Friday, 27 April 2012

The Avengers, dir/scr. Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn, Joss Whedon, based on The Avengers by Stan Lee Jack Kirby, st. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson

First things first: The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble for those expecting some Diana Rigging) is a whole heap of fun.Whedon clearly knows the material inside out, keeping the plates of homage, geekery, whip-smart scripting, generous character development and relentless action spinning together with poise and elegance. The simplicity of the plot - essentially Thor's Loki returns to earth to add annihilation to his CV - makes way for an expansive arena in which the superheroes' egos, sensibilities and cultures clash in the most satisfying and jocular of ways. To this end, Whedon wisely delays the nerdgasm spectacle of the group's harmonious kick-assery till the end, instead allowing us to witness the Avengers' unravelling loyalties and shifting paranoia with one another. There's more than enough room for the individual franchises to shine here, from Hemsworth's fish-out-of-water shtick to Downey Jr.'s endearing smirk, but it's Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner (and mo-capping as the be-greened one) who emerges with perhaps the most depth of backstory and nuanced performance. I'd be happy to censor any misgivings about another Hulk re-boot were Ruffalo to be involved. Elsewhere Johansson and Renner wring as much as they can from underwritten parts. Predictably the film tends to sag whenever things get too serious, but the script's wisecracks and visual gags are what really make it sing - the playful Whedon magic once more. So a success then? Commercially, at $2.5b worldwide for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, I would say so. It's a pure popcorn experience of course, nothing more, but it's also a deliriously giddy and gratifying watch.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Headhunters, dir. Morten Tyldum, scr. Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg, based on Hodejegerne by Jo Nesbø, st. Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund

Here's more of that Scandinavian Noir that's currently en vogue, although this time around containing much humour, an attribute you'd be forgiven for thinking was largely absent from the genre. Napoleon-complexed Roger Brown (Hennie) has a successful job as a corporate headhunter but also moonlights as an art thief in order to pay for his lavish lifestyle and ensure his Amazonian wife Diana's (Lund) happiness. She wants a child, he's too tangled in the double-life web he's woven to really know what he wants, but when an opportunity presents itself to rid himself of his mounting debt by stealing a genuine Rubens, he can't resist one last job. The film flip-flops between (albeit inky-black) comedy and all the thrills and tension of an accomplished chase-movie, and much of your enjoyment will hinge on whether the genre-blending works for you. What is palpable though is the sense of Roger really going through the mill - physically as well as psychologically - whether breathlessly attempting to evade the law, hiding in an outhouse cesspit, or being shunted off a cliff trapped in a car. His ordeal is wonderfully, bone-crunchingly real. One of the later scenes sees him emotionally broken, confessing his regret and love to his wife; it's a narrative beat you see coming a mile off, but for all its predictability, and much like the film as a whole, it's moving and compelling to watch. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

God Bless America, dir/wr. Bobcat Goldthwait, st. Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

Desperately tired of the inane superficiality of contemporary American tween-culture, and recently diagnosed with an inoperable tumour, Frank (Murray) takes to the road with Hit-Girl-moulded Roxy, a couple of firearms, and proceed to traverse the states, dispatching Republican politicians, Westboro Baptist preachers and cinema punters who use their mobile phones during the feature en route. It's difficult to say whether Bobcat Goldthwait's film is telling us anything we don't already know; that Americans' brains are gradually turning to mush due to the constant force-feeding of consumerism and dodgy politics. It's like a brilliant three-minute Bill Hicks routine (“Go back to bed, America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom!") but stretched out to ninety minutes. That said, it's also a blast, not always, but often mis-directing us with a witty, honest script; in one sequence, just when you feel Roxy's becoming a bit Juno, she suggests Diablo Cody as a possible target - "The only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem." Given the amount of physical ground the pair cover, it's unsatisfying to see them given such a static finale, but maybe asking much more of this film is asking too much. God Bless America is just a ride, and as such, it's just fine.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Lockout, dir. James Mather, Stephen St. Leger, wr. James Mather, Stephen St. Leger, Luc Besson, st. Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun

Given this film was based on an ‘Original Idea’ by Luc Besson, it’s unsurprising Lockout plays with all the plotting and thought of a hastily scrawled post-it note stuck on a computer monitor. Actually, it feels more like Besson awoke from a particularly vivid Michael Bay-infused dream, grabbed Milla’s lipstick from the dresser, and in semi-darkness wrote “THE ROCK’S GREAT. DO THAT”, Danny Torrance-style on the bathroom door. Guy Pearce stars as Snow, government agent, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. So far so yawn. He’s supposed to be bullish and cocky, but you know, a maverick. He even wears a t-shirt saying “WARNING: OFFENSIVE” just in case we don’t get it. In fact there’s all kinds of Brechtian signposting going on here. We’re used to establishing location shots overlaying a title – often in computer-font accompanied with bleeping – stating where we are. Lockout does this with the characters and includes a brief line about who they are, like “MACE, SNOW’S ACCOMPLICE”. I’ve just finished Uncharted 3 on PS3 and when a computer game’s less patronising and more involving than a film, you know you’re in trouble. The problem is Pearce’s arrogant egotism comes off as apathetic. Most of the time he looks bored, or worse, reading thrice-recycled quips from a cue-card off-screen. Similarly, Maggie Grace, the teeth-grindingly annoying Shannon from Lost, proves just as tedious here as the President’s daughter, investigating Human Rights violations on board an orbiting space prison when she’s taken hostage by the freshly thawed inmates. This futuristic cosmic Alcatraz incidentally, looks like it’s manned by about nine staff. So we’re still in a recession then. The only person who looks like he’s having any fun is Joseph Gilgun playing a psychotic inmate, and if you ever wondered what Woody from This Is England might look like if, following Lol dumping him again, he went on a killing spree and was frozen in stasis on a galactic Shawshank, look no further. He’s ten kinds of cheese and ham but he’s a fizzy foil to Vincent Regan’s unscary lead revolter. There’s also a bizarre kind of two-minute montage that’s supposed to serve as a subplot-closer at the film’s end, after which Grace and Pearce walk off into the sunset, chuckling that his first name is Marion. Ha! He’s so tough and he’s got a girl’s name! LOL. I’m aware that this all makes me look like a curmudgeon unable to let go and have fun, but this is all rather depressing. Besson’s better than this and Pearce’s latest three-minute viral as Mr. Weyland for Ridley Scott’s upcoming Prometheus illustrates once more what a fine actor he can be. Unfortunately, Lockout is an extended set-piece, a two minute trailer time-stretched to ninety minutes; an action movie of this sort should fly by in an exhilarating, kinetic rush, not make you feel like you’re doing time.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods, dir. Drew Goddard, wr. Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, st. Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford

Before you can say "Grr! Agrhh!" you'll notice Joss Whedon's fingerprints all over The Cabin In The Woods, as close to a big-screen Buffy outing as we're ever going to get. Director Goddard lays out the delightfully conflicting puzzle pieces from the off - a quintet of young 'uns off on a country retreat a la staple horror movie plotting, and a seemingly incongruous and mysterious control room where Nathaniel Fisher and Josh Lyman lurk, Men In Black-style. To explain where and how the two narrative paths converge is to totally let the creature out of the cell, so to speak, suffice to say that Whedon and Goddard's "loving hate letter" to the genre largely succeeds in all areas; the post-modern commentary is cleverly knitted into the fabric of the story without becoming too intrusive, and likewise the spirited cast allow convention to run its course and shriek, cry and bleed with the best of 'em. Most satisfyingly of all however is the film's last act, traditionally the lame-ass and dull thonk! of a revelation following an intriguing build up - the death-thud of so many hi-concept dramas. Which brings us back to Buffy; throughout the series the Big Bads were alternately scary, chilling, epic and intimate, from other dimensions or eerily close to home, but always wonderfully written, their stories sown into the very foundations rather than tacked on as an afterthought. You may not have liked it, but you always bought it. And that pretty much says it all.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Friends with Kids, dir/scr. Jennifer Westfeldt, st. Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Megan Fox, Edward Burns

The Bridesmaids sequel may not be happening, but Friends With Kids goes some way to soothe as a consolation. Whilst largely shawn of the former's raucous, exuberant energy, this is a more sombre and reflective piece; if Bridesmaids was about the fear and frustration of finding true love in your 30s, Friends With Kids zips forward a decade to when, having found your perfect partner, you find yourself eschewing friends and your own selfish impulses for the sake of bringing up your children. Westfeldt plays Julie, a charitable investment advisor whose sororal relationship with ad man Jason (Scott) prevents her from realising he's anything more than a BFF. The pair jointly decide to conceive a child, believing that going dutch on infant responsibilities will leave them ripe and primed should they meet their dream dates. The film's uncertain first act soon gives way to a richer narrative as Jason and Julie's best friends, couples Ben and Missy (Hamm and Wiig) and Alex and Leslie (O'Dowd and Rudolph), first scoff, then admire, before finally reflecting on the status of their own relationships. The crude language feels overtly gratuitous and the bold territory of the final third is undone by a pat-happy ending, but there's something smart and perceptive here, even if the overall effect leaves you a little underwhelmed.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, dir. Lasse Hallström, scr. Simon Beaufoy based on the book by Paul Torday, st. Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen perfectly fits the mould of the type of movie David Cameron thinks the British film industry should be concentrating on - accessible with a broad demographic in mind, driven by an appealing script (courtesy of Slumdog and Full Monty scribe Beaufoy), and judging by initial US box office figures, commercially successful. Yet there is something faintly subversive about the film. It's subtle, but it's there. Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) views salmon fishing as a soul-cleansing and faith-restoring pursuit, a redemptive ritual rather than a sport. His dreams of introducing it to the arid land of Yemen instead of "turning it into an 18-hole golf resort" as one character puts it, seem to echo what novelist Philip Pullman and Watchmen creator Alan Moore said at last month's Oxford Literary Festival - that monetising Art is to misunderstand its reason. It exists to inspire, to entertain, to educate. Similarly treated, though somewhat less understated, is the film's illustration of the Government itself - here depicted as bumbling and buffonish. Blunt's limitless grace and charm and McGregor's endearing portrayal of the spiritual-journeying Alfred Jones, the expert in all things fish, elevate this film a shade higher than its self-proclaimed "feel-good" limited aspirations would have you believe. For a film that's all about literal and allegorical swimming against the tide, it's remarkably pedestrianly broad-stroked, but fleetingly, darting here and there, are flashes of real heart.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Darkest Hour, dir. Chris Gorak, wr. Jon Spaihts, st. Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Rachael Taylor, Max Minghella, Joel Kinnaman

It's a bit of a shame that Timur Bekmambetov seems to have been on something of a downward trajectory since 2004's stylish supernatural thriller Night Watch and its sequel Day Watch, both inventive and unique additions to the genre. But then came Wanted in 2008, a paper-thin comic-book actioner in which Angelina Jolie gets to look sexy-fine as she curves bullets around corners, and later still, last year's tedious and unscary Apollo 18. This limp sliver of science fiction shamelessly plagiarises from a host of alien-invasion films so lazily it's downright disrespectful. With gaping plot holes as large as downed jet-airliners and GCSE Devised Practical Exam-dimensoned characters, it doesn't have a whole lot going for it. The CGI is tidy and it often looks the part - and at $30m, so it should - but it weirdly oscillates between wanting to be a big Hollywood blockbuster and 80s-era BBC Tripods-style hokum. The result is terribly uneven and misguided. When you perk up at main characters buying it at the hands of the electrically-tentacled intruders, it's probably not a good sign. Most worryingly, Kinnaman, whom I thought was rather good as Holder in AMC's The Killing, and next up as the metalled one in the new Robocop reboot, turns in an embarrassingly overwrought performance, and meanwhile, writer Jon Spaihts has just finished the Alien prequel Prometheus with Damon "I'm Just Making It Up As I Go Along" Lindelof, which judging by the trailers, looks great, but might end up like this - an unpolished but glitter-rolled turd.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, dir. Joseph Sargent, scr. James Bridges, st. Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert

Anyone with even a fraction of familiarity with the genre's tropes and conventions will know that hot-swapping key military, strategic and technological positions previously occupied by actual human people with Artificial Intelligence isn't going to end all kittens and cookies come the film's finale. Especially if, as in this wonderfully serious and stoic slice of 70's sci-fi about computer sentience, the President of the US publicly and triumphantly announces such a daft proposal live on air. Although we're in classic Humanity-undone-by-its-own-ingenuity territory, our hero, the Dr. Charles A. Forbin of the title (Braeden), is strangely resigned and detached once 'Colossus' starts to get all narked at being told what to do, first in scary HAL 9000 dumbshow, as passive-agressive scrolling text flashes up on its LED-board like some cheesed-off London Underground Station Train Arrivals display, and later, through actual speech, as luckily,  the machine acquires a vocoder which makes it sound like a robot. There's much less hysteria and melodrama here than perhaps we're used to in more contemporary similar-ilk sci-fi, and the film's suitably downbeat ending is a welcome relief from tired, last-act heroics. A questionably sleazy score aside, Colossus is a clever and perceptive take on science fiction that's becoming more scientific and less fictional every day. Now then, why's Siri not opening my pod-bay doors I wonder?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Game Change, dir. Jay Roach, scr. Danny Strong, st. Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson

It's strangely fitting that this review of HBO's TV movie based on the 2008 United States presidential election campaign comes days after Samantha Brick's woefully misguided article in the Mail Online has reminded us of the nefarious and underhand ways in which the inexperienced and untested can be abused and manipulated. Here, Sarah Palin's presence on McCain's ticket is put down to her impulsive and rash selection and hastily sloppy vetting procedure due to time constraints. As in Brick's case, it's easy here to mock the one in the spotlight, but consideration has to be given to those behind the scenes pulling the strings. Game Change based on the book of the same name plays as deliciously as any West Wing episode, even if Danny "Jonathan from Buffy" Strong's script unwaveringly plays the drama straight down the line. Whilst there's nary a Sorkin-bite to be heard, Moore's Palin rivals Tina Fey's extraordinary portrayal on Saturday Night Live, scenes from which this Palin painfully watches with moist eyes. Harrelson is similarly commanding as McCain's strategist Steve Schmidt, and a near-unrecognisable Ed Harris plays the seasoned McCain himself, heavy-headed with the weight of the knowledge of this campaign being his last chance saloon. The film cleverly cuts stock footage of the crowds, rallies, arenas, journalists, TV reports and interviews into the fiction and the result, though lacking bite, makes for a satisfyingly cogent and weighty couple of hours of television.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Yellow Sea, dir/scr. Na Hong-jin, st. Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jung-woo

It should come as no surprise that The Yellow Sea is the first Korean film to ever receive investment from a major Hollywood studio (Fox International Productions) crammed to the hilt as it is with the kind of bone-crunching brawls and chassis-thumping car chases that have become Hollywood’s action/thriller calling cards. Jung-woo plays Gu-nam, a cab driver in a downward spiral of debt and depression after paying for a visa that helped his wife flee to South Korea. Unfortunately for Gu-nam, he reluctantly accepts to take on a contract killing for local gang boss Myun-ga (Yoon-seok), a job that involves him crossing the dangerous Yellow Sea to Seoul, and encountering all manner of betrayal, double-crossings and many webs of interconnecting conspiracies. So far so Fugitive, but it’s the grime and muckiness of it all that sits this film apart from its Western counterparts; from the squalid conditions of Gu-nam’s flat and residences once in Seoul, to the harsh fluorescent lighting of his mark’s apartment hallway, to the very fights themselves, inelegantly hashed out with the hacking and cleaving of knives and hatchets as opposed to the dissociated gunplay cleanliness of Hollywood shoot-outs, there’s an all-pervading film of oily filthiness that cleverly serves to strip the glam from Gu-nam’s action-hero, turning him into a very viable nobody, merely desperate to find his wife and pay his debts rather than, say, heroically dispatching bad guys for queen and country. Yoon-seok is similarly persuasive in his portrayal of the low-budget, deadpanning crime-boss Myun-ga, a stoic, impassively-faced, at times almost super-human antagonist, as he stabs and meat-bone-clubs his way through the masses in order to eliminate his loose-end. The plot is fairly labyrinthine and you may struggle as I did to keep up with all the many narrative twists, turns and re-twists, but The Yellow Sea, is handsomely produced, exhilaratingly choreographed, and come the final scenes, surprisingly moving.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Bug, dir. William Friedkin, scr. Tracy Letts, based on his play, st. Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr.

Most recently seen on quite formidable, incendiary form in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, Michael Shannon plays Peter Evans, a drifter who claims to be a soldier, held by the military and experimented upon. Agnes (Judd) meanwhile has holed herself up in a crummy motel, her child's abduction and abusive husband's impending parole having turned her to a solitary, withdrawn existence fuelled by drugs and alcohol. It is into her world that Peter slips, introduced by a mutual friend, he begins to draw the susceptible Agnes into his destructive and paranoid delusion. Bug can be viewed at face value, as a study on mental illness and hysteria and where and how the two intersect, but it also has a wider more allegorical context. Peter's fears encompass government suspicion, fringe science, environmental conspiracy and media manipulation; Agnes' trauma has her spiralling downwards in a self-consuming depression. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's feeding from whom. Essentially a two-hander, Friedkin's horror may lack rotating heads or projectile vomit, but there's little doubting the film's white-knuckle intensity, in part due to the clever, claustrophobic set, and largely due to Shannon and Judd's seemingly abandoned willingness to descend into the mouth of madness to get the most out of these extraordinary characters. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Hunger Games, dir. Gary Ross, scr. Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray, st. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

Movies based on Young Adult literature are the new Hollywood manna. Tapping in to the vast reserves of predominantly female fans of plucky heroines, beefcake boyfs, and a smattering of pseudo-socio-political issuing, the industry has cottoned on to the fact that literary bestsellers can live out a regenerated second life in the multiplex. It's a safe bet, and a surefire hit. The oft-trod formula is played with and inventively spun, but always remains the same. Here, plucky heroine Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), able huntswoman and nimble with bow, competes in the titular annual event in which 'tributes' from the different districts of a post-apocalyptic North America are amphitheatred in a brutal death-match against each other. In what is essentially a retelling of the Minotaur myth, writer Suzanne Collins has created an effective if a little unimaginative and predictable fable of her own that touches on themes of oppression, personal independence and loyalty. Lawrence makes a compelling Katniss worth rooting for, but the design is poor, uninspiringly deriving from a whole host of movies from THX 1138 to The Fifth Element. Even the Capitol looks like a city twinned with Naboo. Box Office receipts have been strong, but I can't help feeling young adults are ready for something more substantial.

Womb, dir. Benedek Fliegauf, wr. Benedek Fliegauf, Elizabeth Szasz, st. Eva Green, Matt Smith

Trimmed from the same cloth as Green's later slice of bleak sci-fi - David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense that I championed last year - Womb is a similar tale of a love tested under extraordinary conditions. Green plays Rebecca, a woman who's reunited with her childhood love, political activist Tommy (Smith), after twelve years of separation, only to instantly lose him in a traffic accident. Utilising the very tech he was campaigning against, Rachel decides to clone Tommy and carry the foetus herself. The clinical tone and über-reserved style, aided by the beautifully desolate beachscapes of Germany's north sea coast and some purposefully laboured dialogue, might make this film a reach too far for some, but for the most part, it eschews Oedipal melodrama for some eerily fragile moments. Smith doesn't quite manage to unbind himself from the good Doctor and Green does the borderline psychotic shtick better than anyone, but it's an effective and rather chilling story. There's a clever sound design too by Tamás Beke which utilises Aliens-like synthetic wind and low frequency rumbles that seem to blend the sound of local crashing waves with ultrasound-style underwater-filtering. It's also good to see a film about cloning start from the beginning, questioning the politics and reasoning behind it, rather than jumping in medias res when their existence is already a given, like most sci-fi that deals with similar thematic material. A thoughtful and unsettling film.