Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Film Review | The Reaping (2007)

When your horror film bases itself around one supernatural concept, particularly one based in religion, generally you need to go down one of two routes. Either you establish from the start that, yes, something other-worldly is afoot and extrapolate all your scares and plot devices around that (The Omen being a key example of this); or you choose to keep your audience guessing, hinting that the answer to whatever is going bump in the night can either be explained through science or a series of plausible events or could equally be something genuinely not of this realm, only revealing which it is at the very end, or maybe keeping things ambiguous even after the credits roll (El Orfanato provides a suitable demonstration here). Deviation from these tried and tested routes can produce pleasing results, but is a road which must be trodden carefully. Otherwise you end up with The Reaping.

After introducing Katherine (Hilary Swank) and Ben (Idris Elba) as a pair of university colleagues who specialise in debunking supposed miracles, the story takes them to the small town of Haven when Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey), one of the town's inhabitants, asks them to investigate why the local river has turned red. As Katherine and Ben investigate, more curious phenomena occur including frogs falling from the sky and mass death of cattle herds, complicating matters further and leading the locals to believe they are experiencing an onset of Biblical plagues.

The Reaping has a few features going for it. The cast are strong and do the best they can with the material available. Swank and Elba are a believable platonic pair and provide a good foundation upon which the film can be built; it is when they spend more and more time separate from each other as the film progresses that many of the cracks in other areas become very apparent. Morrissey is sound but miscast, as his southern states accent is terrible to the point of distraction. Unfortunately, once you've managed to get used to the way he's talking around two thirds in, his character, along with the rest of the film, takes a dramatic turn for the worst.

Structurally, The Reaping is a complete mess. After a promising beginning full of religion versus science, the second act entangles itself in backstories, dreams, hallucinations and local lore distancing the audience from the relatively strong opening. Motivations become unclear, character arcs become confused or are forgotten completely (Elba's Ben goes from potentially interesting to woefully one-dimensional). Tired horror tropes get thrown into the mix with no reason behind them. The whole thing stumbles with where to go next.

Which leads to the final act. After spending around an hour building up the ambiguity and tension over whether the apparent plagues hitting Haven can be explained through scientific methods or whether there is something more supernatural about them, the film suddenly chooses to remove any uncertainty, making things much less interesting in a manner that is at best underwhelming, at worst a slap in the face to the audience. From this point on, things go further and further downhill. Characters begin behaving completely at odds with what we've seen previously, and previously established ideas are carelessly dispatched with. There is one unexpected turn which, had it not been preceded by so much schlock, could actually have been quite interesting, but it's one of a crowd of twists, far too many for the film to be able to handle at this stage. We end up with a finale so overblown and ludicrous it's almost laughable.

Possibly the most frustrating thing of all about The Reaping is that, after the credits rolled and I thought back over what I'd just watched, I came to the conclusion that the concept behind it is actually not bad at all as religious horror goes. With a half decent script and a director with some idea of what to do, alongside the able cast already in place, The Reaping could have been a worthwhile film. Instead, this is one of the sloppiest and most worthless horror films I've watched for some time.


Monday, 9 April 2012

Film Review | The Princess And The Frog (2009)

Following 2007's Enchanted, Disney's next move in telling a "Disney Princess" story needed to be a careful one. Having lampooned their own legacy through Amy Adams' Giselle - an amalgamation of at least three classic princesses from Disney's back catalogue - how could the studio return to telling stories of lovelorn female royalty and their handsome princes without feeling antiquated and out of touch? Their first attempt, 2009's The Princess And The Frog, was a risk not only in this sense, but also in being the studio's first traditional hand drawn feature in five years.

The film tells the story of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young girl living in 1920s New Orleans whose ambition is to one day fulfil the dream her and her late father shared of running their own high class restaurant. After self-important Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos) arrives in New Orleans and falls foul of Doctor Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo magician who transforms him into a frog, he and Tiana cross paths, drawing them both further into Facilier's spells which they must work together to break.

Stylistically, The Princess And The Frog is a comprehensive success and completely charming. The animation is top notch, with each character crafted with the same level of detail and care generally not seen since Disney's Renaissance pieces of the 1990s. Influence is drawn from a great many animated Disney classics, but at the same time the characters and settings feels fresh and original.

The music used throughout is also superb, placing the film authentically within the time period and geographical location in which it is set. The whole film feels like a love letter to the jazz, blues, big band and gospel music of the time, and at times the musical numbers feel like they're aimed more at the adults in the audience than the youngsters with their somewhat esoteric roots. Whilst there might not be any one tune that sticks in your head like an "Under The Sea" or a "Hakuna Matata", the brilliant soundtrack will lift your spirits both throughout the film and after the credits roll.

The main drawback for the film for me was the story itself. After a strong opening, the film slows down a great deal with the middle act feeling too drawn out. There are songs to keep things going, and some enjoyable characters join Tiana and Naveen on their journey, but I felt at several points that things needed to step up in terms of both pace and focus. Disappointing for a film only a few minutes over the hour-and-a-half mark, and not something Disney used to have trouble with in their 2D animation heyday.

I was also a little underwhelmed by Tiana's personal journey. I accept that as a young, black woman in early 20th Century America, to dream of owning your own restaurant would be a huge ambition, but I just couldn't get totally behind it as the driving force behind Tiana's character arc. The contrast between her "work hard" attitude and Naveen's happy-go-lucky slacker was also at times presented in too broad a fashion as the film's moral message.

Things are saved by a tense and emotional finale, however, showing that the studio haven't lost their touch with races against time and good ultimately battling against evil. As far as Disney's return to both princess stories and traditional animation are concerned, The Princess And The Frog is far more success than failure. Even though the story may not be one of the studio's very best, the drive to do something different with a tried and tested formula is highly commendable. It is the creativity and imagination on show in terms of the animation and music which makes the film something genuinely special. At the moment, Disney doesn't have any plans to release any more hand drawn features; if The Princess And The Frog ends up being the studio's swansong to its traditional format, it is going out on a pleasing high.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Film Review | Drive (2011)

Before watching, Drive was "that film snubbed by the Oscars this year" more than anything else in my mind. I'd heard plenty of good things about it, but by far the most common was that it was a crime that the film hadn't received a single award nomination from the Academy. Whilst undoubtedly an important event in the film calendar each year, the Oscars can't be seen as the be all and end all of great cinema. The films and individuals overlooked by the Oscar committee throughout the years are probably just as famous as the big winners. After watching Drive, I can see things from both sides; it's almost certainly one of the most stylish and well made films of last year, but it's not exactly Oscar bait either.

Drive tells the story of an unnamed man (Ryan Gosling) who works in a garage and as a stunt driver for films, but makes his real money by night as a getaway driver for hire. His life becomes complicated when he strikes up a relationship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), especially after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home from serving time in prison.

The film's success is pretty comprehensive; there is no one element that stands out as significantly lacking. Nicolas Winding Refn's direction is slick, polished and confident throughout; nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the film's pre-credits sequence. Winding Refn makes brilliant use of light and dark as Gosling's driver makes his way expertly through night-time Los Angeles, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it to evade the authorities. The tense and moody atmosphere is created palpably through Winding Refn's choice of camera angles and colour palette, producing one of the most visually and cerebrally impressive opening sequences I can remember seeing in a film for some time.

The script is sparse, even minimalist at times, but is a masterclass in how to use a little to do a lot. Hossein Amini's screenplay constantly feels like a powder keg ready to explode through the characters' actions and voices, but at the same time is crafted with restraint meaning that when the action is manifested, often graphically, it packs the intended knockout blow.

It takes a strong cast to tell a story with no dialogue for minutes at a time, and Drive doesn't disappoint in this area either. The performances are excellent across the board, to the point that you wish that the more minor characters, such as Isaac's Standard or Christina Hendricks' Blanche, had more screen time simply to allow more opportunities to appreciate their performances.

This is Gosling's film, however. His performance as the unnamed driver is intoxicating, evoking classic performances from cinematic greats such as McQueen and Eastwood, whilst at the same time creating a modern and authentic character struggling with his desire to do good and his aptitude for activities caught somewhere between the immoral and the amoral. Gosling's performance smoulders under the surface expertly for the majority of the film, unleashing a shocking vibrance when he shows what his character is truly capable of, and becoming more and more violent as he sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal realm.

Finding fault with Drive is tricky. The film is purposefully and confidently slow-paced, and I only found it slightly too slow at points during the middle act as this is where the narrative progresses the least as character development takes priority. But from the opening sequence to the final scenes, Drive is a cinematic joy to behold. It's rare to experience a film so confident in what it wants to achieve, and so expertly crafted both in front of and behind the camera. Whilst not always an easy watch due the uncompromising violence depicted at times - almost certainly what kept the Oscar nominations at bay - this is undoubtedly one of the finest films of 2011.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Film Review | Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Generally speaking, it's a good time to be a fan of computer animated films. With such superb quality output from the likes of Pixar, the bar being raised so high also means other studios have to up their game more and more to be able to compete. This means even more great offerings for cinema-goers; but the flipside, of course, is that even if a computer animated film hits the mark in many ways, it can quickly go from being a resounding success to falling into the chasm of good-but-not-great oblivion by slipping up in only one or two areas. Unfortunately, this is the tale for Kung Fu Panda 2.

The film picks up a short while after the end of the first film, with the eponymous black and white bear Po (Jack Black) now established as the Dragon Warrior and continuing to fight and train alongside the Furious Five and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). However, a new threat is posed by Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) who harnesses the power of fireworks to create a weapon so powerful it could bring an end to kung fu.

Kung Fu Panda 2 does a lot of things right. In terms of animation, it's almost certainly the most technically proficient and visually impressive film DreamWorks have produced so far. The style of animation is carried over well from the first film, giving the world created a pleasingly authentic Chinese mythological feel. There are also more hand drawn segments included throughout the film than in the first, which fit in well with the aesthetic of the story. The way in which Po's back story is fleshed out in the film is commendable, as it would have been very easy for the studio to simply churn out a brightly-coloured fight fest with no heart that kids would have still lapped up.

With all of this going for it, and being a fan of the original movie, I really wanted to like Kung Fu Panda 2 a lot. But the problems are too big to ignore. The story feels very rushed at the start, then stretched out too much over the middle acts, making things feel pretty uneven overall. The script too feels pedestrian, with much less personality and humour than in the first film. And whilst there are some impressive action and fight sequences throughout, there are also some which feel too busy and confused to enjoy, a la Transformers.

The only vocal performance worthy of praise is that of Oldman, who hams it up a treat as the maleficent peacock Shen and steals every scene he's in. Black's performance is uninspired with the comedian going through the motions from start to finish. The Furious Five are wasted almost entirely, with only Angelina Jolie as Tigress receiving any notable role. What's the point of having Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu back again to voice characters, only to give them merely a handful of forgettable lines throughout?

The biggest flaw, however, is in the vast reduction of Hoffman's role as Shifu. Hoffman's participation can pretty much be considered a cameo here. One of the key reasons for the first film's success was the vocal performance of Hoffman and his brilliant interplay with Black. His absence from a huge portion of the sequel removes that element without successfully replacing it, and the film really suffers from the loss of Shifu as a character and Hoffman as a vocal presence.

All of this means Kung Fu Panda 2 never fulfils the potential it holds. The most disappointing fact of all is it's clear from what is here that the potential held was huge. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a prime example of a film that should have been a champion quickly becoming an also-ran through a few key mistakes. Taking into account the cinematic masterpieces being produces by Pixar, now is the time that DreamWorks simply have to take their animated output to the next level not only in animation but in every other way too if they want to be considered contenders to Pixar's throne. We've yet to see DreamWorks' answer to a Toy Story 3 or a WALL-E, and, unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn't bring them any closer to achieving it.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Film Review | Are We There Yet? (2005)

Child actors can make or break a film. In my experience, they're more likely to break it than make it. For every Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense there's usually several pint-sized performers who grate in every scene they fumble through. It's a rare occasion that a child actor can completely destroy anything a film ever had going for it, though. Even rarer that two children achieve this in tandem. For this reason, and this reason alone, Are We There Yet? needs to be seen for you to truly understand the crimes against cinema that are committed within its ninety five minute running time.

Nick (Ice Cube) hates children. Lindsey and Kevin (Aleisha Allen and Philip Daniel Bolden) hate every new suitor their mother Suzanne (Nia Long) brings home. After Nick and Suzanne get together, Nick volunteers to travel with her kids across the country to prove his dedication to her. Cue a series of disastrous encounters and mishaps.

Let's get the basic problems out of the way first. Are We There Yet? is derivative and predictable, packed with humour poor in both taste and execution. There's urination. There's vomit. At one point, Ice Cube has a full-on punch up with a wild deer. That's the level we're on here.

But all that is by the by. Are We There Yet? plumbs its deepest depths by featuring two of the most obnoxious, bile-inducing, poisonous prepubescent Satan spawn ever committed to celluloid. They aren't cute. They aren't funny. They laugh at the pain of others. And not in a Macauley-Culkin-defending-his-house-against-burglars-at-Christmas kind of way. These are children who inflict pain for no reason other than their own entertainment. These are children who see destruction of property as fun. These are children who see no problem in endangering another person's life by implying they've been kidnapped. They are purely and comprehensively awful.

Not only does this make watching any scene involving Lindsey and Kevin about as enjoyable as swallowing a packet of razor blades and washing it down with battery acid, from a plot point of view it also provides a pretty big problem. When the children discover that their natural father, whom they would much rather their mother got back with than find someone new, has no time for them any more, we're supposed to feel sorry for them and understand why they are the way they are. Except that we don't. We really really don't at all. By this point, Lindsey and Kevin have been set up as such an excruciating and repellent presence that it's impossible to feel anything but hatred towards them, let alone anything resembling sympathy.

All this adds up to one of the most abhorrent film experiences of recent years. If anything, to create a film of such overwhelming terribleness should be seen as something of a feat in itself. But it doesn't mean you should watch it. Nobody needs to watch this film. I may have said that Are We There Yet? needs to be seen to be believed, but in truth, stay far far away. I've watched and reviewed it to save you from unnecessary pain.


Film Review | Yes Man (2008)

The main pitfall of high concept cinema is that if the film relies solely on the high concept at its core, without paying enough attention to all the other things a film needs to succeed, then things can quickly become unfocused and ultimately not that interesting. Case in point: Yes Man.

When we first meet Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) his life is filled with negativity, avoided opportunities and general malaise. After receiving an invitation to a seminar by motivational speaker Terrence Bundy (Terence Stamp) in which the participants are compelled to say "yes" to everything, Carl begins following the advice and his life starts to turn around.

The concept is a simple one, and at times effective, providing plenty of opportunities for Carrey to demonstrate that even though the '90s are far behind us, he can still pratfall and gurn to an impressive degree. The problem comes when the film has no idea of where to go with it. Carl's exploits quickly become disjointedly episodic, with the film haphazardly moving from one opportunity he has embraced to the next with next to nothing connecting them. One minute Carl is helping organise a bridal shower for the fiancée (Sasha Alexander) of his best friend Pete (Bradley Cooper), the next he's singing to convince a suicidal man not to jump off a building. It all becomes far too desultory with no real plot behind it.

What plot there is revolves around Carl's relationship with Allison (Zooey Deschanel), their initial meetings coming about because of Carl's compulsion to respond positively to each new opportunity. Things start off well (if you're willing to ignore the fact that Carrey and Deschanel are exactly eighteen years apart in age) as the two have some chemistry, if not exactly stretching themselves from character types they've played many times before. Things become painfully predictable, however, after a clunky and ill-fitting twist at the end of the second act, setting up for a hackneyed rom-com finale.

With Carrey and Deschanel's characters the only ones receiving anything close to development, the rest of the cast fade into bland oblivion, save for Carl's colleague Norm (Rhys Darby) whose Harry Potter themed fancy dress party (which, of course Carl, must say yes to) is one of the film's relative highlights.

Considering Yes Man is actually based on a real life experiment carried out and documented by Danny Wallace (friend of Dave Gorman), the film's biggest failing is perhaps that nothing presented here feels anything close to authentic. What we're left with is amusing but flawed and ultimately unsatisfying. Yes Man isn't awful, but given the opportunity, I wouldn't say "yes" to it again.