Thursday, July 31, 2008

30th July 08 - The Dark Knight

Back in 2005 Christopher Nolan brought us a much needed de-camped Batman. Gone were the nipple nuts and terrible puns, replaced instead with a formidable Christian Bale and a dark streak that made it serious, exciting and CF top-10 rated. A sequel with the same cast and an iconic bad guy was obviously muchly anticipated. Throw in a highly rated performance by a now tragically deceased star and you couldn’t get much more hype than if you implanted a special device in everyone’s ear that bellowed “watch Batman! It’s great! Watch it right now! Now!” At 3am. Every night. For two months.

Now that’s a marketing idea…

Anyway, The Dark Knight launches in with the superhero sequel bonus of not having to spend any time setting up the back-story. Batman’s trying to take down the mob with the help from his police and lawyer friends, meanwhile a crazy guy in clown make-up is slowly building trouble. Nolan (who co-wrote with his brother) weaves an impressive tale, with plenty of stonking action (the opening bank robbery a fine example), suspenseful lead-ups, dramatic interchanges bristling with danger, and the occasional flash of humour.

To be honest, as a character Batman can sometimes be vaguely dull, bumbling around his underground lair with a mood on, dressing up to beat up guys using no real super powers at all save some smooth moves and Bond-esque gadgets shaped like little bat wings. Nolan’s reinvention made him moodier, broodier, more dangerous. Better. But though he carries the film’s title, all eyes are most definitely on The Joker here. Partly because it’s Heath, and there’s no denying the surprising force of sadness that hit most people back in January. But mainly because The Joker is such a vibrant character, and Heath’s Joker takes the fun and twists it into something truly menacing. A clown that wants to slice your cheeks and ram a pencil in your face. Come on kids, it’s fun! Creating carnage for seemingly no purpose, turning people on each other by stirring fears, the Joker is the boogyman to today’s society, not least when his coat is full of grenades.

The film boasts a sizeable supporting cast – the familiar faces of Freeman and Caine mixed with newbies Maggie Gyllenhaal (taking over from Katie Holmes and doing a much better job of giving her character backbone) and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, comic fans knowing what’s to come while those out of the loop probably non-the-wiser, thanks to some refreshingly restrained advertising.

Tone-wise this definitely lives up to the ‘dark’ in its title, some events both shocking and bold to include in what’s seen to be a mainstream flick. It is incredibly violent without showing anything on screen, the implications for a 12A film possibly traumatising little kiddies, although they deserve it for spending half their time walking about the cinema. A quibble might be the running-time, perhaps over-shooting it with too much spent on slightly confusing car / motorbike chases. And an unintentional hilarity from Batman’s voice dampens some of the drama (I think his suit might be a little too tight in the larynx department.)

Never-the-less, The Dark Knight lives up to the hype; with superb control from Mr Nolan, solid performance from the Bale, striking from the Ledger (although not Oscar worthy – crazy isn’t that hard to do…) some ace action pieces and good old-fashioned moral conundrums. Dark Knight matches Wall-E with a CF3 and shows its bum to the other superhero flicks of 2008. Keep it up Nolan.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

23rd July 08 - Wall-E

An animated film about a mute robot? What about angular animals voiced by vaguely annoying American stars? Surely that’s what computer animation has been developed for? You might have summarised that from the trailers preceding this film, each one making me more depressed and ready to push over a toddler to cheer myself up. Throw in a Star Wars “film”, closely resembling a Saturday morning kids show, and you’d be ready to shut down all computers just to make the endless crap stop. But then Wall-E starts and everything suddenly feels much, much better.

Mute robots, it seems, can be endearing, funny and utterly charming to watch. With a cockroach for a companion, wandering through a desolate, rubbish-strewn earth, Wall-E is somehow one of the warmest characters to grace cinemas so far this year. A round of applause for Pixar, who took the winning formula from their flagship short way back in 1986 (Luxo Jr – a “baby” lamp, now the logo for the company) and applied it to a feature. Comedy and heart from supposedly inanimate objects, no dialogue required. It’s a brave step by Nemo creator Andrew Stanton, going from cutesy fish to metal garbage-collector, but his gamble pays off big-time.

Wall-E is refreshing, original, beautifully animated and superbly plotted. Simple but oh so effective, it’ll make you smile throughout and even managed to do the impossible and make me shed a slight tear, though this weakness could be down to recent cracks in my usual bitter and angry exterior. It’s a simple love story mixed with cutting remarks on the state of society and the environment. And it features cute robots and a fabulous sense of fun. What more do you want?

Its message is as blunt as a donkey punch, namely switch off your autopilot, get off your fat arse and don’t just blithely follow the path of consumerism and laziness. For what can be seen as a child’s film it makes a stomping great point, but does it without talking down, or shouting at the audience.

Quibbles to stop it reaching the dizzy heights of a CF5? Well, if I must, I’d say it falters on the whole “America is the world” aspect – we never see anywhere, or anyone, apart from the great A’s, and if it is to teach kiddies that destroying the planet is bad, it’d be also good to throw in “there are other places outside your home town” too. It’s also vaguely ironic that a film showing us how humanity is lost when we only communicate through artificial interfaces is a film made by a huge team of animators sitting in front of artificial interfaces for months on end. And for a film that berates consumerism, it’s interesting to note the Apple product placement and wide variety of Wall-E merchandise now available. Don’t think that buying stuff is the key to happiness – but go out and get yourself a Wall-E t-shirt, cap, toy, computer game, mug, pencil case…

Now I’m just being picky, though, because Wall-E is a winner. Any film that makes me grin for a couple of hours is a film worth seeing, and as such this adorable little robot wheels in with a CF3. The best film of the summer so far. I wonder if an adorable little man dressed like a bat will do any better.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

16th July 08 - The Mist

Zombies, wasps and fire aside, there’s nothing scarier than the unknown. It’s the fear of a darkened corridor, the terror of what’s lurking just beneath your bed. Stephen King revels in such fears (he said so himself at the start of one of his books) so it was no surprise to read a novella of his all about an impenetrable mist with hidden unpleasantries. It was a surprise, however, to see Frank Darabont sign himself up to adapt and direct said novella into a feature length. Frank is a fan of the King, and probably the most accomplished at adapting his work without squeezing out all the humanity. But to see the man behind the awesome behemoths of Shawshank and Green Mile direct a monster flick? Eh?

It all becomes clear when you realise the story isn’t really about the monsters outside, and more about the monsters within each of us. The majority of the film takes place inside a supermarket, with a myriad of characters trapped together under the oppressive might of the mist. As one character says, human beings are insane. “Put two in a room and they’ll have to pick sides - that’s what religion and politics were invented for.” Darabont brings to life King’s characters in all their flawed detail, bitching and cowering, turning on one another and turning into god-jollies.

Of course, there are real monsters out there in the mist. Different to your standard gorilla, these babies range in size and shape, be it creepy giant mosquitoes, super creepy giant spider things, or flesh ripping tentacles creeping under the door. Punctuating the human drama, these nasties bring in some fun frights and good old fashioned gore, and there’s a pleasant lack of big but ultimately disappointing money shots (I‘m looking at you Cloverfield). The big mammas are merely ominous shadows, details left to your imagination. In different hands this could have been cheapo monster-shite, with bad actors battling in the vague direction of bad CGI surrounded by smoky mist. Oooo scary. In Darabont’s hands it is richly satisfying, drama meets horror. Oh, and it’s fucking depressing.

Jesus - never have I heard a cinema go quite so quiet than at the end of The Mist. When Darabont was writing the script someone must have been playing The Ting Tings and Hard-Fi at full blast. It would be enough to make anyone despise all of mankind, and certainly seems to be the mood Darabont was in. Gone is the uplifting hope of Shawshank. Come out of The Mist and you’ll probably want to sit in your bedroom and poke yourself in the eye in despair. Do I sound like I’m being negative? I’m not - Darabont mooned the studios (who begged him to change his ending) and pushed his potential cheapo monster-shite cliché into a daring and exhilarating new territory. A film to make you shudder. Jump. Frown. Laugh. And actually applause (first time I’ve heard applause at a death scene).

Though it could have been slimmed down a little, The Mist is a surprisingly fresh film considering it’s based on a book from 1985 about tentacles in fog. With themes relevant to today (fear can make people believe anything… do you hear that, sensationalist media? Stop it now) and fun monster carnage in the mix, The Mist gets an extra point for being a faithful adaptation of a great King story, and another for having the balls to tweak the story in THAT way, winning a mighty CF2. Which King will Darabont pick to dissect next? I haven’t the foggiest.

Yes. I am that funny.

Monday, July 14, 2008

9th July 08 - Hancock

Superheroes are so hot right now, with Marvel getting their own studio to create cross-over excitement and Nolan’s second Batman approaching our screens (after an eon of advertising it – to the point where I openly groan when the trailer comes on.) So what better than a film riffing on the genre, echoing My Super Ex-Girlfriend’s turn in 2006 when it followed the likes of Spidey. This time, instead of having hero-turned-crazy-ex, we have tramp-hero, alcoholic-hero and – shock horror! – hero who says “fuck” in a 12A rated film. Excellent.

Big Willy is Hancock, a miserable superhero who can’t save anything without making a big mess, staggering around in drunken haze and feeling up passing women. When he saves PR man Ray (Jason Bateman, who I desperately want to like but doesn’t half play the same character every time) he unwittingly gains himself representation, as Ray tries to repay him by “remaking” him. Although you’d expect a typical montage of someone slowly seeking redemption and then saving the day, Hancock throws a few unexpected curve balls into the plot, twisting into vaguely original corners and proving a different experience to that suggested by the trailers.

I didn’t say it was a better experience, mind.

But let’s be positive for a change. Hancock is sort of funny at times (although the better gags were already splashed over trailers) and Big Willy does a good job as a big, huffy bloke with various issues and super strength. His method of dealing with criminals is refreshingly crass, and the plot turns create a more sombre tone that dilutes chances of it being a jolly Fantastic Four-esque romp. The effects are pretty good too (a few dodgy CGI-Will moments aside). And, err, you see his bum for a short time.

To go back to the negative, where Hancock delivers in the unexpected it falters in doing anything too worthwhile, the carefully built up storyline being crushed against the rock of triviality, eventually landing in the port of “is that all you’re going to do?” Baddies are wedged in hurriedly to give some sort of final battle, which is lost in all the “hang on…”, “why doesn’t he…” and “how did they…” thoughts.

Director Peter Berg (who I’ve just spotted is down to make – and ruin – Dune. Gah! Sorry, just had a mini-rage there. Done now.) Where was I? Oh yes – soon to ruin Dune director Peter Berg smugly pushes aside the normal big-guns style of action flicks and instead goes all indie, with soft focus, super close-ups on off-centre heads (alarming on the big screen – a massive Big Willy head just off to one side…) trying to make all the conversations very deep and thoughtful even though the script doesn’t warrant it. When he throws the same style into the CGI-d fight scenes everything becomes a bit difficult to follow, and generally not that exciting. We’ve seen a million superheroes kicking ass now – what we wanted from Hancock was a bad-boy. We do get it, but the minute we stray into generic hero territory the magic is swiftly lost.

Hancock isn’t the film you’d expect (unless you read this, in which case you’re now going to be expecting something. Did I just spoil it for you? Well, it’s not like it’s particularly deep. There’s not even any subtitles. It’s a film for plebs. You’ll probably forget I’ve even written this anyway, with your short attention span.) Sorry – mini insulting tangent. Anyway, Hancock is potentially really good, but ultimately a bit of a let-down. Not funny enough to be a full comedy, and not rich enough to be a new breed of superhero, especially with the heavy weights of Iron and Hulk still fresh in our minds. I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless there’s nothing else on TV. So Hancock flops in at a CF-1. Sorry Willy.

Friday, July 11, 2008

2nd July 08 - Wanted

Although described by most as “that one with Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy in it”, Wanted’s main draw for me was down to it being “that one directed by the crazy Russian dude.” Timur Bekmambetov wowed with his insane style in vampire flicks Night Watch and Day Watch, not only showing utterly random shit on screen, but showing it in an utterly random way. Watching his films is very much like speeding downhill on a rollercoaster – exhilarating, blurry, and slightly nauseating.

To get the most out of him you really need to unbuckle your seatbelt and just go along with the ride. Trying to find any semblance of sense or reality is like trying to enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean 2. After all, Wanted is based on a graphic novel and features super assassins, bullets that go round corners, magic healing wax and – genius this one – a “loom of fate”, which is up there with “the cube” from Transformers. If you’re expecting Wanted to be a semi-realistic action flick then your expectations should be blown away in the opening scene when a man leaps across two buildings, dodging bullets all the way.

As well as dealing with uber-cool assassins, Wanted looks at the abuse of power and skewed moral motives and actually puts forth the thoughtful question of: “wouldn’t you be much happier if you were an assassin, rather than a boring accountant?” (To be honest I’d rather they didn’t give accountants those sorts of ideas.) With the dollop of cubicle woes Wanted becomes the hyperactive offspring of Dilbert and The Matrix. A storyline that’s sort of familiar, except for that magic loom…

Visually this film is very much in Timur’s chaotic hands, but battling with the limelight is McAvoy and Jolie, the former sporting a weird American accent, the latter really needing to eat some pies. Seriously Jolie – it wouldn’t hurt to have some pastry goods or something. Maybe not every day, but you can treat yourself. Custard tarts are nice, if you fancy something a bit different. Or scones with jam. Maybe a biscuit or two. You get the idea.

There are some pretty cool set pieces interspersed with a fair dollop of nonsense, making Wanted thrilling but silly, a barrage of violent carnage with a heavy metal soundtrack and a few wry winks to any Night Watch fans. Like watching the Matrix lobby scene for 90 minutes, Wanted does amaze, but also falters a little with a jumbled middle and some vacuous characterisation. But what were you expecting? Timur’s style is a punch to the face and automatically gets Wanted an extra point, but for a faltering plot it can go no further, scoring a reasonable CF1. Give Timur some more money and see what else he’ll do.