Thursday, 26 April 2012

Paul - Greg Mottola - 2011

Legendary comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite for an altogether broader affair that lacks some of the whimsy that made their previous British based efforts such a delight but still works as an affectionate take on popular sci-fi films and the surrounding fandom they inspire. Although it initially struggles to find its comic feet with a few cheap gay gags looking particularly feeble, the film picks up pace once the pair get out on the road and they can relax and let their natural chemistry draw us into their sweet and rather geeky world. Into this mix then comes Paul the alien who impressively raises the bar for CG characters interacting with live action and takes gleeful pleasure in ripping apart all preconceptions both the geeks and the audience have about aliens. Seth Rogen is currently one of comedy's most recognisable figures and it says something for his talent that we quickly forget that its his voice we're hearing and invest completely in Paul, the hilariously laidback stoner alien. This being an American film a certain amount of cheap humour can't help but seep in, while a subplot mocking the Southern bible belt is played too broad and thus feels awkward rather than funny (John Carroll Lynch should be ashamed), but happily Paul the film finds most of its plentiful laughs in its subject matter. A succession of cleverly buried Star Wars in jokes will be a delight for any fan while the utter pretentiousness to which the sci-fi/fantasy industry can sink is neatly mocked in a welcome Jeffrey Tambor cameo. The best laugh however is reserved for a flashback featuring a legendary director who follows up his brilliant cameos in The Blues Brothers and Austin Powers with the in-joke to end all in-jokes. It’s not big and its not clever, but for anyone looking to step back and cast an amused eye over some classic sci-fi blockbusters, this is a well deserved treat.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! - Peter Lord - 2012

Right from the opening shot in which a sign telling us the date pops up under a view of London and then the camera pull back reveals a confused man holding the sign, its clear that this latest film from Aardman animation is going to be another comedy treat. Following the adventures of the lovable but buffoonish Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) has he sets out to win Pirate of the Year award, the film rushes from one silly adventure to the next taking us from Blood Island (so called because its shaped like a splash of blood), to a scientific conference in London and a grand climax aboard Queen Victoria’s steamship in the Indian ocean. Along the way the film shares the delights of ham night, the many possibilities offered by a really luxuriant beard and the dangers afforded by a dodo obsessed monarch, all of which are perfectly rendered with the wonderfully detailed but time consuming stop-motion style that continues to be Aardman’s trademark. The jokes might not hit as frequently as some might expect but the film remains so consistently silly whether it be anachronistically, Jane Austen hangs around with the Elephant Man, musically, the inclusion of Flight of the Conchords’ I’m not Crying is genius, or in simply sheer inane action – a bathtub chase downstairs with an Easter Island statue – that it is always endearing. Apart from the insanely evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), the cowardly Charles Darwin (David Tennant going all squeaky) and the bombastic Captain himself the characters aren’t so clearly defined as one might hope – more time on the ship with Albino Pirate, Pirate with Gout and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate would have been fun – but with so much going on visually it seems churlish to complain. Apart from the misfiring Flushed Away Aardman as never put a foot wrong and Pirates! continues that trend with aplomb.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Body of Lies - Ridley Scott - 2008

Ridley Scott heads to the Middle East for his latest film Body of Lies and hooks up with Leonardo DiCaprio and regular leading man Russell Crowe to try and create a contemporary espionage thriller. Rushing around various suspicious locations, DiCaprio is the CIA's action man on the ground trying to weed out terrorists while a slobby Crowe sits in front of a monitor 1,000 miles away, watching via satellite and stealing every scene in the process. Complications arise when DiCaprio gets suspicious that Crowe isn't telling him everything he needs to know which leads to various games of one-upmanship as the pair talk a lot on a mobile phone and bicker about the best way to get the job done (whatever that is). Scott meanwhile shoots some good action scenes, although they can't match the intensity of Paul Greengrass' recent Iraq thriller Green Zone, and enjoys stringing out the plot shenanigans between DiCaprio, Crowe and Mark Strong's wily Jordanian intelligence chief but this is about as far as the film goes. The problems arise when Scott has to tie up all the loose ends and somehow justify the film's presence. After all the fact that he's making a film about the aftermath of a recent controversial war suggests that Scott has some kind of purpose to unfold, but if this is the case then he fudges the point in an inconclusive ending that more or less wraps up the story but leaves the audience with the feeling that this was actually only a regular thriller when they may have been expecting a lot more.

Blue Valentine - Derek Cianfrance - 2011

As Valentine's Day and the next wave of saccharine rom-coms hits it is refreshing to find a film about love that doesn't make it out to be all sweetness and light. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams meet at an old people's home and begin an impulsive romance that seems uncertain but is disarmingly sweet to watch. These scenes are then placed alongside snapshots of the couple several years down the line when whirlwind romance has fallen into dull apathy and trying to put food on the table for an unexpected five year old has become the main purpose in life. These later scenes form the dramatic meat of the piece but director Derek Cianfrance gives them further impact when he is editing the two periods together, creating some deliciously ironic juxtapositions of the couple coming together and falling apart. Gosling and Williams are both superb, delivering low key and utterly naturalistic performances that are heartbreaking to watch as the characters grow increasingly bitter with each other and their flailing attempts to re-establish a spark splutter and die. The subject matter is treated much more roughly than is normally the case in the cinema and Cianfrance shoots accordingly with lots of handheld camera work intruding into the couple's fights but given how utterly convincing the performances from the leads feel, this invasive camera work feels perfectly natural and emphasises how much more tragically human the film is than its competitors which seem even more shallow by comparison. Like the flashes of graffiti art that adorn the end credits, Blue Valentine is a brief but beautiful experience.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Hancock - Peter Berg - 2008

Will Smith becomes a real superhero for once in this interesting alternative take on the comic book universe. A world away from the average clean cut caped crusader, Smith's Hancock is permanently grouchy and drunk and has a tendency to fly into buildings while he’s saving the day, destroying half the city in the process. However when he meets Jason Bateman's struggling public relations executive, the film unexpectedly takes off as a light buddy comedy as Bateman struggles to reinvent Hancock and save his own career in the process. Smith’s sarcastic wisecracking in response to Bateman’s eager suggestions to turn Hancock into a ‘real’ superhero and Bateman’s deadpan reactions to Smith misbehaving by hurling small children into the clouds are delightful. Charlize Theron is an unexpectedly sexy presence as Bateman’s homely wife and is happily granted some emotional depth beyond looking pretty but Eddie Marsan is left with little to do but ham it up as the token villain, with the focus on the central trio not giving him enough screen time to really register. A mid-film twist that sees Hancock thrown through a wall is unexpected enough to wake up all those who had given up on seeing any action and then keep them happy with some cool aerial combat scenes before the film culminates with a surprisingly dark and low-key climax that focuses on the characters rather than the action. Smith of course acquits himself well in the action but he’s at his finest and funniest when Hancock and the world despise each other and his only response is a metaphorical two fingers to both everyone around him and the whole superhero subgenre. As an interesting if minor entry into that genre (a franchise would have no where to go) Hancock is a good film with a sparing use of CGI, good banter and interesting characters making for an entertaining watch but ultimately the 12A rating makes it too soft to have a huge influence as an alternative superhero movie. For that we would have to wait for another two years and the appearance of Kick-Ass

Friday, 20 April 2012

Titanic - James Cameron - 1997

James Cameron is famed for being a dictatorial director, letting loose abusive rants at anyone who doesn't meet his exacting standards but when the product in question is as big and beautiful as Titanic you can't really blame him. Basically Cameron has taken history's most famous nautical disaster and turned it into the world's biggest blockbuster, utilising the best available special effects to recreate the sinking in jaw-dropping detail and introducing a sweeping love story to increase the human interest. The romance between first-class lady Rose (Kate Winslet) and third class ragamuffin Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is utterly predictable but since Cameron takes plenty of time just to establish all the characters and their world (it takes ninety minutes for an iceberg to be even sighted) the audience can't help but become involved. DiCaprio maybe irritating at times as well as being suspiciously well informed about what to do in a disaster, but he has great chemistry with Winslet who gives a perfect portrayal of a woman spiritually crushed by her society's expectations. The flirtation between the two is well enough written to make their growing attraction seem natural (apart from the much criticised hand in the car window) and the controversial nude scene that closes the first half is elegantly directed and performed by Winslet to actually suggest that this is a liberation for the repressed Rose rather than something that's meant to be titillating. Often though its the supporting characters that make the film. Bernard Hill and Ewan Stuart give touchingly tragic performances as the doomed Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch, David Warner playing Lovejoy the valet is a great sinister villain and Jonathan Hyde and Frances Fisher are duly despicable as bigoted rich passengers. When disaster eventually strikes the action is made much more harrowing because by now the audience has established a much greater emotional connection with them than you would normally expect from a disaster movie; a montage of characters facing their inevitable demise while the band plays Nearer My God To Thee is quite simply heartbreaking. The sinking itself is a master class in how to sustain action for a long period of time. Stretching the disaster over the last ninety minutes of film, Cameron expertly cuts between wide shots sweeping along the decks to show off the vast scale of the ship and claustrophobic scenes below deck as Jack and Rose struggle against the inexorably rising waters, maintaining a relentless pace that keeps the audience gripped right the way through to the tragic climax. The film is book ended by scenes in the present day in which Bill Paxton dives down to explore the wreck, a device which is strictly unnecessary but it lets Cameron show off some impressive underwater shots of the real wreck and provide, with the appearance of Gloria Stuart as old Rose, a more satisfying emotional conclusion. Of course there are flaws - watching Billy Zane visibly straining to be emotional is embarrassing - but with such wonderful performances from the rest of the cast, beautifully detailed design and effects from Cameron and a haunting score from James Horner, Titanic is a great example of blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. Disappointingly the new 3D conversion is hardly noticeable but even fifteen years later this is still one of the most epic films ever made so it is still worth seeing the film on the biggest screen possible.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Belleville Rendezvous - Sylvain Chomet - 2003

A bizarre, twisted and whimsical little animated film from French director Sylvain Chomet, Belleville Rendezvous throws all preconceptions anyone may have regarding animated films out of the window and replaces them with a bucket load of Gallic charm and black humour. Champion is a cyclist who has lived at home all his life with his overweight but loyal dog Bruno and dedicated Grandmother Madame Souza who devotes all her energies into training Champion with no thought to the club foot that she has to drag around wherever she goes. Cycling home every night up absurdly steep roads to a little house that’s slowly being crushed by a railway bridge, the trio live a sweet and simple life that’s nevertheless shot through with a streak of melancholy that makes the film oddly moving, even while nothing is really happening. This all changes however when Champion enters the Tour de France and is kidnapped by the Mafia halfway through the race, forcing Madame Souza and Bruno to set off in hot pursuit, riding a pedalo all the way across the ocean to the vast metropolis of Belleville. A thinly disguised satire on American excess, Belleville is a mass of dauntingly tall buildings populated by grossly fat people into which our plucky heroes unwittingly wander until they are picked up by a trio of elderly singers who take them in. From this point forward the film consists of an engaging mixture of silly cultural humour – the singing sisters eat nothing but frogs – and dark villainy as Champion is forced to cycle in an underground club until he gets shot like an old racehorse, right up to a wonderful car chase climax that defies every conventional law up to gravity itself. The imagery throughout is consistently imaginative whether it be the sinister Mafia goons who walk around with permanent shadows or the more grotesque looking cyclists whose bulging thighs are way out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. Apart from the triplet’s songs the film, in another unconventional move, is largely dialogue free which might put some people off but when you can make an audience laugh at and be moved by your characters with only imaginative drawings as your voice, who needs words?

Before the Devil Knows Your Dead - Sidney Lumet - 2007

The last film ever made by veteran director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is a gripping thriller and family tragedy told by and eighty year old director with all the pizzazz of a young hotshot. Starting with a robbery that goes drastically wrong, Lumet flashes backwards and then forwards to find brothers Andy and Hank (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) both desperate enough for money to contemplate robbing the family jewellery store, planning the set up and then struggling with the consequences as they spiral out of control. Of the two Hank wins most sympathy as he struggles to find child support for his estranged wife, although Hawke’s look of pathetic desperation can get wearisome; Andy is morally more coldly calculating as he seeks to repay funds he has embezzled from his company to fund a drug habit. This storyline verges on the melodramatic at times but Hoffman is a good enough actor to ground the character in a reality that can engage the audience’s attention if not its sympathy. Kudos is due to Marisa Tomei who spends half the film naked but still manages to register emotionally as the woman torn between the two brothers, but the finest work comes from screen veteran Albert Finney. Playing Charles, father to Hank and Andy, Finney delivers a beautifully nuanced portrait of a man bewildered by a sudden loss whose grief slowly builds into a towering rage against the culprits that is a little scary but also very moving as he acts with a quiet dignity that his sons could never understand. As we enter the second half the narrative structure occasionally feels a little unnecessary since the audience by now knows all of the secrets at stake but Lumet’s flashes of directorial flair (stones spilling out of a bowl serves as an elegant motif for uncontrollable events) and comfortable handling of some intense subject matter show that if anything, the director has got even better with age. With this in mind a film like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that turns a standard thriller into a modern day Shakespearean tragedy about the price of avarice proves to be fitting swansong for this great man.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Invictus - Clint Eastwood - 2009

The true story of how the newly elected President Nelson Mandela settled on rugby and the nation's infamous team the Springboks as a means to unite a racially culturally divided country becomes a moving and inspiring film in the hands of veteran Clint Eastwood. While the end result is never in doubt, Eastwood still manages to fulfil every sports movie cliché and create excellent tension in the build up to the games, before expertly paying it off with a suitably emotional climax. It should be noted however that Eastwood is obviously inexperienced at filming sports action and rugby in particular, relying too much on slow motion in the final moments, and never giving a very coherent impression of how the game works and thus we have to be told the score verbally as we're unlikely to work it out from the action. Above and beyond the rugby however, this is a portrait of a very remarkable man in Nelson Mandela. As played expertly by Morgan Freeman (not just playing himself for a change), Mandela is one of those rare people who can see beyond the personal and human distractions that drive most of us and understand the bigger picture. Thus when he initially angers a lot of his supporters by supporting the Springbok's, symbol of Apartheid, he sticks to his guns because he is blest with the ability to put his past behind him with no residual negative feelings. Invictus doesn’t quite have the same impact of Eastwood’s more challenging recent work but if there is one thing makes the film great it’s the reminder it gives us of what a unique, special and remarkable person Mandela is.

Mirror, Mirror - Tarsem Singh - 2012

A brand new retelling of the Snow White story, Mirror, Mirror attempts to spice up the classic fairy tale with some modern humour whilst maintaining all the magic of the original. Director Tarsem Singh has created a luscious visual display complete with a classic turreted castle centred in a vast panoramic landscape, a mysterious wooden hide away inside the mirror and endless snowy forests through which Snow White (Lily Collins) wanders with inexplicable abandon but all this is the beautiful shell on a film as hollow as an Easter egg. The film it has to said starts off fairly badly with an evil queen (Julia Roberts) that isn't very funny, she isn't even really evil in a thrilling sort of way, she's just a bitch. Then when the Prince (Armie Hammer) meets the dwarfs (who in at least one original twist go into battle on stilts) he makes several cheap jokes at their expense that aren't really funny, they're just insulting to anyone of diminished height. After a while though the film does pick up. Roberts is clearly having fun but the 'jokes' with her beauty regimes and abuse of poor Nathan Lane are never very interesting; far more entertaining is the banter and adventures Snow shares with the dwarves. Collins is hardly a great actress but her porcelain beauty is perfect for the idealistic Snow and while the dwarves resolutely conform to every cliche going they have enough good lines and individual little character traits going round to make them a lot of fun to watch. A couple of good action scenes with a pair of giant puppets and the mythical beast in the woods together with a reasonable attempt at a final twist round out a film that is by the end mildly entertaining even as it descends into a ridiculously camp finale complete with an abundance of singing, dancing and an embarrassed Sean Bean. This is hardly going to attain anything approaching the classic status accorded the original Disney film but as a piece of light entertainment Mirror, Mirror is eventually worth watching.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Cocoon - Ron Howard - 1985

A whimsical sci-fi comedy from actor turned director Ron Howard, Cocoon focuses on three octogenarians (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn) who unexpectedly discover a swimming pool that brings seemingly brings back their youthful energy. What follows is some marvellous light comedy moments as the cynical but amiable old men set about breaking out of the old people's home to hit the town, rekindle the romance in their marriages and generally relive their younger days; the funniest highlight sees Ameche (who won an Oscar for this) dazzling a nightclub with some funky break dancing! In a more complicated subplot that eventually dovetails with the old men's adventures, laidback Brian Dennehy and his sexy assistant Tahnee Welch go diving to bring mysterious cocoons up from the ocean floor whilst Steve Guttenberg stands on deck getting suspicious, panicky and eventually excited as he realises the true nature of the divers. In the film's weirdest scene Guttenberg ends up in the pool participating in an alien sex light show which would almost be beautiful if he would just stop grinning like a cat. The aliens themselves when they eventually appear are surprisingly abstract, nothing more than ethereal beings of light that are very well realised given this was created in 1985, interacting convincingly with the human actors. Balancing out the light comedy and mystical moments though is a more personal conflict as the old men begin to wonder if it is right for them to cheat nature, especially since life for them may mean death for the aliens and eternal life could come at the expense of never seeing their families again. Howard however is smart enough though not answer these questions and burden the film with a moral message but instead lets the conflict give some dramatic weight to the light-hearted fun and ensure that Cocoon is not just a fluffy eighties comedy but something that celebrates and addresses issues facing the older generations, something that is very rare and thus surprisingly moving to see in the cinema.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Beowulf - Robert Zemeckis - 2007

The second and so far best of Robert Zemeckis experiments with motion capture, Beowulf is a hugely impressive experience when seen in 3D on a big screen but even on the small screen it makes for great viewing. Inspiration for modern epics like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Beowulf is the original hero vs. monster movie reduced to its simplest and best. The hero arrives in the hour of darkest need and saves the day only to be drawn off course and ultimately must find to rectify his mistakes and save the day again. Unlike many run of the mill fantasy adventures however this story is in many respects so much deeper, with a hero who fulfils all the traditional values but who is also a fallible human being who makes mistakes just like any other. The screenplay is particularly successful in this respect, balancing the action with more thoughtful moments that, as Beowulf unwittingly follows in the footsteps already made by King Hrothgar, suggest that people are forever doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is the subtle performances here that so ably communicate these moments and it says something for Zemeckis’ burgeoning skills with his technical toys that he can use them to create some exciting action but always ensures they never impede those performances from shining through the digital mask. Anthony Hopkins and Brendan Gleeson playing Hrothgar and Wiglaf the sidekick are strong enough actors to make sure some gruff emotion shines through while the curvaceous Angelina Jolie was a natural choice to play Grendel’s seductive mother. Only John Malkovich feels wasted in a slimy rival role that never really goes anywhere. Ray Winstone was a surprising choice for the role of Beowulf but despite some initial confusion as those familiar cockney tones come from a body that would put the 300 boys to shame, he actually works very well in the role with his rough and ready presence grounding the film in a hero that is actually accessible to the audience. Zemeckis doesn’t quite have the same visual imagination that Steven Spielberg would later unleash with the technology in The Adventures of Tintin which means that while he does find some lovely angles to view this world he can’t help leaving the film feeling saggy in places, but in terms of story Zemeckis has created something that both celebrates and picks apart the very concepts of heroism which is in itself and impressive achievement.

Being John Malkovich - Spike Jonze - 1999

Possibly one of the most original, certainly one of the most insane movies produced in a long time, Being John Malkovich is guaranteed to confound and dazzle audiences in equal measure. Its easy to sense that something is not quite normal when in one of the first scenes straggly street puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) tries to earn money with the highly sexual story of Abelard and Helousie but when Craig comes home to a house filled with pets before starting work at an office on the 7½ floor where he finds a portal into the head of the actor John Malkovich, then, well it quickly becomes clear that the film is sailing a long way south of normal. The random sense of humour at work here that takes these bizarre concepts at face value and throws in a deaf receptionist and a randy octogenarian for good measure might leave some people simply confused, but those who just go with the flow can't fail to be entertained. Writer Charlie Kaufman and debuting music video director Spike Jonze work hard to treat these ludicrous ideas absolutely seriously which pays off by letting the audience buy into the reality of the portal when a more slapdash approach would’ve made the whole thing look ridiculous and the humour far less rich. Cusack is excellent, maintaining a hangdog expression that ensures the audience remains sympathetic even when his obsessions get out of control while Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener both clearly relish the chance to play against type, sinking their respective teeth into the plain eccentric and the glamorous sexpot, but the real draw is John Malkovich himself. Malkovich has always been one of those actors who comes across as potentially arrogant in regard to his obvious talents and so it is a huge delight to see him effortlessly and shamelessly sending himself up, stealing the show as an egotistical and vain version of himself who becomes increasingly angry and terrified as his body becomes nothing more than a human puppet. Although it’s possibly unlikely that he hangs out with Charlie Sheen we can only hope that he really is known as Malkatraz! Since this film and its equally remarkable follow up Adaptation, Jonze has been reduced to working on infantile films like the Jackass franchise but Kaufman continue to be one of most original minds working in cinema today, an epithet that will always be deserved after this remarkable debut.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Hereafter - Clint Eastwood - 2011

At the grand old age of eighty Clint Eastwood is still churning out a movie a year but interestingly (or perhaps fittingly given his age) he has for the first time turned to examine the subject of the afterlife. Sadly though after his renaissance in the noughties, Hereafter continues the decline in quality that started with the solid but unimaginative Invictus. The film tells three parallel stories set around the world and united by this common theme but finds little of meaning or interest to say in any of them. It opens strongly enough with a very impressive (given that Clint has never worked with CGI before) re-enactment of the 2006 Asian tsunami in which journalist Cecile De France is caught up but her subsequent quest to find proof that she had a vision of the afterlife is frankly dull all the way. A second story with a pair of identical twins in London is severely hampered by the two kids that Clint plucked off the street to star; although the emotional pain is there to see behind the eyes, Clint apparently forgot to teach them how to act, leaving them with line deliveries that sound like they're being read off a script held up off screen. The third story happily is the film's saving grace, largely thanks to a beautifully nuanced performance from Matt Damon. As a man cursed with the power to see visions of people's dead love ones, Damon's struggles to live a normal life prove to much more empathetic than either of the other two stories, with a cheesy but tastefully shot flirtation with Bryce Dallas Howard bringing some much needed gentle comedy and eventually tragic pathos. A subplot with Derek Jacobi reading extracts of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield will be pleasurable for scholarly nerds in the audience but that’s a small plus. It’s certainly great that Clint is prepared to experiment with new areas at this stage in his career but Hereafter suggests that perhaps he doesn't have the imaginative range that this subject matter requires.

Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh - 2008

A surprisingly light-weight film from Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky focuses on eternal optimist Poppy (a career-defining performance from Sally Hawkins) and her ordinary life in a small corner of London. The problem here is that although it is nice to see Leigh moving away from the serious work for which he is more commonly known, it is a lot more difficult to maintain interest in someone who is resolutely happy with her lot. For the first section of the film we simply follow Poppy around her regular routines to which her approach is always (and infuriatingly) determinedly cheerful. Poppy has fun teaching art to primary school children, sympathises with her grumpy flatmate and pregnant sister and has her bike stolen, all with the same blithely happy demeanour. However nothing dramatic happens at all and thus for a large part the film could potentially come across as quite dull; although her attitude is initially irritating Poppy’s charm will win everybody over eventually but as the film is set in such familiar surroundings its easy to wonder mid way though if there is any point. Its only when the regular driving lessons Poppy has been having with an ultra-serious driving instructor (another breakout performance from Eddie Marsan) turn nasty that the film as a whole develops any dramatic weight and we feel Leigh’s presence as a director. By the end of the film Poppy has finally gone on an emotional journey that is still underdeveloped in places (say hello to token love interest Samuel Roukin) but ultimately is actually very satisfying to watch. It’s just frustrating that it takes at least half the film for that journey to start.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

16 Blocks - Richard Donner - 2006

Bruce Willis will never be anything other than an action hero in the eyes of the world (maybe with good reason when one hears his singing for example) but it is always refreshing when he plays around with that persona as he does in this low-key action film from director Richard Donner. Hiding his increasingly rumpled visage behind a gammy leg, a drink problem and big bushy porn star moustache, Willis is a rundown cop charged with the apparently routine task of escorting Mos Def's fast-talking hoodlum along the sixteen blocks from jail to courthouse. Together they make an amusingly mismatched partnership but Def has a tendency to jabber away in a high-pitched voice that sounds like Pingu on crack, irritating the audience – and we suspect Willis – to the point where it stops becoming funny and the pair never really develop the chemistry that the script demands. As the mundane trip turns sour and some rogue cops turn up with a by-the-numbers police corruption plot, Donner works hard to keep the action fresh, filling chase scenes with crowds where lesser directors would go for something simpler, a move that grants the action a certain realism but isn’t always enough to keep it consistently exciting. In the end the lack of chemistry becomes the biggest issue as Donner endeavours to bring the film to a climax with some emotional scenes between the two leads but the audience has been left too listless to really give a damn. The ever reliable David Morse attempts to establish some banter with Bruce but with few indications in the script of either their partnership history or the crimes that may have been committed, both actors have little to go on. Willis’ presence together with a couple of reasonable makes this a solid action film but it could never be anything more than that.

Clash of the Titans - Louis Leterrier - 2010

The thought of a remake of eighties classic Clash of the Titans with Ray Harryhausen's cheesy but charming stop-motion effects redone with the twenty-first century's biggest CGI budget naturally raises groans of despair from every direction, but does it deserve that response? Sam Worthington, cast as the mythological demi-god Perseus, growls his way through the film like he does every other but he is at least a more belivable and charismatic hero than the wooden Harry Hamlin and he's surrounded by a veritable treasure chest of great British actors like Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Flemyng and Liam Cunningham who show up for a few scenes each (Pete for literally two minutes) to lend the film some dramatic weight and credibility. Liam Neeson is a commanding presence as Zeus, King of the Gods and although he isn't as much fun as Sir Laurence Olivier, he does maintain a pleasingly stormy relationship with Ralph Fiennes' Hades who overcomes his Hollywood villain persona to deliver a completely different character to the superficially similar Lord Voldemort. Gemma Arterton plays new character Io, a random figure who is essentially a combination of Burgess Meredith and the golden owl from the previous film and although she tries hard to be enigmatic she ends up coming across as simply the goddess of exposition. Action director Louis Leterrier steps up to tackle his second blockbuster after The Incredible Hulk but this time around struggles to manage the larger story and cast after his previous smaller scale films which leaves many scenes like the giant scorpion attack and Medusa's lair lacking in narrative coherence. Leterrier does better at managing the vast range of effects which are good fun if never quite gripping; the legendary kraken does at least look like a kraken rather than a dinosaur but Leterrier uses CGI to make the monster SO big that it comes across as ridiculous rather than scary. Despite all this the film is always exciting and often a lot bigger and more spectacular than the original; in comparison though it is also largely charmless and almost completely hollow.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Angel-A - Luc Besson - 2005

Returning to directing for the first time since 1999's Joan of Arc, avant-garde Frenchman Luc Besson has created a whimsical little tale about an ordinary man at his lowest ebb and the woman who drops out of the sky to save him. Shooting in black and white around Paris, Besson has created a beautiful dreamlike vision of his native city that is consistently delightful and surprising even when the story veers wildly from romantic to surreal. Initially we follow wise guy Andre Moussah (Jamel Debbouze) as he grovels comically before various creditors, gets thrown out of a police station and an embassy and ends up hanging off a bridge where he's startled to meet a skinny but strangely attractive blonde. Having plunged into the river and been dragged out by Andre, the blonde (Rie Rasmussen) introduces herself as Angela, latches onto the bemused Andre and together the pair start a bizarre odyssey across Paris to clear his debts. For the first few scenes this often seems to involve the apparently airy Angela happily prostituting herself on Andre's behalf with no thought for the implications, a singularly odd approach that leaves this whole section of the film with a confusing juxtaposition of tone that makes it hard for audiences to get a grip on the story, even with the lovely visual imagery. About half way through however there is a turning point; as Andre continues to sink even lower Angela brings him to a mirror and forces him to look into his heart, eventually drawing out some genuinely heartfelt emotion that Debbouze delivers straight to camera with a simple honesty that is very touching to watch. From here on in there are still some surreal moments that don't really match this whimiscally charming tone but by now the relationship between Angela and Andre has developed to an extent that the audience can care about the characters and be moved by the performances. It becomes obvious quite quickly what Angela's true identity is but this actually makes the story all the more tender and the film as a whole a delightful evocation of Paris at its most romantic.