Run to see the chickens

Chicken Run

The first full-length feature from Aardman Animation – which has three Academy Awards for shorts under its belt – combines the fantastic artistry of those shorts with solid storytelling to create that rare species in Bangkok: a film actually worth venturing out to see that definitely won’t be tied in with any fast-food promotion.

Mel Gibson is the voice of cocky (ahem) American, Rocky the Flying Rooster, who makes a crash landing within the confines of Tweedy’s egg farm. Here, in conditions reminiscent of a prisoner-of-war camp, a group of hens are intent on escaping from an existence where the preservation of their life depends on their ability to produce eggs. The scheming is of course carried out in Hut 17.

The chickens are led by Ginger (Julia Sawalha from Absolutely Fabulous), the film’s feisty heroine and the most determined of them all to escape. She knows that there’s a place where the grass has to be greener, a poultry paradise without the evil Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) and suspicious Mr Tweedy (Tony Haygarth). Ginger is going to get there with her friends, even if they’re not all sure they really do need to get out. "We haven’t tried not escaping," says one.

Ginger offers protection to Rocky in return for lessons on how to fly for all the hens. These Rocky dutifully delivers when he’s not being fawned over by swooning hens as he lies in his outdoor jacuzzi. Ginger is suitably unimpressed.

The situation becomes more dire, however, when Mrs Tweedy installs a chicken pie-making machine that promises to increase her profits. A great Indiana-Jones like scene where Rocky and Ginger manage to escape the clutches of the intricate machine showcases the impeccable skills of directors Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit and Creature Comforts) and Peter Lord, who also produced the film.

The 563 plasticine figures in the film had to be painstakingly moved into 24 different positions for each second shot, making for a very realistic animation style that still gives absolute free reign to creativity – and gives new meaning to the description of a film being "well-crafted".

Chicken Run is one of those very rare imaginative and genuine films that will appeal as much to children as to adults. There are plenty of clever laughs and stunts, and some lovely characterisation – the two farm mice are noteworthy for their witty lines. The messages of the film are subtle and well-made, right down to the importance of Ginger’s feminism.

Thai audiences might not catch some of the jokes playing on the Anglo-American cultural difference evident between Rocky and the Tweedy Farm residents. For instance, the emphasis of the pure Britishness of former Royal Air Force rooster, Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow), could perhaps be lost: "Pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war," he says. "Overpaid, oversexed and over here!" (On the other hand, they might particularly identify with that line!)

This wouldn’t be enough, however, to hamper enjoyment by Thai audiences of this clever, compact and magical film that’s heartwarming without being too sentimental.

Girls still just wanna have fun

Charlie’s Angels

"Charlie’s Angle" the cinema’s newspaper ad said, so it could have been an attempt to hide the fact that it was really Charlie’s Angels. The trailer had been so cheesy and awful it wouldn’t have been surprising.

Surprisingly though, if you can stomach the blatant exploitation of the Angels’ boobs and bums – even though at times the movie claims to be mocking this exploitation, it nonetheless conveniently employs it – this is actually a sporadically entertaining movie. Forget the sleepy action, forget the plot full of holes, don’t look for anything intelligent and you might find yourself enjoying the ride.

Cameron Diaz (who plays naive Natalie), Lucy Liu (who plays smart Alex) and Drew Barrymore (who plays tough Dylan) together make up the Angels respectively in this cinematic version of the TV-series that ran from 1976 to 1981.

They’re out to show that they can be sexy, smart, and physically strong too. That is, the camera lingers gratuitously on their often rather impractical outfits, they can speak Japanese and defuse the occasional bomb, and they’re not at all bad at their martial arts.

Director "McG" has a history of directing video clips and commercials and it certainly shows, with the film itself really being just a platform for various sloppy action scenes – despite the participation of Hong Kong specialist Yuen Cheung Yan – and low-brow comedy sketches.

The movie kicks off with yet another of the latex-mask tricks Hollywood has not yet tired of using before getting down to the real show.

Natalie, Alex and Dylan are the elite fighting force behind the Charles Townsend Detective Agency. The women are hired to rescue a kidnapped computer software king (Sam Rockwell) from a rival (Tim Curry), but end up in a race to save their forever-faceless boss (the voice of John Forsythe) instead. A movie has never been easier to summarise in less than fifty words.

Much is made of 70s kitsch in the film, which is kind of fun, but not awfully clever. And the self-parodying is just not clever enough to be sustained for a full-length film. But it’s still mildly amusing.

Cameron Diaz will spend the rest of her career trying to live up to her performance in Being John Malkovich, where she actually acted, and well. Angels has merely given her an(other) opportunity to wriggle her bum and smile a lot, making her the most boring of the three Angels.

Drew Barrymore is feisty and plays with some guts, but it’s Lucy Liu, with her deadpan delivery and masterly performance in the dastardly dominatrix scene, who steals the show. And she was the lowest paid of the three "stars". Ah, Hollywood.

Bill Murray plays Bosley, the Angels’ handler. While a welcome face on the big screen, the script nevertheless relies more on his history of comedy than his actual lines in this film to grab laughs. In other words, audiences who have learned to enjoy his style of delivering lines will find him to be the best thing about the film, while those who haven’t will wonder who on earth the script writers were.

Charlie’s Angels doesn’t promise to deliver a lot, and it doesn’t. So extra points for honesty, but minus for not trying in the first place.

Not dazzled at all

Bedazzled

In yet another remake to hit the screens this year, Elizabeth Hurley stars as the devil. But in this American version of Stanley Donen’s 1967 British film of the same name by director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day), the devil doesn’t quite know if she should be acting sweet and seductive or sexy and sly in order to get what she wants.

What she’s lusting after, of course, is a mere earthling’s soul: the soul of social misfit Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser), a romantically inept geek with a crush on co-worker Alison (Frances O’Connor). And she’s willing to wear a slinky red dress, hand out her business card, and buy Elliot a hamburger and coke to prove it.

Elliot surrenders with comparative ease, signing a phonebook size contract in return for the seven wishes the devil promises to grant him. Of course, we can all see where this is going: the wishes all go horribly wrong.

Elliot firstly wishes to be very rich and married to Alison; lo and behold, he’s a Columbian drug lord with an Alison who’s in love with her English teacher. One of the funniest scenes – there are only a few moments of true hilarity in this hit-and-miss comedy – is of Elliot’s utter amazement when he discovers he can speak Spanish fluently.

When things go wrong, Elliot uses the devil’s pager to return to his old identity. And he does need to use it, as in turn he becomes a basketball star with much more than a perspiration problem, a sensitive guy who cries at the sight of a sunset, an articulate author who also happens to be gay, and a president who’s about to be assassinated.

The cuts to the different roles don’t make for much of a plot, and audiences will find themselves growing curious about what’s going to happen to Elliot in the next sketch, rather than derive any pleasure from a coherently structured film.

Hurley, following up on her Austin Powers’ efforts, might not be bad to look at, but has awful trouble swaggering around. She kind of bounces as if she’s uncomfortable when she’s not on a catwalk or standing still for the Estee Lauder photographers – or running past a union picket, perhaps. She also talks rather curiously: it’s as if she’s had one too many elocution lessons.

Fraser deals with the lukewarm script with honorable gusto. His energy results in a solid performance for his multiple and disparate roles – and he’s not bad to look at either.

As the love interest, Australian actress Frances O’Connor isn’t given much of a chance to show her stuff – but when she plays the journalist interviewing Elliot the basketball player, her true talent shines through.

There’s an admirable moral to the movie, but it couldn’t have been less subtly pointed out than if it were actually written up onscreen: you can choose whether you’re going follow a good or an evil path while you’re here on earth – no need to wait until after death. There’s a few laughs, but ultimately this is harmless candy for the eyes. How desperate are you for a sugar fix?

This ain’t no legend

Urban Legends: The Final Cut

Final cut: It’s the quick incision of a blade leading to death, it’s the ultimate outcome of a film’s editing process, and hopefully it will be the second and final film in the Urban Legend series.

It’s winter, and film students at Alpine University are working hard to submit films good enough to be in line to win the Hitchcock prize: $15,000 and a shot at Hollywood success. It’s going to get nasty.

The original crew who survived Urban Legend have been replaced, except for squeaky-voiced security guard Reese (Loretta Devine), and a cameo by the killer in the original – but you’d have to stay beyond the lights being turned on in a Bangkok cinema to catch her.

Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) has trouble hitting on an idea for her film, but is inspired by Reese to make a film about, surprise, surprise, a serial killer who bases his murders on urban legends. Oddly, the actors and crew working with Amy begin to disappearing and getting killed – including her friend Travis, who despite being a promising film student, scored poorly on his Hitchcock entry.

But before we get into the fact that none of the legends Amy films are unheard of – that’s a problem with using them all up in the first, much better, film – there’s a gory but good little sketch on the old kidney-removal tale. Only problem is it doesn’t quite relate to the rest of the film.

The holes don’t stop there. Despite various student disappearances and deaths under suspicious circumstances, the police are completely uninterested unless they’re hauling away the dead in body bags or sticking up yellow crime tape. Travis’ twin brother, who appears from the past following his brother’s death, can’t go to the police: he was involved in something a bit dodgy in the past. Right, that explains it!

And how do a group of university students get complete access to an old disused but incredibly well-kept and working carnival ride?

But back to that crocheted blanket of a plot. The killer could be anyone – take your pick, as there are certainly no sensible clues being woven into the action. But eventually all is revealed in a scene where the too-many-guns-some-are-fake scene drags on and on.

Although her role’s not exactly challenging, Morrison puts in a solid performance and has screen presence worthier of greater things. Keep an eye out for her. Otherwise the acting is pretty unremarkable.

One positive development in the world of Hollywood: a lesbian character who’s "normal" – in other words, she can just be a student rather than having to have her sexuality problematized into a complete film.

But nothing much else can be said about a film that fails to be really smart about anything at all. It’s confusing, derivative of, rather than tributary to, the various films it quotes, and, excepting the kidney scene, lacking in gut-wrenching scariness.

And you can’t say anything worse about a whodunnit, a satire, or a horror movie, can you?

Get lost Carter

Get Carter

When a re-make of a film appears, a reviewer needs to ask whether they should really be seeing the original as well. This movie didn’t pose that problem for this reviewer: if the 1971 British gangster original thriller is anything like the remake, there’s no way she’s ever going anywhere near it.

Sylvester Stallone is Jack Carter, and after a five-year absence working as a mob enforcer in Las Vegas, he’s back in Seattle wearing a very silly suit and tie for his younger brother’s funeral in the rain. It seems that, despite the absence, Carter is the only one who is intuitively suspicious about the circumstances of Ritchie’s drink-driving demise – besides Doreen (Raechel Leigh Cook), Ritchie’s daughter, who gives him the only real hint that something might be astray: "He didn’t drink and drive!" Gasp!

So Carter goes to visit a few people. Cliff Brumby, the affable club-owner his brother worked for, is played by Michael Caine, who played the original Carter. Cute but pointless casting, really. Brumby doesn’t think anything was up with Ritchie – although he was having an affair with hooker Geraldine, who just happens to be an acquaintance of Cyrus Paice (Mickey Rourke). Paice is an old "friend" of Carter’s, but their background is as sketchy as the rest of the film.

Paice is dressed even more laughably than Carter – would someone tell Hollywood directors what hip means, please? – but nobody’s making comments to his face. If they did, he would probably have a tough time working out who said what – sunglasses in the dark can be difficult like that. Paice is supposed to be kind of bad-guy groovy, unlike Carter, who’s dress sense is supposed to indicate in some way that he is a bit behind the times here now. Paice has moved on from their real brawn days and is a sleazy "businessman" into Internet porn deals.

Carter just happens to follow Paice and Geraldine to a private golf club, where in another odd scene, he confronts Jeremy (Alan Cumming), a mega-rich effeminate computer geek who somehow fits into the porn deal but is afraid of being caught. He has the gift of the gab, but is of course a bit of coward when it comes to guns – stereotype alert.

The cycle of making house calls and perfunctorily roughing people up continues in a subdued blur that one can presume is director Stephen T. Kay’s understanding of what MTV-watchers are supposed to like. Yet despite the editing tricks and the violence, there’s even less action than decent plot and dialogue in this film – look out for the car chase scenes, as they’re not just good opportunities to take quick naps, they actually encourage them.

In between the biffo and the grunts, Carter tries to establish a caring relationship with Doreen, who warms to his tough-guy, hammocks-under-the-eyes exterior during an interminable scene at a diner where she slurps numerous cups of coffee. So it’s no surprise that in the end it’s Doreen as well as his brother’s memory that Carter is trying to protect.

But just how he ends up helping is unclear. Who were the real baddies? All of the dead guys? Carter will be on the run for the rest of his life, so at least he’ll have time to think about it. You shouldn’t waste yours being baffled in the first place.

A quiet achiever

Bless The Child

Religious thriller Bless the Child almost works.

Psychiatric nurse Maggie (Kim Basinger) returns home one evening to find her sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) waiting for her with her newborn daughter, Cody. Maggie discovers a syringe and spoon in Jenna’s bag, and promises to help her: "But first you have to get off these drugs!" Hmm – usually addicts require help while they are getting off the drugs.

Jenna of course flees into the night, leaving Maggie to raise Cody on her own. Cut to six years later, and it turns out that Cody (Holliston Coleman) is autistic, although Maggie believes she is special in another way. In fact Cody is something of a prophet, a child with a gift for leading people closer to God.

Cody is so gifted that an evil cult, masquerading as a self-help group for youth, wish to get their hands on Cody to use her for converting people to satanism. But it’s taken them a while to find the right child; cult members have been killing a series of other six year olds born on December 13, 1993, the day that the star of Jaakov shone over New York – apparently that was meant to be the sign of the birth of this special child.

Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) plays the evil cult leader very well. He tracks down Jenna and marries her in order to get closer to Cody; when Eric and Jenna sweep into Maggie’s home one day to retrieve the child Jenna hasn’t seen since abandoning her, Maggie is understandably riled and a little suspicious.

Christina Ricci plays a small role as a junky trying to escape from the cult; she’s able to warn Maggie that they are planning to sacrifice Cody if she won’t turn to Satan. With the occasional assistance of cult-specialist and detective John Travis (Jimmy Smits) – and various angels – Maggie sets out to save her niece.

There are some beautiful and eerie special effects. The rats swarming around Cody’s bed in a dream sequence are memorable, while Maggie’s ephemeral visions of flying demons are absolutely superb.

The film has a quiet, other-worldly feel to it, and although it doesn’t match the class of The Sixth Sense – to which it has been compared – it is very watchable, if a little dragged out. There seem to be far too many scenes of Maggie and Cody walking along the street holding hands, for instance. And one blooper to look out for: Maggie decides to take Cody shopping because it’s such a beautiful day. When they go outside, however, it’s clearly been raining.

The performances of Basinger and Smits lack energy – it’s as if they’ve been sucked into the quietness of the film themselves and are struggling to show any real personality. Coleman, however, is compelling, particularly in a tense rooftop scene where Sewell tries to get her to jump off if she really believes in God. "You first," she eventually says in a brilliant comeback line.

Bless the Child will draw audiences in, but might lose them along the way. It’s a film worth catching for its beauty, and it will have you clutching your armrest in its more frightening moments. Ultimately, however, it’s not quite satisfying, with an ending that’s just a bit too convenient – and it’s a shame that teenagers wearing black and sporting piercings are stereotyped as being Satanists.

Oh god, they’re back!

Nutty Professor II: The Klumps

They’re back!

The sequel from the 1996 box office smash The Nutty Professor is finally in Thailand, with Eddie Murphy playing no less than eight of the main Klump characters.

Genetics professor and – let’s be blunt – fat man Sherman Hump (Eddie Murphy) is in love with a fellow researcher, the syrupy sweet Denise Gains (Janet Jackson). She confesses her love for him, but Sherman is scared: he can’t control Buddy Love, his straight-shooting alter-ego who occasionally takes control of his body and threatens to ruin his relationship with Denise.

But otherwise, things are looking up: Sherman has just made a major scientific breakthrough. He’s created a "youth formula" which will take years off someone’s life, at least for a little while. Using the genetic information he has uncovered in the course of this discovery, Sherman decides to exorcise Buddy once and for all.

Unsurprisingly, things go wrong. With a little help from a dog hair, Buddy escapes into the real world, eager to take responsibility for the brilliance of the formula, while Sherman slowly loses his intelligence. It’s a race against time to save Sherman from becoming the sort of person who would really enjoy this film.

Now while an audience can be expected to suspend disbelief over certain issues, they shouldn’t also have to deal with a ticking computer clock that moves at different speeds every time the camera cuts to it. How difficult can it be to get a clock to be believable?

The script bumbles along from one burping/farting/breast/penis/excrement/sex joke to the next, which is only to be expected given that the co-writers are also responsible for American Pie while director Peter Segal has the distinguished Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult on his curriculum vitae. If bathroom humor’s your thing, then this is your movie.

Discerning viewers seeking clever humor should stay well away, although I will confess to smiling at Murphy behaving like a human dog – this is comic Murphy at his best – and at the giant horny hamster. The marriage proposal by fireflies is a cute touch, but it’s too bad the audience can’t read what Denise apparently can.

Sure, it’s true that Eddie Murphy does do an exceptional job playing eight very different characters in this film – although the post-opening restaurant scene with lots of shrill and screaming Murphies in it made me want to stick my fingers in my ears and damn surround sound to hell.

The make-up and editing people too have done a fine job dealing with all the technical problems having eight Murphies on-screen must have entailed – the kiss scene with the raunchy, gummy Grandma Klump stands out in particular.

But in the final analysis it was all a great waste of time. Murphy’s multiple roles do not add anything except novelty value to the film; it merely encourages people to say "Isn’t Murphy clever!" What it won’t make people say is something much more important: "What a great film!"

A cool romance in New York

Autumn in New York

When hotshot restaurateur and womanizer Will Keane (Richard Gere) meets Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder), she’s a diner in his restaurant having her 22nd birthday party dinner with friends. The other guests are quick to chat with him – they all clearly think this old guy is drop dead gorgeous – but arty hatmaker Charlotte stays quiet and demure. “Do you speak?” an already-lusty Will asks.

Well, Charlotte doesn’t really speak much, and herein lies one of the main problems with this film: Given Charlotte’s 22 years to Will’s 48, what is it that draws these two together? Sure, it’s partly lust, but to really care about what happens to these two characters, the audience needs to know why they care about each other.

Will cleverly connives to get Charlotte to go on a date with him in an awful white dress, one things leads to another and it’s morning – time to discuss their “relationship”. Will tells Charlotte he can only offer her “this”, and he’s only being honest because he really likes her. Charlotte responds that she, too, can only offer him “this” because she has a terminal illness and she’s only telling him because she really likes him.

And so, despite the warnings of friends – and of Charlotte’s grandmother (Elaine Stritch) – Will falls for the dying Charlotte, and Charlotte for some reason falls in love with Will. The age difference between the two is emphasized by the fact that Charlotte’s mother also fell for Will, but, the script emphatically points out, they didn’t sleep together. Yeah, sure! We already know that would be utterly unlike Will.

Ryder, despite slowly succumbing to a fatal illness with no name, couldn’t possibly look more radiant and vital if she tried – she’s just inconvenienced by an occasional fainting episode at dramatically appropriate moments. She and Gere both put in reasonable performances, but there’s just no convincing chemistry between the two.

Actress-turned-director Joan Chen (Xiu Xiu: the Sent Down Girl) makes the most of it being autumn in New York, and cinematographer Changwei Gu does a good job of capturing the city’s beauty. This is a fine film to watch; besides parks filled with russet leaves, boats in lakes and ice rinks, there’s Charlotte in her white bedroom, playing with stringed glass beads hanging from her ceiling, there’s rainy streets, cozy restaurants, trendy apartments and eventually there’s a dusting of snow on the streets to indicate – a little obviously – that time really is ticking away for Charlotte.

There is a subplot of mystery, as an attractive woman (Vera Farmiga) who could be a former lover tries to find out more about Will. Who is she? Is she a threat to Will and Charlotte’s relationship? It’s an interesting diversion that serves to emphasize the difference in age between Will and Charlotte, and allows Will a bit of character development, but once her identity and past is revealed, one has to wonder why Charlotte doesn’t already know this woman.

Plot inconsistencies aside, this is a film that isn’t too ambitious from the start, so it doesn’t fail to deliver. It’s a sentimental romance that’s nice to watch; there just should have been a little more substance to the romance part.

Shaft shafts

Shaft

The original Shaft (directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree) shook up the cinematic scene when it was released in 1971 by demonstrating that blacks too could be action heroes – and smooth-talking lovers – akin to a Connery or an Eastwood. While Shaft fought against the stereotypes blacks had to endure until then, the genre of films it helped herald in eventually drew the tag "blaxploitation". In the process of smashing a few stereotypes, it drew criticism for eventually created some of its own – that blacks were the druggies, the pimps, the gangsters. But in the early days of Shaft, the baddies were still mostly white.

Cut to the year 2000, and John Singleton’s Shaft doesn’t shy away from employing some stereotypes of its own. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is a cop in New York who’s called to the scene of a racially motivated murder. With the reluctant help of waitress Diane (Toni Collette), Shaft arrests the right man, the downright distasteful and rich white boy Walter Wade.

Of course, Wade gets off on bail and skips to Switzerland. Fast forward two years, and Shaft gets a tip-off that Wade is arriving back. It looks like he has his man: but the justice system lets him down again, and with bail easily met Wade’s back on the mean New York streets.

Shaft throws in his towel in disgust and becomes a vigilante, seeking justice on his own terms. With the assistance of his old partner Carmen (Vanessa Williams), and the unintentional help of drug lord Peoples (Jeffrey Wright) and various other crooked characters, the noose around Wade’s neck is drawn tighter. But in the end, the one who draws it closed is a total surprise – thanks to a convenient plot twist that let’s the writers off the hook rather easily.

Samuel L. Jackson is let down by a plot that’s weak and dialogue that could have been oh-so-sharper. Moments of humour are scarce, but they cry out to be written into the script. Instead, the writers seem to have had fun inserting all the gun battles they could, turning the latter part of the film into an orgy of pointless and very uninteresting violence. Shaft’s assistant Vanessa Williams fails to impress, while Toni Collette’s amazing screen presence only demonstrates that she needs to play bigger roles than mere bit parts. Jeffrey Wright’s performance stands out, if only for his exceptional street-wise patois.

Shaft is supposed to be a violent creature, but he’s also supposed to be a sharp-talking and smooth-talking – depending on the situation – role model for those seeking justice. Singleton’s film ups the violence at the expense of the sexy, leaving discerning audiences unsated.

Perhaps the one thing the film has remained true to is its attempt at highlighting racism; Wade’s attitude towards blacks might appear dated, but the sad truth is that it’s a demonstration of the sort of abuse blacks still face in US society today.

And at least the funky theme celebrating the wah-wah pedal is still the same. Just remember, you don’t have to sit through to the end to hear it.