Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Morality Bites! Do directors have a moral responsibility to its audience?

Been a while since I've done a post on the blog that isn't simply a film review, but when Ronan Wright of the brilliant Filmplicity gives you a bell and asks to participate in the big question of the week, you damn sure take notice. So, in my own opinion, do film makers have a moral responsibility to its audience? Not one bit...

Something I've stressed when reviewing the odd horror movie is I feel we live in a time where very little really shocks a viewer anymore, the days of something like A Clockwork Orange getting banned are simply non-existent. Films which are getting hard 12A ratings may have easily received a 15 about 20 years ago. Tim Burton's Batman sits on my DVD shelf with a 15 rating, yet Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight sits there with a 12. Why? Because seeing Batman take on The Joker does little to shock people, it's a blockbuster extravaganza. However, I digress...

Like any artist, musician, author or, indeed film director there should always be this constant need deep down beneath the surface to challenge its audiences' perception, to broaden their mind to the bigger world out there. Obviously it all sounds quite idealistic, and I'm sure publishers, film studios, record labels and art dealers might have something to say about all this, but I don't think the creative community has ever been better placed in the past few decades, in an age where digital distribution is so readily available and accessible, to do such a thing.

Objectively one could rightly argue modern mainstream audiences simply don't want to be challenged, they know what they like, and if seeing The Hangover 1.5 is your cup of tea, there's nothing wrong with that. Films like books, TV, music and art should also be there as a source of pure enjoyment and entertainment. I personally wouldn't go making people see Lars Von Trier's Antichrist just because it's different from nearly everything else they're likely to find in the cinema. So is The Human Centipede but even I ain't touching that tripe.

Thankfully though with the likes of Black Swan and Inception - both gaining coveted full marks from this blog I may add - starting to appear in the multiplexes film studios are starting to take a chance on slightly more left-field projects, and all the better for it I say.

I don't actually know where I'm properly going with this piece, but in a time where violence, sex, drugs, horror are all common place on TV as well as on the big screen, no I don't think film makers have a moral obligation to the audience. The audience are never forced to watch any film in the cinema, it's their right to choose what they subject themselves too, however if you're a parent it is your moral obligation to filter what your child should see at the appropriate time. Bare in mind my dad had no issue letting me watch Aliens when I was 11 years old, yes I concede I had nightmares for a week or two after that experience, but hey even Labyrinth and Ghostbusters 2 freaked me out when I was a kid and they were both rated PG.

Though directors have no moral obligation to their audiences, they do have an obligation to entertain, to provoke, to inspire the audiences' imagination. That's the true power of cinema for me. Moments where you sit in front of the big screen and witness scenes which will stay with you for the rest of your life. That moment where you believe a man can fly in Superman, that moment where you see the first dinosaur in Jurassic Park, that moment when those opening credits of Star Wars kick into life, that moment where The Joker is revealed in The Dark Knight, that moment where a Beauty and a Beast dance in a majestic ballroom.

Film makers don't owe it to you to ever play it safe with the content of their films, but they do owe it to themselves and to you to test their talents to the limits and present timeless moments which will stay with you for life - for better or worse.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Two years ago, roughly to the day, I sat here writing the review to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. After much denial and sobering up I concluded it was a total mess of a film bereft of any coherent plot or an even more coherent visual narrative. Now after watching the third instalment in Michael Bay's surprisingly controversial trilogy, I find myself in a familiar predicament, torn between the self ordained film critic in me and the geeky fanboy who can recite every single line of the original animated Transformers film from 1986. Suffice to say I'm conflicted...

The story yet again follows the saga of young Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) as he and his Autobot friends, led by the iconic Optimus Prime must stop the evil Megatron from taking over our planet and enslaving the human race to rebuild the Transformers' home world, Cybertron. Despite the fact that basic plot line would be enough for any cinema goer to go see a Transformers film, Mr Bay and his writers decide to fill the gaps of robot carnage with silly sub-plots like Sam's first job post-university (good luck there, pal), his relationship with new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, replacing the departed Megan Fox) oh and a new moon conspiracy and yet more government cover-ups the U.S. government seemingly failed to tell the Autobots in the previous two films.

To his credit, and perhaps he's just caught me on a good day, Mr LeBeouf actually came off rather well this time round, mimicking the sincerity his character had in the original Transformers film, and thankfully gone of some of the sheer idiotic moments found in the disastrous sequel. He moved the film along and realised he shouldn't try to upstage his CGI peers. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley on the other hand, though pretty to look at, was abysmal and shouldn't have been anywhere near a film of this scale and box-office clout.

Quite rightly one shouldn't be expecting her to win any Oscars due to her limited experience and the purpose of her being there at all, but really she makes her predecessor look like she's capable of starring in Jane Austin adaptations. One thing I really want explained is how Sam Witwickey manages to get together with these amazingly beautiful women, cause that dorky charm can only get him so far surely.

One utterly bizarre point that should be made about a portion of the support cast, is that for around 20 minutes of the film with Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and the returning John Turturro present, it felt as though I was watching Transformers directed by the Coen Brothers - if Steven Spielberg is reading this, that's surely an option for the next one. Thankfully their slapstick humour and dialogue which went along with their presence mostly worked and didn't hinder the film's attempt to be properly darker this time round.

However, as with the last two films, they probably could've cast Jedward in a couple of roles and it wouldn't of mattered a damn - total lie - as the human cast was as ever upstaged by the sheer magnificence of the Transformers themselves. For the first time in three films it felt like Optimus Prime was the true hero of the film, and delivered some awe-inspiring, albeit extremely cheesy, lines as well as really giving everything in the fantastically choreographed fight scenes. Bumblebee was as likeable as ever, Megatron had more screentime and demonic purpose as should have had since the films began, Starscream finally got his scene-stealing moment, Soundwave actually had a role. The newest addition, Sentinel Prime (voiced by the great Leonard Nimoy) was perfectly executed and his substantial role in the film isn't something I'm not going to spoil in this review.

Though the film was yet again needlessly too long, Michael Bay's set pieces are some of the biggest and most impressive you'll probably see in a cinema this summer and quite possibly the best I've seen in 3D to date. Any fan of the franchise who wants nothing but robot carnage, I can promise you the whole final hour is essentially one colossal action scene where the city of Chicago gets levelled to kingdom come - where we see both robots and humans get killed on a level the Terminator franchise could have only ever wished for. Even more, unlike Revenge of the Fallen, Bay actually scales the camera back so you can actually properly see all the set pieces this time round and tell the difference between which robots are Autobots and Decepticons.

Whether you like him or loathe him, one thing we can all agree on is that Michael Bay's films are less than subtle. And so is his pro Americanism which could somewhat alienate a portion of his global audience for all the wrong reasons - oh I can't wait to hear what Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert say about this one. Quite why the Autobots: bringers of peace and justice, and self placed protectors of mankind, would only ally themselves with the American government and help do their dirty work in the Middle East certainly raises some hairy ethical questions. The devastation of skyscrapers in Chicago also feels at times like Bay's answer to the 9/11 film he never had a chance to make - yet. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it but it's certainly something to ponder once you see the film for yourself.

Final Thoughts
It could have been fantastic, it could have been the best action movie ever, it could have been the film my six year old self has been crying out for up until this very moment. Unfortunately due to most of the same (but not all!) pitfalls of Revenge of the Fallen - long running time, a needlessly convoluted plot, some terrible dialogue and the presence of people who can't and shouldn't act, that right minded critic in me feels the film is simply okay, at best. However, who doesn't want to at least experience the finale to the most critically dividing, controversial, offensive, loudest, most action packed and ambitious sci-fi trilogy to come out of Hollywood since the Star Wars prequels? Hmm, perhaps I just answered my own question there...


Transformers: Dark of the Moon is in cinemas everywhere now.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Green Lantern

Similar to Marvel's Thor, released a couple of months ago, DC's Green Lantern isn't exactly the easiest comic book property to adapt for the big screen. Having endured since 1940, the character is probably considered, in the shadow of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, to be the biggest alternative to DC's holy trinity. Having successfully rebooted James Bond back in 2006 with the excellent Casino Royale, it was Martin Campbell's task to bring the star trekking superhero to life for mainstream audiences. The results were unfortunately mixed at best.

The film tells the story of Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky fighter pilot who is chosen to represent Earth in a galactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. Through a chain of events he must confront the evil Parallax, a personification of fear in the galaxy, while convincing his Lantern peers he's worthy of the prestigious title bestow upon him and attempt to win the heart of lifelong sweetheart, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively).

All I could gather from Green Lantern was that the film seemed to be Warner Bros' attempt at replicating the successful, light-hearted, formula produced by Marvel when they first made Iron Man - action packed and riddled with ironic humour. Quite rightly they shouldn't go making another Dark Knight, as the character wouldn't descend into those realms of gritty darkness implored by the world of Christopher Nolan's Batman. However the balance and pacing of the whole film was completely off at times.

I applaud Campbell for attempting to bring in the grander sci-fi elements to life on the big screen, from the deep, spiralling mythos, the vast array of extraterrestrials in the Corp and Lantern's homeworld of Oa. However whether it was lack of vision, scale, ambition or perhaps simply budget, the production team never dared to go all the way and reveal the vastness of the universe to the audience. Each time we got a glimpse of Jordan experiencing something new and alien, the story was swept back to the dullness of Earth, in a blink of an eye, to the sluggish love story between Hal and Carol.

The incoherent plot and ham fisted dialogue aside, I felt Ryan Reynolds nailed the role as best he could. As Jordan, he was charming, cocky, humorous and occasionally showed a vulnerable, more human side Reynolds rarely unleashes in anything he has appeared in to date. Blake Lively was as elegant and classy as ever as his love interest, but perhaps too much was devoted to her character and their love story at the expense of more fanboy friendly fodder.

Fanboy fodder such as the excellent, and grossly underused, turns of Geoffrey Rush and Michael Duncan Clarke voicing Green Lanterns, Tomar-Re and Kilowog respectively. Likewise Mark Strong's Sinestro wasn't given enough screentime with Reynolds to spark any kind of emotional connection to set up the duo's deadly rivalry in the likely sequels to come. Peter Sargaard's villainous Hector Hammond was like most 'first movie evil-doers' - a means to an end, a catalyst to the more dangerous rouges to come down the line.

The special effects were spectacular for the most part, and I can even appreciate the logic of having Jordan's suit entirely constructed from CGI - apart from his mask, that just looked daft. However for a summer blockbuster it just never let itself bask in the chaos and global terror the action had so much promised in the trailers.

In fairness, the 3D aspect implored probably had more relevance in Green Lantern than I have seen in the likes of Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 in the months previously, but yet again it's done little to convince me the film would've been any worse had I caught it in 2D. Interestingly I thought James Newton Howard's score seemed to have more than a few nods and winks towards John Williams' jaw dropping, iconic, Superman score for inspiration but rarely hit the emotional heights of said score.

Final Thoughts
Green Lantern was a brave concept to adapt for the big screen, which fails to hit the mark. Though none of the cast disgraced themselves with their performances, they ultimately suffered on account of the horrendously paced and unbalanced script, which never knew if it wanted to be an action packed, intergalactic sci-fi or a coming of age love story. I know when watching a Green Lantern film which I would rather have...


Green Lantern is in cinemas everywhere from Friday.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Julia's Eyes (Los ojos de Julia)

Anyone who frequents the blog will undoubtedly notice my excursions into the horror genre are few and far between for various reasons. Be it their predictable lukewarm plots, be it their needless gore factor, be it I simply scare quite easily, it's just never been something I've been particularly interested in. However when Spanish genre genius, Gullermo del Toro goes out of his way to take on producing duties for little known director, Guillem Morales, I usually have to take a bit of notice. But does Julia's Eyes live up to the expectation its prestigious producer may hold?

The film tells the harrowing tale of Julia (Belen Rueda) as she soughs to discover the answers to her twin sister's mysterious suicide, all the while she's battling a degenerative disease which will eventually make her completely blind. The story itself is tense and atmospheric, for the most part, and unravels like a Hitchcock-esque psychological thriller, which in my view is hardly a bad thing. Once the aura of the supposed supernatural elements distinguishes, you're left with quite a gritty thriller, reminiscent of Kiss The Girls, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs - which meant it was surprisingly heavy on plot and less so on genuine scares, and frankly all the better for it.

One of the true highlights of the film was the leading performance of Belen Rueda - last seen in the truly excellent horror also produced by del Toro, The Orphanage - who was able to carry off a vast range of emotions absolutely seamlessly. Her chemistry with Lluis Homar in the more, surprisingly, tender moments of the film added real emotional depth to the grim overtones littered throughout the feature.

It was also evident Morales put a lot of thought into the personal conflicts the character had to deal with, from coping with the circumstances of her sister's death, the horror of being stalked by a man she could not see and also having to come to terms with her inevitable blindness on a reflective and personal level, which became more caustic as the film progressed.

One of my biggest criticisms of Julia's Eyes however, was ultimately how underwhelmed I felt once figuring out the mystery, itself - which after a few winks and nods shouldn't be too difficult for most of the audience to grasp - and the supernatural order simply fell away to something that reminded me of an episode of Waking The Dead. Nevertheless there was room for some genuinely creepy scenes, including an unsettling moment involving a number of blind women in a changing room as Julia listens in on their conversation, leading to a tense chase down some darken corridors and sparse rooms.

Final Thoughts
Though the twists are evident for most to see and the film is perhaps 15 minutes longer than it truly needed to be, Julia's Eyes is still a dark and atmospheric entry into the growing list of quality Spanish horror films to come into the mainstream over the past few years. It might not hit the visual heights of such classics as Pan's Labyrinth or The Orphanage but the director still conducts his production with enough heart to keep the audience interested and in suspense from the horrific beginning to its tender bitter-sweet end.


Julia's Eyes is in selected cinemas across the UK now.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

After the less than satisfying finale to the original X-Men trilogy and the loathsome Wolverine spin-off in 2009, director Matthew Vaughan - last seen lighting up cinema screens with last year's excellent Kick Ass - had his work cut out for him to reignite the faltering franchise. Instead of rebooting the series entirely, he has decided to go down the prequel route with the 60s period piece - a first for comic book films? - X-Men: First Class, based loosely on the original comics by Stan Lee in 1963 and the mini series of the same name published in 2006.

Unlike pretty much every X-Men film previously, this one leaves Hugh Jackman's charmless Wolverine behind and concentrates on the early years and friendship of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnserr (Michael Fassbender) before they gained their infamous titles of Professor X and Magneto respectfully.

Over the course of the story we see them assemble the earliest form of the X-Men with stalwarts such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havoc (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and go up against the devious Hellfire Club featuring Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng).

First Class certainly sets itself apart from the usual comic book films of recent times, no more so than in its beautifully poised 1960s setting. While being a brilliant, honestly good fun, superhero movie, it also manages to conjure memories of classic James Bond films from the Sean Connery and Roger Moore era. Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Magneto was very much his own and all the better for it, after having to step into a role made famous by the great Ian McKellen. He was a dark, tragic individual who I almost felt bad for hating by the film's closing moments. His chemistry with James McAvoy's Xavier was simply glorious, bringing up some of the more tender and philosophical moments of the film. Neither man could be argued for being right or wrong and if placed in their shoes, which side would you choose...

While X-Men films can be littered with too many characters to mention in one review, I'll say that the highlights were Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique who was giving probably a more care and attention in this film than she had in the previous trilogy - having a beautiful brother/sister relationship with Xavier, to a schoolgirl crush on Beast, to then being seduced by the ideals of Magneto. Matthew Vaughan also did a clever job of paying tribute to Rebecca Romijn who portrayed the character in the original films.

After having my reservations of his original casting, I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Hoult's Beast. As oppose to the gentle, sophisticated, creature seen in his later years of the X-Men comics, cartoon and third film, he was never a being comfortable in his own skin - or fur - even when in the presence of fellow mutants. His transformation into his more famous appearance managed to come off like the infamous transformation in An American Werewolf in London.

Other notable mentions include Kevin Bacon's return to form - and the mainstream - as the sinister Sebastian Shaw, who can take most of the credit for how Magento feels towards mankind, despite being a mutant himself. Rose Byrne did just enough to not be considered just another pretty face in the role of Moira McTaggart, though probably could've benefited from having a couple more scenes with McAvoy to make the love story grow a bit on screen. While I'm a huge fan of January Jones in her role of Betty Draper in TV's Mad Men, she didn't really do much as Emma Frost to convince me she can play any other character, but considering how Frost is in the comics, it would be unfair to say Jones didn't pull the character off well. Also look out for a certain cameo involving 'the man with the claws'. You can't miss it.

Matthew Vaughan should be praised for turning the franchise into something fun, exciting, light hearted and action packed - especially when looking back, the original films can look so beige in comparison. It was also quite brave, in a huge mainstream blockbuster, for the director to implore the use of subtitles for a large portion of the film's flashback scenes - including a tense opening in a Nazi concentration camp - and the moments set on foreign soil. It was a gamble that generally paid off and added much needed authenticity. Also the way the story managed to tie itself into the original trilogy's continuity was pulled off with much more panache and respect, than the disappointing Wolverine film from two years ago.

Final Thoughts
In a film which did everything in its power to put me off seeing it with the awful marketing strategy and half arsed posters, X-Men: First Class was a bold, fun, action summer blockbuster in the most traditional sense. It's not only reinvigorated an ageing film franchise, but with some fantastic performances and an exciting, immersing, plot, it's also managed to become the best film of the series to date. First class indeed...


X-Men: First Class is in cinemas everywhere now.