Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Film Review | Skyfall (2012)

The four year gap between the release of Bonds 22 and 23 - namely Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall - was anything but a quiet bit of downtime for the franchise. At one point, it looked like a very real possibility that the latest installment in the long-running spy series might never see completion, with fears surfacing that the MGM lion may have roared his last after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Thankfully, the financial issues were eventually resolved and Bond was once again on track to return for the 50th anniversary of his time on the big screen. With many being (or convincing themselves they had been) disappointed by Quantum Of Solace, hopes were high for Skyfall to bring Craig's tenure as Bond back to the perfection seen in his inaugural outing, 2006's Casino Royale. And after his patriotic appearance alongside Queen Elizabeth II herself during the opening ceremony of London 2012, many hoped that the latest entry into the long-running franchise would continue the nostalgia, paying tribute to 007's half century on film. On pretty much all of these counts, Skyfall does not disappoint.

Taking place some time after the events of Quantum Of Solace, the film catches up with James Bond (Craig) using a botched mission - after which he was presumed dead - to spend time away from his duties at MI6. However, after learning of an attack against the agency itself, with M (Judi Dench) seemingly a specific target, Bond chooses to return to London to help track down those responsible.

Surely the most pleasing aspect about Skyfall is the amount of ambitious goals the film not only sets itself, but achieves with such success. The film is a roaring tribute to the previous fifty years and twenty-two films the double-0 agent has behind him; this never becomes a "greatest hits" compilation however, with none of the nods to Bond's heritage feeling awkward or ill-fitting. Every moment is knowingly and lovingly crafted, woven into the film's plot and universe seamlessly and purposefully.

The film is also packed with superb performances, with Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva likely to become a firm fixture on any list of Bond's ultimate adversaries. The character is brilliantly realised through the sharp script's most stark and unsettling moments, as well as Bardem's comprehensively excellent turn. Bérénice Marlohe also does well as the alluring Sévérine, undoubtedly the most classically archetypal Bond girl Craig has encountered in the role yet. Naomie Harris' Eve, Ralph Fiennes' Mallory and Ben Whishaw, taking on the role of Q for the first time since the reboot of the franchise, also offer plenty to enjoy.

It almost goes without saying that Daniel Craig is pitch perfect as Bond, but not to mention this would be to do a disservice to what Craig has brought to the role in his three films to date. The fact that Craig is now considered by many as the defining actor in the role ahead of much-loved and praised cinematic icons such as Roger Moore and even the originator of the role on screen, Sean Connery, speaks volumes about the way in which Craig has genuinely taken ownership of Bond.

But perhaps the defining performance of Skyfall comes from Judi Dench. The Dame's unique honour as the only cast member to be carried over from the original timeline of Bond films always felt like one of the best decisions made when rebooting the timeline, and Dench shows just how seriously talented she is here, being given the greatest scope to truly flesh out the character since she took on the role some sixteen years ago as GoldenEye's "evil queen of numbers".

Director Sam Mendes barely puts a foot out of place, making sure that Skyfall's plot moves at a satisfying pace throughout, whilst producing some breathtaking cinematography. Bond's tracking of an assassin through the upper floors of an empty Shanghai skyscraper is one of the most beautifully and masterfully shot pieces of cinema you will see this year. Things threaten to become a little too outlandish for the rebooted Bond universe for a beat or so in Skyfall's final act, but the film soon recovers thanks to some of the most exciting and emotional scenes witnessed in a Bond film for some time, if ever.

Skyfall therefore is a near-comprehensive triumph. Superior to Quantum Of Solace, but marginally off the perfection seen in Casino Royale, this is almost certainly the most likely Craig outing so far to please fans of the classic Bond films of the '60s and '70s. It pays homage to the franchise's origins, as well as its most beloved attributes, whilst managing to remain contemporary, refined, and a superb film in its own right. Skyfall asks and answers the question of whether Bond has a place in the modern world in the same breath, leaving you in genuine anticipation for Bond 24 even before the credits begin to roll.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Film Review | Quantum Of Solace (2008)

For film studio Eon Productions, following the consummate success and heaped praise of Casino Royale's reboot of the Bond franchise was a task simultaneously simple and complex. Eon had many of the elements needed already in place, including a Bond in Daniel Craig who, despite initial resistance, had received both critical acclaim and universal acceptance. However, with a polished and revitalised franchise starting on the highest of highs, maintaining that level of success in Quantum Of Solace was still to be a tall order.

Quantum Of Solace picks up literally moments after the end of Casino Royale, with MI6 agent James Bond (Craig) racing through the streets of Italy with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a member of criminal organisation Quantum, captive in the boot of his car. Still dealing with the death of Vesper Lynd, the love he lost during the events of Casino Royale, Bond is soon on the trail of another key member of Quantum, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whom the secret agent suspects is involved in corrupt international deals.

Since the film's release in 2008, it seems to have become fashionable to bash Quantum Of Solace as a weak and inherently "bad" entry into the Bond franchise. This could not be further from the truth. Whilst I concede that film has its flaws, there is certainly a lot here to like.

Craig's return to the role of 007 is confident and assured, bringing an even greater intensity to the role than that seen during his first outing. If Casino Royale allowed Craig to take hold of the character, Quantum Of Solace sees him making Bond his own. The returning supporting characters of M (Judi Dench), Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) all bring reliable quality through their casting, littering Quantum with enjoyable performances. Olga Kurylenko as Camille Montes is excellent, although her character feels as though she dips in and out of the plot a little too haphazardly at times. Amalric as Dominic Greene again puts in a strong performance, although his Bond villain admittedly lacks the subtle theatricality or unsettling nature of Casino Royale baddie Le Chiffre.

The plot is an area which many seem to have a problem with, but to me it's probably one of Quantum's biggest strengths. It's cerebral and complex, but not much more intricate than that seen in the preceding installment of the franchise. The goings-on within the criminal world here may lack the flair of a high stakes poker game, but the story does have some superb highlights, including Bond crashing a Quantum conference call in an unexpectedly dramatic locale.

The main thing that lets Quantum Of Solace down is its shortfall in one area implicit to the Bond franchise: a sense of humour. By and large this is a humourless affair with Craig brooding and scowling through much of the run-time; this gives the action sequences a pleasing feel of grittiness and intensity, but can leave other parts of the film feeling somewhat dour. Where the jocular 007 spirit does make a rare appearance, it's incredibly refreshing, but also serves to highlight how straight-faced the vast majority of the film is.

Quantum Of Solace never manages to reach the heights of Casino Royale, a film it is destined to be  compared to for ever more. But neither does it deserve the harsh criticism that it seems to receive more and more, especially following the release of succeeding Bond film Skyfall. Quantum Of Solace is in its own right an excellent action espionage film, and whilst it might not be the comprehensive success that Daniel Craig's first time donning the tuxedo is recognised as being, it is undoubtedly a worthwhile and well-made entry into the Bond franchise.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Film Review | The Holiday (2006)

On paper, The Holiday is a pretty average Christmas-themed rom-com, looking as light and fluffy as much of the snow which covers the chocolate-box English countryside in many scenes throughout its running time. But, thanks to a few fortunate additions, it manages to peek its head far enough above the middle-of-the-road line of oblivion to become a little more memorable than most in its genre.

The Holiday is based around the concept of two unlucky-in-love ladies, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) who swap homes to give themselves a break from their usual surroundings in the lead up to Christmas. So, Iris vacations in Amanda's luxury Hollywood villa, whilst Amanda cozies up in Iris' tranquil cottage set in rural Surrey. However, it's not long before unexpected chances for romance turn up.

In many ways, The Holiday does nothing new. It's obvious from the moment Iris meets the unassuming Miles (Jack Black) and that Amanda finds Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law) on her doorstep in the middle of the night how things are going to end up romance-wise; it's just a matter of director Nancy Meyers playing things out. Things aren't much more original in terms of the culture shock both women experience - Iris unsurprisingly gets hopelessly befuddled with Amanda's keypad-protected security gate, and Amanda predictably drives on the wrong side of the road within a couple of hours of being in England. So far, so forgettable.

And yet The Holiday has a few pleasant surprises within it. First of all, the four leads all put in relatively strong performances. Yes, they're rom-com style performances, but nobody grates (although Diaz comes close once or twice). Jack Black in particular is pleasingly understated in a role, whilst not necessarily challenging, that certainly falls outside his comfort zone. There's also a refreshing subplot involving Eli Wallach as an aging Hollywood writer which allows the film to explore a little, and pay tribute to, the golden age of cinema. It's never anything incredibly deep or layered, but there's enough there to raise this a notch above the usual throwaway fare.

The Holiday isn't a classic, and it's modern fairytale, polished white middle class feel will almost certainly be enough to turn some away. It never threatens to be anything truly memorable, but it certainly does enough to make it lighthearted festive fare worth a watch just once a year.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Film Review | The Mask (1994)

Jim Carrey has been something of a "marmite" actor throughout his career, and in The Mask he delivers possibly his most love-it-or-hate-it performance of all. Whether you're a fan of Carrey's green-faced whirlwind or not, it's undeniable that this film - along with two more 1994 releases, namely Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber - launched Carrey as a major star.

The Mask tells the story of Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey), a milquetoast bank employee growing tired of his luckless and boring existence. His life changes completely when he happens upon an ancient and enchanted mask which transforms him into an extrovert lothario with a toothy, lime-hued visage.

The Mask is from the outset a film of two distinct levels of success. The opening act introduces us to Stanley, his workaday life and timid attitude, as well as his best friend Charlie (Richard Jeni). It's fine, but nothing special. Cameron Diaz - in her feature debut no less - is fine as love interest Tina Carlyle, and Peter Greene as the villain of the piece Dorian Tyrell is again, well, fine. The whole thing does what it needs to, but without ever feeling special. In hindsight it's clear to see that Stanley Ipkiss, above Lloyd Christmas and Ace Ventura, is the breakout role that would cement Carrey as more than just a maniacal force of comedy but as genuine leading man material. But even so, The Mask begins in an overall underwhelming way.

At around the twenty minute mark, however, Stanley puts on the mask and the whole film immediately shifts into another gear entirely. The Mask as a character is so outlandish and blatant that, as has already been acknowledged, he is likely to divide audience opinion. To my mind, he is one of the finest physical comedy creations in cinema. The character pays homage to everything from classic Tex Avery cartoons to the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis, with references to a huge amount of classic cinema including Gone With The Wind and The Cincinnati Kid. From the moment The Mask character enters the film, every moment he's on screen is pure gold. Carrey's performance is flawless and comically note-perfect as Stanley's emerald-countenanced alter-ego.

The film essentially ends up becoming the average of these two planes. When the focus is on Stanley's everyday life, things become somewhat less interesting; aside from one or two more entertaining scenes, including one where Stanley consults mask expert Dr. Neuman (Ben Stein, in a pleasing cameo), the film at times feel like it's almost filling in between the appearances of The Mask. But when Carrey dons the green make-up and is allowed to let loose, this is superb. What we end up with therefore fluctuates between the good and the outstanding, but overall is entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable and regularly showcases Carrey at his comedic best.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Film Review | Rango (2011)

We live in an age where computer-animated features are becoming more and more beautiful to the eye and ever richer in cinematic heritage. Aside from a lone anomaly in Cars 2, Pixar are still the studio to beat in the field with a wealth of classics in their back catalogue, many of which are continuing to mature with age. It's therefore becoming less acceptable for CGI films to score points for their achievements in these areas, which is unfortunate for Rango, because how it looks and its references to films gone by are all it has going for it.

The film tells the story of a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who finds himself accidentally abandoned in the middle of the desert. After some philosophical conversation with an armadillo (Alfred Molina), the chameleon heads in the direction of the town of Dirt, calling himself Rango and becoming entangled in the town's drought crisis.

Rango is regularly beautiful to look at, with some breathtaking scenery and cinematography of the desert inspired by many a classic western. It's in the choices of shots and camera angles that director Gore Verbinski is most successful in paying tribute to a bygone era of film making, something which he clearly wants to do through this film. There will be much here for the older members of the audience to take in as tribute to the Wild West movies of yesteryear. The detail and visual style employed in the character design is also incredibly detailed, although I did find in some characters the intensely realistic aesthetic of whatever animal they might be to be off-putting and limiting in how much emotion that character was able to put across.

Sadly, I found very little to like here other than the visuals and cinematic homages. The story is awkwardly paced, throwing you into Rango's story in a rush, then slowing things down to a dawdle. The central story of a town on the brink of collapse due to a vital resource suddenly becoming unavailable - in this case water, which acts as the currency of Dirt - may have its roots in traditional Western tales, but here it fails to generate anywhere near enough interest. There are far too many characters crammed into the story, meaning that Rango is the only character who really feels in any way developed; moreover, with a scant backstory prior to the events of the film the amount of investment I had in our hero could only go so far. There's more life in Rango's wind-up fish Mr. Timms than the supposed romance between him and Beans (Isla Fisher).

Rango also feels confused as to who it's actually for. There are action sequences and visual jokes which feel squarely aimed at kids and really don't fit with the aesthetic look and feel of the film. Elsewhere we have film references and humour which cannot be targeted at anyone other than an adult audience, going straight over the heads of any children and even teenagers in the audience. Whilst I did enjoy moments here and there, with the film's most surreal sequences feeling the strongest, ultimately the two approaches struggle against each other to the detriment of both with Rango ending up feeling like a film lacking in both heart and brains.

The fact that Rango won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars earlier this year says more about the field in which it was competing. When its strongest competition from the mainstream studios was Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots (Pixar's kiddie cash-in sequel Cars 2 rightfully didn't even get a look-in), Rango undoubtedly managed to charm the Academy with its film heritage references and finely crafted visuals. But the story this film tells the strongest is The Emperor's New Clothes. There's nothing of substance here, but allowing yourself to see that means pushing aside the visuals and homages that sit on the surface - finery and embellishments that many seem to have sadly been taken in by.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Film Review | The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (2012)

With jokes about parrots that aren't quite what they seem, women wearing unconvincing beards and non sequitur references to pork products, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists owes more to Monty Python than Johnny Depp's recent swashbuckling adventures. And, I hasten to add, it's all the better for it.

The film follows the exploits of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a notoriously inept pirate who sets his sights on winning the Pirate Of The Year award. After crossing paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) however, the Pirate Captain changes his aim, hoping for success of a more scientific nature in London.

The Pirates! comes from Aardman Animation, most famous for bringing Wallace & Gromit to both the small and big screen, and their charming brand of British humour pervades this latest effort. The whole thing is gloriously silly and surreal. Running jokes, such as the Pirate Captain's crew being known by descriptions of themselves (my favourite example being Pirate Who Likes Sunsets And Kittens), and their obsession with ham (the best thing about being a pirate, apparently), are never explained and all the funnier for it. The humour drives things along, making the whole film a joy; there's more than enough to keep the adults heartily amused, with historical and cinematic references to the likes of Jane Austen (anachronistic, but still funny) and Joseph Merrick (spot on), in a similar style to the best work of animation gods Pixar. The lengthy process of stop-motion animation in which Aardman have chosen to beautifully realise their film complements the tone of the script brilliantly and gives the whole thing a warmth and sheen that only a labour of love can accomplish.

The film would undoubtedly not be the success it is without the comprehensively excellent voice cast. Hugh Grant's turn as the Pirate Captain is a delight from start to finish, giving him an air of loveable idiocy that is unmistakeably British. Tennant's Darwin is understated in comparison, but is just as enjoyable and shows his expert skill at comic performance, allowed now and then to come to the surface in his most famous role as The Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who but fully utilised here. The supporting cast has talent to spare with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton putting in mirthful turns, as well as Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and Brian Blessed making welcome cameos.

The Pirates! does have flaws: the plot feels like it's a little overstretched even for the relatively slight running time of just under an hour and a half, with sections in the middle lacking direction and a final act reveal that feels a bit too tacked on to be truly satisfying. It could also be argued that, for a film focused primarily on pirates, there isn't as much swashbuckling and cutlass-swinging to be seen as you'd expect. But the things that the film gets right more than make up for its minor shortcomings. This is intelligent and expertly-crafted film-making with heart and an unashamed dedication to its very British heritage. So sit back, have a slice of ham, and let the tidal wave of silliness wash over you.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Film Review | American Pie: Reunion (2012)

The year that the original American Pie film was released was the year I turned fifteen, putting me somewhere close to front and centre of the target audience for what would become the first instalment of the franchise. Thirteen years later, and I have just turned twenty-eight, something which the makers of the series' fourth outing (not including the straight-to-DVD cash-ins that I have never gone anywhere near) are acutely aware. This is a film not aimed primarily at the teenagers of today, but at those who were teenagers at the turn of the millennium. American Pie: Reunion plays the nostalgia card throughout, which at times works very much in its favour, but at others is a reminder that a fair few of the high school antics of Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) are probably better left in 1999.

The film sees many a familiar face from the original film return to Great East Falls for a "Class Of '99" high school reunion. Whilst everyone is older and many things have changed, the main quintet use the reunion as a chance to try and rekindle some of the fun that they used to share in their high school days.

American Pie: Reunion lays its cards out pretty clearly from the word "go". The opening scene includes not one, but two wanking gags, as well as paying homage to a certain piece of clothing that played a key role in the opening moments of the first film. This is crude and low brow just as every previous offering has been, but it's also regularly quite funny.

Reunion also never tries to hide the fact that it's paying tribute to the series' origins. The original trilogy suffered from the law of diminishing returns, with the third outing - American Pie: The Wedding - feeling extremely lacklustre from the lazy attempts at humour to the fact that several key members of the cast were missing. Writing and directing duo Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are well aware that one thing Reunion needs to do is rectify this, and on the whole they succeed. So we have all five of the male leads back, even if not all of them get to do much of interest. For American Pie fans, it'll just be good to see them all together. The film is also set - for the first time since the first film - almost entirely in Great East Falls, something which helps to cement the feeling of nostalgia and paying tribute to the franchise opener.

That's not to say that Reunion is an unqualified success. The plot threads that the film weaves vary in quality, from the mostly amusing antics of Jim and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) attempting to rekindle the flame in their marriage after having a son, to the predictable and repetitive subplot regarding Kevin's crisis of conscience over realising he (shock horror) still holds a flame for Vicky (Tara Reid) even though he is now married. It doesn't help that both Vicky and Heather (Mena Suvari), the two key female characters from the series, get absolutely nothing of interest to do, making the whole thing feel somewhat imbalanced.

The inescapable fact that these characters are now meant to be in their thirties also makes some sequences of the film unpleasantly uncomfortable. An entire plot thread involving Kara (Ali Cobrin), Jim's next door neighbour whom he used to babysit and who is now celebrating her eighteenth birthday, regularly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and will make you squirm. It's at points like this that Reunion strays too far from gross-out comedy, becoming just grossly inappropriate.

There is still a lot to like here though, and the good outweighs the bad. The final act ramps up the nostalgia with cameos and references aplenty (disappointingly, Casey Affleck fails to make an appearance as Kevin's long-distance big brother), and provides several moments likely to bring a broad smile, if not a belly laugh, from Pie fanatics. It won't win any new fans to the franchise, but then Reunion patently was never made to do so. It's not as good as the first film, but it's a notable improvement on the third, and arguably surpasses the first sequel in some ways. American Pie: Reunion ends up a worthwhile and enjoyable, if flawed, addition to the American Pie canon.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Film Review | Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

Crank 2: High Voltage is possibly best known to many for its "so bad it's good" tagline: "He was dead... But he got better". Amusing in a ridiculous, throwaway kind of way. If only the same could be said for the film...

Picking up exactly where Crank left off, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) begins the film lying in the middle of the road having just plummeted from a helicopter. Barely clinging to life, Chelios is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters who remove his heart, replacing it with an artificial replacement only intended for short term usage. Chelios escapes and begins hunting down the people who have taken his heart, all the while having to find ways to pass electricity through his body to keep his artificial heart working.

Co-writers and directors Neveldine and Taylor clearly believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Simply put, if you liked Crank, you'll almost certainly lap up Crank 2; equally, if you weren't such a fan of the first film, the second will do nothing to sway your opinion of the franchise.

But whilst Crank had more than its share of problems, it was redeemed at least in part by individual moments of creative flair and invention. Crank 2 has none of this. The action feels tired and repetitive, and even though it's clear that Neveldine/Taylor believe they've raised the extreme nature of the franchise a few notches from the first outing, this regularly comes across as just too ridiculous or too gross to be entertaining, instead prompting laughs of derision. There are a couple of surprisingly surreal moments - including one where a fight between Chelios and an adversary is realised in the style of a classic Godzilla film - but these come across as confusing more than anything else.

With the extreme nature of the action ramped up, unfortunately so too are all the things that are unpleasant about Chev Chelios' world. The racism and sexism are even more prevalent here than in the first film. The Chinese and Latino gangsters throughout never stray from lazy and offensive stereotypes (Neveldine/Taylor even manage to get rice-picker hats in), and racial slurs are thrown about without a hint of tongue in cheek. Every female character is a sex object, and the vast majority are either strippers or prostitutes. But, in the interest of taking things further than in the first film, Crank 2 also finds room for homophobia and mockery of the mentally disabled, playing both for as many laughs as possible and never succeeding.

Crank 2 ends up retreading an awful lot of familiar ground from Crank - in fact there are whole sequences which may as well be lifted wholesale from the first film - but in a less interesting, less impressive and more offensive way. There were actually a couple of points during the film where I questioned whether or not I wanted to plough on to the end, something which I very rarely consider even with the most tedious of films. The tagline may be "so bad it's good", but the film it's attached to is just bad. And when the tagline is the best thing about a film, things can't get much worse.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fuzz Five | Hollywood Superstars Selling Out And Making It Cool

TV adverts can be short films bringing works of art into your home through your television set. They can also be the bane of your televisual life that drive you from your warm, comfortable sofa or armchair to another room in the house: the kitchen, the bathroom, the shed - any room will do as long as there isn't a nauseating opera singer or an anthropomorphic meerkat being projected into it. When the people we usually expect to be entertaining us on a much bigger screen venture into the world of advertising, it can be a cringeworthy disappointment that they've had to stoop as low as selling us things to keep their career afloat. But, occasionally, the marriage of Hollywood A-listers and TV ads can produce something memorable that brings a smile to your face. Here are five of the best...

1. Kevin Bacon advertising Everything Everywhere (2012)
Gracing tellies across the country at the time of writing to advertise new mobile phone network EE, Kevin Bacon puts in a brilliant self-parodying performance, even playing a loosely-regulated version of "Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon" with himself and a dog. This could have been awful, but thankfully it's anything but. It's worth seeing just to hear Bacon talking about Tom Hanks and Frank Carson in the same breath.

2. Ray Liotta advertising Heineken (2004)
I've never understood why Ray Liotta never seems to have made it as a genuinely big name in cinema. His CV includes major roles in films such as Goodfellas and Hannibal, but they share space with credits in Operation Dumbo Drop and Wild Hogs. For me, Liotta has proven himself as a talented actor, and his turn as a humorously menacing Heineken representative in these adverts from 2004 just goes even further in proving that. If I thought disgruntled Liotta could be knocking on my door, I'd make sure I finished my pint too.

3. Samuel L. Jackson advertising Barclays Bank (2002)
There's no question that Samuel L. Jackson is one of the consummate talents of modern cinema with two decades worth of fantastic films under his belt. And in these adverts for Barclays from 2002, Jackson shows that he can make everything  from nonsensical stories about buying shoes to quotes from Shakespeare as cool as a Tarantino monologue. "If a dollar was a chicken, would a chicken be evil?" Jackson asks making you feel like Brett in Pulp Fiction. Go on, disagree with him. I dare you, I double dare you.

4. Willem Dafoe advertising Birds Eye (2010 to present)
This article's most surreal entry (which considering Samuel L. Jackson's effort is pretty impressive in itself) sees Willem Dafoe lending his voice to a polar bear puppet who apparently lives in people's freezers. Dafoe as Clarence (the polar bear's name, according to Birds Eye) is arguably the most surprising actor and role to appear on this list - a glance down Dafoe's IMDb page shows only a handful of TV credits to his name, most of which are one-off appearances and cameos - but the sinister, unsettling quality he brings to Clarence is something to relish. It's an advertising stroke of genius. When a creepy animal puppet says "I'm watching you" in Norman Osborn's voice, you take notice.

5. Christopher Lloyd advertising Nike Air Mag trainers (2011)
Okay, when Nike launched a limited run of the shoes Marty McFly wears in 2015 Hill Valley, how else could they sell them without a Back To The Future tribute ad? Everything about this advert is brilliant, from the Lone Pine Mall setting, to NBA player Kevin Durant spouting line after line from the incomparable trilogy, to the date the trainers will be available with "power laces". It's even directed by Frank Marshall, producer of the original films. But the highlight of the whole thing is undoubtedly Christopher Lloyd returning to the iconic role of "Doc" Brown. So sit back, click play, enjoy, and repeat. In (almost) the words of Huey Lewis, that's the power of Lloyd.

Film Review | Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

In much the same way that "Let the right one in" has been described as a film about children that happens to involve vampires, I would characterise Cowboys and Aliens as a film about aliens that happens to involve cowboys. There is very little about the story that could not have been transposed into modern times, or even switched to involve any cultural group by simply changing the language, weapons and location. What I guess I'm trying to say is that there seemed little reason for the people involved to be cowboys, beyond the snappy title and a couple of half-hearted parallels around the appropriation of resources from natives.

This could have been an interesting opportunity to examine the cultural differences between modern and "wild west"-ern societies through the medium of their respective reactions to alien encounters. Alternatively, the film could have attempted to flip the traditional colonisation view, by having the pioneer society under threat from an imposed alien culture. Instead, this potential is lost as time is spent on the exposition required to cover multiple story strands and include additional characters, none of which are particularly interesting. In addition, once the climax is finally reached, the film descends into pure CGI-powered action-film nonsense.

Daniel Craig does well as the central figure, retaining what little mystery the film hangs onto with his strong, silent visage, but the rest of the cast is pretty average. Even Harrison Ford is given little to do, and as a consequence of the number of secondary characters floating around, is never given a huge amount of direct screen-time with Craig and certainly not long enough to establish an interesting relationship. There are some minor plus points, mostly around the visuals, which manage to blend the alien entities into the action quite believably, without having to resort to shadows and half-shots.

Overall, while not being totally without merit, the film certainly never rises above the most obvious implications of it's high concept starting point.


Film Review | The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

Big screen adaptations of British comedy series have an underwhelming history to say the least. It's hard to pick out a truly memorable example, even harder to think of one that seemed genuinely worthwhile. The Monty Python team arguably have the best record in this area, but then three out of their four film efforts were entirely original with only the actors and their brand of humour making the transfer to cinema. The Inbetweeners Movie, the newest entry in this esoteric genre, had the chance to buck the trend. It doesn't quite manage it, but that doesn't mean that it's a complete misfire.

Serving as an finale to the three series of The Inbetweeners, the film follows the misadventures of Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) as they head off to Crete for a debauched summer holiday after finishing their final term at college.

If you're not a fan of The Inbetweeners on TV, then the film is very unlikely to win you over as a fan. If, however, you can't get enough of the four boys' lewd and crude antics, The Inbetweeners Movie will probably become a firm favourite within the first five minutes of its running time. The Inbetweeners was the first sitcom I watched that I genuinely felt I was too old to fully appreciate; whilst I don't count myself as a fan, I can see why it is popular with a teenage and university student audience. The film version neither won me over any more, nor pushed me further away.

The humour is often low-brow in the extreme, at times pushing things so far as to lose the focus that what you're seeing is meant to make you laugh rather than retch. The film is actually at its funniest when not plumbing the depths of decency, with some spot-on visual jokes - Neil, Simon and Will busting some moves in a deserted club to impress a group of girls is uncannily funny - and sparks of brilliance here and there in the writing. Greg Davies' candid head of sixth form Mr. Gilbert's farewell speech to his students near the start of the film is an undeniable highlight.

What plot there is comes and goes, with the film much more often moving episodically from one scenario to the next leaving this regularly coming across like an extended episode of the series. It's possibly a little too long, at times feeling as though director Ben Palmer is treading water between one joke and the next. But the strong and winning performances from the central four, with Bird and Buckley impressing the most, and the fact that each undergoes some form of development from the start of the film to the end, means that this is on the whole more success than failure. Much of what is here is throwaway entertainment that won't stay with you much past the credits rolling, but there's enough here to make The Inbetweeners Movie an unchallenging but enjoyable watch.


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Film Review | Iron Sky (2012)

Whether you're willing to admit it, a film about an invasion of Earth by Nazis from the Moon has, at the very least, curiosity value. Unfortunately for Iron Sky, that's where the attraction begins and ends.

2018: two American astronauts stumble across a secret Nazi base on the dark side of the Moon, triggering a series of events which leads to an invasion of Earth by the lunar-based fascists.

Iron Sky feels incredibly confused, to the point of almost complete failure. It's a comedy with too few jokes, and even fewer funny ones. The makers of the film also can't make up their minds as to who their target is. Is it the Nazis, who are never lampooned enough to really make them feel like the butt of many jokes (an undoubtedly dangerous moral position to be in)? Or is it Sarah Palin as the US President - never actually named, but there's nobody else the makers of the film could argue the character is meant to be - hamfistedly satirised more and more brutally as the film wears on? At one point, the two sides even become alarmingly comfortable bedfellows. When we finally get to the film's climactic USA vs Nazis battle, it's actually difficult to know who the film wants us to root for, so severely unappealing are both factions.

The plot is ludicrous and nonsensical, and not in a "so bad it's good" sort of way either. I realise that Iron Sky is not meant to reflect the real world, but the world in which the film takes place needs to make sense all the same. Any hope of that is gone before the first act is over. These Nazis fled to the Moon at the end of the Second World War, meaning that Nazi Germany was around fifteen years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of space travel technology. And yet the whole reason behind the Nazis returning to Earth is to collect smartphones and other hi-tech devices needed to power a war machine as their technology is not yet advanced enough. We see them flying spaceships, and yet their idea of a cutting-edge computer fills an entire room. The lack of logic is contradictory to the point of being insulting. You don't approach a film such as this looking for scientific integrity, but the ideas and plot devices passed off here are just downright lazy.

The film's biggest failing is that, without a robust plot or any successful humour, the offensive nature of a lot of what is on display here becomes all the more apparent. Cinematic history offers up a wealth of films which have effectively subverted contentious and inflammatory issues through sharp, well-written humour. Iron Sky is definitely not one of them, thereby stripping it of its comedy lifejacket and laying the film bare as the insensitive and tasteless failure that it is.

There are two small reasons Iron Sky has managed to avoid the lowest score possible: firstly, the action sequences are not awful considering this is not a mainstream offering; secondly, director Timo Vuorensola has the courage to make significant parts of this a foreign language affair, with the Nazi characters regularly speaking to each other in German with subtitles, clawing back a minuscule trace of credibility. In the end though, had Iron Sky had any sort of comedy brains behind it, it could have been a watchable and amusing modern take on B-movie exploitation tropes. What we have instead feels like a half-baked comedy sketch stretched out to the point of implosion, leaving us with a sloppy, unfunny and ugly excuse for a film.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Fuzz Five | Batman Villains Christian Bale Will Never Face

With The Dark Knight Rises signalling the end of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, there are a great many of Batman's most nefarious villains with whom Christian Bale will never do battle under the guise of the Caped Crusader. With that in mind, here are five enemies of Bat who didn't make the cut for the trilogy and how they could be brought into Nolan's version of Gotham.

1. The Riddler
Would it have worked?
One of Batman's most famous foes, The Riddler was most recently brought to life on the big screen by Jim Carrey in 1995's Batman Forever. Whilst I enjoyed Carrey's hyperractive take on the character, his performance was certainly not for everyone and would definitely feel at odds Nolan's grittier Gotham. The Riddler's modus operandi of leaving riddles and forcing his victims and enemies solve puzzles is certainly something that I would have loved to see in the Dark Knight universe. You can almost see him being reimagined as an accomplice, associate or even protégé of Heath Ledger's Joker. Given a Ledger's Joker-style makeover, The Riddler is definitely an adversary that would have fit very aptly into the franchise.

Who could have played him?
As you can imagine, after the release of Batman Begins, and again following The Dark Knight, all sorts of discussions surfaced on the internet as to which baddies might appear in any possible sequels. The Riddler was at the top of many fans' lists, with suggestions of who might play him rife. Casey Affleck is a name I remember hearing in the run up to the release of the first sequel and I like that casting idea a lot, especially after his exceptional turn in 2007's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. David Tennant of Doctor Who fame also fits the bill in terms of the look, and his work in theatre could give The Riddler a pleasing pantomimic style - see also his performance as Barty Crouch Jr. in 2005's Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. A third route to take, and one entirely of my own machination, is Jesse Eisenberg. Imagine a 21st Century, post-9/11 Riddler, a computer hacker or cyber terrorist setting up his riddles and puzzles through computers. Now think back to Eisenberg's superb turn as Mark Zuckerberg in 2010's The Social Network. It would probably have needed the most revision from the source material (not something Nolan has ever had a problem doing when it comes to Batman characters though) but Eisenberg as The Riddler could have been a very exciting prospect.

2. The Penguin
Would it have worked?
Compared to many of Batman's adversaries, The Penguin is arguably one of the least theatrical. He's a gangster, considering himself a "gentleman of crime" and dressing in fine attire, rather than anything as over-the-top as The Riddler or The Joker's costumes. He has his trademark umbrella, usually concealing a weapon of some variety, but that's about as outlandish as the traditional version of The Penguin gets. With a little more realism thrown in, there's no reason that The Penguin couldn't have fit in well as a gangland kingpin amongst Carmine Falcone and Sal Marone in Nolan's films. Just like The Riddler, The Penguin has been portrayed in film before, in Tim Burton's 1992 film Batman Returns by Danny DeVito. Burton's vision of The Penguin was a lot more bizarre, transforming the character from a gangster to a deformed psychopath who lives in Gotham's sewers. Any attempt to bring this version of The Penguin into The Dark Knight Trilogy would have been very ill-advised, being at odds with far too many aspects of this universe.

Who could have played him?
Again, discussion around The Penguin took place between Nolan's films being released, but for me there is one clear candidate: Toby Jones. Physically he clearly looks the part. In terms of his performances, his turn as Dr. Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger shows that he can fit a comic book style of film; his work elsewhere in films such as W. (playing George Bush's right hand man Karl Rove) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (as shady head of British Intelligence Percy Alleline) shows that Jones' ability to bring to life seedy, underhanded characters who wield psychological rather than physical power is ideal for the role. I can only hope that the next person planning to bring Batman to the big screen (2015's Justice League movie anyone?) reads this and realises just how perfect Toby Jones would be for the part of The Penguin.

3. Mr. Freeze
Would it have worked?
Bringing Mr. Freeze into the Nolan version of Batman's world would have been the biggest stretch so far, what with him needing to keep his body constantly at sub-zero temperatures (hence the nifty suit seen in the picture). That said, Nolan made Bane's "venom" work in The Dark Knight Rises with a few adjustments, so I reckon Freeze's permanent refrigeration wouldn't have necessarily been a stretch too far. The "freeze rays" and other ice-based weaponry would have needed to be toned down or significantly altered to make them credible. Freeze's back story as a brilliant scientist working to save his wife from a fatal disease through cryogenic technology would have been a great addition to the emotional character arcs seen through characters such as Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne himself in Nolan's films. Just as long as any version of the character stayed as far away as possible from Arnold Schwarzenegger's ice-pun-spouting version seen in Joel Schumacher's infamously awful Batman & Robin...

Who could have played him?
There are several directions a Nolan version of Mr. Freeze could be taken. If you wanted to play up the psychopathic element of the character, someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman could fit the bill perfectly, bringing the cold and calculating criminal elements of the character to the fore. On the flipside of this, Freeze is a character based in sci-fi, built around the mad scientist archetype; Michael Fassbender, fresh from his turn as android David in Prometheus, would bring a chilling sense of warped genius to the role, akin to that of an evil Sheldon Cooper.

4. King Tut
Would it have worked?
King Tut originated from the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West, making him one of the Caped Crusader's most camp and theatrical enemies. An Egyptologist who develops a criminal split personality, King Tut believes himself to be the reincarnation of Tutankhamen and all of his crimes have some kind of Ancient Egyptian theme. Fitting this version of the villain into Nolan's films would, unsurprisingly, be nigh-on impossible to do successfully. According to the internet, there is also a comic book version of King Tut - a somewhat more serious take on the character who targeted wealthy inhabitants of Gotham with his crimes and left behind riddles in the style of Egyptian mythical creature the Sphinx. Whilst this has slightly more potential, the whole riddle gimmick has been done much better by The Riddler, so there would be no reason for Nolan to opt for a less iconic enemy for Bale's Batman to face.

Who could have played him?
I can imagine Alfred Molina fitting the bill quite well with a decent history in action adventure and comic book adaptations. Richard Griffiths, recently known for playing Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films, could alternatively bring a pleasing thespian style to the role.

5. Batzarro
Would it have worked?
As Superman has his botched clone known as Bizarro, so Batman has Batzarro. Batzarro looks similar to Batman, except with yellow fangs, no eyes and an upside-down bat symbol on his chest. Would Batzarro have worked? Er, no. Not unless Nolan decided he wanted Terry Gilliam or David Lynch as a guest director.

Who could have played him?
Any actor who fancied a quick way of ending their career. Joaquin Phoenix probably would have shown some interest.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Film Review | Casino Royale (2006)

I've said before that Casino Royale is topped only by Batman Begins as the most important franchise reboot so far, mainly because whilst 007's previous rejuvenation in 1995's GoldenEye had experienced diminishing returns with every new Brosnan outing, Joel Schumacher had directed the Batman franchise into a place so undesirable as to seem almost untouchable. Brosnan's last outing before handing the Walther PPK over to Daniel Craig had been the so-so Die Another Day, memorable for being both ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly tired at the same time. Die Another Day is nowhere near Batman & Robin levels of awfulness, but it was enough for the Bond franchise to be put on ice as Eon decided how to rejuvenate 007 for the 21st Century. Four years later, they gave their answer in the form of Casino Royale. And what an answer it was.

The film reintroduces James Bond (Craig) at the start of his career as a double-0 agent. After embroiling himself in the dealings of terrorism financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bond finds himself playing in a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, set up by Le Chiffre and in which Bond must bankrupt the criminal.

Casino Royale cannot be seen as anything other than a comprehensive success. Tonally it is a significant shift from the campy cartoonish antics seen towards the end of Brosnan's tenure as 007. Gone are the fantastical sci-fi and flamboyant unreality, replaced with a gritty post-9/11 world in which Bond can operate as a secret agent rather than a wannabe superhero. Director Martin Campbell shows us that Fleming's secret agent may have germinated from the Cold War, but he can be remoulded superbly to fit into the modern day.

The casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond is an undeniable master stroke. It's hard to imagine now that, prior to Casino Royale's release, fans protested against Craig being given the part for a number of reasons, including the fact that Craig is fair-haired. Craig's performance shuts them up for good. He inhabits the role, showing reverence to the cinematic legacy that comes with the part whilst simultaneously doing things his own way. The opening scene depicting Bond earning his double-0 status (shot in black-and-white to show director Campbell really means business) reintoduces the character perfectly and allows Craig to demonstrate both the cool arrogance and intense physicality he will display throughout the rest of the film.

The cast elsewhere are equally spot on in their roles and the performances they give. Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre is in many ways nothing like a "Bond villain", but is unquestionably the ideal choice for rebooting the franchise. His performance is cold and unnerving with just enough strangeness lurking here and there to let you know you're in Bond's world. Mikkelsen's performance is a perfect marriage between old-style theatricality and modern realism making Le Chiffre one of the most effective adversaries of 007 seen in decades.

Eva Green too is superb as Vesper Lynd, the Treasury representative who accompanies Bond to Montenegro and becomes his love interest. Again, the opportunity to blow off the cobwebs and bring Bond into the 21st Century is taken expertly; the secret agent's relationship with Vesper shows a vulnerability and emotional side rarely explored previously, but entirely in keeping with his relative inexperience having just become a double-0 in the rebooted timeline. This Bond is not yet the jaded womaniser of Connery and Moore, and yet we are given more insight into just how he will become this than ever before.

The film feels crafted to an incredible level of quality throughout, something which has not always been the case with Bond films in the past. The cinematography is beautiful, allowing the plot to unfold effortlessly and the action, humour and drama to segue sublimely all the way through. Fleming's story is adhered to faithfully but not to the point of jarring with the modern day reboot. The film keeps the pace going but never feels rushed, expertly balanced and focused throughout.

As I said earlier, Casino Royale succeeds in all it attempts to do. The division from the previous films is firmly established, but this is still clearly a Bond film through and through. The rebooted timeline is potentially the film's biggest risk, but it works to perfection allowing Craig to take the role and make it his own without four decades of baggage to carry with him. As a closing thought, consider this: Brosnan's final Bond film was released in 2002, the same year as Matt Damon's first outing as Jason Bourne. Bourne wouldn't have given that Bond a second thought. Four years later, Casino Royale's Bond would not only match up to Bourne, but would teach him a few new tricks whilst he's at it.