Lady Muck

Manhattan socialite and PR Ashley (Lindsay Lohan) is blessed with supernatural good fortune. Every scratch-card is a winner, it stops raining when she leaves her penthouse and she can always get a taxi. Everything is going great until one night she goes to a masquerade ball and meets Jake (Chris Pine), a penniless janitor at a bowling alley who moonlights as a manager, and is desperate to get a CD from his up-and-coming band into the hands of a music mogul. Ashley winds up kissing Jake, leading to her good luck being swapped with his bad, along with the spit. Immediately, she breaks a heel on her swanky stilletoes then she almost gets killed and winds up in jail. Worst of all, she loses her job and the platinum company credit card, although it is a mystery what exactly that job entailed beyond batting her eyelashes. Even to the world of eyelash-batting, this is no great loss. Nevertheless, Ashley must restore her mojo so sets about finding and kissing every dancer employed at the ball - like Cinderella with a chapstick. She must also stay alive, so takes Jakes old job in the bowling alley, cleaning toilets and deodorising shoes.

Just My Luck has been mercilessly targeted by its six screenwriters to tick off every possible item on the tweenie checklist. Ashley has a cool job, lots of money, wardrobes full of designer clothes and about 100 pairs of shoes. She's super-skinny but still has a rack. She actually lives in the same actual building as the actual Sarah-Jessica Actual Parker. She has two supportive, not-too-pretty, not-too-rich friends, who take her in when things get bad.

In fact, the only thing Ashley does not posess is a golden palomino pony, but then she does live forty floors up in New York and I suppose there must be some tattered scrap of reality remaining if this cynical romance is going to work. But I wish they had found room for the horse. My kingdom for the horse, if only for its (hopefully talkative, wisecracking) appearance to let all but the most impressionable members of the young audience in on the joke. That this leaden, clumsy romance is a fantasy and not a guide to life, that ‘unlucky’ and ‘poor’ are different things altogether, that behaving like an uppity Anglo Saxon epithet for ninety minutes ultimately requires, demands, comeuppance.

You ask a homeless person why they’re sleeping on the street and they won’t tell you it’s because they broke a mirror or walked under a ladder. They’ll tell you a story you probably don’t really want to hear, much like Lohan and her producers who blithely float through the routines here without so much as a nod towards humanity. Much fun is made of Jake fishing a dog-turd covered five dollar bill out of a park dustbin, the same bill that a rich man just used to wipe his dogs arse, with the scene concluding with the young dreamer being confused with a rapist because he looks a bit shabby and is out of breath. Ashley meanwhile is learning that manual work is just so much fun! There are so many things to break, it's unreal! Aren't bowling balls heavy! Wow. I know. Aren’t regular people funny, with their saggy clothes and cheap shoes and dull jobs and limited vocabulary? Don’t ‘the other half’ live like pigs? Someone should say something. Gawd!

Lohan, who isn’t all bad in general, is all bad here. She stumbles unconvincingly through the film on cheerful, toothy autopilot but it comes across as distracted and stiff. Pine gets less to do and does less with it. The direction, from Donald Petrie, is flat and unadventurous. The fact that his film also contains long sequences involving the real-life boy band McFly doesn't help. They look, and sound, like the bus home after a special-needs day-trip to the trainee hairdressers.

Later, for their big performance, the band’s name is transformed to resemble the logo of a well-known burger restaurant (same red and yellow colouring), but this incidence of product placement is notable only for its conniving subtlety in a film where coveted brands are blatantly promoted. Forget the ads before the trailers, the main feature is riddled with commercial breaks. There is never any doubt about which lifestyle Ashley preferred, rich or poor, army surplus or Dolce & Gabbana, despite her last-gasp homily about ' maybe going home to her parents to think things through'.

Even more uncomfortably, for a film rated PG and made for twelve year old girls, there's a lot of unnecessary use of the word shit, which surprised me in the context, and lots more of the same old scatological nonsense involving actual piles of faeces; the imagery fast replacing Monument Valley or the Manhattan skyline in the panoply of American cinema. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something.

Lasseter Come Home

Loathe and all as I am to link to CNN, there is a fascinating article with Pixar's head honcho John Lasseter on their financial pages where he talks about his personal filmmaking history, the origins of digital animation and the rise of Pixar, the recent big-money merger with Disney and Cars, their new one.

Revelations include the fact that he started out sweeping the floors in Disneyland and learned everything he knows about comic timing from operating one of the rides there. You can find it here, it's a must read.

Gael Force

There has been so much written about Ken Loaches Palme d’Or winning Wind That Shakes The Barley it is almost impossible to separate the film itself from the entity that has taken shape in the media here and in Britain over the past couple of weeks. Yes, it is a masterfully drawn story of patriotism and rebellion, absolutely righteous in its commitment to exposing the barbaric colonial oppression of the British and precise in defining the timeline that lead to the treaty of 1921 and the start of the Civil War and the formation of the Free State. It is not however, a paean to the IRA as we knew them until recently, or a call to arms for modern-day republicans. Here, it is important to distinguish the on-the-runs and the flying columns of the 1920s from the paramilitary army of gangsters that terrorised this country for the past 30 years. Although republicans might flock to see this film, they will not find any comfort here. Loach is fundamentally not interested in what this struggle became, but rather how it came to be.

Taking its emotive title from an old patriot song, Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty have fashioned a heartbreaking story of sacrifice that tells the story of Ireland’s awful history in microcosm, taking the formation of a flying column of young republican rebels as a springboard for a discussion about colonial oppression, barbaric reprisal and the vacuum created when those who have taken power abandon the people to Civil War, the echoes of which still rattle through the hillsides of Cork and Kerry. A guerrilla war being a local war; the entire film takes place within a few square miles of the unnamed Cork village, with Loach opening his film in 1920 during a spirited hurling match. Afterwards, the players, including student doctor Damien (Cillian Murphy) and his brother Ted (Pádraic Delaney) are detained and assaulted by a squad of snarling Black and Tans, who accuse the hurlers of playing “paddy” games and speaking Irish, both illegal under British rule. One of the lads refuses to give his name in English and is beaten to death for his insolence. This act of casual barbarism is the trigger that politicises Damien, who abandons his plans to practise medicine in London to join his older brother and their firebrand friend Dan (Liam Cunningham) in forming a local IRA flying column and start the fight for independence. Operating in small, hastily-trained groups, they steal the weapons they need from an RIC barracks and, in a typically terse but hugely effective scene in a local bar, start their campaign against the Black & Tans.

Murphy, an ordinary guy who happens to be a brilliant actor, is excellent as the divided young patriot at the heart of the story, absolutely authentic and perfectly credible as a young man who sacrifices everything he has got rather than have it destroyed in front of him. It is his best film yet, perhaps because he is allowed to be himself, or who he would have been if he was born 100 years ago. Opposite him, Pádraic Delaney give a more careful performance, far more shrewd and pragmatic, while Liam Cunningham occasionally suffers under the weight of his impassioned speeches. In a less pivotal but important role, Orla Fitzgerald delivers a heartbreaking representation of suffering and sacrifice that is absolutely draining. Throughout the film, the emotions Loach asks his cast to call up are so emphatic, the dialogue so inflamed, that any weakness or incompatibility would be immediately obvious. Technically the film does wonders with a restricted budget, particularly the luminously earthy photography of Barry Ackroyd and the naturalistic costume design of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh.

Stories of their brutal deeds have been told for almost 100 years so you don’t have to be a military historian to know that the Black and Tans were little better than uniformed death-squads. That is exactly how Loach portrays them; supremely aggressive and intimidating, quick to use violence and torture and ruthless in their recriminations. It is a representation that has caused considerable controversy in Britain, currently fighting a doubly patriotic war on the streets of Iraq and the football fields of Germany. Loach depicts terrible violence on both sides, brutal and poetic, but there can be no doubt about where the moral right lies. His film has a strict point of view, and within that he places a couple of distinct lectures about the political history of Ireland in the early part of the last century, framing that struggle against a simply-drawn individually human story of loss and division. Towards the end, the information tends to overshadow the emotion as the personal stories get lost in the political but that is not to deny the fervour and ferocity of either. This is powerful cinema. The prevailing political ideas of the time are presented, with time devoted to discussing the minute details that make al the difference and the difficulties involved in setting up an administration on a local level, but within this wider ideological battlefield, the people Loach and Laverty have selected to tell the story are occasionally pushed to the background, or given more space than required to make heavy-handed Marxist speeches, espousing an ideology that is as dead as disco. What is lost, in these spittle-flecked, over-oratorical discussions, is the film’s initial feeling of optimism and hope and fraternity; devastatingly exposed as a fraud later, when the ground has shifted and the brothers must take opposing sides. It is important to remember that these individuals are fictional, but the events the film portrays are as close to the truth as cinema can be.

In the end, and whether you agree with him or not, Loach’s thinking boils down to the simple fact that a people held captive by a colonial power must use military force to achieve freedom. It will not be handed to you and few escape once the ultimate choice has been made. Blood is spilled on everyone’s hands. The violence makes the film occasionally difficult to watch, but that is as it should be. A squadron of roaring Black and Tans beat a young man to death in a farmyard. They assault a railway guard for refusing them passage on a train. Later, in the films most disturbing scene, they burn out a house they suspect has harboured the rebel fighters and brutally assault the women inside, including Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), Damien’s gentle, politically passionate girlfriend. Later, a grenade tossed into a truck full of Tans during an ambush explodes causing devastation, but it is an event that is restrained by reality which makes it all the more powerful. Loach’s camera remains dispassionately static; his soldiers die where they drop. These scenes have an unflinching savagery and an immediacy that makes them hugely effective – in depicting the atrocities that engendered a Nationalist consciousness in the people at the time, but also in firmly grounding the film’s grand political ideas with red blood on green grass.

These men and women are ordinary people, not politicians or kings, driven to extremes by centuries of oppression and state-sponsored murder. But this is not a republican film in a uniquely Irish sense, with a capital R and wrapped in a green flag, it is a film about all oppressed people driven to fight for freedom. The film can be successfully read as a straight historical drama, hugely atmospheric and perfectly played, but Loach is a deeper filmmaker than that. In The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the British filmmaker draws a straight line through time and space that connects Bandon and Baghdad, watching history repeating itself in cycles and damning the administrations that have not learned from their mistakes. There is also, for Irish viewers, a more sobering realisation. We can witness the high price that was paid for the freedom we enjoy today, and might reflect on how cheaply we then sold that dream on – to priests, corrupt politicians and property developers.

We Are One

80 posts later, or so, Confessions celebrates it's first year of existence with a cup of strong coffee and a cigarette. Thanks to those who drop by to read the reviews, and a special thank you to those who leave comments. Appreciate it.

Caravan of Hate

It took considerably more effort that is usually required to recall the events of RV, a misbegotten family comedy whose true depths of malignant ineptitude can only be succinctly described in hot, harsh, ineloquent words. Suffice to say that in my house we know him as Robin Fucking Williams.

The untrammelled horror involved in surrendering oneself to his desperate mugging is returned threefold when RV's twinned spectaculars of waste and unfunniness are remembered later. The film does end, thank the good Lord, after about an hour and a half of pointless, poorly-timed pratfalls, but the pain of it endures.

In terms of harrowing, knuckle-whitening cinema RV puts United 93 in the ha’penny place. Like, seriously.

Fizzy drink executive Bob Munro (Williams), his wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines) and their two bratty children (JoJo Levesque and Josh Hutcherson) take a family vacation across America (actually Canada) because his obnoxious boss Todd (Will Arnett from Arrested Development) has ordered him to make a presentation in Boulder, Colorado. For some reason unable to admit he might be called away to attend to his livelihood during the trip, Bob rents a huge recreational vehicle, puts everybody in and starts driving. The van comes with a gigantic photograph of director Barry Sonnenfeld on its side, in a suitably delicate cameo. He is not blushing in the picture, although he should be.

The first night on the road, they meet the over-friendly Gornicke family -- Travis and Mary Jo (Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth) and their kids. For some reason, they take a liking to the Munros. For some even more unfathomable reason, they are upset when the feelings are not reciprocated. The film then sets a pattern of the Munro’s getting into difficulty (with racoons, faulty brakes, lost computers) and the country & western yodelling Gornicke’s getting them out of it.

Although he has given a decent account of himself as a straight dramatic actor in films like Dead Poets Society and Insomnia, Robin Williams hasn’t made me laugh since 1983. The curious thing is he is never just plain old bad when he is bad (which is most of the time), he has to be apocalyptically bad. There is a bit in RV where Mork does a five minute impression of an African American basketball player talking trash on the court, a breathtakingly embarrassing scene that alone, in a career littered with cringes, would see him in the dock in The Hague if the film critics ruled the world. How is this, presumably semi-improv, rant funny when it smacks of racism and more to the point, how does that comes under the heading of children’s entertainment? Maybe the situations involving the handling of poo, which Williams does often and at length, are supposed to be the fun stuff. Even hepatitis doesn't want him.

Chevy Chase cobbled some semblance of a career from this genre of family vacation comedies and although it burns to admit it, each of the five or so National Lampoons are like Citizen Kane when compared to this frightful misfire, which played out in total silence, save the occasional tut of impatience, at the screening I attended. Nobody laughed, because there was nothing to laugh at.

There are a small few interesting nuggets of character and situation nestled among the detritus that address modern urban living and balancing work and family, but they are drowned out by the roar of William’s murderously frantic capering and comedy as broad as all outdoors. Two thirds of the film is given over to the hairy little gnome running, cycling or driving at a pace calibrated to a degree just below heart failure. Not a single frame of it has any value as comic entertainment, with the rushing about merely bringing the failings of the remainder of the underwritten, unashamedly larcenous screenplay into sharper contrast. Williams’ wide-eyed physical exertions are later replaced with a few dewy eyed sermons about family love and integrity so laden with Hollywood sugar they should come with a warning for diabetics. Message delivered, Sonnenfeld goes back to the diarrhoea gags. It is impossible to gauge which is worse.

Nobody emerges from the wreckage of RV with their dignity intact. Williams can forget about it, and good riddance, but it is sad to see Jeff Daniels reduced to this level with the brilliant Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm wasted completely in role that only requires her to tilt her head sympathetically and smile a big smile. To her credit, she doesn’t appear to be enjoying herself much and you won’t either.

Signs of the Times

Much is made in the new version of The Omen of the 6th day of the 6th month, 2006 being the day that Armageddon will arrive. That’s today, so hopefully there will be someone left alive to read this tomorrow. I’ll look pretty stupid if there isn’t. In any event, that numerical co-incidence, coupled with 9/11, barcodes, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, the Asian tsunami and the appearance of a mysterious comet, convince the scientists at the Vatican Observatory that the end of days is upon us. At the same time, American diplomat Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is switching his stillborn son for a healthy child at a hospital in Rome, without informing his young wife Katherine (Julia Stiles).

The story flashes forward, through judicious use of home video montage, to where the family have moved from Rome to London, where the well-connected Robert is now ambassador. There’s a big garden party to celebrate the fact that the demon child is now five, where his devoted nanny hangs herself off the roof in front of the guests. This horrible act, drawings of which later decorate his bedroom, start an awareness in Damien (newcomer Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) that he is different from all the other kids. When a frantic Irish priest Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite) and a local photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) arrive to tell Ambassador Thorne that his son is the antichrist, he doesn’t believe them at first, even if his wife has her suspicions. Finally convinced he must act to stop the child, he finds the forces of evil, mostly channelled through the benign shape of Nanny Baylock (Mia Farrow) are a far tougher test of his diplomatic abilities.

Schreiber does well in the Gregory Peck role, occasionally mimicking the late actors growling incredulity. Opposite him, Julia Stiles as Katherine is unconvincingly brittle, never giving the impression she hasn’t read the lines from a page before forming the words. She does have a great death scene though and its here that the film shows its merit, coming up with new twists on the classic scenes of Mousetrap-like demonic spite that put paid to more than a few characters in the build-up to the final battle.

Dundalk-born director John Moore overcomes the inevitable familiarity of the shot-for-shot nature of his remake to create a sustained atmosphere of dread through some choice cinematography, especially in the flashy dream sequences, and judicious use of a screeching soundtrack. Although the scripting is far from sharp, there are plenty of well-crafted jumpy moments, familiar to those that know the original film, but tweaked through costlier, gorier special effects to provide the film with a reason for being. Moore, whose last film was a remake of The Flight of the Phoenix, shows again that he can deliver a well executed and handsome film which should allow him to graduate from these uninspired studio jobs towards something more substantial.