Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

It’s a testament to the talents of Aardman Animations that they can take something as lame-sounding as “An Adventure with Scientists,” a surely dull expedition, and turn it into such jolly good fun (perhaps it’s this lameness that caused the film to be renamed the more appealing title of “Band of Misfits” in the States). Do not be mistaken, though, dear reader: Aardman’s newly released fifth full-length feature film revolves not around the eggheads of the science lab, but around the scallywags of the seven seas: that’s pirates, to you and me, and there’s plenty on display.

We have all sorts of pirates in “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists,” most of whom are curiously identified merely by their physical attributes. We have The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman, “Nativity!”), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson, “The Guard”), The Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey, “Being Human”) and also The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen, “Ugly Betty”), whose beard, I have to say, looks a bit suspect.

Most importantly of all, though, we have the pirate captain of this fine crew, namely the Pirate Captain, as voiced with terrific skill by rom-com darling Hugh Grant (“Love Actually”). Knowingly smug and lovably foolish, and brandishing a luxuriously bushy beard, the Pirate Captain sails the high seas in search of booty (treasure, I mean; this is a kids’ movie, remember) with no such luck, instead hopelessly hijacking ships that turn out to be inhabited by ghosts, lepers, school children and nudists (he does find some booty on that one, mind).

This certainly isn’t going to help him win the upcoming Pirate of the Year award he so yearns for, an accolade that’s usually handed to egocentric American pirate Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven, “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World”). However, when the Pirate Captain and his trusty crew stumble upon the ship of noted scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant, “Fright Night”), an opportunity to finally snag the gong from Bellamy finally arises, which lands them in the hands of the pirate-loathing, viciously twisted Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) in merry old England.

Having explored the techniques of computer animation in 2006’s “Flushed Away” and last year’s ”Arthur Christmas,” “The Pirates!” sees Aardman going back to the stop-motion, claymated routes they last showed (rather gloriously) in 2005‘s “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." With seafaring ships, rope-swinging action and sword-clanging battles, it’s undoubtedly their most elaborate and epically scaled production so far, and, shiver me timbers, they’ve pulled the whole thing off with absolutely nothing to fault.

Meticulously designed and painstakingly animated over the course of four years, this is the kind of animated film you’ll be looking at with your jaw on the deck in goggle-eyed bemusement over how on earth they did all this with little more than a bit of patience and a handful of Plasticine - they’ve certainly come a long way since the time a cracker-gnawing Englishman went to the moon with his canine companion to get some cheese.

Based on the first two books in the “Pirates!” series by British author Gideon Defoe (who also serves as the film’s writer), the film is very much a comedy, and very much a funny one. As is typical of Aardman’s beloved style, each scene is replete with balls-to-the-walls slapstick, sprinkled with a notably British sense of humour and littered with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background gags, which shall surely prove rewarding come the irresistible repeat viewings. I suppose you could say that it’s got Aardman’s fingerprints all over it - literally.

But what really makes “Pirates!” work as well as it does is the unrelenting creativity that Defoe’s script provides time and time again. Clearly aware of how to please and amuse an audience of toddlers, teens, parents and grandparents all at the same time, Defoe writes with an invention and wit that calls to mind the works of Douglas Adams, all topped off with an inspired absurdity so brilliantly handled that scenes of a chimpanzee butler holding up illogically timely cue cards will pass by entirely unquestioned.

With director Peter Lord (“Chicken Run”) in tow and a sumptuous cast of supremely talented voice actors at hand, “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” is a barrel of laughs that’s as silly as a slapped fish and as refreshing as a swig of rum. At the very least, it’s certainly in much better shape than that increasingly pesky “Pirates of the Caribbean” nonsense; it looks like good ol’ Captain Jack’s got some fierce competition on his hands.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Silent House

There were several problems faced by Gustavo Hernández’s zero-budget Uruguayan horror flick “The Silent House,” which was never intended for English-speaking audiences but sparked enough interest in the festival circuit to gain a western release in April of last year. One problem was that its narrative, a deceptively simple one, lacked the all-important power to hook and engage the viewer, resulting in the film horribly sagging come the midway point as the increasingly repetitive images projected on-screen began to succumb to tiresome monotony.

Another was that, as a horror film, it was notably lacking in the scares department, much as it provided a few thunderous bumps and jolts to rouse you from your momentary, reoccurring slumbers. Chief among these problems, however, was the shocking twist ending, which, not to give anything away, completely undid all that came before and left many viewers, myself included, with that same feeling as when it turns out that all the high-stakes tension and tear-soaked emotion you just witnessed unfold was, phew, all just an inconsequential dream.

Now the film has a bigger budgeted US remake, which suffers from all of these same problems, just to a slightly lesser degree. Curiously renamed to simply “Silent House,” this near-identical redo is directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, whose 2003 horror hit “Open Water,” which saw a scuba-diving couple stranded in the middle of shark-infested waters, sent an unwelcome chill up many a viewer’s spine. Their work here is much less effective, but it’s at least admirably crafted and carried out with the same visceral rawness that awarded them a fair amount of success and attention almost ten years ago.

The film stars in its leading role up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen, whose breathtaking debut came last year in Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a different kind of horror film. In “Silent House,” Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who is helping her father (Adam Trese, “40 Days and 40 Nights”) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens, “As the World Turns”) refurbish their old family house that sits by a river in, gasp, the middle of nowhere.

Following a minor argument between the two brothers, Uncle Peter decides to take a drive into town, leaving Sarah and her father alone in the house together. It is then that Sarah begins hearing a whole assortment of creepy noises, from creaks and thuds to the blood-curdling sound of her father's scream. Soon enough, poor daddy is lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, and Sarah finds herself trapped inside the house on her lonely lonesome with a murderous intruder hot on her tail. But perhaps not all is as simple as it seems...

If you look at the poster for “Silent House,” you will see above Elizabeth Olsen’s shrieking expression the line, “Experience 88 minutes of real fear captured in real time.” This statement is true: “Silent House” does indeed develop in real time, with no flashbacks or flashforwards or any of the boring bits cut out from Sarah’s 88 minutes in and out of the house. The way this is achieved is interesting: you see, the filmmakers intend to give the impression that the film is shot in a single, unbroken take, in much the same way that the original film was, which is actually the primary reason for the attention it received.

However, much like the original, it quite clearly is not filmed in a single, unbroken take, the gimmick unfortunately spoiled in both films by a two-minute sequence arriving halfway through their runtimes in which the screen is entirely engulfed in pitch-black darkness, interrupted only by the occasional flashes of a polaroid camera. During these admittedly unnerving sequences, there could have very easily been a million cuts made, which completely undermines the central gimmick and leaves one wondering what on earth the point of it was.

I will say, though, that it does add a certain level of intensity to the production, we as an audience invited to experience the horrors of the story step-by-step along with our trembling, sniffle-nosed protagonist. It is also executed with much technical proficiency, our viewpoint starting off as an aerial shot, overlooking Rachel on the riverside, the camera then following her into the house, navigating its way through the various rooms of both floors, down to the basement, back outside again, then into a car, back inside the house, and back through the rooms. It’s all very impressive, although perhaps not as impressive as the camerawork of the original film; that one was, after all, filmed on a budget of $60,000, as opposed to the remake’s reported stash of $13 million.

Olsen gives a very effective central performance, a mercy, given that we are stuck by her side for the whole 88 minutes of the film. With the camera either in her face or even sitting on her shoulder for the overwhelming majority of the runtime, she performs with the same level of eye-popping skill she displayed in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” showcasing a wide range of emotions as a petrified girl running around a house in a blood-splattered tank top with a homicidal maniac ruthlessly pursuing her.

Still, Olsen’s majestic performance is not enough to save the film, which is marred by a laborious lack of narrative progression, and is little more than an overly extended shot of Miss Olsen tiptoeing her way through darkly lit rooms with her cleavage on display and a battery-powered lantern gripped between her fingers. I do believe it is superior to Hernández’s original film, thanks partly to some minor tweaking done to the earth-shattering bombshell that is the twist ending, but that still doesn’t mean it’s any good, nor any scary.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Hunger Games

In her bestselling 2008 young adult novel “The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins imagined a futuristic world in which a post-apocalyptic North America (now renamed “Panem") revels in the thrills of televised adolescent violence, in much the same way that our present society revels in the intimate, private dramas of “Big Brother” contestants. In his adaptation, director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit") has translated Collins’ spine-chilling vision to the big screen in a startling, vividly realised fashion that faultlessly balances both heart-racing action and deeply penetrating social satire, with stellar results.

The nation of Panem is fitted with a class system that ranges from “very rich” to “very poor,” with nothing in between. On the upper end of the spectrum sits the grandiose city of the Capitol, a lavishly designed metropolis inhabited by a candy-coloured populace whose lives are treated with limitless luxury and wads of wealth. On the other end lie the twelve powerless districts that surround the Capitol, the citizens of each district slavishly providing for the Capitol as they lead a life of miserable squalor and hopeless poverty, all observed closely and mercilessly by the Capitol’s ever-watchful eye.

The protagonist of “The Hunger Games” is Katniss Everdeen, who is played with expected skill and charm by the supremely talented Jennifer Lawrence (“X-Men: First Class”). At 16 years old, Katniss lives in the poverty-stricken District 12, illegally hunting animals outside of her district with a bow and arrow to fend for her mother (Paula Malcomson, “Sons of Anarchy") and younger sister, Prim (11-year-old Willow Shields). Her best buddy and hunting partner is the hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth, “The Last Song”), who, just like Katniss, lost his father in a tragic mining accident that occurred five years ago.

As is marked by the sudden arrival of a Capitol airship, the 74th Annual Hunger Games are imminent, sending a cold shiver up the spine of most of Panem’s districts. A result of a failed uprising against the Capitol some 70+ years ago, The Hunger Games are the Capitol’s idea of controlling and dominating the supposedly weaker districts; basically, every year the Capitol comes to collect one boy and one girl from each district and puts all 24 of them in a secluded arena together, where they are forced to savagely battle each other to the death until only a single winner is left standing, all of which is transmitted on live television for the Capitol’s sick, twisted amusement. Some districts consider this an honour and a privilege; most consider it utterly abhorrent.

With this being the first time her name is included in the lottery draw, young Prim is petrified that her name will be picked; Katniss assures her that she need not worry, as the chances of that happening are extremely slim. So, along with the rest of District 12, the two sisters head down to the ceremonial “Reaping” together and patiently await the choosing of District 12’s two representatives. First, it’s the girls. A name is randomly chosen, and is read out: it’s not Katniss. But it’s Prim. In a moment of shock horror, Katniss yells out that she volunteers as a tribute, thus replacing her sister as the female tribute of District 12.

Joining her in representing her home is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”), the son of a local baker, who once snuck a half-burnt loaf of bread out of the bakery for a starving Katniss to have and to eat. Katniss and Peeta are quickly sent off to the Capitol via a train along with the rest of the tributes, where they are waxed, groomed, paraded, interviewed and are trained in preparation for the upcoming games.

And then the games begin, and Katniss watches in horror as her fellow tributes’ animalistic sides are suddenly unleashed. Taking place in a vast, wooded landscape decorated with towering trees, the game and its locale are controlled almost entirely at the Capitol by the Gamemakers, who can do almost anything with the push of a button, from starting a rampaging forest fire to making blood-thirsty monsters rise up from the mud. Not wishing to murder anyone without good reason, Katniss makes sure to hide from the others, most of whom are quickly revealed to be barbaric and ruthless in their quest to win the competition. However, Katniss will soon be forced to face them, and face them alone.

Slapped with a PG-13/12A rating, “The Hunger Games” is notably lacking the blood-soaked savagery of its graphically violent source material. That does not mean to say, however, that the film is tonally bloodless; it does have a certain visceral ambience that compensates for a lack of on-screen blood, packing a hard-hitting punch whenever the story calls for it. This is largely thanks to the hand-held camerawork of Tom Stern, which inevitably recalls Oliver Wood’s work in the last two entries of the “Bourne” trilogy; much the same as it was in those two movies, the jittery visuals help to intensify the confused chaos of the action, though not to the point that we ourselves are confused; we are merely more involved in the emotions of the action and more tuned into the shocked mindset of Katniss as she witnesses the depraved, stomach-churning horrors of the games and what it does to her fellow contestants, and to herself.

Katniss is a compelling protagonist: as a tough, independent girl who can more than take care of herself, she is nonetheless still shocked by the brutality of the violence she witnesses when trapped inside the game. This is actually not much of a departure for Lawrence, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for her breakthrough role in Debra Granik’s 2010 indie drama “Winter’s Bone.” Her character there was much the same as Katniss, albeit armed with a Southern drawl and a colder attitude. Here, Lawrence performs Katniss with the same level of confidence and charm that bagged her that well-deserved Oscar nomination just two years ago, solidifying herself as one of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood today, if not the finest.

Supporting Lawrence is a fine cast indeed. Starring as Effie Trinket, the extravagantly grotesque escort for District 12, is an unrecognisable Elizabeth Banks (“Man on a Ledge”), who dons unsightly cosmetics and a dress presumably designed by a drunken Vivienne Westwood. As blue-barnetted Panem television host Caesar Flickerman is Stanley Tucci (“The Devil Wears Prada”), who gleefully gurns his way through televised interviews with each tribute in front of a live, fluorescently toned audience. 

Woody Harrelson (“Rampart”) plays Haymitch Abernathy, once a winner of the game and now a staggering drunkard, who skillfully guides both Katniss and Peeta through the lead-up to the games, helping both of them to win audience support. Wes Bentley (“American Beauty") plays the wackily bearded, callous executive of the game, while Donald Sutherland (“The Mechanic”) is the elderly president of Panem, who admittedly feels out of place with the story, much as Sutherland impresses. And finally, young Hutcherson is Katniss’ fellow District 12 representee, who serves as something of a love interest to Katniss, a tricky hurdle in a game where each contestant is to make sure that all other contestants are stone dead, love interest or not.

With Collins on board as a co-writer, Ross has smartly stuck closely to the phenomenally successful source material, while at the same time making sure his adaptation stands sturdily on its own two feet; as it turns out, “The Hunger Games” doesn’t just stand sturdily, but stands tall and mighty, towering above most action-packed, teen-oriented blockbusters of recent years. As such, it casts a long and dark shadow that will prove tricky for many upcoming blockbusters to overcome. With two more books in the trilogy left to be adapted (namely “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”), I must say that I’m thoroughly excited to see more out of what could possibly turn out to be the next “Twilight" saga (financially, I mean) or, dare I say it, the next “Harry Potter” franchise. You could say that I’m, well, hungry for more.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

21 Jump Street

You’ve gotta hand it to screenwriter Michael Bacall: he redeems himself pretty goddamn fast. Just two short weeks after the release of his last co-writing project, namely the earth-shatteringly dreadful found-footage party comedy “Project X,” Bacall has proven that his mouth-watering 2010 effort “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” wasn’t just a fluke, coming up with an absolute beauty of a film: police procedural action-comedy “21 Jump Street,” helmed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing duo who previously gave us the wonderfully wacky computer-animated hit “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” back in 2009.

You may or may not remember the late-‘80s TV show upon which the film is based; if you do, then you should know that it starred a pre-"Edward Scissorhands" Johnny Depp and helped launch his status as a teen idol sensation and eventually scored his name on the Hollywood A-list. You should also remember that the show was not a comedy, instead played wholly straight-faced by all involved. Well, Bacall has thought “screw that” and has spun the series’ dead serious tone into a furious fireball of screwball slapstick, foul-mouthed shenanigans and “odd couple” comedy, and, against all odds, it works like a charm.

The odd couple at the centre of the film are brainy misfit Morton Schmidt and dim-witted jock Greg Jenko, as played by a decreasingly plumpish Jonah Hill (“The Sitter”) and hunky potato-face Channing Tatum (“The Vow”), respectively. Both are partners in anti-crime, having helped each other get through police academy, only to find themselves casually patrolling the local park together on bell-ringing bicycles, far from the explosive mayhem they were hotly anticipating. However, after the pursuit of a gang of pot-smoking bikers goes horribly wrong, Schmidt and Jenko are reassigned, and given the chance to finally prove themselves.

They are handed an assignment by hot-tempered Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, playing the role of the “angry black guy”), who runs an undercover operation at 21 Jump Street. The mission is simple: they are to go undercover at a local high school, posing as brotherly students as they hunt for the dealers and suppliers of a deadly new drug named HFS (which stands, rather appropriately, for “holy fucking shit”), which is quickly spreading throughout the school and has already killed a student. They are given new identities: Schmidt is to be Brad and Jenko is to be Doug; however, they clumsily get their names mixed up when talking to the school principal and are thus handed each other’s courses, meaning hunky Jenko hangs out with the nerdy crowd and nerdy Schmidt with the cool crowd.

There are two running gags drawn out throughout the film, and done so rather well. The first is that Schmidt and Jenko are utterly dumbstruck by the ways of modern-day school life, such as the fashion change of wearing one rucksack strap to wearing both rucksack straps, the more positive attitude towards studying and learning, and the wide acceptance of openly homosexual students. The second is that they, as fully grown adults, look far too old to be hanging about in school corridors and sitting in classrooms filled with zit-plagued 17-year-olds; as is pointed out in one scene, Jenko looks like he hit puberty at seven years old.

The laughs in the film are fairly frequent, the comedy delivered thick and fast and with an unexpected intelligence. One particularly hilarious highlight is a scene in which Schmidt and Jenko are practically forced to take the deadly drug they’re hunting after, resulting in a hyperkinetic presentation of the drug’s side-effects; this ranges from being plagued by psychedelic hallucinations, to a sudden injection of misguided self-confidence, and also to an unhinged desire to cause chaos to one’s surroundings, all experienced and displayed by Schmidt and Jenko in the classrooms, corridors and running track of their new school.

Funny too is a high-octane car chase set-piece that comes half-way through the film and parodies Hollywood’s love of pyrotechnics, setting in place several set-ups for roadside explosions and paying them off with a deliberate, rather unexplosive anticlimax. The film is replete with adrenaline-pumping action, albeit shot with a loony, playful physicality that supplies many of the film’s rib-tickling laughs.

But it’s the inspired pairing of Hill and Tatum that really makes “21 Jump Street” the (very good) film that it is. An unlikely duo, they form a convincing, heartfelt and enormously engaging on-screen friendship in spite of their obvious polar opposition to one another, characteristically speaking. Recent Oscar-nominee Hill does his usual foul-mouthed fat-guy routine, and does it very well, but it’s Tatum, whose one and only previous comedic role came in a supporting performance in Ron Howard’s clunky dramedy “The Dilemma,” who genuinely impresses as the slow-witted goofball with a heart of gold. As it turns out, Tatum has tremendous comic talent, displaying a deadpan likability that almost made me forgive him for starring in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Almost.

What we have in “21 Jump Street” is a very modern, very cool and very funny take on the current state of high school-going, as seen through the eyes of two out-of-place post-adolescents. Armed with a talented cast, a wit-riddled script and a sky-high entertainment value, this action-packed, R-rated comedy is terrific fun that proves Channing Tatum is much more than a sexy plank of wood; he’s now a sexy and funny plank of wood, as well as a very charming one.


Saturday, 17 March 2012

We Bought a Zoo

Cameron Crowe’s new comedy-drama “We Bought a Zoo” tumbles into the dreaded pit of the “feel-good movie,” a bottomless abyss recently inhabited by such spirit-crushing tripe as Phyllida Lloyd’s all-singing, all-dancing, ABBA-themed karaoke party “Mamma Mia” and Michael Patrick King’s depressing anti-feminist feminist sequel “Sex and the City 2.” However, Crowe’s latest feature, his first since pitiful 2005 rom-com “Elizabethtown,” sinks not to such death-defying depths, instead rising closely to the heights reached in 2007 by Adam Shankman’s toe-tapping musical redo of John Waters’ cult comedy classic “Hairspray” and last year by James Bobin’s rib-tickling reboot of the “Muppets” franchise. As it was in both of those jubilant frown-fixers, “We Bought a Zoo” will leave you walking out of the theatre feeling elated, joyous and brandishing a wide, heartfelt smile; it is that rare instance of a feel-good movie that actually does what it says on the tin, and does it pretty damn well.

The film is based on a true story, and not in the way that “Fargo” or “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” were based on true stories; no no, the story upon which “We Bought a Zoo” is based is 100% genuine, and is rather wonderful. The story is as such: in August of 2006, adventure-hungry British journalist Benjamin Mee purchased the then-defunct Dartmoor Zoological Park, situated in Devon, England, and moved into a house within the site with his cancer-suffering wife and two young children. Set on returning the zoo to its glory days, Mee determinedly and painstakingly refurbished the place (which still had the animals intact) and, after his wife sadly died of a brain tumor, finally gave it a grand re-opening in 2007. A year later, he would publish a book recounting his experiences, entitled “We Bought a Zoo,” and thus we have the big-budget Hollywood version currently showing in a theatre near you.

Starring as Benjamin is Matt Damon (“The Adjustment Bureau”), whom you may or may not notice is not British. Well, you see, the Benjamin of the movie is American, Crowe having relocated Ben’s zoo over 5,000 miles west to sunny California and retitled it to “Rosemoor Wildlife Park.” He has also changed the details about the death of Benjamin’s wife; while in real life she died as the zoo was being refurbished, in the movie she dies six months before the zoo is even purchased. Essentially, the death of Benjamin’s wife serves as the drive of the story, with Benjamin introduced to us as a single parent of two who is in grieving but unwilling to show it. He wants a change in his life, to move away from the city he once shared with his late wife, and thus he bought a house in the country that turned out to be attached to, can you believe it, a zoo.

Benjamin has two children: 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford). Rosie, a sweet little cutie-pie, loves living in the zoo, her immediate adoration of its animals the main element that persuades her father to purchase the place. Mopey trouble-maker Dylan, on the other hand, hates living in the zoo and wishes desperately to go back to the city where his friends are. Saddened by the loss of his beloved mother, he spends most of his days drawing disturbing images in his notebook and ignoring his father’s attempts at fixing the disconnection they currently share.

The film has added many supporting characters into the mix. We have the lovely Scarlett Johansson (“Iron Man 2”) playing the tough and knowledgeable head zookeeper, Kelly Foster, who of course serves as something of a love interest to Benjamin. Rising star Elle Fanning (“Super 8”) plays Lily, Kelly’s 12-year-old cousin who helps around the zoo and almost immediately takes an interest in the sour-faced Dylan. J. B. Smoove (Leon from “Curb Your Enthusiasm") plays the enthusiastic estate agent who sells the Mee family the zoo on his first day on the job. Craggy-faced Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”) plays Duncan, Benjamin’s older brother who is sceptical of the whole “buying a zoo” operation, but goes along with it nonetheless. And in a semi-villainous role is John Michael Higgins (“Bad Teacher") as Walter Ferris, the slightly cartoonish zoo inspector with the power to shut the zoo down if he sees fit before it even opens.

“We Bought a Zoo” is pure Hollywood formula, but endearing performances and a whimsical, uplifting tone means it works like a charm. Damon, in particular, is stupendous, delivering a leading performance that is as heartfelt and instantly appealing as any other role he has played before. As a single father and as a grieving husband he is wholly convincing, not begging for sympathy but earning it; scenes in which his character’s underlying grief is exposed are genuinely heartbreaking and don’t feel forced, instead woven seamlessly into the narrative and the character’s journey.

The film is skillfully assembled by Crowe and his co-writer, Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), the two expertly blending both sugar-coated drama and lighthearted comedy into what is a fairly straight-forward story. As a drama, the film is highly effective, actually earning several points as an all-out tear-jerker, but in a happy, heartwarming way. As a comedy, it’s lacking in the laughs department, but makes up for this with a frequently amusing mood that’s sure to raise a smile or two from viewers young and old. In one scene, for example, Benjamin and Dylan are sitting in the car, stopped at traffic lights in a nearby town when they watch as a grizzly bear, one that has escaped from the zoo unnoticed, casually strolls across the street and begins sniffing the car window. This actually happened to the real-life Benjamin, only it wasn’t a bear, it was a 150lb jaguar.

An unashamed crowd-pleaser, the sweet and syrupy “We Bought a Zoo” is a rare thing: a family film that succeeds in appealing to the whole family; whether you’re a youngster, a teen, a parent or a grandparent, Cameron Crowe’s first venture into family-friendly filmmaking should charm, enliven and enthrall you, as well as slap a silly smile on your unsuspecting face. It may also give you the sudden urge to go visit your local zoo; I know of one zoo in England that will probably be pretty packed, though.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Project X

With a title like “Project X,” you could be forgiven for assuming that music video director Nima Nourizadeh’s feature film debut is a science-fiction film; there was, after all, a science-fiction comedy released in 1987 also called “Project X,” starring a fresh-faced Matthew Broderick alongside a trained chimpanzee named Willie. The “Project X” of 2012, however, is a non-sci-fi comedy and contains not a single primate in sight, although, given the quality of the film, it does feel like it was written by a few, each of whom are evidently less intelligent than good ol’ Willie.

This is surprising: “Project X” was co-written by Michael Bacall, the American screenwriter who two years ago gave us “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” That film was smart, funny, witty, creative, appealing and amusing, everything “Project X” is not, much as it tries to be. Perhaps Bacall simply had an off-day, maybe “Scott Pilgrim” was a fluke or maybe his heart just wasn’t in “Project X,” shifting his attention instead to his next project (not called “X”), the soon-to-be-released “21 Jump Street.” Either way, “Project X” is a deeply unpleasant nightmare of a film that should be avoided by anyone fitted with any sense of morality or human decency; if you have either of those, just know that “Project X” is flipping you the bird.

Best described as a party film, “Project X” is notably produced by Todd Phillips, the director who previously brought us parts one and two of comedy smash-hit “The Hangover,” both of which I enjoyed. Both had a “party hard and screw the consequences” attitude to them, a message that is smeared all over the screen of “Project X,” though this time even more gratuitously and even more repugnantly.

The central partiers of “Project X” are high school buddies Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown). Thomas, who is something of an inbetweener, is about to turn seventeen. Coincidentally, his parents are also about to celebrate their anniversary, and decide to go away for the weekend, leaving their suburban California home for their birthday boy to look after. His father sets him some rules: no more than five people are allowed in the house at one time, no one is to go anywhere near his office and, above all, no touching his precious Mercedes. You don’t have to be a genius to uncover the path along which the film’s shenanigans shall inevitably lead us.

With Thomas’ parents gone, Costa and J.B. hatch a plan to throw their pal a big birthday bash in his empty home. They spread the word around school and around the town, hoping for somewhere around fifty people to turn up. They plan for it to be big, but not too big. Next thing they know, word has inexplicably spread like wildfire, and over 1,500 people have invaded Thomas’ house, ready to part-ay like it’s 1999, or indeed 2012.

What follows is an hour-long music video interrupted on occasion by brief narrative interludes shared between our three furiously unlikable leads (Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse they most certainly are not). The music video aspect is interesting, not least because of Nourizadeh’s background in the business, but also because “Project X” is intended to be shot in the found-footage format, a la Josh Trank’s recent superhero drama “Chronicle.” The gimmick here abandons any semblance of believability almost immediately, with faceless and characterless cameraman Dax (Dax Flame) filming things he really ought not to be filming (I’m sure there’s a law against filming in a school changing room).

This is only worsened when the smoothly edited, slickly shot MTV-style montages start to kick in, featuring conveniently utilised slow-motion (to see bitches’ jugs jiggling gently against one another), endless money shots (the car going into the swimming pool, the family dog on a bouncy castle) and, very strangely, underwater filming (to see bitches’ panties and legs all wet 'n’ shit). I don’t mind found-footage gimmickry failing to convince, but “Project X” left me time and again asking myself the same, simple question: “what’s the point?”

The basic premise of the film, and what the marketing has severely strained, is that as the night goes on, the central party escalates further and further into unruly, uncontrollable chaos. And it certainly does: trees are set on fire, dad’s Mercedes is driven into the swimming pool, a drug dealer wields a home-made flamethrower and a testicle-punching dwarf is placed inside an oven. I apologise if I’m making all of this sound like fun; it very much is not, particularly because when squeezed between countless shots of teens drinking and laughing and dancing and puking and snogging and fucking and vandalising and downing drugs, it’s more than a bit monotonous.

“Project X” doesn’t have the brains, the heart or the unrelenting hilarity of its clear superiors, such as Greg Mottola’s “Superbad,” Paul Weitz’s “American Pie," or, dare I mention it, John Landis’ “Animal House.” It has no charm, it has no wit, it has no story and it has no characters. What it does have is a mouth in dire need of a wash, a brain in desperate need of a scan, a disturbingly perverse attitude towards women, a soundtrack of deafeningly loud dance anthems, and a midget trapped inside an oven.

“Project X” is a film that celebrates pointless, mindless anarchy, all presented without the slightest dash of irony or social commentary. Morally disgusting, it is a film that believes a man complaining about his young infant being unable to sleep due to an insanely excessive noise level is a massive asshole. It is a film that treats the female human being as an object of desire to be obtained and nothing more than a public display of tits, ass and pussy. It is a film that believes the most valuable thing in life is being popular, cool, wasted and widely accepted by one’s peers. Worst of all though, it is a film that firmly believes its audience are a bunch of brainless idiots who will simply sit there and accept all this crap - well, “Project X,” I may be an idiot, but I am not just going to sit there and I am not going to accept this crap.


Tuesday, 13 March 2012


“Contraband” takes us on a journey into the cutthroat world of smuggling, or more specifically drug smuggling and counterfeit money smuggling. Our protagonist, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg, “The Fighter”), is a smuggler, or at least he used to be; once the Jason Bourne of the smuggling business, he’s now a responsible family man setting up alarm systems in the Algiers neighbourhood of New Orleans. He has a loving wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale, “Underworld: Awakening”), and two young boys. His life is peaceful, quiet and clean; he’s gone straight, is content and isn’t looking back. This, as movie conventions tell us, is to be interrupted.

One night, Kate’s young and foolish brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones, “X-Men: First Class”), is smuggling several kilos of cocaine on a cargo ship when U.S. customs decide to throw the vessel a surprise party. Andy dumps the drugs over the side and thus later has to appear empty-handed in front of ruthless mobster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, “The Rum Diary”). Infuriated, Briggs demands that Andy pay him back the money he threw into the ocean; he makes his demands clear by putting Andy in a hospital bed.

Learning of the situation, Chris finds himself catapulted back in the smuggling business as he helps Andy pay back his debt of $700,000, to be delivered to Briggs within two weeks. If the debt is not paid, Chris and Andy’s family will be in serious danger. Deciding not to go down the drug route (he doesn’t like to handle the stuff), Chris instead goes for the more promising business of counterfeit money.

With the help of best bud Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster, “The Mechanic”), Chris quickly assembles a crack team and goes with them on a container ship to Panama City, where they are to collect $10 million in fake bills and take them back to New Orleans for Briggs to receive. Sounds simple. It ain’t. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, the sadistic Briggs is keeping a close eye on Chris’ wife and their two children, who are placed in even more danger when the operation in Panama City goes a tad awry.

During its first reel, I was enjoying “Contraband.” Its plot gripped me and pulled me along a fairly intriguing ride through the methods and dangers of the smuggling community (if such a thing exists). Its script provided a few vaguely interesting characters, one of which I found to be very interesting (I’ll get to him later). Its direction was slick yet gritty, an adequate match for the topic at hand. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it thrilling, but I was engaged in the story and curious about what route it would take, although common sense provided the predictable, and ultimately correct, answer.

Following this opening reel, however, “Contraband” stumbles, and stumbles violently. Once intriguing, the plot descends into cliché-ridden nonsense that soon becomes needlessly convoluted and increasingly predictable. Its characters are revealed to be threadbare in their construction, most simply cruising their way through the plot, bereft of any real sense of development. The grip of the story slackens, leaving us feeling uninvolved, uncaring and quite bored; if there’s anything a Mark Wahlberg thriller shouldn’t be, it’s boring, but “Contraband” achieves this.

Wahlberg sustains a stable status as a fine leading man, although his commitment to the role is fairly questionable; I think it’s a testament to Wahlberg’s Bostonian charm that he can sleepwalk his way through a leading role and come out the other side with his image entirely unscathed. There’s much to say about his character: Chris is the best of the best in the (illegal) line of work he once enjoyed but had to abandon for the sake of his family. As he lives in blue-collar bliss, free from his crime-ridden past, he is jolted back into that world with little warning. His family now placed in a position of danger, he must revisit the methods he once mastered, a chore which he finds himself almost enjoying. However, Chris is not the interesting character I was speaking of earlier.

That character is Briggs, the vicious villain who very nearly keeps the movie’s head above water. As played with scene-stealing, unhinged intensity by the versatile Ribisi, Briggs is a tattooed, bearded, beady-eyed brute bereft of any shred of human decency or a sense of humour. He is a loathsome ruffian, violently and pointlessly attacking Chris’ wife in her home in a number of effectively harrowing scenes. Like a wild wolf snarling and snapping away at a defenceless pup, he likes to apply his dominance over those around him; the casting of Ribisi is an inspired one, and one that comes close to saving the film. Close.

This is Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s first venture into mainstream American movie-making; as such, it’s a shame that “Contraband” is the formulaic and fruitless film that it is. Compared to Wahlberg’s past vehicles, it’s certainly not the mind-numbing clunker that was 2007‘s “Max Payne,” nor is it the satisfying and engaging 2003 remake of “The Italian Job;” what it is is “Shooter” with less shooting, more smuggling and the same amount of drabness.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

John Carter

Almost a full century after its publication in 1917 and following decades of über-successful cinematic byproducts (I’m looking at you, George Lucas), Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulpy science fiction adventure novel “A Princess of Mars” has finally blasted its way onto the silver screen with a passionate, tremendously talented director in tow and the significantly less enticing title of “John Carter,” apparently altered by Walt Disney Studios for marketing purposes.

The director is Pixar extraordinaire Andrew Stanton, director of “A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” This is Stanton’s first venture into live-action territory, and, with such an enormity of fan-fueled anticipation surrounding the long-awaited project, what an ambitious venture it is; more often than not in “John Carter,” Stanton pulls it off with ease and flair, although not quite as much as Pixar partner Brad Bird did last year with his splendidly exhilarating live-action debut, “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.”

Starring in the titular role of “John Carter" is Taylor Kitsch, a Canadian actor and ex-model whom superhero nerds may recognise as the card-wielding mutant Gambit from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” At 30 years of age, Kitsch has all the makings of a classic action hero: he has the muscles, the charm, the personality and the facial hair. He gives a central performance here that is engaging and entertaining, holding his own against the otherworldly backdrop, fantastical CGI creatures and epic scenes of spear-chucking, blood-spilling, rhino-riding battles.

In the year 1866, John Carter is a trouble-stirring Civil War veteran on the search for gold in Monument Valley. When he happens upon a single piece of the precious metal outside a desolate cave covered in strange markings, he goes to investigate the area, only to find himself magically transported to a location he does not recognise, and for good reason. As he soon finds out, John has somehow travelled roughly 225 million km onto the surface of the planet Mars, or “Barsoom,” as the locals like to call it.

Yes, Mars/Barsoom has locals, some of whom are the friendly type, most of whom are not. These locals are split into two groups: we have the generally civilised Red Martians, who look just like us Earthlings, only with blue blood running through their veins, and we have the native Green Martians, or “Tharks,” who are Shrek-coloured humanoids with six limbs, a pair of tusks and bloodthirsty, merciless tendencies. There is one Thark who seems to have some semblance of compassion inside him, however: this is Tars Tarkas, as voiced by Willem Dafoe and also physically performed by Dafoe through the wonders of motion capture.

It is Tars Tarkas who first spots John as he clumsily stumbles about and glides through the air (Mars’ low gravity takes some getting used to). Impressed by this Earthling's strange ability to leap hundreds of feet into the Martian sky, Tars takes an understandably bemused John back to the Tharkan tribe with him. It is there that John soon discovers that the two cities of the Red Martians (Zodanga and, err, Helium) are at war with each other, one lead by goody goody Princess Dejah Thoris (an unexpectedly brilliant Lynn Collins, “The Merchant of Venice”) and the other by baddy badguy Prince Sab Than (Dominic West, “The Awakening”). You remembering these names? ‘Cos I didn’t.

Of course, being the hero of the film, John soon finds himself in the middle of this war, which Prince Sab Than offers to end if Princess Dejah Thoris accepts his hand in marriage. Mortified, the Princess storms off and ends up tagging alongside John, who makes it his aim to stop the evil Prince from destroying Barsoom/Mars before getting his non-Martian ass back home to Earth.

Armed with a reported budget of $250 million, Andrew Stanton has brought Burroughs' vision of Mars to the big screen in glorious and gorgeous fashion. The red planet of “John Carter” is a handsomely shot and entirely convincing creation that makes clear just where Stanton spent all of Disney’s money. It’s a shame, then, that it’s undermined by a shabby and pointless 3-D post-conversion job that doesn’t immerse us in the world of Barsoom so much as flatten it - I’d thoroughly recommend the non-dim, non-distracting, non-overpriced 2-D version over the 3-D hack-job that’s been lazily stapled on top of the film.

The creatures of Barsoom are wonderfully realised creations too, and I’m not just talking about the four-armed, green-skinned, Martian equivalent to the Na’vi of James Cameron‘s “Avatar.” In addition to the Tharks (which are beautifully rendered and performed), we have white apes, which are towering, sharp-toothed monsters, two of which John is forced to battle while chained to a boulder in one heart-racing scene. There’s also Woola, a bloated, six-legged dog-like creature that, despite its tired and lumbering demeanour, can kill at the beat of a heart and run at what appears to be the speed of light; remaining forever loyal to John, Woola steals every scene he appears in, the number of which is unfortunately not high enough.

“John Carter” is a film made with much passion, and that’s more than I can say for most big-budget 3-D blockbusters released in multiplexes today. This passion comes mostly from Stanton, whose adoration of Burroughs' work is bursting through the seams of almost every frame of the film. He remains completely true to the source material and keeps its pulpy spirit wholly intact, but this does come at a price: you see, Burroughs' work is almost 100 years old and has been copied several times over by Hollywood before, for example in films like “Star Wars” or most recently “Avatar;” as such, there‘s very little about “John Carter” that feels new or fresh in the world of cinema, although it certainly could have been ground-breaking had the project not become trapped in the rut of development hell for over 80 years.

So, was it worth the 80-year wait since Disney first took a stab (and failed) at adapting “A Princess of Mars” onto the big screen all the way back in 1931? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that it’s a perfectly adequate summer blockbuster that provides plenty of sci-fi thrills and rip-roaring action to appease and entertain a mainstream movie-going audience. And no, in that it is an old-fashioned fantasy story that is slightly marred by dodgy storytelling that renders the plot a messy muddle that will confuse and perplex most viewers unfamiliar with the source material. Taking it all into account, “John Carter” maybe wasn’t worth such a stretched-out wait, but it will please Burroughs' fans to know that his century-old vision of Mars has finally been brought to the big screen in such an epic and loving fashion. Others may find themselves bewildered by it all, but having fun nonetheless.


Friday, 2 March 2012

One for the Money

More of a bad script-picker than a bad actress, Katherine Heigl has certainly plummeted in public opinion since her shining performance alongside chuckling funnyman Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow’s phenomenal 2007 romantic comedy “Knocked Up.” In the five years following the film’s release, Heigl has taken on leading roles in such cinematic turds as “27 Dresses,” “The Ugly Truth,” “Killers,” “Life as We Know It” and “New Year’s Eve.” Her latest dud is “One for the Money,” which doesn’t provide a U-turn for Heigl’s career or the public’s perception of her so much as a long, one-way road to the dark and dingy abyss that is the Hollywood Z-list; say hi to Cuba Gooding, Jr. for me, will you, Katherine?

Based on the first in the bestselling “Stephanie Plum” series of novels by Janet Evanovich, “One for the Money” is sort of a comedy, sort of a romance, sort of a mystery and sort of an action flick. Well, I say action, but the film contains only one explosion, just a few sparse gunshots and a couple of improper uses of a pair of handcuffs. The film is directed by Julie Anne Robinson, who made her filmmaking debut in 2010 with Miley Cyrus romance “The Last Song,” an adaptation of Nicholas Spark’s novel of the same name; shockingly, this is actually a step down in Robinson’s career, and makes “The Last Song” look like “The Notebook.”

Starring as spunky heroine Stephanie Plum is Miss Heigl, who is now sporting brown curls instead of her trademark blonde locks, as well as a slightly dodgy Jersey accent which I assume she picked up after watching MTV for a bit too long. A resident of the city of Newark, New Jersey, Miss Plum is short on money and high in debt after being fired from a Macy’s store six months ago for a reason that goes entirely unexplained. Out of sheer desperation, she goes to visit Vinnie’s Bail Bonds, owned by her cousin Vinnie (I assume that’s a joke), to ask for work.

And voila, she’s suddenly a bounty hunter in hot pursuit of Joe Morelli (Jason O’Mara, “Resident Evil: Extinction”), an ex-cop, wanted murderer and coincidentally an old flame of Stephanie. Meanwhile, Stephanie is being trained by a fellow bounty hunter, the very hunky Ranger (Daniel Sunjata, “Gone”), who shows off his skills on the job by shooting a paper silhouette square in the head again and again during target practice; it’s a pity the paper silhouette wasn’t Katherine Heigl (I jest, I jest).

There are many things wrong with “One for the Money,” and I honestly don’t think Heigl is one of them; perhaps she was miscast for the character (she may have cast herself, as she is the film’s executive producer), but she does fine with what she’s given and seems to be having fun, unlike us. What is wrong with the film, for starters, is the highly obnoxious jazzy soundtrack that lingers in the background of every scene, informing us of how funny (a rarity), sexy (an occasion) or thrilling (a non-entity) any given situation is. There’s also the problem that the supposedly intriguing investigation at the centre of the film appears to have stumbled out of a second-rate episode of “Monk,” resulting in the film feeling wholly uncinematic and dreadfully boring.

Even worse is the way this investigation is handled by the script, written by Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray and Liz Brixius, all first-time screenwriters (I knew that even before I googled them). While their script isn’t entirely witless (I suspect many of the zingy one-liners originated from the book), it is thoroughly incompetent in the development and general structure of a plot, is entirely vacant of any sense of character (Jersey stereotypes aside), and is so clumsy at developing the central investigation that its progression is rendered an incoherent, incomprehensible and impenetrable muddle of colourful characters and confusing motivations.

Tonally, it’s all over the shop, Robinson unable to decide whether she’s making a breezy rom-com or an action-packed mystery thriller. The result is a film that goes from lighthearted, aggressively unfunny comedy to passionless, groan-worthy romance, and on occasion to sloppily directed, snooze-inducing action that is completely out of place with everything else in the film. It’s basically “The Bounty Hunter” without the cinematic feel or the star power of Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler to keep its head above water; as a result, it drowns, and drowns slowly.

“One for the Money” has all the elements of a made-for-TV production (cheesy opening titles included), except for the inexplicable fact that it has been released in a multiplex near you. It is cheap, drab and utterly tedious, cruising along on an uninteresting plot that has been handled with the care and attention of a monkey at a typewriter; actually, make that three monkeys. With another 17 bestselling novels in the series so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lionsgate is prepping for a “Stephanie Plum” blockbuster franchise; I can assure them that as long as I still have a breath inside my lungs and blood running through my veins that is not going to happen.