Thursday, 28 July 2011

Review: Super 8

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 112 min

The association of J.J. Abrams with this latest Spielberg produced sci-fi is enough to get some film goers giggling with excitement. He is, after all, the brain behind Lost, CloverfieldMission: Impossible III and, soon to be released, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Abrams is somewhat renowned for his successful ventures into cinema. He's also the rare example of someone who can reboot a franchise (M:I and Star Trek) without the end product resembling a stinking dog turd. A skilled writer and director, Abrams' first outing since his Kirk reimagining has all the promise of a classic summer blockbuster.

Justified or not, many are naturally throwing round comparisons to E.T. but with a bit more bite. One piece of advice: Don't enter with preconceived ideas, because nine times of out ten you'll more than likely be disappointed.  

Super 8 mixes the classic with the modern. Set in 1979, we follow a group of kids in the fictional, town of Lillian as they witness a horrific, yet over-the-top, CGI train crash as secret cargo contents escapes into the night. The premise will conjure up comparisons, but please leave them be. It’s this setting that instantly oozes nostalgia of decades gone by. The tone captures the essence of classic 70's or 80's movies in what is essentially a coming-of-age story about love, loss and forms a precursor to adulthood. 

As said escaped cargo begins to cause havoc upon the townspeople, what becomes apparent is Abrams' decision to make the youngsters the focal point, rather than an on-the-run-E.T (damn, there I go) style caper. Joe (Joel Lamb) and Alice (the awesome Elle Fanning) are the central players, and indeed hit us with the best performances. With diverse support from friends: Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Preston (Zach Mills), the group narrowly avoid the exploding train as they film their own zombie movie, as well as capture the crash on a super 8 camera. The over arching story is the arrival of Government and army personnel as they attempt to track down the AWOL train guest. What's refreshing is that this aspect plays out as a secondary story in comparison to that of our young protagonists. Even with the town on lock-down, the determined adolescent film makers persist with their flick, which form the basis for several entertaining scenes.

Abrams' script offers a well balanced group who are all so different in personality; they evoke parallels to The Goonies or the kids from Stand By Me and come across as likable and relatable to, which adds to a nostalgic ambiance that resonates throughout the course of the film. It's this familiarity that captures childhood imagination, yet the sharp contrast of mild horror only emphasises the darker undertones of what Abrams intends you to feel, thus gifting the events that unfold a more dangerous and striking authenticity. 

Briefly, and without spoilers, it is worth talking about the mystery of said train crash. Whatever 'it' may be, I shall call 'it' Bob, for arguments sake. So, Bob escapes and remains elusive from the authorities and, to Abrams' credit, any shots of him remain obscured; hidden in shadow or perfectly cut to keep the intended mystery just that. The intrigue simmers nicely. In fact, the first half an hour is set up in an Abrams-style 'ask a lot of questions, don't get any answers, but here's some more questions' kinda way, as he sends a reminder that this is, first-and-foremost, a sci-fi/mystery coupled with a good helping of drama and a healthy sprinkling of adventure. 

Inevitably the identity of Bob is revealed, as the plot develops and does so in a way that leaves you unsure as to what you think you see, thus painting a murky image in your mind. It's only towards the latter stages that Bob is revealed in more detail and perhaps over exposes a little much in a few close-ups. However, Bob's aesthetics are more than satisfactory. In a world where revealed nasties tend to look like something plucked from the CGI recycling bin, Bob shouldn't leave audiences too underwhelmed.

As aforementioned, it’s Joe's story, which in the context of the premise is low key. Perhaps grounded is a better word, as none of the characters come across as anything more than vulnerable humans. Joe’s father and Local Sheriff, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), plays a bit part and does so with believability, leaving any Rambo type stunts out of the proceedings.

Subtle in its narrative, the ones at the centre of the plot are defined and shaped in a way that allows for a very character driven story. It stays focused, which is a refreshing change to the standard summer blockbuster, only accelerating a few gears as the climax approaches.

The stand out performance is the wonderful Elle Fanning, as she exudes a quality that will see her in a lot more from now on. All the young actors, in fact, were well cast as they display good chemistry, which results in funny exchanges, banter and even some emotional moments created by the subtly of their performances.

Aside from the occasional cheesy moment, the rest proves a solid and hugely likable film that has more to say than Michael Bay could ever dream of. Sub plots click into place nicely, but perhaps the key thing that lacks is that spark: an element that truly defines Super 8 as something worthy of a re-watch twenty years down the line. 

Super 8 is a fantastic summer blockbuster with more heart than most of this season's efforts combined. Cleverly crafted and brilliantly performed: granted this is no classic in the sense of E.T., yet it's by far one of the best of 2011. Hugely likable, full of mystery and excitement; the magic is there but it just lacks that unique quality to make it stand out as a true modern classic.

..Oh, and be sure to stay for the end credits (complete with a nod to Romero) - it's worth it.


Monday, 18 July 2011

Review: Horrible Bosses

Rating: 15
Runtime: 98 min

Horrible Bosses comes at a time where the comedy genre is in somewhat of a crisis. Naive to claim it's in free fall, but with only Bridesmaids springing to mind as this year's notable laughter fest- compared to other imitators that have come, gone or, in the case of the Adam Sandler car crash Jack And Jill, are on its way- one can even begin to question whether comedy is actually funny anymore. Worrying times, or is garbage such as Paul Blart: Mall Cop and cringe-awful Zookeeper merely a painfully ironic slap in the face from Hollywood? Do Adam Sandler or Kevin James really not realise they aren't funny? These are questions we all have, but as with some things in life, will never get a definitive answer.

Starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, they play three friends who have one thing in common: their bosses make their lives miserable. Whether it's Nick (Bateman) who suffers at the hands of smarmy, manipulator, Dave (Kevin Spacey), Kurt (Sudeikis), who succumbs to deeply unpleasant, Bobby (Colin Farrell), or Dale (Day) who lives in fear of aggressive sexual predator, Julia (Jennifer Aniston), they have suffered as much as they can take at the hands of their awful employers. While out drinking one night, they begin to talk. As the beer flows, the trio joke about offing the ones who are ruining their lives. Naturally, their flippant comments develop into a genuine decision to have their bosses assassinated. Having no idea where to start, the hapless three search for a 'cleaner' to deal with said problem. They encounter jailbird, 'Motherfucker Jones' (Jamie Foxx), who assists them in their bid for a better life (rest assured, the origins of Motherfucker's name is explained at one point).

Horrible Bosses is filthy, it has to be said. Even Jennifer Aniston, who isn't accustomed to such a boisterous and overtly sexual character, utters some truly explicit desires she has in regards to Dale. Aniston proves she can derive from her typecast career role and tackle something a little more daring. Julia is a sexual predator. She aggressively preys upon Dale, which makes for great viewing. This does a lot for her and makes her extremely watchable (which is a charm lacking from her previous films) and adds a sexy dynamic to her character. Similarly, love-him-or-hate-him bad boy, Colin Farrell, does a fine job as he epitomises the arrogant, coke head, jerk-of-a-boss, and Kevin Spacey shines on his own, with unquestionable merit.

The leads are likable as they counter the ruthless and, at times, psychotic nature of said employers. The story is basic, yet develops devilishly into something more sinister once the boys begin to plot the demise of their superiors. Laughs are aplenty and continue through the proceedings, which resonates a pleasant feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction, but ultimately Horrible Bosses is as throw-away as the countless other attempts within the genre.

Taking nothing away from the pleasure one gets during such comedies, it's instantly forgettable in a genre so saturated, it becomes hard to pick out the great from the good from the average. It's a shame, because Horrible Bosses is, for the most part, a very funny and solid film. It just doesn't distinguish itself as anything special.

The pacing is fine; as is the story structure- it begins as a typical 'my life sucks' comedy, but quickly delves into the sub genre of dark comedy. This serves its purpose well- the mood never becomes too real before a fart gag or (in the case of Aniston) a sexually provocative quip softens the tension- as the plot finds its feet once such plans are put into motion.

There's great chemistry between Bateman, Day and Sudeikis, which gives the film charm. The character integrate into the well written script as it ensure the gags don't run dry or even feel stale, which is a big accomplishment in itself.

Horrible Bosses is sharply written, well cast and hilariously crude at times. The plot doesn't come across as wholly believable, yet remains oddly grounded in reality. Notably the film concludes a little too neatly as it ties up loose ends too easily, but in a world where three dudes attempt to get rid of their bosses, it's somehow fitting in its nature. Whilst forgettable, it is nonetheless entertaining with a good level of humour and laughs. Horrible Bosses certainly isn't for the young 'uns, but as a throwaway, genuinely funny, adult comedy- it scores well in what it sets out to do.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 139 min

After the buzz surrounding The Tree of Life even before its Palme d'Or success at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it only seems natural that such appraisal is justified. Not only that, but when you learn it's written and directed by uber private and semi recluse Terrence Malick (BadlandsThe Thin Red Line), will see that his filmograhpy consists of a handful of projects, tending to make (on average) around one film per decade, then it's perhaps time to feel privileged that this is the first of two new features due out within a year of each other.

Aside from ToL walking away with the Cannes 2011 top prize, this art house piece will not be to everyone's taste. It's a very difficult film to pigeon hole, as it mixes elements of the mainstream such as Brad Pitt, with some of the surreal abstractness of art house not too dissimilar to the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

ToL can be summed up in a few simple words: Beautiful. Ambiguous. Emotive. In terms of a narrative or structure, Malick ceases to conform to any real boundaries in perhaps one of his most pretentious films to date. Instead, he proceeds with an eclectic mix of stunning scenery and CGI visuals, which shows the breathtaking cinematography on offer here. Thematically, ToL offers life and death, birth and creation, as well as a borderline preachy message of God. At points some off-screen narration does feel a little forced, but is immediately toned down with the visceral imagery on offer.

After a gradual and somewhat methodical opening, he presents several scenes of semi-abstract visuals of the creation of life itself. This arguably goes on a little too long, yet doesn't cease in its poignancy. Thereafter, the bulk of the film focuses on a family of five set in 1950's Texas. Headed by totalitarian Father, only known as Mr O' Brien (Brad Pitt), we follow the normality (or supposed definition) of family life, which includes his spouse, played by Jessica Chastain, and their three children with the knowledge that - thanks to a flash forward near the beginning of the film - one of the brothers will die at nineteen. The notion of what is going to happen makes the time that proceeds the event all the more captivating. The narration of their, at times, nonchalant, everyday life is executed so exquisitely as Malick immerses the audience into suburban Americana. 

Notably Pitt is accomplished in his role as a strict and dominant figure within the household. Crucially, the children - especially Jack, played by Hunter McCracken - is sublime as Malick scores big with an array of talented youngster. This section of the film therefore stands tall in its quality if acting, as the lives of these people strangely fascinate as their lives progress to reveal more about them. A pacey and emotionally gripping tale feels totally genuine: we witness the guilts, pleasures and rich personalities of the family. What becomes obvious is the particular references Malick interweaves throughout: the use of hands stroking hair, pats on shoulders and emotional embraces, coupled with majestic images of, you've guessed it - trees - which keep the story grounded in realism, especially in the ambitious context of things.

This story is juxtaposed with a surreal spiritual journey through the universe, which is cut with fantastical precision  and yet more ambiguity, as we shift back and forth through time and are introduced to an older, middle-aged, Jack (Sean Penn), in various nonsensical locations.
Malick will no doubt have a clear vision and reasoning behind every single frame but sometimes the disjointedness can leave you feeling a little lost beneath the ambition of the project, whether it be in reference to the setting, character, or their action.

At just under two-and-a-half hours, ToL doesn't feel overblown nor, might I add, is it a bore. Granted, some parts are harder to get through than others, but a film such as this requires an open mind and a certain degree of patience for its build up. The score complements the film with its chillingly mellow tone and is sure to be up for Oscar contention in such categories, as well as for its cinematography and directing.

A minor point - if you go in the hope of seeing a Sean Penn film, then you'll be left short changed. He features no longer than fifteen minutes (at a push) and doesn't do a whole lot other than walk around guilt ridden and looking confused, with Pitt as the fore runner in respect to screen time.

Some may perceive this as a laborious and self indulgent addition to Malick's filmography. Others may recognise it as a wonderfully told and striking masterpiece from one of the greatest visionaries of his time. Terrence Malick presents a story that encapsulates a range of emotions, even though it occasionally loses focus, and remains rooted in its values. The sentiment behind the O'Briens is touching, but the even deeper meaning and iconography he uses is breathtaking.

At times The Tree of Life demands your fullest attention and looks set to divide audience opinion. At others, one can merely sit back, relax, and soak up the splendour Malick has given us. There really is nothing else out there that can offer such an eclectic and evocative narrative as this does, whilst at the same time leaving you to ponder what it all actually means.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Rating: 12A
Runtime: 130 min

And so it ends. The final piece in the Potter jigsaw that has spanned a decade. We've seen its actors grow from unknown child stars into globally recognised adults. It has also become the biggest grossing franchise in history, having made a spell binding $6.3b, eclipsing Lucas' Star Wars. And all before the final instalment is released.
By no means am I a Hogwarts fanatic. I can't recite spells in my sleep. I haven't, to some shame, ever picked up one of J.K. Rowling's books either. Nor can I regurgitate much trivia or facts regarding the subject, thus placing me into one of two categories. The first being the literary fan who has read the complete collection and knows their Stupify from their Expecto Patronum. The other being someone who has stuck to the medium of film, unaware of the mountains of book content unable to fit into the motion pictures. I am, however, someone who has now seen all 8 films and can objectively judge based on cinema merit alone.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 picks up right after its Part 1 predecessor. There is no intro or build up. Director, David Yates, tackles both parts as one entity merely spliced in half. It is, therefore, hard to judge the final film purely as an individual effort.

Part 2 immediately moves at a better pace and is more ruthlessly cut in comparison to Part 1 and, at times, Half-Blood Prince, which drags in places. The acting, I am happy to declare, has gotten better with age as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) feel more fluid and at ease in their abilities.

Like Half-Blood Prince, this feels much darker than the earlier films and tackles issues of death and a battle-to-the-end scenario well. Personally, the films that stand out for me are the darker, more adult ones and Part 2 is certainly fits the bill. The epic feel really engages during the wizardry fights, as such scenes host superb CGI effects and appear to be given an, albeit subtle, boost in 3D. Saying that, as with the likes of Transformers : Dark of the Moon, the 3D addition doesn't bring a whole lot to the proceedings. It works on a subtle level, more than likely enhancing the experience, but invokes no 'wow' factor.

There have been some fantastic set pieces over the years and Part 2 is no exception. Numerous well crafted scenes entertain to the highest order as the action, at times, enthrals. These well achieved set pieces add to the epicness surrounding the series conclusion as it feels and looks terrific.

As with most Harry Potter films, some previous flaws rear their ugly heads. We see some very cheesy moments, which involve brave, unifying speeches, as the grownup and dangerous nature of the film is extinguished somewhat. Some key scenes fall a little flat too, especially the (and this is not a spoiler as it has been all over Potter related press) long awaited Ron/Hermione kiss. Whilst the acting from the main players has improved, the support remains reminiscent to that of Pinocchio. Thankfully these bit parts are just that, yet these minimal contributions distract a little from the mature atmosphere Yates endeavours to evoke.

Significant turning points are riddled with, well, riddles and ambiguous dialogue that leaves me praising the film for the action and entertainment value, rather than story viability and plot. The biggest problem is that the build up to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has been (over the years) so hyped and for so long, that it actually underwhelms. Yates takes for granted our emotional state as he assumes audiences feel the desired effects without having to convey it too much.

Overall Part 2 is a highly entertaining and gripping second half of a film. The final scenes conclude the end of the Potter era nicely. Great looking CGI goes hand-in-hand with mouth watering battle scenes and set pieces, but ultimately falls a little flat during pivotal moments. Plot revelations don't shock; they merely contextualise an overall plot that, as a franchise, captures not only my imagination, but that of countless others.

Sources : Internet Movie Database , The Numbers
Images : Google Images

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Review: Transformers : Dark of the Moon

Rating: 12A
Runtime: 157 min

Credit where it's due: Michael Bay knows how to make an enticing trailer. I even previewed this, his third Transformers instalment, in my 'Summer of Sci-Fi' article back in April with a naive optimism that, after the abysmal efforts of Revenge of the Fallen, the final piece of the 'robots in disguise' trilogy would turn out well. After a string of big budget blockbusters to his name, it's true that Bay knows what he's doing when it comes to CGI, action and blowing the shit out of everything, but by no means is this a solid basis for a respectable movie (see Revenge of the Fallen).

Even poor Rosie has no idea what the hell she's doing there
The biggest change is the substitution of style-over-substance Megan Fox with Victoria's Secret hottie, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. From the offset Rosie is more likable and, arguably, better eye candy. However, it's clear to see why models shouldn't crossover to acting: her performance appears stiffer than [insert adolescent lingerie model pun here]. What's more disappointing is she barely features, thus rendering her token role as 'Shia's eye candy girlfriend' as a rather pointless addition.

Dark of the Moon treads familiar ground to the previous sequel with The Autobots, having saved the world a couple of times, now part of a secret Government team as they 'solve' international terrorism (and by 'solve', I mean blowing the shit out of everything) as well as hunt down and destroy the cowering Decepticons. Sam (Shia LaBeouf), meanwhile finds himself in the big wide world after college, as he discovers just how hard it is to find a job - yet somehow lives in a swanky home with stunning girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), so things aren't too bad. Life seems to be chugging along until both opposing robotic parties learn of a hidden spacecraft on - you've guessed it - the dark side of the moon. This results in a race to retrieve its hidden artefacts as well as uncover a dormant Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nemoy) whom can summon the power to transport their home world into the Earth's atmosphere.

Without bashing Bay's work completely, the comedy in the early stages of the film is rather funny. A small role for the class act, John Malkovich, as Sam's new boss works well, as do the subsequent scenes involving a hilarious Ken Jeong. So much so that it feels a little out of place compared to the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour slug. Another big improvement from it's predecessor are the fight scenes, specifically regarding robot-to-robot combat. No longer is the editing so choppy and direction so poor that you can now see blow for blow battles with much more clarity and enjoyment. As anticipated the CGI is impressive, but with the kind of budget and resources on offer it isn't hard to mess up.

Unfortunately that's where any praise ends. It's one thing to make a bad movie, but it's another to acknowledge this and pledge to not make the same mistakes again. Well that's exactly what Michael Bay does, and surprise, surprise: he ignores his own advice (and logic) as Dark of the Moon fails to rectify the biggest flaws of the previous sequel. It's clear he lovingly crafts his pictures, which also makes it abundantly clear how bloody self indulgent the man is: essentially it's the equivalent of Bay masturbating for two-and-a-half-hours, with a smattering of 360 degree pans, slow-mo and lingering shots of, well, little importance: then repeat again. 45 minutes can easily be cut as we learn just how precious he deems everything to be after he oversees the editing. The 3D was, apparently, crafted to achieve a high quality viewing experience. However, the epic fail of said feature made me realise that such a fad is well and truly exhausted. On several occasions I'd peep over my glasses to witness footage in standard 2D: suffice to say I was not impressed.

It's not so much the acting that's terrible, but the poorly written script that exacerbates things. No wait, the acting is pretty shoddy, too. Characters spout cheese-ball lines and the consistently laughable dialogue doesn't move the story forward, but instead hinders any development. The result is that any credible character arcs go out the window as Bay tries to distract us by throwing in numerous explosions as our protagonists slow-mo run to safety, as if to  distract the audience so we don't realise how bad this is.

It pains me to say Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) adds very little as a generic Government hard ass, out to assert her authority on all matters robotic. Similarly John Turturro's (The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing) talents are, yet again, wasted with a limply written part, which no doubt has the pair banging on the Coen Brothers' door seeking sanctuary.

If you're looking for brainless, illogical, high octane, dumb 'fun', then this ticks the boxes. Severely overlong and shamefully self indulgent, Michael Bay again succeeds at producing an over-the-top action flick with virtually no substance. A silly, yet at times, entertaining summer film marred by some poor editing, pathetic dialogue and a piss poor narrative, Dark of the Moon is marginally better than Revenge of the Fallen, but in all honesty that really isn't saying much now, is it?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Reflective Review: Hanna

Rating: 12A
Runtime: 111 min

It's been a few months since I saw Hanna. The trailer hints at an alternative, modern day, fairytale movie with a twist; an indie inspired genre blend; a film that promises to be a breath of fresh air from mainstream monotony.

Hanna is the story of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) who, conditioned by father Erik (Eric Bana), is molded into a deadly weapon; a survivalist; a perfect assassin. Subsequently the pair are hunted by Government suit, Melissa (Cate Blanchett), after locating their whereabouts after years in hiding. Cue a cat-and-mouse chase across the landscapes of Europe as Hanna experiences a new world she's been hidden away from.

Brit director, Joe Wright, removes the gloss leaving us with a gritty tale that evokes genuine sympathy towards Hanna's plight. He infuses simple, yet stunning, imagery with a coming of age story. It's refreshing from the norm, which gives it added appeal. From the coldest depths of Finland to the African market towns of Morocco, Hanna resonates as a stylistic and beautiful film. The contrast of locales certainly give a sense of variation and enrich the experience as a classically epic adventure.

However, the story itself is a vague and slow moving tale of desire for normality and, ultimately, freedom. Contrary to expectations Hanna proves to be a slow burner, with little tension aside from the occasional high octane sequence. Blanchett and her hired help amount to little more than a disorganised gang swaggering round like they own the place. Hitman, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), pulls off crazy and sadistic, yet doesn't quite exude genuine fear whilst donning his Sergio Tacchini tracksuit.

Ronan, famed for her role in The Lovely Bones, shines as the film's main attraction. Her character is a continuous focus as she handles her responsibilities superbly. A dynamic and progressive protagonist is contrasted by a one dimensional, miscast Blanchett. Underused throughout, her role is typified by another suspect accent (not as bad as her abysmal Indiana Jones effort, mind) as we are presented with an inconsistent villain who poses no clear danger or motive. What's more, the lack of back story prevents the plot from being contextualised. I wasn't expecting to be spoon fed, but did anticipate some clarity.

More road movie than full-on thriller, the visual delights go hand-in-hand with its simplistic, yet effective style. It renders Hanna a pleasant indie experience with plenty of promise from the talented Wright and a bright future for rising star, Saoirse Ronan.

Sources : Internet Movie Database
Images : Google Images