28 May 2013

Review: The Hangover Part III

(Dir: Todd Phillips, 2013)

To say The Hangover Part III had it's work cut out for it would be something of an understatement. It's left sitting in an awkward position of not wanting to do the same thing as the first two films whereas trying to do something different is a risky strategy. Part II's major failing was that it was the exact same plot transplanted from Vegas to Bangkok, with identical story beats and "comedic" moments. This lack of originality rendered it entirely predictable and the humour forced. It was the perfect example of how not to do a sequel and a massive unfunny failure (except of course at the box office where it reaped massive amounts of money). The first film wasn't perfect but it felt like a fresh comedy with an approach that was genuinely intriguing whilst leveraging some great comedic moments.

Part III (wisely) takes the different approach. There are no hangovers or blacked out moments that need re-piecing together, instead it's a through story tenuously linking back to the first film, that tries to give us as much of Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) as possible and offers new threat in the form of John Goodman's crime boss Marshall, who forces the Wolfpack into a new range of wild situations.

Although it was probably the right decision to push the story off in another direction, the chosen route doesn't really work. In fact it's quite hard work, going for bland thrills and action. The set-up that gets the group on the road makes sense, yet it's pretty boring and the story continues in this dull manner all the way until it hits Vegas somewhere after the halfway point, where it shows small glimmers of life. But only small glimmers. Vegas is where the heart of the series lies, but this ends up as yet another pale pale reminder of the first film.

Part of the problem lies with the characters. Man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) is more annoying than ever, and his schtick already feels done to death with Galifianakis playing variations of this character in both Due Date and The Campaign. Alan is a thin character who's finally stretched beyond breaking point in this third film. The others have become even more generic with only Bradley Cooper seemingly coming out unscathed by virtue of being the least annoying. Yes there's something vaguely comfortable about being in their presence but it's a rapidly diminishing notion. Chow's screeching mania is funny in small doses and as such worked in the original film, but has been totally over-used since then rendering it impotent.

And this is the big problem - both Alan and Chow are supposed to be the primary comic relief and the pair are rarely funny here. I managed a handful of mild chuckles throughout, but there were only two proper genuine laughs in the film, and one came in the scene during the end credits rather than the actual film! What Part III is not is funny. It's just dull blandness. The irony about the aforementioned end credit scene is that it cruelly rubs the potential for a better film in our face.

Two sequels in and it's clear The Hangover was lightning in a bottle, being that rare comedy that's genuinely funny, surprising and entertaining. But these sequels have done their best to shatter that bottle rather than preserve what it contained. Part III barely registers on the comedy scale whilst offering bland action and irritating characters at best. It's better than it's predecessor by the simple virtue of not being a straight retread. The couple of good ideas (Melissa McCarthy's small role for example) just frustratingly highlight where the film could've gone for the better. Perhaps taking a different route with the second film and heading back to a retread with the third film may have been a better approach, but either way, The Hangover series is now most definitely dead in the water.

15 May 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

(Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2013)

The 2009 version of Star Trek proved one thing very successfully - that some films / tv shows are worth rebooting. The decision a couple of decades back to move Star Trek films into the Next Generation timeline was highly successful as that was the biggest of the three iterations of the universe on tv at the time. But those films eventually grew bland and tiresome. For an enduring franchise like Star Trek sometimes a new approach is required, and what J.J. Abram's offered with Star Trek was even more wholly satisfying than expected, primarily because of the casting, characterisation and their interplay. And not forgetting that it's a decent modern sci-fi / action movie.

So you'd think the hard work is done as they know what works and that a sequel is now just happy plain sailing, right? Well, Into Darkness proves that's not entirely so. The entire crew are of course back with a small handful of fresh faces and there's the inevitable new villain in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison, although that name may just be a faรงade (implying that is only really a mild spoiler as if you followed any of the build up to the film his real identity was widely rumoured). And thus he becomes the greatest foe this still fledgling crew has had to face yet.

So what seems to have gone wrong along the way? The plot of Into Darkness really stretches patience as it's just flat out boring or at times derivative of the last film. After a mildly exciting intro sequence and some interesting Earth bound scenes the Enterprise takes flight and this is where the film should come to life, but no, it labours away with a story that barely seems to leave the ship and doesn't involve any of the other rich or exciting alien life forms created in this universe, save for some cursory Klingon action which is a brief opportunity wasted. When there's so much potential in this world why limit yourself so much? It's only the scenes on Earth that really seem to have something engaging about them, which is a damn shame. 

None of this is helped by the villain who is pretty rubbish (if you don't want spoilers don't read this paragraph). The decision to make him Khan seems entirely nonsensical in this iteration of the universe and incredibly lazy. I'm still struggling to figure out how he logically fits into this story although I'm not entirely au fait with this whole universe so maybe I'm missing something? Either way I get frustrated when filmmakers feel they must just replicate what previous films did, you know because Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the most popular we must try replicate it in our sequel. No, have confidence in your material and do something more creative. None of this is helped by Cumberbatch's terrible acting. He's as stiff as a board and the way he looks like he's over-enunciating words may work on stage but here it just looks stupid, diminishing his impact. Having only seen him in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse I'm kinda confused why people seem to think he's such a great actor.

Where the film does work is back in the interplay of the key characters that everyone knows and loves. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are still up to their usual verbal sparring which is great to watch, whilst both Bones (Karl Urban) with his quasi-serious concern and Scotty (Simon Pegg) with his hyperactive mania both continue to provide decent light relief. Fortunately the misguided Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock love storyline from the last film is mostly sidelined here. Likewise JJ Abrams seems to have curtailed his overly distracting use of lens flair. I hasten to say it's more tastefully used rather than constantly blinding us, but perhaps this is because it would be too much for those choosing to watch in 3D?

This might be the best summation of Star Trek Into Darkness I can think of - when I sat in the cinema watching Star Trek I didn't want it to end and could've happily spent another hour absorbed in the world, whilst at the halfway point of Into Darkness I already couldn't wait for it to end. This proves to be a pretty compelling example of no matter how good and interesting the characters are, it's unlikely they'll transcend a boring plot. I'm still bemused why with such scope in the Star Trek universe you'd limit yourself to a human villain and ignore the interesting alien worlds. And that villain is just lazy and poorly acted, making Eric Bana's so-so Nero in the last film look like a masterpiece of villainy. Into Darkness is highly unsatisfying and curiously, it seems the old "odd numbered Star Trek movies are bad, even numbered are good" paradigm has been reset in the opposite direction with this new run of films.

11 May 2013

Review: Iron Man Three

(Dir: Shane Black, 2013)

A curious thing happened in the run up to Iron Man Three. With all the so-called first wave Marvel films (The Incredible Hulk possibly excepted) I experienced huge amounts of excitement and  anticipation thanks to the quality the series very quickly established, but in the build up to the third Iron Man film I was perplexed that I was feeling none of that. My only conclusion is that the let-down of The Avengers was to blame. Not only is that the weakest and least enjoyable of the first wave of films, the bewildering "popular" opinion that's permeated around it being one of the best superhero movies ever made only serves to taint the franchise somewhat. Of course I shouldn't let it do so, but sometimes these things can't be helped. (Full review here). And so it took a rewatch of the unfairly maligned Iron Man 2 to kickstart some of the excitement that should be there, as after all I do love the Iron Man films (read my summary of all first wave Marvel films).

The third film sets things off, after a little flashback detour to the end of the nineties, a little way post the events of The Avengers and introduces us to a new villain and a selection of other suspicious faces who are intent on some form of destruction, requiring someone in a metal suit to stop them. Whilst the first and particularly the second film introduced the S.H.I.E.L.D angle and agents Coulson, Romanov and Nick Fury, all intending to build up to something bigger, this film is free of those constraints featuring none of the characters from the bigger collective. It helps greatly with streamlining the story and making it feel like an Iron Man film, but what's the point in this group existing if they're not going to be called in to sort out threats such as what's taking place here?

The threat is an interesting one. Primary villain is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who's presented in the vein of a middle eastern terrorist but with his own insidious plan to bring the US president (William Sadler) to his knees. The use in the first half of handheld shot, rapidly edited videos showing violence, destruction and his threats to camera are creepily effective, but what they do with him in the second half is even more curious and surprisingly works. Then there's Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian who instantly appears devious and not all there, and as you'd expect Pearce does a decent job playing up the character in a similar way to Sam Rockwell's presence in the second film. Less effective is the Maya Hansen character (Rebecca Hall) who feels underused, especially when the science she's working on could've used more time and what we're supposed to think of her is somewhat confused.

Of course with any Iron Man film it's really the Robert Downey Jr / Tony Stark show. He is everyone's favourite loveable asshole after all. The first film saw him develop a conscious about profiteering from war, whilst the second showed us he could play with others and felt the weight of his family's legacy. The Tony Stark character development this time extends to coping with feelings of his own mortality and understanding what really is most important to him. As ever this is needed to soften out his arrogant edges, but he remains a compelling character so it's nice to keep getting little pieces of the puzzle added. With that in mind it's a shame that nothing is added to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who started out well but since The Avengers has become more annoying and one-note.

Where Iron Man Three loses it's way is with the biological tweaking of the bad guys - it makes for very interesting visual effects but feels a step too far in the wrong direction from the tech heavy focus of the prior two films. Yes the technology may always seem a little unrealistic but it's believable that we'd get there at some point in the near future, whereas this biological idea is just too fantastical, even in the context of setting this after an alien attack on New York. The visual effects are as impressive as ever but the climax is a borderline indistinguishable blur of CGI and explosions and I can only imagine what an indecipherable mess this would've been in 3D.

Iron Man Three fits neatly into the little world that's been presented to us and it's a decent sequel, but it's just not quite as good as either of the first two films. It's more of the same which is fine, but doesn't feel like it's moved on substantially enough, and as intriguing as the villains (or elements of them) are, they don't compare to either Whiplash or Justin Hammer in the second film. Shane Black was a decent replacement writer / director to bring on board for Jon Favreau (I was pleased to see him reprise his role of Happy) and as is typical of Black the script is decent. But what now? If (and it presently seems a big if) they do a fourth film, it'll need to work a lot harder to be worthwhile. More intriguing however is whether Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier can maintain the very high quality of their respective first films. The Marvel universe remains enticing, for now.

5 May 2013

Review: Byzantium

(Dir: Neil Jordan, 2013)

Is there anything remotely interesting left to show audiences about vampires? If the recent media over-saturation hasn't already driven you to your coffin, don't forget the idea has existed in folkloric storytelling for centuries and will likely never die. What then can a film like Byzantium hope to offer audiences that hasn't already been seen or said, even if it is from Neil Jordan who brought Interview With the Vampire to the screen?

Based on a lesser known stage play by Moira Buffini that she also adapted for the screen, Byzantium follows Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) who find themselves fleeing to a British seaside town after their secret is yet again exposed, which turns out to be a place where the past lingers heavily for them as they do what they must to survive and establish some sort of temporary life here.

Buffini has claimed that she wanted to write a story where vampires aren't the typically glamourous, male focused, all-powerful beings. Instead they're a whore and a schoolgirl, representing what's perceived to be weaker members of society, with the vampyric element inspired by older folklore visions of the creatures that saw them as far from glamourous superbeings. Life is a struggle for these characters as it always has been, which is the point. This representation seems to work and means we get interesting elements such as the conceit about how they feed / kill their victims.

What's less satisfactory, and part of this may just be a personal thing, is the primary setting of the film. At the best of times British seaside resorts are drab, depressing places so in turn this gives the film an unappetising tone. A focus on the grey concreteness of promenades and walkways, dreary colour from fairgrounds, the elderly who are just sitting in Death's waiting room and the dated semi run-down guest house that serves as a base for our leads, all emphasises the struggling almost "kitchen sink" angle of the film, but this doesn't engage. More enticing is the stunning Western Irish scenery of an ominous island and it's cascading waterfalls, which mostly fall into the historical part of the story that turns out to be the most intriguing aspect. The transitions between present and past work however the film would've been improved by spending more time here, partly because it feels like there is plenty of background and mythology left uncovered. This portion of the film is where we see both Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller; the former is under-developed yet you feel there's a lot more to understand about his character, whilst Miller hams it up.

As for the leads, Arterton's character feels a little too one note, caring only about the pairs survival and moving forwards. Her broad accent suits the setting but again it feels like there's too much unrevelead as the focus too frequently falls on her ample cleavage. Ronan provides the depth, with her character in a more complex situation as the frustrated sixteen year old who's been alive for two centuries and has some sort of ethical code about feeding, yet is sick to death of secrets. She's the best thing in the film and fortunately is the focus. The other notable is Caleb Landry-Jones who, as love interest for Eleanor, is compelling but feels like he's wandered in from another film, almost as if he's playing an extension of his character Syd from Antiviral (review here) but with less interesting material and a weirdly distracting accent.

Byzantium sits slightly awkwardly between two worlds as it tries to balance the mythical with the normality of life, which is perhaps a route lesser seen when it comes to vampire stories. Cutting back on many of the tropes of the genre, such as no aversion to sunlight or fangs for example, is a real positive as it makes the film feel a little different, but unsurprisingly it's this side of the story that remains most interesting and the normality angle that drags it down. Perhaps if the present day setting was more enticing I'd have less of an issue and wouldn't have wanted to spend more time in their past. Byzantium isn't bad, it just teases that there's a potentially much better story hidden somewhere within this material.