Monday, 29 August 2011

Review: Being Sold

So far in 2011 British independent films are doing rather well, with recent hits such as The Guard and forthcoming crime/horror, Kill List, receiving critical acclaim, it's therefore only right to take note of other such efforts, albeit it on a smaller scale. Northern based writer/director, Phil Hawkins, proves that you need neither excessive budgets, nor an extensive shooting schedule to make a good feature film. The award winning, Being Sold, was filmed over a mere 48-hour period and is quite an achievement considering its 77-minute running time.

The story begins as a news crew pound the front door of unemployed and hung-over, John (Christopher Dane), who, in an inebriated state the night previous, places himself for sale on an online auction site. As the media and public gather, his problems are exacerbated by disgruntled wife, Lara (Eva Pope), as she pressures him to end the auction- and with it the debacle that is taking place on their lawn. The appealing option to John is to allow the bidding to play out in the hope of cashing in on his story and subsequent fame. This dilemma acts as a focal point, as does the fickle nature of society and indeed, the media that are hell bent on a scoop, as we are overtly exposed to the ruthless nature of said types, in the form of attractive reporter, Maia (Jessica Blake).

John's slobbish best friend, Chris (Lee Boardman), prove his worth as he provides a bulk of the laughs, as he effortlessly steals the scenes he's in, with a friendship reminiscent of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead. Other support hits the comedic mark in the shape of TV's Roy Walker as a Professor of, ahem, garbage, as a host of names make up the list, including Lesley Joseph, Terry Christian and Gordon Burns.

The story moves with momentum, only slowing on occasion during lengthy dialogue, until a pleasant twist concludes the proceedings. It makes for an interesting watch, as it delivers a message that 15-minutes of fame is precisely that, as an obsession for 'celebrity' and reality TV has warped the fragile minds of the masses.

Being Sold is well made, including a sharp edit and articulate direction; the film reads as a compelling social commentary and entertains simultaneously with a nicely devised script. The serious, mixed with the light-hearted works well; we see some genuine funny moments nicely dotted throughout. An impressive cast with an even more impressive shooting schedule certainly makes this an accomplished indie film worth seeing.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Rating: 12A
Duration: 118 mins

Earlier in the year I took a look at this summer’s potential big hitters. The three in question were Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which turned out to be one of the worst films of the year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in stark contrast was a massive surprise and, along with Super 8, remains my favourite of the summer months. The third was John Favreau's genre hybrid, Cowboys & Aliens. Initial responses to the trailers were largely positive and were further backed by an impressive cast that could outdo many of its competitors.

The success of Iron Man 2 grants its director, Faverau, the freedom to envision this western-cum-sci-fi, action-adventure based on the popular comic book series of the same name. What's more, with heavyweights such as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig on board, it was hotly billed as 'Indy and Bond take on aliens in the wild west' - An interesting proposition indeed. With quality support in the shape of Sam Rockwell (Moon), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and the inclusion of House hottie, Olivia Wilde, all seemed to point towards an exciting feature that would pull off the feat of achieving something truly great. However, Cowboys & Aliens couldn't be further from this.

Alarm bells will ring among the more perceptive of viewers as the writer credits roll with a whopping five names, which is never a good sign as such pessimism is justified, as tonally it is very unbalanced. The opening scene introduces us to Jake (Craig), who wakes up in the middle of nowhere, void of memory, with an alien-like bracelet clamped to his wrist. Dazed and confused, he makes his way into the town of Absolution, as his new accessory turns a few heads. Local girl, Ella (Wilde), is appears as a mysterious resident who, for reasons unknown, decides to pay particular attention to our befuddled cowboy. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) enters the mix as tough talking, iron fist of the town, who pursues Jake after learning of the bounty on his head. Cue a standoff between the pair just as a swarm of alien crafts swoop over the town blowing up everything in sight and swiping various townsfolk, including Woodrow's son, Percy (Dano). This incident sets up a coalition between the two, and indeed the citizens in general, as they begin to track one injured alien back to base in order to rescue their captives. 

Craig's character initially looks confused as to his predicament, but this bewildered look is something that transpires throughout the entire film; seemingly he has little idea as to what is going on or what he should be doing. The same can be said when we meet the aptly named, Doc (Rockwell), the talent that built a name for himself in acclaimed indie, Moon, appears to have orders to act beneath his capabilities.

You takin' to me?: 'Bewildered' was one of the film's recurring themes
From the outset Ford looks like he's auditioning for a part in There Will Be Blood, complete with grumpy persona and oil tycoon attire to boot. Craig is lazily assembled too, presented as a run-of-the-mill cowboy wearing extremely tight pants, Toy Story's Woody comes across as a far more rounded and assured character than poor, misguided, Jake. After seeing gorgeous Olivia Wilde in The Change Up, she's more plain Jane than of the Calamity variety - the purpose of her inclusion is to create sexual magnetism with Jake and provide much needed eye candy, yet fails to do either.

In fact, establishing non complex, straight forward characters seems commonplace, as the performances never threaten to impress. Dano's turns in both Little Miss Sunshine and There Would Be Blood were superb but, like Rockwell, seem to be under instructions to act dumb as Woodrow’s loud mouth, bumbling son. Whether this simplicity is to remain in touch with the audience is debatable, but it prevents anyone from displaying any sort of depth. What is clear is that they needn't have assembled such a prestigious cast to portray lowly, one dimensional nobodies that lack any charm or charisma, that's for sure.

With promises of an intriguing western mixed with high octane sci-fi, the story actually plods along at a mule’s pace, with few alien based scenes until the latter stages. Favreau fails to splice the genres successfully, which leaves us with a fabricated and lifeless tale that, at the very least, could have taken some inspiration from the likes of True Grit or Meek's Cutoff in terms of creating an authentic American West. 

Script wise, it's sluggish and unsure of its intentions. There's nothing solid to progress with and offers the patient audience little reward. Inexplicable logic, plot twists and sillyness means you'll simply switch off as the final revelations will leave you questioning what the point was and indeed, who it is really aimed at; the conclusion is so misjudged and illogical it'll have you scratching your head until you realise how bullshit the script actually is.

Dazed & Confused: Craig wakes up to discover filming had already begun
The second major problem, other than the bad script, is its director. Favreau doesn't bode a particularly impressive CV and the manner in which he conducts proceedings only proves how out of his depth he is. Somehow he excels in rendering every character, including the leads, into limp, unlikable protagonists suffocated with misdirection, poor dialogue and cheesy scenes that ultimately break the film.
Favreau succeeds in alienating (if you'll excuse the pun) audiences, as our leads fail to engage and in truth you'll stop rooting for them within the first half hour. 

The aesthetic of CGI aliens have been the subject of much debate over the summer (notably Super 8) and in keeping with the rest of the experience, Cowboys & Aliens gives us run of the mill, mediocrity. Unimaginative creatures that resemble the gruesomeness of classic Aliens nasties; they possess limb extensions that break out from their bellies, as it fails to create anywhere near as much fear as the iconic horrors it attempts to rip off. The visual style isn't contextualised and further serves in shattering any illusion that it's a story set in 1873, reminding us of a modern film intending to recreate.

Cowboys & Aliens spectacularly fails to live up to its early promise. The whole thing quickly becomes lost in itself as it doesn't know what wants to do, let alone say. Everything from the acting, to the script, to the direction is below par, as is the ludicrous plot holes and revelations, which further suggest this was too big of a project for Favreau. Instead of containing meaning or logic, it opts for a unintelligent, yet accessible movie, which is a letdown considering what it could have been. Other than an intriguing premise, a few entertaining action sequences and acceptable CGI, there's really nothing else worth seeing here.


Check out my other reviews from Empire's BIG SCREEN at Live For Films

You can follow them on Twitter here

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Review: Fright Night 3D

Rating: 15
Duration: 106 mins

Hollywood horror has more often than not, been a bitter pill to swallow. Rarely does it manage to embrace the terrifying with the credible, thus a rise in success in horror sub genres, like Wes Craven pastiche, Scream, and more recently, the overt spoof franchise of Scary Movie. It was therefore just a matter of time before a light bulb illuminated in the mind of an industry big wig, to green light a remake of Tom Holland's 80's cult, comedy horror, Fright Night.

This review shan't compare this version to the '85 original, in an attempt to objectify this entry as an individual entity. Frankly, it becomes tiresome having to compare and contrast old and new, so shall cease to do so beyond this paragraph. The plots set up and conclude similarly, yet spirals off in the middle. All of this being irrelevant though, as we are presented with exactly the same, neatly formed outcome with a few alternative bumps in the night along the way.

When all-American teen, Charley (Anton Yelchin) is convinced by paranoid friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), that his new neighbour, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire, his mum (Toni Collette), nor the out-of-his-league girlfriend, (Imogen Poots), buy into his absurd claims. Set in Vegas, where its residents work nocturnal hours and hibernate in the day; it's the perfect cover for Jerry's night-walking antics. Cue some prepubescent snooping that alerts him to Charley and Ed's Scooby-like shenanigans. From this point on, Jerry plays a calculated game of invite-me-inside-or-suffer-the-deadly-consequences, as Charley tries in vain to protect the oblivious people in his life. When hope appears lost, he consults the only person he believes can aid him in ridding the place of the increasing army of neck biters- Peter Vincent, played by David Tennant.

As momentum builds, Vincent is properly introduced as a renowned Vegas performer and self proclaimed vamp hunter. His persona, whilst amusing, feels all too familiar in a pond-hoping, Russell Brand mold. His hair-do and facial growth even resembles Brand and tastes a little stale, considering the build up to his character's appearance. Thankfully Tennant grows into the role quickly, as he looks assured with clever dialogue; funny quips and scene stealing witticisms, which evoke many of the laughs, yet one can't help but denounce his casting as a tad gimmicky, in fitting with the film itself.

Aside from the obligatory jumps and scares is the surprise at how quickly the plot speeds towards setting up its climax. Before we even reach the half way mark, Jerry is already rampaging after these hapless mortals, which bemuses as to where the remaining 45-minutes will take us. By no means a traditionally paced script, it certainly gets ahead of itself and fails to play on the notion of how long Jerry can keep his secret, before his blood sucking tendencies are revealed, which feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity.

The most notable aspect is that director, Craig Gillespie, makes conscious references to its tongue in cheek nature, whilst blending it with a genuine acknowledgment towards serious scares.  Protagonists Charley and Vincent are presented in stark contrast to one another. The first is a straight-and-narrow teen, void of discernible qualities, whereas the latter is an over the top, whiskey glugging, eccentric, potty mouth. Furthermore, Farrell offers an altogether different angle; a perfect tongue in cheek, yet semi-serious performance, which proves the strongest of the lot. His subtle act only accentuates his witty lines, generating some genuine laughs with his pinpoint delivery, amidst a largely lacklustre script, often relying on inane dialogue to fill the gaps between the too-few-and-far-between entertaining scenes.

The supporting cast manage to sustain the story, but offer little, apart from the an in-form Mintz-Plasse, who replicates traits of his most recognised role as Superbad's Fogell, aka, McLovin', brilliantly. It works in conjunction to clean-cut, Charley, yet the script deems his presence unnecessary as the story progresses.

Fans of the genre and the original, as well as Tennant, are likely to gain more from the experience than others. It's engaging at times and non forceful in it's nature, as Fright Night entertains, but comes with its share of faults too. Logistically speaking, the plot is its weak element, as we are left to ponder over Jerry's motivations and why he becomes obsessed with killing the folks next door, when surely he has more important concerns, i.e. avoid arousing suspicion of his blood lusting ways. Maybe his vampish intuition knows something we don't, yet ceases to share justification in the pursuit of a lonely, single mum and two naive high schoolers.

It's important not to read too much into proceedings though, as it'll only leave you scratching your head. In terms of describing it as good, old-fashioned fun, it's more than worthy of the definition. However, in 2011 where all forms of the horror (sub) genre are exhausted; squeezed dry of sequels and prequels, and remade for good measure, Fright Night proves hard to differentiate from anything else seen before.

The conclusion plays out very formulaic; it's structured in an obvious manner. It conforms traditionally, as all plot holes and anomalies are tied up neatly- a little too neatly in honesty, as it surrenders any climactic suspense in favour of predictability.

The use of 3D is as saturated now as it has ever been, but saying this, it works in a way that amicably accentuates the experience. It's used overtly as a gimmick in the hope of adding to the films 'fun' intentions.

Fright Night is hit and miss; at times it's funny, even hilarious, especially with a well balanced performance from Colin Farrell, but unfortunately it's weighed down by a confused script and, more-often-than-not, lazy dialogue. It loses direction and urgency far too quickly considering the genre, as it plods towards an inevitable conclusion. First-timer, Tennant, performs adequately as he asserts himself into the thick of the action, but displays an inability to distinguish himself as something other than the Brit-breaking-Hollywood. Fright Night won't share the success of Scream or Scary Movie, but will fall into the sea of mediocrity with ease. As a horror-comedy cum homage, it's not bad, but then again, it ain't that great either.


Check out my other reviews from Empire's BIG SCREEN at Live For Films

You can follow them on Twitter here

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Review: Conan The Barbarian

Rating: 15
Duration: 112 mins

There's no doubt a remake can gain masses of negativity, and that's even before a camera begins to roll.  Undeniably, Hollywood is rife with shoddy, unimaginative remakes in the hope of earning a quick buck. This doesn't bare well for Marcus Nispel's reworking of Arnie classic, Conan the Barbarian. Without intending to sound like a broken record, my views on the 'r-word' could drive me into a frenzied outburst, but after the recent rioting, I shall compose myself. Digression aside; a struggle presents itself when attempting to revamp an iconic film of the 80's into something for the desensitised populous of 2011. A film that worked 30 years previous, won't necessarily be well received today, especially as Conan warrants no justification for a remake, thus unashamedly jumps on the cash-in bandwagon.

It's worth noting that this version bares little comparison to of plot to the 1982 original, other than the title character, of course. The story shapes our protagonist, Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones), into the same character, but along a different path. Momoa's Conan doesn't enter slavery as per Schwarzeneggar's. Instead, he is left orphaned to shape himself into the warrior presented before us.
The story (if one can decipher such) is as simple as tales go; Conan seeks bloody revenge on, Khalar (Stephen Lang), for the murder of his father, Corin (Ron Pearlman). Subsequently (and conveniently) it is this same foe that plans to reassemble the shattered remains of an ancient mask that, when reformed, will allow him to resurrect his deceased wife all with the aid of daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan).  Mind boggling stuff.

The plot plays out as you'd expect; it's straight forward in its nature, which leads to a predicted climax, yet oddly none of the entertainment value is sacrificed as the experience merely prevents you from engaging your brain. Considering its intended demographic enjoy violence, gore and a shot of perfect breasts, it will suffice in giving its audience what it wants. Thankfully, the film doesn't try to disguise itself as something it wants to be, which makes Conan an, at times, pleasant, if not mindless, adventure.

It's a fair assumption that audiences won't enter this with great expectations. If you believe you're going to see an intricately crafted piece of cinema, you are sadly delusional (and most likely insane). What we do get is something that, if contextualised in its genre, satisfies on an adequate level. The title alone generates  associations and it's exactly what we are presented with; testosterone, violence, objectification, blood, gore, and sheer brutishness in abundance, as we follow a protagonist that would make 300's Leonidas look like a crying school girl. Sure, Momoa plays the title role effectively and let’s face it, it's never going to be the most challenging, as intellect and subtlety are substituted for brawn and killing power (a prime example of the dynamic of the character is when he bellows, "Woman! Here! Now!"). 

What isn't clear is Nispel's tonal intention. It could be forgiven if it were tongue-in-cheek, but on the face of it, Conan appears as a genuine attempt to make a serious movie. Aside from some amusing lines (mainly down to Conan's deplorable manner of addressing the female of the species), the general tone tries to evoke a seriousness, but struggles to convince. However, what Conan does do well is execute its set pieces and action sequences with few hiccups. The pacing is high octane and, as various sword fights, chases and killings ensues, the action remains at a surprisingly entertaining level, in fact, more so than a majority of Transformers 3. What's more, the use of 3D is actually acceptable, which again surpasses dire expectation.

There's no denying Momoa looks the part; his ripped torso and rugged appearance serve well to convey him as a one man army. It's unsurprising that Conan displays the emotional dexterity of a toothpick as he is constantly required to overtly display his machismo and physical prowess over everything else. Naturally, he engages in an obligatory sex scene with pretty damsel, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), whom he vows to protect upon learning Khalar's intent to use her as a vessel for his dead wife. Touching. 

Conan the Barbarian is essentially a genre piece that fits into its context, which by no means makes it a great film, just an entertaining one. It doesn't sink to its predicted lows, but you weren't expecting the depth of Inception now, were you? It doesn't try to be anything other than what it is; a non taxing, fantasy-action, that entertains when it comes to its set pieces and choreographed fights, yet ultimately proves that this is no more than a shameless cash in, rather than a thought provoking creation, a la Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Momoa delivers a Neanderthal-like performance suited to the character, culminating in a film that can ultimately offer no depth in terms of story or character development, but does promise copious amounts of blood and mutilation, assuming that sort of gratuity floats your boat. 

Images: Google Images

Check out my other reviews from Empire's BIG SCREEN all this week at Live For Films
You can follow them on Twitter here

Monday, 8 August 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rating: 12A
Runtime: 105 mins

In an era where reboots/sequels/prequels/remakes/reimaginings are released in abundance, it's hard to look beyond the copious amounts of unimaginative efforts that filter through Hollywood year in year out. More often than not, these franchise extensions are heavily promoted, marketed and packaged in a way that dupes an unsuspecting public into thinking that this instalment will improve on its predecessors. Sadly they don't. In fact, such cash-ins turn out to be the ugly duckling of the collective; something that fails to satisfy as a film, let alone meet any expectations. 

Thankfully, Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn't fall into either of these pitfalls, which is surprising considering the lack of marketing (and modest $90m budget) this 50 year franchise receives. Sure, audiences can, and will, enter with preconceived ideas, but Rise sticks two fingers up, opting instead for something that genuinely surprises and impresses on its own merits.

Director, Rupert Wyatt (the man behind brilliantly underrated, The Escapist) breaks the cycle of franchise fodder, as Rise does what most other reboots fail to do, which is to create something that supersedes, entertains and evolves. Even rarer is that Rise outdoes 2001's Planet of the Apes remake (in every department), and whilst that may not be a particularly difficult feat, this shows how careful planning and attention-to-detail can result in a movie where audiences and critics can speak so positively of.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, Rise is the chronological start of the Planet of the Apes timeline. Scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), heads a team that test the cognitive function of apes, all in the name of genetic engineering, with the hope of developing a cure for Alzheimer's. Will is desperate to develop a serum to aid his ill father, Charles (John Lithgow), whose health is rapidly deteriorating. After an incident at the research facility, the programme is subsequently shut down, but after he discovers an abandoned new born, Will takes it upon himself to raise the ape, he names Caesar ( played by Andy Serkis), who shows early signs of developing at an advanced rate. Any further synopsis detail would give away elements of the well thought out story, which is one of the most pleasing aspects of the film. Banished are nonsensical, ridiculous plot points, as Wyatt works from a solid and well written script that undoubtedly proves the quality over quantity theory. The plot moves at a well structured pace, as side characters, including love interest, Caroline (Frieda Pinto) and John Landon (Brian Cox), are integrated. They play small, non-vital roles that serve a purpose, but ultimately under-use their talents. Similarly Lithgow feels a little miscast as Franco's confused father; based on his career, the role would perhaps benefit from a lesser known actor, or one void of comedic association.

What quickly becomes clear is the focus on the plight of the apes and not the struggle of humanity. Wyatt conveys an impressively deep, meaningful and emotionally charged story from an ape perspective, which is a massive achievement in itself. What's more, this focal point never feels silly or clumsy; it's handled with care and constructed strongly, as the subtlety of their performances evoke feelings associated with human characters. This is all done by the power of CGI too (aside from some baby Caesar moments). No longer are we subject to actors running around in costume - all marsupial involvement is computer generated. At times it looks stunning, with the attention to detail so fine it often convinces as the genuine article. However, it does indulge a little during some extravagant climbing/swinging sequences, courtesy of Caesar. These over-the-top segments briefly remind audiences they are watching something designed on a computer, whereas the more subtle gestures, such as physical movement, inner emotion and stunning facial expressions, work far better if we are meant to believe what we are seeing is real. 

Fortunately, the positives outweigh the minor negatives, which include its thematic elements. Relationships form a basis of the story; whether the focus is father and son (Charles/Will and Will/Caesar), or Caesar's leadership over the apes, there is a suggestion of belonging. There is a touching "What is Caesar?" moment, which arguably provides a catalyst for an ape up-rise, and enters territory of science interfering with nature. As a result of this, it somehow feels right to be in support of the animals, over the ignorance of humanity. We witness the evolution of protagonist (Caesar) turn antagonist, as the story is told from the ape's perspective, their oppression is juxtaposed in stark contrast to previous Apes titles as we can, for once, sympathise with them rather than see them as the oppressors of subservient humans.

Rise is a film with enormous heart and is, for the most part, emotionally gripping. The human characters serve the progression of the story, but the true heart is Caesar, portrayed magnificently by Serkis. The exquisite CGI really makes the film more engaging and thus believable, whereas shoddy effects would have destroyed such an illusion (See I Am Legend).

It may prove useful to know some of the franchise back story (i.e. what the original premise is), but it isn't essential. It does, however, put Rise into context, making it easier to digest, but in no way any less enjoyable.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the biggest surprise of the year and, along with Super 8, asserts itself as a one-to-watch. Thoroughly entertaining, with a fantastic performance from Serkis as the ape that instigates the beginning-of-the-end for humanity; for once CGI manages to emotionally engage without feeling awkward or lacklustre. The well formed script strengthens no end, as Rise delivers on all levels; from summer blockbuster, to credible film, to franchise reboot; this is a powerful and essential film you must experience for yourself.