Monday, 16 December 2013

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

So there’s been quite a gap between Anchorman and its long-awaited sequel. A decade, in fact, separate the two, yet The Legend Continues brings back pretty much all the key players and supporting cast that made the first such a widespread hit.
We’re now in the 80s. Having moved on from the Channel 4 News Team’s success of the 70s, lead anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his one-time associates Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) have parted ways. However, when Ron is offered the chance to reassemble his crew for a graveyard news shift, then begins the journey and subsequent random adventure to bring the guys back together and to rule the news scene once more.

And so continues the utterly random, disjointed and odd comedy that proved hugely popular with the teen demographic circa 2005 — more so once it hit DVD. But for me, there’s only so many times one can hear the once quotable lines and references before it all becomes tiresome. The shelf life, especially where comedy is concerned, can, in some instances, vary in length. Take a Carry On film, for example: while they were regarded as funny 30 or 40 years ago, if one were remade it wouldn't translate well. In short, watching a Carry On today doesn't evoke the same rousing response it did. Some things don’t age well and feel stale in comparison to modern, cutting edge comedy. In contrast, The Big Lebowski turns 16 next year, yet it’s still as brilliant as ever. Anchorman’s style of humour feels more akin to the unflattering longevity of a Carry On as opposed to a Coen masterpiece. In truth, a regurgitation of Anchorman’s frivolous charm with the exact same formula doesn't work anymore.
For those who wish for a light comedy to pass the time with a fond affection for the original, then there’s nothing wrong with The Legend Continues, per se. Fans will no doubt lap up the reunion of the team and have fun re-connecting after such a lengthy hiatus, but for cinema goers desiring a comedy that incorporates fresh or witty humour, I’d advise them to seek solace in something better conceived such as last year’s brilliant 21 Jump Street.
Had this come out in 2006, during the pinnacle of Anchorman’s reign, then it’d have been a warmly welcomed, funny and relevant film. As it stands, the sequel simply attempts to rehash the first’s appeal with minor tweaking or simply presenting us with the familiarity of jokes we’re believed to adore still.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Review: Iron Man Three

Rating: 12a
Duration: 130 mins

So 'phase two' begins of Marvel's global domination in the superhero market after their monstrously successful The Avengers that scooped a whopping $1.5bn at the box office. Robert Downy Jr. picks up where that left off as he tries to shake off the dire attempt of Iron Man 2, with the aptly titled Iron Man Three.

Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black gets the gig of director and is able to integrate the classic 'buddy movie' elements here; a motion he practically invented by the way. The clarity of having someone with a nous for directing and writing pays dividends because without a shadow of a doubt, Iron Man Three is the best of the trilogy, and possibly the strongest Marvel film to grace the big screen to date.

Downey Jr. does a fine job of carrying the character of Tony Stark and indeed the entire film. He's got charisma by the bucket load and uses this as its main selling point, not to mention the script is tailored for some terrific back-and-forth exchanges between himself and various characters: notably a young boy named Harley he befriends along the way.

Action sequences are aplenty and incorporate CGI to a heavy degree, yet is an essential servant to the epic scale of some of the scenes: exploding buildings; cliff-side disasters and suburban street carnage wouldn't look half as impressive without the effects that feel appropriately suited to the Marvel world. Each one is impressive, don't get me wrong, but there's also a sense that each is merely trying to outdo the former, which ends up feeling like it becomes a show-off contest competing against itself as the even bigger climax gets underway.

As with all Marvel ventures, there's a helping of cheese and daft frivolity, yet to a much lesser extent than its 'phase one' siblings. Furthermore, when a film such as this attempts to go all The Dark Knight in terms of tone and subtext, the sillier, clunkier moments inevitably end up sticking out like a sore thumb. For the majority of its duration the balance between serious, flawed superhero and witty, comic relief is maintained well: it moves along at a good pace and offers amusing, entertaining as well as a few 'wow' moments to bolster the overall spectacle of the piece.

Supporting roles for Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall and Don Cheadle are fine, if unspectacular. Paltrow gets her teeth into her meatiest part yet as the romantically-linked sophisto Pepper Potts, but is completely overshadowed by the efforts of Sir Ben Kingsley as uber intimidating terrorist, The Mandarin. Guy Pearce also gets a substantial role as Aldrich Killian and there's the like-clockwork cameo from Stan Lee; such appearances never fail to amuse/impress me in equal measure.

Tipping the two-hour mark is enough time to squeeze in the story Black wishes to tell. For the most part it's an enjoyable and thrilling ride about a billionaire playboy-cum-exposed superhero with anxiety issues. Ultimately, however, it's still as throwaway as the other films in the series, but does possess a little more substance and, dare I say it, depth for what is easily the most interesting and watchable character from The Avengers universe.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Review: Oblivion

Rating: 12a
Duration: 126 mins

As per Robot & Frank, Oblivion has graced us early in a year that's packed to the rafters with films of the sci-fi variety. It’s without doubt a very hit-and-miss genre, as concepts, stories and visuals tend to borrow from its peers, the notion of originality within its boundaries becomes something of a rarity.

It’s also important to note that the script is based on Joseph Kosinski's unpublished graphic novel from 2005. (He also produces, directs and writes the film.) It's only now that the movie has come to fruition, which is perhaps to its detriment because to the trained eye appears to simply pinch chunks from existing movies (both modern and classic). However, this merging of ideas does form a perfectly acceptable, coherent adventure, but is also one that lacks any genuine identity of its own.

Yet to an extent I’d disagree with my own prognosis. I shan't reel off the numerous (and alleged) film influences, but upon a viewing some are fairly obvious. However, what is worth noting is the ones that're deemed similar were conceived after this, so use that information as you will. What Oblivion does do effectively is to create a suspenseful and intriguing post-apocalyptic world that not only looks gorgeous, but feels epically desolate, too. Conceptually, some vehicle and architectural designs are stunning: often rendered beautifully, yet have a ‘been there, done that’  aesthetic stamped over them. Tom Cruise’s Jack is, at times, reminiscent of his War of the Worlds character and indeed a hybrid of several of his past personas. Or maybe he’s just being Tom Cruise – either way it works, albeit with a helping of cheesy Americanisation at times.

What works are the intricacies and development of the plot. Many will criticise its unoriginality, yet it bears a couple of twists that’ll have you questioning (in a good way) the entire premise of the film's futuristic ethos. It’s in this respect that Oblivion thrives and invites the audience to decipher the real truths behind its plot as we experience these brand new moments firsthand along with Jack.

At times it lacks an intelligible depth and finesse in some of its action sequences, but never fails to convince in spectacle and execution. A great turn from Andrea Riseborough as Victoria – Jack’s partner in every sense, as the pair as stationed on a barely inhabitable Earth in order to protect and maintain its restoration after a victorious but devastating alien invasion – warrants mention as well. Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman have smaller, yet significant roles, but it’s Cruise’s protagonist that (naturally) takes centre stage, and his presence is undeniable.

Oblivion’s climax feels like a non-event. It underwhelms in comparison to the impending reveals and momentum its writers build up. However, the journey up to this point is a thoroughly gripping and intense one that should please fans of the genre and fans of the Cruise, too.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Review: Trance

Rating: 15
Duration: 101 mins

Having turned down the chance of a Knighthood, Danny Boyle maintains his status as the quintessential people's filmmaker. As humble as the man is, there's no denying his features possess a brutal rawness that by and large translates well and whilst his recent feature, Slumdog Millionaire, nabbed an incredible 8 Oscars in 2008, the bar it seems is ever rising.

Trance opens with a slick, concise monologue from James McAvoy's Simon that instantly draws you into his world. It's arguably as well conceived as the opening to 1996 smash Trainspotting, as we're hurriedly thrown into the life of an art auctioneer who, for reasons unknown, double crosses local thief, Franck (the wonderful Vincent Cassel), after agreeing to stage a £25m art heist. During the fray, Simon's hit over the head which renders parts of his memory useless -- specifically the part that knows the location of the hidden painting, and thus the story begins.

Aside from plot intricacies and skillfulness in direction, the acting is the driving force here; Rosario Dawson, assuming the role of hypnotherapist Elizabeth, is perhaps the most impressive on display. With a central female role that plays both Simon and Franck off against one other with her effortless and manipulative sexuality, a web of intrigue, twists and turns present themselves at regular intervals as the story delves further into a dark underbelly of morality and subconsciousness.

The majority of the story is monumentally gripping and intense as the narrative gradually becomes unhinged and threatens to derail. It's complemented, as always, by a majestic soundtrack that's both eclectic and appropriately surreal, which adds to the ferociousness of how the narrative spirals. Such is the intended nature of the seedy depths Boyle explores, and as boundaries of reality and imagination merge for Simon, the ambiguous disposition of what is actually taking place becomes lost.

The ride is a glorious and invigorating one that challenges audiences to decipher what's happening with minimal, subtle hints along the way. Its intelligible, non-spoon fed nature is somewhat undone when, during one dialogue-heavy scene, the haziness of events are explained. It is this latter moment where some confusion is finally alleviated, yet we're still none the wiser when attempting to identify the separation of reality from fantasy. This is perhaps both to the beauty and detriment of Trance's conclusion. It's at this point that the script becomes rather convoluted and teeters on losing focus altogether, but doesn't hinder the quality of what's preceded it.

Skittish and exhilarating, Danny Boyle has created a solid British thriller that excels with moments of excellently crafted double bluffs and deception, but will ultimately leave your brain scrambled as you question everything and trust absolutely no one.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: Stoker

Rating: 18
Duration: 99 mins

Stoker opens with the film’s ending: an oddly juxtaposed shot of Mia Wasikowska’s India strutting across a highway in a pair of heels and into an overgrown layby. We’re not sure what’s going on, but are fed subliminally as director Chan-wook Park intends for us to savour and recall this information and contextualise later on. And that is what audiences are presented with in what is his debut English language film after a string of acclaimed Korean works that include Old Boy and Thirst.

Subtextually, Stoker teases and tantalises with its vampiric parallels that include a murderous blood lust, sexual awakening, generational grooming and incestual behaviour -- the latter being a recurring theme through Park’s filmography, as it is transferred into this seemingly timeless drama with acute detail and to deft effect.

What’s most striking is the visceral direction; structurally, it focuses on a slow-burning story with its off-centre framing and tranquil performances that give the film an overall eerie and unsettling quality. This unease is accentuated by the sublime use of heightened sound that really awakens the aural senses with the crisp dripping of water, for example, that Park uses to overt effect.

Instead of a somewhat forced, clunky transition from ultra violent, extreme Korean cinema into the Hollywood mainstream, a huge degree of integrity and, to an extent, auteurism remains. Park maintains an independent stance in his filmmaking that distances itself from the Hollywood system,  yet at the same time includes known names like Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska and, more famously, Nicole Kidman. All three assume subtle, yet captivating roles, as each carefully orchestrated character slots perfectly into this seemingly unspecified setting that could be anywhere from the 1920s to modern day Americana. At one point though, it does define the exact time through a forthcoming exchange between India (Wasikowska) and Charlie (Goode), but manages to feel so effortlessly unspecific by its nature.

The premise is a creepy enough concept on its own: with the death of her father, India’s repressed, virginal self begins to evolve as her Uncle Charlie appears out the blue to console her and mother Evelyn (Kidman). She represents a sexually repressed, lonely single parent longing for a man’s touch and general companionship. Rather than develop as a narrative powerhouse, the film carefully treads a path of character study and suggestiveness as a result of their actions and choices. In fact, the focal point is on India’s sexual awakening, as Uncle Charlie begins a sensual and seductive objective to unlock her deepest, darkest desires, or indeed exploit Evelyn’s vulnerability as an unloved human merely existing. And it’s these fascinating traits and ambivalency that form the most frictional of threesomes as far as its central protagonists go.

Not a lot goes on plot-wise in Stoker, but what’s significant is the rich subtext and reading between the lines of the beautiful composition, minimalist performances and subtlety of dialogue. It’s unfortunate that this particular approach to storytelling and its hidden depths might turn some viewers off, but this slice of American Gothic disguised as a period piece is not only haunting and engrossing, but wonderfully conceived, too. Start as you mean to go on, Mr. Park.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Review: Mama

Rating: 15
Duration: 100 mins

Modern horror is living in the shadows (no pun intended) of its predecessors. At the same time the excellent Carrie is released on Blu-ray, we've got samey, generic and hugely uninventive movies of the genre being churned out faster than you can ask someone what their favourite scary movie is (Scream reference intended).

Jessica Chastain, for all her worth, is miscast as a thirtysomething punk guitarist, which has its appeal at first, but soon becomes clear it isn't the role for her (a quirky 'leave a message at the beep, fuck off' voicemail  doesn't quite sit right), but as with the logic and tone of the film, quickly alters to become a jumper-wearing mother figure and covers up the (fake) tattoos she sports.

Mama, in fact, refers not to the role that Annabel (Chastain) fulfils after her other half, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is granted custody of his nieces after a 5-year abandonment in the wilderness, but to a strange entity that supposedly looked after them during this time. 

The premise decides to venture down the supernatural fantasy path, rather than remain grounded as so many of the more effective horrors tend to. Even though titles such as The Blair Witch Project indulge in a fictional evil, the story itself feels hugely believable, which is a rare thing nowadays. 

Mama is no exception to the somewhat lazy standard of today; we're presented with a predictable set up and can quite easily foresee how it will end. The premise is initially rather intriguing, but doesn't convincingly play out how one hopes it should. For two girls to be scavenging like animals for most of their lives, they (well, the eldest in particular) adapts to normality unbelievably quick. 

The progression of the story doesn't go anywhere fast. Instead, it sort of lingers around the girls and their rehabilitation into civility, and tries to focus on the torment and strain Annabel is under. It doesn't manage to convey this so well, even though there are some nice bonding moments between her and the girls, as well as a couple of tense, semi-scary moments to twitch over.

What lets the film down is the overuse of CGI and the ghostly nasty itself. Good horror films succeed with but a few key factors: subtlety and a less is more ethos. Here we are offered little of the first and absolutely none of the latter. The amount of screentime Mama is given really quashes the fear of the unknown. Seeing a computer generated character that develops into her own persona doesn't work in the realms of this type of film. We need mystery, need a lack of clarity and a certain call for underexposure, but are offered none.

It concludes just as you figure it will. It's too formulaic and cleanly structured, even though its middle is stodgy. As a film intended to scare, the CGI extinguishes a lot of the terror; instead conforming more to a horror devised to enjoyably pass the time with a group of friends, rather than one to have sleepless nights over.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

Rating: 12a
Duration: 97 mins

After the woefully daft and utterly frivolous attempts of Live Free or Die Hard (that's Die Hard 4.0 to you and I), director John Moore explicitly promises something of quality. Something to reinvigorate the franchise, with a no-nonsense approach. He wholeheartedly lied.

A Good Day to Sell Out: Bruce smiles all the way to the bank.
Whether it's Bruce Willis and his enormous star power -- some have suggested he had final say and a level of control over proceedings -- that hampers this fifth instalment, or simply a lack of basic ability from Moore and indeed his scriptwriter Skip Woods (writer of The A-Team and Hitman no less) is anyone's guess. What isn't left to speculation is that A Good Day to Die Hard is a film with absolutely no dignity, finesse or redeeming features. It's got about as much class as a clown reeling off Jimmy Savile jokes in a children's ward.

Willis looks drained and fed up, with a hint that he was likely paid up front and subsequently gave up caring once the cheque had cleared. The plot is paper thin and, for the most part, non-existent. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say it revolves around John McClane who, whilst on holiday, gets into trouble as naughty men try to shoot him as they dabble in illegal activity. 

Acting and its dialogue is (consistently, might I add) atrocious. Jai Courtney probably hoped such a film would be an effective vehicle for his movie career, and to be fair it does display his skills as a young, muscular, action-y sort of type, but that's where any glimmer of hope ends unfortunately.

The duration feels like a torturous slog; Courtney and Wills simply exchange unfunny one liners, weird facial expressions, as well as pointless, overblown scenes of truly appalling dialogue. And all this interspersed with them running about like an indestructible father-son combo, whilst avoiding wave after wave of nasty men trying to shoot at them.

Does anyone actually care?: Apathy seems to be the order of the day.
The original character of John McClane is all but gone. Now we see not a regular have-a-go hero as per the classic of 1988, but an invincible super-soldier of a man; something more akin to a Terminator or Universal Soldier lead, which is preposterous. The 12a certificate doesn't do it any favours either, stripping the character of any adult depth and is proof that the production team behind it (who actually edited the film down themselves to access a wider audience) have completely sold their souls.

Never has a 97-minute feature felt so unbearably tedious, and makes Taken 2 look like a work of genuine quality. Even the action sequences are executed horrendously, with a dreadfully skittish approach to directing and editing that'll leave you clambering for the exits.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Rating: 15
Duration: 157 mins

Sometimes controversy whirls around a film either working to its advantage or detriment. Admittedly anything that generates such attention is largely media hyperbole, and Kathryn Bigelow's latest is perhaps the perfect example of this. 

Zero Dark Thirty -- a film that documents the CIA's battle to hunt down and kill bin Laden -- is a controversial subject matter in itself, but the alleged advocacy of torture seems to be its main talking point. Firstly, the torture scenes aren't especially indulgent, nor does it glorify the process of terrorist interrogation. Secondly, it's not even like the film uses torture for the basis of the narrative, in fact, it features very little in the almost three hour running time. And thirdly, rather than scrutinising this, at times graphic, minute plot element, it's important not to brush the rest of the film aside, because Zero Dark Thirty is a superbly directed, paced and structured thriller.

Understandably Oscar buzz surrounds this, with high profile nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay, yet surprisingly an omission for its directing. Despite the lengthy run time, the pacing and overall balance of action, dialogue and plot are structured fluidly, resulting in a non-stifled flow of true life events translated very effectively onto the big screen. In fact, the story is so well constructed that it could pass as fiction with the narrative progression and gripping tension it builds during set pieces.

What's refreshing is the complete lack of an 'America, fuck yeah!' attitude, even during the moments one might expect (specifically in the enthralling climax), as the story concentrates on its ultimate goal: kill bin Laden. However, patriotism is still visible on the surface of the actions, but the extent and fundamentality of it -- find the bad guys so we can kill them all -- is well disguised in an intelligently written screenplay.

Jessica Chastain is on top form as the overworked, undersexed CIA operative Maya, as her obsession to locate bin Laden defines her characteristics both positively through her determination and perseverance, and negatively via the encumbering nature her obsession has on her health and psychological state. Her role is certainly worthy of an Oscar nod, and may very well emerge the victor come February the 24th.

Another point previously touched upon is Bigelow's spot on direction, further adding to the bafflement of an Oscar snub. She conveys the enormity of the story effectively, treating her audience with the intelligence they deserve and refuses to spoon feed every piece of information to them. Instead, we are encouraged to fill in gaps and piece together details as Maya accumulates them, whilst still offering a concise and accessible story to follow.

From the very beginning Zero Dark Thirty engages in the form of non-fictional drama, builds tension gradually, and strides towards a finale that can only be described as majestic and is comparable to any work of fiction available today. The tension arguably supersedes the hugely praised Argo, and maintains that knife-edged intensity for much longer periods, too.