Friday, 30 November 2012

Alex Cross

Detective Alex Cross must be some kind of superhuman. He waltzes into a homicide scene, informed only of the basic details of the situation, and instantly knows all that has occurred. He knows how many were involved in the killing. He knows if the victim was drugged and whether or not they screamed. He knows who shot who and the order in which they died. He knows the killer’s personality, mindset and work history: “He’s ex-military, a stimulus-seeking, sociopathic narcissist," he correctly calculates after just one brief glance at the villain of his latest investigation. Heck, he probably knows what the killer had for breakfast last Tuesday morning.

His skills aren’t limited to crime scenes. As he stands at the centre of a city block placed on lockdown to prevent a predicted assassination, Cross suddenly, inexplicably figures out that the killer’s master plan is to fire a bazooka from a passing elevated subway train. Sure enough, seconds later a rocket comes blasting out from the open door of a speeding carriage (and quite remarkably hits its target). Which leads to one important question: just how exactly does Cross know these things? Perhaps he has a Sherlockian eye for detail. Perhaps he has psychic abilities. Perhaps he read the script. But then here’s another question: if he can figure all of this out in an instant, and do so with stunningly little effort, how has he not found out that his dear, beloved wife is three months pregnant?


Loosely based on the twelfth entry in James Patterson’s bestselling thriller series, franchise reboot “Alex Cross” is the third — and undoubtedly worst — big-screen outing for the crime-busting forensic psychologist. Playing Cross is cross-dressing funnyman and filmmaker Tyler Perry, who for the first time leads a feature he hasn’t written or directed. He takes over the role from Morgan Freeman, who made the character a cinematic icon in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” In those films, Cross accomplished similarly far-fetched investigatory feats, albeit through a little more actual detective work. But Freeman, one of the great American actors, has such a persuasive, all-knowing gravitas to him that his Cross’ godlike detective skills were never called into question.

The same cannot be said for Perry, who is commendably sincere but whose dramatic talents are lacking and who, frankly, fails to convince as a puzzle-solving mastermind. Maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising: he is, after all, stretching his acting legs not just by appearing in a non-comedic role but also by not wearing a flower-patterned granny gown. The internet tells me that Idris Elba, the esteemed English actor from “Luther” and “Prometheus,” was originally cast in the title role before Perry came along. Personally, I would’ve preferred Elba as Cross, but then again, I wouldn’t want Elba’s reputation to be dragged down by this lousy, joyless affair.


In the previous films, we knew next to nothing of Cross’ family and homelife. In “Alex Cross,” he is reimagined as a family man living happily in the sleepy suburbs of Detroit. He has a gorgeous, loving wife, Maria (Carmen Ejogo, “Sparkle"), and two beautiful children, Damon and Janelle. As mentioned earlier, a third child is on the way. Living with them is Cross’ feisty, no-nonsense grandmother, Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson, “The Help”), who provides wise words when they are needed. Her position could easily have been filled by Perry’s signature character, Madea, which may have helped to make “Alex Cross” a little more lively and altogether more entertaining. Alas, the "mad black woman" is nowhere to be seen.

Cross’ life is turned upside down thanks to Picasso, the new hitman on the streets. He is played by “Lost" veteran Matthew Fox, but not as you’ve seen him before. Having lost roughly 44lbs, Fox resembles nothing so much as a bare skeleton tightly wrapped in a body of tattoo-scribbled skin and pumped full of muscle-enhancing steroid juice. We are introduced to Picasso as he confidently bets on himself in an underground MMA match, enters the ring and effortlessly beats his opponent to a bloody pulp (side note: is mixed-martial arts now the go-to sport for cinema?). This of course foreshadows a climactic hand-to-hand brawl between Cross and Picasso, which is so incoherently shot that one might think it was filmed in the midst of a major earthquake.


Cross and Picasso wind up playing a city-wide game of cat and mouse, like Batman and the Joker, although much less effective (Picasso’s baffling insistence that he “made” Cross falls miserably flat). Cross first learns of Picasso when the career assassin tortures to death a flirtatious, heavily bodyguarded businesswoman in her own bedroom. After magically cracking a cryptic code hidden in a charcoal drawing left behind at the crime scene (apparently accomplished by folding the paper in half), Cross discovers the real target: enigmatic French billionaire Leon Mercier (Jean Reno, “The Da Vinci Code”), who’s so clearly Picasso’s anonymous employer that I genuinely don’t know if the big revelation at the film’s conclusion is supposed to be a surprise.

All throughout the film, Picasso insists that he’s a hopeless sadist, that he’s “fascinated by pain.” I’m not buying it: Fox’s performance, which randomly steers from calm and focused professionalism to googly-eyed madness, is far too inconsistent, and oddly not very menacing. Even less convincing is Cross’ brief stint as a bloodthirsty, badass vigilante, which sees him sawing a shotgun barrel in half in his basement like Travis Bickle, breaking into buildings under the cover of darkness and brutally assaulting a police officer who happens upon his thievery. As he angrily hurls a whimpering drug dealer into apartment furniture, one struggles not to picture Perry in high heels and a $7 wig.


“Alex Cross" is directed by Rob Cohen, who specialises in efficient, high-octane action thrill rides (such as “The Fast and the Furious,” “xXx” and “Stealth”). His work here, which stays true to his reliable juvenility, is more amateurish than efficient, and it certainly isn’t thrilling. In a later scene which sees Cross smashing his car into the side of Picasso’s as the latter casually exits a parking lot, Cohen desperately tries to impress by filming the whole stunt from the back seat of Picasso’s vehicle. We might’ve been impressed if our minds weren’t on other matters: for instance, how exactly is it that Cross knew what parking lot Picasso was using? We might have bought that from Freeman; we’re not buying it from Perry.

3/10

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Master

The eponymous cult leader of Paul Thomas Anderson’s spellbinding sixth feature, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is many things. “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” he introduces himself. “But above all, I am a man.” He’s not wrong, but he missed out one integral thing: the self-titled Master is an enigma. Much like the film in which he appears, the Master is attractively mysterious and bandaged in intriguing ambiguities. He wields the power to seduce, enchant and ultimately persuade what is a loyal and sizable audience. He is, of course, met on his journeys by skeptics, who may well be right in believing his words to be nothing but poppycock, but they can’t deny his commanding spirit, nor his enigmatic charm.

He is the founder and driving force of The Cause, a philosophical movement not unlike Scientology. His life, or at least what we see of it, is a deliberate parallel to that of the great charlatan L. Ron Hubbard, but if you’re looking for a Hubbard biopic this isn’t it. In the 1950s, the Master teaches a close-knit circle of followers who cling to his every word like they were that of a prophet, or a messiah. He tells them of past lives, that their bodies are one in a long line of spiritual vessels. He writes, and profits from, self-help books centred on “secrets” he has supposedly unlocked, and claims that his teachings can help cure leukemia. His real name is Lancaster Dodd, but we don’t learn that until halfway through the film, when the Philadelphia police force come knocking on his door.


But while “The Master” is named after Lancaster, it is not he who is the central figure of Anderson’s latest epic drama. That honour belongs to Freddie Quell, a seaman-turned-drifter who, after being discharged from the U.S. Navy following a psychiatric evaluation, thinks he might find answers in The Cause. As played and frighteningly realised by Joaquin Phoenix, Freddie is a boozing, sex-obsessed bum seemingly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Drunken and damaged, he aimlessly wanders his way through a post-war America that doesn’t understand his condition, unable to hold down a job due to his erratic behaviour.

In the opening scenes, we witness his untamed madness: on a beach with his fellow Navy men he dryhumps a sand sculpture of a woman for longer than is comfortable to watch and masturbates by the sea, and in the depths of a naval ship he curiously guzzles juice dripping down from the inside of a dismantled torpedo. As Freddie, Phoenix is a grotesque sight: his posture is hunched, his hands are frequently affixed to his hips as his elbows inhumanly point outwards, and his expression is a permanent snarl. Some may not recognise him as the man who was Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” though the mumbling and the inebriation remain.


Freddie and Lancaster meet by chance. One cold and dark knight, Freddie drunkenly stows away on a brightly lit yacht in San Francisco, maybe seeking work, maybe wishing to sail away. The yacht has been hired by Lancaster, who uses it to host his daughter’s wedding. Lancaster takes an instant shine to Freddie, and his homemade hooch (key ingredient: paint thinner). What Freddie sees in Lancaster is a stranger who shows him affection, understands his condition and does not judge him. What Lancaster sees in Freddie is less clear. Perhaps he sees a stranger he feels he must help. Perhaps he sees himself: “You seem so familiar to me,” Lancaster tells him.

When reviewing “The Master," it is important to note that the film does not follow a conventional narrative template. Rather, it is an enthralling, poetically edited observation of two contrasting individuals who cross paths, develop a bond and struggle to let go of each other. It follows Freddie as he is integrated into The Cause, undergoes bewildering psychological experiments intended to cure him of his rage, is treated with suspicion by fellow members, and as he and Lancaster’s relationship becomes one built on dependency. Some viewers will be reminded of the relationship between Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner in Anderson’s breakthrough feature, 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” although what Jack saw in Mr. Diggler was very clear.


At first glance, and perhaps a few glances later, Freddie and Lancaster appear to be polar opposites. Lancaster is suave and charismatic, sporting sharp suits and a winning smile; he’s a stirring public speaker, flourishing limitless self-confidence and a pin-sharp wit. Freddie, on the other hand, is a feral beast, a mumbling, shuffling brute visibly uncomfortable in his own skin. But there are parallels between the Master and the disciple: both have a short temper, bursting into fits of fury when confronted by opposers, with Freddie the more physically aggressive of the pair. And both are lost, lonely souls, finding something so closely resembling solace in The Cause.

The film is a technical masterclass. Anderson, working for the first time without cinematographer Robert Elswit, shoots “The Master" with Mihai Malaimare, Jr. and creates a widescreen visual experience that absorbs and astonishes; shots of Freddie and Lancaster riding motorcycles through a vast desert landscape are the stuff cinema was made for. Johnny Greenwood’s score is raw, unsettling and imposing, always at the forefront of the action. Expectedly, Anderson indulges in his penchant for long, unblinking takes. Two scenes stand out as examples: Freddie, working as a portrait photographer, inexplicably picking a fight with a harmless customer, and Lancaster’s “informal processing” of Freddie, who mustn’t blink as he is ruthlessly hammered with repetitive questions about his past.


Key to the film’s success are Phoenix and Hoffman, whose performances engross both when they are alone and when they are together. They are almost guaranteed nominations at next year’s Academy Awards, although who will get Leading and who will get Supporting is debatable. But one mustn’t overlook Amy Adams as Peggy, Lancaster’s ever-present wife, who wishes for nothing but fame and success for her beloved husband. Perhaps deliberately, Peggy calls to mind Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth — she has something of a conniving streak about her, and, like so many things in “The Master,” there’s a mystery to her every move.

Many will find “The Master” a challenging watch; indeed, in the screening I attended, nine of my fellow movie-goers ventured out of the room before the film had finished, never to return. A select few, and I count myself among them, will find it the sort of enriching and exhilarating experience we cinephiles get only once in a blue moon. This is a passionate, audaciously assembled masterwork from one of America’s great filmmakers. What it is about is hard to grasp, but for me that just makes it all the more fascinating.

10/10

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

In bringing the story to a neat and tidy close, the eagerly awaited fifth and final chapter in the monstrously prosperous, perpetually polarising “Twilight” saga is a sound success: it deals with the badguys, ties up dangling narrative strands, brings a sense of closure to the heroes and provides a glimpse of what the future holds for them. In that sense, “Breaking Dawn - Part 2” is about as pleasing a conclusion to the fantasy romance series as any hardcore fan could possibly yearn for. But that’s the easy part: all that needs to be done to satisfy the fanbase is to stay true to Stephenie Meyer’s award-winning bestseller with as few diversions as possible, and the devotees will booze upon its blood like vampires at a damsel’s throat.

The hard part, and it’s a ploy that director Bill Condon (returning from “Breaking Dawn - Part 1”) and franchise screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg may have not even considered attempting, is attracting the rowdy detractors and casual non-enthusiasts over to the fans’ side. In a rousingly barmy climax ripe with earth-shattering carnage, the film almost achieves this, but a misjudged surprise twist snatches it away in an instant. The only other things left for consumption are running features for which the franchise has been cruelly, and sometimes fairly, mocked: those would be the risible dialogue, the dodgy computer effects, the ceaseless melodrama and the cardboard box acting, none of which is likely to bewitch non-fans into finally giving a hoot about pasty-faced bloodsucker Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and human-turned-vampire lover Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).


Nonetheless, part two of “Breaking Dawn” is better than last year’s part one, which spent two thirds of a padded runtime acting as a glorified, workaday soap opera — the forbidden couple tie the knot, consummate their marriage in a picturesque honeymoon suite and discover to their shock that they are to have a baby — before a 12A-pushing third act took the franchise kicking and screaming into the icky realms of David Cronenberg’s body horrors. Bella, drained of her strength and gaunt as can be, gave birth to a half-human, half-vampire hybrid baby questionably named Renesmee. To save his sweetheart’s life, Edward turned Bella into the undead. Now, in “Breaking Dawn - Part 2," she awakens, transformed and reborn, her eyes an inhuman blood red.

Indeed, no character in this epic finale — Bella’s oblivious dad (Billy Burke, “Drive Angry") aside — is free from the red-eye effect that naturally accompanies vampirism, nor the orange-tinted irises of lycanthropy; with Bella now one of them, we lose our all-important human gateway into the weird and worrisome supernatural world. Instead, we watch as Bella experiences life as a “newborn,” experimenting with her newfound abilities: in an early scene, she tackles a mountain lion in mid-air and feasts on its jugular; in another, she and Edward engage in super-destructive vampire sex in a cosy cottage without breaking a sweat. It’s cruelly ironic that Stewart, once a lip-chewing sulk, is more alive playing a member of the undead than she ever was when playing a human being.


There’s a problem with Renesmee that’s not her goofy name or curious physical features (as an infant, she’s a hideous CG creation that dwells at the deepest point of the uncanny valley): she’s growing at a rapid rate, and when law-enforcing vampire coven the Volturi are made aware of her existence, they’re none too happy. Believing her to be a much-feared “immortal child,” they promptly recruit an army of fanged foes to do battle with the Cullen clan in Washington. The Volturi’s sadistic leader, Aro, is again played by a campily sinister Michael Sheen, whose maniacal giggle upon first setting eyes on little Renesmee is sure to send a shiver down many a viewer’s spine.

Warned of the impending attack by psychic sister Alice (Ashley Greene, “The Apparition”), Edward and Bella begin assembling an army too. In an overlong, glacially paced sequence, they gather vampire clans from all over the world: joining forces are Americans, Egyptians, Amazonians, the Irish, Romanians, etc. Notably, some members of this new ensemble have abilities not typically associated with vampires; one can control the elements, able to spurt fire from his fingertips and construct walls of water, while another has electrically charged arms. Bella discovers she can concoct protective shields with her mind. They’re like the X-Men of the Abercrombie and Fitch world.


Also offering a helping paw is the local werewolf clan, led by ab-tastic hunk Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), whose infamously suspect love-bond with young Renesmee is smartly handled with a good deal of humour (though the inescapable creepiness remains firmly intact). In their hairier forms, the digitally rendered wolves still struggle to convince as a weighty physical presence, but the real computer-generated clanger of “Breaking Dawn - Part 2” is the super-speedy running of the vampires, who sprint through the forest followed by a strange, elongated blur, strongly resembling Shaggy and Scooby-Doo when they would clamber down those endlessly repetitive corridors. One wonders why a fantasy series so financially endowed has such a seemingly limited effects budget.

And then one realises that most of it has likely went into the hotly anticipated climax, which at first appears to be cleverly subverting the much-maligned anti-climax of Meyer’s book. Diverting from the source material’s actionless version, this ending is big, bold and decapitation-heavy, as the Cullens and co face off against the cloaked Volturi atop a vast snowy plain. Coming after an hour’s worth of largely uneventful tedium, it’s a genuinely thrilling sequence with a giddy lunacy to it and an aftermath that looks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow had a field day. Unfortunately, a final, admittedly unforeseeable twist undoes all this good work, making for a hard slap in the face for those who thought the “Twilight” franchise had finally grown a pair and shone a middle finger to Meyer’s original text. Alas, ‘twas but a dream.


To be fair, catering only to the fans may well have been Condon and Rosenberg’s plan all along, and the Twihards will no doubt cherish every second of this finale’s overstretched runtime. Others — be they newcomers or “haters” — will be bored and baffled by much of “Breaking Dawn - Part 2," which does little in the way of altering negative opinions about the franchise’s merits. It’s a shame that the “Twilight" saga never managed to achieve the undying universal appeal enjoyed by “Star Wars" and “Harry Potter." Its legacy will perhaps be that it gripped an entire generation of teenage girls — along with some boys too — with a love triangle between a human, a vampire and a werewolf, and made a ton of money while doing so. Perhaps the reboot will be embraced by a wider audience (I advise more decapitations).

5/10

Monday, 12 November 2012

Here Comes the Boom

Mixed martial arts comedy “Here Comes the Boom,” brought to you by the hollowed-out minds at Happy Madison Productions, is — to shine a bad film in a good light — the best of a lousy bunch. The latest product from Adam Sandler’s less-than-esteemed production company, founded in 1999, it is lucky in that it stands at the end of a long-flowing stream of cinematic filth: the studio’s most recent stinkers include “That’s My Boy,” “Just Go With It,” “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star,” “Grown Ups” and, simultaneously both king and queen of the stinkers, “Jack and Jill.” Comparatively, “Here Comes the Boom” is a farcical zenith. But that’s not to say it is good: merely, it is tolerable and inoffensive, which, by Happy Madison’s standards, is a triumph worthy of a self-congratulatory high-five.

The unlikely hero is tubby funnyman Kevin James, previously given his own star vehicles in the form of family-friendly duds “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Zookeeper.” Since his days playing deliveryman Doug Heffernan in blue-collar sitcom “The King of Queens,” James has shaped a profitable career out of playing the nice guy and the everyman. He continues this trend in “Here Comes the Boom,” in which he displays not just a heart of gold and the build of a bull but balls of solid steel, climbing into MMA death cages to do battle with muscle-bound fighters half his age and twice his size.


It’s a typical underdog story. James is Scott Voss, a 42-year-old biology teacher at Wilkinson High School. Scott is a slob and a slacker, frequently arriving late to class, where he makes no effort to inspire or enlighten his students. The school, under tight budget constraints, is making cutbacks to extra-curricular activities. This means Marty the kooky music teacher (Henry Winkler, aka the Fonz) is to be laid off while his students are to be stripped of their beloved music lessons. Scott, having learned that Marty recently became a father-to-be, suddenly grows a conscience and promises Marty he will save the program.

To do this, $48,000 must be raised. Scott is stumped. As a starting point, he takes up instructing a nighttime citizenship class. There, he meets Niko (retired MMA warrior Bas Rutten), with whom we watches televised MMA fights (essentially wrestling without the props) while giving extra tutoring. He discovers a trick of the trade: while the winner of an official UFC fight receives $50,000, the loser still receives a hefty sum of $10,000. A light bulb lights up inside Scott’s head: if he were to fight in the UFC, he wouldn’t have to win a single match to raise the money.


Cue the music. Cue the montages. And cue the slapstick. With the expertise of Niko and the motivation of Marty, Scott trains to lose against experienced, bloodthirsty fighting machines who would otherwise tear his head clean off his shoulders. It turns out he can take quite a beating. Some viewers will be reminded of the episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer becomes a boxer after discovering he can act as a human punching bag, thus tiring out his opponent. Early fights prove rewarding, as the paychecks roll in and as Scott comes home bashed and bruised from yet another loss at the hands of a hulking beast. But hang on a minute: as later fights prove, the lunky, chunky biology teacher might not be so bad at this MMA thing after all.

Most features associated with Adam Sandler, here an executive producer, aren’t known for their ambitious narratives, and “Here Comes the Boom” takes the cake for slavish commitment to formula. All the expected plot beats are well and truly present. Scott begins to win the respect of his students. His late-night antics grant him fame in the school hallways and disapproval from the headmaster. He recaptures his enthusiasm for education, as shown as he strides across the classroom on the tops of students’ desks. The shapely object of his affection, played by Mexican goddess Salma Hayek (Sandler’s wife in “Grown Ups"), starts to take a shine to him. A twist in the third act puts the raised money in jeopardy, and it looks like Scott may have to win a fight after all. With such a wealthy collection of well-worn clich├ęs integrated into its plot, the film could easily be a parody, but a surprising sincerity reveals it is making no attempt to send anything up.


Instead, it strives to stand on its own two feet as a feelgood charmer. While perhaps commendable, such efforts are in vain: with precious little to offer outside of a by-the-numbers script (co-written by James), a half-hearted message about the importance of education and an ending that throws all remaining morsels of believability out of the wrestling ring, there’s little reason to care. This is in spite of James’ reliably genial presence and a splendid cast of supporting players: Winkler, with his twinkly-eyed eccentricity, is a joy as the batty, passionate music teacher (“Without music, life would be a mistake”), while Rutten, an MMA champ from 1993 through to 1999, is a great, goofy sport.

Crucially though, the problem with “Here Comes the Boom" is its laughter count, which for me came to a grand total of zero. It’s not painfully unfunny, it just doesn’t appear to be trying very hard; truth be told, “Rocky” had more honest laughs and a good deal more heart. It doesn’t work as a drama either, with inevitable comparisons to the recent “Warrior” (coincidentally also about a science teacher fighting in the UFC) beating it to a pulp. While it’s arguably Happy Madison’s finest release since the generally decent “Click” (also directed by Frank Coraci), “Here Comes the Boom” packs neither the comedic or dramatic punch necessary to launch it above basic expectations.

5/10

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation

“Come to Silent Hill,” invites bloody text smeared across a living room wall in horror sequel “Silent Hill: Revelation.” I’d really rather not, to be perfectly honest; I’ve been there before, and all I got was a lousy B-film. Unsurprisingly, Michael J. Bassett’s inexplicably titled, Halloween-released follow-up to Christopher Gans’ financially rewarding, utterly baffling 2006 creature feature — a live-action adaptation of the enormously popular survival horror video game series — is even lousier than its puzzling predecessor. For one, the titular ghost town isn’t as silent as its name suggests this time round; echoing through its empty streets and abandoned buildings is a deafening drone that’s not the famous air raid siren, nor the wails of a murderous monster — rather, it is the thunderous snoring of slumbering audience members.

And then there’s the plot, which is about as murky and headache-inducing as the 3D visuals. Centred on the now-teenaged girl who went missing in the first film and who now returns to Silent Hill to save her kidnapped father and battle a demon toddler, it’s a deceptively simple story rendered needlessly, frustratingly nonsensical by a script devoid of a basic understanding of coherent storytelling. This is in spite of the fact that characters’ conversations are entirely functional, serving only to fuzzily explain what the devil is going on, to no avail. Returning viewers buying tickets for more “Silent Hill” lunacy will be left scratching their heads again; “Silent Hill" newcomers will end up a little too comatose to care — perhaps they can dream up a better, altogether more comprehensible storyline while this one clumsily unfolds before their tightly shut eyes.


At the brain-boggling conclusion of the first “Silent Hill,” heroine Rose Da Silva and rescued daughter Sharon arrived back home to discover they weren’t home at all; in fact, they were still trapped inside the fog-smothered underworld of Silent Hill. In “Revelation," Rose is able to send Sharon back to the real world thanks to a magic amulet and, through a magic mirror, tells husband Christopher (Sean Bean, “Game of Thrones”) to keep their daughter safe. Meanwhile, the undead (I think) cultists of Silent Hill plot to lure Sharon back to their haunted hometown so that she may kill the evil, all-powerful little girl who reigns over them.

About to turn 18, Sharon has now assumed the name Heather (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens) while her dad names himself Harry. Although she has no memory of her time in Silent Hill, Heather suffers from nightmares set in the town’s fairground, where she rides a merry-go-round encircled by a ring of flames. During the day, she is plagued with disturbing hallucinations of monsters chasing after her. A private detective (whose trench coat couldn’t be less subtle) follows her around, apparently hired by a cult. Upon returning home one night, she discovers her father is missing, and written in blood on the living room wall is that aforementioned invitation: “Come to Silent Hill.”


So, she does, and the place appears to be no different from before. By day, black ash falls from the sky like snow while the air is thickened by a ghostly grey mist; by night, the town is shrouded in darkness, from which monstrous, mutant freaks emerge to frighten and feast. Missing, however, is the consistently eerie atmosphere Gans achieved in the otherwise dreary first film, present here only in fits and starts. What we’re left with, then, is mostly dreariness, although die-hard gamers are sure to cheer (perhaps out of relief) when the iconic Pyramid Head turns up, wielding an impossibly colossal blade and sporting a gigantic cheese grater atop his shoulders.

Other monsters include a spider-like creature seemingly constructed out of mannequin parts, and the knife-wielding, faceless nurses who contort and stab at the sound of nearby movement. There’s also a strangely sinister bunny rabbit doll with large, staring eyes, which would fit right into a David Lynch film, but not here. In the “Silent Hill” games, I am told, the monsters are a manifestation of the main characters’ fears and innermost thoughts. In “Revelation,” they serve no discernable purpose other than setting up supposedly suspenseful situations in which Heather and stale love interest Vincent (Kit Harrington, “Game of Thrones") run down darkly lit corridors, their hearts pounding while ours stay all too steady.


The best thing in “Revelation" is a nigh-unrecognisable Carrie-Anne Moss (aka Trinity in “The Matrix") as villainess Claudia, the tyrannical leader of the Silent Hill cult. Moss has a menace and a madness to her performance, but she is wasted, given a measly two scenes and inexplicably transformed into a leather-clad monster during the overblown, muddled climax (in which an important character is killed through means which escape me). Wasted too is a reliably hammy Malcolm MacDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”), who plays a blind man chained up in a mental asylum whose job it is to deliver plot info I couldn’t even begin to understand. It’s not that I didn’t pay attention; it’s that by this point I didn’t care, and neither, I strongly suspect, did the filmmakers.

I will end this review on a note I made in my review of Paul W. S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil: Retribution," which I stated successfully recreated the experience not of playing a “Resident Evil" video game but of watching someone else play a “Resident Evil" video game. I have yet to encounter a film based on a video game that successfully recreates the gaming experience, which is often engaging, involving, enthralling, intense and exciting. “Silent Hill: Revelation” is not that film: we watch in boredom, waiting for someone to hand us the controls.

3/10

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Skyfall

In a breathtaking, action-drenched prologue that boosts the heart rate and then brings it to a sudden, chilling halt, James Bond adventure “Skyfall” triumphantly vanquishes the bitter aftertaste left behind by the enduring M16 agent’s previous escapade, the chronically arse-numbing “Quantum of Solace,” and boldly promises that great things are to come. It’s an audaciously extravagant opening, rivalling the Madagascar-set parkour chase from “Casino Royale” for thrills and energy, as Daniel Craig’s 007 pursues a mercenary who has stolen a precious computer hard drive from a field agent in Istanbul.

It’s a complex pursuit: it begins on foot, moves onto a motorbike, onto a speeding train and then finally inside a digger on top of that train. As the chase nears its conclusion, Bond’s accompanying, deliberately unnamed agent (Naomi Harris, “28 Days Later”), who watches from afar through a rifle lens, finds herself faced with a dilemma: either she risk losing the hard drive or risk losing Bond. I shan’t say what she chooses, but her decision packs a hard-hitting punch and provides a sumptuous set-up for a riveting tale of vengeance and betrayal. This is Bond at his brilliant best, and indeed, “Skyfall” is arguably the best of all the Bond films.


We have three Oscar-winners here and one man who should be an Oscar-winner. Directing is Sam Mendes, whose Best Picture-snagging “American Beauty” rightly earned him the Best Director prize in 1999. Judi Dench (Best Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love") returns as the cold and blunt M, head of MI6, this time given a much more hands-on role than in previous instalments. Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor for “No Country for Old Men”) is villainous, blonde-locked cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva. And the man who should be an Oscar-winner (though he’s been nominated nine times) is Roger Deakins, the master cinematographer whose richly vibrant and hauntingly atmospheric digital photography makes “Skyfall” a succulent feast for the eyes — in 50 years, Bond has never looked so luxurious.

I say that, but for most of the first act Craig resembles an unmade bed. Scruffy, unshaven and baggy eyed, he’s not the suave and ravishingly handsome Bond we’ve come to know and love. This is a broken, more vulnerable Bond whose physical fitness has taken a kicking, who is a shameless alcoholic, who can barely shoot straight and who must rebuild himself and prove himself worthy of his position in M16. The script — scribed by series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (“Hugo”) — makes frequent references to Bond’s age, that he’s an old, tired dog in a young pup’s game. The film ends on the note that Bond may be old, but his fierce, undying determination means he will prevail and he will live on.


About that hard drive. In it are the identities of every undercover agent currently embedded in terrorist organisations all over the globe. With it in the wrong hands, those agents are now in great danger. M, who headed the disastrous mission in Turkey, is pressured by Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus”) to resign while her dignity is still intact. She stubbornly refuses, which is probably for the best: it soon transpires that a murderous madman, now the owner of the hard drive, is not only leaking the agents’ names via YouTube, but is also after M’s head.

Bond, returning from what could be considered a vacation, is tasked with finding this madman and bringing him in. His mission leads him to Shanghai, where the Bond of yesteryear is strongly evoked: he sips cocktails in casinos, has sex with a mysterious prostitute inside a swanky sailboat, and — in a winking homage to Roger Moore’s infamous crocodile hopping in “Live and Let Die” — uses a komodo dragon as a stepping stool. In one suspenseful scene that combines the franchise’s age-old glamour with its recent grit, Bond engages in a fistfight with an assassin inside a glass skyscraper. Deakins shoots this in one unbroken take as Bond and the assassin are presented as stark silhouettes projected against a glowing, neon-lit backdrop.


Speaking of one-takes, Bardem — truly frightening as unstoppable hitman Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men" — is granted an instantly classic villain’s entrance as the scary-haired, lip-licking Silva. As Bond watches from the foreground, tied to a chair, the towering figure of the Hispanic super-hacker exits an elevator in the background and slowly but surely strolls 20 ft towards our hero, waving his hands and wagging his finger while reciting a soon-to-be-relevant parable about rats in a barrel. Bardem has a manic, almost campy menace, greeting Bond by caressing his legs and undoing the top buttons of his shirt. Silva is a 21st century villain, his base of operations not a fortress by a smoking volcano but a grubby warehouse lined with stacks of computers that grant him direct access to any computer in the world. He calls to mind WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange — the garish hairstyle certainly helps.

Both Silva and Bond are presented as momma’s boys, their momma being M (who callously betrayed Silva years ago). Here, the emotional core of “Skyfall” rears its head in the form of Bond’s relationship with his bitchy boss. Theirs is a relationship built on dependency, as shown in Bond’s return to her from an assumed death and her decision to reinstate him when he fails every test he undertakes. They spend precious time together when Silva comes gunning after M and when Bond assigns himself her sole protector. Their vicious verbal sparring remains, but there’s added weight and depth this time: they may mercilessly banter, but as two forces on the same team they need each other.


Things come to a fiery, booby-trapped end in a stirring third act set in the gorgeously framed Scottish Highlands. This is unlike any climax to a Bond film you’ve seen before; unexpectedly bringing the franchise into the home-invasion genre, it bizarrely resembles Sam Peckinpah’s disturbing, blood-splattered classic “Straw Dogs” or — dare I say it — Chris Columbus’ “Home Alone.” It also does what no other Bond film has done before, strongly hinting at the nature of Bond’s troubled childhood and what ultimately made him into the man he is today. Yet neither of these two elements feel out of place within the film itself: this is a new Bond who inhabits a new world, who sweats when he fights and who bleeds when you prick him, and whose perilous adventures have a newfound emotional resonance to them.

This is Mendes’ first time helming a Bond film — with luck, it will not be his last. “Skyfall” is a sensational spy flick and a fabulous 50th anniversary present from a franchise that keeps surprising and hopefully has more to offer. It is a Bond film that moves forward while nostalgically peering over its shoulder to the unforgotten, well-trodden past. It is a Bond film unlike any other, but it is still a Bond film; about that there is no doubt. Once again, the end titles promise that “James Bond will return.” We look forward to seeing you again, Mr. Bond, in whatever form you please.

10/10