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Nochnoy dozor

A loud, bangy damp goth squib.
Nightwatch is a Gothic action film directed by Timur Bekmambetov, in the tradition of flicks like Constantine and Underworld. This is the first Russian film I've ever seen that isn't about World War 2, and I was intrigued to find out where it would go. Sadly, from the look of it, it has about six times the budget of a normal film and about a third of the interior logic.

The story is of a team of supernatural people who guard against the powers of darkness, just as their opposite evil numbers guard against the coming of the light. A set of odd happenings lead them to realise that an ancient curse is about to come true, and – weirdly like the Ghostbusters – they must halt it.

Despite achieving the difficult feat of making Russia look even grimmer than it probably is, I can't shift the suspicion that in its original form this is an amusing parody of the morbid, urban look that's got boringly fashionable these days. As it is, the film looks highly westernised – someone's watched Se7en and Blade a few times, and there's some telling rubbish Nu Metal played in the action scenes – and it uses a lot of CGI tricks seen in American films. That said, Nightwatch isn't helped by the lore of the supernatural creatures being rather different to normal: one of the more frightening moments is a fight with a vampire that is invisible except for its reflection. It's a good scene, but isn't that the wrong way round?

The eventual feeling is of confusion and overkill. With such a mixture of creatures anything could happen, and the plot is occasionally diverted by only vaguely related CGI scenes that don't relate to the main characters. A plane hits a storm: a power station explodes. It looks great, but it's hard to really care, which is a shame, because there's an interesting story struggling to get out. I heard that this is to be the first part in a trilogy: if it had been developed more carefully and without such a rush, Nightwatch would be a more engrossing and less chaotic film.


An unusual and splendid film.
Mirrormask is a British children's' film directed by Dave McKean and written by Neil Gaiman – two veterans of the more stylish type of comic books. Helena, 15, works in a circus, argues with her mother and longs to run away to real life. On the night that her mum goes in for an operation, Helena slips into another world whose queen is on the edge of death. Helena goes on a quest to save the dreamworld and bring back a sinister princess who has escaped into reality: a mission, it seems, which will affect whether her mother survives the operation.

I say "it seems" because very little is for certain here. Is the Mirrormask world a dream, and if so, whose is it? One of the beauties of this small film is that nothing is really explained: it takes for granted that its audience are interested enough to fill in the gaps. (The only real piece of exposition involves a musical performance by musicians living in a hat). Like Alice in Wonderland, Mirrormask is complex and sophisticated, and assumes that children are just as bright as adults. My main criticism is that at times it's a little too arty and slight.

It also looks beautiful. It's often said that Pixar made kid's films with jokes adults could get - if so, this is a kid's film adults will enjoy looking at. The creatures of the dreamworld are constantly inventive, and the gentle, wry humour is a nice change from the noisiness of a lot of American cartoons. Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry put in cameos, but the real stars are Stephanie Leonidas (superb as Helena), Jason Barry as her jester-like sidekick, and Gina McKee, both creepy and amusing as the Queen of Darkness.

A brief word of warning. Some of Mirrormask is very sinister. It's not violent enough to merit any more than a PG, but the sphinx-cats would scare a young child, and even I was thoroughly unsettled by a section that involves dancing wind-up dolls – one of the most uncomfortable and Freudian scenes I've seen since The Company of Wolves. Although offset by lots of humour and happy characters, it's one for older children, without a doubt.

American Pie 2

A base, but moral, tale.
Caution: spoilers.

Before I begin, a few points about taste and suitability. Firstly, this film is crude, childish, and by many people's standards obscene: it features bare breasts, swearing and numerous attempts at pre-marital sex. Secondly, if you were expecting Citizen Kane, they you have bought the wrong video. Direction and cinematography are not the main aims of this work of art. Humour, however, is.

And it is funny. Puerile, base, vulgar and unkind, but funny. Characters get things jammed up their bottoms, glue hands to genitals, and more. It is like a Donald McGill seaside postcard, enlarged and moved to America.

The plot is simple: five friends sit in a beach-house planning a party, each with his own girl problems to solve come party time. Next door are two pretty, tactile ladies who might be lesbians. Comedy ensues.

The film divides itself between our hero, Jim, preparing for the arrival of a Russian girl who he believes to be a "sure thing", and the others in the house. There are two serious subplots: one of the friends has a girlfriend who lives far away, and another is trying to get back with his ex.

Much of the comedy relies on whether you can stand the characters and stomach what happens to them. The odious Stifler, for instance, seems too much a bully to be likable, and the scenes where he is humiliated gain something from this. Jim, on the other hand, is basically decent, and whilst laughable, we want him to succeed.

I found the two serious subplots of little interest: I am older than the ideal age-group, and they don't really seem very applicable to me now. Were I 18, they might well do, although they do weigh the comedy down. Also, perhaps deliberately, the character chasing his ex appears simply wretched rather than likable. Still, viewers may learn something.

Which brings me onto the fact that this film is, basically, moral. Forget the sex and farting jokes: at base, the film is broadly correct about the way men and women behave, and falls on the side of decency. The central relationship between Jim and Michelle (an excellent turn from Alyson Hannigan, at once weird, funny and sympathetic) is sweetness with a thin veneer of crudity, and shows the real heart of the film. Excellent also is Eugene Levy as Jim's Dad, embarrassing and hilarious, but protective and sincere.

For silly, throwaway entertainment, this scores highly. If you are a vicar or Pauline Kael, don't bother, but if you are looking for a film that is simple fun, this does well. The characters and subplots make it uneven - I often ended up waiting for the action to switch to better characters - but there are moments of real hilarity so long as you can tolerate the rudeness that comes with them.

This film will inevitably offend and disgust more prudish viewers, but for someone willing to watch silly vulgarity without throwing all moral sense to the wind, it is one of the classics of its type. Besides, morality is what you make it. To my mind, compared to the gross, gloating, sado-masochistic excess of The Passion of The Christ, it seems wholesome indeed.

Gangs of New York

Savage, flawed, and magnificent
Warning: spoilers.

In the squalid underworld of 1850's New York, moustachioed lunatic Bill the Butcher leads gangs of established Americans against immigrant (mainly Irish) gangs, led by the more friendly Priest Vallon. In a pitched battle Bill kills Vallon, and Vallon's young son escapes. A dozen years later, Vallon's now adult son Amsterdam returns to the city incognito, to worm his way into Bill's gang and assassinate him in revenge.

Here is a book that cried out to be filmed. Instead of following Herbert Asbury's questionably accurate history book through a hundred years, Scorcese focuses on the Draft Riots of the Civil War, blending the most notorious characters of the day to create imaginary figures who are largely based on life.

The first impression I had was of staggering squalor, as the gangs of the Five Point tenements fight over turf and the feeble proceeds of theft. The second was of an almost cartoonish, grotesque violence: it's as though Dickens' characters have gone berserk. People knife, beat and hack one another to death; ears and noses are sliced off, bodies hacked as casually as the meat that Bill serves up for a living. Over it all preside the corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall, using the gangs to intimidate voters their way. Nobody is clean.

Scorcese's New York looks incredible. The sets are astonishing, and the production lavish. The only jarring visual aspect is that the actors are not more disease-ridden and sickly. Even the battle-scenes, oddly, are a little squeaky-clean, despite their striving for gritty realism. In one fight, Amsterdam punches a man five times in the face, who a few minutes later is seen without even a trace of a black eye. Given the savagery of the rest of the film - it wholly deserves its certificate - it is surprising that this has been cleaned away. Not that one would want to see much more gore than there already is...

The acting is pretty good, overall. Brendan Gleeson is solid, if unexceptional, Liam Neeson (Priest Vallon) is excellent but underused, and Cameron Diaz adapts to the underworld surprisingly well. Top marks, though, must go to Daniel Day Lewis as the ogre-like, deranged Bill the Butcher, by turns Jolly Uncle and glowering maniac. Dandyish and brutal, he is both overplayed and convincing, like Anthony Hopkins' Lecter. The only weak link is Leonardo Di Caprio as Amsterdam, who is far too slick and pretty for this kind of world. He would not make a convincing Victorian shop assistant, let alone a hardened killer.

The most serious flaw in the film, however, comes two thirds of the way through. Amsterdam is alone and weak, apparently without face in the underworld, and suddenly ten men spring to his side and help him form a gang of his own. No reason is given for this: the impression given all along is that the gangsters are ruthless and untrustworthy, even joining up with Bill against their fellow Irishmen if it furthers their careers. It feels as through the end hour has been badly cut, and it damages the film.

The finale is unmitigatedly downbeat, as a racist mob runs amok in order to avoid the draft. It is hard to tell whether we are to pity these people or see them as savages, and the meaning of the ending is unclear. If America was born in the streets, as the tag line suggests, it was born from vicious rioters, not the honest toil of proleterians, as the film seems to want to suggest. You can read the ending two ways: perhaps the riot does bring solidarity to the people of New York, or perhaps it is the final outburst of a conflict that even Amsterdam seems to recognise as pointless at the end of this flawed, grimly magnificent film.


An unusual delight
A word of warning: spoilers within.

I first saw Jabberwocky about five years ago. At the time I was not watching closely, and it rather passed me by: I found there to be too few jokes, and not enough overt fun. Looking back I can see why I felt this, but there's no denying that many people, myself included, have seriously under-rated this film.

The plot is simple, loosely based around Lewis Carroll's strange poem, quoted at intervals by a punch-and-judy man. A young, idiotic everyman, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is disinherited by his father, rejected by the obnoxious fat girl that he inexplicably adores, and wanders to a squalid medieval city to find his fortune. Here, through a series of absurd adventures, he ends up meeting a dreadful monster that has plagued the countryside, the Jabberwock.

With Gillian directing and Palin in the lead role, this would first seem like a spin-off from the Holy Grail. It is, however, subtler and more serious than Monty Python, and lacks much of the levity of the Grail. Personally, I find John Cleese vain and excessive, and Eric Idle simply too chirpy for Arthurian legend, so I don't miss the absence of the usual Python team, especially since they are replaced by the likes of Warren Mitchell, John Bird, Max Wall and John le Mesurier.

This probably gives the impression that the film is somehow weighty and meaningful - it isn't. It is incredibly silly, and deeply crude. People wee off the battlements and eat rats on a stick. Deaths are frequent and ridiculously bloody. Many characters are consistently lecherous, and there is even a brief flash of total nudity from the gorgeous but crippling stupid Princess. Jokes aside, the squalor and baseness seems rather a feasible portrait of what life really was like in the middle ages. Goodness knows how it got a PG certificate!

The humour is difficult to categorise. On one hand, it is silly and childishly base - on the other, a lot of jokes are easily missed if you aren't watching closely enough. Added to this, the film is well-directed but not beautiful - the world is drab, muddy, and swathed in mist, and I can think of people who would find the visuals alone a depressing experience. And the Jabberwock itself looks hilarious.

All in all, Jabberwocky is a film that is very nearly a total success, and if it fails at all, that is only because there is so little like it that it doesn't fit easily into a slot. It feels as though a very silly don, or a rather scholarly child put it together, and it achieves that neat combination of the high and low that is rare in modern films. Overall, highly recommended and very unusual - and, if you watch carefully, at times very funny. 7.5/10.

Dawn of the Dead

Lacks the awe of the original, but makes up for it in fun.
This remake ditches the consumer satire of the 70's original, accepting that malls are too much a part of normal life to be worthy of serious scorn. Instead, Snyder goes for excitement, with zombies that are feral rather than piteous and sequences inspired as much by Aliens as the original Dawn. Characters are broadly but well drawn, and Synder is not afraid to let good people die and bad ones live. In particular, the character of "CJ" shows the sophistication of the film in comparison to the cut-and-dried moralising of much modern horror. Some of the gore is incredibly nasty, and the tone is refreshingly sincere, without any Scream-style "irony" to water down the suspense. This is not a horror film for couples on dates to cuddle to: this is grim, ferocious, mature stuff whose ideas unsettle as much as the crazed violence it depicts. Even the post-credit sequence throws a new, bleaker light on the previous carnage. The acting is good, but the sense of sadness and apocalypse of the original is traded in for excitement and extra thrills; an inevitable exchange, given the faster pace of the remake. The first ten minutes are a good indicator of the rest of the film: often disgusting, sometimes frightening, and good throughout.

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