Sunday, 30 September 2012


Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingeniously devised, hypnotically complex, high-concept science-fiction thriller that dazzles the eyes, fries the nerves and confounds the mind. Its labyrinthine plotting and brain-bending central concept reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” a tricky act to follow, but Johnson pulls it off with grace and confidence. Like Nolan’s reality-twisting, blockbusting masterwork, Johnson’s film is best viewed with little to no prior knowledge, so as to retain the blunt impact of the stranger elements contained therein. As such, this review will remain as reasonably tight-lipped on certain plot details as possible. However, readers sensitive to minor spoilers are advised to click away.

“Looper” presents us with two future settings separated by thirty years. In 2074, time travel has been invented. Although it has been declared highly illegal, it is available on the black market, used by the mafia as a means of taking out the trash. When a troublesome character needs “taken care of,” the mob simply zaps the target back to 2044, where an assassin — known as a Looper — stands holding a blunderbuss gun, waiting to blow a hole through the target’s chest. Strapped to the target’s back is payment in silver bars. The body is disposed of and, in a sense, it is almost as if it never existed.

Our hero, Joe, is a Looper living the high life in 2040s Kansas City. When not annihilating men who manifest out of thin air, Joe is partying with fellow Loopers, hanging with a kindly showgirl (Piper Perabo, “Coyote Ugly”), drowning his eyeballs in recreational drugs and learning French. He saves up silver bars hidden away underneath the floorboards of his swanky apartment, seemingly unknown to mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, scruffy but charismatic), to be used when he makes his planned move to France. Joe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the stars of “Inception.” With that and the recently released “Premium Rush,” Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of America’s most reliable action heroes.

They’re called Loopers for a reason — when the mob decide to end a Looper’s contract, they kidnap the Looper, drag them into a time machine and zap them back to their younger self for assassination. This is called “closing the loop," and it’s something every Looper knows will happen to them one day. This is where things get messy. Normally, targets arrive with a sack over their head, so as to make certain that the Looper does not know when they are facing — and murdering — their future self. One day, a target arrives with no sack. Joe hesitates, looks into the target’s eyes and recognises them — they are his very own olive greens.

Old Joe, grizzled and balding, is played by Bruce Willis, who previously traveled through time in Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys." Willis’ facial features have been plastered onto Gordon-Levitt’s face in a three-hour appliance of make-up and prosthetics — consequently, Gordon-Levitt resembles a resident of the Madame Tussauds wax museum, while Willis looks like plain ol’ Brucie. Upon arrival in ‘44, Old Joe swiftly evades assassination and goes on the run, which — as we see in an early, integral sequence involving Paul Dano — is a very bad situation for Young Joe to be in.

With this development, “Looper” turns into a man-on-the-run chase movie, albeit one in which the man on the run is chasing himself. Johnson proves a gifted director of action as well as actors, fuelling the more visceral, high-octane scenes with a raw imagination that flows through both the compositions and the camerawork. The action is exciting: an attack on Abe’s base of operations makes for an eye-popping set-piece, as does a risky drop-by to Joe’s raided apartment, which, thanks to the time travel element, we get to visit twice from the perspective of both Joes.

Important to the story is crop farmer Sara (Emily Blunt, “The Adjustment Bureau”), fiercely independent and handy with a shotgun, and even more important is her young son, Cid (a promising Pierce Gagnon), for reasons I will not even hint at. It is at their rural Kansas farm house that “Looper” veers off in an unexpected direction, transforming into something more profound than most will anticipate, but I wouldn’t dare divulge the details — I don’t want to spoil the succulent surprises that “Looper” has in store.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis convince as two versions of the same person, the former a selfish Joe and the latter ostensibly wiser. In one breathtaking, decades-spanning sequence, we witness Young Joe transform into Old Joe, as he travels to Shanghai, guns down mob rivals, loses his hair and falls in love. In another scene, the two sit opposite each other in a country diner, staring each other out. “Your face looks backwards," quips Young Joe. Johnson’s script deliberately skips the philosophical implications of their conversation and smartly sidesteps talk of paradoxes. “If we talk about time travel shit then we're gonna be here all day, drawing diagrams with straws,” barks Old Joe.

Johnson introduces and toys with ideas new to the time travel sub-genre, doing so with giddy invention. For example, Young Joe’s actions have a direct impact on Old Joe’s memories, which become clearer or foggier, depending on their increasing or decreasing likelihood. Bodily changes made to Young Joe — such as scars and other permanent injuries — are instantly passed on to Old Joe, healed over the years. This implies that both Joes are of the same timeline, which inspires plenty of head-scratching in hindsight, but much of the film is moving at such a ferociously rapid pace that there is little time for us to think, analyse or be bothered in the moment.

We are given a lengthy breather upon reaching the farm house owned by Sara, where the action (mostly) comes to a halt as Johnson takes time to focus on his characters, about whom he is relatively ambiguous. As a strong female character, Blunt is not patronised, at no point treated as eye candy, introduced as she skilfully hacks a wooden stump to pieces with an axe and is later seen bravely fending off invading vagrants with a shotgun in order to protect her beloved boy. Scenes in her home build to a lively, extravagant climax laced with special effects and tearful drama. It is here that the plot reaches a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, every narrative strand slyly tied up in a neat, albeit possibly paradoxical bow.

“Looper” is Johnson’s third film, arriving after noirish high-school indie hit “Brick,” in which Gordon-Levitt was the star, and crime caper ensemble piece “The Brothers Bloom,” in which Gordon-Levitt had a bit-part. This is the writer-director’s biggest production so far, and his most ambitious: not just a multi-circuited blockbuster spectacle, it’s one with a third act that wanders down a few dark corridors most films of the sort wouldn’t dare approach. This is an intelligent, pulpy, tremendously entertaining science-fiction story from one of America’s most gifted up-and-coming directors — in Johnson, we may have a new Nolan.


Thursday, 27 September 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve concluded that in his “Resident Evil” films, director Paul W. S. Anderson has successfully recreated the experience not of playing a “Resident Evil” video game, but of watching someone else play a “Resident Evil” video game — that someone would be Paul W. S. Anderson. Like when viewing the gaming experience of another, we admire the visuals and the craftsmanship that has gone into the technical details, but never does the action immerse us or excite us as it does the player. Anyone with a sibling or friend with an irritating tendency to hog the controls will know the feeling.

“Retribution," the fifth entry in the apocalyptic sci-fi action-horror franchise, continues this trend in spectacular style. The dialogue, written by Anderson, is entirely functional, witlessly spoon-feeding us nuggets of plot info, or gaming hints; overblown action set-pieces are impressively staged but fail to engage and can merely be observed; scenes of exposition play out like pesky cut-scenes the player refuses to skip, on two notable occasions consisting of a character speaking directly to the camera. I recently watched a walkthrough of the first “Resident Evil” game on YouTube in preparation for “Retribution:” the experience was much the same as the film, as I appreciated the virtuosity of the gameplay but soon began to wish someone would hand me the damn controls.

“Retribution” begins with crystal clarity, dives into confusion and then drowns in it. We open on the events immediately following the ending of the previous installment, “Afterlife,” as super-heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) falls unconscious into the sea from a cargo ship being attacked by a fleet of Umbrella airships. She awakes in an unexpected setting: a home in the sleepy suburbs, where she has a loving husband and an adorable daughter, who is deaf. Is this real life? Is this just pointless fantasy? In a sequence suspiciously reminiscent of the opening of Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, the idyllic neighbourhood is viciously rampaged by flesh-eating zombie-like creatures, by whom Alice and her brand new family are seemingly killed.

Alice awakes again, in another unexpected setting: a high-tech holding cell, where she is tortured and interrogated by former ally Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), whose mind is controlled by Umbrella through a prominent mechanical scarab latched onto her chest. Alice swiftly escapes the facility and encounters a live video stream hosted by Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), chief villain of “Afterlife.” Wesker remains a curious character: always wearing shades and almost entirely bereft of any discernable personality, he’s like Agent Smith from “The Matrix,” but with even fewer human qualities — at least Smith could become angry and frustrated, while Wesker’s emotional highs and lows consist of a self-satisfied smirk.

It seems Wesker has turned over a new leaf: no longer working for Umbrella, he aims to help Alice escape what is revealed to be a top-secret, gigantic underwater bunker in Russia used for experiments relating to the T-virus outbreak. A strike team breaks into the testing facility to assist in Alice’s escape, none of whom we get to know particularly well — the multicoloured ghosts from Pacman had more distinguishable personalities than these gormless bozos. Meanwhile, homicidal holographic toddler the Red Queen orders the brainwashed Jill to hunt Alice and co down and, to make matters worse, sends Umbrella’s monster clones after her too.

If you can follow any of this, I assume you’re a loyal fan of the franchise. If you cannot, you are not alone; despite having endured all four of the previous installments, I was left scratching my head during “Retribution” almost as many times as I was checking my watch. Franchise newcomers will gain nothing from the film, nor will franchise fans: storywise, nothing of any great significance happens throughout the whole of “Retribution” except the introduction of a new character and a last-minute twist that renders much of “Afterlife" completely redundant.

The new character is Becky (11-year-old Aryana Engineer, “Orphan”), whose presence serves to superficially heighten the stakes of the action. She is the hearing-impaired daughter from the suburbia sequence, which it turns out was a meticulously detailed simulation featuring human and zombie clones. Often clinging to the uzi-firing, grenade-flinging Alice, Becky is bound to call to many viewers’ minds the scruffy-haired, dirty-faced Newt from James Cameron’s “Aliens.” Becky and Alice’s relationship is used as a device for bringing to light the latter’s last few remaining droplets of humanity, portrayed wholly through Alice’s rescuing of the cloned kiddy from the slimy grasp of a snarling monster — surely she would have done the same for any other character?

There is more action here than there was in “Afterlife," fans will be relieved to know. Once again, scenes of trigger-pulling and backflipping are presented in quasi-“Matrix” bullet-time style, as heads explode and limbs are lopped off in masturbatory super-slow-motion — an early battle with an onslaught of the undead is impressively choreographed and gorgeously framed. As I have said in the past, Anderson is a skilled director of action, and he is yet to make a film that is not visually pleasing. The trouble is caring about any of it, a problem attributed to the empty characterisation, stilted dialogue and murky storytelling provided by Anderson’s brainless writing.

I have always enjoyed Jovovich in the “Resident Evil” films: comparable to Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill," she is a capable leading lady and a convincing action heroine. In spite of spending much of her screen-time clad in either a tight-fitting leather outfit or her barely covered birthday suit, she has come out of every series entry with her dignity firmly intact, and it seems she is the sole reason that fans still cling to the franchise. One hopes that in the future Jovovich will lead an action franchise worthier of her talents — until then, it’s chafing leather catsuits and zombie target practice for her.

The best “Resident Evil” movie remains the first one, which at least had the decency to be mildly diverting. As such, “Resident Evil” remains the best film to be based on a video game, which says much about the state of the video game movie. With luck, one day we will see a video game movie that reproduces the excitement and exhilaration of the gaming experience. The ending of “Retribution,” of course, sets up another sequel: perhaps that will be the movie to deliver unto us these long-desired treasures. I wouldn't count on it.


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Premium Rush

“Premium Rush” is an efficient, occasionally excellent high-energy chase movie that whizzes by not on four wheels but on two. Taking place over the course of two hours, it drops us into the hazardous world of the New York City bike messenger, as we speed through the streets of Manhattan, dodging cabs, pedestrians, opening car doors and — gasp — baby carriages. Channeling its workaday daredevil protagonists, David Koepp’s briskly paced action-thriller is fast, lean and pumped full of bubbling adrenaline. There are some bumps in the road when the brake levers are pulled and the pedals stop spinning, but boy, what a ride.

Our hero is Wilee (think Acme’s favourite cartoon customer), whose name would only be more appropriate if it were Road Runner. He is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“The Dark Knight Rises”), in his most physically demanding role to date. Akin to most bike messengers, the enthusiastic Wilee carries out his duties for the heart-racing rush of it and certainly not for the pay. He is among the most reliable in the NYC courier business, always delivering on time, often diving into the side of moving traffic to do so. So determined is he that he stubbornly refuses to have brakes on his bike — if only the film followed suit.

His reputation catches the attention of secretive law student Nima (Jamie Chung, “Sucker Punch"), who has in her possession a ticket that must be delivered to a Chinatown back alley by 7:00pm, not one second late. With time to spare, Wilee collects the item and casually sets off towards the posting address at the other side of town. Little does Wilee know, he’s just ridden into a whole mess of danger: a dirty, conniving, money-grubbing cop by the name of Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”) is dead-set on snatching that mysterious ticket from Wilee’s satchel, by any means necessary.

An early chase scene is thrilling: in a bustling downtown road in the midst of the rush hour, Wilee skillfully, speedily outrides the grasp of Bobby, who closely pursues the cunning courier in his unmarked police car. Soon on Wilee’s trail too is a nameless cop on a bike (stuntman Christopher Place) appalled by Wilee’s flagrant disregard for the rules of the road during a run-in with Bobby. Aiding Wilee in his increasingly perilous delivery are two co-workers: ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez, “American Reunion”) and rival Manny (WolĂ© Parks, “As the World Turns”). But what is that ticket for, and why does Bobby want it so desperately?

Perhaps such questions should have remained unanswered until late into the story. “Premium Rush” is at its least entertaining when it is explaining, specifically in lengthy flashbacks unveiling the origins and purpose of the ticket, along with Bobby’s pitiful, potentially fatal fall in the underground gambling circuit. Such sombre, almost melancholic scenes jar against the breezy, breakneck verve boasted throughout the rest of the film, even if they do offer some handy plot details and backstory.

But no matter: there’s always a high-stakes urban hunt lying in wait right around the corner, as expertly staged and fearlessly performed by a professional stunt crew with the occasional aid of some computerised jiggery pokery. Verbal responses are aplenty: we “ooh” as Wilee catapults his bike over a metal fence; we “ahh" as he speeds down the wrong lane and narrowly maneuvers his way through vehicles hurtling towards him; and we “eek” as the front of a taxi cab collides with his back wheel.

As Wilee, Gordon-Levitt is immensely likable, delivering a leading performance that is winningly cocky and breathlessly animated. We watched the “Transporter” films for the car chases, for the fistfights and for Jason Statham; we watch “Premium Rush” for the bicycle chases and for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As our villain, the reliably sinister Michael Shannon is deliciously seedy, bringing to his character a manic determination performed mostly through piercing eyes and a permanent scowl. The two actors’ interaction is fun to watch as they play off each other like Tom and Jerry, or indeed Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.

This is Koepp’s first action picture (not counting his screenplays for “Spider-Man” and “Jurassic Park”); his previous two directorial efforts were supernatural rom-com “Ghost Town” and the overlooked and underappreciated Stephen King adaptation “Secret Window.” He lends much creativity to the proceedings: a digital map of the city regularly outlines Wilee’s progress, and there are times when we witness his thought process as he encounters obstacles to be dodged, leapt over or sometimes crashed into. Koepp keeps the action moving, mostly moving, in turn creating an exciting, if formulaic chase movie in which we really do feel the heat of the chase.


Monday, 17 September 2012

The Possession

“The Possession” is one of those spook-em-ups that claims it is based on a true story when this simply cannot be — a story of such startling paranormal phenomena, even with considerable alterations made by the script, would surely make national headlines, yet I honestly don’t recall hearing about anything of the kind in any newspaper or news station. It is also one of those spook-em-ups influenced by William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece “The Exorcist,” which was based on a book that really was based on a true story, albeit quite loosely.

A modern-day tale of demonic possession, it comes hot on the levitating heels of “Insidious,” “The Last Exorcism,” “The Rite,” and “The Devil Inside,” which go from decent to dreadful in about that order. It brings little of anything new to the presently popular subgenre but a dash or two of Jewish folklore, which, come to think of it, “The Unborn” did in 2009, and with comparably limited success. In that regard, I’m sad to report that at no point in the film does a quivering rabbi repeatedly bellow, “The power of Abraham compels you!”

Admittedly, the story’s inspiration does have a basis in fact. Its plot centres on a small, sealed wooden box that acts as a prison for a malevolent demon known in Jewish circles as a dybbuk. Such a box exists: it has been said to do the rounds on eBay and has supposedly brought bad luck to every one of its owners, though whether or not it does contain a malicious supernatural entity is up for debate. An opening title card of “The Possession" firmly states that the real-life events upon which the film is based took place over the course of 29 days. Internet research provides information on nothing of the sort — the worst things to have been associated with the real-world Dybbuk Box are some bad dreams, one stroke and a bit of hair loss, but sadly there are no accounts of anyone puking up a swarm of moths.

Things get off to an ominous start in the obligatory prologue: a middle-aged lady wielding a hammer and a bottle of holy water hesitantly approaches the wooden box sitting on her living room mantelpiece before spontaneously contorting her body like a circus freak. Soon after, the box comes into the possession (fnar!) of the Brenek family, who buy it at a yard sale when youngest daughter Emily (Natasha Callis), 10 years of age, becomes curiously, hopelessly entranced by the Hebrew-inscribed collectible. She remains in this state for quite some time.

The Breneks are a broken family. Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Watchmen”), a basketball coach, has two beautiful daughters, cutie Em and crotchety teenager Hannah (Madison Davenport), whose protective mother (Kyra Sedgwick, “The Closer”) he divorced over a year ago. Clyde has moved into the suburbs, where Em and Hannah will now spend their weekends. This is an ideal setting for a horror movie: it is placid, new, unexplored and, as Hannah grumpily points out, stands in the middle of nowhere.

Once opened by Em (and found to contain a figurine, a human tooth and a mirror, among other obscure objects), the box proves an unwelcome presence. Em soon develops an unhealthy obsession with it; she wishes to be by its side at all times, even when at school, and is caught talking to it by her father. One night, she says she doesn’t feel herself. That same night, her room is inexplicably infested with hundreds of moths, like the scene with the buzzing flies and the priest in “The Amityville Horror,” or indeed “Scary Movie 2.”

Em begins acting violently: she viciously attacks a classmate who attempts to steal the box, and stabs her father’s hand with a fork during dinner. An MRI scan, in one of the film’s few scenes of invention, shows a face staring out from inside her. Desperate, Clyde seeks guidance elsewhere in the form of the local rabbi’s young son, Tzadok (musician Matisyahu). Tzadok proclaims that Em is possessed by a dybbuk and warns that if they don’t act fast enough Em’s soul will be claimed by the evil spirit, and Clyde’s beloved daughter will be no more.

Of course, we are building up to the climactic exorcism, which is big, loud, bombastic and, disappointingly, soaked in special effects. The journey there is, at its best, mildly unnerving and, at its worst, rather laughable. Audiences may quiver in fear when Em is slapped across the face by an invisible menace, but a moment which sees her scuttling about on the kitchen floor with an uncooked steak dangling from her mouth elicited a chuckle from most of my audience. It could be a bit of black comedy, but, judging by the bursts of tear-soaked emotion that immediately follow it, I doubt it.

The film benefits largely from the performances of its actors, who lend authenticity to their characters and respectability to the film. Morgan and Sedgwick make for a convincing and likable ex-couple thrown into turmoil and then brought together by the haunting of their daughter — demonic possessions have their upsides, it seems. But it is little Natasha Callis who impresses the most, believably switching from adorable to sinister in a heartbeat. It appears she went through much of the same torture endured by Linda Blair in Friedkin’s head-spinning genre classic, regrettably with not as many utterances of mother-insulting, fellatio-centred obscenities.

Most prominent in the film’s credits is Sam Raimi, who produces through his company, GhostHouse Pictures. Used extensively to help promote “The Possession,” the director’s name is most commonly associated with his “Evil Dead” trilogy, which dealt with demonic possession in a far more tongue-in-cheek manner than the straight-faced take we have here. What “The Possession” has as an advantage over “The Evil Dead” is a bigger budget, superior actors and better production values — the 1981 splatter flick was, after all, a student project. What it lacks is the blood-curdling terror, the brain-boggling invention, the sky-high entertainment value and, ultimately, the inspiration — this is run-of-the-mill horror fluff that will appeal only to the least demanding of Friday-night audiences.

“The Possession” is about as generic as its title; to be fair, the working title of “The Dybbuk Box” perhaps wouldn’t have grabbed as many movie-goers’ attention. It is directed with technical competence by Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal (“Just Another Love Story”) and its central family conflict is handled with grace and subtlety by the cast, but in the all-important frights department it is disappointingly light. More unsettling than the film is the thought that the Dybbuk Box is really out there somewhere, even if it didn’t actually torment a family for 29 days like the film dishonestly claims.


Thursday, 13 September 2012


Judge Dredd is the law, and the number-one law of the 2000 AD comic strip from whence he sprung is that the one-man judge, jury and executioner must never remove his helmet — that way, justice has no face. This law was infamously broken in 1995 by director Danny Cannon’s spat-upon Hollywood imagining, in which the ugly mug of leading man Sylvester Stallone went fully exposed for roughly 95% of the film’s runtime. Suffice to say, such shameful disrespect for the cult icon was met with much verbalised disgruntlement by long-time fans, as was the tooth-pulling comic relief courtesy of useless sidekick Rob Schneider. The punishment? Death, by moderate box office takings.

Those same fans will be pleased with “Dredd,” in which the ultimate law enforcer’s facial features from the nostrils up are obscured by his helmet for the entire film, not counting a sly, back-of-the-head tease during the opening. Directed by Pete Travis (“Vantage Point”) and written by Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”), this relatively low-budget 3-D adaptation is a vast improvement over Cannon’s clunker: grittier, bloodier and darkly humorous, it sticks significantly closer to the beloved source material while simultaneously making itself accessible to a wide audience — at times it feels like a John Woo movie, which fits the material like a charm.

The new Dredd is played by New Zealand actor Karl Urban (Bones in J. J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot), who incorporates into his performance the expected assortment of grunts, huffs, sneers and grimaces necessary in any authentic portrayal of the crime-busting anti-hero. When speaking, a precious rarity, he growls every sacred word like Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” — he’s got that same grizzled attitude too. Undeniably, Urban is a better choice for the eponymous lawman than the Italian Stallion: the versatile Kiwi actor has the look, the voice and the personality, along with a noticeable lack of an ego.

The world of “Dredd” is not unlike the one we saw recently in Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” remake, which was perhaps partly inspired by the “Judge Dredd” comics. It is the near future, and much of our planet is an uninhabitable, irradiated, post-apocalyptic wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. The vast metropolis Mega-City One is grossly overpopulated, filled to the brim with 800 million citizens. Crime is rampant, with roughly 17,000 offences reported on a good day. They are dealt with by the Judges, hard-nosed cops from a fascistic organisation who flaunt a license to execute criminals on the spot.

Further exploration of this dystopian cityscape — shot in the gorgeous Johannesburg — would have been appreciated, but alas, the majority of the action is confined to a single building, like in “Die Hard.” This building is a dilapidated, 200-storey high-rise ghetto known as Peach Trees. Most of the tenants living in this towering slum operate under the thumb of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), a former prostitute turned sadistic drug kingpin. When three of Ma-Ma’s rivals are skinned and hurled off the top floor as a warning to others of their ilk, the fearsome Judge Dredd is called upon to check out the situation.

Dredd hesitantly brings along a rookie: the young and naive Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, the best friend in “Juno”), who must prove her worth to her scowling supervisor if she is to become a full-time Judge. Anderson is a mutant, gifted with psychic abilities that allow her to read minds, predict people’s actions and tamper with their heads. In one scene, she is challenged by a captive who claims the visions he can think up and expose her to will be far greater in nastiness than anything she could possibly concoct for him. Anderson begs to differ, pumping his mind full of images of violence so frightening and disturbing he whimpers in terror until finally he wees himself. Yikes.

Dredd and Anderson find themselves trapped inside Peach Trees when Ma-Ma places the entire building on lockdown. Through the intercom system, she alerts the residents to the unwanted presence of two Judges. She demands their death, and warns that anyone caught aiding them in any way will be swiftly dealt with. Already we are reminded of the May-released Indonesian martial arts masterpiece “The Raid,” which, by pure coincidence, has damn near the exact same plot as “Dredd.” This, it seems, is merely a case of unfortunate timing, as “Dredd” finished filming months before Gareth Evans’ film went into production.

Like the SWAT team of “The Raid,” Dredd and Anderson are continually attacked by an onslaught of expendable goons as they gradually work their way up the building, floor by floor, towards — to borrow a gaming term — the final boss. But there is a key difference between the two big-screen all-action extravaganzas: while “The Raid” was all about showcasing the breathtaking physical aptitudes of its leading men, “Dredd” is more of a showcase for deafening decibel levels and its full-blown arsenal of futuristic weaponry. This is none more so the case than in a scene in which Dredd frantically outruns the impact of a machine gun that transforms an entire floor into a cloud of dust and a pile of debris.

Travis giddily revels in blood-splattered violence as Dredd blasts gaping bullet holes through deadbeats’ shrieking faces and beating hearts with his trusty Lawgiver pistol. Sometimes we view this from the vantage point of the drug-addled baddies, who are high on Ma-Ma’s drug Slo-Mo. As its name suggests, Slo-Mo allows its users to experience time at 1% of its normal speed. This is a nifty twist on the bullet-time style made famous by “The Matrix,” as we are pulled face-first into a technicolour dreamworld where time doesn’t stand still so much as cruise by at a snail’s pace. Its vibrancy is beautiful and intoxicating, like when Dorothy first enters the land of Oz, but with a bit more brain matter whizzing through the air.

Dredd and Anderson make for a resourceful crime-fighting team, in spite of and because of their mismatched personalities; that’s the rule of the buddy cop movie. Both are commendably determined in their line of work, but in different ways: Anderson optimistically believes she can make a difference to Mega-City One, while the pessimistic Dredd believes it is beyond saving, stubbornly enforcing the law purely because it is his duty. In an early scene, Anderson firmly states that with enough work a block like Peach Trees can be changed for the better. Dredd snarls: “Admirable.”

It is to Urban’s credit that his Dredd remains an engaging protagonist for the entirety the film. Urban seamlessly slips in tiny flickers of humanity in amongst all his frowning and barking without any of it feeling like a compromise. This might manifest itself in the form of outrage over the deaths of innocent civilians, which causes him to angrily beat a handcuffed captive, or a slight, but notable look of panic when Anderson is captured. Subtleties like these — and they are subtle — are what keep the famed Judge from being reduced to a dull, one-note character; he may not be a fully fleshed out individual, but he’s not a robot either. And remember, Urban does all this through just a mouth, a pair of nostrils and a stubbled chin.

There are many things to like about “Dredd:” its pulpy aesthetic, bombastic action, ultra-violent carnage and blood-pumping electric-rock soundtrack top the list, as do the assured performances of Urban and Thirlby. But what’s best about it is that it is lean, stripped down, uncompromising and unflinching — after 35 years in print, “Judge Dredd” is finally done justice on the silver screen. I look forward to the sequel, in which we will hopefully get to see more of Mega-City One and its surroundings. That Cursed Earth needs some exploring.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

That's My Boy

There is an important distinction to be made between Hollywood funnyman Adam Sandler’s new star vehicle, “That’s My Boy,” and his previous one, “Jack and Jill.” It concerns their nature and the manner in which they treat their audience. The latter film, for example, treated its audience with nothing but contempt, as shown in its unfathomably lazy craftsmanship, the nonexistent effort from director Dennis Dugan, the hair-tearing cross-dressing performance from Mr. Sandler in drag and the relentless, shameless advertisements for such crammed-in, front-and-centre products as Pepto Bismol, Coca Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts.

“That’s My Boy” is no “Jack and Jill,” Sandler’s fast disintegrating cluster of fans will be relieved to hear. It does not insult its audience; merely, it strives to shock them. Like the works of the Farrelly Brothers and Sacha Baron Cohen, it is more traditionally offensive, opening with lighthearted depictions of statutory rape, venturing into sex with the elderly and closing with plot revelations of an incestual persuasion. Strange as it may seem, this gives the film quite a boost in respectability over the 2011 disaster: as we watch “That’s My Boy,” we may be offended, we may be aghast and we may be utterly appalled, but at least we’re not being insulted — not as much as we were by “Jack and Jill,” anyway.

But let it be clear: as a Sandler vehicle, “That’s My Boy” may not be “Jack and Jill", but it’s no “Happy Gilmore” either, nor is it “The Wedding Singer,” “50 First Dates,” “Anger Management” or even “The Waterboy.” In fact, looking at the occasional ups and frequent downs of Sandler’s career, it appears his latest flick succeeds in bettering only three of his past vehicles: 2002 animated musical flop “Eight Crazy Nights,” 2010 SNL holiday home-movie “Grown Ups” and the film that has already been discussed, will no longer be named and as such cannot hurt us anymore.

As the film opens, its R-rating (Sandler’s first since the underrated “Funny People”) is made more than clear. It is 1984, and potty-mouthed 14-year-old middle schooler Donny Berger (Justin Weaver) is hot for teacher. To his surprise, and ours, 22-year-old cougar Mrs. McGarricle is hot for student. The two embark upon an unlikely (very pedophilic) affair until they are caught with their pants down on-stage during a school assembly. Mrs. McGarricle, pregnant, is thrown behind bars on a 30-year sentence, while little Donny, who is made guardian of his son, becomes a tabloid star. There’s a slight attempt at social satire here, but it’s undermined by the plot’s lack of believability.

28 years later, Donny (now played by Sandler) is alone and all washed up, spending most of his time at a sleazy strip club and never seen without a can or bottle of beer clenched between his fingers (a running gag sees him using glass bottles to knock people unconscious). The Sandler here is not the laid-back nice-guy Sandler of “Grown Ups” and “Click,” but the man-child Sandler of “Little Nicky” and “The Waterboy” who speaks in a gratingly goofy voice and gurns like a sufferer of chronic constipation.

Donny discovers that he owes $43,000 in back-taxes to the IRS. If he doesn’t cough up by the end of the week, he’ll be going to jail for three years. With only $28 to his name, he doesn’t have the money. So, he hatches a plan: he’ll reunite with his estranged son, millionaire businessman Todd (Andy Samberg, capable but wasted in a straight-man role), along with the imprisoned Mrs. McGarricle, and have it filmed for a TV special, for which he will receive $50,000. As soon as the scene setting it up is over, the reality TV subplot is immediately wiped from our memories and, out of nowhere, pops up again in the third act before a swift and predictable resolution.

Todd intensely loathes his father, partly for making him a product of a national scandal, partly for his semi-abusive upbringing and partly for naming him “Han Solo Berger” (since changed to “Todd Petersen”). Donny turns up out of the blue (greeting his son with a tongue-dangling “whazuuup?!") on the weekend of Todd’s wedding to the gorgeous Jamie (Leighton Meester, “The Roommate”), who spends most of the film being a nag. Much of the rest of “That’s My Boy” is the lead-up to the climactic wedding. And yes, there are drunken stag night shenanigans, during which ill-fated bicycle stunts are attempted, after which wedding dresses are stained by an interesting mix of bodily fluids.

Like most of Sandler’s projects, “That’s My Boy” features cameos from celebrities of... varying... levels of fame. One-hit-wonder Vanilla “Ice, Ice, Baby" Ice appears as himself, or at least a fictionalised version of himself who sells chicken nuggets by an ice rink (Ice! Geddit?). I learn from some googling that Donny’s lawyer is played by New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. Plus, James Caan inexplicably feigns an Irish accent as a Catholic priest prone to fistfights. With Caan in this, Al Pacino dancing with a giant polystyrene cup in that film, and Robert De Niro busy having his penis stabbed with needles by Ben Stiller in the “Focker” franchise, one can only assume that appearing in Sandler’s next project is either Robert Duvall or Marlon Brando’s corpse.

I’ve deliberately left veiled the best cameo, which is an inspired piece of casting and makes for the highlight of the film. Another highlight is a gag involving jizzy tissues and a sly granny — I won’t spoil this either, for it provides one of the film’s precious few laughs. Indeed, while some prepubescents and young adolescents may get a kick out of the overweight black stripper character and the public child molestation, most who are legally allowed to see "That's My Boy" in the UK will surely find it all a bit boorish, desperate and ultimately disheartening.

The problem is not that the film is juvenile; we’ve seen such immaturity countless times before in Sandler’s work, and many times it has been funny. The problem is that the film is persistently witless, and we’ve now reached a stage in Sandler’s career where we need a little wit to go along with the juvenility. But “That’s My Boy” won’t budge, opting to go for the easy route of indulging in needless, brainless shock tactics that serve zero purpose in regards to the plot, and later countering them with cloying sentimentality that’s about as convincing as Sandler’s skin-crawling Bostonian accent.

I’d make note of the fact that “That’s My Boy” is directed by Sean Anders (maker of the enjoyable “Sex Drive”) and written by David Caspe (scriber of half-decent sitcom “Happy Endings”), but I won’t kid myself: we all know who’s pulling the strings here. As a product of Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, “That’s My Boy” is about all you’d expect of it, considering the studio’s recent output: if you’ve enjoyed anything of what they’ve released in the past few years, I don’t doubt that you’ll have a blast with the film. Hopefully one day Sandler will once again take a risk like he did with the wonderful “Punch-Drunk Love.” Until then, we must either ignore or endure.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012


“ParaNorman,” an all-ages animated zombie comedy, is a Halloween treat that arrives in theatres almost two months prematurely — 47 days, to be precise. Considering its paranormal plot, ghoulish characters and fearsome (family-friendly) frights, it is clear that its makers missed a trick in not granting their creation an October 31st release date. To be fair, opening the film on the spook-tacular annual holiday could have been an ill-advised financial move, as a large portion of the target audience would probably rather spend the night trick-or-treating than attending their local multiplex. But it should be known that “ParaNorman” is not just made for the littluns: it's one of those family films perfectly suitable for viewers of all generations, self-respecting childless grown-ups included, even if junior viewers should be advised that the film is rather scary.

Like in the comparably macabre family features “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride” and the upcoming “Frankenweenie,” the many dark delights of “ParaNorman" are presented through the always laudable medium of stop-motion animation. Knowing the painstaking attention to detail that dedicated artists must wield in its lengthy process, the hand-crafted clay-mation technique can lend a great deal of charm to a production. And “ParaNorman” is a very charming film, its cast of pleasantly designed clay models carefully sculpted and brought to glorious life by the animation wizards of Laika, makers of ground-breaking 2009 hit “Coraline.”

The film charms us in its opening sequence and holds us in its bony grasp right up to the end credits. The mood is set immediately: we open on a scene from a cheap and grungy ‘70s zombie flick in which a shrieking damsel in distress flees from the outstretched arms and gnashing teeth of the walking, moaning dead. Watching with us is Eraserhead-haired high school outcast Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who sits on his bedroom floor, two feet from the TV screen with a bowl of popcorn in hand. On the couch behind him is his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who knits while questioning Norman about the plot of the film by which he is so entranced. The interesting thing is, Norman’s grandmother has been dead for over a year.

Don’t worry: our hero is young Norman Babcock, not grave-robbing momma’s boy Norman Bates. This Norman is gifted with similar supernatural powers to Haley Joel Osment’s character in “The Sixth Sense:” he can see dead people, and he can talk to them too. The dearly departed manifest themselves to Norman as transparent bodies floating in mid-air and surrounded by a cloud of green mist. Most ghosts appear to be curiously friendly, with several restless spirits lining up along Norman’s school route every morning just to say hello to him. Of course, none of the living believe Norman actually has these psychic abilities, least of all his disapproving parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) and bullying classmates.

Norman lives in the quaint New England town of Blithe Hollow, surely a nudge at the sleepy homeplace of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman. Blithe Hollow has its own legend: in the early 18th century, a witch executed by Puritans placed a curse upon her seven persecutors that would cause each of them to rise up from the grave as the soulless undead. The 300th anniversary fast approaches, and Norman has a role in a school play reenacting the events. But Norman soon finds himself more involved in this tale than he ever thought he could be as the curse comes true and as a gang of flesh-eating zombies (slowly) rampage their way through the town.

With a sickly green complexion and rotting skin wrapped tightly around their skeletal frames, these groaning, gormless shufflers are at first glance the usual assortment of brain-starved cadavers, albeit a little less gory than usual. Some surprises are in store, though, as Norman uses his sixth sense to communicate with the monsters, and all of a sudden the story is given a surprising amount of subversive meat on its bones. Still, the zombies are played mostly for laughs, and there are many laughs to be had: who says jokes about decapitated heads and lopped-off limbs can’t pop up in a kids’ movie?

“ParaNorman” has a fun cast of supporting characters who amuse when on their own and when interacting with one another; in most cases it’s the latter. In the wake of the zombies’ rise, a team is assembled, led by Norman. He is joined by new school pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a chubby, freckled redhead who is bullied at school but nevertheless remains cheery and optimistic. Also tagging along are Norman’s phone-addicted older sister, cheerleader Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s lunkhead older brother, jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), on whom the shallow Courtney instantly develops a crush. And then there’s Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the moronic school bully with whom Norman and Neil set aside their differences to battle the supernatural threat.

Just as “The Expendables 2” operated as a throwback to the old-school action picture, “ParaNorman” pays tribute to the old-school horror picture. There are visual nods to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, as a pair of zombie arms burst their way through a wooden door, as well as notorious video nasty “Cannibal Holocaust," as we peer through a gaping bullet hole blown into a zombie’s torso. One manages to reference stalker-slashers “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” simultaneously, as little Neil stands motionless in amongst drying laundry hanging in a back garden like Michael Myers while wearing a hockey mask like Jason Voorhees. That last one is guaranteed to inspire a giggle.

Essentially, the film plays out like a claymated cross between “The Goonies” and “Dawn of the Dead,” which is all the promotional material the film really needs; it has the former’s sense of adventure and the latter’s demented sense of humour. There’s also an air of John Carpenter about it; indeed, the ominous synthesiser drone that accompanies the zombies’ presence is reminiscent of Carpenter’s score for his 1987 cult horror “Prince of Darkness.” It’s remarkably retro, and deliciously so.

Laika’s animation for the film rivals “The Nightmare Before Christmas” for spectacle and their own “Coraline” for background — and foreground — detail. The fluidity and energy with which the characters move is a wonder to behold, as are the majestically detailed sets: a forest of towering trees and the gothic graveyard from which the zombies emerge are particularly impressive. Most impressive of all, though, is an ambitiously scaled chase sequence set within a speeding van as a zombie stubbornly clings onto the roof of the vehicle. Not just fast and manic, it’s rib-tickling too: you should see where the index finger of the zombie’s dislodged arm ends up.

“ParaNorman” may well prove to be the most lovingly crafted film of the year. This is not just in terms of the staggering amount of work that has gone into the animation process, but also in the passion British directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler show for the horror genre. Their combined adoration is very evident in the film’s nostalgic nature and given a touching quality by the film’s enthusiastic execution — they love movies of this sort, and have made one themselves that can be shared with all audiences. It goes without saying that the film is a must-see for horror buffs young and old, although, as was touched upon earlier, children under eight or so may find the film quite frightening at times. Then again, no childhood is complete without a good old-fashioned scare at the movies.