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.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review: The Last Stand

Rating: 15
Duration: 107 mins

For anyone who's read his recent autobiography entitled Total Recall, you'll notice instead of highlighting aspects of adultery or failure, the insightful musings inform readers what a shrewd and intelligent business man Arnold Schwarzenegger was and still is today.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was the big man's last starring role almost a decade ago, and, on the face of it, Jee-woon Kim's whimsy modern western is in many ways the perfect vehicle for the former Governor's resurgence. 

The Last Stand is a blend of gratuitous violence reminiscent of the 80s and 90s action hero Arnie once was, but also -- subversively or not -- expresses a topical approach to gun control that won't sit comfortably with everyone. For fans, this is a welcomed return for Schwarzenegger because it offers up everything synonymous with the Austrian: one liners, brute force, physical presence, violence, guns, a no frills plot; clear cut heroes and villains; and general badassery. And in this respect, The Last Stand works well; Arnie plays the Sheriff of an Americana town, as he aims to take down the hilariously accented, brilliantly generic villain, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), whose escape route to the boarder runs through Sheriff Ray Owens' (Schwarzenegger) stomping ground.

There's a lot of awkwardly delivered, cheesy dialogue, but within the context of the film and considering its star, it's completely aware if its traits, thus justifies its construction. The cleverness here is that The Last Stand is packaged to accommodate Arnold who, let's face it, will never compete for a role against Daniel Day-Lewis, but can offer a nostalgic, muscle-bound presence much like Stallone and Willis do, and this is exactly the right comeback role for him, especially for an actor in his mid 60s.

The joy of this is its simplicity.  Its old school formula, frivolous nature and resistance from veering into Die Hard 4.0 territory prevents this actioner from encumbering itself in total ridicule, proving an effective platform for Schwarzenegger's big screen return -- a sensible choice considering his acting ability (or lack of). By no means deep or particularly memorable, it is, however, an entertaining, carefree romp at the cinema.