Thursday, 20 June 2013

St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold - Oliver Parker & Barnaby Thompson - 2009

The first St Trinian's remake was quite good fun in a lazy sort of way, appealing to all the right playground cliques and coming complete with a good cast that dutifully took to the silliness and the cheeky homages with equal aplomb. The inevitable sequel however sticks so rigidly to the same formula that, like most sequels, it falls flat on its face. The cliques remain largely the same, but a lot of the original girls have moved on leaving new faces to spout out the same tired jokes and bickering arguments. Without any fresh wits behind the script what was amusing and almost clever first time round rapidly becomes dull and irritating and even the stunt casting of Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud is not enough to mitigate the tedium since she has nothing to do but lurk on the side-lines and look moody. Respectable actresses like Zawe Ashton and Montserrat Lombard do at least throw themselves wholeheartedly into the clich├ęs but they can’t stop the rows between the chavs and the goths sounding so predictable that its difficult not to zone out until the next piece of exposition. And speaking of the plot, the first film was undoubtedly silly but it did at least maintain a modicum of believability; the treasure hunt in St Trinian's 2 is at least an exciting idea but returning directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson pile in so many absurdities – a feeble Exorcist rip-off and the most pathetic secret society ever invented being some of the worst offenders – that by the time the frankly embarrassing climax comes around the plot doesn't stand a chance. Rupert Everett is still fun as the mischievous Miss Fritton but Colin Firth spends the whole film looking ashamed that he agreed to come back whilst David Tennant’s approach to playing a villain simply consists of chewing the scenery every chance he gets. This isn't to say there aren't good moments – a scene of the girls quietly chanting the St Trinian’s anthem before going into battle is weirdly hair raising, while Everett's spin on Shakespeare's Band of Brothers speech is nearly as rousing as the original. Its just that Parker and Thompson seemed to have thought that simply repeating the first film with more silliness was the right way to go. They were wrong. 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Oblivion - Joseph Kosinski - 2013

Having blown the collective minds of science-fiction fans with his directorial debut, the long awaited sequel TRON: Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski remained within the genre for his next project, an adaptation of Oblivion a self-penned comic book that aimed in his own words to bring science-fiction ‘back out into the daylight’. And although the film does go underground occasionally and even (briefly) into space, Kosinski has overall been tremendously successful, creating a world of vast bleak beauty that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Like the disc wars in TRON where Kosinski was smart enough to kick back and allow us to enjoy the visuals without reams of plot, the best section of this film is the opening twenty minutes in which repairman Jack (Tom Cruise) simply pootles about post-apocalyptic Earth giving the audience a chance to soak in the stark beauty of this new world (CGI enhanced Iceland) and marvel at a ruined suspension bridge twisted across a desert, a far away ocean marked with ghostly white towers and a hidden valley where ordinary nature feels like paradise. This immense emptiness is neatly contrasted with the sleek, efficient emptiness of Jack’s home in the sky, complete the traditional gleaming white surfaces and windows, huge cloud panoramas and an equally sleek and efficient partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who gently resists every effort he makes to show off his humanity. Cruise proves once again that he can make a perfectly good everyman when he dials down the ridiculous grin, guiding the audience carefully through this new world as it begins to fall apart around him when he finds the woman of his dreams (literal dreams!) in a crashed escape pod. Ukranian actress Olga Kurylenko certainly has the looks to carry off the part of a mysterious beauty but she hasn’t yet developed the onscreen charisma to make the part memorable meaning that her emotional character arc sadly is always muted. Plotting of course became an issue in TRON but happily it seems from here that Kosinski is starting to learn from his mistakes, drip-feeding the developments this time so that the plot never becomes confusing and although the twists aren’t perhaps as shocking as he would like, they do ensure that the plot remains consistently interesting. There are some minor moral quandaries raised unintentionally when Kosinksi’s science-fiction concepts clash with the necessities of Hollywood storytelling but otherwise Oblivion is consistently interesting as a piece of science-fiction and visually a minor masterpiece.

Monday, 10 June 2013

TRON: Legacy - Joseph Kosinski - 2010

A 3D CGI extravaganza, TRON Legacy is the natural successor to Avatar, pushing cinematic boundaries visually and stylistically even further than James Cameron did the previous year. In 1982 the film TRON found a niche audience with its story of a games programmer trapped inside a computer but today it is largely remembered for its pioneering special effects design and now TRON: Legacy finally brings into play the technology that the first film deserved, creating a rich and visually astounding world that is strangely beautiful as much as it is dark and impassive, unlike anything seen on the big screen before. The film opens relatively normally with some standard action beats as tearaway Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) causes havoc at his dad’s old company, but once he finds an old arcade and stumbles into the world of the Grid the film’s visual and aural palette expands exponentially. The effects fall flat when attempting to de-age Jeff Bridges – the character Clu is meant to resemble Bridges in 1982 but looks like he’s escaped from The Polar Express – but this is easily forgettable when the screen is filled with huge flying ships, light cycles that form in mid-air and race across flexible and seemingly endless spaces and vicious yet elegant disc battles that must always end in electronic disintegration. These sights are impressive enough by themselves, rendered in exquisite detail by former special effects artist and debuting director Joseph Kosinski, but the film is lifted to another level by a pounding electronica soundtrack from Daft Punk that perfectly underscores the artificial world of the Grid with music that is both epic in the classical sense but also modern and other worldly enough to perfectly match Kosinski’s visuals and make several moments truly hair-raising. Unfortunately Kosinski’s skills aren’t so sharp in the script department; the dialogue, though only functional, isn't as clunky as some have made out but even with all the visual distractions its hard not to notice the gaping plot holes where even the computer logic of the grid is strained too far to be credible and there are references to the original film – particularly with the character of Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) – that are never fully explained, Kosinski seemingly forgetting that although this is technically a sequel, the original was made a whole generation previously and audiences have changed. Despite all this though, TRON: Legacy, like its predecessor twenty-eight years ago, is still a significant milestone in the history of CGI effects and although it will never seriously engage the emotions, the film as a spectacle is without doubt one of the most mind-blowing experiences to hit cinemas in recent years.

TRON - Steven Lisberger - 1982

Despite the occasional classic like Mary Poppins, the live action output of Disney studios has mostly been overlooked in favour of animation, a genre in which they’ve cornered the market to a greater or lesser degree since the 1930s. It would seem logical therefore to attempt, as they did with Poppins, something that integrates the animation with live action but its unlikely that anyone ever expected TRON. On a certain level TRON is a classic adventure story – hero is trapped in a strange land and has to fight his way past various obstacles in order defeat the bad guy and save the day – except here the world is The Grid and exists entirely inside a computer network, populated by computer programs and dictated by a malevolent Master Control Program. Jeff Bridges brings a great deal of charm and rebellious charisma to the role of programmer Kevin Flynn whilst David Warner puts his sardonic tones and acidic presence to good use as both Flynn’s real world rival Ed Dillinger and Grid program Sark, muscleman (muscle program?) for the MCP. The pair are saddled with what are essentially wetsuits covered in glowing lines but despite this they both still play the conflict inside the Grid with conviction and commitment, even when everything but their faces appears to be animated, successfully maintaining the human story when it could easily get lost under the special effects. With today’s CGI toolbox a live-action world inside a computer would be a piece of cake (as indeed proved to be the case with the 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy) but in 1982 this was more challenging. It is impressive therefore that, despite looking at times like an incomplete pre-viz for a much bigger film, the animation still retains a unique charm that makes it watchable. External shots of the lightcycles (motorbikes made of light!) and reconizers (flying ships that look for no practical reason like the Arc de Triomphe) look more like geometric drawings come to life than anything real, especially since the environments through which they move contain little to no detail. Logically this makes sense since within the world of the story they are racing around computer circuits but cinematically this is a disadvantage, immediately drawing attention away from the action. However the live action elements are a lot better, convincingly interacting with the animated worlds, grounding the story into some sort of reality crucially allows the audience to buy into it. As sci-fi TRON creates a fascinating world but isn’t really challenging enough story wise. As an effects movie it is dated almost from the first shot and yet despite this there has never been anything else quite like it; TRON for all its faults is unique. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Tangled - Nathan Greno & Bryon Howard - 2011

Expectations were high for Tangled given that this is the fiftieth official animated feature film produced by the legendary Disney studios and so its a great relief to report that this is one of their best films in recent years. Having made a delightful return to hand drawn animation in their previous film The Princess and the Frog, it is initially a little disappointing to find that Tangled is entirely computer animated but happily expectations are quickly surpassed with some of the most beautiful animation seen outside Studio Ghibli. The film is set in a pretty standard fairy tale kingdom but this one stands out from most others with its lush and verdant details, filled with the lovingly rendered little quirks that have become a hallmark of Pixar films; the centrepiece of the film, coming as the music climaxes with the standout musical number I See The Light, is filled with thousands of floating lanterns that drift out over the audience in a moment of pure magic. The story is based on the fairy tale of Rapunzel and her Golden Hair (astonishingly a fairy story hitherto untapped by the fairy tale factory) and follows the usual predictable Disney princess character arcs and although it contains an irritatingly large amount of cheesy fairy story lines, we are more than compensated with some of the best and most hilarious supporting characters in the Disney canon. Rapunzel has a grumpy yet cute chameleon called Pascal for a sidekick and encounters a band of fierce barbarians who secretly have hearts of gold – one masquerades as a drunken cupid and one, in the film’s best gag collects tiny ceramic unicorns – but the best of all is the ultra dedicated guard horse Maximus who is under the impression that he is a hound dog. Curiously given Disney’s fascination with talking animals, all the creatures here are mute; the fact that they are nevertheless some of the funniest and most communicative animal characters we’ve ever seen, is simply a mark of the film’s quality. With only the narration needing a polish (most of the songs are hardly instant classics but will grow on you) this is proof that after The Princess and the Frog, Disney is continuing a winning streak. There's hope yet for a second renaissance.