Monday, June 04, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Image from IMP Awards

Prometheus (2012)

"We were wrong! We were so wrong!"

The above line, uttered by Noomi Rapace's character Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott's return to science fiction in 30 years, pretty much sums up my assessment of the - perhaps unreasonable - expectations the film has engendered. The fact that Scott directed the classic and brilliant progenitor to this film, Alien, makes the disappointment that much more stinging.

Prometheus begins intriguingly enough with a brief prologue involving a mysterious, beefy humanoid alien. This leads in to a second prologue in which Dr. Shaw and her bland boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) discover ancient cave paintings that point to a star pattern, one that is contained in a series of disparate paintings from different time periods and cultures. The implication is that human development, perhaps even our origin itself, was alien in nature. This initial premise sets alarm bells off straight away as to the intellectual level the film is striving for, but it is easy enough to put aside as a flight of fancy if developed in an interesting way. Sadly, it isn't developed in an interesting way at all. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the film is completely glib in the way it handles its ideas.

After the prologues we are transported light years away and in to the primary narrative. The space ship Prometheus arrives at the planet pointed to in the paintings, the crew - including the two scientists, android David (Michael Fassbender), the ship's Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and company overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) - awake from stasis / hyper sleep and brief the remainder of the nondescript scientific grunts as to the purpose of their secret mission. Namely, that they are here to discover the origins of mankind and perhaps to quite literally meet our maker. The ship lands near an 'intelligently designed' structure on the planet, the crew hops out to explore its cavernous interior and discover... well, I won't go into details but in truth, not all that much of consequence apart from some dead aliens, holograms, and things that will be familiar to fans of the original film. From that point onwards the film shifts into horror/thriller mode, the half baked ideas are dropped, picked up again, and then dropped again as the story builds towards an explosive climax.

So what's wrong with the film? To get the obvious out of the way, I'm not complaining that the film isn't enough like 'Alien'. On the contrary, it actually borrows a little too much from that film in terms of story beats. It's also not a knee jerk reaction to expectations - I ended up seeing it twice, and my expectations were out the window during viewing number two.

The major problem is the fairly dire story and script; it should come as little surprise that 'Lost' writer Damon Lindelof was involved in writing it. The whole thing raises 'questions' and 'mysteries' that are somewhat interesting but aren't examined in any meaningful way, and by the end, hardly anything is resolved and we are given the set up for a sequel that teases potential answers. God and 'Darwinism' are name dropped in the most superficial way, with Shaw being a religious scientist who 'chooses to believe' things and regularly clutches her cross. The purpose of 'the engineers' of mankind is raised, but again only perfunctorily. Birth and the creation of life are brought up and lead in to a tangential subplot that feels horribly contrived. The rape subtext from the original film is made silly and overt. And as far as plotting goes, lots of stuff happens that makes very little sense.

The film is in an awful hurry to get from one scene to the next, never allowing one to build up to anything of substance, never allowing any tension or awe to take hold; a serious misstep in a story about first contact with alien life forms who also happen to be our creators. The whole affair is strangely inert and devoid of feeling. The dire dialogue doesn't help at all, populated as it is with repetitive Hollywood blockbuster cliches. Characters behave in idiotic and impulsive ways, incongruosly so for a team of 'expert' scientists. The narrative stop starts, shifts gears, and erupts into violence on occassion but all of it feels disjointed and the characters themselves don't seem too involved in what's going on around them. Most of the supporting cast are forgettable, which compounds the film's problems. To top it all off, the musical score is loud, overbearring, and repetitive.

That's the bad, but there is a lot good in the film as well. First of all, visually it's simply stunning. The effects, sets, costumes, and design work, some of which have their origins in the seventies, are stunningly realized. Scott's camera work is smooth and coherent and his shots are epic, and he does create atmospheric sequences. It genuinely looks and feels like what we are watching could be real. Rapace, though a far cry from Sigourney Weaver's Riply, makes for a decent lead, wonky fake English accent and all. Idris Elba is reliably cool despite having very little to work with. Charlize Theron is excellent as the icy Vickers, ironically one of the few characters who seems like a human being.

And then there's David, the android, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. David's presence is by far and away the most interesting part of the film. It's the one relatively subtle and intelligent thematic element, paralleling as it does the broader questions about the creation of life and the relationship between creator and creation. Fassbender gets decent words and he makes the most of it, playing David with an undercurrent of sardonic menace, moving with graceful and mechanical precison, and exhibiting a sometimes childlike sense of curiuosity. His motives are never really clear - again, lousy plotting - but he's never anything less than compelling.

Prometheus is ultimately it's a science fiction film whose intellectual pretensions extend well beyond their grasp. It devolves into a horror thriller but is never truly scary, horrifying, or thrilling. It's fairly entertaining and looks good, and is mostly salvaged by one brilliant character and performance. Worth seeing for genre fans and fans of the Alien series. The ill advised final scene, which is truly groan inducing and exists solely as fan service, is a fitting note on which to end what is a poorly conceived film. In an era where almost anything that can be imagined can be realized on screen believably, the fact that this was the end result is nothing short of disappointing.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Avengers (2012)

Joss Whedon has gone and done it. He has cracked the barrier that existed between the insanely OTT superhero comic and the silver screen. Whedon, who wrote and directed 'The Avengers', has made what feels like the first near perfect superhero comic adaptation, one that perfectly encapsulates the tone and spirit of 'Earth's Mightiest Heroes'. His film has demolished box office records and good for him - having done his time in TV land and gotten screwed over time and again by studios, mainstream success is a long overdue just desert.

The story boils down to this - the evil demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is setting out to take over the Earth with an alien army at his command. The threat is so great that Agent Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) is forced to set the Avengers Initiative into action, which involves bringing the greatest of Earth's heroes together. These are Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hulk / Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and they are supported by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The problem - they all each have their own baggage and aren't exactly keen on working together. There's more to the plot than that of course, but that's the gist of it.

Marvel laid the foundation for this movie with the five individual outings of the main heroes, so in a sense this movie is the culmination of those early adventures; indeed it doesn't work on its own without at least some passing knowledge of those earlier films, which were admittedly of varying quality and never quite attained greatness. Still, it's worth watching those in order to experience this, and I'm actually keen to revisit all of them with the foreknowledge of what they lead up to. And while they weren't perfect, they each (bar The Incredible Hulk) did one major thing right - they achieved near perfect casting.

Robert Downey Jr is the biggest name, and he continues his limelight hogging, charismatic turn as Tony Stark. Hemsworth is imposing, regal and cocky as the 'godlike' Thor. Evans is stoic and noble as Captain America, donning the star spangled tights without a hint of irony. Renner made a brief and uninspiring appearance in Thor, but he's incredibly badass here as Hawkeye, and I can fully understand how he was chosen to headline the Bourne Franchise. There are two surprise packages as well - Johansson is terrific as Black Widow - cool and crafty but with guilt bubbling under the surface, she's more than just eye candy (though she does that well too). The biggest surprise though is Mark Ruffalo, who almost steals the show as the nerdy but oddly charismatic Bruce Banner, struggling to keep his dark passenger under control. Also deserving of praise is Hiddleston who, improbably, comes across as an effective and menacing villain despite being a whiny pawn in a grander scheme. Sam Jackson is, well, Sam Jackson; he could do this in his sleep, but he does it well.

Great actors need great words to work with, and the Whedon touch truly comes to the fore here. Despite being marginally Stark-centric, the script balances the characters perfectly and gives all of them their moment to shine while imbuing them with depth and personality. It's full of humour through both dialogue and action, and there are loads of laugh out loud moments. The interplay between the protagonists is fast and witty and conveys familial bickering to a T. There is a lull in the action in the middle, but this is more than made up for by all the banter!

Which brings me to the action, which is the one area where Whedon hasn't exactly established his expertise. Well, consider him established now as the action is, to put it mildly, spectacular! It helps that there is a great deal of variety in terms of the characters and their powers, but to envisage scenes utilising them in ways that make sense, with each hero fighting according to their abilities without giving anyone the short shrift is no small achievement. It's all coherent and flows without resorting to insane close ups and quick cuts, and everyone gets their moment of glory. It's truly epic in a way that no other superhero movie has achieved, and it's also unabashedly comic book like with wave after wave of aliens being dispatched by our heroes in imaginative ways. It helps that the special effects are nearly flawless - not once was I taken out of the film by a dodgy effect. The Hulk steals the whole show during the climactic battle with some of the funniest and most memorable moments.

Recommended? Hell yeah! I loved this movie and will almost certainly catch it again on the big screen (in 2D). It's the second Whedon film this year that I can say that of - the man's on fire! Avengers is a near perfect superhero comic book film and a bloody good action/adventure film to boot. It is a shame that you need to do some prep work before watching it, but that's a small price to pay in this instance. The Avengers 2 has a lot to live up to!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Writer/director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon have concocted something really special with horror-comedy 'The Cabin in the Woods'. It's one of the most entertaining films I've seen at the cinema in a long while, and it's also clever, witty, and full of surprises.

From the outset it's clear that this isn't your traditional 'teenagers in the woods getting slaughtered' horror film - it begins in an underground facility where two technician type boffins trade water cooler banter. Turns out these guys are in charge of dishing out the horror in the form of a zombie attack to a group of unsespecting youngsters who decided to spend a few days in the eponymous cabin. Why they do this is one of the film's reveals that is best left unspoiled. The script goes along with and subverts the conventions of teen oriented horror movies; it's gory and plays the terror just right, but at the same time it's also outrageously funny and inventive. The last 30 minutes are deliriously over the top and entertaining.

Unusual for this type of film is the quality of its characters. All of the stereotypical archetypes are present and accounted for, but in this instance they are also atypical and even the 'jock' and 'slut' characters are likable thanks to the writing and performances. Best of all are the two techs watching and directing events as they trade quips and experience elation and frustration in equal measure while trying to manipulate events in the cabin.

Goddard and Whedon find the perfect balance of tone, no mean feat given how incongruous they are. It's not going to win awards for technical wizardry but it's well made all round, and its real strength is the screenplay around which everything else is built. 'The Cabin in the Woods' is better than most horror movies and most comedies that have come out in recent times - I can't wait to see it again!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Image from IMP Awards

The Hunger Games (2012)

Films that are better than the book are, apparently, an almost mythical breed - a supposed truism that I take objection to, and one that the film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' trilogy goes some way towards disproving. I picked up the book with a little reluctance, worried that it would be another shallow Twilight-esque phenomenon; I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a genuinely interesting and compelling science fiction story, as is the film.

It's the future, and the United States is no more. What's left is a nation state composed of a totalitarian Capitol and 12 subservient 'Districts', each at a varying level of economic prosperity. Katniss Everdeen, played by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence, is a teenage girl in the poverty ridden district 12 who illegally hunts game to provide for her mother and younger sister. From the outset we see that she is resourceful and possesses a steely eyed determination, attributes Lawrence captures perfectly without appearing cold or aloof. The story's complex protagonist and her portrayal are without question the film's biggest strength (so much so that the NY Times did an interesting piece on her here).

Day to day survival in District 12, depicted as a stark and hopeless commune by director Gary Ross in the film's early scenes, isn't the only problem its denizens face. Every year, as punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol, each District must offer a randomly picked teenage boy and girl as 'tributes' to take part in the 'Hunger Games', a televised rules free battle to the death within a large controlled environment where only one can emerge victorious (this gladiatorial spectacle is one of several allusions to ancient Rome). When her sister is picked, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is whisked off to the opulent Capitol together with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (a bland but adequate Josh Hutcherson) to prepare for the games... and certain death.

The first half of the film is the lead up to the games themselves and takes place primarily in the Capitol, which is depicted as garish, gaudy, and full of excess. The designs are outlandish and the lifestyle is luxurious, the complete opposite of the suppressed Districts - an unsubtle but nonetheless effective depiction of a society of extreme inequality. Our primary representative of the Capitol is Effie Trinket, played to perfection by Elizabeth Banks, the shrill and shallow escort for District 12's tributes. Effie is part of the tributes' support team, which also includes their stylist Cinna - a solid Lenny Kravitz - and their trainer Haymitch, a former Games survivor from District 12, brought wonderfully to life by Woody Harrelson as a gruff and comical but ultimately caring ruffian.

Collins' novel and her screen adaptation don't stop at being an allegory for the injustices of inequality, they also lampoon a culture of excess and superficiality, and this is highlighted perfectly in the way the Games are treated as a reality TV show. The tributes have to take part in a training regimen and impress potential sponsors who may provide them with resources during the games. Part of the likelihood of sponsorship rests on how popular the tribute is, where popularity is gained by being fashionable, extravagant, likable and willing to tell personal stories to endear themselves to viewers. Katniss is forced to compromise who she is to entertain the masses for the sake of her family and her District as well as her life, a recurring theme that is handled with admirable subtlety by director, write, and actor.

When the Games proper begin the film dips slightly as the second half, taking place as it does almost entirely in nondescript woods, can't quite match the variety and depth of the first. It's a battle for survival, mildly reminiscent of Battle Royale (which I reviewed here a few years ago!) but lacking that films nuanced portrayal of minor supporting characters.

Gary Ross's elegant and restrained style gives way to a little too much shaky camera work and quick cut editing, presumably necessitated by the requirement to minimise the child against child violence displayed on screen. When it works it's effective, such as the opening of the Games where a bloodbath occurs as the tributes fight for resources. Ross constructs scenes that take their time and are fleshed out, with actors given the opportunity to convey thoughts and emotions without dialogue. This is a real film and not a cheap cash in, although its 'relatively small for a blockbuster' budget does show in the so-so special effects.

The Games are a case of surviving against the elements as much as they are about combat and strategy - a real game of cat and mouse in the woods, as it were, where finding food, water, and shelter are as important as surviving encounters with other tributes. This segment of the film is exciting and brutal, well paced while still leaving time for character moments and plot twists along the way.

The screenplay diverges from the book at points but only slightly, excising unnecessary prolonged sequences during the Games that frankly would have been uncinematic. It also - thankfully - tones down the faux/real romance between Katniss and Peeta and the potential love triangle involving her hunting partner back home, Gale (a bland Liam Hemsworth). The character interplay between the two District 12 tributes is subtler and less cringe inducing than in the book.

Despite minor deviations, and the screenplay is incredibly true to the source material, even when it sometimes amalgamates different moments and transposes others. There are some additions to the book as well, ones that serve to elevate the material to the realm of socially relevant sci-fi. These include goings on behind the scenes involving the menacing President (Donald Sutherland) and the naive showman running the games, Seneca (Wes Bentley) as well as certain events in other districts that are triggered by Katniss' defiance in the arena.

While the film doesn't end with a sense of finality - unsurprising since there are two more books in the trilogy - it is still fairly self contained and satisfactory. I'm not sure how this story continues and am a tad trepidatious as the first act has a lot to live up to. As it stands, however, 'The Hunger Games' is intelligent and exciting science fiction that marries ideas, action, spectacle, and human drama together to create a rewarding cinematic experience, one that is anchored by a star making central performance.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

John Carter (2012)

(Image from Imp Awards)

John Carter (2012)

Critics have been unkind to this one and audiences have been indifferent. Their loss, as this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal pulp book directed by Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton is an above average adventure film.

Taking place in the American Civil War era, the film follows vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he goes in search of a fortune in gold. An encounter with the military leads to him going on the run and finding a mystical cave where he encounters an alien being. A brief tussle leads to Carter being 'transported' across space to the planet Mars; here he encounters a veritable menagerie of strange creatures and people, from the war like giant four armed green Tharks to giant white apes to the red skinned tribal humanoids of Mars.

The plot involves a war between two 'human' tribes, progressive Helium and barbaric Zodanga. The Zodangan leader, Sab Than (Dominic 'Jimmy McNulty' West), is being steered by powerful manipulators known as Therns (let by Mark Strong's Matai Shang) - empowered by Thern technology, he brings Helium to its knees and then offers them peace in the form of a marriage between himself and the feisty Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). John Carter's presence on the planet introduces a new unexpected element into the equation as his earth gravity bred body is super strong on Mars, making him a fearsome warrior and thus a potential weapon/threat for the various factions, including the Tharks (led by Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe via motion capture).

Phew, and that's just the first 30 minutes or so of a two hour plus film which features copious amounts of adventuring and combat and various twists and turns!

Which is part of the problem with the film - it has an overly convoluted (though not overly confusing) plot, and it drags in places. Also a weakness are the sketchily drawn characters. Both of these flaws are true of the source material as well, so in that sense it is a faithful adaptation! The biggest weakness however is Taylor Kitsch who makes a disappointingly bland John Carter; this coupled with his two-dimensional characterisation in the script makes the eponymous hero something of a disappointment.

You'd think the collection of criticisms I've listed would derail the film, but fortunately its strengths manage to compensate.

First, the visuals and designs. It's about to become one of the biggest flops of all time, but the money is definitely there on the screen in the grand realisation of an alien world and creatures that may not take CGI to a new level but certainly represent it at the top of its game. Second, the tone - this isn't a serious movie and it knows it, and it tells its story with a level of campy seriousness (except for Kitsch, admittedly) coupled with silly goofiness. There are some genuinely funny and even endearing moments, Third, the action and adventure have a sense of fun and energy that matches the tone; this perhaps derives from Stanton's animation background as it wouldn't seem out of place in a Pixar film (not a bad thing). And finally, there's the rest of the cast, most of whom are in tune with the material. Lynn Collins in particular is terrific as the Princess, the one fleshed out character in the story (ironic since she was among the more superficial ones in the book) who drives proceedings while Kitsch falters. And yes, she is very easy on the eyes to boot!

The folks I watched this with were lukewarm towards it, so perhaps I'm in the minority on this one, but I dug it and would definitely watch it again. It's a fun adventure film that does what it says on the tin and to my mind is far superior to many of the other sci-fi/adventure films that have come out in recent times. One last thing, John Carter's weird alien dog companion Woola is an absolute hoot!

Movie Roundup Part Deux

(Image from Imp Awards)

Survival of the Dead (2009)

George A Romero, the grandaddy of the zombie movie, directed his sixth film in the venerable 'Dead' franchise with 'Survival'; this one's as different from the others as they all are from each other. Taking place shortly after the world goes to hell, the film revolves around the conflict between two patriarchs and their clans on a relatively safe island where the dead haven't taken over yet. The two men have a philosophical difference - one believes the zombies are dead and need to be disposed of, the other believes the zombies must be kept alive till a cure is found. Into the mix enter a young civilian and a group of ex-soldiers looking for sanctuary, led by a cynical but cool leader. The film plays much like a zombie western complete with cowboys and horses and gunfights and western archetypes. It doesn't try too hard to be subtle with its themes, and goes for humour way more than it does horror - the zombies are almost an annoyance instead of a threat, though there are plenty of gory human deaths and LOADS of inventive zombie kills. Everything looks pretty slick compared to the last two films, and it lays on its themes without going for subtlety. Negatives include a tone that is too mercurial and too many idiotic moments involving character behaviour that induce eye rolling. Overall, very enjoyable, plenty of great kills, funny, engaging and buoyed by some cool characters, but not quite achieving the heights of greatness of its predecessors.

(Image from Imp Awards)

State of Play (2009)

This is one of those films that for some reason or the other managed to come and go fairly quietly despite boasting a stellar cast. Based on a BBC mini series that I now have to see, it tells the story of an intrepid reporter (Russel Crowe) and an up and coming reporter/blogger (Rachel McAdams) stumbling upon a story that involves a hotshot young congressman (Ben Affleck), a high profile death, and a private security company that subcontracts for the US military. It's slick and glossy in the fashion of mainstream Hollywood thrillers, and some of the writing is cringe inducing in it's cliche-ness, but the strength of the ensemble performances, the pretty good if occasionally OTT plotting, and the relatively intelligent examination of the way print media functions make this a very compelling film. Not quite deep enough to be called deep, but definitely not shallow.

(Image from Imp Awards)
Highlander (1986)

Let's get the one most basic fact about Highlander out of the way right up front - it's a bad film. Low budget or not, it is simply bad. Despite featuring what must surely be one of the all time worst lead performances in history, hammy performances all round, dire action sequences, clunky writing, scattershot editing and an overall bad 80s vibe, I still really enjoy it! The concept - about a select group of 'immortal' humans, some of whom have been around for millennia, who will fight and kill each other (only decapitation can kill them) till only one remains to claim the mystical 'prize' - is actually fairly interesting, and the idea of gaining perspective by virtue of living through history while sacrificing hope of an ordinary life is a tragic one. The film does toy with these ideas, but it never really takes them anywhere. It's fun though, and funny (often unintentionally), and features two delightfully campy supporting performances from Sean Connery and Clancy Brown as the mentor and villain respectively, who compensate more than adequately for Christopher Lambert's performance (and horrible dress sense).

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Losers (2010)

Zoe Saldana is hot. And that's pretty much the only positive for 'The Losers', a comic book adaptation about a band of betrayed military men who go gunning for revenge, aided by Saldana's shady lady character who has reasons of her own for wanting the baddie dead. The cast is a strong one - Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, and Chris Evans are good despite the mediocre material that drags on from one locale to the next with irritating dialogue and humour and fairly unengaging action set pieces. There are a few fun moments but there's nothing new on offer, and nothing done all that well. Jason Patric's villain is forgettable and not nearly as cool as he's apparently meant to be. Not recommended.

(Image from IMP Awards)

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Colour me surprised. I dug the hell out of this. Yes it's obvious and ticks all the boxes you'd imagine it does from the posters, trailer, and cast, but that doesn't prevent it from being thoroughly entertaining, funny, and fun. Jack Black voices Po, a panda who inadvertently becomes the 'chosen one', much to the chagrin of the five greatest kung fu fighting animals in the world and their teacher. Po must train to become the 'Dragon Warrior' and defeat the evil Tai Lung, who is prophesied to enter their valley and lay waste to their village. It's the fish out of water unlikely hero story writ large and with wildlife. There are no surprises, it's all obvious and you'll see it coming a mile away but the animation is glorious, the A list voice actors are on top form, the writing is zippy, the character designs are memorable and well done, and there's a distinct lack of overly modern 'Shrek-isms', all of which make this a winner. Jack Black is often an acquired taste, but by the end of the film I was invested enough in the story that I'd forgotten who was doing the voice... I'm now looking forward to the sequel.

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Faculty (1998)

A tremendously fun sci-fi comedy horror from Robert Rodriguez starring a few familiar faces - some in early roles - including Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Robert Patrick A bunch of archetypal high school students band together when they discover that their teachers are slowly being mind controlled by invading parasites and are starting to assimilate the entire school population. It's funny and very meta with direct references to 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', and the performances are loose and fun across the board. Much of the plot is ludicrous but that's besides the point; as a thrill ride it's highfly effecctive and entertaining. And, oh, John Stewart is in this as the science teacher, and there's a cameo by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News fame! Hilarious!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie Roundup

I've been watching way too many movies lately to review them all properly, so I'm going to take the easy, lazy way out by doing a brief recap.

(Image from IMP Awards)

First up, High Fidelity (2000), based on yet another book I haven't read. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a music aficionado who ekes out a living running his own little record shop with his friends/employees. The tale starts with Rob being dumped by his girlfriend, after which he proceeds to list the top 5 breakups of his life (top 5 lists being a recurring gag in the film) while struggling to make sense of why his relationships keep ending badly. Cusack's excellent in the role and the film itself is witty and more than a little insightful, making Rob sympathetic while also being up front about his (serious) character flaws. It's partly a rom com for guys with a male perspective on relationships, and partly a look at geekery and fandom (in this case, music geeks). An excellent supporting cast (Jack Black is surprisingly great) and musical choices make it worth seeing.

(Image from Imp Awards)

Arrietty (2010), the latest animated film from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, lacks the grandeur and depth of some of their previous masterpieces but is still an excellent, if slight film. Based on Mary Norton's children's book 'The Borrowers', it tells the story of a family of tiny people (think Lilliputians) who live in secret within the walls/floorboads of a rural home, surviving by 'borrowing' food and supplies. When Arrietty, the daughter, starts becoming friends with a frail, ill boy who moves into the house, she inadvertently puts her whole family in danger. The animation is gorgeous as always with the trademark Ghibli attention to detail and inventiveness on full display, making full use of the protagonists' ultra-diminutive size in relation to ordinary household objects. Captivating and sometimes moving, the film marks another worthy entry in a long line of excellent Japanese animated films that are worth watching regardless of your age.

(Image from Imp Awards)

It's always tricky explaining this film. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) is a French period drama/action adventure/martial arts/horror/fantasy film, and it's one of my favourites. I suspect it's one of those films you'll either love or hate. Told with somber seriousness, the story (partly based - very loosely - on true events) is fairly preposterous, as is the mish mash of genres. A creature, believed to be a giant wolf of sorts, is terrorising the countryside of the French province of Gévaudan. The King sends his Royal taxidermist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) to investigate and kill the creature. Accompanied by his Iroquois 'brother' Mani (Mark Dacascos),  de Fronsac finds romance, aristocratic snobbery, and potential conspiracy afoot in what at first seemed a straightforward assignment. And there's plenty of martial arts violence to boot! Visually quite sumptuous and let down only by some dodgy effects, the film exudes cool from beginning to end and easily overcomes its inherent silliness. There's a strong supporting cast including the luscious Monica Belucci (who features in one of the film's most memorable scene transitions) and the forever sneering Vincent Cassel. Tremendously good fun, I loved every minute of it!

(Image from Imp Awards)

From one outrageous movie I love to one I merely enjoyed. Drive Angry (2011) is a rare Nicolas Cage movie that I enjoyed watching, and not just because of the pleasing (and trashy) eye candy provided by co-star Amber Heard. Cage plays Milton, a dead man who escapes Hell to avenge the murder of his daughter and save the life of a baby kidnapped by a mad cult led by a ruthless maniac (Billy Burke). Accompanied by the aforementioned Heard whom he picks up early on in the film and pursued by Hell's  'Accountant' (a devilishly good William Fichtner) who is 'hell bent' (sorry!) on returning him to the afterlife penitentiary (Satan is the warden), Milton blazes a trail of sordid destruction as he pursues the cult. It's over the top in a similar way to Shoot 'Em Up was, and unapologetically so - there's a scene where Milton kills baddies in the midst of intercourse! Trashy, forgettable, but entertaining while it lasts, if you're OK with this sort of thing.

(Image from Imp Awards)

Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) is surely up there amongst the list of film's with the longest titles ever. One of Allen's earlier efforts, it's an adaptation of a novel that apparently has very little in common with its source material. The film is divided into several short sketches, each one entitled with a chapter of the book, such as 'What is Sodomy' and 'What Happens During Ejaculation'. As is the nature of sketches, some are far better than others, and this general rule of thumb makes the film a mixed bag in terms of quality. Having said that, none of them are bad, and the good ones are truly hilarious; the one featuring Gene Wilder as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep and the aforementioned 'goings on during ejaculation' tale are side splittingly funny. All of the sketches are related to sex in some way or the other; don't expect to be educated by any of them, but do expect Allen's trademark wit on display as he explores sex and sexual obsession through the prism of bizarre comedy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Attack the Block (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

Attack the Block (2011)

It's interesting thinking about this film post London riots. The protagonists are after all a bunch of inner city gang youths! It doesn't make me re-evaluate my take on the film mind you, but the timing of the film having come out just pre-riots is a tad amusing.

Running at a snappy 90 minutes, Attack the Block is an old school horror-comedy about an alien invasion of London, and more specifically a council housing estate (i.e. 'the projects'). It begins with a gang of kids from the building led by Moses (John Boyega) mugging a young woman, only to be interrupted mid crime when an alien crash lands mere metres away. They kill it, but it ends up being the first of many and soon the group are fleeing for their lives and forced to take up arms to defend their turf.

The film is superbly crafted on what seems to be a modest budget. It has a lean and focused script that, coupled with frenetic editing, relentlessly hurtles from one scene to the next, stopping only to set up characters and situations before the next set-piece It's economical storytelling, but no less effective for it. And the characters, despite being archetypal, are very well defined and funny, thanks in no small part to the excellent cast which is spearheaded by Boyega's charismatic performance.

It's funny but not campy - the horror sequences are genuine horror sequences, and there are gruesome deaths aplenty. Writer/director Joe Cornish, making his first feature film, strikes the perfect tonal balance between these elements in much the same way films like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead do. It's got story, characters, excitement, and humour, with a smattering of social commentary thrown in for good measure.

By making the most of dimly lit hallways and dark run down city streets, the film maintains an atmospheric visual style. The creature designs deserve a special mention as they are creepy and alien looking without seeming derivative or fake. The effects used to bring them to life belie the modesty of the film's budget; truly impressive stuff! It's all rounded off with an energetic soundtrack by Basement Jaxx, the aural icing on the cake.

Fans of horror comedies are in for a treat with Attack the Block. There's nothing particularly original about it but it's very well made and features an unconventional setting and characters, particularly for a genre film. It's definitely on my blu-ray list!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Image from IMP Awards

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's book upon which this film is based is a very slight one indeed, featuring only a few sentences of text to accompany its illustrations. The film adaptation by Spike Jonze, which is equal parts energetic and leaden, isn't exactly heavy on story either but does by necessity have more content than its source material.

Max (Max Records) is a young boy living with his single mum (Catherine Keener) and sister. He's a little wild and imaginative, and clearly feels alienated and is thus prone to moody tantrums and outbursts. When his mum brings a boyfriend over for dinner he has a particularly wild reaction and runs away, jumps into a boat and sails off to a strange land filled with large, furry creatures - the eponymous 'Wild Things'. The wild things are a familial community full of bickering and fighting but also affection and caring. Max enters their world and convinces them that he is a king (they're not to bright) and proceeds to lead them in various 'fun' activities.

The true substance of the film is the interplay between the creatures. They each appear to represent different aspects of Max's personality and family, and as he attempts to lead them he begins to discover the complexity inherent in all 'human' feelings and interactions. Yes, it's a 'growing up and learning about life' movie, but done like no other. It isn't a cutesy film by any means, with the creatures often being quite menacing and dangerous (whether intentionally or, as is often the case, accidentally).

Tonally it varies much like Max's moods, from the exuberant joy of just running through the woods to the bitter anger of having strangers being brought home; it does feel a little too dour at times though. The music by Carter Burwell and vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O add to the dreamlike atmosphere.

The visuals are stunning and often surreal, and real credit must be given to the way the creatures have been designed and realised. They are actors in costumes with CG used to animate their faces, and the end result is a physical and digital performance that feels completely believable. You simply forget that you're seeing an effect and accept the creatures as, well, creatures!

The top notch cast who wore the suits and voiced the characters contribute immensely to pulling off the illusion, particularly James Gandolfini as Carol, the wild thing who most closely mirrors Max's feelings of isolation and anger. Speaking of Max, the performance by Max Records (yeah they found a Max to play Max!) is superb and absent any of the 'mature beyond their years' personality traits that too many precocious child actors possess.

It's a very good film but isn't a wholehearted thumbs up. As I said sometimes it feels way too downbeat, and while it does attempt to reflect Max's own dynamic personality I'm not sure it fully succeeds. It also drags a little, probably because of its random non narrative nature. These caveats aside though, it does capture the feeling of being a kid and an outsider incredibly well, as well as the simplistic child logic understanding of the way the world works. I wouldn't really call this a film for kids - it's more like a peek into the mind of a child that is intended for adults.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Image from IMP Awards

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

If I had to use one word to describe this film, it would be 'whimsical'. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play two brothers, Bloom and Stephen, who are con men. Bloom is the chief protagonist in the cons who has to go out there and execute them, with Ruffalo being the 'storyteller' who chiefly works his magic behind the scenes. Also alongside them during their capers is the enigmatic Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), their demolitions expert.

After a brief and charming prologue covering their itinerant childhoods and how they got in to the con business, the story proper begins. They've been at it for a while and Bloom wants out of the business; he's tired of the phony life he's leading, but Stephen convinces him to stick around for one last job. That job is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a rich eccentric loner. Stephen creates a narrative for Bloom to act out - it's a long con designed to sweep Penelope off her feet and make her feel like part of an adventure, and in the process part her from her money. The con takes them globe trotting and along the way Bloom starts to actually fall for Penelope.

Rian Johnson's last film, 'Brick', was his breakthrough, a high school noir with snappy dialogue that deservedly earned him major kudos. His sophomore effort is radically different - it's bright and vibrant and quirky, but it still has the same genuine sense of danger and high stakes that made 'Brick' so engaging. It also has a similarly twisty plot, with cons within cons that approach head spinning levels. Plot heavy though it may be, characters are the film's focus, and in that respect Johnson succeeds admirably in giving his larger than life protagonists a sense of believability that transcends the quirkiness of the premise (much like a Wes Anderson film).

Brody is decent in what is ostensibly the lead role - I'm not a fan but he acquits himself well. Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the elder brother, appearing fun and relaxed and in complete control while possibly capable of violence if and when required. Rachel Weisz's role as Penelope isn't as well developed as the brothers but she infuses the character with a sense of enthusiasm and charm that is endearing.

It's a fun film that has a sense of melancholy about it, and also an element of darkness and danger simmering beneath the surface. The con is implausible but that's the nature of the story, and if you're willing to give in to the film's style there is much to appreciate and enjoy. Johnson proves himself to be more than a one hit wonder and I'm looking forward to his future offerings.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Haywire (2011)

 (Image from IMP awards)

Haywire (2011)

It's not often that you get an action movie that is better received by critics than it is by the movie going public, but Haywire appears to be finding itself in just that atypical situation. This is perhaps fitting since it is an atypical action film, which may help to explain audience apathy. As one patron said to another as they left the screening I attended  (to paraphrase) "the trailer was like, sick, but the story was confusing".

In fairness, the story is a tad convoluted but not especially confusing. The film begins 'in media res' with a woman named Mallory (played by former MMA fighter Gina Carano) forced to go on the run with a hostage (Michael Angarano), to whom she recounts her tale. Mallory is an agent/operative for a private agency run by a man named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) that carries out contracts like rescue and protection (and possibly other stuff). Following a rescue operation carried out with fellow operative Aaron (Channing Tatum) she's quickly pushed into another job, a cushy babysitting job that turns out to be anything but, one that leads to her being betrayed and hunted down by her agency and the authorities. Also in the mix are Michael Douglas as a government agent who hires Kenneth's agency for a contract and Antonio Banderas as a shady middle man.

On the surface it's a typical 'wrongfully accused hero on the run and out for revenge' tale. Actually it's essentially that beneath the surface as well, but as I said before it is atypical. The plot is silly and nonsensical but still compelling enough to drive the action. Steven Soderbergh isn't really known for making run of the mill films, and this is definitely a Soderbergh film through and through. There are many quiet periods and copious amounts of small character moments and detail throughout, and the dialogue is garrulous and delivered in a monotone that is occasionally punctuated by dead pan humour. It's visually slick, with distinctive colour filters employed, and it has an energetic and, well, 'cool' musical score.

In terms of action, there's surprisingly little of it, which may be one of the reasons people lured in by the trailer expecting non stop ass kicking may feel cheated. Despite the story being over the top, there's a grittiness to it and a believability to the central character - there are moments where Mallory seems vulnerable, like the brilliant scene in which she makes an escape walking furtively along a street, hyper sensitive to every sound and movement around her, sensing imminent danger.

Speaking of fights, they may be sparse but when they happen they are fast and furious and brutal, with a lot of wide shots and long takes making for very entertaining action sequences. Gina Carano may not be an actress, but she does have the magnetism that many other non actor action stars have, from Bruce Lee through to Schwarzenegger, and a physical presence that completely sells the action. She doesn't lose any fights, but she does take some brutal blows along the way. There's an impressive sequence where she's climbing and jumping along rooftops in long takes that aren't showy but are impressive for simply being her actually doing these things.

Carano isn't great in the talky scenes, nor is she bad; she seems just right for the tone and style of the film. The rest of the very impressive cast more than compensate for any deficiencies in the acting department with their performances, including when they get their asses handed to them at some point or the other in a brutal beat down!

Haywire is a very good action thriller that stands out from the crowd in the same way Hanna did last year (my review) by being a film that embraces the genre it represents while also transcending it in many ways. I guess an interesting and talented filmmaker can always bring something to the table, even when that table is a well worn and cliche ridden genre.

Super (2010)

Image from Imp Awards

Super (2010)

Lonely loser Frank (Rainn Wilson) manages to wind up married to hottie / recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler). When an unscrupulous strip club owner / drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) manages to steal Sarah away from him, he goes over the edge and becomes a super hero, The Crimson Bolt. Together with his friend Libby (Ellen Page), he fights crime by beating people senseless, with the ultimate aim of rescuing Sarah.

It's a very odd film, vaguely like 'Kick Ass' but leaving a much sourer taste in your mouth afterwards. That's mostly because of its wildly inconsistent tone that veers between comic absurdity to cringe inducing violence, from pathos to laugh out loud funny. The funny bits are truly funny, and the shocking bits are truly shocking, and in that sense it's a well crafted film.

It builds up like a real world superhero origin story only unlike Kick Ass it doesn't slowly transform into an actual superhero story; instead it sticks within its real world confines where violence and conflict have bloody consequences. At some point the line between hero and villain becomes truly blurred as The Crimson Bolt sends people to hospital for relatively minor infractions. Frank is clearly mentally unstable, as is Libby, but the film doesn't really go anywhere truly interesting with that other than playing it for laughs. The bloody tale culminates in a traditional and exciting action sequence filled with copious amounts of gore.

Wilson is superb as the unhinged Frank, scary and sympathetic in equal measure and always funny in that absurd deadly serious manner that made him so good in the US version of 'The Office', and Kevin Bacon is perfectly cast as the sleazy villain. Page is manic and demented and loads of fun to watch. It's low budget but doesn't look or feel it for the most part - writer/director James Gunn seems to have a knack for making the most of his scarce resources.

At the end of the day it feels like a story in an identity crisis, and while I'm guessing this is intentional it made the film hard to really love. I liked it, though I'm not really sure I'd want to see it again.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Have Seen the Future of Theatrical Exhibition

And its name is IMAX.

OK so IMAX has been around for a while now but it has only recently started to be regularly adopted by mainstream Hollywood with films like The Dark Knight having entire segments shot specifically for the IMAX format.

The most recent big budget spectacle to embrace the format is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Many of the reviews for this film have mentioned the visual impact some of the scenes have in IMAX, and having recently seen the film in said format I must concur.

So what's great about IMAX? Mostly, it's all about one thing - the screen size. It's simply enormous and at a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the conventional 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 ratios one finds at cinemas, it fills out significant space in both the horizontal and the vertical. MI:GP is presented mostly in standard format but occasionally there are sequences shot in full blown IMAX where the screen expands vertically to fill most of your field of vision, creating a feeling of being 'in' the film in a way the much vaunted future of cinema Hollywood is pushing so aggressively, 3D, could only dream of doing (in its current form at any rate).

The much vaunted Burj Khalifa tower sequence in this film, for instance, is breathtaking and lives up to the hype, a rare feat in big budget blockbusters. Shots of the cityscape of Dubai taken from the vertiginous upper floors of the tower are among the film's highlights and help create an edge of your seat experience as Tom Cruise and/or his stunt double dangles precariously alongside the tower (no CGI stuntmen here as far as I could tell). Doubtless part of the reason these scenes are so effective is due to the director, cinematographer, and editor's stellar work, but to say that IMAX enhances the effect would be an understatement. To say it doesn't would be an outright falsehood. Apart from the screen size the audio formats are also different and the quality of the audio presentation is also among the best I've heard.

The cost of watching something in IMAX does set you back a bit more than a regular cinema, but that slight markup makes for a markedly better experience that is, in my humble opinion, worthwhile. Disclaimer: I've only been to one IMAX cinema, the BFI in London, which is quite highly regarded. I am aware that there are some 'IMAX' screens that are apparently not up to the mark in terms of screen size. Caveat Emptor!

In short I would like this to be the future of theatrical exhibition. Even the regular non IMAX sequences are still more impactful at this scale than on a regular cinema screen. Most of the features of regular theatrical exhibition can now be replicated in one's living room with a decent screen or projector, surround sound system and a blu-ray player, and the cost of buying or renting a blu-ray is significantly less than that of going out to the movies. And considering the quality of some cinema halls out there, the living room experience can sometimes be the superior one! With IMAX, however, you get something that you simply can't recreate at home (unless you're amongst the vile 1%).

Multiplex cinemas are dying a slow death at the moment, and perhaps this is how it should be. There are so many alternative forms of leisure activity and means of consuming media like films that in order for it to survive the theatrical experience must change. The reality is that the world has changed and the industry needs to get with the program. Perhaps only the die hards will pay a premium to enjoy the communal experience of being in a cinema hall watching a film in IMAX with fellow like minded cinephiles. Instead of being a pastime for the masses (like those who keep their phone on and talk during the film) it'll be an activity only real fans will indulge in, while everyone else consumes content on their home television setup, or on their phone or tablet computer. You'll pay a bit more but it'll be much more of an event than going to the cinema is right now.

This may mean that theatrical exhibition ends up being a relative niche market with films primarily being distributed online and on disc in parallel or shortly after their cinema release dates, but if that meant an improvement in the quality of the experience, then so what? The industry has monetised physical media distribution quite well, and if it figured out how to leverage online distribution as effectively there may yet be an equilibrium where the industry stays alive through a combination of a smaller premium theatrical presentation in conjunction with many other distribution mechanisms, which would allow people to continue to enjoy films through their preferred devices. That's my $0.02 on this subject!

As for the film, MI:GP was very good, my second favourite of the series after the first one. I wouldn't buy it or even watch it again, but it does what it says on the tin by being an effective action thriller with some terrific action sequences, a strong ensemble cast and a story line that is propulsive and makes some kind of sense (as opposed to part 3 where the heroes race against the clock to acquire some indeterminate thing). In case you didn't get the hint, I'd recommend watching it in IMAX, it's quite the experience!

Winter's Bone (2010)

Image from IMP Awards

Winter's Bone (2010)

The critically acclaimed Winter's Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is an atmospheric film set in a small community situated in the rural wilderness of the Ozark mountains. It is based on a novel (that I haven't read) that tells the story of a teenage girl named Ree (Lawrence) who looks after her impoverished family of two young siblings and a mentally unsound mother. Life's already a struggle, but when it comes to light that her drug manufacturing (think meth lab) father has disappeared days before being due to appear in court while leaving their family home as a bond, she embarks on a quest, one that forces her to grow up and fully bear the weight of being her family's matriarch.

Ree's quest - to find her father and get him to appear in court - forces her to become entangled with her sordid extended family and her father's nefarious associates; it is a quest that puts her life in danger. The narrative is slight - this is much more a film about character, setting, and atmosphere than about plot. The nature of this remote society with its idiosyncrasies and distinctive style of language are a large part of the film's appeal. The mystery isn't solved Sherlock Holmes style, instead it's based on vague second hand and unreliable information; the audience is just as blind as Ree as to what's actually going on, and we stumble along with her as the clock ticks away. What stands out is Ree's unwavering determination to save her family. In many ways the plot is incidental, with its conclusion flying in the face of narrative convention by not neatly wrapping things up. Contrary to what you'd expect there's nothing unsatisfying about this, and I'd cite it as a perfect example of how a plot isn't necessarily what a film is about.

Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in the lead role and there are a handful of character actors in this who round out a very good cast. It's visually and aurally stark and gloomy, reflecting the downbeat dreariness that flows through the community it depicts. It takes its time easing us into its setting but doesn't feel slow.

Having extolled its virtues, however, I confess it never really connected with me as much as I'd like. This admission notwithstanding I will say I'm glad I saw it; I found it rewardning and interesting and I'd urge anyone with more than a passing interest in films to check it out.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

London Film and Comic-Con 2011 (7,8,9 July)

***My extremely timely thoughts on this! (This post was saved as a draft ages ago)

I had heard that there was a Comic Con in London a while ago but never got round to looking in to it. It was apparently not high profile enough to be newsworthy, even within geek circles. A few weeks ago though I chanced upon an advert for it in Empire magazine mere days before it was scheduled to start. Needless to say, I made time to attend!

As predicted, it was a relatively low key affair but there was enough to see and experience to make the trip worthwhile. There were several stages set up, with the main one featuring talks and QA sessions with actors such as Brent Spiner, Christopher Lloyd, and Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame. The snippets of talks that I caught were the typical QA affairs where you learn nothing surprising or new. Brent Spiner - whose session I caught the most of - was very lively and engaging and drew a large crowd.

There were other smaller stages featuring talent shows, auctions, and demonstrations of costuming and film fighting (among others). The majority of the floorspace in the hall was taken up by myriad stalls whose purpose was to sell you stuff. 'Stuff' ranged from toys and comic books through to prop replicas and movie memorabilia.

There was a large area dedicated to celebrity autograph acquisition, an activity in which I did not partake (don't see the point, especially when prices seemed to start at £10 for the lesser known 'stars'). There were a few relatively big names present that set geek pulses racing, such as the aforementioned Spiner, though the biggest draw by far was Christopher Lloyd, who commanded long queues the whole time I was there. There were also photo booths tucked away in a couple of places where you could have your photo taken with your chosen celeb (for a price, of course).

I was struck by how many, umm, less well known celebrities were around. I felt a little sorry for some of them sitting there, expectantly or morosely waiting for an autograph hunter to come along. I suppose for some of these guys the convention tour is an important part of their livelihood. It does reek of desperation, but then again, there must be some kind of market for this to make it worthwhile for these guys to show up.

The remainder of the floor space was taken up by workshop areas teaching things like comic book art styles (for instance). There were a few random attractions there as well, such as the sixties Batmobile and the Delorean from Back to the Future, as well as a Nintendo area where games were being demoed.

The one element that really made the event were the crowds, who turned out in droves. True to form, most of the audience was young and male but not as massively skewed as I had imagined based on most observable geek demographics! The hall was fairly crowded throughout (and a little stuffy as a result) and most people seemed to be enthusiastic and having a good time. There were many people in costume, including the serious cosplayers, which really enlivened the whole place and elevated it beyond the typical bland trade show type event.

I'm not sure I'd attend this again as it is very commercial in nature and much of it does not appeal to me beyond the level of curiosity (which has now been sated). Having said that I did enjoy the 4-5 hours I spent there and would recommend it to the geeky and the curious.