Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Total Recall, dir. Len Wiseman, scr. Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, st. Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy

Glossy remakes of old favourites will always be the hardest of sells. News this week wafted around the internet of discontent from Jose Padhila as production gears up for his new Robocop movie out next year; earlier this month film journalist Drew McWeeny allegedly obtained a copy of the shooting script and took to twitter to lambast the project, and now Padhila's friend, City Of God director Fernando Meirelles has weighed in saying, "For every ten ideas he has, nine are cut." Admittedly, a grit-truck load of salt should be taken with these reportings, but if there's one thing experience has taught us, it's that all this sounds wearily plausible. 

And so step forward Total Recall,  remake of the keenly satirical and violent 1990 original by director Paul Verhoeven. Shorn of Philip K. Dick's wacky Martian narrative thread (a thread Verhoeven built his film around), this only succeeds in becoming yet another quasi-dystopian futurist receptacle for the same old twinkly Blade Runner-hacked cityscape backdrops. When coupled with the trailer for the new Judge Dredd film Dredd, the effect is tiresome indeed. Insultingly, Colin Farrell (playing the Arnie role of hero Douglas Quaid) is bestowed with a throwaway reference - quite literally "I'd like to go to Mars." Yuck. It's not all bad. The schizophrenic production design visually confounds as well as making little practical sense (I know, it's science fiction, but an inter-planetary elevator that goes from Australia to the UK via a lift-shaft cut through the Earth's core? What now?) but the tech's occasionally imaginative enough to be mildly diverting. And there is one cool little homage to the original that takes place in a space-port queue in which a red-haired lady, when questioned about her stay, replies in monotone, "Two weeks..." that brought a smile to my curled lips despite myself, but then there's the tri-breasted prostitute - a product of mutation in the first film, a product of complete incomprehension here.

Liberally thieving from better material seems to be de rigueur these days, so much so, that as John Doe might say, we tolerate it because it's common; more and more one feels ones pleas for a little bit of vision, a little bit or originality, are lost, echoing soundlessly in the great Hollywood money-making abyss. I for one would love some implants of my own. And by that I mean, of course, memories of better times in the Cinema auditorium, not a third tit.

Blue Thunder, dir. John Badham, wr. Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby, st. Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Warren Oates, Candy Clark

After directing Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Badham made a name for himself directing what are now widely regarded as 80s staples - WarGames, Short Circuit, Stakeout, and this, a shot of pure Saturday-night-at-the-movies nostalgic adrenaline. Co-written by Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon, Blue Thunder tells the story of Post Traumatic Stress Disordered cop Frank Murphy (Scheider), a maverick helicopter pilot who monitors his sanity by his stopwatch, and succeeds, as most maverick cops do, by alienating those around him. After being selected to test-fly a new attack chopper, (the Blue Thunder of the title) Murphy stumbles upon a political conspiracy and corruption involving the recent death of a local LA councilwoman. Essentially an extended chase sequence, Blue Thunder features the kind of spectacular action and real-world effects now dwarfed by CGI and more comprehensive plotting, but it's a ride nonetheless. Upon its release in 1983 Blue Thunder did remarkably well, even overtaking the mother of Step Up movies Flashdance at the number one Box Office spot. It's possible I'm biased - Blue Thunder is one of a handful of films that encapsulates my childhood - and upon re-watching, there isn't really much substance to it, but the aerial sequences are charged and well edited and Scheider proves a winningly dry antihero. The movie also features, in my opinion, one of the most atmospheric film posters of all time.

Shadow Dancer, dir. James Marsh, wr. Tom Bradby, st. Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Aidan Gillen, Gillian Anderson

One of the more quietly startling aspects of Marsh's 2008 docu-drama Man On Wire was how easily high-wire walker Philippe Petit was able to breach the World Trade Centre's security, thus enabling him to rig a high-tension cable from the towers' corners. Shadow Dancer sees Marsh re-visit the looming spectre of terrorism via a meticulously evoked sense of 90s muted-colour drabness. Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh - surely surnamed to instil in us a sense of foreboding from the off - a member of the IRA ensnared and threatened with imprisonment by MI5 agent Mac (Owen). Only turning informant for them will save her incarceration, and her boy from going into care. This is the kind of production that the BBC do best - slow burning, economically edited, persuasively performed and throughout, an impending sense of doom pervading the whole runtime. For the most part the film eschews broader commentary on how the IRA's motives dovetail into national politics in favour of exploring the intimate inter-familial bonds that held their ranks together. To this end, Riseborough gives a absorbingly stoic performance as Colette - numbed into submission by Mac on one side, and the chilling Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot) on the other, whose very presence at the McVeigh house usually foreshadows an offer unrefusable. There's also solid support from Anderson as Mac's superior Kate Fletcher, exuding a breezy air of plausible deniability, and who may or may not be playing Mac as part of a higher-tiered operation above his pay-grade. An immersive and sombre watch.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

John Q, dir. Nick Cassavetes, wr. James Kearns, st. Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta

If nothing else, John Q is a film full of noble intent. Propelled by a searing performance by Washington, it tells the story of John Archibald, a blue collar worker who finds himself at the mercy of the system when his health insurance denies him the assets with which to pay for a life-saving heart transplant for his son Michael. Refusing to see his son die, John holds up a hospital and demands his son be placed at the top of the donor list. This is just the first in a whole raft of flaws that deny us any sense of real sympathy for John's plight. The film is plagued by a series of overwrought moments of clunky emotional gurning and 'door-slam' sound effects that needlessly punctuate key scenes, but worst of all, by reducing the desperately important debate over free medical care to a hostage situation and the ensuing media circus in which mindless onlookers cheer for John without really knowing what it is he's doing, things border on the absurd and the film's political message is damned. Predictably, Washington is on fine form here, but the terrific calibre of the supporting cast is marred by the unrealistic and two-dimensional characters they are expected to play; Robert Duvall's hostage-negotiator manages to get out what feels like 5% of his original lines, Anne Heche as the hospital administrator has a remarkably unlikely change of heart at the film's finale for no other reason than she seems to be moved by Washington's performance in the film, and Ray Liotta's pompous police chief elicits a helpful booing from the gathering crowd outside Q's hospital, you know, just in case we've forgotten how we're supposed to feel about him. Interestingly enough, everything - the door-slams, the overdriven empathic music, the police commander swanning in to take charge - have all recently been masterfully satirised in Charlie Brooker's Touch Of Cloth which aired last night, so it was quite possibly a mistake on my part to watch these two consecutively. There's serious commentary to be aired about a state's moral obligation to look after its citizens; unfortunately John Q, like its namesake, finds its application denied.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Safe House, dir. Daniel Espinosa, wr. David Guggenheim, st. Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson

A somewhat tedious soft-boiled Bourne-tinged thriller from director Espinosa, Safe House stars the usually dependable Washington as the improbably cool-sounding Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA agent turned freelance acquirer and seller of incendiary documentation. Branded a traitor to his country by the Agency, he is captured in South Africa and moved to a safe house where fledgling field-agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), who longs for a little excitement (presumably of the free-running on rooftops type) and a time when he doesn't have to lie to his beautiful French girlfriend Ana about having a boring office job, resides as 'housekeeper'. The safe house, as it happens, turns out to be not so safe after all, and Frost escapes, followed by Weston, in turn followed by the CIA. It's all a bit Tony Scott-by-numbers unfortunately - poignantly timely as the director sadly passed away last week. Washington and Scott, who collaborated together on five films, proved to be a winning team with Scott providing the pyrotechnic flair and kinetic élan and Washington giving what might have otherwise been throwaway popcorn fare, a quietly charismatic leading man. Sadly there's little plot here, the screenplay is predictable and uninspiring and there's little character empathy. With a near two hour running time, it's overlong too; many directors have done much more with much less. Farmiga is wasted, as is Joel 'neo-Robocop' Kinnaman, and there's a driving percussive score from Ramin Djawadi that's got John Powell's fingerprints all over it. If you've never seen Crimson Tide, Man Of Fire, Déja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or  Unstoppable, time to update your LOVEFiLM list.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Imposter, dir/wr. Bart Layton, st. Frédéric Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide

"You couldn't make it up!" as Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn might say, although if he did, this inky-black study of the psychological limits of acceptance and deception might have found a different angle; "That Frédéric Bourdin, coming over here, stealing our missing children's identities...". Proof that real life donates the best scripts and dialogue, Layton's extraordinary film hinges not only on the exploits of The Chameleon himself, already vastly documented, but on the disappearance of thirteen year old Nicholas Barclay who vanished from Texas in 1994, and his family's - desperate? suspicious? warranted? - willingness to accept him - actually Frédéric Bourdin - back into their lives. Much like James Marsh's 2008 documentary Man On Wire, The Imposter similarly constructs the narrative around a generic thriller-mould - complete with re-enacted dramatic sequences which cleverly blend the interview footage with carefully choreographed facsimiles of the real events. There's a rather dark and unsettling shift into murkier waters in the film's third act, when the focus shifts from Bourdin - an endlessly fascinating individual - to the grieving family itself: is there something uglier going on behind the scam, something even Bourdin is unaware of? The film is as incredulous as it is uncomfortably plausible, and, despite ourselves, we are utterly compelled to go down this particularly eerie rabbit-hole to see where it leads.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

United 93, dir/wr. Paul Greengrass, st. Khalid Abdalla, Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson

One remembers thinking in the days that followed the September 11th attacks that this was surely going to have a long-lasting and critical impact on Hollywood. In recent years the images of the planes striking the towers have been archived from every conceivable angle and format on YouTube, the moment of impact itself extraordinarily terrifying in the way the clips' muted sound and static angles highlight the reality of what we are seeing; there is no sound design, there is no dramatic score, there is no sense of storyboarding, just events unfolding in real time. It is undoubtedly the single most terrifying event of my generation. How could terrorists, planes, airports, hostages, fights, fire, destruction and carnage ever be depicted under the guise of entertainment again? And yet comparatively soon, with time, objectivity and reasoning, the War On Terror begun, the world got back up on its feet, Bin Laden was hunted and eventually killed, and, certainly cinematically, things have gone back to normal. What we are left with is arguably an even more fertile ground for movie narrative and exposition than before; paranoia is heightened, everyone and everything is a potential threat. Historically of course, this is nothing new. Wars have passed, atrocities uncovered, dictators overthrown, and we have gone on to tell stories about all these things. We look on Spielberg's Schindler's List as an educational tool rather than a cynical attempt to cash in on the unspeakable. 

What then to say about Greengrass's film? Made a mere five years after the attacks, it sensitively attempts to dramatically portray two of the major events on that day; the confusion between the various air traffic controls and the military in the face of the unprecedented unfolding events, and the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 and their efforts to overcome the hijackers and storm the aircraft's cockpit. The main action, shot at Pinewood in a disused Boeing 747, conveys a heart-stopping sense of claustrophobia as the passengers, filmed in blurry hand-held close-up, gradually realise their part in the day and decide to fight back. Greengrass eases off for the most part on the Drama, but there is an unnecessary score from the talented John Powell that pops up from time to time, which really has no place in a film like this. Notably, the terrorists themselves are depicted, as well as devout followers of their religious beliefs and cause, as human beings, fearful, nervous and somewhat under-rehearsed. That time is given to portray them as people rather than faceless spiritual warriors provides much of the film's resonance. Ultimately, one concludes that like Spielberg's film, this too is an instructive watch. It demonstrates how unprepared we are until faced with the unimaginable. It shows the complacency in believing we are protected from those who wish to hurt us, and it shows the real courage and strength it takes to face real-world terror outside our dreams or the cinema.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Airborne, dir. Dominic Burns, wr. Paul Chronnell, st. Mark Hamill, Billy Murray, Simon Phillips, Gemma Atkinson, Julian Glover

A rag-tag bunch of loners and misfits board an airliner from Robin Hood airport (featuring the kind of peace, quiet and understaffing you only find in low-budget horrors) and find themselves thirty thousand feet up caught between a fiendish ruse to divert the plane and land in South America, and the release of a vengeful God who's been holed up for thousands of years in a vase. Trying to make desperate sense of proceedings, and indeed his career, is Mark Hamill, playing a slightly less iconic movie character in the form of air traffic controller Malcolm. Actually, that's a little mean. Hamill's done extraordinary voice-work as The Joker in both the Batman animated and video-game world, but his performance here smacks of favour-calling, rather than strength of conviction. Director Burns is competent although there's less innovation here than the expansive genre affords and it all looks like a rather messy homage by an obsessive Neil Marshall fan.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest '86, dir. János Zsombolyai, st. Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, Roger Taylor, Brian May

If, like me, you were born just that little bit too late to see Queen live, then I suspect this latest hi-def restoration is the closest we'll ever come to experiencing it. This remaster, it must be said, is a complete joy. If you excuse the 80s hair and dismiss the wonderful absence of pin-speckled smart-phone screens in the audience, this could pass for a live simulcast. Noteworthy too is the clarity and tone of the 5.1 mix. Now all those crazy pans, delays and phaser studio effects we know and love bounce around the auditorium along with tight and punchy LFEs. I remember destroying my Queen cassettes through overuse. The tape would become thin and warped, though admittedly, I often tried pressing rewind and play at the same time in an attempt to discover what those weird vocals were saying at the beginning of One Vision. I remember Ian Hislop on Room 101 who posited that Queen started off as these great music pioneers collating different styles and tastes, and ended up 'doing chants', in which people could 'shout mindless lyrics and feel better about themselves.' My argument isn't so much in that statement itself, but in the fact that I'm not sure Queen's stadium inclusivity is such a bad thing. We have seen, recently in London, how an arena of tens of thousands can bring their focus to bear on one, or a group of individuals, and share their elation, their energy, their desire to perform, and how the performers feed off their enthusiasm. Like the greatest theatre, it is an exchange; there are no passive participants in such an event. Watching Freddie Mercury stride and strut and belt out a note-perfect tune is physically exhausting to watch, especially with the absence of giant video-screens that nowadays flank the stage offering those in the cheap-seats (or cheap-mud) a chance to catch a glimpse of the action, it is even more remarkable to watch a man instinctively know how to fill the space, to be as big a presence as possible; running up and down the gantries, steps and catwalks isn't ego, it's a public service. We are reminded, from the concert footage, but also the documentary inserts that are interspersed throughout, breaking up the action, Mercury was an erudite and committed frontman, a flamboyant and kinetic showman, but also, most movingly of all, a quiet and softly cheeky individual. Breathtaking.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Contact, dir. Robert Zemeckis, scr. James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg, based on Contact by Carl Sagan, st. Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, David Morse

Beginning with an extensive pull-back from Earth with all its cacophonous audio soup of TV, radio and communication signals and ending at the extreme boundaries of outer space - by which time all we hear is the faintest whispered static and white noise - Contact, based on the book by beloved astrophysicist Carl Sagan, very much the Brian Cox of his day, sets itself up to be the cerebral response to all the bug-hunt alien movies of yore. Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a SETI researcher who is shocked one day to discover a signal being returned to our pale blue dot from the star Vega. The nature of the message and its contents are exciting enough, but the real meat of the film is derived from a conflict Arroway has, as Dr. Lector might have put it, deep within herself; she forms an uneasy romantic bond with Palmer Joss (McConaughey) - a spiritual advisor to the stars, as it were - who in turn escalates up the ranks, eventually becoming the President's right-hand mystic, just as Arroway begins a bullied fall from grace at the hands of the glory-hunting, former-sceptic David Drumlin (Skeritt). The Science Vs. Spirituality argument is intimately played out between the pair, and the scale, awe and wonder of the film's physics is intelligently woven into the story. Alan Silvestri once more employs a mawkish score he unashamedly lifts from his own Forrest Gump themes, anchoring the movie to mass appeal and never letting the geekiness run away with the goods. Quite simply, Hollywood rarely deals with thematic content this vast and far-reaching in a mainstream movie anymore, certainly, in a post-911 environment (the film was made in 1997), the idea of one of the film's sub-plots involving evangelical Christian terrorism would doubtless sit uneasily in the minds of movie-goers and studios alike. But Foster convinces as Ellie, vulnerable, intelligent, driven, and the film has as much to say on galactic existentialism as it has on misogyny and gender-discrimination.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Source Code, dir. Duncan Jones, wr. Ben Ripley, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Duncan Jones' follow up to his debut, the low-key Moon in 2009, is another classy slice of sci-fi ingenuity, maxed out for audiences in the mainer stream. Helicopter pilot Colter Stevens wakes up in a nightmarishly claustrophobic military escape pod and finds himself having orders barked at him by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Wright) and Airforce Captain Goodwin (Farmiga). He learns he is in the Source Code, a computer simulation of the last eight minutes of a victim's life aboard a doomed passenger train that exploded earlier. His mission is to use and re-use these eight minutes to hunt the bomber. Crucially, this isn't time travel, he's told, rather he's surfing on synaptic echoes. Jones' Twilight Zonal yarn is a trim, taut, and rather pacy thriller that's light on mystic existentialism and heavy on driving plot. It's Gyllenhaal's show, obviously, and he's a likeable enough hero - caught somewhere between intuitive service to his country and an instinctive desire to pinch himself hard enough to wake up. Farmiga though, has arguably the harder role. Initially unable to tell Colter where he his, or the true nature of his condition (quite shockingly revealed later on) in order to conserve time and force him to remain on point before the terrorist makes good on another threat, she's continually battling emotional compartmentalisation with a nagging feeling she's unethically toying with one life to save many others. Just what constitutes life and death is the key theme running through Source Code, but Jones never pauses to contemplate too long lest it swamp the cracking ride.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Unbreakable, dir/wr. M. Night. Shyamalan, st. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark

Hollywood only remembers the last thing you did. M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, The Lady In The Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender have become perennial cudgels with which to beat him, derisive failures from a director fallen too far from grace to ever recover. In the mêlée The Sixth Sense has been dismissed as a fleeting one-off, its subsequent copycats having robbed the original of its ingenuity, Mel Gibson's real-life histrionics have blighted Signs' genuine sense of Hitchcockian wonder and, perhaps most egregiously, 2000's Unbreakable, a tremendously detailed dissection of superhero origin has been relegated to near anonymity in the face of Marvel's continued iron-booted command over the multiplex. 

What the film asks, and the thing that most contemporary superhero films gloss over with indifference, is what happens when the superhero becomes self-aware? Peter Parker is bitten by a spider and within minutes he's yee-ha-ing through Manhattan, identity crisis over, let's go fight crime. Unbreakable gives us just one fight, and it's right at the end of the film's third act. It's purposely clumsy and cleverly ill-choreographed. It's a superhero finding his feet, discovering - painfully, in that scene - his identity. Willis gives a hushed and intimate performance as the alliteratively-named David Dunn - easily his greatest role to date, and there's solid support from Jackson and Penn yes, but also from Treat Clark and Johnny Hiram Jamison as Joseph, Dunn's son and Young Elijah respectively. As a fellow critic recently observed, children are an integral feature to the fabric of Shyamalan's narratives. He shows us extraordinary events often viewed through the most innocent eyes. Hence the ingenious secondary plot-line of Unbreakable is also the simplest; alone in the eye of a family on the verge of collapse, Joseph Dunn wants to have a father once more, a hero. Not the kind that dons a cape and saves families from intruders, but a protector, a mentor, a friend. 

Unbreakable also features what might be composer James Newton Howard's most accomplished work. Like Shyamalan, Newton Howard gently unpicks the clarion-call triumphalist motifs of superhero themeology and has written a score that explores instead all the fragility and uncertainty of what it means to be human, not superhuman. In the film, in the moments when the hero does overcome, we are treated to hearing the embryonic stages of what might be a rich and grandiose full-blown superhero theme, and it's dignified and noble instead of audacious and glib. Commensurate with the mood of the film, there is a lot of stillness in the music. Key scenes sometimes go completely unscored altogether. It's a classic example of creating art being as much of a reductive process as an additative one, and Shyamalan does this better than anyone.

That many haven't seen Unbreakable or that it has been consigned to the recesses of public and academic consciousness is a great shame; instead of attempting to crank pacing, plot and pyrotechnics up to eleven, it dials everything back, and as a result, is perhaps one of the most restrained and meditative superhero films ever made.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sound of My Voice, dir. Zal Batmanglij, wr. Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling, st. Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius

Anyone who saw Marling's astonishing sci-fi-infuséd drama Another Earth last year will be pleased to know this film, written alongside and very much a companion piece to AE, comprises more of the same intimate and intricate plotting peppered with mind-bending revelatory twistings. This time Marling plays Maggie, an enigmatic basement-ridden prophet apparently from fifty years into our future, who's recruiting a small band of followers in order to prepare them for oncoming hardships. Determined to expose her as the shamen they believe her to be, film-makers and lovers Peter and Lorna infiltrate her mysterious sessions and rituals, but it's not long before the search for truths within and without begin to take their toll. Marling apparently wrote this and Another Earth (both 2011 Sundance exciters) oscillating between floors with housemates Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij and there's a clear symbiosis between them. Both feature the same kind of low-buget hi-concept streamlined narrative, docu-like handheld camerawork that perpetuates an engaging immediacy and in AE's Rhoda and SOMV's Maggie, a central role of charismatic, nuanced delicacy and intensity. The film's success lies in eschewing bloating story-lines and jettisoning extraneous characters, bringing our focus to bear on pretty much a single narrative strand and the searing interaction between a triumvirate of fascinating characters. Cleverly, Batmanglij refrains from showing us much of the outside world the film inhabits, like the increasingly obsessing Peter, narrowing our view of what we see around us until there's just one maddeningly infuriating riddle in our path: Maggie. Is she for real? In one quite brilliant sequence, she's asked, or maybe goaded, by one of her followers into revealing something about where she's supposedly from. "Sing us a song from your time", they ask. The song she chooses is at first alien, then strangely familiar, until it hits you; it isn't a song from the future at all. Her group allow her to finish, their expressions mirroring ours, and then one of them confronts her with it. Her response is simple and sublime, and it's these little pieces of humble rhetoric that slowly, against our better intuitions, begin to sell the idea that maybe, she is indeed the traveller she says she is. Batmanglij and Marling have made a quiet cerebral little film that's chilling, exciting and come the end, curiously moving too. And I can't wait to see it again.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Battleship, dir. Peter Berg, wr. Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, st. Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker

It's a good time to be on the board of directors at toy manufacturer Hasbro. Pick anything from their lines, package it as a clone of their biggest celluloid-transitional success Transformers, and watch the green fly in. Berg's film cranks up the Michael Bay-levels of fetishistic Military-Porn to eleven; hulking  gun batteries and turrets groan into position before unleashing their load onto the enemy with satisfying THX clarity. It's not a subtle message, and like Team America before it, the film could have just as easily be called Battleship: America Will Fuck You Up, Bitch. Wondering how he can make things any more jingoistic, Berg has an entire crew of Navy OAPs join the fight (by crewing the mothballed USS Missouri), and later a retired paraplegic goes head to head with one of the behemoth alien foot-soldiers. No, seriously. He wins as well. There are some cute nods to the original game, Kitsch is serviceable as the screw-up who comes good, and Rihanna sneers and wisecracks in all the right places. Even Neeson adds a steely presence as the fleet's admiral. There's something weirdly admirable about the Megatron-sized balls it must take to so brazenly rip-off your own work, right down to score, ship, and sound design, but Hasbro have played a marketing blinder; finding a way to repeatedly sell the same product to the same consumer under a different name. Personally I can't wait for the big-screen outing of Bop-It!

Friday, 3 August 2012

Chatroom, dir. Hideo Nakata, wr. Enda Walsh, st. Aaron Johnson, Hannah Murray, Imogen Poots, Matthew Beard, Daniel Kaluuya

Never quite escaping the shackles of its A-Level-themed 'issue'-flavoured theatricality but given an adequately creative visual concept by Ring director Nakata, Chatroom tells the story of five teenagers who come together online to talk about teen stuff, although this seems to primarily consist of asking each other, "what do you hate?" They're all given their own unique whine - albeit lame-o and noncommittal problems - but none more so than William played by Aaron Johnson, Kick Ass's Kick Ass, a cutter who seeks - Evelyn Ann Thompson-style - to indirectly tamper with the insecurities of a fellow depressive for sport. To make the drama (of what are essentially lines of text spoken on a computer screen) sing, Nakata has the characters meeting in an opulent hotel room, its corridors and suites standing in for the labyrinthine ones and zeros of the cyber world. It's suitably creepy and at least one sequence - William voyeuristically observing via web-cam a Japanese girl plunge to her death from her bedroom window - has distinct echoes of the J-Horror Nakata's famed for, but the script, adapted by Walsh from his own play text, makes for too limp and uninspiring a story to provide any real thrills. 

Tyrannosaur, dir/wr. Paddy Considine, st. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan

Like marbles in a basin, damaged souls will find each other, their suffering seemingly acting like some telekinetic gravitational force pulling fellow counterparts into their own orbits. Call it chance, fate or divine intervention even, there is no reason why Mullan's Joseph seeks refuge inside the charity shop run by Hannah (Coleman) other than in an attempt to find sanctuary from his own inner rage - a veritable tinderbox of blind violence and aggression. A devout Christian herself, Hannah welcomes in this stranger, tolerates his oscillation between his sneery taunts and apologetic endeavours to exercise self-regulation. The wonderfully economic screenplay allows the attempted connection between these two to strike a persuasive balance between feel-good meetings of minds and ultra-bleak nihilism. But Hannah herself is hiding a secret too. Possibly the hard slap Joseph needs to make him aware of his own context and environment, he discovers she too is in a hell of her very own. Considine's first feature film hinges entirely on two hugely affecting portrayals by Mullan and Coleman - the latter in particular giving a terrifyingly honest depiction of abuse - whilst Mullan, his voice deep and cracked with bitterness and self-pity, gives Joseph a whispered humanity between the eruptions of fury.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Christopher Nolan, scr. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, st. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman

Maybe it's with the entitled weight of cathartic finality that the final act in Christopher Nolan's triptych, in many ways the most inelegant, has the effect of being the easiest of the three films to overlook its narrative and character-shading shortcomings, of which have no doubt, there are a great many. The re-imaging of the Dark Knight story that began with Batman Begins in 2005 arrived with such gloomy solemnity you could almost hear the collective consciousness tut-tutting at yet another 'dark' retelling. Yet with the story Nolan began to weave, focussing on Bruce Wayne's battle with inner demons, absolute morality and urban degradation, the cheerless subject matter quickly justified such portentous a tone. Batman's self-sacrificing assumption of the murder of Harvey Dent in order to keep the spark of hope alive in disillusioned Gothamites at the end of The Dark Knight was a million miles away from the technicolor self-congratulatory fanfare of superheroes gone before. Yet as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Jim Emerson so painstakingly pointed out in a video essay analysing one of TDK's key sequences, there are many ways to make a film, and many ways to make a mess. 

Technically, and certainly from a performance standpoint, The Dark Knight Rises is as remarkable as its predecessors. Wally Pfister continues to take black-level cinematography to ever nth-er degrees, and in one standout sequence, even reverses the palate by shooting an exhilarating action sequence set against a snowy daylight backdrop - a visually striking trick repeated from the earlier films. Similarly the principles give wonderful turns in roles that are the most underwritten of the series. More of that in a moment. It is, however, Tom Hardy as the hulking yet eloquent Bane who emerges as the film's clearest triumph. Shot primarily from perception-distorting low angles and attired in quasi-dictorial military garb, Hardy cleverly bestows Batman's adversary with a nonchalant swagger and a received pronunciation vocal inflection that recalls Dr. Lector and his maw-restricting mask. Whereas Heath Ledger's Joker wielded a brutal and unpredictable wild anarchy, Bane is contemplative, poetic, refined even. The first time Wayne and Bane engage has The Bat throwing all the furious punches whilst being out-powered and out-balleted by his foe. 

And this is where we come to the sticking point; narratively, The Dark Knight Rises is a mess, especially the first twenty minutes - an untidy and shoddy collection of scenes that aim for illusory disparity but succeed only in incoherence. Characters emerge from nowhere, say their piece and disappear, the screenplay is screamingly first-drafty, and there's precious little character introduction let alone development. Arguably we have had two other previous films from which to flesh them out, but there are four here who suffer most, three of them new characters; Hathaway's Selina Kyle, Cotillard as the mysterious Miranda Tate (both with rich and complex backstories that are criminally under-explored) Gordon-Levitt's rookie cop Blake (whom on discovering how pivotal a role he has, will have you looking back on the film, suspecting sleight of hand but discovering merely an ill-conceived character) and most bewilderingly, Batman himself. This was to be his swan song. "The legend ends", we were told. How then is there next to nothing in the way of reflection on Bruce Wayne's part in all of the film's near three-hour runtime? Even Alfred's wise words begin to sound like a bad pastiche on his once genuinely sage advice. Only one scene, Wayne's visit to a doctor in which, alarmingly, we're made aware of the physical toll being the city's protector has had on his body allows us to embrace Batman's mortality. The sheer scale of the film is truly impressive and Hans Zimmer's score pounds and arpeggiates in all the right places, but this time, it's not as easy to put aside plot-holes and lazy screenwriting. The series - Nolan's vision - has already proved it deserves better.

Much of this may seem like nit-picking and I suspect most people won't want to feel short-changed by The Dark Knight Rises. No one wants to feel let down by emotional investment. But while the film is ambitious, audacious, literary and beautiful, it's let down by fundamentals that should have already been in place. There's no point having a cake decorated by a world-class pâtissier artist if the cake itself fails to rise. As the trilogy's epilogue TDKR is as much of a ride as it was ever going to be. The tragedy is that it could have been so, so much more; a superhero movie that cemented this type of comic-book fantasy as a genre that stood up to the rigorous scrutiny of cinematic academia. But no matter. Nolan, like Batman, is retired from this saga having paid his dues. And what a thrilling ride into the night it has been.