Monday, 28 January 2013

Film Review | Inglourious Basterds (2009)

If the 1990s defined Quentin Tarantino as one of the finest directing talents of modern cinema, then the first decade of the 21st Century showed that he is also one of the most unpredictable. The director's '90s trifecta - Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown - all feel decidedly complete, whilst at the same time  exhibiting shared themes and an unmistakable style to the point that all three films arguably take place in the same universe. In contrast, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by definition are two halves of one long and bloody epic story that inhabit their own world, whilst Death Proof is an esoteric love letter to a film-making and cinema-going style of yesteryear which shared more than just a double billing with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Inglourious Basterds is arguably therefore Tarantino's first and only stand-alone film of the 2000s when measured against his 20th Century output. In many ways it signifies a new direction for Tarantino, with a quasi-historical context and a multilingual script. But this is also undeniably a Tarantino film, and moreover one which redefines the director as a breathtakingly skilled auteur.

From its opening prologue-like sequence, Inglourious Basterds is a film which commands your attention. Cinematically this is Tarantino's most mature work, with expertly crafted sequences that segue through historical drama, spaghetti western, romantic melodrama and exploitation with a refinement surpassing even the director's most acclaimed works. Every shot is a work of art, but two sequences within the film stand out as possibly the best ever seen from Tarantino. The first is the opening chapter, exuding quality and making an immediate statement through the subtitled French dialogue and beautiful yet sinister wartime countryside setting: this is at once the director not only away from his usual backdrops, but also out of his comfort zone, and yet making a masterpiece of every moment.

The opening scenes also introduce one of Tarantino's, and indeed cinema's, greatest ever character creations in Colonel Hans Landa, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. The actor's performance is sublime to the point of being almost indescribable, creating an immensely complex and yet starkly straightforward personality it is impossible not to simultaneously despise and be awestruck by. Every moment Waltz is on screen is pure cinematic pleasure, with his introduction as "The Jew Hunter" of the SS in the film's opening one of the finest moments Tarantino, or in fact any director, has committed to celluloid.

As perfect as the film's prologue is, Tarantino's crowning achievement within Inglourious Basterds is undeniably the scene set in "La Louisiane", a basement bar at which a liaison between German double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), undercover Brit Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and two of the Basterds takes place. The entire scene is laced with tension, and is so finely crafted as to be a microcosmic movie contained within the main film's narrative.

Whilst this may feel like one of Tarantino's more uneven works tonally - consider how far the film changes from its quietly controlled, dramatic opening to its hyperreal, ultraviolence-fuelled finale - that's not to say that the film falters in between the moments highlighted. Tarantino commands the film's multi-plotted narrative as a virtuoso conductor does a concerto through his perfectly-assembled orchestra of superb acting talents, many of whom are bold choices being unknown to English-speaking audiences plucked as they are from European cinema. So high is the quality of the casting and performances throughout that even Eli Roth's subpar turn as Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz is forgivable.

Inglourious Basterds is a tour de force from Tarantino: a rip-roaring war epic which straddles genres, delivering entertainment, emotion and extreme violence whilst showing off the director's supreme talent behind the camera in the same way as his early work that first caught popular attention. This may be harder for audiences to take to their hearts in the same way as they did, say, Pulp Fiction, but Inglourious Basterds more than deserves to go down as a true Tarantino classic.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Film Review | Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [Lung Buỵmī ralụk chāti] (2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens with an inter-credits scene of a cow's escape across farmland into the jungle, before being retrieved by its farmer master. The scene consists of plenty of lingering shots of the cow before ending with a cut to a shadowy black figure with piercing red eyes who has apparently been watching the cow the whole time. This sequence pretty much sums up the nature of the whole film: strange, mystical, drawn out and, most of all, inexplicable.

The film focuses on the final days of the titular Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) as his health deteriorates due to kidney failure. Surrounding himself with friends and family, Boonmee also receives an unexpected visit from the ghost of his dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) as well as his long-absent son (Jeerasak Kulhong), no longer in human form.

There's evidence throughout Uncle Boonmee that director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a filmmaker of some skill. The director's choice to shoot the entire film on 16mm film - partially an artistic choice, but also a budgetary one - gives the film an aesthetic link to classic cinema, as well as an unpolished feel which fits well with the traditional aspects of Thai culture referred to constantly throughout the film. The director's use of sound is by far the film's strongest feature; largely without a musical score, Weerasethakul skilfully weaves diegetic sound into his scenes. Regularly oppressive and invasive, the director's precise use of sound at times recalls the work of cinematic master David Lynch.

Lynch's surreal and heavily stylized approach to film is in many ways an accurate comparison from Western cinema to Weerasethakul's aesthetic throuhgout Uncle Boonmee. It's a shame then that the comparison cannot also be made with regards to the director's success. Weerasethakul's film is often a tedious exercise, sluggishly paced and with a hotchpotch narrative regularly impossible to follow. Time and again the director hangs around on very ordinary shots for no apparent reason, causing things to be frustratingly slow for the viewer. The acting from many of the cast also feels decidedly wooden, a decision the director has indicated that is a deliberate reference to the style of old TV programmes from Thailand. Deliberate or not, it's a decision which gives the director's work an amateurish quality which regularly impacts upon the film negatively.

Most frustrating of all, however, is Uncle Boonmee's at times near incomprehensible plot. The film shifts almost wantonly from one unconnected sequence to the next - one moment we're watching Boonmee and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) discussing honey production on his farm; the next we're seeing a princess we've never met before having a questionable encounter with a smooth-talking catfish. The narrative choices are at times so esoteric as to be impenetrable - unless you have an in-depth knowledge of Buddhist theology and mythology, as well as Thai culture and tradition, you'll regularly find yourself completely lost as to what's going on or what relation it bears to the central story of Boonmee's illness and death. Weerasethakul also chooses to introduce characters key to what is happening in the film without any introduction or even warning, as well as allowing others to disappear unexplained. As I've said before, I'm all for films that refuse to pack themselves with an overkill of exposition, but it feels as though Weerasethakul actively wants his film to be a chore to get through.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives therefore ends up as a film which I found impossible to enjoy. I appreciate the artistry that has clearly gone into many parts of its creation as well as the ambition in what Weerasethakul has attempted; however, the slothful pace, perpetually poker-faced performances and unfathomable plot make it really quite a boring experience.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Film Review | Cars (2006)

Despite the lukewarm reception I gave more recent Pixar offering Cars 2, I've actually been looking forward to revisiting the original film for some time. Cars is a film that has in the past pulled me in two different directions: on one hand, it boasts one of the most impressive voice casts of any Pixar film, with cinematic heavyweights rubbing shoulders (or should that be bumpers?) with contemporary Hollywood talents; on the other, it's a film which aesthetically feels the most "kiddie" of all the studio's works, perhaps surprisingly even more so than Toy Story. It's a bipartite structure which frustratingly sat no easier with me on a fresh viewing.

Cars focuses on Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a talented rookie racing car determined to win a lucrative sponsorship deal with fuel company Dinoco in order to elevate himself to superstardom. En route to California to compete in the final of the Piston Cup, McQueen becomes stranded in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs where he gets to know a variety of characters, including the simple-minded Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) and gruff Doc Hudson (Paul Newman).

From an artistic perspective, Cars is inferior to the studio's earlier works, never matching the beautiful scenery of Finding Nemo or striking visuals of The Incredibles. The vehicular characters lack a great deal of the warmth and heart of many of Pixar's other creations, giving the Cars universe a layer of artificiality that takes too hefty a portion of the film's near two hour running time to penetrate.

The voice cast is indeed impressive, but is utilised to varying degrees of success. Wilson's vocal chords suit Lightning McQueen just as perfectly as Hanks and Allen fit Woody and Buzz, but his performance is only perfunctory and never memorable. Newman is unsurprisingly the casting highlight as Doc Hudson; it's just a shame that the character's story arc feels both underdeveloped and somewhat clichéd. Elsewhere, Bonnie Hunt's Sally is forgettable, the talents of the likes of George Carlin and Michael Keaton are almost entirely wasted, and Larry The Cable Guy's Mater wins the prize for most irritating Pixar character ever created, grating as he does in every scene.

It's a shame that Cars is such an underwhelming experience, as nestled around two thirds into the film's running time is a segment which reveals a glimpse of the true Pixar spirit of film-making when Radiator Springs' past as a bustling stopover on Route 66 is brought to life through a charming and emotional montage. This is surely the film director John Lasseter initially set out to make: an epitaph to the pure and simple pleasures of smalltown USA, and a love story to the ever-eroding cultural heritage of a country too quick to bulldoze and tarmac over both its history and geography. It's a sequence which gives Cars a much-needed boost, far more effective than the high-octane race sequences (never nearly as exciting as you would expect them to be) that bookend the film. Somewhere along the line, Lasseter allowed the heart of his story to become overcrowded with unsophisticated artifice. Maybe that's Cars' biggest failing. Or maybe talking automobiles inhabiting their own version of our world was never more than just an okay idea in the first place.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

FuzzWords | Why Quentin Tarantino has every right to shut your butt down

Earlier this week, Quentin Tarantino gave an interview to Channel 4 News reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy to promote his latest film Django Unchained, released in the UK in just under a week. It's an interview which has received a fair amount of attention for Tarantino's reaction to one question in particular, posed to him by Guru-Murthy around halfway through the interview. Below is the full interview for your perusal, but if you just want to see the part I'm referring to, skip straight to around the 4 minutes 25 seconds mark.

Guru-Murthy asks Tarantino why he is so sure that there is no link between an individual enjoying violence in movies and enjoying violence in real life. Considering the recent spate of school shootings in America, as well as the shooting which took place during an opening night screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado last year, it's a perfectly justified question. It's Tarantino's reaction to the question that has caught so many people's attention. The director tells Guru-Murthy that he "refuses" the question and stubbornly resists being drawn into a discussion on the issue, at one point even telling the interviewer "I'm shutting your butt down!".

Now, don't get me wrong, the way in which Tarantino puts his refusal across could have been more eloquent and tactful. Telling an interviewer "I'm not your slave and your not my master. You can't make me dance to your tune" when the film you're promoting deals with the slave trade in America probably isn't the best choice of words. But in terms of the reasons why he refused to answer, I couldn't stand more firmly in Tarantino's corner.

To start with, I've never been a fan of Krishnan Guru-Murthy as a journalist, finding him uninspiring and quite arrogant in his approach. This interview was no exception. The way in which Guru-Murthy posed the question came across as quite sly, clearly trying to catch Tarantino off guard. The interviewer clearly wanted a reaction, and whilst it might not have been the reaction he was expecting, in some way Tarantino unfortunately gave that to him. His question was also worded provocatively, having no link to anything previously discussed. By including the "so" in his question "Why are you so sure?", Guru-Murthy is quite aggressively pointing to something that Tarantino hasn't even mentioned during the interview. I think if I was Tarantino being interviewed by Guru-Murthy I'd probably react in the same way the director did.

Tarantino's insistence that the interview in his eyes "is a commercial for the movie" again may come across as quite blunt by the director, but to be honest, did anyone (Guru-Murthy included) really think Tarantino, or any other director promoting their new film, would think of it as anything else? Yes, it is blunt, but it's also the truth. Just as blunt was Guru-Murthy's response to Tarantino here: "So you don't want to talk about anything serious?" Considering the interview has already covered the historical setting and issues of Django Unchained, including what Tarantino refers to as the "Auschwitzian aspects" of the slave trade in America, to suggest that "serious" issues aren't being covered is both patently untrue and petulant by an interviewer who isn't getting his own way.

However, the main source of criticism for many who have seen the interview, apart from Tarantino's seemingly less than calm reaction, is his direct refusal to answer the question Guru-Murthy was posing. Actually, he did answer. He just didn't answer in the way that maybe those watching or Guru-Murthy wanted him to:

"The reason I don't want to talk about it: because I've said everything I have to say about it. If anyone cares what I have to say about it, they can Google me and they can look for 20 years what I have to say. But I haven't changed my opinion one iota."

Tarantino's answer is that since his opinion on the issue hasn't changed in the two decades he's been making films, he doesn't want to repeat himself again. It's not as if Tarantino shies away from people knowing his thoughts on the issue: he invites anyone who wants to know what he thinks to do the most basic form of research in the 21st Century - type it into an internet search engine - and find out.

So I did. Unfortunately (and ironically) at the moment a lot of the hits on the first few pages of Google actually take you to different reports and analyses of Tarantino's interview with Guru-Murthy. One particularly useful hit, however, takes you to an article on The Atlantic Wire who, in response to Tarantino's claim, have listed several quotes from Tarantino from as far back as 1993 (so, twenty years then) showing his thoughts on the subject. It makes for a fairly interesting read, but more importantly confirms exactly what Tarantino said: he hasn't changed what he thinks in the time he's been making film, and anyone who wants to know what he thinks can find out pretty easily without him having to say it yet again.

The only question that remains is whether you think Tarantino should have just answered the question, trotting out a similar response to what he's always said just because he was on camera. I say no, he shouldn't. If he had been invited to a debate on how violence in film influences real-life violence, then of course he should expect to be drawn on the issue. But this was an interview about his latest film which he happily spoke about, and not just in a overly simplistic "come and see my new movie!" kind of way, but by touching on some pretty heavy subject matter. Is it going to fit Tarantino's "commercial" to start talking about how violent films do or do not cause actual violence? Of course not. So he just chose not to even entertain Guru-Murthy's baiting whilst at the same time giving a perfectly satisfactory response.

But then there's also the issue of respect. It's something which The Guardian's Ryan Gilbey touches on in his article defending Tarantino's reaction: "The problem here was not the issue of violence itself, but the wearisome ploughing of the same furrow. You've got Quentin Tarantino sitting in front of you, one of the most stimulating interviewees in the world, and you ask him questions that he was unpicking 21 years ago when he promoted his debut Reservoir Dogs? Tarantino's indignant response was proportionate and refreshing."

It's a sentiment I agree with entirely, but it also goes further than respect. This is Quentin Tarantino. He makes Tarantino films, and Tarantino films are inherently violent. As Tarantino himself said when promoting one of his earlier films: "Sure, Kill Bill's a violent movie. But it's a Tarantino movie. You don't go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down." And as he stated in the interview with Guru-Murthy when asked why he makes violent films: "It's like asking Judd Apatow: 'Why do you like making comedies?'... I consider it good cinema." Ask any self-respecting director why they make the films they do and you'd hope to get the same response: they make the films they want to make, to tell the stories they want to tell in a way that they think is the best, most effective, or most artistic. Guru-Murthy's question is at best redundant; at worst, it's actually quite insulting to Tarantino and his library of work.

Whether you're a fan of Tarantino's films or not, considering the critical reaction the vast majority of his films have had I think it's pretty safe to say he's doing something right. Quentin Tarantino's is a glowing and highly-regarded career in cinema, something that not every director can say. He's earned his place in cinematic history, which gives him every right to "shut your butt down" when you ask him a question he doesn't want to answer, moreover a question he's already answered numerous times over the past twenty years.

Film Review | Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (2012)

You'd be hard pressed to name a film franchise that has managed to maintain a respectable level of quality over four installments. Sadly, Ice Age 4: Continental Drift manages to provide a spectacular example of just why this is.

After Scrat (Chris Wedge) accidentally causes the break-up of the continents, Manny (Ray Romano), Sid (John Leguizamo) and Diego (Denis Leary) are separated from the rest of their herd and set adrift over the sea on a block of ice. With Manny determined to reunite with Ellie (Queen Latifah) and their daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), the group cross paths with Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a piratical primate with a rag-tag crew sailing on their own shipshape iceberg.

Ice Age 4 has its moments, albeit ones that are sadly few and far between. The opening sequence showing how Scrat, in typical Tex Avery style, wreaks havoc with the earth's crust through his usual nut-burying activity is a genuine highlight. It's a shame then that Scrat's antics throughout the rest of the film are severely downplayed from previous installments and, for the first time in an Ice Age film, feel desperately uninspired and woefully tacked on. Scrat's interludes have been a highlight throughout all of the first three films, so to have to write so negatively about them here is a real disappointment.

The film also makes some potentially good choices. I was genuinely heartened when Manny, Sid and Diego were separated off from all the other characters they've picked up across the first two sequels, a band of three for the first time since the original film. Disappointingly, the chemistry and sharp scripting of the first film is never recreated, with the trio feeling like a tired shadow of what they once were.

From there, Ice Age 4 is largely a collection of irritating and underdeveloped characters and recycled ideas from not only previous Ice Age films but also other franchises. Jennifer Lopez's Shira is a flat and uninteresting love interest for Diego, with Leary and Lopez having no chemistry. Dinklage as Captain Gutt is fine but forgettable; it's hardly worth mentioning any of Gutt's crew members, too many in number as they are and each as one-dimensional as the next. Sid's Granny (Wanda Sykes) adds nothing, feeling like an excuse to plough the well-worn furrow of jokes about old people. Worst of all, however, are the street-talking teenage mammoths, voiced by the likes of Drake and Nicki Minaj, that Manny's daughter wants to "hang" with. Any time these characters are on screen is excruciating to the point of embarrassment, and left me wondering how the Ice Age franchise could possibly have slipped so far from its charming origins.

Ice Age 4 ends up as nothing more than a signifier that the franchise has gone one too many and needs to end before it tarnishes the reputation of the far superior previous installments. It's a film strung together with lazy writing and vacuous pop culture references that feel desperate rather than cool. It's even a struggle to praise the animation which actually feels less impressive than that seen in the second sequel. Watching Ice Age 4 as a fan of the franchise in general only made its glaring errors and sloppy execution all the more disappointing. The best that can be hoped for is that the inevitable fifth installment (with Ice Age 4's box office success) is an improvement on this.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Film Review | The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy has never been something that truly held my interest. Having seen all three I can say they're entertaining enough as a collection of films, reaching their high point during Spider-Man 2 before taking something of a nosedive in terms of quality with Spider-Man 3. But compared to other superheroes, Spidey just never resonated in the same way as others such as Batman or Superman. I was genuinely intrigued therefore when Marvel made the decision that, instead of developing a fourth installment of Raimi's franchise, they would reboot the franchise returning to the superhero's origins with an all new cast and director. A bold move considering Raimi's first film was less than ten years old at the time.

The film takes the story of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) right back to its beginnings. Having lived with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) since he was a young boy after his parents were killed in a plane crash, a teenage Peter attempts to track down Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who previously worked closely with his father. Whilst at Connors' research lab, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider which leads to him developing superhuman abilities.

Comparisons between this film and Raimi's efforts are inevitable, if not mandatory, so let's get them out of the way. In terms of casting, The Amazing Spider-Man feels superior, which is impressive considering the strength of many of the actors involved in Spider-Man and its sequels. Garfield brings a grittier quality to Peter Parker than we've seen on screen before, using the teenager's issues over his parents' absence and then death to develop the character into a compelling screen presence. Opposite Garfield is Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy, a relationship that feels more satisfying than that seen between Peter and Mary-Jane in Raimi's films. Stone does well to give Gwen some pleasing depth, never allowing the character to be a one-dimensional object of Spidey's affections, aided further by the script's wise avoidance of ever making her a hackneyed damsel in distress.

Elsewhere the casting is fine, but never outstanding. Ifans as Curt Connors does well, but never truly shines, and feels a little miscast when in his mutated form as the film's main antagonist The Lizard. Denis Leary does better as Gwen's father police captain George Stacy, although is never given quite opportunity to develop the character in a genuinely satisfying way. The film's strongest casting choices are those of Peter's Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Sheen is reliably strong as Ben, bringing welcome echoes of his defining role as President Bartlet from television series The West Wing to make Peter's uncle a caring yet formidable presence; it's almost a shame that Spidey's origin story dictates that Sheen's character be absent for a significant part of the story. Field as Aunt May is superb, bringing gravity and heart to a role which gives Garfield's Peter some necessary emotional anchorage.

Despite the relative success in The Amazing Spider-Man's casting, the film's script and story never come across with the same level of accomplishment. The plot never resonates with any genuine threat or mystery, and takes a while to get going - the seemingly eternal blight of superhero origin stories that few manage to avoid - making the two-and-a-quarter hour running time feel overlong and somewhat self-indulgent on the part of director Mark Webb. For a superhero film the action feels restrained; the final battle between Spider-Man and The Lizard is unimpressive, and aside from a tense rescue sequence on a bridge, Spidey's heroic exploits are quite forgettable. There are also a few notably sloppy scripting choices, with plot threads and characters introduced but never resolved, instead frustratingly forgotten about.

Perhaps The Amazing Spider-Man's biggest flaw, however, is that it just never feels different enough to what we've seen before. True, the darker aesthetic that Webb has gone for is often markedly different to the vibrant cartoon colours of Raimi's vision, but this never feels separate enough from what has gone before. It's perhaps a problem that was always going to be unavoidable when rebooting the franchise so soon after its original incarnation. There's a lot here that wouldn't fit into Raimi's trilogy, but also a considerable amount that quite comfortably would. With Marvel establishing their own Cinematic Universe over the past five years, the studio was perhaps left with something of a quandary in rebooting the Spider-Man franchise. What we're left with is a new beginning for Spider-Man that's in many ways pleasing and enjoyable, but ultimately underwhelming and that feels like it was created out of necessity rather than artistic desire. It's perhaps a cheap shot, but The Amazing Spider-Man never lives up to the adjective used within its title.


Friday, 4 January 2013

Film Review | Death Proof (2007)

Quentin Tarantino's films have always had at least one foot in homage territory, paying tribute to the cinema that the self-confessed movie geek director loves and was raised on. Jackie Brown is, stylistically at least, a fairly straight homage to 1970s blaxploitation films; Kill Bill across both of its volumes demonstrates Tarantino's passion for old school kung fu flicks and spaghetti westerns. Death Proof was, and still is, arguably the director's most overt tribute to a specific subset of cinema, being as it was originally released (in a significantly shorter cut) alongside Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror as a "double feature" entitled Grindhouse. Both Rodriguez's and Tarantino's films echoed the raw exploitation films screened in grindhouse cinemas in their style and genre, with both directors going the extra mile to make their films look authentically aged and roughly cut. But Death Proof is not only an homage to grindhouse movies, but also an homage to Tarantino as auteur. A chance for the director to enjoy all of his favourite cinematic tropes and give a nod to his own legacy: a meta-Tarantino film if you will.

The film follows Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), an aging stunt driver who stalks young women before executing them using his "death proof" stunt car. However, Mike gets more than he bargains for when he targets a group of ladies working on a film, including stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself).

Death Proof feels distinctly like a film of two halves, with the first hour focusing upon Stuntman Mike's pursuit of three women in Texas - Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and "Jungle" Julia (Sydney Poitier) - and the second set fourteen months later in Tennessee, with Mike stalking the girls from the film industry: Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), later joined by Zoe Bell visiting the other three from her native New Zealand. Stylistically, both halves feel different with the added aging effect, intentionally jarring cuts and missing scenes used a lot more in the first half of the film. Whilst a little distracting at first, these soon become part of the film's charm, and I found myself missing this added element when Tarantino chooses to tone it down a lot for the second hour.

This is arguably Tarantino's most self-indulgent film, with the references - some subtle, some glaring - to his own past films to be found throughout. Tarantino aficionados will relish spotting as many of the director's hallmarks as they can throughout the film's running time. Some of these work brilliantly, such as the ingenious references to in-car conversation scenes from both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the opening sequence; others, such as Abernathy's choice of mobile phone ringtone, feel a little too blunt to be considered genuinely clever.

The biggest difference between the two halves of the film is one of quality: the first hour of Death Proof is superior to the second in terms of writing and performances. The first hour features Tarantino's supercool dialogue most reminiscent of that heard in Jackie Brown - not endlessly quotable but consistently captivating and with an expert balance between the menacing and the retro. The cinematography is vibrant in its throwback nature and gives the film a unique quality. Kurt Russell is the perfect choice for Stuntman Mike, introduced as an alluring yet threatening presence and put across superbly by the veteran actor. The young actresses here put in strong performances, with Ferlito and Poitier deserving specific mention for particularly memorable turns.

In comparison, the film's second half feels less successful. Russell's character, whilst still central, has much less dialogue here, reducing the impact the actor is able to have. The second female collective are much less compelling than the first, with the dialogue less inspired and the performances less convincing. Bell in particular feels out of her depth, her lack of acting experience coming through at several points. The car chase sequences in the finale are incredibly impressive with a hard-edged authenticity and palpable danger very rarely seen in modern cinema, but overall it feels as though Tarantino poured a lot more artistic flair into the first hour of the film than the second.

Death Proof therefore evens out as an average of its outstanding first half and enjoyable, but underwhelming, second half. This is Tarantino indulging his own cinematic whims without aiming to produce a film that's also an event. It may be the director's most uneven work, but even without firing on all cylinders Tarantino manages to create something truly individual, memorable and wildly entertaining.


Thursday, 3 January 2013

Film Review | Bad Teacher (2011)

Bad Teacher, a bit like Horrible Bosses, is one of those "Ronseal" films (in that it does exactly what it says on the tin) that should just fall into place as a relatively decent piece of throwaway entertainment. But whilst Horrible Bosses is a prime example of how not to get it right, Bad Teacher, although far from perfect, manages it somewhat better.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, the titular teacher who is forced to return to her job at a middle school after being dumped by her wealthy fiancé. She soon sets her sights on supply teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) as well as doing anything she can get away with to save money for the breast enhancement surgery she is longing for.

If you're looking for a moralistic tale, Bad Teacher isn't it. This is not a film where everyone who deserves it gets their comeuppance (although some do), nor is it a film that pulls any punches in terms of taste. It probably gets away with this about as often as it goes too far, resulting in a patchy mix that makes you laugh one minute and cringe the next.

Diaz seems to ease into the role as the film wears on, starting off somewhat unconvincingly but providing some genuine laughs once she hits her stride. Timberlake is fine in an unchallenging role, and Jason Segel as P.E. teacher Russell Gettis is likeable enough whilst providing a few entertaining moments throughout. Arguably the strongest performance here comes from Lucy Punch as painfully chirpy and enthusiastic teacher Amy Squirrel, who provides a terrific nemesis for Diaz's Elizabeth.

The film doesn't concern itself with much of a plot, instead moving relatively disparately from one set of circumstances to the next. This allows for some humorous scenarios and a handful of genuinely funny scenes in isolation, but means the film as a whole feels lacking in structure. Bad Teacher ultimately ends up as a hit-and-miss piece of bubblegum cinema that's enjoyable enough but never attempts to deliver anything memorable or of substance. Which is probably exactly what the filmmaker's were aiming for.


Film Review | Men In Black 3 (2012)

I'm a big fan of Men In Black, and whilst it's not a patch on the original, I've never hated Men In Black 2 quite as much as most others seemed to. It was a sequel with some very good ideas (and a few incredibly bad ones - I'm looking at you here Frank The Pug), but nothing to tie them together leaving the whole thing lacking focus, direction or care. Essentially there was no real reason for Men In Black 2 to be made other than to make money off the success of the first film, and it really showed through the finished product. Ten years on, and everyone involved in the franchise had nothing to lose in making Men In Black 3. They weren't capitalising on the success of a recent franchise, nor were they committed to complete a trilogy story arc. Men In Black 3 had a new freedom to be whatever film it wanted to be within an established universe. Just as the lack of care was evident throughout Men In Black 2, so the intention, craft and heart involved in making Men In Black 3 is equally as clear.

Men In Black 3 sees alien criminal Boris The Animal (Jermaine Clement) escape from a prison on the Moon to exact revenge on the man who put him there, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Boris' plan involves travelling back through time to murder K before he can imprison him, which leads to K's partner J (Will Smith) following him through time to 1969 in order to stop Boris and prevent the catastrophic effects K's death in the past will have on the present.

From the start, the film knows how to play to its strengths, not least the cast. There is of course the welcome return of the pairing of Smith and Jones, falling back into their slick and entertaining double act as soon as they appear on screen. However, the opportunity for banter between the two is reduced significantly from the first two films with Jones' reduced screen time, an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of the nature of the plot. Thankfully it also leads to the strongest piece of new casting in the film, namely Josh Brolin as the younger version of K that J teams up with in 1969. Brolin's performance is a hybrid of a classic stereotypical agency stiff and an impressively accurate Tommy Lee Jones impersonation, resulting in a strong and charismatic turn from the actor. The partnership of Smith and Brolin never reaches the heights of Smith and Jones, but the two have palpable chemistry and prove an enjoyable pairing throughout.

There is strength in the cast elsewhere, with Clement putting in an impressive performance under a huge amount of prosthetics and CGI as villain Boris; he never quite reaches the exquisite creepiness of Vincent D'Onofrio's Edgar from the first film, but Boris poses a palpable threat whilst being more than suitably repulsive. Emma Watson is fine as Agent O, replacing Rip Torn's Agent Z from the first two films as Head of MIB, but is given frustratingly little to do. Michael Stuhlbarg as alien Griffin also does well, bringing an ethereal quality to the character whilst never becoming annoying.

There are some sound action sequences throughout, although all but the finale feel a little brief and unspectacular leaving you wanting something more. However, it's clear from the start that Men In Black 3 isn't interested in rehashing the action-based ideas from the first two films; this is a film primarily concerned with emotion. The true payoff doesn't come until very late on in proceedings, but when it does it's easily one of the most touching moments to come out of a sci-fi film in recent years.

Whilst it never manages to reach the heights of the original, Men In Black 3 is consistently superior to the first sequel to the point that comparison isn't even worthwhile. It's a film that stands as an enjoyable and well-made blockbuster on its own, whilst at the same time doing things with the franchise that very few people ever expected it to, not least adding a welcome and heartwarming new dimension to the well-established duo of Agents J and K.


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Film Review | Horrible Bosses (2011)

Horrible Bosses should more accurately be renamed "Horrible Bosses And Their Equally Horrible Employees". In fact, if we're going for a new title, it'd be much more effective to reduce the amount of words by half and call the film what it actually is: horrible.

Horrible Bosses follows the lives of Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) who all despise their bosses for different reasons. When conversation turns to whether or not they would kill their bosses if they could do it without any ramifications, the subject quickly transforms from hypothesis to a real life murder plan.

The sole redeeming feature of Horrible Bosses is the bosses themselves, with three game and talented actors in the roles. I'm not a big fan of Kevin Spacey, who plays Nick's boss David Harken, but he can turn out an entertaining performance as a psychotic business executive in his sleep - Spacey isn't challenged throughout, but his performance is satisfactorily enjoyable nonetheless. Colin Farrell, playing Kurt's boss Bobby Pellitt, shows a slick comedic streak not seen often enough with a turn rivalling Tom Cruise's Les Grossman from Tropic Thunder in both energy and prosthetics. It's a shame that Farrell is given far too little to do, leaving his character feeling disappointingly underdeveloped. Least successful of the three is Dr. Julia Harris, Dale's boss played by Jennifer Aniston, not due to Aniston's performance - which again shows a comedic talent the actress should employ much more often than the bland rom-com schtick she usually trots out - but thanks simply to some of the truly awful scenes the character is placed in.

Which brings us to the three employees, who form the rancid foundation upon which the film's ideas are woefully constructed. We are first introduced to Nick, who tells us that his path to success is through, and I quote, "taking shit" from other people. Nick is set up as a spineless, whining doormat of a man, and this continues throughout the film. Bateman is an actor whose work I've enjoyed in the past, but here he's consistently annoying. Nick, however, is the most likeable of the central trio.

Kurt is initially introduced as a relatable everyman, but this is quickly dissipated through the character's arrogance and misogyny which gets worse as the film wears on. We are led to believe that Kurt was initially in line to take over the reins of his company as a hardworking and well-liked senior employee. By the end of the film, you'll feel sorry for anyone who has to work with him. The fact that Kurt also seems unable to stop himself from sleeping with anything in a skirt also severely undermines one of the major reasons Dale has a problem with Julia: sexual harassment. At best, this can be chalked up to sloppy writing; at worst, it makes the film distastefully sexist.

Speaking of Dale, he is by far the most irritating of the three. Dale tells us through voiceover at the start of the film that all he's wanted to be since he was a boy is a husband, something entirely at odds with the character we see throughout the vast majority of the film: a grating man-child who doesn't even mention his wife past the first act. Charlie Day is not an actor I've seen a lot of, but based on his performance here I'll do my best to avoid anything involving him in the future.

With a group of lead characters as vile as these, Horrible Bosses limps on from the very start without much hope. The plot is muddled, with two of the bosses shoved to the sidelines for the second half of proceedings for no reason other than the script's inability to support all the characters introduced. Whilst the humour is clearly intended to be black, the film wholly fails to satirise anything and, whilst it raised a smile here and there, I failed to laugh at any point. In the end, Horrible Bosses scores a point each for the performances from Spacey, Farrell and Aniston, but other than that there is very little here to like.


Film Review | Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (2011)

In 2009's Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie delivered a flawed but enjoyable new take on one of British literature's most loved characters. Whilst the film was far from perfect, it felt like a solid platform upon which to launch future installments in a new franchise where the faults could be remedied and the successful elements - not least the central performance from Robert Downey Jr. - could be capitalised upon. Unfortunately, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows almost comprehensively fails to do that.

The film catches up with Holmes (Downey Jr.) investigating links between a series of crimes across Europe and Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) following the tip he received from Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) at the end of the first film. Watson (Jude Law) meanwhile is preparing to marry his fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly), but soon becomes embroiled in Holmes and Moriarty's game of cat and mouse.

Downey Jr. as Holmes again delivers the strongest performance here, slipping comfortably back into the mannerisms and personality he successfully established in Sherlock Holmes. It's unfortunate that Holmes this time is regularly written as self-parodical of the character Downey Jr. created, adopting a series of ridiculous and entirely unconvincing disguises throughout the film and transforming the character from manic genius to harebrained clown. Law too falls back into the character of Watson comfortably, but suffers from sharing less screen time with Holmes than in the first film and feeling like a half-hearted straight man to Holmes' fool when he does.

Elsewhere, the casting is a mixed bag. The biggest improvement from the first film is the reduction of McAdams' role as Irene Adler to not much more than a cameo. Noomi Rapace replaces McAdams as the film's main female character, and is much stronger than her predecessor at the points when she is given something to do. Jared Harris as Moriarty does well enough, but feels somewhat forgettable considering he is playing Holmes' archenemy. Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older brother, is sure to raise a smile in his first scene despite the fact that he is essentially playing the character as himself; the appeal is short-lived however as it's clear the plot has nothing of worth for Fry's character to do, epitomised in a scene between Mycroft and Mary which Fry inexplicably delivers naked. Pointless and unfunny.

The action scenes that irked in the first film are more overblown here to the point of overindulgence. Each sequence essentially comes across as an excuse for Ritchie to include bigger and more powerful guns than were seen in the last point of action. The excessive use of slow motion, particularly in one scene towards the end of the second act, is also distracting and just serves to make the film come across as lacking in craft or depth.

Whilst the story here is arguably stronger than that seen in the first film, the cinematic execution of A Game Of Shadows makes it considerably less enjoyable than Sherlock Holmes. Despite setting up several elements with which he could run and make a sequel superior to the original, Ritchie instead squanders most of the potential held and creates a film which is sometimes no better than the first, but more often inferior. The biggest failing of A Game Of Shadows, however, is that it manages to take a literary character known for his ingenious intellect and churn out a film which regularly feels really quite brainless.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Film Review | Sherlock Holmes (2009)

The first ten years of the 21st Century will almost certainly be seen in cinema as the decade of the reboot. I've written at length about the importance of hitting the reset button for both the Batman and James Bond franchises, but Arthur Conan Doyle's consulting detective was a less obvious and, perhaps, less urgent candidate for rebooting. Add in the fact that the man behind the reboot is Guy Ritchie, a director known for British gangster flicks rather than adaptations of Victorian literature, and all of a sudden 2009's Sherlock Holmes becomes a more intriguing and unpredictable creature.

Ritchie's film sees the titular detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his friend and partner Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) assist the police in arresting Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) for a series of murders. However, when Blackwood appears to have risen from the grave after being hanged for his crimes, Holmes and Watson's  investigations take a more sinister and supernatural turn.

It's clear from the very start that Ritchie's vision for his version of Conan Doyle's detective is quite far removed from the deerstalker wearing gent of past incarnations. Downey Jr. makes his Holmes an alluring and unconventional take on the character; whilst it never feels as though he quite fits the role as perfectly as he does Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his performance in the role is compelling and strong throughout. Law also does well as Watson, again going against the stereotypical depiction of the character and instead playing things much closer to Conan Doyle's source material, focusing on Watson's status as a war veteran to generate the character's temperament and physicality. Whilst his turn is pleasing, Law is most entertaining when sharing the screen with Downey Jr., which thankfully for him takes in the vast majority of his scenes.

Elsewhere the casting is less successful. Rachel McAdams as Holmes' shady love interest Irene Adler never convinces, having neither the chemistry with Downey Jr. nor the presence on screen to make her character entertaining, mysterious or, at some points, necessary. Mark Strong is fine, but never receives enough screen time to make Lord Blackwood anything more than a scowling villain. Eddie Marsan also does well as Inspector Lestrade, but again the character just receives too little development to give the actor a chance to genuinely impress.

The film's plot, not taken directly from any of Conan Doyle's stories but instead inspired by elements from several of his works, engages well enough throughout, but suffers from a final act that can't quite live up to the mystery generated before it and a climax that underwhelms. The action elements throughout the film also jar too much with the detective story into which they have been placed. An underground bareknuckle fight Holmes takes part in early on in the film works well, revealing elements of the detective's character cleverly and enjoyably. Other sequences that see Holmes and Watson brawling with various baddies through Victorian London are uninspired, adding nothing to the story and feeling as though they are only there because director Ritchie doesn't know how else to link his film together.

Sherlock Holmes ends up, at least in part, as a wasted opportunity. There are several elements here that reboot the character and universe of Holmes incredibly well, led by a robust and compelling performance from Downey Jr. But there are also too many areas in which the film falls short or misfires to judge it as a true success. What we're left with is a good film that entertains well enough, but also feels as though it doesn't do enough with the ideas it has and the rich literary source material from which it takes inspiration.  But there's enough here to launch the franchise, with future installments having the potential to remedy the less successful elements and create something genuinely pleasing.