Archive for April, 2010

With Iron Man 2 so very close…

April 28, 2010

Iron Man 2 goes on general release tommorow (Thursday) and I found myself casting my mind back to the original…

2008’s Iron Man was a film I enjoyed. Enjoyed – but didn’t love. The effects were great, Robert Downey Jnr was inspired as Tony Stark, and to be honest, I thought there was enough action and that Obadiah Stane was a good villian. Iron Man was the sort of escapism the cinema should be all about – right?

Actually, no.

Iron Man was thoroughly Hollywood – I’m going to describe it as a ‘shake and bake cinema’. Add charismatic lead, sexy females, explosions, clear division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and just a hint of ‘The American Dream’ – serves 30-40 million cinema goers.

Iron Man isn’t immature but I would call it silly. I wanted to buy into the films ‘universe’ but scene after scene played for laughs didn’t help. I found myself asking why if Stark has created Artificial Inteligence he sells military equipment less advanced than his desk lamp? It’s the equivalent of Bill Gates developing Windows 7 and giving the world Windsows 3.1 (remember that one?). I also wanted to know why the US Military allowed this…Suppose I need to mention the absurdity of building a reactor in a cave ((with second hand parts) while being watched by thugs checking if your making a missile. Not sure if I was supposed to be ‘impressed’ with Stark or just walk out of the cinema in bemusement.  

My biggest gripe was that Iron Man never tried to be anything. £8 of your money was all it sought – not to tell a great story, not to be memorable. In the film the ultimate Stark weapon is the Jericho missile – ‘fire and forget’. Iron Man is view and forget. Perhaps thats a weakeness of the source material  – flying superhero (Superman) + playboy billionaire (Bruce Wayne) = Iron Man, second tier hero. The whole film lacked anything unique – and where was the inspiration, the scene that was ”wow”? Perhaps I’m asking too much for unique – but surely not for inspiration? Was The Dark Knight unique? No, it was just sticking closer to an old comic. However, it had inspiration – someone was trying to make a good film.

With Iron Man 2 I am hoping we get a bit more substance to go witht the style – a story with some depth, 3-D characters, a bit of ‘wow’.

Iron Man was a comic book film. I’m hoping Iron Man 2 is an actual film.

In defence of….Licence to Kill

April 24, 2010

In 1985 a 60 year old Roger Moore had starred in ‘A View to a Kill’, it was a solid Bond offering but it was becoming apparent that Bond was aging. 1987’s ‘The Living Daylights’ rebooted Bond, for the first time we saw Bond played by Timothy Dalton – the James Bond character Ian Flemming had in mind.

The ‘Living Daylights’ was an excellent but cautious film, not yet ready to stray too far from conventions – Bond may have been darker but he was still driving cars with rocket launchers and fighting Aryan super men. 1989’s ‘Licence to Kill’ had the confidence to do away with all of that – we weren’t going to get the Bond we’d known for 20 years, we were getting something radical for the 16th Bond film.

James Bond and Felix Leiter secure a major coup with the arrest of drug lord Franz Sanchez. Sanchez’s connections (and money) soon see him make a daring prison break and he sets out for revenge. Sanchez murders Felix’s wife and then feeds Felix to a shark at the marine research facility he uses as a front – Felix, still alive, is then dumped at his home as a message. Those familiar with the Bond series will remember Felix as Bond’s friend since ‘Thunderball’ – and Bond is out for revenge. M16 feel this is a CIA matter and refuse Bond’s request to pursue Sanchez. Bond resigns and heads off to South America where it won’t be a jet pack, invisible car or exploding pen that will save him – he’s going to have to rely on his wits.

In an age of Jason Bourne Licence to Kill seems more like a template than a radical departure – but audiences were left stunned by this offering. Licence to Kill is harrowing in its violence. People have been fed to sharks (and piranha) in plenty of Bond films – but we have never seen it quite so graphically. Licence to Kill features a guys heart being cut out, another guy being exploded and a henchman dragged through a mincer – as blood sprays across the walls. So violent, it was only in the last 2 years it was released unedited. This isn’t ‘Bond’ violence either – it’s intense, graphic and designed to be as unsettling as possible. We’ve seen violence against women before in a Bond film – after all, Bond’s own wife is killed in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – but here Sanchez brutally whips his own girlfriend after she tries to escape him. The entire film has an air of menace a Bond film wouldn’t see again. At one point Bond ends up rescued by Sanchez, who is yet to realise who Bond is. We know Bond is in a ridiculous degree of danger and with absolutely no back up – and these scenes boil with tension, for god’s sake man – get out of there! In attempting to reboot Bond audiences decided director John Glen had gone too far.

John Glen was certainly no novice when it came to Bond – this would be his 5th consecutive offering (and in this authors opinion, the second best Bond director after Martin Campell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale). Glen is determined to keep Bond’s feet on the ground, while we do get the spectacular we don’t get the Moore era absurdity or campy humour. While Glen had demonstrated his skill with set pieces in 1983’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’, Licence to Kill would feature less grandiose action. That’s not to say this isn’t a film heavy on action or great sequences. At one point Bond is discovered infiltrating Sanchez crime buddy Milton Crest’s yacht and has to escape – pursued by divers he harpoons a plane, skis behind before climbing aboard and hurling the pilots to their deaths. Licence to Kill’s greatest sequences is reserved for the end – Sanchez attempts to escape with close to a 100 tonnes of cocaine hidden inside oil tankers. As these tankers hurtle down dusty roads Bond fights off drivers, gun men and gravity with explosions galore. It’s probably my favourite sequence in the Bond series. Incidentally watch for similarities with a sequence in Jason Statham’s ‘The Transporter’.

The cast is simply excellent. Timothy Dalton is perfect as the ruthless and vengeful Bond and it’s a tragedy he never got to reprise Bond a third time. Timothy Dalton’s Bond doesn’t do the humour or womanising as well as Sean Connery – but then that isn’t the attempt. This is a more introverted Bond, that’s not to say that many young ladies pass him by. Robert Davi is the most evil villain in Bond history; his ruthless and worryingly plausible portrayal was perfect for this film. Anthony Zerbe and Benicio Del Torro play Sanchez henchmen – Del Torro is perhaps even more sinister than Robert Davi’s character.

No Bond film would be complete with Bond girls. Talisa Sota plays Sanchez girlfriend Lupe, who wants Bond to kill her keeper. Lupe is stunningly beautiful but also dangerous – the kind of woman that gets men in trouble. Carey Lowell plays Pam Bouvier, tough and resourceful she has her own reasons for wanting Sanchez dead. One of a new breed of Bond girls she can take care of herself and actually saves Bond at one point. We had seen Bond girls with brains before – Barbara Bach’s Soviet agent in The Spy who Loved Me for instance, but Licence to Kill continued a trend that has continued to this day.  

Licence to Kill is intense and violent and shares little in common with the Roger Moore era. Audiences weren’t ready for a film ahead of its time and its summer release alongside a series of blockbusters meant its one of the least remembered Bond films. Interestingly, the stripped down and violent formula of Licence to Kill was back with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace where it was meant with almost hysterical praise. Licence to Kill was 15 years too early and I hope modern audiences will be able to see it for what it is – a stunning film and if its not the best Bond film that’s only because of the huge budgets subsequent entries had. Licence to Kill is my third favourite Bond film after GoldenEye and Casino Royale and is easily one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.

Violent, unconventional and daring, Licence to Kill will shock and amaze for 2 hours. Nobody does it better – 9/10

Repo Men: A Response

April 18, 2010

Repo men is no way near as cool or clever as it thinks it is. In fact, the movies stupidity is far more painful to endure than any of its graphic surgery scenes.

As mention in James`s review, the movie had the potential to be a fun, trashy B-movie. But the lack of talent behind the lense, and a contrived and plot riddled script are just to potent to be ignored. This movie is a real stinker!

The basic concept is relatively interesting. A company offering the desperate an extension on their lives at a price is not to hard to buy into. In-fact I would be more surprised if there wasnt some form of this service in the not so distant future! It’s just that the movies morbidly satirical setup gets dumber, and dumber with every scene – to point where its climatic moments almost made me walk out of the cinema in sheer frustration! I wanted to keep the few remaining brain cells I had left intact while I still had the chance!

In the films defense – Jude Law (Remy) gives it his all, and delivers a tough and earnest performance. It’s just a shame that the reality he brings to the role is over-shadowed by the bullshit plotting and dialogue. On top of that, while charismatic – the characters morales are, lets say – confused! Lemy goes from a cold and callous murderer for hire, to a thoughtful and compassionate champion of humans rights in the space of literally one scene! There is no subtilty or emotional conflict on display here. This sudden change of heart (no pun intended) gets even more muddled as Lemy then proceeds to kill almost anyone (and I mean anyone) that stands in his way during the second act! Hum…

These moral contradictions are clearly not intentional either – just bad screen writing.

Forest Whitaker plays Remy`s cocky and un-balanced partner Jake. Whitaker is a great actor, but is horribly miscast here. Whitaker just can’t pull of the crazy, urban-badass thing. It’s just not him. Forrest, put your Training Day DVD away and leave these kind of roles to Samuel L. Jackson and Denzil. 

Whitaker is simply embarrassing in the movie.

Ok, so Repo Men sounds pretty bad so far – but what about the action? Well those who will happily endure a terrible plot, as long as the action is good – should also avoid this one! The minimal action that the film offers is un-inspired and usually ripped off from far better movies (e.g – Old Boy) I also found the violence to be far to gritty and mean-spirited to be enjoyable. Dont get more wrong, I have no objection to movie violence. In fact, I love it – assuming it doesn’t feel sleazy or sadistic. Sadly this movie is exactly that. 

My main qualm is that most of the violence in Repo Men involves the glorification of knives. A gun shot isn’t as vicious or as personal as a blade to the flesh. Watching bad guys get blown away in a blaze of gun fire can undoubtedly be fun. Watching innocent people getting their throat slashed and stomachs gutted (in slow motion) to a hip, heart-pounding sound track doesn’t quite have the same appeal, and just feels wrong. Nasty stuff.

Admittedly, the movie does end on a half-decent plot twist that accounts for some the retardedness (thats a word right?) we have had to endure up until that point. You almost get the impression that the filmmakers realized that they had maybe pushed the boundaries of believability a little too far, and slapped on the ending in a last-ditch attempt to salvage its audience. Unfortunately the damage is already done, and the twist is too little too late.

Incase you havent clocked it yet – I really didn’t like this movie. In the hands of a more capable director (such as Paul Verhoeven for example) this grisly concept could have worked – but as it stands, it fails on all counts. What a shame that a good cast and a clever premise was so wasted on this stupid and violently sadistic mess. AVOID!

2/10

Review: Repo Men

April 18, 2010

Can a film be so bad it’s good? I think we all have come across a film that clicked with us – even though we see just how bad it is. ‘Repo Men’ is so very close to being one of those. If you want unintentionally hilarious cinema you could find some chic flick – or you could watch Repo Men.

Jude Law plays a debt collector in some future time. A debt collector for organs bought on credit. You don’t pay – these organs get repossessed…

…in the street, with a kitchen knife. Think about that.

Seen Equilibrium? Minority Report? Judge Dread? Robocop 3? Guy works for the system – becomes disillusioned, fights back. Well, your getting that all over again. Yes, this is sci fi clichés 101 and it’s embarrassing. Jude Law fights the machine and ultimately gets his ass handed to him. Lesson to learn there kids. I’d love to go on, but plot wise this film never gets beyond a premise.

Director Miguel Sapochnik thinks he’s delivering some metaphysical tale of what it means to be alive, or dead, I’m not sure. The evil corporation, ‘’The Union’’, are some sort of metaphor for the American healthcare industry – if you want health it comes at a terrible price. A billion dollar company operates like a used car dealer – handful of staff and a single manager. Seems everyone needs organs (for some reason) and though you have no money this company is happy for you to pay on credit (paying how?).

How does the company make money here?

Repo Men is the stupidest film I have seen at the cinema in years. It’s also trying to be the goriest. Over 2 hours we see every part of the human body cut open so the precious organs can be retrieved. No need for a hospital – just beat the guy over the head and cut the organ out. Hygenic, clean, quick. It’s beyond absurd that this futuristic society would have debt collectors murder people in the street and then just leave the body where it falls.

The film is gorey, but in the same way watching a BBC documentary about heart surgery is – there is no real emotional impact because you care nothing for this film.

It’s not often the soundtrack of a film causes me to comment. The score appears to have been assembled at random – it’s not just that things distract from the scene, at times the tone is flipped – some upbeat tune accompanies a guy’s heart being removed, while he’s still alive.

Repo Men is the sort of film that goes straight to DVD. That’s absolutely where it belongs. Bafflingly absurd, hilariously dreadful, I want to reposes 2 hours from Cineworld.

3/10

WGT-TV: Predancer!

April 14, 2010

Forget Hammer time! Forget doing the Bartman!

There is only ONE awesome 90s dance craze to get your groove on to – The Pre-da-tor!

The following clips origin is a bit of a mystery, but it is obviously an outtake from the 1990 movie Predator II.  I had always wondered what kind of tunes an alien race would like bop to – now we know. Keep your eyes peeled for a special appearance by Dial Hard star Danny Glover!

Enjoy people!

Annoying Hollywood Trends #1 – Unnecessary CGI

April 13, 2010

News has recently emerged that the iconic suit to be worn by Ryan Reynolds in the up and coming Green Lantern movie will be created entirely with CGI animation. This shockingly stupid decision inspired me to highlight Hollywood’s infuriating tendency to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on unnecessary digital effects!

From the god awful CG monkeys of Crystal Skull, to phony looking Clone Troopers of the Star Wars prequels – Hollywood has developed an unhealthy fascination with this idiotic concept.

Take the example mentioned above – in the comics, the Green Lanterns suit comprises of nothing more than a simple white logo, slapped onto green and black spandex. That’s it!

This is not Iron Man we are dealing with here. His costume doesn’t move, change shape or fire missiles. All that is asked of it, is that its stays on the actor’s body. A couple of hundred dollars should do it. But no – Warner brothers are happily going to waste god knows how much money digitally painting in the Lanterns costume over a specially made body suit that can be edited out in post production.

What a waste of time and effort!

This decision simply does not make sense – financially or practically. If Reynolds is going to be wearing a spandex suit to begin with,  just make that suit look like the suit you are going waste time painting in afterwards! Job done right?

The physical suit worked fine for Spiderman, Superman and Batman. Can you imagine how terrible The Dark Knight would have looked if Warner Brothers had decided to add-in Batman’s cape digitally in post? The effect would be jarring and distracting, hindering the reality of the picture. Something that the new Batman movies have won much acclaim for. The Dark Knight was a global sensation, and undoubtedly the blue print for Lantern – so why mess with a winning formula?

Sadly this  ridiculous example of Hollywood splashing out on effects just for the hell of it is not an isolated incident.

I Am Legend (2007) was universally praised for its tense atmosphere and Will Smiths powerhouse performance. One thing it certainly was NOT praised for was its monsters!

For some reason, director Francis Lawrence decided that bald guys in rags would be far to complicated to pull off practically, and that computer effects were the only to go. No, No, No!

The CGI Vamps of I Am Legend are infamously one of the biggest mis-judgements in modern movie history. Legends atmosphere and tense sense of foreboding is completely destroyed the second these quite horrible (but not as intended) looking villains make their appearance. The vampire/mutants unnaturally smooth skin, and floaty physics took both myself, and the movie going public in general out of the picture. The threat was no longer real, and the movie had lost its sense of danger. Smith was no longer running for his life, he was running away from NOTHING – and it was painfully obvious.

IMO the creatures would have looked far more frightening if they had of just been some creepy looking bald guys in robes. Especially with some minor CGI embellishments layered over the top. Take the Reapers in Blade II for example. Both creatures have a similar look, but the Reapers in Blade are a far scarier bunch thanks to their physicality and excellent make-up work. The CGI assisted facial appendages are just the icing on the cake – there to simply help sell the practical effect and not replace it. This is how CG should be implemented – to enhance, not to over power.

Ok, I can at least kind of understand the film makers thinking that a un-worldly mutant might have looked better in CG. These creatures do not exist in real-life afterall,  at least not yet. I don’t agree with the decision, but I at least understand it…

But what is the thinking behind rendering existing animals like Deer and Lions? These animals actually exist here and now, and (by Hollywood standards at least) easily obtainable. Plus by default, they will always look far better on-screen than the work of even the very best CGI artists and animators. Reality should always be the preference. This lazy habit really gets my computer enhance goat!

Another example of damaging CGI abuse can be found in the Star Wars Prequels. George Lucas is surely the poster child for bad and un-wanted CG – single handily ruining both of his beloved franchises with the practise.

First off – Star Wars. The prequels effects (while semi-impressive at the time) now look no more cinematic than your average video game cut scene. Almost every shot in the movie has been filmed in front of green screen, with digital matte paintings filling in for actual sets. And we are not just talking about large other worldly landscapes here –  almost every set in the picture is computer generated – no matter how minor. Hell, even some of the supporting cast were added in later. The prequels have a cartoony, false look that lacks realism and gravitas. Lucas doesn’t seem to be able to grasp that the lived-in feel of the original trilogy’s physical sets, props and wardrobe combined with the special effects, is part of what made those movies so memorable.

Digital sets aside, my biggest peeve with Lucas was his decision to create all of the Clone Troopers entirely with CG. How much is some white plastic, and black body suits really going to set you back in the big scheme of things George? I can understand using CGI to enhance the number of troops in the big battle scenes, but why does every trooper have to be computer generated? Even shots of a single Troop speaking to a cast member has been digitally created. There is a reason why the Storm Troopers of the original movies are iconic, and clone troopers of the prequels are not.

I can’t even bring myself to write too much about the swinging CGI monkey scene of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. How distressing that moment was – even more cringe worthy than Indy surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge!?!  BTW – if that really works, then we should all stop worry about nuclear war because almost everyone has a kitchen these days.

Anyway – the Indiana Jones movies are fondly cherished because of their impressive practical stunt work and set pieces. The kind of effects both Spielberg and Lucas were promising during the build-up to Skulls release. Luckily for us, their words were simply cover for what they knew we really wanted to see – CGI Monkeys, Gophers, Ants and Shia La Beouf dicking around in front of a green screen pretending to be Tarzan. Thank you George! You were right – that was better!

Everything mentioned above could have been done for real on set/location, and that is what bothers me. Lucas simply decided not too – and I imagine it comes more from a place of laziness, than creativity.

Lucas personifies Hollywood’s naïve view that we as an audience will feel cheated if a big movie DOESN’T have CG. What they don’t get, is that it is how real the effect looks within the context of the movie that matters, not the method of its execution. It doesn’t matter whether the effect is CG, an animatronic or even sock puppet – if it looks and feels authentic, then we will be impressed. The amount of money spent on it is irrelevant.

Weirder still is the phenomenon of CGI human beings. The rubbery Neo of the burly brawl in Matrix Reloaded, and the bad CG Peter Parker in Raimi`s original Spiderman come to mind. Despite what Avatar purist may preach, we are not even close to perfecting photo realistic humans (or hominoids) yet, and so should be avoided at all costs. This is one of CGs biggest crimes, and a topic that I will delve deeper into in a future post.

So in summary – don’t get me wrong, I know there are some things that have to be done with CG. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, or the Auto Bots of the Transformers movies for instance. If there is no practical way of pulling off the effect without it, then fine, go nuts! Just please Hollywood, no more CGI Gophers or body suits. That’s just plain lazy…

The Top 5 Most Disappointing Comic Book Films

April 9, 2010

Will Iron Man 2 be quite as absurd as I think it will? As the trailer plays revealing dancers gyrating in Iron Man costumes, car parks exploding and more robots than a Nissan factory I’m taken back to all those other comic book sequels that blew a promising start…welcome to the top 5 most disappointing comic book films:

Number 5: The Fantastic Four

4 scientists – and what I’m guessing is their janitor/mechanic (ideas?) – get blasted by ‘plot device’, sorry I mean ‘cosmic radiation’, giving them the most disappointing powers since Family Guy’s Meg and her ‘nail power’. When one goes rogue the rest must help bring him down.

What it did well

Jesscia Alba needs to strip to turn invisible – which is either seriously kool or a total tease (she’s naked, but I can’t see her?!). Film explores society’s reaction to its super powered citizens and Julian McMahon’s Victor Von Doom is suitably evil/impressive.

Why it’s so disappointing

Seems the golden rule was ‘keep this PG’. Story seems deliberately stifled to keep the film as inoffensive as possible. What we have left is a bland and forgettable film that always seems to have the ingredients for success but is terrified of using them. Stretch-Armstrong is just a stupid power anyway.

Number 4: X Men 3

Bret Ratner (The Usual Suspects) takes the helm as the X Men’s struggle against society takes a turn for the worst when ‘a cure’ is developed and weaponised prompting Magneto to launch an all out assault

What is did well

The film explores the implications of a ‘cure’; the social dynamic mutation is causing and the underlying civil rights – the cornerstone of the comics. Finally the X Men get to use some super powers and Magento literally lifts the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s an all star cast with excellent performances from Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan and Kelsey Grammar as ‘Beast’.

Why it’s so disappointing

Bret Ratner cares nothing for the characters or the audience (it goes from day to night in a single scene). Key characters are exterminated at an alarming rate without furthering the story in any way. New characters are introduced and then forgotten/killed wasting their potential. Characters actions are illogical/poorly explained – people join Magento’s team without knowing who he is or what his objectives are only to charge, unarmed, at soldiers.

Number 3: Spiderman 3

Spiderman must contend with a super-bitch girlfriend, an insane best friend, an escaped sand-based criminal and intergalactic slime in between struggling to pay rent.

What it did well

Honestly – not much. Film teases with an alluring darker tone and we finally get to see Venom. There are some good exchanges between Peter Parker and Harry Osborne. JK Simmons steals the show once again as J Jonah Jameson.

Why it’s so disappointing

Total clusterfrak. 3 villains and probably 3 times as many story arch’s crammed into 2 hours. Nothing is developed as the film simply hurtles elsewhere – it’s the ADHD kid on a sugar rush. Venom is dead within 15 mins of appearing – and one seriously has to question why you would kill a significant villain anyway. Sony decided to do the effects in-house – they saved money and made the effects look awful with one decision. Did we really need Peter Parker dancing? Oh, and sand can fly. Apparently.

Number 2: Transformers 2 – Revenge of the Fallen

 

While the Autobots murder apparently dangerous (but seemingly dormant) Decepticons, Shia Le Beouf’s character has managed to miss his girlfriend is a slamming hottie and decides to go to Uni instead of studying her.

What is did well

Megan Fox and Isabel Lucas pleasantly distract for 2 hours. We have a bucket load of new transformers and plenty of explosions. Starscream gets some dialogue and Megatron comes back from the dead.

Why it’s so disappointing

Michael Bay just wants something to explode. Dialogue? Cut! Story? Well, enough to explain the explosion. Characterisation? Bah, those characters are just gonna get shot anyway! You can’t describe this film without calling it ‘preposterously dumb’ – whether it’s the writers slim grasp of geography (Smithsonian is in Arizona?!) or slim grasp of reality (world’s fastest plane teleports instead) this film is painfully stupid. Things would have been saved if action scenes weren’t edited so poorly – the camera shakes, dips and dives so much you’re left wondering what exactly just blew up before concluding it probably didn’t matter.

Number 1: Robocop 3

Following on from Robocop 2, OCP is building Delta City and causing mischief as it goes and its up to Robocop to turn on his own creators. Though Robocop did not originate in a comic book the Robocop film has spawned a seris of comic book with key contributions from none less than Frank Miller himself.

What it did well

Absolutely nothing. There really is no compelling reason for this film to exist

Why it’s so disappointing

Robocop was a social commentary taking in capitalism, drug abuse, violence in popular culture and the media in general. It was ironic, self aware and absurdly violent. Evidently no one involved had seen the previous films and the attempt to make a child friendly romp is positively bizarre and totally missed what had appealed about the first two. Among the worst sequels ever made.

Review: Clash of the Titans

April 6, 2010

Titans is a film almost impervious to criticism. This film is the blockbuster in its purest form – acting, plot, tension – it’s all been chemically distilled to just leave effects. How, therefore, do you tackle such a beast? When a film is designed to have no plot then surely the lack of it is merely the film achieving its dubious aim? Suffice to say humans have turned on their awful gods who decide that to win the love back they’ll be even more awful.  Zeus son, Perseus must travel through the underworld to get a weapon to stop them.  I would love to tell you that within lies a commentary on modern man turning his back on established religion but that’s pretty much it.

Director Louis Leterrier gave us an equally shallow experience with 2008’s Hulk, but here he’s assisted by Liam Neeson (The Phantom Menance) and Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation). The first thing you will want to know in an effects heavy film – ‘how are the effects?’ Under whelming – in parts they are simply dreadful (Medusa) while in others they are far too blurry to make whatever temple, monster or city on display have any real gravitas. The director’s style does not help us here. The visual palette throughout is remarkably bland, like a drive during the twilight hours – details seem to just merge together. No doubt an attempt to hide budget limitations its gives the film a blandness which came as some surprise for a pure effects epic. Perhaps the rapid editing was also there to cover some dodgy CGI. In promising set pieces the director cuts back and forth to the extent that we can never fully appreciate whatever mythical creature our hero is slaying next. In the same way Michael Bay proved with Transformers 2, fast cuts and a poor colour palette just results in banality.  

Speaking of the banal, everyone’s favourite actor Sam Worthington could have been replaced by a cardboard cut out and the audience probably wouldn’t have realised for at least an hour. He has little to work with – but manages to convey nothing approaching an emotion in nearly 2 hrs. Happily, Liam Neeson’s troubled Zeus lifts any scene he graces and Gemma Arteton’s Io illuminates her scenes with her striking beauty (in a film this basic it makes all the difference). Oddly in such a formulaic film there isn’t even the token love scene – greek men have more important quests it seems!

Bland, blurry, banal – there isn’t any inspiration anywhere in this film. Tension, excitement – that’s missing too. Evil witches declare our hero will perish in his quest – a somewhat desperate attempt to stir something within the film. Ultimately we know the good guys will win, but we probably wouldn’t have cared if they didn’t. Sam Worthington is accompanied by a gang of presumably elite soldiers who largely exist to be munched or turned to stone. I suppose they should come across as brave souls risking all for their homeland – however the film presents their quest as another day at the office – giant scorpions and even Hades himself doesn’t seem to surprise them much. When their own mortality seems to be of secondary concern the audience is never likely to develop much of an emotional connection.

A coy attempt to get money during a quiet spell in film, Titans is also a pure fantasy film – taking you away to a realm where your criticisms are deflected as harmlessly as a hapless Greek guard’s arrow. The director just wants your money; he doesn’t want your praise. This isn’t a film trying to be clever, profound or even memorable and its so banal I can literally think of nothing further to add – but if you want to pass 2 hours I’ve seen worse films,

5/10.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

April 6, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon sadly proves that sometimes a movie can do everything right, and still never find an audience.

Which is depressing because HTTYD (I am not writing the full title out every time) breaks away from the usual Dream Works mold by being funny, witty and well – good!

I know, I know – it sounds crazy! How on earth could the studio that spawned such shallow and contrived efforts such as Sharks Tale and Madagascar, produce such a well made, charming little picture? I`m not so sure, but by all rights – the studio should have had a real winner on their hands here.

The movie is set in a mythical Vikings village where dragon attack is an almost daily occurence. The movie follows Hiccup, a Viking teenager who doesn’t quite fit in with his heroic dragon slaying peers. Hiccup is a scrawny, cynical outcast, desperately seeking the acceptance of his legendary dragon-busting father Stoick.

Hiccup attempts to win his father over by setting out on a quest to hunt down the fiercest dragon known to his tribe – the Night Fury. During his search he stumbles upon one of creatures, only to find that it is wounded. Seizing the opportunity, Hiccup traps the beast,  and goes in for the kill. But Hiccup simply can not do it. He  sees a kindred spirit in the outcast dragon and decides help nurse the creature back to health. The two slowly start to form a bond. A bond that challenges everything he and his fellow Vikings have been raised to believe.

With Hiccups father on the brink of unleashing all out genocide on the dragon species, Hiccup and Toothless desperately race to intervene before the irreversible damage is done!

It is so rare these days to see a non-Pixar animated movie actually bother with a meaningful story, layered characters, and fully realized  worlds.

Real effort has gone into establishing the richly detailed Viking world in-which the tale takes place and its trouble history with the dragons. Equal effort has also gone into is animated cast. Every character in the movie has their own defined personality, and evolves during the course of their adventure. Our lead Hiccup for example, learns that you don’t have to be built like a rock to be strong-willed or brave, and his tough but ignorant father Stoick learns to let go of his hateful ways and see the world through the eyes of others.  Character arcs developed by a well written script that expresses a fantastic message of tolerances and understanding, without ever feeling forced or preachy. HTTYDs message is snuggled comfortably amongst the movies engaging characters, exciting action and touching moments. 

Contrary to Dream Works usual model of employing the biggest names they can afford, HTTYD opts for actors who actually suit the material. The acting on display her is very engaging. Gerard Butler is perfectly cast as the brutish and over baring Viking Stoick, as is Jay Baruchel  playing the geeky, quick-witted Hiccup. Brauchels whiney voice is admittedly little off-putting at first, but once the story gets set in motion this mild annoyance quickly fades, to be replaced with complete immersion into the character and his plight.

On top of this, the movie is also genuinely funny and exciting – including some fantastic dragon-related set pieces that out do anything in Camerons Avatar.

The movie also packs a real emotional punch. Much of the movies heart lies between the unlikely friendship between our hero, and the loveable Toothless the dragon.

Toothless can summed-up with the following mathematical equation – 

 

What do How to Train your Dragon and Avatar have in common? Both movies shamelessly exploit the cuteness of Cats to win favour with its audience.

Toothless is undoubtedly the star of the show. As mentioned above, the designers have obviously modelled the characters movements and mannerisms on those of a kitten. Toothless is playful and affectionate in a way that all cat  lovers are going to recognise and enjoy. A wise choice – by basing your character design on a cutesy animal – half of your winning the viewer over work is already done. Almost everyone is partial to the cuddly charms of a cat, so when someone (or something) looks a little like one (be it Toothless or Avatars Navi) the audiences is subconsciously going to embrace it.

Thats not to say that we are cheated into liking this beastie. Our affection is earned by the real personality that the filmmakers injected into Toothless. The dragon even has an arc of his own – going from a human fearing loner, to loyal friend and protector of Hiccup and his tribe.

One of the sweetest moments in the movie is a montage showing the progression of Toothless and Hiccups friendship. This wonderfully scored and staged scene visualizes the characters realisation that while different on the outside, they are in fact very much the same on the inside. Both a little different, and both in need of a friend. This scene will force a lump in even the most cynical SOBs throat.

One thing I havent yet mentioned is the animation. Now I will admit myself, that when I first saw stills and artwork from the movie, I was very – meh! The slightly bland Viking decor and generic looking human characters did little to fire up my enthusiasm. But when watching the film as a whole you realise that the animation is actually quite wonderful. Fluid, sharp and beautiful textured – I was shocked at how pretty the movie really was. From the detailed Viking villages, to the foreboding islands of the dragons – there is some fantastic cinematography and direction on display here.

Does it compete with Pixar? No, not quite but impressive none the less.

The only mildly critical aspects I will mention are the minor inconsistencies with the production design.  For example, most of the additional dragons in the movie look completely different in style and design when compared to our hero dragon. So different in fact that it is almost as though Toothless came from a different movie. The same can be said for some of the human characters aswell. Some are proportionately true to life, others are wildly OTT charactertures. There are also a few pacing issues, with a very noticable lull midway through.

To be honest, I also have my issues with the ending – which is far less focused than the rest of the picture. You get impression that the film makers had to end on the obligatory action set piece, rather than wanting to. Less love has noticeably gone into these final scenes. The climax also feels surprisingly safe. I was expecting a slightly darker resolution than one we get, given the more mature tone of the movie.

That said, none of these issues bothered me enough to hinder my enjoyment and I walked away from the cinema thoroughly entertained.

So the big mystery is why a movie this good has done so badly at the box office? The showing I caught was only a quarter full at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon showing. Not good; and although myself and my companions dug it, the younger viewers sitting behind us vocally hated it and moaned and squirmed all the way through. 

Ironically, I believe the movies quality may actually be its downfall.

HTTYD isn’t an immature, plotless parade of lame gags and slapstick. This is a movie that strived to be more, and there in lies the problem.  Thanks to some weak marketing and the reputation of Dream Works previous efforts, on face value the movie is only going to appeal to the very young (5-11) and not the teens and young adults that the material is a little more suited for. Kids just want to see big dumb characters, falling over and farting – that’s it. From a younglings point of view, the character building and emotional beats just get in the way of the big set pieces. HTTYD does have the spectacle, just not enough to win over its demographic.

A real shame, because this really is the jewel in Dream Works crown. Perhaps some better marketing would have led to the movie finding a more suitable audience, but as it stands, Dream works venture into producing proper movies has failed…

…Madagascar 3 anyone?

7/10

Trailer below…

Reboot, Resume, Retire – Superman

April 5, 2010

Welcome back to our series of articles where long suffering film series are checked for a pulse.

1978’s ‘Superman’ has to be what cinema is all about. Epic sets, heroic heroes, dastardly villains and a literally out of this world story. At 32 years old this film still looks good, ‘you’ll believe a man can fly!’ was the tagline – and the effects made that no idle boast. If we think of 1970’s and 1980’s fantasy films we probably just think of horrendous stop motion, matte lines and costumes that seem designed to annoy us. Superman and the Star Wars trilogy are among the only films that dare challenge this.

Richard Donner gives us easily his best film with a film written by Mario Puzo (of The Godfather fame) and was no doubt helped by a cast including Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. Perhaps the real ace in the hole is John Williams’s magical score and a fantastic title credits sequence.  Superman isn’t clever, it isn’t free from cheese but it’s just so well made that put simply Superman is about as good as it gets – 9/10

Of course, Superman II was in production even before Superman was finished – among the first back to back sequels. Richard Donner was replaced half way though and I challenge any film to swap director and not be unspeakably dreadful.  Richard Lester adds his own inept ideas to a bucket load of equally poor ideas Richard Donner seemed to have come up with (reversing time again…really?). It’s difficult to describe just how bad this film is. The studio disliked Richard Donner’s refusal to camp things up – he was replaced and the tone of the Superman series radically altered. The epic production values are long gone, Superman II is incredibly dated. Superman had us believing a man could fly – Superman II has us believing that even on a limited budget Christopher Reeve shouldn’t be wobbling quite so much.

Superman II’s plot is set up by the first film – (so it can’t even take credit for that), exiles from Krypton have turned up on Earth to rule (for some reason). An enemy of equal power to Superman sounds like a good villain – but we get no fewer than three. It’s clownish overkill. Oh and did you know Superman can throw part of his clothes at villains as a weapon?  The real problem is the ‘cheese’, the immaturity of the film – the attempt to appeal to children comes across as silly. Superman was happy to just be a film for the masses; Superman II needs to be a film for 10 year olds. You have the triple whammy of dated effects, cringe inducing dialogue ‘kneel before Zod!’ and enough backstage politics to render Superman II among the worst sequels of all time 3/10.

Richard Lester was ruining franchises before Paul W.S Anderson (Resident Evil) had made his deal with the devil. Superman III has Lester back at the helm of the Titanic. Superman III plays out like a ‘Carry On’ film, it’s a comedy. Sure we have a rather funny opening sequence in which Metropolis is brought low by exploding penguins and an endless list of ‘funny’ accidents, but after that it’s very hit and miss. Richard Pryor plays a computer scientist who does…something….and…well the end result is Superman’s nemesis is basically an internet server. That doesn’t move.

Superman III somehow ends up better than it should be. Robert Vaughan’s maniacal industrialist is an amusing character, no doubt thanks to Mr Vaughan’s performance and certainly not the script he’s given. Richard Pryor does give us some funny moments – keeping a ‘low profile’ and turning up in a sports car. The real stand out moment though is Clark Kent v Superman – the series finest moment. The film had begun with pure slapstick but this sequence is genuinely menacing as the mental conflict of Superman literally plays out on screen. Kent is crushed and bashed by Superman with Christopher Reeve (and some clever camera work) giving us a powerful sequence which, for me at least, carries the entire film. Superman III is no classic but it know’s what it wants to be, I might not like the destination but the journey wasn’t unpleasant – 6/10.

I’m not sure why 1987’s Superman IV is so bad. A new director perhaps – Sidney J. Furie didn’t have much of a track record either before or after. Must people have settled on the budget – apparently about 40% of what 1978’s Superman had. Then again maybe it was that fact Christopher Reeve wrote a story about Superman ending the Cold War.   

I’ll pin my colours to the mast and say Superman IV is better than Superman II, though it’s a bit like saying you prefer to be punched than kicked. Superman IV atleast has a intresting villian in Nuclear Man (though he looks like a hair metal band guitarist and is powerless in the dark) and Gene Hackman is back too. Superman IV’s dire effects and monetary constraints ravage every scene, though breakdancing lakey’s, an overweight Superman and a Lois Lane evidently as high as a kite don’t help. I did like the double date sequence – but this is yet another ‘comedy’ bit, its not kryptonite that can kill Superman but 80’s humour.  Superman IV proves that the most important element of a successful film is an appropriate budget – without it you don’t stand a chance, 4/10.

We’d see Superman again in a quite excellent TV series (well, that’s how I remember it, I don’t care to view it again and double check) but it was 2006 before the Man of Steel was back on the silver screen.

Bryan Singer was at the helm and this time a budget was not going to be a problem – with $200 million the studio threw everything they could at this project. Superman Returns looks gorgeous – a set piece where Superman saves a passenger jet as it tumbles through the air is a real highlight. Cast wise Brandon Routhe is Clark Kent and delivers a performance that’s perfectly acceptable, Kevin Spacey makes for an excellent Lex Luthor but Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane damns them all. So she’s 21…with a 5 year old son (Superman’s hitting a 16 year old?)….and a massive name in journalism, yeah, that’s not working for me. Superman Returns is a film that just needs to shut up – when ever Superman is saving the day the film crackles along, I couldn’t help but cheer him on his way. Whenever it pauses for dialogue though – then we hit a problem. The story about killing people to make land more valuable is preposterous (and self evidently in defiance of any notion of economics) and Superman lifting an island made of kryptonite just seems designed to annoy the auidence. Superman has a kid – why oh why? People complained of the lack of a real enemy for our hero, I think the bigger problem is the need to tie Superman Returns with what came before. Regardless Superman Returns barely broke even on its release and its sequel ‘The Man of Steel’ was cancelled. I like Superman Returns but it’s full of some many bad ideas at it gets a 7/10.

So where does the series go now – there are rumblings of a Christopher Nolan produced sequel, it would appear Superman will get the Dark Knight treatment – ‘’oh make it dark, dark = good!’’. I liked Superman Returns but I have to wonder where Superman fits in the 21st century. Created as Nazi fighting embodiment of American values, the Superman character just seems dull. A flying goodie two-shoes somewhat conflicts with audience’s love of darker and violent superheroes. Making Superman a tortured soul might work but how does the ‘flawed’ hero dynamic work if you’re indestructible? Superman doesn’t have great villains to carry a film – we’ve seen Lex Luthor a bit too much, is Braniac a box office draw? Would we really entertain Batman V Superman – I pray not.

I’d have Superman as strong but vulnerable – we wouldn’t rely on kryptonite and while one bullet couldn’t hurt him multiple could. He’d be struggling to fit into a suspicious society that didn’t know whether it wanted him or not. We’d see Superman carrying the burden of trying to help but overwhelmed by the scope of the task and resentful of all he was required to do. We wouldn’t have any of this ‘truth, justice and the American way’ crap – he’d be a man, capable of love and hate – and connecting with the audience.

Ultimately I’m not sure if that character is still Superman. If the changes can’t be made, if it can’t be rebooted, then sadly – it’s retire.