Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I'm rewarding "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" with a passing grade for this single simple fact: I had fun. You see, "Transformers 3" presented me with what I shall hesitantly label "a good time," which I shall attribute to the fact that I was sitting in a cinema watching two-and-a-half-hours of giant robots repeatedly hurling their mits at the glimmering metallic bodies of one another. Now, you may ask me, "But Stephen, you sexy beast, you were presented with the exact same thing in the second movie, "Revenge of the Fallen," and you very much disliked that movie, so why does this one get a passing grade?" Well, I'll tell you why (and thanks for the compliment); I've given this a passing grade because there's something about "Dark of the Moon" that renders it not quite as tedious or frustrating as the chaotic clutter that was 2009's "Revenge of the Fallen." And if that's not high praise, I don't know what is.

That's right, "Dark of the Moon" is a much better movie than its immediate predecessor, though admittedly this does not seem too complicated a task to accomplish. For one, its story is much more coherent, though I still struggled to comprehend it on occasion in this threequel. Two, the action also is given an extra push of coherency, i.e. we can actually tell what the holy bejesus is going on for the most part. And three, there are no racist robots or Transformer testicles dangling out in the open, swinging and clanging together for all to see; that image is forever scarred into my brain.

I'd also give the film points for getting rid of Megan "plank of wood" Fox, but sadly she has been replaced in favour of an even bigger, even more wooden plank of wood. This is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a very attractive Victoria’s Secret model from England who decided one day, "What the hey, I'll become an actress." And voila, here she is, stumbling through lines of dialogue like a child learning the alphabet while director Michael Bay points the camera at her like he's making an amateur porn video. Seriously, the opening shot of her (y'know, her big-screen debut) is of her newly-shaven bare legs and perfectly shaped buttocks as she elegantly ascends a set of stairs (in 3D, I might add). And after that, well, it's just cleavage shot after cleavage shot, Mr. Bay apparently forgetting that Huntington-Whiteley's boyfriend is kick-ass action hero Jason Statham, a man who can probably decapitate you with his pinky toe. Tut tut, Mr. Bay.

Anyway, she's playing Carly, the uber-sexy new squeeze of unlikely hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), the young adult who has just graduated from college and is struggling to find a job (apparently helping save the world twice doesn't pay very much afterwards). After several unsuccessful job interviews, he finally is accepted for a mailroom position, which causes him to once again become involved in the affairs of the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons.

He learns from a wildly energetic co-worker (Ken Jeong, "The Hangover Part II") of a plot to assassinate everyone who knows of the real intentions of the Moon landing back in 1969. What were these intentions? Well, there was apparently a spacecraft that crash landed on the dark side of the Moon, and the American government wanted some samples from the thing. So, they sent Neil Armstrong and buddies up there, had them explore the place, and what they found was a big ol' seemingly dead robot known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, aka Spock from "Star Trek") sitting in the craft.

In the present day, Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, learns of this mission, is a little upset that he was not told of it before, and goes up to the Moon with some fellow Autobots to bring Sentinel Prime down to Earth to revive his body. However, it soon comes to fruition that the Decepticons have the Autobots right in the palms of their clawed, oil-covered hands, and their plans to take over our world are being set in motion.

When you walk into a "Transformers" movie, you should be anticipating a spectacle, a dizzying extravaganza featuring all of the high-tech stuff that special effects departments have newly advanced and achieved. With "Dark of the Moon," this is precisely what we are given for most of the runtime, scenes of robot-bashing, oil-spilling violence picking up fast and occurring frequently to appease the needs of popcorn-munching mainstream moviegoers.

It's all very boyish, this coming with the territory of a franchise built on Hasbro action figures, and teenage boys in particular will most definitely be pleased with what they are handed, though just the sight of a giant robot would be enough for that I think. This is the kind of film that is practically the definition of a summer blockbuster, it showcasing all the brand spanking new SFX in a mega-budgeted brainless spectacle that is destined to make a boatload of cash at the big B.O.

And for the last hour of the film, the word "spectacle" could not be more appropriate. Yes, for a whole hour, we watch an epic, city-destructing battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons in the streets of Chicago, which is reduced to a gigantic pile of rubble after things go whiz, bang, crackle and pop in front of our very eyes. A scene in which Sam, Carly and a gang of soldiers slip and slide in a building that's been split in two and is slowly toppling over at the tentacles of the evil Shockwave (voice-over legend Frank Welker) is especially thrilling, and is in my opinion the best scene in the whole film.

It's all incredibly well-conducted by Bay, the action arranged with a sense of scope and clarity (aided by some nifty slow-motion), albeit with some mild confusion from myself as to which Transformer was which (in my defence, some of them do look a little similar). And the 3D is utilised perfectly for these massive set-pieces, never looking blurry or serving as a headache-inducing eyesore like the dutch tilts in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor," instead actually adding to the action.

But what about everything before this epic 60-minute long demonstration of Bay's talents for constructing an action extravaganza? Well, this is where all of the problems come from: the opening 90 minutes of the film. First off, there are plenty of action scenes sprinkled throughout the first hour-and-a-half of "Dark of the Moon" to stir you from a possible slumber or two. But, and I think this is to be expected by many, it's when the explosions stop and the public property damage ceases that "Dark of the Moon" begins to encounter some major problems, this mainly due to the magnificently stale script written by Ehren Kruger (who, for some reason, is still working after writing "Blood and Chocolate" and "The Brothers Grimm").

Interactions between human beings does not seem to be Kruger's strong suit, with the mostly obnoxious scenes involving earthlings serving only to slow the film down. The film also displays a stockpile of pointless characters who could be cut out from the film with absolutely no consequences to the plot whatsoever, from Sam's new boss (John Malkovich, "RED") to Sam's mother and father (Julie White and Kevin Dunn), who are all used as annoying comic relief. I'm not saying the human beings should be completely cut out from the film (the plot does involve humans being reduced to slaves, so a human element is necessary), but if they must be on-screen constantly they really do need to be well-written, which in this case they most certainly are not.

Nonetheless, the concluding action-packed hour of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" almost entirely makes up for the severe boo-boos made by Kruger's bland script (and no, Mr. Bay, you cannot blame the writers' strike on this one). "Dark of the Moon" is a deeply flawed film, there is no doubt about that, but in spite of all its in-your-face problems, I had something resembling a blast while watching it, and I make no apologies in saying this. It's fun, it's mindless, the action is mesmerising, the special effects are breathtaking, the 3D is great, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is a hilariously awful actress. Come on and get me, Statham! Do your worst...


Monday, 27 June 2011

Cars 2

The problem with "Cars 2" is that it's produced by Pixar, a film studio that is automatically preceded by a reputation for producing groundbreaking masterpiece after groundbreaking masterpiece. Ever since it made its first full-length feature in 1995, the animation company has been responsible for some of the most highly regarded movies of recent years, with films such as "Toy Story" and "Wall-E" capturing the imaginations of audiences young and old, wide and far. Pixar is universally renowned as one of the most reliable movie studios running today, the mere mention of its name instantly inspiring a promise of stunning and breathtaking quality. And as soon as that sparky little animated lamp bounces up and down on the second letter of the company's name before the movie's opening titles, John Lasseter's "Cars 2" is doomed to crash and burn.

As it stands, the movie is mediocre; the inevitable comparison with Pixar's past portfolio only heightens this. If the movie were to have been produced by, say, Dreamworks, maybe its mediocrity would not be so noticeable, simply cast aside like many of this company's previous efforts (although "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Kung Fu Panda" may have faltered it). And if it were to have been produced by a much lesser known company, maybe it would make some money, sell some toys, and no one would bat an eyelid. But no, it's a Pixar movie, a sequel to another Pixar movie, and is currently the only chink in Pixar's glistening armour.

Much like its predecessor (which was previously thought to be the studio's weakest, albeit decent, production), "Cars 2" is set in a world much like our own; the only difference is that it is inhabited by talking automobiles. While the 2006 original seemed to be a semi-remake of Michael Caton-Jones' "Doc Hollywood," the sequel decides to go a bit bigger, the plot dealing with "James Bond"-style espionage, hopping from country to country.

Another difference is that the protagonist has switched from ultra-cool shiny race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson, "Hall Pass") to rusty tow truck Mater (comedian Larry the Cable Guy), who is personified as a buck-toothed hillbilly. McQueen returns to the town of Radiator Springs for a break from winning Piston Cup after Piston Cup, visiting his good old buddies in what has become his second home. On the television, they watch as Italian F1 car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, "Barton Fink") gloats of how much faster he is than McQueen, resulting in the rosy red race car taking part in the first World Grand Prix against Francesco.

Determined to make Francesco eat McQueen's tail lights, McQueen and friends speed off to Tokyo for the first race of the enormous event. While there, Mater unwittingly stumbles upon the attempts of two spies (voiced by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) to stop an evil scheme masterminded by scientist Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann, "King Kong"). Mater is then mistaken for an American spy (Bruce Campbell, "The Evil Dead"), the clueless tow truck now stuck with confidential information in his possession.

After Mater embarrasses McQueen and loses him the race, McQueen falls out with the clumsy tow truck, who as a result decides to go back to Radiator Springs. However, spies Finn McMissile (Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Mortimer) take Mater with them on their mission to take down the evil Zündapp, still under the belief that Mater is a secret agent (and Mater fails to really speak up against this). Meanwhile, McQueen continues with the Grand Prix without his ex-best buddy, unaware that all is not so safe for him on the racetracks ahead…

"Cars 2" takes reign as one of Pixar's most action-packed projects, though possibly beaten in this area by Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" of 2004. Given the spy thriller genre aspect that screenwriter Ben Queen has crammed into the proceedings, a plethora of action is inevitable, and a plethora of action is what we get. We're shown high-tech gadgets, loaded machine guns, cars that can fly, cars that can swim underwater, ticking time bombs, explosions, chase scenes, punch-ups in public bathrooms, and the fiery destruction of cars on racetracks. It's a regular ol' "James Bond" action adventure, except with automobiles that can converse with one another. And yet, for some reason, in spite of all its boom-boom, bash-bash, "Cars 2" is not particularly exciting or engaging, the film actually a bit of a bore for most of the runtime.

On a visual level, Lasseter's film is magnificent, with the animation crisp and sharp, and the colour palette pretty darn vibrant. It's a glorious trip for the eyes to behold, and I'm sure youngsters everywhere will gaze at the screen in fixated wonderment, like a tiny little moth to a bright and shining light bulb. But as visually arresting as "Cars 2" may be, it can't outdrive the fact that it's not particularly as inspired, smart, funny or entertaining as one feels it should be, given the filmmaking talents at Pixar's disposal, as well as their mouth-watering goldmine of a 16-year filmography.

I suspect that those who decided to green-light this project were looking at its potential from a financial standpoint (the first movie did make a boatload of cash in merchandising), which is sad because it will no doubt act as a blemish in Pixar's reputation. Bottom line: kids may get a few kicks out of the ride "Cars 2" presents while disinterested parents will be counting the seconds until the end credits roll, which is something I never thought I'd have to say for a Pixar film.


Friday, 24 June 2011


I wish I could explain to you in specific detail the sheer hilarity of "Bridesmaids," but alas my morals inform me that I must not. For I must not taint its comedic genius for you, dear reader, before you've set your eyes on this comedy behemoth from, as the poster understandably gloats, the producer of "Superbad," "Knocked Up," and "The 40 Year-Old Virgin."

Yes, this is another Judd Apatow buddy-movie production, but this time with a little twist and shake. You see, if you pay specific attention to this film, you may come to notice something that is very strange indeed: all of the main characters have a pair of knockers attached to their chests. And no, this isn't Seth Rogen playing multiple characters. Shocking as it is, "Bridesmaids" stars a bunch of chicks, but please do not let this fact put you off purchasing a ticket, sexist male readers. For I am a man, testicles and all, and I loved every gosh darn side-splitting second of director Paul Feig's hysterical "Bridesmaids;" this ain't no typical chick-flick tripe.

The film stars Saturday Night Live champion Kristen Wiig (who is also one of the film's two writers) as Annie Walker, a money-struggling thirtysomething who has been working in a jewellery store ever since her beloved bakery store went out of business. She has two annoying English flatmates (played by Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas), and regularly sleeps with a piggish sex buddy named Ted (Jon Hamm, "The Town"). And her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph, "Away We Go") has just got engaged, making Annie the Maid of Honour.

Due to the loose plotting of "Bridesmaids," the film is essentially a series of set-pieces of things going horribly wrong before Lillian's wedding. Annie, along with the four bridesmaids (played by Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper), begin to prepare for the special occasion, helping pick out a dress for the beautiful bride, organising a bachelorette party and bridal shower, and of course planning out the big day itself. All the while, Annie gets friendly with a local cop (Chris O'Dowd, "Gulliver's Travels"), becomes jealous of Lillian's relationship with oh-so-perfect Helen (Byrne), and her life begins to spiral a bit out of control.

Every ounce of humour is brilliantly enforced into situations that become awkward, embarrassing and sometimes cringe-inducing. Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo are incredibly creative with their comedy chops, keeping the laughs consistently satisfying for the unusual 125-minute length.

The comedy is a typical brand of uncomfortable predicaments mixed in with gross-out moments that mostly involve bodily fluids (fret not, they're well-used). The feminine cast certainly do not act particularly ladylike in "Bridesmaids" as they get piss-drunk on airplanes and shit in bathroom sinks. It's sort of refreshing to see women doing all of these things after "American Pie" and "The Hangover" have showed off the boys on their havoc-causing antics. And guess what? The women in a comedy are actually interesting characters for once! Suck on that, "Sex and the City 2."

Yes, these females aren't treated as just sex on legs, unlike most recent fare, which I guess can be attributed to the film being written by two very talented women. Our main characters are all very fun personalities, from the stuck-up, incredibly well-connected Helen to the sturdy, food-loving Megan (McCarthy). And our protagonist is someone we care for, Annie actually having some development as the story progresses, shown to be insecure, her character serving as the beating heart of the film.

Is "Bridesmaids" a feminist film? In a way, yes, it is, it showing that women can indeed do what the guys off "American Pie" and "The Hangover" do, and that they can do it stonkingly well. Forgive me if I'm dwelling on the female aspect of "Bridesmaids" too much, because I do think it's a bit sad that we're still at a stage where we have to point out that a film stars females (gasp), this still seen to be a surprise in the world of cinema. I trust that it will open the door for more female-oriented comedies that don't showcase ditzy blondes whom the camera follows like a sex pest on Viagra.

And I can assure you that "Bridesmaids" should have no problem getting through to manly men; I'm sure the raunchy humour will be satisfactory to most. This is a comedy that is inventive, smart, has a heart and is generally just uproariously funny. You will laugh, you will laugh some more, and you will not feel like a nail-filing, mascara-applying girl for doing so.


The Beaver

What we get in "The Beaver" is Mel Gibson being a very bad ventriloquist, with his left hand stuffed up a beaver hand-puppet's arse, talking to everyone he meets in a Cockney accent that sounds an awful lot like the voice of Ray Winstone. Director Jodie Foster intends for us to take this concept seriously for the most part, an intention that of course can only cause trouble for the viewer, chiefly because it's Mel Gibson being a very bad ventriloquist, with his left hand stuffed up a beaver hand-puppet's arse, talking to everyone he meets in a Cockney accent that sounds an awful lot like the voice of Ray Winstone. Do you see?

This is Foster's third adventure as a film director, here displaying quite a bit of skill as a filmmaker. The very talented American actress is working with a script by Kyle Killen, this being his first film. Apparently, his script generated quite a bit of attention in Hollywood (I can't image for a second why), ending up on the 2008 Black List, which is essentially a list of the best scripts that are yet to be produced. Now this is interesting, because what was in that supposedly promising screenplay seems to have gotten completely lost in translation upon being adapted onto the big screen. I don't mean that Foster has royally screwed up (although I guess in retrospect she kinda did), it's just that what may have read incredibly well in this script may have been entirely vacant of any chance of being successful when physically acted out. And the truth is, I can actually picture this being a good read; but as a good watch, it is just horrendous, failing to work in any way at all when you see a man with a beaver sitting on his goddamn hand.

The basic premise is this: Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy executive who is clinically depressed and lives a melancholy life, much to the dismay of his dysfunctional family. Foster plays Walter's wife Meredith, a rollercoaster designer (seriously), who decides enough is enough, and finally kicks Walter out of the family house for being such a mope. Walter goes to a hotel room and attempts to commit suicide. However, he is stopped by a little furry friend that is wrapped around his left hand.

This is the beaver, a hand puppet Walter took from a dumpster earlier that night while throwing stuff out from the trunk of his car. Walter moves the beaver's mouth while speaking in his Ray Winstone voice, deluded that the beaver is a separate person from himself, this being his way of dealing with reality. And from then on, Walter speaks mostly through this inanimate object in order to phase out the "negative aspects of his personality," barely uttering a word as Walter Black the man.

This inevitably causes some family troubles when Walter returns home, though his youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) loves the buck-toothed rodent. His eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin, "Terminator Salvation") is less enthusiastic, their already-awful relationship initially worsened by the revelation that daddy now talks through a puppet on his hand (can I just add that Porter's obsession with trying to be as different from his father as humanly possible is like something out of a quirky-turkey Wes Anderson movie?). And Meredith is at first confused, then accepts the situation, and then becomes frustrated when Walter won't let the beaver go. Not even when he's playing with Meredith's beaver...

This is no doubt an intriguing concept that is made somewhat poignant by the very public real-life troubles between Gibson and ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Gibson is now a public enemy practically for the recorded, alcohol-fuelled phone calls between he and Grigorieva, and many have claimed that this film was meant to be his saving grace of sorts (even though it was filmed before the scandal). In terms of acting, Gibson is safe; he is a very fine actor and he plays Walter with an earnest gusto that is believable and occasionally heartbreaking. In terms of the film saving his career and public image, I doubt it will happen; "The Beaver" is far too much of a mess for that.

The film is a dramedy, so there's already a balance between humour and drama that the film must sustain. I'd say "The Beaver" is more of a drama, though there were moments when I found myself unsure if I should be laughing or taking what I was watching seriously. Watching Walter argue with his wife while talking through the puppet in his hilariously shaky Cockney accent is frankly laughable, and a scene in which the beaver and Walter violently attack each other is eerily similar to the slapstick comedy of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead 2."

There's also an incredibly dark and violent event which occurs towards the end of the film that completely caught me off-guard. Given the tone of the rest of the film, unbalanced as it was, this moment (don't worry, I shall give nothing away) is both ridiculously out-of-place and rather frustrating, sealing the deal for me that the film was sadly an utter failure.

Anyhoo, "The Beaver" will probably be looked back on as one of the most interesting films of 2011 (and I think it deserves this), but "interesting" is not enough. Foster shows some directorial talent through some beautiful visuals, and Gibson is wonderful in the lead role, but "The Beaver" is simply a mess, with a concept that is just not believable enough, which really is a dam shame.


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Top Ten Most Magical Moments from the Harry Potter Franchise

Where would we be without the magical world of "Harry Potter"? Well, it's difficult to picture, what with how its characters, spells and magical items have all become familiar icons of modern-day popular culture, with words like "Quidditch" and "Hogwarts" now considered to be household phrases by many today. It's also difficult to imagine how the seven-book series began just in 1997, written by then-unknown British author J. K. Rowling, since becoming a behemoth of literature, inspiring youngsters the world over to read and to write, as well as garnering quite a vast amount of dedicated international fans of all sizes and all ages. The "Harry Potter" saga has introduced us to a world of witches and wizards, muggles and sorting hats, three-headed dogs and soul-sucking monsters, and candy that has the very distinctive taste of human earwax. Yummy.

But one of the primary reasons for the overwhelming popularity of this collection of fantasy novels is its series of big-screen adaptations, which started in 2001 with Chris Columbus' "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," with 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe cast as the bespectacled, scar-faced "Boy Who Lived." And every one of Rowling’s delightful bestsellers has been adapted onto the silver screen ever since, each film dominating the box office like a 40-year-old cougar does a lonely college student in a singles bar during happy hour. I apologise for that terrible simile.

Set for release on 15 July of this year is part two of the cinematic production of the epic final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," sadly marking the end of the colossal film franchise. And, to coincide with the climactic film's release, I have compiled a list of what I see as the top ten moments from the seven movies that came before it. Warning to non-Potter-Heads: there's be spoilers ahead.

10. First Day at Hogwarts ("Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone")

We start rather appropriately with a segment from the first instalment of the franchise, in which we are first introduced to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the gothic castle that is the primary setting for both the books and their film adaptations. We first catch a glimpse of the grand location when Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest of the first-years sail their way across a sea of water towards the castle on wooden canoes. How very advanced. Within our first moments inside the very traditional school we are taken to the Great Hall, floating candles and all, and are introduced to the plethora of teachers, from the ever-grumpy Professor Snape to the cheery grandfather figure Professor Dumbledore. And who could forget the disgruntled Sorting Hat, which thankfully places Harry in Gryffindor House, and not the evil Slytherin, nerdy Ravenclaw or rather lame Hufflepuff? Seriously, who cares about stupid Hufflepuff? These are wondrous moments which work as a perfect introduction to the world that we would soon experience and explore along with little Harry and his two best buds. Still, I'm concerned about the floating candles; aren't they a fire hazard?

9. I Must Not Tell Lies ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix")

We now jump to the fifth film in the saga, and a scene in which Harry is unrightfully punished for claiming in class that the evil Lord Voldemort is still alive (which he is). The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, takes Harry into her deceivingly effeminate office and has him write the sentence, "I must not tell lies" on a piece of paper. Sounds like an easy punishment, yes? Well, it turns out he is writing with a blood quill, which causes each letter he pens to be almost instantly scarred into the skin of his left hand. It's quite a nasty visual, and Imelda Staunton is extraordinarily menacing as Professor Umbridge, with the crazy looks she gives and the discomforting tone of her soft voice very unsettling. Umbridge really is an evil bitch of a witch, and Staunton captures her perfectly.

8. Down in the Chamber of Secrets ("Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets")

The second film now, and it's the thrilling climax where we finally get to see this dreaded chamber everyone's been talking about for the whole of the film. Within this watery chamber lies a gigantic snake called a Basilisk, which Harry must bravely battle without looking into its eyes, or he'll be instantly killed (and his head will explode if it gives him a stink eye). Luckily, Harry succeeds, using the sword of Godric Gryffindor (brought to him by a phoenix) to stab the slithering serpent, and then manages to kill the sinister Tom Riddle by piercing his diary with one of the Basilisk's fangs, causing Tom's body to spontaneously explode into bright rays of sunlight. Which is all very good, but what happened to just throwing the villain off a building or shooting him in the head? Also, there's the revelation that "Tom Marvolo Riddle" is an anagram of "I am Lord Voldemort," which caused everyone in the audience to run home from the cinema and double-check this with a pen and piece of paper. Oh, only me then? Okay, well, I was just making sure they didn't make a mistake with the anagram. It's easily done.

7. Breaking into the Ministry of Magic ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1")

This is a moment from the latest flick, a scene in which Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the corrupt Ministry of Magic to nab Salazar Slytherin's Locket off the neck of Dolores Umbridge. How do they do this without being spotted? They of course use a Polyjuice Potion and assume the forms of three Ministry of Magic workers, which leads to some lovely humour as they clumsily pretend that they are indeed these three individuals they've never met before. These scenes are also very tense, as the trio have no idea how long the potion will last, nor if they will get away with something so risky. Indeed, things do go a bit awry, and the soul-devouring Dementors are promptly set on them. Those buggers are scary.

6. Lord Voldemort vs. Professor Dumbledore ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix")

This is another scene set in the Ministry of Magic, which is here the victim of a stampede of very angry bulls. Either that, or shit just got pretty damn real between Lord Voldemort and Professor Dumbledore. Here, a beardy pensioner and a no-nosed snake-face go head-to-head in a duel of wands, while Harry, eager to join in, is forced by Dumbledore to watch from the side. It's a very cool, very destructive and quite intense scene, the first in which we get to see Dumbledore in proper action mode. There's no real winner in the end, as Voldemort vanishes in a puff of smoke, but not before Cornelius Fudge sees He Who Must Not Be Named with his own two eyes, and realises that he was wrong about Voldemort being dead. Ha! In your face, Cornelius!

5. The Tale of the Three Brothers ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1")

The Tale of the Three Brothers is one of the most interesting aspects of "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," mostly due to its incredibly striking visual style. Presented in the form of shadow puppetry, the eye-pleasing sequence is narrated by Hermione as she tells of the origins of the Deathly Hallows. We learn of the three brothers who came upon Death himself when they conjured up a bridge for them to cross a treacherous river. Impressed by their evasion of death, the hooded figure grants each of the brothers a wish, with which he claims the lives of two of the brothers (one asked for a powerful wand, the other for a rock that can resurrect loved ones). The third brother, however, is never found, as he asked for an invisibility cloak, and thus Death could never find him until the brother died of old age. Well, I trust that taught you something about life and death and morals and the such. Mm-hmm.

4. Werewolf on the Loose ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban")

Having just discovered that the man he has recently been desperate to kill is in fact his friendly godfather, as well as the fact that Ron's pet rat Scabbers is a fully grown man, Harry has another surprise in store for him when he steps outside the Whomping Willow. It turns out that Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin is in fact a lycanthrope, causing him to transform into a not-so-nice werewolf at the sight of the full moon in the night sky. And from this, "Prisoner of Azkaban" turns into a bit of a horror film, as Harry and Hermione attempt to help Sirius Black while trying to evade a sharp-toothed wolf-man lurking in the woods. An English werewolf in Hogwarts, eh?

3. Follow the Spiders ("Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets")

We go from werewolves to spiders now, as Harry and Ron stumble upon a horde of fearsome eight-legged freaks in the Forbidden Forest one eerie creepy night. Told by groundskeeper Hagrid to "follow the spiders," the wizarding duo reluctantly oblige, and follow a trail of small arachnids into the dark and dangerous woods, where the spiders noticeably begin to increase in size. Soon enough, they're face-to-face with a tarantula the size of an overweight elephant, and their meeting doesn't go as Harry or Ron presumably would have hoped. While head spider Aragog gives them the information they require, he orders for his fanged, hairy family to feast on the frightened four-eyes and terrified redhead. Thankfully, Ron's flying car comes to the rescue, and he and Harry escape the attacking arachnids before they're made into spider poop. "Why couldn't it be follow the butterflies?" Ron questions. Indeed.

2. The Resurrection of Lord Voldemort ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire")

In this scene, we are finally shown a proper walking, talking, adult Lord Voldemort (he was previously a face on the back of another bloke's head, and a mopey teenage schoolboy). Towards the final moments of the film, we watch along with a trapped Harry as The Dark Lord is practically reborn inside a steaming cauldron in a spooky graveyard. And thus we first see the wonderful Ralph Fiennes under all that make-up, rotten teeth and with his nose digitally removed, and boy is he as scary as a dentist appointment on a Friday afternoon. Soon enough, Harry and his arch-nemesis are skilfully duelling, though the spirits of Voldemort's most recent victims hold Voldemort long enough for Harry to escape using a Portkey. This scene is made even better by the fact that we have also just witnessed Edward off "Twilight" kicking the bucket at the hands of Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew. Thanks, Wormtail!

1. The Death of Professor Dumbledore ("Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince")

Now, I don't want to look like a Dumbledore hater here. The reason this moment is number one on the list is because of how poignant and emotional the death of the wise old chap is. It is of course a very sad moment in the franchise, possibly the saddest of all the moments out of all the films, and was certainly a shock for me, as I was yet to read the book when I saw the film. Professor Dumbledore falls to his death after Professor Snape (who's turned into an evil git) performs the Killing Curse on him in the Astronomy Tower of Hogwarts when Draco Malfoy fails to do so. After a minor battle with some fleeing Death Eaters, Harry goes to Dumbledore's body along with the rest of the school, who raise their wands in the air and together rid the sky of the Dark Mark that Bellatrix Lestrange previously cast. It's a very beautiful and moving moment that had many fans and general moviegoers welling up in the movie theatres, showing how beloved a character Dumbledore really was to us all. And he was so young...

Honourable Mentions

Half-asleep Ron waking up and informing Harry that spiders are telling him to tap-dance ("Prisoner of Azkaban"). Harry, Ron and Hermione taking down a troll that has been let loose in Hogwarts and has found its way to the girls' bathroom ("Philosopher's Stone"). Poor Charity Burbage being devoured by Voldemort's pet snake Nagini in Malfoy Manor ("Deathly Hallows: Part 1"). Also, when we learn that Hermione has a time-travelling necklace in "Prisoner of Azkaban," though for some reason she never uses it again in any of their future adventures. Some brain box she is, huh?

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Green Lantern

I think we’ve all been waiting for a “Green Lantern” movie for friggin’ yonks, haven’t we? I mean, we’ve watched together as all the other comic book superheroes received the summer blockbuster treatment over the past few years, and “Green Lantern” will have been top of the list for everyone, yes? Because everyone knows about “Green Lantern,” don’t they? And everyone loves “Green Lantern.” Oh yes, everyone knows about the Green Lantern Corps and their power rings and their big planet thingy and their, uhh, their green lanterns. And they’re obviously very iconic pieces of American culture, recognised by everyone on the face of the Earth. So, surely every moviegoer on the globe has been dying to see a “Green Lantern” film on the big silver screen, to see everyone’s favourite character in the flesh and bone, and here it finally is, allowing for us all to relieve our universal anticipation once and for all. Well, phew! Fi-na-lly. I was beginning to worry for a moment there.

Okay, I’ll stop all the sarcasm. So maybe the “Green Lantern” name or concept is not as particularly well-known to Mr. and Mrs. Tax-Payer as, say, “Batman” or “Superman” (though maybe it’s more of a familiarity in the realms of the super-nerd), but surely you wouldn’t think lack of existing awareness of the concept would falter the quality of the mega-budget big-screen adaptation in any way. And you’d be right, it doesn’t, just like it didn‘t with Jon Favreau‘s “Iron Man” in 2008; the problem is that this Martin Campbell-directed summer blockbuster will do nothing but taint and bruise the name and property that is DC’s “Green Lantern,” what with how badly handled the subject material is.

Now, as you may have assumed, I have never glanced at a single page of a “Green Lantern” comic book in my life. I have never looked into the story or the characters. I have never previously read up on anything about the comic book’s history whatsoever. Heck, the only memory of the source material I have is once hearing the name at one point when I was a small boy. So I went into this film completely fresh, putting the footage from trailers and TV spots aside, and I found the concept of “Green Lantern” to be interesting. Its talk of intergalactic beings, the powers of will and fear, and power rings charged by lanterns is silly, but it’s undoubtedly interesting. However, as a narrative and as a story in general, this concept is squandered rather badly, barely anything about the film carrying the slightest impact that would make it a satisfying watch. I’m sure it works fine in 30-or-so pages of panels and speech bubbles, but in a live-action film it seemingly does not.

But what is this story that is wasted so spectacularly? Well, our protagonist is Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds, “Buried”), an irresponsible loose cannon of a test pilot who has just accidentally blown up a very expensive aircraft during a test program. That night, Hal is very unexpectedly transported via a flying green sphere to the site of  a UFO crash. Inside this mysterious craft lies a fatally wounded purple-skinned alien called Abin-Sur (Temuera Morrison, “Once Were Warriors“). The dying extraterrestrial hands Hal a ring and tells the baffled human that it chose him specifically out of all the inhabitants of planet Earth. Abin-Sur dies, and Hal speeds off with the ring and a lantern-shaped object sitting within the spacecraft.

Later, Hal is transported again, but this time to a planet called Oa. There, a walking, talking fish dude named Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”) informs Hal that he is now part of the Green Lantern Corps, a group of thousands of alien species who are essentially a police force in the vastness of space, each member assigned to their own corner of the universe to protect. They are peacekeepers, protecting the cosmos from evil using an assortment of powers, which include flying through the air and being able to construct any object they can picture in their head. It’s a pity the filmmakers couldn’t construct a decent script.

Hal seems to take this quite well, up until he decides it’s too much for him and essentially quits while training. However, he is called into battle when human scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard, “An Education”) becomes infected with the DNA of the monster that killed Abin-Sur, turning him into a deformed nutcase who can control objects with his head and read the minds of others (though the filmmakers seem to forget he has this ability once it is introduced).

Oh, and the monster that killed Abin-Sur, the DNA of which is running through Hector’s veins? This is Parallax, a diabolical creature of evil that feasts on the “yellow” fear of his trembling victims (which is handy, because Parallax would scare the pants off even Darth Vader). As he munches on the terror of his prey, he becomes bigger and badder, eventually growing into a massive bulb head with a gazillion dirty, smoky tentacles dangling from his snarling skull, and Hal must face up to this dreaded beast all by himself. It’s like a greenfly going up against Bob Marley.

With this premise, the film is inevitably reliant on a ton of CGI to be mixed in with reality, as Hal hops through space and fabricates items from his imagination. And in terms of special effects, “Green Lantern” is stunning, the flying, fighting and the sights of Oa quite breathtaking; the no-doubt millions of dollars spent on the SFX have certainly been well-spent. And the post-converted 3D, while perhaps unnecessary, is fine and not particularly distracting or headache-inducing. On a visual level, “Green Lantern” is unquestionably a hit; it’s in every other area that trouble begins to brew.

The main problem is how disposable the film is as a whole. You see, “Green Lantern” suffers from the fact that it doesn’t have the slightest impact as a cinematic experience whatsoever. While you may find yourself enjoying the fight scenes and the hideous transformation of Hector Hammond, they will be long forgotten as soon as you step outside the movie theatre. I know that the initial thrills of the punching, kicking and object constructing that the movie presented meant nothing as I approached the exit of the multiplex; I began to dislike the film mere seconds after it ended. Basically, if you want to like “Green Lantern,” don’t think about the film at all when the end credits roll, or you’ll begin to feel unsatisfied and displeased, much as I was.

It’s not the absurdity of the plot itself that’s the problem; the story is convincing enough for the most part. It’s that the narrative is far too generic and unimpressive, and the villains don’t feel like they do too much. Not to spoil the movie for you, but Hector Hammond’s screen-time is cut a little too short, and we also don’t see the colossal Parallax doing anything of interest until the underwhelming climax. The character of Hal also isn’t interesting enough to sustain every other scene, in spite of Reynolds’ charming performance. And his hackneyed romance with co-worker and old flame Carol Ferris (Blake Lively, “Gossip Girl”) is one of the most insipid things I’ve seen in a film for quite some time.

I would say “Green Lantern” is more suitable for children, but on second thought it sort of isn’t. There are some rather naughty words scattered throughout, and the opening scene is pretty darn terrifying (we watch as a group of aliens get the fear literally sucked out of their bodies). So who exactly would I say “Green Lantern” is for? The truth is, I’m not really sure. Teenagers, maybe? But “Transformers” is for teenagers, and I walked out of that movie knowing I had a good time. But no matter whom its intended audience may be, “Green Lantern” is still a lacklustre piece of superhero entertainment, a shortcoming which is worsened by the presence of  Kenneth Branagh‘s “Thor” and Matthew Vaughn‘s “X-Men: First Class” earlier this year.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

After eleven short years and five cash-guzzling hit movies, the timeline of the "X-Men" franchise is well and truly knackered. Questionable continuity issues run amuck throughout the series started by director Bryan Singer as it tries to juggle a boatload of characters taken from the Marvel source material, sometimes clumsily dropping them and not knowing where to put them back again. Just like the cringe-worthy embarrassment that was Gavin Hood's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" of 2009, Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class" has taken a vast number of creative liberties, the continuity now beaten to a bloody pulp. But out of this has come a film with a story that is as captivating and fascinating as any other; narrative cohesion takes a few steps back for inspired filmmaking to take centre stage.

As the title suggests, "First Class" is the prequel to the original trilogy, telling the story of how the first set of X-Men came to be. It also explains the back-story of the relationship between Professor X and Magneto, an aspect of the previous films that was always clouded in mystery and intrigue. And by golly, is it intriguing here.

The film starts with a reshoot of the 1944 Poland-set opening scene of 2000's "X-Men," which may cause some to think the projectionist is playing the wrong film, but no, it's a lovely call-back to Singer's original. Young Erik Lensherr (16-year-old Bill Milner) is being separated from his mother by Nazi soldiers, angering the small boy so much he manages to twist and disfigure metal gates using only his mind. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, "Super") becomes interested in the metal-manipulator, and proceeds to cruelly experiment on him, callously killing Erik's mother in the process.

And then we're in 1960s England, where Oxford-graduating psychic mind-invader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, "Atonement") has written a thesis on genetic mutation, a topic on which he is a genius. He is rarely seen without insecure shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone") nearby, the two having been close friends ever since Raven broke into his mansion when they were both kids.

Charles and Erik soon cross paths when they coincidentally both go after Shaw at the same time. Charles is now helping the CIA after Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne, "Insidious") seeks his help in tracking down Shaw, who is wickedly trying to spark World War III. Erik (now played by Michael Fassbender, "Inglourious Basterds") has angrily but carefully been out to avenge his mother's death and has finally been able to discover Shaw's location. The simultaneous attempts at taking Shaw down fail miserably (it turns out he and his buddies are rather powerful mutants), but it is through this that Erik and Charles meet for the very first time.

Soon enough, the two new best buds begin assembling a team of mutants together, using the device Cerebro to locate these extremely gifted individuals. As they train and develop their unique powers, America and Russia are on the verge of nuclear war, the world soon requiring the assistance of the shiny new team to obliterate Shaw and his loyal gang.

I take little hesitation in calling "X-Men: First Class" a masterpiece, the film now taking its place amongst the very best of its kind; yes, I'm looking at you, "The Dark Knight." This is a movie that gets every tiny little aspect of itself absolutely right, every single scene utterly jaw-dropping, leaving an incredibly miniscule amount of things to falter; even the shaky make-up jobs on Beast (Nicholas Hoult, "About a Boy") and Mystique look fine once one gets used to them.

This is a superhero blockbuster that pays close attention to its characters, to their emotions and to the drama at the centre of the plot. We have the revenge aspect, as Erik tries to do his departed mother justice by killing Shaw. There's Charles' attempts at making Erik see that vengeance will solve nothing, as a stubborn Erik fails to listen. There's also the slightest hint of a romance between Mystique and Beast, two young adults who have to hide their true forms to fit in with the rest of society. These are all very heartfelt storylines that interweave with each other perfectly to really emphasise these characters as people who we learn to care for. Amongst all the spectacle, it's the human (or mutant) touch that really makes this movie special, lifting it high above many others of the genre.

But the spectacle is still here, the film showing off some nifty special effects as our mutants battle it out for survival and show off their astonishing abilities. Amongst these freaks of nature are Havok (Lucas Till, "Battle: Los Angeles"), who can blast rays of energy from his chest; Angel (Zoë Kravitz, "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), who has insect wings attached to her back; Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones, "The Last Exorcism"), who can scream a hypersonic squeal; and Darwin (Edi Gathegi, "Twilight"), whose body can adapt to survive any situation he is in. And on the villain's side, Shaw has the ability to absorb all forms of energy (the more you hit him, the stronger he gets), Emma Frost (January Jones, "Mad Men") can read minds and turn her whole body into pure diamond, red-skinned Azazel (Jason Flemyng, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") can teleport, and Riptide (newcomer Álex González) can create tornados in the blink of an eye. Phew!

Their powers are all displayed in full force in the 20-minute epic finale, a big battle scene that is utterly stunning and exhilarating as objects explode and crash and go boom (well, I don‘t want to give too much away). There's also a scene in which Shaw breaks into the young mutants' lair, slaughtering bodyguards one by one along with Azazel and Riptide, a sequence that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. English director Matthew Vaughn of "Kick-Ass" fame shows yet again a speciality for scenes of the action-packed persuasion, giving us a more than satisfying extravaganza of blockbuster thrills.

While McAvoy is a wonderful Professor X, the Scottish actor playing Xavier as this charming egghead (who downs a yard of ale in a pub in one scene), it is Fassbender who steals the show as Erik, aka Magneto. There's a mesmerising sternness to his performance, giving this character a steely-eyed determination that's both intimidating but sympathetic at the same time. You know this character is out for revenge and that his actions are extreme, but you also know that the man he's after is pure evil (Bacon is fabulously menacing, and his sideburns are magical). His portrayal is intensely engaging, actually making me well up at one point when Charles taps into Erik's head and reawakens an old memory of Erik's mother for him. Shut up, I have something in my eye. Okay, it's a tear. Gimme a damn tissue.

"X-Men: First Class" flawlessly breathes new life into a dying franchise, making for a refreshingly intelligent comic book superhero flick, and what I see as the best in the series thus far (yes, even better than the masterful "X2"). Mixing in some aspects of James Bond with spectacular special-effects action, "First Class" is a monumental achievement, and the kind of blockbuster entertainment that we depressingly do not get enough of. I never thought I'd say this, but I want more "X-Men" sequels. Now.