Monthly Archives: December 2004

Garden State

Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) is a going-nowhere actor whose psychiatrist father has kept him doped up on anti-depressants since he was a kid. When he returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, he starts to come out of his haze and wake up to the world around him. While hanging out with a group of his old school friends, he falls in love with Sam (Natalie Portman), and gradually learns to deal with the raw emotions that he has been shielded from for so long.

One words critics use to describe Zach Braff’s directorial debut is “assured”, and you really can’t argue with that. For a film where very little actually happens, the scenes are set and played out with a minimum of fluff and shilly-shallying, while simultaneously maintaining a light touch of dreamlike whimsy. It’s very clever. The dialogue is natural, even when the characters are off-beat, but I thought it fell down at the last hurdle. Large’s confrontation with his father, and the tearful airport scene seemed lacking in passion, and they deflated the magical, romantic bubble of the rest of the film. It’s still enormous fun to watch, though, and Braff is going to be an actor and director to keep tabs on for the future.

Dogtown And Z-Boys

Dogtown is the area of Los Angeles where modern skateboarding was born. The Z-boys are the the members of team Zephyr, who started off as surfers, but later turned the skateboarding establishment on its head with their wholly new moves, iconoclastic style, and punk attitude. Filmmaker Stacy Peralta was one of the Z-boys, so on the one hand he knows what he’s talking about, but on the other hand there is a danger of the truth being somewhat inflated. A stylish and interesting documentary, nevertheless.

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days

Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey) is an advertising executive. He bets his boss that he can make any woman fall in love with him in ten days. Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) is the “How to” column writer for a women’s magazine. As background research for her next article, she has to start dating a guy, and then use every trick in the book to drive him away in ten days. Inevitably, they target each other–with hilarious consequences!

Actually, for a lightweight romantic comedy, this isn’t all that bad; but it doesn’t take enough risks to be particularly good, either. McConaughey has plenty of charm, and Hudson does a decent job as the seductive beauty pretending to have psycho tendencies. The humour is bland and inoffensive, but there are moments when McConaughey and Hudson truly sparkle as a couple. Unfortunately this makes the plot seem all the more contrived as it struggles to keep a wedge between them until the very end.

Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself)

Not nearly as depressing as the title might suggest, Wilbur is the story of two Glasgow book shop owners, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) and his brother Wilbur (Jamie Sives). Wilbur is a habitual but unsuccessful suicide. Following a failed attempt shortly after the death of their father, Harbour persuades Wilbur to move in with him, where he can better protect him from himself. There, during another failed attempt, Wilbur is rescued by Alice (Shirley Henderson), a timid single mother who frequents the book shop to sell books she finds in her work as a hospital cleaner. A sweet, troubled love story follows, but it’s not the one you’d expect.

Although this isn’t a Dogme film like her previous feature, Italian For Beginners, director Lone Scherfig sticks to some of its tenets by showing the story in a simple, linear fashion, with a minimum of stylistic tricks, and a clear and honest focus on the characters. The cast are wholly believable, and never set a foot wrong. The screenplay is both uplifting and sad, and it finds quirky humour in the strangest of places. It made me laugh out loud, and it made me cry even after the film was over. It is just wonderful.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Perhaps it’s because the film represents the first three books in a much longer series, but A Series Of Unfortunate Events comes across as just that: a series of events, each with their own structure and climax, but little in the way of an overall story arc or plot. The underlying mystery is only hinted at–X-Files style–but not explored in any depth; that will be the task of subsequent films. It will probably leave fans of the books hungry for more in the future, but I wanted more out of this one now.

For a film that desperately wants you to think of it as “dark”, there is too much surface spectacle, and not enough sense of the complexity and depth of the world in which the story takes place. It’s certainly very pretty, and Jim Carrey makes for a wonderful half sinister, half clownish, almost competent villain, but the fantasy never becomes real, if you see what I mean.

(If you do go to see it, make sure you stay for the fantastic, Tim Burton-eqsue end credits. It’s one of the best sequences I’ve seen in a long time.)


Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) is the latest in a long line of Yelnatses who suffer from impossibly bad luck as the result of an old gypsy curse. While walking under a bridge one day, he is hit over the head by a falling pair of sneakers. After taking them home, he is arrested and wrongly convicted for stealing them from a charity auction. The judge sends him to Camp Green Lake, an institution for young offenders to “build character.” Green Lake turns out to be a bizarre forced labour camp, run by the cranky Mr Sir (Jon Voight) and a mysterious warden, where the kids are sent out into the desert to dig holes every day.

In parallel with Stanley’s story, another tale is being told: that of Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), a school teacher turned bandit from Green Lake as it was a hundred years ago. Hers is a tragic love story, and it gradually emerges that her history is wholly entwined with that of the Camp, and Stanley’s own family curse.

Right from the opening scenes, it’s clear that Holes is much more than simple kids’ film. The initial flashbacks are just a taste of the multi-layered story that is to follow, and when all the threads are tied together at the end, the only word that fits is “magical”. For an extraordinary modern fairytale, and a beautiful example of cinematic storytelling, look no further.

The Polar Express

I remain unconvinced about the need for photorealistic animated films. The Polar Express does, however, provide a compelling argument in favour of the form: some of the swooping, daredevil camera sequences would have been difficult and expensive (though probably not impossible) to achieve with the standard blend of live action and CGI. But although we’re probably on the way out of the Uncanny Valley, we’re not there yet, and some of the characters just look wrong. I think that full suspension of disbelief would have come more easily if the animation had been more stylised. In fact, the characters that seemed most real (to me) were the ones that were somewhat caricaturish anyway: the ghost on the train, the engineers, and the elves.

That said, it’s still a joyous film that sweeps you away on a atmospheric and magical journey to the North Pole. It’s a visual feast, with a slice of excitement in almost every scene. It forgoes emotional blackmail and strained messages of goodwill in favour of a sugared-up thrill of Christmas, and the childlike anticipation of getting presents. Kids will love it, and adults may find their hearts warmed, too.


I can’t think of a purer cinematic interpretation of the modern private eye story: the detective starts with an apparently simple case that leads him to discover a much greater conspiracy or crime, which can only be untangled or resolved by getting to the heart of the original mystery.

Polanski tells the story in a slow and measured fashion. There is no rushing around from action scene to cliffhanger to fight sequence, as would be required in a Hollywood detective film today. J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t have to be a buffed-up hero; he just has to stand up for his principles, and try to uncover the truth. His moral code binds him to the plight of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and compels him to take his investigation all the way to its inevitable conclusion, no matter how much it may cost him. A beautiful film, and a deserved classic.

Blade: Trinity

Blade kills a whole bunch of vampires, including a really big bad one. Only this time, Blade’s got buddies! The end.

Whereas Blade II took a detour into gory horror, this third film introduces a lighter note in the form of Hannibal King, played by Ryan Reynolds. You wouldn’t guess it from his grim appearance on the movie posters, but King is the comic relief. He’s like one of the Buffy gang, only with more swearing. In fact, he’s the best thing in the film. Blade looks cool but is bland; Whistler’s daughter (Jessica Biel) has got nifty toys and good moves; but it’s King who has all the charisma, and all the best lines. (Stephen at Tagline anticipated this some time ago.)

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a veteran of the first Gulf War. On a reconnaissance mission during the war his platoon was ambushed, and they only escaped thanks to the heroic actions of Sgt Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Driven by his overbearing Senator mother (Meryl Streep), Shaw entered politics after the war, and he is now running for election as Vice President of the US.

After being approached by a soldier from his old platoon who has been having disturbing nightmares, Marco begins to doubt his own memories of the night of the ambush. As he tries to discover what might really have happened, he finds a murky trail that leads him to Shaw, and a conspiracy involving brainwashing, murder, and the sinister Manchurian Global corporation.

I haven’t seen the John Frankenheimer version of The Manchurian Candidate, nor have I read the original novel, so I can only judge this version on its own merits. Washington, Schreiber, and Streep all give convincingly disturbed and disturbing performances, but they are let down by a script that feels less than wholly natural. Also, even though much of the plot revolves around a political campaign, the screenplay studiously avoids any mention of party affiliation. Given the themes of corruption and manipulation, the film could hardly use either of the main US political parties as its basis; but it uses this apparent neutrality to critique both parties, and the attempt feels blunt and clumsy.

Despite this, the film does create an effective atmosphere of tension and paranoia that lasts right up to the climax. It just doesn’t do anything more.