Friday, 31 August 2012

Total Recall

Few will disagree that Paul Verhoeven’s planet-hopping, ultraviolent sci-fi classic “Total Recall” is utterly bonkers — those who do disagree need to order it on Netflix or buy the DVD/Blu-ray and watch it again, this time more closely. Loosely sprung from Philip K. Dick’s mind-boggling, reality-bending short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the wildly successful 1990 action blockbuster contains scenes, characters and ideas so intoxicatingly, head-spinningly bizarre that there are times it achieves the kind of blunt surreality that can be found in the stranger sequences of a David Cronenberg or David Lynch movie.

Take one memorable moment that sees Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscle-bound star, hiding within the mechanical body of a middle-aged lady whose detachable head is then used as an explosive device. An earlier scene has Schwarzenegger yanking a tracking device from the depths of his nasal cavity, in spite of the fact that the bug is three times the size of his nostril. One supporting character is a man with a clairvoyant conjoined twin who protrudes from his brother’s belly like a young kangaroo poking out from its mother’s pouch. And then there’s that famous Martian prostitute, the one whose bountiful bosom boldly challenges that age-old saying, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”


And now, in the summer of 2012, we have been given a needless, if perfectly harmless remake (from a studio named Original Films, no less), directed by “Underworld” helmer Len Wiseman. Fans will be pleased to know that this new-and-unimproved “Total Recall” boasts some of the more absurd elements of Verhoeven’s film, but this time they are notably tamer in presentation. For example, instead of encasing himself inside a human exoskeleton, leading man Colin Farrell disguises his appearance with a handy gizmo that projects a holographic image of another person’s head around his. The tracking device once lodged up Schwarzenegger’s nose is now in the inside of Farrell’s hand, removed with the aid of a shard of glass. As the presence of Martian mutants is done away with in this Earth-bound redo, the psychic Siamese twin is sadly nowhere to be seen. However, the triple-breasted hooker is here, even if the three amigos are held at bay by a thin leather strap. Oh how the nerds howl in disappointment.

It would be fair to say that Wiseman’s adaptation of Dick’s 1966 piece is much more of a straightforward chase movie than Verhoeven’s version — it’s much more slick and straight-faced than the goofily grotesque original. But to call the story of “Total Recall” straightforward would be misleading: by its very nature, it is narratively and thematically complex, playfully riding the fine line between fantasy and reality. And while this high-tech retread skips the head-scratching ambiguity of the 1990 film, it retains much of the conceptual intrigue of its classic source material. As any reader of his would know, a story plucked from the mind of Philip K. Dick is nothing if not intriguing.


Opening title-cards introduce the future world of Wiseman’s “Total Recall.” In the late-21st century, chemical warfare devastates our planet, rendering most of it uninhabitable. The human race is forced to live in two densely populated safe zones: the prosperous United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the oppressed Colony (formerly Australia). The designs of these areas call to mind the futuristic settings of two films also based on stories by Dick: the UFB, a towering cityscape circulated by fleeting hover-cars, is like the Washington, D.C. of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” and the Colony, with its rain-soaked alleyways and bustling marketplaces, is like the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”

Our seemingly unlikely hero, Douglas Quaid (Farrell), is a citizen of the Colony. Discontented with his dead-end job tightening screws onto robot soldiers in a UFB factory (accessed through the Fall, a gravity elevator that travels straight through the Earth in 17 minutes flat), Quaid decides to pay a visit to his local Rekall centre. There, his mind can be implanted with fictitious — but wholly convincing — memories of any kind, at a hefty price. He opts for the super-spy package and is hooked up to a memory-implanting machine. Cue mass confusion as Quaid is held at gunpoint by a Rekall employee, accused of being a real spy, and watches in horror as the room is stormed by a SWAT team, all of whom Quaid instinctively guns down with the speed of Jason Bourne. But he’s just a factory worker! How’d he do that?


Quaid (“I’m a nobody!”) soon finds himself at the centre of an explosive battle between the tyrannical Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”) and enigmatic resistance leader Matthias (Bill Nighy, “Wrath of the Titans”). His loving wife of seven years, Lori (Kate Beckinsale, wife of Wiseman), suddenly drops her American accent in favour of a much more sinister British accent and reveals herself to be an undercover agent working for Cohaagen. Just as bewildered as we are, Quaid goes on the run, joined by the woman of his dreams (literally), resistance member and former lover Melina (Jessica Biel, “New Year’s Eve”), while Doug’s (ex-)wife determinedly hunts them down like the T-1000.

Closely following each and every plot beat of Verhoeven’s film, Wiseman’s “Total Recall” frequently induces a feeling of deja vu. What sets the two apart, aside from the lack of appearances from a certain red planet, is that Wiseman’s film plays out much more like a series of high-octane chase sequences, which does have its merits: as he showed in “Die Hard 4.0," Wiseman is a capable director of action, and the many scenes predominantly featuring running and shooting and leaping and punching are all rather exciting. One heart-racing highlight of the film is a breakneck hover-car chase during which Quaid, in a tight spot, shuts off his vehicle’s magnetic suspension feature, sending the car plummeting down towards the ground hundreds of feet below.


And then there’s a climactic brawl fought inside (and outside) the Fall, with Quaid and Melina taking advantage of the shift in gravity once the lift tunnels its way to the Earth’s core. But by this stage, we’ve grown a little weary of all this running and shooting and leaping and punching. Hungry, we yearn for something more, something to really sink our teeth into. We do have Farrell, inarguably a superior actor to Schwarzenegger but perhaps not as bold a presence, and we can relish the richly detailed production design that brings the film’s future world to vibrant, spectacular life. What’s missing is a sense of humour and a political/social satire that really hits home, both key elements in the success of the 1990 film.

Without either of these, any remake of Verhoeven’s nigh-unbeatable sci-fi curiosity is guaranteed to seem a little lacklustre by sheer, almost unfair comparison. Wiseman’s certainly does, but its high-speed action, relentless pace and well-realised dystopian backdrop save it from tumbling into the cinematic abyss recently occupied by such dismal genre redos as “The Thing,” “The Wolf Man” and “Straw Dogs.” Arriving in theatres next year is a remake of another Verhoeven film, “Robocop,” and a remake of his “Starship Troopers” is also in the works. One hopes both projects will at the very least have the decency to be as efficiently diverting as Wiseman’s “Total Recall" and maybe have a bit of a sense of humour about themselves.

6/10

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Watch

Here is a film in which an alien menace is treated with indifference by those being menaced. “The Watch,” scribed by “Superbad” helmers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is a science-fiction comedy in which little green men (who aren’t so little) plan to annihilate all of mankind. A buddy film, it has four male leads whose characters speak with increasing frequency of one another’s genitals, learn of the impending alien invasion and then proceed to speak of the aliens’ genitals. Upon obtaining the dead body of an extraterrestrial, they do not alert the proper authorities or investigate the corpse, opting instead to dress it up in shades and a wig and pose for photos while waltzing with it.

This could be the central gag of “The Watch,” that a global attack from outer-space beings is seen by our protagonists as little more than a minor inconvenience and a source of amusement. A similar gag was at the centre of Edgar Wright’s horror-comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” in which two British slackers and their trio of mates have a rather nonchalant reaction to a zombie apocalypse. But no: “The Watch” attempts to cook up an air of mystery with its plot and then strives for suspense in its action-packed climax, doing so with not a shred of success - the timer may be ticking, but our pulses pound at a steady pace, all the while our funny bones are left thoroughly untickled.


“The Watch” sees its setting in the sleepy suburbs of Glenview, a small Ohio town described by our narrator as “the greatest town in the greatest country in the greatest planet in the whole universe.” This patriotic suburbanite is obsessive do-gooder Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller, “Tower Heist”), deputy secretary of the city council and proud founder of the Glenview Running Club and the Spanish Table at the community centre. Evan is also senior manager at the local Costco store, the name and products of which are flaunted to such a vast degree that the film effectively exists as a 102-minute advert for the international supermarket chain. Magnum condoms get quite the plug, I must say.

Tragedy strikes: the store’s overnight security guard, whom the script makes crystal clear is a Mexican immigrant, is murdered by an unseen intruder. His body is found the next morning in the back room, stripped of its skin and covered in green slime. Investigating police have no leads and - bizarrely - seem disinterested in the case. Distraught and seeking justice, Evan forms a neighbourhood watch, managing to recruit three spirited members of the community: loudmouth construction worker Bob (Vince Vaughn, “The Dilemma”), emotionally disturbed police force reject Franklin (Jonah Hill, “21 Jump Street”) and English divorcee Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, “The IT Crowd”).


Evan’s idea is that the Watch, as they call themselves, patrol the streets of Glenview at night and keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. His fellow Watchers have other ideas: drinking shots and playing pool in Bob’s bar/basement, for example. Soon enough, they stumble upon evidence that an otherworldly presence is in town: while driving, they hit a mysterious creature that promptly skitters off, and find a metallic, spherical object - about the size of a basketball - out of which blasts a deadly beam of light. The gang of course fool around with the device with reckless abandon, in the process blowing up a wooden barn and a farm animal quietly grazing in a field. That poor, innocent cow.

It becomes increasingly clear that an alien invasion is afoot. It also becomes clear that the aliens are already among us, posing as everyday people, like you and I. The logic behind this is flawed: the aliens are said to be stripping the skin of their victims for use as a human wetsuit, apparently an impeccable disguise. But in their true forms, all slimy and reptilian, the menacing monsters stand at least 7 ft tall, flaunt a whole mouthful of jagged fangs, and speak in voices that are inhumanly gravelly. The seamlessness of their transformation is never explained - surely a body of skin wouldn’t cover up such striking features. Did I miss something? Or am I overthinking this?


Anyway. “The Watch" is probably most comparable to “The ’Burbs,” Joe Dante’s 1989 tale of an everyday suburbanite who becomes obsessed with the peculiar goings-on of his new next-door neighbours. The morbid curiosity so convincingly performed by Tom Hanks in Dante’s black comedy never registers in “The Watch” as our leading quartet of peace-keeping Average Joes perilously investigate the alien threat. Without it, the film and its characters appear to be stuck on autopilot, a fate certainly not improved upon by the lifeless direction of “Hot Rod"'s Akiva Schaffer (one third of SNL songsters The Lonely Island, all of whom are rewarded with an inevitable cameo).

Rogen and Goldberg’s script, co-authored by Jared Stern (“Mr Popper’s Penguins”), consists almost entirely of four-letter words, the kind George Carlin proclaimed could never be said on TV. The R-rated dialogue, much of which sounds ad-libbed, benefits largely from the comic talents of our leading men, who perhaps ad-lib too much: many scenes featuring what appears to be the cast riffing off one another, and having an absolute ball by the looks of it, outstay their welcome by quite a stretch.


It doesn’t help matters much that Stiller and co are hopelessly typecast in their roles. Stiller is the dull and uptight straight man; Vaughn is fast-talking and obnoxious; Hill is slightly manic, bordering upon sociopathic. Much like the film, they bring nothing new to the table. But it is Ayoade, the foreign outsider in a group of well-established American funnymen, who proves the shining star of “The Watch.” Channeling the mega-nerdy persona of his character Moss from C4 sitcom “The IT Crowd,” the bespectacled, funky-haired Englishman is a joy to watch in a mostly joyless venture, and a quirky breath of fresh air in a group that is three-quarters too familiar. One trusts that Hollywood bosses take notice and cast Ayoade in a project worthier of his talents.

With the endearingly indecent “Superbad,” Rogen and Goldberg created the “Animal House” of the noughties. Now with “The Watch,” they attempt to create the modern-day “Ghostbusters,” doing so with such little inspiration. There are some laughs to be had - in spite of myself, I chuckled at a running gag concerning the textural similarities between the aliens’ blood and human semen - but far too often the script confuses wanton profanity and vulgarity for genuine wit. It is impressive, though, that talk of anal probes is kept to a minimum. Gold star for that, guys.

4/10

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Expendables 2

The villain of “The Expendables 2” is named Jean Vilain, and he lives up to the fiendish villainy hinted at by his name. How could he not? With a name like that, the life of an antagonist must be led. A stiff-lipped terrorist of vaguely Eastern European nationality, he is played by Belgian muscleman Jean-Claude Van Damme. Like the Terminator (or the Blues Brothers), Van Damme spends much of the movie with his eyes sinisterly shielded behind a pair of shades, even during one sequence set halfway down a dimly lit mine shaft. Scribbled on the tree trunk standing atop his shoulders is a tattoo of a goat’s head. “It is a symbol of the gods, the pet of Satan,” Vilain explains with devilish pride. Deadly with his hands and feet, he is a beast in combat. His trademark move? Plunging a knife into his opponent’s heart with the sole of his boot. Yikes.

Vilain’s master-plan: to steal five tons of weapons-grade plutonium and use it to bring the world to its knees. “Six pounds of pure plutonium is powerful enough to change the balance of the whole world,” he says, probably with his eyes lighting up, not that we can tell. “Imagine what five tons would do.” It is the job of our ragtag team of leathery-faced action heroes, elite mercenary squad the Expendables, to put a bloody end to Vilain’s evil scheme and to engage in half-witted male bonding when the explosive action comes to a brief halt. “Explosive” will prove a key word when discussing “The Expendables 2:” walk through a theatre past a screening of the film, chances are the ground will be quaking beneath your feet.


Wielding similar ambitions to its 2010 predecessor, “The Expendables 2” operates as a loving throwback to the old school action pictures of over two decades past. Fuelling its inspiration are such wham-bang ‘80s thrill-rides as “Commando,” “Cobra,” “Die Hard,” “Bloodsport” and the “Rambo" trilogy. Channeling their famously visceral nature, “The Expendables 2” is much more brawn than brain. And unlike the first “Expendables” movie, it does not suffer from the sense that if it weren’t for its impressive line-up of vintage action figures it would be residing at the bottom of a Blockbuster bargain bin. Director Simon West (“Con Air”) employs more technical skill here than leading man Sylvester Stallone did when directing the first film: for example, West, unlike Stallone, knows not to shoot his action in the midst of a 7.8 earthquake.

The film boldly brings together some of the genre’s most well-established and revered stars. Some are franchise newcomers, most are returning. Stallone (who wrote the film with Richard Wenk) is Barney Ross, burly leader of the Expendables. The rest of the team, each of whom handily serves his own individual role, are as follows: Jason Statham is blades specialist Lee Christmas; Jet Li is martial artist Yin Yang; Dolph Lundgren is sniper Gunner Jensen; Randy Couture is demolitions expert Toll Road; and Terry Crews is the ingeniously named weapons specialist Hale Caesar. Hey, if your surname is Caesar, your first son’s Christian name must be Hale, or possibly Julius.


There are two new recruits: tech whiz Maggie, played by Yu Nan (a female!), and fresh-faced sniper Billy the Kid, played by rising star Liam Hemsworth. In an early scene, young Billy pulls Barney to the side and talks of his plans to leave the team, speaking with fond words of the beloved girlfriend waiting for him back in Paris, a fatal sign sure to be spotted by any self-respecting action hound. Returning with larger roles from last time round are Bruce Willis as enigmatic CIA agent Mr. Church and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench, Barney’s rival and occasional ally. Also stepping into the action is Chuck Norris, whose appearance sees him “hilariously" indulging in the seven-year-old internet meme ironically proclaiming him to be a godlike being. Suffice to say, his scenes (all three of ‘em!) are... discouraging.

Yet there is strange, irresistible pleasure in the presence of this aged action man, as is there in having the rest of the muscle-bound cast for on-screen company. Their collaboration and interaction, the primary appeal of the movie, wields the star-studded magic of Steven Soderbergh’s crime caper ensemble piece “Ocean’s Eleven,” but with a few heavy dollops of nostalgia added to the mix. Watching such icons of the action genre squeeze triggers, flex muscles, fling grenades and swing knuckles as a collective whole, particularly during the super-noisy climax in which all leading men (and woman) take part, carries the power to transform any fan of ‘80s beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups into a giddy teen foaming at the mouth. And this time round the collaborative awesomeness is thankfully not undone by murky lighting and needlessly jittery camerawork.


The all-important action element is expectedly bigger than that of the first movie, and quite possibly even more destructive. The many booming set-pieces are achieved practically, flaunting real men performing real stunts, with the occasional computer graphic slipping through the cracks. A lengthy, fiery 15-minute prologue sets the balls-to-the-wall mood, seeing the Expendables bursting their way into an Asian terrorist hideout in makeshift tanks all guns blazing, with heads exploding all around. Later, Barney intentionally crashes the Expendables’ official airplane into a cave filled with kidnapped miners with no possible way of knowing how many innocent civilians stand at its entrance. It’s a little undermining of the Expendables’ ultimate aim of stopping a terrorist madman that their methods of gung-ho heroism cause as much earth-shattering damage as - oh, I dunno - five tons of plutonium.

With such a grand plethora of scenes featuring nameless background characters being mercilessly and mindlessly slaughtered, the film unintentionally calls to mind the parodical genius of “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” in which we witness the friends and families of Dr. Evil’s slain henchmen in teary-eyed grieving. This brings us to the identity crisis at the centre of “The Expendables 2:” while at times completely sincere in its tributes to a long-gone cinematic era, it has a tendency to veer off into the territory of silly, “Planet Terror”-esque piss-takery. Stallone and West appear undecided on what sort of film they’re making: is it a stony-faced homage or a goofy parody forever winking at the audience? Their minds are never made up and, in the end, the film is kinda neither, kinda both, kind of a mixture of the two.


Taking the mickey or not, “The Expendables 2” is a significant improvement over its disappointing predecessor, a film whose dullness was irredeemable considering its rock-solid premise. The plot is a little more involving this time, with a theme of vengeance added to the mix (this time it’s personal and all that jazz): Vilain brutally murders one of the Expendables (no points for guessing who) and Barney swears bloody revenge. Its frequent action, drenched in testosterone, is more inventive and better shot: one creative use of a plane's propeller by Statham’s character, harking back to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is amusingly grisly. Best of all though, it’s much more fun, and it has a winning self-deprecating sense of humour about itself. “That thing belongs in a museum,” grunts Sly when setting eyes upon a rusty airplane way past its prime. Arnie cracks: “We all do.”

7/10

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

“The Bourne Legacy” is a “Bourne” movie without Bourne, but it is definitely a “Bourne” movie. About this there is no doubt. A franchise revival with a new hero and a new star, this Bourne-less fourth entry nevertheless follows its predecessors’ trusty template to a tee. We have a dangerous fugitive on the run from the CIA. A top secret creation of the American government, he now flees their grasp with a bewildered female companion in tow. He is gifted with superhuman abilities, though he is not strictly speaking a superhero. CIA directors stand cross-armed, facing rows of computer monitors on which operators scrutinise grainy surveillance footage from all over the globe in search of their man. But this man, he outwits them at every step, and he’s always at least five steps ahead.

Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin appears only in photographic form in “The Bourne Legacy,” but he is out there somewhere, and his legacy lives on. Boldly replacing him as our most-wanted hero is Aaron Cross, as played by Jeremy Renner (“Marvel Avengers Assemble”). Cross is a product of Operation Outcome, a Department of Defense black ops program with startling similarities to the previously explored Treadstone and Blackbriar. Like Bourne, Cross serves his superiors as an unstoppable killing machine: regularly feasting on blue and green pills that effectively upgrade his mental and physical abilities, he is cold, calculating and displays an impressive knack for mid-combat improvisation.


You may recall the public exposure of Treadstone and Blackbriar during the climax of the last installment, “The Bourne Ultimatum” - if not, no worry, as “The Bourne Legacy” smartly gives us a quick reminder. In an attempt to eradicate any chance of further unwanted exposure, it is decided by USAF Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton, “Moonrise Kingdom”) to shut down Operation Outcome and eliminate all assets with no mercy. This puts Cross in a position where he is to be blown to smithereens in snowy Alaska by a U-CAV: discovering he’s due for assassination, he effortlessly outsmarts the controllers of the missile-firing flying machine (with the less-than-willing help of an attacking wolf) and goes on the run.

He travels with a companion. This is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz, “The Deep Blue Sea”), the doctor assigned to assessing the mental and physical health of Operation Outcome’s operatives and prescribing them their all-important pills. To Marta, Cross is simply “Number Five.” Cross can’t help but laugh at this: 13 times they’ve met in three years, yet he was never anything more than a number to her. Marta is the sole survivor of a bloody massacre that makes for the film’s best scene: I will keep the details sparse, but it is a harrowing and haunting sequence that involves what we can assuredly assume is chemical brainwashing and features the very talented Ċ½eljko Ivanek.


Cross needs his fix. Without the pills, his brain will be turned to mush. He turns to Marta, who knows where to get some pills - halfway around the world, of course. Hot on their tail, the CIA send in LARX-03 (Louis Ozawa Changchien, “Predators”), a wordless super-soldier brainwashed to be bereft of remorse. The result is a lengthy, pulse-pounding chase comparable to the great Tangier chase in “Ultimatum.” Arriving at the climax of the film, this is a high-stakes pursuit atop the tin roofs of a Filipino shanty town and then through the streets below on speeding motorbikes. This LARX-03, he has the determination of The Terminator, and the personality of him too.

This sequence, like the action of “Supremacy” and “Ultimatum,” is edited with a frantic hyperactivity that serves to heighten the knuckle-biting tension of the situation. “Supremacy” and “Ultimatum” were directed by Paul Greengrass and edited by Christopher Rouse. “Legacy” is directed by Tony Gilroy and edited by his brother, John. Together, they successfully continue the widely championed grit of the franchise that notably influenced the transformation of the “Bond” films, another espionage franchise. They also maintain the franchise’s balance between cerebral and visceral entertainment, although I think “Legacy” tips ever so slightly in favour of the latter.


Gilroy (Tony, that is) served as screenwriter on each of the film’s predecessors. He knows the ins and outs of the “Bourne” universe, which shows in the faultless tonal consistency with which he writes “Legacy” - if anyone could keep the franchise sturdy on its feet, it was Gilroy. This is his third feature as a director, following quietly intense legal drama “Michael Clayton” and twisty-turny spy comedy “Duplicity.” He is perhaps not the master craftsman that Greengrass has shown himself to be, but Gilroy is nothing if not efficient. He does not necessarily copy Greengrass’ method, merely continuing the distinctive style he so excellently set for the franchise.

In “Michael Clayton,” Gilroy coaxed a cold, focused and engaging performance out of leading man George Clooney. Here, he does the same for Renner, who channels his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hurt Locker" and grants his cold-blooded assassin a dose or two of warmth through brief but notable flickers of humanity. Renner, whose star is rising fast, is an ample replacement for Damon, convincing as a killing machine and captivating as a protagonist. Weisz strongly holds her own against Renner, at no point treated as eye candy to drool over and given more screen-time than most would expect. A trembling mess in early scenes, her character grows in courage throughout the film and later gets to kick some ass herself - actually, scratch that: she kicks someone square in the face.


“The Bourne Legacy” isn’t as endlessly compelling as its predecessors, but it is always gripping in the moment, and there are many great moments to be had. Without the star power of Damon/Bourne, it was always a risky project to attempt, but it was a risk worth taking: this is a terrific espionage thriller with a busy brain and a racing heart. Its action is fast and exciting, featuring the inevitable slew of parkour, fist-fights, shoot-outs, foot chases and high-speed pursuits. Its plot, though murky at times, is rivetingly complex and its script is written with knowing intelligence. Its ending, right before that Moby track blares out from the speakers, paves the way for a fifth installment. One hopes that it will continue the “Bourne” legacy as well as this fourth film does.

8/10

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Step Up 4: Miami Heat

Yet another tween-targeted street dance movie, “Step Up 4: Miami Heat” does the bare minimum of what is required of it, following an idiotic storyline so formulaic it tap-dances dangerously towards self-parody, and then quickly struts off while simultaneously doing the electric boogaloo. As can be deciphered from the title, this is the fourth entry in the “Step Up” franchise, which exists for the purpose of providing its teenage demographic with high-energy hip hop set pieces flaunting supersonic pop-locking and elaborate, pelvis-cracking choreography. “Miami Heat” provides plenty of this (in 3D!) but precious little of anything else.

As we’re now four full-length features into this increasingly monotonous franchise, I don’t think it would be unfair or too demanding to expect something more than the usual, hackneyed routine - we’ve seen the rhumba, now show us some drama. Alas, we can merely yearn for such seemingly unattainable things and live in hope that one day a “Step Up” movie will come along with more to its name than the (admittedly impressive) body-popping schtick. For now, though, we must simply sit back and enjoy the music and the dancing and the flashing lights and the gorgeous gaggle of sun-soaked bodies moving to the beat in faultless synchronisation.


“Miami Heat” is a “Step Up” movie in name and concept only. Its concept, shared with all the “Step Up” movies, is simple: there are people on this planet, mostly Abercrombie & Fitch types, who enjoy dancing, especially in large groups. Dancing means the whole world to these people and it is their sole purpose in life, so it’s quite the relief that they are all rather good at dancing. Without dancing, their lives would be empty, their existence would be meaningless and as human beings they would effectively be worthless. In that sense, these characters are much like the movies they star in.

The hip-hopping heroes (and heroines) of “Miami Heat” are The Mob, who are not gangsters but are street dancers. They specialise in public disturbances, or, as they so proudly call them, flash mobs. I’ll stick with public disturbances. We meet The Mob as they indulge in their baser urges, springing into action in the midst of a traffic jam in the scorching heat of Miami Beach. Draped in hoodies and tank tops and torn jeans and baseball caps, they strut their magnificent stuff on the hoods, roofs and side windows of immobile cars, some of which launch five feet off the ground beneath their feet. It’s like the street dance scene from “Fame," only a little more coordinated. Videos of The Mob’s vehicle-mounting antics soon go viral on the net (20,000 views in under 5 hours!) and even end up on the local news. Great success!


Leader of The Mob is Sean (Ryan Guzman), a twentysomething hunk with a part-time job as a waiter. Nobody in the crew does anything within The Mob without his say. They organise their flash mobbing (?) like members of the “Mission: Impossible” team, planning high-stakes break-ins by mapping out the locale, checking out the area’s security system and plotting their escape route in case the fuzz turns up. Members of the crew are introduced like Ocean’s 11, only we don’t get to know them nearly as well. The Mob’s ultimate aim is to gain 10 million hits on their YouTube page, making them the winners of an online competition that would mean a major sponsorship opportunity.

Of course, the story of “Miami Heat” must contain a romance. And of course, this romance falls about as flat as a steamrolled pancake. Aspiring ballet dancer and new girl in town Emily (Kathryn McCormick of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame) is the sweet and sensitive love interest of Sean. She is the daughter of ruthless business tycoon Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher, “American Beauty”), the film’s sharp-suited antagonist. It is Anderson’s heinous plan to bulldoze The Mob’s beloved long-time hangout along with much of their neighbourhood in order to make way for a brand new hotel (the corporate bastard!). The Mob, now joined by Emily, decide to protest Anderson’s scheme the only way they know how - why, dancing, of course! “It’s time to turn performance art into protest art!” barks one forgettable Mob member of many.


I see potential in this plot that far outreaches a series of set-ups for impossibly extravagant production numbers. A high-profile battle between the highly privileged and the not-so-privileged paves the way for a rousing exploration into class inequality and the increasing gap between the long-suffering poor and the stinking rich. This would allow for “Miami Heat” to gloriously transcend its genre and transform itself into a dance drama that is not just visually dazzling but thematically rich and ripe with cutting-edge social commentary. But no: newbie director and former music video maker Scott Speer is far too interested in the inner workings of a headspin to notice the golden opportunity that has landed on his lucky little lap.

Come to think of it, inserting such a social commentary into “Miami Heat” may not achieve the desired effect, as The Mob are never shown to be particularly poor - they are, after all, perfectly able to afford an entire warehouse supply of lavishly designed costumes on short notice with not the slightest squeak of a financially concerned complaint. I didn’t much care for The Mob: they are supremely talented dancers, no doubt, and physically attractive to boot. But as characters they lack dimension and punctuality, and I found their obsession with their soon-to-be-demolished turf a little disconcerting. There’s another message “Miami Heat” fails to capitalise on and actively chastises: the power to move on.


But this is a “Step Up” movie, which means most of those in attendance will be there for the dance sequences and nothing more. These sequences, which are often creatively choreographed and energetically shot, see “Miami Heat” at its best: one stand-out scene sees the art installations of a museum springing to life. The problem is the parts in between these sequences, when the hyperactive limb-flailing stops and the thinly plotted narrative cranks back into motion, leaving us bored and uninvolved in a frustratingly predictable story. As I said before, we are now four movies into this franchise, yet it remains perpetually stuck at step one. This franchise, it needs to take a few steps forward and step up its game a little.

5/10

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Brave

“Brave,” the latest full-length feature from universally championed animation studio Pixar, is a fairy tale in the most traditional sense of the term. It is Pixar’s first of the sort; throughout an illustrious 17-year history, the beloved production company has breathed life into children’s plastic playthings, turned automobiles into sentient beings and flown a two-storey building from the American suburbs to the Venezuelan wilderness using nothing more than a cluster of party balloons, but never before has Pixar told a good old-fashioned fairy tale. “Brave” boldly breaks this mould: it tells a story that features a crumbling kingdom, a king, a queen, a young and beautiful princess, an old witch who resides in the middle of the woods, and - perhaps most importantly of all - magic.

Tonally, “Brave” is most comparable to Disney’s 2010 computer animated fairy tale film “Tangled,” which was sincere in telling its story but knew when and how to make its audience - young and old - giggle. “Brave" is much the same and is even more effective: it is more thoughtful about its characters and benefits from a memorable setting that is not generic to the genre. This is the setting of the Scottish Highlands, a place of cascading waterfalls, craggy cliffs and mountainous glens. In the hands of Pixar’s gifted animators, this is a stunning, sweeping landscape that is painstakingly detailed, vibrantly rendered and completely immersive. Having only seen “Brave” in 2D, I can only imagine what this luscious landscape looks like in 3D - blurrier, I bet.


“Tangled” had a strong, admirable heroine in the form of Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel, a daydreaming princess who showed herself to be dexterous with a frying pan when engaged in combat. Merida (Kelly Macdonald, “No Country for Old Men”), the tough and spunky heroine of “Brave,” is even more dexterous in combat, wielding not a frying pan but a bow and arrow, which she handles with the confidence of Robin Hood and aims with the precision of Katniss Everdeen. Notably, she is Pixar’s first heroine, and she makes for a solid role model - she is smart, resourceful and self-reliant, at no point in the film reduced to a quivering damsel in distress.

The first-born of King Fergus (Billy Connolly, “Gulliver’s Travels”) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, “Men in Black 3”) of Clan DunBroch, Merida is the adolescent princess of this tale. “Brave” may be a traditional fairy tale, but Merida is no traditional princess. Like any teenager, this heir to the throne flaunts something of a rebellious streak, far more interested in riding her trusty steed (named Angus) through the woods and firing arrows at wooden targets (always piercing the bullseye) than adhering to her family’s long-standing values. These values state that Merida must choose a husband soon; ever one to bask in freedom, Merida is having none of it.


This proves problematic when three not-so-charming princes are proudly presented by their visiting clans in a tournament to win Merida’s hand in marriage. They should be so lucky. Appalled, Merida furiously argues with her mother and storms off into the woods, where she follows a trail of will-o’-the-wisps (floating, smoky orbs of Scottish folklore) to the cottage of an aged witch (Julie Walters, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2”). There, Merida is granted a wish which inadvertently results in a beastly curse being placed upon her family, the nature of which I will not reveal. Needless to say, it provides the story with a frantic race against time and paves the way for an uplifting message that should resonate with all families in attendance.

“Brave” is a film for all the family. It shares that quality with most of Pixar’s previous works: like the “Toy Story” trilogy, “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and “WALL-E,” “Brave” provides for the very young, the very old and everyone in between. Its central message concerns the communication between parent and child, which is explored with winning humour and earned sentimentality. At no point are we forced to choke on this message, instead invited to witness characters embark on a fantastical adventure that provokes a few startling realisations about themselves and their relationships with others. This is handled convincingly, with the journeys of the central characters ringing completely true.


Of course, it helps a great deal that “Brave,” right from its action-packed prologue, is an enchanting watch. This is largely thanks to the gorgeous CG animation and the colourful cast of characters, whose personalities are engaging and whose designs are telling of their nature. The independent Merida, for example, sports a luxurious flame-tinted barnet of bouncing frizzy curls that, like her spirit, is big, free and completely untameable. In an early scene, Merida’s mother hides her daughter’s magnificent ginger barnet under skin-tight headgear, much to Merida’s discomfort. When her mother isn’t watching, Merida can’t help but let a few curled locks poke through and hang loose. Soon enough, that headgear is torn off and the barnet is set free.

Merida’s parents could very easily be painted as domineering villains in such a story, but not in “Brave.” Here, King Fergus and Queen Elinor are a reasonable and likable couple who love their daughter and want only what’s best for her - they just wish she would humour them in regards to their ancient customs. The King, beefy and thick-necked, bellows a hearty laugh and enjoys telling the tale of how he lost his leg to a vicious bear. The Queen, tall and slender, is uptight by comparison, but nevertheless a compassionate wife and mother. During a heated argument with Merida, Elinor infuriates her daughter by throwing her beloved bow into the fireplace. The scene could have ended here as Merida runs out of the room in tears. But no, it continues: Elinor turns to face the burning bow, is horrified by what she’s done and promptly removes it from the flames.


Chief among the most striking aspects of “Brave” is its loving depiction of Scottish culture. As one would expect from Pixar, this depiction is well-researched: displayed are caber-tossing tournaments, the consumption of haggis, the playing of bagpipes, and the wearing of tartan-patterned kilts, under which lie unsecured unmentionables - “Feast yer eyes!” yells one clansman as he proudly lifts his kilt up over his grey-bearded head. The primary language of the film is a thick Scottish brogue, with most of the voice cast born and bred in the land of the Scots. This sets it apart from “How to Train Your Dragon,” in which all of the adult characters spoke with a distinctive Scottish accent while all of their children inexplicably appeared to have been raised in either NYC or Cali. The only notable exception in “Brave” is Emma Thompson, who is English but whose mother is Scottish. For that, and the faultless brogue with which Queen Elinor speaks, I’ll let that slip by - for now.

“Brave" is Pixar’s thirteenth feature, and it helps to disprove the age-old superstition of that number’s unlucky qualities; in fact, judging by Pixar’s twelfth output, the rusty “Cars 2," that superstition went one number too far. This is an exemplary fairy tale picture featuring a story that is worth telling and is well told. It is a bewitching throwback to the classic Disney flicks of yesteryear with a complex mother-daughter relationship at its heart. Perhaps it lacks the sharp wit of some of its Pixar predecessors, but its exquisite animation, enchanting sense of humour and subtle character touches prove more than enough to compensate. Plus, in a second-act twist I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning, “Brave” gives us one of Pixar’s most delightful characters thus far.

9/10