Monday 25 January 2010

Review: Ninja Assassin

Year: 2009 (U.K release 2010)
Director: James McTeigue
Screenplay: Matthew Sand, J. Michael Straczynski
Starring: Rain, Naomi Harris, Ben Miles

Plot synopsis is here (but seriously there's no point reading it)

A quick look at Wikipedia or the IMDB's trivia and you will find that J Michael Straczynski had rewritten Matthew Sand's script of Ninja Assassin in 53 hours. It was approved by Warner Brothers with no notes and the script went out to the actors within the same week. If said story is true then yes, that's pretty impressive. What I find even more impressive is that Warner Brothers were fine with passing this with NO PLOT WHAT SO EVER.

This isn't like Avatar where the plot doesn't feel fresh. No, this film, seriously has no plotting. There's flashbacks and there's a supposed Europol investigation over Ninja's (?) but don't you dare try and follow it as there is no point. About half an hour into the film I still had no idea why people were doing what they were doing. It's not as if the story is a jumbled mess, it's just non-existent.

It's fortunate that the people involved with this supposed screenplay is The Wachowski's (producers) and their friend James McTeigue (director) who novel idea with the product is to fill it with action with a side order of blood (I said novel, not original). The film is becomes strangely passable because despite it's pathetic script, the film is fueled with watchable fight scenes. Not all of them work (Filmmakers need to learn that fast editing in the darkened rooms does not a good set piece make) but when they do they make the film stick well enough with a Bloody B Movie charm that genre fans will most likely enjoy. McTeigue a well versed second unit director, choreographs the stylish action with a certain degree of skill and when the set pieces work, they were entertaining.

McTeigue's film also manages to cast actors who may have characters as flimsy as the paper they were written on, but have enough engagement to keep me wondering how much they got paid to star in the movie. Naomi Harris and The Bloke from coupling struggle well with very very little while Korean Pop Superstar sensation (yet I only know him from speed racer) Rain gets along with English a hell of a lot better than your Jackie Chan's or Jet Li's and while he hasn't got their ability, he has got an adequate amount screen presence to give the fight sequences enough draw. Although it's obvious that this is a film about how Rain looks than anything else.

As mentioned before Ninja Assassin is a film that will work if you love the genre. Images invoke
Martial Art films of the past (Enter the dragon) and the film doesn't scrimp on the amount and quality of the action. McTeigue clearly has a lot of expertise in the action camp. Also in watching this, he shows as a director, he is clearly finding the type of story he likes. Be it ninjas or vigilantes McTeigue clearly likes a format of story that involves a young, naive woman who encounters a mysterious stranger and falls into his world. However unlike his first film, Ninja Assassin hasn't got an Alan Moore story to fall back on.

Hear me rant about this on The Cinematic Dramatic Podcast at Geek Planet Online

Monday 18 January 2010

Review: The Book of Eli

Year: 2010
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Screenplay: Gary Whitta
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis

You could say that The Book of Eli is the "louder" cousin to The Road. But whereas The road was a meditation on the very morals that make us human, The Book of Eli is about Denzel Washington kick ass and taking names. It also has a plot moment that shouldn't work if you think about it for more than one second, however the slick direction from The Hughes Brothers manage to distract me enough that I didn't notice how dumb said plot point was until I had left the cinema.

The film has other issues, there's far too much slow motion, it's slightly over long and none of the performances are any of the actors best. With all that said, I found something to enjoy within the movie. One of the main things being that after 8 years, the Hughes bros' can still infuse a film with a vigorous energy. It's not as immediate and hard hitting as their still superb debut (Menace 2 Society) but it shows that they still have the talent for directing set pieces. In fact despite the fact that the films best action sequence owes a lot to Bad Boys 2, it just so happens they nicked the best part of that movie and almost made it their own.

And it's not just moments of action. The brothers still have a knack for making a story engaging. Despite the aforementioned mis-steps, The Book of Eli still makes for a mostly engrossing watch. It helps that the siblings are directing the likes of Washington and Oldman (despite both actors being not at their best, they still bring a certain something to the parts), but the film also has some great visuals. and the underlying themes are interesting ones if not subtle.

Subtlety is not the films strong point. Not that it matters because like I mentioned before, this is a film about Denzel kicking ass. However it is that lack of subtlety that makes John Hillcoat's The Road the better view for me. There are images within Eli that almost mimic The Road but they lack the subtext that is loaded within the latter film. To put it simply; the reason it's a Coke can is important, the reason why it's a Motorola loudspeaker is money.

Monday 11 January 2010

Review: The Road

Year: 2010
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Joe Penhall
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Synopsis is here

Like the fans who will never believe that a remake can be better than the original. Film adaptations from books face a similar scrutiny from people who find it hard to separate the two mediums. When a book you love is turned into a movie, it's very hard to get those images the pages have burned into your memory, So much so that everything, EVERYTHING that isn't in place in the film, even the elements that just wouldn't fit in a cinematic way become a flaw.

As an avid movie viewer I realize that trying to fit all the nuances that a book can carry, into a consumable two hour movie is more than a little difficult. One must also remember that even how a book is WRITTEN concocts a mental picture completely unique to the reader.

This brings me to Cormac McCathy's hard going but stunning 2006 novel The Road, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with a healthy interest in reading. With this said I will say that the novel is at times a difficult read. When I heard about the movie, I was instantly intrigued. After the film being pushed back for various reasons The Road is finally released to maybe perhaps contend with the 2010 Oscars. But despite this does it manage to do what adaptations should do and evoke the spirit of the book?

In my opinion The film does extremely well although it has its flaws. Case in point: The Infamous coke scene in which The Boy is given a can of coke by the father and told to drink it. In the book we understand that this the first time the boy has even heard of coke let alone drank the stuff. It's a small moment but the poignancy behind it has hidden depths. Despite it being a basic hypothesis (No more coke) it can hard to fathom, particularly when we take such things for granted. This incident in the film doesn't come across right. There's something about McCathy's prose that gets under the skin. Tapping into that feeling is so very difficult. This brings me to my other example, being the final scenes, which are so close to my imagination it feels like director John Hillcoat opened my brain and rummaged through my skull to pick out the mental pictures. They were exactly how I imagined them to be.

It's understandable to see why certain aspects of the film are executed in the way they were and while it's clearly obvious that The filmmakers need to stay as faithful to the novel as possible. The Road still kinda needs to be a marketable mainstream film. So while it's a little frustrating that the film feels more "action packed" (I use that in the loosest term) than the book, Hillcoat still manages to bring across so much of the same emotional tug that resides in the book, and while the narration of the father's is quite clunky (I understand why it's used but show not tell) Hillcoat manages to combine create the stark imagery dreamed by the author and is still able to get the novel's message across.

That message is of course the frailty of humanity. When the chips are really down, and the shit has hit the fan and is beginning to stink, it's not likely that we will act like the stereotypes we see in a film like 2012, it's going to be a downward spiral in which we wouldn't be able to recognize ourselves in the mirror. The central relationship between the boy and his father is one which states that even when we reach the end of civilization; hope and compassion will still be taught and learned. Not only will the older generation try and teach, but the younger breed will also help to install in life lessons.

To make sure this is communicated as thoroughly as possible, Hillcoat has placed his faith in the hands of the the experienced method actor that is Viggo Mortensen and the upcoming youth; Kodi Smit-McPhee. This combination not only puts a face to the "names" (they are unnamed throughout) but fill every frame they're in with raw emotion. With Mortensen, the work he puts into this is almost too easy for him, Smit-McPhee however, is the revelation here. The bonding they had in pre-production clearly shows through here as they carry the movie from struggle to struggle. One of the reasons the film is just as hard to sit though as the book, is because the leads on screen manage to describe how difficult the situation really is with each look, glance and stare.

Hillcoat who was also director of the equally blunt western The Proposition directs the plot efficiently and keeps the pacing tight. No watch watching here, I found myself at times truly lost in the films images and performances and despite some changes Hillcoat's vision is so very close to the book it made me fall in love with the original material again. That's what I feel an adaptation should be about, not straying so far away from the premise that it's a completely new entity, but not hugging the material so tight that the film becomes turgid. It's about finding the balance. A difficult goal to achieve but one that Hillcoat aims for and hits the mark often.

Delays may have kept it from reaching our shores sooner, but once it got here I was happy it didn't disappoint. The Road for me was not only worth a watch but worth checking McCarthy's prose once more. and for those who know how hard that book can be, it says a lot about how I felt about the film.

Review: Daybreakers

Year: 2010
Director: Micheal and Peter Spierig
Screenplay: Micheal and Peter Spierig
Starring: Ethan Hawke , Sam Neill, Willam Defoe,

Synopsis is here

I will try and be as quick as possible with this because I really do not wish to waste words on this film.

Daybreakers wishes to be a snappy little genre piece but despite an intriguing twist on vampires (yes another fang flick) and some appealing visuals (including one particularly memorable night time action sequence involving exploding vamps at night), there is nothing here that you haven't seen before.

It's characters? Annoying. It's story? Predictable. It's action and scare sequences? (expect the aforementioned scene) Pedestrian Sometimes unintentionally funny. The film was a forgettable viewing that I won't care about seeing again.

It's a shame because vampires at this current moment in time really need a shot in the arm. Ethan Hawkes character is so wet I found it almost impossible to root for him. Sam Neill plays one of the most toothless capitalists I've ever seen, while Willem Defoe is in a role he could do in his sleep. A film like this could really do with something ANYTHING with some verve. Even the films talks about new ways of curing vampirism the ideas feel half baked. It doesn't help that the film has an background allegory towards immigration which is far more interesting than what's happening in the forefront.

It's only been a few hours since I've watched Daybreakers and already I have nothing else to say about it because the film is so faceless.

The Spierig brothers clearly have an astute visual style that will evolve and mature as they make more films. However I hope for their next trick they come up with something that I can "take home with me".

Saturday 2 January 2010

Review: Nine

Year: 2009 (2010 U.K Release)
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penople Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren

Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2 is a wonderful, abstract film which shows a director at his most playful. Nine is another bland musical from Rob Marshall which is based on a theater show, which liberally borrows (i.e nicks) from Fellini's feature. While I haven't seen the stage musical, if this is anything to go by I'm happy I saw 8 1/2 first.

Fellini's film was sexy without being overtly sexual, stylish without being overly stylized and filled with content that melded dreamscapes with reality in a blink of an eye. It's a film that just washed over me and not only left me entertained but inspired (not that I could write anything as lucid as Fellini). Nine lacks the joy of the film that came before it, in fact the film is merely a pre-meditated attack on the awards season, stuffing the film with statue winners while neglecting everything else.

As a musical, it has no memorable songs. In fact they're not even interesting songs. The tunes are more likely to have aficionados ho-humming than just humming. As a regular film, it lacks the subtly that resided within the original film, with any poignant moments cut short by these musical numbers. These numbers are jarring, state the obvious and desperately try and hide the fact that Nine is trying to make a surreal film more conventional. Marshall's overall direction of the story is mediocre to say the least and the mixture of the unengaged drama and music don't mesh as well as they should. In fact I'm struggling now to remember any worth while scenes, such is the unremarkable telling of story.

It's not all bad I guess, there's some cute references to Fellini and his legacy and the performances by anyone with more than five minutes screen time do their best with the material. In fact, despite only being in the film for about ten minutes, Kate Hudson puts in a turn with more verve than anything she's done in the last ten years.

Unfortunately, it was all at a loss for me. In my opinion Nine lacked the energy as well as the mischievous of it's cinematic origin. Hell, it didn't even have the kinetic flair of Baz Luhrmann's far superior Moulin Rouge whose combination of romance, pop songs and dance number is still a spectacle to behold. Nine asked me to be Italian. Unfortunately for Marshall, the Italians were much better at the questioning.

Note: While I know that the film is based on a stage musical,however, during the credits, I don't remember the film saying anything about Frederico Fellini or 8 1/2. This says a lot about how Hollywood views film history at the best of times, taking imagery and reference from a filmmaker and not even crediting him in the main credits. It your going to mangle a man's film at least state who he is.