Saturday, 22 May 2010

Review: Prince of Persia : The Sands of Time

Year: 2010
Director: Mike Newell
Screenplay: Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, Boaz Yakin
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Tony Kebbell, Richard Coyle

Synopsis is here

Based on a video game produced by Ubisoft; Prince of Persia had something against it before it came out of the stocks. As soon as the words video game are uttered, the same old cliched comments are spouted, even by myself. As a gamer (not a great one) before I became a film fan, I also found the cinematic adaptations more than a little disappointing.

Unlike Comic Books and/or Graphic Novels, which have come from forgettable endeavors (Spawn, 1989 Punisher anyone?) to a rich commodity. Video Game movies however; have only ranged from shite (Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros) to just about watchable (Mortal Kombat's fight scenes). Like other adaptations; it's about time that someone tapped into the spirit of the medium and bring some real fun out of the movies produced. Does Mike Newell's blockbuster feature do this? Well....just about I guess.

First thing I'll say about the film is that, along with the other 2010 blockbusters (Robin Hood Iron Man 2) is quite plot heavy. In fact surprisingly so. However, while I enjoyed Robin Hood and Iron Man for the gradual build of narrative; mainly due to their solid lead characters (and actors) managing to carry the story during the "lower" moments, POP seems to be lacking in that area. It's not that I didn't care for the character, as the beefed up Jake Gyllenhaal (with nice British accent) manages to put a lot of energy into the role of Dastan. However, the personality just doesn't feel as rich.

It seems that the difference is that characters like Tony Stark and Robin Hood have deeper wells to draw from. Hood has his history, Stark is coming to terms with ego and mortality, Dastan is a character that feels like he's truly bound to the screenplay. He has personality (the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Arterton brought many a sly grin to my face) but his actions don't feel as organic as his aforementioned contenders. POP not only feels like it could have been shorter, but also more focused. Like Ironman 2, the film has a lot of people battling for screentime, however while the former felt, to me, that it knew what it wanted to do with all it's players. POP tries to value everyone as equal importance.

The film is also quite obvious, the moment you meet characters, you know of their fate. Yes, it may be a blockbuster but you can tell from it's subtext (clear parallels to the Iraq war yet again) it's trying to encompass as much as possible and make accessible to as many people as possible.
Ambition is good and needed for these future video game adaptation but POP works best when it forgets all that and focuses on the battling and the banter. Getting that right will make it so much easier to expand.

But it's not all bitching and moaning; Mike Newell, a director capable of large projects and stars, delivers a film with some fun set pieces, while the screenplay has some pithy lines, despite not having the most engaging story. Newell's film also remembers it's origins and many moments feel like a Ubisoft game... It's a shame said game is Assassin's Creed and not Sands of Time however (although there's a nice two thrones feel to some of the film). From a performance point of view, everyone is enjoying themselves here. Once again it's hard to keep your eyes off Gemma Arterton due to her screen presence and not just her smoldering looks Molina and Kingsley clearly like working on projects like this in between more serious works, while Richard Coyle and Tony Kebbell are welcoming additions.

Prince of Persia is forgettable fluff which works best when things are kept simple. There's some genuine moments of amusement throughout and I'm sure many gamers (in particular the younger ones) will hopefully get their money's worth. Once again it's a video game adaptation that's not all I hoped for, but it's a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Review: Robin Hood

Year: 2010
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blancett, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Oscar Issac,

Much has been said about this radical departure from the classical English tale of Robin Hood. I say bollocks. A true radical change would have been to call it Robin Hoodie. I could see it now as a band of chavs BMX bike around Westminster nicking from Tory MP's to give to single mothers. No offence to our new government and PM of course, I merely like my bizarre idea.

With this said Ridley Scott has gone against the grain with his movie, placing the fictional story of robin hood within an even more "realistic" construct than before. What we get is Robin Hood Begins. A rough and ready origin story, which also (due to the script delays) has come out with a slight topical edge. This Robin Hood isn't so much about robbing to the rich to give to the poor (although he does a little), but trying to spread the idea of liberty and fairness to every man; in a government which has done much to demoralize it's people. It's a nice concept for the man in the hood and it works well.

Starting with a weary Maid Marian (Blanchett) doing her best to drive away the youth. The younglings have become mini outlaws themselves, due to their fathers being away due to Richard the Lionheart's crusade. Scott sets this film up almost like a medieval broken Britain. We have a broken Britain with misguided children due to absent fathers, a broke country and spirit broken due to war (I bet someone is shouting Labour somewhere). Much like Gladiator, this beginning does have a feeling of familiarity, particularity in the films first battle: a storming of a french castle. The words and players may be a different but the message is the same; the nation is at a pivotal point and correct guidance is needed. To ask if it does would be a huge spoiler so lets get on with how I felt about it eh?

Well this is all solid stuff. It does feel like Scott's previous historical works, but this isn't a bad thing. It's been ten years since his Roman endeavor and this feels like a well thought out hundred plus year progression. The battles are brutal (not gory however) and the narrative while at first feels a little unwieldy slowly knits itself into something quite compelling. The film is also quite witty with many of the characters having some surprisingly sharp moments of humor. The patriotic and political subtext may arouse some interesting after film talk with the film (which to me has a quite conservative view on things) coming out a day after the reign of Cameron begins.

Performance wise, the film is yet again quite dependable; with Russell Crowe bringing down to earth humbleness and roughish charm to the role of Robin. Cate Blancett gives Maid Marion a well rounded feel but doesn't set any scene alight, while Mark Strong once again put in yet another imposing villain performance. Oscar Issac has some choice moments as Prince John however William Hurt doesn't appear to be too bothered about the proceedings. Nice casting touches also appear in the forms of Danny Huston as Richard and Max Von Sydow as Marion's father. Mark Addy and Matthew Macfadyen also provide amusement alongside the three merry men of Alan Doyle, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes.

Coming off the back of the brighter more youth friendly Iron Man 2, Robin Hood provides a healthy alternative. You do feel the length of the movie a little and you can be sure that Scott will most probably bring out a directors cut filled with more back story. But while it's not your Granddads Robin Hood, it is however; an entertaining, more adult blockbuster than usual.

Review: Four Lions

Year: 2010
Director: Chris Morris
Screenplay: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Preeya Kalidas, Arshal Ali, Adeel Akhtar

Dealing with atrocity is a difficult thing, especially in artistic mediums such as film making. Despite being able to obtain information so easily these days, like like to stick to what we know. Black is black and white is white. Grey areas should not be acknowledged because they challenge us in ways we hate to be challenged in. So when you hear that Chris Morris (controversial creator of Brass Eye, Jam and the like) has decided to make a British comedy that makes light of Jihads and Muslim extremism...I'm not surprised that film bookers bulked at having his movie played in certain cinemas.

The thing is, Chris Morris works within that area that many hate to even think about. He tagged his movie Four Lions as the Dad Army side to terrorism and while it was all good fun to laugh at Mr Mannerings and his squad, it's important to release that until a certain point the home guard were poorly equipped and badly trained. Imagine the amount of mistakes and human error if the planned attack was to go forth. However, it didn't...and we laugh. Morris sees such absurdity and uses to push through the message that to repress, restrict and dread our fears only makes them stronger, to laugh at them may help us in the long run.

For me, Morris' film is one of the funniest films to come from this isle in years. It is paralysing funny, gleefully absurd and surprisingly tragic. Here our terrorist leads are humanised but we constantly shown that their plans and banal drivel are ludicrous. They are extremists that have no idea what they are being extreme about. Angry at the west and capitalism and yet they revel in what it brings. Only a film like this could have a wannabe jihadist yelling that he's a "paki-rambo" or have have our lead character the seemingly "level headed" Omar (a wonderfully, despairing Riz Ahmed) trying to explain his plan to his son (!) by using the Lion King (Disney, geddit?). It's a film that releases that despite the idea of one kamikazing themselves is a troubling one, it is also something in today's society that profoundly stupid. The characters while disarmingly human, are much like dogs who bark at themselves in mirrors. You just want to pet them on the head and show that life's not all bad.

Morris' film reminded me of this another film I loved this year: Extract. It's a another film that deals with how a lack of communication and misused information can create problems of absurdest proportions. Much like his Jam sketch about hiring stupid people for arguments because they're too idiotic to lose, Four Lions gives us empty headed vessels who are running head first into a wall due to bad guidance and confusion. But interestingly enough it also helps bring about reasons on why young men seem so willing to do something so drastic. They have no real idea about what they're supposedly fighting for and yet do so for pride, fame, peer pressure and for the thrill of it all. Morris' film directed in a very matter of fact visual style plays on the characters nativity and makes the films climax feel all the more poignant.

To help drive these idea home, Morris with Peep Show writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain write a script featuring dialogue that I found as quotable as Withnail and I. Carefully parodying fundamentalism and never the religion, the writers give the film a bizarre feeling of familiarity and abstractness. One scene has Barry (the brilliantly ignorant Nigel Lindsay) blaming his car breaking down due "jewish sparkplugs designed to control global traffic". You know you've heard similar right wing nonsense down the pub but still....sparkplugs?!? The film is full such moments of verbal diarrhoea that Morris has been so remembered for.

This is Morris at his best, warping the hysterical and sensitive into something that not only darkly comic, but more thoughtful than one would think. In the same way The Day Today makes it hard for you to take the news seriously any more, the same happens here, particularly in the films climax which chillingly lampoons the police's participation with the death of Jean Charles de Meneze ("It must be the target, I shot it"). When fully observed it's an amusing aside (is the honey monster a bear?) and yet one that once again stems from lack of knowledge, miscommunication and hasty aggression.

Four Lions (neatly knocking England's footballing pride) is defiantly not for everyone. Relatives from the 7/7 bombings have called for the film to be boycotted and it's very understandable on their emotions are running high. But Morris' film isn't one that trivialises their tragedy, it heightens our awareness and also makes us laugh. For some it's a tough watch but for those who are fans of one of Britain's top satirists you'll laugh or else you'll cry.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year: 2010
Director: Samuel Bayer
Screenplay: Wesley Strick, Eric Heisserer
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley

Wes Craven read a news article about Cambodian refugees who ran from the dictator Pol Pot. Within a year of arriving in America, the men would suffer from nightmares. They then would do as much as possible to refrain from sleeping before finally falling asleep through exhaustion. They then would wake up screaming, before dying, not of heart failure but simply dying. He took this story and created one of the most influential slashers of it's time.

Sounds like hyperbole but ask your die hard horror fans, A nightmare on elm street was a revelation. Loaded with subtext and yet effortlessly entertaining. Craven took something so descriptively simple and ran with it. The fear of dying is a common one but take that fear and combine it not only with our most essential functions, but with a boogyman that compasses all the fears of our youth was nothing more than a master stroke. Looking back at the original film you release that while it's now looking a little dated, it's no less creative. So creative that we now take so much of it for granted....until you see the remake of course.

This nightmare remake or reimaging or reboot or whatever bollocks Hollywood wants to call these things fails on nearly all levels. Lacking in atmosphere and devoid of tension, this movie misses a golden chance to update Craven's tale for the better and once again shows us how shallow the big film making machine can be. It seems that Samuel Bayer's saw imagery in the original film that he liked but didn't understand why they were effective. If one wants substitute practical effects for cgi that fine but you must also understand why the scene as a whole made an impact. In the first film watching Tina actually struggle against an invisible force in unbroken takes is interesting, watching Kris get thrown around with no fightback while the scene is hacked with MTV rapid cuts and CGI is merely distancing.

This shouldn't surprise anyone whose been burnt by a Platinum Dunes remake before. The horror company that Bay built believe that fear doesn't lie in a build up of tension but in BIG BANGING SOUNDS and CHEAP JUMP SCARES. I don't mind the odd jump scare now again (see The Descent) however, A Nightmare on elm street like its disciples before for it believe that jump scare that you can set your watch to are the way forward. I really don't understand why modern horror movies are so desperate to tell you exactly when to jump....isn't that missing the point?

Despite remaking three different classic horror films, PD also believes that they should all look the same. This new nightmare doesn't feel that much from the other (tragic) remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the 13th. The visual approach, colour schemes and all aren't vastly different from each other. I'd love to say that that is the "style" that the company is going for, however, in looking at the original three films, you release how identikit this company is now making horror films. A director like Samuel Bayer (music director of videos such as smells like teen spirit) should have easily grabbed this movie by the scruff of the neck and given the film his own feel...but I'm guessing logic dictated that it would be better to take the money and run.

Speaking of logic, this film likes to disregard such nonsense in it's script. Did you know you can fall asleep while swimming? True story. Also when you lose a love one you very likely to fall asleep at their funeral. That's right! However, I'm watching a film in which characters repeat obvious exposition for the sake of it. It causes more frustration when you see elements within the film and it's screenplay that could have been explored.The theme of parental sin was a core aspect of the original film, however here, such scenes feel awkwardly half-baked.

It's not all bad. The idea of making Freddie Kruger a more explicit paedophile than before was something I thought worked, as was the new construction of his character, who is now; not only a much more cynical figure, but a criminal that revels in his sadism. The casting of Jackie Earle Haley was a real coup. As the only actor worth talking about in the film (the young cast are pitiful ), he truly makes the character his own. Comparisons to Robert Englund were always on the cards, but is reptilian portrayal of the character is a welcoming one. Kruger is figure of prime evil and not the court jester that so many people seem to want to see from the character.

Haley's Kruger is the only thing in the film with any real feeling. My hopes of the film where quickly dashed within the first scenes and there was really little to re spark my interest afterwards. I'm sure I've mentioned before that I do not objected to remakes as long as the film can bring something new to the the furore and maintain the originals spirit. The problem is, with the rush to make a quick buck (this movie made $30 mill opening box office) what we're getting are soulless retreads. Like a shadow, they mimic the originals movements but have no definition, no imprint of their own. I leave you with some wise words from the director of this movie, Samuel Bayer:

"I operated an HD camera once, and it's like having a race car without an engine. I'm always a little suspect when someone is telling me that HD is great and that it looks just like film. Why not just shoot film? When you're trying to emulate something else, there's something fundamentally wrong, and I think it becomes more complicated."

You only need to change a few of those words.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Review: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Year: 2009 (U.K. Release 2010)
Director: J Blakeson
Screenplay: J Blakeson,
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston

Synopsis is here

The first 13 minutes of this film has no dialogue just precise work. One or two glances and nods, but there's almost like a telepathic link between the two characters we see. They're setting up for a plan and all that concerns them is the matter at hand. It's a tense and well put together set up that almost felt reminiscent to Michael Hanke's The Seventh Continent (1989) but the Non-Diegetic music accompanying the scenes help make this less of an examination but the imagery still manages to keep up an interesting and similar, simmering amount of tension (although Hanke will always be on a different level).

Executed in such a short and sharp way for most of it's running time; TDOAC is a tightly wound thriller that keeps the details small and the pace quick. It keeps an asshole like me from taking a second glance at such nonsense like plot mechanics. It's three characters (the only ones you'll see) are quickly thrown together and present an engaging dynamic. They all held my attention in one way or another and kept my interest level high.

If my dumb ass asked questions, it was about motivations, not clues. Why is that important? Because when I think of clues I begin to try too hard in figuring the film out. Motivations say that the characters are bigger than the clues, more interesting and worth much more of your time. That's what I liked about this movie. Set mostly within one set (a dilapidated high rise flat), these motivations twist, turn and get larger, the size of the room stays the same. That's the presence of claustrophobia I like.

J Blakeson's debut film is an assured feature that does as best as it can with very little. From it's methodical beginning, to it's building of the climax in the third act which cheekily looks to have pilfered from a pivotal moment from the Coen Brothers Miller's Crossing, it knows that it has to keep moving to stay interesting. To achieve this, Blakeson casts actors who all distracted me with their portrayals of desperation. From the straight talking Eddie Marsden (an actor who doesn't get enough credit) to an effective performance from Gemma Arterton. Arterton's Alice is a long way away from her "bigger" roles and she shows to me that given a chance she can really bring some guts to a role. The lesser known actor Martin Compston has a lot to do and handles it pretty well. His performance is pretty much key to the film and if you don't believe in it then the film will probably unravel for the viewer.

It's the strength of the acting that helped me forget about flaws that the film has. For one this is a 90 minute feature running at 100 minutes. If the film was shaved a little then I feel the tension could have ran higher. Also a character revelation gained a few titters in the audience. This may be because it feels quite outlandish, it may be because the audience was immature, either way it's a moment handled well by the actors, but isn't the strongest part of the narrative.

Despite this, TDOAC is a tightly wound thriller with some confident direction and strong performances. It was also a film that brought in more of an audience than I had thought. I like to think that this is because it is another British film that doesn't quickly fall into the cockney gangsters or tweed Romantic comedy that for some reason we keep encouraging ourselves to make. Yay us!

Review: Gentlemen Broncos

Year: 2009 (U.K. Release 2010)
Director: Jared Hess
Screenplay: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess
Starring: Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Jennifer Coolidge, Sam Rockwell, Halley Feiffer, Hector Jimenez

Jared Hess' third feature has come to U.K cinemas off the back of a very weak critical performance. film writers have not been kind to it and the film was pulled from theatrical release because of it. In a time where many have been bemoaning the death of film criticism, it's intriguing that the studio felt so threatened that they took such evasive action. This isn't to say they may not have had worries before. Much like Hess' Napoleon Dynamite, GB wishes to askew convention and defy basic definition.

Gentleman Broncos' offbeat sense of place and timing worked for me. Combining cringe comedy, gross out and small town slice of life with such an abstract rhythm gives off the feeling that Hess only really wants a niche market to tap into his movie. It doesn't all work, but I have to admit I laughed my ass off that at the stuff I found effective.

The film does of course have it's weak moments, much of them being Hess' reliance on the projectile humour, which comes out in spurts and gives mostly mixed reactions. A snake taking a shit on it's owner isn't just lowbrow but merely too cheap to bring any more than a a tiny titter (if that). However, watching the same owner (writer/actor Mike White) sitting on his car in a pose that's usually reserved for pit girls had me howling. Why is that funny? It is the context. The first thing I thought to myself was "he was clearly standing like that without anyone watching". Such a bizarre position for no reason had me going, as did the superb performance from Flight of the Concords cast member Jemaine Clement.

The role of Chevalier is a display of hilarious pomposity that steals the film from under the likable protagonist of Benjamin (A very straight but warm Michael Angarano). Flight fans will love it and others may take notice as Clement oozes with sleaze. You just want him to have as much screen time as others. In fact his performance made me forget that you have the fearless Sam Rockwell doubling up as not only a bollockless Dune character wannabe, but also a camp transvestite version of said bollockless Dune character wannabe. Both displays are good times. Jennifer Coolidge also lends her comic timing to this and looks very comfortable with the uncomfortable goings on.

It's a shame that less isn't done with characters like Halley Feiffer's Tabatha and Hector Jimenez's Lonnie, who are both pretty one note and mostly forgettable if not for their selfishness or face stretching respectively. Hess seems to introduce these characters as important but then almost assigns them to oblivion, through at one point their part of the narrative clearly overlaps with Clement's Chevalier's character's wrong doings.

However, with this said, Hess' film deal with the interesting notion of how problematic an idea is when it becomes tangible. It's low-key release is a sharp contrast to Hess' Nacho Libre (his second feature) and despite that film still having that same offbeat nature, you get the feeling that bigger may not have been better for the director of cult on that production. In watching Benjamin not only sell his story to be turned into a film, but nicked as well, it all feels a little personal. But I didn't find it as self indulgent as other reviewers have mentioned. I feel Hess may just know this world better than some of us. Not all dorks rush to fuck pies or take out porky's. I feel what Hess may be doing is showing us the underbelly of the underbelly* and as a director he brings out enough in his characters to make them interesting and to laugh with them as opposed to at them. I guess I'm saying the oddball works here, not the well worn.

*Jesus. How fucking pompous did I sound there!