Thursday, 31 May 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

“Mirror mirror on the wall,” commands the villainous Queen Ravenna, as played - or rather performed - by South African Oscar-winner Charlize Theron in fantasy action picture “Snow White and the Huntsman.” “Who is fairest of them all?” she questions her magic mirror with sturdy self-assurance. But, much to the evil queen’s tumultuous horror, the inevitable answer we all know she shall receive is not her majestic majesty but of course the sweet and innocent Snow White, here played by “Twilight” mega-star Kristen Stewart, who’s not sweet and innocent so much as moody and lip-chewing - how the 22-year-old’s bottom lip is still intact is anyone’s guess.

But if we’re talking movies, or more specifically this brand-spanking Brothers Grimm reworking and fellow 2012 Snow White outing “Mirror Mirror,” a lighthearted fairytale dud starring Lily Collins and Julia Roberts, then the sweet and innocent out of the pair has but a Snow White’s chance in Hell of winning the “fairest of them all” contest, at least when pitted against the grand blockbuster spectacle of its brooding, brutal competitor. Indeed, Charlize Theron would probably lop off Julia Roberts’ pretty little head with a sharpened axe if given the chance. Let’s hope she isn’t.

You know the story. Snow White is a princess with lips as red as blood, skin as white as snow and hair as black as a raven’s wing. Her mother (Liberty Ross, “W.E."), the queen of a mythical English kingdom, succumbs to an illness while Snow is still a young girl. Snow’s grief-stricken, widowed father (Noah Huntley, “Holby City”), King Mangus, soon takes on a new bride: the alluring Ravenna, a seemingly helpless captive whom he rescues from the clutches of a suspiciously defeatable army apparently made of shattering glass. I wonder if it’s a trick.

On the night of their wedding, Ravenna plunges a dagger deep into poor hubby’s heart and is made the sole ruler of all the land upon his murder. She has little Snow imprisoned in the North Tower, and adorns one wall of the kingdom with something very special: a magic mirror, one made of a richly gold liquid metal that leaks down from its solid surface and rises up to form a cloaked figure whose arms are forever crossed. This mirror (if you can even call it that) is a marvellous sight, created through computer effects and speaking in the booming voice of Christopher Obi Ogugua.

Ravenna asks the mirror that all-important question, and the answer is she, much to her delight. But years later, when Ravenna’s reign has truly taken its toll on the now-barren land and its once-flourishing prosperity, the question is asked again and the answer is not she anymore: it is her stepdaughter, who has just come of age and who is still kept hidden under lock and key. Ravenna is informed that if she were to consume Snow’s heart, she would become immortal. Ravenna quivers in sadistic glee at the mere prospect. But Snow promptly escapes her chambers and Ravenna’s grasp, and flees to the Dark Forest, where untold evils lie in waiting.

The Dark Forest is a nightmarish, insidious place. It is a place of creepy-crawlies and gruesome monsters, of inescapable quicksand and treacherous hallucinations. Rotting tree branches reach out and snatch at what few visitors they receive like something out of “The Evil Dead,” the trees themselves adorned with slithering snakes and fire-breathing dragons. Crossing a bridge risks - nay, instigates - an attack from a towering troll that snarls and thrashes, wallops and wails. I like this place: it’s sizzlingly sinister and delightfully dark, and brought to glorious, decadent life by a lavish production design.

Increasingly desperate to claim Snow’s heart, the Queen sends the nameless Huntsman (narrator Chris Hemsworth, attempting a Scottish brogue that leaps whole continents), a beer-guzzling oaf, into the forest to pursue her, capture her and bring her back to the kingdom. She speaks not of her true intentions with Snow to the burly brute. The Huntsman enters the forest and discovers Snow cowering in a bush, but is beguiled and enchanted by her irresistible beauty, or something. She tells him of the queen’s wicked ways, and the Huntsman swaps sides, joining Snow on her quest to finally put an end to her evil stepmother’s tyrannical reign.

On their journey, they stumble upon eight - not seven - dwarfs, who join Snow too. These are played by Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Brian Gleeson, Johnny Harris, Eddie Marsan and Nick Frost. You may be aware of the fact that none of these men are particularly limited in stature, or at least not to the point that they could convincingly play a dwarf: as such, they are given the Hobbit treatment, digitally shrunk down to a miniscule size by CGI that is very effective and mercifully convincing. With a peculiar fashion sense and gruff cockney twangs, the dwarfs essentially act as the film’s comic relief, and their performers play it well: I enjoyed their company.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” is directed by Rupert Sanders, a former maker of commercials. This is Sanders’ filmmaking debut, and he demonstrates a fine talent for creating a spectacle: the film is brimming with pleasant-looking action set-pieces and brilliantly rendered, frequently utilised special effects. It’s certainly an attractive film, featuring an abundance of sweeping landscapes and medieval battles. However, Sanders struggles to grant “Snow White and the Huntsman” its own personal identity: the film flaunts ambitions to be both a dark fairytale fantasy and a gritty “Lord of the Rings”-esque epic, but Sanders never quite commits to one. The film is sort of both, but the two don’t really fit together.

The film marks Charlize Theron’s first stab at playing the villain; some would argue she previously did that in 2003’s “Monster,” but I would say that Aileen Wuornos was merely the anti-heroine of that film. As the obsessively vain and cruelly manipulative Queen Ravenna, Theron is a force of nature, sometimes literally: with just a flick of her black-feathered cloak she instantly transforms into a swirling flock of squawking ravens. Theron displays a cold-hearted menace: sometimes it is quiet, her steely-eyed glare piercing through the screen. Sometimes it is loud, Theron shrieking like the madwoman that Ravenna unquestionably is, and greeting virginal maidens with a youth-devouring Dementor’s kiss. Ravenna is a magnificent antagonist, and we love to loath her.

Stewart’s Snow White, a far cry from the glowing radiance Lily Collins displayed in “Mirror Mirror,” is a disappointingly bloodless incarnation of the character. Here, Snow is a glum, sullen figure whose personality struggles to engage the viewer, Stewart taking few steps from her increasingly defining performance as Bella Swan in the “Twilight” saga - the only discernible difference between the two is the posh English accent she tussles with as Snow. It’s only after the limp midsection of the film and towards the action-soaked climax, as the character is revealed to possess supernatural, almost Christ-like qualities, that she finally registers as our protagonist and heroine, delivering a rousing speech worthy of Henry V before gallantly going into battle alongside the heroic Huntsman and a roaring band of rebel soldiers. It’s a stirring finale, and one with a satisfying face-off.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” is a triumph of production design and special effects, much like Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (with which Sanders’ film shares producer Joe Roth). But much unlike “Alice in Wonderland,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” managed to woo me and win me over with its luxurious visuals, Middle-earth-ian fantasy world, brilliantly blackhearted bitch of a villainess and comical caboodle of cockney dwarfs. Perhaps a more experienced director than Sanders could have come in handy and really pulled the story together, but as it stands, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a Brothers Grimm tale that’s more than fair.


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Pact

“The Pact” is a horror film in which the disquieting night-time shock of a mysterious, humanoid figure shadowed against a bedroom dresser feels curiously out of place, yet an unflattering shot of the female protagonist sliding down her knickers and jeans and plopping her bare backside down on a toilet seat feels right at home. Ostensibly a no-holds-barred scare-em-up picture in the mould of “Insidious" (as the misleading trailer would have you believe), writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s debut feature is in fact a glum-faced mumblecore drama crossed with a murder mystery thriller with suspense-riddled scenes of spine-tingling spookhouse scares sprinkled on top. It’s a peculiar mix, but one that ultimately makes for surprisingly satisfying and frequently hair-raising viewing, human waste disposal and all.

The film opens with the events leading up to the disappearance of Nicole (Agnes Bruckner, “Blood and Chocolate”), a single mother and recovered drug addict. It is Christmastime, and Nicole has returned to her family home in the California suburbs following the death of her estranged, abusive mother. She is on her own. While talking to her young daughter on what I believe to be Skype, Nicole’s attention is drawn to a closet that stands opposite the living room. Its door is ajar, revealing only darkness inside. She places her laptop down, approaches the closet, nudges the door open and enters the darkness. Suffice to say, she is never seen again.

The following morning, Nicole’s tough-nut younger sister, Annie (Caity Lotz, “Death Valley”), arrives on a motorbike (she’s tough, I tell you) to find an empty home. But she’s not surprised: silly big sis is most likely on another one of her benders, and failed to inform Annie, as usual. She’ll probably turn up soon, right? She always does. Mother’s funeral passes, and Nicole is yet to reappear. The sisters’ cousin, the sensible Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins, “Episodes”), comes to stay for the night, and she promptly disappears too.

It is with this that Annie suspects there might be an uninvited, unearthly presence stalking her childhood home. Well, that and the fact that she is violently dragged towards that almightily ominous closet by an invisible force during the night (a la the supernatural leg-grabbing and floor-dragging of “Paranormal Activity” and “Paranormal Activity 2”). She escapes its unseen grasp, flees, and runs out of the house, weeping and screaming in unbridled terror. She swears to never enter the abode again. But, surprise surprise, she breaks this oath, several times.

Two more players are added to this equation. One is Creek (Casper Van Dien, “Starship Troopers”), a local cop who is skeptical but reasonable. The other, more intriguing one is Stevie (Haley Hudson, “Look”), a scrawny, pale-faced, sunken-eyed, softly spoken psychic and old high school pal of Annie whose powers are evidently very real, and very strong. Hudson is a striking presence, and not necessarily for her startling physical appearance or voice, but for her uncanny ability to attract the viewer’s eyes, ears and attention - hers is a scene-stealing performance. Truly, she is the Zelda Rubinstein of “The Pact.”

But Hudson doesn’t steal the movie, for that belongs to Lotz. Our endangered heroine, she guides us through this haunted house story, and does so commandingly. As Annie, Lotz plays an independent gal attempting to suppress long-buried rage as she re-enters the home in which she lived - or endured - for 16 years. As she finds out, there’s much more left to endure. Like rising star Elizabeth Olsen in the underwhelming horror remake “Silent House,” Lotz spends much of the film clad in a revealing tank top, tiptoeing her way across shadowy rooms and disconcertingly quiet hallways with what can only be described as an expression of fearful curiosity - her curiosities certainly don’t go unquenched for very long.

Re-exploring and expanding upon a short film he premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival, McCarthy shoots the low-budgeted, low-key “The Pact” with an indie sensibility: this of course means handheld camerawork, a muted colour palette and restrained use of a backing soundtrack. An unanticipated mumblecore aesthetic is the result, which initially clashes with the counteracting horror elements once they start to creep in (think a non-comedic “Cyrus” with flickering lights and self-opening fridge doors). To begin with, this is a problem.

However, a compromise is soon reached: the bump-in-the-night moments are awarded a visceral edge by the naturalism of the mumblecore method, and the gloominess of the mumblecore method gives way to a bleak and haunting atmosphere. The scares themselves, they range from the clichéd to the inspired: the sudden inexplicable falling of a crucifix from the bedroom wall is clichéd; one inventive use of Google Maps, or more specifically Google Street View, is inspired, making good use of that strange blurring effect you get when an object hasn’t quite been captured right by the Street View camera.

“The Pact” leads the viewer down a route I was not expecting to go down, and I liked that: far too often do films of the horror genre follow a path that one can foresee far too soon. I also liked how gripping it is, and how intriguing its story manages to be, in spite of a notable lack of originality. An effective chiller, it’s a creepy and unsettling experience, and occasionally quite a scary one, though perhaps not to the same extent that, say, the “Paranormal Activity” films succeeded in being; they beat “The Pact” to the punch on the invisible leg-grabbing front.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

Men in Black III

Not since Marty McFly sent streaks of fire hurtling through the streets of 1955 Hill Valley has a method of time travel been so exciting. In “Men in Black III,” alien-hunting MiB Agent J (Will Smith, of course) time jumps: he climbs to the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, steps out to the edge of a stainless-steel eagle head, pops on a pair of goggles and takes a leap of faith. Like Doc Brown’s trusty DeLorean, the time-travelling gizmo clenched between Agent J’s fingers must reach a certain velocity if it is to activate, which Agent J achieves just two feet from the New York City sidewalk. It is of note that all of this occurs against the spectacular backdrop of a full-scale alien invasion.

This is one of several thrilling sequences in Barry Sonnenfeld’s mixed bag of a sci-fi comedy threequel, which lands 15 years after its dazzling original and a full decade after its dire predecessor. Another thrilling sequence is the opening, which sees butt-ugly alien prisoner Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords" fame) effortlessly escaping from the maximum-security Lunar Max prison facility on the Moon. The last of the Boglodite species, the one-armed Boris is dead-set on wiping out Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, “No Country for Old Men”), the man who years ago robbed him of his freedom and of his aforementioned appendage.

But Boris won’t be wiping out Agent K in the traditional sense - he will be using time travel to go back to 1969, where he will kill him before he manages to disfigure Boris and send him off to space jail. This plan reveals itself to Agent J when he wakes up one morning to find himself in a world in which his partner no longer exists. In this reality, Agent K was murdered 40 years ago by - you guessed it - Boris the Animal, whose no-longer-extinct species is about to invade the planet.

So, Agent J leaps off the Chrysler Building and lands in 1969, where flower-power hippies, hairy bikers and casual racism run rampant. He meets the young Agent K, who is played by Jones’ “No Country for Old Men” co-star Josh Brolin. I must say, I was left flabbergasted by Brolin’s performance: he nails the voice, the mannerisms and the facial expressions of Jones to such a vast degree that the fact we’re not simply watching Jones splattered in make-up and prosthetics to make him appear younger (a la creepy-looking Patrick Stewart in “X-Men: The Last Stand") is truly stunning, nay unbelievable.

But it is indeed Brolin, whose chemistry with Smith is an almost spot-on recreation of the one gloriously sparked between Smith and Jones in the original “Men in Black” all the way back in 1997. The only difference now is that there is no longer a significant age gap between the two: in the film’s two predecessors, Agent K was an old and wise veteran of MiB, while Agent J was a young and foolish rookie. In “Men in Black III” they’re contemporaries, and I think I missed that generational divide - it added something to their pairing.

Together, Agents J and K attempt to stop young Boris (who is now aided by time-travelling, vengeful older Boris) from locating and destroying the ArcNet shield, which, when activated, will prevent the Boglodites from being able to invade Earth. This culminates in an action-packed climax set at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo 11 lunar rocket launch. With all the binoculars and TV cameras pointing at the momentous event, it’s anyone’s guess as to how none of this is spotted by any bystanders or news reporters.

It’s also anyone’s guess as to how “Men in Black III” works as well as it does (i.e. pretty well) when all odds seemed to be against it: not just the belated second sequel in an essentially dead franchise, its development was reportedly murder, with filming beginning before the script was anywhere near the finishing line and the whole production completely shut down midway to untie the narrative knots created by the time-travel plot. It’s a revelation that these towering road bumps aren’t particularly apparent in the film itself, which is structurally fine, easy to comprehend and narratively pleasing - that’s a lot more than I can say for “The Wolf Man” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” both of which went through similar problems and, surprise surprise, turned out to be utter rubbish.

Originally pitched by Smith on the set of “Men in Black II," the film is essentially 10 years in the making, which is perhaps too long a wait for what we have ultimately been given. But it is fun, and Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”) have fun with the characters they create, many of which are ingeniously designed by the legendary Rick Baker. Most notably there is Boris, a sufficient antagonist, although perhaps not a deeply layered or fully menacing one. As the hideous, brutish alien, Clement unashamedly chews scenery, a feat made physically possible by the character’s jagged fangs.

We also have Agent O (Emma Thompson, “Nanny McPhee”) and Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg, “A Serious Man”). Agent O, whose hair is a wonder, is Z’s replacement (Zed’s dead, baby) as head of MiB, and something of an old flame of Agent K; the magnificent Thompson is sadly underused. And Griffin, whose woolly cap covers an empty skull with a glowing blue orb floating inside, is an alien with the gift to simultaneously see several different versions of the near future, though he’s rarely certain of which will come true; a wide-eyed Stuhlbarg plays the character a tad too creepily, but remains fascinating throughout.

Where “Men in Black III” rightfully shows off its sharp suit and uber-cool weaponry is in the relationship between Agents J and K, even with two different performers filling the latter’s shiny black shoes. An inspired pairing in the first film, they’re awarded an unexpectedly compelling sweetness here, with J’s undying dedication to his partner and recruiter displayed in full force throughout and played convincingly and enchantingly by the ever-charming Smith (his first role since 2008’s “Seven Pounds”). And Brolin and Jones, with their sour-faced, deadpan delivery, make Agent K once again the perfectly imperfect match with Smith’s wise-cracking, smooth-talking Agent J, as ever forming an unlikely bromance to be reckoned with. To top it off, there’s a genuinely touching moment shared between the two arriving during the film’s climax that I’m not ashamed to admit very nearly made me shed a tear (that would have thankfully been hidden underneath my otherwise useless 3D glasses).

While “Men in Black II" made us all beg for the invention of a memory-erasing Neuralyzer, “Men in Black III" at least mercifully helps to sooth the pain as we patiently await its creation. As one would expect, the film showcases nifty special effects and fabulous creature designs, but also an enthralling central relationship shared between two mismatched guys in sharp suits blasting aliens to bits with high-tech ray guns, for the third time. Hampered by a disappointing lack of laughs and an insufferable earache of a theme song (performed not by Smith, but by Latin rapper Pitbull), "MiB III" is not out of this world, but I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated - suddenly “Men in Black IV” doesn’t seem such a bad idea.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I much prefer the title “Get the Gringo” to “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” and I don’t believe I’m alone in my personal preference. The former title, attached to the American release of Adrian Grunberg’s blackly comic action picture, is snappy, punchy and difficult to forget, topped with a touch of casual racism - it’s not unlike the film itself. The latter title is a different story: it’s needlessly generic, depressingly uninspired and sounds like something handed into the teacher at the beginning of the new school term. But alas, it’s the latter title us poor Brits have been dumped with, possibly because the word “gringo” (meaning white man) isn’t as commonly used here as it is in the States or, more appropriately, Mexico. Still, a dodgy title change can’t taint a movie too much (just look at “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble”), or at least not to the same extent that a certain Hollywood A-lister’s not-so-private homelife can.

I kid: leading man Mel Gibson’s much-exposed propensity for sleazy scumbaggery has no basis on the quality of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” just as it shouldn’t. The case was the same for Jodie Foster’s 2011 directorial effort “The Beaver,” a peculiar comedy-drama which saw Gibson attempting to redeem his scandalous, career-demolishing remarks by sliding his hand up the backside of a furry forest critter - a puppet one, I might add. Gibson was decent there and he is equally decent in “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” only here he has the pleasure of being decent in a film with the quality to match. If only the title matched too.

In “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” Gibson is playing a man with no name, one of two curious nudges to Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy - the other is a cruddy Clint Eastwood impression by Gibson three-quarters way through the film that somehow manages to convince a clueless fat cat that he is indeed the “Dirty Harry” star. With no name given, we shall simply call Gibson’s character “the Gringo,” which is what many of the other characters featured in the film refer to him as, much as he tells them otherwise: the names Reginald T. Barnes and Richard “Dick” Johnson are presumably of his own invention.

The Gringo is a career-criminal and a thief, but a lovable one. Having just stolen millions of dollars worth in cash from a ruthless crime boss, he speeds along the US-Mexican border in a getaway car with his partner in crime bleeding to death in the backseat and with the American forces in hot pursuit. The car smashes through the metal border wall and crashes onto Mexican soil, and the Gringo is taken into custody by crooked Mexican Federales, who eye the stolen loot and claim it all for themselves. I should note that all of this is completed while the Gringo and his dying partner are inexplicably sporting curly-fro’d rubber clown masks.

The Gringo is thrown into prison without a trial, but not just any old prison: the infamous El Pueblito, which isn’t so much a penitentiary as it is a guarded shanty town with a buzzing cesspool of a community. This place is a marvel. It is a prison in which the inmates freely wander about with drugs, knives and guns in their possession. They can buy soft drinks and booze, visit taco stands and sit in restaurants, rent makeshift beds and get a tattoo. There are even whole families living in here, with toddlers shuffling past convicted murderers and thieves on a daily basis. Indeed, if it wasn’t for all the trigger-happy security guards surrounding the area, you wouldn’t even notice it was a prison. As the Gringo’s frequently amusing, sizzlingly sardonic narration questions upon entry, “Is this a prison or the world’s shittiest shopping mall?”

At first, the Gringo smartly keeps his head down; surely a gringo wouldn’t last very long in a Mexican prison, let alone El Pueblito, with their head up. He befriends a nameless 10-year-old boy (Kevin Hernandez, one of the few highlights of “The Sitter”), a streetsmart, potty-mouthed, cigarette-puffing urchin staying in El Pueblito with his incarcerated mother (Dolores Heredia), a kindly ex-drug dealer gone straight. The Gringo discovers this kid is in trouble: Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, “We Are What We Are”), a Tony Montana wannabe at the top of the prison’s food chain, is in desperate need of a liver transplant, and the kid is the only blood type match in the whole joint.

For vaguely stated reasons, the Gringo assigns himself as the kid’s loyal protector. This is one of two excuses for the film’s sudden bursts of ferocious action. The other excuse revolves around the stolen loot, which two bumbling Federales are spending willy-nilly and which the rightful owner, San Diego crime boss Frank (Peter Stormare, “Lockout”), wishes to have back. The Gringo also lets slip word of the loot to Javi’s men, which may result in the Gringo receiving a Get Out of Jail Free card.

This is where things get mighty complicated, as more and more players become embroiled in the battle to bag the loot, including the Gringo’s seedy lawyer, Bill (Dean Norris, “Breaking Bad”). And with this, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted and decreasingly comprehensible. As the film came to its second half, I would be lying if I were to say I fully understood all that I was viewing. Luckily, a tightly structured script and a consistent entertainment value manage to compensate for a lack of narrative cohesion - there’s one thing “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” is most definitely not, and that is boring.

The film marks the directorial debut of Adrian Grunberg, a former second-unit and first-assistant director whose work on Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” and Gibson’s “Apocalypto” was simply staggering. His directorial work is to a similar degree, capturing the world of El Pueblito, the real star of the show, with a greasy, immersive grit, and cinematographer Benoît Debie (“Enter the Void”) painting it with a cigar-stained colour palette. Working with editor Steven Rosenblum (“Braveheart”), Grunberg makes his action fast, grungy and splattered with blood. Sometimes it is heart-breaking and sometimes it is harrowing, and sometimes it parades a demented sense of humour: a high-stakes shootout in the centre of the prison culminates with the Gringo skillfully swinging a live grenade back at its thrower.

What’s not so skillful is Grunberg’s handling of tone; “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” frequently leaps back and forth between solemn drama, dark comedy and nutso action, with mixed results. The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, if I may make a possibly unfair comparison, are supremely talented in the art of connecting such diverse genres and blending them into one coherent film, and I believe “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” was an attempt at such a thing. Unfortunately, the effect isn’t seamless enough to quite pull the whole thing off, but it gets by on a persistent exploitation sensibility and the commanding screen presence of its leading man.

As shameless anti-hero the Gringo, Gibson is at his charismatic best. It is through this nameless character that Gibson, who is also the film’s producer and co-writer, advisedly channels the characters that helped launch his career: Sergeant Martin Riggs in “Lethal Weapon" and Max Rockatansky in “Mad Max," only here he is sitting firmly on the opposite end of the law. In spite of his fierce criminal mindset, the Gringo is a strangely endearing character and protagonist, fitted with a slyly manipulative, irresistibly roguish personality and a smart alec attitude: from the moment we see him stuffing cigarettes in his ears to drown out the noise of a mariachi band, we are with him all the way to the finishing line.

“How I Spent My Summer Vacation” is a curious concoction indeed. Part hard-boiled prison drama and part modern-day spaghetti western, it is a film that features, among various other ingredients, the severing of human toes, gross Mexican stereotypes, forced organ harvesting and one of the strangest prison settings I have ever seen in my life. It is a violent romp and a B-movie of excess, and in those regards it is very successful. And while it may not be enough for us to forgive Gibson for his real-life personal problems, it is enough for us to forgive him for starring in “The Beaver.”


Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Raid

“The Raid” is a musical, but one in which the music and lyrics are replaced with punching and kicking, and a little bit of shooting. Instead of breaking out into an umbrella-twirling, lamppost-swinging impromptu song-and-dance number, the characters of “The Raid” break out into an extravagant crescendo of neck-breaking, skull-cracking, bone-snapping violence. Replacing whimsical orchestrations of piano riffs and trombone blares is a stirring, goose bump-inducing electronic score composed by Mike Shinoda, he of Linkin Park fame. And standing in for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is a gang of Indonesian martial artists who aren’t cheek-to-cheek so much as fist-to-face.

Ultimately, “The Raid” is the “Grease” of action pictures, only “Grease” has more plot. An Indonesian film, it was shot in the country and is spoken in the language - yes, that means subtitles. It is written, directed and edited by Gareth Huw Evans, whose name you may notice has a distinctly Welsh ring to it. Perhaps that’s because Evans is indeed Welsh, having been born and bred in the Cynon Valley village of Hirwaun and having graduated from the University of Glamorgan in Rhondda Cynon Taf with an MA in Scriptwriting for Film and Television. All I can say about that is this: who would have guessed that the next John Woo would be a Welshman?

Deep in the heart of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta stands a derelict apartment building, the 15 storeys of which harbour thieves, drug dealers, gangsters and murderers. The building is overseen by Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy, who spends much of the film in a wife-beater, like a villainous John McClane), a sadistic druglord brandishing the patience of a snake and the bloodlust of a great white. Tenants of the building are armed to the teeth, and neither Tama’s rivals nor the increasingly corrupt police force would dare step foot on its not-so-welcoming welcome mat.

That is, until a 20-man SWAT team is tasked with storming the structure, arresting its inhabitants and taking down Tama once and for all. Led by the determined Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) and under the guidance of Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), a man of questionable intent, the mission gets off to a successful start, the team sneakily apprehending the tenants of the first few floors with no bullets fired and no alarms raised. And then they get to the sixth floor, where a whole boxful of hell breaks loose and spirals wildly, rivetingly out of control.

A young inhabitant of the building catches sight of the team, evades their capture and alerts Tama via the building’s intercom system of their uninvited presence. The building is put on lockdown. Tama, closely observing live CCTV feeds from the top floor, calmly announces over the intercom that a SWAT team has invaded their precious fortress, and informs all residents that those who successfully exterminate the “infestation” will be granted free rent. “Now go to work,” orders Tama into his microphone. “And please, enjoy yourself.”

And thus begins a ballet of bloodshed, a circus of savagery and a myriad of ultraviolent mayhem. A whole army of senseless thugs vacate their rooms, armed with knives, machetes, AK-47s and an unquenchable thirst for policeman blood. Horrendously outnumbered and completely overwhelmed, Sergeant Jaka and his decreasingly sizable team of lion-hearted lawmen find themselves stuck in a bloody battle to the death in a nightmarish high-rise tower from which the only escape is squeezing triggers, yanking grenade pins, swinging blades and knocking knuckles; basically, killing everyone.

We leap and sprint through the corridors, rooms, narcotics labs and fire escapes of the building along with the fearless SWAT team, who are with each step they cautiously take greeted by hostile forces intent on bloody murder. Tenants are flung through windows; stomachs are punctured with broken chair legs; throats are torn open with fluorescent light bulbs; and rows of crooks are blown up by exploding refrigerators. It’s all so exciting and ever so thrilling, filmed with an uncompromising uber-kineticism by Evans, whose boisterous camerawork and frenetic editing doesn’t rid his meticulously choreographed action set-pieces of all-important visual clarity and spacial awareness - we can actually comprehend what is going on; believing it is the tricky part.

The fighting style gloriously showcased in the film is apparently something called Pencak Silat, a lesser-known martial art upon which Evans has previously focused his attention: he filmed a documentary on the subject in 2007, and his second feature film, 2009’s “Merantau,” heavily featured the art. Playing the hero of “The Raid,” rookie Rama, is Iko Owais, an expert in the field whose physical abilities are nothing short of extraordinary. In each of the film’s vast array of bare-knuckle brawls, Owais utterly convinces as a one-man army, thumping his opponents and manipulating their joints with such breakneck speed it’s surprising the camera is able to keep up with him. He’s like the Indonesian Jackie Chan, only without the family-friendly values: dare to face him, he’ll fucking slaughter you.

The film takes on a video game structure - yes, on top of being an aesthetic musical, “The Raid” is a big-screen, live-action video game. Our band of heroes work their way up the tower block, level by level, each level surrounded by hordes of disposable enemies who must be bruised, pummeled and destroyed. There are cutscenes, as the film takes a few momentary breathers from the delirious, blood-soaked carnage it so gleefully indulges in. There’s even an end-of-game boss level, a three-man battle fought against Tama’s right-hand man, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), whose dexterity and unstoppable determination is utterly insane. Comparing a movie to a video game is typically seen to be an insult, but here it works only as a compliment. For what it’s worth, it’s the best goddamn video game movie I have ever seen.

Unbelievably filmed with a shoestring budget of $1.1 million, “The Raid” is truly, boundlessly breathtaking. Unashamedly derivative of classic works of its genre, it is fitted with the entertainment value of “Die Hard,” the intensity of “Assault on Precinct 13,” the style of “Hard Boiled,” the action of “Ong-Bak," the claustrophobia of “[Rec]” and the invention of “Oldboy.” Bursting at the seams with jaw-dropping stuntwork and gorgeous action choreography, it is a film that will have you gasping and guffawing, oohing and aahing in the auditorium. Most importantly of all though, it is a well-deserved, hard-hitting kick in the pants to the uninventive laziness that has plagued western action cinema of recent years - one doubts that “The Expendables 2” will provide the oohs and aahs that “The Raid” does for every minute of its runtime.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Dictator

If there’s one thing I admire about Sacha Baron Cohen, it’s his uncanny ability to always get a laugh out of his audience. The English actor and comedian, whose award-winning “Da Ali G Show" launched a television comedy career to be reckoned with, has what some would refer to as “funny bones,” although perhaps those bones belong to his ingeniously conceived characters. In the world of cinema, Cohen deservedly found international success with his “Borat” and “Brüno,” both satirical mockumentaries whose comedy value relied almost entirely on the reactions of unsuspecting members of the American public to Cohen’s comically uncouth titular creations - a culturally confused Kazakh journalist and a gay Austrian fashion reporter, respectively. I should note that very few of Cohen’s innocent victims found him particularly amusing.

His latest work is not a mockumentary, perhaps because Cohen’s global fame/infamy has rendered his face all too recognisable for the reactive gags to work - ah, the price of stardom. “The Dictator” is instead a wholly scripted production (some probable improvisation aside), Cohen’s first since his debut starring role in the sporadically funny “Ali G Indahouse.” Notably, the film’s title dares comparison with Charlie Chaplin’s masterful 1940 Adolf Hitler satire “The Great Dictator.” And while Cohen’s latest cinematic conception never quite climbs to the heights of a great dictator, it sits comfortably at the level of a decent dictator - although Admiral General Aladeen is anything but decent.

Aladeen is Cohen’s latest incarnation, and as an alter ego of Cohen he ranks up there with Ali G and Borat. An obvious parody of such real-life dictators as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il (to whom the film is lovingly dedicated), Aladeen is the “beloved oppressor” of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. Sporting a luxurious black beard (sans moustache) and a white uniform decorated with medals and a pair of golden shoulder tassels, Aladeen spends his days reciting speeches to a crowd of cheering worshippers from his majestic palace, having sex with Hollywood celebs in his deluxe bedroom (there’s Megan Fox’s cameo right there), giggling at the prospect of civil rights and equality for women, and having various employees mercilessly executed for trivial reasons (nabbing a cereal box toy from him, for example).

The United States government is none too happy with Aladeen: they’ve discovered that he has plans to develop nuclear weapons (which he insists must be pointy at the top). He’s advised to give a speech at the UN, and so travels to New York City, where his arrival is less than welcome. During the night before the speech, something terrible happens: Aladeen is kidnapped from his hotel room by a hitman (John C. Reilly, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), tied to a chair and has his precious beard shaved off. He escapes, and watches in shock horror from a big screen on the street as a body double delivers his speech at the UN and announces plans to turn his oppressed nation of Wadiya into a democracy. Gasp!

As it turns out, Aladeen’s second-in-command and rightful heir to the Wadiyan throne, uncle Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley, having fun), was the one who hired the hitman, replaced him with a look-alike and has plans to make billions from an oil scheme in the soon-to-be-democratised Wadiya. A beardless - and consequently unrecognisable - Aladeen, meanwhile, is left wandering the mean streets of Manhattan claiming to be the Admiral General and understandably treated like a raving loony.

Aladeen reluctantly takes on the unlikeliest of friends: Zoey (Anna Faris, “The House Bunny”), an uber-left protestor and feminist studies graduate who owns a fair trade grocery store that employs only asylum seekers. Of course, Aladeen ends up working in Zoey’s store, but under a hastily conceived pseudonym: Alison Burgers. Faris, whose eyes are adorable and whose soft voice is very soothing, showed much comic talent in the “Scary Movie” franchise, and she displays it in full force here, reacting to Aladeen’s insensitive comments and unmannerly behaviour with both precise comic timing and a lovable sweetness: Zoey puts his rotten attitude towards women, gays and ethnic minorities down to cultural differences.

Naturally, Zoey becomes the film’s highly unlikely love interest, a fact manifested on-screen while Zoey and Aladeen are, for lack of a better phrase, wrist-deep inside a woman’s lady-parts. Allow me to explain: in Zoey’s store, a pregnant customer finds herself going into labour. Aladeen offers a hand, literally, and is faced with the prospect of having to deliver a child right then and there in the middle of the store. Due to Aladeen’s mid-procedure answering of a mobile phone, Zoey steps in and slides her hand inside the woman’s you-know-what alongside Aladeen’s. And, in a shot actually filmed from deep inside this woman’s birth canal, Zoey and Aladeen’s uterus-probing hands are seen to touch, entwine and embrace. Zoey and Aladeen gaze at one another, lock eyes, and an impossible romance blossoms in amongst a sticky puddle of amniotic fluid. It’s quite sweet, actually.

This is one of many examples in “The Dictator” of Cohen’s long-standing relationship with gross-out humour, something he has shown to cherish ever since receiving hand relief from an unwitting old blind man outside the Houses of Parliament in “Ali G Indahouse.” In “Brüno,” I believe Cohen went too far; in “The Dictator,” he gets the balance just about right, although the film is not without its moments of desperation: a scene in which Aladeen’s double, of course also played by Cohen, skillfully milks a prostitute into a tin bucket, for example. But it’s not all bodily fluids and excrement here; “The Dictator” also contains a bit of comparatively broad humour, and in a climactic speech, Cohen turns that of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator" on its head and practices the kind of fearless, merciless political satire we’ve come to know and love him for.

I think it says a lot that while “The Dictator" is Cohen’s most plot-centric adventure yet, Cohen and director Larry Charles focus almost all of their attention on individual comic set-pieces, a decision which has its ups and downs. On the one hand, this provides much comic value as Cohen time and time again ambitiously attempts to bulldoze the walls of tastefulness with gags involving severed heads and sky-high defecation without worrying too much about the narrative. On the other hand, I would have liked to have been more engaged in the plot itself, which acts merely as a collection of springboards for these gags to leap forth from, as Aladeen heroically attempts to reclaim his throne and ensure that his nation does not become a democracy. Then again, I think I may have been laughing hard enough and often enough to compensate, and in the end I was ultimately quite satisfied with the whole thing.

“The Dictator” is Cohen’s biggest production so far and possibly his most mainstream too (in spite of all the grotesquery), but it’s not his best; I think most will agree that spot belongs to “Borat.” But it is very funny, and in Aladeen, Cohen has created a character who is so racist and sexist, anti-Semitic and anti-west that he becomes endearingly insulting and strangely quite lovable. I’m not sure what Cohen will do next, but whatever it is, I firmly believe he will once again show off his funny bones - or rather, his character’s funny bones.


Monday, 14 May 2012

Dark Shadows

Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie - or should that be a Frankenweenie? Like Mary Shelley’s undead creature, Burton’s gothic horror-comedy is constructed from separate bits and bobs dug up from hither and thither and hurriedly stitched together without the slightest care for sightliness or collectivity. The result is indeed a monster: a monster that can stumble and sputter thanks to some buzzing electricity, but it’s dead inside, and as a singular figure it makes little sense, its unsightly stitches and hideous neck-bolts all too apparent and all too telling.

“Dark Shadows” marks the eighth collaboration between celebrated director Burton and Hollywood megastar Johnny Depp, whose long-time professional partnership was sparked in 1990 with the enchanting fairy tale romance “Edward Scissorhands.” We can always expect two things from their projects together:  a solid, transformative performance from Depp, and a technical masterclass from Burton. “Dark Shadows” certainly supplies both by the truckload, but supplies little of anything else, leaving one feeling dissatisfied, underwhelmed and yearning for more.

In “Dark Shadows," Depp is playing a vampire. This marks the first time he has ever played a bloodsucking creature of the night, which I find peculiar: considering his always-commanding screen presence, curiously youthful looks and almost supernatural charm, one wonders why it has taken so long for his career to bring him a vampiric role. As evidenced here, he fits such a role more than splendidly, like Christopher Lee did Count Dracula, and Max Schreck did Count Orlok.

Depp’s vampire is Barnabas Collins, who is turned into a monster not by a bite or genetic inheritance, but by a vicious curse. In a stirring prologue, we witness young Barnabas sail from Liverpool, England with his mother and father to America in 1760, where they create a wealthy fishing dynasty and erect a grand manor atop a hill above Collinsport, a quiet coastal town in Maine founded by the family. Young Barnabas grows up in Collinwood Manor to become a roguish playboy. He embarks upon a torrid affair with a housemaid, Angelique (Eva Green, “Casino Royale”), but falls in love with a beautiful, angelic young lady named Josette (Bella Heathcote, “In Time”).

Enraged with jealousy, a heartbroken Angelique (who is a witch, I might add) casts a spell upon Josette that causes her to leap off a cliff and fall to her death as Barnabas watches, helpless. Surviving the same fall, a grief-stricken and suicidal Barnabas discovers to his horror that he has been cursed by Angelique to forever walk the Earth as a soulless vampire. Only Angelique doesn’t want him walking around: she promptly leads a pack of pitchfork-wielding townsfolk to Collinwood Manor and has Barnabas chained up, placed inside a coffin and buried underground. Women, right?

Cut to almost two centuries later, to a time of bell-bottoms, Volkswagen hippie vans, disco-dancing, The Carpenters and troll dolls. The year is 1972, and the Collins family business is a hollow shell of its glory days. Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Stardust”) presides over the Collinwood Manor household, which includes her sour-faced 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Hugo”), troubled 10-year-old nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), philandering brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller, “Trainspotting”), cranky caretaker Willy (Jackie Earle Haley, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and drunken live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Burton’s squeeze, Helena Bonham Carter).

To say they’re dysfunctional would be an understatement, but their dysfunctionality is about to get a whole lot worse. Barnabas, still helplessly trapped in his coffin, is by pure chance discovered by a group of unwitting construction workers, who free him from his horribly cramped prison and are quickly drained of their blood. “You can’t imagine how thirsty I am,” proclaims Barnabas. Claiming to be a distant relative from England, Barnabas is taken in by his misfit descendants and soon becomes determined to restore the Collins family business to its former glory. Trouble is, the company’s main competition is a fellow fishing corporation owned by none other than Angelique, who hasn’t aged a day and is none too happy about Barnabas’ lucky escape.

The primary joke of “Dark Shadows” is that Barnabas, an 18th-century man/vampire of high class, is tragically out of place in a world of Chevies, doobies, rollerskates and Scooby-Doo. His fascination upon seeing his first lava lamp is priceless, as is his bafflement upon seeing Karen Carpenter on the family tube, a sight he confuses for a “tiny songstress” trapped inside a wooden box by way of sorcery. Indeed, there’s much rib-tickling amusement to be had from this vampire-out-of-time formula, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that all of it isn’t just “Austin Powers” adjusted to fit the Tim Burton mould - instead of “You’re shagadelic, baby,” we have, “What fertile birthing hips you have,” which lessens in hilarity after its umpteenth utterance.

You might not be aware of this, but “Dark Shadows” is based on a gothic horror soap opera broadcast onto American television screens from 1966 through to 1971. Famed for its shoddy production values, the show still enjoys a dedicated cult following, of which Burton and Depp are proud members. The show’s influence on the film is rather noticeable, particularly in the second half, as the plot becomes increasingly unwieldy and gives way to the kind of soap opera melodrama that can be found in any episode of “Coronation Street” or “Eastenders,” only here there be witches, vampires and even a werewolf prowling about. Oh, and a ghost; I forgot about that.

Teenager Carolyn rebels against her mother and Roger turns out to be a greedy thief who cares not for his son; Barnabas and Angelique, in spite of their passionate loathing for one another, enjoy a kinky, office-destroying sex session that rivals that of “Breaking Dawn - Part 1,” albeit actually played for laughs here. There’s even a bloodless love story shared between Barnabas and Victoria Winters (also Heathcote), the new governess and eerie doppleganger of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette. I say bloodless because Victoria almost completely disappears from the story once Barnabas sets eyes on her, only to reappear during the CGI-laden, action-packed climax for an inevitable faux-emotional payoff.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s dialogue has a certain bite to it, but it’s the plot that really requires the fangs. Grahame-Smith’s handling of the story is clumsy and incoherent, reducing the film to a disjointed muddle bereft of a narrative drive and littered with scenes that serve no discernable purpose. I said earlier that the film is a Frankenstein’s Monster; I meant this not just in terms of plot, but also in terms of tone. Sometimes “Dark Shadows” is a comedy, sometimes it’s a romance, sometimes it’s an actioner and sometimes it’s a horror. It struggles to find a balance between the four and never sticks to a pleasing rhythm, consequently winding up a confused, indecisive mess that can’t even make its mind up over whether its neck-gnawing protagonist is a murderous monster or a loveable weirdo.

What “Dark Shadows” has in its favour are, as I said before, the two things we’ve routinely come to expect from a Burton-Depp team-up. Depp sinks his teeth into the role of Barnabas and delivers a comically courteous furniture-fondling performance suitable for pantomime, all while flaunting a greasy dark fringe, an impossibly pale complexion, and bony, taloned digits that call to mind the aforementioned Count Orlok. Burton epitomises his trademark gothic aesthetic, filling “Dark Shadows” with pasty-faces and cobweb-riddled architecture, all captured through lavish camerawork, which this time isn’t spoiled by dodgy 3D, as it was in his last cinematic outing, Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

But a scenery-chewing leading performance and extravagant production design aren’t quite enough to compensate for the troubles of all else contained within “Dark Shadows,” which is generally enjoyable while it lasts but quickly crumbles and festers in retrospect. Ultimately, it’s a Frankenstein’s Monster with few of its pieces operating as they should. The comedy is not titillating enough; the romance is not bewitching enough; the action is not thrilling enough; and the horror is not scary enough. “Dark Shadows” may be as visually luxurious as Collinwood Manor, but with a jumbled script unable to find meat in its characters or blood in its story, it’s just as cold, empty, creaky and musty as it too.


Saturday, 12 May 2012

Piranha 3DD

When the high point of your blood-drenched, mammary-parading monster movie is an extended cameo from David Hasselhoff as himself, that’s when you know your film is in deep trouble. Yes, “Piranha 3DD” (that’s “double-D,” not “dee-dee”) uses the exact same trick utilised at the end of “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” only it doesn’t do it as smartly, nor as funnily, nor as creatively - you’ll find no scenes of the “Knight Rider” star being used as a human hovercraft by SpongeBob and Patrick in this movie. Still, the cheeseball charm of the hairy-chested Hoff is difficult to resist, especially when he’s back in his “Baywatch” gear (i.e. red shorts and a lifebuoy) and swearing like a sailor (or rather a lifeguard), sprinkling “Piranha 3DD” with brief, merciful spurts of lighthearted amusement in amongst the hair-tearing torture of everything else.

John Gulager’s “Piranha 3DD” is the sequel to the 2010 comedy-horror hit “Piranha 3D,” which was a loose remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 cult classic “Piranha,” which was a cheap knock-off of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” which was based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley. All of these pieces of work have one thing in common, one thing best summed up by a line of dialogue desperately screeched by one terrified teenage victim of many in “Piranha 3DD:” “There’s something in the water!”

And this something, as I’m sure you can decipher from the title, is a school of flesh-eating, prehistoric piranhas, as well as a few too many pairs of oversized lady-jugs. While in the first film the computer-generated monsters of the sea were the scourge of Lake Victoria and its scantily-clad inhabitants, this time they’re paying an unexpected visit to a water park: Big Wet Water Park, to be exact, which has just received its grand opening in Arizona.

Owner of 51% of the Big Wet is Chet (David Koechner, “Anchorman”), a perverse, money-grubbing buffoon (Koechner used the film’s director for inspiration, I believe) who builds an Adult Pool section on the site, which of course provides much of the film’s gratuitous boobies and buns action. Owner of the other 49% is Chet’s stepdaughter, Maddy (Danielle Panabaker, “The Ward”), who rolls her eyes at her stepfather's lurid, cheap methods of running the park (much like the director’s lurid, cheap methods of making this film).

Maddy and her friends (that’s Matt Bush’s awkward co-worker Barry and Chris Zylka’s douchebag cop Kyle, not that we get to know them very well) begin to suspect something fishy is going on in the water: could the killer fish from Lake Victoria really be lurking nearby? Soon enough, their suspicions are fully confirmed: carnage ensues at the water park, as an unstoppable swarm of blood-thirsty piranhas work their way through the Big Wet’s plumbing system into the various pools of the site, leaving many unhappy swimmers leaving the park less than fully intact.

I would call “Piranha 3DD” bottom-of-the-barrel junk, but I don’t believe calling it such a name would really do it justice. You see, “Piranha 3DD” is a film so death-defyingly dreadful and earth-shatteringly irksome that it seems it has used its ferocious fangs to chomp its way through the barrel’s wooden base (piranhas can do that, y’know), slithered underneath the barrel and has speedily swam its way down to the murky, rarely explored depths of the deep blue sea - with any luck, it will stay there, and never bother us again.

I liked 2010’s “Piranha 3D;” it was a very enjoyable, very schlocky B-movie held up high by Alexandre Aja’s skillful direction, a mostly fine cast, a proper sense of fun and a gruesome grotesquery so gnarly that the film actually became rather endearing. “Piranha 3DD” has none of these qualities, aside from the fact that it is a schlocky B-movie: John Gulager’s direction is stupendously sloppy, much of the acting is as watery as the piranhas’ natural habitat, any sense of fun the film had the potential for is drowned in the unrelenting tedium of it all, and the frequent sequences depicting gory shenanigans are disappointingly desperate to shock and appall (the inevitable instance of penile dismemberment is self-inflicted this time, and horrendously hindered by the god-awful acting of the unfortunate self-amputee).

Worse still is the film’s attitude towards the female sex, which is stunningly even more lurid and perverse than that of the first “Piranha" - the film is fitted with the sexual politics of a certain robe-wearing owner of a certain Playboy Mansion. Almost every scene in “Piranha 3DD" is littered with extreme close-ups of surgically enhanced knockers bouncing up and down, left and right, drenched in pool water and assorted bodily fluids, sometimes covered up by a brassier, most of the time baring all, and filmed quite often in “Matrix"-style bullet-time. I guess the eye-straining 3D helps to eradicate this X-rated onslaught of shameless bare-chestedness: all boobs contained therein are reduced to blurry blobs of fluctuating flesh darkened by the blackened lenses of your plastic spectacles. But I won’t dwell on the booby problem too much: after all, what the heck do you expect from an exploitation flick whose title is inspired by a bra size?

I think the worst offense committed by “Piranha 3DD”, or rather by Gulager, is the film’s complete and utter lack of self-awareness concerning its own identity. Gulager, whose past filmography consists of 2005 monster movie “Feast” and its two straight-to-DVD sequels, doesn’t appear to have the slightest clue as to what on Earth the movie he is directing is supposed to be. He explores two options: he could either be directing a tongue-in-cheek splatter-fest played straight, a la “Piranha 3D” (the grisly death scenes and pathetic attempts at suspense point towards this), or a goofy slapstick comedy in the vain of the “Scary Movie” franchise (The Hoff’s music-accompanied “Baywatch” run and the bouncing bazookas filmed in slow-motion swing towards this). Unable to make up his tiny little mind, Gulager optimistically decides to take turns with both, and the result is a film that is, suffice to say, a tonally confused disaster zone.

Against my better judgement, I’m going to award “Piranha 3DD” with a rating of two marks out of ten, although I am hesitant to be so generous. Let me break it down for you, dear reader: the first mark this horrible filth is receiving from me is for “David” and the other, more deserved mark, is for “Hasselhoff.” All else contained within “Piranha 3DD” is worthless, cheap, lazy, sleazy, stupid, unfunny, puzzling, infuriating, exasperating and, most scandalously of all, quite boring (even with all the boobs on display). I must say, I look forward to the time when I can see the film’s DVD cover dumped in the bargain bin of my local Blockbuster, right where it belongs and where it will hopefully never leave.


Thursday, 10 May 2012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Big-screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ globally beloved body of work are an inconsistent breed indeed. The trend, if you can call it that, began in Christmastime 2000, during which tinseltown catapulted Seuss’ much-celebrated 1957 story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” into theatres worldwide, featuring a scenery-chewing Jim Carrey smothered from head to toe in green-tinted makeup, prosthetics and assorted fur. The film divided critics, some finding it charming and others finding it obnoxious (I count myself in the former group), but was a commercial success nevertheless.

Next came 2003’s “The Cat in the Hat,” which starred a post-“Austin Powers” Mike Myers as the titular anthropomorphic feline. A critical disaster, the film was so abominably beastly it caused the Seuss estate to enforce a ban on live-action adaptations of the author’s work being produced by Hollywood. In response, Hollywood made “Horton Hears a Who,” a computer-animated family comedy featuring the voices of a returning Jim Carrey and Seuss newbie Steve Carell. Released in spring of 2008, the film was a box-office smash and a critical darling, and rightfully so: “Horton” was heaps of fun and got right what “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat” generally got wrong.

And now we come to “The Lorax,” which defies not the Seuss estate’s ban on non-animated adaptations; much like “Horton,” “The Lorax” is presented by way of computer-animation, and gorgeously so. Helmed by directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, and writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (the gifted foursome who gave us pleasing supervillain animation “Despicable Me” in 2010), the film had the potential to prove that animation is the one and only medium in which a Seuss adaptation can be done - it does so, but also proves that the medium is not a one-way ticket to success.

“The Lorax” is based on the 1971 book of the same name and is actually its second screen adaptation; there was an animated TV special aired in 1972 akin to the classic 1966 animated TV special of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Like the book, the 2012 version carries a message that is pro-environment and anti-establishment; trouble is, it rams this message right down the viewer’s throat and rams pretty damn hard - you’ll be lucky if you’re not gagging come the inevitable, schmaltzy conclusion.

The film begins in a walled-up city called Thneed-Ville, a utopia where everything, citizens aside, is artificial: there are no animals, no insects, no dirt and no plants. All objects in the city are made of either metal, plastic or synthetics; even the trees in homeowners’ gardens are robotic, and come with a disco setting. Living in Thneed-Ville is Ted Wiggins (Zac Efron, “The Lucky One”), a 12-year-old boy in love with his redheaded young neighbour, Audrey (singer-songwriter Taylor Swift). Ted discovers that Audrey has one desperate wish: to one day see with her very own eyes a real-life tree.

Realising that he can claim Audrey’s heart by presenting her with such a precious object, Ted, on the advice of his giddy grandmother (the legendary Betty White), sneaks outside of the city to meet the Once-ler (Ed Helms, “The Hangover Part II”), a reclusive stranger hiding inside a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, the Once-ler knows a lot about trees and begins to recite to young Ted a wonderful story.

The story is as such. One day, many years ago, the Once-ler stumbled upon a luxurious land filled with towering trees and cute little forest critters. Needing a tree for his mysterious invention, he chopped one down, and from the stump sprung the Lorax (Danny De Vito, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), the mustachioed, orange-coloured, shin-high guardian of the forest and self-enforced speaker for the trees. Grumpy and stubborn but charming and endearing, the Lorax tenaciously protects his land, and was none too happy with the Once-ler’s forest-scarring actions. And thus begins a heartwarming fable about the importance of nature and the evils of corporate business.

Like the ‘72 television special, “The Lorax” is a musical, although not a fully committed one: the amount of musical numbers featured in the film (which range from the cloying to the rocky) is four, I believe. And of these four extended sequences of singing and dancing, you’d be hard-pressed to get me to repeat any of the lyrics or hum any of their melodies, and that’s not just because I’m no singer or hummer; I just can’t remember them.

Yes, as a musical, “The Lorax” is a bit of a dog’s dinner, and I can’t quite imagine the official soundtrack topping the charts, but it makes up for this with the appealing charm it has at its immediate disposal. This charm comes down to a small, but effective number of elements. For one, there’s Danny DeVito, whose strangely soothing voice brings the Lorax to life in tantalising fashion, done so without the need for irritating flamboyancy. Secondly, there’s the animation, which vividly creates a richly rendered, candy-coloured world filled with lovable characters designed to appeal; it’s a majestic and luxurious visual feast. Thirdly, the never-ending slapstick, which is inventive enough, playful enough and lively enough to just about justify its constant presence, successfully providing a few smiles, titters and giggles along the way.

And finally, we have the simple, undeniable fact that the film’s clearly stated intentions are good and noble, even though it sacrifices the endearing simplicity of its cherished source material and even when its moral message is on the verge of choking the audience. I think the film will work splendidly with younger viewers, while those teenaged and up will find it at least tolerable. Mostly decent and occasionally quite delightful, “The Lorax” is no “Horton Hears a Who,” but it’s certainly not “The Cat in the Hat” either; it’s just “The Lorax,” and I see nothing wrong with that.