Friday, 29 June 2012
The latest in an ever increasing line of movies in which Nicholas Cage wantonly destroys his credibility, Season of the Witch finds the star fighting witches and demons in faux medieval
Europe, and yes this is as terrible as it sounds, but at least this time there's a bit of fun to be had along the way. Cage does the usual earnest-but-trying-to-be-cool acting that he reserves for this sort of film, playing a crusader who turns from bloodthirsty Christian warrior to disillusioned outcast after he accidentally stabs a woman (yes the plotting is that pathetic) and then gets stuck in a fantasy road movie, escorting a witch to trial. Cage trots along having adventures that range from the mildly entertaining to the snort-inducingly ridiculous while a respectable band of character actors (presumably they all had mortgages to pay) struggle to bring the feebly written characters to life. Claire Foy chews every piece of scenery in sight in an effort to be malevolent and mysterious and not make it obvious she’s trying to set the group against each other. Stephen Graham turns in rare bad performance but luckily a delayed release date ensured his career could survive the hit, Robert Sheehan who hasn’t been seen in a cinema since, doesn’t seem to have been so lucky. Having abandoned all pretence of historical credibility right from the off by misdating the crusades by over a hundred years, director Dominic Sena attacks the inevitably CGI heavy climax with a similar lack of subtlety, attempting a pointless twist and unleashing a monster blizzard that does at least contain a cool B-movie first in the form of zombie spider monks. Cage and the always reliable Ron Perlman maintain their dignity to the bitter end but Sena needs to learn that lots of cheap CGI and a Christopher Lee cameo do not automatically make a good fantasy horror film. The zombie spider monks were a pretty cool idea but that’s about it. In the previous two years Soloman Kane and Black Death already proved that films like these are hard to pull off convincingly. Season of the Witch just reaffirms the point.
Facebook has one of the defining inventions of the last decade, irrevocably changing the face of social interaction across the whole world and so creating a biopic of its founder, a mere seven years down the line feels particularly apt. Director David Fincher dials back on the neo-noir style visuals that made his masterpieces Fight Club and Se7en so striking but, with the help some great performances, still manages to create an equally engrossing film out of the Greek tragedy of destroyed friendships that apparently marred Facebook's creation. Jesse Eisenberg is superb as introverted genius Mark Zuckerberg; even as he arrogantly walks all over everyone he needs to help fuel his latest ambition then petulantly wonders why they turn against him, Eisenberg never completely loses the audience’s sympathies, cutting a faintly pathetic figure in his inability to really connect with anybody. Also impressive is British actor Andrew Garfield as Mark's friend Eduardo Saverin who sticks by him, turning a blind eye to how one sided the friendship is, and provides the heart of the movie as he struggles for Mark's attention with the opportunistic Sean Parker (a notable turn from singer Justin Timberlake). Fincher mainly sits back and lets this play out in the hands of Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent dialogue, with his only major stylistic contribution being a boat race set to a synthesized revamp of Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King. Narrative wise though he cleverly structures the film around the two simultaneous court cases that Mark simultaneously faced as the network was poised to go Global, flashing back to the relevant events in Facebook’s genesis from each one. This technique is initially confusing as it takes a while to get to grips with three different time frames but ultimately works out as the quickest and most coherent way to cover a lot of plot and highlight the crucial turning points of the story. For a long time this is all very interesting but not much else, it isn’t until the final reel as the money rolls and the relationships fall apart that the great tragic irony of the story hits, the fact that the principle contributor to social interaction in the new millennium so far was incapable of achieving anything similar in his personal life, a message that in its own small way is as dark as any as of the more obviously extreme in Fincher’s catalogue.
Monday, 25 June 2012
A more intriguing proposition than a lot of his more awkward films, Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda takes one simple narrative hook – an uninvited guest at a dinner party – and uses it to question whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. Thus two stories unfold simultaneously, both revolving around a woman called Melinda and with Allen's writing on form for once – this includes some cracking one-liners – both neatly counterpoint each other and make the audience think about how easy it is for simple situations to spring to one extreme or the other. It helps that Allen has assembled a particularly fine cast with Radha Mitchell shining in not one but two all too rare leading roles as both Melindas, Will Ferrell proving once more that he can genuinely act and Chiwetel Ejiofor charming the hell out of everything and everyone with some cruelly calculated waffle about the music of the soul. Some might find the dual stories and their tenuous ties a little to pat to be believed and it’s certainly true that Allen is forced to rush the ending in order to find some sort of resolution for all plotlines. It makes a refreshing change however to not have everything in a film wrapped up in a big bow and if some characters and events are left messy and unresolved, then surely that's just more like life right?
Inspired by the sight of black suits driving a big black car, Men in Black started as a comic that reinvented undertaker imagery as the iconic uniform for the eponymous agents who in a genius idea, secretly maintain Planet Earth as a Casablanca style haven for refugee aliens. Finally appearing on the big screen in the hands of Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld, Men in Black the movie brings together veteran character actor Tommy Lee Jones with new superstar in town Will Smith (appearing hot off the back of breakout hit Independence Day) to create an unexpected but hilarious comedy partnership that, despite diminishing sequels, represents a career high for both actors. Right from the prologue in which an illegal alien (of extra-terrestrial origin) is found hiding in a group of illegal aliens (of Mexican origin), the film is shot through with a delightfully mordant wit that both leads pick up and run with in every direction. Playing new recruit Agent Jay, Smith is the audience’s eyes in this strange new world but he utilises his classic semi-improvised schtick to sarcastically puncture every situation and ensure that the film, unlike Independence Day, is never in danger of taking itself too seriously. Good as he is though Smith’s character is only learning the ropes, its Jones playing his mentor Agent Kay who can casually knock Smith down with a deadpan wisecrack or stand and watch unruffled as a burning spaceship crashes towards him and thus walk away with the film whilst looking pretty damn cool to boot. Opposing the dynamic duo is the Edgar bug, a giant cockroach crammed inside the skin of redneck that is given extraordinary life by a manic performance from Vincent D'Onofrio and the makeup effects of monster veteran Rick Baker. Growling and jerking his way around New York as his skin rots and peels off, Edgar is a freakishly repulsive character, leavened by just enough black humour to make him entertaining rather than scary although one moment during his first appearance when the saggy skin is pulled back is likely to disturb anyone not well prepared. Essentially this is just a classic buddy movie with added sci-fi trappings and as such the film is a tremendously enjoyable, easy-going ride, but as an alien film that for once doesn’t have aliens trying to take over the world, Men in Black actually verges on the original.
Thursday, 21 June 2012
After the success of Spider-Man opened the door for a wave of comic book based blockbusters (a wave that shows no sign of letting up) it was inevitable that a follow-up to Sam Raimi’s breezy action-adventure would be first in line and so two years later we rejoin Peter Parker as he moons over Mary-Jane by day, swoops through the city by night and fails to reconcile the two in between. Surprisingly given the material, Raimi actually spends more time on the character drama than he does on the action and with the exception of James Franco who strains even harder to force out some sort of emotion, the actors actually rise to the challenge. Perhaps now the characters have left school behind and are more grown-up they are easier to engage with but both Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have matured enough in their roles to make them more charismatic than before. Of course the pig-headed nobility (the same character trait that made Harry Potter so annoying) that forces Peter to keep rejecting MJ will likely make the audience just want to throw things at him and his internal struggle between heart and responsibility does eventually become wearing but the emotional chemistry between Maguire and Dunst, by turns sweet then sad, is enough to keep the audience engaged both in the film, and crucially in Peter when he disappears behind the mask and becomes a CGI spider. Great as this extra emotional connection is though, it almost doesn’t leave room for the new villain in town, quadruple robot-armed maniac Doctor Octopus. Happily though new guest star Alfred Molina rises to the challenges, quickly making us forget that Doc Ock is essentially a scientist gone mad out of the same printing press as the Green Goblin and successfully stealing most of his scenes with charm and subtle relish rather than just chewing the scenery like Willem Dafoe. Aside from a climax that’s hampered by an unoriginal renewable energy macguffin (even now being recycled for Avengers Assemble), the action scenes when they finally come burst off the screen with impressive energy as Doc Ock proves to be an even greater and more frightening challenge for our webbed hero. The plot may still be full of holes on close inspection but with such a good blend of character beats and exciting action, its hard not be engaged and, at least at this stage before The Dark Knight blew everybody else out of the park, this is all we could ask for from a good sequel.
After the critical and commercial disaster that was Showgirls, master of excess Paul Verhoeven returned to the
Hollywood action film for the first time since 1990’s Total Recall and with his typically subversive attitude, determined to make the biggest one yet seen. The result was Starship Troopers in which all the male characters are chiselled, strong and heroic, the females are all stunningly beautiful, plucky but certain to be in need of rescue before long and the plot consists of nothing more than training to kill giant bugs with big guns and then er, killing giant bugs in spectacularly bloody fashion. With really big guns. So far so Hollywood, but interestingly, rather than introduce hints of mockery as you might expect from given his outsider status, Verhoeven instead plays the clichés to the max. Thus there are no gags, all the actors play it dead straight and the characters take everything absolutely seriously which neatly has the effect of highlighting both how ridiculous these pumped up people appear when scrutinised rationally and how disturbingly fascistic films like this can appear with their glorification of weaponry and violence (James Cameron take note). Of course the downside is that with no sense of humour the film is quite dull in places with the soap opera style antics of the characters dragging out the story far longer than necessary, especially when the only interludes consist of giant CGI bugs being bloodily squished. Possibly the saddest thing though is that the film was a massive success so the studio went on to make at least two sequels. Clearly all of the suits and most of the audiences missed the point.
Saturday, 16 June 2012
After the huge success of comic book noir
, writer/co-director Frank Miller struck out on his own to adapt The Spirit, a serial by Will Eisner, into a similarly stylised action film. The story itself, told in voiceover with a growling narrator reminiscent of Rorsarch, feels fairly derivative with a superhero that rises again after death to become a black clad vigilante but this is still worth seeing for some beautiful visuals and insane plot twists. Although it looks very similar to his previous creation with the mainly black and white vistas complimented by the occasional garish splash of red, Miller’s Central City where the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) roams the rooftops has its own personality. Less violent and sleazy than Sin City, this town is almost romantic in its noir stylisation, covered with atmospheric snowflakes and stray cats the silhouettes of rusty fire escapes and mausoleum-like public buildings loom over the dark alleys far below in a way that seems almost nostalgic for a vanished era. Contrast this though with the lair of the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) which includes a melting cat, identical bald henchman and Scarlett Johansson in a Nazi uniform and its clear that down here anything sentimental was handed in at the door. Throw in the blood of Heracles and Jason’s Golden Fleece as macguffin’s and the end result is a bat-shit crazy film that is often confusing and usually ridiculous but actually kind of fun if you can buy into the world. Macht rises from being a little known supporting player to comfortably assuming the mantle of leading man, Johansson, Sarah Paulson and Eva Mendes sneer, pout and sizzle respectively as the requisite gorgeous femme fatales while Sin City chews up so much scenery that the entire film is in danger of overbalancing. But then it must be hard not to overact when hitting a man on the head with a toilet. Compared to the tremendous success of Sin City, The Spirit bombed at the box office which says a lot about Miller’s skills as a director when working by himself but with niche audience who can cope with the weird mash-up of genres, styles and characters this might find a home.
One of Marvel Comics’ biggest heroes comes soaring onto the big screen in a big budget adaptation that is filled with enough dazzling special effects to make up for the rather obvious weaknesses in story and character. Obviously this is the first time Spiderman has appeared in the cinema but the story of a boy who starts off bullied and unnoticed before growing up to fulfil his destiny, become a hero, get the girl etc, is one that’s been told so many times before that as we watch the adventures of Peter Parker it feels like director Sam Raimi is ticking off narrative beats rather than trying for something new. Tobey Maguire, playing Peter and his alter ego Spiderman, has some fun in his first leading role as he struggles to control his new powers in school – the most exhilarating flying sequence is actually the first one, sans costume – but overall makes for a fairly bland hero. As Peter watches his best friend Harry (James Franco, equally wooden) steal Mary-Jane, the love of his life (Kirsten Dunst, sweet if gauche), Maguire does nothing but stare concernedly, lacking the charisma sorely needed to make us care. Playing Spiderman’s nemesis The Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe expertly pitches his performance on just the right side of ham but he can't conceal how stereotypically generic the character is, especially when compared to some of Marvel's other creations, failing to raise the character much above the decades old mad doctor cliché. J.K. Simmons makes an all too brief but hilarious appearance as Peter's boss J. Jonah Jameson, stealing the film with a few chomps on a cigar, but if there’s a real star it must be Raimi. Still best known at this stage for classic eighties horror trilogy The Evil Dead, Raimi has great fun cutting loose on his first big budget with some truly spectacular action scenes and dizzying choreography; the shots he creates of Spiderman soaring through the streets of New York are exciting enough to ensure that you don’t realise until afterwards that all the money went here rather than into the story. With a consistent tone that never veers too far from light and breezy, Spider-Man is a mildly entertaining romp but for truly engaging Marvel super heroics, audiences would be better off sticking with the X-Men.
Sunday, 10 June 2012
Pixar honcho John Lasseter's first decision on taking up the reins at Disney was to return to the classic style of story telling and animation that marks all the great classics of the last seventy years. Happily Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker haven't let him down with the first attempt, crafting an immensely enjoyable comedy musical that is a worthy entry into the Disney canon. Set in the city of
and the surrounding bayous, the film is a visual treat bursting with life and vibrant colours as our hard working heroine Tianna (Anika Noni Rose) discovers that there is more to happiness than simply working hard. On the dark side we are granted a genuinely menacing villain in the sinister Dr Faciler (Keith David) who can flit instantly from wily charm to devilish delight, while the traditional sidekick roles are ably filled by jazz playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and friendly firefly Ray (Jim Cummings). It’s true that the story respectfully follows all the paths you'd expect from a Disney film, but Clements and Musker are intelligent enough to allow enough darkness so that it never becomes saccharine. Together with a wonderfully catchy set of songs (bar an embarrassing misfire over the end credits – whoever suggested Kanye West should be fired), this is a Disney musical that deserves to rank alongside the classics.
After the Predator franchise was crushed by the apparently awful Alien vs. Predator films, that would appear to have been that until producer and fan Robert Rodriguez turned up to attempt a reboot. Hiring Hungarian director Nimród Antal and moving the action to a completely different planet, Rodriguez is clearly aiming to take the franchise in a new direction whilst retaining the best parts of John McTiernan’s original film. Throwing a variety of tough guys (and one girl) back into the jungle Predators essentially follows the same format as the first film as the group try and work out what’s hunting them before they are gradually killed off but rather than an indistinguishable group of commandos, the characters here are a disparate bunch of hard cases brought together from all over the world. In the lead Adrien Brody is an unlikely choice for an action hero but he actually proves to be surprisingly effective, showing off a rippling physique, throwing himself into the fighting and most importantly of all growling out the lines with the requisite charisma. In support Alice Braga is slightly stereotyped as the group’s conscience and Walton Goggins is annoying as a whining convict but Laurence Fishburne makes an effective cameo as a source of much needed exposition. Although not all of them deliver the best performances, this greater range of characters actually makes the film more engaging than the original, particularly in the first half when each death resonates a little more since the characters are more distinguishable. Sadly the film goes downhill in the second half as Antal’s inexperience begins to show; a duel in a cornfield between a Predator and Louis Ozawa Changchien’s triad assassin should be a really cool highlight but Antal edits it to death. Rodriguez attempts to end the film with a twist around Topher Grace’s doctor and to expand the mythology further by introducing different breeds of predators but all of these efforts are also rendered confusing in Antal’s hands. As a straight action film in the first half Predators is very good. As the start of a potential new franchise in the second, the film is rather less effective.
Friday, 8 June 2012
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, show runner and creator of hit television shows Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, return to the horror genre for Goddard’s debut feature, a new spin on the perennially popular slasher movie that both celebrates and subverts the clichés whilst expanding the universe to include a hitherto unsuspected wider mythology. The film opens with five archetypal teenagers, (carbon copies of every character from the last hundred slasher films) setting off for the titular cabin in the woods but Goddard regularly cuts away from them to Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, workers in a bland looking facility who seem suspiciously interested in the teenagers’ adventures. It seems to become obvious fairly quickly how the two worlds are linked but the secondary perspective of the workers makes the killing scenes more interesting than usual and at times more than usually disturbing; an office party held while a girl is dying on a big screen in the background is very shocking, even for a genre in which the audience are usually desensitised to the violence. Coming as it does from the mischievous minds of Whedon and Goddard and audience might expect more alarming twists and turns in the plot but interestingly the pair choose not to play up to this reputation, focusing instead on creating a wider universe that in a ridiculously bloody climax links The Cabin in the Woods more directly with its genre predecessors than one might expect. Best of all though, the film sees a return of Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue brought to gleeful life here by Goddard’s characters. Whitford and Jenkins make a brilliant double act with their laconic attitudes, puncturing the horror with some blackly funny lines and although the teenagers are (very deliberately) classic bland creations they are all given better dialogue than they might expect on another movie with Kristen Connolly’s plucky heroine Dana proving to be a standout. Best of all though is the weed addled joker in the pack played by Whedon veteran Fran Kranz who delivers some hilarious one-liners with beautiful deadpan delivery that completely steals the show. Filled as it is with the sort of little details that warrant repeated viewings alongside some carefully modulated gore that is never too explicit and an applause-worthy final reel cameo, The Cabin in the Woods is an intriguing meta-horror movie that will undoubtedly appeal to the more discerning fan.
With approximately thirty film and television adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story A Christmas Carol having been released over the last one hundred years it’s hard not to wonder sitting down to this film: do we really need another one? Perhaps with the technology director Robert Zemeckis has at his disposal, developed for The Polar Express and Beowulf, the answer might actually be yes. Zemeckis puts the motion-capture technology that he has honed to excellent use, bringing Dickens’ supernatural story to life like it has never been seen before. Liberated inside a computer, Zemeckis takes Scrooge soaring through snowy woods with the Ghost of Christmas Past, peaking down at
from above with the Ghost of Christmas Present and in the oddest sequence of the film has him miniaturised and chased through the streets by the giant carriage of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. All of these gorgeous visuals are tremendously exciting and when combined with Alan Silvestri’s score that works traditional carols like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and O Come All Ye Faithful into his usual rambunctious style, they bring back some of the magic that may have been lost in this overly familiar story. Acting wise Colin Firth may look weird playing Fred Scrooge but Gary Oldman is impressive in the dual roles of Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchitt and Jim Carrey is impressively versatile, tackling multiple roles with aplomb and utilising his extensive comic and physical talents to bring Scrooge and all the ghosts to arch and beautiful life. With Dickens’ familiar lines spoken once more amidst some familiar London sites that all shot with beautiful light and snow, A Christmas Carol really does bring to the screen a little bit of true Christmas magic.
Monday, 4 June 2012
Based on an allegorical French novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes imagines a world turned upside down in which sentient apes rule over primitive humans and with the capable guidance of Charlton Heston and director Franklin Schaffner, turns it into one of the finest science-fiction adventures ever made. The idea of Ben-Hur fighting talking monkeys may sound ridiculous but with the aid of some groundbreaking makeup effects the apes are brought to brilliantly detailed life and although they don’t look exactly like apes we have on Earth, Schaffner and the actors behind the masks all play it seriously enough for the audience to quickly forget the silly sounding concept and become caught up in the intricate details of this new civilisation. There are some lovely humorous touches in the squabbles between the forthright Zira (Kim Hunter) and the stuffy Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and some exciting action beats, in particular the opening hunt in which Schaffner uses some effective crash zooms to introduce the apes with maximum impact and a mid-film marketplace chase that culminates with Heston’s now legendary curse: “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” Almost more interesting though are the quieter moments with which Schaffner successfully punctuates the film without losing any pace or momentum. The first ten minutes after the astronauts land and they’re wandering in the wilderness are fascinating even though nothing really happens since Schaffner takes the opposite approach to most science-fiction directors and shoots on the broadest canvas possible. Turning the deserts of
into a bleak alien landscape Schaffner locates his characters as tiny dots in an eerily beautiful but empty world that perfectly counterpoints the wry philosophical musings about the state of humanity that Heston makes during quiet moments. Burying the book’s rather stuffy message under the adventure set up and behind one of cinema’s great twist endings turns the film into a story that is both exciting and thought provoking and although a succession of sequels may have tarnished its reputation, Planet of the Apes still stands as a true milestone in science-fiction history.
It’s interesting to consider the controversy that surrounded Mel Gibson's depiction of the last hours of Jesus Christ, because in fact the film's problems are simply directorial rather than rising from the narrative. Although one or two locations like the moments of Peter's denials are changed, the story the film follows is that told in the Gospels more or less exactly. Its true that Gibson has taken hints given in the original text and turned them into fully fledged brutal torture scenes, but given the historical background these are logical extensions that in fact bring to the fore the extreme physical pain that Christ must have suffered, something that the bible does not deal with in detail. Gibson's big mistake though is that he focuses on this aspect almost exclusively with practically no thought for the emotional or spiritual torments of that day. With only a few all too brief flashbacks of Christ's life and work there is practically nothing in Jim Caviezel's Jesus for the audience to engage with emotionally and little opportunity for them to discover and understand the spiritual ramifications of what Christ went through. A few flashes of a weirdly bald Lucifer aren’t enough to bring this spiritual context which is surely what the story is ultimately about. Without these crucial elements the audience is little more than passive observers at a blood bath which, however hard Gibson tries, never feels truly horrific or tragic since they have no relationship with the victim. Thus Gibson's retelling of a day when the world was changed forever remains interesting but only ever from an academic point of view.
Saturday, 2 June 2012
A dark and slightly demented fairy tale from the minds of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and stop-motion guru Henry Selick, Coraline follows the titular little girl as she struggles to chose between ordinary but dull real life and a more exciting but sinister parallel reality. After a beautifully intricate but rather disturbing opening sequence that sees a doll being taken apart and remade, we are plonked with Coraline into a new home complete with the sort of eccentric family, locals and neighbours that Roald Dahl might have been proud of. Typically this world is a visual delight with Selick stretching his trademark off kilter style (surely by now augmented with CGI) to fill the screen with more life than ever before, but even with an overdose of whimsy it’s not always enough to make the film notably unique. Things pick up once we get into the other world in which everyone is the same except that they have buttons for eyes – a truly creepy idea that throws a little bit of weird into every subsequent scene that is apparently normal. The scenes in this world though stretch on too long before the story eventually turns into a conventional quest plot that feels disappointingly mundane given the minds involved. There are definitely enough dark and twisted moments here to make you shiver but not enough wit to make the story come alive to the extent of Selick's masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas, a mark that Coraline aims for but, with its determinedly child friendly plot, can never quite reach.
The English language debut from Japanese director Hideo Nakata, Chatroom attempts to expose the dangers that await people who develop connections with strangers in online chat rooms. Naktata's visual concept of the rooms as a garishly coloured corridor with a different group behind every door is a neat way to visualise the characters' online conversations but unfortunately he can't resist filling it with some rather too obvious metaphorical imagery, for example we don't need to see Aaron Johnson apparently sprouting a pair of balrog wings to work out he's the villain. And then there's the script, which is filled with the sort of embarrassingly clunky dialogue that is often put into the mouths of young people by writers that don't actually know any young people, which given the serious issues under scrutiny here, makes the whole film feel rather awkward. Also the story initially sets up three plot threads (all potential victims of Johnson's manipulations) but then frustratingly drops two of them half way through in order to make a thrilling climax out of the third. Having said all this, Nakata doesn't shy away from the shocking horror of the issues involved – anyone who has suffered from depression in the past will find this a difficult watch – and he does manage to work through the unnatural dialogue to pull of the aforementioned thrilling climax with truly nail biting tension. If he wants to continue to make films about relevant issues though, he desperately needs to find a better screenwriter in order for them to be taken seriously.