Thursday, August 23, 2007

22nd August 07 - The Bourne Ultimatum

Ah Matt Damon, the rectangular-headed, furrow-foreheaded blonde who made one of the best career decisions ever when he signed up to play Jason Bourne. The series blended spy fun, jolting action and a new breed of brutal fight scenes, which later filtered into Bond and made it good again. The Bourne Ultimatum enters this year’s trilogy race with a successful novel behind it, providing a head-start on the competition. Unlike the barrage of other three-quels out this summer (Shrek, Ocean’s, Spider-Man) Bourne has a story to finish, rather than a scrabble to set up a new one.

After waking with no memory in the first film, and having his little love-nest destroyed in the second, Bourne is understandably a bit peed off, so the general gist of the third instalment is that he’s still pretty peeved and still looking for more answers. It’s familiar territory to established fans (though potentially a confusing mess to any who venture in without pre-knowledge) with a variety of locations dotted through Europe, lots of cat and mouse antics, and enough chases and fights to leave you visually exhausted.

The fights are, as ever, slick yet dirty, with Bourne using whatever implement he can find that’ll do the most damage. Every thwack, crack and crunch is amplified to ear-splitting effect. It’s a good job they didn’t show Jason taking a break to eat a Toffee Crisp or the ears would have been bleeding in the aisles. Fast edits creates a frantic feel, so the inevitable car chase gets the heart pumping, but at times I wished things would calm down just a little so I could tell what the hell was going on. A large portion of the film involves watching people move quickly while the soundtrack ‘der-der-der-der-ders’ away in the background. It’s exciting, but ever-so-slightly tiresome after an hour of it.

Not that there are many negatives to this film. It’s still a taut thriller, with a strong cast, intriguing plot and some belting action pieces. I’m just not over-whelmed by it, because underneath beats the heart of a basic action. The components are all there – brooding goodie who can beat the crap out of everyone and come out of explosions and horrific crashes with barely a scratch on him. Women get in trouble and need saving by the goodie. Baddies comes in levels – level 1 being faceless chasers, level 2 slightly more difficult fighters, and the big bad sits in a control room hatching evil plans. And coincidences and lucky breaks serve as handy devices to further the plot. It’s like Die Hard without the quips.

But the Bourne series covers everything with darker shades, and with a sombre tone that makes it easier to take serious. And with a strong Damon in the lead as a believable killer who’s also sympathetic, and the final pieces to a three-film puzzle falling into place, Ultimatum is worthy of a watch. Not mind-blowing, but certainly gripping and entertaining, Bourne bumps up to CF1.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

15th August 07 - Knocked Up

It’s ironic I should see this film after last week’s anti-child tirade. I know I might have been a little harsh, but it was with good reason. A child is, after all, the most permanent of items you could acquire. It’s something that, illness and accident aside, will outlive you. It’s just impossible to get any more permanent than that. It’s a scary concept in general, but Knocked Up deals with the even scarier fear that most women have: what if I get pregnant by mistake? And even worse: what if I get pregnant by a total loser?

It’s the latter that’s the main focus for Alison (Katherine Heigl - off Grey’s Anatomy) after a bit of a mishap with Ben (Seth Rogen - bit-parter in many comedies). Alison has an up-and-coming career on TV. Ben has a lack of job, joy of pot, and gaggle of greasy mates. A drunken night out sees the ’mishap’ take place, and this film deals with the aftermath. It’s from the writer/director of the 40-Year-Old Virgin, so expectations are for gross-out slap stick type goo. What you get is a surprisingly grown-up, insightful comedy.

Rather than cash-in on the American Pie band wagon (it seems people are still trying to cash in, even when that wagon’s old and creaky now), Knocked Up takes a step back, a deep breath, and actually spends time building a plot, characters, and their ever-evolving relationships. This isn’t a film that feels like it’s been “knocked up” in a couple of late night sessions. You don’t get the impression the writers have struggled for a punch-line and thought ‘sod it, make one of them fart instead’.

The comedy is a mish-mash of styles, from sitcom arguments, to stoner gags, to improvised madness, to ‘holy crap I did not want to see that’ shocks. Literally something for everyone. Ben and his friends provide the spaced-out, Clerks-esque banter with references a-plenty, while Alison’s sister and brother-in-law tackle clenched-teeth bickering. This all sits alongside some fairly dramatic fall-outs and, god I can’t believe I’m saying it, but some actual heart-warming moments, strong enough even to puncture the icy confines of my bitter chest.

But Knocked Up also wins points in my book because of its cynical, slightly depressed view of the world. “I wish I could love anything as much as she loves bubbles” sighs brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) as he watches his child play. Poor old Pete has had his life sapped by getting older and having a family. His equally stressed wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), Alison’s sister, gets ever more frantic about getting older, being more unattractive and having zero support from her hubbie. It’s not like I enjoy seeing people unhappy, or having reminders about how rubbish life can sometimes get. It’s just refreshing to see a comedy emerge without a completely rose-tinted view of the romantic world.

An excellent cast certainly helps matters. Seth Rogen plays the likeable loser Ben with a few streaks of selfishness that stoners often show. Katherine Heigl is impressive as Alison and thankfully rises above the ‘token hottie’ role. Meanwhile the ever brilliant Paul Rudd (Anchorman, Friends) is charmingly grown-up and Leslie Mann nails the slightly unhinged but sort of rightly so Debbie. The men V women view is neatly balanced, the men being thoughtless and stupid as expected, but not spiteful and mean, while the women nag and moan to excessive levels, but are on the whole ultimately right (the film isn’t as biased as me, I promise).

Of course, having ‘rom’ stuck in with the ‘com’ means the usual cliches end up applying. A montage of love growing. A falling-out. A montage of people being unhappy. An eventual reconciliation in dramatic circumstances. Aw. But Knocked Up definitely has elements to satisfy many different levels of audience, even those as high and mighty as me. For making me laugh it gains a point, and for doing it in a clever, cynical fashion it gains an extra, making a commendable CF2. And not to brag or anything, but I got a preview of it. For free.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

8 August 07 - The Simpsons Movie

“Children should be seen but not heard.” Partially true, though I’d like to add ‘smelt’ to the list of unwanted senses. But when it comes to cinemas, I don’t think children should be - full stop. As in, they shouldn’t be in the screenings, they shouldn’t be around the sticky food counters, they shouldn’t be clogging up the toilets. They shouldn’t even be outside the cinema, as you'd be polluted by them on your way inside.

It’s not like I hate toddlers in the cinema. I also hate pre-teens, teenagers and young adults. In my book all of them have lower than average attention spans and a sacrilegious lack of respect for the sanctity of film. Loud, physically offensive, disruptive and stupid, these age-groups should not be allowed to mix in enclosed spaces with the rest of society. As a rule, idiots annoy me, and when little dribbling idiots are actually brought to the cinema by their idiot parents then it’s a double whammy. I watched The Departed in America and some fools brought their toddler with them, who promptly became bored and fidgety. Was it the toddler’s fault? Partially – they should learn to know when to keep still. But how that “good idea” popped into the parents’ heads is a mystery. Idiots.

Anyway, summer holidays mean more horrible children are infecting the public world. Seriously, if zombies were children, then last night was like Dawn of the Dead in a cinema. Worse even – at least the guys in DotD didn’t have to queue behind their foes. And they didn’t have them sitting behind them, idly kicking seats and running around the aisles, questioning uselessly during quiet parts of the film and guessing what was going to happen next. I’d take a room full of zombies over children any-day, and I have serious zombie-fear. Actually, mix a room full of zombies with children and now you’re talking about entertainment.

Of course, if I become a parent I’d probably want my children to experience the cinema, and would despise the ignorant snobs who’d sneer at me whilst tarring every child with the same displeased-brush. But my children, through education and ingrained fear, will be respectful of film and know that the cinema is a special, quiet place where toilet breaks are not allowed. They’ll even have learnt from an early age how to turn their heads and give an angry glare to idiots behind them.

But anyway I can’t help thinking there was another purpose to writing this… oh yeah. I saw a good episode of the Simpsons last night. It was definitely one of the better ones (the most recent series being a bit flat), with some good jokes and the usual meandering, unusual plot. It felt a bit longer than usual and the animation was a little different, but still enjoyable TV.

Oh hang on. Silly me – it was a film, not the usual show! Tisk, how could I have forgotten that? I suppose it’s because it was the same as watching four good episodes in a row. Funny, wry, touching on topical issues, making fun of the Fox network - basically no different to what we’ve seen over the last 17 years or so. There’s nothing much to say other than "yeah, it was a good episode of the Simpsons". There was no real reason to make this film, nothing to separate it from its TV base. It’s just lucky that the TV base is one of the most funny and successful shows around, otherwise this film wouldn’t have made it to CF1. It was only just worth braving the horrible children for, but if you end up watching it at home on TV then there’ll be no great loss to your enjoyment. At least there you can lock the kids in their rooms.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

1 August 07 - Transformers

Ah. Michael Bay. What a wonderful world he must live in. See, in Bay’s world “understated” is a helicopter chase in soft-focus. A quick action scene lasts for twenty minutes. Chiselled men make heart-wrenching sacrifices to the sounds of Aerosmith. Poignant statements start with “no matter what happens…” Every woman, regardless of her character, is a twenty-something hottie. And when exciting things happen, heavy metal music always kicks in. Bay has always aimed high in terms of scale (Armageddon, Pearl Harbour) but often faltered by employing laughable dialogue and Ben Affleck. Let’s face it, the chances of him making another dudd were pretty high, especially when he’s working with characters based on a range of toys from the 80s.

It’s an odd subject choice for a summer blockbuster. You’re dealing with a storyline about a bunch of alien robots who can turn into vehicles. The aliens have ridiculous names like ‘Megatron’ and ‘Optimus Prime’. The opening line of the film is: “Before time began, there was... the cube.” It’s not an easy topic to take seriously. So Michael Bay doesn’t, and this is why it wins.

Transformers becomes the perfect vehicle for Bay. He can be cheesy, because let’s face it what else can you do? And he’s got free reign to do as many head-battering action sequences as he wants, with an awesome arsenal of tools. And by tools, I mean frickin’ massive robots. The effects are absolutely jaw-dropping. Let’s not forget that on set the only hint of a ‘bot was a 30-foot washing pole with a cardboard head. But on screen the transformers interact with scenery and actors with barely a hint of a green-screen haze. Buildings smash, cars are thrown, people are flicked away, and all the while the ‘bots glisten in the sun, or drip with water, a myriad of mechanic parts independently clunking into place. The amount of time and effort spent on creating these beasts is unfathomable, but it’s worked with stunning effect.

Bay puts these extraordinary effects through their paces with some ingenious shots. ‘Bots blast through buildings full of people in complete slow-mo, every wall bashed through, every person diving for cover at the right moment, all shown in precision to the CGI creations. Scraps are seen from pedestrian eye-view with shaky-cam realism. Robots crunch themselves into car shapes and speed off into the distance. Basically Bay is a giant child, wheeling his toys along while making ‘neeeeerrrrr’ noises out the corner of his mouth. And I was giggling along with him, regressing into giddy toddler, enjoying the whole spectacle and wishing I had me a few of those toys too.

But Bay’s two biggest problems are not being able to edit, and making the characters a bit naff. Problem one is still apparent. He does get a little carried away, the last battle putting the ‘ep’ in ‘epic’ for sheer volume and length, and some scenes did drag under the weight of too many unnecessary plot strands. It’s to be expected, and didn’t diffuse the overall ‘wowza’ impact, but if he could learn to let go then Bay’s films would be tighter, and potentially brilliant.

His second problem was initially an issue too. My face fell when the film started with Generic Soldiers sitting in a helicopter (Bay LOVES helicopters). There was Chiselled Hot Guy, a couple of token minorities, even a token geek with big spectacles. As Chiselled Hot Guy talked about wanting to get home to see his baby girl, my eyes were rolling and my worries were being confirmed. But enter main character Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. Shia is not only likeable in a non-“token goofy guy” way, but Bay takes time out to have lengthy, American-Pie-esque scenes with Sam and his parents, which end up being surprisingly funny. In fact, I laughed a heck of a lot at this film, in most part at the purposeful comedy (lots of fun robot banter, a few in-jokes and some good peeing gags), and in others at the over-blown silliness and trite messages (“all humans deserve a chance at freedom”). For other films this would have been the nail on the shit-coffin, but in this the tone fits. A big blue robot is delivering the sentiment, after all.

Of course it’s stupid, and of course it’s rifled with piles of steaming cheese. But it’s bloody enjoyable cheese, that’s raised the bar on visual effects. Funny, exciting, thrilling. Not without flaws, but the most impressive so far of this summer’s blockbuster selection. Though it loses points for a flimsy middle-section and over-long finale, Transformers still impresses enough to climb to CF2. A sequel is apparently already in the works. Here’s hoping Transformers vs Care Bears will be on our screens soon.