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Telstar (2009) Dir. Nick Moran 29 June 2009

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After a slew of American music biopics (including Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records) now it’s the turn of the Brits with Telstar – the story of Joe Meek, the tone deaf songwriter-producer behind some of the biggest hits of the 1960s. But unfortunately it’s only the charisma of Telstar’s central character which pulls the film through as writer/director Nick Moran does little to differentiate his work from the cliched rise and fall narrative we’ve seen too many times already.

Opening in Joe Meek’s ‘studio’ (that is a flat above the store owned by his landlady, where the singers are placed in the lavatory because it has better acoustics!) the creative brilliance of Meek is immediately apparent, even to a person, like myself, completely unfamiliar with Meek or his body of work. The rest of the plot focuses on the rise and the inevitable fall of such a wildly destructive talent, the tumultuous relationship he has with his contracted artists (including James Corden and Ralf Little) and in particular the relationship that was to prove his downfall – with singer Heinz Burt (JJ Field).

Flamboyant and openly gay Meek as played by Con O’Neill is a difficult character to empathise with, he jumps from near-psychopathic anger to a caring father figure as quickly as Gollum, but there’s little to fault the performance. Not knowing anything about the music scene in the 1960s a lot of the references and the significance of some of the supporting characters simply flew over my head, I also struggled to understand what made his work so important or memorable that I would be watching a film about it 40 years later. Most of his biggest hits are covered including Just Like Eddie, Have I the Right and Telstar, but ultimately Telstar the film is less about the music and more about the tragic character of Meek.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels actor Moran does a good job of recreating the 1960s, the low budget feel of the sets helping to evoke the ramshackle nature of Meek’s operation, while he directs with just enough flair to elevateTelstar above TV movie of the week territory. The starry supporting cast all do a pretty good job, particularly Pam Ferris as Meek’s put-upon landlady, but Kevin Spacey stands out like a sore thumb whenever he’s onscreen as the prim and proper Major Banks, the money behind RGM Sound Ltd.

Your enjoyment of Telstar will depend on two things: how much you know/like about the music of the period and your tolerance for the tried and tested music biopic formula. This is certainly a much better effort than the dire Cadillac Records but it never reaches the same electric highs, or feels as significant, as a Buddy Holly Story or Walk the Line. It is a fascinating story well told but far from essential viewing on the big screen. One for Blu-ray then.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Dir. Michael Bay 26 June 2009

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Proving more moving parts isn’t necessarily a good thing, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen landed in UK cinemas this week (a full week ahead of its US release no less), bigger, badder, Bay-er but ultimately too bloated and meaningless for its own good.

Despite its arse-numbing 150 minute length the ‘plot’ is as forgettable as blockbuster scripts come. Essentially a rehash of the paper-thin story which drove the first installment, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are back as the young couple caught up in the giant robot war between the Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons. But this time around the McGuffin they’re after is the Matrix of Leadership as opposed to the Allspark (see what they’ve done there?) and there’s a legendary villain to deal with in the Fallen – one of the original Transformers who wants to destroy the Earth, just to prove a point apparently – but apart from that you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference.

Then again no one goes to see a Transformers movie for its intricate, complex story telling. Giant robot scrappage is what it’s all about and while Revenge of the Fallen certainly offers this in spades, solving one of the key criticisms of the first film, it almost becomes too much of a good thing, particularly when the standout set-piece occurs just over an hour into proceedings.

Opening with a bang in Shanghai the pace and structure of that first hour is spot on, flitting between explosive robot action (which we can actually see this time round, with a lot more lingering wide shots) and Sam’s comic relief move to college. But the film grinds to an abrupt halt after one particularly brutal round of deforestation. Screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman also seem to be scraping the barrel when it comes to the comedy moments Transformers handled so well. Decepticon testicles and a robot humping Fox’s leg are two notable low points and Ramon Rodriguez, along for the ride as the beef’s roomate, is nothing but irritating from start to finish.

As much as I liked the first film for what it was – mindless, yet exceptionally well made action cinema which pandered to the obsession of my childhood – Revenge of the Fallen has lumbered into the trap of many blockbuster sequels, bigger isn’t always better. ILM have crafted some of the most impressive CGI yet seen with over 40 individual Transformers rendered in all, but it’s too easy to be overwhelmed, and when several similarly dull coloured destructive bots are on screen at once you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference. Certainly by the final set-piece in Egypt, which feels like a huge anti-climax after bigging up the power of the Fallen for two hours, action fatigue kicked in for me, while a brief foray off to robot heaven for one of the (human) characters was laughable in its stupidity.

Enjoyable enough for the spectacle of it all but ultimately a shallow, derivative and overblown (albeit with good intentions) sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen proves to be a huge disappointment after the wonderful first hour and fails to live up to the standard set by its prequel. And if Michael Bay’s statement that he wants to make movies ‘without explosions’ now is to be believed (I find that one hard to swallow) we could be seeing a very different threequel in the inevitable future.

Red Cliff (2008) Dir. John Woo 18 June 2009

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Hollywood can do cruel things to even the best directors. After crafting genre classics such as Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer in his native China John Woo’s move to Hollywood, in retrospect, could be described as ill-advised. Only Face/Off and guilty pleasure Hard Target are worthy of your time and the less said about his producing duties the better (Bulletproof Monk anyone?) But with his first native film in more than ten years Woo has demonstrated a sensational return to form that proves there’s still life in the slow-mo supremo yet.

It should be mentioned before I go any further that the version of Red Cliff currently showing in UK theatres, despite its 2hr 28min run-time, is an extremely truncated version of the two Red Cliff films released in China. I haven’t seen the original two part Red Cliff but can safely say that the film works in its current form, if anything it could have done with a little trimming so whether or not you see this as an issue will depend on your tolerance for lengthy run-times, Labyrinthine side-plots and cultural references which are likely to fly over your head.

The film takes place in 208 A.D. during the Han Dynasty in China, a time of war in a divided country. The Emperor Han, manipulated by his Prime Minister Cao Cao, declares war on the East and South provinces, his massive army to be led by Cao Cao himself. All events lead to the titular Red Cliffs, protected by Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of Hard Boiled, In the Mood for Love and Infernal Affairs) and master strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) against an overwhelmingly powerful navy, culminating in an epic battle which will decide the fate of a nation.

Even in its cut down form it’s hard to do justice to the complex tapestry of characters and events Woo and his fellow screenwriters have put together. Woo generally isn’t known for his subtlety or rich narratives but in this regard Red Cliff is easily his most accomplished film to date. They did a good job in the editing room of making a coherent narrative out of the whole epic tale, although like most war films it is easy to get characters muddled up at times. The relationship between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang lies at the heart of the film, based on respect and admiration they are easily the most well realised characters, it’s a shame the villainous Cao Cao was too much of a comic book caricature for his resolution to have any genuine emotional impact.

Woo is best know for his action however and on this front he doesn’t disappoint with several standout set-pieces and some unexpectedly brilliant tricks up his sleeve. If you’ve seen any of Woo’s previous work (or any Zhang Yimou films) you’ll know what to expect. Hyper-stylised to the point that it’s almost ludicrous, the choreographed sword work is beautiful to watch but manages to convey a visceral impact many eastern martial arts films lack. After a generation of war films portraying battle as a chaotic hell it’s strange to see a film which makes you appreciate why Sun Tzu called his legendary treaty The Art of War. In spite of my love for all things gruesome it was the strategic brilliance of the central characters which left me with the biggest smile on my face, in particular one ingenious method of stealing 10,000 arrows from your enemy.

While not quite as good as Hero (a film with which it shares the closest resemblance), Red Cliff is easily Woo’s best work in almost twenty years. It may meander a little at times and for those unfamiliar with the eastern style of film making it may require you to suspend disbelief a little more than you’re comfortable, but on the whole it is a remarkable return to form and makes me wish John Woo never steps foot in Hollywood again.

The Hangover (2009) Dir. Tod Phillips 17 June 2009

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Arriving in the wake of a thousand Judd Apatow produced ‘comedies’ The Hangover arrived in cinemas this week to rave reviews on both sides of the pond, and for good reason, it’s easily the funniest American film of the year.

A healthy laugh quotient is crucial to the success of a comedy, but all too often they live or die based on their concept (a 40 year old virgin – brilliant! Paul Rudd looking for a best man for his wedding – not so brilliant). And while Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s script contains nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before it works well enough, providing a satisfactory framework for the myriad of increasingly bizarre scenarios our protagonists get themselves into.

Bradley Cooper (who some might remember from Alias way back), Ed Helms, Justin Bartha and scene stealer Zach Galifianakis play four friends who spend Doug’s (Bartha’s) final night as a bachelor in Vegas only to wake up the following morning with no recollection of the previous night’s events, a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet. To top it all off Doug in nowhere to be found and with less than 48 hours before the wedding Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis set out to find their friend encountering a stripper, a naked angry Chinese man and a creepy, creepy Mike Tyson along the way.

Complex plotting it ‘aint but The Hangover manages to provide enough mystery about the proceedings to keep viewers interested from one scene to the next, with some subtle early hints for eagle eyed viewers making the eventual solution painfully obvious. But where the film really excels is in making you laugh, and if you’re anything like me not just giggles and half-hearted smiles but full on belly laughs. Some elements fall flat as with any comedy (such as most bits with Tyson, or maybe that’s just me) but on the whole it’s fair to say Phillips has done an excellent job at keeping the jokes consistently brilliant throughout the film’s 100 minute run-time with few noticeable drops in pace or lulls in the action.

Cooper and Helms do a good job as the more cliched characters of the trio (the smooth talker and the uptight voice of reason) but it’s Galifianakis who emerges as a talent to keep an eye on. His Alan again is nothing we haven’t really seen before, the lovable idiot, but the bewildering stupidity of most of his actions, eminently quotable one liners (“We’re a wolf pack of four, wandering the desert, searching for strippers and cocaine”) and spot on moments of schlubby physical comedy (taser in the face – brilliant) make for a truly memorable comedy hero.

There are a few problems – Heather Graham is given little to do in her part as Helms’ overnight bride, Mike Epps is just plain annoying in every film he’s in and the final moment of revelation which hinges on one character’s epiphany rather than any logical plot progression, but these faults are more than outweighed by the comedic assault Phillips and company have put together.

It’s refreshing to see an American comedy which doesn’t follow the tired Apatow formula, with promising new talent, a solid story and enough laughs to keep you in fits throughout. While it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of In the Loop as the best comedy of the year so far Judd Apatow’s upcoming Funny People will have to be something special to dethrone an unexpected comedy gem. This is one hangover I look forward to living through again.

Up Next… John Woo’s Red Cliff

TV roundup 11 June 2009

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Tuesday saw the season finale of Smalville on E4 in the UK, the latest series to come to an end for the year after Lost, 24, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and  Dexter (season 2, though season 3 has recently started on FX). For most of these shows it proved to be their best seasons in years, a sparkling return to form for Jack Bauer and full season story arc for Clark Kent which didn’t revolve around Lex Luthor for once.

Lost delivered one of its best ever season endings (second only to the wonderful ‘flash forward’ of season three), with a gripping action heavy double bill centred around blowing up the island unfortunately dampened a little by the decision to reveal Jacob’s perplexing story in the flesh, though no doubt this will become a crucial part of the final season next year.

It’s a shame Fox has decided not to renew the Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third series as it proved to be a much more rewarding creation than McG’s big screen incarnation of the franchise. Though it lost its way a little half way through the second season the final four episodes were fantastic, bringing to a close several long gestating story arcs in a satisfying way, together with tantilising glimpses of a future war where John Connor is a mysterious, but absentee figure head (the way it should have been in the film) and some shocking deaths. One to remember on Blu-ray.

Keifer Sutherland may be in the news nowadays more because of his off-screen antics, but he still impresses as Jack Bauer. The seventh season was much anticipated after a years delay caused by the writers strike and while it might not have lived up to the expectations of die hard fans it was a welcome weekly thrill ride for most of us with the return of Tony Almeida, a raid on the White House and Jon Voight’s complex villain Jonas Hodges standing out as series highlights. Even Kim Bauer’s return was handled well with no head-smackingly stupid Kim in distress moments to rival the infamous cougar scene from series two and a genuinely heartfelt reunion with her father. Final episode was a stinker though with one cliff hanger too many and no real sense of closure on most of the major plot threads.

Dexter has gone from strength to strength with each new series, centred around a deliciously sinister central figure with well considered overall series story arcs delivering the kind of complex tales films can’t even touch. Michael C. Hall is a revelation in the role and the success of the series so far is well deserved. Series three recently started on FX in the UK and the plot premise seems just as intriguing as in the first two series, but it has a lot to live up to.

My Name is Earl has been consistently brilliant for four years, it will be a shame if it gets cancelled and I’m glad to see Californication back on Five USA a filthy, albeit sleight, comedy series worthy of attention. But Damages seems to have run its course. Closely following the formula of the excellent first series proved to be a mistake with an overly complex narrative brought to a far too neat conclusion with little of the tantilising moral questions viewers were left with at the end of the first. Patty Hewes is a character for the ages but if they hope to bring her back the series needs a radical overhaul.

Finally Smallville’s eighth season was easily the best since the first few. It was a gamble to take Lex out of the picture this series but the Doomsday plotline proved to be a huge success, rewarding viewers with several of the series’ best episodes so far and a wonderfully bleak conclusion which unfortunately failed to deliver the fight to the death the series had seemingly been building up to. The promise of Zod putting in appearance next year however has got this one Superman 2 fan practically wetting himself.

Special mention must also go to The Shield, possibly the greatest cop series of all time (though I have yet to watch my copies of The Wire). Vic Mackey’s tortured life came to a brutal conclucsion at the end of series seven, bringing story threads set up in the very first series full circle as Mackey’s hopelessly complex quest to rid himself of his past sins unravelled around him. The conclusion to the penultimate episode left me in disbelief for days after and the sombre, cathartic closing moments of the final episode proved to have a much greater emotional resonance with me than when The Soprano’s faded to black. A triumph.