Friday, 26 November 2010

The American - Review

Anton Corbijn's The American, the long awaited follow-up to his brilliant 2007 début feature Control, is certainly not for everyone. If you prefer your espionage thrillers to be packed full of high octane action then you'd best give this a miss. However, if you like those slow and methodical character studies in a similar tone to John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy then this might just be the film you've been looking forward to all year.

Based on the novel by Martin Booth entitled, A Very Private Gentleman, George Clooney forgoes his slick charismatic persona to reveal a tortured, tired, soul in the form of ageing assassin, Jack (no surname). After killing three people in a remote part of Sweden, Jack flees and takes refuge in the quaint, beautiful town of Casta Del Monte in Italy, haunted by the ghosts of his past while being ultimately consumed by his own guilt for his actions in the opening moments of the film.

After being coaxed into one last job by his boss (Johan Leysen), where he won't even need to fire a single gun, the man finds comfort in the stunningly gorgeous and slightly mysterious prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) while also feeling at ease with the unlikely arm of friendship from the town's priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The slow burning nature of the film's plot conjured memories of old school westerns from Sergio Leone, and clearly an influence on Corbijn's approach to the project with a cheeky nod during one of the beautifully shot cafe scenes.

I've always been a huge fan of George Clooney's work, from O Brother Where Art Thou, the Ocean's trilogy and even as recent as Up in the Air. Despite all these wonderful performances, I don't feel I've seen Clooney open up to his audience on the big screen as he did in this very touching and personal portrayal in The American. His very quiet and measured approach won't appeal to fans of his mainstream work, but I feel that's always been the beauty of the actor's career as he's never been afraid to do something a bit different occasionally.

Similar to January's Up in the Air, Clooney's performance is supported by two fascinating and enigmatic performances from his female co-stars, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten (last seen in the excellent comedy, In Bruges). However my personal highlights involved his somewhat philosophical musings and confessions with Paolo Bonacelli's, Father Benedetto.

The American's true strength resided in Corbijn's beautiful use of the camera, with a faint reminiscence to Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy without all the convoluted tosh thrown in. These gorgeous quiet European settings were extenuated by Herbert Gronemeyer's soft emotive score.

This isn't to say the entire film consisted entirely of watching Clooney sulk and cry over past woes for two hours, there was forever this rather uneasy, yet undeniably gripping, tension, and unjustified paranoia which Jack carried through the film from beginning to end. Though the antagonists' true nature is never fully revealed, those moments of elevated tension and true suspense resonate through the plot long after they've actually occurred.

Final Thoughts
A slow-burning and intelligent character study which may leave audiences pondering more questions than the film cares to answer. George Clooney's Neo-Western, Eastwood-esque approach was undeniably touching while Placido and Reuten added a real sense of glamour and class. The real winner of the film though was the director himself who continues to show his natural talent for making truly provocative and visually gorgeous films.


The American is in cinemas nationwide now.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Unstoppable - Review

If there's at least one thing you can say about Tony Scott's latest film, Unstoppable, is that it's thankfully not as terrible as its bland and uninspiring title suggests. Inspired by the CSX 8888 incident in 2001 (go on Wikipedia it, I'll wait), the movie tells the tale of a runaway train and the two men (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) who attempt to stop it.

There's nothing that quite warms up a wintry afternoon than a Tony Scott film, with its colour saturation always seemingly cranked up to 11. This isn't intended as an insult but an observation of the director's, somewhat, unique style. In keeping with the rest of Scott's films, its pace goes as fast as its 'unstoppable' lifeless antagonist while also giving the characters themselves a chance to breathe occasionally.

Being Tony Scott's ideal leading man in most of his films over the last decade, Denzel Washington once again shows off his cinematic pedigree as the streetwise rail veteran, Frank Barnes. Though he's still a brave bit off being over the hill - unlike the nature of his character seemingly - one suspects Mr Washington will become a classier screen presence the older he becomes, in a faint reminiscence to Morgan Freeman.

Chris Pine measures up equally as well to his co-star. Having defied audience expectation and pleasing some of the most fickle of sci-fi fans in his role of, the iconic, Cpt. James T Kirk in last year's Star Trek - my third favourite film of 2009 for the record - the young actor once again shrugs off his pretty boy looks and manages to portray a gritty, relatable, working-class hero in the form of train conductor, Will Colson.

Though the highly charged set pieces should keep audiences marvelling and on the edge of their seat, the film is undoubtedly carried by Washington and Pine's brilliantly natural and sincere on-screen chemistry. Their somewhat unfortunate and frustrating home-lives is what grounds the film and separates it from the other big and dumb action movies released in recent times, yet for all the shallowness found in his features, this personal tone is something Tony Scott tends to pull off really well.

The support cast was littered with, well, support actors. Kevin Dunn and Rosario Dawson added their unappreciated workmanship and class to the feature very well, while Ethan Suplee (of My Name is Earl fame) Lew Temple performed as well as to be expected, which admittedly, wasn't much.

If I had to heap any criticism at the film (and frankly I am slightly nip-picking), it would be that it's a fun film, but not a spectacular film, of which I may add to my DVD collection in the years to come. Both the stars and the director have made films much more memorable than this. If I want to watch a Chris Pine film I'd probably stick on Star Trek, similarly if I wanted to watch a Washington/Scott collaboration, Man on Fire would probably get the nod ahead of this feature.

Final Thoughts
It might not hold in my memory for long, but Unstoppable is still a well paced and ultimately very enjoyable action thriller. Washington and Pine form an unlikely double act of honest working-class heroes, which should warm the heart as well as highly entertain. Very much recommended for all adrenaline junkies out there, even if it's quite unremarkable in places.


Unstoppable is in cinemas nationwide from November 26th 2010.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) - Review

A friend of mine, a week prior to writing this review, described the arrival of the final Harry Potter films as marking the true end of her childhood and I feel that particular theme runs through this film. As a man who has never read the books - and makes no apologies for it - I've often looked upon the films of the past decade with a mixture awe and frustration. Critically none of the cinematic adaptations have made completely perfect films, with perhaps the exception of the excellent Prisoner of Azkaban. Though the final part of this 'epic finale' is still six months away, The Deathly Hallows Part I unfortunately follows the same trend of the majority of the films past.

Picking up roughly where the last film left audiences over a year ago, we find Harry along with his chums Ron and Hermione continuing their search for the remaining Horcruxes in order to defeat the dark and menacing Lord Voldemort.

Perhaps the most surprising and disappointing aspect of The Deathly Hallows Part I was the complete lack of the magical and visually spellbinding Hogwarts school which has been the main backdrop of the films since they began in 2000. Unsurprisingly however, the film suffered enormously for it. That isn't to say the film didn't feature magical and peculiar realms, but ultimately it tended to fall a little flat for the most part, which is a shame because the opening 20 minutes were pacey, action packed and featured all the characters we've come to love and care about since the early days of The Philosopher's Stone. From there until about the last 10 minutes it just loses its momentum as we see Harry and his two closest friends seemingly meandering along in the Lake District for two hours.

One thing that can be said of the series, as a whole, is watching Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint mature into decent, proper actors over the years. The first part of The Deathly Hallows is probably the first film I can recall where they have, genuinely, had to carry the entire film together, without the assistance of much more seasoned veterans of British cinema and to their credit they do it very well.

After the second instalment comes out next summer I will watch with great interest where these three young actors take their careers, if indeed anywhere at all. Regardless of your feelings for young Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, for better or worse, they are now embedded into cinematic history as JK Rowling's leading three characters.

The trailers which have captivated audiences since they made their début earlier in the year are also slightly misleading as Warner Bros have seemingly decided to splice in a lot of what's promised in Part II while neglecting to tell people, in my opinion, nothing really happens for the majority of Part I. I'm sure fanatics of the book will see more of a purpose to the whole affair than I did, but for me the first instalment of the final Harry Potter story did nothing but act as a prelude to the darkness and destruction that is bound to unfold come July 2011.

That isn't to say it was a complete disaster, because there was a lot of the film I did enjoy. One of the most beautiful and innovative highlights was the delightful animated retelling where Hermione tells the story of The Three Brothers which of course leads to the revelations of The Deathly Hallows itself. When the film decided to kick into gear occasionally, there was a deep emotional core to the tale, a coming-of-age story where Potter and his friends are no longer mischievous school children, but turning into real wizards and witches. Plus I love my dark and brooding features, though perhaps The Deathly Hallows was guilty of accentuating this aspect at the expense of the magical, fantastical qualities which makes Harry Potter so appealing to mass audiences in the first place.

When I reviewed The Half-Blood Prince last year I had questioned why Warner Bros decided to stick with director David Yates when more stylish directors could have brought something truly magical to the tale. Though Yates does a perfectly competent job, there is times where I often wondered if he played it too safe (bar the bit where Ron destroys the Horcrux which needs to be seen to be believed, for all the wrong reasons, trust me). I will often look back with regret for what might have been if Guillermo del Toro had taken on the project after initially expressing interest.

Final Thoughts
Time will tell if Warner Bros, somewhat, controversial decision to split the final Harry Potter book into two films will result in the most authentic adaptation, of the series, ever seen on the big screen, or simply just another soulless Hollywood moneymaking ploy. Until Part II makes its way come July 2011, all audiences are left with is an incomplete story. Half a film. A prelude to... greatness? I wait with bated breath.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I is in cinemas November 19th 2010.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Skyline - Review

You always have to approach a film with great trepidation, when you find out the directors' - Greg and Colin Strause - only previous film was Alien Vs Predator 2. With three years to hone their film-making skills and learn from their mistakes, one can only hope their follow-up, Skyline, would fare much better. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

After a night of shallow partying in a Los Angeles penthouse, a group of friends wake up in the middle of the night to find the human race being sucked up to the heavens by a strange blue light. While trying to survive the strange and rather grotesque symbiotic aliens, the central character - played by Eric Balfour - who had been exposed to the light previously, starts to undergo a rather misleading transformation.

Oh, where to start? Yes this film was bad. So bad I think Michael "f''n" Bay probably could have done a better job. Which is a shame because on paper it could have been a lot of fun in a similar vein to the brilliant 90s smash hit, Independence Day. Skyline faltered mainly from being a confused and soulless tale, once again the Strause brothers emphasised their lack of film-making talent in comparison to their impressive special effects artistry.

If the film's entire plot had been condense into about 45 minutes, it would have been an intriguing first act to a ballsy alien vs mankind galactic war. Unfortunately once the film starts to gain a bit of steam it just ends inexplicably, with little or no explanation to the alien's origins, their weakness or if there is any genuine hope for the human race.

This isn't helped by the faceless cast on hand who, with the exception of Turk from Scrubs (Donald Faison), are probably doomed for a career making 'Straight-to-DVD' features in the years to come. Akin to a wealth of 80s and 90s horror films, they were mostly young, good-looking and met rather distasteful ends. I always stress I'm never looking for breathtaking Oscar winning performances from these kind of affairs, but at least put some effort into it.

The shining light from Skyline (no pun intended I assure you) and the only thing keeping it from being condemned to the bargain bin at Tesco (even then I don't fancy its chances) is the rather impressive and well imagined, enigmatic, alien creatures. However, similar to the Strause brothers début effort, they take the horrific violence to, frankly, needless levels, coming across more as an extra terrestrial survival horror, which is fine, but fails to create the atmospherics which made the likes of Ridley Scott's Alien or Paul WS Anderson's Event Horizon so undeniably chilling.

Final Thoughts
Well it wasn't quite on the sh*t scale of Battlefield Earth but with a lesser budget it might well have been. Yet again Colin and Greg Strause demonstrate their directorial shortcomings with some less than average storytelling which fails to match their ambitious, albeit, fanboy special effects. Do us all a favour chaps, stick to what you're good at and leave the directorial duties to more capable souls.


See This If You Liked...
No, just don't see this at all!

Skyline is in cinemas everywhere now

Friday, 5 November 2010

Let Me In - Review

One often wonders with creating countless brilliant horror films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street and even as recently as Paranormal Activity, a lot of American studios still insist on remaking all the other brilliant horror films from around the globe. The latest film to join this long list of remakes, including the likes of The Ring, The Grudge and A Tale of Two Sisters is Let Me In, based on the modern Swedish classic - and my one of my favourites of 2009, second only to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon - Let The Right One In, from Cloverfield director, Matt Reeves.

Save for a few subtle differences in narrative, the plot of Let Me In stays relatively close to Tomas Alfredson's original. For those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing the Swedish version, Let Me In tells the beautiful yet unnerving story of a socially inept 12 year old boy (Kodi Smit-Ree) as he strikes up a lovingly innocent friendship with his mysterious new neighbour (Chloe Mortez) who holds a dark secret. You only need to watch the trailer, see the poster and whatnot to guess this mysterious new friend just happens to be a vampire.

Being such a huge fan of the original, I was terribly reluctant to say anything remotely nice about Let Me In, forever questioning the necessity of the entire production since it was announced. However, at the very least, Matt Reeves must be praised for getting the casting of his young leads completely spot on. Back in March I championed the natural comedic talent of Chloe Mortez when I reviewed Kick Ass, but her portrayal of young Abbey is where her true acting credentials were evident. She came across as quite a pure and gentle soul as well as being forever knowing and wry beyond her seemingly physical years, at times looking much more emotionally vulnerable than her Swedish counterpart.

Kodi Smit-Ree was similarly not quite as confident and outspoken as Kare Hendebrant's portrayal in the original, however it made for compelling viewing nevertheless. Also unlike Hendebrant, you got the impression Ree's character wanted, more than anything, to fit in and do all the cool things kids just coming into their teens want to do. Starting to become attracted to girls, wanting to hang out with friends and quite innocently play fun and senseless games. The sad truth however being he was singled out by three bullies forever determined to make his life miserable, something which is very real and very relatable to a lot of children of that age.

What Let Me In also did very well was bringing over the cultural differences from the Swedish original to this American remake. Not to imply the people of Sweden are godless sort, but continuously evident in Let Me In was this deep god-fearing backdrop of middle America, especially in the odd reinvention of the boy's mother. It was these subtle observations which started to give the film an identity of its own.

Where the film kind of missed the point for me was in the tone of the tale during the more horrific moments. Whereas the original had very atmospheric scenes involving the children while the grizzly violence was few and far between, with Let Me In, in typical American fashion, the gore and horror factor was turned up tenfold. What I found particularly bothersome was this demonic possession they insisted on giving Abbey anytime she donned her vampiric form, coming across more like the girl from The Exorcist with her contorted body movements and slightly overdubbed voice.

I'm rarely kind in my judgement of horror films, I find - save for a quality few - the majority are plotless dribble with less than competent actors scattered around a cinema screen while the audience waits patiently for them to die in completely inexplicable ways. With Let Me In however the actors truly excelled themselves and it was clear Reeves wanted to make a film with a good story first and foremost before making a blood-sucking extravaganza - yet that still didn't stop him also creating the latter.

Final Thoughts
Let Me In is a worthy and, even at times, enjoyable adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel and competent companion to Tomas Alfredson's original film. It even contains two brilliant performances from the young leads, Mortez and Ree. Shamefully though it is often guilty for over-stylising a film I consider to be practically perfect and quite beautifully balanced - often bowing to horror clichés seen in countless films past. All cynicism aside though, if you haven't seen the original I would recommend this for being one of the few remakes to contain a degree of substance. For me however, it can come in, but unfortunately it's just not the right one...


See This If You Liked...
Let The Right One In, Twilight, Dracula

Let Me In is in cinemas everywhere now.