Wednesday, 10 July 2013

"Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads..."

July 2013 will see the end of regular activity here at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. In all honesty, I envisioned activity here continuing for a lot longer than the eighteen months or so this blog has been running. So, why are things set to end? Well, thankfully the reasons are all positive.

Recently I received an invitation from Sam Turner, founder and editor of Film Intel, to join him at his site as a regular contributor. Film Intel has been running for much longer than SLIHF - around five years or so - and in that time Sam has managed to develop its content and design as well as garnering a substantial regular readership. Whilst I've always been proud and pleased to have my writing at SLIHF read by even one person, the opportunity to write for a more established film site and larger audience was not something I was going to pass up.

As the writing I will be contributing to Film Intel will be the same as the kind of articles I write here, there really isn't any reason to continue adding regular new content at SLIHF. For the foreseeable future at least, the existing content will remain here for visitors to continue to read and comment upon. It's also possible that every so often I may write something here, but any new posts will be sporadic and infrequent.

This hasn't been a solo decision. My (almost) silent partner here, TheTelf, who has contributed a handful of articles and comments here since SLIHF's inception, has also agreed on this course of action being the best with his opportunities for regular blogging unlikely to improve any time soon.

My deepest and most heartfelt thanks to everyone and anyone who has read a review or an article here at Some Like It Hot Fuzz over the last eighteen months. Thank you to everyone who has liked us on Facebook, followed us on Twitter or left a comment here on the blog itself. Without people reading everything I've written here, there would be very little point in me doing it.

All that's left for me to say is please continue to follow my writing over at Film Intel. I already have one article published there - a review of Man Of Steel - and more will follow in the coming days, weeks and months. If you've not visited Film Intel before, check out Sam's back catalogue of reviews and articles too; his passion for cinema and skill as a writer consistently shine through.

Here's to the future.


"Shit just got real!"

Film Review | Evil Dead 3: Army Of Darkness (1992)

Following on almost exactly from where the closing moments of Evil Dead II left us, Sam Raimi's final film in his horror trilogy allowed the director to realise the vision he originally had for his first sequel but had been unable to bring about largely due to budget limitations. Evil Dead 3: Army Of Darkness is more commonly known simply as Army Of Darkness, arguably with good reason: in many ways this feels less like a continuation from the first two Evil Dead films and more like a fantasy vehicle for Bruce Campbell's Ash, a cult cinematic icon by this point in the franchise, to once again rev his chainsaw and fire his boomstick with aplomb.

Raimi shows he is unafraid to try out new ideas throughout Army Of Darkness, which is consistently admirable if not always successful. Tonally this sees an even greater shift into comedy than was seen between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Raimi's choice to transport the action to medieval England is a bold one considering the minimal cabin-in-the-woods setting of the first two entries in the trilogy. Coupled with the distinctly comedic tone throughout, Army Of Darkness at times feels reminiscent of Monty Python's big screen outings, which is never to the film's detriment but may disappoint fans of the out-and-out horror seen earlier in the franchise.

Both Campbell and Raimi clearly enjoy themselves bringing Ash to a wealth of new environments and characters, some of which work better than others. Ironically, the films strongest moments are those most redolent of the style and structure of Evil Dead II. A sequence which sees Ash isolated in an abandoned windmill is the strongest of the film, once again allowing Campbell to demonstrate his impressive aptitude for slapstick and visual humour. Raimi broadens his influence to include the likes of classic Tex Avery animation, as well as including his most overt homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen with the titular army largely made up of reanimated skeletons strongly evocative of Jason And The Argonauts.

Army Of Darkness' ambition also provides many of its shortcomings however. Other than Ash, the characters here receive the bare minimum of development needed to keep the story going, with most remaining largely one-dimensional. Whilst the first two films in the franchise could be criticised for not really having a story, Army Of Darkness certainly does its best to fix that, although Ash's quest through medieval England is unashamedly episodic and feels more like an excuse to link together a series of set pieces. The final battle between the living and "deadite" armies in all honesty feels overlong and a bit underwhelming.

Army Of Darkness ultimately never quite manages to reach the heights of the trilogy's strongest entry, Evil Dead II, feeling tamer in tone and more concerned with laughs than scares. But Raimi still manages to craft an imaginative, worthwhile and seriously enjoyable ending to his trilogy by playing to enough of his strengths, whilst having the courage to take the franchise into previously unexplored territory.


Monday, 1 July 2013

Film Review | Evil Dead II (1987)

Five years after giving the world the original Evil Dead, Sam Raimi returned to the franchise with a bigger budget and bigger ideas, many of which he wouldn't manage to realise until 1992's third installment, Army Of Darkness - the budget wasn't quite big enough to match the size of Raimi's imagination.

Evil Dead II sits - at times somewhat awkwardly - somewhere between a sequel and a remake, with the story of the first film retold here in condensed form within the first five minutes. A number of The Evil Dead's beats are also revisited throughout, which at times makes it tricky to place Evil Dead II in terms of its relationship with the first film. In contemporary cinematic terminology, this could even be considered as Raimi rebooting his own original film. It's a curiosity of Evil Dead II which is never conclusively resolved, but thankfully not to the film's detriment: those who have seen The Evil Dead can enjoy Raimi recreating familiar elements with more money to splash, whilst those who have not can enjoy this as a film which confidently stands alone.

Evil Dead II is also a refinement of what Raimi attempted in his first film, the director cherry-picking the strongest elements from his debut and fleshing them out. Everything that gave The Evil Dead its cult appeal  is cranked up several notches here. Where the first film's horror was overt, here the gore flies with wanton abandon, Raimi clearly having the time of his life soaking (literally) his actors in torrents of blood and slime. And whilst it can at times seem unclear why the original is classed as a horror-comedy, its humour occasionally so subtle as to pass under the radar, Evil Dead II never has this to worry about. Early scenes involving Ash (Bruce Campbell) battling his own demon-possessed hand are a complete riot, the film wearing on its sleeve strong influence from the work of Dick Van Dyke and - most of all - Raimi's comedy heroes, The Three Stooges.

Campbell from the word go is the beating heart of Evil Dead II, a whirlwind of B-movie energy and charm from his very first scene that only escalates as the body count and bloody torrents increase. Ash develops from unwilling hero to chainsaw-wielding dispatcher of the undead in glorious fashion, and come the end of the film the character's status as one of the all-time great horror heroes will be firmly ensconced in your mind.

Whilst there's a lot to like here, Evil Dead II does inherit some of the original's problems too. Plot is clearly not at the forefront of Raimi's mind, and whilst there's a little more of substance here than in The Evil Dead, anyone looking for carefully crafted, watertight plotting will likely come away disappointed. But taken for what it's meant to be - a horror film with its tongue regularly firmly in its cheek and made purely to entertain - Evil Dead II delivers in a hugely satisfying way. If The Evil Dead is cheesy, then this is the entire deli counter at Sainsbury's, and it's all the better for it.


By Ben Broadribb. Ben is now a regular contributor at Film Intel, having previously written here at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Film Review | Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

Regardless of individual or popular opinion, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has its place in cinematic history set thanks to achieving the youngest nomination for a Best Actress Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards for its nine-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis. It's a shame then that the performances of Wallis alongside co-star Dwight Henry are the only thing worth recommending in a film seriously lacking in substance or cohesion.

The film is at its strongest when Wallis and Henry share screen time on their own, both giving performances which play off each other pleasingly. Even though Wink (Henry) is regularly quite cruel to his five-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Wallis), often without any real reason other than to take out his frustrations of their harsh living conditions, by the film's conclusion the pair have managed to craft a touching and unique relationship on screen. Disappointingly, the rest of Beasts Of The Southern Wild's cast of characters is either distractingly irritating or so fleetingly seen as to be severely lacking in depth. Either way you'll find yourself caring very little about anyone other than Hushpuppy and Wink.

The problems elsewhere are even less easy to forgive. The film takes place in a world seemingly set sometime in the relatively near future, but presented as equal parts stark realism and childlike fantasy. Both views bleed into each other through the viewpoint and narration we are given by Hushpuppy, but largely work to cancel each other out. Director Benh Zeitlin shows a knack for shooting nature at its harshest and most extreme, but the fantastical edge regularly applied to the film severely dulls any moralistic or environmental message he was going for. By the same token, the elements presumably happening in Hushpuppy's imagination lack vibrance and magic when presented through such a starkly grim lens. Elsewhere, Zeitlin's attempts at linking his film into a deeper mythology - such as a floating nightclub called "Elysian Fields" - feel like weak efforts to raise the film to a higher literary level and quickly fall flat.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild ultimately manages the feat of coming across as incredibly preachy whilst at the same time saying and being about nothing. Zeitlin's narrative is almost arrogantly haphazard, as if the director feels he is above a cohesive story, and his message feels sanctimonious without having a core set of beliefs to base itself around. Despite a running time of just an hour and a half, this drags. Zeitlin is lucky in that his film at least looks good, and that he has two talented actors in the lead roles. Without these two saving graces, maybe the Academy would have seen through the Emperor's new clothes in which Beasts Of The Southern Wild constantly wraps itself.


Film Review | The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead seems to have had something of a resurgence of interest of late due to the fact that a big budget remake-cum-reboot was released earlier this year. Despite generally being quite well-received (certainly in comparison to other recent horror remakes), there was outcry amongst many fans of the original 1981 film that anyone even dare touch such an iconic entry into the horror genre. More than anything, that serves to prove just how loved The Evil Dead is by many, making it one of the most enduring cult favourites in cnematic history despite its shoestring budget and fairly basic structure.

It's clear from the very start that Sam Raimi's directorial debut was created with very little money in the coffers. This is the direct opposite of Raimi's most recent CGI-heavy feature, Oz The Great And Powerful, leaving the director only his skill behind the camera to create the story and tone of his piece. Raimi understands precisely how to generate fear and tension from the simplest of techniques, and builds up the creepy atmosphere brilliantly during the film's first half before allowing himself to go all out in the final forty minutes or so. The inventive nature of Raimi's low-tech monsters and gore, clearly influenced by the stop-motion style of Ray Harryhausen, retains its charm more than thirty years after the film was first released. Many modern horror films can barely manage thirty days, which reinforces Raimi's talent as a filmmaker even further.

The cast do well as a whole, but there's a reason this was the film that made Bruce Campbell's name in cult cinema and horror circles. Whilst his performance at the start of the film is perfunctory, even forgettable, by the time most of the other actors performances involve being creepy and possessed (a task at which all do effectively) Campbell shows an energy and over-the-top charm that is impossible not to enjoy. His turn is never Oscar-winning stuff, but it fits the tone of The Evil Dead perfectly.

If you're looking for a complex story with lots of character development, The Evil Dead will almost certainly disappoint. The story can be summed up in one sentence, and there are several elements introduced to hurry the monsters along without any further depth added to them later on. And, although it's not surprising that a film made over three decades ago for such a small amount of money has some notable cracks now showing, it's also something that cannot be ignored entirely. For all of its B-movie charm, The Evil Dead does feel dated at several points, particularly during its rather clunky opening act. Overall, however, this remains an enjoyable and inventive horror cult classic, as well as a solid document of a young Sam Raimi's cinematic flair and creativity.


Friday, 21 June 2013

Film Review | Lost Highway (1997)

There are, in general, two ways to watch a David Lynch film. The first is to see it as a puzzle: something to be worked out, picked apart, theorised about and ultimately solved. This is a dangerous route to take, because if Lynch's films are puzzles then there is almost certainly more than one way to "solve" most of them, and it's almost never clear which (if any) is the way Lynch intended them to be pieced together. The second way to watch Lynch's work is to see them as pure art - leave the intricacies, the conundrums and the enigmas, and just let a surrealist tsunami engulf you.

Reviewing a David Lynch film therefore needs to take in both perspectives, and with Lost Highway there's a lot you can say about both. As a cinematic riddle, this is one of Lynch's most accomplished head-scratchers. The key is to be found in a line Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) says near the start of the film: "I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened". Much of Lost Highway is undoubtedly seen from Fred's point of view, which begs the question of exactly how much of what we're seeing is "what actually happened" and how much is purely Fred's perspective. Things get even more complex when Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) enters the story; how he's linked to Madison is never fully explained by Lynch, allowing each viewer to come to their own conclusions.

As an artistic work, this is up there with Lynch's very best. The director gets the best out of his whole cast; particularly noteworthy are Patricia Arquette in a femmes fatale dual role, and Robert Blake as one of the most genuinely unsettling and chilling characters you're likely to ever encounter on screen. Lynch's bizarre genius is on show throughout the film, with the first truly mind-bending meeting between Pullman and Blake's characters likely to stay with you for a long time to come. As you'd expect from Lynch, his choice of camera angles and cinematography is consistently individual and expertly constructed lending Lost Highway an ethereal and irresistable nightmarish quality.

Lost Highway feels like the natural predecessor to 2001's Mulholland Drive. It's almost like the director was refining here the methods and tone presented in the later work. Despite its many strengths, Lost Highway isn't perfect largely because, despite the clear craft and artistry that has gone into its creation, it is quite regularly almost too obtuse and indecipherable to truly enjoy. There'll undoubtedly be several moments throughout where you'll have to be honest with yourself and admit that, even if you're captivated by Lynch's film, you have very little idea of what's actually going on. But in many ways, that's the beauty of the work of David Lynch: it can leave you completely bewildered and at the same time entirely certain that what you're watching is utterly brilliant.


Monday, 17 June 2013

Film Review | Hunger (2008)

It's easy in many ways to tell that Hunger is the work of Steve McQueen, the director who brought us Shame: a captivating central performance from Michael Fassbender; a subject which deals with humanity at its most raw and vulnerable, but also at its most destructive and savage; and a directorial panache which makes the film at times feel less like a feature and more like an art installation. But it's also easy to tell that this was made earlier than McQueen's modern masterpiece - the hallmarks are there, but the director's approach occasionally alienates a little too much.

Central to Hunger is its crowning glory, a scene well over twenty minutes in length featuring only Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) talking over the hunger strike Sands intends to take as an inmate of the Maze Prison during the Troubles. Featuring a single shot around seventeen minutes long, each man on either side of a table in an empty room, this is McQueen laying his cards out on the table in bold and uncompromising fashion. The entire sequence is note perfect, the two actor glancing off each other to perfection with Fassbender in particular bringing an intensity so brazen and enigmatic its impossible to resist, and the script delivering some of the most powerful moments of the whole film.

Either side of this extraordinary middle section, things are still undoubtedly impressive but feel less successful. The opening half an hour of the film presents a patchwork of events from both inmates' and prison officers' lives at Maze, offering little in the way of narrative structure or indeed exposition. If you're not already familiar with this particular period during the Troubles, McQueen offers little to educate you, opting instead to show you his artistic vision of life in Maze Prison which regularly impresses and confounds in equal measure. Fassbender's main character isn't introduced until around a third of the way in, a bold decision which ultimately works but is likely to be at least somewhat bewildering on a first viewing.

McQueen ends his film by again opting for images rather than a traditionally structured narrative, presenting us with some of the film's most harrowing moments as we witness Sands' deterioration and decay through Fassbender's astounding physical commitment to the role. Once again, the finished product feels more like an art installation than a feature film at several points, and whilst the film here is regularly striking, there are bold decisions made by the director which don't always pay off. McQueen undoubtedly has justification for showing us an extended sequence of a prison officer dousing a corridor with cleaning fluid, then sweeping the fluid from one end of the corridor to the other, but what his reasons are just don't feel clear enough to justify such a prolonged and, frankly, uninteresting moment.

Hunger is a film to admire and appreciate artistically, but not necessarily to enjoy in the same way as McQueen's later effort Shame. The director's panache with crafting powerful images is never in any doubt, but at the same time this feels a little too esoteric and metaphorical meaning Hunger often treads a fine line of accessibility. That said, as directorial debut's go, this is one of the most powerful and promising the 21st Century has seen so far.


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Film Review | Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

DreamWorks' latest computer-animated effort (on paper at least) promises folklore's answer to Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble. In reality, what we get is unfocused, unambitious and underwhelming.

Let's start with the "guardians" themselves: a ragtag bunch of secular figures from various myths and traditions but who it is explained here are real, chosen to look over children throughout the world. The roll call is pretty impressive; it's just a shame that each member is either woefully unoriginal or just not very interesting. Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin) is largely a shameless rip-off of Gru from Despicable Me - even his elves are carbon copies of Gru's minions in every way other than appearance - with clumsy Russian stereotypes (two big swords and a Cossack hat, anyone?) slapped on to fill the gaps. Hugh Jackman's Easter Bunny, an anthropomorphic animal warrior who throws boomerangs, is more confusing than anything else. It's not clear whether the character is given Australian iconography due to Jackman's accent, or whether Jackman was chosen to fit the character's traits - either way it neither works nor makes sense, and an explanation is never even hinted at. The Sandman, an imp-like mute, is mainly an excuse for a few half-cooked gags ("Sandy! You should have said something"), and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is entirely forgettable.

Which just leaves Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the protagonist and latest guardian who you'll really struggle to care about, partly because of Pine's bland performance and partly because of David Lindsay-Abaire's pedestrian script which provides just one short sequence to give the character any depth or development. The whole thing never hangs together in any meaningful or satisfying way: the story takes far too long to get going, failing to truly hold your attention when it does; the characters lack chemistry, never feeling like the team they're meant to be; and the motivations of all involved, including Jude Law's generic villain Pitch Black, feel decidedly vague and flimsy from start to finish removing any genuine threat or urgency from the film's events.

All of this boils down to yet another sub-par DreamWorks animated effort. Even the animation itself, at times the saving grace of the studio's more recent films, feels unimpressive. There are some admirable attempts at bringing to life the various realms the mythical figures inhabit, and the main laughs come from the actions of Santa's yetis (yes, Santa has more than one yeti in Rise Of The Guardians), but the positive points are too few and far between to make it a film worth recommending. It's never offensively bad, nor does it plumb the depths of crudity or unkindness in an attempt at laughs, something unfortunately seen more and more in films made to entertain children. Rise Of The Guardians isn't a stinker on the level of Shrek The Third, thusfar DreamWorks' greatest and most repugnant failure, but it is seriously misjudged and a major disappointment.


Sunday, 2 June 2013

Film Review | Gambit (2012)

"Development hell" is one of those movie terms that seems to make any film it's applied to a free-for-all for derisive comment. Any negative issues are automatically inflated, with the good points often conveniently overlooked. True, there are examples of truly awful films making their way out of "development hell", but there are probably just as many - if not more - that eventually emerge to provide at least a fair amount of entertainment. A remake of 1966 Michael Caine film Gambit has apparently been on the cards since 1997, with everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Ben Kingsley attached to various roles. Fifteen years later, the finished product was finally released and (surprise surprise!) panned by many. Unfairly, I might add. Whilst Gambit isn't a comedy masterpiece, it has plenty of worth to offer.

The film's promotional material makes a lot of the fact that its screenplay is written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and whilst this is certainly nowhere near the brothers' best work, there's enough here to entertain with some snappy dialogue throughout. One exchange between Harry (Colin Firth) and P.J. (Cameron Diaz) overheard by two hotel employees with an entirely more lascivious meaning is a highlight straight from the playbook of classic British sitcom or one of the better Carry On films. Both Firth and Alan Rickman as his bully of a boss Lord Shahbandar get the majority of the script's best material, but there are pleasing moments for some other characters too.

That said, nobody here is exactly stretched to their dramatic heights: Firth's performance wavers between awkward upper-middle class Brit and Michael Caine impersonation, but is entertaining throughout nonetheless showing an aptitude for visual humour not often seen from him; Rickman is fine with his usual deprecating act, mixing in some smarm for good measure; less convincing is Diaz with a lazy performance and a Texan drawl that lacks authenticity even to my English ears. Tom Courtenay and Stanley Tucci are sadly given little of interest to do, with the latter channeling his best stereotypical German as if he'd been given some old copies of 'Allo 'Allo to watch as research for the role.

The humour occasionally falls back on lazy attempts at laughs - Rickman in the buff a couple of times, and even a cheap (albeit very well-timed) fart joke - but there's also enough eccentricity and caper-style comedy here to keep things amusing and enjoyable. It's never anything of substance or truly memorable, but Gambit manages to provide entertainment enough to make it a worthwhile watch.


Saturday, 1 June 2013

Film Review | The Sapphires (2012)

Chris O'Dowd seems to be something of a flavour of the moment across the pond in Hollywood. Having made his name here in the UK as grouchy computer geek Roy in Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, O'Dowd suddenly managed the transition to feature films, becoming the go-to guy for a fresh, alternative Irish or British (interchangeable in Hollywood) addition to a cast. So far, he's held his own but failed to impress me with turns in the likes of Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids, partly because the parts he was cast in could easily have been played just as well or better by any number of other young actors - Irish, British, American or otherwise. His central turn in Australian-made movie The Sapphires however is exactly the kind of role O'Dowd needs to find for himself, and is also his first feature performance to truly catch my attention.

The Sapphires brings together an eclectic mix of genres and themes including musical, comedy, romance and war, as well as being based on a true story. It's a mix which could promise something for everyone, but also one which requires director Wayne Blair to maintain a careful balance to make sure the whole thing doesn't end up a complete mess. Pleasingly, things end up mostly okay. The soul tunes throughout deliver pleasing entertainment, and whilst not ever joke hits its mark there's plenty here to make you chuckle, thanks mostly to the relaxed and confident performance from O'Dowd as Dave Lovelace, the aboriginal girl group's Irish manager.

The romance takes its time to get going, but by the film's final act it's been given enough time to develop into one of the film's strongest assets. As far as the film's handling of its primary setting - the Vietnam war - it admittedly does feel a little too light at several points, shying away from revealing any of the true horrors. That in itself isn't a serious issue - the film is primarily a musical comedy, and plenty of other films have used war as a backdrop without dealing with death and violence head-on - but it does give the film something of an artificially upbeat feeling at times. The treatment of aborigines in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s is also dealt with at a few points with a greater level of success.

There are some issues here which can't be ignored, however. The performances from the four members of the titular aboriginal girl group range from pleasingly strong (Deborah Mailman) to decidedly clunky (Jessica Mauboy, clearly here only for her singing ability). Structurally the film feels somewhat uneven too, with a first act that rushes through several ideas with very little development leaving things feeling flimsy and amateurish at first. There are also a few threads left hanging without any resolution, and one particular scene involving Dave and the girls under threat from a group of Viet Cong soldiers offers a resolution so unbelievable without any explanation as to be laughable.

Despite its flaws, The Sapphires remains an enjoyable film that deserves credit for setting itself some challenging goals. Whilst it doesn't succeed in everything it attempts, Blair's film is an admirable and entertaining piece of cinema with both brains and spirit.


Friday, 31 May 2013

Film Review | Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 sits in a unique, perhaps unenviable, position in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first Marvel franchise to release a third installment (whilst Captain America and Thor gear up for their first sequels and Hulk waits for yet another reboot with Ruffalo in the role), Iron Man 3 is not only a sequel to the previous two Iron Man films but also to last year's critical and commercial favourite Avengers Assemble. It's also the first film in "Phase 2" of Marvel Studios' establishment of their Cinematic Universe, "Phase 1" having been wrapped up through the previously mentioned assembling of The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr.'s fourth outing as Tony Stark therefore had a huge amount of expectations to meet from several different angles.

There's plenty here to like, thanks in part to the elements already firmly established through the original film and its sequel, as well as Avengers Assemble. Downey Jr. is once again strong as Tony Stark providing a pleasing centre for everything else to orbit around. Gwyneth Paltrow returning as Pepper Potts also does well, although her relationship with Tony doesn't go anywhere new and the character doesn't get much of interest to do until towards the very end of the film. Don Cheadle is another welcome familiar face as Rhodey, although his role here never goes beyond a combination of plot device and foil-cum-sidekick to Downey Jr.'s Stark.

New additions to the cast also vary in their success. Guy Pearce crafts potentially the most successful villain of the series in Aldrich Killian, with Ben Kingsley also doing well as mysterious Osama Bin Laden-a-like The Mandarin, delivering a mid-story twist about which the less you know before watching the better. Less successful is Rebecca Hall as Dr. Maya Hansen, who is given precisely nothing interesting to do after the first ten minutes of the film; and Stephanie Szostak and James Badge Dale as two of Killian's subordinates, delivering well in the action stakes but whose villainous motivation is decidedly unclear.

Shane Black takes over directorial duties of the franchise from Jon Favreau, as well as co-writing the screenplay with Drew Pearce, and on the whole does well. This is a notably darker and more stripped down Iron Man movie to what we've seen before. We see Tony at his most vulnerable since he was imprisoned in a cave in the first installment, which provides some fresh moments of humanity for Downey Jr. to explore within the character but also makes this at times the least humorous entry into the franchise yet. Despite being roughly the same length as the previous two Iron Man films (and a good fifteen minutes shorter than Avengers Assemble) Black does feel as though he's padding things out at times here during the film's second act, especially after the film's pacy opening. The way in which Black moves the character of Tony Stark on in the film's final moments also feels a little too underdeveloped, almost like an afterthought, to resonate as much as it should.

In the end, Iron Man 3 is a mixture of successful and less successful elements, evening out into an enjoyable but flawed action film. For a third entry into the series it holds up perfectly well, certainly better than many threequels in other film series, but also feels as though it doesn't really move the franchise as a whole on to bigger and better things like it could have. Yes, there are some things that are done better here than they have been done previously, but there's also too much that feels like it's just been allowed to trundle along as it always has. Maybe it's because it's the first Marvel film to follow Joss Whedon's multi-superhero spectacular, but Iron Man 3 feels good - occasionally very good - but never great.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Film Review | Untouchable [Intouchables] (2012)

We're a cynical bunch, us Brits. At least that's how we \apparently like to be seen. If a film isn't showing us the gritty, harsh and brutal side of life in graphic detail through gloomy lighting and a bleached palette, then it must immediately be dismissed as corny and saccharine, a twee and flimsy effort unworthy of our time. Just take the reviews from Empire and Total Film of Untouchable: both magazines give it short shrift, seeing the film as a sappy French fancy for the reviewer to arrogantly dismiss. After reading both reviews (which took approximately a minute and a half - not each, but for both in total) I genuinely feel like I watched a different film.

Admittedly, Untouchable doesn't necessarily break new ground, with Philippe (François Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy) forming a classic odd couple: the former a wealthy aristocrat paralysed from the neck down due to a paragliding accident, the latter a young black man from the Parisian suburbs hired to be his carer despite his lack of experience, unsympathetic nature and criminal record. The two form a close bond, with Driss reigniting Philippe's "joie de vivre" whilst learning a few lessons of his own. If this was pure fiction, the set-up might feel a little on-the-nose, but the fact that the story is based on real events alleviates that for the most part.

That said, it would be easy for writing-directing duo Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano to make Untouchable a sugar-soaked shallow mess. Thankfully, that's not the case. The direction, whilst never astounding, is solid and allows the story to be told through the warm and natural dialogue and, above all, the brilliant performances from Cluzet and Sy. Individually both men infuse their characters with authenticity and likability, however it's the chemistry between the two that is the driving force behind the film. The conversations between the pair feel as though you are watching two real-life friends, and there are several irresistibly heartwarming and memorable moments throughout.

Thanks to its perpetual feel-good tone and positive outlook, it's true that Untouchable may avoid focusing upon some of the more unpleasant aspects of both men's lives - we see Driss spending time with some unsavoury characters at moments throughout the film, but these scenes never attempt to tackle the social problems inherent in what we are being shown. Nor are we ever shown much at all of the less pleasant side of Philippe's quadriplegia. But the lightness of touch and honesty within the characters means that this is unlikely to detract from your enjoyment of what is a genuinely entertaining and funny film. Lovers of gritty and depressing cinema, look elsewhere: Untouchable is endlessly optimistic and simply joyous.


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Film Review | Room 237 (2012)

The Shining is one of those films that has firmly embedded itself across the entire spectrum of cinematic notoriety. Even casual moviegoers are likely to recognise at least some of the references to lines, characters and scenes that crop up in popular culture fairly regularly. At the other end of the scale we have the fanatics, the obsessives and the theorists; those who have watched and rewatched Kubrick's horror masterpiece to the point that they no longer see a narrative, more a collection of interconnected clues to a greater meaning behind the film. Rodney Ascher's Room 237 rests its focus upon a quintet of Shining enthusiasts who enjoy analysing the film to within an inch of its life. Sadly, the documentary can't live up to the movie geekgasm it seems to promise.

The theories presented range from the fascinating to the tenuous to the downright laughable. Some seem to have a fair amount of evidence within Kubrick's film, such as the choice to add several references - some overt, some subtle - to Native American culture not found in Stephen King's source novel. The leap to then declaring The Shining as being about the genocide of the Native Americans is quite a large step further, however; moreover, a step which requires a fair amount of gap-filling and dot-joining on the viewer's part. Other theories pieced together through over-obsession can only be viewed as crackpot (Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 moon landing footage, and The Shining is "littered" with hints and clues towards this), whilst one section about playing the film simultaneously forwards and backwards on top of each other feels like Kubrick devotees clutching at straws and in all honesty is just plain dull.

If you haven't watched The Shining recently, do so before watching Room 237, otherwise references to some incredibly specific elements of the film will almost certainly be largely lost on you. Most of the citations are accompanied by footage from The Shining to illustrate whatever theory is being presented, but all the same it's better to have some frame of reference as to where each part being analysed appears within the original film. The use of footage from other Kubrick films, as well as several other sources, is neatly done and is probably Room 237's greatest strength.

It's a shame then that several other parts of the film fail to impress. Ascher immediately throws you straight into each interviewee's separate theories without any preamble or introduction, making the film's opening feel somewhat limp and disorientating. Ascher's choices from there fail more often than they succeed. At no point do we see any of the five speakers, not only making it difficult at times to differentiate between who is actually talking, but also more importantly makes it hard to develop anything more than an arbitrary engagement with those involved. Ascher also remains entirely without agenda or indeed purpose, making it difficult to know exactly how he wants us to view the ideas and people he's presenting to us. The theories are put forward without any exploration of the lives or personalities of those putting them to us, which ultimately makes them far less interesting than they could be.

In the end, Room 237 feels like something of a wasted opportunity. Numerous interesting questions (such as why Jack appears in the New Year's Eve 1921 photo) and factoids (Kubrick reportedly preferred the shorter European cut of The Shining, which actually removes some parts analysed here) are completely ignored, which will surely disappoint many who were hoping for some theories regarding these most notorious of mysteries surrounding Kubrick's film. But the biggest failing of Ascher's film is its execution. As a documentary, Room 237 is amateurish to the point of feeling at best like a special feature on a non-existent DVD or Blu-ray edition of The Shining, at worst like an extended YouTube video.


Film Review | Tyrannosaur (2011)

Paddy Considine the actor has attempted a diapason of roles, from revenge-consumed former soldier Richard in Dead Man's Shoes to one half of the "Andys", the detective double act seen in Hot Fuzz. Considine the director opted very much for a bleak and heavily realistic tone closer to his dramatic work with Shane Meadows for his feature debut. It's one decision of many which make Tyrannosaur surely one of the strongest inaugural works seen from any director in some time.

Considine's film is confident and mature showing an understanding for the director's craft that perhaps even surpasses his acting ability, with shot after shot crafted expertly and presenting the bleak and angry version of Britain Considine clearly wants us to see. It's hard to place Tyrannosaur geographically to one place: despite being filmed in Yorkshire there's very little to tie the film to that part of the country, and many of the actors perform using their natural accents making things even less clear. It's a clever choice from Considine as director, giving the film's message about the nature of humanity a feel of universality.

The film's strongest element alongside the direction of Considine is in its cast. Peter Mullan's performance as anger-infused alcoholic widower Joseph is incredibly powerful, creating an enigmatic anti-hero by turns both inspiring and repulsive. Olivia Colman opposite him as Hannah is quite simply extraordinary in a demanding role, delivering incredible raw emotion throughout. Completing the trifecta is Eddie Marsan as Hannah's husband James creating surely one of the most loathsome male characters seen on screen for some time through an unsettlingly authentic turn.

Considine's choice to make his film relentlessly bleak and unforgiving allows the director to produce some incredibly effective and hard-hitting drama, but it's also the main factor that holds the film back from perfection. Watching Tyrannosaur could never be accurately described as enjoyable. It's a film to appreciate, admire and applaud, but its persistently harrowing nature does make it hard viewing at times. When the lightest and most upbeat moments of a film happen during a funeral and wake, you know you're in for a punishing cinematic experience. Occasionally too Considine threatens to allow the brutality of Tyrannosaur's world to overflow into the ludicrous; it never happens, but the film teeters on the brink once or twice.

If you can take Tyrannosaur's perpetually angry and savage perspective, this is a film which will reward you with some of the finest contemporary British cinema you're likely to experience. It forms an astounding debut for Considine as a director, and will leave you excited for the actor's next venture behind the camera.


Saturday, 18 May 2013

Film Review | The Imposter (2012)

The Imposter isn't one of those documentaries, such as 2010's Inside Job, that relates an account of an event which is simply too important not to be told. The Imposter's story is the very definition of truth being stranger than fiction, a tale of the unexpected that in reality only genuinely affected a handful of people but that is so out there as to be utterly compelling for anyone hearing it. But having irresistible subject matter isn't enough for a documentary to succeed. Thankfully, The Imposter has a lot more going for it than just its story.

Deserving of first mention is the film's primary talking head, Frédéric Bourdin, the man who managed to pass himself off as seventeen year old Texan Nicholas Barclay, missing since he was thirteen, even though Bourdin was actually twenty four, French and had several other notably different features to Nicholas. Bourdin is enigmatic whenever on camera, simultaneously charming and despicable; you'll find yourself willingly drawn into his version of events through his swaggering patter, despite the fact that the film regularly reminds you either overtly or subtly that the man you are watching and listening to is a habitual liar and swindler. All moralistic questions aside, director Bart Layton has struck on a consistently compelling screen presence in Bourdin.

Layton's choices elsewhere also work incredibly well. Dramatic reenactments of real events can at times feel jarring in documentaries, but thankfully this is never the case here. Layton's direction feels stylish and highly crafted throughout the recreated scenes making them much more than the perfunctory afterthoughts sometimes seen in lesser documentary efforts. The casting of Adam O'Brian as the younger Bourdin in these segments is also uncannily accurate and incredibly effective.

Elsewhere in the film Layton makes some expert choices which belie this being his debut feature-length documentary. The only voices we hear are those of the people involved, meaning that the way Layton allows the story to unfold feels incredibly organic and without agenda. And yet the director is clearly in control throughout, crafting his film in the style of a thriller or crime drama. Layton only occasionally allowing himself to linger on slightly unnecessary elements a little too long - a sequence focused on how Bourdin felt attending an American school, for example, feels out of place and uncharacteristically schmaltzy in tone. Any issues however are minor, seldom seen and easily forgiven. This is a captivating and high quality documentary which tells a fascinating tale with genuine skill.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

Film Review | 127 Hours (2011)

127 Hours received a fair amount of attention upon its release, being as it was the first film released by director Danny Boyle after Slumdog Millionaire won him Best Picture and Best Director (and six more to boot) at the Oscars two years earlier. But whilst the influence of Slumdog Millionaire and several other previous Boyle works can be seen within 127 Hours, it never manages to reach the heights of the director's most successful films.

The strongest element within the film is undoubtedly the central performance from James Franco - pretty vital really, seeing as Franco spends a large part of the film as the only person on screen. After a largely functional opening act in which Aron Ralston (Franco, and upon whose account of his real life experience the film is based) is set up as something of an arrogant twat, it's down to the acting and directing team of Franco and Boyle to make the next hour of the film work. Franco steps up to the plate admirably: whilst Ralston is not always likable, the actor's performance keeps things interesting and does well to show Ralston's physical and mental deterioration over the five or so days he spends trapped by a fallen rock.

Boyle, on the other hand, has less success. His style is a mishmash of cues from his cinematic canon: the opening act has a very similar feel to The Beach; Ralston's flashbacks to various moments throughout his life echo Slumdog Millionaire's style; and his increasingly surreal hallucinations and visions are reminiscent of Renton's drug-fuelled experiences from Trainspotting. But herein lies the problem: Boyle's eclectic direction never gels in a pleasing enough way, nor is it ever as successful as the previous films it recalls. Ralston's mind unravels, but we never get anything as iconic or inspired as The Worst Toilet In Scotland or Allison's dead baby crawling on the ceiling. And whilst I accept that Ralston's flashbacks are there to show how his current experience is changing him as a person, they equally serve to reinforce that the person we're watching has for the vast majority of his adult life been a bit of a tosser.

True, there are more successful moments here. Ralston's interviewing of himself on an imaginary talk show - partly to reveal he too realises his previous tosser-like behaviour, partly to distract himself from the boredom and hopelessness of his situation - is a particular highlight. Much has been made of the gut-wrenching scene depicting Ralston's now famous self-sacrifice, and this too is one of the film's strongest scenes, although if you've been subject to any of the hype surrounding it you're likely to be at least a little underwhelmed. 127 Hours ends up as the approximate sum of its parts. It's worth seeing to experience Franco's breakout performance as a leading man; but ultimately Boyle not only fails to impress nearly as much as he has done in the past, but also manages to constantly remind you of that fact through the choices he makes.


Film Review | Raising Arizona (1987)

The story goes that Ethan and Joel Coen wanted their second feature film to be as different to their debut, Blood Simple, as they could make it. If that was indeed the case then Raising Arizona in that respect is a near-comprehensive success, being as it is a fast-paced, madcap comedy packed with cartoonish characters and oodles of symbolic references. But whilst Raising Arizona in many ways distances itself from the Coen Brothers' first film, there are plenty of stylistic choices which make it clear "The Two-Headed Director" of Ethan and Joel are once again in the driving seat.

Raising Arizona regularly flies in the face of cinematic conventions. The opening credits appear over ten minutes into the film's running time, by which point we've seen H. I. "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) go to prison three times; marry Ed (Holly Hunter), the officer who takes his mugshot after each arrest; unsuccessfully try to start a family; and set in motion a plan to steal one of the "Arizona Quints" recently born to furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife. The rest of the film doesn't trouble itself much with plot, allowing itself to meander here and there following the lives of the McDunnoughs and focusing on the problems Hi constantly faces in looking after his infant "son", keeping his wife happy, and staying on the straight and narrow.

This is the Coens' first screwball comedy, a subgenre they would revisit more than once later in their careers, but their character-driven inaugural effort still stands up over twenty-five years after its release thanks to the vibrant and at times surreal script as well as comprehensively excellent performances from the cast. Cage deserves high praise for his turn as antihero Hi, achieving a satisfying balance between the comedic and sympathetic throughout. Hunter also does well developing a charming on-screen relationship with Cage whilst impressing with some delightfully over-the-top comedy moments of her own. Able support comes from the double act of William Forsythe and future multiple-Coen-collaborator John Goodman as escaped convicts the Snoats brothers, acting for most of the film like a pair of miniature devils on the shoulder of Hi as well as carrying out one of the most memorably bungled bank robberies in movie history.

The Coens pack their second film chock-full of intriguing questions for the audience. Why does Leonard Smalls' (Randall "Tex" Cobb) name recall the man-child protagonist of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men? Is there an intertextuality between this work and Steinbeck's as characters from both unsuccessfully strive for the American Dream? Or is it just sly ironic humour - Steinbeck's Lennie has an obsession with rabbits throughout his novel, and Smalls' introductory scene in the Coens' film sees him dispatch an innocent bunny with a disproportionate amount of firepower. The Coens' despicable bounty hunter poses another enigma later on when it is revealed he shares a tattoo with Hi during a punch-up between the two. Does this represent a duality between the characters, with Smalls reflecting what Hi could have become had he not strived to follow the path of good? Or is it just another piece of surreal Coen humour, an unexpected way of halting the violence for a second as the two characters display just as much bafflement at the revelation as the audience?

Perhaps this is the beauty of Raising Arizona. It's not the Coen's tightest or most powerful work; but it can be studied and picked apart to your heart's content, whilst at the same time providing genuine highly-crafted entertainment that can be enjoyed without having to analyse it in any way. Most of all, it's arguably the first Coen Brothers movie that feels like a "Coen Brothers movie" through and through, with all the directorial and artistic panache that you'd expect. It's a film best summed up by its own theme song: Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" played on the banjo Deliverance-style. It could be a well-thought-out comment on the characters' ideologies within the film, or it could just be a Coen-flavoured oddity. Either way, it's a complete hoot.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

Film Review | Lawless (2012)

Based on the real lives of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers during prohibition era America, Lawless feels throughout as though it wants to reach the heights of cinema's most revered gangster tales. But despite an impressive cast of acting talent, it never manages to achieve anywhere near the greatness it so desperately and ambitiously strives for.

Lawless' main cast is arguably its strongest asset. Tom Hardy does well as middle brother Forrest, growling his way through a part which, whilst certainly not the most challenging he has taken on in his career so far, allows the actor to create an interesting character through a mix of understatement and intensity. Opposite Hardy as youngest Bondurant brother Jack, Shia LaBoeuf gives the best performance of his career so far but one that still lacks consistency. At times LaBeouf delivers some pleasingly strong emotional moments, but at others feels out of his depth; whilst certainly not an awful turn, it's easy to think of several other acting talents of a similar age who could have delivered a lot more in the role. Rounding off the trio of brothers is Jason Clarke as Howard, the oldest but unfortunately also the sibling most underwritten and underdeveloped, feeling too one-note for the actor to create anything genuinely memorable.

The supporting cast elsewhere delivers mixed results. Guy Pearce delivers with an unsettling and intense performance as Special Deputy Charley Rakes, stealing the show in the film's opening act; it's a shame that both the character and Pearce's performance descends into over-theatrical ludicrousness by the film's climax.  Gary Oldman does reliably well in a role more akin to the maniacal characters of earlier in his career than the more restrained parts the actor has been seen in recently, but is also vastly underutilized throughout. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are both fine, but are given very little of interest to do other than be accessories to the men.

The screenplay from Nick Cave is at times strong, but lacks the narrative thread needed to tie all its different elements together. The slow-burning feud between the Bondurants and Rakes is compelling throughout, but both of the film's attempts at romantic subplots fail to do anything genuinely meaningful: Hardy and Chastain's chemistry props up their love affair, but the scenes between LaBeouf and Wasikowska continually fall flat.

Lawless is regularly at its best when delivering brutal violence, with John Hillcoat's direction feeling most effective when focused upon the grittier and more unforgiving elements of prohibition era society. Elsewhere, the director's artistic choices feel perfunctory at best. There are moments of impressive cinematography but these are far too seldom to leave any lasting impact. Hillcoat's execution by and large feels too clean cut and lacking in stylistic mastery to deliver an authentic mise-en-scène.

Lawless ends up as an enjoyable period crime drama, but also one that wavers far too much between successful and ineffective elements. There's certainly a fair amount here to like, but there's also too much that falls significantly short of what it needs to be to create something genuinely memorable. Hillcoat's film manages to entertain for most of its running time, but with several big talents involved and a time period undeniably compelling in itself, to deliver a film that manages to entertain without offering much else ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Film Review | Toy Story 3 (2010)

Combining both the rule of diminishing returns and the inverse relationship between the length of time you leave between installments in a film franchise and the quality of the newest entry, Toy Story 3 should be awful. Add to that the fact that both Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were beloved modern classics of animation by the time of Toy Story 3's release and it could have become the most derided third film of a trilogy since The Godfather Part III. Surely if any studio could manage to steer clear of this minefield of cinematic failure, it was Pixar? Simply put: yes, it surely was.

Toy Story 3, like Toy Story 2 before it, retains many of the successful elements seen since the series' first installment. All the key voice cast members return sounding as fresh as ever (aside from Jim Varney as Slinky Dog due to his death in 2000, but whose role is ably and respectfully filled by Blake Clark). A wealth of new talent join them, each as perfectly fit to their animated counterparts as the franchise veterans. Ned Beatty as Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear deftly creates the series' most finely crafted and performed antagonist, with Michael Keaton providing strong and often laugh-out-loud support as Ken. Additional supporting roles are filled by seasoned performers including Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt and Timothy Dalton (as one of the series' most brilliant minor characters, Mr. Pricklepants: a lederhosen-attired plush hedgehog with a propensity for Shakespearean performance), which lends the film an essence of cinematic eminence.

After piloting the first two installments, John Lasseter receives credits as story writer and executive producer here whilst handing over control to Lee Unkrich in his directorial debut. Unkrich proves to be a worthy successor staying true to the style and passion Lasseter infused into his films; Toy Story 3 takes in a great deal of cinematic heritage including classic prison escape thrillers and an opening sequence which trumps both of the previous films' magnificent efforts. Unkrich blends the best elements from the franchise's past whilst keeping his film feeling original and contemporary. Even a handful of sequences clearly designed to take advantage of the film's 3D release in cinemas work just as well with one dimension removed. Pixar's ability to make the design of their characters, initially restricted by 1995 animation technology, still feel as crisp and appealing as ever is easy to overlook but simply cannot be understated.

Whilst Toy Story 3 at its core tells the story of a rescue mission once again, it manages more ably than its predecessor to bring an entirely original slant to proceedings. But perhaps most impressive of all is Unkrich's ability to make Toy Story 3 the most emotional entry of the trilogy. An early scene involving the toys effecting an elaborate ploy to get the attention of the now young adult Andy (John Morris) using his mobile phone is heartbreaking, and the film's final sequence will have you blubbering like a baby, especially if you've been with Woody and co. since the beginning. Elsewhere the film touches on areas that lesser animated films wouldn't dare go near, with existential questions surrounding death and the reasons for being etched within some of the film's most moving sequences.

Toy Story 3 therefore rounds off Pixar's flawless trifecta, one of the greatest film trilogies ever accomplished. All three deserve recognition in history as masterworks of animation and cinema, and their influence will undoubtedly resonate through the years and decades of film far into the future. Or as Buzz Lightyear would say more succinctly: "to infinity and beyond".


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Film Review | Toy Story 2 (1999)

After the overwhelming success with both critics and audiences of Toy Story, it's no surprise that Pixar chose to create a sequel to capitalize on its success only four years later. No other franchise from the studio would receive a sequel until Cars 2's release in 2011. It could be that Pixar didn't want to emulate the dead-horse-flogging antics of rival studio Dreamworks, churning out one sequel after another no matter how low the quality sank. Or maybe the masters of computer animation were anxious that any future sequels made by them matched up to the incredibly high bar set in Toy Story 2.

A great deal of Toy Story 2's success comes from returning director John Lasseter's decision to carry over many positive elements from the original film. Hanks and Allen again deliver first class vocal turns as Woody and Buzz, as do the rest of the returning cast. New additions to the acting roster are just as excellent: Joan Cusack as cowgirl doll Jessie fits the character to a tee with a larger-than-life performance; Kelsey Grammer as Stinky Pete draws on his thespian roots, as well as his well-known television role as the pretentious Dr. Frasier Crane, to create a classic cinematic villain; and Wayne Knight is a perfect fit for ruthless toy collector Al McWhiggin.

Lasseter's direction here is in many ways even more impressive than in Toy Story. The advances in Pixar's animation in the four years since the first film are regularly obvious, but always used with subtlety and panache by the director. Toy Story's opening was intentionally low key and all the more powerful for it; the start of its sequel sits at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of flamboyance, delivering a breathtaking action sequence that takes in a great many cinematic nods and references along the way, but at the same time Lasseter once again crafts a compelling and entertaining sequence. Elsewhere we see refined examples of something Pixar are now seasoned experts of ingeniously crafting from computer code: pathos. I defy anyone to watch Jessie's flashback sequence without experiencing a pang of genuine emotion within themselves.

Arguably, Toy Story 2 doesn't avoid every pitfall many sequels often fall into. The story here revisits some of the key beats of that seen in Toy Story with a rescue mission at the core of both films, only with Woody and Buzz's roles reversed from the first film to the second. But this never takes anything away from Toy Story 2, and the richness of the craft and depth of the ideas on display here mean that any repetition can be wholly forgiven. Toy Story 2 is every bit as accomplished, imaginative and entertaining as its predecessor, deserving recognition as one of the best animated films ever made.


Monday, 15 April 2013

Film Review | Toy Story (1995)

It's in no way an understatement to say that Toy Story is a cinematic milestone: one of the most important films ever made. It transformed the landscape of animated cinema forever and managed to do so slap-bang in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, one of the most critically and commercially successful periods for the animation giant. But whilst being a watershed moment in CGI, eighteen years after its release Toy Story still feels as fresh, vibrant and masterfully crafted as it did in 1995.

Toy Story perfects that synthesis of performance, direction and art so rarely seen and so precious when it happens. The vocal performances consummately fit their animated counterparts without fault. Both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz Lightyear respectively cease to be actors, inhabiting their characters absolutely and sublimely. The chemistry between the two is pure cinematic gold, making the journey the two toys make from rivals to odd couple to double act an intoxicating mix of childhood fantasy and raw authenticity. The supporting characters too are fleshed out superbly, their voices expertly cast and each as entertaining as the next.

The script is spot on, with joke after joke hitting the mark. Toy Story effortlessly blends wordplay with visual humour, as well as providing what is now seen as a Pixar trademark - comedy that will entertain the kids, but will also draw genuine laughs from the adults. There are numerous subtle references and in-jokes littered throughout, and each is a winner.

The directorial craft from John Lasseter is consistently stunning. Shot after shot shows a passion and gift for storytelling influenced by some of the finest cinema ever made. Within Toy Story you'll find sequences of high emotion, heart-pounding action and unsettling horror, underpinned by one of the best buddy stories ever told. It's also to Pixar's credit that, nearly two decades on, the animation within their debut feature is still just as impressive as ever, the design of their characters effortlessly retaining a timeless yet contemporary quality.

Perhaps Toy Story's finest achievement of all is its transcendence of both genre and target audience. To describe it simply as a "children's film" or an "animated adventure" is to ignore its universal appeal and broad spectrum of influence and ambition. It's a film which has earned its place in cinematic history but, most importantly of all, it's a film which provides pure enjoyment through comprehensively refined cinema. Simply put, Toy Story is flawless.


Sunday, 14 April 2013

Film Review | Shrek Forever After (2010)

Upon its release, Shrek Forever After was greeted with reviews lauding it as a return to form for the franchise. Maybe it was the fact that the fourth Shrek film was to be the final one, sparking nostalgia for the series' more auspicious beginnings. Or maybe it was because Shrek The Third was such a steaming ogre turd that anything better than it was a welcome relief. But whilst Shrek Forever After is indeed better than its precursor (not hard, as most films are), it never achieves anywhere near the success of Shrek or even Shrek 2.

Granted, Shrek Forever After does have some good ideas contained within it. New antagonist Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) is effective enough, despite being an amalgamation of features from the previous three baddies seen in the Shrek franchise (Lord Farquaad's diminutive stature, Fairy Godmother's magical contracts, and desire to be king from both Prince Charming and Farquaad). Another entertaining new adversary is the Pied Piper, although his appearances in the film are disappointingly brief. The alternate universe story is set up well and provides a handful of imaginative concepts, although as the story wears on the ideas start getting less and less fresh. Shrek's (Mike Myers) get-out clause in his contract with Rumpelstiltskin, for example, is lifted almost entirely from Shrek 2.

Despite these redeeming features, there's also too much within Shrek Forever After that simply doesn't work. The tribe of ogres, despite being voiced by current talents such as Jon Hamm and Jane Lynch, feel like a collection of flat Shrek clones (apart from Craig Robinson's excruciatingly unfunny chimichanga-peddling Cookie). Shrek's rebuilding of his relationships with his old friends in the alternate universe also provides one misfire after another: Donkey (Eddie Murphy) feels underutilised for the second Shrek film running; Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) is turned into a one-note lowest-common-denominator visual joke (he's fat); and there's never any spark in Shrek's renewed courtship of Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who is presented as a nearly-twenty-years-too-late Braveheart parody.

In the end, Shrek Forever After is undoubtedly much more worthwhile than Shrek The Third, but still provides a weak and largely unsuccessful conclusion to the Shrek series. It's a shame to see a franchise which built its foundations on witty subversion of stereotypes and conventions in its first film largely fall back on trite and unimaginative ideas as it draws to a close. Sadly, Dreamworks have made sure there's absolutely nothing left to wring out of their flagship ogre before allowing him to retire to his swamp for the final time.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Film Review | Shrek The Third (2007)

Dreamworks are often held up as the main competition to Pixar, the current studio to beat in the world of computer animated cinema, with some of the studio's best output seen by some to match some of Pixar's efforts. It's a comparison I feel at the moment is unjustified; whilst Dreamworks have created some memorable films, the ratio of decent to average-or-worse cinema just isn't that impressive. And whilst Pixar have turned out one or two less impressive films to end their streak of classics, they have yet to produce anything as dull and underwhelming as Dreamworks' Shrek The Third.

Before watching number three in the Shrek franchise, forget the clever subversion of fairytale constructs, the subtle and well-chosen cultural references, the jokes that actually make you laugh rather than question why on earth they had been included (basically everything that the first Shrek film was about and that Shrek 2, whilst not quite as successful, managed to at least remain faithful to), because Shrek The Third contains none of this. The plot is a rehash of elements from the first two films, feeling entirely uninspired and never generating much interest. Shrek's character arc, focused on whether he's ready to become a father, feels heavy-handed and comes and goes too much to ever feel properly developed. The connected moral message of facing up to responsibilities feels muddled and is concluded in a wholly unsatisfactory manner.

The returning characters feel tired or unnecessary, and choosing Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) as the primary antagonist here when he was introduced as second fiddle (and a bit of a tit) in the first sequel is setting up to fail from the very start. Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz as Shrek and Fiona respectively never offer more than going through the motions. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) are entirely wasted here, with a half-baked body switch "twist" thrown in late on in proceedings which goes nowhere, as if the writers suddenly realised they'd wasted two of the franchise's strongest assets. The new characters are no better: Arthur "Artie" Pendragon is underdeveloped and irritating, with Justin Timberlake's vocal performance never fitting the character; Merlin (Eric Idle) is even worse - a pathetic "new age" wizard whose every joke falls flat.

Shrek The Third is one of the laziest pieces of cinema I've ever experienced. Every aspect of it smacks of apathy on the part of everyone involved, from the stars to the director to the animators. It lacks energy, imagination and humour and represents the very lowest end of computer-animated cinema. Until Dreamworks is no longer happy to churn out dross such as this, it will never truly be able to compete with Pixar.


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Film Review | Shame (2012)

Michael Fassbender has emerged over the last five years or so as a serious talent to watch, bringing to life such memorable characters as Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds and more recently the unsettling android David in Prometheus. But to truly see why Fassbender is one of the most outstanding contemporary actors out there, you need look no further than his astonishing performance in Shame.

By the end of the film's opening, wordless sequence, Fassbender has expertly set out his stall, crafting the character of Brandon Sullivan sublimely through suggestion, expression and an intensity that only the very purest acting talent can muster. Brandon is seen making eye contact with an unnamed woman on the New York subway. The subtle flirting is traded back and forth, escalated little by little. And then things suddenly change, the woman sensing threat and becoming flustered before quickly escaping the train carriage at the next stop. Brandon pursues, no longer a man flirting with a woman but a predator desperately attempting to track his prey. The woman eludes him, and Brandon transforms again: a frustrated child who knows he has lost the game and momentarily bewildered, before heading back crestfallen to board the train once again. All the while this is intercut with candid snippets of Brandon's daily routine; his well-to-do but solitary existence in a modern, clean-cut apartment which belies the character's true life as a sex addict.

It's a performance which Fassbender sustains and develops masterfully throughout the film. Brandon is a complex character, simultaneously repulsive and genuinely sympathetic, repressed yet explosive. This is a character more intricate than the entire cast of other films put together, and yet Fassbender's execution of the part is so perfectly balanced between the excruciatingly subtle and overwhelmingly palpable as to appear effortless. It's a performance around which the rest of Shame is built, but the combined skill of both Fassbender as performer and McQueen as director means that it never threatens to overpower the film's many other superb elements.

Under the direction of another, Shame could at any point very easily slip into the exploitative and tasteless realm of cinema, but McQueen is so firmly in control of what he is creating this never even threatens to  happen. His depiction of the sordid elements of Brandon's life is regularly graphic, but never pornographic. A great deal of the sexual activity McQueen shows us is devoid of sexiness, instead manifesting a combination of Brandon's hedonism, dependency and self-loathing. The only time the director allows sex on screen to titillate is during Brandon's seduction of co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), directly reflecting the character's desire to begin a genuine romantic relationship. Without a doubt, McQueen's command over his film is absolute and expert at every moment.

Carey Mulligan, supporting Fassbender as Brandon's capricious sister Sissy, is also deserving high praise. Her chemistry with Fassbender is electric, bringing a volatile and deep relationship to the screen with the two sharing both tender moments and some of the most uneasily tense scenes in the entire film. Her haunting yet beautiful take on a well-known film theme is also guaranteed to stay with you just as long as some of Shame's most hard-hitting sexual images.

Shame is a modern masterpiece: a piece of art where everything is perfectly crafted and exudes excellence. Steve McQueen is a director of substantial talent who will undoubtedly prove to be a name in cinema worth watching very closely in the years to come. But it is the awe-inspiring performance from Michael Fassbender that will imprint itself upon your mind long after the film's conclusion, and rightfully so. It's the most brilliant performance I've seen yet from one of the finest acting talents of the 21st Century. Shame is regularly not an easy watch, but it's a film that without question deserves to be seen.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Film Review | The Taking Of Pelham 123 (2009)

It was with sadness that I heard of Tony Scott's death in August last year. Whilst he was never likely to be remembered as a director who created some of the great artistic works in cinematic history, Scott was undeniably a man with passion for and understanding of cinema who directed some of the more memorable entries into the action and thriller genres during his career. The Taking Of Pelham 123 would end up being Scott's penultimate film, and whilst it certainly has some redeeming features, unfortunately it's nowhere near the quality of the director's most successful work.

Scott's film is likely to start on the backfoot with some in the audience before it has even begun, being as it is a remake of the well-respected 1974 film of the same name (and with which I must admit I am not at all familiar), making changes to update the story to a technology-filled post-9/11 New York City. Whilst comparison with 1974 stars Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw may be the route by which some will judge Denzel Washington and John Travolta here, it really isn't necessary. Washington can do this kind of thing in his sleep, and whilst his turn here is perfectly satisfactory, he's never remotely stretched and constantly on auto-pilot. Travolta's performance, however, consists of him shouting and using the word "motherfucker" a lot, occasionally calling John Turturro (another great talent going through the motions) a "greaseball", and at one point using the term "bunghole". At no point will you ever buy into Travolta's character as anything but a fifty-something nutter desperately trying (and failing) to fit into youth gang culture, let alone who he is eventually revealed to be.

Scott manages to build some decent tension through a ticking clock framing device in the opening hour or so, but unfortunately this is squandered through a half-hearted final act which never delivers the fast-paced action needed. By this point Brian Helgeland's script has overcomplicated matters by adding in unnecessary 21st Century adornments to the story and seriously muddling Ryder's (Travolta) motives, leaving those who still care with a frustratingly anticlimactic conclusion.

The Taking Of Pelham 123 ends up as a hotch-potch of elements ranging from above average to quite poor. It's entertaining enough for what it is and never awful, but it also falls short in too many areas to ever become anything memorable. In the end, it's a film which helps to remind you of the great many superior offerings in the action thriller subgenre that are on offer, some of which can be readily found in Scott's own back catalogue.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Film Review | Machete (2010)

Once upon a time, Machete was a film that existed only as a "fake" trailer presented between Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof in the pair's double feature homage Grindhouse. Featured alongside trailers for other fictitious features such as Werewolf Women Of The SS (Rob Zombie's tribute to Nazi exploitation flicks) and Thanksgiving (Eli Roth's brutal holiday-centric slasher parody), Machete ended up as the first of these ideas to be fleshed out into a real film. Working backwards from an idea that was intentionally thin on plot and excessive when it came to violence and action, Rodriguez's "Mexploitation" pastiche could - and by rights should - have ended up as a total mess. In the hands of another director, it almost certainly would have. But whilst it lacks the refinement and sheer quality of the director's best work, Machete is hugely enjoyable.

Danny Trejo as the titular hero both looks and acts the part perfectly, coming across like a Hispanic John McClane with the vocal range of Schwarzenegger's Terminator and the allure of James Bond. The rest of the cast is as game as is necessary, with big names such as Steven Seagal and Robert De Niro giving it their hammy all.

The story is somewhat overstretched for the one hour and forty five minutes Machete runs for, and at times Rodriguez threatens to make things more complicated than they need to be for a film of this nature. There are also social and political messages running underneath much of what is presented, which thankfully only threatens to take over the fun on two or three occasions. Most importantly, Rodriguez remembers throughout what Machete needs as its focus: balls to the wall action. And by heck, the director shows he knows how to put together a decent extreme action sequence. The film's opening scene is pure exploitation gold, and the fire-powered finale can't help but bring a gleeful grin to your face.

Whilst Machete is never likely to be considered a Rodriguez classic, falling short of achieving the pulpy heights of Sin City or the exquisite level of homage seen in Planet Terror, it's a consistently entertaining, no-nonsense action film packed with plenty of guns, fights, explosions and - perhaps least expectedly - talent. Admit it: a film featuring Cheech Marin as a twin shotgun toting priest has got to be worth a look.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Film Review | Blood Simple (1984)

Talk about a "Coen Brothers film" today and many things come to mind - so many in fact that it's difficult to pin down precisely what the ingredients of a film from the minds of Ethan and Joel Coen actually are. Their films will be different experiences for each individual; to my mind, the best Coen Brothers films take any genre that the brothers wish to tackle, shoot it through with a smart story, uncannily authentic characters and wickedly dark humour, and present the whole thing in an offbeat and eccentric style. Blood Simple, the debut feature by Joel and Ethan (credited as director and producer respectively, but in reality sharing the roles intrinsically), contains a great many of these features with varying degrees of success, as well as a handful of flaws rarely seen in the brothers' later works.

Blood Simple is the Coens' take on the neo-noir genre, focusing on the seedy criminal proceedings of a small group of people. This is one of the film's key strengths, as each character is given plenty of opportunity to be fleshed out on screen. The cast are comprehensively strong: Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh are fantastic as sleazy bar owner Marty and even sleazier private-eye-cum-hitman Visser respectively; Frances McDormand as Marty's unfaithful wife Abby captivates in a mature and expert performance which belies this being her feature debut; only John Getz feels like something of a weak link as Ray, Abby's lover, putting in a performance which never feels up to the standard of the rest of the cast.

The film oozes '80s film noir style, with the Coens never missing an opportunity to have stylish cinematography drip from every frame. The use of camera angles throughout is startlingly individual, and the choices of setting and lighting constantly give the film a satisfying claustrophobic and oppressive feel. The pace of the film is never fast, at some points feeling steady and controlled but at others just feeling intolerably slow, not something which I've ever found to be a problem in the Coen Brothers' later works. The story suffers from the same problem: some scenes benefit from the slow pacing, allowing atmosphere and character to develop, but during others you just wish they'd get on with it. It's a good forty minutes or so into the film before the story actually begins moving forwards.

Ultimately a product of both the time in which it was made and the point in their careers at which the Coen Brothers made it, Blood Simple remains (despite a few missteps) a highly crafted and enjoyable watch. It's a film which indicates the fantastic cinema the pair would create during their career in the thirty or so years following its release, with bold and individual creative and artistic flair throughout that you can't help but be impressed by.