Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Skin I Live In

I’d advise you to go into “The Skin I Live In” knowing as little about the film as humanly possible. This is what I did, and I was thankful for it; I believe it added to my fascination with the film and its unusually enthralling story. So, this inevitably begs the question, “why should you continue reading this review?” which is a fair question. Well, the chief reason you should continue reading this review is because I wrote it, and because I want to have my review actually read by people. You can rest assured I will not ruin the movie for you.

I’m going to give you a summary of what I knew of the film before I viewed it in all its glorious glory and splendorous splendour. I knew it was directed by Pedro Almodovar, a renowned Spanish filmmaker, and that it was loosely based on the novel “Tarantula” by Thierry Jonquet. I knew it was a Spanish film and that it would be subtitled in English. I knew that Antonio Banderas (“The Mask of Zorro”) was starring in it, and that he was playing the main character.

I knew Banderas’ character, named Robert Ledgard, was a plastic surgeon obsessed with creating an impenetrable synthetic skin. I knew his wife had been killed in a car accident of sorts. I knew he had a human guinea pig named Vera (Elena Anaya, “Van Helsing“) locked up inside his house. I knew he was experimenting on Vera with his synthetic skin tests. I knew there would be a plot twist at some point.

And that’s pretty much all I knew. I knew nothing of any storyline or general plot, as such going in a little blind and unaware of what I was about to watch. All I knew was the vague set-up involving two characters, which I trust aided in making the story so enchanting and beguiling for me to witness.

The film is basically a horror film without the typical traits of the genre; there are no jump scares or truly frightening moments, though there is the occasional murder. What it has is a haunting and unnerving atmosphere that keeps you a little on the edge, resulting in a hypnotic and riveting cinematic experience that you will never forget, nor necessarily want to. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t be captivated right from the opening moments of the film; the cinematography alone should keep any viewer hooked.

You’re genuinely curious about where the story is going and how this story actually came to be. It’s a story of revenge, love, sex and surgery; intriguing, no? There’s a lot of ambiguity about the backstory for the first half of the film, the second half dealing with all of these explanations by way of flashbacks. You’ll question how the flashbacks tie up to the present day setting dealing with the surgeon and his captive; why is Vera locked up, why does she look like Robert’s wife, and who the hell is she?

You’ll find that the answers to your many questions are absolutely horrifying. Properly research the film, and you’ll most likely come across frequent mentions of the aforementioned mind-blowing plot twist it contains; I promise you will never see this twist coming. Trust me, I spent half of the film trying to figure it out by myself, only to damn near fall off my chair in shock when it was revealed. ‘Tis quite the scandal.

“The Skin I Live In” is a fascinating experience that still lingers in your mind long after the end credits roll. It’s an often unsettling and frequently bizarre slice of art-house cinema that’s a drama, a horror and a thriller all rolled up into one helplessly entrancing film. It’s wonderfully acted, beautifully directed and gruesomely disturbing. It’s twisted, it’s tantalising, it’s mesmerising, it’s provocative, it’s perverted, it’s dark, it’s sick, it’s fucked up, and I loved it.


Final Destination 5

11 years ago, filmgoers the world over witnessed a rare thing indeed: a horror film with an original premise. This was James Wong’s “Final Destination,” a dead-teenager slasher flick with an inspired supernatural twist. We are now on its fourth sequel, directed by Steven Quale, and once again that original premise is utilised in the exact same manner as it always has been since the year 2000. And while that premise may be tired and old by now, it’s still quite a bit of fun to watch unfold.

“Final Destination” made us scared of airplanes and moving vehicles. “Final Destination 2” made us scared of highways, dentists and elevators. “Final Destination 3” made us scared of roller coasters and sunbeds. “The Final Destination” made us scared of race tracks and escalators. And now “Final Destination 5” will make us scared of bridges, acupuncture and laser eye surgery.

We all know the drill, people. There’s a person, our protagonist (in this case Sam Lawton, played by Nicholas D‘Agosto, “Fired Up!”), who has a premonition that he and his friends are going to die in a freak accident (in this case, a bridge collapse). We watch incredibly violent images; people get sliced, diced, skewered and impaled. Our protagonist wakes up from the vision, freaks out, freaks others out and manages to get some of his pals away from the scene of the predicted accident. And just like magic, they watch as the accident predicted by our protagonist occurs just like he said.

There’s suspicion cast against the protagonist. How did he know the accident was going to happen? Is he psychic or did he himself cause the accident? They’re stumped. He’s stumped. We’re not stumped. We’ve seen this four times before. And we know what’s soon going to happen to theses clash of personalities now that they’ve cheated death.

Yes, Death begins to hunt these poor buggers down, one by one, to fix his/its list. The survivors begin dying in sometimes intricate, sometimes not so intricate, “accidents.” They’re stumped again. We’re not. Luckily for them, a very creepy Tony Todd explains the situation to them: Death’s stalking them, and he’s not taking any hostages.

As such, the film calls for a large assortment of death scenes, through which writer Eric Heisserer (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) must mastermind elaborate ways in which characters unfortunately meet their makers. Gruesomely dark humour runs rampant as these panic-stricken grave-hoppers are butchered and mutilated time and time again, reduced to nothing more than splashes of blood and splatters of brain matter.

It’s fun to try and figure out how death scenes will play out as you watch the pieces fall into place. You see a malfunctioning air conditioner, you mentally note that. You see a spark from an electrical wire, you note that. You see a collection of lit candles, you note them. A loose screw? Leaking water? A broken chair leg? Yep, note all those. It’s very amusing to attempt to fit these pieces together and discover for yourself how the individual will be bumped off, and the end result is never what you expect.

The franchise lives for these death scenes; they’re the most memorable aspect of the movies and are what keep fans coming back to the cinema to watch them. Characterisation is practically superfluous; the point is for us to morbidly chortle at the inventiveness and ghastliness of these characters’ grisly deaths. But “Final Destination 5” does manage to have some characterisation to its characters, assisted by a decent cast (David Koechner and P.J. Byrne in particular) that succeeds in projecting some genuine personality.

As a stand-alone film, “Final Destination 5” wouldn’t quite work; the ingenious 11-year-old premise is handled with limited impact. So, it’s lucky that four films precede it that have fully outlined this premise; you go in knowing exactly what kind of shit is gonna go down for the protagonists, and it’s a joy to watch the story develop in the same way it always has since the franchise’s groundbreaking debut all those years ago.

For comparison, I’d say part five of this smash-hit horror saga is on about the same level as part three, i.e. good, not great, and a tad forgettable. The death scenes are very creative, nail-bitingly tense and darkly humorous, and… well, is there anything else you need to know? Oh, and the 3-D is remarkable and used very effectively, succeeding in not being the irritating distraction it usually is.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Fright Night

“Fright Night” is a rare example of a remake that surpasses its original; it joins the ranks of recent examples such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” though of course their superiority to their originals is just my opinion. The original “Fright Night,” which was written and directed by Tom Holland, was released in 1985 and has gained what you might call a cult status; it’s a good vampire horror, armed with that cheesy charm that many ‘80s movies tend to possess.

Of course, Craig Gillespie’s shiny new remake cannot possess an ‘80s charm, instead having to make do with a ‘10s charm; we don’t quite know what that is yet, but I’m sure we will 20 or 30 years from now.

This revamp (ha!) stars Anton Yelchin (“The Beaver”) as Charley Brewster, a high school kid living with his mother (Toni Collette, “Little Miss Sunshine”) in a suburban area that looks just like the suburban area in any other movie. In this suburban area, local schoolkids have been going missing, with the morning attendance check in Charley’s class receiving less and less responses. I wonder if there’s a vampire on the loose…

The small family has a new next-door neighbour, Jerry (Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”), who Charley’s ex-friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, “Kick-Ass”) is convinced is a blood-sucking vampire. Hmm, I wonder if the missing students and the suspected vampire neighbour are somehow connected…

Charley goes to investigate, and discovers that (gasp) Jerry is a vampire! Who knew?! And to make matters worse, Jerry knows that Charley knows that Jerry is a vampire. But does Charley know that Jerry knows that Charley knows that Jerry is a vampire? Well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out.

Much like the original, “Fright Night” is both a comedy and a horror; inevitably, the horror aspect is much more prominent than the comedy, given the vampiric premise. However, the comedy is much stronger in the remake than it was in the original; the remake actually managed to get a few laughs out of me, unlike the original.

It’s a chilling movie, all sprayed with blood and chock-full of suspenseful moments, thanks to the undead villain of the piece. Jerry sinks his fangs into the necks of several victims, quenching his supernatural thirst with droplets of blood, and unapologetically enjoying it. He’s an intimidating character with otherworldly powers; he’s a creature of the night who’s hungry for the taste of human juice, and he unfortunately lives right fucking next door.

Farrell is no Chris Sarandon here, but he serves his purpose in creating a menacing antagonist. He’s effortlessly scary and naturally sexy, two traits that make up your typical movie vampire. He’ll charm you, possibly through his good looks or hypnotic powers, and then he’ll bite your damn head off in a beat of his cold heart. There’s not much more to him than that, but does there really need to be?

Yelchin proves himself to be an excellent lead, making this typical high school kid a very watchable and amusing character who stands out beside the villainous vampire and vampire killer (we’ll get to him in a minute). Yelchin is charismatic in the kind of role that typically gets lost in horror flicks amongst all the blood-curdling shenanigans and murderous monkey business. I trust we shall see more from this young actor in the future.

Now, onto that vampire killer. His name is Peter Vincent (I think that may be a Hammer Horror reference), and he is played by Scottish “Doctor Who” actor David Tennant. He’s an English magician of sorts in Las Vegas, and is supposedly an expert in all things vampire. Charley goes to him for help, but Peter is not exactly cooperative. Tennant is marvellous in the role that was previously played by Roddy McDowall, swearing like a sailor and drinking like a, well, sailor. I must say, it’s odd to see the Doctor swigging away at beer bottles and saying the F word every five seconds; I’m sure his assistants would protest.

All in all, “Fright Night” is a very entertaining, very exhilarating and very cool vampire horror. It’s a successful remake that’s well-made, well-written and well-acted, supplying some scares, some laughs, though sadly no nudity. I hasten to use the pun, but I must profess that it is, ahem, fang-tastic.


Monday, 22 August 2011

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

The last three non-violent, non-bloody and non-vulgar movies that Robert Rodriguez scribed and directed were “Shorts,” “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl” and “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.” Now, armed with just this information and a viewing of the three films listed above, you should come to the conclusion that Mr. Rodriguez should be disallowed from planning or pondering making anymore movies that can be viewed by younglings, as movies for rug rats don’t seem to exactly be his area of expertise; I doubt he even knows what a child is, given the movies he makes for them.

On the other hand, you may point out that he also scribed and directed “Spy Kids” in 2001 and its sequel “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams” in 2002. Both movies are generally agreed to be fun and amusing for children and adults alike, together working splendidly as satisfying slices of family-friendly entertainment. Sadly, the fourth instalment in the “Spy Kids” franchise is neither of these, instead aiding in the argument presented in the first paragraph; stop developing kiddie movies and stick to planning “Sin City 2,” please, Rob.

This agonising waste of time is entitled “All the Time in the World” and has dumped the franchise’s previous leads, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara (though they do appear as supporting characters). Instead, we now have the much less likable Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook as our new Spy Kids, both of whom are about as memorable as what you had for lunch last Tuesday; I know they’re just children, but so were Juni and Carmen Cortez when we first met them.

Blanchard and Cook play Rebecca and Cecil, the stepson and stepdaughter of Marissa Wilson (a hilariously bland Jessica Alba, “Machete”), a butt-kicking secret agent for spy organisation the OSS. Marissa retires from the job after giving birth to a baby girl, keeping her past occupation a secret from her step kids and husband Wilbur (Joel McHale, “Community”), who is by sheer coincidence a TV spy-hunter (evidently not a very good one).

However, Marissa ends up having to get back into action when criminal masterminds The Timekeeper and Tick Tock start taking the world’s time away, causing time to speed up everywhere (oh dear god, no!). Why are they doing this? Because people are taking time for granted and are thus not spending enough time with their loved ones (holy moral message, Batman!) Rebecca and Cecil also find themselves in on the action when their home is invaded, and their stepmother’s true occupation is finally revealed.

And then they get all sorts of cool gadgets, and it turns out the family dog talks, and bad guys end up constantly falling over and tripping on small metal balls on the floor, and there’s a baby’s diaper used as a weapon and there’s flying machines and the baby farts and the dog farts and my head hurts, ow, my head, it hurts, please God, make it stop.

Yes, “Spy Kids 4” is every bit as excruciating as both “Spy Kids 3-D” and “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” ever managed to be, maybe even more so (apparently this is possible). We are shown here that Rodriguez has learned absolutely nothing from criticisms of his previous three children’s flicks, deciding to litter this mind-numbing film with 89 minutes of fart jokes, poo jokes, pratfalls and time puns. Holy moly, the time puns, they’re relentless.

“Time flies when you’re having fun!” says Tick Tock as he unleashes a horde of flies upon our protagonists. “Clean her clock,” Tick Tock orders his henchman. “The bigger the crime, the better the time!“ Tick Tock yells at Marissa. Even Marissa gets in one: “He’s really starting to tick me off,” she says as Tick Tock flies off to think up more puns. It’s like Mr. Freeze in “Batman and Robin” all over again.

As these lame, unfunny puns sledgehammer you over the head time after time, you’ll be bashing your face against your hands, your knees, the chair in front of you and the floor below you, miserably begging for the film to just end and set you free from your cruel, unjust suffering. And I’m not just talking about the adults, because even the children in the audience should know what an obnoxious, loathsome, patronising, cheap, witless and unimaginative piece of movie-making this really is; how on Earth it avoided going straight-to-DVD I do not know.

I’d give the film a mark for Ricky Gervais’ vocal performance as talking pooch Argonaut, the English comedian getting in a few somewhat clever lines (many were adlibbed, apparently). However, there’s also an equal amount of un-clever lines that spring out of the robo-dog’s furry little mouth, so I’m afraid it’s no points for “Spy Kids 4.” Better luck next *TIME*, Rodriguez.


End note: I’m afraid I can’t comment on the scratch-and-sniff, smell-o-vision 4-D gimmick attached to "Sky Kids 4," but I have heard from many, many others that it’s a complete and utter waste of time (yes, I’m using that pun a second time <-- !!!).

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Help

“The Help” is an audience-pleasing movie that tackles a hard-hitting subject matter. The subject matter is of the treatment of African-American maids in ‘60s Mississippi, and yet the film is mostly a lighthearted crowd-pleaser. An odd combination, I’m sure you’re thinking; a dramatisation of the mistreatment of black domestic workers in the Civil Rights era would presumably not make for a jolly, good-humoured time at the cinema, but somehow “The Help” works like a charm.

Let’s get something straight here; this is not “Mississippi Burning,” nor is it “The Color Purple.” It’s not quite as daring or shocking as either of these valiant masterpieces, but to be honest it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Whether or not Kathryn Stockett’s original book carries more impact I do not know, but as a cinematic experience the film is faultless. I’ve said it twice, I’ll say it again: it’s an out-and-out crowd-pleaser, and I’m very happy to be part of the crowd.

The film has three female protagonists; one is white, the other two are black. One is Eugene “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone, “Easy A“), a young and bright University graduate who has just moved back to her Jackson home to find that the family maid (Cicely Tyson, “Sounder”) who practically raised her has gone; Skeeter suspects her mother or father fired the elderly maid.

The other two protagonists are Jackson maids who cook, clean and serve white families. One is the largely outspoken Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, “Dinner for Schmucks”), a talented cook whose amusingly blunt attitude constantly lands her in trouble; the other is the mild-mannered Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, “Doubt”), who had the life sucked out of her when her son tragically died years ago.

Skeeter wants to be a writer of sorts; maybe a journalist, maybe a novelist, maybe both. It’s when she observes how the white families of Jackson are unappreciative of their hard-working maids that an idea comes to her mind: she’ll write a book from the perspective of the maids of this small Mississippi town.

So, Skeeter begins talking to the local maids, with mixed results. The vast majority are too scared to talk, fearing that their employers will discover them. Some feel that it is pointless, that they, as well as all of the other maids, will gain nothing from it. But soon enough, some get to talking, writing stories of their troubling experiences serving and cleaning up after white families, and thus begins Skeeter’s book, “The Help.”

The film is not necessarily a true story in the sense of the characters’ historical existence; these characters are not real, nor ever were. But what makes it a true story is its depiction of a time and a place; Mississippi is seen by history books as a place of much racism in the 1960s, with African-Americans unfairly discriminated against time and time again.

Any depiction of this unjust society is inevitably going to have an emotional bite, but the characters in “The Help” are so real and so genuine that this bite feels natural. They make the story, which is simple but effective, effortlessly involving; they each play their role in making the narrative an endlessly immersive experience.

They’re characters that are acted beautifully. Stone plays the modern-minded lady of the era, fitted with a humanity that most of her white fellow citizens seem to be lacking in. Davis and Spencer are both spectacular scene-stealers in their own right; Davis’ character is more timid and sympathetic, while Spencer’s is loud and opinionated, a true back-talker of a maid.

Bryce Dallas Howard (“Lady in the Water”) plays the role of the film’s villain, Hilly Holbrook. She’s the stuck-up, racist ringleader of the town, her character serving to represent the racial ignorance of the time. She is uncaring, unflinching and will fire a maid simply for using the house toilet (African-Americans carry diseases, apparently). You will spend most of the movie wishing you could punch her in her snide little face.

This is a humble movie dealing with big issues. These issues are dealt with with both humour and drama, two opposites combined to astonishing effect. By the closing moments, I had tears in my eyes; they weren’t tears of sadness or joy, but a result of the beauty of the film I had just finished watching.


Monday, 15 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The star of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Andy Serkis, an actor who appears in the film solely through the use of motion-capture technology. He plays Caesar, a chimp who is presented to us entirely through computer-generated imagery inserted into a real-life environment. Serkis, who previously provided the movements of towering ape Kong in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" remake, succeeds in conveying emotions more so than any of the live-action humans in the film, all while playing an animal who isn‘t really there; as such, his performance completely steals the movie along with the special effects used to physically create the furry character.

Caesar is the son of an ape that has been genetically modified in a San Francisco laboratory. This mother chimp has been experimented on with a retrovirus that is hoped to be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and one of the side-effects it has on the chimp is increased intelligence. One day, while scientist Will Rodman (James Franco, “127 Hours”) is giving a presentation on the project, this mother chimp escapes from her cage and is shot dead by security.

Will discovers baby Caesar in the mother’s cage and decides to bring the newborn to his home to spare Caesar from being put down. Soon enough, Will discovers that Caesar’s mother’s increased intelligence has genetically passed down onto her baby. Caesar quickly becomes a member of the family, living with Will and his father (John Lithgow, “Leap Year”), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as well as Will’s primatologist girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”).

Eight years later, the increasingly brainy Caesar finds himself thrown into a primate facility after attacking a neighbour to defend Will’s father. Kept in a cage and abused by keeper Dodge (Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy off the “Harry Potter” films), Caesar grows a resentment for mankind, and starts to scheme a rebellion against the human race along with his fellow inmates.

As you should know, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a prequel to the Franklin J. Schaffner sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes” of 1968. Rupert Wyatt's film serves as an explanation of how exactly the planet of the apes came to rise, how the apes took over and how our planet would eventually be run by a bunch of horse-riding chimps capturing humans in nets and dumping them in cages.

You may be against this decision; a sense of mystery surrounding background stories never hurt anyone, and just explaining away could possibly damage a storyline‘s strength. But no, in this case it doesn’t, instead doing sufficient justice to the beloved original, shining a light on the story's past as well as superbly standing on its own two hairy feet as a singular movie.

Anyway, the film does not tell the whole backstory; indeed, the ending very much sets up for a sequel that could continue leading towards the dystopia (or at least a dystopia for humans) that is presented in the original. It acts as a spark that sets in motion the planet being managed by intellectual primates; how the story gets from the ending of this film to the beginning of "Planet of the Apes" is anyone’s guess.

As the sixth film in the long-lasting franchise (not including the drab 2001 Tim Burton remake), it’s the first to not have the apes simply presented as actors in monkey costumes. As previously mentioned, they’re all computer-generated, Serkis providing the movements of main ape Caesar. For the first half of the film, Franco’s Will is the protagonist, and then in the second half this position shifts to Caesar when he is taken to live in the facility.

The first half sees Will becoming a loving father to Caesar, keeping him in his home while studying this chimp’s mental capabilities. Caesar, however, suspects over the years that he is nothing more than a pet on a leash. The second half sees the beginnings of a rebellion, as Caesar’s opinion of humans significantly decreases, yearning for freedom as his brainpower rapidly grows and grows, causing him to become simian McGyver at one point.

Serkis’ performance flawlessly takes us through this development from family pet to jail-breaking world-dominator. It’s all in his eyes, in his demeanour and in his facial expressions, the kind of stuff that even many non-motion-captured actors struggle to exhibit effectively. He makes this character faultlessly enthralling, even when we know that we really shouldn’t be rooting for him; to root for him means our demise as a species.

It’s a triumph for motion-capture technology, and Serkis certainly deserves significant praise for making this character feel so real. It’s with his performance that this sci-fi prequel really becomes so fascinating and engrossing, making “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” mesmerising blockbuster entertainment both for humans and damned dirty apes alike.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Friends with Benefits

“Friend with Benefits” is a much better movie than “No Strings Attached” because the former is fun and the latter is not. Why the comparison? Well, as many have pointed out (including me), both movies, both released in 2011, revolve around the exact same premise: a man and a woman, who have just recently become good friends, mutually decide to use each other in order to satisfy their sexual desires, no strings attached. How very modern a concept.

However, there is a difference. While “No Strings Attached” was drab and boring, “Friends with Benefits” is zany and fun. While “No Strings Attached” was more of a dramedy, “Friends with Benefits” is very much a comedy. While “No Strings Attached” took its concept much more seriously, “Friends with Benefits” for the most part does not, and is all the better for it.

The movie begins with both of our protagonists being dumped, coincidentally (or not?) outside of movie theatres. Dumpee number one is Dylan (Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network”), and dumpee number two is Jamie (Mila Kunis, “Black Swan”). Dylan is an art director for a Los Angeles-based internet company, and Jamie is an executive headhunter in New York City who has been asked to recruit Dylan to interview for a job at GQ magazine.

So, Dylan flies to NYC, meets Jamie, does the interview and gets an offer. However, Dylan is unnerved by the thought of making the move from LA to the Big Apple. In an attempt to persuade him otherwise, she takes him on a tour around the beautiful city, shows him the magnificent sites and gazes at the stars with him. But it’s a cheesy dance routine in the middle of Times Square that finally persuades him to take the job and move into the city (it sort of makes more sense in the movie. Sort of).

And then Dylan and Jamie start to hang out together, watch crappy romance movies together (not including “No Strings Attached,” I don’t think), and then decide to fuck. Yes, they’re quickly going at it like horny little bunnies in the middle of mating season, but they’re doing this on one condition: no feelings, no emotions, no emotional strings to hold them down (like Pinocchio).

It’s all very casual; they strip each other, they hump each other, they please each other, yet there remains no romance or any of that love-dovey claptrap going on between them. And they go about their daily lives like nothing ever happened, staying as just two normal friends who happen to know the insides as well as the outsides of each other. But can it possibly stay this way? Will sex remain just a physical act between them? Will there be feelings sparked between them or will they continue as nothing more than friends with benefits? Well, of course they won’t, you silly billy! What are you, blind?!

Under the direction of Will Gluck (who gave us the fabulously clever “Easy A” last year), “Friends with Benefits” is shockingly a pure and utter joy to behold. Why shocking? Because this is a film that I, along with many others, assumed wouldn’t work, that I was sure was just another brainless rom-com to be brushed aside like a common fly crawling its way up your arm. It seems I was a little bit wrong.

There’s nary a second that passes by in “Friends with Benefits” that isn’t funny or amusing, poignant or moving. The dialogue is fast and zany, very hip and comical. The comedy is both silly and raunchy, tickling ribs on what is quite a regular basis. The sex scenes are frequent, presented in a manner that is fresh and original. Plus, there is some drama to be had, with Dylan’s father (the extraordinary Richard Jenkins, “Let Me In”) suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; this doesn’t feel crammed into the plot just for the sake of it, instead introduced very naturally and used effectively without the onsets of cinema-induced depression.

Timberlake and Kunis make for fantastic sexy-buddy leads, fitted with the kind of sexual chemistry that could only have occurred by accident; you certainly can’t make this happen on purpose. They’re both bouncy and energetic in their roles, looking like they are genuinely having fun playing these characters, and not at our expense. Their characters are actually a would-be couple for whom we do truly care about; that’s right, a modern-day romantic comedy with protagonists who are worthy of our empathy. Shocking, I know.

There is also an excellent cast of wonderful actors on hand here who manage to paint rather memorable supporting characters with their limited screen-time. There’s Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland”) as Tommy, the sports editor for GQ who owns a speedboat and is gay without being turned into a campy stereotype. There’s Patricia Clarkson as Lorna, Jamie’s ridiculously laid-back, hopelessly quirky mother who has memories of the ’70s still playing in her head. And there’s the aforementioned Jenkins, whose character delivers “that big important speech” to Timberlake near the end of the movie.

Yes, the film is all formula; it’s as predictable as any other rom-com you’ve ever seen, ever, and it seems to know this itself. Still, it works in a way that is most unexpected, i.e. you find yourself caring about what is ensuing on-screen and what will transpire between these characters at the end of the story. Sure, you know what‘s going to happen and the basics of how it will happen, but it’s still endearing to watch, regardless of its high predictability factor. If that’s not the sign of a well-made movie, I don’t know what is.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

What do you get if you cross "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" with "War of the Worlds"? The first thing that springs to mind is probably an awesome-sounding movie. What about if you then add in, say, James Bond and Han Solo? Then you've got an awesome-sounding movie with an awesome-sounding cast. And what if this awesome-sounding movie with an awesome-sounding cast were to be directed by the guy who did "Iron Man"? Well, sir, what you've got there is a movie that only a nincompoop would dare turn down, given these delectable aforementioned details.

And yet, for some strange reason, "Cowboys and Aliens" isn't quite as awesome as one would automatically assume it would be. It's directed by the guy who did "Iron Man," it's got James Bond, it's got Han Solo, it's got cowboys and it's got aliens, yet as a cinematic experience it is frustratingly underwhelming, as well as, dare I say it, pretty boring. Instead of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" meeting "War of the Worlds," it's more a case of "Battle: Los Angeles" meeting "Wild Wild West." This movie doesn't sound very awesome anymore now, does it?

The film, which is based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, opens with a craggy-faced man (Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale") waking up in the middle of the New Mexico desert. He doesn't know how he got there, he doesn't know where he is, and he doesn't know his own name. All he knows is that he can speak English and is very skilful in the art of kicking cowboy butt. He's basically the Jason Bourne of the wild west.

Strapped to this amnesiac man's wrist is a mysterious bracelet that is very out-of-place for the 19th Century setting, what with its flashing lights and the bleeping and blooping sounds emitting from its golden surface. He doesn't know what it is, and it won't come off. After stealing some clothes, a gun and a horse, he rides down to the nearest rootin' tootin' town and almost immediately starts some trouble. Not long after grumpy-face Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, "Morning Glory") recognises him as the wanted gold thief Jake Lonergan, some strange lights appear in the night sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, I'm afraid it's a bunch of hot-headed aliens who appear to have accidentally flown into the wrong movie set.

The town is attacked by the mysterious UFOs, with buildings set ablaze as screaming citizens are snatched up by the invading spacecrafts, including Dolarhyde's annoying asshole of a son (Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"). The whole town is spooked, with a few quick to assume that they were just visited by some demons from hell. No, dummy, they're totes aliens, obvs. Duh!

Setting aside their differences, Lonergan and Dolarhyde ride off with the rest of the town (including perdy lady Ella Swenson, played by Olivia Wilde of "TRON: Legacy" fame) to find their kidnapped friends and families and try and pick a fight with these mean green mothers from outer space. What could possibly go wrong?

As it stands, "Cowboys and Aliens" is probably the best of its kind that I have seen, its kind being the unique genre of "Western-mixed-up-with-other-genre(s)". However, the problem with this is that there are only two other movies that I can instantly think of that fit inside this area of cinema. The first is "Wild Wild West" and the second is "Jonah Hex." You may be relieved to know that "Cowboys and Aliens" is much, much better than both of these movies combined and multiplied several times over. On the other hand, you could still say that for a wide plethora of pretty rubbish films.

The most interesting thing about Jon Favreau's Western/sci-fi mash-up is probably that it takes its subject seriously, which is unexpected given, well, its subject. It's stern about the unavoidably silly concept, its actors keeping straight faces throughout the entirety of the film's length, with a ridiculously low amount of humour or comic relief thrown in. There's nothing wrong with this (I suppose you could say it's quite respectable for it to do so), but a side-effect of this decision is that the film is not very fun.

Yes siree, a film with the ambitiously bonkers title of "Cowboys and Aliens" is lacking in the fun department. This is mainly the first half hour or so, before the aliens first show up, during which I found myself tempted to check my watch an abnormal number of times. And even when the plot including the menacing extraterrestrials kicks in, the movie strains to be as interesting as one feels it should be; both the Western and sci-fi elements are a little too generic even when combined, the script supplying an annoyingly small amount of inspired surprises or truly enthralling moments to hold our interest.

And the slightest hint of a spark between Craig and Ford is regrettably not enough to keep the movie's hooves clip-clopping away. They both appear to be giving it a good go (Ford seems to be kinda sorta giving a shit, and Englishman Craig pulls off a rather decent American accent), but they, along with the rest of the talented cast, are let down by a script that's trying too hard to be crammed full of witty one-liners instead of, y'know, actually being good.

Sure, it's got an attention-grabbing concept, gorgeous cinematography by Matthew Libatique, and there are some cool moments scattered throughout its runtime, but "Cowboys and Aliens" still falls flat. I dunno, maybe it works better on the pages of a comic book than it does in a theatrically-released live-action format. 'Cause you've gotta admit it is a teeny bit silly.


Saturday, 6 August 2011

Super 8

"Super 8" is a beautifully written love letter to the early works of Steven Spielberg, the multi-talented movie magician who has dazzled us with his diverse filmmaking skills since the early 1970s. And the influence that Spielberg’s films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, most notably "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” have had on writer-director J.J. Abrams' new sci-fi thriller is undeniable; indeed, any viewer would have to be trying extra hard to not be reminded of these two classics while watching the film.

Abrams' adoration of Spielberg is frequently shown to be flowing through the veins of "Super 8," and one can only imagine his excitement when the man himself stepped aboard the project as a producer. What is it that makes the film such a love letter to the renowned filmmaker? You could say it's the style of the film. Firstly, it's a science fiction, the genre most commonly associated with Spielberg, and includes what we can assume is an alien being. Secondly, it contains a music score (composed by Michael Giacchino) very reminiscent of the work of John Williams, a long-time collaborator of Spielberg. Thirdly, it stars children in the leading roles, and these children are frequently seen riding their bikes, which may recall several images from “E.T.” (though they do not fly them or appear as a silhouette in front of a full moon).

But what really makes “Super 8” a love letter to Spielberg is its humanity. The characters feel real and human in a way that is rare in today’s cinematic world of big-budget cash-guzzlers. Interwoven throughout the mysterious narrative are authentic characters for whom we care, a common trope of Spielberg’s movies. Sure, it is a B-movie blockbuster, and a thrilling one at that, but there’s a humanity and a soul to it that causes it to soar, and soar high and far it triumphantly does.

The film focuses on a group of young aspiring filmmakers, all 13 more or less, in 1979 Ohio. Together, these small-town kids are making a very low-budget zombie movie which they intend to enter into a local film festival. The film’s director is Charles (Riley Griffiths), its two stars are Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Alice (Elle Fanning), its make-up artist is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), while Preston (Zach Mills) and Cary (Ryan Lee) help on the side.

While filming a scene at a train station, they all witness a pick-up truck racing down the tracks and driving right into the nose of an oncoming train, causing it to derail, thus creating an eye-pleasing massive trail of fiery destruction. Amongst the wreckage, Joe watches as the door to one of the train’s compartments is beaten open by something inside, though Joe doesn’t see what lurks inside the compartment, nor what leaps out of it. The kids then approach the bashed-and-bloodied driver of the truck (who miraculously survived), who warns them to tell no one about what they saw, or they and their parents shall all be killed.

They promptly flee when the US Air Force approaches the scene, and speak not a word of the events they witnessed. But the next day it’s all over the news, explained as nothing more than a freak derailment. And soon enough, strange things start to happen throughout the town of Lillian. Local dogs run away, people go missing, there are power outages, car engines are stolen, and the Air Force seems to be hiding something. Nobody knows what’s going on, or why, though they‘re quick to blame the Russians. But maybe the truth lies within the footage of the crash captured by Joe’s camera…

“Super 8” works excellently as a mystery film, its mystery being what the hell is going on in this little Ohio town and who (or what) the hell is causing all of these obscure occurrences. Abrams keeps these secrets under wraps for quite some time, teasing us with miniscule glimpses of what could be lurking about in the shadows of this rural town. Much like Spielberg did in “Jaws,“ Abrams tests the audience’s patience with the monster’s revelation, but its exposure is sweet.

But is it a monster? Is it an alien? What does it want? Where did it come from? What does it look like? Is it good? Is it evil? Just like our teenage protagonists, we’re a little confused and curious, fascinated by the thought of discovering the answers to these many, many questions. And these answers eventually arrive in a satisfying, explosive and mesmerising fashion that is most exhilarating to watch as they slowly but surely unravel themselves.

There’s also the mystery of the relationship between Joe’s distant father Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler, “King Kong”) and Alice’s alcoholic father Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard, “House of Sand and Fog”). We know Louis was somehow involved in the death of Joe’s mother four months ago, but we don’t know how. And why are Joe and Alice forbidden from being friends with each other? Why is the resentment shared between their fathers so strong? The plot of the strange local occurrences is of course more theatrically fascinating, but it’s the human element and human mystery that really makes the movie so spectacular.

The pleasures the film presents emit from both of these sources: the gripping, blood-pumping action and the tender, poignant, emotional side. Scenes such as the catastrophic train crash and the tense snatching of townsfolk get the heart racing. Scenes such as Joe walking in on his father crying in the bathroom and as Joe watches home videos of his late mother wrench the heart. These two opposites go hand-in-hand in “Super 8” to brilliant, powerful effect.

Abrams has discovered a fantastic cast of generally unknown child actors for the central roles, each of whom have their role to play in the story that stands aside from simply screaming and frantically running. Courtney is our lead, delivering an engaging performance as a boy who has just recently lost his mother and is then forced to cope with something much bigger than himself. Fanning is the love interest to Courtney’s Joe, with a semi-”Romeo and Juliet” romance going on between them, forbidden love and bonding and all that razzle dazzle. Griffiths is the aspiring director fitted with a determined vision for his in-production monster movie. Basso is the geeky, bespectacled amateur actor. Lee is a brace-faced oddball with an obsession for pyrotechnics. And Mills is the brainy background actor in Charles’ movie. They bring warmth to the film, supplying both poignancy and humour in equal measure, much like the cast of Richard Donner‘s “The Goonies” did back in 1985.

“Super 8” has a story that is wonderfully told, perfectly paced and endlessly intriguing. It is filmed elegantly, Larry Fong (“Sucker Punch”) securing his status as a splendid cinematographer. It is wonderfully acted by the humble cast. It is stimulating, nostalgic, passionate, breathtaking and indeed super. It is an excellent slice of mainstream movie-making, and one of 2011’s very best.


Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Smurfs

It was only yesterday that I watched and reviewed Studio Ghibli's beautiful "Arrietty," an animated fantasy family film revolving around pint-sized heroes as they come into contact with human beings. And now here's my review of another animated fantasy family film revolving around pint-sized heroes as they come into contact with human beings, only this one contains many scenes that take place in a live-action setting. Also, unlike "Arrietty," this one is absolutely, positively, Smurf-tastically dreadful.

"The Smurfs" is directed by Raja Gosnell, the man who previously subjected us to "Scooby-Doo," "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed" and "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." Judging by his latest choice of film to direct, this filmmaker appears to have no plans to further his movie-making career in any way, shape or form, instead lazily compiling yet another live-action/animation hybrid that mixes CGI-assisted chatterbox animals with real-life people; the result, predictably, is rather horrendous.

Much like he did with Hanna-Barbera's "Scooby-Doo," Gosnell is here taking a beloved kids' cartoon series and has callously twisted it into an integrity-free, dumb-as-a-stump blockbuster bereft of a heart, soul or any sign of brain activity. This time, playing the victim is Hanna-Barbera's '80s cartoon "The Smurfs," the series itself based on the Belgian comic book series of the same name.

We are shown that the Smurfs are a tiny, cute, blue-skinned species who live in a peaceful village in a bright and colourful magical land. They all wear white Phrygian caps, love to sing happy songs, are lead by Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), and there is a grand total of one female living amongst them: the golden-locked Smurfette (singer Katy Perry), who must live in constant fear of mating season.

The Smurfs have one shared enemy they all fear: Gargamel (Hank Azaria, "Run Fatboy Run"), a foul and wicked, human-sized wizard with a bulbous nose and a balding skull. He despises the Smurfs and their happy-go-lucky perspective on life, even more so than his ginger pussycat named Azrael. Gargamel yearns to extract the Smurfs' "essence," and to use their powers for his own evil, world-dominating advantages. Mwahaha!

And when Gargamel learns of the entrance to the Smurfs' village, the blue-shaded miniscule beings find themselves running away from the towering giant as he mercilessly destroys their mushroom houses. As they run, they jump into a waterfall in spite of several signs warning them not to do so, with Gargamel and Azrael tentatively following suit.

It turns out this waterfall is a vortex that, much to their surprise, transports the Smurfs to New York City, a live-action land where they encounter Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris, "Beastly"), a work-obsessed marketing VP. Patrick unwittingly takes them into his apartment, and soon enough ends up trying to help these irritating little buggers get back home to their village along with his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"). But a determined Gargamel is hot on their trail...

If there's one thing that's impressive about "The Smurfs," it's how many times it gets away with being incredibly foul-mouthed; it's astonishing the amount of times the word "Smurf," or any other pun, is used to imitate profanity in the film. Phrases such as "son of a Smurf" and "where the Smurf are we?" are included, as well as a moment where the sole Scottish Smurf points to his groin and calls it his "forbidden forest," which I suspect may be a euphemism for his pubic hair. These risqué puns are spoken so much that even Harris' character complains several times about the Smurfs' overuse of the word "Smurf"; how the hell does he think we feel?!

Just like "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield" and, most recently, "Yogi Bear," "The Smurfs" suffers from its seemingly deliberate stupidity and the level to which it has evidently been dumbed down. It feels like a disgrace and an injustice to the original source material, which I must admit I am not particularly familiar with. Even so, the film's idiocy felt wrong to me when I knew that the Saturday morning TV show was such a beloved classic. And is it really necessary to take these creatures out of their village and dump them in the middle of the Big Apple just for a culture clash? The village itself would have sufficed and possibly made for a much less detestable watch.

But no, NYC is the primary setting, allowing for a cluster-Smurf of product placement to flourish on-screen by way of Times Square advertisements and taxi-top billboards; it's all just an advert for Blu-Ray players, isn't it? The Smurfs and Gargamel get into all sorts of hair-raising shenanigans in the extravagant city, including a rampage through a toy store, a run-in with the law, a game of Rock Band, and a scene in which Gargamel turns a middle-aged woman into a beautiful young lady. And it's all very, very tedious.

There are three people who come out of this film still looking good. The first is Harris, who sustains his reputation for being an actor of much sarcastic charisma. The second is Mays, who is sweet and gentle throughout the film without coming across as grating and obnoxious. And the third is Azaria, whose goofy performance as the film's oafish villain is the most entertaining aspect of the film, Azaria spectacularly chewing scenery every time he jumps into frame. He also was the source of the one and only chuckle the film got out of my grumpy, unpleased self.

But alas, these decent acting performances cannot cloud the overwhelming awfulness that smothers this uninspired and nauseating 90-minute nightmare. Crammed full of excruciating puns and gag-inducing pop culture nudges, "The Smurfs" is a PowerPoint presentation on how not to make a kids' film, in the end amounting to a useless pile of Smurf.



Studio Ghibli has been functioning for over two and a half decades now, the studio having been compiled in 1985, its first film, “Castle in the Sky,” released the following year. It’s a Japanese film studio that specialises in hand-drawn animation, each of its productions wonderfully stylised in an anime and/or manga fashion (are they the same thing? I‘m not sure). This is the studio that charmed us with “My Neighbour Totoro,“ moved us to tears with “Grave of the Fireflies,“ wowed us with “Princess Mononoke” and flabbergasted us with the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.” With this unflinching reputation, it’s a wonder that the studio is not mentioned as a rival to Pixar Animation Studios more often; it is of note that Pixar has already stumbled with “Cars 2” this year.

But Studio Ghibli is most definitely not stumbling in the movie theatres in 2011. Their latest cinematic offering is the magnificent “Arrietty,” based on English author Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers.” You may remember another big-screen adaptation of the fantasy novel that hit cinemas in 1997, though that one was live-action and starred Jim Broadbent and John Goodman; Studio Ghibli’s version is quite an alteration.

The film follows a family of three little people, which I must point out does not mean that they are a trio of dwarfs. They are “borrowers,” i.e. tiny people that can fit in the palm your hand who supposedly “borrow” objects from us gigantic human beings. I’ve placed “borrow” in quotation marks because we never witness them actually giving any of these objects back where they belong.

They live in hiding from us, trying to stay out of our site as they sneak around our houses, pinching household items for their own personal uses (sugar cubes, pins, etc.). Mother Homily (voiced by Olivia Colman, “Hot Fuzz”) is especially petrified of us, her husband Pod (Mark Strong, “Green Lantern”) on the other hand much braver, while their 14-year-old daughter Arrietty (Saoirse Ronan, “Hanna”) is naively curious about us, though wary of our presence.

This 10cm family lives peacefully under the floorboards of a western Tokyo house in the middle of the woods, where 12-year-old boy Sho (stage actor Tom Holland) will be staying as he awaits heart surgery. Unfortunately, Sho almost immediately becomes aware of the little people’s existence, specifically Arrietty, who has just begun her borrowing lessons.

As a result of being discovered, Homily and Pod decide it’s time to pack up and find a new home elsewhere if they are to survive. But Arrietty unwittingly finds herself striking up a (platonic) relationship with this big friendly giant, in spite of her loving parents’ worst fears.

“Arrietty” is the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a long-time animator for Studio Ghibli. Keeping a watchful eye over the project and serving as a co-writer is renowned filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “Howl‘s Moving Castle“), one of the founders of the studio; his presence is very much felt throughout the film.

This is a film of elegant beauty, which is a result of both its visual allure and its confident charm. Right from its opening scene, “Arrietty” is an instantly captivating cinematic experience, fitted with the rare ability to hook audiences of all ages, or at least any film-goer with a sense of imagination still intact; I know it’s a cliché to say, but this is the kind of film that truly does unlock one’s inner child.

There’s a sense of wonder to the film, we as an audience taken into the teeny tiny world of the borrowers, of the little people who nab household items they believe we will not notice have gone missing. We watch with them as they watch the colossal humans towering over them. We experience along with our protagonist Arrietty the ways of the borrowers, she herself being taught by her caring father. We are fully immersed in their lives, intrigued and fixated in their every action.

As expected, it’s all exquisitely animated, all drawn by hands that sketch in the finer details that give the frame that extra oomph. There’s a richness to the colours, an exuberance to the style and an overwhelming charm and grace to the visuals that few computer-generated animations could ever capture; this, along with April’s “Winnie the Pooh,” makes me miss the old days of hand-drawn animation.

Because the film was originally recorded in Japanese, us Brits have been given an English dub, which I’m sure many will automatically scowl at (though the stubborn will be pleased to know there is a subtitled version as well). The English voice cast is all spectacular, including Geraldine “Miss Marple” McEwan as Sho’s maid Haru. As is with past Studio Ghibli films, the little subtleties in the vocals are what really make these characters come alive, and here these subtleties are in full force.

To put it simply, “Arrietty” is a beautiful, noble and absorbing piece of family-friendly animation that is something of a modern classic. Crafted with both children and adults in mind, it is a definite must-see for anyone who wishes to have an enriching and fulfilling time at their local multiplex. It’s safe to say that Studio Ghibli has yet another brilliant hit on its hands.