Sunday, 24 February 2013

Film Review | A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)

There aren't many film franchises that go beyond three installments without the quality deteriorating significantly. After the first two sequels, things usually go downhill pretty quickly if they haven't already. Good fifth installments are even rarer. In fact, as I write this, I can't actually think of any film series that has managed a worthwhile fifth film. Sadly, A Good Day To Die Hard won't make answering that question any easier.

The Die Hard franchise is regularly held up as one of the strongest and most influential in the action genre, with the first film widely regarded as one of the most important action films ever made. Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard With A Vengeance both have their detractors, but are generally considered worthwhile continuations from the original. Die Hard 4.0 divided opinion further. By far the most throwaway of the series at that point, some enjoyed the high-octane thrills it provided whilst others derided the film for tarnishing the respectable Die Hard name. Which brings us to A Good Day To Die Hard, a film which not only feels like the greatest departure from what the Die Hard films have always been about, but which is also just really quite bad.

Bruce Willis as John McClane for the first time in the franchise actually comes across as bored in the role, and no wonder. Aside from a few semi-decent action set pieces scattered throughout, Willis is given very little of interest to do, and certainly nothing that feels particularly like McClane. The script gives Willis very little of the sharp-tongued humour seen in previous Die Hards, instead having him yell "I'm on vacation!" at regular intervals. Not only does this not make sense - McClane is in Russia to track down and bring home his son Jack (Jai Courtney), which at no point is ever put across as a "vacation" - but it's also a pitifully poor substitute for McClane's usual quick wit and smashmouth utterances of "yippee ki-yay motherfucker!" (mumbled halfheartedly at one point by Willis, and cut short again as it was in Die Hard 4.0 to help secure the film's 12A certificate).

Not that McClane has a great deal to crack wise about. A Good Day To Die Hard is a stiff and humourless affair from the start, taking itself way too seriously and missing almost every opportunity to lighten the mood. The relationship between John and son Jack is for a large part of the film genuinely hostile. The insults traded between them come across not as banter, but as acrimonious and really quite uncomfortable, akin to seeing a couple arguing in a supermarket. When father and son do inevitably end up on the same page, the previous sourness coupled with the lack of chemistry between Willis and Courtney means the relationship never rings true.

This is by far the shortest of all the Die Hard films by around half an hour, but it's certainly the most tiresome to get through. The plot is unnecessarily complex from the start, tying itself in more and more knots as things progress to the point of becoming nonsensical, contradicting earlier happenings through badly thought out twists. This is also the first time a Die Hard film has lacked a clearly defined central antagonist; what could potentially be seen as a bold decision actually turns out to be poorly considered meddling with the Die Hard formula that just goes further in making the whole thing feel carelessly and disparately constructed.

A Good Day To Die Hard therefore gives you very little to like about it. There are some good action sequences, but even these feel CGI-heavy and don't really offer anything that hasn't been seen before. There are also two or three moments which feel as though they're trying desperately to link what we're watching to the franchise's legacy, but these are too few and far between to impact on the film as a whole. In the end, A Good Day To Die Hard suggests that the time has come for Bruce to hang up the dirty white vest for good. That said, talk of rounding the Die Hard series off with a final entry in a second trilogy has already surfaced. Should that end up being the case, the best that can be hoped for is that number six will be a considerable improvement on number five, allowing John McClane to go out with some dignity and not as a shadow of how he started.


Film Review | Death At A Funeral (2010)

Remaking a film is never a straightforward business. Changing things too much can provoke a backlash from audiences, especially if the film you're remaking is much-loved. By the same token, produce a shot-for-shot remake and people simply start asking what the point is. But every so often, a remake comes along that gets it just right, with a few key examples where the remade version ends up more highly regarded than the original. And then there are films like 2010's remake of Death At A Funeral, which changes just enough to feel worthwhile whilst at the same time feeling decidedly safe, and ends up about as successful overall as the original.

Not put off by the universal trashing of his last attempt at a remake in 2006's The Wicker Man, Neil LaBute's Hollywood version of Death At A Funeral came only three years after the British-made original. LaBute's version stays largely faithful to Dean Craig's script, with only a few minor plot points changed which ultimately make very little difference to the story being told. The film therefore shares a lot of the successes and shortcomings of Frank Oz's 2007 film.

The cast here are largely as successful as that seen in the original, with LaBute assembling mostly black actors for his film. A smart move that substitutes well the parochial nature of leafy middle class England for an equally close-knit community in the United States. One or two members of the cast are noticeably inferior to their 2007 counterparts however: James Marsden tries hard, but never manages the same level of lunacy as seen in Alan Tudyk's performance; so too for Loretta Devine in the relatively minor role of grieving widow Cynthia, who can't quite match up to Jane Asher in the original. That said, there are also some superior casting decisions that redress the balance, most notably Danny Glover as the perpetually grumpy Uncle Russell. Casting Peter Dinklage once again in his role from the first film is also a smart move.

By transferring the setting to the United States LaBute does lose some of the humour derived from the prim and proper nature of the British original, and there are a handful of elements which worked before but here feel considerably less successful. But, almost as a trade off, the majority of the cast feel a lot more relaxed here. Oz's original often felt like a theatrical performance being filmed, whereas LaBute's film comes across as a lot more natural.

In the end, there's not a lot between the two versions of Death At A Funeral. LaBute's remake shares the majority of the hits and misses seen in the original due in no small part to Craig's script; there are also things that LaBute gets right that Oz got wrong, and vice versa. In the end, this is just as worth watching as the 2007 version, but if you're looking for a film which remedies the failings of the original then this is likely to disappoint.


Saturday, 23 February 2013

Film Review | We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Alan Partridge. Probably not the first thing you expected to read in a review of a film neither featuring nor involving Steve Coogan in any way, but it's where I'm going to start. You see, the "autobiography" of Coogan's fictional TV and radio personality was released in late 2011. The title of the book: I, Partridge. Still no connection, but stay with me. Its subtitle is We Need To Talk About Alan. And herein lies my point.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, both Lynne Ramsay's film and the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver upon which it is based, has a title that has become more notorious than the works it stands for. A lot of people who have neither read the book nor seen the film will have heard the title or at least a sentence derived from it (such as that linked to the aforementioned Partridge-flavoured tome). Shriver's book certainly caught public attention too at the time of its release through its potentially shocking subject matter.

All of which leaves Ramsay's 2011 film adaptation in a curious, and not altogether desirable, situation. It's now very difficult to watch We Need To Talk About Kevin without knowing at least a little about its story. A shame, because to know a little is to be able to work out a lot. The clues mount up as to where the film is leading us for its climax; whilst I unfortunately had a rudimentary knowledge of why Kevin is someone needing to be talked about, meaning I could link things together somewhat quicker than maybe I was meant to, I couldn't help but feel that some of the puzzle pieces were a little too unsubtle to the point that even someone who had no idea how things were likely to end up would be able to join the dots a bit too easily.

Ramsay is also heavy-handed when it comes to symbolism. Red is a colour which follows Eva (Tilda Swinton), mother of the titular teenager (Ezra Miller), throughout the film, linking to all the obvious connotations from anger and violence to love and passion. But again there's no subtlety to Ramsay's touch. Eva's house and car is slathered with crimson paint in an early scene, and it's almost as though Ramsay has adopted the same method in leaving great dollops of red throughout her film.

Elsewhere, the director is much more successful. Ramsay's choices of cinematography and editing blend tropes of crime drama, psychological thriller and subtle horror in a very pleasing manner. The non-linear structure is controlled and delivered skilfully, adding intrigue to the story and building both Eva and Kevin's characters in an unusual but largely satisfying way.

The performances from the central two are also key to much of the film's success, with Miller crafting a chillingly unpredictable adolescent from the haunting Damien Thorn-esque performance of Jasper Newell playing the prepubescent Kevin. This is Swinton's film however, expertly putting across Eva's transformation from carefree twenty-something through paranoid and unnatural mother to an emotional shell of a woman struggling to put her life back together. It's a shame that John C. Reilly can't manage the same success as husband and father Franklin. It really isn't any fault of Reilly's, as his performance is fine enough; his very presence in the role is just too much of a distraction throughout and constantly feels like a truly bizarre piece of casting. There are any number of excellent actors who could easily have taken the part and not seemed so at odds with the film around them.

What we end up with is a good film with plenty of areas of strength that also misses a few too many steps, which holds it back from being great. It's a shame, because those areas in which the film succeeds - Swinton's performance in particular - are genuinely excellent. But they can never be fully appreciated due to those areas where Ramsay misses the mark, meaning We Need To Talk About Kevin will unfortunately most likely be remembered for its title more than anything else.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Film Review | Death At A Funeral (2007)

Death At A Funeral has all the set-up for a tight and entertaining farcical British comedy. It's a shame then that, whilst certainly enjoyable, it never fully realises that potential.

The film gets plenty of things right. The performances from the cast are on the whole solid, if not particularly memorable; only Kris Marshall stands out as particularly weak playing yet again the same character as he has been since he first came to public attention in TV sitcom My Family. There's also plenty of classic farce scenarios played out with the backdrop of a funeral adding a pleasing blackly comic element.

It seems surprising then that one of the key criticisms of the film is that it doesn't quite take things far enough. Time and again the film sets itself up for a perfect skin-crawling farcical scenario, then holds back from going all out in the comedy stakes. It's almost as though director Frank Oz wants his comedy to be edgy, but not push the envelope of edginess. Playing it safe in terms of tastefulness when you've set your comedy film at a funeral feels entirely perverse, only serving to place your film much closer to the middle of the road. Things pick up somewhat during the final act, but it's a little too late in the day to make a real difference.

Dean Craig's script also unfortunately makes some pretty basic mistakes in terms of how it exploits both characters and situations for humour. Craig erroneously believes that nudity, defecation, people on drugs, and English people with middle class accents swearing are all funny. Whilst each of these elements get an initial chortle, unless you develop the jokes and do something with them, other than just showing them to the audience again and again, they soon become quite tired.

All in all, Death At A Funeral comes across more like an extended episode of a sitcom than a feature film. It's enjoyable enough with the cast being its strongest feature, but never does anything original or daring enough to truly stand out. Worth a watch, but unlikely to stick in your mind much past the credits.


Film Review | Wreck-It Ralph (2013)

Walt Disney Animation Studios has had a chequered recent history. With the "Renaissance" of the 1990s well behind them, and 2009's The Princess And The Frog marking the end of their traditionally animated big screen output for the foreseeable future at least, the studio has focused solely on refining their computer-animated movies. After lacklustre beginnings at the turn of the century, more recent offerings such as 2008's Bolt and Tangled in 2010 - whilst never reaching the heights of computer-animated master craftsmen Pixar - have felt decidedly more successful in both scripting and animation. And whilst Wreck-It Ralph also falls short of Pixar's incredibly high benchmark, it's the closest Disney (or arguably any other studio) have come to reaching it.

Previous non-Pixar CGI films have fallen short in at least one area: sometimes the animation isn't up to scratch, although this is becoming less and less of an issue as technology continues to progress; much more often it's the writing or direction that simply don't cut it. Thankfully, Wreck-It Ralph doesn't fall significantly short in any of these areas. The world that Ralph and his fellow video game characters inhabit is crafted beautifully through Disney's finest computer animation yet. It's also one of the most original ideas from the studio in a long time, with echoes of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. in the way Ralph's universe is realized and presented to us. The realm of the arcade has a warmth and tangibility that many computer-animated efforts fail to achieve.

The script is for the most part shot through with both humour and heart, although the dialogue doesn't zing with wit quite as often as you'd like; a few juvenile jokes clearly aimed squarely at the kids in the audience will more likely induce tutting and eye-rolling from mums and dads. The story has a pleasing complexity to it, developing from a deceptively simplistic opening concept to bring together several threads pleasingly during the film's climax. Ralph is impossible not to warm to immediately with John C. Reilly's understated vocal performance fitting the big friendly juggernaut's personality superbly. His character arc, despite dealing with well-worn moral lessons, has satisfying notes of subtlety throughout. Sarah Silverman's Vanellope initially threatens to grate and at times feels a little too one-note, but once she finds her groove with the character the results are pleasing. The supporting turns from Jack McBrayer as Fix-It Felix Jr. and Jane Lynch as Sergeant Calhoun are strong with both developing characters of depth and humour as well as sharing marvellous chemistry in the film's best subplot.

Wreck-It Ralph's main flaw is that it sets itself up with more than it's able to deliver, even in the two hour running time the film has. After introducing us to a host of characters and settings, the bulk of the film's plot takes place within the realm of video game "Sugar Rush". Whilst this works in terms of the story being told, as well as allowing for regular moments of sharp sweet-based observational humour, it would have been nice to explore more of the places where the film only affords us a relatively brief time. The references to retro video games also feel underutilized beyond the film's first act, where they are genuinely charming. After seeing many a familiar face from classics of arcade and console, it's a shame that these aren't worked into the plot more throughout the film's entire running time.

Wreck-It Ralph ends up as the finest output of Walt Disney Animation Studios yet, surpassing more recent Pixar efforts but not quite matching their finest. With other rival animation studios seeming increasingly happy to churn out middle-of-the-road movies and lazily squeeze every last penny out of their franchises, Disney deserve high praise for creating a film of such ingenuity and quality. The gap between their Pixar and non-Pixar efforts is shrinking; if Disney's films continue to improve in quality the way they have been over the past five years, the studio could very soon have the market cornered and once again rightfully claim themselves as absolute top dog in animation.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Film Review | Taken (2008)

One my favourite ironic pieces of film trivia (and if you don't have favourite ironic pieces of film trivia, then you clearly lead a much fuller life than I do) is that, in 1994, Liam Neeson turned down the chance to succeed Timothy Dalton as James Bond. The producers were obviously keen on a celtic Bond (or should that be "Double O'Seven"...?) as fellow Irishman Pierce Brosnan eventually took over the role from Dalton. But the ironic part is the reason Neeson gave for declining the role: he wasn't interested in starring in action films. I wonder whether if Neeson had known then that, less than twenty years later, his filmography would include such Hollywood action fare as Unknown,  Battleship and, perhaps most famously of all, Taken, he would have so readily walked away from being Bond.

Neeson has arguably done his acting career back to front. In his thirties and forties he made his name in dramatic roles often steeped in history; now that he's just turned sixty, he's more well known for playing one-dimensional action men in roles he once shunned. The action hero is stereotypically a young man for obvious reasons of agility, looks, and not having to stop every twenty minutes to go to the toilet. That said, Neeson does fairly well in Taken, with only a few scenes in which you feel he looks to old to be doing the things he's doing, or that the bad guys look like they'd actually be able to run rings around our hero.

The baddies themselves are generally taken from the seemingly endless stock reserved for middle-of-the-road action films; neither impressive enough nor awful enough to be truly memorable. Writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen seemingly fall back on stereotypes with wanton abandon when it comes to their antagonists. Basically, if you're not American, you're evil, and that's all we need to know. In fact, this lack of depth can be seen across the cast: watch Famke Janssen's Lenore stubbornly contradict and undercut everything Neeson's Bryan says in the opening act simply because she's his ex-wife, and teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) being painfully naïve about pretty much everything in order for her to get into a situation where estranged father Bryan has to rescue her whilst rebuilding their fractured relationship.

And yet, despite its faults and woeful first act, once things focused on the action and Neeson beating people up, I actually found myself enjoying Taken for what it is. There's imagination in the methods Bryan uses to track down his daughter, and whilst he's no Jason Bourne there's more going on upstairs that in many meatheads of movies past. Occasionally the film overstretches itself in what it attempts, but in terms of offering relatively hard-hitting action with little-to-no brain activity required, you could do worse than Taken. Considering the gritty direction the Bond franchise has been following since Daniel Craig donned the tux, if nothing else it makes you wonder what style of 007 Neeson might have brought to the screen.


Monday, 11 February 2013

TV Review | Black Mirror, Series 1 (2011)

With the second series of Black Mirror due to start tonight on Channel 4 in the UK, along with the news that Iron Sherlock himself Robert Downey Jr. has bought the movie rights to the episode The Entire History Of You, now seems like the perfect time to revisit the original 2011 trilogy of episodes (of course, I couldn't know that RDJ would secure the rights to an episode today, but the timing was too perfect not to mention it here). Black Mirror is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, known to some as that angry bloke who moans about stuff in The Guardian, and to others as that angry bloke who moans about stuff on BBC3. And whilst a bile-fuelled tirade from Brooker is entertaining, it's in his perceptive and satirical scripts that Brooker shows his most exquisite talent. Nowhere has this been more apparent yet than in Black Mirror.

Brooker himself has stated that "the 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone." However, the title is open to multiple interpretations, with an almost certainly intentional ambiguity. What each of the three episodes, connected through neither narrative, character nor universe, sets out to do is reflect the very worst that humanity can be, or could very easily become. The series holds a mirror up to us as inhabitants of the 21st Century and shocks us, even shows us something we dislike, but at the same time grips us and draws us in because so much of what we see is uncannily, uncomfortably familiar.

The series opens with an episode cryptically titled The National Anthem, focusing on the kidnap of Princess Susannah, a young and popular member of the royal family, and her kidnapper's demand for her safe release: the prime minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) must have sexual intercourse with a pig live on TV. It's arguably the series' most unsubtle concept, but what unfolds following the "in media res" opening is one of the most tightly scripted and performed political dramas seen in recent times. With echoes of the likes of The Thick Of It and The West Wing, the entire scenario is played out with palpable tension and a genuine "race against time" feel, and the ending is truly haunting in its moral. The performance from the entire cast led superbly by Kinnear as PM is comprehensively highly polished, giving the series an incredibly strong opening.

We move from the parallel yet unsettlingly familiar world of the first episode to a dystopian future with some disturbingly recognisable echoes in episode two, Fifteen Million Merits. This is the story of Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), a resident of a facility where everyone must pedal every day on exercise bikes to power their surroundings and earn "merits", a virtual currency. When Bing meets new resident Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) and hears her sing, he offers to buy her a ticket to enter "Hot Shots", a talent show in the X Factor mould - an action which doesn't have the positive outcome Bing hoped for. Once again, the performances from the main cast is excellent, making Brooker's plastic-not-so-fantastic future all the more tangible. Aesthetically, the second episode is quite a departure for the first, but the satirical edge is just as sharp. Brooker's perceptive referencing of everything from internet pop-ups to Nintendo Wii avatars is sublime. His ghoulish extrapolation of TV talent shows into a Hobson's choice from hell - complete with an unsettling trio of judges in Ashley Thomas, Julia Davis and a deliciously dark turn from Rupert Everett - is constantly both entertaining and really quite frightening.

And so we move to the final episode, The Entire History Of You. Caught somewhere between the unsettling quasi-present of the first episode and the artificial Abaddon of the second, we find ourselves in a world where almost everyone is implanted with a "grain", a tiny device implanted behind the ear which records every moment of a person's life and allowing them to replay past memories, known as "re-dos". Liam (Toby Kebbell) is a young lawyer who becomes increasingly suspicious and paranoid of his wife Ffion's (Jodie Whittaker) fidelity, in particular fixating on her relationship with her friend Jonas (Tom Cullen) and obsessing more and more over "re-dos" of the two together. This is probably the most subtle of the three episodes in its approach, with many scenes feeling as though they could quite easily be set in contemporary Britain if it weren't for the characters' ability to "re-do" either within their own minds or on TV screens. It's also the only episode not written by Brooker himself, instead penned by Peep Show writer Jesse Armstrong. The satire here takes a backseat to human relationships, with the central pairing of Kebbell and Whittaker delivering two of the strongest performances of the whole series.

It's tricky to rank the three episodes from most to least successful, partly due to the high quality of all three, but also because, despite being part of the same series, each episode feels like a distinct story in its own right. If pressed, I would probably say that I enjoyed The National Anthem the most, with The Entire History Of You feeling least successful if only because it would have been fascinating to see how the world presented affected more than just one couple and a few of their friends and acquaintances. That's almost certainly the opportunity Downey Jr. has seen in obtaining the rights to that particular episode.

Black Mirror ultimately deserves to be judged as a whole. Simply put, this is one of the bravest, most original and expertly crafted TV series of recent times. Brooker pulls no punches in his message and his ambition, forcing you to sit up and take notice of his warts-and-all view of the world. The assembled cast is comprehensively excellent, with a number of genuinely memorable standout performances from key players across all three episodes. The first series of Black Mirror will stay with you long after the credits of each installment fade out, and it deserves to be recognised and remembered as a truly significant television event. I can't wait to see what Brooker has to offer in series two.


Friday, 8 February 2013

Film Review | Django Unchained (2013)

Promoting Django Unchained in an interview with Playboy Magazine at the end of last year, Quentin Tarantino was quoted as saying that "directors don't get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I'm all about my filmography, and one bad film fucks up three good ones". Ironically, if there is any contemporary director whose output disproves this theory, it's Tarantino himself. And if Django Unchained ended up being his last hurrah, then what a spectacular way it would be to sew up Tarantino's beloved filmography.

Django Unchained in many ways feels like the spiritual and natural successor to Tarantino's most recent previous work, Inglourious Basterds, with the two films in conjunction feeling as though they hail a renaissance in the director's career. Tarantino is no longer the young upstart on the scene, the indie filmmaker who reshaped 1990s cinema with the one-two combo of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. That's not to say that his films no longer have the impact they once did. Quite the contrary in fact: Inglourious Basterds was so bold in its execution, so finely mastered by the man behind the camera, that it couldn't help but redefine war films for the modern era. Django Unchained does the same for the western genre, arguably with even greater success.

This is hands down Tarantino's finest story yet. From the opening scenes to the final moments, Tarantino the writer knows exactly where he's taking Django as well as every other character involved; Tarantino the director assuredly takes you along with them every step. This is intoxicating cinema, both brutal and beautiful - Django Unchained shows that the jawdropping cinematography of Inglourious Basterds was no one-off. Tarantino may beg, steal and borrow from his encyclopaedic passion for cinema when crafting his tales, but nobody can deny that he is one of the most artistically proficient filmmakers making movies today.

Tarantino's skill for drawing out the very best work from his actors is as robust as ever here. Jamie Foxx as Django is intense and immeasurably cool, developing the character over the film's effortless 165 minutes without putting a foot wrong. Alongside him is Christoph Waltz's dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. It's almost unfair to compare Waltz's performance here to his enigmatic turn as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, so I simply won't. Waltz is once again superb, immediately creating a captivating curiosity of a character who you can't help but warm to. Waltz regularly makes Schultz a genuinely funny character too, relieving some of Django Unchained's inherent heaviness with a perfectly timed quip or a charming demonstration of the Schultz's gift of the gab. The chemistry between Foxx and Waltz is palpable and rich, two fine actors on top of their game brilliantly glancing off one another wonderfully throughout.

If the film's first half belongs to Waltz and Foxx, then its second is firmly in the joint possession of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. DiCaprio's incomparably vile plantation owner Calvin Candie is a villain for the ages, with the actor imbuing his creation with a heady mix of Southern hospitality and monstrous cruelty. Matching DiCaprio in detestabilty is Jackson as Stephen, Candie's aging Uncle Tom of a house slave. His is a performance as captivating as it is ire-inducing, the actor's finest since his last major role in a Tarantino film as Ordell Robbie in 1997's Jackie Brown.

Django Unchained comes together brilliantly as Tarantino's most mature work yet. The director strides assuredly and masterfully into his third decade of filmmaking with fresh ideas and increasingly impressive cinematic style and craft, whilst at the same time making clear that same burning desire and unbridled passion for every element of every moment of his films seen since his earliest work. During the same interview referenced earlier, Tarantino suggested that he may stop directing after his tenth film. If he follows through with this plan, it means we've got three more films to see from him yet. And if Django Unchained is anything to go by, we've potentially got some of the finest cinema ever created to look forward to.