Sunday, 29 August 2010

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

(Directed by Edgar Wright, running time 112 minutes)

NOTE: This review isn’t completely objective, having read all six volumes of the original Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.

While still waiting on World’s End, the third film of the humorously dubbed “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”, so far made up of modern British comedy classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright has gone completely state side, although further north... Canada in fact. Setting his sights on the comedy graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, Wright intends on not only transferring the downright surreal and outlandish humor to the moving picture, but at the same time cramming all six volumes into the space of nearly two hours (incidentally, “vs the world” is the subtitle to volume two, while the film that shares the same name it’s still about six).

Like novel, like film, the story follows the daily trials of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera), a young adult living in Toronto and bassist for his aspiring band Sex Bob-omb (a’la Super Mario). Things quickly (and conveniently) take an unlikely shift when Scott falls for the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After hitting it off, Scott soon learns that Ramona has not only been with seven others, but he must defeat them all in order to stay in a relationship with her, being dubbed the “League of Evil Exes” (not ex-boyfriends, emphasized for reasons to knock the socks of the male viewers). What sounds like an odd set up is actually only the half of it. When you take into consideration that the league is more of a collection of super villain like characters with real powers in a world where bodies explode into loose change, any fight would surely be some form of spectacle.

The first thing viewers will notice however is how casual people react to displays of magical powers, super human strength and gravity deifying martial arts when the punch ups get heavy. Even the side characters show moments of other worldly fighting ability at times. Further more, the basic structure of daily life plays out at times like an 8-bit video game, with ability stats, experience points, life bars and extra life pick ups. Even some of the fights themselves play out like a game of Street Fighter or Tekken and that just scratches the surface of video game references. Throughout the entire run, random in-jokes and subtle hints will keep the most twitchy thumbed individuals with a great sense of reverence and nostalgia. The writers clearly have as much love for the medium as those of you.

But it’s not all Pac-Man (contrary to Scott’s belief), underneath all the geeky flash is actually a surprisingly solid social and relationship based narrative. From the get go, Scott is in fact a rather unlikable character, so rather than just an excuse to get laid in the long term, each fight also seems to slap some sense into his messed up inner mind (of which we get surreal literal glances of periodically). On top of that, Scott also appears to have baggage of his own as there’s very little in the way of the XX chromosome that hasn’t had a fling with him, particularly in the case of his recently dumped teenage girlfriend, the young Chinese Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) who is also the band’s biggest fan, border-lining on religious devotion. Despite being oddly left out of the marketing campaign and trailers, she is one f the most important characters who is having to deal with the break-up in her own irrational way. But don’t worry to those of you who may be fearful of walking into a “romantic comedy”, it’s much of that ill-fated genre as Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead was. Along for the ride are a mish mash of social stereotypes as the gang of friends including Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) who is one of the most down to Earth yet funny characters in the whole film, along with the pessimistic other members of Sex Bob-omb. In fact, there are plenty more realized characters to fill up the roster, but I’d be writing this for days to each fully mention.

Regardless of whether you have read the original stories or not, Edgar Wright’s new coat of paint is actually very faithful with only a few noticeable changes, for better AND for worse. On one hand, some scenes have been completely re-imagined, such as the the battle between Scott and the fifth and sixth evil-ex twins where before it was a series of encounters (with robots), this time around is a giant musical standoff between the twins and Sex Bob-omb where their music summons giant monsters. It’s a hilariously over the top sequence but at the later stage in the film not out of place and fits perfectly with the constrained length. Yet on the other hand, audiences WILL notice the fast pace of the overall plot, more so for those unfamiliar with the series. While hardly too erratic, the film is trying to get to each set-piece fight to the next while trying to also keep the consistent mood of the characters. More to the point, what happened over a course of a couple years, this time around happens in what feels like a week or two and it shows. Another is the general style of editing. However this is rather a mixed bag down to personal preference. The film utilizes an eccentric form of editing that mirrors the style of the graphic novels such as separate character frames, jump cuts without warning, information boxes that spring up throughout and flashbacks in the original art style. While I could have done without the latter that feels tacked on and lazy on the film-makers’ part, the rest in something very unusual in conventional cinema and as a result creates a unique viewing experience. Yet while trying to be as objective as I can, I have to admit this fast paced comic style will be bewildering to those very used to traditional editing techniques.

If you’re willing to take real life yet hurl basic science and social norms into the sun then you’d be able to appreciate Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. For all it’s over the top fight sequences and video game conventions, there’s also a good chunk of characterization and well written humor, meaning there should be AT LEAST a few things to enjoy, long time fan or not. For fans however, the adaptation is outstanding. Sure plenty has been cut and remodeled but it’s all to provide a coherent viewing experience that’s faithful and not an insult.

Also starring Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Webber and Alison Pill.

As a side note, the graphics novels are worth reading. The scenes that were changed are significantly more fleshed out, yet best of all there’s significantly more characterization and depth to the many side characters (including some great ones that never appeared in the film).

Friday, 27 August 2010

Film Review: The Expendables

(Directed by Sylvester Stallone, running time 103 minutes)

Big guns, big explosions and big muscles, what some journalists have dubbed the “big dumb action flick”, this pseudo-genre is one of the more noticeable critical divides between critics and audiences. On one hand the critic is right since their only drive is to cause on screen havoc and cheap thrills, yet on the other the audience is right since there’s really nothing wrong with a little pure mayhem once in a while. It was popular throughout the 80s and early 90s and now such demands have resonated once again with The Expendables, an ensemble 80s throw back starring real 80s throwback action stars while tossing in a view recent “manliest men” archetypes for good measure.

From the various incarnations of movie posters, The Expendables boasts a near perfect action ensemble cast. Action veteran Sylvester Stallone is fresh off the killing floor from 2008’s Rambo, this time driving the cast as both lead star and director with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lunggren, Mickey Rourke and a whole convoy of muscle men that either haven’t been blowing up bridges and turning over trucks for as long or as memorably for me to mention in the same sentence. As with the “big dumb action flick”, the plot is supposed to be as straight forward as the many, many bullets going through the many, many disposable cronies. The low down on the synopsis is basically “agency wants to kill maverick in hostile country, mercenaries hired for dirty work”, simple as A to B and you don't care. How we eventually get to that conclusion however is not so much needlessly complicated, rather postponed for the first half hour. Prior to this set up, it’s a slog between establishing the entire parade “built like a brick-shit house”.

The first scene invokes memories of John Rambo’s notorious hyper death extravaganza with a crime boss getting a chest of projectile explosives before having to be wiped from the shaken faces of the nearby hired goons. Yet quickly the film already exposes a fatal flaw; BBFC 15. Despite Stallone at helm, The Expendables is far from the meat grinder that was Rambo. In fact, the first death of this film is probably the most violent and with the entire cast’s filmography having an on-screen body count large enough that could populate a small country making it genocide, you’d expect overkill to be an understatement in his next project. Instead the piles of bodies prior to the climax (that I will get onto later) is rather tame, with generic explosions, shot outs and punch ups making up most corpses. On top of that, between action scenes are sparse between exposition. With the exception Mickey Rourke (who gives an excellent yet out place within the film speech about death), the characters naturally are, how you say “meat heads” so of course the dialogue is equally simple. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was enough “big dumb action” to make up most of the “flick”. Between the opening and climax, the action is rather basic and in all fairness not that over the top either. Sure it’s fun but more to the point, it’s all been done in the 80s and early 90s, in some cases by the same cast members.

On top of that, the cast is regulated to Stallone and Statham, with the average on screen time for the rest of the ensemble before the climax amounting to roughly 5 minutes each. Even Jet Li who actually mostly appears in genuinely good films has a somewhat limited role and the much touted Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are cameos at best. Now granted, Schwarzenegger was always going to be nothing more than a quick walk in and wave given his focus now being world conquest (of which they even joked about in the film) but Willis, who is still alive and kicking in acting was billed as an important role. For the man who played the immortal John McClane, that was a downright tease. It may seem like I’m being harsh on something that’s not supposed to be taken seriously, but things like that are supposed to be consistently entertaining... well, I wasn’t consistently entertained.

Ah, but don’t call me out just yet. I wasn’t not entertained either, like I’ve mentioned previously the climax was a check point before the flip flops between dumb fun and mediocrity. What seems like half an hour, the last stand of the rag-tag band and two-dimensional antagonists is the over the top ultra violence everyone came to see. It’s here and only here where each member of The Expendables earns their standout moment. We’re talking wide spread demolitions, gruesome dismembered, violent bone breaking and plenty of good old fashion cannon fodder on display. All past groans and yawns were rolled up in rug and thrown off a bridge as the insane massacre unfolded.

Yet there also lies the problem that it was pushed up against the wall from the get go. Unlike Rambo and even the very recent The A-Team, the build up was less than expected in the context of the “big dumb action flick”. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely down right mad at times (the notable case being an explosive get away in a plane), but when it’s the throwback to cheesy action greats, moments of serious exposition that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously and general lack of bloodshed, I can’t help but feel disappointed at times. Despite the climax being the most of the promise of over the top action expected from such a cast, everything else pales in comparison. Sure, some movie goers might lap up the action for the sake of it being action but they should also admit they saved the best till last. Best usually does come last in films, but Stallone failed to take the best bits and scatter them throughout. It’s definitely a “big dumb action flick”, where it aims to please it's an absolute success but not really a great one, and given the ensemble it really should have been just that. But now I won't SHAME it.

Now lets wait for, Machete.

Also starring... *sigh* a lot.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Film Review: Four Lions

(Directed by Chris Morris, running time 100 minutes)

To those who may be unfamiliar with names alone, director Chris Morris is better known for his written and starring role in the highly controversial satirical faux-news program Brass Eye. That alone would make complete sense of the already awkward premise of Four Lions. Yes, it seems to sheer mention of Islam in popular media these days is enough to incite a fraction of doubt and unease in the public’s mind, yet here we have Al-Qaeda meets the Three, Four Stooges.

Four Lions follows the dimwitted exploits of four radical Islamic terrorists, in Sheffield, England, composed off two young adult brothers Omar (played by Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak), the latter of which is how you say slow, middle-aged British convert Barry (Nigel Lindsey) and bumbling fool Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), all of whom aspire to of all things pull off a successful suicide bombing. The only problem with this gang of irrational simpletons are not only ill-equipped to use weaponry, they even have a poor grasp of the religion they’re fighting for. Soon enough, further problems arise when a fifth recruit, Hassan (Arsher Ali) joins the fray, whose just as way over his head than the rest of the “happy campers”.

The obvious point to note even before viewing is just how far the controversial premise goes. Islam aside, the set up of a suicide bombing on British soil is hardly the first sketch that comes to mind in situation comedy. As a satire on a recent news worthy issue however, the comedy just plain works. While the audience is treated to a foreseeable series of bombings gone wrong and near blown cover as punch-lines, the majority of the comedy however comes from the constant bickering between the cast, a staple of cynical British humor. Despite all sharing the same faith (supposedly), the entire ensemble are in fact perfect misfits. Even the young brothers are on opposite ends of the spectrum intelligence wise, a somewhat classic image of the narrow-minded yet idealistic modern day British youth. The rest however are just not well adjusted enough to be in the terrorist trade... and that has to say something.

Which brings me on to the most unique point of the film. In an odd yet compelling way the characters are actually rather likable with their [counter-]witty lines of dialogue and predictable failures like a cast of cartoon archetypes. In reality they’re the villains but since failure is a recurrent theme it’s no different from cheering on Dick Dastardly or Wile E. Coyote. The only difference is instead of getting a black cloud of smoke in the face you get reduced to a bloody pulp on the pavement. Don’t worry though, in the few instances when something does go boom, the said cloud is all you see. It’s rather clean on screen when your profession involves scattering your limbs down the high street. Thrown in for good measure is the other side of the coin, the British intelligence agency who as we know is prone to... how you say, “hiccups” in their profiling and direct handling with the apparent threat to national security.

There are to say the least a couple of dry spells humor wise given the heavy handed message the script is quite obviously trying to hammer home and much of one’s own enjoyment would be based on how they react to similar news stories and their stance on political correctness. Of all scenes that make the greatest impact is hands down the last character driven scene before the credits begin to roll. Naturally without spoiling anything, I’ll just say it’s both funny and relevant to the characters, but not what they’re doing.

The final point of note about Four Lions is how such a film wouldn’t be achievable if made in the good old US of A. This isn’t just due to the obvious fear of showing acts of terrorism in a slapstick tone within their own borders, but also my own guess is that the representation would be a more cliche and less believable cast of Muslims, perhaps using stereotypes that would cause an outcry that this film has thankfully avoided. No offense to the US filmmaking, but this is based of prior attempts. While no British comedy classic, Chris Morris however has once again gone against the current media mindset and produced a film that’s not afraid to show to a realistic enough approach to a news heavy issue and laugh about it.

Also stars Julia Davis, Preeya Kalidas and Kevin Aldon.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Film Review: Kick-Ass

(Directed by Matthew Vaughn, running time 117 minutes)

Last year’s Watchmen was something of a mixed bag... well not for me, I loved it but I’m not narrow-minded enough to not acknowledge that for certain others it was hardly their favorite film that either they couldn’t understand or take its dark themes. Regardless of how you felt, what it was was a spin on the superhero genre, a plot element underused in cinema. To those who may have said nay to Watchmen (shame on you), while the very much hyped Kick-Ass has much in common with Alan Moore's brainchild; humanizing superheroes, casual violence and a twisted sense of irony, the plot is significantly more stream-lined and the general tone is much lighter.

Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a teenage “comic-book nerd” who has an epiphany moment over the notion that despite its popularity, no one has tried putting being a superhero into practice, thus engaging in mask vigilantism himself in the form of “Kick-Ass”. Initially such attempts are comically futile even though being filmed and posted on YouTube helps his credibility much more than actual crime fighting (this subtle reference carries more weight as a a piece of commentary than at first glance). During the ride he gets mixed up with two highly skilled yet deeply deranged masked heroes; Big Daddy and Hit Girl, played by Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz, both who are on the warpath against kingpin mobster Frank D’Amico played by Mark Strong.

Sounds simple enough right? That’s because it is, while the story changes direction and tone between comedy and drama, the climax is clear on the the horizon. The prime issue to grapple with here is not the moral ambiguity of the script (trust me, if you haven’t already you’re bound to hear it from some heavily right-wing nut job radio commentator), I’ll get onto that later. No, it’s the genre. While all previews and trailers depict Kick-Ass as something of a comedy for young adults, greatly at times the whole mood takes a plunge into a psychological/social drama. While not overshadowing the obvious comedy touted outside the theaters, the drama is very much clear cut and stands out in a one by one ratio. Often at times the audience will witness a series of slapstick skits before taking in angst or sorrow the character might experience (because satire can be serious). This is a human related story after all. Even though such subject matter is sprinkled out in doses throughout the film to prevent becoming overbearing and in itself is defiantly apart of the overall experience as the comedy, I fear some questionable advertising may be setting some common folk up for a potential unpleasant surprise after having been put into the wrong mind set.

On the comedy front however, there is thankfully deliverance. Even with the glaring pit falls his character experiences as his alter-ego, Dave Lizewski also engages in a close friendship with one of the most attractive girls at his school, after having mistaken him for being a homosexual with the first joke to mind being the resulting sexual-tension on Dave’s parts as he consistently pretends to play along. Aside from the endeavors of the protagonist, further humor in exhibited from the youngest of the D’Amico clan, Chris/Red Mist played by Christopher Charles Mintz-Plasse, better known to the student audience as McLovin a’la Superbad who is as pleasantly awkward as ever, being an even more cocky yet useless rookie crime fighter than Kick-Ass himself. Additionally, the side cast such as Dave’s even more geeky friends and D’Amico’s hired goons have their own moments in the comedy spotlight.

However, it’s Big Daddy and Hit Girl who steal the show, being a pair of downright deranged individuals while at the same time oddly compelling that we even cheer on as they blatantly gruesomely decimate wave after wave of all sorts of unsavory low lives. And that’s something, like Watchmen, the violence is in plain site and rather unexpected, we’re talking massive head-shots, severed limbs and in one instance a guy exploding in a giant microwave oven. In terms of its violence however, given the comedy angle, it’s more reminiscent of Tarantino, being apart of the humor and colossal sense of irony. Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy is something of a parent-orientated Batman who despite some hiccups in the past, I would say has redeemed his credibility as an actor. Chloë Grace Moretz is more of an oddity since despite being a mere child, pulls off some of Kick-Ass’s heaviest profanities and executions to the extent of forgetting her age completely... which leads me onto this...

NOTE: This next paragraph is more of a brief commentary over the recent controversy this film has caused rather than a view on the film itself so skip to the last paragraph to get right to the conclusion.

There may be some out there who find certain elements of Kick-Ass questionable, for others even distressful. One reason for such negativity to resonate may be a result from the already explained unexpectedness of the heavy violence and profanity. In this one’s own opinion, all this does is benefit the spin on the superhero genre and enhance the elements of social commentary here and there. The prime issue however is that of Hit Girl, where some have found distasteful and exploitative. First of all let me say anyone who thinks it’s exploitative is sick and for that you sir/madam are the deranged individual. As for the violence, I will admit at first it is somewhat bewildering to see a small girl massacre a group of drug dealers and towards the end even take a bloody punch to face, and while I can understand why such an image might be distressing to some, in the end it’s a matter of taste. Sure, a loving parent would not take such violence kindly whereas a teenager out for cheap thrills wouldn’t batter an eyelid.

Kick-Ass is definitely a unique film experience that you should check out, being part teenage comedy, part violent action and part social drama, all of which is helped further by its in your face satire and sharp script. For most I assume reading this, they’ll find something about it entertaining, but due to some hang ups people have had in the past I must emphasize they approach with caution as it is not entirely what it seems at first.

Also stars Lyndsy Fonseca, Clarke Duke and Nelson Frazier, Jr (that’s Viscera the wrestler).

Film Review: Clash of the Titans

DISCLAIMER: I know I’m trying to shorten my reviews but in this particular case I’ve got a lot to get off my chest, which even then still isn’t long enough, so apologies.

(Directed by Louis Leterrier, running time 118 minutes)

Greek Mythology is somewhat of an oddity for film makers, while it provides a ready selection of mythical creatures, legendary heroes and a sizable pantheon of Gods, the originally stories themselves don’t translate to the moving picture in the slightest sense if reverence is on the agenda. Arguably the best attempt at bringing life to the ancient fables was the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts, one of the first “swords and sandals” epics and easily featuring the best of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. However liberties were taken to give life to the exaggerated tales of old. His second Greek outing (no, not like that) however came in 1981 in the form of Clash of the Titans. Unlike Argonauts, the spectacle however was not the best acted or even groundbreaking, in fact it was a step back for special effects at the time. But why is it still remembered? Charm and camp value, which makes it a cult classic that being the case would make me “Brother Frank”.

A remake however is not a farfetched concept since Greek Mythology can also be epic, just look at the God of War video game series. The original Clash of the Titans however wasn’t actually much of an epic story to begin with so naturally any attempt at making it epic would either mean taking liberties or over doing the grand scale of story itself... where this 2010 incarnation does neither.

By all means does the screenplay take liberties with the original story (which took liberties of its own with the original legend so for all those familiar with the genuine text; you’ll stop grinding your teeth after 20 minutes) but this does not involve inserting some epic battle sequences. Sam Worthington, having washed off his Smurf make-up plays Perseus, the bastard child of Zeus (played by Liam Neeson), who after losing his adoptive family and ship is swept ashore the kingdom of Argos that initially relishes in it’s independence from the Gods not long before they’re groveling at the feet of Hades (played by Ralph Fiennes) who demands a sacrifice for the Kraken, lest they be completely obliterated. So naturally this set up leads Perseus and co on a grand adventure to stop potential annihilation, overcoming many obstacles in the form of mythical beasts... or “big bad beasties” using Hollywood logic.

Already I’m questioning the plausibility of this set up. The writers themselves must have been in the mind set of “this happens because it was in the original” since a number of scenes played out in 1981 that don’t make sense in 2010. The most glaring of these is why is Perseus even on this journey? In the original, Perseus is out to save his beloved Andromeda and his soon to be kingdom while nearly 30 years later he is just out for revenge for the death of his family at the hands of Hades despite his quest not involving the goal of killing said Godof the Underworld. Further more upon his arrival at Argos he is treated like a scraping from under their sandal that begs the question why help them, especially since the people are bringing the wrath of Zeus upon themselves to the point of borderline painting a giant middle finger on the mountain side. The second issue is not so obvious since the plot element doesn’t come up much... and that is why it’s a problem. In 1981 the cursed beast Calibos is the whole reason the Kraken is summoned while in 2010 he is nothing more than a bribed peon of Hades, a tacked on reference to the original (although I will admit the mechanical owl joke was pretty clever). And thirdly Pegasus, the winged horse just turns up at the end sent by Zeus after a change of heart, there is no developed bond from the original making the creature more of a tool than a companion. I could name many others but I digress, in short it appears the film is so eager to get of the ground and wow audiences, there is no time to rationalize the legitimacy of the basic script. I’m not saying the original’s was perfect, but it was at least coherent.

Ok, so the script is clearly flawed but what about the characters? In a positive spin, the beauty part is there is definitely a band of interesting characters, that are built up from the start with different traits and backgrounds... slight problem however. Without giving away who and how, a good chunk are arbitrarily killed off making all that screen time building them up pointless if their deaths were so insignificant, screen time that could of been used developing the story itself. The acting is... ok. Not cringe worthy but tolerable... at times. The biggest chip on my shoulder is the Greek Gods themselves. Now Neeson and Fiennes are perfectly acceptable but why are they dressed like a camp stage theater retelling of King Arthur? What happened to the togas, the auroras of thunder, giant muscles and general sense of power? Why do the pantheon congregate over a landscape for train sets? They may act like Gods, heck the much touted line “release the Kraken” does pack a punch, but they don’t look like Gods.

This really isn’t going well?

CGI then. Thankfully, unlike the rendition of Olympus, the landscape does invoke the epic scale of Greek Mythology with the city of Argos alone rivaling that of the Lord of the Rings Minas Tirith. Even the desolate lands where twisted old witches reside comes off more as the shores of hell (or Hades). As for the inevitable monster mash, the bands of warriors plow through giant scorpions, harpies, Medusa and of course the Kraken, although the course is a little light, lacking the 1981 giant hawk and two-headed dog. In their place however are mysterious, almost wood like sand people who actually ally themselves with our heroes, which to their credit are at least visually striking and unique. The Kraken is defiantly the highlight despite like the original doing little in the way of... being the Kraken, but the hype prior is actually overbearing in a good way. Medusa however is less menacing this time around, having much less build up and sense of horror with the confrontation being more action orientated like the rest of the film. While it’s good action no doubt, it lacks any importance given the monsters before were casually despatched as mere hurdles. I mean even the sand people are immune to her powers, making her as an entity of pure dread redundant. On the up side, the giant scorpion sequence appears more important and exciting than it’s supposed to be given its significance to the overarching plot.

As a remake, if you saw the original first, you probably will be wanting more. As a stand alone film, it is deeply flawed. While action and spectacle take centre stage, the various hiccups along the road make the whole epic experience more of a bumpy ride. Since I essentially have a great gay boner for Greek Mythology (joke), I found myself crushingly disappointed. Not because of the liberties taken with the source material or the lack of charm the original film possesses but for the lack of epic scale and fantastical sense of awe that Greek Mythology is perfect for. The best case in cinema is still Jason and the Argonauts and very few things can even such the sheer spectacle of the God of War games, Greek Mythology or not. 2010 Clash of the Titans is not a straight up bad film, I’m sure there many who can enjoy it for the grand CGI fest it is since there is a lack of mythological orientated films, but the overall experience is lacking. I mean with a name like CLASH of the TITANS, you'd settle for nothing less than over the top epic scale. While I prefer not to grade or score a complex opinion like most critics, this film can best be described as around the C- range film, not too bad, but not really that good either... it’s just there for you.

Also starring Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng and Mads Mikkelsen.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon

(Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, running time 98 minutes)

Looking back at the many animated films I delved into, I can only sneer at the sugary AND cheesy onslaught that insulted my intelligence, if I had any that is, I was 6. I my view, a good children’s film is one you can look back on fondly and even enjoy once you’re all grown up... and the same applies today. So as a huge cynic, any children’s animated feature I can enjoy must be worth a glance for the bigger hearted regular audience. So far, only Pixar seems to be able to charm my critical attitude... but How to Train Your Dragon is a DreamWorks production and I did not enjoy Shrek. Before I get this review underway, let me briefly explain why I paid the price of admission; one, the reviews to mine and everyone else’s surprise were phenomenally positive and two, I’m a sucker for Vikings... with that child like remark, now I don’t seem so negative as a person.

The oddly named How to Train Your Dragon follows the endeavor of Hiccup, also oddly named, voiced by Jay Baruchel, a weak and young Viking blacksmith who supplies the weapons to the rest of his more typical fat, drunk and horned Viking clan who are under constant attack from an array of monstrous and cartoonish dragon archetypes. After inadvertently bringing down one of the harder to slay beasts, being the lesser Viking he is, he instead helps it heal before learning to ride and eventually befriending one of the dragons his people have been fighting for so long...

...yeah, it does sound familiar, more so to anyone who read my Avatar review. The story of of a hero switching sides is a tired out formula but as strange as it sounds, this animated feature isn’t the overhyped cliche spectacle some “other” films turn out to be. The prime difference is in its characterization. First of all, the dragons aren’t innocent creatures, they’re violent fire breathing behemoths, basically they’re real dragons. Secondly the Vikings aren’t even villainous, they’re just defending their homeland. In fact, neither the dragons or Vikings are the protagonists or antagonists, it’s about Hiccup and his juggling of caring for a dragon in secret while trying to train himself back at his village in a rather comically blunt series of Viking duels, all of this before an epic climax that you won’t guess from the trailers alone.

Might sound simple enough, but it’s the characters and humor that stand on its own feet. The dragons come in different shapes and sizes (and methods of attack) ranging from the simple design of the lead dragon to both cartoonish and menacing with their entire personality shown through their movement and facial expressions. In short they don’t talk or try to act like humans, which the animations of old did... excruciatingly. The Vikings themselves are also more typical of their kind, enjoying to drink, eat and fight and we’d expect nothing less. When Hicupp’s overbearing father and chieftain of the Vikings, Stoic the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) was introduced in the opening, I couldn’t help but grin for minutes afterwards at that name alone. Another Viking of note is Gobber the Belch (voiced by Craig Ferguson), sporting artificial limbs and an unconventional and downright dangerous training technique for new dragon slaying recruits.

The story is somewhat formulaic and there aren’t that many surprises outside of the characterization making for a somewhat predictable flow in a couple of instances, but what you do get is a series of excellent set piece scenes and epic battles with subtle humor and charm. Further more, the Viking setting is a fresh change of pace from talking animals and inanimate objects, which also allows for a pleasant orchestral score accompanied by Celtic pipes, which isn’t the most common thing to hear in an animation... except Beowulf, but I have it on good authority that may not be for children.

It might sound odd at first to enjoy such a film at my age but how many of you are planning to see Toy Story 3 hmm?

Also stars America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and David Tennant (yes, that one).

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

(Directed by Tim Burton, running time 109 minutes)

Tim Burton is losing his flare... not the most encouraging start to a review. But seriously, what was once a unique take on the fantasy genre has since become, to a degree a studio brand. This post-modern goth has rinsed and repeated to the point of becoming predictable and repetitive. Still don’t know what I mean?

Mia Wasikowska plays a now adult Alice straight after donating a third of her blood, who ends up in over the top fairy tale world of Wonderland after tumbling down a rabbit hole more reminiscent are a vortex induced by magic mushrooms (not that I’m suggesting anything). Short of weird for the sake of weird, we are then introduced to the whole shebang of Wonderland misfits; there’s Barbara Windsor as the twitchy Dormouse, Michael Sheen as the oddly depressed White Rabbit, Stephen Fry as the down right sinister Cheshire Cat and Matt Lucas as Matt Lucas... I mean Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Despite being sidelined as mere sideshows, the manic monsters are easily the highlight of this surreal display, bursting with personality and humor.

Beyond the anthropomorphic parade is the Mad Hatter played by Johnny Depp who I’m starting to think has shacked up with Tim Burton. Don’t get me wrong, Johnny Depp is as delightfully schizophrenic as ever but it’s become mandatory in a Burton production so even though Depp is the star, we already have a good impression of how much twitchy rambling to expect.

But I digress. Alice has apparently been brought back to Wonderland after her first visit as a child to overthrow the Red Queen (played by *sarcastic surprise* Helena Bonham Carter) and return the crown to the White (understatement mind you) Queen (played by a tolerable Anne Hathaway), which can only be done after defeating the “Jabberwocky” in an epic battle... yeah... As you may have already noticed this is not the Alice in Wonderland we know. If anything this is Alice in Wonderland 2 without the first installment. The prime issue I have is while I relish in good story structure, when the credits started to roll, I couldn’t be wonder if the the story would of faired better if it was actually a random secession of surreal events, like the original narrative because at its most obscure the film stands out.

Burton seems to have injected a Christian fable into a children’s fairy tale with the result being more Lord of the Rings than Nightmare Before Christmas in its crazed series of events. When you see the Had Hatter swinging a clamor in a duel with an evil knight, you don’t know what to think and I doubt that’s what Burton wanted. The entire package is what you’d come to expect from the man of white make-up, and for some that’s even a plus, but for me and a good deal of others it’s become repetitive despite trying to be an original twisted style. Turning classic stories on their head is a good concept but vary the style at least! Otherwise we’re going to the Wizard of Oz with a sexually mature Dorothy, monstrous lion, cyborg Tin man and zombie Scarecrow.

Also stars Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman and (briefly) Christopher Lee.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Editorial: Are romantic comedies ruining local cinema?

First written 6th September 2009

Me and the Romantic Comedy genre, or “Rom-Com” have always had a straightforward relationship. To put it bluntly it’s the only genre I’m not too keen on... scratch that, out right hate. But my recent issue with this flamboyant sub-genre has not manifested itself from it’s predictable plot-lines, bland characterization and half-baked attempts at both romance and comedy, no. I respect other people’s opinions and these films cater to the young women of this world and their clearly reluctant boyfriends, however in recent times my patience has to be running thin. These films not only appear to be churned out as if the genre was on a money powered iron lung, but has even begun to shaft films that are in many instances more critically AND commercially successful. This could be the case with any genre of film but in a landmark case of “Sod’s Law”, it’s the Rom-Com on trial.

Those of you who are fortunate to live in the big cities might usually be treated to a variety of local cinemas with up to three in any district alone not counting independent film groups. Those on the other hand who are unfortunate to live in the quiet town cliche have had to settle with just the one, thus only what it shows. Despite the film industry like any other creative media being full of artistic talents prepared to create something worthwhile, at the end of the day it is still an industry, run by studio executives and high roller producers whose goal is make money and these times of bloated action flicks and half-baked comedies what’s the best route to take? Something unconventional like Natural Born Killers made $60 million, something complex like The Shawshank Redemption made $30 million, heck even something with Johnny Depp like Ed Wood made just $6 million (and you know what fangirls are like)... a Romantic Comedy on the other hand, Four Weddings and a Funeral made $250 million! All these films were released in the same year and this is just one example. Great, looks like I’m stuck with the latter in this months local release schedule.

While Four Weddings and a Funeral was a hit with apparent originality for it’s time, all those involved must now carry the stigma of trend that followed. Without pointing the finger at any particular chain of cinemas (you know who you are), the Romantic Comedy genre is a chronically fattened up cash cow that seems to be milked on a regular basis with up to three of this genre currently in the UK top ten alone at the time of this article, withdrawing those that settle with just the romantic half (that would raise it to four films). A cliche ridden summer blockbuster like Transformers 2 or GI Joe might appear to be the worst offenders when it comes to cash consuming trash since they’re big, loud and have unusually attractive women as the innocent bystanders. While these films’ marketing campaigns are on par with a Mongol conquest, the sheer volume of Rom-Coms is somewhat more surprising than previously thought if not actually scary. Using US box office referencing, If you were to collect every American film since 1980, categorize each into a genre then further sub categorizing each again, the average number of films for each kind of film is between 30 and 80... for Romantic Comedies there are over 300. And if you bother including films that run in the same format such as teen comedies and youth-orientated musicals, it would go beyond the thresh hold making it the largest scripted genre. With that prospect in your head you’d happily line up days before the release of Transformers 3: Rise of the CGI. At least then they’d be variety.

From personal experience, in 2008 alone, there were two films I was prepared to dish out my last few coppers for the unreasonably high entrance fee, yet in an ironic twist none of which were released at my local cinema. The first film to fall foul was the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, instead I got “P.S. I Love You”, that all I got from was an overly warm pin up flaunting a cringeworthy pair of young lovers embracing. The second was Cloverfield, a film upon reflection was severely hyped, particularly on the net. Nope, instead I got “Over Her Dead Body” starring some... thing from Desperate Housewives (on a side note No Country was eventually shown at an independent venue and for the first time sold out the hall). But here’s the thing, unlike the impressive revenue of Four Weddings and a Funeral, these other examples of the genre didn’t crush their own studio under it’s vast gross profit, so why were they inflicted upon a small town that already had it’s fill with the likes of them in previous years and is now starving for something original and mind blowing?

Perhaps I’m looking to much into it and there’s only so long a subject can milked for the big screen with this genre being something of a recent incarnation. But here’s the thrust of my concerns, they’ve only tapped a small percentage of possible romantic comedy scenarios. With the recent trend of remakes and sequels, it’s not far-fetched to see this pattern merging with the already bloated genre. And here’s the scary part, they haven’t even begun utilizing queer culture, Bollywood, science fiction and horror hybrids and historical backdrops. For this film goer, queer culture has the potential to become the worst offender. Films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk took a sensitive approach to the subject matter yet it’s camp, or “metrosexual” thats all the rage and with the success of the Sex in the City movie, it’s just a matter of time before the Will and Grace or Queer Eye factor begins showing it’s well-styled face on the cinema scene.

But I digress... Whether or not you’re a fan of Romantic Comedies, no one could possibility stomach the vast quantities of this genre. Even if in a blissful state of mind you are some how an avid Rom-Com fan, you’d be broke if you wanted to see everything plastered on the cinema walls, plain and simple. Since this article is in such negative spirits, the question I can only ask is who’s to blame? Can it be the public despite some box office figures still indicating the craving for other genres? Maybe the cinemas themselves despite thinking they’d learn their lesson from showing films that didn’t break records? Technically there is no right or wrong culprit here, in fact it’s most likely a mixture of both parties... but for this film goer it’s neither. Instead it’s our good old friend *cue dramatic music* the Advertisers... and why isn’t even difficult to think about. While not trying to show bias against a genre I’ve denounced from the beginning, many of them don’t have the originality to survive on their own merits, so instead they’re branded on every TV break, poster space and website. I dare you to look into any three of these and not tell me you’re found at least a couple of these films or even teen comedies or feel-good films that are typically the same thing. If you took someone unfamiliar with the film industry and marched them down the street to the local cinema, they might just think it was the only genre.

Yes, I know many blame big budget action films for the dumbing down of cinema, but in an unfair comparison: Harold Shipman killed more people than Jack the Ripper, but who is more famous?

Statistics from Box Office Mojo.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Top NINE Films of 2009

Why top nine films when everyone else does ten? Because like everyone else, it’s always a struggle to pick out the best ten of anything and thus becomes stuck over whether to choose A over B out five others... so I’ve eliminated that problem altogether and just cut the tenth number and all those other potential films in the process.

Another thing I should point out is there are many films classed as 2009 but have or will be released in the UK in 2010 that are usually the award winning line up. Despite that however, for this year I have also not included those films released in 2008 but 2009 in the UK that are also award winners, quite simply to start off fresh. If I did however, the number one would be The Wrestler.

Next year the early 2010 award winners, if any worthy, will be mentioned in a 2010 top nine.

Further more, there are no doubt some 2009 foreign films I have yet to see or even hear of that would probably destroy all the other competition. So without further delay...

9. Paranormal Activity

(Directed by Oren Peil)

Despite the shakey-cam technique being the usual clutter of distortion and camera movement too fast for a handheld, by simply using a tripod and one shot, Paranormal Activity instantly becomes more coherent, realistic and ultimately scary as a result.

8. Zombieland

(Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

While not an entirely original concept, this comedic adventure of a zombie apocalypse delivers a perfect balance between grotesque slaughter and crude dialogue with all the characters fitting a role suited for a zombie survivor... not to mention an excellent Bill Murray cameo as himself.

7. Drag Me To Hell

(Directed by Sam Raimi)

Sam Raimi returns to form with an over the top story of gypsy curses and keen demons thats creepy and funny at the same time. A great comeback after the cliche ridden Spiderman spectacles to return to a better suited cliche ridden horror but this time it’s on purpose.

6. Moon

(Directed by Duncan Jones)

An unusual sci-fi drama about the story of a lone astronaut and his future-set mission to the moon under the watchful eye of an industrial powerhouse, although such a description hardly does this unique film justice. Quite simply it is a film with philosophy and psychology; hard science fiction.

5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Directed by Wes Anderson)

Probably the most tame of the list, using old fashion stop-motion animation (original once more by today’s standards) and a quirky sense of humor, this tale of sly woodland critters over the top feud with upper class farmers is both amusing to and pleasant to watch... if not at times slightly weird.

4. Inglorious Bastards

(Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino merges a Pulp Fiction story with Third Reich spin following the seedy plots of a rag tag band of Allied butchers and slick yet sinister Nazi leaders. The plot rarely takes itself seriously and is clear on staying as far from historical accuracy as possible, which makes it all the more fun to watch.

3. District 9

(Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

The excellent and engaging premise of extraterrestrial refugees slots together perfectly with the deranged plot of a human peace keeper’s transformation into the said alien insectoids. At first the audience is ushered in with a semi-documentary style story structure before becoming a more personal tale of the alien-human hybrid’s struggle with the military giant he once worked for. While one of the most violent films of 2009, there’s plenty of context to set itself apart from violence for the sack of violence flicks.

2. Watchmen

(Directed by Zack Synder)

300 director Zack Snyder takes on the hefty mantel of the classic graphic novel Watchmen, the downright bleak works of Alan Moore. Unlike most superhero adaptations that follow the traditional plot structure of “man becomes hero, struggles against villain”, Watchmen is about the washed up lives of ex-costumed crusaders who as normal people are hardly the ideal humans that are usually painted. Given it’s dark and downright depressing take on the genre, it captures the gritty realism of its alternate 1980s backdrop while inserting a good dose of social and political commentary. Mark my words, this will be remembered more than any blockbuster in the years to come.

1. The Hurt Locker

(Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s take on America’s current war in Middle-East, despite some questionable advertising is hardly your conventional affair of Hollywood celebrities running and gunning through explosions set off by cliche arab militants or corrupt oil company henchmen. No, this is the real deal, war as it is. The plot quite simply follows a long years work of a three man Bomb Ordnance Disposal team and their increasingly hostile tasks at hand. There is no tale of revenge or redemption, and the small portion that nearly steps into such territory only lasts 10 minutes before getting back in line. And with the actors as normal humans, they all convey their own forms of fear, anger, humor and at times scary enjoyment that comes in the line of duty. Further more the message is not black nor white since while many will interpret the context as anti-war, the reason being is that it just shows war and war is hell but then again even the pro-war know this. The fact that America itself has made a well made war film that neither relishes in the glory or bloodshed of modern warfare is worthy of praise.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Film Review: Avatar

(Directed by James Cameron, running time 162 minutes)

Its been 10 years since James Cameron achieved the greatest heights of the film industry with Titanic, winning 11 Oscars and becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Not only is this the success many film makers hope to achieve but it was with arguably one of his weakest films. Those of us who knew Cameron before Titanic know him for such action Sci-Fi classics such as Terminator and Aliens and after so long, the prospect of Cameron returning to his once beloved genre must be something of a God send to anticipate with a passion, and boy do we all know how hyped this film has been, but is such blind praise justified? In clear cut terms: sort of...

It’s 2154, the RDA corporation has begun mining the resources of a organic rich planet known as Pandora, home to a vast array of exotic alien creates and a race of tribal humanoids known as the Na’vi. Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation fame plays Jake Sully, a wheel chair bound marine who is given the opportunity to participate in the Avatar program, an operation that sees humans take full body control a manufactured Na’vi host in order integrate, communicate and eventually make deals with the local alien populace. It is when in his Avatar form, Jake quickly becomes one of the tribe, even to the point of falling in love with the Na’vi female Neytiri, played by an unrecognizable Zoe Saldana. After seeing RDA for the unethical military giant it is, Jake quickly begins to oppose the power hungry machine that once employed him.

Sounds like your standard affair of the protagonist switching sides and joining the underdogs after the big bad super power step on one too many toes... and it is. With the exception of the remarkable landscape, the story is as distant from originality as your eyeballs will be from the front of your skull if you watch this in the front row. As a result, the story becomes an ever increasing case of predicable plot twists, revelations and other developments. For example after the first sight of Colonol Quaritch (Stephen Lang), it becomes obvious to the viewer that he is the antagonist even if his first impression is somewhat warming. Because of black and white nature of the plot, certain elements outside of the special effects are downright confusing if Cameron is out the make Avatar as believable as it is alien. In one instance, head of the RDA-hired scientists, played by the always fantastic Sigourney Weaver, attempts to explain the science behind why it would be a bad idea to dump yet another mineshaft on sacred Na’vi land but is instead shrugged off by corporate big wigs. In the future, science has, built up the military, taken them beyond the stars and made first contact... so forgive me for thinking we’d take the advice of scientists with more than a grain of salt. Another follows where I then fail to believe that only one token female in the entire armed forces would find an issue with incinerating an entire village for the purpose of profit. It’s with moments like these where the cracks in the narrative begin to hinder the fine water-colour painting that is Avatar.

But I digress, the plot and characterization is by no means bad at all. The story is well structured and moves at a good pace and all actors are capable at worst with many stand out if not memorable roles. Its just when the director calls his film a “character driven piece”, only to then rely on expensive special effects, don’t complain if I was disappointed in the narrative department. And yes I could take about the parallels between the Na’vi and the Native Americans or the ecological subtext but it’s so inherently obvious I would be wasting mine and your time. Its definitely character driven at times, albeit with 2D characters (I mean really, does the antagonist need to have a head of scars?).

But you didn’t come for the characters did you? No, just like with Titanic you came with the promise of spectacle and trust me when I say there’s a lot of it, and it definitely pays off. The world of Pandora is a marvel in it’s own right. Forests of lush illumines foliage, an array of different giant alien beasts that roam the lands in vast numbers, whole mountain ranges floating amongst the clouds, trees that can simply dwarf any man-made structure, the list goes on. Where most special effects these days are nothing more than a new coat of paint for their mandatory explosion sequence, Avatar seeks to immerse you in it’s strange yet exciting world. The Na’vi themselves aren’t bad looking either, being as believable as any other real human on screen. But it is this believability that pays of the most. Where Cameron has succeed in making the Na’vi a believable and sympathetic race, the film quickly transforms into a somewhat docu-drama feature where Jake relishes in the practice of their humble yet fascinating culture, going into great detail about the Na’vi hunting, religious and social practices, with the most striking point being that it’s not boring nor unnecessary. The more you learn about the Na’vi, it will become easier for audiences to sneer at their own race as it is depicted. That alone is a praise worthy triumph.

Despite all it’s issues (again, scars?), I can safely put people’s biggest fears to rest; Avatar is not all style over substance. Sure, the substance could be thicker and while the plot is somewhat formulaic with much of the film’s focus on the lavish CGI, its a definite bar above most blockbuster outings with its uniquely crafted world of Pandora being a place you will probably want to revisit. And as someone who only went to see the 2D incarnation, the bar should be quickly raised another peg in 3D in what will be no doubt a memorable and awe-inspiring experience for many movie goers... if only the closing credits soundtrack wasn’t so cringe worthy.

Also stars Joel Moore, Giowanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez and Wes Studi.