29 April 2012

The Avengers Initiative

The time has come. After much prolonged build-up The Avengers is finally upon us, and fanboys and film geeks have been practically frothing at the mouth in feverish anticipation for this event. I’ve been looking forward to it a lot but also with a certain degree of caution, as I’ve realised it’s best to manage your own expectations and not get too carried away. Nonetheless I have prepared by recently rewatching the prior Marvel films that have gotten us to this point – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Since rewatching each it's occurred to me that although I don't yet know what form my review of The Avengers will take (I haven't even seen the film yet), it will be difficult to write it without getting bogged down in backstory and detailed thoughts on each of the characters and their previous films. So, as both a prelude and an attempt at clarifying my thoughts on the background, here's where I stand on each of these films:

Iron Man
(Dir: Jon Favreau, 2008)

Iron Man presented the challenge of bringing a lesser known superhero to the screen, but even more so, a superhero that like Batman is only able to do what he does due to being a billionaire. Likeability is key in this scenario and the first thing that Marvel successfully nailed here was the leftfield casting of Robert Downey Jr. There were many doubters when it was announced, but Downey Jr totally becomes the character of Tony Stark, bringing the arrogance and narcissism that's required, but with a wild, fun streak that makes you both want to live his life and enjoy watching it. He’s basically a loveable asshole. It’s a great marriage between the writing and the acting, and this is one of those characters where there’s no way you could imagine anyone else ever playing the role.

The Iron Man suit itself is a pretty awesome plaything, looking sleek, high-tech and a lot of fun. It’s robust enough that you believe Stark can win in a fight, and there’s a lot of fun to be had whilst he is wearing it. What the film lacks, and this is it’s one problem, is a decent villain. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane is an interesting foil for Stark, he’s powerful and slightly menacing, but that's in the "real world" only and when he becomes Iron Monger the film falls flat. The final fight sequence is just too mechanical and only seems to be there because that's what usually happens in films like this. It lacks all the elements that make the rest of the film so good. Maybe Favreau was still finding his feet as an action director, but the film might’ve been more interesting if it could’ve taken a slightly different route at the end.

Iron Man manages to add another interesting dimension by having something of an anti-war message and highlighting the futile profiteering of selling weapons to your enemies. This at least delivers a bit of food for thought. Shifting the early focus of the film into the caves of some foreign country where Stark is held hostage by terrorists offers a clever character arc, as well the excitement of a knocked together prototype Iron Man suit. And it’s a very “bright” film, with most scenes set around the day time with lots of sunshine, making the most of the Malibu and foreign desert locations. This positively affects it’s look and mood.

Upon many repeated watches Iron Man continues to impress me as a great piece of high quality big budget entertainment, with one of the best superhero alter ego's ever.

The Incredible Hulk
(Dir: Louis Leterrier, 2008)

Let me say this from the outset – I’ve never been a fan of the Hulk character. I find the concept all a bit too one dimensional and as his only emotion ever really seems to be rage, it’s difficult to care about him. I did quite like Ang Lee’s very comic book like attempt at the story back in 2003’s Hulk, and until I rewatched The Incredible Hulk again I was convinced the former was the better of the two. Now I'm not so sure, as Leterrier’s version has a bit more to offer than I initially thought.

Edward Norton makes for a very good Bruce Banner, convincing as an intelligent man who is always living on the edge, desperately seeking for a way to control his demon. The first half hour set in the Brazilian favelas is the best part of the film, as Banner fights to remain anonymous and control himself. Back on US soil the film stays pretty interesting until it reaches the last twenty minutes or so, where it just descends into bad predictable anarchy. Tim Roth's Blonsky, the ageing special forces agent hunting Banner, wants the powers Banner has (just like in Iron Man) so ends up becoming The Abomination, thus we end up with 2 CGI characters battling it out through the streets of New York. It may be inevitable, but it is so thoroughly uninteresting that it really lets the film down.

Banner is really the only interesting character in the film. Blonsky is just the determined pitbull freed of his tether, whilst Liv Tyler's Betty, the love interest, is just vaguely annoying. Her father, General Ross (William Hurt), is the catalyst for all this, but he's too myopically focused on a single goal to be a character of much interest. And this is where I’d forgotten how the balance of the film really lies – it’s mostly Banner that we’re watching and not the Hulk. So three quarters of the film balanced in this way helps a lot, as inevitably CGI humans don’t look good, even when they are green and exceptionally large.

The Incredible Hulk is actually a pretty good and interesting film when Norton/Banner are on screen. When a green CGI man is on screen, it’s not so good. It's a shame that both this and Iron Man have major final act issues, but at least it was pleasing to find that I enjoyed the film a lot more on a second watch.

Iron Man 2
(Dir: Jon Favreau, 2010)

Iron Man 2 is the first of these Marvel films to tackle the sequel issue, ie how well do they cope when it's not an origins story. Fortunately there's no re-establishing the core elements - we know who Stark is, how the suit works, and what his primary relationships with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle here, Terence Howard in the first) are all about. The sequel's primary aim is to amp up the action quotient, which Favreau doesn’t shy away from here. The introduction of two interesting villains carries on Marvel’s knack for great casting – Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, a rival arms manufacturer who is as slick as a snake oil salesman, despises Stark, and wants his own equivalent Iron Man suit; Mickey Rourke is the slightly demented but deeply intelligent Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash), who has a very strong personal vendetta against Stark. Inevitably they all collide. 

This definitely feels a lot more like an action film. The introduction to Whiplash is pretty spectacular, taking place at the Monaco grand prix with all sorts of carnage ensuing, and the wide complaint that the final scene in the first film was so lacklustre appears to have been duly noted, with a fully overblown excursion into destruction. It almost feels a bit much but it is entertaining to watch. Fortunately the main attributes which made the first film so good haven't been ignored – there’s a lot of focus on character still, it’s funny and all round pretty thrilling.

We also get some more background into Stark’s character, with his enigmatic father making an appearance. Howard Stark (John Slattery) appears in old reels of film that Tony watches, which all seems to play into the bigger overarching Avengers story. This gets a lot more attention here. Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson was in the first film but seemingly for comic relief, but here has more to do. We also get properly introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and another S.H.I.E.L.D operative, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who gets probably the best action scene in the film. In the cinema all this introducing the Avengers stuff seemed a convoluted distraction, but having seen the subsequent films it's now an interesting aspect as it makes a little more sense and there’s more to try to piece together, if you’re so inclined.

Ultimately Iron Man 2 lacks some of the wonder of the first film and probably goes a little too overboard with the action, but it’s still a very satisfactory sequel. As we’re already on Stark’s side there's a bit more focus on the other characters such as the intriguing antagonists, which just helps make it an interesting film. 

(Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

Thor was always going to be the Marvel film of this run with the greatest chance of failure. Taking one of the much lesser known Marvel characters, it had to contend with this character being a Norse god (a very long way away from the usual superhero mutations/billionaires), as well as making a story work that takes place both on and off Earth, and not forgetting a director whom you’d never think to mutter in the same breath as the words “big budget Hollywood film”. So how comes Thor turned out to be the best of all these films?

Firstly that director choice – Branagh is a self confessed fan of the Thor comic since he was a boy, so had an excellent understanding of the source material, but as importantly as that he is an actor too, so knows how to get good performances out of his cast and to direct the film in a way which focuses on character. And he has some fantastic characters to work with. There is the petulant, arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is banished to Earth leading to some excellent fish-out-of-water comedy. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) gets the meat of the "acting", superbly playing a multi-layered Shakespeareanesque character, and it's good to see Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Back on Earth, Natalie Portman’s Jane and Stellan Skarsgård's Erik are scientists who despite not being especially fascinating, are likeable and offer some human balance to make an ethereal concept so relatable.

The shift between Asgard, Jötunheimr and Earth works well, and whilst there's subterfuge going on in Asgard, the humans on Earth are fighting their own battles with S.H.I.E.L.D who are are determined to stop their research. This means we get more Agent Coulson and a very brief introduction to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), both of which are good things. So much of this film lies on Hemsworth’s ample shoulders and he delivers, wielding the mighty Mjölnir with gusto, and displaying a decent range of emotions. The film doesn't get too bogged down by unnecessary action scenes, except when needed to establish and conclude the story, so there is a lot more on offer.

Thor is thoroughly entertaining, much in the same way that Iron Man is, but it offers something very different, with a touch more weight that is greatly appreciated. Having now seen it four times I’m not even slightly bored of it and I can safely say it was one of my favourite films of 2011.

Captain America: The First Avenger
(Dir: Joe Johnson, 2011)

You know what we don’t get enough of these days? Old fashioned adventure films. Well that’s exactly what Captain America: The First Avenger is. Going back to the roots of the character and setting the film in the 1940’s during World War 2 is one of the essential ingredients that makes it work. There’s a certain charm with how this is portrayed and it would all feel slightly cynical if it was done so in modern day. There’s also something refreshing about someone who is essentially super human but is stuck in a time that's not as technologically advanced as today. Except in this world it is slightly so, as Nazi Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), has come across a new energy source which gives his weapons and technology a modern sheen, allowing him to set up his Hydra organisation with which he plans to take over the world.

Chris Evans is highly enjoyable as the stoic and unwavering Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), in both his small weedy frame, and bulked up new and enhanced form. I liked the rest of the casting too, particularly Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine and Hayley Atwell as Peggy, Cap's potential love interest – there's something kind of believable between them. The film wants to make it clear that the little man shouldn’t get trampled on, an admirable message, and as such it isn’t too bullish but has fun with the whole concept. This means it borders on cheesy at times and also suffers from too many of the effects looking fake and green screened, but I could live with both those things as they’re part of the film’s charm.

The other aspect that worked was the introduction of Howard Stark (played here by Dominic Cooper), who’s an integral secondary character in the film. Being set in a different era, this is cleverly the only way to make a clear connection to the rest of the universe that the other films have alluded too. The bookending of the film in present day felt too jarring, but no matter, the biggest disappointment is that the ending made it clear that we shouldn’t expect a Captain America sequel to be set in a similar time period. A big shame.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a lot of fun and introduces the character in a great manner, and it's particularly refreshing to see something made in this day and age that reflected a more classic age of storytelling. Take note Hollywood - more of the same please!

22 April 2012

Review: Gone

(Dir: Heitor Dahlia, 2012)

1, 2, 3, 5, 4. That’s how I was expecting Gone to go. In other words, I was expecting a pretty generic thriller that followed convention. I wasn’t too wrong to be honest, although Gone does offer up a couple of elements that I wouldn’t necessarily call deviations from this line, but they're elements that play with expectations just a little more interestingly than I anticipated. But wait a minute, this seems like I'm getting ahead of myself, as if I’m at point 4 where I needn’t be yet. Let's jump back a bit.

Gone is about a girl, Jill (Amanda Seyfried), who comes home from work early one morning to find her sister Molly (Emily Wickersham) not there as expected. This leaves Jill freaked out as she’s mentally fragile, recovering from the torment of having escaped a serial killer who was never caught. Her instant rationale in this situation is that the killer has come back looking for her and has taken Molly instead. The police however are just convinced that she’s a nut. So did any of this really happen? This is what we must figure out as Jill rushes around hunting for Molly.

The plot is achingly familiar but rather than turning into a police procedural it mostly plays out from Jill’s perspective, which means it doesn’t get as hampered down with the formalities that would otherwise be required. We do still see fragments of police work, but they’re more focused on trying to keep tabs on Jill rather than solve an abduction / track a possible serial killer. The narrative drives along at a decent pace with different clues constantly being picked up as we go. Fortunately the question of sanity / insanity adds an element of uncertainty not only to the plot, but also to how we perceive Jill. There's the possibility that the extreme determination she possesses could make her a tragic figure rather than the desperate heroine she's trying to be.

Seyfried is pretty good in the role, successfully channeling these emotions thus making her fairly believable, with the right amount of imbalance thrown in alongside her frantic logic. However, due to the fact that you never really know which side of the sanity fence she's on, I struggled to sympathise with her, and there were times she was sailing close to the annoying line. The rest of the cast are fine, although I was left wondering what attracted the next two most recognisable faces to their roles in Gone, as they didn't feel substantial enough to warrant them. It’s also worth mentioning one scene that did impress me that appears in the latter part of the film - taking place in a car it's simply a long phone conversation, but it did a quietly effective job of building tension and a sense of uncertainty. More scenes like this would've been good!

Gone is essentially a generic thriller which despite a couple of interesting ideas, doesn’t do much to elevate itself beyond the “once watched easily forgotten” pile that the vast majority of films of this ilk so easily end up on. Nonetheless it’s an entertaining enough watch and it certainly helps that it moves along at a decent pace and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, whilst Seyfried makes it watchable. But despite my core film watching principle that everything is best seen at the cinema, this is perhaps one of those films that doesn’t need to be. So back to describing the plot in numbers, it's really 1, 2, 3... I won’t spoil it!

17 April 2012

Review: Battleship

(Dir: Peter Berg, 2012)

A film like Battleship exists on one level only – pure entertainment. It’s not concerned with anything more than showing absolute destruction, whilst a small band of heroes arise in the middle of this to fight against the odds and try to avert what seems inevitable. Sounds familiar right? Of course, you could list any number of big budget movies from the last couple of decades that follow this well worn template. This isn’t a question of how original the idea is, it’s how well is this executed? And how much you like this film might also depend on your predilection towards explosions.

Tenuously based on the popular board game, Battleship’s version of the aforementioned template has aliens responding to a signal mankind has sent into space, who land in the Pacific near a large fleet of military ships on naval exercises, making them the ones who must stop this emigrant threat. Of course this will (mostly) happen on water. Our lead for this is bad boy officer Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) who is always getting into trouble, is in love with the Admiral’s daughter (Brooklyn Decker) but the Admiral (Liam Neeson) hates him, and his Captain brother (Alexander Skarsgård) is constantly trying to help him out usually to no avail.

There’s obviously a lot of action in Battleship. Some of it is quite well put together, some of it is uninteresting. I've got no clear dilineation for this to be honest as it’s all the usual cgi overload, but I will say the scenes on water with ships fighting each other look good and it all sounds quite impressive. There’s a lot of explosions, so if that’s what gets you off then this is the film for you. Unfortunately the aliens look pretty rubbish and too humanoid, and there’s something far too video gameish going on when they’re out of their ships. Even within the confines of a plot like this the story is pretty standard and clichéd. It goes from character establishment to the firing of big guns pretty quickly.

Actually, saying the film establishes character is overly generous as there is virtually no characterisation in Battleship. The opening scenes make a rudimentary effort to make Hopper seem like a bad boy as well as establish his love for the Admiral’s daughter, but it serves zero purpose throughout the film. Kitsch completely lacks any personality here and it could be anyone playing this role. I don’t think I would have noticed if he’d been swapped out halfway for someome like Channing Tatum. I liked Kitsch in John Carter and thought he bought something to that role, so it’s disappointing he’s so bland here because in these sorts of films you really need to have a lead you can root for. Hell, as much as Shia LaBeouf is hated by people, at least he had personality in the Transformers movies. The rest of the cast is as bland, faceless and irrelevant. Anyone else could be playing these roles and it would make no difference to the film whatsoever.

It's worth noting that Battleship is not quite as annoyingly jigonistic as many of these big-budget “end of the world is imminent” Hollywood films have a tendency to be. There’s at least something of an international naval element going on rather than it being pure “America! Fuck yeah!”. Is this a recognition that the international film market is so valuable now? It seems unusual but is very pleasing that the UK has had Battleship five weeks before the US gets to see it. And one more thing I couldn't not mention - impressively the filmmakers managed to find a way to work a scene into the film that is entirely based on the board game, and believe it or not it actually kinda works!

You know what you’re getting into with a film like Battleship. My expectations were incredibly low because as much as I enjoy films like this (and I honestly do, as sometimes you need to switch off your brain to mindless entertainment) the trailer made me expect another Transformers: Revenge Of the Fallen (the awful second one). Fortunately it ended up being more like Transformers: Dark Of the Moon (the not as bad fairly entertaining third one). Battleship is very average, overblown, dumb, Hollywood entertainment - it offers nothing original, the direction is perfunctory and the characterisation abysmal. In the pantheon of films of this ilk it’s not likely to be remembered. Yet I don’t regret my two hours in the cinema as I was kept quietly entertained. It successfully served it’s purpose so it would feel churlish for me to complain too much. Although if I could count the number of times I wanted some of the shots to be framed against the background of a burning orange sunset...

15 April 2012

Review: The Cabin In the Woods

(Dir: Drew Goddard, 2011)

Ok, so where do you start with a review when every tiny detail is tantamount to spoiler? This is a challenge. I firmly believe that if someone is reading a review before seeing a the film then they must expect mild spoilers as the minimum payment for satisfying their curiosity. How else do you describe / write about the film without even giving a little something away? I’m yet to figure that out. Suffice to say I give away enough here that might ruin the first ten minutes of the film. Feel free to turn away if that’s unpalatable, I understand, I don’t read reviews before seeing a film. And if you have seen the film, well, there’s so much more I could’ve said...

In the run up to the release of The Cabin In the Woods one of the most popular and prevailing comments from those who’d seen it was, whatever you do avoid finding out anything about the film beforehand - it’s best knowing nothing. Well surely that’s the best approach for watching every film? Still, I dutifully followed this advice to the point where the first time I saw the trailer in the cinema I didn’t even realise what it was until halfway through, which wasn’t helped by not even knowing who was in the film. I watched the trailer fully that one time but then all subsequent times it was shown I closed my eyes and put hands to ears to dull the sound a bit. There were two things that stuck with me from seeing the trailer just once: 1) I thought I’d gained too much info on what the overarching story might be, and 2) one shot seemed too suggestive of events that might happen later in the story. This is why trailers can really annoy me...

In a very unexpected turn this didn't actually ruin the film for me (aside from the annoyance of expecting to see that scene and it leading me to think I knew the direction the film would take). Why? Because the first ten minutes very clearly establish what the film is doing, which includes what is implied in the trailer about the overarching story. The film may be about a group of friends who go to a remote cabin in the woods for the weekend, where of course it’s highly inevitable that shit will turn weird, but there’s more to it. It’s this overarching aspect of control and manipulation; who is pulling the strings and why?; to what end?; why are we the audience seemingly complicit?; which makes this interesting and makes it clever. Yes that could be considered a spoiler, but as I said it’s established right from the first scenes of the film as well as the trailer, so knowing that really shouldn’t ruin anything. It’s what the film chooses to do with this that’s appealing.

What we see of the “control” side of things is in some ways more interesting than what’s happening in the cabin. Maybe because it feels fresher and more genuinely intriguing than just solely being terror in the woods like we’re used too? The trade off with this is that unfortunately The Cabin In the Woods is not remotely scary. Potential scares are too signposted and there’s not enough opportunity to build dread as we’re not as fully immersed in the environment. This isn't helped by the audience knowing more than the characters. Despite that it’s a well written film that plays with the horror genre with intelligence, so there’s a lot for fans to appreciate, much as there is in the similarly clever Tucker and Dale vs Evil and Behind the Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon. All the characters are likeable and easy to root for, meaning it’s well cast, and it does manage to be quite funny at times, but that affects the film tonally. “Horror comedy” is an oxymoron and not a genre that really works.

Fortunately the question of where this all leads when watching is something of a mystery and certainly not what you expect as the film gets going, but it turns out to be gleefully exciting. It’s in this latter part that the film really flies and seems intent to truly shake loose any traditional genre shackles. It’s a film of ideas in a staid genre, and although it feels knowing in the first half, it delivers something decisively unexpected and brave later on. This is where I reiterate how it’s nice to let some things surprise you.

The Cabin In the Woods is a well put together, fun and intelligent film. As a horror fan I really appreciated it’s creative plays with the genre, and as a fan of film in general I appreciated it’s desire to push the limits in an intriguingly clever manner. It may not be groundbreaking but it’s gratifying to see that some filmmakers still care enough to put thought and effort into the genre. With that being said though, by not being scary it fails at the basic tenet of horror. At least Scream, with all it’s post-modern deconstruction and bluster, managed to be an effective example of the genre too. It’s this part of The Cabin In the Woods that brings it down. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the film a lot, but I need a horror film to deliver on that core aspect because ideas and intelligence only go so far in this genre, even when they are so tantalising. (Don't forget of course how subjective horror is). It’s a film overburdened with hype. Ignore the internet. Don’t read any(more) reviews. Go watch. Enjoy.

12 April 2012

Review: Mirror Mirror

(Dir: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, 2012)

One of the peculiarities of Hollywood is the rival film, or in other words, two big budget films dealing with basically the same topic coming out within a close window to each other. Take the summer of 1998 for example; Deep Impact was released in early May only to be rapidly followed by Armageddon in early July, the latter of which went on to make a couple of hundred million dollars more. Rewind a year and the same thing happened with Dante's Peak and Volcano. It seems the threat of mankind's imminent destruction by natural forces was dominating studio execs minds back then, albeit in an unoriginal way. Interestingly when this happens it's not often you see one side giveway to a rival production, although it happened a few years back when Baz Luhrmann ceded victory to Oliver Stone by shutting down his film about Alexander the Great during pre-production, leaving Stone’s Alexander as the definitive word on the man, for now. And here we go again, this time with competing films about the tale of Snow White – firstly Mirror Mirror, which will be followed by Snow White and the Huntsman in less than two months time.

Fortunately both of these films appear to be tackling the story from different angles. Snow White and the Huntsman looks like it will be offering a slightly more fantasy-esque take on the story, with the trailer suggesting it may be inspired by the Lord Of the Rings and Narnia films, whilst Mirror Mirror has gone down the route of more typical family friendly fairytale. This divergence is certainly a good thing to help make it clear to audiences that these are two different films.

Mirror Mirror takes the traditional core of the Snow White story and adds some little twists to it. Snow White (Lily Collins) is eighteen years old rather than a child as in the traditional story, and she meets the Prince (Armie Hammer) early on in this version. The (evil) Queen (Julia Roberts) wants to marry the Prince for monetary reasons (and vanity too obviously) and there is no huntsman, but the ultimate drive of the story here is the empowerment of Snow White as she tries to escape the tyranny of the the Queen and do the right thing, alongside the travails over when she will eventually get together with the Prince. There is less focus on The Queen trying to trick her as is usually seen. I don't think there was anything detrimental to the plot by these revisions.

As this is a Tarsem film it’s only right that I address the visual aspect upfront. It looks beautiful. Tarsem has a fantastic eye for visual aesthetics and we've come to expect having our breath taken away by what he puts on screen. This may only be his fourth film, but in their own ways each of The Cell, The Fall and Immortals are stunning pieces of eye candy, regardless of the quality of the other aspects of these films. And so every visual aspect of Mirror Mirror is perfectly crafted – the set design is impressive, particularly the castle’s design both inside and out, where it dramatically perches atop a precipice overlooking a body of water. There’s an interesting concept around the fabled mirror of the story, which leads to some very typically dramatic Tarsem shots. Then there’s the animation that sets the scene at the start, as well as the fantastic puppet sequence later on (I won’t say more on that). However the costumes are the real visual star of the film – they're sumptuous, extravagant and fit this world perfectly, and definitely should be the leading candidate for best costume design come the next awards season.

Of course stunning visuals alone don’t make a film, but I also believe that Mirror Mirror is well cast. Collins looks as beautiful as you’d expect the character too, and comes across as pure and innocent as her name. It’s not a role that requires much range but within these confines she suits it well. It’s nice to see Julia Roberts back in a lead role and she is clearly having a lot of fun. She doesn’t go for the scary evil Queen option, rather one that's more selfishly misguided on her path to vanity, with a nefarious plan always up her sleeve and an element of dark comedy underneath. Hammer seems to cut a dashing prince, managing to successfully play it straight and amp up the comedy when required. Nathan Lane plays Brighton, the put upon loyal servant slash comic relief, a role he can effectively play in his sleep. And the seven dwarves with their noisy and vibrantly unique personalities are great fun.

I was genuinely surprised that I enjoyed Mirror Mirror as much as I did, as based on the trailer I was expecting a messy film that I wouldn't like (the “other one” looked more appealing). Tonally Mirror Mirror is aiming at family friendly, and it looks and feels like a fairytale brought to life. I suspect this may have been the appeal to Tarsem and I can’t think of any other fairytale adaptations that manage this illusion so effectively. On this level it definitely worked, and it has a certain magic that made it an inviting world to spend time in. Yes it's overly cheesy at times and certain aspects of the script seem too modern, and I know there are many other faults to easily be found with it, but I don’t really feel inclined to pull at these threads because they didn't ruin the film for me. I liked Mirror Mirror, although I certainly didn’t love it, but it was entertaining and offered a pleasant respite from the real world. It's hard to criticise further when that’s supposed to be the magic of fairytales.

8 April 2012

Review: Headhunters

(Dir: Morten Tyldum, 2011)

Over the last few years there seems to have been a pretty serious realisation in the UK that Scandinavians produce some good and interesting thrillers. Perhaps this started with the insane literary success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the whole Millennium trilogy, but in visual form it seemed to have been when the BBC adapted the Swedish detective show Wallander. Now of course this has extended as far as Hollywood and the US television networks. There’s definitely something very culturally interesting about the darkness hinted at within these works that are being exported, and fortunately those in the UK are in an enviable position to be exposed to them.

The latest export is Headhunters (Hodejegerne), the film version of Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s novel. It follows Roger (Aksel Hennie), who to the world appears to be an extremely successful headhunter, living in a large modern house with his beautiful gallery curating wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), but secretly he is an accomplished art thief, which unbeknownst to Diana allows him to barely keep her in the life she is now accustomed too. At a gallery opening he is introduced to the good looking and slightly mysterious Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and it’s from this encounter that Roger’s life rapidly begins to unravel beneath him.

The mark of a good thriller is that it should not only be thrilling, but that it keeps you guessing as to what’s really going on and how the protagonist(s) are going to deal with whatever situation they are put into. Headhunters excels at this. Roger is thrown into a number of different difficult scenarios as the film progresses, but manages to deal with them in a way that seems logical. He’s a flawed man, but that makes him seem more real and believable, and Hennie really does inhabit this character. It’s a great performance which allows the film to work. And like all good thrillers it does a great job of concealing the truth until the end, leading to a satisfying conclusion.

Fortunately the antagonist of the piece, Clas, is thoroughly convincing too. A believable background is established for him early on and allows for an element of menace to be prevalent. He’s also fairly likeable in the early parts of the film so you're never totally certain how much of a threat he really is to Roger. The film itself is well shot and directed, and I thought the score does a great job of building tension in some scenes.

Part of the appeal of the stories from this area of the world is that the culture seems to be deeply ingrained within them, for better or for worse of what that represents. To go back to the Millennium trilogy of films, their Swedish nature is inherently important to the stories and adds a deep layer of complexity and darkness. When Steve Zaillian wrote the Hollywood remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he wisely kept the Swedish setting, as to divorce it from this would’ve meant removing something elemental to it. In Headhunters the Norwegian setting actually plays a less important role to the overall story, but it still gives it a certain rawness and mystery, which adds something to the mix. Ultimately though the story is good enough to be commutable to other languages, which means we should probably expect the Hollywood remake soon.

It’s fair to say that Headhunters is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in quite some time. It perfectly fulfills what you need from the genre, by playing cat and mouse and keeping you guessing the whole way through, which is to say it expertly puts you in the position of the protagonist, who is a fascinating character. There is a darkness running through it and it's necessarily violent when it needs to be, which are points strongly in its favour. I’ve not read the book (nor any of Jo Nesbø’s novels) so I can’t say how closely it hews to that, but without any prior knowledge it stands more than adequately on its own two feet. It’s interesting because the day before watching Headhunters I saw The Cold Light Of Day, which is a pretty poor example of what a thriller should be. Perhaps that made me appreciate Headhunters even more, because it’s so satisfying to watch something that properly delivers.

6 April 2012

Review: The Cold Light Of Day

(Dir: Mabrouk El Mechri, 2012)

The ridiculously clichéd and inexplicably stupid elements of The Cold Light Of Day got me thinking on the way home from the cinema. Why do so many decent actors seem to end up in cheesy and pretty dumb movies like this? Surely these films can’t have just turned into averageness during the shoot or in the editing suite, there must’ve been some signs of this in the script? Or do they not care as it’s just a pay cheque for a film that probably has little chance of setting the box office alight? I find the career choices actors make interesting to observe.

In the case of The Cold Light Of Day we’re talking about Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver. Aside from Avatar, Weaver seems to have mostly had bit roles in recent years, cropping up for short stints in films like Rampart and Abduction, which is a shame because she’s a good actress who should have bigger roles. She has a lot more to do here than in most recent films I've seen her in, so perhaps that was the allure? Willis on the other hand doesn’t need to be appearing in average films like this, but perhaps we give him too much leeway for all the average things he’s done on the sole basis of John McClane?

However neither Weaver nor Willis are the lead here, that auspicious honour falls to Henry Cavill who plays Will, whose family is kidnapped off their boat in Spain whilst holidaying. Will must find out who has them and why, which involves lots of running around Spanish cities, shoot-outs, government agents and always obfuscated secrets. I want to like Cavill, he has an interesting presence and is engaging enough as a lead, but I’m just not sure he’s that good an actor. He’s convincing enough in the action scenes, but anything that requires actual acting less so. I thought the same in Immortals, but then perhaps neither that nor The Cold Light Of Day are really the best films to judge acting ability on. It’s now made me question his casting in next year’s Man Of Steel, he’ll look the part of Clark Kent / Superman for sure, but then of course that’s a Zack Snyder film so perhaps it’s pointless to care about anything more than how he looks, and I’ll just have to wait for his next film after that to judge properly?

Everything about The Cold Light Of Day has been done many times before, and much better at that. The film really doesn’t attempt to go for anything more than cliché, which goes back to my first point about the script – the level of cliché must have been clear then? This of course annoyingly means that logic also goes out the window quite frequently, and quite inexplicably so at times. Accordingly any big plot reveals are just too patently obvious. At this level it really has nothing to recommend it, however none of this stops it from being casually entertaining. At the end of the day, sometimes you just need to switch off your brain and have some undemanding entertainment fed to you without pretense. Did I mention there's an enjoyable car chase in it?

I should point out that I thought it was quite well shot, the cameraman was at least being creative and adding some interesting pans and movement. Plus, as much as I criticised Weaver and Willis for taking roles in this, they’re both very watchable and it’s always pleasing to see them on screen. Shame it wasn’t in something much better. If you can stand thinking you’ve seen this many many times before, The Cold Light Of Day may keep you quietly entertained. I didn't hate it, but nor did I manage to experience anything encroaching on like. And I'm still clueless as to why it's actually called "The Cold Light Of Day".

4 April 2012

Where has the surprise gone?

And why must everything be spoiled?


If you can, cast your mind back to a time before the internet was all pervasive and controlled our lives. Was there more mystique around films then? Were there fewer preconceived notions about a film and less chance of spoilers ruining it? Whether that was so or not, access to fewer film related resources than we have now must surely have meant that the contents of most films were a greater surprise to the viewer. Today however we seem to be in a position where the surprise has mostly gone, or at least the desire to be surprised has gone, which I find bewildering.

Lately I've become increasingly aware of peoples "need" to determine every detail about a film prior to its release, which seems unnecessarily excessive. I really can't grasp this. The histrionic internet reactions to some upcoming films, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises in particular, have really been quite eye-opening. To say that these are two of the most anticipated films of recent years (not just 2012) would be something of an understatement, and as a genre loving film geek I’m as excited as everyone else to see what Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe will herald, and how Chris Nolan will conclude his Batman trilogy. Except I want to experience these films with as much unknown beforehand as possible.

Since when did the over-scrutinisation of trailers for details and ideas of what to expect from the finished product become so actively promoted by the media? In some sense it’s the logical step from the post-film deconstruction, but what can it do other than give away too much information that will ruin the purity of that first time viewing experience? Recently seeing a few websites tout articles offering thorough breakdowns and analyses of the latest Prometheus trailer, examining every minute detail for clues as to how it fits with the mythology of the previous Alien films, felt quite disheartening and unnecessary. Why do people need to know everything about the film before seeing it? What about the surprise and mystery of letting it reveal it’s secrets as the story unfolds before you on screen, and then using repeat viewings to slowly reveal more?

There is too much trailer obsession at present. Don't get me wrong I love watching trailers, but they’re the necessary evil of film, which is a frustrating dichotomy. It’s difficult to not get excited when the first trailer for some big film like The Avengers appears online (wait a minute, I live in the UK so I’m supposed to sound culturally unaware and call it Marvel Avengers Assemble), or when you see the trailer for that rare film that you weren’t previously aware of. There’s something about the anticipation of not knowing what is going to appear before you on the cinema screen that is quite thrilling. But on the other hand, due to the oft complained about point that trailers just give too much away, it can be a game of Russian roulette because you don’t know how much of the film may be ruined by this little two minute taster. Usually as much as I want to watch a trailer, in the back of my mind is the concern that I’d be better off not watching it. It's really annoying when watching a film and you start trying to second guess where all the scenes you saw in the trailer will fit in. That's really distracting.

The ideal scenario has to be watching a trailer once only, but for any regular cinema goer this is completely unfeasible and over-exposure to certain trailers comes with the territory. For films like The Cabin In the Woods, where anyone who has seen it actively recommends avoiding any information about the film in advance, particularly the trailer as it gives too much away, what are you supposed to do? I was doing a great avoidance job and then the trailer goes ahead and appears on screen and of course I didn’t know what it was until halfway through, by which point it was too late not to watch. At least I’m now able to quickly implement the eyes closed / hands over ears technique. But that kind of ruins the fun of sitting in the cinema. As does seeing the same trailer over and over again though. Maybe this need to trawl through trailers for as much info as can be dragged out is just because it’s so easy to do so these days, what with multiple trailers, shooting scripts, revealing on-set photos and a plethora of other over analysed spoilers just a couple of clicks away. It really seems like it ruins the magic. Now just don’t get me started on the concept of a trailer for a trailer, which has started happening!

On the excess information side, The Dark Knight Rises has been the catalyst for some of the worst spoilerish rumour mongering I’ve seen. Some websites have been collating regular reports rounding up all the latest rumours about the film, analysing what’s potentially true or not. I know there’s feverish demand for this film but what happened to patience? Oh that's right, patience is not a concept that exists on the internet, what with people’s entitled attitude that they should have free access to everything immediately, and if the film isn’t available yet then this demand must be satiated with as much information about it as possible.

I don’t mean this whole rant to come across as “oh, wasn’t it better before the internet?”. That’s not my point, because even though the trailers and all these spoilers are there online, it’s usually pretty easy to avoid them. Although unfortunately it's not always that simple, as sometimes people on Twitter are just not cautious enough with what they’re tweeting and I have unwittingly read spoilers I would have actively chosen to avoid. People forget that just because you also inhabit this digital space it doesn't mean you have the same need to have things spoiled.

It seems the best solution for avoiding having a film ruined in advance these days is to bury your head in the sand, particularly from a web based perspective. But of course that isn’t really practical, nor is avoiding the trailers in the cinema. I begrudgingly learned to live with that years ago – at least it's their home environment and they look and sound big as they should, particularly compared to watching on a computer at home. Watching a film is still certainly all about the experience for me, and a major part of that is going in with as little knowledge as possible and letting the film surprise me as it progresses. Perhaps I have to accept I’ll never understand why people are becoming so obsessed with over-analysing and collecting information on a film before watching it – can this really be an enhancement of the experience? Clearly it is for some. I’ve now decided that I won’t succumb to the temptation of watching new trailers online anymore. I can wait until the cinema where no doubt I’ll catch most of them, but even if I miss some, chances are high I’ll be planning on watching those films anyway so it won’t make a difference to my decision-making. Just don't spoil the film for me!