

The film has faults, some of the imagery like the recurring crossroad scene is too simplistic but that is more than made up for by the film's idiosyncrasies like the supposedly loyal dog lapping the blood from his masters head would. I was inclined to give the film a higher mark just because it has been so widely slated but I'm going to stick to what I originally thought and give it a 3.

Overall review: 3  (what does this mean)

See also

The Cry of the Owl at Rotten Tomatoes

01 February 2011

Cote d'Azur (Crustaces & Coquillages)

Cote d'Azur (Crustaces & Coquillages) or in English Cote d'Azur (Cockles & Muscles) is a French comedy drama directed by Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau and released in 2006.

The film follows events in one family who have inherited a house on the Cote d'Azur and go there on holiday. The parents (played by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Gilbert Melki) begin to believe that their son is gay when his openly gay friend comes to stay with them. The mother's lover (Jacques Bonnaffé) shows up at the resort and the father rediscovers his teenage romance with a local man (Jean-Marc Barr).

Reviews are mixed, the Guardian gave it a 3/5 rating and called it a "a fitfully amusing, sympathetically played sex comedy" while review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 50% rating from critics and a 62% audience rating. The majority of reviews seem to mark it as OK however Cole Smithey gave it one star and described it as "an act of cinematic masturbation against a pastel background".

French sex comedy is not really one of my favoured genres, however I watched it with the mistaken assumption that it would be funny and in the hope that it may be of similar quality to the charming, whimsical and intricate French romantic comedy Amelie. I was badly wrong on both counts, the film was as funny as toothache and as charming and intricate as internet porn. I really struggle to see how anyone could claim that the film was "fitfully amusing" unless they are big fans of titillation and simplistic potty humour. I mean how many times do you need to be shown blokes wanking in the shower before it stops being funny?

One of the main faults with the film is the fact that it is absolutely impossible to establish any emotional empathy with any of the characters who are nothing more than vacuous ciphers to the "plot". The mother is not motivated to become unfaithful through suffering an unloving relationship or lack of sex but just from boredom. The father character drifts listlessly through the film until he has his gay encounter. The son (Romain Torres) is annoying and decietful, he decides to trick his parents into thinking that he is gay, incessantly teases his gay friend (Edouard Collin) by challenging him to wanking competitions and hanging around him half naked.

The other characters in the film are utterly two dimensional, the daughter leaves with her biker boyfriend around ten minutes into the film and only comes back for the ridiculous finale, the father's lover could have been an interesting heartbroken character however his distasteful habit of going to the local cottaging site to pick up teenage boys every night precludes empathy.

When it eventually comes out that the parents have both been sleeping with other people one would expect some feelings of betrayal, recrimination and anger, however instead of taking the opportunity to explore a potentially interesting emotional situation the film sidesteps the issue and the couple immediately cuddle and make up. After the affairs the film jumps to the following summer when the cast all come together for a group holiday with the parents happily rooming with their new partners. The film finishes with a reprise of their vapid and excruciatingly bad song about seafood.

The film is dreadful, it trivialises all the interesting issues such as; teenage boys discovering their sexuality, adulterous relationships, the difficulties of being a gay man in a conventional family, the reliving of a teenage romance in later life and the emotional aftermath of betrayal. It seems incapable of properly addressing female sexuality sending the teenage daughter character away to avoid dealing with her sexuality and making the mother an emotionless slut that has sex with two men for no other reason than boredom. This really is a film to avoid unless you are the kind of person that finds Sex in the City hilarious and well observed.

Overall review: 1 (what does this mean)

See also

24 January 2011

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a science fiction film of the post apocalyptic quest type directed by the Hughes brothers (of Menace II Society fame) and released in 2010.

The film sees Eli (played by Denzel Washington) journey by foot across America towards San Francisco with what is believed to be the last remaining copy of the Bible. His main adversary is Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who is determined to obtain a copy of the Bible in order to use it for political control.

The film made nearly double it's budget in gross revenues and was popular amongst the cinema going public, nearly 80% of people rated the film A or B at Box Office Mojo. It was less popular with critics who took exception to the post apocalyptic setting and the religious content. Less than half of the "professional" critics gave the film a positive review according to Rotten Tomatoes.

For me the film was a success. The cinematography was monumentally bleak. The fight scenes were exceptional thanks to Jeff Imada's choreography and Denzel Washington’s extensive training in the Filipino martial art of Kali. There were several really funny moments including the beginning of the first fight scene where Washington unexpectedly cuts off his assailant's hand and the scene where Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour play Anita Lee's Ring My Bell on their wind up gramophone.

One of the recurring complaints about the film is that "it is too religious" perhaps arising from the sheer number of followers of the Richard Dawkins school of pseudo-philosophy who are trained to reject anything with religious connotations, however I thought that the film actually made quite a strong critique of religion. The sinister side of religion is made clear from Oldman's desire to use the Bible for political control to the sheer number of people killed because of the religious quest of a single man. The single biggest blow to the idea that the film has some kind of pro-Christian agenda is the fact that when they arrive at the new utopia on Alcatraz Island the utopian society was already being built on a foundation of Mozart, Wagner, Shakespeare and the Encyclopedia Britannica with no need for Christianity at all.

In comparison with other post-apocalyptic films it must rank as one of the better efforts for the spectacularly desolate cinematography, the quality fight sequences and Denzel Washington's coolness. If you enjoyed 28 Days Later, I am Legend or The Road you will probably enjoy this too, but as with all of the aforementioned films it has it's faults too, the absurdity of Carnegie's lumbering fleet of heavily armoured vehicles burning gallons of precious diesel to chase down a book, the unbelievable ease with which the fugitives find a serviceable rowing boat to make the crossing to Alcatraz Island and the fact that the film acknowledges the durability of digital media such as Eli's MP3 player but neglects the millions of digitised copies of the Bible that should have been retained on hard drives and MP3 players across the United States.

It seems that many critics are upset because what they really crave from a post-apocalyptic film is a "new Mad Max" to re-enliven the genre but that just isn't going to happen. The genre has moved on and the crazy Australian lunacy of the Mad Max trilogy looks increasingly low budget and outdated. As a teenager I was a huge fan of Mad Max but in objective comparison to The Book of Eli it doesn't win on many counts except it's deserved cult status and it's car chases.

It is hard to accept a general dislike of the post-apocalyptic genre amongst critics as a valid reason to rate The Book of Eli so poorly but many of them had little else to fall back on. In my opinion the post-apocalyptic genre is a potentially rich science-fiction genre which is all too often let down by the reliance on clunky traditional Hollywood story lines, the two dimensional characters necessary to fulfil roles in such tired and predictable plots and the imposition of contemporary cultural values in a setting that should be the perfect opportunity to explore society or the individual without the familiar constraints of contemporary values. 

This film does not stretch the boundaries of the genre as I would have liked. In fact I had no expectation that it would after I heard that the main character was attempting to save the last copy of the Bible, so I watched it with pretty low expectations and was pleasantly surprised by the cinematography, the fight sequences and the number of times it made me laugh.  I will have to continue waiting for a post-apocalyptic film to match the achievements in sci-fi literature such as Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham or even the kid's book Brother in the Land by Robert Swindles but I would be happy to fill some of the waiting time watching films of this quality.

Overall review: 4 (what does this mean)

See also

The Book of Eli at Wikipedia
The Book of Eli at Rotten Tomatoes

23 January 2011


Pandorum is a German-American science fiction film of the interstellar horror genre directed by Christian Alvert and released in 2009. 

The film features Dennis Quid and Ben Foster who find themselves awoken from "hypersleep" sealed in a room on board a interstellar cruiser. Foster's character escapes to find unimaginable chaos going on in the ship and embarks on a mission to bring order to the situation.

The film met with little critical acclaim and was described as "derivative" and slagged off elsewhere as an example of why sci-fi is dead. It seemed pretty unlikely that reviews written with the presumption that the film is part of a dead genre featuring in their opening paragraph would give us much useful insight into the quality of the picture. Even if we take into account the relative unpopularity of the sci-fi genre, ratings amongst critics are remarkably poor for a high budget film. Audience responses were much better with the film given a B rating on the audience response site Box Office Mojo.

The general view amongst professional reviewers seems to be that they didn't enjoy the film and that it is probably best left to science fiction fans to enjoy, a view supported by a 4/5 rating on the sci-fi website SFX. The reviewer claims that it is an "intelligent SF masquerading as a big, dumb action movie" a statement which could have only been written by someone with complete ignorance of or disdain for the concept of hard sci-fi. I would say the reverse is true this is a big, dumb action movie masquerading as intelligent SF.

To his credit the SFX reviewer does pick up on a number of fatal flaws in the film that would have had the hard sci-fi fans grinding their teeth, however his claim that the "the creatures’ origins eventually make logical sense" could only have been written by someone with a very limited understanding of genetic processes given the impossibility of evolutionary survival of the fittest creating ultra strong, near invincible fighting machines from human stock within only a few dozen generations even given the mythical "artificial accelerant" cited by the ships botanist as an explanation. 

There are a number of other gaping flaws which I do not have the inclination to list, however I will briefly discuss one that nobody else seems to have picked up on, which is the complete disregard for the physics of gravity. The film started promisingly with a ship designed with massive ring like structures which given enough spin could create the gravitational forces necessary to keep the charactor's feet on the floor, however when the plot twist about the ships location is unveiled the whole gravitational basis of the film is ruined. The floor would be as likely to be a wall or the ceiling in a ship built with a concentric gravitational system were it to be lying motionless on the surface of a planet, however the characters never faced this necessary problem providing another devestating blow to the believability of the film.

Most reviews seem to be wrong about the film, the general reviews were generally negative while the general audience actually seemed to like the film quite a lot. The concession by general reviewers that sci-fi fans would like it is just wrong because it is clearly a weak example of the sci-fi genre and the sci-fi review at SFX is not nearly hard enough on the film from a sci-fi perspective.

My main problem with the film is that it tries to make itself an "intelligent sci-fi" film in completely the wrong way, devoting far too much screen time to long explanatory monologues from various characters instead of allowing the circumstances become clear through osmosis. An example being the long ranting monologue from the crew member turned cannibal given to his captives, apparently only levered into the film to add more explanatory guff. Why on earth would the old git have bothered to take the time to enlighten his fellow crew mates about the ship's history if his only intention was to eat them? In fact my favourite character in the film is Cung Lee's agricultural worker turned martial arts survivalist who only speaks Vietnamese which saves him the chore of delivering one of these tedious monologues. This film would have been much better had they given up their efforts to justify their sci-fi credentials, concentrated on making this a non-stop action film and spent more effort on creating characters worthy of audience empathy.

Despite all of my criticism the film does do many things well, it provides plenty of dramatic tension, a foreboding atmosphere, enjoyable action sequences, a few memorable fight scenes and the gratuitous gore and grime of a good horror film.

My view is that if you enjoy action packed horror films you will probably enjoy this for what it is, if you are the kind of sci-fi fan that has never read or only dabbled in reading sci-fi you will also probably like it, however if you have ever been a prolific science fiction reader or see yourself as a bit of a film critic the cack handed pretension at being an "intelligent sci-fi" film is bound to annoy.

Overall review: 3  (what does this mean)

See also

Pandorum on IMDB
Pandorum at Wikipedia
Pandorum at Rotten Tomatoes