Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists

Rating: U
Duration: 88 mins

Aardamn return with their second release in the past six months, after the wonderfully whimsical animation Arthur Christmas, and have since reverted back to their stop motion forte the studio are renowned for.

Peter Lord co-directs alongside Jeff Newitt, as the British animators package their first cinematic effort since 2005's Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, retaining the high quality synonymous with the likes of Chicken Run and indeed, the Wallace & Gromit franchise. 

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists - or The Pirates! Band of Misfits as per the American title - is quintessentially British through-and-through; whether it's the subtle Blue Peter badge one of the pirates sports on his hat, or the custard creams the Captain dips in his tea, Aardman do a noble job of sticking to their dignified roots where they can.

Plot-wise, the film isn't massively ambitious. The story revolves around the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who is blindly driven in his desire to win Pirate of the Year, having miserably failed the twenty or so attempts previously. However, with his trusty crew (including the voices of Ashley Jensen, Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson), he's determined to brush aside his competitors Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), in order to finally swipe the title. The gang's escapades take them to London where an indignant Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) resides, boasting a rather unfathomable hatred towards piracy, which in turn proves a catalyst for impending frivolity.

Cue a typical British adventure that oozes a delightful charm in what is an enjoyable and child-friendly movie. That said, whilst swift action and comical set-ups will appeal to the younger demographic, there's plenty of subtle nuances and nods for a mature audience, too. 

The ever-detailed sets will reward the more savvy observers who'll notice amusing background props, posters, and shop signs to warrant a giggle, yet ultimately the film's tone does tend to opt for a more plain-levelled approach in its entertainment: whilst completely accessible, it also feels rather quaint in terms of scale as it never really pushes for a more grandiose spectacle at any point. Therefore, on this basis, the experience as a whole tends to underwhelm. Never do we get a genuine sense that the film is trying to push itself, either. Whilst technically it's a marvel, the lack of thrills and narrative engagement unfortunately make the experience hollow at times.

A project that took two-and-a-half years in the making really shows in its pay-off; the painstaking effort that's gone into its meticulous production is visible in the wonderful animation: it's vibrant, lively, and - with a style recognisable around the globe - is hard not to fall in love with the mouthwatering sight. 

VERDICT: An enjoyable and amusing adventure is strengthened by a unique and beautiful aesthetic only Aardman can pull off, but its tame story and all too basic approach to engage a younger audience can leave the elders dissatisfied and feeling a little short changed.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Review: Wild Bill

Rating: 15
Duration: 98 mins

Dexter Fletcher helms his début feature, as he follows in the footsteps of compatriot Paddy Considine's recent success with Tyrannosaur, making the effortless transition from actor to writer/director.

Fletcher opts for a similar route as Peter Mullan and Shane Meadows, with social commentary of the grimy working-class endeavour that befalls some of the less privileged regions of the UK. Wild Bill takes us to East London with a visceral and fantastically raw -- if not previously explored -- look at the everyday struggle of abandoned brothers Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams). They're left to fend for themselves; their mother having absconded to Spain with a new boyfriend and estranged father Bill (Charles Creed-Miles) is left to pick up the pieces of their dysfunctional family after a recent release from prison.

Both Fletcher and Danny King co-write a script that might wander previously trodden ground, but it's a breath of fresh air with heart, emotional dexterity and approach. The story crams in a lot of bad blood early on: notably some resentfulness aimed at a hapless Bill from a disheartened Dean who cannot forgive him for 'leaving' to serve an eight year stretch. Bitter one-sided exchanges between the pair, and as well as supporting characters such as Roxy (Liz White) form fragile relationships that develop as the film progresses: as Bill begins to take responsibility for his actions and absence, the boys begin to warm to him, and realise how precious a family bond is.

Impressionable younger sibling Jimmy is the catalyst for the story that unfolds, as he becomes mixed up with low-life drug peddler Terry (Leo Gregory) and his band of cockney wide-boy wannabes. Neil Maskell plays a fitting role as tubby hard man Dicky, whereas Misfits actor Iwan Rheon offers an often comical performance as street-dealing, ethnically-confused, Pill.

The pacing satisfies and gradually builds with steady momentum culminating in a tensely climactic scene that could go either way. The fine line between success and failure -- from Bill's parental stance at least -- is as taut as it could be: it's hard not to commit your support in his plight to turn his life around and make up for lost time with his sons, but old habits tend to die hard.

The direction is clean and articulate; void of over-ambitiousness (bar one beautifully eloquent paper aeroplane scene), where a less-is-more approach has far greater impact in the context of the film. Lengthy tracking shots from high-rise corridors leading into their flat and through the individual rooms add a sense of voyeurism, which juxtaposes nicely with the more snappier, heated scenes.

Strong performances from Poulter and Creed-Miles really drive a film that, on the exterior, is a brutally serious drama with the underlying comparative themes of a western. It also provides several playful and amusing moments that maintain a comedic undertone throughout.

VERDICT: Wild Bill's poignant conclusion is uplifting as well as inspiring. Add this to the well chosen cast and excellent script, then what we're left with is a powerful, hard-hitting experience that'll evoke a mixture of feelings -- mainly a satisfying fulfilment with warm sentiment.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

Rating: 12a
Duration: 142 mins

Like John Carter, The Hunger Games is the second blockbuster-type to be released in March and bodes some similar traits: it's a healthy budgeted sci-fi adventure based on popular literature. However, the elements that unfortunately fall flat for the former are atoned here. By contrast, The Hunger Games is, by and large, a much more consistent and stronger film that emotionally touches, visually thrills and narratively engages.

Fortunately, this is not a film executed in the same fashion as teeny sensation Twilight either, and instead adheres to a maturer, more dignified stance, whilst still catering for its intended younger demographic. The 12a rating might appear restricting, but after a reported seven seconds of footage was removed in order to downgrade it from a 15, one can forgive such actions, as the impact is still there. 

The one element that stands out in a negative capacity is the excessive use of the 'shaky cam' effect, especially near the beginning. If used appropriately, this technique can deliver to devastating effect - take The Blair Witch Project for example - but here it isn't required, especially during non-action, uneventful sequences: the unnecessary disorientation will have audiences breathing a sigh of relief when, in stark contrast, it cuts to a wide, static shot. In the film's context it's slightly bizarre, yet somewhat forgivable.

The story is based in the future; set in a dystopian America where the country is split into twelve districts overruled by the Capitol. Each year two tributes are randomly selected from each district - one male and one female - and are trained and mentored before being thrown into a regulated forest where they must kill or be killed; rendering the remaining survivor the winner, culminating in a reality TV style satire. Think along the lines of Battle Royale meets The Running Man meets The Truman Show, and you get a sense of the concept. The juxtaposition of politics and reality television are interjected, as an effect on one can have direct impact on the other.

The setting, in an unspecified year, generates the strong sci-fi visual element: the weakest locations are the slum-like districts that, in truth, were not shown all that often. However, the Capitol, which is the thriving, luxurious city, is well conceived. What takes the shine off the interesting technology and pleasurable aesthetic of the surroundings are the costumes. Deemed 'futuristic', it's a little heavy-handedly conveyed, as the use of psychedelic hair, flamboyant outfits and, most notably, the inventive beard designs, which screams 'typical funky image of the future', rather than something more believable, as it detracts from the rest of the set up.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a solid performance as Katniss; a young woman who volunteers herself in place of her little sister that's unluckily chosen. Along her journey through the live televised Hunger Games, she involves herself in alliances, tragedy and some fight-to-the-death scenarios. Her character is layered, and gradually reveals itself throughout the story; complemented by a supporting role from Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and what can only be described as a handful of appearances from Liam Hemsworth, as close friend Gale.

Katniss's journey is an engaging and thrilling experience, as she hunts and strives to stay alive with the pace constantly switching, bar the single saddest moment of the film, which feels too drawn out; forcefully attempting to pull at the heartstrings. Thankfully, the length of the film doesn't prove taxing as the flow of the story pulls you in, you will see the two-and-a-half hours as nothing less than an entertaining and thrilling piece of science fiction.

As previously touched upon, the use of the 'shaky cam' is exacerbated - specifically towards the end - in conjunction with claustrophobic, super quick cuts that go beyond the point of disorientation. Whether this is, at times, to disguise the violence is debatable. However, in some scenes it really is unclear as to what is happening when this unpleasant technique rears its ugly head.

The final ten minutes, of what is a long film, actually feels rushed; almost as if the director realises near the end of the shoot that they've ran over and need to jump from quick scene to quick scene  in order to bridge a resolution.

VERDICT: Creating a convincing and enjoyable sci-fi flick is one thing, but achieving consistency and quality throughout is another. Fortunately, The Hunger Games succeeds in both, keeping the story and action grounded, especially without overdoing it on the CGI front. Interesting political undertones provide an aftermath of speculation that nicely conclude the film as a single entry, but sets up further conflicts for its inevitable sequels.

NB: Amidst a rather tense forestry scene, prepare yourself for one of the most inappropriately hilarious moments that even the likes of Noel Fielding will be proud of.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Trailer Talk: Prometheus

Last night saw Ridley Scott (director) and Damon Lindelof (writer) discuss the film (set for release in the UK on June 1st), as well as answer some fan questions in a brief Q&A session. Both were in good spirits, as Scott was careful not to reveal much plot detail in order to avoid spoilers, but did promise something to equal the famous 'bursting out of the stomach' scene in Alien.

Without a doubt this is my most anticipated film of 2012, knocking The Dark Knight Rises into oblivion (or as I like to call it: into my second most anticipated film of the year slot).

With Scott behind the camera, a breathtaking ensemble, and the promise of a modern Alien with all the style, substance, atmosphere and terror; Prometheus is set to be something very special indeed.

Here is the brand new trailer released on March 17th. Enjoy!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Review: 21 Jump Street

Rating: 15
Duration: 109 mins

Yet again Hollywood enters remake territory, but this time it's slightly easier to swallow as it's based on the Johnny Depp starring TV series that's over twenty years old, rather than something hurriedly rehashed from a release a few years ago. What's more, director's Phil Lord and Chris Miller are openly mocking the very fabrication of what remakes seem to constitute as these days.

The pairing of sweary funster Jonah Hill, and sappy knucklehead Channing Tatum doesn't appear to be the wisest of collaborations upon first glance, however, credit where it's due -- Hill recently showed he can handle a more serious role in Moneyball; finally deriving from his foul-mouthed Superbad typecast -- their teaming is a stroke of genius.

Fortunately, the writers of 21 Jump Street (Hill and Michael 'mixed bag' Bacall) have avoided the genre pitfalls by creating one of the funniest films in recent memory. What's more is that it isn't throwaway like Bridesmaids, or Horrible Bosses.

Bumbling cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are reassigned to work undercover and infiltrate a local high school in order to track down the illusive supplier of a new synthetic drug sweeping through the classrooms. The hapless duo remain inconspicuous and blend in, as hard-ass Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) breathes down their necks for results. 

What tends to stick with you -- aside from the consistent hilarity and wit -- are the leads: both Hill and Tatum gel surprisingly well, as the latter transforms into a convincing comedic role with ease. He's arguably the most likeable thing about the movie; could he have indeed found his niche?

From the moment the film begins, it's clear that the script is utterly self aware of itself; dialogue oozes cliché, but remains charming in a self-parodying way. Perhaps it is a little heavy-handed in its approach, but nonetheless must be commended for not taking itself seriously, instead opting to go all out in its self-mocking style.

Character expectancy is flipped on its head, as Schmidt and Jenko embark on a return to high school assuming the set up is the same when they were there; the buff, athletic jock Jenko is quickly exposed as outdated as he struggles to fit in and find acceptance. On the other hand, the bashful and reserved Schmidt is  likeable due to his considerate and sensitive nature. This generational and cultural change is illustrated perfectly when the pair turn up for their first day of school and can't decide whether it's still cool to 'one strap' their rucksacks or not.

The script is tightly written and has some lovely dialogue that, again, nods at its own tongue-in-cheek attitude, pulling it off to pleasing effect. We're offered a continually fast paced, action packed and very, very funny film that stands out for being far more memorable than any of its recent counterparts. Dave Franco is impressive with a supporting role as eco-friendly, popular teen Eric; as is scene-stealer Rob Riggle as outrageous gym teacher Mr. Walters.

VERDICT: 21 Jump Street is an impressively written, hilariously modern take on the high school comedy. It does a great job of turning conventions on its head whilst being topical and relevant. It's both unsubtle and subtle at times, with a brashness that nails it on every occasion. Side-splitting moments makes this one of the more memorable comedies of recent years.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: John Carter

Rating: 12a
Duration: 132 mins

There has been much speculation over Disney's latest movie, not only because it's based on a character from a science fiction novel series, but it's also helmed by Pixar veteran, Andrew Stanton; taking his first leap into live-action. With a $250m budget, the marketing has been somewhat tame; a name change removing 'of Mars' from the already plain title perhaps hasn't helped, but surely the powerhouse combo of Disney and Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E) is enough to generate buzz?

Initially a veteran of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he encounters alien races and all sorts of crazy antics that oddly don't seem to faze him in the slightest. Aside from a few moments of gravitational uncertainty, Mr. Carter is psychologically unaffected, having been plonked onto a strange, distant planet, as he interacts with various alien-types as well as their mind-blowing technology. All in a day's work for our hero it would seem, until various conflicts come into play: these involve being taken prisoner (on more than one occasion), only for him to break free and embark on his own selfless quest to save Dejah (Lynn Collins); a fearless warrior Princess who is being pressured to marry the evil Sab (Dominic West), for political reasons. In truth, it's difficult to articulate the plot any more coherently due to the unclear nature in how the narrative is told. 

John Carter, being a Disney film, obviously has some obligatory restrictions: no vulgarity, sex, swearing, or nudity. But with existing source material and an Oscar-winning director in charge, it shouldn't be problem to achieve a family-friendly, enchanting and exciting adventure. Unfortunately, that's not the case here.

Whilst the CGI is well conceived and some settings visually appeal, aesthetically there isn't anything we haven't seen before. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones is the most obvious point of reference, yet tragically the cities and settlements that are visited don't exude any real vastness, resulting in them feeling shallow and disingenuous. Similarly, a lot of the alien character design will appear familiar, too. What’s more, no one - not even Carter himself - provides us with any character depth, and the minute exposition we are privileged to via flashbacks are inconsequential and irrelevant to the context of the plot.

The most difficult aspect to come to terms with is the lack of story. There's a strong argument that there isn't one at all, merely a loose chain of events that vaguely tie a narrative together. Unlike other epic sci-fi adventures, there's no spark to any of the characters, and prove difficult to engage with. More worryingly, the thin plot is exacerbated by what little the audience have to go on, as it's terribly vague and confusing throughout: alternative names for planets; new characters drifting in and out at will; places that are referenced lack the relevant context, all makes you realise about an hour into the film that you haven't the foggiest idea what's actually happening.

The list of supporting actors, including the wonderful Bryan Cranston, as well as Dominic West and Mark Strong are shamefully underused, most notably the former, with a bit-part simply written for what can be described as a cameo. Not one of them is utilised well, and Strong's character is poorly judged.

On a positive note, the CGI may not ooze originality, but at least it's pleasant - if you ignore its influences or the films that are influenced by it - as are the vehicle designs, and architectural concept art is a sight to behold. Indeed, the four-armed species known as the Tharks, as well as the beasts they ride, are nicely visualised as well.

Following recent trend, John is accompanied by an oddly cute Calot (best described as an alien-faced Cheshire cat that resembles a giant pebble with stumpy limbs). This loyal beast, named Woola, follows him round as a makeshift sidekick - as Snowy is to Tintin - and provides some comic relief much like 'comedy goose' does in War Horse

As predicted, the 3D element brings nothing to the experience and, like 99% of '3D' movies, felt lazily implemented in post production affirming but another nail in the coffin for why the format should be buried sooner, rather than later.

VERDICT: In 2012, where modern science fiction adventures need to push the boundaries to satisfy demanding audiences, John Carter fails on most levels. It doesn't sustain the belief, let alone the attention of the viewer, and is too uneventful to engage with its Disney demographic. Regardless of whether the books pre-date the likes of Star Wars, Dune or Avatar, is irrelevant to fickle cinema goers. All people will see is an unoriginal and lacklustre movie that, whilst entertains and visually captures some charm in specific areas, will simply leave you shouting 'next!'