28 May 2009

The Reel Deal- What Lies... Between.

May is the definitive start of the summer blockbuster season, so my review output lately has ranged from being as positive as Star Trek to being as negative as X-Men Origins: Wolverine- see that, and don't see that. In that order. Fortunately there's still time for a blog where I cover a few films in brief in between your Terminators and your Harry Potters. This post's going to cover Night at the Museum 2, State of Play and Tormented, and as ever, the summer season's chucking a bunch of variety at me, quite literally in the case of Night at the Museum alone...

Reviews, as ever, shall contain minor spoilers, but not so far as to ruin your enjoyment of the films in question if you haven't seen them yet.


Who's in it?
Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder), Amy Adams (Doubt) and Hank Azaria (Run Fat Boy Run)

What's it all about?
Reluctant night guard Larry Daley (Stiller) has gone up in the world- having quit his job at the Natural History Museum, he has become a successful inventor of shopping channel knick-knacks, such as glow-in-the-dark flash lights and the like. A routine visit to his old workplace leads him to follow the museum's animated exhibits to the Smithsonian in Washington DC, where they are bound for storage. However, matters are complicated by the machinations of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh (Azaria), who plans to raise an army of the dead.

Any good? Night at the Museum was a passable family film- the kids I saw the film with seemed to enjoy it, and you can overlook the lack of any real narrative for the fact that it is just a family film. Dick van Dyke was arguably the highlight of the whole film, because it's a delight to see him in anything. But for its flaws, there was still plenty to enjoy about Night at the Museum. That it made over half a billion dollars worldwide is probably the main reason why we've got this slightly unnecessary sequel. Where Night at the Museum wasn't a particularly funny comedy, this sequel does have better gags, but apparently at the expense of Dick van Dyke! Umm make me mad!

In his place, a plethora of actors are trotted out for random scenes across the film's 100 minute length. This might not be so bad, except the director seems to have given free rein to the comedy stars involved, and so there are a couple of desperately unfunny and drawn out conversations between Ben Stiller and whosoever is doing their cameo bit at that point. Was Ricky Gervais' return for this sequel so essential? It smacks of that old "the whole gang's back" syndrome that sequels seem to suffer. Except, as I've said already, the whole gang ISN'T back, because they didn't get Dick van Dyke, who I'd much rather have watched doing a cameo than the completely random George Foreman appearance in the first five minutes.

One cast-member worthy of note here is Amy Adams, who plays gutsy female pilot Amelia Earhart with all the same charm that made her so watchable as the delusional cartoon princess turned real in Enchanted. It's between that film and this one that I proclaim that Adams is a terrific actress who I'll watch in more or less anything. And it's not just because of how well she fills out Earhart's jodhpurs- an added bonus to keep the inevitably disinterested dads awake, I presume. Also stealing scenes wherever they can are Bill Hader and Steve Coogan, who are both inevitably underused amongst the throng of performers crammed into the film. Furthermore, Hank Azaria, who's made his name doing lots and lots of voices on The Simpsons and thus turns his voice talents to statues of Abraham Lincoln and Rodin's Thinker, also has a whale of a time playing the film's villain for laughs. Actual laughs, as opposed to those the oddly neutered Gervais seems to be chasing to no avail.

As for Stiller, he's more or less on auto-pilot, as he is most of the time, to be fair. It always seems like he's playing one of two characters, be it the vain, egotistical tit wit (see Dodgeball) or the schlubby everyman (see both Night at the Museum films). I'm still hoping that Stiller will surprise me sometime soon by doing a third character- it'll be akin to the end of Zoolander, where he turns left for the first time, to the awe of all around him. So while the cast aren't poor and I certainly don't have any objection to films like this, there's something instantly forgettable about the whole thing. And worse, this is one of those films that abandons its own established rules for the sake of a set piece. This is bad mostly because if I complain about such things, I get the "it's not real, Mark" treatment. Sorry, but that's rubbish- It would be spiteful to explain exactly how the rules are flouted, and by extension spoil the ending, but I always seem to end up annoyed by this kind of thing after seeing a film from 20th Century Fox. Curse you, Tom Rothman!

While Night at the Museum 2 isn't actually outright bad, it's disposable and mediocre, which is worse in some ways, given the potential of the concept and the general talent of the cast. It exists purely to capitalise on the success of the first film, and I don't think anyone left that one with any great desire to see how the story continued.

(this is effectively Fox's very own rating this summer...)


Who's in it?
Russell Crowe (Body of Lies), Ben Affleck (He's Just Not That Into You) and Rachel McAdams (Red Eye)

What's it all about? A promising member of the House of Representatives, Stephen Collins (Affleck), is embroiled in scandal when a young researcher seemingly commits suicide- the two of them were having an affair. Collins' old friend, Cal McAffrey (Crowe), is a journalist who is subsequently assigned to the story, which turns out to run deeper than he ever expected.

Any good? The abiding image I associate with this film is a mental one that was provided by an interview with David Morrissey, one of the stars of the original BBC television series this film was based on. He said he was wary of going to see the film because it was like "being invited to the wedding of an ex-girlfriend you're still in love with, and you wonder whether or not you should go." Having watched all six hours of the much acclaimed TV serial in two sittings earlier this year, I had a similar amount of trepidation about seeing this Hollywood adaptation of State of Play. I'm not going to base the whole review on a comparison of this film to the original, because they're two different mediums and both have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the key strengths here is that it picks up the pace considerably, but it's at the expense of any major character developments.

The trouble with the plot being so driven and focused is that we only really focus on Russell Crowe's rendition of Cal McAffrey. While I wouldn't go so far as to call Crowe overrated, I'd point out that the film seems to have missed the fact that the large cast of characters State of Play introduces and has circulating around in the plot demands something of an ensemble piece. Instead, the film is largely focused on Russell Crowe. Presumably because he's Russell Crowe. And all around him, the other characters are less able to make an impression, particularly Ben Affleck. If David Morrissey is still standing around outside his cinematic chapel, he can rest assured that Affleck isn't quite up to the role of Stephen Collins. Again, I have nothing against Affleck as an actor, but the film seems to go to great lengths to distance the audience from Collins, even though certain parts of the plot require us to feel close to him. This may be a directorial decision, but in any case, Affleck's performance is unremarkable.

Others suffering from marginalised roles include Helen Mirren's newspaper editor, who seems to have changed gender (from being Bill Nighy) in the translation to film, apparently for little other reason than to cast Helen Mirren. She's not bad, but all she really does is spout British colloquial swears and occasionally sum up the plot thus far in unwieldy exposition dumps. Rachel McAdams doesn't buck expectations, and is as sprightly and lovely as she's always required to be, and the only standout performance amongst the supporting cast is Jason Bateman. He's as smarmy, self-interested and foppish as the character demands in a great role that amounts to no more than a cameo in this more streamlined adaptation. The bare bones of what made the series so good remain, and that's the story. The film's ending is faithful to that of the series, though the performances deflate it from the tour de force it originally was to the bog-standard twist ending.

That's not to say State of Play is without merit- enough for me to get past the initial feeling that it was slightly unnecessary, as most US adaptations of UK series tend to be (see the abominable and quite astonishingly literal ending to their version of Life on Mars, for instance) and it's a rather engaging thriller on its own. You might prefer the series if you watch both, but for "a film about Russell Crowe", it's a slick whodunnit that's not afraid to make departures from the source material.


Who's in it? Alex Pettyfer (Stormbreaker), April Pearson (TV's Skins) and Tuppence Middleton (TV's Bones)

What's it all about? The suicide of a bullied teenager is of little concern to the classmates (Pettyfer and Pearson) who seemingly drove him to it, until they start to get threatening text messages from his phone. The school's strait-laced head girl, Justine (Middleton), investigates further as Darren Mullet rises from the grave to exact revenge on his tormentors.

Any good? In the post-Skins media, anyone who's seen one of those excruciatingly misrepresented trailers thinks the show promotes drugs and drink and generally portrays teenagers accurately. Neither of the above charges are true, so if you're a Mail reader, this revelation will naturally have rocked your world. The Inbetweeners is a much more natural portrait of teenagers today, so go and take a look at that. But getting back on topic, I couldn't help but wondering if those trailers were the first thing discussed at the tone meetings for Tormented. The characters are quite ridiculous caricatures, and so Alex Pettyfer and April Pearson play utterly hideous human beings and seem to have quite a bit of fun with it too.

Anyone taking Tormented seriously as a horror film should take a look at the previous sentence and divine the key phrase "quite a bit of fun". The by-the-numbers slasher flick tone with which the story is approached means it's not going to scare you silly, nor are the jokes peppered throughout the film. It's not an outright comedy of course, as that would be obscene with the subject matter of teen suicide that it covers. Instead, we see the somehow resurrected Darren Mullet (never really explained how he's risen, though it's implied his inhaler is involved), dispatching his tormentors with an often amusing poetic justice- this includes such inventive M.Os as wedgying, towel flicking and the extremities of music volume, all applied with gruesome detail by the filmmakers. Grounding it all is the likable Tuppence Middleton as our main heroine, who doesn't realise until later that no-one in her school is without fault for Mullet's suicide. Her performance, along with all of the more antagonistic ones, is enjoyable and promises a bright future in films. Most of the cast have come from TV roles and they acquit themselves well here.

Tormented is, at the end of the day, an American teen slasher flick transplanted to the setting of Skins. As a fan of Skins (or the early series anyway), I wouldn't equate the caricatured meanies in this film to the more rounded characters in that show, but that didn't obstruct my enjoyment of this horror comedy. Its anti-bullying message is unlikely to change lives, but it does lend the film some poignancy without turning it into the likes of the more po-faced high-school horrors to come out of Hollywood in recent years.


The next review up will be the rather excellent Drag Me to Hell, which gets a post all to itself, and thereafter, you can probably expect the best (or worst) of the rest that I've seen in cinemas. Assuming of course I see anything else before Wednesday's release of Terminator Salvation.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,

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