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.