Sunday, 28 February 2010

[307] Micmacs (2009) Review

Ploughing on with the Den of Geek reviews. Next up is the new film from Jean Pierre Jeunet, Micmacs.

The word 'visionary' is given out very easily nowadays. Seemingly every director with a penchant for the image (or simply ambitious, CGI-laden projects) is bestowed with that label. However, there are few that embody the term with both its flaws and genius, whose pursuit of uniquely visual styles often take precedence over slick narratives or thematic subtlety. Jean Pierre Jeunet is one of these auteurs of the eye, and his latest film, Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot), is a dazzling spectacle of imagination and design.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of
Micmacs for those familiar with Jeunet's work (Amelie, Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) is its plot. As in, it has one. Whereas his previous films have used fairytale settings and whimsical storytelling to facilitate flights of fancy, Micmacs is, on one level, narrative heavy, featuring distinct tones of broad satire, railing against arms companies and those that profit from war and terror.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

[306] The Unloved (2009) Review

Here we go. This review of Samantha Morton's The Unloved is my 100th contribution to Den of Geek. I'd like to think I've progressed a lot over those tens of thousands of words of content, and I'm in some way more 'on the ladder' than just over a year ago. I've certainly had some ace opportunities, and I'm grateful to the DoG editorial team for all of their support. Plenty more pieces for them coming up in the future, though.

Originally aired on Channel 4 back in May 2009, Samantha Morton's directorial debut, The Unloved, is now being granted a limited release on the theatrical circuit. A pseudo-autobiographical drama about the experience of young people who live in the children's homes, the film is complex and artful, but becomes a little too dreary and uneven in the final count.

Although the title takes into its embrace the whole population of those in the care system (it was broadcast in a series called Britain's Forgotten Children),
The Unloved's scope is mostly narrowed down to the story of Lucy (Molly Windsor), an eleven-year-old girl who is taken away from her abusive father (Robert Carlyle) and put into a children's home.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

[305] Afghan Star (2009) Review

I had some fun writing about Afghan Star, an engrossing documentary about culture and politics in Afghanistan. I tried to marry the brassy style of music (not always music) writing, epitomised for me recently by the work of Kieron Gillen and Matthew Sheret with a socially-entwined film review. I don't know how well it worked, but it broke the monotony of grumbly, stuffy indulgence nonetheless.

Pop music is decadence gone mainstream. Indulgence defined by the powers that be as acceptable. And, with the rise of reality TV shows like The X Factor, such decadence is blown open, made into a musical soap opera writ large on a frightening scale, yet all the while assuring the ephemerality of the whole exercise - here is your pop star for the next few months, before we start it all over again next season.

As grumbly geeks and cynical twerps, it's incredibly easy for us to look upon the various arms of Simon Cowell's empire with knee-jerk disdain, cradling our Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or The Stooges, or Animal Collective, or Autechre, or Alice Coltrane) albums and projecting outwards our false estimations of authenticity, sincerity and artistic worth for all to hear.

Know this.
Afghan Star, the UK-produced documentary about Afghanistan's equivalent musical talent show, is a supremely cutting, enlightening affirmation of the important, and controversial, nature of pop music. This is a country where, under Taliban rule, it was considered a crime to dance, listen to music, or watch television.

Unsurprisingly, Daoud Sediqi,
Afghan Star's host and director, has high hopes for the social, cultural effects of bringing popular music and television together. By its third season, which is documented by director Havana Marking and her documentary crew, the show at its peak enjoys an audience that equals a third of the country's population, and Sediqi's ambition of turning the Afghan collective consciousness away from the gun, and towards music - in the process uniting the disparate ethnic social groups - looks to be within grasp.

Read the full article here.

Monday, 22 February 2010

[304] Turku Loves Comics / Turku rakastaa sarjakuvia

My recent trip to Finland was easily my most tourist-like. My first visit in winter, which brought with it whiter-than-white vistas, snow shovelling, and endless traipsing across the refreshing, below zero landscape. I ice-fished, I ate reindeer, and I pushed The Finnish Girl uphill in a blasted kicksled (potkukelkka).

However, this time, it was just as much about the comics as the weather. Here are some findings, packaged up in a post that handily rips off Dom Sutton's London Loves Comics blog.

Turku is a small-ish city (by UK standards) on the South-western coast of Finland. It was the country's capital for a short time, and is currently its fifth largest city in terms of population. But enough about that, what about the comics!? Since my last visit, a comics shop has opened up, so that was at the top of my to-do list.

So my first stop was the Turun Sarjakuvakauppa (quite literally, Turku's Comics Shop). It is next door to a used record store (just visible to the left of the image) called Iki Pop, which, thanks to the wonderful phonology of the Finnish language, calls up a cheeky pun on the phrase 'forever pop' and, well, justifies having a sign that features the cover of The Stooges Raw Power. I was surprised by the Sarjakuvakauppa. Not that I knew what to expect, but nonetheless I was completely lost in their stock, which is made up with mostly Finnish language comics, of the literate and diverse kind that is mostly relegated to independent or small press outlets in the UK.

I confess, I know next to nothing about the actual comics scene in Finland - apart from the love of newspaper strips (the storefront is decorated with a large graphic of strip-star Wagner, from Viivi ja Wagner) and Donald Duck (Aku Ankka) - but the American comics section was surprisingly small, carrying the usual Vertigo trades (Sandman, Preacher) and oodles of Alan Moore and Charles Burns, but with next to nothing from Marvel or mainstream DC.

The Finnish section was much larger, and had plenty of books that I couldn't even start to tell you about because of the language barrier, but what did stand out were the translated editions they had in stock. There were some DC books, such as Teräsmies - Neljä vuodenaikaa (Superman: For All Seasons), and Batman - Mustaa ja valkoista (Batman: Black & White), but there was a fantastic line-up of European books, the kind of Italian, Franco-Belgian and Dutch classics that very rarely get translated into English.

Across the road from Turun Sarjakuvakauppa is Turku City Library, a big, recently-refurbished beauty of a building. The comics section inside is a treasure trove: large, all-encompassing and featuring works in Finnish, English, French, German, and even a couple in Spanish and Chinese. Again, there were plenty of the Finnish graphic novels here, and more mainstream comics, but the stand-outs included large collections of work from Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mézières, including many books from the Blueberry series, and the Valérian et Laureline saga. Of interest for the British comics crowd, however, was a quite astounding selection of 2000 AD translated editions.

What an awesome cover. It seems that they have a good chunk of the 1980s Judge Dredd stories covered, printed chronologically in over-sized trades, with the Judge Death book jumping out of the crowd.

I'm jealous, I really am. There might be some glaring gaps in these Finnish shelves, but it's the real deal. And the ambience of the place - part Nordic minimalism, part old-world grandeur - is just lovely.

I spent the most time during my visit at the Cosmic Comic Cafe. Now, this is my kind of place. I hate most cafes, and nearly all pubs. The CCC is perfect. A bar, serving nice hot chocolate; walls covered with Tintin prints; music piped in at just the right volume to invade your ear-holes, but not loud enough to disrupt conversation. Oh, the music! Kate Bush, The Cure, Husker Du, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beatles. Sounds like my playlist from ages 14 to 19. Joyous.

I've not mentioned the comics. They have shelves, lining the walls, stuffed with books and torn floppies, precariously piled and hastily ordered. A challenge to any enthusiast. I dug through the masses of crinkly copies of Tex Willer and Muustanaamio - Lee Falk's Phantom, published in an anthology-style issue that features back-up reprint strips like The Spirit - to find the following:

Some are more notable than others.

- Morris and Goscinny, Lucky Luke: Palkkionmetsästäjä (Bounty Hunter). A Finnish edition of the Lucky Luke book Chasseur de primes, featuring the Lee Van Cleef-inspired character Elliot Belt. This one's not currently available in the UK, thanks to a slow reprinting schedule - and as this is the 39th book in the series, we shouldn't expect it any time soon.

- Boselli and Casertano, Dylan Dog: L'isoladei Cani (Isle of Dogs). An Italian Dylan Dog from 2000, playfully talking about East London regeneration, and opening with the caption 'La "Docklands Light Railway"...'. I always thought that area had a spooky name.

- Viz, The Butcher's Dustbin: A Dog's Dinner of Old Tripe from Issues 122-131. There you go. The only British-English comic they had was Viz. And not just one. They had four volumes of these toilet humour reprints!

- Tove Jansson, Muumi Peikko Vol.5. A fifth volume of Finnish language reprints of Tove Jansson's English language Moomin comic strip that started in the 1950s. This book came out in 1990, over fifteen before trendy Canadian publishers Drawn & Quarterly reminded all those Anglophonic hipsters of how odd and enchanting Jansson's creations are.

- Kaisa Leka, Your Name is Krishangi. Leka's name came up a few times throughout the trip, and she seems to be one of the major figures of the Finnish comics community (not to mention a Green Party politician). Her work even appears in English. This book is interesting, taking the cutesy autobiographical style of American Elf and dunking it into a vat of Buddhist mysticism.

- Shokki Special. I've saved the most intriguing find for last. This Shokki Special seems to be a 1972-1973 Finnish language reprint of material from the Warren publishing company, mainly Creepy, but the lack of any actual details and publishing information leaves this a little open. Definitely exhibits some of that Creepy/Eerie charm, though. Check the back cover!

Grotesque, and brilliant.

That's all I have for the time being. Next time I visit, who knows what I'll find.

[303] Crazy Heart (2009) Review

I'm posting this up the day after the BAFTA Film Awards, where Jeff Bridges did not win the Best Actor prize. Instead, Colin Firth won, for his performance in A Single Man. We'll have to see how the same category plays out at next month's Academy Awards, as Bridges seems to be the safe bet, as I discuss in my review of Crazy Heart below.

Is there an American cultural institution as peculiar to outsiders as country music? Perhaps professional wrestling. In that sense it is a shame that Crazy Heart, a dramatic star vehicle that features a down and out musician struggling with middle age and mortality, trails a year after The Wrestler, a dramatic star vehicle about a down and out wrestler struggling with middle age and mortality.

Mickey Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, and Jeff Bridges' performance as Bad Blake seems the confident choice for this year's Best Actor winner. Rightly so, as Bridges commands the film, creating a character that is fully formed and believable. Unfortunately, the film lacks the power to support such a career highlight performance.

Blake opens the film playing a gig at a bowling alley (Big Lebowski fans, feel free to commence your laughter); he's in the musical gutter, pissing in bottles as he drives himself between venues. Unwilling to write new material and bitter about the success of his former back-up guy Tommy Sweet (an awkward Colin Farrell), Blake's tired career is slumped somewhere in between irrelevance and stagnation, with even sex with ageing groupies starting to get a little stale. That is until bonny single mum and journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) comes into the equation.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

[302] Mesrine: Parts 1 and 2 (2008) Review

It has been a busy week or so, since getting back from Finland, so I have plenty of pieces up over at Den of Geek. I'll hopefully get back to blogging and Monumental Textualising as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here's a piece I wrote a month or so ago, about the two recent films starring Vincent Cassel about French criminal Jacques Mesrine.

It feels unfair to contextualise a French film using a similarly-intentioned, latterly-released one from Hollywood, but the Mesrine duology, directed by Jean-Francois Richet, requires it.

Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is the French John Dillinger, a cocky crook whose tremendous heists, prison breaks, and media manipulations weaved a real-life action film narrative, right to a bloody death. Indeed, his determined answer - "I rob banks." - when asked early on by Quebec secessionist Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) what he does, curiously prefigures Johnny Depp's murmured, "I'm John Dillinger, and I rob banks" from Michael Mann's wham-bang 2009 film
Public Enemies. However, the Mesrine two-parter, made up of Killer Instinct and Public Enemy No.1 (L'instinct De Mort And L'ennemi Public N°1, both released in France in 2008), is a uniquely slippery property.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

[301] Ponyo (2008) Review

I'm a big Studio Ghibli fan, so I was excited to attend an advance screening of Ponyo back in November. My review of the film is now up at Den of Geek. Note: I wrote this back at the end of 2009, so there are some awkwardness with the editing and coherence.

Hayao Miyazaki is a bloody wizard. A conjurer of animated dreams with line and colour as his wand and magic. A popular auteur in a form that has few. In the last decade in particular, his films - and the films of Studio Ghibli, the animation house he co-founded - have enjoyed a number of international hits (including Miyazaki's own Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle) that have garnered acclaim and box office success the world over.

So, no wonder that the latest film from Miyazaki and Ghibli,
Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo), is receiving plenty of attention. The Optimum-distributed UK release is today (a good few months after the majority of the world has already seen it), but a London audience was treated to a preview screening of the dubbed version of the film.

Ponyo is Ghibli's resetting of Hans Christian Anderson's
The Little Mermaid, in a similar way to how Spirited Away was their appropriation of Alice in Wonderland. Which is to say, Miyazaki takes the kernel of the story (in this case, a sea-bound creature wishing to be a human girl), and transforms it with Japanese imagery, locations and mysticism. Here, Ponyo is a magical goldfish-like creature who, after escaping the clutches of her over-zealous sorceror father, ends up on dry land, and enters the life of a lonely boy called Sōsuke.

Read the full article here.

[300] Shutter Island (2010) Review

300th post on the blog, and I'm offering up a review of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island. I didn't expect to like this one, judging from the trailers, but I found it to be quite a bold, stylistic statement - as well as a good romp of a thriller. Sadly, a lot of my favourite talking points revolve around some of the twists late in the film's narrative, so I had to restrain myself for the majority of the review. Maybe I'll work on an essay nearer the DVD release - something about 'Reality, Nightmare and Madness in Shutter Island', we'll see.

Let's face it, cinematic realism is a red herring. When watching masterful cinema, whether the projected story is fact, fiction or fantasy is not an issue, such is the engrossing property of the moving image. It is a flickering lie, and it fills our eyes with illusion and magic.

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese builds a psychological thriller that looks intently at madness, and the blurring of reality and imagination that comes with it. Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), the film stars Scorsese stalwart Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a 1950s US Federal Marshal who is sent to the titular location - which is home to an isolated, high security institution for the criminally insane - as part of a case. Initially tasked with investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), one of the island's patients, Daniels slowly progresses through a mental ordeal - traversing trauma, nightmare and memory - that excavates his recent past - namely family tragedy, and the innocence-staining experience of World War 2.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

[299] Beyond the Pole (2010) Review

Back in the UK, and straight on with quite a cluster of reviews. First up is a piece on a charming Brit-indie-Arctic-buddy comedy movie called Beyond the Pole. It's an underdog; I think it deserves some support. It is starting a run at the ICA in London tomorrow (details here). Otherwise, check the official website for further screening information here.

From the off, Beyond The Pole is quirky and distinct. The idea to base what is otherwise a Brit-Bromance comedy around an Arctic expedition is a good one. It gives a fresh outlook on what is otherwise quite a straightforward, entertaining romp - a low-budget, affable flick that has heart, conscience and, most importantly, a sense of humour.

Featuring a cast of slightly notables and barely familiars from the television and comedy worlds,
Beyond The Pole tells the story of two young chaps and their ambition to be the first unsupported, carbon-neutral, organic and vegetarian expedition to the North Pole.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

[298] Suomi / Finland

I am currently in Finland for a long weekend.

I'm the god-damn Ice Jedi.

Should have a juicy blog post coming up once I have a chance to sort it out. In the meantime, why not check out a brilliant documentary from the BBC World Service, Sound of Snow and Ice, about the Jyväskylä School for the Visually Impaired.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

[297] Away We Go (2009) Review

I'm a sucker for intelligent, character-driven movies (why do you think I'm such a big Woody Allen fan), so I was interested in seeing Away We Go. I missed it at the cinema, but thankfully the DVD review popped up.

Truth be told, Away We Go was badly marketed. Heck, it still is. The hand-drawn, earthy poster art immediately links it with the wave of polished, 'mainstream indie' flicks that have been foisted on the cinema-going audience over the last ten years - the likes of Juno, Sideways, and Little Miss Sunshine - in the process evoking the cynicism, irony and quirkiness that has, in some quarters, become that style's millstone.

While it's true that
Away We Go is written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, both prominent figures in the young (or not so young, nowadays) American intellectual-literati scene (and editors of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and The Believer respectively), the film is certainly not arch, pompous or smug. In fact, it is a work of tender, genuine charms.

Read the full article here.