The Oprah effect
IS Oprah Winfrey about to replicate for movies what her celebrity endorsement has consistently done for books? The Oscars fate of gritty drama Precious will reveal all. This feature, directed by Lee Daniels, seemed destined for indie obscurity when, moved by its hopeful message, Oprah came on board as executive producer. Her impact was instantaneous and the result is a spectacle that has wowed critics Stateside and is being touted as a shoo-in for a statuette this March.
Taking late-Eighties Harlem as its backdrop, and based on a novel by performance poet Sapphire, the story centres on a severely stressed-out adolescent called Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and her attempts to triumph over the monument to adversity her life has become. When we first encounter this morbidly obese and illiterate teenager, a voiceover suggests that fantasy is her only friend. She dreams of being on the "cover of a magazine", while she also harbours illusions that an attraction for one of her teachers is reciprocated.
Deranged domesticity includes a mother (Mo'Nique) with psychological issues and an abusive (though currently absent) father who parented Precious's first child.
The possibility of triumph arrives when the clearly intelligent Precious enrols in an alternative school where she comes under the influence of an inspirational teacher (Paula Patton). Sidibe excels and there are convincing cameos from Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. The Oprah-esque dedication to "precious girls everywhere", however, together with the reality that a superhero would struggle to survive these concentrations of calamity exacerbates the sense of an exercise unashamedly aimed at the tear-ducts of touchy-feely types.
Precious is now showing
Edge of Darkness
Mel Gibson used to be such a safe bet -- happy, handsome and ubiquitous, a byword for hefty box office takings, wielding an axe here, playing a loopy cop there. Then came the gratuitous violence of his directorial ventures The Passion Of The Christ and Apocalypto. Next, we had revelations of his ultra-conservative brand of Catholicism and that drink-driving anti-Semitic rant. Then there were the rumours of his affair with a young Russian musician and the prospect of a nine-figure divorce settlement. If there is a point where a celebrity drifts too far into eccentricity and scandal, you felt Mad Mel had reached it.
Which brings us to Edge of Darkness, a remake of a 1985 BBC series and Gibson's first starring role since 2002's underwhelming Signs. He plays Thomas Craven, a hardboiled Boston detective whose daughter is blown away on his doorstep. Where most dads would grieve uncontrollably, our Mel puts on a stern face and goes looking for revenge.
It's as subtle as a shoot-em-up video game. In the quest for truth, we encounter a secret agent (Ray Winstone) and an arms manufacturer played by Danny Huston. The trail of tough-guy one-liners and roughing-up of baddies leads to some hokum about an eco-conspiracy, but any attempt at weaving a plot of twists and turns is bludgeoned by machismo and revolver fire.
For all his shortcomings, Gibson could always admit to taking on roles just for the cash. If he still stands by this, then Edge Of Darkness might suggest a few sleepless nights over that looming divorce settlement.
Edge of Darkness is now showing
8.5 Hours opens with Rachel (Lynette Callaghan) pleading for a forgiveness her boyfriend will not bestow. She then moves into the working day to which the title refers, desperate to fund an overpriced apartment she must now buy alone, something she considers a right and an investment. Her co-workers have their own troubles: Eoin (Victor Burke), despite serious doubts about his sexuality, is being dragged into a Celtic Tiger wedding; Frank (Art Kearns) is distraught about events in his own marriage; and Tony (Jonathan Byrne) is a flashy git whose past is returning to haunt him in the form of Maggie (Geraldine Plunkett). The details of each story unfold in episodes, gradually painting a picture of four lives in crisis.
8.5 Hours is an ambitious idea on a tiny budget. Writer/director Brian Lally does a good job in unfolding the stories and as a portrait of what Ireland was it is interesting. The notion of people sharing one part of life in an office, while living very different lives outside it, also works.
However, each story is on the extreme end of the problem scale, and although presumably allegorical in intention, it gets overloaded. Four big dramas are too many, the audience ends up with compassion fatigue, not least because none of the characters is especially likeable, and the acting is often overwrought. Some of the mechanisms are unrealistic, Sandymount car park at lunch time lads? And in this film about the boom we didn't know was about to end, I wasn't sure what to make of the fact that sex plays a major role in everyone's downfall.
8.5 Hours is showing in selected cinemas
IN a futuristic world Dr Tenma (Nicolas Cage) and Dr Elefun (Bill Nighy) have harvested a new type of energy. An accident at the unveiling sees Tenma's son Toby (Freddie Highmore) killed and in his grief the scientist tries to harness the new energy to make a robot replacement. But, realising there can be no replacement, he banishes "Toby", aka Astro Boy, who escapes the pursuit of evil President Stone (Donald Sutherland), leaving their floating city for the Surface, an Oliver Twist/Mad Max subworld populated by children and Nathan Lane.
While there are many films pitched at little girls and female tweenies, this CGI version of the Fifties manga original, like director David Bowers' previous work Flushed Away, has broad gender appeal. Overall, the story is easy to follow although there is too much fiddly stuff going on and too much of the fiddly stuff is political in tone -- re-cycling, re-election, people not being what they seem -- and the excess of cute comedy robots (who aren't funny) make it seem a little frayed.
There is an excellent cast; Highmore (of Charlie of Chocolate Factory fame) does a great job voicing Astro Boy though many of the other voice stars, such as Charlize Theron and Sam L Jackson, are somewhat wasted. Nighy is good but Nicolas Cage is becoming a byword for schmaltz; it seems that if there isn't some hard core, preferably father-son, emoting, Nicolas isn't interested and this is no exception.
Astro Boy is, however, perfectly enjoyable fun for kids.
Astro Boy is now showing