Sunday 29 April 2012

Review: The Avengers

Year: 2012
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Zak Penn, Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downley Jr, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johannson, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L Jackson

Synopsis is here:

Ploughing through my grammatically dubious past reviews (seriously, the grammar Nazis must have a field day before never returning), it's clear to see that my thoughts about Marvel's studio adventures were mostly entertaining, yet consistently preoccupied. My enjoyment of the various entries have ebbed and flowed for an assortment of reasons. However, the element that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, is the common knowledge that all these features are accumulating to something grander in scale.

This has lead us to a series of relatively fun jaunts which are sorely lacking at points. We've come to a very peculiar point in cinema in which the executives are now so invested in future projects that the first features are pushing sequels, way beyond a cheeky hint or odd nod. It seems that back stories and plot points are now being made even more verge than ever before, due to the desire for the audience double dip.

This brings us to The Avengers*, a film which aims to be the actual fruit of all the other labour, the definition to the large amount of Marvel input. It's hard not to feel a little duped by the "in-complete" feel of the previous entries. However, even before the end of the first act, any ill feeling begin to subside.

Simply put; for me, The Avengers delivers, in spades. Joss Whedon doesn't give us a "game-changer" or whatever new hyperbolic label being haphazardly thrown about recently. In fact Whedon's ingredient for success is to par everything down back to basics. True, the use of story and character has been bolstered somewhat by the previous films and yet The Avengers works on it's own as Whedon has boiled every character down to their essence, balanced the screen time and grown the film around them.

Liberties with it's introductions and the script has small issues (some awkward info-dumps) with some of the intricacies of it's admittedly silly plot (lets not fool ourselves that the tesseract macguffin is any more advanced than a certain allspark). The difference here between Whedon's Avengers and many of the others blockbusters that have passed, is that here, he and Penn (writing credits to X-men) really utilises the knowledge of the world these characters inhabit. The screenplay knows what makes these heroes tick and allows them to grow organically. From the humour of the characters to the action sequences, it all stems from a good understanding of not only the material, but character itself.

Let's take the villian of Loki (Hiddlestone) for example, who has bloomed from a Commodus-lite snivelling creature to a presence of Machiavellian reverence. Hiddlestone's Loki now has the same self arrogant swagger as Whedon's Mayor, but now he is a fully formed creation.  This villain, like The Joker, isn't simply a faceless alien or a generic spy antagonist but a character given an intricate agenda. Not just one born from a lazy wish for power, but sourced from a fractured family relationship only started in the first film. Such elements are examined and expanded with a deftness of touch, which has been sorely missing from a few blockbusters.

But that's what the pens (well keyboards...possibly tablets?) of Pen and Whedon bring to proceedings. Their focus the actual people inside the frame helps highlight the spectacle. What we are given is action driven through characters as opposed to empty effects. In a world in which we're consistently being being thrown bigger effects in a shallow effort to make us believe that bigger (and louder) is better, The Avengers works because it's creators simply go back to what made blockbusters so memorable in the first place. We share their plight, see their fears and flaws, pompous as this may sound, Whedon quite simply, has given these heroes their humanity.

Joss Whedon has grown and matured as a feature film director. The Avengers carries much of his writing quips and visual style, but while the Serenity was a little raw and still that cult feel (though a favourite of mine), here we have a boarder appeal but at no expense of entertainment. The humour is just as colourful as the film itself but it's is not at the sacrifice of the characters. It's not shoehorned or misplaced, quite the opposite.  The Avengers channels its spectacle through emotion and character as opposed to flashing blatant brand recognition and explosions (although that stuff is clearly within the film). Whedon is slowly crafting his own style of film action (those short sharp zooms were seen in Serenity). And while the set pieces aren't the strongest I've seen, the simple fact that sections are tailored to suit the characters personalties effectively makes a huge difference. I will say however, that the film suffers from a horrible infliction the proceeds so many of it's type. I found myself questioning the dubious power levels that these people have. The super powers of these beings seem to fluctuate for when the story accuires. I'm sure an actual comic book fan would be able to "set me straight", however it's that issue which reminds me why I favour the likes of Batman.

Slight frustrations aside, The Avengers is what I want from a summer movie. Whedon's film manages to mine the charisma found in the comics and place it on screen. We have an odd balance in play, in which, what we know about the characters from the previous entries gives us a certain level of depth and knowledge, and yet The Avengers gives enough space and time to allow these characters to mature further. I am still, in all honestly, wondering about the dodgy mechanics of Loki using his silly power cube to bring about the Gears of War reject army and story does feel dumb. But like a good summer movie should, I rolled with the punches because the emotion behind the motivations are there. The performances (standouts are Hiddlestone and Ruffalo, the humour and knock around tone washed away my issues. The Avengers has laid down the Summer gauntlet, I hope it starts as it means to go on.

*I simply refuse to call the film by it's stupid name change. The only good thing that alteration has provided, is making sure I get U.K cinema listings as opposed to U.S ones in Google.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Review: Battleship

Year: 2012
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna

Synopsis is here:

Halfway through Battleship, my mind wandered and formed two creations. One was a basic plot premise for the alleged upcoming monopoly film (I suggest a film like It's a mad mad world or rate race with Ben Kingsley as the monopoly guy). The second invention was the Battleship drinking game. You drink when Rihanna does something feisty, spunky or sprouts dialogue that was clearly reserved for Michelle Rodriguez (possibly too busy to sign for this film). Drink when the film features a scene which displays hilarious jingoistic tendencies. Drink when risible line of trite sound bite friendly dialogue is uttered by Taylor Kitsch. Seriously, It just kept going.

Battleship (based inexplicably on the Hasbro board game  is one of the most expensive unintentional comedies I've had the (dis)pleasure of watching. I mean it must be winking at the camera if after two waves of alien attacks, its lead only then mentions "I've got a bad feeling about this". At one point after yet another moment of silly "lets-go-get-um" dialogue, a scientist actually asks in a rare moment of self reference: "who actually talks like that". The film suggests that the Army and Navy haven't neglected it's veteran's in any shape or form. So much so that they can not only rely on them when the chips are down, but said vet's will easily have the faculties to jump into action at a moments notice. Maybe I'm hopelessly wrong, and a ragtag band of U.S Dad's Armies and disabled soldiers could hold their own against an almost infinitely advanced Alien army but this I doubt. Such is escapism and suspension of belief. Maybe I'm just not pushing mine far enough.

But maybe not. Battleship is a film which costs around $200 million to make and yet is so invested in becoming Transformers at sea that they couldn't even be bothered to finish the script fully. The film looks like it's poking fun at itself and yet it can't even be bothered to sort it's structure out. In the obligatory alien autopsy scene, the film mimics Independence Day (it does this often) with a flashback sequence which reminds us of that weird mind meld moment with Bill Pullman in Area 51. The film half heartily gives us some   exposition of the beings, but then drops the info, immediately afterwards. The film is full of moments and devices like this in which scenes don't advance plot or character, but remind in the film because Battleship, that's why.

This is Peter Berg mimicking Michael Bay as close as he possibly can. An attack on Tokyo* feels lifted off Dark of the Moon. The film is littered with countless Bay-like circling shots and needless slow motion, paper thin character development and an obscene running time which belies the films actual depth. Yet, credit to Berg for delivering a popcorn which doesn't have that nasty after-taste that comes with choking down Bay's tedious fighting Robots saga.

Lets not lie, this is a jingoistic recruitment film for the U.S Navy, but the film is so ridiculous in it's creation you may not believe it. You may even laugh as hard I did. I was far more entertained by this films absurdity than any Transformer film. Just watch the way it shows images of children under threat from the alien "other". Or an amusing aside where Taylor Kitsch (who is woeful in this, what happened to the John Carter pluck?) basically does his best to make sure that little Jimmy or whoever joins the Navy with his description of life at sea ("I drive the ship, it's way more fun").

Whether or not the film and it's comically haphazard construction is intentional or not will be in the eye of the beholder. There's a good chance that those who love the likes of Battle L.A and Transformers will probably see no different. However, Bergs film despite it's sloppy scripting, terrible acting (featuring a criminally wasted Neeson) and dubious placement of not only military organisations but fizzy drinks, mobiles and the like, is relatively competent in one area. While the action itself was relatively bland, it at least it could be followed.  Berg's film misses the topical commentary (and more entertaining set pieces) of his earlier work, Hancock, and lacks the edginess that Very Bad Things, brought to proceedings. However, Battleship revels in its badness enough, to make it a poor movie worth watching once if not for the hilarity. I will be wasted if I ever sit down to watch this again.

Review: The Cabin in the Woods.

Year: 2009 (U.K release 2012)
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison

Synopsis ruins it.

WARNING: I do not wish to spoil this film for anyone. There's a good chance that other films I reference within this review may say too much even if it doesn't appear to. To be honest, other reviews out there have correctly mentioned that the trailer says more than it should. Warned you have been.

Horror is a section of cinema; which as of late, has been overloaded with found footage, overdone remakes and so called torture porn. Search the right sites, and the hardcore fans still find their fix. However for a viewer such as myself whose tastes dips in and out of the genre, horror films and their ongoing trends (ANOTHER Zombie movie?) have left my interests flagging.

Delayed for two years due to squabbles over 3D and studio bankupacy, comes The Cabin in the Woods, a "loving hate letter" to the horror genre. A film which carries all the traits, tropes and otherwise on it's sleeve, ready to remix and redistribute. Yes, it's post-modern and meta (a bug bear for some). However, Drew Goddards début feature is one made by genre fans (co written by one Joss Whedon) for genre fans. Much like Scream all those years before it, the film feels like it's soaked up all it can from the likes of Sam Rami, Sean Cunningham and the like and rearranged with a fresh and topical eye.

Cabin in the Woods is a deceptive beast. It's wafer thin story could be written on a napkin but it's secrets visuals and playful design are what make the film what it is. Like Drag me to Hell or Evil Dead (the films set design owes a lot to the latter), the film evokes the same devilish desire of the to see what happens next to these poor, clearly-too-old-to-be-teens when they creep around a corner. However, for the first time in ages, we're given a slasher film in which the characters we follow not only have a certain degree of intelligence to them (mostly due to the scripts streetwise smarts towards the proceedings), but we also like them, giving what happens an extra wicked kick.

These characters are slenderly drafted yet more than appealing enough and that's the point. Cabin needs us to be somewhat invested in these characters as the film constantly plays on our knowledge what we know about characters in movies.We are give just enough to whet the appetite before the devices that are in place, tug and tease at the seems. What exactly happens I will not say exactly, however fans of Buffy should smile, as well will many fans of various horror movies that the film happily riffs on, even lesser seen one such as My Little Eye. Credit is due to the cast who infuse the film with a particular charm and remind us of the Bruce Campbells and Shemps that littered those early Raimi films. The stand outs being Fran Kranz and Richard Jenkins, who steal scenes like their going out of business. The film toys with the actors as archetypes and us as spectators and does so with a crackling energy that doesn't falter even during it's outrageous third act, which is so fun that it doesn't lose tread despite some of it's wayward aspects.

I've tried to review the film as best as I can without ruining too much but it really is best to go in as blind as possible. Cabin in the woods is a boisterous meta-slasher, which boldly plays on the idea of expectation and free will. All this while being a lovable homage to a genre that often loses it's way. It doesn't have the fear factor of the classics it mimics, but it gleefully subverts the material we think we know so much about and cheerfully gives us something new to play with. I'm sure I missed a good chunk of the movie, but that was only because I was laughing so hard.

Monday 9 April 2012

Review: Headhunters

Year: 2011 (U.K release 2012)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg
Starring: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Julie R. Ølgaard

Synopsis is here

Headhunters appears to be gleefully taking advantage of a small-scale Scandinavian invasion; that looks like it kicked off with the likes of Let the Right One In (2008) and The Killing, but actually goes back further with the likes of Christopher Nolan's Insomnia (2002) and David S Goyer's The Invisible (2006) being remakes lifted from Scandinavian counterparts (1997 and 2002) respectively). As I sat watching the film I already had myself wondering who would be cast in a tamer Hollywood retelling* (Steve Buscemi, Diane Kruger and Arron Eckheart).  But before the cash claws of California begin to dig in, the original is sitting in cinemas trying to benefit from counter programming, sitting in-between the likes of The Hunger Games and Mirror Mirror.

Those's looking for a more po-faced thriller; the likes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, may be slightly disappointed. Headhunters is in no way as serious and dark as some the aforementioned titles. Far from it, in fact, as it titters from mild mannered Ocean's affair (the slightly intrusive score evoking David Holmes) to graphic but mostly ludicrous violence. The perfect litmus test; is how a viewer feels about a protagonist finding himself nestling in a faeces filled toilet, using a loo roll tube as a breathing apparatus (and piece of camouflage).

The film descends from light hearted caper to droll cat and mouse chase as the Macguffin is quickly forgotten and the unorthodox looking Aksel Hennie panics franticly from absurd set piece to the next. The film delights in abusing it's lead to near Evil Dead levels. Bodies pile up, dogs are skewered, the aforementioned "poo dip" and the reason behind everything is all very silly. Despite being a leading Headhunter for a large company, the oddly named Roger Brown, wishes earn more money stealing art to keep up an ridiculous lifestyle and his impossibly good looking wife happy.

The set up doesn't sound too out of the ordinary considering, however, what makes the film interesting is not only the mere fact that Brown has to literally shave his head in order to physically keep it, but that the film uses it's oddball mixture of big business recruitment and art nabbing hijinks as a metaphor for grandiose dick swinging and bruised masculinity. Such aspects do go against the Hollywood grain. The film display its hero as a flawed individual who is physically wanting also. As our anti-hero is slung from pillar to post we soon realised he is being punished for his status claiming and lack of humility. The idea of such a character getting battered about due to his compensation for his small man syndrome, you can't help but giggle slightly. One of the films strongest and most telling scenes involves Roger meeting the antagonist Clus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at an art gallery opening (how droll). Clus' model good looks and easy charm are used as in sharp contrast to Roger.

Strangely this is where the film left me. While I found myself absorbed in the movie as it revelled in it's madness, when the film has to explain itself in the third act, it doesn't stand up as well. Reasoning and  motivations flounder and become hazy while the pay off, though fine thematically, is played out as typically as the American films it managed to eschew for the most part. I'm sure most people won't mind and go along for the ride. However for me, the film nearly stopped dead in it's tracks for me.

Despite it's weaker third act, Headhunters utilizes it morbid sense of humour to it's fullest and manages to play out it's thrills far more effectively than the likes of such nonsense like The Tourist. Headhunter is slick and snappy entertainment, which is well cast and tightly put together. One could say for the most part the film got its head screwed on...sorry.

*Note: Upon writing this post, I found out that the remake rights have been brought by Hollywood already (before this film even came out).

Sunday 1 April 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

Year: 2012
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemworth

Synopsis is here

*WARNING: There is a slight spoiler in my review but come on...who hasn't seen it yet?*

By the time I had my ticket to the hunger games, half the western world had seen it.

Yes; the biggest problem for a film blogger, who is also a paying patron, is that with work related issues and life getting in the way, you'll often be talking about a film that many have already seen and forgot about. My reviews on movies have never really been about telling people exactly what to watch although it's great if someone takes my view and enjoys a flick. However, it is nice to try and get your writing out with the big guns before the money rolls in.

From the view of The Hunger Games however, it's particularly interesting to observe the reaction of a film after the opening weekend. As much as we go on about cinema as an artform (and it can be), mainstream cinema always has and always will be dictated on cash. How a film uses it's money and how it makes it back is the bottom line of everything, period.

Case in point, it's fascinating to watch how (regardless of your view on quality) The Hunger Games lapped up the board audience and big bucks that John Carter missed previously. Scott Mendelson gives us decent reasoning as to why John Carter had such a fall from grace. Strangely enough, The Hunger Games appears to have done the complete opposite in all regards and reaped the rewards.

While one of the main reason behind the films attraction is of course the clear fact that the film is aimed at the "young adult" crowd. The film clearly has universal appeal. It's director; Gary Ross, had his writing talents involved in films such as Big (1988) and Pleasentville (1998). Simple features with board appeal and to this blogger, more than enough entertainment value. As writer and director here, Ross makes sure that the basic translation is solid (although it's clear that plot strands have been streamlined), and those who know the material well will probably be happy with what transpires.

Those who have brought the book on their kindle, and are still reading the life and death of Don Simpson, will see that the films story and themes, tender to various audiences. There is something for most within the material.Played out like Lord of the files meets The Running Man (with a sprinkle of Orwell), the films politics, the action and the female lead all come out well enough, yet doesn't feel like they've been picked by committee. You do get that true escapist feel of the world situated. I'm sure that this is evident with the book (I'll brush the dust off my kindle soon) but Ross does his best cinematically to give the film a certain amount of scope.

Jennifer Lawrence is as convincing here as the world that is built. This is mostly because she brings to the role the same quiet steeliness that she graced Winter's Bone with. Striking her role with the right balance of vulnerably and aggression. Whether it's bouncing off the ever reliable Woody Harrelson, or fighting through the foliage during the games themselves, Lawrence carries the film as comfortably here as she did in the Ozarks.

The film has it's faults. Due to it's 12-A rating and modern action filmmaking in general, it's blink and you miss it editing makes some of the set pieces feel awkward. Meanwhile; a streamlined relationship between Katniss and a fellow hunger gamer Rue, feels reminiscent of the Ripley/Newt but feels lacking in screen time.  Such aspects could do with a bit of breathing space. However, the films lengthy running time reminds us that we should be happy that the film manages to place as much in as it can. In fact, contrary to the racists tweets from ignorant alleged fans who clearly can't read well, one of the films changes from the book involving a revolt in one of the districts after a certain event, works surprisingly well because of the aspects of race. Consider the films talk of districts uniting and revolting together. Surely such a mixture of races uniting as one voice makes the theme stronger than a typical white on white view. But then, maybe I'm wrong with such idealism.

Dubious race readings aside, the film works well when it has other sci-fi in its sights. Many have made the comparison to one Battle Royale, and while it's true that the film's main conceit has similarities, Much of the film seems to owe itself to Orwell's seminal 1984 (don't they all). An early moment within the film involving Katniss and her District boyfriend feels much like the neutral space that Winston and Julia share halfway through the novel. The constant manipulation of the media and containment of hope and emotion evoke the  same Ministry of Love meddling that took place in Oceania (and of course the aformentioned Running Man).

Some of the films politics are clearly dated for where we are now. Ideas of celebrity being not only an importance but life affirming (as well as life giving). The dolling up our young and utilizing them for political gain and distraction is a difficult and complex element that the film does well to explore. The complexities aren't there, but for such a mainstream film to even think about such things is surprising. In comparison to Battle Royale*, The Hunger Games lacks the explicitness found within certain areas of that feature. In fact its straight laced nature of the film means that it lacks the absurdity observed within it's so called Japanese counterpart. The severe bloodletting is of course missing, but then so is the extreme adolescent behaviours that take place. Said enhanced immaturity helped highlight the senselessness of the situation. The Hunger Games doesn't appear to strive for anything too similar, focusing on a typical Hollywood arc, in which the kids grow up fast and quickly, one step already into womenhood and heroics.

This isn't a negative per say. More of an observation between two films that share similarities, yet are from two very different cultures. The Hunger Games works well as an entertaining piece of Hollywood affair. One willing to engage in lofter and darker themes than one would usually expect. For a film that found itself being touted as "the next twilight", this gives us a heroine who eschews the passive nature of Bella and hints at a romantic triangle which looks set to be more complex than the wolfs and the vamps. What happens next should be quite compelling. For now, I need to make do with checking out the book, as I'm more behind with that than the movie.

*Note: I know, I know EVERYONE has referenced it.