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.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2


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...)

STATE OF PLAY


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.


19 May 2009

Vampires- Why Do They Suck Lately?

Let's for the sake of an intro assume that you have never heard of a vampire. A vampire is an undead being who survives by drinking the blood of the living. They're imbued with natural charm and good looks so as to lure in their victims, they're generally pale and have sharp fangs. Vulnerable to religiously symbolic items, sunlight, stakes through the heart, and for some reason, garlic.

Apparently, the most elaborate way of identifying them in the olden days was by sending a virgin boy riding on a virgin horse through a graveyard and watch the horse throw up when it trots by the grave. Not a genius ritual, and given the mess of horse vomit to clean up thereafter, I'd suggest looking for the other symptoms I listed instead. The modern vampire myth was born generally of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, and there have been countless films, television series and books featuring these creatures of the night ever since.

HOW CAN YOU GO WRONG WITH A PREMISE LIKE THAT?!

I'll tell you how! By generally beating the shit out of the idea over the course of so many years that vampires just aren't cool anymore. Most of these producers that claim to have a visionary new outlook on the vampire myth are talking out of their arse. What's prompted this rant is the particularly frequent shitting upon the idea from a great height recently, and also the over-powering urge to have a rant about one of the biggest afflictions upon teenage culture in the 21st century.

Yes, of course, I refer to Twilight. Or The Twilight Saga, as the probably-not-very-popular-when-she-was-at-high-school Stephanie Meyer and the profiteering Summit Entertainment would have it. Again, for those unfamiliar, here is Bullshit 101. Twilight is the story of a vampire's relationship with a human girl in a small town in America. Said vampire, Edward Cullen, is... well, he's supposed to be a perfect character. Converted at the age of 17, he's going through high school over and over again for no real reason other than to be admired by the female populace from afar, given how he's decided to abstain from drinking human blood. The latter is used as a metaphor for sexual abstinence, which brings some tension to the relationship he starts with Bella Swan (the biggest Mary-Sue in recorded history), who has all the charisma and sympathy value of a baked potato.

There have been four books to date, the first of which, if the film is anything to go by, centres largely around Edward and Bella getting together. Indeed, besides a few mentions of how repressed and lonely Edward's been until he decided he liked the smell of Bella, (not a joke, this is really why he likes her) they don't really play on the vampire angle until the end of the film when some obligatory baddies come in, apparently from nowhere. And teenage girls love this shit. They lap it up.

So yeah, that's a quick summation of my thoughts on the story and general approach, but let's have a look at how Stephanie Meyer has fucked up vampires. First and foremost, vampires stay out of the sunlight for a different reason in this story. Rather than being scorched alive because the sun is emblematic of holiness or whatever, a scene midway through Twilight reveals that the skin of vampires apparently sparkles when exposed to sunlight. Wait, WHAT? That's the lamest thing I've ever heard, and I've heard some DOOZIES in my time. Secondly, Edward is apparently more human on the virtue of his being a "vegetarian". Oh, he and his family still drink blood, but only from animals. Sorry, but that still makes you an undead parasite. Very anthropocentric- I'm at least reassured that the "I'm a vegan and if you're ok with that, I'll argue with you anyway" caste of teenage girls probably don't like that about this series, even though they seem to make up the target audience.

Finally, with Bella being as apparently perfect as Edward- see how she's instantly loved by everyone at her new school, contravening every social convention in existence- I'm still halfway convinced that vampires were just shoehorned into Meyer's masturbatory sub-Mills and Boon story just to make it interesting. Instead, it just made vampires boring. The success of Twilight means it's likely we'll see vampires being characterised the same in future films, because it's a formula that's proven to make big bucks at the box office. And sadly the sequel is due in November this year, and the third in July 2010, having hastily had a "The Twilight Saga" label slapped on as a prefix to their titles to cash in. The cash cow will hopefully be put down in a few years, or perhaps "sucked dry" would be a more appropriate metaphor, because this series does suck.

As much as I've laboured to make a point about the contradictory nature of Edward as a vampire who doesn't feast on humans, it brings me nicely to Being Human, an absolutely brilliant series aired by BBC Three earlier this year about the lives of three housemates in Bristol- a werewolf who's actually quite nerdy and mild-mannered for 27 days of the month, a ghost who's pining after her still-living fiancee and perhaps most importantly to this post, a vampire who's abstaining from blood-drinking. All blood-drinking.

Yes, it wears him down to the level where he's perhaps not as able to do all the usual things that come with super-vampire powers, but he's fine with that. And more importantly, the show always portrays vampires, even our protagonist Mitchell, as parasites. Although Mitchell is possessed of the natural charm and good looks that enable vampires to capture their prey, the weaning off blood is very much a parallel with trying to get off drugs. It's odd how Mitchell's sex life being strangulated due to his fear of relapsing is a far more accurate representation of how a teenager would feel about such abstinence than Edward Cullen is, given how the latter is in fact, teenaged.

Elsewhere, the head of the vampires is Herrick, a pudgy-looking and, on the surface, quite friendly police officer. The first episode finds him doing magic tricks for elderly hospital patients, of all things. But underneath all that, he has that really creepy lord of all darkness thing going on. It's a wonderful use of the mundane being made scary, and that's what makes Herrick so effective as a character- the contrast between someone like that being head vampire, and between someone like Bill Nighy's Victor in the Underworld films. The first series' arc saw Herrick co-ordinating a world vampire revolution, from Bristol of all places, and trying to bring Mitchell back over to the side he's been on for about 90 years. Herrick makes one of the most menacing and brilliant villains on telly in a long time, and he dominates every scene he's in.

I do feel bad for covering Being Human in an blog about vampires because it means I'm naturally going to neglect the representation of werewolves and ghosts, both of which are also done splendidly by writer Toby Whithouse. But if you feel I haven't quite explained what's so good about it, just go and watch it on DVD or Blu-ray! Thank me later! The series is one I would recommend to absolutely any vampire fan seeking an antidote to Twilight, but just to sweeten the deal, there's one other recent film I saw after I had the idea for this blog, but a film that is absolutely essential to mention now that I have seen it.

I refer of course to the Swedish vampire film, Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). You can forget your Twilight, your Underworld and your Count von Count. This film has one of the best screen vampires I've ever seen and she's a twelve year old girl. This is Eli, the new next door neighbour of a bullied and subdued young boy called Oskar. He's oddly enamoured of this peculiar young girl who he only sees at night, in the play area outside their housing estate, and it's through her that he finds revenge on his tormentors. Behind closed doors however, Håkan, the man who everyone believes to be Eli's father, is actually her very own Renfield- he protects Eli's secret by going out and murdering young men. Draining them of their blood for Eli to drink, he facilitates her survival out of utter devotion to her.

THE NEXT PARAGRAPH FEATURES MAJOR SPOILERS FOR LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

What makes Eli so creepy is not the transformation of the mundane into something more sinister a la Herrick in Being Human, but something far more subliminal. Håkan botches one attempt to gather blood for Eli near the start of the film, and in her subsequent hunger, she goes out hunting herself and kills a local man. Håkan is both worried that she'll be caught and jealous of her burgeoning friendship with Oskar, and so tries again. This time, he's caught in the act, but pours acid on his face- he can't be identified, and thus Eli stays safe.

The most chilling scene of the film soon follows, as Eli scales the wall of the hospital that Håkan is taken to, and he opens the window to let her drink him dry. She then lets him fall to his death, and never so much as mentions him again. What's disturbing is that while the very end of the film has a positive spin, with Oskar and Eli on a train, living free and together, the audience may find it difficult to shake the feeling that Håkan was once like Oskar, aging while the object of his devotion remained young. And thus as much as it's a love story between two young souls (or at least one young soul), Eli remains a parasite, and one of the creepiest order.

END SPOILERS

Creepiness aside, Let the Right One In is in equal measures creepy and thought-provoking, and the prospect of an upcoming Hollywood remake fills me with dread. Not to say that Hollywood is always in the wrong, but I can't imagine it retaining even a trace of the subtlety that Tomas Alfredson's film is so rife with. The idea of a post-Twilight US version of Let the Right One In seems like the stuff of cinematic nightmares, but as far as that goes, whatever happens, happens. The simple fact is that Let the Right One In does vampiric adolescents with a beauty and, though I shudder to use the word, magic that Stephanie Meyer and Summit Entertainment could only dream of matching in Twilight. While Being Human offers both a comedic and dramatic take on these creatures, Let the Right One In does it seriously but without the po-faced nature of Twilight.

Had enough of my Twilight bashing? Well, tough, because incongruous with the title of this blog entry and with my thoughts at the outset of writing, vampires don't suck lately- they're just utilised by sucky writers sometimes. Vampires haven't become any less inherently creepy or frightening through the romanticisation that some films and books have put them through. They're just fine when used right. Though with so much use in the media today, I suspect that they just need to be rested a little. Take them out of the spotlight, because the light will disintegrate them. Not make them fucking sparkle.

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

15 May 2009

The Reel Deal: Illumination and Animation

After the last three big bumper updates, it's satisfying to return to the format of a double bill of reviews. Shamefully however, I still haven't seen State of Play, so I will try to get around to that one afternoon next week- Monday hopefully. Today's reviews cover Angels & Demons and Coraline, the former always being good value because it's got Tom Hanks (who is more or less the modern James Stewart) in it, and the latter being presented in glorious Real-D-a-ma-vision.

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.

ANGELS & DEMONS


Starring: Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), Ayelet Zurer (Vantage Point) and Ewan McGregor (Deception).

What's it all about?
Following the events of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon (Hanks) is surprised to have the Vatican ask him for help on the day that a papal conclave is due to begin. All becomes clear when the involvement of the Illuminati, a society dedicated to scientific truth, becomes apparent. The now more-radicalised society has planted a deadly explosive underneath Vatican City and kidnapped the four cardinals who are the favourites to succeed the late Pope. The device is set to detonate just before midnight and eradicate the Catholic Church.

Any good? As far as Dan Brown goes, I'm a fan of the book Angels & Demons. On the other hand, I found The Da Vinci Code to be vastly overrated, and thus there was only so much that director Ron Howard could do with his 2006 film version of the book, even with its superb cast. Factoring into my equations that Akiva Goldsman, surely the worst and yet oddly prolific screenwriter in Hollywood today, was writing the adaptation, The Da Vinci Code was always on the back foot. Nevertheless, it was watchable enough to make me cautiously anticipate this film based on the superior of the two Robert Langdon books to date. And in deviating from some of Brown's more convoluted plot elements, my anticipation paid off.

Howard's line on this sequel has always been that while Tom Hanks was forced to stand still and reel off historical exposition in the first film, he can actually be doing things while he explains in this one- Angels & Demons is in all respects a more action-packed story. On the page however, it could be given to exposition and back-story dumps that slowed down the pace. Not to mention that this book was written before The Da Vinci Code, which had more or less the exact same set-up as this- a beautiful woman teams up with Robert Langdon to battle a secret society who've murdered one of her closest relatives. And by totally throwing out various parts of the book, Angels & Demons manages to shake off the monotonous reverence for the source material that its predecessor had.

The inverse effect that this has divorces the aforementioned beautiful woman, ably played by Ayelet Zurer, from the action by removing a lot of her motivation. Likewise, the character Robert Langdon remains as he always has been- Indiana Jones without the personality. But as its outside of Tom Hanks' capabilities to give a bad performance, he remains inherently watchable. Ewan McGregor plays a refitted character from the book, his harrowing childhood relocated from Italy to Ireland and his name being changed to Patrick McKenna. Like Hanks, McGregor just doesn't give bad performances, and thus his rendition of the Pope's chamberlain is just as compelling as it was at its best on the page.

For every well-advised omission by Howard (I refer of course to the scene where Langdon survives a two mile fall from a helicopter with no parachute), there is a slightly inexplicable change. The Illuminati assassin on the page was formidable- described as well-built and trained with the skills to kill a man with little more than an imperious look and a pot plant. However exaggerated Brown's view of the assassin was, it's preferable to the slightly rubbish one we get on-screen- bespectacled and with a moral code that prevents him from killing Langdon despite his multiple chances to do so. Not to mention how Langdon and Vittoria, our two protagonists, are totally removed from the climactic revelation of the Illuminati collaborator inside the Vatican.

Nevertheless, Angels & Demons has much more to offer cinemagoers than its over-long and pretentious predecessor did- it's worth watching for Hanks and McGregor alone, but I also enjoyed the action and general pace afforded to this one. Even Catholics might enjoy this more than the original- Langdon is very much on the side of the church here, and the tone is almost apologist compared to the controversy that was openly courted by The Da Vinci Code. However, where I've ranked other films with a star less than fans of the related features would give it, you might subtract a star from this one if you're not a fan. All the same, give it a look if you have two and a half hours to spare.



CORALINE


Who's in it?
It's animated, so there's the voice talents of Dakota Fanning (Push), Teri Hatcher (Resurrecting the Champ) and Keith David (Superhero Movie).

What's it all about? A neglected young girl called Coraline Jones (Fanning) moves with her family into a new apartment. Every night, a secret passage opens up into a world that is just too good to be true. Things soon sour and Coraline is locked in a battle of wits with the sinister Other Mother (Hatcher), who lures children into her domain only to keep them there forever...

Any good? Neil Gaiman is a terrific writer whose works only seem to be adapted for the screen in recent years, starting with MirrorMask and Stardust and continuing here. Paired with Henry Selick, who's previously directed stop-motion features such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Coraline is a wonderfully disturbing and entertaining family film. Like all the best family films, it's not afraid to absolutely scare the shit out of younger viewers, and what separates the film out from the rest of its animated and more populist ilk is its sense of gothic horror.

What's mind-boggling is why this particular film was chosen to be presented in 3D. It's in instances like this that the industry's use of 3D to combat piracy becomes considerably more transparent, because this presentation of the film doesn't make it any better than it is. Although Coraline is visually exciting and innovative, that's nothing to do with the 3D, and I'm sure it'd be just as interesting to look at if digitally projected sans 3D. That aside, the narrative and writing stands up to the visuals, elevating the film beyond any accusation of style over substance that some have labelled Selick's previous works with. It's with some trepidation that I'd call the film inventive, because it's based on a book and so it's all inventions that have been taken from the page. But in a time where the film industry suffers from something of a deficit of originality, it's refreshing to see texts like Coraline being adapted for the screen rather than another by-the-numbers Harry Potter wannabe, that sets up a franchise without ever continuing it.

On the whole, Coraline is a visually astonishing film that doesn't lose anything to those visuals, but nor does it gain anything from the 3D presentation. I was pleased that it avoided the trap of casting ridiculously big names in the voice cast, in favour of actual vocal talent, and coupled with everything else, this has all the makings of a classic family film. Younger kids might be a bit scared, but isn't that what makes the kind of film they will remember all their lives?



--------------------------------------------------
Right, so State of Play will definitely get a look-in next week, and the next review update will probably have Fighting and Night at the Museum 2 thrown in for good measure. In the meantime, I'm still working at that vampire thing, so that'll likely be the next thing you see posted on here. To go into a little more detail, I'll be looking at and reviewing Let the Right One In and Twilight, as well as talking about the two recent TV series that deal with vampires, Being Human and Demons. As you can see, it's going to be exploring how it can go one way or the other in terms of quality when it comes to vampires in the media...

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

7 May 2009

Review: Star Trek

Space. The final frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the Star Trek film franchises. Its mission; to reboot a franchise that's been dead in the water since that one where Data got blew up, and to boldly go where no fan has gone before.

Even people who have never really liked Star Trek seem to want to give this film a go. The first Trek film in seven years replaces the Next Generation crew with an older crew but in an alternate reality. If your head is spinning, I wouldn't worry. I can say with total honesty- not just that fan-honesty about stuff like Watchmen where I'd say "You'll totally understand it!"- that JJ Abrams has made this a new beginning more or less, broadening the appeal to everyone. If you haven't got time to read the full review and want a quick idea of how good this is, it's up there with the reboots like Batman Begins and Casino Royale. But for everyone else, here's a review that contains a spoiler or two, but nothing crucial, storywise.

STAR TREK


Who's in it? Chris Pine (Smokin' Aces), Zachary Quinto (TV's Heroes), Zoe Saldana (Vantage Point), Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl), and Karl Urban (Pathfinder)

What's it all about?
I already did the "Space. The final frontier" joke up there, so here's a proper summary. The intervention of a vengeful Romulan miner called Nero (Bana) creates an alternate reality before James T. Kirk (Pine) has even been born. Their destinies changed, the crew of the USS Enterprise are fresh out of the Academy when they're pitted against Nero in a battle to save the Federation.

Any good? Let me illustrate my position on Star Trek prior to any mention of this film going into production. I had no time for it. I'd seen the last three movies with the Next Generation cast, and hadn't been particularly moved by any of them. I'd never seen a single episode of the series and nor did I plan to. I much preferred (prefer) Doctor Who, and was suspicious of the little rip-offs this other series was guilty of. Borg and Cybermen? An original leading man called William who was later replaced by a Patrick? Terrible! In 2006, JJ Abrams directed the third instalment of the Mission: Impossible series, which I thought was brilliant- and I hated the first two films. Nine months later, it was officially announced that he'd be directing a prequel/reboot of Star Trek. This flagged my interest a little, and the brilliant marketing and trailers eventually reeled me in. And I'm so very glad it did.

Abrams brings his great directorial flair to the Trek universe, pleasing fans and new viewers alike with brilliant action scenes and callbacks to the past. The former is particularly well observed by the lack of "pyoo-pyoo" laser sound effects during battle scenes in space- in fact, by the lack of any sound in space whatsoever. It's a scientifically accurate touch that I remember noticing in Firefly and the subsequent film spin-off, Serenity, and for me, that's what this film had to live up to. Firefly is such a brilliant show that its shadow hangs over every other bit of American science fiction I've watched since, but Abrams passed that criteria of mine with aplomb. The characters who make up the crew of the Enterprise are every bit as real as those who live on-board Serenity, aided by some fantastic performances from the film's cast.

In particular, Chris Pine gives the kind of performance that would earmark any young actor as one to watch in Hollywood in coming years. His Kirk is part-Mal Reynolds, part-Indiana Jones- since both of those characters were created after William Shatner's original portrayal of Kirk in the TV series, it's safe to say that Pine does much more than an impersonation of Shatner. Zachary Quinto may well have been chosen for his eyebrows for all I know, but besides looking somewhat similar to Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his role here as a much older Spock, Quinto is brilliant as Spock. Once he collides with Kirk, it reminded me of the dynamic between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story film, which is by no means a negative comparison.

Elsewhere, Eric Bana gives a wonderfully villainous turn as Nero, albeit with a couple of moments where he seems to be echoing Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight- though I'm sure that was just me seeing Jokers everywhere- and Karl Urban is terrific as the neurotic Dr. "Bones" McCoy. Both Bana and Urban are generally underrated as actors, although I prefer to see the former in supporting roles as opposed to leading roles. With such a large cast of characters, you'd think that some characters would be short-changed, but the film manages what no X-Men film ever has by balancing them all, giving each of them their moment to shine. The only character who feels under-used is Simon Pegg's Scotty, but it's a narrative necessity that he doesn't enter the film until after the halfway point. And the time he does have on-screen is brilliant too.

Scotty being slightly sidelined by the narrative does illustrate how the narrative is paramount to Abrams' film. That's not to say there aren't a few good references to the show's tropes and conventions for the fans- my friend Andy came with me to see this, and he was essentially my reference-o-meter, with big grins following every reference to the Kobayashi Maru or Scotty giving it all she's got. And that those references gel with the narrative without alienating newbies is marvellous. The major strength of Abrams' M:I3 was its structure and pace, and as it was in that film, Star Trek's second act just doesn't let up for a moment. This does slightly undercut the film's climax, which doesn't feel quite as riproaring as what had come immediately before, but provides for an incredibly entertaining film nonetheless. The opening half-hour does feel like it could've used a little editing too, as we plod through the fan-serving glimpses of Kirk and Spock in their respective childhoods, but once the Enterprise takes off into space, it's all go.

Though it seems I've gone to great pains to establish my disinterest in Star Trek at the beginning of this review, I was fortunate enough that I opened my mind and watched Wrath of Khan on Monday night and found it to be one of the best sci-fi films I've ever seen. That the subsequent films essentially retconned the ending hardly endears the other films in the series to me, but I think I went in to see this film with expectations that it would best even Khan, and it only slightly underperformed. So it's maybe not the best of the films, but it's a hell of a way way to kick off a new franchise. Like all the really good reboots (all two of them), it's entertaining, intelligent, and the ending leaves you wanting more. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will be even better. And have more Simon Pegg. As it is, Star Trek is a very good film on its own merits, and one I'll happily see again and again this summer. A coach trip to my nearest IMAX screen might even be in order. The definitive beginning, not only to Kirk and Spock's adventures, but to this year's summer movie season.



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And if it's a choice between this and Wolverine- for the love of Landru, make sure you see this.

Coming next... um... probably that vampire rant/review I mentioned, but if not, another raft of reviews, including State of Play and Coraline (once I've seen them).

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

4 May 2009

The Reel Deal: "Calm Before The... Sun?"

This review-filled update centres largely around April's films, aka the last raft of films before the summer season of 2009 really kicks off down at the cinema. And so here you'll find my verdict on...
17 Again
The Boat That Rocked
Crank: High Voltage
Observe and Report
Race to Witch Mountain


As ever, reviews may contain mild spoilers. Without further ado then...

17 AGAIN


Who's in it? Zac Efron (High School Musical), Matthew Perry (The Whole Ten Yards), and Leslie Mann (Knocked Up)

What's it all about? In yet another only slightly-reverse-engineered version of Big, Mike (Perry) is having a pretty rubbish time of it, as far as life goes. He's 37, about to get divorced and in a job that's going nowhere. Naturally, he meets up with a caretaker who looks like Santa Claus and is regressed 20 years to his 17-year-old self (Efron), in order to put right what's been going wrong, like a teenybopper Sam Beckett. Le sigh.

Any good? It's been a good two weeks since I saw this film and now I'm mad all over again because I'm obliged to post a picture of Zac Efron to illustrate this review. Generally railing against this smug little bastard (see, I think of him as little even though we're approximately the same age) would make me look like a jealous, crotchety old man to his target audience, so I'm going to avoid that so as not to debase the whole damn review. But I can certainly say that he stinks in this film. In fairness, this is just a vanity vehicle for him, so its hardly his fault that it's a remarkably unfunny script for a purported comedy, regardless of the giggling hordes of the aforementioned target audience that filled the cinema auditorium when I saw this. That includes the two usually sensible ladies who dragged me there.

Bitterness about that aside, there's not much to say for 17 Again whatsoever. As in all slightly suspect romantic comedies, it has a moral that's not too worthy of teaching- if you're in marital distress, you need only turn into Zac Efron to fix your problems. Especially seeing how all Efron does is imitate Matthew Perry, which people have been doing since Friends started (see all the "Could I be any more [insert mood]" stuff) and which didn't really convince me he's older than he seems. Perry himself has the thankless role of bookending the film as the older Mike, and when you see a film where you're thinking he can do better you know it's bad. You read right- Matthew Perry can do better than this. More reasonably, the same can be said for Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon, both of whom have been making a splash in much funnier comedies lately. Lennon is shoehorned into the role of Mike's life-long friend and a hideously stereotypical nerd whose massive wealth is merely the means to a rather bizarre scene midway through when Efron gets to go shopping. Isn't it usually women who get excited about shopping in high school movies? As older Mike might say, could he be any more feminine? But of course I say this holding the firm belief that the gay character in High School Musical is there simply to make Efron look straighter.

Prior to seeing 17 Again, a comedy devoid of any real laughs and full of predictable plot lines and saccharine messages, the worst film I've seen this year was Knowing. We have a new loser- at least Knowing made me laugh more.



THE BOAT THAT ROCKED


Who's in it? Bill Nighy (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), and Rhys Ifans (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

What's it all about? It's the 1960s, and popular music is beginning to... well, become popular. With the BBC radio services refusing to play it, pirate radio was born. One such station, Radio Rock, is based on a boat in the North Sea, broadcasting rock and roll 24/7 across Britain. The station manager (Nighy) welcomes his young nephew aboard the boat to straighten him out, just as the government begins cracking down on pirates.

Any good? There's a scene in the inestimably brilliant Black Books where Bill Bailey's Manny tries to justify his flutter on the Grand National to his boss. He calls it the coming together of an entire nation in one activity, like "the beginning of a Richard Curtis movie or the hunt for a serial killer." As Curtis is clearly one of the most celebrated writers in British film these last two decades or so, it's a reasonable observation. After feeling sickened by the overly-sweet Love Actually, whose very title induces some nausea, I was surprised to find this film actually looked quite good from the trailers et al. As ever, I'm obliged to point out that I don't hate romantic comedy as a genre- I just hate how lazy most of its output is, and the same applies to horror. And as far as The Boat That Rocked goes, 'lazy' is not really a term you can apply to it.

Of course, that's not to say I can tell you a thing about pirate radio now. While Curtis' film celebrates the period and the music, you'd be flummoxed if you were then asked to tell people about it. Instead, this comes across as a film with a great soundtrack but with a story that's not too related to the history of pirate radio. And that actually works out well. While it's not laugh-out-loud funny, it does acquit itself perfectly well as a comedy and it is, as they say, un film de Richard Curtis. The cast appear to be having a ball, but none of them are really stretching themselves. Though I normally abhor films to which the only real compliment you can attach is "You can tell the cast had a ball making it" (read: I normally abhor Mamma Mia), I have to report that I did enjoy watching it too.

One thing I do have to comment upon is the length. Richard Curtis might be a good writer when he's on his game, but he needs to be more ruthless as a director. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it could stand to be at least 45 minutes shorter. Given the multitude of plot lines and the fact that an extra hour of footage was apparently shot, I got the sense that The Boat that Rocked could have been much better served as a six-part sitcom. Even despite the big name actors and the budget required to film on a ship the size of Radio Rock's ship, there's something distinctly uncinematic about the whole thing. Perhaps its reuse of one of Curtis' more successful jokes from Blackadder Goes Forth with an amusingly named government aide or the general homely feel of the film in general, but I think I would've enjoyed it more as a series, if it were at all possible to film this story on a TV budget.

The Boat That Rocked isn't going to change your life, but the general lack of cringe compared to some of Richard Curtis' other films makes it enjoyable and entertaining. It's another of those "add a star if you're a fan" films- this time I mean it positively, as opposed to Max Payne for example. If you're not a fan, maybe wait for the DVD and watch it at home, because I found it a little out of place in the cinema.



CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE


Who's in it? Jason Statham (Transporter 3), Amy Smart (Mirrors), and Dwight Yoakam (Crank)

What's it all about? Chev Chelios (Statham) lives to shoot the hell out of LA for another day after appearing to die from helicopter-jumping related injuries at the end of the first film. He's been resurrected by Chinese gangsters, who have replaced his own indestructible heart with an artificial one. As he sets out to retrieve his own heart, he must keep the artificial one electrically charged by any means possible.

Any good? If the first Crank film eased its audience into the video-game style that the directors had in mind, then this one is an endurance test in over-the-top visuals. From the opening ten minutes, the audience has their WTF Threshold (trademark of Mark Harrison, 2009) pushed to breaking point. This is a film where Jason Statham is at one point electrocuted with such high voltage that he hallucinates a Gojira-style fight between a giant version of himself and one of the film's antagonists, complete with both of them wearing giant caricatured masks of their own heads. Even people who've been prepared for such madness by the first film will find themselves wide-eyed and open-mouthed at how much this one steps it up. Unfortunately, sometimes this does go too far.

Other reviews have called Crank: High Voltage offensive and morally bankrupt, and when you're watching some of it, you feel it's lost something. Perhaps because the first one, 18-certificate aside, wasn't looking for controversy, and was certainly without the levels of misogyny and racism that appear in this one. As much as these films are love letters to brainlessly violent video games, there are points where this sequel just makes you feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I largely feel obliged to applaud the directors for making it even more OTT than the original, because the action in this film is utterly fearless. It's also filled with various callbacks to that original film that are occasionally hilarious and, in one case, utterly amazing. I can only surmise that the directors were on some kind of hallucinogenic when they came up with that particular idea.

To digress for a moment from the review, it's only after recently seeing Wolverine and how they messed up Deadpool that made me realise something about this film in retrospect. This is what a Deadpool film should be. After the opening fight, Chelios whistles along with the film's score as he strolls towards one of his many victims, in an incredibly subtle moment of breaking the fourth wall in a film that is essentially the antithesis of subtlety. So personally, I want to see Neveldine/Taylor's take on Deadpool, more than I want to see another Crank film, which is rumoured to be a 3D endeavour. On the whole though, Crank: High Voltage has grander, more exaggerated set-pieces than its predecessor, but falls behind due to some of the more needlessly offensive material.



OBSERVE AND REPORT


Who's in it? Seth Rogen (Zach and Miri Make A Porno), Anna Faris (The House Bunny), and Ray Liotta (Crossing Over)

What's it all about? Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the head of security at his local mall, and takes his job incredibly seriously. When a flasher strikes the object of his lust and affection in the parking lot, he commits to bringing him justice, in spite of the intervention of Det. Harrison (Liotta) and his own debilitating bi-polar disorder.

Any good? Read that little plot outline back. The only real clues that this film is a comedy would be the inclusion of Seth Rogen and the bit about bi-polar disorder. You might also be wondering why someone has remade Paul Blart: Mall Cop for adults. The fact is that Observe and Report is an odd beast. Director Jody Hill seems to intend it to be a comedy, and indeed, a parody of Taxi Driver, but the subject matter is just too dark at times. In Bruges is a film that epitomised the idea of a dark comedy, whereas this film seems to fall short of the mark by a long stretch. And the film really wasn't helped by Paul Blart: Mall Cop having come out just a couple of months ago- it's unfortunate that both films went into production at the same time. The jokes aren't quite funny enough to rescue the plot, and though I laughed a couple of times, it generally left me indifferent. The film just falls into the realm of too many old tropes to distinguish it as a worthy effort from Seth Rogen. I can believe Rogen gives it his all as an actor here because the whole bi-polar aspect does require some commitment, but Liotta and Faris are on autopilot because the script doesn't really give them anything special to do.

Observe and Report
is a film that tries to pastiche Taxi Driver, but falls short. Though it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth, it's not totally without laughs. Call it eating stale cake as opposed to eating shit (see 17 Again for the latter).



RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN


Who's in it? Dwayne Johnson (Get Smart), AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia), and Alexander Ludwig (The Dark Is Rising)

What's it all about? This reboot of the Witch Mountain films from the 70s brings the story to contemporary Las Vegas, where Jack Bruno (Johnson), an ex-con taxi driver, meets with Seth (Ludwig), and Sarah (Robb), two children who claim to come from a distant planet. Jack comes to believe their story as they race against the government and an alien super-soldier to save both our world and theirs.

Any good? Although my feelings towards reboots lately have been mixed- Batman and Bond both worked, but some of the currently planned ones inspired by their success just sound silly- the idea of a Witch Mountain reboot did provoke some curiosity when I first heard about it. The first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, was hardly ever shown on TV, but Return from Witch Mountain seemed to be on every six months for some reason, and so I saw it many times during my childhood. And the end result of Disney's latest effort is a rather enjoyable family film. Like reboots, Dwayne Johnson poses a somewhat suspect proposition as an actor- it's programmed into me to be wary of wrestlers-turned-actors or singers-turned actors and the like. And despite shaky starts with The Mummy Returns and the subsequent spin-off for his character, he's become a bankable star with the success of Get Smart and with this film. He'll probably never win an Oscar, but maybe soon I'll even manage to stop habitually calling him The Rock.

So it's a proven formula with a bankable star at the head- the film could still have gone wrong at this point, but I'm pleased to say it works. It's well-scripted and better than a lot of Disney's live-action output these days. There are the requisite lampoons of alien conspiracy theorists, but there's enough well-paced action and story to make an entertaining film on balance. AnnaSophia Robb continues to make her mark as a capable young actress, but Alexander Ludwig concerns me, because he works well as his monotonous alien character here, but he acted exactly the same in The Dark Is Rising. Perhaps that's how he is in real life, but it doesn't detract from the film. Carla Gugino and Ciaran Hinds also provide sterling support.

Race to Witch Mountain is an action-packed and enjoyable effort from the House of Mouse, and with the scenes during the credits setting up for a sequel, I can safely say I'd rather see a sequel to this than see the mooted third National Treasure film with Nicholas Cage. Make it so, Disney!


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Yes, I really did liken 17 Again to eating shit. Too mean? Oh well.
As I said, summer is coming, so just to give you an idea of which films will be getting big separate posts for my reviews, here are the five films I'm most looking forward to in the next couple of months.

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
2. Star Trek
3. Drag Me To Hell
4. Terminator: Salvation
5. Angels and Demons

And I'm still stung by the fact that Up doesn't come out in Blighty until October. Curse you, Hollywood distributors.

Right, since Star Trek is out first, that'll most likely be the next review. Seeing that on Thursday morning, so might squeeze in my long-planned vampire blog in the meantime. After that, I imagine the next Reel Deal plethora of reviews will feature State of Play and Coraline.

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

3 May 2009

Review: X-Men Origins- Wolverine

If you have a broadband connection, you've probably seen it already! If you've seen X-Men 2, you've probably seen it already! But it's here in cinemas now!

Yes, X-Men Origins- Wolverine is being advertised as the first X-Men movie that centres solely around Wolverine, which is odd as the other three all centre around Wolverine too. But nevertheless, we press on to my review of the film I've seen three times now- twice in the cinema and the other was the "workprint" at the beginning of April. I use "workprint" in inverted comments because despite what Fox claimed, the finished product has nothing different besides finished special effects, which don't do an awful lot for the complaints the fans have had. As always, the IMDB forums are the hub of the hysteria, with histrionic post titles such like "Will there be a wing for this movie opened in the Holocaust museum?" Moving onwards now though, to a review that contains a fairly big spoiler or two, along with major spoilers for the other three X-Men films, which I presume you've seen if you're reading a review of the prequel.

X-MEN ORIGINS- WOLVERINE


Who's in it? Hugh Jackman (Australia), Liev Schreiber (Defiance), Lynn Collins (The Number 23) Danny Huston (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), and Ryan Reynolds (Adventureland).

What's it all about? Does what it says on the tin, although a more truncated and sensible title might have just been Wolverine. Basically, James (Jackman) and his brother Victor (Schreiber) are on the run from an early age, both having an extraordinary lifespan thanks to their mutant powers of regeneration. Although they usually apply their unique skills to warfare or mercenary work, James/Logan/whatever he's called in any given scene wants out. But when his newfound domestic harmony is cruelly destroyed by Victor, he sets out for revenge on his brother with the aid of an indestructible metal bonded to his skeleton.

Any good? One thing I will establish to begin with is that I have all the goodwill in the world towards Hugh Jackman. He's a good actor, I usually enjoy his films, and he seems like a nice guy in real life- he was kind enough to buy $8,000 worth of breakfast for fans when he heard they were camping out overnight outside a US theater to see this film. So there's certainly no Coxian hatred for him here, and that goes for most of the cast. Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins and Ryan Reynolds all turn in terrific performances, and its certainly not any fault of the cast that this film turned out so bland and predictable.

Oddly enough, I've also heard good things about director Gavin Hood's other work, so the only reasons I can think of for his short-changing of everything Bryan Singer set up in the first two X-Men movies are the terrible script and the interference of Tom Rothman. I could do a whole other blog entry about how Tom Rothman has destroyed so many franchises with his douchebag meddling, so I'll stay focused on the script. If when you sit down to watch Wolverine (I'm calling it that, rather than the correct but unnecessarily long title), if you have sudden deja-vu at dialogue such as "This isn't what we signed up for", "I'm so cold" or "Let's do this", then fear not. Those are just lines that have appeared in plenty of other action films over the years and have been uselessly regurgitated by screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods, the latter being the writer of such classics as Hitman and Swordfish. And sloppy narrative is where this film falls down.

Without wanting to outright list spoilers in order to prove my point, you'll notice if you keep your mind working during this film that scene-by-scene, the film constantly contradicts itself. A character dies in one scene, and the next has his mates talking about how he knew his attempts to catch Wolverine wouldn't work, so he prepared a better idea. Why didn't he then use that idea to go after Wolvie instead of getting killed? If this were any other action film, I'd be appalled at myself for picking it apart in such cerebral manner, but I only remember the first two X-Men films. Bryan Singer worked hard in those films to establish the continuity as outside of the realms of our own world as it is, but still maintained a general common sense about the proceedings. Guess who rushed out the third X-Men film without Singer, leading us down the path to this film? Tom Rothman. Promise I won't mention him again, because he makes me mad enough to go on a really huge tangent.

So you can't even really defend Wolverine by saying it's a park-your-brain X-Men film. There should be no such thing- the series at its best (i.e. with Singer at the helm), has a lot to say about racial equality and discrimination while still keeping the action element, but Wolverine has simply thrown all that out. Literally in some cases, as they make no effort to match Logan's operation with what we saw in flashback throughout X-Men 2. Come to think of it, X-Men 2 covers Wolverine's origins pretty conclusively. The only loose end is General Stryker, played then by Brian Cox and nailed in Wolverine by the excellent Danny Huston, telling Logan that he volunteered for the operation, and that only he can help him restore his memory of why. Logan doesn't care and leaves Stryker to die, so why are the audience expected to care any more than Logan does? I don't know about you, but perhaps that was my problem with this film when I first saw the trailers. It's unnecessary.

What do we have then, in Wolverine? Besides mindless action without any common sense or logic in the narrative, we have another plethora of mutants being introduced and then ignored to play second-fiddle to Logan. They even bring back a younger Cyclops just to give him less screentime than anyone else again. Then again, not all the supporting cast are neglected- Gambit is well-served by Taylor Kitsch's performance, and Blob is a cameo that actually works, because it's a comic-relief scene that's reminiscent of the 90s cartoon series. But what's unforgivable is dressing a Black-Eyed Pea who can't act up as a cowboy and then casting him as John Wraith, and then giving him more screentime than three or four much more capable performers cast as even more short-changed characters. And worse, although Schreiber is terrific, his dynamic with Jackman isn't really given much scope for development beyond the latter shouting "VICTOOOOOOR!" right before they start fighting again. Over and over again. And there really is a special circle of hell for how Wade Wilson is mistreated, especially given how well Ryan Reynolds portrays him. Whatever that thing at the end is, Woods and Benioff- that's not Deadpool.

Wolverine is not entirely without merit, however negative the bulk of what I've just written seems to say otherwise. The cast is largely excellent, soldiering on with the material they're left with. Additionally, there seems to be a good film struggling to get out between the numerous action sequences, but even if that's true, it can't escape the fact that this film is an unnecessary exercise in Fox renewing its licence to the X-Men franchise. The Last Stand killed any shot they had at continuing the franchise in a linear method, so they've gone back to the beginning. I only hope the planned Magneto and First Class (centring around young Cyclops, Beast et al) are given a lot more thought than this rushed, cheap-looking mess of a film. Watch X-Men 2 instead- still the gold standard of the franchise.


(yes, it falls between 3 stars for the cast alone, and 2 stars for everything else, so I had to invent another star rating)
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Normal service will resume as normal this afternoon, with the long-promised reviews of 17 Again, The Boat That Rocked, Crank: High Voltage, Observe and Report and Race to Witch Mountain.