Friday, 30 December 2011

Film Review | Megamind (2010)

Megamind is one of those films that makes writing reviews a chore, in that there isn't really a great deal to say about it. It's not an awful film by any stretch of the imagination, but there also isn't that much that is genuinely good there either.

The film tells the story of Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell), an alien supervillain whose various attempts to defeat his nemesis, superhero Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt), and take over Metro City have so far always failed. However, when Megamind finally succeeds in killing Metro Man, he suddenly finds his life to have no purpose and begins questioning the nature of being a villain at all.

Essentially, Megamind attempts to both parody and pay homage to superhero movies in the same way that previous Dreamworks offering Monsters Vs. Aliens did with B-movie disaster flicks. The problem is, no part of Megamind feels as though it has any authentic heart or spark of originality behind it. Ferrell is fine as the eponymous alien but never more than that, and regularly his performance sounds merely like a cross between previous Ferrell characters Ron Burgundy from Anchorman and Mugatu from Zoolander. Brad Pitt's efforts as Metro Man are alarmingly more disappointing, making the character nothing more than a flat and uninteresting superhero stereotype. Tina Fey as TV reporter and generic love interest Roxanne Ritchie is again satisfactory but nothing more, and Jonah Hill as her assistant just serves to prove he's just as irritating even when you can't see him.

The lacklustre feel filters through the film's execution, with many parts feeling predictable and the plot losing steam long before the final act. Elements clearly included to appeal to the older generation, such as modelling Megamind's sense of showmanship after bands such as Kiss and Alice Cooper, just don't fit comfortably with any other part of the film and essentially come across as a little desperate to gain parental approval on the part of the writers.

Ultimately, Megamind is not a bad film. But it is an average film in pretty much every way, which is key to its failure. With the computer-animated film market more and more saturated, and rival studio Pixar leading the way in producing ever more impressive films in terms of technical skill and cinematic excellence, there are simply too many films that it's worth seeing before Megamind.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Film Review | Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan achieves a rare feat in cinema, in that by the film's climax I was genuinely unsure as to how much of what I was watching was real and how much was in the head of a character. By the time the credits rolled director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman in the lead role had led me so expertly to this point, exactly where they wanted me to be, that I could do nothing but allow the emotional, psychological, beautifully dramatic spectacle I had just witnessed to continue washing over me.

The film tells the story of Nina (Portman), a professional ballerina who lands her first lead role in her company's latest production, Swan Lake. As Nina struggles to meet the demands of her dual character as both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan, her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey), her director (Vincent Cassel) and fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) all become increasingly complex whilst her mental state becomes less and less stable.

Whilst praise has already been heaped upon Portman and Aronofsky, it's important not to overlook the importance of the supporting cast in making the film the success that it is. Cassel brings both intensity and intrigue to his role; Hershey too is strong as the strict yet devoted mother to Nina, and deserves high praise in particular for her scenes with Portman when Nina falls further into mental instability. The character of Lily is potentially the most demanding after Nina herself, but Kunis handles the role incredibly well, striking a balance between the different elements to her character, at times cerebral, at others much more physical.

The triumph here, however, must be a shared achievement of Portman and Aronofsky. Portman's performance is blissfully enigmatic, allowing the audience to develop an uneasy relationship of sympathy and distance with Nina in a very short space of time which lasts until the very last shot. It's a turn more than worthy of her Best Actress Oscar.

Portman's performance fits seamlessly with Aronofsky's direction, a heady fusion of extreme realism and the disturbingly surreal blurring the lines between the real world and Nina's warped perspective. This intentional ambiguity creates superb psychological melodrama with occasional hints of horror, and makes Black Swan Aronofsky's most finely crafted film to date. In fact, if there is one criticism of the film it's that it is at a few points almost too uncomfortable to watch. Black Swan, fundamentally, is a film I find it very difficult to fault. Whilst it may at times be a difficult viewing experience, this is undoubtedly an incredible piece of cinema.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

Film Review | Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates is clearly influenced in its style by a great many other sci-fi films, from big names such as The Matrix and the Terminator franchise to cult titles such as Gattaca. The problem is, it's never quite as good as any of the films it has been inspired by.

Set in a near future where the world's population lives through hi-tech robotic counterparts - the 'surrogates' of the title, and as they are referred to throughout the film - we follow the story of FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) who, with his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell), investigates a series of unprecedented murders committed through destroying a person's surrogate. Willis is reliably watchable, but never feels as though he is stretching himself too far from either his troubled loner or irrational action-man archetypal fallback roles. Other than Ving Rhames as The Prophet, the shadowy leader of a resistance movement against the surrogates, and James Cromwell as the inventor of 'surrogacy' (both of whom receive far too little screen time), the cast is largely pedestrian and forgettable.

The story is entertaining enough, providing enough satisfying sci-fi quirks and action sequences to keep things interesting. Things get a little muddled towards the end, and the final act doesn't provide the satisfying payoff that you would hope for. A subplot involving the death of Greer's son and the effect of this on his relationship with his wife (Rosamund Pike) never really manages to go anywhere meaningful. However, the film's swift running time of under ninety minutes does mean it never has the chance to become tedious.

Ultimately, Surrogates feels like a wasted opportunity. There's a huge amount that could have been explored in terms of human morality (there doesn't seem to be any repercussions for destroying a surrogate, despite more than one indication that they aren't exactly cheap pieces of kit), and the current popularity of online chat and smartphones could have been very easily commented upon, but instead is only slightly hinted at. Like I said before, Surrogates draws on a great many entries into the sci-fi canon but unfortunately this usually only serves to remind you of how many better films there are of a similar style that you could be watching. It is enjoyable and worth a look, but in many ways had the potential to be so much more than it is.


Saturday, 27 August 2011

Film Reviews | Catfish (2010); Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010); I'm Still Here (2010)

Catfish, Exit Through The Gift Shop and I'm Still Here all have quite a lot in common. Not only are they documentary films, but they are also all documentaries that have had similar criticisms levelled at them at various points through their creation and release. The criticism focuses upon whether or not each film was genuine in what it purported to document. Whilst each hasproponents for both sides of the argument, two conclusions that seem to be arrived at by critics fairly regularly are:

i) that a documentary film not being "true" links in some way to the quality and aesthetic worth of what has been made;

ii) that the makers of a documentary not being entirely transparent about the levels of factual and fictional content in their film again impact on its quality and aesthetic worth.

* * * * *

Looking first at Catfish, reviewing the film's content is tricky as a fair amount of the impact that the film will have on its audience rests on finding things out as the film progresses. The film focuses on photographer Yaniv "Nev" Schulman who strikes up a friendship on Facebook with a young girl called Abby after she sends him paintings of some of his photographs. This online friendship soon spreads to Abby's extended family, including her mother Angela and her half-sister Megan, and the film continues documenting the unexpected directions these relationships take.

Since its release, the truth behind the events of the film has been questioned from a number of directions, including opinions from others in the film industry ranging from the relevant (Morgan Spurlock, most famous for making Super Size Me) to the not-so-relevant (Zach Galifianakis, most famous for playing an idiot in The Hangover). Some seem merely unable to believe that the events of the film could be anything other than fictional; others have analysed the way in which the film's events are related and the timescale over which they are purported to have happened, and concluded that the film can't be relating real life events. Nev and the makers of the film, his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, have continually insisted that the film's story is completely true, although they have admitted to recreating a handful of elements after the event for the benefit of the film's narrative. For many, this is enough to call shenanigans on the whole film.

However, opinion on whether the film's events are "real" often takes over the entire view of the film. From armchair critics to professional journalists, the focus regularly returns to how truthful the filmmakers are being about how much (if any) of their film is fiction. This is undoubtedly a great shame, as Catfish has a huge amount going for it in terms of style and craftsmanship. The way in which modern technology is seamlessly integrated into the way the story is told is fantastic; using Google Earth to illustrate long distance travel and Google Streetview to produce establishing shots, for example, are simple yet inspired touches. The style of cinematography is matched perfectly to the tonal shift of the film as it progresses, beginning with a personal handheld style, moving to a more sinister quasi-horror style as events take a more unsettling tone, and then a cleaner, relatively more polished feel for the film's closing act. Schulman and Joost know their stuff when it comes to documentary style, that much is certain. The narrative is engaging and kept me hooked until the very end. Nev is presented as such an amiable character that you feel an immediate attachment to him and his life. And none of this hangs on whether or not what we are watching is true. Moreover, does it actually matter when the film is as enjoyable and masterful as it is?

I'm Still Here is, in almost every way, the counterpoint to all the things that make Catfish a great documentary. The film chronicles a year in the life of Joaquin Phoenix as he unceremoniously retires from acting in order to pursue a career as a rapper. And that's pretty much it. Phoenix's reasons for leaving acting are never entirely clear, other than boredom on the actor's part, with him essentially coming across as a conceited Hollywood brat. His rapping is awful, although his intention to become a serious rapper seems entirely genuine most of the time. Phoenix's meetings with P Diddy to get advice and try to jumpstart his new career move provide some of the film's most compelling scenes. The uncomfortable edge they have is comparable to that seen in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm or Ricky Gervais' Extras, although never to such an entertaining degree.

Other than that, the film is filled with Phoenix and his entourage ordering hookers, getting drunk, taking copious amounts of drugs and generally behaving appallingly towards each other. Many of these scenes quickly become tedious and regularly unpleasantly uncomfortable. Phoenix himself comes across as highly unlikable and obnoxious to be around for most of the film. The way he treats those around him is abhorrent. By the end of the film, not only is it hard to care about Phoenix's struggle to break into the music business, but also that he left a promising career in film to do so. I just wanted him to go away.

Having insisted all along that Phoenix's tumultuous attempt at a career change was entirely genuine, soon after the film's release (and in what many have seen as an attempt to boost unimpressive box office returns after mixed reviews) director Casey Affleck admitted that everything seen in the film is entirely set up. Phoenix was playing a fictional version of himself the whole time, remaining "in character" during public and promotional appearances whilst the film was being made. Phoenix and Affleck have explained their desire to comment on people's willingness to believe everything they see as true when it is labelled as "reality". But this desire never comes across through the film, nor does coming clean about the manufactured nature of the film's events make it any more obvious. There is never a clear message behind the film, despite bookending the events seen with references to Phoenix's childhood and relationship with his father (also set up: the home video footage is fabricated and the man seen in the film is actually Affleck's father, not Phoenix's) possibly to imply Phoenix straying from his roots. This lack of clarity is not due to subtlety, but simply poor filmmaking.

Whilst there are moments that are made slightly more impressive by knowing they were set up (the scenes with P Diddy, for example, and an uncomfortable altercation between Phoenix and Ben Stiller), for the most part the revelation just serves to make Phoenix come across as even more self-indulgent. He has moved from a self-important actor failing to make it as a musician, to a self-important actor who apparently thinks watching him fail to make it as a musician will be entertaining for others. A film of this type needs to be shot through with either genuine humour or satire, and it is sorely devoid of both. Affleck too does not come off well. The revelation of the documentary's fictitious nature doesn't matter; either way, his directorial style throughout the film is uninspired, lacking in panache or storytelling know-how. Compared to the effortlessly stylish Catfish, in terms of craft this is pedestrian at best, downright amateurish at its worst. Affleck may be a highly promising acting talent, but based upon I'm Not There, I'm not looking forward to his next outing as a director.

Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop treads the ground somewhere between Catfish and I'm Still Here. The film begins by introducing Thierry Guetta, the man behind the camera and an obsessive camcorder user who stumbles into the world of street art almost entirely by accident, becoming the unofficial biographer of the underground movement. Guetta becomes obsessed with tracking down Banksy, apparently considered the most elusive of all street artists, and eventually their paths cross. However, events take a twist for the bizarre once Banksy sees Guetta's documentary and decides to take control of the film himself.

The main problem with ETTGS is that, very simply, a lot of what it shows you isn't actually that interesting to watch. After Guetta himself is introduced, a lot of the first act of the film is comprised of footage of street artists doing their thing. It's just that, whilst street art as a cultural phenomenon is interesting, watching people creating the street art just isn't as compelling as looking at the finished product. For around ten minutes or so, I found myself genuinely interested in watching Guetta's footage of the intricate painting and stencil work that goes into creating street art; but there are only so many times you can see shady figures spraying walls or putting up giant images of André The Giant or being questioned by the police before it all begins to merge together.

Things perk up a bit once Guetta has teamed up with Banksy. The sequence chronicling Banksy leaving a "murdered" red telephone box on the streets of central London is a particular highlight, as is footage of Banksy's infamous Disneyland Guantanamo Bay prisoner stunt, which becomes as tense as a scene in any thriller worth its salt. There is quite a bit of street art creation footage in between these however, which still failed to truly ignite my interest in the film. In many ways the film's running time of under ninety minutes is a blessing: had it been much longer, the less enthralling segments may have ended up as my lasting impression of the film.

Thankfully, the film's final third vastly improves upon what has preceded it, with the camera turned on cameraman (and by far the most fascinating personality on show here) Thierry Guetta and his own attempt to break into the street art scene. The result is a truly excruciating finale - a car crash of epic proportions waiting to happen that you can't bear to watch but at the same time can't possibly look away from, with a conclusion truly unforgettable.

It is largely the film's final act which drew skepticism from many, which is essentially the same criticism that Catfish received. Many refused to believe that the events of the film could be anything but fictitious, the greatest elaborate prank from the street artist who is almost as famous for his elaborate pranks as he is for his pop-culture-bending stencils. The makers of the film - or at least those involved who are happy to reveal their identities - have always stated that the story the film tells, and all the people depicted, are genuine. Out of all three films here, ETTGS probably has the most evidence outside the film to prove that at the very least a significant portion of the film's events actually happened. At the same time, however, it probably has the biggest reason for people to be wary of its claimed credentials. After all, you can't ignore that above the title on the film's poster appears the phrase "A Banksy film".

Essentially, these three documentaries together show that it doesn't really matter how candid the makers of the film are about the truth (or lack thereof) in the film when it comes to the quality of the film as a whole. I'm Still Here is the only film discussed here where those involved have unequivocally stated that the film's content is staged, and it is by far the poorest of the three. In fact, these three films are more revealing about the people passing judgement on them. Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop in many ways prove the well-known adage that "truth is stranger than fiction", but also that many people today would rather dismiss something remarkable as fabricated than stretch their belief to accept an unlikely truth.

Whilst I'm not saying that everything should be accepted at face value, there's being inquisitive and then there's trying to reveal the man behind the curtain for no reason other than spite. When I'm Not There was first revealed as a "mockumentary" rather than a depiction of real life, there were even those who poured scorn upon that admission, seeing it as an attempt by Casey Affleck to save face for Joaquin Phoenix. Essentially, the skepticism was reversed: critics claimed that Phoenix's actions were all completely real, and the claim of it all being a set-up was the hoax. To be that cynical must make life a constant struggle against disappointment. In the end, it is of course an entirely subjective decision as to how much of what you see in these films you actually believe. Just make sure this decision has no bearing on your aesthetic enjoyment of the film.

* * * * *


I'm Still Here

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Film Review | Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is resplendent in its Spielberg credentials. Honestly, why shouldn't it be? When you've got one of the most successful men in the film industry executive producing your film, you'd be a fool not to make the most of it. Except Super 8 doesn't just make the most of it, instead going beyond paying homage to Spielberg's earlier work (think pre-Schindler's List and you're about there) to jam-packing the film so full of stylistic and thematic references to other films that writer and director J.J. Abrams too often seems to forget to put in any of his own film.

The story is straightforward enough. A group of school friends growing up in small-town USA in 1979 set about making their own movie. Sneaking out to film at a ramshackle train platform one night, the group witness a catastrophic train derailment bizarrely involving one of their schoolteachers driving onto the tracks. It soon becomes apparent that that's not the only unusual thing about the crash as the U.S. Air Force soon make their presence felt as well, as strange occurrences become more and more frequent in the town.

The film does have a lot going for it, not least the performances of the young actors. Child actors can often make or break a film for me, either proving such a fresh and pleasing talent that they alone become reason enough to see it, or grating so badly they detract from the film's overall success. Thankfully the group of young'uns heading up Super 8 firmly avoid falling into the latter bracket. In fact, their collective performance is what makes the first half of the film so enjoyable. Standing out slightly more than any others are Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) who play Joe Lamb and Alice Dainard respectively. The companionship that grows between these two throughout the film is wonderful to watch, and whilst Courtney's portrayal of a pre-teen boy who has recently lost his mother is at times a little too understated to feel genuine, the chemistry between him and Fanning in bringing Joe and Alice's relationship to life is palpable and impressive in such young performers. Fanning throughout shows immense potential to become a future star.

Despite his intent to make a film paying tribute to Spielberg, it is often when Abrams is being most true to his own style that the film shines. The derailment of the train and subsequent crash sequence is spectacular, done without the grandiose nature of Emmerich or the mindless busy mess of which Michael Bay can't get enough. Abrams makes it authentic yet fantastical and always captivating, reminiscent of the brilliant plane crash scenes seen in another of his creations - the television series Lost. His handling too of the scenes in which the extra-terrestrial attacks is also very tight, providing genuine jumps; Abrams expertly controls the precise moments at which the alien lets rip, as well as how much of the attack we actually see.

Super 8 is also beset with flaws, however. After crafting a heartfelt opening act and, for the most part, a well-crafted sci-fi mystery with touches of horror for the second, the film unfortunately wanders into less inspired territory for its final act. Things seem to shift almost entirely from inhabiting an ordinary world where extraordinary things are happening to a highly cinematic world of sudden character shifts and drop-of-a-hat action sequences. Perhaps Abrams was hoping to kick things up another gear or two for a stunning climax, but it just makes the final thirty minutes or so of the film sit uncomfortably at odds with what's come before it, denying the audience the type of payoff they were undoubtedly hoping for.

As stated previously, however, the greatest problem with Super 8 is also the element that at times provides some of its greatest strengths, namely its referential nature to not only Spielberg's work and style, but also other movies outside his canon of work. You will notch up nods to The Goonies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, as well as Stand By Me, Alien and even Cloverfield, a film to which Abrams himself is linked through production duties. Whilst Abrams at times invokes these spirits of the past with panache, giving his film an air of quality and heritage, more often they return to haunt his picture highlighting just how it often has very little of its own to say. The alien presence is a prime example. Those who've seen Cloverfield may find themselves experiencing more than a little déjà vu, to the point of anticlimax. Abrams also invites us to empathise with the creature in the way Spielberg did nearly thirty years ago with E.T., but this is easier to do before actually meeting Super 8's extra-terrestrial. Somehow I just didn't feel too inclined to emotionally attach myself with an alien after seeing it feed on human beings, apparently without discretion.

Ultimately, Super 8 does a lot of things right, but these in the end are regularly competing with errors too large to ignore. Whilst there is a great rite of passage story for at least one of the young protagonists in there, it becomes clouded by an unnecessary shift to a clichéd action style and Abrams obsession with alluding to other cinematic works. Ironically, if he hadn't tried so hard to emulate his executive producer, Abrams may have got closer to what Spielberg at his best does to perfection: great storytelling his own way, where the action is never placed above the heart within the story.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Film Review | Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Your enjoyment of Captain America: The First Avenger will most likely depend on what you are expecting before you go in and how you view it as both an individual film and part of the creation of a larger Marvel Comics universe. Because whilst CA:TFA is clearly cast firmly from the superhero movie mould in terms of it's foundations, in spirit it doesn't quite follow the patterns you'd expect. Unfortunate considering I'd sold seeing the film to my fiancée with a sentence something along the lines of "you enjoyed Iron Man, so you're bound to enjoy this", only for her to claim ownership of the next viewing choice at the cinema in recompense for her lack of enjoyment as we walked out of the screen.

In many ways we have your standard superhero origins story: frustrated by his continual rejections from the U.S. Army due to medical health problems and general scrawny stature, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is selected for a top secret "super soldier" programme due to his personality and willingness to fight. After undergoing the experimental procedure, Rogers is transformed into a "perfect" man, with abilities at the peak of human potential, and of course transformed from his puny frame into a towering musclebound adonis.

The development of Rogers' character in the opening act of the film is pleasing and handled well; it reminded me of the way in which Peter Parker is introduced in the first Spider-Man film. Whilst it means that the start of the film doesn't move particularly quickly, I was happy to accept it as a necessary element of the origins tale. However, it's in the film's second act where things begin to stray from what you might have prepared yourself for. Where Peter Parker began climbing walls and swinging through New York City, and where Tony Stark began honing his metallic suit and breaking the sound barrier, Rogers does very little in the way of superheroic activity. We get one action sequence following Rogers' transformation, and then that's it for a while. And whilst this turn of events is explained within the film's plot, it does take some of the momentum away from the film before things have even properly got started.

When the action does finally get going, again it's not quite what many will undoubtedly expect from a superhero film. The action is much more closely related to CA:TFA's war film roots than its comic book roots. The film is less a superhero film set during World War II, more a World War II film that happens to focus on a superhero. It actually feels quite different to most superhero films of recent years, and whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does leave the film at times feeling a little awkwardly placed between two genres that don't often marry.

For all its "not quites", CA:TFA nevertheless has an awful lot going for it. Evans is great as the hero, giving a performance that fits with both who the character is and the time period in which the film takes place. The supporting cast are also consistently solid: Tommy Lee Jones is reliably excellent in his role as Colonel Phillips, required to run the gamut of feelings towards Rogers and his eventual alter-ego; Hugo Weaving somehow manages to toe the line between authentic and comic book maniacal villain with a strong performance; and Dominic Cooper impressed me as Howard Stark, bringing both arrogance and likability to the character. Only Hayley Atwell provides something of a weak link: whilst her performance is fine in many parts, I never found there to be nearly enough chemistry between her and Evans to make their romantic relationship anything more than hinted towards.

Ultimately, Captain America: The First Avenger works as both a standalone film and as a quasi-prequel to The Avengers film which is set to arrive next year (without giving too much away, the closing scene here could almost be the opening to that very film). It's a film that is likely to split opinion, as what some may see as bold, if not entirely successful, attempts to do something fresh and different with the superhero and war genres, others may see as unnecessary meddling to a tried, tested and desired formula. Taking a step back from (over) analysing the film, this is essentially a summer blockbuster made to entertain. And whilst it certainly could have entertained me more, it managed to do so sufficiently far more often than not.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Film Review | Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

The Potter film franchise is one that has divided many throughout it's decade-long tenure as one of the most successful film franchises in the history of popular cinema. Those who have wanted faithful interpretations of the books have essentially never had this, with characters and subplots deemed non-essential to the overarching story of Harry versus Voldemort unceremoniously chopped as if they had never existed. My own feelings towards the series have fluctuated throughout, with my main gripe being those films within the franchise that fundamentally become incoherent having had so much excised from the original source material. Alfonso Cuarón's Prizoner Of Azkaban, for example, has so much left out that some parts that are included are simply left hanging as nonsensical half-finished strands.

This was therefore my main concern heading into the final Potter film: would David Yates mangle things by leaving important parts of the final book out? His previous track record made me somewhat optimistic: Order Of The Phoenix, whilst having some elements removed, managed to tell the story of the fifth book faithfully by and large; Half-Blood Prince was less successful in this regard, however, and left me feeling unsatisfied; Deathly Hallows Part 1 posed a new problem - whilst splitting the final novel in two meant that much less is skimmed over or chopped, the film very much felt like half a story, again leaving an unsatisfying feeling. Deathly Hallows Part 2 therefore had a lot to prove - as a continuation and conclusion of the Potter franchise, as an adaptation of the final novel continuing from where Part 1 left off, and as a worthwhile film in its own right.

Thankfully, the film is much more success than failure. Yates wastes no time in getting straight back into the story - there's no preamble, no recap of the events of Part 1, and no information dump of exposition (something which I had prepared myself for, and was glad not to have to endure). This is a relatively bold move, considering the notoriously gentle and comedic openings of many of the previous films. But it works a treat, and we are soon back into what the Potter films generally do best: fantasy action sequences. Within the first half an hour we've had magical larceny, wand-based battles and a dragon. It's almost as if Yates is making up for the sluggish pace and decidedly unspectacular feel of Part 1. But it works, and gives the film a welcome adrenaline-charged start.

The battle sequences in particular are a strength of the film all the way to the end. The scenes are lucid and, for the most part, have a genuine sense of menace to them. One-on-one tests of wandsmanship are at times given short shrift (no doubt many fans will be left wishing Mrs. Weasley's showdown with Bellatrix Lestrange had been given slightly more screen time), but seeing as these are snapshots from within a greater, more epic war, Yates on the whole makes the right decisions.

The whole film, in fact, has a pleasingly epic feel to it that Yates has never managed to nail in his previous efforts. Images such as the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch razed to the ground, along with a stylish touch of a damaged goal hoop later being used as a giant's weapon, and Professor McGonagall summoning the statues that adorn the castle to protect the school will no doubt endure in the minds of the audience long after the credits have rolled.

The script is pretty standard Potter film stuff: key quotes and passages from Rowling's text make it through, but there's nothing too impressive with things regularly becoming fairly functional. It is the performances of the cast as a whole that equates to a large part of the film's success. Daniel Radcliffe as the eponymous boy wizard again failed to truly impress me - there's nothing particularly wrong with his performance here, but then there's nothing particularly right about it either. The main thing Radcliffe has going for him at this stage is that there's nobody else who could possibly play Harry Potter for the millions who have spent a decade growing up with his performances.

Rupert Grint and Emma Watson provide no further surprises; the former puts in the strongest performance of the three indicating the most post-Potter promise, whilst the latter's is charming but patchy, although stronger than she has been in previous films in the franchise. In fact, when surveying the performances of the young stars in this film, it is two others who genuinely catch the eye as talents of the future - namely, Matthew Lewis and Tom Felton, who play Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy respectively. Both young men put in strong, mature performances of emotion and depth. Felton has been a dark horse of the series for several films, but Lewis truly raises his game for this final film making Neville an authentic and sympathetic character.

It is the supporting cast who really make the difference, as the talent and star power on offer is simply overwhelming providing a "who's who" of the previous seven films. Big names such as Jim Broadbent and Robbie Coltrane give it their all in roles that have literally minutes of screen time, and it is the willingness of these former key players in the franchise to lend their weight to the film that really gives Yates' film a credence and sense of high quality. Ralph Fiennes' turn as big baddie Voldemort feels as though he has been holding back since his first turn in the role four films previous, and has now let loose in a genuinely maniacal, menacing and downright creepy performance. Praise must also be given to Alan Rickman as Snape, one of the most reliable talents throughout the whole film series, who gives this pivotal and complex character the swansong he deserves with one of the strongest and most moving performances seen in any of the films.

Essentially, In Part 2, Yates finally strikes the right balance of action, drama, emotion, menace and humour on his fourth and final opportunity, creating the strongest of all the Potter films at precisely the right time. The film is a great improvement on the sluggish and unsatisfying Part 1, feeling like its own entity rather than just the second half of a story. In my opinion it shouldn't go down as a truly great film, just a very good one, as the film is by no means perfect. But the spectacular battles and action sequences coupled with the brilliant star power on show makes this a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying conclusion to a film franchise that has gripped popular cinema for a decade.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

Film Review | Source Code (2011)

Watching Source Code is a bit like tucking into a juicy sirloin steak with a tough, fibrous line of fat running through it. There's a lot to like there, with a great many mouthfuls to enjoy without issue. But there's also niggling in the back of your mind that unappetising gristly bit that you try as hard as you can to avoid, even ignore. You have one spoiled bite. Then another. You try and eat round it. But when the meal's over, despite all those unsullied morsels you enjoyed throughout, you keep coming back to that unfortunate thread of adipose material that left you feeling not entirely satisfied with what had the potential to be a really great dish.

Let us first, then, look at the meat. Source Code's story, and the concept behind it, is generally pretty good. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a train unaware of how he got there sitting opposite a woman who knows him as Sean Fentress. Colter soon discovers that his reflection is that of someone else, but before he is able to find out anything further, the train explodes. Colter then wakes up strapped into a dark capsule, where he discovers from Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that the crash he just experienced happened earlier that day, and that he is part of an experimental military operation known as "Source Code". Colter's consciousness was transported into that of a passenger's - Sean's - for the final eight minutes of his life, with the aim of Colter discovering who is responsible for blowing up the train in order to avert further attacks in the future.

So far, so complex. But Duncan Jones' direction from the outset keeps things moving at a pleasing and steady pace whilst at the same time making the whole thing believable. You feel that Jones really hits his stride when depicting Colter's experiences outside of his transportation to the same eight minutes on the train. The design and nature of the bleak capsule Colter inhabits, with its harsh structural features and intrusive video and computer screens, has strong echoes of Gilliam's post-apocalyptic world Bruce Willis experiences in 1995's Twelve Monkeys. In fact, Jones' influence from a wide range of science fiction and beyond - from Inception to Groundhog Day - is apparent throughout Source Code, and the film is all the stronger for it. The director takes inspiration from respected sources, whilst at the same time crafting a fantastical concept that is original and fresh. Jones' first feature, the highly acclaimed Moon, is one that has so far (shamefully) passed me by, but on the strength of his handling of many elements on show here I feel all the more compelled to seek it out sooner rather than later.

Gyllenhaal too must not be undersold. His performance as the former army helicopter pilot thrown into a disorienting and perplexing scenario of which he has no recollection of choosing to be a part, shows diversity that perhaps has only been hinted at before. His previous roles, from romantic drama in Brokeback Mountain to action hero in Prince Of Persia, come together in his portrayal of Colter to provide a satisfying and genuine mix of humour, tension and pugnacity.

The supporting cast also do well, with both Farmiga as Captain Goodwin and Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge, the creator of the Source Code program, giving strong and memorable turns. Farmiga and Wright are key to the success of the darker and more mysterious aspects of the film; Wright's continuous use of a single crutch providing a unnerving quirk to his character. It is Goodwin's appearances on Colter's video screens that provide some of the film's most enduring sequences, however; the extreme close ups on Farmiga's face make her presence intrusive on both Colter and the audience, and the methods she uses to help bring the disoriented soldier back from his trips to the exploding train - asking him to recall series of cards from a story, playing bird calls into his capsule - have an unsettlingly sinister psychological edge to them.

Unfortunately, whilst there's a lot to like about Source Code, this is largely where the good stuff comes to an end. Michelle Monaghan is fine enough, if somewhat forgettable, in her role as Christina, Colter's perpetual travelling partner on the train. But the fact that her character, other than sharing some wonderfully shot slow-mo explosion scenes with Gyllenhaal, never feels anything much more than peripheral in the film as a whole means that the romantic thread between Christina and Colter largely falls flat.

The biggest failing, however, is the film's handling of the human side of its story. Whilst it's hard to address this without giving away large chunks of the story it's fair to say that, whilst Gyllenhaal makes his character sympathetic, many of the more emotional elements of his story regularly slip too far into melodrama and become swamped in pathos. As more and more about Colter's circumstances in reality (as opposed to on the train) is revealed, this becomes more and more of a problem. The second half of the film also has an ill-fitting anti-war undertone with more than a hint of schmaltzy Americana, which simply feels stale and tacked onto the science-fiction premise at the core of the film.

Ultimately, as stated previously, there really is a lot to enjoy within Source Code. Its sci-fi credentials are solid, and whilst it never reaches the heights of Nolan's Inception, it sits pleasingly a few steps below in the ranks of the cerebral blockbuster. In the end, however, Source Code leaves you feeling as though it never quite fully realises the potential that its concept holds. A little less preoccupation with pushing a message onto the audience, and a little more focus on both the darker mystery-thriller aspects that work so well throughout the film and the ingenious science-fiction concept at its nucleus, and this could have been an excellent film. As it is, the flaws are there, and noticeable enough to make it just very good.


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Film Review | True Grit (2011)

The news that the Coen brothers were remaking True Grit, the film that won John Wayne his one and only Oscar, received a lukewarm reception from many moviegoers most of whom are probably a bit older than myself. Why remake a classic that features one of the most revered performances of a Hollywood legend like Wayne? Undoubtedly still resonating for some fans of the brothers' work is their decidedly hit-and-miss 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, to date both their their worst film and only other remake. Still, the Coens' resoundingly successful venture into the Western genre with 2007's No Country For Old Men gave more than a glimmer of hope. This coupled with the fact that they would again be teaming up with Jeff Bridges twelve years after his now iconic performance as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of their most beloved films, made calling the success or failure of True Grit a tricky task indeed.

The film tells the story of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to capture criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who murdered her father and has since taken in with a band of outlaws led by "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). She hires the services of US Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), who has encountered Pepper before, in order to do this. Also on Chaney's trail is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger after the bounty on Chaney's head for the murder of a senator. LaBoeuf teams up with Cogburn, and despite both men's protestations, Mattie insists on joining them on the hunt as they head into the Colorado wilderness.

Any fears of the film being either an unnecessary or unsatisfactory remake are soon quashed. I almost put the word "luckily" at the start of the previous sentence, which would have been untrue - luck has nothing to do with it. This is purely great filmmaking from every angle. To call this a reboot is also untrue, as the Coens have apparently gone back to the original novel by Charles Portis in telling the story. Having never seen the 1969 version I can't draw comparison between that version and this; nor have I read the novel upon which both films are based, so faithfulness to the source material is also not something I can analyse. But the film should be judged on its own merits, and to do that is to find a genuinely excellent film.

The film doesn't contain a bad performance; a wealth of fantastic turns are on offer here. From her first moment on screen, Steinfeld has a presence, maturity and gravity that makes it quite mindboggling that this is her first big screen outing. She makes the character of Mattie her own immediately, providing a unique yet believable balance between the innocence and youth of her fourteen years and the quick wit and indomitable spirit of an adolescent who has already experienced the harshness that the world can present.

Damon, too, continues to show why he is one of the most reliably talented actors of today, bringing a stripped down authenticity to LaBoeuf that it's hard to imagine many other actors of Damon's generation being capable of. LaBoeuf's arrogance and enigma make him simultaneously repellant and intriguing and Damon's performance expertly provides the balance between these two facets of the character. Damon clearly relishes the classic Western heritage his character is swathed in, whilst never falling into parody or cliché. It's also worth noting that Damon handles to perfection the change that occurs in the way Laboeuf speaks midway through the film. It would be easy to turn the character into a mockery of his established self, but Damon incorporates this change seamlessly into what he's already created without missing a beat.

Deserving of mention too are Brolin as Tom Chaney and Pepper as Lucky Ned. Whilst both characters receive relatively small amounts of screen time, what they do with the scenes they have adds to the all-round excellence of the film. The calculated control of Lucky Ned contrasts wonderfully with the recalcitrance of Chaney.

However, it is undoubtedly Bridges as Rooster Cogburn who provides the film's most memorable character. The veteran actor never misses a beat, taking the character of Cogburn away from the one-dimensional grizzled lawman and imbuing him with a complex and enigmatic blend of mystery and candour. We get the impression that Cogburn is a man who has seen and done a great deal throughout his life, and what we see is just a snapshot of an immense character. It is the fantastic performance of Bridges that puts across a character of such enormity, whilst at the same time keeping him firmly rooted as an ordinary man. Cogburn is by turns intimidating, admirable, pathetic and amusing - it's therefore no surprise that elements of Bridges' previous Coen incarnation as Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski welcomely seep through here and there. It's hard to keep a grin from your face as you watch Cogburn barely stay in the saddle as he rides through the Colorado woodland drunk and not to let yourself see The Dude, just stranded in a different century.

True Grit doesn't simply get by on the performances of its cast, however. The story is genuinely gripping and, after a slow burning first act to establish Mattie and Cogburn, the tense and gritty scenes just keep coming until the inevitable showdown that both stays in keeping with the film's authentic approach and doesn't disappoint. This is also arguably the Coens most beautiful film with marvelous cinematography taking advantage of the landscape the story is set against and camerawork wonderfully reminiscent of the Western genre heritage. The quirky Coens-style moments are not as prevalent as in most of their previous films, but that's not to say it's not there. Early scenes between Mattie and a horse trader are vintage Coens; another where Cogburn and Mattie encounter a man wearing an entire bear skin (complete with head) will surely raise a smile for its sheer absurdity.

True Grit is one of those films that is simply a joy to experience. There is no part of it that is not of very high quality; nothing lets it down. The story may burn ever so slightly too slowly at the start, but this is soon forgiven for its deep, rich characters portrayed with universal excellence and the masterful control and artistry of the sibling directors at its helm.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Film Review | Love And Other Drugs (2010)

Love them or hate them, one thing that is certainly true of romantic comedies is that you know exactly where you are with them in terms of characterisation and plot development. Of all the contemporary popular film genres, the rom-com is the most reliably safe. Directors and actors remain firmly on the rails to produce middle-of-the-road cinema that they know has a definite audience who paid to see a film that will offer unchallenging viewing and nothing coming out of left field. True, straying from this tried and tested formula can sometimes produce surprisingly pleasing results - just watch (500) Days Of Summer - but it can also hatch cinematic turkeys that can't even provide the vanilla comedy of their unreservedly formulaic cousins. And whilst Love And Other Drugs isn't a complete and utter disaster, it ultimately veers firmly into the latter scenario.

Set in the mid '90s, the film tells the story of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a salesman for drugs company Pfizer whose success comes from being one of the first people to sell viagra to medical practitioners. After talking his way into shadowing an influential doctor (Hank Azaria) Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a patient suffering from early onset Parkinson's. The two quickly form an almost entirely physical relationship, but this soon begins to develop into something more complex.

Technically, I suppose, Love And Other Drugs is a romantic comedy-drama (or "dramedy" for those whose time is too precious to say two words where one can be portmanteaued into existence) as it is clear some sections are there to make you laugh, and others are definitely not. One of the key problems in the film is that of balance; when providing comedy the scenes are simply not funny enough, or awkardly juxtaposed with pathos that makes you unsure of whether you should be laughing or not. Equally, when tackling more serious scenes, the emotion can seem limp - and at times almost completely absent - and the film quickly becomes tedious.

The reason behind this imbalance is that neither Gyllenhaal nor Hathaway's characters are very nice people, which makes it hard to care much about the things that happen to them. Soon after we are first introduced to Gyllenhaal's Jamie he is promptly fired from his job in a top-of-the-range electrical shop for unashamedly shagging his boss's girfriend in the stockroom. Receiving a punch in the face for his troubles, Jamie promptly reminds his irate former employer that he's owed a significant amount in commission and runs out of the store, flirting with a female customer all the while. Jamie comes across as shallow and arrogant from the start, which makes it very hard to care about - or indeed believe in - his emotional journey with Maggie later on. Gyllenhaal has proven in the past that he can deliver when it comes to challenging roles, but here his performance simply doesn't provide the emotional depth or connection with the audience needed to make his character either credible or appealing.

Anne Hathaway too struggles to lift Maggie off the screen, leaving her a collection of rom-com and tearjerker clichés that largely come across as irritating. The fact that Maggie is suffering from a disease rarely associated with the younger generation would seem a fairly easy way of generating sympathy for her; instead, Maggie comes across for most of the film as something of a self-obsessed bitch. Granted, suffering from Parkinson's at such a young age can't be easy, but there are so few moments in the film where Maggie shows even a modicum of care for anyone other than herself that it's hard not to consciously detach yourself from the character entirely. As a result of this, the handful of scenes where Hathaway does begin to bring some depth to her character's condition are rendered entirely useless.

With the two main characters so undesirable, it's not difficult to see why the story becomes tedious fairly quickly. After initially seeming like an extended fling, Jamie and Maggie's relationship soon moves into more involved territory (after much preening and self-obsession from both characters), but this shift is both hard to believe and hard to care about. By the film's halfway point I'd lost virtually all interest in their relationship: when Maggie begins to self-destruct, struggling to cope with the hopelessness of her incurable condition, I genuinely wasn't bothered whether Hathaway and Gyllenhaal's characters stayed together or broke off their relationship. The incredibly clichéd rom-com climax to the film, which seems somewhat out of place following the relatively less conventional format of that which has preceded it, might have felt a bit more disappointing had my attention still been held at that point. As it is, I wasn't all that surprised - it just felt like the filmmakers had given up hope on the film a bit later than I had.

Supporting characters are either achingly out of place (Josh Gad as Jamie's brother Josh feels like he's wandered out of a Judd Apatow film) or painfully underutilised - Jamie's sales partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) appears to be a character with a story potentially much more interesting and affecting than that of Jamie and Maggie, but sadly is relegated to the position of underdeveloped side character.

Considering Love And Other Drugs is based upon a non-fiction book, it's a shame that so many elements in the film are lacking in either dimension or authenticity. Love And Other Drugs has all the ingredients to potentially make it a refreshing and original take on the rom-com genre. But with misfire after misfire in terms of plot and script coupled with lacklustre performances by the leads, this doesn't even have the quick and easy bubblegum cinema charm of safer offerings in the genre. If there was a cinematic equivalent of viagra, Love And Other Drugs would require a lengthy prescription, delivering as it does a consistently disappointing performance.


Monday, 31 January 2011

Film Review | Leap Year (2010)

Since her break-out performance in 2007's Enchanted, Amy Adams' career has been both varied and increasingly impressive. She brings a comprehensive authenticity to roles, from a feisty and energetic Amelia Earheart in Night At The Museum 2 to the understated and discomfortingly innocent Sister James in Doubt, in which Adams held her own supporting cinematic heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Adams has proven herself as a talent to watch, which makes it all the more disappointing to see her talents completely wasted in forgettable dross such as Leap Year.

Adams plays Anna Brady, a successful career woman who mistakenly believes her boyfriend of four years Jeremy (Adam Scott) is going to propose to her. When she realises her mistake, she follows the advice of her father (John Lithgow, sadly only in a cameo) to follow Jeremy to Dublin, Ireland when he travels there on business to propose on 29th February as, according to Irish tradition, a woman is allowed to propose to a man only on this day. After her flight is diverted from Ireland to Wales, she finally makes it to the small Irish town of Dingle where she manages to convince innkeeper and taxi driver (yes, really) Declan O'Callaghan (Matthew Goode) to accept the fare of transporting her across the country to Dublin. Their relationship begins at odds with each other, but naturally things change along the way.

Essentially, Leap Year follows the premise of countless other romantic comedies before it. Anna and Declan start off as polar opposites - her a preened and fastidious city girl, him a good old Irish country boy - but over the course of the film they grow much closer. Not that I wish to spoil the film, but if you've ever seen a rom-com you can work this one out for yourself. In terms of genre conventions the film plays things absolutely safe and down the line. This doesn't necessarily make Leap Year awful from the get go, but it does set things off on a decidedly average mark.

Things soon go downhill however. Leap Year contains some incredibly "Hollywood" geography, as Anna lands at Cardiff airport when her flight to Dublin is diverted due to stormy weather. Welsh ferries also out of action because of the storm, she then proceeds to sail from Cardiff to Ireland. In a tiny fishing boat. Manned by one fisherman. Through a raging storm. Yes, really. To cap it all, Dingle - where Anna ends up - is on the far side of Ireland to Wales. Whilst I appreciate the film is supposed to be lighthearted entertainment, with an opening act as ludicrous as Leap Year's it's hard not to become cynical.

The "Hollywood" geography is soon joined by painful Irish stereotypes, as pretty much everyone Anna meets in Ireland apart from Goode's character appears to be a grizzled old bumpkin who spouts superstitious nonsense. Research into Ireland done for the film appears to have consisted of little more than sitting in an Irish theme pub.

Unfortunately it's not just the minor characters who lack depth. Both Anna and Declan have hurried backstories tacked onto them at separate points to explain why they are the way they are (Anna obsessed with keeping to plans, Declan just a bit of an arse) as if the makers of the film suddenly realised their main characters were a bit flimsy and decided on the quickest and laziest way to remedy this. Suffice to say, it doesn't work. It also doesn't help that Adams and Goode have almost no chemistry whatsoever on screen. It's never believable that the two truly hate each other, even less so that they could suddenly fall head over heels in love.

There are worse films in the rom-com genre than Leap Year, but there are also plenty that are much more enjoyable. Adams does the best she can with the trite and predictable script, but she has proven herself to be much better than this and hopefully will steer clear of this kind of tosh in the future. Adams' performance and the views of the beautiful Irish countryside jointly earn Leap Year an extra mark, but this is ultimately a film with ridiculous plot points, cultural ignorance and nothing new to say. If it's lighthearted entertainment you want, watch Enchanted again instead.


Film Review | The Aristocrats (2005)

Making a documentary film about one of the filthiest jokes ever told might seem to many to be inviting controversy for controversy's sake. Upon its release, The Aristocrats did stir things up a little with one chain of cinemas in the US refusing to screen it. But the style and delivery of the film quickly demonstrate that the intention of filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza here is not to directly shock or cause offence (although many watching The Aristocrats will no doubt be shocked or offended) but to look into the nature of comedy, of joke-telling and of the people who make their living in those fields.

The premise of the film is simple: to explore the origins and enduring appeal behind a joke known as "The Aristocrats" which has existed for decades since the vaudeville era. The structure of the joke, as explained within the first ten minutes of the film, is simple: there is little variation in the opening of the joke or the punchline, whereas the middle part of the joke is the exact opposite; it is the chance for the teller of the joke to make it his or her own through ad libbed and improvised description. And here's where the shock and offence come in: the intention of the teller is to make the middle section as boundary-crossing, taboo-breaking and downright filthy as they can.

Essentially, if you don't have a sense of humour, a strong stomach and are easily offended then it's likely that you'll get very little out of The Aristocrats. Jillette and Provenza's documentary consists almost entirely of interview footage of comedians, performers and members of the entertainment industry either talking about the joke or giving their own rendition of it. There are plenty of big names here (Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock to name just three) but also many who aren't so well known, especially as all but a few of the comedians featured are American. The three Brits who feature are Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Eric Idle (all of whom, incidentally, have very successfully broken the US market).

With around one hundred people interviewed throughout the film, and with humour being such a subjective and personal thing, there's bound to be a handful who don't quite hit the mark - Drew Carey comes across as smug and grating, and a ventriloquist act credited as "Otto & George" is neither funny nor successful at ventriloquism. But there's also going to be plenty of contributors who you will enjoy. With such a large amount of speakers in the film, in lesser hands the film could have become incredibly unfocused, but Jillette and Provenza keep things vibrant whilst at the same time drawing from the rich array of comedic talent and experience they have at their disposal.

That said, there are points when it's hard to judge what the purpose behind the film is. The opening ten minutes or so feel a little like a false start as we go straight in to the middle of George Carlin (undoubtedly one of the most captivating minds on comedy in the entire film) speaking about the origins of the joke without any form of introduction from the makers of the film. There are also sections throughout the documentary where people are talking about aspects of the joke or the ways it can be told where it is unclear why they are saying what they are saying at that particular point in the film. These sections make the film feel unfocused at times, and occasionally left me waiting for the film to find itself again and continue on a more meaningful track.

However, the good in The Aristocrats far outweighs the bad. The line between a comedy film and a documentary is expertly toed. The film never becomes dull, with many laugh-out-loud moments including regular fantastic renditions of the joke itself - Sarah Silverman's unique and unsettling version immediately springs to mind as a particular highlight. Jillette and Provenza never forget that they are documenters either, resisting the urge to turn the film into a lightweight series of sketches or clips from comedy shows. The film also succeeds in deconstructing what makes the joke successful as well as how each comedian's slant on the joke reflects their personality and brand of humour. Close analysis of comedy in this way can often destroy the entertainment within it, but once again the craftsmanship within the film makes sure this is never the case.

In The Aristocrats, Jillette and Provenza have produced both an entertaining and insightful look into the world of comedy, as well as a keen observation on the nature of comedy itself. Whilst it's not always completely clear what direction the film is going in, the ride is always thoroughly enjoyable. And although this is clearly a documentary about comedy, rather than a comedy film per sé, you'll find the laughs are consistent and the presentation pleasingly high in quality. Probably file this one in the "films not to watch with your mum" pile, though.


Film Review | Kick-Ass (2010)

Kick-Ass is undoubtedly one of the films that caught, and held, my attention the most in 2010. And not just mine, being as it was decried as much as it was lauded at the time of its release. Mainly by those who write for, or those who read, The Daily Mail. But if experience has taught us anything, it's that if something ires a Daily Mail writer/reader, it probably dares to stray significantly from the middle of the road and is worth checking out. Both of these things are true of Kick-Ass.

"How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" is the question posed by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) at the start of Kick-Ass, establishing from the get-go the high concept behind the film. So begins Dave's journey from being a high school nobody (and not even a particularly notable nobody at that) to becoming Kick-Ass, the first real superhero. Or so he thinks. Dave soon discovers through donning the mask and tight-fitting costume of a comic book crusader that, in actual fact, there are superheroes already out there, namely Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz), a.k.a. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. And, of course, with superheroes must come the villains in the shape of mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and his associates. As Kick-Ass gains notoriety and popularity, Dave finds out more about those who he is fighting both with and against, and quickly realises that he may be in way over his head.

Matthew Vaughn, a director never defined by genre - his first two directorial efforts being Layer Cake and Stardust, films poles apart from both each other and Kick-Ass in both genre and tone - demonstrates his innate ability to strike the tone of the film quickly and accurately. The opening scene of Kick-Ass shows us a young man in a superhero costume diving off a skyscraper in expectation of flight, only to crumple violently onto a parked taxi below as onlookers gawp. A voiceover from Dave assures us that this isn't him, transforming the scene into something of a prologue to the story the remainder of the film will present, and establishing the key premise of Kick-Ass - it is most definitely a comic book film, but one that refuses to sugarcoat what it might actually mean to become a costumed vigilante by keeping one foot somewhat firmly in reality. Think Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins but without all the privileges of having ridiculously advanced technology at your disposal and, y'know, being a billionaire, and you're some of the way there.

This dedication to placing the superheroes of the film into a more realistic world is followed through for the most part successfully and skilfully. During Dave's first act of heroism as Kick-Ass, he holds his own for the first ten seconds or so before being promptly stabbed in the stomach and then stumbling into the path of a speeding car, earning him a lengthy stretch in hospital. Similarly, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl go against the usual superhero credo of "no guns", the walls of their home being lined with all manner of firearms to use during their crimefighting exploits. Nonetheless, our heroes still most definitely feel like heroes, as opposed to just some people who've put on outlandish costumes. We believe in Big Daddy, Hit-Girl and, eventually, Kick-Ass as credible superheroes. Vaughn's balancing of these two competing elements is tight and well-judged for the majority of the film, presenting a fresh take on a genre that has needed and received more rebooting than most in recent years. Kick-Ass is its own reboot and it knows it.

Whilst the film's tone and presentation are largely a success, that's not to say there aren't flaws. Vaughn, along with co-scriptwriter Jane Goldman, do stumble into some pitfalls of the action genre. Some of the supporting characters feel too one-dimensional, especially on a second viewing. Dave's friends Todd and Marty (Evan Peters and Clark Duke) become increasingly stereotypical "comic book nerds" as the film progresses despite admirable performances from both actors. A far worse offender is Marcus (Omari Hardwick), a former colleague of Damon who is given so little depth it is difficult to buy into the key role we discover he played earlier in the lives of Damon and Mindy. The subplot of Dave becoming friends with his high school crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsey Fonseca) by allowing her to think he's gay also feels somewhat thin, and the conclusion of that particular story within the film severely lacks credibility, even by comic book standards. Putting a little more into these characters and plots to make them more than just cookie-cutter elements already seen in countless other films would have helped to seal some of the cracks that can be seen occasionally in Kick-Ass.

That said, you have to look pretty closely to see the imperfections. Kick-Ass succeeds far more than it fails, and considering how high Vaughn continually raises the bar, this is a considerable achievement. The action sequences are some of the most vibrant and well-executed I have seen in an action film in recent years, with the film's climax providing scenes that will leave you in awe of Vaughn as director and the cast delivering them. After an unsure opening chapter which feels unsure of its purpose, the film gains momentum as it progresses. It becomes bolder and more confident in its endeavour as well as allowing itself to become increasingly and pleasingly ludicrous, and succeeding on both counts. Case in point: Kick-Ass' magnificently over-the-top entry into the final foray will either make you say "Really? That?!" or "Best. Entrance. Ever." - most likely a mixture of the two - but you'll soon be rubbing your hands with glee either way. It's very difficult to deny how consistently entertaining Kick-Ass is.

A key component to the film's success is undoubtedly the cast. Johnson as Dave Lizewski barely puts a foot wrong, making both Lizewski and his eponymous superhero alter ego credible and genuinely likeable. Strong too is also satisfying as Frank D'Amico, bringing little that is new to the mob boss role but certainly making D'Amico his own. Christopher Mintz-Plasse as D'amico's son Chris, later becoming superhero Red Mist, continues to successfully shed the curse of "McLovin" that he began to throw off in Role Models and proves himself to be a talent worth watching.

The film, however, is undeniably stolen by Moretz and Cage both individually and as a duo. Moretz's performance is astoundingly mature whilst bringing enough childlike qualities to the character of Mindy/Hit-Girl to make the performance authentic, heartfelt and highly original. Hit-Girl receives some of the finest lines in the whole film, and Moretz's delivery of these with precisely the right amount of tongue in her cheek makes the character vibrant, cool and unforgettable. Equally Cage - who despite being one of my favourite actors has undeniably produced some fairly ropey performances in his career - is on absolute top form here. Damon/Big Daddy is arguably the character we see develop the most throughout the film, and Cage's performance underpins this superbly. Cage presents all the elements of Big Daddy - a devoted father, an honest man wronged, an unhinged vengeance machine, an Adam West fan (you'll see) - in an expert balance that only an actor of the calibre of Cage at his best could manage so perfectly. And it is when he and Moretz share the screen together that Kick-Ass is at its very best. The chemistry between the two is a delight, and whilst presenting surely one of the most unconventional father-daughter relationships ever seen on film, the bond between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl is also one of the most honestly believable I can recall seeing for some time.

Kick-Ass is not successful in everything it attempts. However, its successes far outweigh its shortcomings, and many of the criticisms of the film must be rooted around for to be found. Vaughn has shown that he is not afraid to set himself challenging goals in his films and that he is more than capable of reaching them. Kick-Ass successfully both parodies and pays tribute to the comic book film, but at the same time creates something of much more depth and ambition. I would go as far as to say that this is a film of such quality that it now sits at the right hand of Nolan's Dark Knight in becoming what all future comic book adaptations will be measured against.