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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman

I haven't seen The Three Stooges but as it stands, this is probably the most noteworthy film being released this week. That doesn't necessarily means it's the best but if it is, it's probably best to stay home this weekend and rent a DVD. 

This review is also up at Channel24 

What it's about

A retelling of the classic fairytale where a young princess, Snow White, has to escape the clutches of her evil stepmother before finally returning – with eight (?) dwarves and a huntsman who was sent to kill her in tow – to defeat her stepmother and return peace and tranquillity to her kingdom.

What we thought

Like so many “re-imaginings” and “re-interpretations”, Snow White and the Huntsman neither re-imagines,nor re-interprets the classic fairy tale enough to ever stand up as more than a forgettable cliff-note within the long and storied legend of Snow White.

The film does stick rather closer to the original fairy tale than the classic Disney cartoon without fully ignoring the latter version, but the film's raison d'etre is that it tries to mix the familiarity of the classic story with a more “gritty and realistic” take on fantasy that has made George RR Martin's Game of Thrones such a success. Sadly, aside for giving the story a welcome feminist slant, it's a mixture that not only doesn't work but is one that constantly undermines its constituent elements.

The complexities of Martin's strand of fantasy storytelling gets lost in the intentional simplicity of the original tale, while the magic of the fairy tale elements seem out of place and/or are superseded by the brutal harshness of this nu-fantasy. This oil and water combination is never more apparent than a scene in the middle of the film where after Snow White and the huntsman meets the dwarves, they all find themselves in a land of fairies that feels like a live-action outtake from the 1930s Disney film.

For the most emblematic proof of just how misjudged the film is, one sadly need only turn to Charlize Theron's wicked stepmother – in this version named Ravenna. Theron is clearly an excellent actress as she proved most recently with her sublime central performance in Young Adult so presumably it is first-time director, Rupert Sanders, who is responsible for her embarrassingly wrong-headed turn here. While the rest of the film boasts a down and dirty feel, Ravenna looks and sounds like she belongs in another film altogether as Theron lays on the camp hamminess to levels that would make William Shatner blush.

To truly appreciate how off her performance is, one need only hold it up against, well, damn near every other actor in the film. The dwarves are probably the highlight of the film as they get the best lines and are played by a terrific selection of top-notch British thesps who look staggeringly authentic thanks to some jaw-droppingly effective CGI (though is it just me or is this not just a breath away from being a more technically advanced form of “black-face” for dwarf/midget/little people actors?) but they are still played with a much higher level of earthy bawdiness than their Disney fairy tale counterparts. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile, is clearly having a whale of a time as a less pompous and less magical version of Thor, while the rest of the supporting cast look like nothing more than Game of Thrones rejects.

As for Kristen Stewart, her performance is the polar opposite of Theron's, but it is equally ineffective. I have no time for the view point that she is miscast because “there's no way that she is fairer than Charlize Theron” because, lets be honest, “fairer” or not, she still looks like Kristen Stewart. I also will stand up for the fact that, regardless of her involvement in the woeful Twilight saga, she has more than proven to be a very fine actress in her own right Don't believe me? Just check out The Runaways and Welcome To The Rileys to see how much more there is to her than Bella Swan. For all that though, she just seems like a non-presence in the film. Whether it's because she is simply miscast or because she simply isn't given much to work with, despite being the feminist hero of the piece, I cannot say.

Worse than all this, however, is the film's biggest problem: it's simply really, really boring. It is, dwarves aside, entirely without humour; it has some Titanic-level creaking dialogue; its colour palette is almost entirely grey; it is entirely lacking in characterization and its action scenes are dull dull dull dull dull. Worst of all, at over 2 hours in length, it feels extremely padded.

Overall, Snow White and The Huntsman may have its strengths - not least of which is its recasting Snow White as a tough, no nonsense hero who can look after herself thank you very much – but considering its rich source material and impressive cast, it really has no excuse for being as mundane and uninvolving as it ultimately turned out to be.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Lucky One

Oops, almost forgot! But then, considering the film, can you really blame me?

The Lucky One is exactly what you might think a romantic drama based on a book by Nicholas Sparks would be like. Or, at least, that's the theory. I have somehow managed to miss every film based on one of his books to date. That's right. Even the Notebook. Still, I was willing to give it a chance because I certainly like romantic dramas (at least in theory) and I didn't want to be yet another critic being sniffy about another Zac Efron film. Unfortunately, The Lucky One didn't exactly have me wanting to run out and rent the entirety of the Nicholas Sparks oeuvre. Worse, while I'm usually willing to defend Mr Efron after some very solid work in the likes of Charlie St Cloud and, most especially, Me and Orson Wells, he is very bland here. Of course, save for a spunky Blythe Danner, everything about the film is incredibly dull, if pleasantly so, so that's hardly surprising. At least, everything about the film starts off pleasantly dull but that's only before it becomes head-bangingly stupid in its final act. It's like Sparks (presumably he is the one to blame) realized two-thirds of the way through that he forgot to supply any source of conflict so he set up a succession of increasingly preposterous escalations, all revolving around what may be the year's biggest and silliest McGuffin, that leaves the film in a place far worse off than where it started. And the audience feeling a whole lot dumber than they were when they walked in.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Men In Black III

Well, who the hell saw this coming.

Also up at Channel24

What it's about

After Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is murdered in his youth by a time-travelling, villainous alien, it's up to Agent J (Will Smith) to go back to 1969 to prevent this from happening. Teaming up with a young Agent K (Josh Brolin), J finds himself in a race against the clock to both save his partner and prevent a future alien invasion from taking place.

What we thought

However much comic book movies are all the rage right now, it's hard to imagine that anyone was clamouring for a resurrection of the cinematic adventures of the Men In Black – certainly not after the frankly woeful Men In Black II did everything it could to torch all the goodwill that the original film engendered way back in the mid 1990s. And yet, here we are, ten years later and the Men In Black are back and in far, far better form than anyone could reasonably have hoped.

If nothing else, it's a true pleasure to see Will Smith back to wisecracking, likeable form after a string of underwhelming, MOR (at best) fare. Hell, considering that he hasn't acted at all since 2008, it's just good to see him again. Smith is, very simply, one of the most charismatic and funny screen-presences of his generation – he's so charismatic, in fact, that he manages to make otherwise irredeemably awful tripe like Bad Boys 2 entertaining – and Men In Black III is testament to that fact. He appears in something like 90% of the film's entire running time and, for all else that the film gets undeniably right, he is clearly the glue that holds it all together.

Brilliantly though, Smith more than has his work cut out for him as the film is packed to the gills with exactly the kind of things that made the first Men In Black such a success. It's been a while, so for those who are too old to remember the first film or too young to have seen it in the first place, Men In Black was a delirious mix of fun set pieces, relentlessly funny gags, an ingenious premise, nice performances, killer chemistry between its leads and, lets not forget, a boatload of terrifically imaginative sci-fi weirdness. Being the third instalment, Men In Black III obviously can't hope to match the freshness of the original, but it succeeds spectacularly in every other area.

Tommy Lee Jones is once again in gruff form as the perfect foil to Will Smith but it's especially impressive that their electrifying chemistry doesn't go away once Smith's J retreats to the past and teams up with a much younger, less curmudgeonly K. Josh Brolin does the world's greatest Tommy Lee Jones impression but, best of all, he works off Will Smith in pretty much the exact same way that Jones does. Without this consistency, the film would never have worked; with it, it soars. The rest of the cast is top notch too, but I for one would have loved to have seen more of Emma Thompson/ Alice Eve's Agent O.

Performances aside, the most important key to the film's success lies clearly in its writing. Screenwriting veteran, David Koep has had his highs (Jurassic Park, Spider-man) and he has had his lows (Angels and Demons, Snake Eyes) but his work here is surely some of his best yet. The story itself is refreshingly focused and, though he does falter on some of the background gags – Lady Gaga an alien? Surely not! - most of the film's many, many jokes hit their targets square on. An extended gag at Andy Warhol's Factory is especially great.

He does a wonderful job too, with the franchise's trademark imaginative wackiness, not least with the introduction of a “fifth dimensional” alien who proves to be a central part of the film's plot. It also certainly doesn't hurt that he and director Sonnefeld (and, presumably, the million and one technical artists who worked on the film) have come up with one of the most visually spectacular time-travelling effects we have seen to in film to date – which also, incidentally, happens to be the only part of the film that justifies the otherwise typically worthless 3D.

Admittedly, MiB III is not entirely without its flaws – I know this is kind of a weird complaint in an age when most blockbusters are far too long but I almost wanted more of the characters and more of the kooky scifi – but it's an astonishing amount of fun and proves that it's never too late to come back from the brink of tired obsolescence. It may not quite be up there with The Avengers but once you've seen Whedon's superhero masterpiece (and what have you been doing with your life if you haven't) Men In Black III is more than worth a look for all fans of top-drawer Hollywood blockbusters.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Rum Diary

To make up for all the recent late reviews, here's an early review of a film opening this week.

Based on an early Hunter S Thompson novel that only saw the light of day in 1998, The Rum Diary can best be appreciated - to steal a phrase usually associated with superhero comics - as the "Secret Origin" of the man who would go on to establish gonzo journalism, write a classic cult novel and create a public persona that was in equal parts laughable and laudable but always larger than life. Love him or hate him - and, lets be honest, there's plenty of reason to do both - Hunter S Thompson was a literary and journalistic icon whose mixture of righteous anger, humanistic compassion and drug-fueled weirdness makes him an intriguing figure even years after his his less-than-glorious death-by-suicide. On screen, he has already been portrayed by Bill Murray in the middling Where The Buffalo Roam and more pertinently by Johnny Depp in the maddeningly inconsistent but undeniably engrossing adaptation of his best know work, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

If Fear and Loathing showed Thompson at his most "Thompsonian" - hyper, drug-addled lunatic whose ugliness is matched only by the beauty of his writing - then The Rum Diary is the "untold" story of his transformation from shy and a humble, if decidedly troubled, junior reporter into the cartoonish, yet authentically engaged and enraged father of an all-new kind of journalism. And crucially, it's made all the more effective by having the great Johnny Depp playing both "versions" of the man. There's an innocence to Depp's portrayal of Thompson here that slowly corrodes as he is confronted by the unstoppable seductive corruptness of the rich and powerful that sets him on his way to becoming the great defender of the underdog and the ruthless opponent of those who seek to abuse the power they are given. See, I told you there's something of a superhero's tale in there.

The Rum Diary is simply essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in Hunter S Thompson and makes for a powerful companion piece to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With that, however, comes the inevitable downside: it has much of interest to the already faithful, or at least the already curious, but I don't see it winning any new converts.

Depp is phenomenal, it's true, and he is supported by a very fine cast - not least of which is Aaron Eckhart who once again proves to be the master of slimy charm - and a writer and director (Bruce Robinson) with a firm grasp on both Thompson's singular personality and his even more singular way with words. However, for all that, The Rum Diary is - much like the book, it has to be said - something of an overlong, rambling mess. Fear and Loathing is a bit of a mess too, no doubt about that, but it at least has a primal and magnetic energy to it that prevented dullness from ever truly setting in. The Rum Diary starts off well but it's lack of narrative drive quickly becomes apparent, as does the fact that the character progression of Thompson's cypher, Paul Kemp, is pretty much exactly what you expect it to be.

All in all then, it's a solid thumbs up for Hunter Thompson acolytes, a wavering thumb for Depp devotees and a moderate thumbs down for everyone else. That's really kind of fitting for a Hunter S Thompson film...


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Roundup of films released between end of April and mid May 2012

Catch up time. To be honest, there's not a lot here worth bothering with so these will be hopefully short and to the point. I should say that I still need to see Dark Shadows and Shame but if and when I do, I would imagine that they will both deserve full reviews. 

One Life: Beautiful nature documentary but you have to wonder why this, of all documentaries, deserved a cinematic release. (?/10)

The Cup: Unassuming and underwhelming sports drama that belongs on the small screen despite the presence of the always great Bendan Gleeson. (4/10)

The Grey: Actually rather good, if increasingly nihilistic survival drama with a very strong performance from Liam Neeson. Less fun than it looks, but more interesting than it could have been. (7/10)

Battleship: One of the most dull films I've seen in a cinema since Paranormal Activity 2. Exactly what you'd expect of an alien-invasion film based on a pen-and-paper game with ZERO inherent narrative. This makes Transformers 3 look like The Avengers. (1/10)

Coriolanus: A very ambitious and valiant attempt to bring one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays to the big screen but, because it has none of the timeless simplicity of a Romeo and Juliet or a Hamlet, the language barrier is a problem. It's something of a political drama based on a political system that is entirely alien to modern audiences and it never gets past this, even if both the direction and performances constantly impress. (5/10)

Lessons of a Dream: Essentially a clone of those School of Rock/ Mr Holland's Opus/ Dead Poet's Society type high school films, only in German and with football. Despite this, it's quite charming and I did get a bit of a laugh out of the underlying, if sub-textual and possibly imagined, message that if only the Germans stuck to the loose-rebelliousness of soccer over their militant sense of obedience, Nazism might never have happened. And Daniel Bruhl, who seems to be in every German-language film released in this country, is once again very good.  (6/10)

Think Like A Man: This would be nothing but a shameless piece of almost epic product placement for the titular self-help book by Steve Harvey, if not for the fact that the conclusion of the film basically says that honesty is more important than some gimmicky self-help book. It's pure, unadulterated crap on every level that doesn't even succeed as a crass and thoroughly tasteless commercial. (1/10)

The Vow: The somewhat soapy amnesia plot is actually more engaging than it might seem on paper and Rachel McAdams is in typically wonderful form but is let down by a miscast Channing Tatum, pathetically one-dimensional supporting characters and an overlong running time. (5/10)

One for the Money: Perfectly OK as a pilot for a rather rubbish, low-rent, light-heartedcrime TV show but it really has no place being in the cinema. On the plus side, it does allow Katherine Heigl to be far, far more likeable here than she has been in all those awful rom-coms that we have been bombarded by over the last few years. (4/10)

Wuthering Heights: An ambitious attempt at a more down and dirty adaptation of a much-adapted literary adaptation but the shaky, in-your-face shooting style is obnoxious, the characters are barely drawn and the melodrama and gritty realism do not good bedfellows make. A nice try but a serious pain in the ass to sit through. (3/10)

And that should bring us up to date for the time being. Hopefully upcoming weeks will be more promising but, based on the last few screenings I've sat through, I sadly seriously doubt it.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Raven

A film that seems to be weirdly misunderstood by a good number of people - not least of which are its distributors who have somehow deemed this shameless b-movie to be art-circuit worthy.

The Raven might seem to have literary pretensions in that it is a film about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, a genuinely legendary author, with a title that is an obvious nod to what may well be his most famous epic narrative poem. It's also set up to make you want to read Poe's work as its entire plot revolves around Poe teaming up with a detective to catch a serial killer who is using Poe's stories as inspiration for his crimes.

For all of that though, the aspect of Poe's work in which The Raven is most interested, is its undeniable influence on the pulp fiction of the early 20th century - and, by extension, on everything that was in turn influenced by the pulps. It's not for nothing, after all, that The Raven shares a director (James McTeigue) with the seriously pulpy film adaptation of Alan Moore's V For Vendetta.

It has at its heart a terrifically compelling performance by John Cusack who plays Poe as a bit of a rogue, a bit of a wastrel, a bit of a genius and more than a bit of a sympathetic and desperate man in love, all at the same time. Whether it's an accurate performance or not is almost besides the point. In fact, accuracy and true-to-life realism is not the purview of McTeigue's vision - it may be about a real-life personality and a mysterious part of his life, but The Raven is the farthest thing from a bio-flick as it is possible to be. As such, most of the criticism that has been leveled at the film falls away quickly and almost entirely in the face of what the film actually is.  

The Raven is simply a deliciously pulpy and stylishly told murder mystery that revels in its trashy aesthetic and moody atmospherics with some nice performances, a solid sense of humour and some genre-appropriate gore. It might leave art-film fans confounded and cheated but fans of up-market b-movies should love it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

OK, wow, so due to some personal stuff I have fallen way behind so there's a lot to catch up with. I'll do a roundup of these past few weeks but first a few full-ish reviews of the more notable films released. Admittedly, everything has fallen by the wayside thanks to The Avengers - kinda deservedly at that - but released here on the same week was this charming little comedy drama with the unlikely title of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

And make no mistake, it is a weird title. It may be based on a well-received and fairly successful book, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen sounds - to me at least - like its either a weird bit of surrealism or an edgy political drama or, heaven help us, another Kite Runner, but it really isn't any of these things. What it is, essentially, is a good romantic comedy with a rather strange and messy backdrop.

The messy backdrop involves a rich, eccentric sheikh who hires a stodgy scientist to help indulge his personal passion by constructing a system that would introduce salmon-fishing to the desolate landscapes of Yemen. There is also, thrown in for good measure, bits about a soldier missing in action in the Middle East, as well as a ball-busting politician trying to spin a good story about the UK's involvement in that region. Plus, our stodgy scientist has a failing married life to boot. Oh, and lest we forget, the machinations of an extremist Islamist group who are hellbent on stopping the sheikhe's plans.

The film, in short, is stuffed to the gills with inter-locking, inter-weaving and sometimes conflicting plot lines and, though one would imagine that the novel juggled these myriad elements with significantly greater ease and depth than can be afforded by a 120 minute film, the film is a lot less messy than one would reasonably expect. Or, at least, it deals with the abundance of plot with enough wit and charm to ensure that it its messiness is endearing rather than frustrating. Though, based on some of the reviews I've read, not everyone feels as charitable towards this as I unashamedly do.