Saturday, 28 July 2012

Magic Mike

The sleazy business of stripping portrayed in “Magic Mike” is a world seldom explored by filmmakers. Thus far, the stripper genre, if such a thing exists, has produced only three notable examples, all of which were products of the mid-90s and two of which are widely considered to be complete and utter tripe. Those two are Andrew Bergman’s “Striptease,” a dreary “comedy” starring/displaying Demi Moore, and Paul Verhoeven’s infamous “Showgirls,” notorious for its graphic nudity, its box office implosion and its demolition of a rising starlet’s career (that of Elizabeth Berkley, whose every nook and cranny is on full display throughout).

The genre’s long-crowned champion, however, is of course “The Full Monty,” a Best Picture-nominated British comedy in which any and all sights of actual stripping are kept zipped up until the glorious, buttock-swaying finale. Like “Magic Mike,” “The Full Monty” was a film about male strippers. Unlike “Magic Mike,” “The Full Monty” did not feature any characters who were experienced professionals in the art of stripping, instead focusing on a group of working class amateurs whose physique was arguably inadequate for the job - I doubt many would pay to see Mark Addy and Tom Wilkinson strutting their stuff alongside Channing Tatum, although curiosity can be a morbid thing.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” is the latest entry in this cobweb-ridden corner of cinema, and quality-wise it stands much closer to “The Full Monty” than “Striptease” or “Showgirls.” It is a comedy-drama, with more focus on the latter genre. It has been advertised in such a way as to encourage women to flock excitedly to the theatres along with a gaggle of giggling gal pals like they would to an actual male strip joint, but, speaking as a member of the male sex, I believe a man should enjoy “Magic Mike” just as much as any woman would - after all, who among us straight men cannot appreciate the immortal sight of Channing Tatum proudly parading his chiseled, baby oiled abs while thrusting his bulging leather thong towards the screen and into our heterosexual faces? This would make for a wonderful film in 3D.

The stripping of “Magic Mike” takes place on the main stage of Xquisite, a small but profitable strip joint in Tampa, Florida. Xquisite is run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, “Killer Joe”), who, smothered in spray tan and donning a stetson, takes to the stage at the beginning of each night to set out the rules of what the girls in the audience can and cannot touch of the performers, at one point grabbing his crotch and wagging his finger. “But I see a lot of lawbreakers up in here tonight,” he says with the wickedest of grins. Look closely at McConaughey’s performance and you may catch a glimpse or two of the googly-eyed, homicidal madness he displayed with such charismatic ferocity in William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe.”

The stripping routines play out like meticulously choreographed musical numbers, ones featuring bucket-loads of dry ice and a walk-in wardrobe-ful of colourful costumes (think the Village People) and in which breathless onlookers participate by waving their hands in the air and squealing in libidinous delight. Sometimes they join the performers on-stage too; in one comical scene, one half-nude performer lifts up a rather plump member of the audience and throws his back out. The main star of the show is the eponymous “Magic” Mike (Tatum), a muscular hunk who can bump and grind with inexhaustible energy and expert precision, the kind Tatum showed off with spectacular style in 2006 dance movie “Step Up.”

We are introduced to this world from the naive vantage point of 19-year-old no-hope slacker Adam (Alex Pettyfer, “Beastly”), although Adam is not our protagonist - in the end, that position belongs to Mike. Adam meets and sort of befriends Mike on a roof-tiling job, which soon leads to Adam being unwillingly shoved onto the Xquisite stage at the mercy of a screaming crowd of lustful cougars. Adam is at first visibly shy and nervous, removing his hoodie and jeans with all the grace and sensuality of a twelve-year-old preparing for bed. The audience takes this to be an act, no doubt thanks to Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ blaring in the background. But Adam gets into it, and soon enough he’s in his boxers, bestride a paying customer's lap and snogging her tonsils out. The audience loves him. Adam, having earned a ton of cash from the dollar bills stuffed in his waistband, promptly becomes a member of the team, given the fitting nickname “The Kid” (a fellow performer is named “Big Dick Richie,” the reason for which I will leave to your imagination).

Adam has a sister named Brooke (Cody Horn, “Twelve”), with whom he has just moved in (temporarily, he says). She is a protective sibling, but not overly so: upon learning of Adam’s newly found profession, she orders Mike to take good care of him, but does not intrude. Brooke and Mike’s first encounter is awkward, and they don’t get along initially, which can only lead to one thing: a romantic attraction that is itself like a striptease. Brooke’s worries about her reckless brother are proven more than warranted: Adam tumbles face-first into a downward spiral involving sex, drink and drugs, at one point waking up to find a piglet eating his vomit off the floor. That’s what most reasonable people would call rock bottom.

“Magic Mike” is I think the most realistic portrayal of the life of a stripper seen on the big screen so far. This is perhaps thanks to the involvement of Tatum, who, like the character of Adam, had a brief career as a stripper in Tampa at 19 years old - one wonders if a piglet ever ate his vomit. The film is penned by Reid Carolin, Tatum’s producing partner, in his first outing as a screenwriter. Partly based on Tatum’s experiences at the time, Carolin’s script is smart and thoughtful, filled with winning humour and effective drama. It does not indulge in gay jokes about its beefcake characters, which would be all too easy a gag. It also does not conform to too many Hollywood cliches, or maybe I was too engaged in the film and its characters to notice otherwise.

As Mike, Tatum takes another giant step in shedding his career-defining image as a charmless (but very handsome) dunderhead. He is entirely convincing as a man with aspirations to escape his life as a 30-year-old stripper and to become a respectable entrepreneur, proving himself to be a dab hand at drama as well as comedy: witness a scene in which he knocks on Brooke’s front door in drag as Marilyn Monroe, golden locks and all, and breathily belts out the lyrics to ‘Happy Birthday’ in her unmistakable tone. Also cured of a case of chronic woodenness is Pettyfer, whose presence in “Magic Mike” is shockingly engaging, much more so than it was for a single microsecond of “I Am Number Four”’s runtime. Adam becomes decreasingly likable as he tumbles further and deeper into the abyss, which Pettyfer performs with a knowing sliminess. In an early scene, he shows off his Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation, which is... quite something.

But the true star of “Magic Mike” is Soderbergh, who, coming fresh off disaster movie ensemble piece “Contagion" and female-led MMA action pic “Haywire," may well be the most versatile of Hollywood’s current crop of directors. Operating under two crafty pseudonyms, he shoots and edits “Magic Mike” with his routine technical skill: his cinematography is sublime but not flamboyantly so, and his editing is smartly understated. He once again wrings sensational, memorable performances out of a talented cast, this time while having much of them rip their clothes off for our enjoyment.

He deliberately draws a clear line between the scenes on the Xquisite stage and the scenes off-stage: the scenes on-stage are suitably flashy and extravagant, the palette strikingly vibrant, while the scenes off-stage are more sombre and angsty in tone, shot in much more subdued lighting and displaying a filtered appearance. Soderbergh is ambiguously opinionated about the strippers at the centre of the film, fully indulging in the raunchy entertainment value of their nightly performances but later showing them in a darker light, ultimately leaving judgement in the hands of the viewer. He does not look down on them nor up at them, though there are plenty of arguments for him to do both.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012


I doubt we will see a funnier character on the big screen this year than Ted, the eponymous secondary protagonist of “Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane’s feature-length debut. This is at first surprising for the same reason it becomes so obvious: Ted is a stuffed teddy bear, the kind you can make at a Build-A-Bear workshop and give to a five-year-old as as birthday present. But Ted is no ordinary teddy bear, for he can walk and talk and sing and smoke pot and engage in casual sex with Grammy award-winning singer-songwriters. That last one is very true, in spite of Ted’s visible lack of genitalia. “I’ve written a lot of complaints to Hasbro about that,” he gripes. I’m sure Hasbro would receive many more complaints if the case were otherwise.

Ted is voiced and motion-captured by MacFarlane, who provides him with a thick-as-blood Bostonian accent that instantly calls to mind Peter Griffin, another MacFarlane-voiced animated character. He is, as far as I could tell, a wholly computer-generated creation, and he interacts well with the film’s live-action setting, much more so than Scooby-Doo ever did in his live-action adventures. In a deceptively treacly opening sequence narrated by (who else?) Patrick Stewart, we witness the magical origins of Ted. In the suburbs of Boston on Christmas Day in 1985, a crushingly unpopular eight-year-old boy named John Bennett (Bretton Manley) receives a teddy bear from his loving parents. This bear is inanimate and is given the name Ted.

That night, while snuggled under the covers with Ted, John wishes upon a star for his teddy bear to come to life so that he can finally have a real friend to play with. His wish is granted, and John wakes the next morning to find his teddy bear walking around and talking to him. John’s initial reaction is fear, then acceptance, then love. An irregular bromance is born. John is very open about the existence of Ted, who, as a sentient plaything, is soon enjoying worldwide fame, flaunted on magazine covers and interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show - how this scene was achieved I don’t know, but the effect is seamless and the best of its kind since Forrest Gump was interviewed by Dick Cavett alongside John Lennon.

What goes up must come down. Ted’s fame soon dwindles, and by 2012 he’s a worthless slacker spending his days sitting on the couch, sucking on a bong while rewatching “Flash Gordon” for the umpteenth time - that is, when he’s not hiring prostitutes, who he dares to defecate on John’s living room floor. Yes, Ted still lives with John (now played by Mark Wahlberg, “Contraband”), who as an adult is good-natured but seems to have become permanently trapped in the world of adolescence. At 35 years old, John works a dead-end job as a clerk at a rental car company where he shows up late and high on pot. Ted and John are still the best of friends (or “thunder buddies”) and share the exact same level of ambition in life, i.e. none whatsoever.

This is much to the increasing annoyance of Lori (Mila Kunis, “Friends with Benefits”), John’s beloved girlfriend of four years, if you could believe such a thing. After some encouragement by her office co-workers, Lori delivers John an ultimatum: either it’s her or his teddy bear. John is split. In a lesser actress’ hands, Lori may have come across as whiny and naggy, but Kunis allows us to empathise with her. Through her eyes, we see that John is indeed immature and that he and Ted need to loosen their grip on each other. However, that does not render their shenanigans together any less funny.

John reluctantly decides to let Ted go and stay with Lori. Ted gets a job as a cashier at a local supermarket. He instantly starts up a relationship with fellow cashier Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), an obnoxious dimwit who wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of “Jersey Shore.” Ted gets his own apartment, where of course he hosts wild parties whenever he’s bored, and whenever he’s not bored. John finds himself unable to stay away from Ted, skipping work to watch DVD boxsets with him and even sneaking out of a fancy party at Lori’s boss’ house to check out one of Ted’s parties. Lori is not amused. Meanwhile, a crazy fan (Giovanni Ribisi, a dab hand at playing unhinged creeps) plots to steal Ted for his chubby brute of a son, whose true identity is... scandalous.

There are two scenes in “Ted” that are so funny they very nearly brought tears to my eyes. The first takes place at one of Ted’s little get-togethers, which, with a little help from cocaine, escalates from jovial karaoke singing into mindless violence, ending with an attack by an Asian neighbour wielding a blade in one hand and a duck in the other. The second sees that inevitable moment when Ted and John finally fall out with each other and, after a few hurtful words too many, engage in a fistfight in a hotel room. The laughs in this scene don’t necessarily come from the sight of a grown man brawling with a two-and-a-half-foot teddy bear, but from the extent to which that grown man is harmed during this fight. Who knew that a teddy bear could be so aggressive?

The humour of “Ted” could be described as vulgar and juvenile, which it is. It could also be described as inventive and gut-busting, which it also is. Its script is written by MacFarlane, along with “Family Guy” regulars Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. Like in “Family Guy,” much of the comedy stems from jabs at pop culture figures, which can largely be a hit and miss affair. A recurring gag centred on one character’s obsession with has-been actor Tom Skerritt fell flat with my audience (presumably because few know who Skerritt is outside of the States), while another recurring gag centred on John and Ted’s childhood hero worked like a charm (presumably because the existence of said childhood hero is clearly explained early in the film).

What always works, however, is the character of Ted. On the surface, Ted is a one-joke character whose comedy value should run dry once the initial pay-off of a teddy bear smoking a bong and swearing like a sailor is over. And yet Ted supplies laugh after laugh throughout the whole of the film’s 90-minute length, because MacFarlane doesn’t lazily stop at providing Ted with R-rated material: it is revealed that within Ted’s cotton stuffing lies a heart and a conscience, with which Ted ceases to be a one-joke character and is transformed into a fully fleshed out individual. He is convincing as a character and in his environment, so much so that there are points in the film where one forgets that Ted is a walking, talking teddy bear. I think that’s quite a feat.

In buddy cop comedy “The Other Guys,” Wahlberg displayed a knack for comic delivery while having to hold his own against Will Ferrel, a natural at the art. In “Ted,” he must hold his own against a potty-mouthed teddy bear, which I think might be a more difficult task. But he succeeds, and their characters share an oddly compelling relationship built on dependence and a desperation to remain young. Their journey throughout the film is quite touching, and delivers a heartwarming message about friendship and growing up. I didn’t think I’d ever say that about a Seth MacFarlane project, but there you go.

I’m curious to see where MacFarlane’s directing career will go from here. “Ted” is similar in tone to his animated television shows, and I wonder if his second feature will be the same. If so, I’m sure it will provide many laughs. If not, it would be nice seeing MacFarlane stepping outside of his comfort zone. Either way, I hope it’s as successful as “Ted," a side-splitting raunch-fest that should please fans of MacFarlane’s previous work and possibly a good number of non-fans too: this is funny stuff, and a promising directorial debut from a man of many talents. Oh, I feel I should issue a warning: no matter how much your kids beg and plead for you to take them to see the new teddy bear movie, for god's sake don’t buy them a ticket unless you’re willing to have their innocence snatched away in an instant. I warned you.


Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

“The Dark Knight Rises” opens not with a whimper but with an ominous crack of heart-stopping thunder. In the clouded skies looming large over a desolate landscape in central Asia, a CIA plane manned by a cocky agent and three handcuffed mercenaries is hijacked by its prisoners, suspended nose-down in mid-air from a second, much larger plane that swoops in from above, torn apart piece by piece and finally sent hurtling down towards the grassy hills standing miles below. There are two survivors of the crash, one of whom is the villainous Bane (Tom Hardy, “Warrior”), who, with a blubbering captive in tow, hangs from a wire attached to the second plane, which soars off into the horizon, where Gotham City lies unprepared for what is hotly approaching. As Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman warns our costumed hero in a later scene, “There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne.” What a stirring and destructive storm it is.

This sequence, like so many in “The Dark Knight Rises,” is a stunning, dizzying and goose bump-inducing watch. It’s like something out of a James Bond movie, but on a larger scale. It boldly displays director Christopher Nolan’s preference for practical effects and stunt-work over computer-generated jiggery pokery, along with Hans Zimmer’s booming score and of course Wally Pfister’s staggering cinematography. It introduces terrorist Bane as a fearsome, hulking figure of brute force and cunning tactic. As played with startling physicality by Hardy, Bane is a sinister presence, his face obscured behind a respiratory mask that pumps his lungs full of life-sustaining anaesthetic and muffles his British-accented voice. This opening set-piece, when previewed to select audiences last December, was the recipient of widespread complaints regarding the incomprehensibility of Hardy’s wheezy line delivery. Rest assured that Bane’s voice has been altered and fixed, and much of his speech approaches crystal clarity, with the odd garbled line here and there.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is the concluding chapter of Nolan’s billion-dollar Batman trilogy, which rejuvenated and reinvented the superhero mould in 2005 with “Batman Begins” and went on to climb to unprecedented new heights in 2008 with “The Dark Knight.” In the closing moments of the series’ second entry, you should recall, Batman decided to take the fall for the vengeance-sparked murders committed by the late District Attorney Harvey “Two Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose Dent Act would effectively rid Gotham City’s streets of organised crime. Eight years later, Gotham is almost entirely crime-free thanks to the Dent Act, with Dent’s murderous actions reluctantly unrevealed by the noble Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”).

Batman, meanwhile, has remained hidden from the public eye since that fateful night, condemned by the citizens of Gotham as the murderer of their beloved White Knight. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, “The Fighter”), now an injured recluse silently hobbling through the master bedroom and marble hallways of a mansion he never leaves, has hung up his cape and cowl and turned into a rarely glimpsed shadow of his former self. “We all know he’s holed up with eight-inch fingernails and peeing into Mason jars,” snarkily comments a slimy board member, surely in reference to that infamously secretive movie mogul Howard Hughes.

Two characters, both new faces in the franchise, stir Bruce from his long-standing stupor and spring him back into action. One is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (a pseudonym that curiously goes unspoken), a dexterous cat burglar with feline-like flexibility who sneakily swipes an item close to Bruce’s heart. The other is Bane, who is discovered to be assembling an army of AK-47-wielding revolutionists in the sewers of Gotham City, for which he has plans of catastrophic proportions. I should also mention Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “50/50”), a young but wise rookie cop whose inexperience is compensated for by an uncanny instinct for trouble and a stubborn, heroic determination. Blake essentially acts as our secondary protagonist, and is earnestly performed with a convincing drive and spirit by Gordon-Levitt.

For a Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” bravely features very little of Batman - in a picture that lasts a staggering 165 minutes, the Batsuit is given somewhere around 30 minutes of screen-time. For reasons I wouldn’t dare explain, the caped crusader is missing from action for the vast majority of the film’s second act, during which Bale’s co-stars take the mantle as Bane’s master-plan is set in horrible motion. There goes another thing I wouldn’t dare explain: I believe it would be much more dramatically enriching to watch Bane’s heinous scheme and the unbridled horrors contained therein unfold on the big screen with little-to-no prior knowledge. Its meticulously explored themes of despair versus hope, the body versus the spirit and good versus evil would pack more of a hard-hitting punch.

Fans of spectacle will be pleased to know that Bane’s plan leads to a grand assemblage of action-packed set-pieces, all of which are majestic in scope and breathtaking in execution. There’s that opening sequence, with its stomach-churning altitude and daring complexity. A build-up to an attack on a jam-packed football stadium, in which a small boy ominously chants the Star Spangled Banner into a microphone, is extraordinary in its raw power, and comes with an explosive pay-off. In a pulse-pounding climax, Batman gets to play with a new toy: a flying vehicle aptly named The Bat, which Batman sharply maneuvers between towering skyscrapers as he avoids the path of incoming missiles. Nolan’s film rivals Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in the field of lip-smacking razzle-dazzle, but here I was more emotionally invested in the action: I cared, and at times I was moved.

“The Dark Knight Rises" is more action-oriented than its immediate predecessor, but lacks that film’s sizzling dark humour: “The Dark Knight Rises" is an increasingly grim experience with an overwhelming sense of apocalyptic doom about it. This is reflected in the head villain: while the Joker of “The Dark Knight" was a cackling creator of anarchy and chaos, Bane is a creator of destruction and is seemingly bereft of a sense of humour. Several scenes in the film are also quite harrowing to watch, as Bane’s penchant for back-breaking brutality is unleashed in unflinching style by Nolan and crew. I strongly suspect that the BBFC will receive countless emails from angry parents regarding whether or not the film’s (admittedly bloodless) violence is suitable in a 12A-rated feature - if it happened for “The Dark Knight” four years ago, it will most certainly happen for “The Dark Knight Rises.”

As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale gives a performance that is understated and, as it was in “The Dark Knight,” will most likely be underappreciated by many. Here is a man boundlessly dedicated to upholding the safety of his city to the point of obsession, screaming into thin air with rabid fury upon discovering that Gotham is to be destroyed. Here is a man who is to be admired for his selfless devotion to his quest for peace. Here is a hero we as an audience can get behind and root for, and maybe even shed a tear for. Tom Hardy, whose eyes and voice are mercifully expressive, makes for a ferociously menacing antagonist, intimidating both physically and mentally, but mostly physically - Bane is the first adversary that Batman finds not only matches his supreme fighting power but surpasses it, as shown in a devastating fistfight.

Anne Hathaway, who was inspired casting, wields an untamed swagger as Catwoman, a femme fatale in the purest, most devious sense of the term: she pounces from villain to anti-heroine at a click of her functionally questionable high heels. Marion Cotillard is endearingly strong and tenacious as Miranda Tate, a do-gooder executive of the Wayne Enterprises board for whom Bruce begins to develop feelings. But it is loyal butler Alfred, as played once again by the great Michael Caine, who is the heart of “The Dark Knight Rises:” he treats Bruce like his own son and protects him like a loving father would. In a poignant, heartfelt exchange at the bottom of the Wayne Manor staircase, Alfred tearfully pleads for Bruce to cease his exploits as Batman before he gets hurt, before Bane gets the better of him. We share his sorrow, and our eyes are as tearful as Alfred’s.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a profoundly powerful, thematically prosperous and emotionally exhausting superhero epic. For almost three hours of utterly enthralling comic-book entertainment, Nolan’s film shreds the nerves and stimulates the intellect, providing us with a story that is intelligently written, ambitious in scope, ceaselessly compelling and, in many ways, inspiring. It is a deftly handled, completely satisfying conclusion to the Batman trilogy, a trilogy that now goes down in history as one of the greatest to ever be showcased on the big screen. This is an extraordinary piece of work that should be championed not just for its aspirations but also for its execution, which is difficult to fault given the awesome grandeur of it all. Once again, Christopher Nolan takes a sledgehammer to the so-called boundaries of the mega-budget studio blockbuster.


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

You will receive no prizes for correctly predicting the ending of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” This is for two reasons. One is that it is all too obvious that the film will slavishly adhere to that age-old rule of romantic cinema that a man and a woman who spend an abundance of time together cannot simply remain friends. Thank you, “When Harry Met Sally." The other is that guessing that the end of the world shall occur at the end of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is hardly something to gloat about - the clue, I think you’ll find, is in the film’s title.

But whether or not the untimely obliteration of our entire planet really does occur at this rom-com disaster movie’s conclusion I shall not explicitly state, for that would be cruel of me. What I will say is that in the film’s ending, writer-director Lorene Scafaria (scriber of indie-rock romance “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), if she will allow me to be so crudely graphic, displays a pair of shiny steel balls, for which I admired her, even if the rest of her directorial debut is - like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist" - a so-so affair.

In the film’s beginning, we are listening to a radio broadcast, in which it is announced that Armageddon shall happen in three weeks time. This will be at the hands of a 70-mile-wide asteroid dubbed Matilda, which is hurtling its way through space in the direction of our tiny planet. A space-shuttle was launched by the government in an attempt to decimate the world-ending space rock, but, as this is not a Michael Bay blockbuster starring Bruce Willis, the mission failed, meaning the asteroid will hit its target and mankind will soon perish. Don’t worry, though: the radio station assures us that they will be playing all our classic rock favourites during the countdown to the end of days.

One of the many millions listening to this broadcast is Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), an insurance salesman whose wife leaves him for another man once the news hits. Dodge is left alone in his East Coast apartment, hopelessly sinking into depression as the world outside takes advantage of the approaching catastrophe and descends into mindless, sex-crazed anarchy. Dodge’s Hispanic maid, however, appears to be completely oblivious to the impending apocalypse. “I’ll see you next Wednesday, Mr. Petersen,” she says as she leaves his apartment, wearing the kindest of smiles. You’ve gotta love Hispanic maids.

Dodge has a chipper young English downstairs neighbour named Penny (Keira Knightley, “A Dangerous Method”), whose douchebag boyfriend caused her to miss the last flight that would take her to see her family. One night, as Dodge spots her sobbing on the fire escape, Penny and Dodge form an unlikely friendship and arrange a deal: if Penny helps him find his high school sweetheart (whom he has just discovered was in love with him the whole time), Dodge will help her get back to her family. Oh, I should probably note: Penny is shown to be a narcoleptic, a character revelation that serves merely as a clunky plot device.

And thus “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" becomes a road movie, with Penny and Dodge, along with an abandoned terrier, traveling across the East Coast, first in Penny’s hybrid car, then in a stolen truck, and finally in a goofy-looking smart car. As with most road movies, we meet a cast of colourful characters along the way, including the overly friendly waiters of a restaurant named Friendsy’s (think a more manic T.G.I. Fridays, if you can), a curiously determined policeman, and a seemingly cordial trucker whom Dodge notices has a muddy spade sitting in the back of his truck.

These parts of the film are amusing and often inspire a giggle or two, and play out much like they would in any other comedy road movie. The only difference here is that we meet these crazy characters against a backdrop not dissimilar to that of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” a significantly less comedic apocalyptic drama also involving a planetary collision. Therein lies the problem with “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World:” on the one hand we have wacky character comedy and on the other we have the doom and gloom that naturally accompanies the end of the world. The two are showcased in abundance by Scafaria but don’t quite fit together, resulting in a tonal muddle.

Scafaria’s script leaps, bounds and pole-vaults back and forth between zany comedy and sombre drama with very little flow or rhythm. A supposedly hard-hitting early scene of suicide by jumping out of a window was met with a chuckle by my audience, as was a moment in which a character is unexpectedly shot through the throat by a hired assassin. The reason for the chuckles was, I suspect, the string of lighthearted comedy beats that preceded these violent incidents. Whether or not these two moments were in fact intended to be funny I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is this: if, like Scafaria’s script, you keep on pole-vaulting back and forth between two spots time and again, eventually exhaustion will kick in.

As a romantic couple, Carrel and Knightley share about as much sexual chemistry as they possibly could, which I’m sad to report is, at the most, sparse. A scene in which they give into their baser urges is awkward, to say the least. But as a pair of misfit pals, they work much better on-screen together. As a man going through an end-of-life crisis, Carrel re-explores his usual schtick of deadpan skepticism and irritated disappointment, which remains effective. Knightley I think is more impressive: in this lively, kooky role, she displays a knack for comic timing and tear-soaked emotion, a far cry from the woodenness that has plagued much of her career thus far. Dodge and Penny are likable individuals, and for the most part I enjoyed their company in what are undoubtedly the darkest of days.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a film in which a happy ending is unlikely, but not entirely off the table. I left it feeling not unhappy but dissatisfied. I was unsure of the sort of film I had just watched: was it a black comedy, a comedy-drama or a drama that just happens to feature oodles of comical scenes? Scafaria can’t seem to make up her mind, though to be fair to her this is her first work as a director, so her handling of tone may improve in future projects. This, however, is a muddle, but a muddle that nevertheless supplies a few laughs, a tender conclusion and two fine performances at its centre. So, for Miss Scafaria at least, the end of the world is not quite nigh. Sorry to disappoint a few sandwich board-wearers.


Sunday, 8 July 2012

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Scrat, the wordless, twitchy, bushy-tailed hero of the “Ice Age” franchise. A sabre-toothed squirrel, he spends every hour of every day embarking on perilous quests to find and obtain his one true love, a hazel-coloured acorn, always to no avail. In the first three entries of the animated series, Scrat’s many misadventures saw him crushed by clashing glaciers, snapped at by a school of ferocious piranhas and betrayed by a possible mate. And now, Scrat opens the series’ fourth entry as an entire continent splits in two beneath his paws, and as he falls 4,000 miles to the centre of the Earth. I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that by the end of “Continental Drift,” in spite of all the effort he puts in and all the pain he endures, Scrat is yet to obtain his precious acorn. Poor, luckless little Scrat.

Of course, Scrat is not the real hero of the “Ice Age” franchise, his comical exploits serving as a counterpoint to the main action of each film. The real heroes are prehistoric pals Manny the stern and sensible woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Diego the sarcastic and agile sabre-toothed cat (voiced by Denis Leary), and Sid the slow-witted and butterfingered sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo). Unlikely as it may seem, this oddball bunch have been close, loyal friends since they met and teamed up in the first “Ice Age,” which was enjoyable entertainment for all the family. Since then, they have survived a world-scale meltdown and a revival of the dinosaur species. Now, in yet another enjoyable adventure, they’re in the middle of the splitting of the Pangaea continent, which means either these characters are ageless or they have at some unseen point discovered a means of time travel.

No matter. The “Ice Age" franchise has never been a reliable source of historical accuracy, and “Continental Drift" is no exception - I strongly suspect that The Wanted’s number-one hit “Chasing the Sun" was available for play at a time when woolly mammoths were throwing pool parties. At times, “Continental Drift" takes the franchise into the realms of fantasy: it is mentioned that unicorns once existed and, most notably, our heroes have a run-in with a rocky island filled with devious Sirens, the mythical sea creatures of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” This scene is inspired, and executed with the franchise’s reputable knack for rib-tickling comedy and visual invention. You’ve never seen Sirens like these before.

You will recall that towards the conclusion of the last installment, “Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” Manny’s wife, Ellie (voiced by Queen Latifa), had a baby girl mammoth called Peaches. Well, Peaches (voiced by Keke Palmer) is now a teenager, and with that naturally comes hormones and rebellion: Peaches develops a crush on local mammoth Ethan (voiced by Drake), who is part of the cool crowd. Manny is most displeased when seeing them together, as any father would be, and the two argue. Immediately after their falling out, the ground beneath their feet begins to quake and crack. The continental drift has begun. Manny, along with Sid and Diego, is separated from his wife and daughter, stuck on an ice raft that drifts off towards the horizon, where a vicious storm awaits.

On the other side, their melting raft is invaded by pirates of several different species, led by the ruthless, crooked-toothed giant ape Captain Gutt (voiced by Peter Dinklage). Gutt’s pirate ship is a gigantic iceberg with towering trees protruding from its deck, acting as masts. Its waving flag is made out of a live badger with a skull and crossbones painted onto its black fur. The iceberg can be steered, though I’m not quite sure I understand the mechanics of such a feat. Gutt requests, nay demands, that Manny and the gang forget their life back home and join his ragtag crew - he does so through a jolly, boastful song and dance number, always a dependable tactic of persuasion.

But Manny and the gang refuse, escape captivity and send Gutt’s ship hurtling to the bottom of the ocean, sailing away on one of its icy leftovers. Reluctantly joining them is sabre-toothed cat Shira (voiced by Jennifer Lopez), Gutt’s first mate who may very well become Diego’s first mate too, if you know what I mean. Ahem. Oh, also joining them is Sid’s cantankerous grandmother (voiced by the delightful Wanda Sykes), who was snoozing away in the inside of a nearby tree attached to the original raft. The “Ice Age” franchise is known for its colourful characters, and Granny fits the bill to a tee: she’s batty, spirited, oblivious, toothless and has a sperm whale best friend named Precious, who may or may not be imaginary.

As our heroes attempt to get back to their crumbling home with Gutt and his crew (whose second ship they ingeniously steal) in hot pursuit, Ellie and Peaches journey to the bridge Manny swore he would meet them at when he returned. They travel with their inter-species herd, which includes Ethan and his partying pals. Ethan asks that Peaches stop seeing her best friend, a neurotic molehog named Lewis (voiced by Josh Gad), who has a crush on Peaches (the biological implications of which are best left unexplored). This part of the plot is much less engaging than Manny and the gang’s accidental seafaring and occasional swashbuckling, but it teaches heartwarming values about loyalty and friendship, and I can’t fault it for that.

The first “Ice Age” was released 10 years ago, a time when computer animated features were just starting to find their feet. Revisit the film, and you may notice that its animation, created by Blue Sky Studios, is (rather aptly) primitive in its design, even when compared to “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.,” both released the previous year. A decade on, the technology behind the art of computer animation has evolved by an extraordinary degree, as can be seen in “Continental Drift”: the visuals of the latest entry in the “Ice Age” series are a thing of staggering, richly detailed beauty, comparable to the most recent works of Pixar, the studio always at the forefront of the ever-evolving medium.

Each individual hair on the four woolly legs of Manny the mammoth waves in the wind with startling realism. Scrat the sabre-toothed squirrel jerks and twitches with such fluidity and energy. When characters brawl they have a convincing, weighty physicality to them, and when they communicate and interact the effect is seamless. I usually don’t comment on the look of computer-animated films in much detail unless something about their technique is truly unique - the capabilities of computer animators are simply taken for granted nowadays. But here, I was impressed, and I found myself struck by how far the medium has leapt in the past decade or so. Animators of the digital age, you’ve done good.

As directed by Steve Martino (“Horton Hears a Who!”) and Mike Thurmeier (the previous “Ice Age”), “Continental Drift” is lively, energetic and bounds along at the pace of a sabre-toothed cat. Much like its predecessors (or should I say ancestors?), it is filled with lighthearted action and slapstick comedy, much of which is witty and creative (did you know that mammoths can use their tusks to swordfight?). Its dialogue can be clever, providing for both the younger audience and their parents. “When you drink water through your trunk does it taste like boogers?” Ellie is innocently questioned by a spritely young bird. “Uhh, no,” is her response. “Well, sometimes.” Reader, I laughed.

With a 94-minute runtime, “Ice Age: Continental Drift” passes by quickly, and entertains while it lasts. It made me laugh many more times than I’d care to mention, for I am almost a generation on from the film’s target audience. It does not feature the sturdiest of narratives and it may well prove to be our heroes’ least memorable adventure, but it is a pleasantly amusing watch and, oh boy, it made me laugh. I’m curious to see where the franchise will go from here if 20th Century Fox decide to take it any further. If they do, two things are for certain: historical accuracy will be blissfully ignored, and Scrat will still be tirelessly searching for that cursed acorn.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

“The Amazing Spider-Man” is a reboot of a blockbusting franchise that got off to a good start with “Spider-Man” in 2002, web-slung to towering new heights with “Spider-Man 2” in 2004, and lost its footing with “Spider-Man 3” in 2007. While each of those films were helmed by horror maestro Sam Raimi, this redo is directed by indie newbie Marc Webb, who may or may not have been hired for his eerily appropriate surname. Webb was a good choice: he displays a deft hand at directing drama, romance and action in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and balances them with profound ease and impressive skill. Once again, a “Spider-Man” franchise gets off to a good start. I look forward to its inevitable sequel and look warily upon its probable threequel.

The Peter Parker, and indeed Spider-Man, of Raimi’s trilogy was played by Tobey Maguire, who was 27 years of age when he first played the super-powered high-schooler. In Webb’s film, Peter is played by Andrew Garfield, who is now 28 years old. In spite of the one-year advantage Maguire had over Garfield in playing a teen, I found Garfield more convincing in the role: the L.A.-born English actor, utterly enchanting as Eduardo Saverin in David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” has one of those faces that looks perpetually young or, more specifically, adolescent. Teenage girls could take him home to show daddy, and daddy wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

We all know the story. Peter Parker, socially inept science geek, is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and gains arachnid-themed special abilities. In Raimi’s 2002 version, Peter was bitten while attending a field trip to a genetics laboratory. Here, the scenario is a little different: Peter is bitten while snooping around the private labs of Oscorp Industries to find clues about the mysterious disappearance of his parents, both scientists, many years ago. Peter has been living in the suburbs with his beloved Aunt May (Sally Field, “Forrest Gump”) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, “The West Wing”) since mum and dad without warning left him in their care. Uncle Ben, of course, plays a vital part in Peter’s development as a person and as a hero, and teaches him a lesson he will never forget.

Peter wakes up to find he has powers beyond his wildest dreams. On a subway train, he inadvertently beats up a gang of low-life thugs, the palm of his hand hopelessly stuck to a metal pole, which he accidentally and clumsily dislodges. In the Parker bathroom, he discovers that he no longer knows his own strength, shooting out the entire contents of a toothpaste tube with a single squeeze and yanking off the knob of a tap while casually turning it, causing water to gush out at him. He experiments with his powers and learns to harness them. He cannot, however, resist using them to humiliate Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka, “Piranha 3DD”), the school bully, who in an earlier scene beat Peter up for no good reason. Peter gets his revenge in glorious, basketball hoop-destroying fashion.

As masked vigilante Spider-Man, Peter becomes a hero of New York City, but not to Police Captain Stacy (Denis Leary, “Ice Age”). Stacy sees Spider-Man as a crook, as a fiend, as an amateur trying to do his job for him. On that last part, he is correct. Comic-book fans will know that Captain Stacy is the father of young Gwen Stacy, who is here played by Emma Stone (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”). Gwen is one of Peter’s classmates and serves the same role that Kirsten Dunst did in the previous three “Spider-Man” films as Peter’s girlfriend, Mary-Jane Watson. I much preferred Gwen to Mary-Jane, who Raimi always left dangling helplessly from something or other. Gwen is smart, funny and heroic, unafraid of bonking a big mutant reptile over the head with a golden trophy.

Ah yes, that big mutant reptile. This is the Lizard, the villain of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” He is the alter-ego of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans, “Anonymous”), a brilliant scientist working in the field of cross-species genetics. Connors is obsessed with regaining his right arm, which he lost many years ago and hopes to regrow by injecting himself with lizard DNA (lizards have startling healing powers, apparently, and can regrow their tails). One fateful night, he takes a chance with the serum and soon transforms into a snarling monster fitted with a slithering tail and scaly green skin. Rampaging down a suspension bridge and sending automobiles flying hither and thither, he looks like a mini Godzilla, albeit without the snout and with the ability to speak eloquently worded sentences.

It is the Lizard’s evil plan to turn every citizen of New York City, and probably the world too, into a big mutant reptile, just like him. This, in his mad mind, would create a perfect world, free from sickness and human frailty. This decision came a little too abrupt for my taste: Dr. Curt Connors was, as far as I could tell, well-meaning and level-headed, refusing to experiment on live animals when his serums were not quite ready. Once he transforms into the Lizard he is all of a sudden an unthinking, unblinking psychopath, be he in scaly or non-scaly form. It is up to Spider-Man to thwart his plan, using his super-strength, Spidey-sense and web-shooters to his advantage. Notably, Spider-Man’s webbing is no longer organically produced like it was in Raimi’s films, instead shooting out from ingeniously designed devices strapped to his wrists, like it was in the original Marvel comics.

This inevitably leads to a tense situation in which Spidey’s webbing is no longer available, leaving him helplessly hurtling down the side of a skyscraper, unable to web-sling himself to safety. Don’t worry, though: somebody catches him. The battle between Spidey and the Lizard culminates atop the pointed peak of Oscorp Industries, where an electrifying, heart-stopping and world-endangering race against time ensues. An earlier scuffle inside the corridors, classrooms and library of Peter’s easily demolished high school is equally thrilling, and more than a little funny - deliberately, I mean.

Webb, once a music video maker, shows himself to be a capable creator of spectacle, delivering an action-packed blockbuster soaked not just in special effects but in practical effects too. Featurettes I found on YouTube show that much of the web-slinging is achieved through carefully executed stuntwork, and I believe I spotted the ever-awesome art of parkour at some points in the film. Most of it, though, does appear to be computer-generated, allowing us, through impossibly intricate camerawork, to follow Spidey as he catapults himself through the insides of tower cranes and elegantly glides between the concrete skyscrapers of NYC. Sometimes we are Spider-Man, Webb showing us the sky-high web-slinging from Spider-Man’s dizzying point of view. At times, it is heart-racing, and at others it is quite beautiful. One wonders, though, how well Peter can see out of those yellow-tinted lenses. I suspect his Spider-sense does some of the work there.

This is Webb’s second feature, coming after his 2009 indie hit “(500) Days of Summer.” That was a romantic comedy, and an authentically sentimental one with a convincing central romance. The same can be said for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” at the centre of which is another convincing romance. This is between Peter and Gwen, two young lovebirds whose scenes together are not cheesy but are touching and raise a heartfelt smile. Peter’s awkward proposal that Gwen go out with him, for example, is very sweet: “We could, uhh... or, if you don’t want to, we could, err...” he says, fidgeting. “Either one’s fine,” she replies, with the wryest of smiles. Their first kiss, taking place atop the roof of Gwen’s apartment building, is passionate and spontaneous, coming after Peter reveals a secret to her. Garfield and Stone, both up-and-comers of Hollywood, are a spirited and good-looking pair, and share the kind of bouncy chemistry Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel did in “(500) Days of Summer.” I think I loved Peter and Gwen just as much as I loved those two.

A charismatic screen presence, Garfield makes for an instantly likeable Peter Parker right from the second we see him squeezing his hand into his school locker, just barely pushing aside the canoodling couple leaning against its door. Peter is nerdy, but not too nerdy: he conjures up intricate algorithms with a quick scribble of his pen, but owns a skateboard, and rides it skillfully. He’s lanky and scrawny and fashions an uncombed Tintin quiff. When sliding on his blue-and-red spandex suit, his confidence grows, and he transforms into the chuckling, trash-talking hero we know and love from those classic comic books we used to read under the covers in the dead of night with a torch shining brightly on the vibrantly coloured pages. Garfield is perfect, almost inspired casting, both as Peter and as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Garfield struggles to shake himself from Spidey’s web. One hopes he can, though.

Comparisons to Raimi’s original trilogy, so fresh in many viewers’ minds, are only inevitable, and I’m aware I have made several in this review. I will say that “Spider-Man 2,” with its riveting action sequences and deliciously menacing villain in the form of Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, remains the high point of the “Spider-Man” franchise, and that “The Amazing Spider-Man” is about on a par with the first “Spider-Man,” which I enjoyed very much. There are times in Webb’s film when it is a true marvel to watch and to experience: it is a shameless summer blockbuster with an undying ability to entertain its audience. As I said earlier, I look forward to its sequel, which won’t have the added pressure of retelling a story we watched being told so recently. That is, unless the villain is the Green Goblin...

Note: I saw the film in 2D, so I cannot comment on the 3D. However, given that much of the film takes place at night-time and in dark and dingy sewers, I’m assuming that the black-tinted glasses would make for quite the eyesore. Save some dosh: go for the 2D.


Sunday, 1 July 2012

Friends with Kids

“Friends with Kids” is an effective comedy and an even more effective drama, though technically it’s more of a comedy. More specifically, it is a romantic comedy ostensibly not about romance but about parenthood and child-rearing, two topics that - in spite of and because of the hardships that naturally accompany them - provide direct access to a whole wombful of comical situations (poopy diapers, late-night wailing and the such). But “Friends with Kids” ultimately is a film about romance in much the same way that “When Harry Met Sally” was, if I were to dare make such an unfair comparison: it is a film about romance specifically because it is not a film about romance and because, inevitably, romance wins out in the end.

The film focuses on Jason and Julie, a very likeable pair of thirtysomething best friends. Jason, a successful advertising executive and commitment-phobic womaniser, is played by Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”). Julie, an investment advisor and loving player of the “would you rather...?” game, is played by Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”). Jason and Julie live under the same roof, in a swanky apartment building in Manhattan. They have been close, supportive BFFs ever since college, but the prospect of sharing a romance has never once crossed their minds. They are strictly platonic, and comfortably so.

Jason and Julie share four good friends, consisting of two married couples who make up half the cast of “Bridesmaids” (“Friends with Kids” was in fact filmed well before that comedy smash-hit began shooting). Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig), perpetually sex-mad, live in Manhattan, while Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd, with a dodgy American accent), more placid and settled, live in Brooklyn. In a late-night dinner date, it is show that both couples’ relationships are healthy and at the very least contented, but then again they are yet to take that dreaded plunge into the world of babydom. That’s about to change.

Four years later, Jason and Julie quietly observe this change during Jason’s disastrous birthday party at Leslie and Alex’s Brooklyn apartment, which now looks like the result of an explosion in a Toys R Us store. Leslie’s constant mothering of their young child has left her exhausted, and Alex has taken to locking himself in the bathroom in a desperate attempt to avoid his family. Ben and Missy, whose kid is younger than that of Leslie and Alex, have turned to drink and have grown increasingly resentful towards each other. On the walk back home, Jason and Julie theoretically discuss the peculiar prospect of raising a child without the added stress of having to sustain a relationship, and soon decide that that’s what they’ll do together: have a kid without “all the shit that comes with marriage.”

This results in one of several rib-tickling moments scattered throughout “Friends with Kids,” as Julie and Jason attempt to conceive a child. They opt for the more traditional method, i.e. sexual intercourse, with no turkey basters entering the equation. They start by watching a sleazy porn movie together, which doesn’t turn them on so much as stir up verbal criticism of said movie. Kissing proves awkward, so they decide not to kiss. Julie giggles uncontrollably as Jason begins to... well, do the no-pants dance. It’s quite touching, in its own little way. But the deed is done, and nine months later out pops a baby boy, whom they name Joe.

The idea is that Jason and Julie, without being romantically involved, take scheduled turns at nurturing Joe, promising to be “100% committed half of the time.” They are allowed to date others, so long as the baby remains fully cared for and is brought up in a loving, happy environment. Upon hearing of their friends’ plan of having their cake and eating it, Ben, Missy and Leslie believe it to be a horrible idea. “They are so fucked,” Ben and Missy whisper to each other while sneaking off into their kitchen. Alex disagrees: “It’s a brave new world, honey,” he tells his wife. “Today, there are test-tube babies and surrogate babies and Jon & Kate Plus 8.” Fair enough.

Written and directed by Westfeldt (in a more-than-capable directorial debut), “Friends with Kids” plays out like a much more foul-mouthed and vaginally-focused work by the late Nora Ephron. I mentioned “When Harry Met Sally” earlier, and I think content-wise it is a fair comparison: “Friends with Kids,” like the Ephron-scripted 1989 rom-com, explores the boundaries of platonic friendship through the eyes of two affectionate best pals and comes to a conclusion that is as predictable as it is inevitable. I don’t mind this: rom-coms are by nature predictable, and for one to veer off in an unexpected direction would itself be predictable. That’s a screenwriter’s dilemma right there.

What I do mind is when a rom-com goes down the predictable route and struggles to properly convince me that that’s the route its characters would take. “Friends with Kids” is such a film, establishing characters who are believable and convincing, and performed so, and then lining up hoops for them to slavishly jump through during a third act that feels forced and inauthentic. It’s odd seeing these people made to attempt the same obligatory hoops previously cartwheeled through by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Ashton Kutcher, or indeed Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan all the way back in ‘89.

I liked Jason and Julie, both as individuals and as a pairing. The two share an appealing chemistry when on-screen together, performed with charm and pitch-perfect comic timing by Scott and Westfeldt. Jason is snarky but good-hearted, and Julie is sweet and sensitive. They make for a good parenting duo too, lending a helping hand to each other without a word of objection. Naturally, things aren’t so warm and fuzzy when they begin dating others (Jason dates a large-breasted Broadway dancer played by Megan Fox, while Julie dates a well-endowed construction contractor played by Edward Burns). Jealousy prevails, and thus their characters become slaves to formula.

But whatever. For much of its runtime, “Friends with Kids” is a pleasant watch and a pleasing alternative to the charmless romantic dross that Hollywood so regularly likes to churn out nowadays. It is cleverly written by Westfeldt, whose glowing script offers many witty observations on love and relationships not dissimilar to the ones that Ephron so frequently displayed in her 29-year career as a screenwriter. Thanks to its cast, comparisons to “Bridesmaids” are sadly almost unavoidable: “Friends with Kids” isn’t the laugh-out-loud riot that Paul Feig’s film so successfully was, and deliberately so. While in the end it chickens out and sheepishly adheres to the rom-com mould, it’s knowingly smart and generally amusing, and in some ways a little more sophisticated than Feig’s comedy behemoth.