Monday, 31 December 2012

Films of 2012

It's been a great year, if only for the fact that I got the chance to see not one, but two Joss Whedon films in the cinema! Obviously, The Avengers is the best superhero film I've ever seen. But the issue is - as a huge horror fan, do I prefer The Cabin in the Woods? I reviewed both and one came up on top by half a star. But the more I watch its opponent, the more I love it. So I've been going back and forth over the last three months about what my favourite 2012 movie is. I've made a decision. I think. For now, at least......

Alas, I haven't been able to catch every movie this year, so maybe a mid-2013 post will be needed to reassess. I was eager to see Men in Black III, which got mixed reviews, but my sister assures me it's "good". Snow White and the Huntsman looked interesting, as did the Total Recall remake, which may actually have been a better movie than the original, despite the absence of Arnie. I was wanting to see Lawless, if only for having Nick Cave in the writing credits. Similarly, Rise of the Guardians looked hilarious and cool at the same time. Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi both look either epically awesome or gut-wrenching terrible. I'm hoping for the former. And, of course, The Hobbit is a must-see.

Honourable mentions:

The Raid was all out, painfully brutal action from start to finish, even if the story was ridiculously thin. But sometimes less is more - the film did what it did and it did it well. I accept that The Woman in Black scared me every time it wanted to, but in hindsight it was mainly just Daniel Radcliffe walking around a dark house for two hours. And the problem with Radcliffe is that, while I think he put in a very strong performance, he just wasn't right for that role.

Looper was a bit of a letdown after receiving 5-star reviews from the big name critics. But at the end of the day, even though it was better than most sci-fi of the last decade, the logic and characters just didn't hold together. And a mid-movie "twist" took us out of a smart time travel story and threw us into a sub-par Stephen King novel. Reviewed here.  

Skyfall got similar praise but ended up disappointing. I enjoyed what it was doing and it had a killer first half. But then everything became a little too run-of-the-mill for my tastes. Still worth a look though. Brave was a slight disappointment but then I'm not quite sure what I expected. I liked it, but it wasn't anything to write home about.

The Dark Knight Rises - a film half the internet insists is the most amazing thing ever! - was a big flop for me. While a few scenes were incredible, the plot and the endless amounts of useless characters brought it all down to what seemed like a parody of the second Nolan-Batman movie. Reviewed here. The Amazing Spider-Man was, in my opinion, a marked improvement on Raimi's trilogy and Andrew Garfield was note-perfect as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, so it was a worthy reboot. Reviewed here.

Chronicle was pretty incredible, easily worthy of a 4/5 rating if only for giving a new take on the superhero genre. It was easily to get on board with the three heroes and actually seemed like a realistic portrayal of what a band of teenagers would do with superpowers. Combine that with clever found-footage-style camerawork and you've got a solid movie. Also pretty dark!

So, without further ado, my my top 5 films of 2012 are.......

5. Prometheus

There are more theories and opinions about this movie than pretty much anything from the last 10 years. I went in expecting a sub-par Alien, but ended up getting something thought-provoking and powerful. Ok, so maybe the whole thing is a little confusing and could do with more answers, but I have a serious weak spot for films that are batshit puzzling and strangely alluring. Stylistically beautiful with spot-on acting, the more I think about Prometheus, the more I like it. It's no Alien, but it's still a cracking sci-fi movie! Had some cool viral vids too!

4. The Hunger Games

I've heard it all - a bad ripoff of Battle Royale, completely boring for the first half, unrealistic, the new Twilight etc etc. But this movie did it for me! Granted, I've read the book so I expected a slow-burn first act and an explosive second. But for all intents and purposes, a great film! Mature for its target audience, strong, assured and not afraid to deal with some big issues. With perhaps the best first half hour of any movie this year, it's Jennifer Lawrence that commands every scene she's in - a huge talent that goes a long way to making this film great! Reviewed here.

3. The Grey

Remove Joss Whedon from the listings and The Grey is easily my top movie. It's intense, powerful, and really fucking emotional! The whole thing hangs on Liam Neeson's performance and he shows some of his best work here, all the while beating the hell out of a pack of wolves. Reviewed here.

2. The Avengers

I was always going to adore this movie - Joss Whedon does superheroes. His work on the X-Men comics is easily my favourite portrayal of the mutants and his skill at controlling ensemble casts is second-to-none (just look at Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Toy Story et al). But where the film shines is in its portrayal of Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Black Widow - two characters mostly sidelined/watered down in previous Marvel projects. Joss made them believable but somehow ridiculously cool. Going in, I knew someone was going to die - this is Mr Whedon afterall. But I couldn't work out who. My money was Pepper Potts. Especially after the first half hour spent establishing a blissful Tony/Pepper relationship. But how wrong I was. A curveball I never saw coming. Damn you, Joss!!! The best scene? This (almost-cut-for-being-too-expensive) hero shot that gives me goosebumps every time I see it! Love it! Reviewed here.

1. The Cabin in the Woods

It's a personal preference - for me, the only thing better than "Joss does superheroes" is "Joss does horror". Combine that with Drew Goddard's direction and we have a winner! Pretty much picking apart the entire American horror genre was good enough - we've all been infuriated by those ridiculously fucking stupid horror teenagers that we actually want to die! But there's a lot more to Cabin. It goes beyond a commentary on films and becomes a critique of life itself - "Society needs to crumble. We're all just too chickenshit to let it." Not to mention it's funny as hell and has a third act better than any other this year (or the last 10 I'd dare say?!) In short - it's a movie that feels like it was meant entirely for me. Shiny! Reviewed here.

So overall, not a bad fucking year! In a time full of bottom-of-the-barrel ideas and piss-poor remakes, there seems to be some light. There may be a hundred Twilights, but there's one Hunger Games. Endless amounts of unoriginal horror tripe may be coming out the yingyang, but The Cabin in the Woods sits proudly out of the crowd. So yes, there's a saturation of horribly terrible movies these days. But there are also some absolute game-changers. Huzzah for them! 2013 won't be able to hold up, but I'm really, really looking forward to it!

Happy New Year, everyone - happy movie-ing!

Monday, 1 October 2012

'Looper' (2012)


Time travel movies are notoriously difficult to make and seemingly impossible to get your head around. "This time travel crap. Just fries your brain like an egg," as is uttered in the movie. Fortunately, Looper spends less time playing the What If? game and instead focuses on the characters at the heart of its story. Voice over digs past the necessary clunky exposition whereby we learn just what Loopers are and what can go wrong. Cinema has now reached a point where no-one is going to see this film without having first seen the trailer. Ergo, we'd be bored if Looper spent half an hour setting things up with subtle dialogue. Yes, that may show better writing, but it just isn't necessary - we forgive the dreaded VO as it means we can get straight into the story from the get-go.

The first thing you notice is just how clever they've been to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look strikingly like a young Bruce Willis. It's kinda unnecessary, but it works. From there, the influences become apparent - from what I can see, Blade Runner in abundance, with a dash of Twelve Monkeys. A feel of effortless noir drops onto the screen as we see Loopers go about their daily business. We're almost at the "ok, we get it - this is a cool movie!" moment when your attention is perked by a particularly disturbing scene whereby a man's body parts begin to disappear. I'll say no more....

Once things get going, the film becomes a bit of a cat-and-mouse-style race with Young Joe (Levitt) needing to kill Old Joe (Willis) so that he isn't offed by his seemingly mild-mannered boss (Jeff Daniels). Old Joe, meanwhile, sets out on a Terminator-esque search-and-destroy mission of his own.

In any other way this would be predictable and boring. But with emotionally compelling flashbacks and clever use of POV (that forces us to switch sides without noticing), we're hooked. It's not long before we realise an hour has gone by in a flash and we're well and truly invested in both Joes and their respective missions. Which is where Looper throws us a curve ball.

The movie kind of steers off in a direction you don't expect with the introduction of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (who, like all movie kids, is ridiculously smart and witty for a 10-year-old). I should stress that this isn't a bad tangent (Sara seems to really enjoy beating the crap out of a tree trunk with an axe - there's a metaphor in there somewhere), but it changes the film completely. The cool noir seems to disintegrate and the story sags a little under necessary exposition.

It doesn't take a half-genius to work out exactly where the story is leading, which hits you with a weird combo of tense inevitability and finger-tapping tedium. While Young Joe hangs out on a farm discussing his past, Old Joe carries on in the city. We're well and truly going through the motions before the unavoidable final conflict. Fortunately, most of those motions involve seeing Bruce Willis shoot people (and not just any people!) so we're willing to stay awake.

After its slight lull, Looper comes full circle (not unlike a loop - see what they've done there?) and builds to a spectacular close. Action isn't hurled at the screen in an explosion of excitement like in some lesser movies (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay!) but the film instead focuses on the characters we are, by now, thoroughly invested in. The ending is either genius or completely ridiculous. I can't make up my mind without having my brain fried like an egg.

Overall, Looper is a solid movie. Easily better than most recent sci-fi actioners, but I expect all those 5-star reviews floating about are because expectations for this sort of film have become so low in recent years. This is no Blade Runner or Matrix. But it does a damn sight more than it needs to in order to earn a few pennies at the Box Office, which is commendable - it's good to see a sci-fi movie that is both smart and fun! Recommended.

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Thursday, 6 September 2012

'The Hunger Games' (2012)

As adaptations go, The Hunger Games is pretty much spot on and there's hardly anything left out from the book - naturally some scenes play out shorter and a few developments are ignored, but for the most part it's a page-by-page copy. Which in itself might not be anything to write home about. If anything, it would be a criticism since we already have the book, so why do we need the film?

But where the movie is unable to compete (mainly in the subtleties of the action), it makes up for in some key moments that set up future films. Not too much so that everything is rammed down your throat, but enough to tell you that more is at play than what we're seeing. The film also compensates for the lack of detailed backstory with some clever exposition and a particularly effective flashback sequence.

The movie doesn't talk down to its aimed-at teen audience and rarely shies away from the violence, dealing with some big themes and tugging at the heart strings along the way. What's extra impressive is the brave decision to stick to the book in terms of pace - with a fairly actionless first hour-and-a-bit (and remember, this is an action film!) it would be easy to lose the audience. But the first half is tackled with such subtlety and attention that you don't care - there's more than enough to enjoy in seeing the way life plays out for the young Hunger Gamers(?) in their training. All this builds and builds as very little is known of the Hunger Games themselves, meaning that when things kick off we're eager and ready to go. Let the Games begin!

What follows may be fairly basic "survival of the fittest" stuff (yes, a lot like Battle Royale and a chunk of Stephen King's work), but we're fully invested in the key characters by this point, making the drama far greater than you could hope for if we'd quickly joined the action half an hour in.

Jennifer Lawrence shines in a daring role that would be easy to play fairly straight, bringing just the right balance of tenderness and power to spring Katniss Everdeen into life. The supporting cast do their jobs well - Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz and Amandla Stenberg all hold their own, while Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci put in predictably good performances - but our attention never leaves Lawrence, who commands every scene she's in.

There's nothing wrong with The Hunger Games (it's daring, emotive, dramatic and powerful), but there are times when you feel it could do more. Having a character throw a big metal rock to prove his strength may work in the book, but on the screen it seems clunky and lazy. Likewise, the decision to stray from the source material and cut away from the Hunger Games, showing the goings on of friends and family etc sometimes detracts from the intensity of the action. Yes, some parts are necessary (commentators explain key bits of info that are essential), but at times, there are clear cuts that pay maybe a little too much attention to possible future storylines when all we really care about it the young woman fighting for her life. But these are all minor criticisms (you know how good a film is when you're picking it apart for such tiny issues) and never really bring down the quality of the movie.

All in all, The Hunger Games hits the audience across the board - there's something for everyone. Ok, so I might have liked a bit more brutal violence, but it's rather refreshing that an action movie is capable of retaining your interest without showing blood and guts at every turn. The movie never patronises its young fans and never frustrates its older audience - it's strong, powerful, self-aware and confident. Overall, a cracking film that has me itching for parts two and three.....

Read more of Neil's reviews.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

'The Fountain' (2006)

Spanning over one thousand years, and three parallel stories, The Fountain is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world.  (via IMDb)

Is there a more pretentious-sounding synopsis? The thing is, The Fountain is nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn't seen it. Darren Aronofsky's only bad film, that's what I'd heard. So I'd pretty much avoided it like the plague. But I'm glad I finally caved and gave it a whirl.

The film can't deny its origins in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - it confuses the hell out of you and it takes a fair while before you really get what it's trying to do. To reveal what seems to be the film's intention would be to give away too much, but it definitely succeeds. It's not something you can breeze in and out of, and you can't expect to get everything that's happening right away. But if you stick with it, pieces fall into place and sense is made of even the most obscure moments.

Ok, so I don't pretend to fully understand the bald flying monk, but I have my theories. Which is what The Fountain seems to be about - theories. The point is you don't have all the answers. In the same way 2001 defies interpretation, there are many ways of seeing Aronofsky's story. Some may say that's a huge fault, but others will applaud the ambiguity.

It's an assault on the senses, giving stunning visuals (also reminiscent of 2001) and a soundtrack that compliments but never overpowers. The film isn't quite brave enough to show long empty black shots like in 2001, but it has its moments. And it's usually not until after those moments that you make sense of them.

Where The Fountain really shines, however, is in its acting. At the heart of the film is a man trying to save his wife from an inoperable brain tumour. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz give absolutely incredible performances, which brings a tender realism to an otherwise bizarre, fantastical movie. Anyone who doesn't need to fight back tears during a few key scenes simply doesn't have any tears left in them! Balancing several roles apiece, it's in the "modern-day" moments in which the two shine, guaranteeing a beautiful chemistry that keeps you engrossed throughout.

The Fountain is a story of life, death and rebirth. Some will love it, others will hate it - there'll be no middle ground. Which is, at the very least, admirable - dividing audiences is something to strive for because otherwise, what's the point? Give it a go - at worst you've spent 90 minutes of your life screwing up your face in confusion and taking in enough trippy images to secure bizarre dreams for the rest of the year. At best, you'll experience a complex piece of storytelling and an emotional film that will stick with you for a very long time.

Read more of Neil's reviews.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

'The Dark Knight Rises' (2012)

 "What are you?"
"I am Gotham's reckoning."

It's the big one - Chris Nolan's last ever Batman movie. And it shows because he goes out with a bang! Seriously - a big frickin' bang! The problem is, The Dark Knight was so well-received (although I think Batman Begins is the superior film) that expectations are ridiculously high for Rises. It doesn't quite reach the pedestal.

The first half hour is, forgive me for saying, boring. A lot of plot lines are set up and characters float around stating their opinions which makes the opening seem like one big introduction to a university thesis. It makes you very aware that the movie is going to tackle some big issues over the next two hours, but it's a little jarring. We want to see more action in this action film! So I was worried 30 minutes in. But around the 45 minute mark, everything kicks off! And from that moment, you never look back and your half-hour boredom feels ok.

Anne Hathaway is fine as Selina (who we are never actually told is Cat Woman), but that's all. A lot of praise has been dumped on her, but I see nothing major about her performance that warrants it. Her character constantly reminded me of Black Widow, and that role was done better in The Avengers. Neither is the character really necessary and it seems like her removal would not only unhinder proceedings, but would actually improve the movie.

Tom Hardy gives an incredible performance as Bane, who commands every scene he's in, even the ones where he just lurks in the background. He's a great villain and perhaps even more memorable than the Joker. In the way Begins showed us a political idealist/tyrant and TDK gave us a psychologically unstable madman, Rises shows a truly unstoppable physical and spiritual force who you should be very afraid of! It's just a shame that his character isn't done even the tiniest bit of justice towards the film's close. Spoilers aside, it's just not very good.


Where Rises falls down is in the waffle. I'm not averse to a 160 minute movie, but here it seems gratuitous. With some serious streamlining, the film could be so much better. Get rid of a bunch of characters (Cat Woman, Lucius Fox etc) and give proper attention to the likes of Alfred (who only ever turns up to provide moralistic discussion for the audience and is forgotten about then conveniently brought back when the plot needs him) and newcomer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It's funny, because I felt The Avengers was too short - so we should take half an hour from Rises and throw it to Marvel to play with.

Don't get me wrong, Rises is a good film. But there's too much excess baggage to make it as brilliant as people are saying. But no matter how floppy it may feel, there's something very satisfying about how Nolan ties Rises into the first two instalments, digging up previously-explored themes (even if they are annoyingly signposted with big flashing flashbacks!).

Bane's mission is epically terrifying in its scope, and Bruce Wayne's journey is emotional, compelling, and inspiring. It's a fine movie across the board, and only has a few problems that keep it from a 4-star rating. If you can get through the first half hour (and you should because Nolan has earned your patience!), then you're in for a story of massive scope handled with a very human eye. So rather than not enjoying Rises, you'll love it, but at the same time be ridiculously frustrated by the few shortcomings that are a heavy drag on the story. Whilst incredible in parts, the rather awful elements force the rating to an annoying middle-road.

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Monday, 16 July 2012

'The Amazing Spider-Man' (2012)

"You seriously think I'm a cop in a skintight red and blue suit?"

It's hard to review this without referring to the original 2002 Spidey movie, so we might as well just dive straight in - it's better. Not by loads, but by a fair bit.

Obviously the special-effects and CGI are worlds ahead. Also, liberties are taken that assume a decent knowledge of Peter Parker's outings, meaning the film can get things moving faster and explore more elements of the story. So on that level, The Amazing Spider-Man owes a bullshit-clearing debt to its origin movie. This remake advantage, however, also has its problems - we know what's going to happen and when. So how does a movie do the same thing without boring the audience?

Drama - this is where The Amazing Spider-Man beats the original to a bloody pulp. Key moments that we know are coming (such as the radioactive spider bite) are wrapped in a tense drama and emotion that the original never had. Which is more compelling - a boy gets bitten during a routine school trip, or a boy gets bitten after sneaking into a science lab to discover secrets about his dead father? It's a no-brainer. And it's like that throughout - we don't mind re-seeing moments from the first film because they're wrapped in a different, more compelling story.

Grounding the movie entirely in high school is also a good move, giving it a better sense of realism and making Peter Parker a more relateable character. The relationship with Gwen Stacy is more basic than the one with Mary-Jane seen in the first movie, but it's also more compelling. There's less awkward "he likes her but she doesn't know he exists" moments, and more of the "they like each other but there are always obstacles". In this case, they take the form of Gwen's super-cop dad and a giant killer lizard. Life's shit that way.

Which brings us to Peter as a character. Andrew Garfield does an incredible job, making both Peter and Spider-Man the same person. It was a problem with the 2002 film - I never felt the guy in the mask was the guy we saw in plain-clothes. But this Spider-Man is closer to the comics - a smart-mouthed fun-having superhero. Parker is still a geek, yes. But now he's a cool geek - one of those alternative Ramones-loving guys who doesn't care what people think. It's a better, more relateable character and it's the Peter I always wanted. Garfield also brings a great emotion to the role, particularly in a scene with Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben, which culminates in a destroyed door and one of those moments we know is coming!

The one element that doesn't surpass the original is in Rhys Ifans' Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard - Ifans does a good job, but his character is a little too much of a mad scientist, and you'll be hard-stretched to find a better man than Willem Dafoe for the job. There's nothing in this remake as cool as Green Goblin's mocking: "You've spun your last web, Spider-Man. If you had not been so selfish, your little girlfriend's death would have been quick and painless. But now that you've really pissed me off, I'm gonna finish her nice and slow. MJ and I, we're gonna have a hell of a time!"

So overall, The Amazing Spider-Man is great film. I know it's cool to rail against "pointless" remakes (I'm looking at you Halloween/Nightmare on Elm Street/Friday 13th/Wicker Man/Psycho!), but this one (a) works, and (b) brings enough new material to the table to actually make it worth doing. By the end of the movie, I found myself desperate for a sequel. You can't argue with that! Recommended.

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Monday, 18 June 2012

'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' (2010)

A young girl sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend discovers creatures in her new home who want to claim her as one of their own.  (via IMDb)

We've come to expect good things from Guillermo del Toro (who co-wrote the film), but I was a little bit apprehensive going into Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, wondering how the little creatures I'd seen in the trailer could actually be scary. But they are, which is usually a good thing in a horror film. I don't think I'm alone in working out exactly what they are in the first few minutes, but I figure you're supposed to and it doesn't detract from the movie in any way - if anything it adds to it.

The plot is fairly basic House Horror, with a child being attacked and the adults not believing a word she says, attributing everything to bad behaviour. So on that level you could say it's fairly one-dimensional. But as I said about The Grey, sometimes a basic plot can allow for a complex story.

We instantly relate to 8-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison), whose Mom "gives" (her words) her to Dad (Guy Pearce). So she doesn't want to go home. But then Dad cares more about his job than his daughter, so she doesn't want to stay put. Throw in the New Girlfriend/Replacement Mother character (Katie Holmes) and poor little Sally is stuck between a very large rock and a very hard place.

A very compelling and emotional performance from Madison is what takes the film to a higher level - she really does a fantastic job at scared, upset, distraught, unwanted, happy, curious, sad, and much more. Guy Peace is predictably fine, giving a solid performance for as much as one is needed (the story isn't really about him). Katie Holmes is on good form as well, really getting to grips with the subtlety of her role and exploring it on various levels.

All in all, it's a good film, with more focus on character and emotion than a lot of modern horrors. There are a fair amount of jumps and only the odd niggle to complain about (I thought Holmes' character was going somewhere it didn't, which is a shame). Del Toro brings a sprinkle of the Fairy Tale magic seen in Pan's Labyrinth and the film is beautifully shot. The ending may divide viewers (but don't all good endings?) and things are left a little ambiguous, but there's lots of fun to be had. Recommended.

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Thursday, 7 June 2012

'The Grey' (2011)


Once more into the fray. 
Into the last good fight I'll ever know. 
Live and die on this day.
Live and die on this day.

Take a bunch of men and dump them in a really cold place, miles away from civilisation and in wolf territory. That's basically all The Grey is. Which is why it's so good. A totally stripped-back plot allows room for a compelling, emotional, raw story of survival, that works on multiple levels.

A band of plane crash survivors must trek through Alaska, constantly hounded by a pack of killer wolves. So the wolves themselves may not be portrayed in the most accurate light, but The Grey is essentially a horror film for the most part so this doesn't distract from the story. And it does its job on that level - I jumped more than once!

There's just enough development given to secondary characters throughout the story and they quickly drop like flies. Liam Neeson is on perfect form, hammering home a performance that should (but won't!) earn him some awards recognition. He plays John Ottway, a man who seems to want to die but is forced to take charge and keep others alive. This is where the film really shines - in the layers. Balls-out wolf vs. man violence and death-defying jumps tick the fun-factor box and wolves keep the tension coming. But the details of the story - exploration of Ottway's father and wife - allow for discussion on faith (religious and personal) and the nature of survival.

It's hard to say just how good this film is without going into specific details which would ruin it completely. It's near-perfect through and through. Yes, you can kinda see where things are leading from the first 15 minutes, but that doesn't seem to matter. If anything, it makes the inevitable even more compelling.

It's raw, primal storytelling - no lengthy plot developments or character twists, but simple and emotional. Through a simple plot comes a complex story. And even if survival stories aren't really your thing, it's worth seeing for Neeson's performance alone.

I can't urge you to see this film enough - The Grey is definitely a strong contender for Film of the Year in my book. Highly recommended!

NB: there is a post-credits scene you should watch.

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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' (2011)

- My memory isn't the way it used to be.
- How was it?
- I can't remember.

If there's one thing Spielberg can do, it's a fun, exciting, action-packed adventure movie. Tintin is essentially Indiana Jones with a sprinkle of film noir, a slice of Pirates of the Caribbean, and a dab of The Golden Compass. The animation is impressively top-notch, and what's great is that it needs to be - this isn't a live action story that just happens to be computerised; the animation lends itself to the story, characters and (most importantly) action out of necessity rather than opportunity.

With action sequences almost lifted straight from Indiana Jones (see the bike/side-car shot above taken from The Last Crusade), you know there's enjoyment to be had, and an abundance of edge-of-your-seat moments. There are also plenty of laughs to be had, mainly in the form of Captain Haddock and dog Snowy, but I feel some of the Thompson and Thompson moments fall a little flat. Yes, they're funny, but they feel old-hat in a film that's refreshingly modern and slick. They're also involved in a rather boring subplot that you expect to lead somewhere bigger, only it doesn't. Remove them completely, and you've got a better film with more time to dedicate to the characters we care about.

The voice acting is, of course, great. Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, and Andy Serkis all do their jobs well and the film avoids dropping in endless numbers of recognisable voices, which prevents "Who is that? Is it Steve Buscemi? It sounds like Steve Buscemi. But I don't think it is. No wait, it is Steve Buscemi! Yep, definitely Steve. I love him, such a great actor. I wish he was in more films. Wait.....what just happened???"

There's a message to be taken away, of course, this film being mainly for the Little Folk. All about heroism, battling on through obstructions, being who you are and whatnot - it's very sweet. Fortunately, the film doesn't play down to the young audience and instead treats them with respect, even dealing with alcoholism (although it doesn't exactly say it's a bad thing).

All in all, Tintin is fun, and compelling from the off. The animation is excellent, the is acting fine, the story itself is slick and straightforward, and there's something for everyone to enjoy. But this film was criminally only recognised at the Oscars for its John Williams score. Blistering barnacles!

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Friday, 11 May 2012

The 3 problems with 'The Avengers' (2012)

So I reviewed The Avengers here and gave it 4.5 out of 5, which obviously means I loved it. But also that I thought it could be better. And here's why......

Problem 1 - Captain America
He's the guy we see things from, our POV character, and he gets the most screentime of all the Avengers. So he's developed well. But Joss Whedon mentioned cutting about 45 minutes from the film, which apparently included various scenes showing Cap's thoughts on modern times. As things stand, it's comical - he doesn't understand the technology and is proud to catch a Wizard of Oz reference. He also struggles to grasp the ideals of today's world (questioning whether a uniform comprising of the American flag is really the way to go).

This is all great. But what the story needs is a more personal outlook - how does Cap feel about the fact that his whole world has gone? When he left, WWII was in full swing. He wakes up 70(ish) years later to find the war over and everyone (and everything) he knew dead and buried. That would fuck with your head (and your heart)! Also, it turns out that his seemingly heroic sacrifice to save the world was not, in fact, that sacrifice-y. But then again, there's something very awesome about being a sacrifice that somehow lives on.

That's what the Cap character needed to explore more. Yes, the intro of him bashing the poop out of several punch bags summed a lot of his feelings up in a smart, visual, non-expositioinal way, but I wanted more.

Problem 2 - The Hulk
It's a tiny issue. When Bruce Banner first hulks-out, he is holding Loki's magical staff. We assume (later) that this is the main reason for said hulk-out, we assume that this is the reason that he was completely unable to control the Hulk, and we assume (afterwards) that Banner always could control the Hulk to a high degree. But there's a lot of assuming going on. I think we needed to be told (later, in a fun way) that Loki's staff was the reason for Banner's complete loss of control.

Problem 3 - Black Widow
Easily the finest character in the movie for me and she has the best scenes (her meeting with Bruce Banner, her "red ledger" exchange with Loki, saving the day in the film's finale et al). One of her shiniest moments comes when Banner hulks-out and she is forced to run for her life. She is swatted against a wall and is next seen "cowering in the corner. The look on her face is that of a woman utterly broken. It takes a few moments before she finally responds to her radio summons." (that quote is taken from here - a highly recommended read, it'll only take a minute. Honest.)

It's a moment that comes out the blue - it's easy to forget that these superheroes are people too. Yes, Black Widow can kill kill kill when she needs to, but she is so taken aback by being completely overpowered and nearly squished (thank Odin for Thor's intervention, eh?) that she freezes. The only thing missing from Black Widow's story is how this huge (albeit brief) scene has effected such a hardened assassin. Like the gentleman from the above article says: "It's too bad, because in a movie fraught with cartoonish destruction, it's the one moment where the audience actually sees some real damage."

So that's it really. I know I'm nitpicking, but I think with those three things tweaked somewhat, The Avengers would undoubtedly be a 5-star movie. What say you?

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

Review: 'Hanna' (2011)

I can't really think of much to say about this film - it's not that I don't like it (3/5 is what I'd consider a Good film), it's just that the plot is fairly straightforward and obvious. I don't mean that in a bad way - it's simple in the same way The Avengers was simple - it doesn't need to be that complex. It's very atmospheric and the characters are compelling. Well, the good characters are; the Bad Guys couldn't be more cliche to be honest. But again, with the focus on Saoirse Ronan (who gives a great performance) it's not too much of an issue.

The subject material is clearly about empowerment and fighting for your right to exist. It deals with this very well in the beginning, when the issue isn't directly addressed but rather the focus is on survival in its rawest sense. But once things get going, it seems like style is chosen over substance. There are just a few plot-points that don't ring true for me and secondary characters seem forgotten about near the end.

Unfortunately, for an action film, there's not much action (that was my issue with the first Underworld movie). The action - when it comes - is fairly standard as well. Some great moves in there, but nothing to write home about - there's no real reason for us to care about the faceless grunts Hanna is dispatching.

The ending, while obvious, shows a hint of redemption for the film. However, the movie stops abruptly. If you catch this film on DVD, I recommend checking out the 'Alternate Ending' which actual seems to be a scene which, once tagged onto the film's current ending, makes for a far better, more-rounded conclusion to the story.

It's like I know what Hanna is trying to do, but it doesn't quite do it. A message is clearly there, and the potential for action is plentiful. But all this reminds me of a better film entitled Serenity (Joss Whedon's 2005 movie spinoff from TV show Firefly), which also deals with the idea of a young weapon taking on those who created her. Serenity tackles things head-on, whereas Hanna seems to side-step the issue. I want more emotion, more gritty action, more of the drama that is seen near the film's close in a brilliant scene between father and daughter. But it just ain't there!

I realise it sounds like I hate this film, but I don't. The story really appeals to me and the acting is spot-on (for the most part). The first half is near-flawless and shows real promise for the film as a whole, but the second half dissolves into stylish quirkiness that wants to imitate the chase-and-fight style of The Bourne Identity.

Overall, it's worth checking out, but expect to be peeved at a fair amount of unfulfilled potential.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: 'The Awakening' (2011)


There's not really much to say about this film that you can't work out for yourself - it's a standard Haunted House Horror set in the 1920s, which sees a sceptic ghost-buster visit a "haunted" boarding school to debunk the supernatural goings-on, only to question her own beliefs. It deals with faith and post-war fears; on the latter note, it's very compelling - various characters have different opinions on the WWI conflict and suffered different traumas. And on the belief side - remember the film is called The Awakening - again, multiple viewpoints are given; there's no cliche "fear God!" characters or blind faith going on.

On the subjects of's full of them. The hand from the river grasping at our heroine's arm, the scary laughing child running about the house, the "there's something moving behind you!" moment. But there are only so many ways of scaring an audience so these moments are forgivable (besides, if you're still a fan of the horror genre you know all the tricks and presumably you don't care). It's worth mentioning a particularly creepy set-piece involving a doll's house that will tingle your spine. But other than that, the scary ain't that scary.

The characters are compelling - performances from Dominic West and Imelda Staunton are predictably note-perfect, but it's Rebecca Hall who shines through. In such a strong cast, it would be easy to see her blind-sided, but Hall is more than compelling as a strong female lead questioning her beliefs.

A lot of horor movies tend to spend so much time on fancy camera tricks and jumpy movements that the actual visual feel suffers. This isn't one of those cases - the entire movie is beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (he's the guy who used every trick in his arsenal to shoot 2010's Buried with Ryan Reynolds - a film everyone should see!)

A confident script from Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy (managed by director Murphy), easily earns the film 2.5. But the extra star comes from the emotionally compelling character-driven moments and a gut-wrenching final 20 minutes. What stops it getting any further is that it's a little longer than it needs to be, it uses just a few too many predictable horror cliches, and a random subplot with a secondary character acts as nothing more than a red herring. The ending, however, is deliciously ambiguous!


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Monday, 30 April 2012

A political viewing of 'The Cabin in the Woods'

Taken from here.

"This ending has zero moral satisfaction; this isn’t Buffy saving the world by jumping into a swirling vortex, or stabbing her demon lover through the stomach and sending him into a swirling vortex; there’s no superhero here to whose virtue, self-sacrifice and rad individualism we can all aspire. There are no old ideals worth defending.

And yet Joss Whedon, once again, seems to have taken the temperature of the cultural zeitgeist (literally “time ghost”—uniquely appropriate for the horror genre) with startling accuracy. Because every single “emerging adult” in that audience was laughing and sighing and cheering right along with me throughout Cabin in the Woods. We recognized ourselves up there: We were Marty and Dana, staring at a proscribed future (be successful! Raise good kids! Die for the sake of humankind!) and finding it at best non-viable and at worst utterly devoid of meaning." [...]

"We’re citizens of a rapidly overpopulating, ecologically imploding globalized world, surrounded by repressive conventions and outmoded systems and vitriolic political debates and brutal conflicts and the very old and the very new and much, much, MUCH more information about all of these things than our parents could ever have imagined dealing with at our age. We’re looking for new and old ways to handle it all, and no one has any answers, because no one has ever lived the way we are living now.

So excuse us while we decide not to devote our lives to work without considering what kind of impact, violent or otherwise, that work is having, on our selves and on the world. Excuse us while we try and build our own temples and battle our own demons, instead of blindly sacrificing our blood for yours. And if you don’t excuse us, whatever, it’s cool, Joss Whedon does. He gets it. I think."

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Friday, 27 April 2012

Review: 'The Avengers' (2012)

I didn't think I was capable of loving Joss Whedon's work any more after reviewing The Cabin in the Woods the other week. However........


So the story ain't the most complicated - god Loki (Thor's brother) arrives and plans to summon an alien army in order to rule mankind. That's it. But plot isn't really what we're interested in. It's the characters. And it was always going to be a difficult task - by bringing together so many huge heroes in the space of one film, there was a high chance that some were going to be overlooked and cast aside as Muscle of Comic Relief. This is true to an extent, but what is genuinely impressive is that every Avenger - Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Bruce Banner - are all given their time in the sun. And even some lesser characters (Agent Phil Coulson, Agent Maria Hill, Nick Fury) shine through the egos.

Captain America is our fish-out-of-water doorway to the film, offering a way for the audience to view the premise. Unfortunately, he's the least-developed character, despite being the guy with the most hangups (going to sleep in WWII and waking up in 2012 will fuck you right up!). But Cap never really interested me as a character (I was always more interested in that guy who throws a hammer and wields lightening), so I'm not too bothered.

Tony Stark is his usual cocky self, but now in a relationship with Pepper Potts which is a nice touch. He's still a smart-arsed egotistical, arrogant jerk, but he has heart. And he has a good arc within the movie. Thor obviously has family issues (again!) so there are two sides to every action he makes - saving the world vs. the love for his (adopted) brother. Hawkeye has a good story too - I won't say too much to avoid spoilers, but he gets to shoot a lot of people and sometimes feels bad about it.

But for me, Bruce Banner is the top of the pack. Mark Ruffalo brings great presence to the role - his awkward body language make him seem like a ticking time bomb. Banner's relationship with Black Widow is very compelling and these two probably have some of the best scenes in the movie. They explain each other - through Natasha we learn about Banner, and vice versa.

Obviously the action is great (it was always going to be, right?!) and it's very funny (this is Joss Whedon afterall). But there just seems to be something lacking that stops me wanting to give it 5/5, no matter how much I want to. It's my favourite Marvel movie, but some issues with the Hulk and Captain America prevent  .5 of a star. But Joss says 45 minutes was cut on the editing floor, and with the film already coming in at 2 hours 20 minutes, maybe those issues weren't there earlier on and some necessary cuts had to be made. Personally I'd watch a 3h 30m superhero movie by Joss Whedon, but it wouldn't be for everyone.

It's a war movie, pure and simple - there are a lot of battle sequences, and an abundance of war-room talk. But don't let that put you off if you don't like war films - this is still an fast-paced, exciting superhero flick. It's perfect in almost every way, with Whedon's script demanding the very best performances from the cast. And that's what's so fun to watch - the interactions between these couldn't-be-more-different characters make The Avengers a first-rate film.


The Avengers to date:
The Avengers (2012) -   4.5/5
Captain America (2011) -   3/5
Thor (2011) -   4/5
Iron Man 2 (2010) -   3/5
Iron Man (2008) -   4/5
The Incredible Hulk (2008) -   3/5 

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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: 'The Last Exorcism' (2010)

It's hard to write an objective review of anything with "exorcism" in the title because you're always going to compare it to that little film of the 70s. But I'll try to stay on-topic.

To shake things up, the film decides to use the fake found footage, docu-style filming so popular with horrors these days, using a camera crew to tell the "real" story. The first half does exactly what it needs to - sets up the characters and establishes the lore of the film: Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a religious preacher who's lost faith in the Almighty. Now under the belief that demons don't exist (in his own words if a man doesn't believe in demons, he can't believe in God), he sets about exposing exorcisms for the sham that they are. This is all very on-the-nose, but it's not a big deal - we can move past it.

We quickly move onto Cotton's final job - a young girl whose father believes she is possessed. A lot of horrors pass over character in favour of scares. The Last Exorcism isn't that bad - our religious preacher is compelling (if somewhat cliche), and the young possessed girl demands our attention, as do her father and brother.

But the real horror of the film comes from your own head. Our protagonist tells us that demons do not exist. But we know this is a horror film. So they can. But what if it's all psychological? But what if it isn't? That's what this movie does - you're constantly going back and forth on supernatural vs. science. The way the film presents this is more than enough to keep you entertained for the full 90 minutes.

There's a lot of screaming, some "what was that?!", a sprinkle of "somebody do something!", and plenty of in-the-dark horror set pieces. Everything you expect for the most-part. In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I won't say too much, but the ending is a bit of a side-step chaos-fest. It will divide audiences. I laughed. Then felt cheated. But in hindsight, I think the movie achieves its goal. It makes you question the world of the film and, consequently, the world we live in.

So why only 3/5??? Because it's impossible to watch the film without comparing it to its inspiration. I take that as a 5/5 movie, near-flawless. Don't get me wrong, The Last Exorcism is fun, scary, and intriguing. But it's no Exorcist!


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