Monday 26 July 2010

Review: Splice

Year: 2009 (UK Release: 2010)
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Screenplay: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac

Note: Be forewarned. There's some slight "spoiler" moments within the review. Nothing too specific mind.

Synopsis is here

Once again the movie marketers strike. Unable to create a trailer that truly encapsulates what this sci-fi drama is about, these sneak attackers of the movie world once again hit the movie goer with a promo that gives the film the wrong feel. The trailers for Splice make us feel like we're in for a film that could double up with that "classic" piece of 90's sci-fi erotica: Species. But no. Despite Splice's look, it actually feels like a hybrid of The Fly (1986) and...American Beauty (1999)...kinda. There's more talking than I expected in Splice, but this is because it merely cares about what's talking about a little more than a more generic offering.

Taking it's notes from the Cronenbergs body horror/tragic romance or more exactly William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). Splice plays out more like a family drama with sci-fi added after thought than a the full on thriller it's advertising suggested. While the forefront gives us abject oozing, winged hybrids and all manner of gene meddling nonsense; the subtext touches on children giving birth to children, nature and nurture arguments and of course humans playing god. Splice of course has genre requirements and it's obvious dialogue and campy moments remind you that it's not THAT serious a film. However, the film does mark a maturing point in writer/director Natali's career.

The most interesting points I took from the film stem from Splice's most fleshed out character; that of Sarah Polley's Elisa. This is a character who has been brought up from a abusive family to become a successful young scientist. Her background plays an important role throughout that film as we watch Elisa start off as a idealistic researcher with no wish for children (clearly stemming from her relationship with her mother), to idealistic "mother", before becoming crucially, her own mother. It's an interesting arc that not only plays off well with the genetic jump around, but also provides a intriguing grey area for a character that we would usually provide straight sympathy for. Polley takes a while to get on board with at first, but as we delve into her character more, she really starts to tuck into the meat of the role. Adrien Brody once again has to inject life into a character who is quite flat and appears to struggle against the more impressive Polley but this seems to stem from have not as much to do screenplay wise. With this said however, the two leads share a nice amount of chemistry with Natali filming the squabbling scenes with a nice touch of melodrama that really mixes things up with the more gross aspects of the movie.

I really enjoyed the fact that despite the films sci-fi settings (with dialogue blatantly telling us that they've "crossed a line!") the film, quietly confident in it's way gives us a film about two immature adults who have yet to find the balance in their own life in order to bring up another life. From the telling misc en scene (a massive Anime poster centralizing a youthfully geeky apartment), to the music the characters listen to (Brody's characters incessant rock and roll listening) I was quickly reminded of the parents of Dogtooth in this couples inability to find a true emotional connection to their "child".

The "child" and main sci-fi element of the film itself is Dren, the DNA spliced hybrid. Dren's performance is a combination of child-like curiosity, vulnerability and viciousness with just a right hint of allure to make things difficult later on. Delphine Chanéac does well with the role and like Polley's Ilsa (the two arcs of the characters sometimes mirror each due to story elements) we are given not just an out and out crime against nature but a youthful being who is clearly missing the guidance sorely needed at such a young stage. Near the end it's clear that Dren becomes more of a risk, but this stems from the issues of the "parents" than anything else.

Splice goes into some provocative situations later on in the movie, playing on Oedipal elements and some slight touching on gender politics that enhance about some of the films more disturbing moments. It doesn't completely follow through, climaxing with a third act that ends a tad too conventionally for my liking. To add a small insult to injury, the decision to have such a standard sci-fi thriller ending almost feels like a cheat to everything that's happened before it. But no matter. It's a film that manages to balance family melodrama with creepy things going on involving a actress made up to look part model, part Chris Cunningham experiment. For the most part it does that rather well.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Review: Toy Story 3

Year: 2010
Director: Lee Unkrick
Screenplay: Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Micheal Keaton

Synopsis is here

We've known these characters for over 15 years now and it shows. Watching Toy Story 3 is almost like hanging out with old friends. The films colorful and exciting beginning not only throws you straight into the action but reminds you of how much you may have loved these characters. From those knowing voices to the charming asides, if you've watched the other films in quick succession you may believe like Toy Story 3 has hopped onto the nostalgia train and exploited the cargo as much as Indy 4, Transformers, Predators et all.

Not true.

Pixar have taken one of their tent-pole attractions and enhanced it ten-fold. There's even more at stake now, the scope is larger and the animation is bolder. The (unnoticeable and therefore unnecessary) 3-D hasn't been the big draw for the movie, and why should it be? Pixar have the gall to use their characters, situation and narrative to engross, not the gimmick. To trot out these characters and place them into a flat uninteresting affair (like Sherk 4 which was so naff I didn't even bother to write a review for) is not their style. They take these old friends, place them in a familiar situations (the film still follows similar beats to the previous movies) and managed for the third time to make them feel fresh.

Throughout TS3 the filmmakers of Pixar manage to place a new twist on things that should have been worn out at least a film ago...and they are still amusing. A deluded Buzz Lightyear? A separated woody? Another escape plan? Yes, and it's a formula that works. However it's how Pixar once again arrange the environment that makes the film so interesting. The idea of making children nursery a "retirement home" for toys is a lovely stroke. Turning it into a secret hell and placing the prison break motifs and moments in the film only make things more entertaining.

To me it's the most "action packed" of the three. We get much more activity from everyone in this film. While before we were dealing relationships between the toys, this time we don't need to. The bond is already there, because of this Toy Story 3's set pieces feels a tad longer, a chance for Pixar to show off what they can do with the animation. There's lots of neat touches involving Buzz and Woody, as well as a brilliant running joke involving Mr Potato Head which had me cracking up in my seat. It helps that the relationships started in the first film and strengthened through each sequel which their peak here. The combination of the fondness of the characters and the bolstering of the set pieces once again made me feel for what was going on within the film. A prime example of this happens near the end where, the film (borrowing from it's own creation of Wall-E) manages to conceive a horrible feeling of dread with nothing but the the toys expressions and circumstance that has become to them. Done are they with just telling the you the story, they are showing you. And doing it better than many live action features.

The voice acting again is impeccable, with not wrong turn anywhere. Newcomers like Timothy Dalton and Micheal Keaton fit in perfectly while the old hands of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and other don't sound bored with this at all. There's no feel of phoning it in here. Every voice is pitch perfect and deeply humorous (but then again the screenplay is also sharp).

The most interesting moments of Toy Story 3 however, come during the films final act, where not only the toys deal with their own mortality, but the human characters also come around to certain realizations. It is these moments in which the movie find it's emotional core. While not having the impact of UP or Finding Nemo (maybe it's just me and ideals of family), Toy Story 3 reminds of the fleeting memories of childhood and more importantly the power of creativity. The IFC podcast asked the question on why a computer animation company like Pixar would use the idea of old toys for three films. The answer is answered in the last moments and we realize why these toys are keys to imagination. Pixar may use powerful tools to create their stories, but before all that, it was the physical presence of these toys, their toys, our toys, all toys that sowed the seeds of inspiration. When we leave Andy we know that despite having these toys in his room till he was 17 (?) he's going to be one well adjusted young man.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Review: Inception

Year: 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joesph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cilian Murphy, Marion Cotillard

Synopsis would ruin the fun.

Well what can I say? I'll be blunt: A film like this reminds me that it's worth wading through the all the crap (I'm looking at you Legion) to get something so rewarding. A film like this is one that I asked to watch again straight after watching it. Bloggers like myself moan and complain about lack of creativity. Reviewers like me bitch about reboots, sequels and the rest of them. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan seem to be born to slap us around the face and tell us to shut the fuck up. What we have here is what self-important attention seeking twats like me want; the holy grail itself, the intelligent blockbuster.

I loved Inception, truly savored every moment. I found myself completely engrossed the films narrative. Completely wrapped up in every shot, every moment, every detail. Gushing? Just a little but I feel I have to. This is a film that has enough ideas to greenlight ten lesser films, you could create movies based on just one of the characters alone. I spoke to a work colleague about the film afterwards who claimed the film isn't as clever as it thinks it is. I disagree. To craft something as fresh and creative as this, while keeping it as accessible is where the smarts lie. It doesn't talk down to you just because it's a blockbuster, although it's a film that requires attention. There is a lot of information to take in (especially in the films first half) but to make it so engaging, keeping track of the spectacle is what made the film so special for me. It's a sign of a commercial director hitting a peak of his craft.

Early reviews look set to be calling this the next Matrix, however to me, Inception owes much more to Alex Proyas' bewitching Dark City than anything the Wachowski brothers have come up with. If Dark City was the Noir, then Inception is the Heist movie, it's expressionistic dreamscapes and architecture not only had me fully absorbed into the world but slowly belie the emotions and mindstate of each sub-conscious we enter. While the Matrix's world (a well realised one) allows one or two characters to obtain a certain amount of power, Nolan's film suggests that every mind-state IS it's own Matrix with any character being able to become a commander. This idea allows Inception to have a scope as board as an imagination can be.

This is not to say that the film hasn't got rules, but Nolan incorporates the exposition wonderfully into the movie. Characters talk (often) about the worlds and how to intact within them, but the talk is always engaging, always appealing. We learn enough too whet our appetite about the construct but not too much that we spoke holes or become bored. With this said however it's not like the characters we watch would allow this to happen.

Like I said, this is a heist movie and Nolan creates heist characters that make Danny Ocean's team look like the fucking wombles. The arrogance they exude is only matched by the bubbling tension that lays within the job they have to do. All have their role to play (I LOVE the idea of the "forger") and everyone manages to put their own feel into their types. It's a great ensemble cast. Tom Hardy's Eames is a tough guy channeling Alan Rickman, Ellen Page's Ariadne once again highlights the young actress' ability to enhance female characters of purpose. Joesph Gordon Levitt meanwhile, plays the sidekick position of Arthur the way I would love Robin to be portrayed if he existed in Nolan's Gotham. Cilian Murphy may be the mark, however he helps ground the film along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard. I love the confidence man cool that this ensemble bring to the picture. I'm sure detractors will state that these characters are cold, but they have to be, otherwise their minds will quite literally ran away with them.

It is this conflict (carried with deceptive skill by DiCaprio) that weights the movie and gives it the emotional punch. DiCaprio's Cobb has once let the power of dreams and his sub-conscious overcome him and now it threatens to crush him once and for all. We watch as his projections and memories begin to bleed into the shared lucid dreams, taking over and corrupting the perfect "last job" has been set in play. His tense relationship with his wife Mal (Cotillard once again oozing screen presence) begins to bubble, and the themes of Insomnia and Memento appear (fractured memories, guilt), before Inception begins to cross into areas that films like Vanilla Sky and Shutter Island touched on. Nolan however, wishes to take it up a notch not only by balancing more than one consciousness, but by setting up layers of structure for the films rampant third act.

Borrowing liberally from one of the best Bonds (Hans Zimmers exhilarating score and snowy setting will fill you in) Nolan's climax is a superbly executed, multi-leveled piece of spectacle, combining not only the rules of the world but the emotional pull of DiCaprio's character as well just blowing stuff up...incredibility well. What was seen in the T.V spots and Trailers don't give the film justice. How Nolan brings it together, is not only exciting visually but compelling from a dramatic point of view. You want to know what happens next and you fear for what may happen to these people. How Nolan did this to me is deceptive. I honestly don't know how it unlocked it out of me, but by the films final ambiguous shot I was reeling.

After the end of the screen I had only one question to ask the people I watched it with: When can I see it again? It's visuals are stunning, it's themes are almost operatic, and it's spectacle is truly stimulating. A film I cannot wait to watch again, to pick it's brains, to observe it's beauty, to dissect it's narrative and digest it's themes fully. Hyperbole? Yes. I'm not ashamed to say it is. It's a movie that reminds me why I watch movies.

Monday 12 July 2010

Review: Predators

Year: 2010
Director: Nimrod Antal
Screenplay: Alex Litvak, Michael Finch
Starring: Adrian Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Laurence Fishburne

Synopsis is here

The original Predator is one of those 80's action milestones that certain film geeks absolutely love. It had everything that people needed at the time. Arnie, Wrestlers holding huge freaking guns, Arnie, Aliens, Arnie, Carl Weathers, Arnie, Violence and er...Arnie. It was a very simple premise but it's one crafted with quite a bit of skill by John McTiernan (Die Hard). It's a dumb movie, but a fun one. It has just the right combination of silliness, action and comradery to hit the mark. Many have tried to imitate the vibe, but just don't hit that mark. Maybe because it involves a mud-encrusted Arnold Schwarzenegger and alien nuke at the films climax, I don't know. There's just something about it. Predators, with it's winking (and awesome) score and replicated imagery tries it's best to bring about the same feel, but despite it's adequate technical craft, there's not too much to write home about.

Ignoring the dubious AvP movies and advancing past Danny Glover's urban jungle (Pred 2), Predators jumps straight into the action B movie, with it's characters freefalling into an alien jungle without a clue what the hell was going on. I had to admit at the beginning, it reminded me more of Cube than the original Predator, as these various hardheaded lunkheads try and figure out what the hell is going on. From the start you can tell whose fodder, who will stay alive and who will die, and like the original film, that's not the point. However, unlike the first film these characters are less than one note. Represented only by their clothes and not any real characterization. They are now less defined than their 1987 counterparts, which is pretty tough considering all you needed to know about Billy could be written on a napkin.

By having no real character, the actors don't have much else to work with. We have a better pool of talent here than what's previously featured, but there's none of the chemistry that have fellow geeks picking their favorite character moments. In 87, the actors were limited, but they had just a presence that kept you going, be it Dillon or be it Mac, fodder they were but identikit they weren't. You really feel the blandness when the semi cameo that appears through the second act. The loopy turn that a certain actor puts in are a bit left field, but his company is sorely missed once he's gone.

The lack of presence also helps display a pedestrian screenplay. Stilted dialogue and very random leaps of faith are abound. If the narrative suddenly decides that someone should have a change of heart completely against type, then that's what will happen. The worst thing about this is it feels scripted, there's nothing organic about what takes place. It feels very written, very implausible and very worn. It's frustrating to see a character with no actual character suddenly become heroic for no other reason other than to A: Get rid of him because he's been around too long doing not much and B: Give us a slightly above average fight sequence that has taken far too long to get to.

Which brings me to why most people will see the film: The action. Antal's scenes aren't terrible in a directional sense, in fact they have a nice retro feel to them, but they're not particularly thrilling in anyway. The film does little to utilize the antagonists well, and despite this film having more predators, they don't hold the same suspense that one of them did way back when.

I keep referencing the first film and for that I am sorry, however, it just doesn't have that same sense of fun. It has a very mechanical feel throughout, and did little to raise my spirits after a stressful day at work. There is a knock around feel to some of the scenes of the film, the acting isn't awful, and many die hards will just be happy enough that this ignores the AvP films. But just like those films, this will be left right next to them when I'm scouring the shelves of HMV.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Review: Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Year: 2010
Director: David Slade
Screenplay: Melissa Rosenberg
Starring: Robert Patterson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner

Tell a fan of the twilight saga you don't dig the films and they're likely to say: "You need to read the books." Now while I understand that in reading the source material, it may enhance certain aspects of story, character, themes etc, a good cinematic adaptation will still have a certain appeal. The idea of having the read the book to "get" the film is folly and there's many great movies adapted from books that I feel have bucked the trend.

Like it's predecessors, I found Eclipse to be a naff film. I understand the superficial appeal to the proceedings, the idea of having two good looking guys fighting over one girl clearly has it's charms. Especially if one is doing the James Dean thing while the other is cut and exotic. But the problem I still have with this film is quite simple. You have to like the lovers in order to care for the plight. Not only must you like them, you have to believe the love. I may have said this before about New Moon before but if the franchise wants to regurgitate the same old arguments, then I'm sure I can too.

The film consistently, nay incessantly talks about choices and decisions throughout it's running time, unfortunately it doesn't get that the choice would be interesting if the protagonists choice was difficult. The problem is, looks aside, I see no point in Bella's relationship with Edward. Eclipse tells us that being a vampire is shit, like fucking awful. It's nothing but pain, loss and longing. The vampires themselves are cold, emotionless and devoid of personality (they also have stilted dialogue and stiff acting issues) and yet Bella (an utterly selfish cow who really has it in for her loving dad) believes this is the life for her. The character of Edward doesn't help matters, he's still manipulative, possessive and mopey. In real life, this guy would have had a restraining order, in the movie world he's the main prize...such is life. With this said, Bella is an ignorant tease that doesn't seem to register (read care) that all the casualties and pain that occurs in this saga is down to her. The script may have dialogue that allude to idea that she gets it, but her blank facial expressions (great acting Miss Stewart) say otherwise. With characters so selfish and annoying maybe they are right for each other.

I've mentioned the emotional disconnect the vampires have to fans who merely point out: "they're supposed to be like that" so I ask myself why should a emotional teenage girl want this so much? Especially when the girls other choice is so perfect? The character of Jacob is a tragic one (although not as bad as the long suffering father) because not only is he perfect, everything he does has no consequence. A passionate kiss between him and Bella should spark a hint of change and highlight the difficulty of the situation, but does nothing of the sort. This seems to be explained way by the fact that she is "drawn" to him. That's it. No need for Edward to have any other positive aspects of character when girls are just drawn to you. Such a stupid deux ex like trait makes the idea of the love triangle more than a little ridiculous. it's certainly unbalanced.

There are good points. David Slade, director behind the vicious vamp piece 30 days of night, does well with the film's action. He does enough to distract the viewer from the terrible CGI and gives a nice PG-13 battle to awaken any poor boyfriends who have been dragged by their significant others. He also does his best to add one or two interesting visuals, but this is merely a passing fancy as just like the franchise's previous directors (Catherine Hardwicke, Chris Weitz) he doesn't do much to place his own stamp on the film. Another element of interest is Taylor Lautner who does his best to inject energy into his performance. He is far more watchable than the apathetic performances from everyone else. However this is a film franchise that shoehorns Anna Kendrick (who was superb in Up in the air) into two or three bland scenes. The same goes for the needless cast change of Bryce Dallas Howard. I understand that she is better known than Rachelle Lefevre, but if your going to "upgrade" your actors....give them something to do.

I know this will fall on deaf fan girl ears, but please understand that I have tried with this. Three films in and these people are still recycling the same two conversations as before. From the eye candy aspect, I get it. Two attractive men. Enjoy it while it lasts. I'll wait for them to take up interesting, serious future projects like Leo did.