Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Film Review | The Incredible Hulk (2008)

When Marvel set up their standalone film studio and began the multi-franchised journey towards Avengers Assemble, Bruce Banner and his asparagus-hued alter-ego were unique out of all the Avengers in that they had already received a big screen outing through Ang Lee's 2003 film Hulk. Lee's film received a mixed reaction: whilst some enjoyed the cerebral approach to exploring Banner's split personality (myself included), others felt that it sacrificed too much of the wanton destruction that The Hulk is arguably most famous for. 2008's The Incredible Hulk therefore not only needed to re-introduce the character as part of the newly established Marvel Cinematic Universe, but reboot the franchise to distance it sufficiently from Lee's version.

Skimming over the gamma ray accident which transformed Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into The Hulk during the opening credits, the film catches up with Banner hiding out in South America and attempting to find a cure for his condition. However, General Ross (William Hurt) is still hunting down Banner with the desire to weaponise what's inside him, with ruthless soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) by his side.

Looking at the success of director Louis Leterrier's film in creating a clear distinction from Lee's, unfortunately The Incredible Hulk is flawed from the very start. Depicting scenes remarkably similar to those seen throughout Lee's Hulk, the opening credits montage in fact serves as a link between the two films. Kicking things off with Banner's imposed exile in South America - the same place that he was seen in the closing moments of Lee's film - adds further confusion as to whether this is a whole new franchise or a sequel to an existing one.

Unfortunately, the film's problems just continue. This is one of Norton's most lacklustre performances,  feeling severely miscast as Banner throughout. The character lacks depth and is never satisfying: Banner is supposed to be one of the leading scientific minds in the world, and yet we never see any evidence of this brilliance. We never see enough of the internal struggle between Banner and The Hulk either, something which both Lee's film and 2012's Avengers Assemble manage a lot better. Norton's Banner essentially ends up as a bit of a sadsack who we don't particularly care about.

The cast elsewhere isn't much better. Liv Tyler as love interest Betty Ross irritates throughout, Hurt's General Ross never feels like anything more than a stereotypical angry army guy, and Tim Blake Nelson's supporting role late on in the film is disappointingly grating for such a talented actor. Roth as Blonsky arguably puts in the most effective performance, but can only do so much with the script which ranges from flat and lazy to downright cringeworthy. At one point, a fellow soldier asks Blonsky how he feels before undertaking a battle with The Hulk. "Like a monster", Blonsky replies. As we've just seen the character begin his own genetic mutation a matter of seconds before, this response is entirely redundant. But, more importantly, even in Marvel's comic book setting, who actually talks like that? There are countless other examples littered all through the script just like this.

The plot bumbles along, erratically switching focus between Banner, Blonsky and Betty Ross, giving the film a distinctly unfocused feel, with characters introduced haphazardly before being swiftly removed again. The film has a couple of half-decent action sequences as its high points, but to be frank the CGI ranges from underwhelming (this is probably the least satisfying big screen realisation of The Hulk to date) to near Michael Bay levels of overkill. The final battle is oversaturated with effects making it both confusing and entirely devoid of any emotion.

They (whoever they might be) say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately for The Incredible Hulk, it really isn't. With Mark Ruffalo successfully taking the role of Banner and The Hulk over in Avengers Assemble (and, at the time of writing, all future Marvel projects), Leterrier's take on the character just looks all the more ill-conceived and poorly realised. Released in the same year as Nolan's The Dark Knight, one of the most successful comic book reboot films of all time, The Incredible Hulk now serves only as a perfect example of how not to rejuvenate a superhero franchise.


Sunday, 28 October 2012

Film Review | Cockneys Vs Zombies (2012)

The track record of films with exploitative, high concept titles - especially ones with "Vs" in them - is woefully poor. On that basis, Cockneys Vs Zombies is far better than it has any right to be.

After a centuries-old sealed crypt is unearthed and opened in the middle of a construction site in East London, zombies quickly spread across the East End. Caught up in the middle of this are brothers Andy and Terry Maguire (Harry Treadaway and Rasmus Hardiker) who just happen to be in the middle of a bank robbery when the zombie infestation spreads. Elsewhere in the East End, the brothers' grandfather Ray (Alan Ford) is holed up in a retirement home, working together with his fellow OAPs to survive the undead hordes.

The film has some unmistakable influences - most obviously Shaun Of The Dead, but also quite prominently the work of Guy Ritchie, as well as recent urban horror mash-up Attack The Block - but admirably manages to create something different enough to make the whole thing feel worthwhile. A realistic portrayal of East End London which shuns stereotypes this is not; neither is it a damning indictment of youth culture. The brothers' reasons for carrying out their robbery, whilst not making their actions acceptable, mean that we can at least identify with them and want them to survive the undead uprising going on around them.

Whilst Cockneys Vs Zombies has clearly been made on a relatively small budget, director Matthias Hoene does well for the most part to disguise this through well-conceived effects and creative choices. There are admittedly some points where this feels like a made-for-TV special, especially near the start, but this quickly subsides once the zombies arrive proper. The cast do well as a collective, and with the likes of Richard Briers and Honor Blackman adding some serious weight on the older end of the scale, the enjoyment factor is quickly bumped up a few notches more.

The film's focus primarily is on horror and action, both of which it entertainingly tackles with aplomb whilst providing several ingenious ways of dispatching the zombies. The film finds mixed success when attempting anything more sentimental or emotional, veering a little too much towards cheesiness or simply lacking in development in some instances. The comedic offerings here however are much more successful, with a few genuinely laugh-out-loud sequences, including surely one of the slowest action sequences of all time which involves Briers attempting to escape the pursuing undead equipped with a zimmer frame. Like its superior forefather Shaun Of The Dead, the humour is both proud and precise in its Britishness.

At a swift eighty-five minutes in length, Cockneys Vs Zombies provides a pleasing blend of firepower, gore and humour which entertains consistently without outstaying its welcome. The bigger names of yesteryear give proceedings the extra clout to make this more than just a throwaway genre mash-up. Whilst it never reaches the heights of Wright and Pegg's rom-com-zom masterpiece, this is an enjoyable film with great potential to become a future well-loved cult classic.


Film Review | The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo [Män Som Hatar Kvinnor] (2009)

The original Swedish title for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, both the film and the novel upon which this film is based, is "Män Som Hatar Kvinnor", which translates literally as "Men Who Hate Women". After watching the film it's clear to see why author Stieg Larsson chose that title; it encapsulates much more effectively the story's wider themes and intertwined plot threads than the catchy, but ultimately narrow-focused, English title.

The film focuses on Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a publisher for "Millennium" magazine who has recently lost a libel case. Blomkvist chooses to take a leave of absence from the magazine and takes up an investigation into the disappearance of Harriet Vanger decades earlier on the instruction of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), Harriet's great uncle. Meanwhile, Henrik's lawyer Dirch Frode (Ingvar Hirdwall) has hired surveillance expert Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to investigate Blomkvist and assess his suitability in undertaking the investigation.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's story is probably its greatest strength. I've not read Larsson's novel, but on the strength of what I've seen in the film adaptation I would very much like to. The mystery thriller at the film's heart is what drives it along, and at times it seems to be the only thing that is managing to do so, as when the film focuses more on the relationships between characters it slows down a little too much here and there.

Rapace is excellent as Lisbeth Salander, her turn both enigmatic and hard-hitting throughout. The rest of the cast are sound, but without any standout performances. I would have liked to see Nyqvist make a little more of Blomkvist than he does here; his performance is fine, but never manages to make the character as interesting as a disgraced publisher investigating a disappearance and potential murder should be.

The direction from Niels Arden Oplev is also pleasing, making as he does the various reveals as the mystery is gradually uncovered throughout the film intriguing and compelling. His handling of the film's more graphic elements, such as Lisbeth's relationship with abusive lawyer Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), is also well balanced. It's just a shame that these elements at times feel too episodic, with characters such as Bjurman inserted in to "tell" us something about Lisbeth or another character, only to be forgotten for a large part of the film because they've become unnecessary. In a film with such an intricately constructed mystery at its core, writing such as this just feels slapdash.

I left The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo feeling satisfied, but very aware that what I had watched was nothing particularly special. The film has standout elements, with Rapace being the most obvious one, but never does anything to warrant considering it anything more than a functional and enjoyable thriller. It's worth watching certainly, but this will never achieve the international acclaim Larsson's novel and its two follow-ups have received.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Film Review | Looper (2012)

The best films about time travel are usually the films that aren't actually about time travel at all. Wait, let me try that again. What I mean is, if you're going to include time travel as a plot device in your film then make sure that the intricate workings of time travel aren't the main focus of the proceedings. Think about Back To The Future, Primer and, er, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Time travel should be there to facilitate the story rather than actually be the story. A two-hour dissection of how time travel is possible, along with what you can and can't do, will almost certainly fail to create a compelling piece of cinema. As long as the audience can buy into the way time travel works in your film, that's enough. Unfortunately, Looper doesn't quite manage this.

Looper is set primarily in 2044, where the USA has suffered economic collapse and crime is rife. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a "looper" - a contract killer who murders and disposes of people sent back from the year 2074 when time travel has been invented, but is illegal and only used by the mob for criminal means. When the target sent back for Joe to kill is the older version of himself (Bruce Willis) and Joe fails to eradicate him, things get complicated for both versions of Joe.

As outlined by TheTelf in his analysis of Looper, the film is not without fault. Whilst some of the problems Telf has with the film I would only agree with to an extent, some of them are undeniable. The time travel element is flawed, and whilst it doesn't go as far as destroying the film, the inconsistencies and niggles are enough to detract a little too much from the film's overall impact.

The film also disappointingly falls into the trap of padding things out at a few key points by ramping up the mindless action and violence. Taking into account the more considered, cerebral nature of most of what is presented throughout the rest of the film, these sequences stick out in a negative way. Whilst it's fun to watch Bruce Willis brandish two oversized hand cannons and take out a plethora of anonymous bad guys, it just feels unnecessarily heavy-handed in a film written and directed by the same man who gave us the superbly understated Brick.

The flaws are there, but don't get me wrong: there is also a huge amount in Looper to enjoy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove why he is one of the most special young talents in cinema today. Even donning prominent prosthetic make-up throughout to make him a more believable young version of Willis, Gordon-Levitt's performance is superb, including just the right amount of Willis influence without ever slipping into mimicry or pastiche. Willis too is reliably excellent, with a performance reminiscent of that which he gave some seventeen years earlier in another time-travel-based story, Twelve Monkeys. The support is littered with strong performances from the likes of Emily Blunt, Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels, giving the cast a collective feel of quality and excellence.

The film also wears its sci-fi influences on its sleeve, with everything from The Terminator to X-Men being covertly referenced throughout. Never feeling like cheap fanboy fare or lazy copycatting, these only serve to add further credence and weight to Looper's plot and setting. The world which the characters inhabit has a pleasing gritty feel, and things such as the slightly advanced technology of the near-future are neatly handled.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Looper, but still left the film feeling slightly disappointed. As I said, there's a lot to enjoy here, and enjoy it I certainly did. But there's very little here that will stay with you on a deeper level, which is, when all is said and done, Looper's biggest flaw. With the wealth of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and one of the most original sc-fi concepts seen in years, this undoubtedly had the potential to be a ten-out-of-ten instant classic. As it stands, Looper is a great piece of cinema that will entertain more than most, but falls short of the cinematic perfection it feels like it could quite easily have been.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Film Review | The Change-Up (2011)

Without two such likeable and talented leads as Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman, The Change-Up feels in many ways like the kind of fantasy-meets-reality comedy that could have easily ended up in direct-to-DVD oblivion. And without such wild variation in tone and style of humour, it's a film that also feels like it could have been somewhat more than what it is. Not a great deal more, but enough to raise it up to something a little more worthwhile than the finished product we have.

Reynolds and Bateman play best friends Mitch Planko and Dave Lockwood, a layabout actor enjoying the single life and a stressed-out lawyer and family man respectively. After urinating in a fountain on a drunken night out, with each man proclaiming to be envious of the other's life, Mitch and Dave wake up to find themselves having swapped both lives and bodies, leading to the friends discovering how the other truly lives.

Without question, the two male leads are the best thing about The Change-Up. Both Reynolds' and Bateman's performances throughout are enjoyable with pleasing comic timing, charisma and chemistry. The body-swap concept is hardly original, but both actors make it work by adopting the mannerisms of both characters ably and believably. It's just a shame that for the first hour of the film, the pair are given little more to do than whine (as Dave) or spout obscenities (as Mitch). Whilst Dave is perfectly amicable, if a bit of a wet blanket, Mitch is - for the first hour at least - a completely unlikeable creation. Abrasive, arrogant and offensive, it's hard to see why Dave is actually friends with him.

It's this ill-advised approach to getting laughs in the first half that is one of the film's major problems. We're treated to a combination of gross-out humour and extreme slapstick (at one point involving kitchen knives, plug sockets and Dave's infant children) which feels at odds with the film's overriding message. Imagine a cross between American Pie and Mr. Bean played out by middle class American thirty-somethings and you're getting close to both the content and how successful it is. More often than not the humour just feels clunky and awkward.

Thankfully, things even out in the second half. The offensive content is toned down giving Reynolds and Bateman the chance to shine a little more naturally, and the film finds an enjoyable groove through which to ride out both the plot and its message. It's nothing spectacular, but if the film had settled on something along these lines for the entire running time the whole thing would have turned out better. As it is, this is uneven with far too many flaws to truly recommend it.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Fuzz Five | Things I Hate About Looper (spoilers)

I was looking forward to Looper enormously, combining, as it does, many of my favourite things in life (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Rian Johnson, Sci-Fi, Time Travel, the list goes on...), and I was really hoping it would be a film I would want to rewatch again and again. A film I would recommend to anyone and everyone. A film like Brick. A five star film.

It wasn't and I was disappointed. It was enjoyable, but not stunning; watchable but not mind-blowing. Rightly or wrongly, I was disappointed. I went home, and several days later, I wrote a list of things that disappointed me about the film. If you'll give me some leeway for having high expectations and with a healthy gap since I left the cinema, I'll give you: The reasons I wouldn't give Looper five stars:

The protagonist's relationship with himself

I like a lot about both Willis and Gordon-Levitt, and I like a lot about the way that they interact on screen in Looper. They have more chemistry than the average action twosome for the time that they are onscreen together. The problem is that they aren't a twosome. They're a onesome. There should be a whole set of fascinating mental challenges that come with simply having a conversation with a version of yourself from 30 years ago, that go beyond simply being more experienced and confident. Someone facing themselves would have a much stronger grasp of the hopes, dreams and insecurities of their opposition, and a conversation between the two of them should give a writer huge scope for an exchange unlike anything possible in a conventional film. Instead, it felt at times like Willis was simply Gordon-Levitt's father, berating a sulky teenager for a misspent youth, which I see as a missed opportunity.

The world

So, there's some sort of problem with criminal gangs, and drug taking and “vagrants”, and there seem to be both slum areas and ultra-modern apartments, but there's little or no attempt to weave that into a convincing narrative of society. Without a wider context, it's difficult to judge the relative danger the protagonist is in (are they running from a small criminal gang, who are themselves trying to stay out of sight, or do this gang “run the city”?) and also difficult to empathise with anyone, since their world feels completely disjointed from the viewer's.

The telekinesis

This is in some ways a follow-on from the above point. Why bring telekinesis into the story? It doesn't form a seamless part of the world that the movie is set in (if it was, wouldn't we occasionally see people using it to pass each other small objects?) and there's no attempt to go into the social repercussions of the emergence such a skill in any depth. It's almost as if it was a last minute addition that the filmmaker doesn't care about. That's not necessarily a killer blow to the film, but it is frustrating when such a major plot point revolves around something that feels like it has been inserted with little care.

The arbitrary action scene

In a film which largely manages to construct interesting, original set pieces, it is a real disappointment to me that the showdown between two time travelling criminals comes down to a sequence with Bruce Willis mowing down a parade of faceless goons with two ludicrous machine guns. I'd hope that anyone writing, producing or directing such a scene would question whether maybe an audience might have seen this before, in any of hundreds of other action films, and whether, perhaps, there was a more engaging way of getting rid of an entire organisation of gun toting gangsters that you inconveniently wrote into your story.

The time travel

This is the big one. If you're making a serious time travel movie, then that aspect of it has to make some sort of sense, and you have to make some effort to avoid paradoxes. To not do this is to instantly trade away any intellectual capital you've invested in crafting the rest of the plot.

So: As a time travel story teller, a decision needs to be made. Is the traveller moving backwards in his own timeline, or moving into a different timeline. If the latter, you can do whatever you like: He can change anything, but it will only have repercussions in the future of his new timeline. If the former, however, you have to be careful to avoid kill-your-grandfather type paradoxes. Looper chooses the former, but makes no attempt to avoid these paradoxes, instead appearing to revel in them. There were numerous bits that bothered me, mostly involving memories, or scars, but I'll stick to the simplest one: A man is butchered horribly in the present, to bring his future self into line. He then, apparently, ages thirty years, burdened by awful disabilities, is sent back in time to be killed, and somehow escapes from his younger self, despite not having legs.
I find it very difficult to fully enjoy a film where a filmmaker has produced a situation like that, which makes no logical sense at all, and leaves the viewer confused and frustrated. It smacks of laziness, carelessness or a lack of respect for the audience, none of which are things I expected from this movie.

Film Review | The Cable Guy (1996)

It's almost certainly easier for audiences to take in Jim Carrey's unnerving and darkly charged performance now than it was when The Cable Guy was first released. It's Carrey's inhabiting of the role that drives much of the film's success, so unless you can get behind him, it's unlikely you'll get much from the film as a whole.

Carrey stars as the eponymous televisual technician, Chip Matthews, who befriends Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) after installing his cable for him. It's a friendship which swings wildly from the pleasant to the downright creepy, thanks in no small part to Chip's erratic behaviour.

The Cable Guy is at its best when at its darkest, with Carrey's demented turn as Chip at its heart. Borrowing from his rubber-faced repertoire only occasionally, this, along with his performance in 1995's Batman Forever, was the point in Carrey's career that he began to demonstrate he was more than just pratfalls and gurning. There are some more overtly silly scenes here - a friendly basketball match which escalates in the extreme being a prime example - but there are also plenty of moments, particularly in the final third, where Carrey along with director Ben Stiller show they can create something really quite unsettling. It's at these moments that The Cable Guy reveals itself as something more than just another wacky comedy.

It's a shame that it takes far too long to get there. With a relatively slight running time of just an hour and a half, this really shouldn't be the case. The first hour has some good moments, but there's also far too much here which simply doesn't do much at all. The cast aside from Carrey are functional at best, with Broderick doing everything he can to make you neither like nor hate his mawkish everyman, and the biggest achievement of the remainder being how many future big stars there are littered amongst them without any of them impressing you.

The Cable Guy ultimately evens out as something very entertaining but a little too patchy to be anything more. If the balance of the film was readjusted so that it took half the time to get to the darker and more successful stuff, and there was twice as much of it when you got there, this would be a classic.


Film Review | A Bug's Life (1998)

A Bug's Life has possibly the most unenviable position in Pixar's cinematic canon, sitting chronologically as it does between the release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, films quite rightly hailed as two of the studios very best. It was also in cinemas at the same time as rival studio DreamWorks' first ever animated release, Antz, a film with  several similarities in character and concept to Pixar's second feature. It was therefore a film that needed to work incredibly hard to make itself stand out.

A Bug's Life follows Flik (Dave Foley), an ant who lives in a colony terrorized by a swarm of grasshoppers led by the nefarious Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Flik also has a tendency to leave destruction in his wake, especially when he attempts to help his fellow ants. After Flik causes the entire harvest gathered for the grasshoppers to be destroyed, he volunteers to travel to the city in order to find someone who will help rid them of the grasshoppers for good.

Now nearly fourteen years old, revisiting A Bug's Life could have been an experience of seeing how much animation has advanced since Pixar first started making feature length films, but thankfully this isn't the case. Watching the film on Blu-ray only served to enhance how vibrant and colourful the studios animation still appears. There are one or two elements which may show the film's relative age in the medium - the bird comes to mind first, as well as a couple of other larger elements (well, from an ant's perspective anyway) - but never to the extent of taking anything away from it.

That said, when compared to Toy Story (something that A Bug's Life will have to put up with permanently), the film at times comes across as less adventurous and a little more safe in its design. Andy's bedroom is characterised by the variety and difference between all of his toys, with each feeling like a distinct personality and beautifully realised in its own way. Ants are, by definition, pretty similar looking. There may be subtle differences between Flik and his fellow ants, but never enough to distinguish one ant from the next. The background characters in Toy Story featured a wealth of individuals who may only have had a minute or two of screen time but were brought to life as their own toy; here we have an army of blue ants who for all intents and purposes look exactly the same, facing off against grasshoppers who by and large look the same as each other. It just doesn't have the same impact.

The same can be said for the story. Finding its roots in the fable "The Ant And The Grasshopper" by Aesop, the film owes just as much to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. But whilst the plot is engaging and fun with clear cinematic heritage, this is much more firmly grounded in the family and children's entertainment bracket than the Toy Story franchise and other later Pixar efforts. The hidden humour and in-jokes for the grown-ups are much scarcer, mainly provided through the grasshopper characters, and feel much less subtle than what many have come to expect from the studio by now.

Ultimately, A Bug's Life is a victim of Pixar's success both before, in the form of Toy Story, and since. It's a fun, well made, enjoyable film. But when it comes from a studio as innovative and consistently outstanding in terms of output as Pixar, it's a film that is likely to get overshadowed. In some ways that's a shame, as A Bug's Life is a genuinely very good film; in others, it's right that the studio's relatively superior efforts get the recognition.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Film Review | Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. It's directed by the guy who successfully brought the Iron Man franchise to the big screen. These facts alone mean that the film being no more than enjoyable is a serious problem.

As its title may suggest, Cowboys & Aliens is a Western-sci-fi mash-up where the Old West meets extra-terrestrial invasion. Jake Lonergan (Craig) awakes in the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Heading into the nearest town, a gold rush settlement on its knees named Absolution, Lonergan quickly finds himself on the wrong side of local cattle magnate Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) as well as his son Percy (Dano), before the aliens make themselves known to all within the town and begin abduction without prejudice.

Cowboys & Aliens may as well be sponsored by Ronseal (with apologies to any non-UK readers) in that it does exactly what it says on the tin. It has cowboys - some of whom even herd cattle - and it has aliens. They do battle. It's fun. Does it push boundaries? Certainly not. Does it come across as some B-movie knock-up with a minuscule budge? No, it doesn't. The plot paces along without, for the most part, outstaying its welcome. The whole idea brings to mind that episode of The Big Bang Theory where Leonard, Sheldon and company are taken in by the "Mystic Warlords Of Ka'a" playing-card-based  role-playing-game expansion pack "Wild West And Witches". If you've ever wondered who would win in a battle between Billy The Kid and the aliens from Independence Day then Cowboys And Aliens will be right up your street. Otherwise it'll probably entertain you, but do very little else.

Unfortunately, that's Cowboys & Aliens's biggest failing. The last film that teamed up Indiana Jones and James Bond was Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, and, taking into account popular and critical opinion, it delivered a resounding cinematic triumph. Cowboys & Aliens doesn't. It's not awful by any means, but  neither is it anything spectacular. It barely manages "good" at times. It brings together the most recent 007 - you know, the one that saved the franchise from self-parody - and Dr. Henry Jones Jr., one of the greatest action adventure heroes of all time, and makes something a notch above average at best.

Not only that, but the director is Jon Favreau, the man who realised that Robert Downey Jr. is pretty much the real-life version of Tony Stark. When you appreciate that the supporting cast features an underutilised Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano - watch Moon and There Will Be Blood respectively to see the talent we're dealing with here - it won't be long before you start asking the question: why isn't this film better?

If you're looking for something easy on the grey matter that mashes up two genres you may have thought would never collide in any meaningful way on screen, Cowboys & Aliens may be one of the few worthwhile options you're left with before plumbing the depths of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin. But, if you're a fan of modern cinema, it's likely that you'll find yourself shaking your head at the talent going to waste here as you watch that six-shooter aimed squarely at ET's over-sized skull.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Film Review | Scream 4 (2011)

The Scream franchise is one that has had ups and downs, never reaching the quality that its widespread popularity might suggest, but at the same time being built on an intriguing idea of "meta-horror" that actually meant the concept improved from the first to the second installment. Having overstretched the series in the second sequel, writer and director Wes Craven wisely hung up the Ghostface mask seemingly for good at the turn of the 21st Century. But if the interceding decade has taught us anything it's these two facts: four is the new three, no matter how ill-advised returning to a franchise might be; and the horror genre is constantly being reinvented, thereby giving Mr. Craven a whole ten years worth of blood and gore to riff upon.

Scream 4 sees Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) return to Woodsboro unsurprisingly for the first time since the events of Scream 3, this time to promote her new book. No sooner has she returned (on the anniversary of the original Woodsboro Murders no less) than a new series of killings begins. Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and wife Gail (Courtney Cox) are soon on the case once again, as a whole new generation of Woodsboro residents gets caught up in the commotion and fear.

Scream 4 has problems from the get-go, with an opening so convoluted it almost goes beyond parody. The film takes clear digs at franchises that have experienced success since the last Scream, most prominently the Saw films, for delivering excessive gore without any character development, and then follows those self-same patterns. Craven ultimately comes across as more than a little bitter: Saw may lack character development, but it is still the most successful horror franchise ever made, and it does extreme gore better than anything seen here.

The other key problem is Craven's bullish perseverance with the slasher template established in the original. When he did it in 1996, it was a fresh twisted on a hackneyed subgenre. In 2000, when Scream 3 was released, it was tired. Over a decade on the shelf hasn't made Ghostface's knife any sharper since then. 

And yet, once the film settles down, the concept behind a lot of what happens actually does manage to inject something new into the franchise for the first time since 1997's Scream 2. Eric Knudsen and Rory Culkin take over the mantle of resident film geeks from Jamie Kennedy's Randy, supplying insight into how the "rules" of horror have changed. So we have reference to everything from the spate of horror remakes seen in recent years to the "found footage" style of the REC and Paranormal Activity franchises, giving Scream 4 the potential to take a leap into contemporary horror with a "meta" twist. But whilst it dips its toe in the water here and there, it's a leap the film never has the courage, nor vitality, to make.

Ultimately, Scream 4 can't be seen as a wholly wasted opportunity, but it's also never anything particularly worthwhile.  Is it better than Scream 3? Yes, but that's hardly something to celebrate. It ends up as yet another example of why returning to a long-dormant franchise to simply add a new installment, without a fresh approach or rebooted concept, is rarely - if ever - a good idea.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Film Review | Real Steel (2011)

Hoping to answer the almost certainly seldom-asked question "What would a cross between Rocky and Transformers look like?", Real Steel aims firmly and steadily for the family action market in a way that isn't seen too often in contemporary cinema. But whilst the action may be more hit than miss, the real problem is in the morals on display here.

Hugh Jackman is Charlie Kenton, a former professional boxer living in the near-future USA where robot boxing has replaced the human version of the sport. Charlie is struggling to make a living through acquiring robot boxers and pitting them in fights, usually losing through a combination of arrogance and haste. However, Charlie's fortunes appear to turn for the better once his estranged young son Max (Dakota Goyo) ends up in his care, and the two discover new hope in a discarded robot fighter named Atom.

What Real Steel does well works pleasingly enough. The fight scenes, although occasionally feeling too much like footage from a video game, are entertaining if at times unspectacular, with director Shawn Levy never falling into the oversaturated action mess presented all too often by Mr. Bay in the Transformers franchise. The world of robot boxing is enjoyably realised, feeling like a cross between UFC and Scrapheap Challenge, and although technology is clearly nowhere near advancing as quickly as the near-future setting would require, I never questioned the universe the characters inhabit.

The performances are a real mixed bag here, with Jackman firmly on autopilot, only threatening to show some real charm in the film's final act. Goyo ranges from passable to really quite irritating with some hackneyed "kid who behaves older than he is" tropes from yesteryear thrown in for bad measure here and there. Jackman and Goyo never truly gel until the film's climax, with some particularly jarring scenes near the start of the film. The strongest performance here comes from Evangeline Lilly as Charlie's childhood-friend-cum-love-interest Bailey, whose time on screen is genuinely enjoyable although the character disappointingly becomes marginalised, her arc left hanging, as the film progresses.

The real issues with Real Steel come from its moral compass, which seems to swing as wildly in the wrong direction as that owned by one Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow, in fact, provides a fitting example of a successful family action hero's character arc: it's expected that, like Sparrow, the protagonist will undergo a process of change from selfish/arrogant/alone to selfless/humble/surrounded by friends and/or family. However, Jackson's character here is just too despicable for a large part of the film to the point that it's very hard to get behind him at all. His first action towards Max after discovering he is now in his charge is to sell him. As in for money. A fact which he also doesn't do a lot to hide from Max. Not long after this, after Max has almost fallen to his death in a junkyard, Charlie proceeds to leave his son in said junkyard for a whole night in a rainstorm. With these actions seemingly going unpunished in any way either morally or through the law, Charlie remained for a significant portion of the film a character to whom I neither established nor wanted any connection, empathetic or otherwise.

Despite myself and the film's faults, I found myself genuinely engrossed in Real Steel's finale. Even though the way in which the film had arrived at this point was decidedly iffy, the spirit of Balboa vs. Creed could be keenly felt, and I ended up drawn in and even rooting for Charlie, Max and Atom. But, after the credits roll, it's hard to forget the mish-mash of acting quality and immoral plot threads that have led up to the film's climax. Real Steel ends up falling somewhere uncomfortably in the middle ground of mediocrity: by no means awful in some ways, but unforgivably so in others.