Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Film Review | Midnight Run (1988)

Buddy films are a curious pleasure in cinema, situated somewhere between a genre in their own right and a trope of other genres; whatever you consider them to be, if done well they can undoubtedly produce some very satisfying and entertaining results. Finding their roots in duos such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, the 1980s produced several memorable buddy pairings in the Lethal Weapon series, Trading Places and Trains, Planes And Automobiles to name just a handful. Midnight Run is another '80s offering that very often gets overlooked, which is a genuine shame as it's an entry into this quirky quasi-genre which seriously deserves a lot more recognition.

Midnight Run stars Robert De Niro as Jack Walsh, an ex-cop turned bounty hunter who is hired by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to track down mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), known as "The Duke". Believing the job will be straightforward with a large payout, Walsh soon finds the task further complicated by a number of other interested parties, including the FBI, a rival bounty hunter and the mob boss whom The Duke double-crossed.

Midnight Run is a genuine pleasure. The script is slick and witty, with snappy dialogue and a pleasing pace throughout. The opening act gets things going with no fuss or delay, introducing a number of different threads to the story in quick succession. A lesser director would struggle to keep all the plates spinning throughout, maybe even allowing a couple to smash and hope nobody notices, but Martin Brest keeps things moving satisfyingly with things only feeling a little drawn out towards the end of the second act. The way in which he draws everything together in the final act is superb, however, providing the film with an electrically charged, tense and satisfying finale.

The cast are also strong, with excellent support from all involved. Yaphet Kotto's intimidating FBI agent Alonzo Mosely is a particular highlight, as is John Ashton as adversarial bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler. Both leading men put in strong and funny performances: Grodin's whinging, over-particular accountant shows just how strong a comedy talent he is; De Niro is reliably excellent, taking to comedy superbly over a decade before his more well-documented turns in films such as Meet The Parents. De Niro's performance demonstrates just how superb an actor he is; he doesn't tackle the role as a comedian, instead playing the role of Walsh entirely straight and allowing the humour to organically materialise.

It's the pairing of De Niro and Grodin at the film's core which is the key to Midnight Run being a truly great buddy film. The two men play off each other wonderfully, a genuine odd couple who make you smile whenever they share screen time together. What makes them work even better is the fact that neither is just a stock comic character; there's more to both Walsh and The Duke than meets the eye, developing and deepening as the film progresses. They care more and more about each other, and we care more and more about them.

Midnight Run does have its flaws, however. As mentioned previously, the second act is a little too long making the whole thing feel slightly less tight than it could be. There are also a couple of elements which come across as somewhat underdeveloped - one plot thread involving Walsh's ex-wife and daughter feels fairly flimsy in comparison to the rest of the film. But these are small problems which can easily be forgiven. Midnight Run is a delight of a film, and a prime example of how to do both buddy films and action-comedy incredibly well. De Niro and Grodin as Walsh and The Duke genuinely deserve to be recognised as one of the best buddy film pairings of the 1980s, if not one of the best of all time.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Film Review | Date Night (2010)

As I've said before, the worst kind of review to write is of the film that doesn't give you a lot to say about it. Great films are a pleasure to write about. Awful films at least give you plenty of material, and at times can be fun to dissect. But middle-of-the-road fare, the film that's never awful but never particularly good, can prove frustratingly difficult to write about. Date Night is one of those films.

The film stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey as married couple Phil and Claire Foster who find their lives dull and driven by routine. Trying to break out of their humdrum existence, Phil organises a date night at a fancy restaurant. However, after a case of mistaken identity, the two find themselves caught up in something far more dangerous than they could have imagined.

Simply put, Date Night is distinctly average at best. Carell and Fey are okay as leads, not dire but not great either. The chemistry between them is limited, and I never really bought into them as a realistic couple. This isn't helped by the minuscule amount of development they - or indeed anyone in this film - receives. They're ground down by their lives at the start of the story, get caught up in a cops-and-robbers saga driven by  a forgettable MacGuffin, and that's about it. We never get any real indication that anything will change after the credits roll.

What makes Date Night slightly worse than your average "average film" is that it really should have been better than average. Mark Wahlberg turns up in support, as does James Franco, but both are severely underutililsed and almost seem a bit embarrassed to be there. Seeing Ray Liotta reduced to a bit-part crime boss in a mediocre film like this is especially painful, and just serves to remind the audience of the talent going to waste here.

Ultimately, Date Night never really delivers anything it attempts. The comedy is never funny enough, the action never exciting enough and the story generally feels like it was made up as director Shawn Levy went along, losing my interest way before the final act. Its saving grace is that it's entirely forgettable; you'll never have a hankering to rewatch it, and you'll probably struggle to remember any specific scenes or lines much afterwards. It's bubblegum cinema, but unfortunately the flavour is gone a few chews too early.


Friday, 27 July 2012

Film Review | The Muppets (2011)

I'm a fan of the Muppets, but even I must admit their cinematic career is somewhat chequered. Whilst there are some entries into the Muppet canon I can happily watch again and again (such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, an annual festive fixture in my DVD player), there are others which really haven't aged well (1979's The Muppet Movie unfortunately falls into this category) and others that just weren't particularly good to begin with (1981's The Great Muppet Caper is, and always has been, decidedly hit-and-miss throughout).

The last feature-length effort from Jim Henson's creations to get a cinematic release was 1999's Muppets From Space, a somewhat amusing but ultimately flimsy effort leaving many to believe for over a decade that the Muppets would finish their collective film career on a whimper not even worthy of Beaker. Last year's effort, simply titles The Muppets, was a big opportunity for the Muppet brand to re-establish itself in the 21st Century. But is it possible to "reboot" the Muppets? Could Walt Disney Studios, who now own the Muppet brand, make something as overtly low-tech as hand-puppetry appeal on a cinematic scale to an audience who now take for granted the computer wizardry pioneered by another Disney-owned studio, Pixar?

The film tells the story of Walter, a life-long Muppet fan who travels to Muppet Studios with his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), only to discover that oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the studios and demolish them and the Muppet theatre to drill for oil. It's down to Walter, Gary and Mary to reunite the Muppets, who haven't worked together in years, and help them save the theatre and studios before it's too late.

The Muppets is a real pleasure to watch from start to finish. Adams is reliably charming, bringing the same gusto to her role as seen in 2007's Enchanted; Segel too is pleasing and enjoyable, clearly showing himself to be a genuine fan of the Muppets (he also co-wrote and co-produced the film) through his heartfelt performance. Cooper clearly has huge fun in his antagonistic role as Tex Richman, chewing the scenery brilliantly throughout. The Muppets themselves are as emotive and genuine as ever; it's a real pleasure to see Jim Henson's creations back on top form on the big screen. Walter too is a welcome addition to the Muppet family - sincere, funny and endlessly likeable from start to finish

Both humans and Muppets are held together by a solid script with plenty of humour and many laugh-out-loud moments; only a couple of jokes in the whole thing fail to hit their mark. The songs of Bret McKenzie (of Flight Of The Conchords fame) are infectious and rich, making me want to hear them again as soon as they'd finished. "Man Or Muppet" won McKenzie an Academy Award at this year's Oscars, but in truth there are three or four more equally brilliant songs throughout, such as the contagiously chirpy "Life's A Happy Song" and heart-melting lament "Pictures In My Head".

The key to The Muppets' near-comprehensive success however, is the perfect tone struck from the opening scenes to the musical finale: writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller, as well as director James Bobin, are acutely aware of the old-fashioned and "uncool" status the Muppets potentially hold in modern popular culture, and play off this superbly. This is not a reboot, nor is this the director attempting to gain the Muppets a new target audience; whilst there is much here that may well appeal to young children, much of the humour and references (particularly to classic Muppet movies) are aimed squarely at those who would have been children when the Muppets were in their heyday and are now grown up. The big names involved, from those already mentioned in key roles to those in cameos and bit parts, are completely on board with this. The result is immensely enjoyable.

There are elements of the film that can justifiably be criticised: the plot is episodic and at times a little predictable, but it never tries to be anything else nor does it need to be. Due to this being their first big outing in twelve years, some Muppets do become sidelined including some of the bigger names (aside from one key sequence, Gonzo gets surprisingly little screen time; and whilst Beaker is present, Bunsen Honeydew gets just a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance), which inevitably means some viewers will be disappointed that their favourite wasn't in it more.

In truth, these are minor grievances in what is an overwhelmingly positive first film of the 21st Century for Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the gang. It probably won't win many new Muppet converts, but that's never the aim of Bobin's film. This is all about pure entertainment and enjoyment, and reigniting that in long-time Muppet fans who may have forgotten how much fun is to be had when it's time to play the music, and it's time to light the lights. Cinematic technology can, and undoubtedly will, advance further and further; but the Muppets are longstanding proof that with an irrepressible heart, desire and talent to entertain, you need nothing more than some foam, felt and googly eyes.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Film Review | The Hangover Part II (2011)

It's no surprise after the runaway popularity of 2009's The Hangover that director Todd Phillips attempted to recreate the chemistry and compelling nature of the original in a sequel, imaginatively titled The Hangover Part II. Unfortunately, Phillips' attempt to emulate the success of the first film ends up overwhelmingly as a lesson in how not to put together a comedy sequel.

We rejoin Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha) and Alan (Zack Galifianakis) as they travel to Bangkok for Stu's wedding to (non-mail order) Thai bride Lauren (Jamie Chung). Despite Stu taking no chances after the events in Las Vegas and organising a "stag brunch" before they fly, the Wolfpack once again find themselves waking up with one person missing, a variety of physical alterations amongst them and no memory of how anything happened.

If that all sounds quite familiar, that's because it is. Part II is, unfortunately, largely an exercise in recycling jokes and plot devices from the original film. True, there may be differences on the surface - Stu has gained a tattoo instead of losing a tooth; the gang find themselves in the company of a monkey instead of a baby - but these are just the same jokes being told again. The problem is, the success of the jokes in the first film relied heavily on the element of surprise; telling them again unavoidably removes that element, leaving them flat and predictable.

The other major problem I had with Part II was how mean-spirited the whole thing felt. Part of the charm of The Hangover was that the group came across as wild but well-meaning friends who were in way over their heads. Here, that never feels true. Too much of the humour is derived from the writers assuming certain things - people being cruel to each other for no apparent reason, prejudice of one form or another, serious injury, drug-taking - are inherently funny. The film just serves to prove what successful comedy writers already know: they aren't.

Ultimately, The Hangover Part II is far more miss than hit. The main cast do their best, but the film is essentially a rehash of the original with all elements cranked up a few notches, but not for the better. At best, The Hangover Part II is occasionally amusing but far more often repetitive and unoriginal; at worst, it's poorly written and offensive. A third part to the franchise is already in the works, which hopefully will give director Phillips the chance to round things off in a much more positive way than he has left things in this first sequel. If the choice is made to yet again simply ramp up the offensive content using the already tired and formulaic plotline then he may as well take a couple of Alka-Seltzer and put this hangover to bed now.