Thursday, 1 November 2012

Rust and Bone



It's been over two years since Jacques Audiard blew me away and near reduced me to tears with his stunning crime epic, A Prophet. Taking a slight detour away from the French underground, Audiard delivers an unlikely love story which results in one of the most powerful and emotional trips to the cinema you'll have this year.

Based on the short story collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone tells the tale of the elusive, down on his luck Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) as he moves in with his sister alongside his son Sam. All the while the film's narrative follows the trials and tribulations of Whale trainer, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after her life is changed forever after a horrible accident which results in her losing both her legs. As the two leads' paths collide the audience is subjected to a vast range of emotions from profound sadness, real-life horror, uplifting sweetness and light hearted humour.

Audiard's wonderful cinematography is made a lot easier by the power in the performances of his leads. Like Tahir Rahim gave one of the classiest leading performances in A Prophet before them, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts are simply majestic with their delivery and on-screen chemistry in Rust and Bone. This is made all the more tragic that they'll probably be typically and horrendously overlooked come award season with the Hollywood Foreign Press and The Academy.

Plaudits must also go to the director's handling of all the smaller subplots which resonated within the overall love story between Stephanie and Ali. Like his past films I've always enjoyed how accessible Audiard makes his films by the use of very mainstream music, most notably, with Rust and Bone, the opening and closing scenes being carried effortlessly by Bon Iver songs while (and please don't let this put you off seeing the film) Katy Perry's Firework is played prominently in two of the stand out scenes of the film featuring Cotillard, to rather amazing effect.

Final Thoughts
Rust and Bone is a film which teases mellow-drama, sadness and darkness but triumphs with goodness, warmth and above all, hope. Marion Cotillard delivers an astounding performance which frankly trumps her Oscar winning effort with Le Vie en rose and reminds the acting world of how badly she was wasted in her time working under Christopher Nolan. A multi-layered drama full which at times feel both tender and caustic in its approach but powerful and provocative in its result. You'd have to have a heart made of stone to not be moved by Rust and Bone*...

*couldn't resist

4.5/5

Rust and Bone is in selected cinemas everywhere now. Belfast audiences can see it in Queen's Film Theatre from Friday November 9th, 2012. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Skyfall


Marking 50 years since Sean Connery first graced the big screen with the utterly brilliant Dr No, paving the way for 22 other films in its path, sees Daniel Craig don the tux for the ambiguously titled (aren't they all?) Skyfall.  Though in an age where catching spies and fighting wars with nothing more than a drone plane equipped with a couple of bombs controlled from a tiny room is there still a place in cinema for the high speed car chases, daft gadgets, glitz, glamour and Vodka Martinis that only Agent 007 can deliver? Well if you ask me, let the sky fall the day it doesn't...

Daniel Craig's third (possibly last?) outing as James Bond sees 007 on the hunt for a stolen hard drive containing all the MI6 agents currently undercover in terrorist organisations around the globe. While he's jetting off all over the world on the hunt for the madman who organised all this (Javier Bardem) his boss M (Judi Dench) is under attacked politically for letting the whole affair get out of hand in the first place. On the surface it all sounds like a relatively straight forward 007 plot, minus the Cold War storylines of the Connery era and Fleming's original books. However beneath the surface Sam Mendes has crafted not only a genuinely great action thriller, but probably the first great piece of cinematic drama ever seen in a Bond film.

The most fascinating and provocative theme Skyfall constantly drums home is the question of after 50 years whether if there's any real relevance to the likes of 007 anymore. With the latter days of the Pierce Brosnan era and even with Skyfall's predecessor Quantum of Solace you'd be forgiven that the world has moved onto younger, faster models like Jason Bourne and perhaps 007 should be confined to the pantheon of great cinematic franchises. Yet watching Skyfall - clocking in at nearly two and a half hours long - I couldn't help but smile thinking after so many years we finally have a Bond film grounded so eloquently in the 21st Century. Much more so than Craig's turn in the fantastic Casino Royale.

In one of the more character driven performances of the franchise's history, Daniel Craig delivers a refreshing  take on an older Bond who feels bruised, bloodied and beaten in a world which hasn't felt like his for a long, long time. More so it's a Bond film which dares to delve into his extremely cloudy past and even so far as into his childhood and his parents. All the while still attaining the trademark attributes which makes James Bond one of the most enduring fictional characters in literary and cinematic history.

The star of the show however perhaps gone to the great Dame Judi Dench. Her take on M has been increasingly more prevalent ever since her first appearance in GoldenEye. With Skyfall we see her not only at her most fragile but at her best. Dare I say even worthy of recognition come award season in the Best Supporting Actress roles. In Dench's take on M, Bond has something of a kindred spirit, almost filling the gap of the motherly role left vacant from when he was a child and that dynamic is pushed home at its most in some truly terrific scenes in the film's truly breathtaking, action packed third act.

All the while Javier Bardem is one of the most memorable and interesting villains seen in a Bond film since Sean Bean went all kinds of mental in GoldenEye. If Mendes' claims are true that he used Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as a key influence on Skyfall then there was definitely an air of The Joker about Bardem's mentally unstable, highly intelligent, utterly captivating, sometimes grotesque take as the mysterious Silva.

The supporting performances from past Mendes collaborators and 007 debutants, Ralph Finnes, Naomi Harris and Ben Winshaw (who shined as the new Q) just added that extra level of quality which has been absent in a lot of Bond films over the past 20 years. The great Albert Finney also makes a fantastic appearance late on. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the film was how underused the beautiful Berenice Marlohe was on screen, but then the Craig era of the Bond franchise was never as heavily burdened in the 'woman of the week' angle as much as his predecessors.

Sam Mendes not only brought his film-making experience to Skyfall, he also brought that much missed cinematic pedigree to the franchise - equipped with a brilliant score from Thomas Newman and even a perfectly listenable song from Adele. As well as the plot being genuinely tense and at times quite emotional with some stunning action sequences littered throughout the film it also had that much missed visual element, that grand scale which made Quantum of Solace seem like it was done on a TV budget in comparison. Genuinely memorable moments like the explosive finale in the sparse Scottish highlands or even as trippy as the fight scene in a tower block in Shanghai.

Final Thoughts
There's a moment in Skyfall where Judi Dench's M explains why the likes of 007 still matter in this world and that rings true the point of James Bond and why after 50 years he's still one of the biggest blockbuster draws that's not a superhero. He gives us glitz, glamour, action, tension, quick witted humour and with his latest entry a refreshing honesty and fragility which should make audiences all over fall in love with him again. Not only is this the best Bond of this century, but could perhaps be the best Bond of all time. Bold words but I stand by them. I personally can't wait to watch it again. One of my favourites of the year.

4.5/5

Skyfall is in cinemas everywhere now. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

Looper


Rian Johnson is firmly cementing himself as one of my favourite film-makers. His first feature, the intimate neo-noir thriller Brick is one of my favourite films of all time. While his follow-up The Brothers Bloom is a slick and highly entertaining comedy caper. His 'difficult' third film sees him reunite with, Brick star and one of Hollywood's golden boys at the minute, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and action icon Bruce Willis for one of the most unique and best films of the year in Looper.

Set in the year 2044, Looper paints a claustrophobic and bleak vision of our future - not too far removed from Alfonso Cuaron's in the grossly underrated cult classic Children of Men - where the majority of the population are thrown into poverty and the cities are run by the mob. In about 30 years time from this point, the ability to time travel will be invented and instantly outlawed, used only by the wealthiest crime organisations. Joe's (Gordon-Levitt) role as a Looper is to get rid of the bodies the mob send back in time and thus erased off the planet entirely. In my honest opinion it seems like a bit of an arse about face way of going about it, but it's highly entertaining nonetheless. However, everything is thrown into chaos when the mob intend to cut all ties with the Loopers and Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back for assassination.

With notable contributions in the likes of Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, 50/50 amongst others it feels as though Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do no wrong at the minute. With Looper this is no different, and it was brilliant to see him carry such a frantic, mind bending action film so seamlessly. With the help of some impressive prosthetic work his face was altered to resemble a 'younger' Bruce Willis rather amazingly. Yet it wasn't just superficially, his mannerisms, the tough, gruff voice, that cold demeanour were all mimicked to such an amazing effect.

All the while Bruce Willis got to be well... Bruce Willis. Which frankly isn't a bad thing and, even as The Expendables 2 and RED showed, he's still got the gravitas and panache for the caustic action sequences. Truthfully the vibe and overall themes of the film weren't too far removed from one of Willis' other more memorable films, Twelve Monkeys. The supporting ensemble of Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, a slightly sinister Jeff Daniels, Rian Johnson collaborator Noah Segan and a genuinely creepy contribution from child actor Pierce Gagnon just gave the film so much depth and quality.

Rian Johnson's handling of the feature was truly remarkable, especially as it was so far removed from his previous two films, which were so dialouge heavy but lacking in the visual department. One of the most striking things was the level of violence, and truthfully how it even just got a 15 rating is quite a mystery. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Drive's messier moments from 2011 but it does come very close at times. You get the feeling if Warner Bros want someone to step into Christopher Nolan's shoes to carry on the Batman franchise, Johnson's CV is starting to make a seriously strong case.

Inevitably with the themes of the film you will encounter the odd plot hole here and there, but it just about gets away with it. The time travelling paradoxes of the film aren't nearly as extreme as the likes of Primer (one of the few films to give me a genuine headache) or quite as dumbed down as JJ Abrams' Star Trek. It managed to strike a fine balance of keeping the story predominantly character driven and  heavy with the action and sci-fi visuals while also leaving you feeling ponderous of the cause and consequences upon the film's debatable open ending.

Final Thoughts
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis team up for one of the best films of 2012. Its violence is satisfying, its action is most definitely packed, littered with a tonne of quality supporting actors and a truly absorbing story driven by character and not always spectacle. Don't miss.

4.5/5

Looper is in cinemas everywhere now.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1


While The Caped Crusader has now taken a deserved leave of absence from the big screen for a while, his legacy still lives on in direct-to-DVD animated adaptations of his comic adventures. There are perhaps fewer comic books more significant and contributed more to the cultural impact on how we view a character today than the works of Frank Miller in the 1980s on Batman. One, which was adapted last year, is the now iconic origin story, Batman: Year One and the other is Miller's dark and caustic swansong for the character, The Dark Knight Returns.

The story, for those who haven't read the original graphic novel, takes place ten years after the last appearance of Batman, who has since retired and grown old and weary as his alter ego Bruce Wayne. He's brought out of retirement upon realisation that Gotham has spiralled out of control and being overrun by a new criminal organisation who call themselves The Mutants. A lot of moments in the film can very much be considered as the groundwork for what Christopher Nolan used in the final part of his cinematic trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Like many of these DC Animated Movies Warner Bros has churned out over the years, this one has stayed meticulously close to the original source material, almost to a fault this time around. Truthfully Miller's take on the character has been a little too extreme for my tastes, he gets away with it in Year One because it's a logical starting point, but his Batman is unique to Miller's own point of view, something which even DC Comics have sort of acknowledged over the years but tried to stay away from - his questionable use of firearms and extreme violence in the story being a particular controversial point with devoted fans. With TDKRs it's a story very much of its time both politically and even aesthetically. There's a sense of anarchy which The Mutants invoke along with their appearance which just screams the 1980s more than the 21st Century, post 9/11 world Batman has found himself in and been immortalised on the big screen by Christopher Nolan.

All that aside however, the voice acting was top notch. Peter Weller's cold, harsh tones really suited this older, battle bruised Batman and was unsurprisingly the stand out performer of the cast. In the quieter, more personal moments, which have always been the highlights of the original tale for myself, Weller is just simply fantastic at evoking emotion out of Miller's stone cold take on the character. Whilst David Selby take on Commissioner Gordon reminded me of Bob Hastings' turn as the character in the original Batman Animated Series of the 1990s. It was a shame though that we weren't given more than just a taster of Michael Emerson's Joker, whom will undoubtedly feature heavily in Part 2 out early next year.

The animation was terrific, and replicate the key moments of the original story to such potent effect. It's probably felt the most cinematic of DC's animated output since their take on Darwyn Cooke's Justice League: The New Frontier way back in 2008, but probably falls short of being as enjoyable as Batman: Under The Red Hood. There's also a couple of pleasant nods to Alan Moore in the background of key scenes, look out for the cover art from Swamp Thing and V For Vendetta buried in a scene which features Jim Gordon in a convenience store. 

Final Thoughts
As good as The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1) is, it also suffers the same problem as all these cash ins to split potentially one reasonably long film into two. What we have here is essentially just half of potentially a good animated film. We won't know how good until the sequel pops up in Spring 2013. Peter Weller's croaky, weary voice lends itself majestically to an older, embittered Bruce Wayne/Batman. The accuracy should delight fans of the original source material, but not likely to turn heads of fans who came in through Nolan's film universe, or even the 90s animated series. Worth your time, but then so is the original book...

4/5

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and digital download from September 25th 2012.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Bachelorette


Thanks to the mind boggling success of The Hangover and its unnecessary sequel, there seems to be this increasingly polluted sub-genre involving disastrous pre-wedding rituals cropping up in the movie world. Sometimes it's light hearted, entertaining and care free, such as the aforementioned Hangover and its 2011 female counterpart Bridesmaids. Other times it's just tired, predictable rubbish giving more fuel to the tired, cynical fire that Hollywood is a rotting modern Gomorrah starting to run out of life and indeed any genuine creative ideas. Harsh? Probably, but then when watching Bachelorette you may see where I'm coming from.

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, the story tells of three former high school friends who come together in celebration of their most socially awkward friend's wedding (Rebel Wilson), and in their selfish, petulant ways wonder how exactly their lives got so wrong, and hers so right. Despite this, all chaos ensues on the eve of the wedding night as the bachelorette party quickly descends into an omnishambles of drugs, strip clubs, torn wedding dresses and being reunited with past loves, all before the inevitable redemption scene under a cold sober light.

To be fair the performances aren't quite a loathsome as the concept of the film itself. Dunst excels in playing the icy, uber-b*tch, while Isla Fisher plays up on the coy, naive slightly ditzy role which shot her to minor stardom in her breakout role in the (slightly like-minded) The Wedding Crashers while Caplan equipped with her dour demeanour added a bit of honesty, heart and quick wit to steer a faltering group. Where the film actually excels was in the criminally underused male portion of the cast, such as James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer and Parks & Recreation star, Adam Scott.

And yes the director did a competent job, I even appreciated the almost John Hughes-esque underlay to the whole thing, but it really was a case of giving the audience the exact same thing we've all seen time and time and time again. It was a tidy, at times even reasonably sweet feature film which shifted the focus off the bride and groom almost entirely. Though constantly  playing The Proclaimers - 500 Miles in the final third of the film was maybe pushing my limits a bit.

The saddest thing about Bachelorette was it didn't even try to be ambitious in its delivery. The script never tried to be funnier than Bridesmaids, or more gruesome than The Hangover, and frankly if you're going to be content putting out an average film, in an already over-polluted genre, which has had notable stand out releases already in the last five years, what's the point really? More from the producers point of view, as for all I know Leslye Headland may have written this way before its superior counterparts were even conceived.

Final Thoughts
Painfully average and largely predictable. The cast didn't let down Bachelorette, the script did. There isn't much else to say or do here. Save your time and money for better films to watch over this Autumn period, or at least films which will stimulate your mind a bit. Shame, because I always root for Adam Scott...

2.5/5

Bachelorette is available on iTunes to digitally download now. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Expendables 2


I remember a couple of years ago reviewing the first Expendables film and, amazingly, thinking that not only was it a piss poor film but that it failed to deliver on what it originally promised. To hell with the likes of Statham, Li, Crews, Couture and Hemsworth, I want to see all the action stars of my youth blowing everything to kingdom come! I wouldn't have cared how bad it was, I just wanted to see Sly, Arnold, Bruce, Jean-Claude, Steven, Dolph, Weathers etc sharing the screen and bringing home the glory. Alas it was not to be and the first Expendables film was more than a let down. So comes the sequel and my eyes roll once more...

In what roughly resembles a plot, Barney Ross (Stallone) and co are sent into hostile territory to recover lost maps which lead to unused Soviet nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, in the dastardly European role once reserved for Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman, Jean-Claude Van Damne and his mates find them first and what proceeds is a brutal and epic battle full of violence, swearing and some nicely timed puns and references to past glories.

Hats off to Stallone for still trying to compete with the Bournes, Drives, latter day Bonds of the 21st Century action genre. He and the majority of the cast in this film are part of a by-gone era of films which, even in the 80s, are rarely done well anymore - one of the very few modern exceptions being 2012's The Raid. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean they don't have the ability to raise a huge nostalgic smile when they're attempted by the men who made them famous.

With The Expendables 2, Stallone has seen the error of his ways and given the audience what they originally wanted. And that's much more of Arnie - it's like he was never away. More Bruce - yippie! Less Statham - even better! And even added the aforementioned Van Damne and, quite possibly the star of the whole film, one Mr Chuck Norris, playing an exact replica of the caricature of the cult Internet phenomenon he has become over the last decade. With rumours of Steven Segal, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford for the third, there may be a place yet for this sorry saga of past action heroes who can't grow old gracefully.

The action is loud, gory and very satisfying. The dialouge was hilarious when it was trying to be serious, and serious when it was trying to be hilarious. Actually, truth be told, the best parts were when the likes of Arnie, Sly and Bruce etc were essentially ripping the piss out of each other's past films. There's more than a few nods to Rambo, Terminator, Die Hard, Rocky, Good Guys Wear Black amongst other. Yet unfortunately none to JCVD's Coors Light adverts. You could make a decent drinking game out of how many times Arnold makes reference to his iconic phrase, "I'll be back."

Final Thoughts
Absolutely awful and completely bloody essential. Though vastly superior to the original and surely a money-making hit with anyone over the age of 21, I can't even pretend to suggest The Expendables 2 is a good film. It's not even the best film I've seen this week never mind this year. However I'd be lying if I said people of a certain age won't find some sort of nostalgic delight out of seeing Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Norris, Van Damme etc blowing each other straight to hell...and the bargain bin of Tesco's DVD section.

2/5

The Expendables 2 is in cinemas everywhere now.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Brave


Pixar's Brave is quite a departure from the near untouchable animation company's recent output. For a start it's the first since Up that wasn't a sequel. More significant perhaps was the film marked their first exploration into the fairytale genre made so famous by their parent company Walt Disney Animation featuring ancient fantasy and the customary princess heroine. But as always with Pixar, there has to be some sort of twist right? Eh, right?

Brave tells the tale of Celtic Scottish princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a free spirit with a love for archery and the maddest hair you'll see on a animated princess possibly ever - bare in mind Disney only gave the world Rapunzel early last year. Her world is turned a little upside down when her meddling mother (Emma Thompson) and father (Billy Connolly) decides to wed her off to the first born princes of the neighbouring kingdoms. Objecting to this she encounters a witch (Julie Walters) - if Shakespeare taught us anything, never trust a Scottish witch or witches - who agrees to change her mother in an attempt to change her world. And of course this doesn't go quite to plan, setting Merida off on an adventure of peril, comedic buffoonery and wonder.

The voice acting had perhaps the most impressive ensemble of A-Listers Pixar has put together since they first gave the world Toy Story. Kelly MacDonald is about as Scottish as they come, even when she's trying to be Irish in Boardwalk Empire. Nevertheless her princess was full of heart, innocence, quick witted, occasionally cheeky and extremely relatable to any girl who has ever had a clash with their mother, and this is where the film rises to the heights of Pixar's best.

Strip away the fantastical settings and mystical characters, as well as the stunning Scottish highland renderings (the Scottish Tourist board really got their money's worth from the co-financing of the feature), the film is a moving tale about the bond between a child and their parent. For every fight and petulant tantrum, there's laughter, warm embrace and forgiveness. There's good times and bad. And sooner or later, especially for the parent, the realisation you have to let your children go and live for themselves, even if it's not the road you set for them.

You'd be forgiven for thinking Pixar have maybe taken one too many cues from their Disney partners or Dreamworks competitors and not stuck to their guns with their own traditions of pushing the boundaries of storytelling better than anyone in their field. However only purists would begrudge them this as a criticism as the film is a fine tribute to the House of Mouse where the majority of these animators probably fell in love with the medium in the first place and perhaps most telling is the film pays homage to the budding working friendship Pixar has with its Japanese counterparts, Studio Ghibli. The film's story doesn't have the epic scale or imagination of Princess Mononoke but the influence is evident throughout.

The score by Patrick Doyle (who wrote the score for Mavel's Thor last year) is what you expect from a film set in ancient Scotland, it's very heavy on the Celtic folk overtones and beautifully performed if you're into that sort of thing. However the way the actual songs, performed by Julie Fowlis and not any of the characters themselves ala Disney, are placed throughout the film hits all the right notes in for their catchy hooks, pulling the heartstrings and raising the smiles.

Final Thoughts
Some say Pixar's Brave wasn't brave enough in carrying the high traditions and standards the company have set in their all too brief lifespan. But not me. See it as a tribute to past greats of Disney & Ghibli, see it as Pixar doing a traditional fairytale animation the only way they can; masterfully. Its animation is beautiful, its humour is honest and innocent, its supporting characters endearing and likeable, its heroine heroic, bold and sweet, its emotion powerful, its end result simply; a Pixar film.

4.5/5

Oh and if this doesn't convince you, its worth the price of admission alone for the customary and genuinely fantastic short film before the feature rolls, La Luna (5/5).

Brave is in cinemas everywhere throughout the UK now. 

Friday, 3 August 2012

360


If you were to look at the film poster above, you would be forgiven for thinking 360 was some tense, against the clock thriller. Which makes the shock of the type of film it actually is all the more baffling. Especially when you consider Fernando Meirelles' previous work, most notably one of the best films of the last 10 years, City of God.

360 tells the tales of several people stretched across the globe; from London, to Vienna, to Paris, to Colorado, to briefly Meirelles' homeland of Brazil. It strives to get across the idea that we're all connected to each other in some way, shape or form. Furthermore it shows the impact this domino effect has on our lives, along with the relationships towards the people close to us. Sadly for 360 a lot of it felt a bit too familiar, not a million miles removed from the basic concept of the Richard Curtis cheese-fest, Love Actually. Or the star-studded features like New York, I Love You and its sister movie, Paris, Je T'aime.

Where it comes into its own however is in its more mature, darker tone along with several compelling performances, including Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and a personal favourite of mine Jarnel Debbouze (probably best known for his supporting role in the modern French classic, Amelie). The best example of this interconnectedness was Ben Foster's newly rehabilitated sex offender from Colorado caught in a compromising position with Brazil's Maria Flor's wandering traveller after a chance encounter in an airport. Much praise must also go to Anthony Hopkins journey as recovering alcoholic who is dealing with the pains of grief and regret and how it can become a choke hold on your life.

That's not to say the film is all doom and gloom as it has some rather sweet moments, while not being detestably cringe worthy like the aforementioned Love Actually. One stand out moment involves the utterly bonkers situation of a mob thug encountering the charming, educated sister of a prostitute and both deciding on a whim to ride off into the sunset together.

360's main problem however, or perhaps just my problem with these types of films, is it felt like Meirelles had several potentially brilliant stories that he just couldn't decide which one to make first. So he clumsily mashes them all together and hopes for the best. To his credit sometimes it worked, others might leave the audience thinking it's a bit too rosy or ridiculously convoluted. Nevertheless the dialogue was well scripted - jumping seamlessly between the adult subjects covered, while still allowing itself to be slightly whimsical and optimistic - and beautifully shot at times. But then you'd expect nothing less from the man who made City of God.

Final Thoughts
While the performances are mostly compelling and the presentation was tidy, when the credits eventually role  on 360 you'll be left thinking you've seen it all before. The darker and more mature themes makes it stand out against its like minded features but ultimately 360 is a mostly forgettable experience. But sadly like the film's core theme it's a genre which will come full circle time and time again.

3/5

360 is in selected cinemas across the UK now. Belfast readers can see it in the Queens Film Theatre from Friday August 10th, 2012. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


"You don't owe these people anymore. You've given them everything." "Not everything, not yet..."

The quote above applies to this film on so many levels. At whatever angle you come from with this film, it just has that sense of finality about it. After plunging fear into Gotham's criminal underbelly in Batman Begins, and saving the city from the unhinged chaos of a madman in The Dark Knight, Batman himself owes it to the cinematic world to go out with a bang and book himself in the pantheon of great cinematic trilogies. Furthermore the saga's visionary director, Christopher Nolan owes it to himself to end the story he so magnificently started in 2005. It's the most anticipated film of the year. It's the film fans have been waiting for since they walked out of seeing its predecessor in 2008. So the question, quite rightly, is; does it live up to its phenomenal hype? 

The story picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the Batman has vanished and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) now a recluse after taking the fall for the crimes of Harvey Dent and in turn Gotham has become a much more peaceful place because of it. Of course this is only the calm before the storm as a new evil force named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives in Gotham along with the mysterious Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), forcing Batman out of retirement, hellbent on dragging the city down into the tenth level of hell. 

Christian Bale's portrayal of Batman has probably been parodied to death over the years for the ostentatious voice in dire need of a cough drop. Nevertheless his journey as Bruce Wayne has been nothing short of cinematic brilliance, and in TDKR he gives arguably his greatest bow as the estranged billionaire. Channelling Wayne's old wounds from the past two films on top of the suffering he faces over the course of the final film, especially in the mesmerising second act, Bale's tender moments he shared with Michael Caine's Alfred were every bit as wonderful to watch as the heart to hearts with Hardy's monstrous Bane.

One does perhaps wonder how Nolan's vision for the final film would've differed had the late, great Heath Ledger had still been with us (he was contracted to appear in The Dark Knight Rises in some capacity), and though his unforgettable turn as The Joker is never referenced, his ghost looms large over the feature with the sense of dread and spirit for complete anarchy he invoked so often previously. 

Which brings us nicely to the main antagonist of the feature, Bane. Tom Hardy encapsulates the character that was grossly misrepresented in Batman & Robin as one of the few of The Dark Knight's rouge gallery who can match him on both a mental and a physical level. Like Bale's Batman voice, Hardy's muffled sinister voice will be a source of great amusement to many YouTube videos, but it doesn't matter as his actions speak far more coherently and with much more impact than any of his speeches ever would.  

Anne Hathaway's Catwoman is probably the best version of the character ever seen on screen and at times steals the show away from both Bale and Hardy. It's the first version to fully understand the multiple shades of grey Selina Kyle has beneath her catsuit, without the supernatural nonsense of Batman Returns and whatever the hell that was Halle Berry was trying to pull off in her redundant spin-off film. In TDKRs Catwoman is a beautifully realised femme fatale, sexy and deadly, hero and villain and both friend and foe to Batman.

The supporting roles were littered with probably the greatest ensemble of actors I've seen on film since, well probably Christopher Nolan's Inception. Gary Oldman's tired and jaded journey as Commissioner James Gordon is the definitive version of the character, Michael Caine shines bright and will make audiences shed tears as Alfred Pennyworth, Morgan Freeman lends his cool class as Bat-gadget supremo Lucius Fox while newcomers Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's only reaffirm the conclusion that Christopher Nolan can assemble any actor he so chooses. There are also a few cameos from past characters of the film's series to help it come full circle, but those reveals won't be spoiled in this review.

Was it perfect though? Truthfully - and please no death threats - its story was too guilty of doing what many final chapters of the great cinematic sagas are often accused of doing and that's cramming far more than was entirely necessary resulting in at times a messy story and slightly muddled character development. It maybe could have benefited from losing 15 minutes off its running time, but then when you've got near three hours of the biggest Batman film ever attempted, yeah you'd forgive these shortcomings. And for every time I want to roll my eyes, I found myself smiling more and more or my emotions heightening to the brink of tears

Christopher Nolan's evolution since his first Batman film and his eye for the grand spectacle came to its pinnacle with TDKR, perhaps just eclipsing the heights he reached with Inception. The opening scene of the film itself, which felt partially influenced by the opening scene of the previous Batman film, where the audience is introduced to Hardy's Bane is worth the admission fee alone, especially when you realise how little CGI is used in the creation of it.

Invoking the fear of a post 9/11 world, along with the extreme right wing reaction to it in the fallout, in his previous two Batman films, Nolan goes to great lengths to set his dark, gritty, mature finale to the Batman saga in a financially ravaged, occupy Wall Street-esque hell. Making his Batman films not only the best, but also one of the true cinematic sagas of our time and generation. And in stark contrast making Marvel's Avengers universe look like a feeble cosplay exercise in comparison. Shame the same can't be said for the rest of DC's characters on the big screen these days.

Final Thoughts
Despite its obvious shortcomings, Christopher Nolan delivers a grandiose finish full of spectacle, emotion and near Oscar-worthy performances from many of its cast. Where Warner Bros decides to take Batman next on the big screen is a thought for another day, for now just bask in knowing a superhero, a comic book adaptation is now recognised as one of the great cinematic trilogies and one of the biggest, in every sense of the word, blockbusters of all time. The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight Rules.

5/5

The Dark Knight Rises is in cinemas everywhere now. And yes I know you've probably already seen it when this review goes live. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dr Seuss' The Lorax


"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
- Dr Seuss

Hollywood hasn't been overly faithful to the timeless works of Dr Seuss in recent years. After the tragic failings witnessed in the live action adaptations of The Cat in The Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, avid Seuss enthusiasts would be right in thinking the great American story-teller is probably spinning in his grave. Things weren't necessarily helped by the CGI adaptation of Horton Hears A Who, but at least as a stand alone film it's both entertaining and infectious in its overall enjoyment. Following in the footsteps of Horton comes The Lorax, Seuss' environmentally aware parable about the extinction of trees and the countless warnings from the story's title character which precedes it. 

It's not impossible to make a great film out of such short children's books. Spike Jonze proved as much when he fantastically brought to life the late Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are to the big screen. The Lorax nearly does such a job, but rather frustratingly the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul blink first and get too bogged down in modernising the story with needless pop culture references, I imagine most kids aren't going to be particularly bothered about, and a ham fisted teenage love story it simply didn't need. Which is a true shame, especially when you compare it to Pixar's like-minded and infinitely superior environmentally weary tale, Wall-e.  

Nevertheless it would be harsh to say it wasn't entertaining, at times genuinely funny and even quite heartfelt when it eventually got round to it core message. The film features some gorgeous animation staying true to the vivid, unique vision of Seuss' source material and even features some terrific vocal performances from its cast. 

Danny Devito was particularly marvellous as the title character, typically what you'd expect from the cranky, brutally honest, now institutional actor. In fact the moments featuring the Lorax himself was where the film shined its brightest. One particular scene, not originally in the source material, where he appears for the first time and, along with the rest of the animals of the forest, mourns the first tree chopped down was a beautifully constructed moment the film should have strived for more often. 

Ed Helms was good fun as The Once-ler; delivering a nice blend of comedy, innocence and gormless buffoonery while having a terrific chemistry when it came to bantering with Devito's Lorax and Zac Efron's faceless protagonist. Personally though the film's comedy was at its best amongst the crazy movements of the animals which populate the forest The Once-ler inevitably destroys. Particularly the bears. The chipmunk voiced fish I could probably take or leave, but hey the kids will enjoy it. I think...

The musical numbers were well written and in the more tender and sombre moments the great John Powell delivered a trademark grandiose score - if you haven't heard his Oscar nominated work on Dreamworks' rather brilliant How To Train Your Dragon I seriously suggest you do so as soon as possible.  However it's sad and a bit of an injustice to Seuss' incredible writing that more of his playful, at times sheer mental, dialouge and poetry wasn't scattered throughout. The most notable was the quote placed at the beginning of this review. All involved might want to read that quote another couple of times before tackling the CGI Cat in the Hat adaptation they have planned next - but to be fair it can't be any worse than the awful Mike Myers version. 

Final Thoughts
If you're a parent and looking for something to grab your kids' attention for 90 minutes, The Lorax performs its duties as well as any animated tale you'll see in the cinema this Summer. Despite its loose and liberal tribute to the source material this version of The Lorax is still full of slapstick antics, well timed dialouge and some entertaining performances from its voice cast. However where it loses marks and will continually do so in most modern Seuss adaptations is in its nonchalant attitude and lack of ambition to reach out to its wider audience and tackle the story's biggest themes. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot...

3/5

The Lorax is in cinemas across the UK on Friday July 27th, 2012.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Indie Game: The Movie


James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot's insight into the independent video gaming market is an astonishing documentary for reasons which transcend the industry which it highlights. Following the trials and tribulations in the development cycle of two of the highest profile independently released games on the market of the last couple of years; Fez and Super Meat Boy - both exclusive to the XBox360, meaning a PS3 devotee like yours truly unfortunately hasn't had the chance to fully appreciate what's on offer. Nevertheless it doesn't dampen the almost life-affirming appreciation for the developers of the games and the core values they represent.

The film largely follows two reasonably different creative processes which in essence represent the same self doubts and mini victories all artists go through when crafting something entirely from scratch. If you're a traditional artist, writer, musician or film-maker there is countless qualities about the journeys which Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard of Fez go through towards the completion of their respective games you'll find incredibly relatable. It also gives cynics of the industry confirmation, which many devotees already know, that computer games can be a hugely expressive art-form in itself. Not something to be looked down upon nor scoffed at.

The moments involving McMillen and particularly Refenes were the most emotional; a true mixture of profound joy, frustration and even at times soul destroying sadness. While they were both burdened with a playful anticipation from the gaming community on the internet, Phil Fish was faced with something far more intimidating. After wowing audiences in 2007 with a simple tech demo, the level of expectation placed upon Fish's shoulders transcended into this seemingly never-ending and unbelievably ambitious quest met with delays and frustration to the point where Fish was verbally abused across the net.

Similar to watching the brilliant Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop based around the street art movement, the mentality of these men and their like-minded peers was almost a form of creative rebellion. A huge middle finger to the mass gaming market constantly obsessed with this summer blockbuster arrogance of bigger is better, sacrificing innovation and compelling story telling for a points based first person shooter online gaming culture ala Modern Warfare.

As well as being hugely enlightening the film-making itself is of the highest quality. The crisp presentation, the in-game highlights, the absolutely gorgeous camera work makes the film one of the true stand outs of the year. More so the dark, moody, beautifully ambient soundtrack by Jim Guthrie is probably worth seeking out on its own.

Final Thoughts
Provocative, inspirational and profoundly emotional. Indie Game: The Movie is more than a simple documentary on the gaming industry, it highlights the emotions all independent creatives suffer through for their art. If you write, draw, compose music, create comics there is a quality about this film which will speak to you on numerous levels. And may also leave you believing in what you're doing.

4.5/5

Indie Game The Movie is available to buy from here :: http://buy.indiegamethemovie.com/

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man


Ever since I was a child I've pretty much idolised two superheroes in my life. Sure I'm a self-confessed comic book geek, read the medium as much as I would a simple paperback and very much versed in the worlds of both Marvel and DC. But of the countless array of characters both have given the world over the past 70+ years, two have stood out above all. One is Batman and the other is Spider-Man.

Unlike The Avengers which has taken the world and box offices by storm since it came out back in April, and The Dark Knight Rises which fans have been waiting for since they left the cinema seeing its predecessor in 2008, expectation around The Amazing Spider-Man has been somewhat modest at best. Rebooting a phenomenally successful film saga just five years after the third instalment came out seems a bit drastic to the most cynical of eyes, but then if you were unfortunate enough to catch Spider-Man 3 in the cinema you wouldn't exactly blame them. For the few who haven't; it wasn't exactly Batman & Robin bad, but in hindsight it perhaps wasn't far off.

So out goes Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire and in comes the younger, hipper Marc Webb (director of 500 Days of Summer) and Andrew Garfield in the title role. Like the original Raimi film, The Amazing Spider-Man concentrates on the famous web-slinger's origin story, although in a slightly darker and less colourful setting than the original. Peter Parker the socially awkward science nerd is replaced with Peter Parker the geek chic, photographer kid from next door. However the chips on his shoulder very much remain.

The story, at its core, delves into Peter's struggles for a father figure ever since his parents (extremely brief but welcomed appearance of Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) left him as a child and realising the hard way the responsibility of becoming a real hero. Unlike the Raimi films, Webb uses this opportunity to stretch out Peter's high school life which were skimmed over in the first 20 minutes of the original film. Here we see him meet his real high school sweetheart Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), come to blows with her over protective, police officer father, George Stacey (Denis Leary) and develop a working relationship with his father's former lab partner Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who eventually turns into the villain of the piece known as The Lizard.

Instead of using the noticeably comic book like vibrancy of the world Sam Raimi created in the original trilogy, Marc Webb opts to take some of his cues from the Christopher Nolan school of rebooting superheroes. You're bound to know the routine by now; slightly gritty with a lot of 'real world' grounding (roll your eyes accordingly if you've heard this one before...). And the story largely falls in line with this, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't necessarily come out all guns blazing with spectacle, but more than makes up for it with the care and attention given to Parker's journey into the hero with great power and great responsibility.

Garfield was terrific in the title role, he attained Parker's sympathetic qualities and angst while still enabling himself to turn on the charm, wit and sarcasm while donning the red and blue spandex of Spider-Man. He also does a great job of reminding the audience every so often something we tend to forget when we think of Spider-Man, he is essentially still a kid at the beginning of his journey.  He's brash, he's fearless, he's occasionally a bit selfish and petulant and this rings true in the moments when he first becomes Spider-Man and in a couple of run ins with resident school bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) - both before and after he gains his powers.

It's hard to not love Emma Stone in whatever role she plays these days, and her portrayal as the charming, graceful, bubbly Gwen Stacey is no different. The scenes she shares with Garfield are some of the films true highlight's, and clearly where Webb - having found success in this formula with the brilliant anti-romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer - felt most at ease.

Webb's handling of The Lizard must be commended despite a lot of clumsy CGI renderings which disjointed the feature at various points. Next to The Dark Knight, Spider-Man probably has the most memorable and impressive rouge gallery in comic books. Opting to use The Lizard echoed Nolan's use of The Scarecrow in Batman Begins in many ways, it was a frightful antagonist to inject a bit of fantastical flair into the film, while also the villain's Jekyll and Hyde duality and circumstance was a way of bringing the hero into the larger world of his own universe and the potentially bigger sequel to come. Where The Scarecrow brought Batman into the world of Arkham Asylum and all the psychotic inmates with it, The Lizard brought Spider-Man in line with potentially the next film's major villain Norman Osborn/Oscorp; whom turns into arguably Spider-Man's main nemesis, The Green Goblin.

While there's no J Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spider-Man to steal the spotlight this time round (John Slattery for this series, Marc? Yeah?), the supporting cast of Leary as Captain Stacey, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and the ever elegant Sally Field as Aunt May were terrific.

No matter how many times you see it, no matter how many different camera angles in how many different movies, the imagery of Spider-Man swinging around the skyline of New York will still give fans of the films goosebumps, more so when put next to the majestic soundtrack scored by James Horner. Whereas some of The Lizard's CGI was disappointing, Spider-Man's felt much more authentic. During production Webb decided to shoot as many practical scenes of Spidey web-slinging as possible and in the final cut the difference is striking. It's simply a shame he didn't use some practical prosthetics for Ifans' Lizard too.

Like Webb's previous film, the use of music played a huge part, more so than perhaps any comic book film I've seen in quite some time. It was littered with emotional, grungey, singer songwriter montages. Some core audiences might find this distracting but I think, for the world Webb is creating, it lends itself wonderfully to the imagery.

Final Thoughts
The Amazing Spider-Man largely lives up to its own billing. Andrew Garfield gives a compelling account of the personal woes - and there's a lot of them - inflicted upon Peter Parker in his journey to becoming the iconic web-slinger. While the set pieces don't live in the memory as much as some featured in the original trilogy, this film's general enjoyment, playful humour, romantic chemistry, darker themes and larger plan for its inevitable sequels will leave die hard fans begging for more.

4/5

The Amazing Spider-Man is in cinemas everywhere now.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Superman Vs The Elite


As you look back on the archives of the blog you'll see a pantheon of movies from the DC Universe straight-to-DVD catalogue. Some good, some watchable, some just painfully average. The problem with the latest addition, Superman Vs The Elite, is that it roughly drops into all three of these categories. One thing's for sure whoever adapted the screenplay from the now classic turn-of-the-century Superman tale, What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way wasn't British (but more on that in a bit).

The story is more or less an examination of how relevant Superman's boy scout ideals and beliefs relate in the 21st Century. His public standing is tested when a new batch of anti-heroes known as The Elite rise up and take the world by storm with their no nonsense approach to dealing with the evils of earth with kill now, ask questions later approach. The film sparks up all kinds of questions about Superman that have been asked time and time again by the comic book fanboys of the world while also giving a reasonably compelling story and some terrific voice acting from George Newbern (he's to Superman what Kevin Conroy is to Batman in the animated world).

Where the film falls in comparison to most of its counterparts was in the sub-standard animation. Looking back on the films past such as Batman: Under the Red Hood, Superman/Batman, Justice League The New Frontier, Wonder Woman, All-Star Superman etc is that the animation is absolutely stunning in places. With Superman Vs The Elite it's surprisingly shoddy. Even in comparison to the stunning Bruce Timm cartoons of the 90s - Batman: TAS and Justice League Unlimited - it looks very mediocre in places. Perhaps all the money was being shifted toward the much anticipated adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, out later this year.

My biggest criticism in DC/Warner Bros' exercise in adapting these classic comic book stories is whether it is entirely necessary. Cynically they've always felt like cashing in on the original stories standing amongst its target audience but due to this the film seems to lack accessibility to new fans. Superman Vs The Elite just about gets away with it as a contained story but the majority of them are pure fanboy indulgences.

The biggest fail of the film, in a purely comical way, was some of the dialogue was a tiny bit inappropriate. I'm not sure about American audiences but I can't imagine some parents in Britain being okay letting their child watch this film knowing the word 'Wa*ker' gets dropped on a regular basis by the film's antagonists. Even once by The Man of Steel himself. Someone is going to have fun editing that to bits before we see it in stores over here.

Final Thoughts
A solid, entertaining story (with some questionable dialogue and British accents) with a deeper theme dissecting the relevance of the classic superheroes from a by-gone era. Full of explosions, peril and the usual set pieces seen in Superman stories again and again, however the whole experience is ultimately let down by some painfully average animation. Cool opening credits mind...

3/5

Superman Vs The Elite is out on DVD/Blu-ray (R1) now. 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Prometheus


Prometheus was always doomed to underwhelm to some degree. There was no possible way after a couple of stunning trailers, some cleverly constructed viral videos, the fact it was Ridley Scott's first sci-fi film since Blade Runner and it being tied to his genre classic Alien it was ever really going live up to all that hype in the eyes of fanboys, geeks and cinephiles around the globe. But I'd disagree.

If you go into this film looking for essentially a remake of Alien you will be disappointed. My argument is, why on earth would you want to sit down to an inferior prequel of Alien in the same manner Episodes I-III of the Star Wars trilogy are - does anybody really want that? Didn't think so. Thankfully Scott realised this also and offered the audience something vastly different with the help of an extremely provocative script by Lost's Damon Lindelof and Joe Spaihts. He often stated in the process of making this it wasn't strictly a prequel to Alien and upon seeing the film I can finally see what he meant.

Yes the film ties with Alien in some manners which will make you smile or despair in horror at reliving those moments again for the first time - as well as addressing one fleeting scene from the original film. However unlike Alien where the crew of the Nostromo are simply trying to survive, the crew of the beautifully constructed ship Prometheus are attempting to answer some of the biggest questions about life itself and by the film's end asking new ones in the process. It cleverly takes the story in a brand new direction for a sequel I'd very much like to see, without disrupting or shoehorning into Ripley's saga in the Alien films.

The performances were terrific all round. Noomi Rapace was a compelling lead as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, attempting to sacrifice everything to achieve the answers she seeks. Comparisons will undoubtedly arise between her and Sigourney Weaver, especially in the latter stages of the story but she's a more whimsy and ponderous soul - on a more spiritual quest - and this lends itself to the film much better. Michael Fassbender as always stole the show being the token android known as David, who is never quite as it seems as his intentions are covered in ambiguity which reveal a brilliant plot twist I won't spoil here.

Charlize Theron is quickly developing a knack for playing cold hearted b*tch characters as demonstrated in my previous review of Snow White and the Huntsman and February's Young Adult. With Prometheus it was much of the same as she was the representative of the Weyland Corporation to oversee the whole project and make sure it was done right. I quite enjoyed Idris Elba's nobel, laid back captain. Wasn't much to him, he was just there, like the audience, along for the ride. Logan Marshall-Green played Shaw's husband (?) and fellow archaeologist and good folly to Shaw's own beliefs, despite looking for the same thing. Another notable contribution was Guy Pearce's two minute appearance as an elderly Peter Weyland, I'd go into more detail but that would spoil the surprise.

Where the film perhaps lost a couple of marks was in its pacing. For much of the first and second act it was this slow, drawn out, ponderous journey - which to its credit looked pretty stunning in 3D - without much true sense of dread. Then when the horror and monsters descended suddenly it reverted to the survival horror format we've experienced many times before, and in my mind it cheapened the experience slightly, as if Scott felt he had done his different thing for two thirds of the film and decided to remind people at the end; oh yeah there's aliens in this too. I can't deny though the film's final scene left me smiling and put a new perspective on the next time you watch Alien and Aliens...and Alien 3 and Resurrection if you feel you must.

The visual effects were unsurprisingly stunning and the set designs inspired by H.R. Giger's vision on the original Alien films lent itself well to the aesthetics of the mysterious world Prometheus found itself in. Marc Streitenfeld's score was a curious creation though and in many ways refreshing for a film like this. It would've been easy to drown the film in Zimmer-like drones ala Inception, but instead he opted for something more hopeful his main theme. Don't sigh when I say it wouldn't sound totally out of place placed in a Star Trek film, this feeling of 'boldy going where no man has gone before.' If you haven't seen the film yet YouTube the main theme of the score and you'll see what I mean.

Final Thoughts
After all is said and done Prometheus' hype probably transcended the film itself. Strip the hype away and in the long term I feel Scott accomplished what he originally set out to do. He wanted to create a new mythology set in the same universe he created, not rehash the same thing all over again. Prometheus is a sci-fi film drenched in philosophical ambiguity (rather than caustic survival horror) that the Alien films would never have dared to tackle, and will leave you trying to dissect everything about it for long after. For better or worse that isn't for me to decide.

4/5

Prometheus is in cinemas across the UK now.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman


Darker, more adventurous takes on famous fairy tales from The Brothers Grimm to Lewis Carroll have been slowly but surely the trend in our multiplexes in recent years, with more of the same threatening to come. Unsurprisingly it's been something of a mixed bag, sometimes losing the magical quality which made us fall in love with these stories when we were children. Or simply, they're not a patch on the Disney equivalent. Snow White and the Huntsman is the d├ębut feature from British director Rupert Sanders, already risking ridicule for being the second film based on the famous fairytale to grace our cinemas in so many months, after Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror gave a luke-warm showing at best.

Whereas Singh opted for a more playful take, with painfully vivid visuals and self aware humour, Sanders' retelling is far more in keeping with the darkness associated with the Grimm Brothers' original fairy-tales even if he does take some extreme liberties with the plot. However much to my surprise, and regardless of my now infamous dislike for its star, the final product strangely works.

Snow White and the Huntsman's prelude pretty much mirrors the original story's own with a much more wicked and fantastical twist on the step-mother's rise to power. When Snow White (Kristen Stewart) escapes the clutches of the Queen (Charlize Theron) she's swept into a beautifully realised world of enchantment and terror featuring all manners of creatures and settings from haunted forests, to angry trolls, to fairies and pixies and yes, even dwarves - we'll get to them in a moment.

Lord knows I haven't been kind to the uncharismatic ball of anti-banter known as Kristen Stewart, since she showed up on our screens in the first Twilight film a few years back. And every interview since I've found her utterly charmless and lacking any kind of endearment. However maybe it was the decent British accent, maybe it was a more commanding, independent role, hell maybe it was just the fact she cracked a genuine smile for once but she was surprisingly likeable in the title role. It was the first time I've seen Stewart come across as quite innocent, selfless and at times even quite charming. This child-like aura she adopted just seemed to work for her. Having said that, through no fault of her own, the film didn't belong to her...

Charlize Theron's wicked Queen Ravenna gave a much more rounded and psychological deconstruction of the character's motives and inner-workings - because villains can't be villains just because they're evil these days. Sure, she's not very nice but there's an underlying sadness and conflict which Theron pulls off in a majestic manner even if there's an element of Christmas panto with the more shouty moments. One can only imagine Angelina Jolie watching and taking a few notes when she gives her Wicked-like telling of Sleeping Beauty's villain Maleficent next year.

Chris Hemsworth was slightly frustrating for me, he's a clearly capable actor but in this he just looked a bit lost, slowly descending into the realms of type casting as his Huntsman was much like his now iconic take of Marvel's Thor. Except with a Scottish accent. Nevertheless his chemistry with Stewart worked without being too cringe worthy and his moments of action were as good as they'd be with a red cape and a hammer fighting alongside Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Just next time, stretch your talent a bit more mate like you did with Cabin in the Woods.

And then we come to the dwarves. Sanders defies tradition with an unprecedented eight dwarves as oppose to the conventional seven with know and love. Even more curious however was the decision to opt for larger than life and notably un-dwarf like actors to fill the roles. The casting choices however were tremendous and a real highlight of the film featuring Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Ian McShane, Brian Gleeson and Johnny Harris respectively.

Visually it was delightful for fans of films like Lord of the Rings, Willow, Stardust and The Princess Bride. To some degree the plot wasn't a million miles removed from Tim Burton's re-telling of Alice in Wonderland. However with a much more focused script and slightly better, but not entirely perfect pacing. I also must commend Sanders for how he handled the love story element, not forcing it upon the two title characters together for the sake of it which personally speaking would have cheapened the solid foundations of which the story had already laid.

Final Thoughts
Snow White and The Huntsman was a surprise in a few ways. The dark imagery was striking, the shots had a grand vision and the more intimate moments were creepy enough to do the Grimm Brothers proud. It had dwarves played by guys who aren't really dwarves but bloody brilliant British actors. It even had Kristen Stewart in probably her most likeable leading role to date. All this and a captivating performance from Charlize Theron as the wicked queen. Suspend your cynicism and trepidation and you'll find a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure full of suspense, imagination and wonder. You're surprised by this review? How you think I feel?

4/5

Snow White and the Huntsman is in cinemas everywhere now.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Raid: Redemption


Action movies are a dime a dozen depending on which bargain bin of whatever high street supermarket you happen to saunter into containing whatever 80s actor most likely waiting for his call-up to the next Expendables film. However it's very much been the case, in this blogger's opinion, that truly great action movies have been something of a rarity in recent years. Even the best examples I can pluck from my questionable memory tend to either be superhero films - most recently The Avengers - or really stylish pieces of indie thrillers - most notably Drive and Headhunters. Though the 'action' element is used so sparingly, I wouldn't really class any of them as action films per say in the way you would films like 70s/80s era John Carpenter films, the first Die Hard or even the fabulous Borne films.

Sometimes you just want ballsy no nonsense, intense action with jaw dropping  choreographed fight scenes and an absurdly high body count. Step up The Raid: Redemption, from Welsh director Gareth Evans and the producers of Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to offer all this and more...

On the surface the story is as relatively straight forward as the tagline on the poster suggests; 20 elite cops storming 30 floors of an apartment building ran by a sinister crime lord and populated by some of the sickest thugs around. As you might expect it all goes horribly wrong as the cops fight for their lives in an unrelenting hell. However as the story slowly develops, you learn all is not quite as it seems and bigger forces are at work behind the scenes, which sets up the film's planned trilogy perfectly.

The film was scattered with fabulous turns from a totally unknown cast for me. Much praise must go to Iko Uwais for his compelling lead, but even more so for his utterly fantastic, no holds barred, martial arts action which gives the audience some of the best fight scenes I've seen in a film in so long. Really, no film I saw last year put as much thought into their characters on screen deaths like The Raid did. Some of it wasn't exactly in good taste, but I'd be lying if I didn't think it was satisfying. Special mention must also go to the villain of the piece played by Ray Sahetapy, he was creepy and left me feeling uneasy after his marvellous introductory scene picking off a bunch of hostages one by one.

It's rare you sit in a cinema and hear the audience go "ooo" or "aww" any time a death comes. Only the Saw franchise has probably conjured such a reaction...or The Human Centipede if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself watching that in the cinema. With The Raid the action is so intense, when it stops for a breather you can't relax because there's this genuine sense of dread and suspense it will start again at any given moment. Though this seemed to add to the enjoyment, especially if you find yourself watching it with a bunch of mates. Such the novelty of seeing such a good example of this flagging genre, I even found myself smiling at the gloriously organised chaos which unfolded.

A few production notes, Evans seemed to channel from such films as Assault on Precinct 13, Die Hard and a lesser extent The Warriors for his visual cues, but also every much conjured the feel of old John Woo films in his pre-Hollywood days. He also gets extra points for not dragging the film out any longer than it needed to be. This was a director who just seemed to get the balance of everything you'd expect from these films right. One of the stand out surprises from the film was learning the fantastic score was written partly by Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park fame.

Final Thoughts
Relentless, dispassionate, stylish, brutal, bloody, wonderful. The Raid is one of those films which eats you up and spits you out again before you're able to full take in what actually happened. It's no nonsense, it doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is, instead of featuring washed up B-Movie actors it features guys you believe could properly kick your ass. Lads, 100 man points for all upon entry to this film. Shame about the already planned US remake...

4.5/5

The Raid: Redemption is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from May 18th 2012

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cafe de Flore


Cafe de Flore, the latest film from from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) is one of those films where you have to try harder than most to suspend all levels of logic and reality to accept the film's baffling conclusion. Or maybe not, depending on your belief system. Unfortunately however the resulting story was very much one of two halves. A beautiful story, set in 1960s Paris, about the relationship between a mother and her son with Down syndrome, and the trials and tribulations which come along with that; most notably the boy falling in love with a little girl with a similar condition.

While the other seemingly unrelated story takes place in modern day Montreal about a perfectly healthy man who is suffering the consequences of leaving his childhood sweetheart, whom he married and had two daughters with, for another woman. They're linked, and in more ways than a simple tune which shares the title of the film, and you'll probably never guess why until you watch the film. Even then you might justifiably think it was all a little convoluted. Which is a shame, and here's why...

Had the film been entirely set in the 1960s narrative with the wonderful Vanessa Paradis as Jacqueline, the mother of Laurent (Marin Gerrier) it could have been one of the most moving and beautifully acted period dramas seen in a cinema this year. This really touching story about the lengths a mother goes for her child, that admirable level of commitment seven days a week, nearly 24 hours a day. Then the struggles she faces when she realises the son isn't as overly depended on her like he may have once been, after he meets his new friend. Vallee should be applauded for how he judged this portion of the film, and the level of sensitivity demonstrated with a delicate subject matter at hand.

Unfortunately he decided to bring the modern day narrative into it, which on its own isn't a bad film either, just maybe not quite as interesting. The relationships between the characters and the personal journeys each were set on, was sort of how Terrence Malick's Tree of Life should have progressed if you strip it away of the Douglas Turnbull theatrics - which I'm still a fan of, CGI dinosaurs and all. Or a really pretentious Love Actually. On the face of it, it seems like a man dealing with a mid-life crisis while his ex-wife Carole - played wonderfully by Helen Florent - tries to pick herself up and move on from the fact her husband has found another soul mate.

Visually it can be quite harrowing and uncomfortable to watch, a lot of incoherent night time shots and haunting shots set within the dreams of Carole's character as she comes to terms with the existential conclusions she draws from her dreams and why these two completely different stories are linked through existence. The film's conclusion will either leave you feeling a bit bothered, confused, baffled, or angry at how naff you think it is. The wonderful thing about this film is that it will spark a varying degree of emotions from its audience, but the cynic inside me just feels the director had two good scripts and didn't want to make two short films out of them.

I particularly enjoyed the use of music throughout the film, obviously the song Cafe de Flore featured continuously in a billion* *several different remixes depending on what period the story was set in as a way of linking it across the narratives. Also in the soundtrack was one of my favourite bands of all time, Sigur Ros and even Pink Floyd graced my ears again to reminds myself it's been too long since I've gave Dark Side of the Moon a play on the ipod. Maybe lost a bit of points for the appearance of Snow Patrol in the background, but at least it wasn't yet another repeat of Chasing Cars.

Final Thoughts
Cafe de Flore was two potentially great dramas trying to masquerade as one great film, but the heavy handed management of the film's revelations left it being an okay, reasonably decent film at best. Which is a shame because the acting from both the modern day and past set of truly likeable characters is tremendous, the dynamic and relationships between everyone is handled with grace and the recreation of 1960s Paris is bloody wonderful. It's not that I didn't get the ending, I just didn't believe in it and this film didn't do enough to change that opinion, and perhaps there lies the problem.

3/5

Cafe de Flore is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from Friday May 11th, 2012. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Avengers Assemble


And so it's finally here, five films, a few A-List actors, a dozen of supporting characters, various devious villains, a few end of the world scenarios and it's all came down to this. Yes, Marvel Films ambitious five year plan to bring the big screen versions of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor together at the same time is here in the form of Avengers Assemble - or simply The Avengers if you're reading this from the USA.

The man set with the goliath task of juggling these larger than life characters and putting them into a coherent film is - as mentioned in my Cabin in the Woods review - geek god, Joss Whedon. Films like this have always been a little hit or miss in the wrong hands, but since Whedon has experience with ensemble stories in the past such as his brilliant Buffy The Vampire Slayer saga as well as the gloriously doomed sci-fi series Firefly and its film adaptation Serenity, he gets the balance just about right and even throws in a couple of surprises along the way.

The returning stars of the show, Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlet Johansson (Black Widow) and Sam L Jackson (Nick Fury) are exactly how the audience left them in their previous outings and delivered to such entertaining effect. The real surprise however was the brilliant addition of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk - replacing Ed Norton from the previous big screen version.  His version of Bruce Banner/The Hulk was maybe at an advantage over his two predecessors in the role, getting to play off the sheer absurdity of the situation at hand and developing great chemistry with his co-stars, as oppose to having to carry the film alone, brooding and juggling his inner demons. Due to this Ruffalo's Banner came across much more light hearted incarnation of the character but still managed to explode into life gloriously when he 'Hulked Out'.

It was a bit of a shame Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye didn't get as much chance to shine as some of his team mates did, as he added an extra level of class to the proceedings any time he was on screen. However, his limited use and his screen time with Johansson managed to flesh out his backstory without the need for convoluted flashbacks and moments of angst which would clog up an already packed film. Where a lot of the Marvel films have faltered over the years for me is in the distinct lack of a genuinely interesting villain. Thankfully when (forgive the pun) assembling The Avengers, Whedon opted for the best of the bunch in Tom Hiddleston's Loki who unsurprisingly was excellent from beginning to end; typically dastardly, still licking his wounds from the emotional conclusions of Thor and setting the film up for its explosive action packed third act.

Returning to the fold was a bunch of characters from all the previous films leading up to it in various supporting roles and cameos. Most notable was Clark Gregg as SHIELD agent Phil Coulson, the man whom (with the exception of Fury) ties this universe of characters together. Stellan Skarsgard manages to reprise his supporting role from Thor as scientist Erik Selvig, and plays a bigger role in the overall plot than one might expect. Gwyneth Paltrow even takes the time to share a couple of scenes with RDJ as his on again/off again love interest Pepper Potts while Paul Bettany returns to voice Iron Man's virtual butler, Jarvis.   New to the proceedings and coming across very well in her few scenes was How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders as SHEILD agent, Maria Hill.

Even in a two and a half hour running time, managing to have proper use for all these characters in a meaningful way was always going to cause problems at certain points. Where it stumbles the most is probably in the first act bringing everything together, but unlike say... Nolan's Batman series where the genre was taken in directions it'd never really been before, The Avengers was never about being anything more than a giant, entertaining, spectacle. It's thankfully this in abundance. Almost like a superhero movie equivalent of Comic Relief.  Each and every character gets their chance to shine also, be it in more intimate one-to-one segments like a surprisingly endearing scene between Banner and Stark about The Hulk, or the bigger moments when you see The Hulk utterly level the impending alien invasion heading Earth's.

I don't agree with all the film techniques Whedon used in the film, some really strange camera shots might make you feel queasy if watching the film in 3D - which I thankfully did not. Nevertheless I'd probably rate the film's dialogue and overall delivery as some of the finest work Whedon has scripted in his long and illustrious career, which I can only imagine will go to new levels now off the projected box-office success of this film and the critical acclaim from The Cabin in the Woods. It's been a long and torturous road and when you see films like Battleships getting made you know Hollywood isn't quite there yet but with this and the likes of X-Men: First Class and Super 8 before it and The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and the Spider-Man reboot to come, I get this warm and fussy - possibly diluted - feeling that the blockbuster genre is starting to return to a more meaningful event status like it did when I was a kid seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen for the first time.

The special effects were brilliant and used in a way Michael Bay should probably take a moment to consider next time he plagues our cinema screens. I particularly enjoyed the set designs for the famous SHIELD heli-carrier which looked like it was ripped straight from the comics. If I'm being overly critical however I'd say the one thing the film was severely lacking was a memorable theme tune in the score. Not to say Alan Silvestri's stellar work was awful, but even as I sit here typing up this review I'm really struggling to hum along to any of it like I would occasionally with Williams' Superman score or Elfman's Batman and his underrated Spider-Man scores.

As usual with Marvel films be sure to stay until after the main credits roll, and for the obligatory cameo from Stan Lee.

Final Thoughts
Avengers Assemble is exactly what you expect from a film where superheroes team up to save the world from an impending, seemingly unwinnable situation. There's loads of action, there's the odd moment of tension, there's a dastardly villain and scattered throughout a lot of moments of genuine comic relief. Don't expect it to be a game changer, don't expect it to be the finest example the genre has to offer, because it definitely isn't. However even the harshest of cynics can't deny the sights of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor standing together, saving the world isn't some of the most satisfying entertainment you'll see on a big screen for some time. Well done, Mr Whedon. Well done.

4/5

Avengers Assemble is in cinemas everywhere now. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods


If there is one name you better get use to hearing through April 2012, then it is undoubtedly the one of Mr Joss Whedon; geek god and creator of such wonderful things like the acclaimed TV series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and such cult hits as Firefly, Dollhouse and Angel. He even has a writing credit to his name on the now legendary Pixar fable, Toy Story and an extremely impressive run on Marvel's X-Men comics. He's also directed one of the biggest blockbusters this year. However, before he assembles the most anticipated superhero ensemble in...well...ever in The Avengers later this month, he took time to co-write and produce this intimate little horror tale called The Cabin in the Woods, directed by fellow collaborator Drew Goddard.

Much like Whedon and Goddard's previous projects, Cabin in the Woods takes a tired and predictable old formula of good looking kids getting mauled in a forest one by one by a deathly, satanic, horrific force and turns it on its head. With the exception of a few ponderous occurrences featuring the always brilliant Bradley Whitford (most famous for his turn as Josh in Aaron Sorkin's exceptional political drama, The West Wing) and an excellent Richard Jenkins the film starts out pretty much how you would expect a film like The Cabin in the Woods would. The secluded cabin, the creaky dark cellar, the uneasy back-story of a cruel family from the turn of the century and those pesky kids getting stoned, drunk, playing truth and/or dare and meddling with forces beyond their control.

If you've seen the trailer - for full effect I seriously suggest you don't - you'll already see nothing is quite what it seems and as the film's plot quickly unravels it paints a much darker and surprisingly more ambitious tale than previously imagined. Some of the plot is slightly suggestive of a few story arcs from Whedon's Buffy The Vampire series which will put die hard fans of the show into a fit of wonders, but it also cleverly uses his slick dialogue and almost satirical storytelling to give the audience a fitting tribute to all the best movies of the genre.

It has echoes of The Evil Dead in abundance, it also has hints of Hellraiser, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes, The Strangers, The Ring, The Wolfman, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Prince of Darkness, Texas Chainshaw amongst countless others. It also does a curious thing where, due to aspects of the plot I'll try so hard not to spoil here, you find yourself wanting the impending victims to all get killed. Not because they're vain, moronic, stuck-up douchebags like in most of these films. They're not. Quite the opposite in fact, they feature extremely charismatic and likeable performances from Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, Frans Kranz, Jesse Williams and a wonderful turn from Kristen Connolly in arguably the leading role.

It has a fun time of showing why in the event of death lurking outside the door, common sense seemingly goes right out the window during these sorts of movies. While the kids are fleeing from all kinds of crazy stuff, you have a curious Truman Show-esque sub-plot going on featuring the aforementioned Whitford and Jenkins alongside fun appearances from Whedon stalwarts, Amy Acker and Tom Lenk as well as Tim De Zarn, Brian White and a delightfully poised cameo from Sigourney Weaver. The only thing it was missing was a few choice appearances from the Serenity crew and some fans might have geeked out to death in a corner somewhere...

Don't let all this fool you though, this isn't a slightly more serious version of the Scary Movie franchise by any means. It still contains enough jumpy horror, gore, guts and unnerving scenes to appease anyone wanting a decent scare. Though unlike its storytelling the actual horror aspect is really nothing you haven't seen in all the films it pays tribute to many times before.

Final Thoughts
From a man who really doesn't enjoy watching horror films compared to most of the movie going public, I put my hands up and say The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I've had so far in 2012 and will happily watch it again right now if asked. It's smart, funny, horrific and contains some playful dialogue and fantastic performances from some of the most hard-working, most celebrated and simply most likeable American actors working in television at the minute. Essential for fans of horror, equally so if you're not.

4/5

The Cabin in the Woods is in cinemas everywhere now.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Headhunters


Following in the footsteps of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo is the latest Scandinavian literary phenomenon to sweep the murder mystery genre and yet again turning it on its head with bleak Nordic landscapes, mind boggling plot twists and a memorable protagonist in the form of Detective Harry Hole. With The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Wallander proving amazing hits with the USA and Europe, it was only a matter of time before someone took all this and turned it into a big screen adaptation. However, before Martin Scorsese brings Harry Hole to the cinema sometime in the next couple of years, some folks in Nesbo's native country of Norway opted to to adapt his lesser known and seemingly utterly terrific stand alone thriller, Headhunters (Hodejegenre).

Starring Aksel Hennie, the film tells the tale of corporate headhunter Roger Brown, an insecure and desperate man who resorts to stealing works of art to provide for his wife's expensive tastes in life. Upon a chance encounter at the opening of his beautiful wife's new art gallery, he goes on one last heist for a piece of art belonging to a mysterious ex-marine by the name of Clas Greve (Game of Thrones' own Jamie Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) which is thought to be worth hundreds of millions of krones. Unsurprisingly when the heist goes wrong and Roger stumbles onto a bigger plot, which results in a deathly chase on his own life, the film desecnds into an action packed journey of total, utter carnage the stuff of which Nicolas Winding Refn would be proud of.

Where Headhunters proves to be one of the stand out releases in the cinema, so far this year, is in its completely seamless merging of various sub-genres. It opens almost as this strange caper parody, where this suave businessman who loves his wife just goes on a To Catch A Thief-esque night life of  stealing glorious pieces of art and sleeping with his mistress then coming back to his mundane job in the morning. Yet curiously as the film progresses and plot twists are revealed all over the place, the film morphs into this smartly written, no holds barred action film full of pretty mental violence and intense car chases...with a tractor...and an unfortunate end to a dog. But anyway...

From the same company, Yellow Bird, that brought the original Wallander series and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptations, one of the most telling things about Headhunters is how the money generated from the success of the previous two franchises has clearly reaped dividends in this superior, clearly bigger budget feature.The production quality was just lifted to a much more measured and mature level, with some terrific pacing and slick story-telling.

The quality of actors was also evident, with Hennie proving to be an endearing lead as the protagonist, while Coster-Waldau plays a role not unlike his devious, backstabbing, complex, silent assassin persona of Jamie Lannister in the excellent Game of Thrones, as the villain of the piece Clas Greve. Special mention must go to the blonde beauty of Synnove Macody as Roger's wife Diane and Eivind Sander as Roger's partner in crime, the utterly bonkers, gun and prostitute obsessed Ove.

Final Thoughts
If you didn't know Jo Nesbo from constantly seeing his books on the shelves of Waterstones, then you'll undoubtedly have your interest peaked after seeing this highly charged, genre-bending, carnage inspiring, action packed example of a film in Headhunters. It has action, intensity, a lot of really creditable black humour and some terrific performances and a few really choice moments which will give the more risque moments of films like Drive a run for their money. The Scandinavian invasion continues. Hunt it out right now. Well, what are you waiting for?

4.5/5

Headhunters is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from April 6th, 2012.