Film Reviews, Rants and Opinions

Friday, 18 May 2012

Yet Another "Dark Shadows" Review

Gothic Director Tim Burton teams up with Johnny Depp once again to  resurrect an old supernatural soap, but can they breathe new life into the old Melodrama?

In the mid-18th Century rich playboy Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) has everything he could ever want: loving parents, lots of money, a flurry of beautiful conquests and a big, big house.  When he spurns the attention of beautiful-but-deadly witch Angelique (Eva Green) she murders his parents, drives his true love to suicide and, to top it all off, curses him to live an undead life of vampirism. Nice.  The townspeople, afraid of the monster who now lives at Collinwood Estate, for the obligatory lynch-mob and bury him forever(ish).

Cut to *ahem* "Present Day" 1972. Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote) heads to the town of Collinsport, fleeing a mysterious past.  She assumes a false name and arrives at Collinwood, still home to the Collins family where she meets with head of household Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) who takes her on a tour of the mansion, introducing Maggie to her feisty daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her layabout brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) and his troubled, loner son (hey, it is a Tim Burton film) David (Gulliver McGrath). Live-in Therapist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and oddball caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) round out the household.  Miraculously that very night the undead Barnabus escapes his prison and makes his way back to Collinwood.  He sees the family in disrepair and vows to restore their name to it's former glory, destroying the immortal witch Angelique in the process.

Dark Shadows isn't a terrible movie. It certainly isn't Burton's worst, but it isn't his best either.  Not by a country mile.  It suffers partially from the same issues as American Reunion in that, for a comedy, it just isn't that funny.  There are some humorous moments but the Laugh-O-Meter* never rises above "warm chuckle".  Coupled with this is the fact that the film seems to take some time in deciding exactly what genre it is.  The prologue is suitably melodramatic, harking back to the movie's Soap Opera roots, but when Barnabus returns the tone takes a U-turn towards comedy.

Attempting to emulate the Soap Opera formula also means that there is just too much going on in this movie.  Johnny Lee Miller's role doesn't really bring anything to the movie, his character could easily have been written out completely.  The same can be said of Helena Bonham Carter's role.  Sorry Mrs.Burton but there is no room for you in this movie.  To top it all off, a third act development for Chloe Moretz's Carolyn feels completely shoehorned in.  Because of everything else that was going on Maggie/Victoria - who began the movie as a strong PoV character - ends up being side-lined, meaning the movie loses any sympathetic resonance with the audience.  It also means that the romance between her and Barnabus feels a little forced.

Though deeply flawed, the movie isn't a total disaster: the performances are all top-notch (though Eva Greens "American" accent is a little suspect) and the film is, for the most part, enjoyable.  Depp's Barnabus is wonderfully OTT in his "stiff upper-lip" English-ness, and he clearly owes a debt of gratitude to Max Schreck's performance as Count Orlok in "Nosferatu".  Fans of Burton and Depp should definitely watch this movie, just don't expect greatness.

The Good: A sequence featuring some Alice Cooper confusion is a definite stand-out moment.

The Bad: Making Barnabus Collins the focal point was a huge mistake: Like Jack Sparrow he would have been better used as a "force of nature" rather than a leading man in his own right.

The Ugly: Bella Heathcote is certainly striking, and a typical "Tim Burton" beauty, but doesn't she look eerily like the Corpse Bride in her final scene?

*NB not a real Laugh-O-Meter

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Yet Another "American Reunion" Review

Way back in 1999, five desperate virgins made a pact to lose their virginity by prom: raunchy hi jinks and depraved hilarity ensued. Now - thirteen years later - they reunite (yes, all of them) in the hope of reliving former glories, can they pull it off?

Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle Levenstein (Alyson Hannigan) are married and have a two year old son. Are they happy? Mostly, except for their sex life.  Kevin Myers (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is also married, and living at home as a House-Husband. Is he happy? Well sort of but, you know, House-Husband. Christopher "Oz" Ostreicher (Chris Klein) is living it up in LA as a pseudo-famous sports-caster, he has a beautiful, supermodel girlfriend and a nice home, but is he happy? You bet he ain't. Steve Stiffler (Sean William Scott) still lives at home with his mum and works a lowly temp-job. Happy? Yaddah-yaddah-yaddah. The only one who seems happy is Paul "Shitbreak" Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), but is he really? No, no he isn't. When the chance to meet up for a High School reunion appears they all jump at it.  The five men meet up in their home town and soon begin to regress to their teenage states. Even the level-headed Oz and Kev are tempted back to their old ways by old flames Heather (Mina Suvari) and Vicky (Tara Reid).

Everybody of my generation has seen the original American Pie movies, FACT. They were a rite of passage, and at the time were very original. Unfortunately there have since been so many knock-off "Gross-out comedies" that the genre has become a little stale; any film in this category would seriously need to up its game to out-do the Hangover movies. Does "American Reunion" pull it off? In a word, no.

I don't want to be totally negative about this film: there are some genuinely funny moments, but unfortunately most of them were shown in the trailers: The opening sequence didn't receive one laugh in the screen I was in because we had all seen it about a dozen times already.  Most of the jokes play off of the original movies (particularly the first movie) and so they don't feel fresh, and this is American Reunion's major problem:  The film's premise is also its downfall. The truth is it is all about nostalgia and longing for former glories, but it spends so much time focusing on that it doesn't work in its own right.

I walked into the Cinema wishing that I would see a film that left me nostalgic for my teen years. Well I got what I wanted, but what's that old saying? Oh yeah! Be careful what you wish for, because if there is one clear message to take away from American Reunion it is this: being an adult sucks, and your High School years were the best days of your life. Seriously, this movie puts a really negative spin on adult life. At no point is this more blatant than in a scene where Jim, Kev, Oz and Finch convince Stiffler to quit his job and join them at the reunion because "all their lives suck too". I actually left the cinema feeling mildly depressed, which surely makes this a failure as a comedy film.

In all fairness, American Reunion is not an awful movie, but it isn't great either. It has its fun moments and should work for anyone who wants a "trip down memory lane", but it will never be anything more than that.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Yet Another “The Avengers” Review

Marvel Studios Assembles its much-loved Superheroes in latest movie “The Avengers” (or “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble” if you like that sort of thing), but can these stars-in-their-own-right work as a team?

Captain America (Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Losers), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man, Iron Man 2), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Thor, The Cabin In The Woods), The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, Iron Man 2, We Bought a Zoo) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Shutter Island, The Kids Are Alright) are brought together by super-spy Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, Iron Man 2, Django Unchained) to prevent evil Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, Midnight In Paris) and his army of reptilian-Aliens "The Chitauri" from unleashing the power of the Tesseract.  Are you keeping up?

The movie opens with a very Bond-esque pre-titles sequence.  What I enjoyed most about this was that it didn’t feature any of the Superheroes and instead focused on the inner-workings of shady Government Agency SHIELD.  The scene leaped straight into the action and showed us just how high the stakes were, you genuinely believe they have no other choice but to round up the big guns.

The first act is all introductions. Cap and Iron Man’s introductions are quick and to the point, our introduction to the Black Widow does more for her character than the entirety of Iron Man 2 ever did and within five minutes of meeting Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner he seems more complex and believable than Edward Norton’s take.  I think out of all the super-characters in the movie it is Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk who get the best treatment in terms of character development; they are the real heart of the whole piece.  The first act ends with the capture of villainous Loki, and a battle between “The Big Three” Thor, Captain America and Iron Man that shows everybody just why Cap should be boss.

Act 2 slows things down, focusing on character and plot.  This paranoia/Psychological Thriller vibe may not sit too well with those audience members who just came for the “Hulk Smash”, but the tension between the uneasy group scintillates and a marvellous action sequence at the climax should win everybody over.  Fans of Agent Coulson will be pleased to see him get in on the action, as his importance to the mythology is ramped-up to heroic status.

The third act is pure, pant-wetting action.  Visually stunning and unrelenting, it grips you to the end.  I saw this movie in 2D, but the loveliness of this action-packed act did have me tempted to go back and watch in 3-Dimensions, headache be damned!  All of the characters are given equal screen-time and importance, even the previously short-changed Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) holds his own amongst the big-boys.  The ending is suitably upbeat and cheesy and definitely leaves you wanting more from these characters, both individually and as the Avengers.

The entire cast is stellar, but the standout star is clearly Writer/Director Joss Whedon.  Given the impossible task of squeezing a bunch of Larger-Than-Life characters into one Two-and-a-bit-hour story, Whedon manages masterfully.  His storytelling strengths lie in his depiction of strong women and being able to keep an ensemble cast in check with a great balance of character-driven moments and a razor-sharp wit, and his fingerprints are all over this movie. You are never more than two minutes from a real, gut-tensing laugh and you will leave genuinely caring about all of the characters, even the ones for whom you previously didn’t.

There are plenty of Easter Eggs for Keen-eyed fans of the Comic books (is that the Stark Resilient Repulsor-Car Tony takes off in?) but this may occasionally work to the film’s detriment, particularly in the post-credits scene.  Thankfully you only have to sit through a couple of minutes of credits before you are treated to a taste of what “Avengers 2” may have to offer but, unless you are knowledgeable about the comic book universe, you may come away feeling a little under-whelmed.

“The Avengers” is bigger, better, funnier and more emotionally resonant than anything that has come before, and has definitely raised the standard of Superhero Blockbusters to a whole new level.  Most importantly it is proof that you can maintain the sense of fun and unbelievability of the source material without compromising the quality.

Best Line: THOR: What do you think this is?

IRON MAN: Shakespeare in the Park?
          (Gesturing to Thor’s cape)
         “Doth Mother know thou weareth her drapes?

The Comics: Whedon borrows from many different sources within the comics, but clearly the biggest influence is Mark Millar’s 21st take on the Super-Team “The Ultimates”.  Millar wrote two volumes:

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

DVD Review: MOON

Moon [DVD] [2009] is a 2009 Sci-Fi/Psychological Drama, the first feature film from Director Duncan Jones (Source Code). The Film stars Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Choke) as Sam Bell, a man who is tasked with the job of mining for Helium-3 on the far-side of the Moon. We join Sam towards the end of his “3 year mission” to find a man on the edge of sanity: His only companion is a Robot, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), all contact with the people he loves on earth is via recorded video messages, he has begun hallucinating and to top it all off he’s beginning to get sick. Things take a turn for the unexpected when Sam is revived back on base following a mining accident. He discovers GERTY, his only companion, may be hiding a secret. A trip to the scene of the incident leads the story down a whole new, and unexpected route. What Sam discovers there will make him question everything he believes in.

“Moon” is a beautifully shot film. This may be Jones’ first feature, but it looks like the well-polished work of a seasoned great. You really get a feel of the great Sci-Fi films of the 70’s/early 80’s to which Jones is obviously paying homage. The look of the film owes itself (in my opinion) mainly to Ridley Scott’s classic Alien - Definitive Edition [DVD] [1979]
, with just a touch of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] [DVD]
thrown in for good measure. The base has a real “lived-in” feel, and the use of models and miniatures for the exterior scenes on the Moon’s surface was the right way to go. The design of GERTY, Sam’s Robot companion, is suitably low-tech: he looks like he belongs in a Car Manufacturing Factory. The little screen that flashes emoticons while GERTY converses is a nice touch, too.

Sam Rockwell is a joy to watch. Not many actors could single-handedly hold your attention for 98 minutes, but Rockwell is compelling. As a character actor he often finds himself in the quirky, more comedic roles, but films like this prove his brilliance as a believable, serious actor. The fact that we get to see him tackle two facets of the same character - Sam Bell in his early days on the job: brash, impatient and quick to temper, and Sam at the end of his contract: a more stoic, relaxed albeit broken man – brings dynamic to the character and allows Rockwell to really sink his teeth into the part.

Rockwell’s co-star Spacey is a perfect choice for the voice of Robot GERTY. Not many actors could bring a subtle, layered performance to such a role. GERTY is at times compassionate and friendly, yet still very robotic. There are clear undertones of 2001’s HAL and you don’t know for a while who’s side he is on.

For a film one would dub “Hard Sci-Fi” (the science is entirely plausible) I would say that “Moon” has a very human story at its heart. It takes a good look at the psychological effects of isolation, as well as the nature of individuality and companionship. This film takes you to some really deep, emotional places that most conventional dramas would struggle to do whilst still maintaining your interest. Everything about this film, from Cinematographer Gary Shaw’s choice of shots to the beautiful set design work to remind you of how alone Sam really is.

“Moon” may be a Low-Budget Indie-film from a first time Director; it may be a Hard Sci-Fi; it may be the story of a glorified Lighthouse Keeper, but it has a lot to say. It is funny how often these small Sci-Fi movies seem to really delve into the nature of morality, and have the most to say about what it is to be human.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Poster Pull-Out #1: Django Unchained

The First poster to emerge for Quentin Tarantino’s latest film has certainly got Saul, but should it have a style of its own?

Saul Bass.  Say this name to any Graphic Designer or self-respecting Hitchcock fan and it instantly conjures up images of simplified, stylistic design, and a very particular style.  Bass revolutionised the field of Movie Poster design with his work on “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955. Dir: Otto Preminger).  Before him there was no art to the medium, Film Posters were just a bunch of stills taken from the movie and chucked onto a piece of paper.*  His style has been much imitated, most recently in this poster for upcoming Tarantino movie “Django Unchained”.

While I’m very much looking forward to the movie – Tarantino hasn’t made a bad one yet (though Deathproof did come pretty close) – the poster leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.  The design in itself is elegant, beautiful even, and generates interest in the movie while giving little away about it (as all good teaser posters should), but it has been done before.  Done to death.

Since Saul Bass created and popularised his distinctive style it has seen many impersonators: you only have to look at the posters for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” or the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” to see Bass’s influence.

It’s not just the professionals who are guilty, either. Scores of amateurs with a little knowledge of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator see fit to “re-imagine” their favourite Movie Posters in this “Original” style, most of them completely lacking in any real originality or artistic flare.

To sum up if you are going to pay homage, particularly if you are a professional, at least build upon it and bring your own vision to the piece. Don’t just design something Saul Bass himself could have done, and did do many times, 50+ years ago.

Django Unchained is the upcoming film from Pop-Culture God Quentin Tarantino.  It is a Spaghetti Western set in the “Old South” and stars Jamie Foxx (Ray, Law Abiding Citizen) as a freed Slave who seeks Vengeance against sadistic plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception, Shutter Island). The movie also stars Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Carnage) and Samuel L Jackson (The Avengers, Pulp Fiction).

*Okay, there was a little more to it than that.

Yet Another “The Cabin in the Woods” review.

Five Teenagers head to a creepy Cabin in the Woods. “Jock” Curt (Chris Hemsworth), “innocent” Dana (Kristen Connolly), “sensitive” Holden (Jesse Williams), “promiscuous” Jules (Anna Hutchinson) and “stoner” Marty (Fran Kranz) soon find themselves fighting for survival.  Sounds familiar? Think again…

Let me start by warning you, this is really a film that has to be seen without any knowledge of what is coming, and so I won’t be providing any kind of detailed synopsis.  With a film filled with as many twists and turns as this one has it would be impossible to keep any synopsis spoiler-free.

First and foremost, “The Cabin in the Woods” is not a Horror movie, not really.  Anyone hoping to see ninety+ minutes of guts (yuck!), shocks (Jesus!) and boobs (Wahey!) may come away a little disappointed.  While the movie does feature all of these tropes and more, that really isn’t the point of it all.  It’s really more of an essay on Horror movies than anything else: deftly deconstructing the genre - picking apart the flaws and the clich├ęs and putting them back together with a knowing smile and a wink - more meta fiction than fiction proper. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, it very much is.

After a brief opening scene that sets up mysterious-yet-humorous technicians Sitterson and Hadley (played by the brilliant Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, respectively) it’s very much business as usual for the next twentyish minutes: the Protagonists are set up swiftly and nicely before setting off on their adventure without a care in the world, until they meet a creepy, redneck Gas attendant in the middle of nowhere who fills everyone with plenty of pant-filling dread before pointing the way to the Teens’ final destination.  So far, so “The Hills Have Eyes”, right?  They reach their home for the weekend – an Evil Dead Cabin-copycat – and step inside, and the predictability of the movie grinds to a halt… To reveal anymore would be doing you a disservice, but believe me when I say that most of what follows will have you alternately thinking “WTF?!” and “Oh, I see!”

Anybody in his or her right mind should know the name of co-writer Joss Whedon, but it’s the authorial voice of collaborator Drew Goddard (who also Directs) that can be most strongly heard.  As the screenwriter of Cloverfield it’s pretty obvious he has the chops for writing horror, but here it seems more like he’s channelling his work from Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” where it’s humour that plays a more prominent role.  A lot of Horror Movies tend to throw in a bit of humour to relieve the tension - and to wrong-foot the audience into a false sense of security - before smacking them in the face with a trouser-wetting scare and this is where, for me, this movie falls a little flat. Not because it isn’t funny, but because it is so funny that the horror seems less scary.

The principle cast all perform well, but the movie really belongs to the comic relief: loveable-stoner Marty (played wonderfully by Fran Kranz, who was also the comic relief in Joss Whedon’s short-lived TV series “Dollhouse”) and the Lab-Technician duo, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.

Overall, the movie was a success. What it lacks in horror it more than makes up for in humour, intelligence and sheer originality.

The Good: The way the Japanese Schoolchildren deal with their problem had me in stitches.

The Bad: The “Big Twist” was so obvious I thought there was sure to be another (message me if you want to know what my theory was, it’s a doozy).  There wasn’t, but once you come to terms with that the movie still works.

The Ugly: Ballerina. ‘Nuff said.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Please, allow me to introduce myself...

I know what you're thinking: "Oh no! Not another movie review blog", right? Wrong! Well, no, you are right, but that's not the point.

Opinions are great. They guide us, inform us, they can never be wrong and you can never have too many of them.

I have been watching films my whole life, (many of them years before I should have rightfully been watching them) and they are most definitely my biggest passion. I love to watch movies, I love to study them and I love to talk about them.

I hope you find what I write helpful and fun.  Let me know if you do. Hell, let me know if you don't! Like I said, I love to talk about films and would love to talk to anybody with the same passion.