Sunday, 18 March 2012

Film Review | Is Anybody There? (2008)

As my recent review of The Descendants stated, finding the balance between comedy-drama and "drama with a touch of humour" can be tricky. Is Anybody There? treads the line between sentimental drama and black comedy, potentially an even trickier one to get right, and, as it happens, manages to do so rather well.

Set in Britain in the 1980s, the film tells the story of Edward (Bill Milner), a ten-year-old obsessed with ghosts and the afterlife who lives in the old people's home run by his parents (David Morrissey and Anne-Marie Duff). Edward hates his surroundings and the people he lives with, apart from the opportunities it gives him to explore what happens when they die. When retired stage magician Clarence (Michael Caine) moves into the home, things change for Edward as the two gradually form an unlikely friendship.

The pairing of Caine and Milner in the lead roles gives the film a strong partnership around which to build the story. Caine is reliably excellent, striking the balance between crotchety old git and lonely widower expertly. Milner, impressive in Son Of Rambow, is again strong here, although his performance is not quite as memorable. There are some very touching scenes between the two in the second half of the film once their friendship has had time to develop.

Duff and Morrissey provide the other strong pairing of the film, with Duff a very likable and sympathetic presence throughout. The relationship built up between her character and Edward feels very genuine and provides some of the most authentic moments of the entire film, and a pleasant counterbalance to the distant and preoccupied father provided by Morrissey. His performance throughout is impressive, the awkward nature of his decidedly '80s midlife crisis excruciatingly compelling.

Ironically for a film about the elderly, the story takes its time to get going, feeling too dawdling during the opening act and only reaching a pleasing momentum once the relationship between Edward and Clarence has truly begun to develop. The film is also often at its best when at its most blackly comic - an early sequence of the body of a previous resident unceremoniously removed via stairlift sets the dark level of humour well, and the climax of Clarence's show for Edward's birthday is simultaneously tragic and hilarious.

When the humour takes a backseat, things occasionally become a little too mawkish, but not to the point of spoiling the film's many positives. As we reach the film's final act, some elements may feel a little predictable, others a little too "happily ever after", but both Edward and Clarence's stories reach a satisfying conclusion, and the closing scenes are some of the film's most poignant.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Film Review | Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The law of diminishing returns in the world of cinema is fairly simple - the more sequels you make to a film, the lower the quality of each new installment. There are only a few franchises which manage to buck this trend (Toy Story is the only one which comes to mind at the time of writing). Unfortunately however, more and more blockbuster films are milked by studios for every penny they can bring in through sequel after sequel, as the men in charge know a big name star and a successful franchise will make money no matter how poor the quality of the product. Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is pretty much the epitome of this trend.

The film sees Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) return for more adventures on the high seas, this time on a quest to the Fountain of Youth. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in King George II's (a cameo from Richard Griffiths) navy, is also on the trail, as are the Spanish. On his journey, Sparrow falls foul of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), as well as his daughter - and old flame - Angelica (Penélope Cruz).

Simply put, On Stranger Tides is approximately two-and-a-quarter hours of nothingness. The plot bumbles along with no real highs or lows, with the characters never feeling as though they are in any real peril, nor that they ever actually achieve very much. Nor is there any clear division of who we should be rooting for or against. Sure, we know Jack and Barbossa from the previous films in the franchise, but their characters became so muddled between good and bad by the end of At World's End, without any clear and fresh direction here they become as flavourless and stale as over-masticated chewing gum. Depp and Rush still have some chemistry, but both are clearly on a quest towards their pay cheque here and nothing else.

Of the newcomers to the franchise, things aren't much better. Cruz lacks any allure and has zero chemistry with Depp throughout, making their characters' supposed romantic past fall entirely flat. McShane is potentially much better, fitting the role of Blackbeard well, but the character's link to voodoo and black magic feels mismatched, almost like an unused element left over from Davy Jones in the previous films that was tacked on rather than coming up with something new. Mention must also be made of what a sorry sight it is to see Stephen Graham, one of the most compelling screen presences of the last ten years in Shane Meadows' This Is England, here reduced to generic pirate schlock.

Whilst both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End are bloated and muddled with complex pirate mythology and self-indulgent sea battles, On Stranger Tides in many ways goes the other way. The action sequences are humdrum, feeling very much like we've seen them all before. Too many plot elements are underdeveloped, including Blackbeard's "zombified" crew (although there only seem to be about two of them) and a lacklustre romance between a missionary and a mermaid which falls completely flat. Other plot elements just don't make sense: Angelica at one point tells Sparrow that she is only pretending to be Blackbeard's daughter, only to tell him several scenes later that, actually, she is. Nothing happens in between to give this any purpose.

It's hard to judge whether On Stranger Tides is an improvement on the poor final film in the original trilogy. It probably has slightly more redeeming features, but at the same time feels so lacking in ambition and originality there really isn't much here to like at all. The saddest fact of all is that, despite not being very good, the film was a huge box office success, meaning a woeful second trilogy of Jack Sparrow's adventures is undoubtedly in the making.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Film Review | The Experiment [Das Experiment] (2001)

Having recently been unimpressed with 2010's The Experiment, I'd heard considerably more positive comments about the German original upon which that film was based. It's a story heard more and more often: the foreign language original of a film being notably superior to its Hollywood remake. So, is this true of Oliver Hirschbiegel's Das Experiment? The answer is an unsatisfying "yes and no".

Whilst there are some key differences between the two versions, the German original follows essentially the same plot as its American counterpart. A group of men answer an ad placed in a newspaper to take part in an experiment, where a prison environment will be simulated. Some of the men take on the role of prison guards, the rest become prisoners. As the experiment progresses tensions between the two sides mount, with Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) becoming most influential on the side of the prisoners and Berus (Justus von Dohnányi) taking more and more control of the actions of his fellow guards.

In some ways, I wish I'd seen this original film before watching the 2010 film starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker; in others, I don't think it would have made a huge amount of difference to my view of either film. Das Experiment is the superior film, but it is also quite clear to see the same flaws within it that were transferred to The Experiment.

The performances across the cast are generally strong, with Bleibtreu and Dohnányi providing two solid central characters around which the action can unfold. The cinematography is also effectively used at many points throughout, with a claustrophobic and clinical feel permeating the film. In comparison with the 2010 version, Das Experiment feels the more professional and crafted of the two versions.

There are also a handful of key changes that were made in the remake, with the original feeling the stronger film because they are there. Whereas Maggie Grace had the misfortune of being an entirely forgettable love interest to Brody's Travis, Bleibtreu's Tarek gets involved with Dora (Maren Eggert) in a much more unusual fashion, and she plays more of a part in the unfolding of events than her American counterpart. It's not entirely successful, with some parts of her involvement feeling decidedly confused, but the effort is at least commendable. The role of those running the experiment is also vastly reduced in the American version, giving the German film an extra dimension lacking in the remake.

That said, watching the original makes it clear where some of the fundamental flaws in the remake came from. The psychological element, whilst explored slightly further here, is still woefully underdeveloped. It takes a little longer for things to degenerate into graphic violence and nastiness, but this is due largely to this version of the story being around twenty minutes longer. By the end of the film, I was still left with an unsatisfied feeling and an unsavoury taste in my mouth.

If you were to choose to watch either this film or its American remake, I would advise the German original every time as overall it's the better film. But it's a relative superiority; there are plenty of hard-hitting psychological dramas that are much better than either film, so watch one of those instead.


Saturday, 3 March 2012

Film Review | Crank (2006)

At one point during Crank, Jason Statham's character, Chev Chelios, is driving at high speed with gangsters in pursuit, with the gangsters shooting at him and Chelios shooting back; all the while Chelios receives fellatio from his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart). This by and large sums up Crank: if it sounds like something you'd enjoy, then you'll probably love it. If not, stay very far away.

The whole thing is based around a simple yet extreme concept. Chelios, a hitman in working in Los Angeles, has been poisoned by gangster Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo) with something known as "The Beijing Cocktail", which inhibits adrenalin from flowing through his body, eventually killing him by stopping his heart completely. After consulting with mob physician Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam), Chelios ascertains that he must keep his adrenaline flowing through pain, fear and excitement, leading to a city wide rampage as he hunts down Verona for revenge and an antidote.

There are points in Crank which show some genuine craftsmanship on the parts of co-writer-director duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The use of subtitles and captions at places in the film is creative, and the pair at times show they know their way around a decent action sequence. Watching Chelios drive through a shopping mall like a demented Blues Brother, crashing his car sideways onto an escalator, is fiendishly entertaining, especially as Statham neither bats an eyelid nor misses a beat throughout.

Other times, the choices the pair make are less successful. There are some needlessly irritating camera angles at times, although these seem to get less prominent as the film progresses; some odd choices are made with sound effects at the start of the film too, although again these seem to drop off later on. The link to video games is made, but it's anything but subtle, with the opening credits sequence smacking you in the face with it through garish colours and hackneyed '80s style arcade sequences. There are also several action sequences which aren't nearly as successful as the shopping mall scene, leaving us feeling like we've seen parts of Crank many times before.

The biggest problem I had was with the world Chelios inhabits. Crank is definitely not set in our reality. This is a world where racism is funny (Chelios steals a cab at one point by throwing its Middle Eastern driver out of his seat and shouting "Al Qaeda!"), women are treated purely as objects (bikini-clad girls are even seen enclosed in transparent spheres, literally being used as ornaments) and all men are interested in is sex, crime, video games and shooting each other. Chelios himself isn't a very sympathetic protagonist, fitting in perfectly to his chauvinistic, prejudiced surroundings; there were several points where his heart threatened to stop, and I wouldn't have been that bothered if he'd popped his clogs there and then.

Crank isn't all bad, but there's also far too little here to praise. If you're looking for something that challenges the action genre, doing something new with the well-worn codes and conventions, Crank is definitely not it. However, if you don't mind the genre being set back several years, or you're an avid reader of Nuts or Zoo magazine, you will almost certainly lap it up.