Thursday, 31 March 2011

You'll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger - Review


Why does Woody Allen keep doing this to me? If you asked me to list my top 20 films of all time, after much deliberation either Annie Hall, Manhattan, Sleeper or even all three could, justifiably, end up on the list. The man as an actor, writer and director will always have a place in my heart, but over the last decade it's like watching one of your favourite bands continuously release a new album every single year and wincing and cringing of how bad it progressively gets after an okay start.

Though his latest film, You'll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger doesn't quite match the heights of mediocrity we saw in last year's Whatever Works it does see the revered film-maker suffer the same pitfalls of his past works in recent times.

Once again Woody Allen takes his cinematic world tour outside of his comfort-zone, New York to London where he tells the tale of a miserable, overtly middle-class family along with the connecting relationships to the loved ones in their lives. In one corner there's Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) who grows tired of his complacent life with his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), regressing into a bizarre mid-life (or should that be later life?) crisis, leaving her for a much younger woman, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). This results in Helena losing it a bit, consulting a fortune teller for existential questions regarding everyone she knows.

All the while there's Alfie and Helena's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) who is fed up of her stalemate marriage with struggling author, Roy (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to come to terms with being a failed writer. Roy and Sally's eyes start to wonder also towards an alluring neighbour (Freida Pinto) and Sally's boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas) as their marriage starts to also fall apart. Keeping up so far?

One of my main problems with Allen's films set outside of New York is, he tends to overly romanticise the locations he's shooting in. He did it with Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, he did it with Match Point and he's doing it yet again with this. Even for Josh Brolin's character, the whole struggling writer angle - haunting premonition though it was - wasn't entirely relatable. Even during his lowest moments of the film, there was never any real hint of desperation or true financial strain on his part.

It was all very merry and stereotypically British as oppose to being actually British, especially in these harsher economic times. In this instance Allen is failing to understand his characters and the locations he places them in. Attractive looking though it may all be.

Personally though I thought performances were fairly spot on and even quite enjoyable, even if the script they were working from was completely haphazard at times. I did get the impression, Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas' characters were underused never getting the chance to truly explore their personal conflicts.

On a technical level, the style was very much Allen's especially with the trademark opening and closing credits - which contained a delightful rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star - but unfortunately it lacked any real merit of actual comedy. Yes I know, even his best films, arguably, aren't "ha ha" funny, more an ironic kind of funny, but there wasn't even enough stock in the eccentric characters on display to truly care whether they stayed miserable in one marriage or the next. It was almost like watching Woody Allen trying to satire Mike Leigh and failing quite badly at it.

Final Thoughts
Yet again Woody Allen's complacency comes into question with another phoned in display. While You'll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is quirky enough, it fails to strike a balance of being an engaging dissection of modern relationships as well as simply being an enjoyable comedy. He better hope Midnight in Paris is an absolute classic otherwise I'm calling time on his career. Really, I mean it this time.

2.5/5

You'll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is in selected cinemas throughout the UK now. Alternatively American visitors can just purchase it on DVD and Blu-ray.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Route Irish - Review


Does it say much for a film's integrity if it largely by-passes cinemas and goes almost exclusively to Sky Movies for distribution? I'm not here to answer such a question today, I'm just here to review said film. Despite such a prestigious name, Ken Loach is someone I wouldn't ever claim to be an expert on outside of doing a film with Eric Cantona in the slightly light hearted working class drama, Looking for Eric and his beautifully filmed and, the quite tragic, story surrounding the early days of the Irish Republican Army in The Wind That Shakes The Barley - yes I apologise to my fellow film buffs, I've yet to watch his most infamous piece, Kes.

His latest film, Route Irish tells the story of former Iraq war veteran/hired security muscle, Fergus (Mark Womack) as he soughs to discover the truth to the death of his best friend Frankie (John Bishop...yes that's right the comedian) who seemingly died through an incident of terrible circumstance. As the story unravels, unsurprisingly, all is not what it seems as Fergus stumbles into a corporate conspiracy which leads to the greyish protagonist going on a bitter quest for vengeance.

Aside from the standard amount of grit such affairs contain these days, Route Irish isn't really something that we haven't seen before. It felt more like a high budget TV drama similar in many ways to the 2009 BBC drama, Occupation, starring James Nesbitt, than a smart and challenging piece of independent cinema. Nevertheless, I did enjoy Mark Womack's haunting leading performance, he painted quite a lonely, desperate figure from the opening moments of the film right through to its painful conclusion.

While John Bishop's presence looms over the story beautifully through a series of flashbacks and archive videos and surprisingly in those moments there's even a hint of a serious, perfectly creditable, actor. Far removed from the comical antics seen in a platter of panel shows in the past couple of years. Andrea Lowe meanwhile was quite a disorientating soul in the role of Bishop's widow, Rachel.

Generally though the film lacked a decent amount of pace to be a truly engaging experience. During the first hour I found myself largely confused and if I'm being brutally honest, quite bored. Just felt it was taking nearly two hours to tell a story which could have been told in half of that.

If you're going to make a genuinely brilliant conspiracy thriller at least keep the audience guessing until the final moments and climax with a terrific twist. With Route Irish however you could generally guess the outcome and within the first 20 minutes even hazard a good guess to the identity of the real guilty parties involved.

Final Thoughts
The intensely driven performances aside, Route Irish is a generally cumbersome and, at times, regrettably, a distinctly average piece of film-making from one of Britain's true heroes of independent cinema. Not terrible by any means, but overall it lacks the imagination and bravery shown by Loach in his previous two films. You can do better Ken, you must do better.

3/5

Route Irish is showing in selected cinemas throughout the UK now. Alternatively satellite owners can access it on through the movies section of Sky Box Office.

Friday, 18 March 2011

His & Hers - Review


I could never quite tell, from its opening moments, whether His & Hers was a film trying to be a documentary, or alternatively a documentary trying to be a film. Nevertheless it turned out to be a refreshing and delightfully sincere prospect. Irish born director, Ken Wardrop charts the lives of a selection of different women from all age groups, documenting their relationships towards the males in their lives, progressing attitudes towards life and the trials and tribulations which come with both.

Some might argue you have to be Irish to really get the knowingness of the whole affair, but a lot of what the director is trying to get across should hit home with all audiences. From the earliest moment of the film, seeing this bouncing baby laughing uncontrollably, without a care in the world, to the final moments of an old married couple minding their own business, there's forever a warm air of familiarity to the whole thing.

What Wardrop does beautifully is the subtle examination of these women's attitudes towards the evolving relationships they have with men through their lives. It all begins with a playful devotion to their daddys and slight frustration towards their brothers. As they get into adolescence and idle curiosity gets the better of them, a game of cat and mouse ensues with boys of a similar age evolving into long term relationships. From here a dynamic with a husbandly figure is created and the life long and unrivalled love for their children grows and changes as the years go by. The whole film is done in such a way that keeps you interested during its entire duration.

Technically it was a tidy, visually sweet little film. I loved the whole voyeuristic nature of the scenes away from the interviews, very much in keeping with the nature of its genre, the best part however was in this beautiful, vibrant, musical theme by Denis Clohessy played throughout the transitions. Though this sounds like damning with faint praise, the director timed the length of the film perfectly, as any longer it may have started to bore the audience a bit.

That's not to say it was the best film I've ever seen, because it simply wasn't. Though heart-warming and had the ability to raise a smile once or thrice, it was a little too sporadic at times and never gave you a chance to feel for the people towards the end of the film when the harsher truths start to surface.

Final Thoughts
His & Hers is an affectionately sweet documentary, charting the lives of women and the relationships they acquire over the course of a multitude of years. It'll warm your heart and hit home on many occasions, even if at times it's slightly too ambiguous and erratic in its interviews, for its own good. A very natural, very honest and very knowing example of Irish film-making. More please.

3.5/5

His and Hers is showing in selected cinemas throughout the UK now.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Submarine - Review


There has been much hype and even more hope put into Richard Ayoade's d├ębut in the director's seat. Already one of the most likeable comedy actors working in Britain, with much loved turns in the brilliant IT Crowd and featuring brilliant cameos in The Mighty Boosh plus its unofficial companion film, 2009's, mind-boggling cooky, Bunny and the Bull.

Upon hearing he was making Submarine - adapted from Joe Dunthrone's novel of the same name - I was actually expecting a film in the similar kind of vein to the aforementioned projects, but what we actually got was so much more meaningful. The film tells the quirky but extremely sincere tale of troubled teenager, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) who is perhaps far too self-aware of pretty much everything around him from his social status, his parents' sex life, his own attractions to the opposite sex and overly stressing about the 'ninjas' living next door.

Visually it was just an absolute joy to behold on screen, likely to draw comparisons to Wes Anderson's best work with its warm, colourful, folky, geek chic imagery on top of a mundane Welsh coastal town. What Ayoade does brilliantly with the 80s setting is not letting himself get too bogged down on the cliches of the era that a lot of this generation of comedians tend to do in their acts and general televised works.

However, the film's main draw is the fantastically neurotic performance of Craig Roberts. It's strange to put Roberts contribution into words, I could lazily say he's just a young 'British Woody Allen' circa Manhattan/Annie Hall but in reality he's probably not quite as off the wall as that or even as mentally disturbed. Heaven forbid, he's essentially just an awkward teenager with an overly active imagination and tendencies towards over-thinking a simplistic situation - qualities that hit home more than once, with the best of us.

Similarly Yasmin Paige as the erratic, attention seeking love interest, Jordana proved perfect folly to Roberts' eccentric tendencies, but was quite heart-warming to see how she was, once the barriers were broken down to reveal a more tender, emotional side. Their chemistry was perfectly natural while their witty exchanges were beautifully poised by Ayoade's great screenplay.

Special praise must also go to the supporting performances from the more seasoned presences of independent cinema, such as the beautiful, Sally Hawkins as Oliver's tightly wound, emotionally suppressed mother. Or Wes Anderson stalwart, Noah Taylor as the boy's father. Then of course the excellent bit part role contributed by Paddy Considine as this bizarre psychic, motivational speak, come near-adulterer, whose comic timing is such an under-rated aspect of his acting, when compared to his most famous role in Dead Man's Shoes.

Unfortunately the film does lose a bit of its eccentric, upbeat, edge during the more solemn and reflective final act. And the overly indie sounds of The Arctic Monkeys' frontman Alex Turner do get a bit bland at times, nevertheless it never truly spoil the beautiful, heart-warming visualisations, Richard Ayoade gave the audience on the cinema screen.

Final Thoughts
Some casual viewers will find it just delightfully quirky, some might even find it just plain strange and that's perfectly fine. Everyone else will see a beautifully crafted and outrageously funny film about the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Craig Roberts is a comedy revelation, and I sincerely hope he goes from strength to strength off the back of this breakthrough performance. This could well be in my top 10 list by the end of the year.

4.5/5

Submarine is in selected cinemas from March 18th 2011. Belfast audiences, it will be showing in the Queen's Film Theatre and don't dare miss it!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles - Review


Why do I let myself be sucked in every time?! The clever viral ads, the effects ladened explosions, the utterly insane spaceships, the heroic fightback. I crave it in at least one new film on a yearly basis. Yet in recent years be it War of the Worlds, Transformers 2, The Day The Earth Stood Still and the utterly detestable Skyline - officially my worst film of 2010 - I've always found myself feeling somewhat bitter, disappointed, empty and generally unfulfilled, upon leaving the cinema. The latest in this sub-genre of extraterrestrial invasion films comes the brashly titled, Battle: Los Angeles.

Firstly the good news, the film is thankfully not as bad as that grotesque waste of money, Skyline a few months ago - not even close - despite using the same special effects company. The bad news unfortunately is that the film stops just short of the cast screaming: "AMERICA, F*CK YEAH!" every 10 minutes. The story has the complexity worthy of the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up with as a child. Starring Aaron Eckhart as an US army war hero just returned from Iraq, sent into the front line of the urban jungle of LA to stop an impending invasion from an unknown force. Over the course of the film he succeeds in figuring out what no other member of the entire US Armed Forces could, in gaining the knowledge to bring down this seemingly unstoppable enemy.

In fairness to Eckhart he's just likeable enough to get away with the role - if not completely remarkable. Same could even be said for his co-stars, I just don't believe the director, Jonathan Liebesman was able to strike a balance between a ballsy, relentless, no fuss action movie and a truly engaging story. At least Independence Day had Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Will Smith to carry its obscenity.

Where the film really bothered me however was in these tortuously cheesy moments taken straight from the Michael Bay School of Preposterous Film-Making. You know the types of scenes I'm talking about, as they've been featured countless times in the past two Transformers movies: the sunset backdrop, slow-motion climaxes, caught up in the moment speeches and the overly emotional orchestral music. Unfortunately, Battle: LA didn't have the benefit of giant robots kicking the sh*t out of each other.

On top of this, the special effects were a little hit and miss. You seriously have to question why a film with the budget of 70 million can fail to hits the amazing heights of 2009's genuinely incredible District 9 which was produced on a tenth of that.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, and even a moan like myself can concede there's a time and place for these kind of films, but I could name countless alternatives which are simply more enjoyable, be it Independence Day, the first Transformers film, last year's sleeper hit Unstoppable and the impressive ensemble featured in Black Hawk Down. Have we told everything there is to tell with these types of stories?

Final Thoughts
Battle: Los Angeles is War of the Worlds for the uber hyper, Call of Duty obsessed generation. Though I commend the director for his grand, virtuoso, vision and some truly chilling shots of a battered and beaten city, the film was yet another entry into big blockbusters which are frankly an insult to the intelligence of general film audiences. Well, at least it wasn't in 3D...

2.5/5

Battle: Los Angeles is in cinemas everywhere now.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Howl - Review




Rob Espstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film Howl doesn't play out like your typical biopic, with a systematic chain of events through a person's life. The film tells the tale of legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) and the controversy surrounding his most famous work, Howl upon its original publication in 1956 - documenting the ridiculous trial that went with it a year later.

The film seems to appear more as a satirical courtroom drama - testing the boundaries of free speech and copyright - which also includes a series of flashbacks to the man's life leading up to the moment. Similar to last year's excellent biopic about Serge Gainsbourg, it also has these trippy animated sequences which neither diminish the slick film-making in the live portions of the film, or, regrettably, enhance the enjoyment of the film. Just to disorientate the audience further the film skips between vivid colourful shots and crisp black and white. Personally it would've been far better had they stuck with the latter.

All the technical criticisms aside though, James Franco was excellent - should we even be surprised anymore? - in the role of Ginsberg. Suave, curious, wide-eyed yet also slightly naive and vulnerable to the world around him. Due to the film being more about the poem rather than the man, it's a shame we don't get to explore his inner psyche further, unlike his Oscar nominated turn in January's uplifting, soul searching journey in 127 Hours.

Similarly the amount of insanely talented supporting actors featured in Howl are at times either underused or their characters are underdeveloped - including Jeff Daniels and Mary Louise Parker. Jon Hamm once again channels his inner Don Draper in the role of slick, defence lawyer to the stars, Jake Ehrlich but unfortunately for the Mad Men actor he ever gets to stretch himself in the same ways audiences have seen him on the hit TV show he stars in. The same could also be said about the brilliant David Strathairn who plays opposite Hamm as the prosecution on the trial.

The animated portions of the film tried to do so much on such a minimal budget, containing vast amounts of drug fuelled psychedelic sequences and explicit imagery, the ending result almost looked incomplete at times, which is a genuine shame. I did however love the 1950s Madison Avenue sequence near the beginning which was just glorious and as if lifted straight from the illustrated works of Dyna Moe - who any Mad Men fanboy/girls will undoubtedly be aware of.

The best thing about Howl however is the message it's trying to communicate to its audience. This isn't about how many cool actors you could cram into one picture, nor is it about how hip you can make the production of your film look - combining colour, black and white and bizarre animated sequences all into one. Howl documents the birth of a counter-culture which has had a vast influence on the wider pop culture in the decades since, it's about freedom of speech, leaving your inhibitions at the door and experiencing life to the fullest. And only then can documenting its trial and its hugely significant result be put into context and why a film should be made about it. It also makes you appreciate the more reflective, sombre tones of Carter Burwell's exquisite score - though it could have used a little more jazz.

Final Thoughts
The brilliant performances of James Franco, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn are overshadowed by a visually messy presentation from directors, Rob Espstein and Jeffrey Friedman. However, as a friend of mine rightly said upon leaving the cinema, "If you're going to watch a messy film, you'll find few which will be as visually stunning as that". Like all great works of poetry, it's always a matter of perspective, and perhaps over time Howl might age as gracefully as the written work which inspired it.

3/5

Howl is showing in selected cinemas throughout the UK now. Belfast audiences can see it in the Queen's Film Theatre now.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau - Review


Philip K Dick adaptations have been enticing prospects in Hollywood since Ridley Scott gave the world the mighty, glorious, near untouchable Blade Runner back in 1982. Since then we have seen Arnie get his ass to Mars in Total Recall, Keanu Reeves plunge himself into the rotoscoping world of A Scanner Darkly and watched Tom Cruise defy fate in the (in my humble opinion) highly under-rated Minority Report. The latest in this sub-genre of sci-fi films is The Adjustment Bureau - based on the 1954 short story by Dick called, Adjustment Team.

Interestingly the film itself doesn't really owe a lot to the original source material. Set in present day, the film tells the tale of rising New York politician David Norris (Matt Damon) as he falls for a beautiful stranger (Emily Blunt) after a chance encounter. A few months down the line it happens again but seemingly this "chance" wasn't suppose to happen, thus step in The Adjustment Bureau - a collection of mysterious, undeniably well-dressed men with psychic powers - to set him on his destined path.

As with past Dick adaptations, The Adjustment Bureau's themes push heavily on ponderous theories such as fate, destiny and wonders if we even have any control over it. Unlike past adaptations it does it with significantly less "sci-fi" imagery, relying on more spiritual answers for the company's existence, playfully hinting they might be angels and the like. Unfortunately because of this, the film loses a lot of the dark undertones often associated with the writer's work. It does however, result in one of the acclaimed author's more accessible entries into cinema.

The performances were largely pretty solid if unremarkable, Matt Damon lead the line well, and his chemistry felt natural with the beautiful Emily Blunt. I rather enjoyed John Slattery channelling his inner Roger Sterling from TV's Mad Men for the role as one of the Bureau's G-Men, while the moody melancholic, watchful guardian for Damon's character played by an impressive, Anthony Mackie was perhaps the stand-out performance of the whole feature. Special mention must also go to the delightfully sinister Terence Stamp, as the closest thing to a villain in the movie.

First time director, long time screenwriter George Nolfi does a good job of making a tense inventive love story - riddled in Kubrickian and Hitchcockian nods here and there - but it comes to no surprise to find it fails to match the efforts of past directors working with Dick's work. The problem with adapting his works is that it's virtually impossible and box-office suicide to make a straight take on most of his films, because for the large part it'll alienate mainstream audiences and become muddled in its own convoluted theories, so the best a director can hope is make a bloody fantastic film based on the material - Total Recall anyone? The Adjustment Bureau unfortunately falls just short of that.

Final Thoughts
All the right ingredients are on show to make The Adjustment Bureau yet another successful entry into the growing number of Philip K Dick adaptations we've been treated to the big screen over the years. Though at times provocative, its biggest crime is probably not being provocative or challenging enough given the enormity of the themes presented. A touch more grit, desperation and grimly overtones could've lifted it from a glorified romantic comedy in parts. Solid Saturday night fluff, but there's still "adjustments" needed... Yep that's right, I went there.

3/5

The Adjustment Bureau is now showing in most cinemas now.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

All-Star Superman - DVD Review


While Zack Snyder's upcoming reboot starts to gain some steam, it's that time of the year again to see what the animated Superman still has to offer audiences. I've often spoken of my love for DC's highly impressive animated films over the past couple of years, even if they mainly rely on The Man of Steel and The Dark Knight to boost their sales figures. As the flashy title suggests, All-Star Superman is of course no different. Based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, by the brilliant Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, the film tells the tale of Superman's final days on earth, in a collection of self contained cataclysmal events within an overriding story arc.

The film features most of the major characters from the Superman universe, including the Man of Steel himself, his nemesis Lex Luthor, soul-mate Lois Lane, the staff at The Daily Planet, Ma Kent etc. No Batman though. Shame. The story itself is quite gripping and even if, like past DC animated projects, you'd need to be a devoted comic book geek to really understand the more subtle references to past events, and the cameos from more obscure characters, which even had an avid fan such as I scampering towards Wikipedia to read their bios.

What the production team do extremely well however, is transfer the maturity of Morrison's source material over to an animated setting. Almost like the last animated film, Batman/Superman: Apocalypse it seems to borrow more elements from Japanese anime rather than the more kiddy friendly - but still fantastic nonetheless - Bruce Timm era, Justice League cartoons from the past 20 years. The animation itself was excellent mixing elements of CGI with traditional 2D seamlessly.

The story also deals with some pretty heavy concepts, none more so heavy than the concept of death, the after-life and what you would do with what little time you have left. It also explores the true extent of Superman's powers outside of the usual super strength, heat vision and impenetrable skin he's mostly known for - also his characteristics as essentially a god among men and the complexities such circumstances bring, even coming across more alien and arrogant than in past portrayals. Some of it comes off beautifully, especially the chemistry between Superman and Lex Luthor. One of the best scenes actually was an interview conducted by Kent with Luthor, and Luthor admitting he always kind of admired the man despite how cumbersome he is at times. Had a real Christopher Reeve era Clark Kent vibe about it.

The voice acting, as with past DC Animated projects, was of the highest standard. James Denton was a terrific Superman/Clark Kent, managing to balance the heroism of The Man of Steel's commanding awe-inspiring presence with the comical, clumsy buffoonery of Kent. Christina Hendricks lent her sassy, no nonsense nature, seen countless times on TV's excellent Mad Men, extremely well to the role of Lois Lane. While Anthony LaPaglia seems like an unusual choice for the role of Luthor, he's actually quite brilliant. Like Denton who seemingly borrowed a lot from Reeve's classic take on The Man of Steel, LaPaglia seems to channel a lot of Gene Hackman's portrayal of the villain from the original live action films, to great effect.

There is also some notable mentions in the supporting cast, none more so than the near institutional Michael Gough (famous for his role of Alfred Pennyworth in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films) as the sentient being Parasite, the brilliant Edward Asner returning as Perry White, editor of The Daily Planet and ER's Linda Cardellini as Luthor's estranged niece, Nasthalthia "Nasty" Luthor.

Final Thoughts
As always with these films I do stress a lot of the finer details might be lost on casual fans, or the heavier more philosophical themes might be lost on the younger audiences. However for the first time, possibly ever, All-Star Superman achieves something remarkable, an intelligent, totally engrossing Superman film. It cleverly delves into his god-like powers, his responsibly to the earth, his relationship with Lex Luthor and Lois Lane as well as boy scout like flaws and the acceptance of his impending doom. Should satisfy fans until Christmas 2012.

4/5

All-Star Superman is available on DVD/Blu-Ray in most good outlets now.