written for the next issue of Tribune magazine; all films released in the UK on 10th November
The Host [7/10]
South Korea 2006
Starring : KO Ah-Sung, SONG Kang-Ho
Director : BONG Joon-Ho
The Prestige [6/10]
Starring : Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale
Director : Christopher Nolan
Starter For Ten [5/10]
Starring : James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall
Director : Tom Vaughan
THE big 'buzz' movie at this year's Cannes wasn't in the main competition: perhaps the organisers reckoned that The Host - writer-director Bong's follow-up to his blackly humorous crime drama Memories of Murder (2003) – was 'just' a 'monster movie.' And the picture is nothing if not commercial, made with one eye on the domestic market (where it broke box-office records), and one on the international arena. Though not without flaws, it's a spectacular calling-card: Bong will no doubt be deluged with Hollywood offers including the inevitable Stateside remake. If he declines the gig, perhaps John Sayles or Larry Cohen might be available, as The Host essentially combines Sayles's Piranha (river-pollution yields dire eco-consequences) and Cohen's Q – The Winged Serpent (man-eating dragon takes up residence atop Manhattan's Chrysler Building.)
In The Host, the dumping of chemicals into the Han River (courtesy of the US Army) produces an horrific mutation: a thirty-foot-long amphibious thingy which resembles a fusion of newt, squid, and that carnivorous plant from Little Shop of Horrors. Leaping onto the riverbank one calm afternoon – in a breathtaking sequence wrongfootingly placed near the picture's start – the hungry beast runs murderously amok (seafood's revenge?) before retreating to its lair in the city's vast, labyrinthine sewer-system. As the government, military and police panic into action, one bereaved family find themselves on the run – supposedly "carriers" of a mysterious disease which may or may not emanate from the river-spawned creature (hence the title.)
Though perhaps a touch over-extended at two hours, The Host justifies its running-time by paying as much attention to its characters – specifically the relationships within the haplessly dysfunctional family Park (with Ko particularly strong as spirited teenager Hyun-Seo) as it does to its monster-on-the-loose pyrotechnics. The picture's much-vaunted political "subtext" does turn out to be a rather hackneyed anti-authoritarianism (cf Jaws) blended with an opportunistic anti-Americanism, but this is easily outweighed by the way Bong, who has a great fondness for incongruously dark humour, so skilfully shifts between moods and tones, resulting in a disarmingly offbeat, impressively confident
THE latest from writer-director Nolan – of Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins fame – classily elaborate thriller The Prestige is nothing if not well-named. Every cent of its budget has been lavished on the handsomely opulent production-design to recreate the London (and New York) of the late 1890s and early 1900s in sumptuous detail. This is the backdrop for a mind-bendingly complicated page-turner of a movie (adapted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan from Christopher Priest's well-received 1995 novel) which treats the rather drab subject of magic with awed, stately reverence – the tone more David Nixon much than Great Soprendo (or Jerry Sadowitz.)
Both book and film revolve around the ongoing rivalry between lowly-born, naturally-gifted, introverted Alfred Borden (Bale) and his flashier, smoother-talking, but less-talented nemesis Robert Angier (Jackman). Formerly colleagues, the pair become enemies after an on-stage accident in which Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) drowns. Angier blames Borden for the tragedy and the pair part company – each constantly seeking to outdo the other. In their quest for increasingly fancy tricks, both seek help from Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), a scientist whose researches into electricity are yielding remarkable, perhaps even supernatural, results…
The Prestige features many incidental pleasures over the course of its rather protracted 130-minute running-time – including Bowie's slyly underplayed cameo (not to mention his truly spectacular entrance.) But the Nolans' fragmented, jumbled chronology – we switch back and forth between Angier's journal and Borden's – rapidly becomes wearing, a too-blatant ploy to leave us confusedly susceptible to cinematic sleight-of-hand. Flimflam twist piles upon flimflam twist, right up to a finale which seem designed to leave the audience debating long after the credits have rolled. Food for thought – but not much nourishment: Tesla, we learn, is embroiled in his own violent feud with fellow-inventor Thomas Edison – a rivalry which ended up quite literally changing the world. Somewhat frustrating to see Nolan and company lavish quite so much time and effort on a fictional enmity – which, though absorbing and entertaining, inevitably comes across as relatively minuscule beer: not so much a magic circle, more a solipsistically closed-circuit.
AS the classic Young Ones episode 'Bambi' so drolly illustrated, University Challenge - with its earnest, uber-geeky contestants and not-so-subtle subtext of class warfare – is a ripe target for knockabout satire. And let's not forget that Robert Redford's 1994 Quiz Show showed how an intelligent cinematic treatment of not-dissimilar subject-matter can yield surprisingly engrossing rewards. How disappointing, then, that Starter For Ten - an adaptation of David Nobbs' novel, chronicling a young man's journey from UC watcher to contestant, via his becoming a student at Bristol University – should be such a blandly by-the-numbers affair.
Arriving at Bristol in 1985 to study English Literature, our earnest hero Brian (the suddenly-ubiquitous McAvoy) soon discovers there's more to life than 'swotting up.' In implausibly double-quick time, he befriends knockout posh-babe Alice (Alice Eve) and the edgily radical-chic Rebecca (Hall). Brian's ensuing romantic entanglements prove a considerable distraction for his UC preparation under the stern guidance of twitchy, gung-ho obsessive Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch). And though he does eventually make it into the avuncular presence of quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne (Mark Gatiss), fate has a surprise in store…
In theory, it should be very hard to take against Starter For Ten: much like its tousle-haired, doe-eyed campus-Candide protagonist, the film is puppyishly eager to please and impress. Vaughan serves up a tried-and-tested combination of character-based humour and gentle nostalgia – the latter emphasised by a soundtrack filled with contemporary "indie" hits. But Brian's story – chronicling his rise from humble working-class origins, via the traumatic death of his father, to the hallowed halls of academe, and thence Granada studios – is a touch too predictable at every stage.
It's left to Hall, Cumberbatch and Gatiss – plus newcomer Reuben Henry Biggs (in a hilariously sneering cameo as a Cumberbatch's opposite number) – to keep things surprising and/or lively, their vivid 'turns' enjoyably pitched at the level of camp caricature. Debutant feature-director Vaughan should perhaps have pushed Starter For Ten more solidly in that kind of direction: much like his wet-behind-the-ears hero, he's making progress, but has still got rather a lot to learn.
THE HOST : [7/10] : Gwoemul : (South) Korea (SK/Jpn) 2006 : BONG Joon-Ho : 120 mins (BBFC timing) : seen at Empire cinema, Bromsgrove (UK), 8th October 2006 – press show (CinemaDays event)
THE PRESTIGE : [6/10] : USA 2006 : Christopher NOLAN : 131 mins (BBFC timing) : seen at Empire cinema, Bromsgrove (UK), 6th October 2006 – press show (CinemaDays event)
STARTER FOR TEN : [5/10] : UK 2006 : Tom VAUGHAN : 97 mins (BBFC timing) : seen at Odeon cinema, Nuneaton (UK), 9th June 2006 – press show (CinemaDays event)
click here for full-length version of the Starter For Ten review