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Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Last Stand

Arnie is back... it just takes a little time for him to get there...

Also up at Channel 24

What it's about:

A small-town sheriff (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his crew of ragtag, inexperienced deputies find themselves as the last line of defence against a ruthless drug boss dead-set on escaping the clutches of the FBI by crossing the border into Mexico. 

What we thought:

The long-awaited return of the former Governator to full on action hero mode may be the only truly noteworthy thing about the otherwise by-the-numbers The Last Stand, but that may just be enough to elevate it above the type of bottom-shelf, straight-to-DVD dreck that it otherwise so obviously is. 

Mind you, that's probably not entirely fair. While Arnie is undoubtedly the main draw of the film, Korean director Jee-woon Kim clearly knows his way around the genre and the film's action set-pieces are actually rather well done. He manages to maintain the high octane energy of most modern day action films with a sense of clarity of vision that recalls the best of the genre's '80s and '90s heyday – and this is no small feat, as all too many awful action films would attest. 

Would that I could say the same about the script. That the plot is entirely rote and predictable is neither surprising, nor particularly offensive. What's an action movie without generic conventions after all? What's less forgiveable though, is that because of the structure of the film, Arnie and crew are basically sidelined for much of the first half of the film. That's right, Ahnuld's big return to the genre that made him, features him doing very little of anything for the first half of the film's 107 minutes. 

Mega Catch-up roundup Jan/ Feb 2013

I've been trying to write full reviews for the many noteworthy films that have been released over the couple of months, but there are just too many to cover if I am to have any hope of getting back on schedule. As such, here's a boat load of snap reviews for a boat load of films, some good, some less so. Oh and one or two of these might even be December 2012 releases and are sure to be on DVD very soon - if they're not already.

Jack Reacher. Much has been made about Tom Cruise being wrong - or at least the wrong height - for Lee Child's mysterious anti-hero, but he does his thing and he does his thing well, resulting in a very enjoyable action thriller that's smartly written, snappily directed and plenty of good pulpy fun. Fans of the book may sneer, but as a piece of cinema, it's certainly far better than dreck like A Good Day to Die Hard. Plus, it has Werner Herzog as the villain and it's  worth watching for that alone. (7/10)

End of Watch. It's use of the thoroughly irritating "found footage" device notwithstanding, this is a humane, powerfully told and enthralling crime drama that takes us into the daily lives of regular cops who have to contend with fraught personal lives, contemptuous plain-clothes detectives and a job that could result in their coming home in a body bag on any given day. Jake Gyllenhall gives what may be a career-best performance but the acting throughout is top-notch, though it's the film's emotional core and attention to detail that really makes it soar. It does, however, lose points for its straightforward thriller aspects that are a bit forced and nowhere near as compelling as the film's more "mundane" aspects. (8/10)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

And now for yet another worthy major awards contender...

Following her award-winning military thriller, The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's latest sees her once again tackling recent history, as she chronicles the true story of how the unyielding persistence of a young, largely inexperienced CIA agent led to the hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Once again, Bigelow creates a thriller more muscular and ballsy than anything her male contemporaries could ever hope to come up with. While her ex-husband spends his days converting Titanic to pointless 3D and fiddling about with his long-if-not-eagerly awaited Smurfs in Space sequel, Bigelow's earthy and gritty war-time thrillers remain a cut above the rest.

This time, however, Bigelow's take on the War on Terror is given a particularly feminine touch as she employs the tireless and always brilliant Jessica Chastain to portray the film's central CIA operative, Maya. There is plenty to admire and love about Zero Dark Thirty  (the title of which, incidentally, means 12:30 in military speak), but it's Chastain who is the true heart and soul of the film, balancing her character's strength, intelligence and drive with the emotional toll that is an unavoidable side effect of so seemingly impossible and brutal a lifestyle. It's interesting to note that the CIA operative she portrays is also, loosely, the inspiration for Claire Danes' character in the hit TV show, Homeland, but honestly, good as Danes undoubtedly is in the role, Chastain is even better as she imbues her character with more warmth and less hysteria than Danes' occasionally grating Carrie Mathison.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Let My People Go: Django Unchained vs Lincoln

Timely as ever, here's my take on two very different films dealing with quite similar subject matter.

Effectively bookending the American Civil War on either side, we have two major Awards contenders, both by highly respected filmmakers and both dealing with the tricky subject of American slavery. And yet, you could seldom find two more different films than Quentin Tarantino's irreverent western/ revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, and Steven Spielberg's solemn political drama, Lincoln. Still, they do make for one interesting - if very, very long - double bill whose strengths and weaknesses somehow complement each other perfectly.

Tarantino's latest continues in the tradition of his recent offerings of being simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. On the plus side, Django Unchained proves once again that his writing has demonstrably evolved significantly, as his undeniable ear for smart dialogue is finally matched by distinct, if not particularly deep, characterization. Crucially, it's no longer the case that every single character simply talks like Quentin Tarantino, as he has finally started to allow his characters to have their own unique voices and personalities. Best of all, in the Western genre, he has finally found the perfect home for his hyper-stylised dialogue, as well as a much needed constraint against his often tiresome pop-culture references. Django may be a genre pastiche, but it's one that is constantly hilarious, gripping and way more fun than a film built around the horrors of slavery has any right being.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

OK, so I am apparently entirely unable to spell McLane correctly (see the review at Channel 24 for further details) but because the idea of having Senator John McCain in a Die Hard film is way more fun than anything in this abysmal sequel, I've decided to leave my original, uncorrected review up for your enjoyment.

What it's about

In this fifth instalment in the Die Hard franchise, John McClain travels to Russia to save his wayward son, Jack, from a murder charge, but Jack turns out to be a CIA operative, in the middle of a crucial rescue mission.

What we thought

The first Die Hard film, released way back in 1988 (yup, Die Hard is 25 years old this year, how quickly they grow up), is, very simply, the greatest action movie ever made. It has an airtight plot, tense and terse action scenes, plenty of humour and great characters. It's the film that launched Bruce Willis' screen career as an action hero and can lay claim to one of the silver screen's all time great bad guys in Alan Rickman's hilarious, ruthless and expectation-defying Hans Gruber.

Since then, we've had three sequels that, though enjoyable in their own right, never came close to capturing the sparky fun of the original. Sadly, the cumbersomely titled, A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth in the series, doesn't just fail to reverse this trend, it doesn't even manage to capture the admittedly guilty pleasures of its sanitized predecessor, Live Free and Die Hard (or Die Hard 4.0, as it is known in some territories).

Die Hard the fifth, isn't simply a disappointing Die Hard film – hell, it's a stretch to even call it a Die Hard film – but is so thoroughly mediocre that it barely even works as a by-the-numbers action film. It's too professionally produced to be truly bad and is served greatly by having a running time that clocks in at less than 100 minutes, but this leaden, ultimately boring action flick isn't just a far cry from previous Die Hard films, it also pales in comparison to recent genre offerings like Jack Reacher and the excellent (bite me, haters) James Bond reinvigoration of Skyfall.

It's true, Bruce Willis is undeniably watchable in this, as he always is, but his performance here continues to turn the loveable but flawed everyman that was John McClain in the first Die Hard film into a caricatured, invincible action hero. It's funny but Nicolas Cage's character in Con Air – an undeniable Die Hard rip-off – is closer to the original John McClain than the one we get this time around. Still, no matter how much of a disappointment he is here, Willis with his natural charm and undeniable acting chops is still far and away the best thing about A Good Day To Die Hard.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (aka Die Hard 3 – seriously what's wrong with numbering sequels?) is probably the best of the Die Hard sequels, thanks mainly to its terrific supporting cast that includes Samuel L Jackson as McCain's inevitable sidekick and, better still, Jeremy Irons as the franchise's second most memorable bad guy. Die Hard 5 may have a weak plot; unimaginative, over-long (if explosive and frenetic) action scenes and some seriously forced, cheesy one-liners, but what lets it down most is how faceless the rest of the cast is here.

Presumably, by introducing Jai Courtney as John McCain Jr, director John Moore and screenwriter Skip Woods hoped to capture some of the great father/ son interplay that made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade such fun, but sadly they ended up with something closer to the latest Indy film's bland Ford/ LaBeouf team up. Courtney is fine in the role, but his character is so nondescript that it's hard not to wonder if perhaps teaming Willis up with Mary Elizabeth Winstead - again reprising the role of McCain's daughter – would have created a more enjoyable and interesting dynamic. But then, that might just be the Scott Pilgrim fan in me talking.

Worst of all though, is this instalments terrible excuse for a villain. Or villains – it's a surprise, though I doubt you'll care either way. Forget greats like Irons and Rickman, the entirely personality-free bad guys in A Good Day to Die Hard are sure to have you clamouring for even the underwhelming baddie that the usually rather good Timothy Olyphant played in the last film.

There has been some controversy regarding the very recent decision to release the film in edited, youngins-friendly 12A-rated form, but, as stupid as self-imposed censorship might be in this case, there's no real reason to get up in arms about it. 12A or 15; R or PG13, 16 or 13 – no matter what form you see it in, A Good Day to Die Hard is by far the worst Die Hard film to date.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Movie 43

I don't get the hate for this film, I really don't. That doesn't mean it's particularly good though.

Also at Channel 24

 What's it about? 

What starts off as a harmless prank becomes an apocalyptic mistake as a group of kids find themselves hunting down the "most disturbing film ever" on the internet, known only asMovie 43.

What we thought:

You know what's really funny about Movie 43? Sadly, for an alleged comedy, it's not really the film itself as much as the fact that that little plot synopsis I just supplied only applies to the UK (and seemingly Commonwealth members') version of the film – the American version of the film has an entirely different plot, but it's still 99% the same movie.

Effectively, Movie 43 is a very, very rude sketch show in search of a movie that uses a wraparound plot to try and hold it together. In the UK, in South Africa and, presumably, a bunch of other countries, we get a wraparound plot involving this fatal search for the most offensive film ever made. In the US, the wraparound is simply about a film producer, played by Greg Kinnear, being presented with a number of gross-out movie pitches by Dennis Quaid. By the sounds of it, we got the better deal, but it kind of says everything about the film that the director's can switch out the entire "plot" of the film and still come out with much the same results. 

As for those results, well, they're not great, but they are perhaps not quite as earth-shatteringly awful as some critics have suggested. 

For a start, unlike most sketch shows, the various sketches are of a fairly consistent level of quality, with only one or two sticking out as being much worse than the others – the especially hateful Leprechaun section starring Sean William Scott, Johnny Knoxville and Gerard Butler being the obvious and unsurprising low point. 

The rest though, are honestly quite solidly conceived, tightly played and consistently nuts enough to never truly bore. There's no point in trying to review each segment but they're all based off a single "high-concept" (a game of Truth Or Dare that goes wildly out of control; a woman goes on a date with a man who has testicles hanging from his chin but she's the only one who notices; a girl has her first period at her boyfriend's house and neither he nor his father know what the hell to do with her; a superhero date night goes very wrong; etc etc) and usually play out with alternatively gross or just plain weird consequences. They also somehow never outstay their welcome.  

None of this points to anything near the unmitigated travesty that most critics have paintedMovie 43 as being. There have even been reports that much of the A-list stars who appear in the film – people like Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Chloe Moretz, Halle Berry, Chris Pratt, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Uma Thurman, the list goes on and on – were "strong-armed" into appearing in the film. But again, none of these are anywhere near as bad as, say, Al Pacino having a major supporting role in the Adam Sandler comedy dud Jack and Jill.

Yes, Movie 43 is gross, possibly even offensive to some and yes, the various sketches don't add up to much, but hey, this is a gross-out sketch-comedy film – what exactly was everyone expecting? Well, for it to be funny, presumably – and this, above all else is where the film ultimately fails. 

Directors Bob Oderkirk, Peter Farrelly et al push good taste well beyond breaking point, but their only real crime here is that Movie 43 simply isn't anywhere near as funny as it should be. There are a few titters and nervous guffaws to be had, to be sure, but the giggles are too far apart and there are absolutely no proper belly laughs to be had. Being weirded out, grossed out and shocked by a gross-out comedy film is all well and good but if there are no laughs, really, what's the point.

Not terrible then, just nowhere near funny enough to justify its existence.