Friday, 30 March 2012

Wrath of the Titans

Keen readers might remember when I reviewed the Clash of the Titans remake, back in March 2010, that I slated it with a venomous bile and then some - ceremoniously making my top three worst films of the year in the Panic Shots End of Year podcast. So fast forward two years later and finding that I chose to spend more of my own money to see if the sequel had fared any better, you perhaps have reasonable grounds to phone the men in white coats on me. However I digress, let's get down to it. The big question here is, does Wrath beat Clash? Well in a couple of ways yes, in far too many ways not really...

Set about 10 years after the events of the first film, the heroic demi-god Perseus (Sam Worthington) has settled for a quiet mundane life as a common fisherman since he defeated the Kraken and saved the world from Hades (Ralph Fiennes) clutches. Unsurprisingly these heroic deeds haven't sat well with the Lord of the Underworld  and with the help of the God of War - unfortunately not the cool one from the videogame series - Aeries (Edgar Rameriez) they set a course events to reek revenge upon the world and Hades brother, Zeus (Liam Neeson) by unleashing the titan, Cronus.

Generally the acting fared much better this time round with Sam Worthington looking much more comfortable in the leading role if still remaining unconvincing in leading action roles in these eyes. Though with a 'been there, done that' approach to the action and general carnage, he still slipped in and out of his so so English accent back into his native Australian. He also lost some man points for the floppy hair-do he was sporting. Also with his more relaxed approach none of the film's story or sub-plot points really had much urgency to it. He looked about as laid back going up against the impressive CGI lava mess of Cronus as he probably does cooking a Sunday family dinner. To put it simply he just didn't look all that arsed about the whole affair.

Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes as Zeus and Hades respectively were given a much more rounded characterisation this time and both Oscar winners lent themselves well enough to the material they had on hand. However why they couldn't be afford a shave between them is a mystery in itself. The new additions of Bill Nighy and Toby Kebbell - two of my favourite British actors - was very much welcomed but their characters were curious at best. Their presence served as light relief but in an epic blockbuster of preventing the apocalypse, they took the edge out of the whole affair. Their dialogue was handled horribly, taking the film into the realms of satire. Seriously it felt like it was lifted from a bad cut of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in parts or Carry On Titans...

Like Gemma Arteton before her in the first film, the generally lovely Rosamund Pike playing Queen Andromeda served little purpose to the overall plot besides a way into the story for Kebbell's character and a truly unexplained love story subplot with Worthington. You must give them credit for trying but this is not the time or place for emotional subtext.

To Jonathan Liebesman's credit his effort Wrath of the Titans was vastly superior to his god awful tribute to the American armed forces in Battle: Los Angeles. It's just a shame for Mr Liebesman this isn't really a compliment as Wrath of the Titans suffers from the same production pitfalls as its predecessor. The CGI was spectacular, but yet again the visuals didn't lent itself well to the 3D experience. Wrath, just like Clash. feels like an almost claustrophobic experience when caught in the dark tunnel hole of 3D glasses, and still a very unpleasant chore which isn't worth shelling out the guts of a tenner for in most cinemas.

One more point should be made - not necessarily the director's fault, and yes it's extremely pedantic of me - something which really needs to be addressed for (god forbid the thought) any future instalments of the franchise. Take note folks, yes Wrath of the Titans is an improvement on Clash of the Titans in that it contains an actual Titan from the rich tapestry of Greek Mythology. However why oh why mention titans in a plural sense if you only have one. One! TITAN. NOT TITANS.

Final Thoughts
If you love to feel brain dead while watching a film, sure Wrath of the Titans isn't a chore by any means. However a reasonably decent plot suffers greatly from some strangely comedic dialogue, needless supporting characters, lack of real urgency and a titanic threat who can barely string more than two words together per sentence. Lest we forget the misleading title... won't stay in the memory for long, and not for the right reasons.


Wrath of the Titans is out everywhere now.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I read The Hunger Games around this time a year ago. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, it was a pretty good read but it could have done without that 'Twilight nonsense' towards the end. Unfortunately for Suzanne Collins' story it was that memory which stayed imprinted in my mind up until the release of the film we see before us today. I'd like to apologise for such words, as it does such a disservice to a dark, thought provoking yet ultimately hopeful story. Thankfully under Gary Ross' slick direction The Hunger Games is one of those rare literary adaptations which is a fantastic experience on its own while staying enormously true to its source material.

Starring the consistently excellent Jennifer Lawrence, the film tells the story of a time, set far into the future, where North America is segregated into 12 Districts, each as progressively more underdeveloped than the last. By ritual, as a way to keep this fragile peace between the districts, each zone is required to enter two teenagers into the annual Hunger Games - a no holds barred, survival contest where the last person alive wins...yes pretty much exactly like that Japanese film from 2000, Battle Royale. So up comes young Katniss Evergreen from the terribly run-down mining zone, District 12, as she bids to survive so she can return to her family.

One of the reasons The Hunger Games gets unfairly compared to Twilight is because of a minor sub-plot of the inner conflict Katniss has in regards to her feelings for her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) - neither of which are a vampire or a werewolf, while on the subject. However where the film version of The Hunger Games triumphs over Twilight's is Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss is strong, compassionate, independent and ultimately very likeable and accessible to all the audience, not just lovesick 15 year old girls.

Truth be told, Lawrence's role wasn't a million miles removed from her stunning breakout, Oscar-nominated, performance in the chilling Winter's Bone. It was never the need for glory which willed Katniss on. It was the hope she'd see her sister again, be there for her family. Amongst the bleak, dystopian, backdrop it paints quite a sweet, humanistic, story.

The supporting performances were tremendous. Josh Hutcherson's Peeta was this plucky, likeable, underdog who you can't really help but feel for as the film progresses. Elizabeth Banks' visually bonkers, yet emotionally suppressed, Effie Trinket was seemingly ripped straight from the pages of Collins original story. Lenny Kravitz gave another assured performance as the humble stylist to Katniss, Cinna. Donald Sutherland was particularly menacing as the ruthless President Snow and definitely sets his role up to be bigger and more sinister in the planned sequels. Special mention must go to Woody Harrelson as Katniss' mentor Haymitch, just because y'know...he's Woody Harrelson. The excellent casting choices just added this undeniable weight of creditability to an already smart, emotional, and at times very much epic sci-fi adventure.

The other children featured in The Hunger Games were sparsely used in comparison but the few who were used to the same effect as they were in the novel were brilliant. Special mention must go to the sickeningly innocent Amandla Stenberg as Pew from District 11. She has the good fortune of probably sharing the most emotional driven scene in the entire film along with Lawrence, and bound to be the cause of a few tears shed in cinemas in the coming weeks.

I can't stress enough how accomplished an effort this was from director, Gary Ross. The world he created from the pages of Collins was such a visual treat. He must also be commented for the way he handled the violence which is rife in the books. Some might see it as a cop out when you compare it next to the ultra-violent daftness of Battle Royale, but the key difference lies in the story telling. The Hunger Games was never about watching kids kill each other for two hours, it was simply about a girl who would do anything to get home to her family. There's something very human in that, and Ross was smart to bring that to the forefront of the whole experience.

As well as the stunning set designs and smart use of computer generated effects the sombre tones and earthly sounds of James Newton Howard's emotive score was mighty. Definitely worth listening to on its own but you'll never quite recreate some of the film's best scenes unless you're watching it on the biggest screen you can find.

Final Thoughts
A bold, engrossing, smart and even at times epic piece of film-making on a somewhat modest budget compared to some of its peers. The dystopian setting aside, the film is carried beautifully by another sincerely brilliant performance from Jennifer Lawrence. If you want a bunch of kids brutally killing each other go watch the brilliant Battle Royale, but if you want a film which tells an accessible story full of heart, you'll be hard pressed to find a better film in the cinema this year than The Hunger Games. Seriously - and in many ways surprisingly - it's worth your time.


The Hunger Games is in cinemas everywhere now.

Saturday, 10 March 2012


I'm going to be brutally honest and expose how terribly uncultured I actually am. I've never read Tess of the D'Ubervilles. I know, I'm sorry, for someone who likes to go around calling himself a writer and never experiencing the works of Thomas Hardy, yes, it's a bit of a faux pas on my part. However I have seen this new film by the ever evolving Michael Winterbottom, which bases itself on Hardy's novel, I'm reviewing today called Trishna. It's very good. And here's why...

Set in various parts of India the film tells the story of a young woman named Trishna (Freida Pinto) as she goes off to work in a gorgeous hotel miles away from home, so she can support her family after a terrible accident inflicted upon her father. By doing so she meets a dashing rich man (Riz Ahmed) who sweeps Trishna off her feet and together they start a new life. Of course this seemingly sweet love story slowly descends into something much darker, much more primal and so inexplicably bonkers. Don't let the soundtrack fool you, this was surely not the stuff of Bollywood cinema.

I'll excuse Ms Pinto's last outing on the blog, for her contribution to Woody Allen's god awful You'll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, on account she was far from being the worst thing in it. Thankfully in Trishna she shined as the title character, in this irresistible blend of being coyly shy and mysterious then being outrageously sexy when it was called upon. Ignorantly speaking I can only imagine her characterisation in the film of being very respectful, not overly outspoken or disrespectful to Ahmed's character in ways shows off the social hierarchical system in the country, considering Trishna's impoverished background. That said, her will and determination is what drives the film forward. This relentless yearning to keep on bettering herself and moving forward, until it all gets a little bit too much.

The film got curiously stranger through the evolution of Ahmed's character, the initially charming and generous Jay. He courts Trishna like any gentleman of wealth and means would, extravagant gifts, sweeping her away from a torrid life in a factory to the bustling, progressive, metropolis of Bombay. The works. Suddenly through certain non-spoiler revelations he becomes progressively crueller and bitter resulting in one of the most emotionally charged finales I've seen in a film so far in 2012. I can understand why some people watching it would find it all a little baffling, but for some reason it all just connects for me. Almost Mad Men-esque in the falseness of it all, on the surface, compared to the darkness bubbling underneath.

Though I find Winterbottom's films a little hit/miss, 2010's The Killer Inside Me being most dull for such an exciting subject, with Trishna it's a true feast for the senses; from the exotic music to the vivid, intoxicating, backdrops and art design. Having a quick breakdown of the story the film is based on, you can see where Winterbottom's screenplay is quite smartly adapted from Hardy's source material, but its highest accolate is that regardless of the Thomas Hardy link the film stands on its own merit so beautifully. It's just as serenely uplifting as it is poetically tragic.

Final Thoughts
Trishna is a truly powerful film on so many levels. Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed's performances make it just as much a creditable love story as it is some utterly mental sexual odyssey into the darkness which lies in one's soul. Though its evolution is slightly clumsy at times, Michael Winterbottom has created a film which is visually glorious and allows you to immerse yourself in the richness of India's urban and rural landscapes. Beautiful, haunting, sexy, twisted, tragic. Excellent.


Trishna is in selected cinemas through the UK now.

Friday, 9 March 2012

John Carter

We'll start this review off with a small history lesson. Are you paying attention? Very good. In 1912 the great American author Edgar Rice Burroughs - most famous for his Tarzan novels - created a character whose influence can be seen in some of the most famous pieces of science fiction & fantasy from Superman to Flash Gordon to all six Star Wars films to even as recent as James Cameron's Avatar and a lesser extent Joss Whedon's tragically short lived series, Firefly.

Yet - after years of residing in the far reaches of development hell - it is only on the centenary year of the character's creation we finally see John Carter of Mars' first official cinematic blockbuster début. Which as always begs the question; can the grandfather of sci-fi adventure hold his own next the icons which it inspired, or frankly feel like dated pretender to sleeker, more advanced models?

Starring Taylor Kitsch in the title role, John Carter tells the story of a jaded American Civil War soldier who finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars (or Barsoom to its inhabitants) to find a planet, rich in diverse creatures and stunning dessert landscapes, torn by its own global war. Through a surreal odyssey of self discovery Carter discovers he has enhanced abilities on Mars - including, 'Leaping tall buildings in a single bound,' ala Superman - he never had on Earth and sets himself on his way to becoming a champion for justice for the four armed aliens the Tharks and freeing the peaceful people of Helium from the tyranny of the odious empire of Zodanga.

Kitsch gets a lot of needless stick ever since he popped up in that god-awful Wolverine film as Gambit nearly three years ago. However I've always found him quite a likeable soul and this translates well into the characterisation of John Carter. He's the perfect mix of the morally grey Han Solo weariness and Superman's golden moral compass to do something that's true and just. What he lacks in bulky presence from how I imagined Carter from Burrough's novels, he more than makes up for in a bit of class and personality.

The supporting roles were also handled surprisingly well, especially when you consider the dialogue felt like it was ripped straight from a 1950s B-Movie at times. Lynn Collins was particularly enchanting as Carter's headstrong love interest Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars herself, and even pulled off reasonably convincing English accent for a lass from Texas. Dominic West was dastardly as Sab Than the ruler of the villainous Zondanga. Mark Strong dropped back into his typecast bad guy mode as the mysterious leader of the Holy Therns to the usual desired effect.

Other notable contributions was Northern Ireland's own Ciaran Hinds as the father of Collins character, the ruler of Helium, Tardos Mors and Daryl Sabara appearing as Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. Also the brilliant Bryan Cranston makes a brief appearance the film's beginning. Everything is improved with characters from Breaking Bad. Then in true Pixar fashion the real stars of the feature were the impressive CGI characters in the form of the Tharks voiced by William Defoe and Samantha Morton and - the best thing of the whole feature - John Carter's pet alien Woola which is the cutest thing ever and runs the dog from The Artist close for star appearances from an animal...sort of...

After a string of successes for Pixar over recent years, including one of the best films of the last decade in Wall-e, director Andrew Stanton's first live action effort is every bit as wondrous as an old school 80s Spielberg film, especially in the excellent opening with Carter on the run from both Apaches and American Civil War soldiers - set next to a glorious score from the ever-rising Michael Giacchino. He should also be applauded for the way he handled the rich mythology the books contain with such narrative ease. It also works very easily as a stand alone film, while also setting up the oodles of potential sequels that can come from such a potentially mega franchise Disney could have on their hands, if they cared that wee bit more.

The set pieces were grand and spectacularly devastating in scale and the more light hearted moments (there's a few, just warning you) were just the right blend of comedy and corniness to make it a well rounded family film for all. If its guilty of anything, it's sadly the fact I can't see the film standing the test of the time like most of the iconic films that it inspired such as Star Wars (though if I'm being honest 10 minutes of this is still miles better than all three of George Lucas' prequels), Superman and Planet of the Apes. Compound that with Disney's marketing campaign for the film, which was nothing short of disgraceful, I'm seriously dubious we'll see some of the excellent sequels adapted in the near future.

Final Thoughts
John Carter's significance in the annuals of pop culture history doesn't excuse some of the clumsy flaws the film suffers. Nevertheless the film is still packed full of adventure, wonder, suspense, Spielberg-esque cheesy wholesomeness and a tonne of genuinely likeable performances from a charismatic cast. Whether that's enough to warrant further adventures from the Lord of Barsoom, only time will tell. For now though it's just enough for this blogger and while I'm here can someone tell me where I can buy a Moola?


John Carter is in cinemas everywhere now.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Bel Ami

Even in the decadent setting of 19th Century Paris, at the beginning of Bel Ami, Robert Pattinson still manages to look like a dull, uncharismatic, vampire in need of a good shag. However least he somewhat heeds this advice and works his way through Paris' female social elite in the form of the ravishing Christina Ricci, voluptuous Uma Thurman and refined Kristen Scott Thomas. Which, as always, begs the question; is this one man rise to power via a steamy sexual odyssey as hot as Joann Sfar's excellent Gainsbourg or as brutally dull as David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method? sort of meets half way...

Based on the novel, first published in 1885, by Guy de Maupassant, the film tells the tale of the bitterly down on his luck ex-soldier Georges Duroy (Pattinson) who gains a job as a journalist after a chance encounter with an old friend (Philip Glenister). By introducing him to the social elite of Paris, Duroy strikes up affairs with the aforementioned women of the tale and somehow finds himself stumbling across a media controlled conspiracy to bring down the current French government. To its credit the story is more interesting than some like minded films I've seen in the past but its let down by some bizarre casting and hammy performances.

Robert Pattinson portrayal of the petulant, egotistical, greedy Duroy was let down by some needless brooding which served him so well in those Twilight films - but not so much in this. He was rightly an unsympathetic soul with little room for redemption as the film went on. Whether he had the last laugh or not by the film's conclusion was up to the audience's imagination.

With the supporting performances of Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci the film turned into a real mixed bag. Never once was I completely sure if the story was some cheeky, satirical, examination of 19th Century Parisian society, or alternatively just a really clumsy, supposedly serious, period drama. Thurman probably fared the best in this sort of femme fatale role she adopts as the film progresses while Ricci was the naive wallflower who continuously kept running back to Georges after he repeatedly messed her about. Thomas however adopted a role I've never really seen her in before, usually the personification of calm and cool, she revealed herself to be a sexually repressed bunny boiler and perhaps had one of the stand out comedic moments in the film's closing moments, involving her funeral-like attire at a wedding.

Visually there's little wrong with the film. It even managed to shake off the cinematic cliché that the Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window in Paris. Though that was made up with the Scare Coeur appearing in the background of everywhere Pattinson's character walked, just to remind the audience we were - that's right - indeed in Paris.

Final Thoughts
A fascinating story of love, lust, greed and media controlled conspiracies is let down by some ham-fisted performances from the film's leads. Unfortunately Bel Ami is ultimately a very confused film, never really sure whether it wanted to be a darkly, serious, period drama or some dressed up excuse of satirical social commentary. Oh well, c'est la vie...


Bel Ami is in selected films throughout the UK from March 9th 2012. Belfast audiences will be able to see the film from the Queen's Film Theatre.