Thursday, 28 February 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is a fairy tale remix that’s Grimm in all the wrong ways, a one-joke premise that’s stretched paper-thin before the end of the first reel. Its title will remind many of last year’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a goofy comic-book actioner in which America’s 16th president was reimagined as an axe-wielding slayer of bloodsucking ghouls. A similar concept is explored here, with the eponymous siblings growing up to become killers of witch-folk, but with less fun to be had this time round: while it was kind of amusing watching Timur Bekmambetov’s 2012 effort put a supernatural spin on US history, it’s not so amusing watching this messily directed fantasy dud half-heartedly poke fun at a 200-year-old fairy tale.

It is the telling of this well-known tale that serves as the film’s opening. You know the drill. Abandoned by their father in the middle of the deep, dark woods, young brother and sister Hansel and Gretel happen upon a cottage made of candy. Within the cottage is a wicked old witch who enslaves them, fattens them up and plans on eating them. As the witch prepares to cook Hansel alive, Gretel breaks free from her chains, boots the bitch into the oven and roasts her on an open flame — as the narration usefully points out, fire is essentially a witch’s kryptonite.

Years later, they’ve gone pro. Now played by Jeremy Renner (“The Bourne Legacy”) and Gemma Arterton (“Song for Marion”), Hansel and Gretel hunt witches for a living, ridding towns and villages of infestations “Van Helsing”-style, using a full-blown arsenal of high-tech weaponry — double-ended crossbows, rapid-fire Gatling guns, etc. — to send them cackling to Hell. But they may have met their match in the snow-dappled German town of Ausburg, where children are being abducted for a "Moonblood" ritual sacrifice, the completion of which will make the local coven impervious to fire.

That “Blade"-inspired detail aside, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" does nothing interesting with its titular monsters: they’re just bog-standard spell-casters who ride on broomsticks, stand around bubbling cauldrons and conjure up spells with a flick of their wrist — if only they had conjured up a sharper script. Famke Janssen (terrific as Jean Grey in the “X-Men” franchise) tries her damndest to be menacing as the powerful witch Muriel, but truth be told, Anjelica Huston was much more terrifying as the Grand High Witch in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” — that gruesome make-up job still haunts my nightmares.

The action is handled with routine slickness and is startlingly blood-splattered: witches are decimated, delimbed and decapitated with frequency and viscerality, their icky innards spattering wildly. Writing and directing is Tommy Wirkola, maker of “Dead Snow,” a blackly comic Norwegian horror in which Nazi corpses rose from their graves. He’s clearly been inspired in his career by Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead" trilogy, but without the wacky invention of those three films, the action of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" quickly succumbs to noisy monotony. The film must be commended, however, for its admirable use of practical stunts and effects, particularly in the creation of a noble but dimwitted troll named Edward (Twihards, fret not: this Edward’s no RPatz).

As for our two leads, they do good with limp material. Renner, who established himself as a capable action star in “The Bourne Legacy” and “Marvel's Avengers Assemble,” and Arterton, a Londoner pulling off an impeccable American accent, fully convince as smartmouthed, gunslinging badasses — Arterton in particular makes for a formidable hunter of witches, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her kicking butt in future action roles. In spite of this, neither of them can overcome the film’s fatal flaw: at its centre is an identity crisis, the same crisis that plagued “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — does Mr. Wirkola's English-language debut wish to be a grizzled, balls-to-the-wall actioner or a tongue-in-cheek slapstick spoof?

It is a question that’s never answered, and as a result, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not we’re meant to be taking any of this seriously — how can we when we spot Will Ferrell’s name in the opening titles (he’s producing alongside regular comedy collaborator Adam McKay)? To the film’s credit, it has no pretentions beyond being a big, dumb action movie, or, if you will, fast food entertainment. Trouble is, when I eat fast food, I enjoy it. Watching “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” was more akin to eating a trail of soggy breadcrumbs left out in the rain.


Friday, 22 February 2013


The unbreakable bond between mother and child is a theme of horror cinema almost as old as the genre itself: think of Mia Farrow’s twisted, unconditional love for her newborn baby boy, the spawn of Satan, in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby;” how about Ellen Burstyn’s exhaustive commitment to curing her demonically possessed teen daughter in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist;" and then there’s Rebecca De Mornay as a crazed, vengeful nanny in Curtis Hanson’s “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” iconic for a brilliantly disturbing scene in which De Mornay is caught breastfeeding the family’s newborn.

It is a theme that boldly returns in the aptly titled supernatural horror “Mama,” this time with an adoptive twist — here we have a meditation on assumed maternal instinct, specifically that of a young woman for two children that are biologically not hers, as explored through the ever-enjoyable medium of an old-school ghost story. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are Victoria (3) and Lily (1), sisters who are abandonded in the woods when their father, under crippling financial pressure, goes mad and embarks on a killing spree. Found five years later, they are sent to live in the suburbs with their uncle and his longtime girlfriend, still feral from life in the wilderness and no longer accustomed to suburban living.

Turns out they may not have come alone: Mama, an unidentified entity they claim has been nurturing them for the past five years, seems to be paying them visits late at night. Doctors say Mama is a figment of the girls’ troubled imagination, but aunt Annabel (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”) is convinced otherwise: she hears voices through the air duct, suffers unusually vivid nightmares and senses something watching her inside the house. The film itself, it decidedly wields little ambiguity as to the existence of Mama: this sinister home invader is all too real and has come to take Victoria and Lily back to the woods.

Mama is an intriguing movie monster, characterised not as a mindless killing machine like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, instead as a tragic-but-violent fairy tale figure capable of rational thought and granted a clear, ruthless and relatable motivation: to be a mother once again. It’s a pity, then, that although her ghostly presence inspires chills and occasional sympathy, she’s often presented on-screen as a computer-generated special effect and reduced to a squealing ghoul who leaps unexpectedly out from the shadows, withered arms flailing and face hideously distorted — though they pack a sufficient jolt, the jump scares feel cheap.

As haunted sisters Victoria and Lily, Charpentier and Nélisse are a great find, capable of performing the well-worn creepy-child archetype without cliché — there’s surprising subtlety on display from these fresh-faced young talents. But the film ultimately belongs to Chastain, who, fashioned as a punk rock chick with short black locks, is almost unrecognisable from her Oscar-nominated turn as a cold and stoic CIA agent in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is her character’s transformation, executed with growing warmth and unblinking class by Chastain, that lends the film’s title an intriguing ambiguity — is “Mama” in reference to the eponymous villainess or the heroine, whose bond with Victoria and Lily strips her of her past irresponsibility and, through thick and through thin, helps her discover her inner mom?

Either way, Argentian director Andres Muschietti’s debut feature — an extension of his three-minute short from 2008 — is an effective, bone-rattling haunted house chiller that draws heavily, and lovingly, from genre entries of the past. As a presentation of Guillermo del Toro, credited as an executive producer, it falls short of the poignant, antiquated greatness of “The Orphanage,” more on a par with the efficient spookiness of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Along with last year’s hair-raising “The Woman in Black” (coincidentally also featuring a malevolent ghost mother), it shows that trashy, blood-soaked mutilations are not necessary in the art of frightening an audience: all that’s needed is an atmosphere capable of chilling you to the bone.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

“A Good Day to Die Hard” is the worst of the “Die Hard” movies, not because of its restrictive 12A rating, nor its over-reliance on computer-generated effects, but because it is the first instalment in the 25-year franchise to treat its audience with open contempt — here is the “Die Hard" for the “Transformers" crowd, all flashing lights and no brain activity. That’s not to say that none of its four predecessors are guilty of similar crimes — “Die Hard 4.0” certainly could have done with a bit more brain power — but there’s something especially insulting about this fifth entry’s lackadaisical, almost perfunctory attitude towards anything not directly involving an explosion or a helicopter, or indeed a helicopter that’s exploding.

That’s an image that’s stuck with the franchise ever since its first appearance in John McTiernan’s classic 1988 original, as Agents Johnson and Johnson’s FBI chopper was swallowed up by a rooftop fireball. It reappeared several times throughout Renny Harlin’s airport-bound 1990 sequel “Die Harder,” albeit with winged aircrafts, did so again at the end of McTiernan’s 1995 threequel ”Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and then popped up again in Len Wiseman’s 2007 fourquel “Die Hard 4.0,” as Bruce Willis’ maverick cop John McClane took out an attacking helicopter with an airborne police car. “I was out of bullets,” was his smirking quip.

Be it through loving homage or lack of creativity, it appears yet again at the climax of “A Good Day to Die Hard,” this time in “Matrix"-style bullet-time, as a helicopter is blown to smithereens outside a power plant in the radioactive Chernobyl. But by this point in the film we’ve stopped caring enough to feel any surge of excitement or exhilaration, and so has Willis by the looks of it: here, he performs with the enthusiasm of a man impatiently waiting to be handed his paycheck, presumably because he knows just as well as we do that any semblance of intelligence this franchise once held has gone leaping off the top of Nakatomi Plaza after having forgotten to tie the fire hose around its waist.

But then, can we honestly expect anything else when the director is Irish hack John Moore, whose 2008 video game adaptation “Max Payne” is one of the few films I’ve actively sought out and then switched off in exasperation before the 30-minute mark? He presents his usual slick visuals here, as always drenched in CGI, along with his reliable ineptness when it comes to the handling of living, breathing human beings — this is a problem, considering the fact that where the film’s heart is supposed to lie is in the male bonding between John and his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney, last seen going fist-to-face with Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”).

Jack, unbeknownst to daddy, is a CIA spook operating undercover in Moscow. When Jack is taken into custody for his part in an assassination, John hops on a plane to the Russian capital and finds his boy in grave danger: heavily armed cronies of corrupt bureaucrat Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov, "Cold Souls") are after Jack and mysterious political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch, "The Lives of Others"), who knows the location of a stash of nuclear weapons and whom Jack was attempting to extract to the US. Head of the cronies is Alik (Radivoje Bukvic, "Taken"), a cackling buffoon whose defining quirk is tormenting his victims by tap dancing while simultaneously chomping on a raw carrot — he’s a far cry from Alan Rickman’s quietly menacing Hans Gruber, that’s for sure.

John, Jack and Yuri go on the run together, chased at every turn by Alik and his men. In the resulting mayhem, which includes a destructive highway pursuit and a tumble through ten floors of scaffolding, Moore shows a talent for staging high-octane set-pieces, even if they're too cartoonish to build the necessary pulse-pounding tension. Trouble is, little-to-no thought or care has been put into everything in between, and Skip Woods’ dunderheaded script is almost entirely devoid of character or wit — the catchiest line is the hardly inspired “I’m on vacation,” probably because John utters it a total of five times.

Such qualities hardly seem worthy of a “Die Hard” movie, especially when they’re so glaring: Willis looks positively embarrassed to be reciting some of the clunky father-son banter he shares with Courtney. As for McClane, he’s a faded shadow of his former self, and any fondness we still have for him as a person has not come from this film, instead having lived on from previous instalments. Heck, he doesn’t even get to say his iconic catchphrase properly: annoyingly, for the sake of the 12A rating, it has once again been neutered to the briefer and altogether more family-friendly, “Yippee kay-yay, motherf-!”

In 1988, we believed in John McClane as a man of flesh and blood: while still a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, what set him apart from the rest of the ’80s action heroes was that he showed fear and anguish in the face of danger. The sequels saw fit to gradually grant him the power of invincibility: he now runs into speeding traffic and dives through windows with not a moment’s hesitation. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” he even walks unprotected into an area of dangerously high radiation and suffers no consequences. John McClane is no longer a mere mortal; from the looks of things, he’s now a superhero. I once bought him as a human being; I’m not buying it now.


Monday, 11 February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Life is tough for Wreck-It Ralph, the bad-tempered villain of an 8-bit arcade game. It is a life lived within the various coin-operated machines of Litwak’s Arcade, but mostly within 30-year-old popular platformer “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” where Ralph is a sort of humanised Donkey Kong figure; a gentle giant, he stands at a mighty 9 ft, weighs an elephantine 643 pounds and is gifted with tractor-sized fists that can demolish all that they touch. His job — if you can call it that — sees him scaling and angrily pounding at the outside of a high-rise building with his bare hands, a quest of wanton destruction instantly undone by the player’s avatar, celebrated goody-two-shoes and magically tooled handyman Fix-It Felix, Jr (Jack McBrayer, “30 Rock”).

When the day is done, i.e. when Litwak’s Arcade shuts down for the night, Ralph retreats to a junkyard and sleeps in amongst a pile of bricks, dreaming of a life where he is beloved and where he is a hero — badguys rarely get the credit they deserve for their hard work and effort. This is a life spectacularly realised in “Wreck-It Ralph,” a delightfully playful and wildly imaginative Walt Disney computer-animation in which video game characters enjoy a life of their own when free from the control of their human players. They share this quality with the plastic playthings of Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story,” if lacking the universally felt magic of that film’s concept: we have all at one point imagined that our inanimate toys spring to life when our backs are turned, but have we ever thought the same of a video game character?

Still, what “Wreck-It Ralph” has by the truckload is an infectious fondness for its pixelated protagonists and dollops of sweet nostalgia that will transform any casual gamer of the 1980s into as giddy a seven-year-old as the ones sitting in the audience with them: thanks to the dazzling array of brain-implanted video game sound effects and backdrops that are on frequent display, childhood memories of frantic button-pushing and joystick-manoeuvring will come flooding back with the unstoppable thrust and overwhelming force of a full-scale tsunami. And I haven’t even mentioned the countless familiar faces to be recognised throughout: the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Q*bert can be seen wandering through Game Central Station, while in a Badguys Anonymous support group, Ralph discusses his problems with M. Bison from “Street Fighter," Bowser from “Super Mario Bros.” and one of the ghosts from that old-school classic, “Pac-Man.”

Wreck-It Ralph himself, however, is an original creation, even if Disney have been so kind and thoughtful as to have made a real-life “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” game available for playing online — I’ve played it myself, and, like the film, it’s a good deal of fun. He is voiced by John C. Reilly (“Step Brothers”), usually a supporting actor whose endearing, sad-sack voice is a vital cog in Ralph’s lovability; here is a good-natured character who wishes to be appreciated, who watches with jealousy as Fix-It Felix receives praise for his work while he remains unrecognised and is faced with rejection upon pursuit of it.

It is a jealousy that causes him to abandon his game in search of popularity, a move referred to by fellow game characters as “going Turbo,” a reference to a racing character who, in a bid for attention, broke into the arcade’s newest racing game and consequently had his own game unplugged. Ralph’s journey sees him integrated into other games, and one of the many joys of “Wreck-It Ralph" is its gorgeously designed, meticulously detailed world-building: Ralph first encounters the very modern “Hero’s Duty,” a high-def first-person shooter that is essentially a sci-fi-twisted “Call of Duty” in which heavily armed marines do battle with giant, flying space bugs. “When did video games get so violent and scary?" Ralph wimpishly remarks upon entry.

But most of the action takes place in “Sugar Rush,” a teeny-bopper go-kart racing game made unique by the fact that it is made entirely out of colourful confectionery: its sugar-coated sites include a forest of candy cane trees and a river of chocolate, while, in a neat touch, the two local police officers are a pair of walking, talking donuts. Such a world provides ample opportunity for shameless product placement, and sadly, “Wreck-It Ralph” gives into such distracting, corporate-driven urges: our hero falls victim to Nesquik sand and encounters a Diet Cola volcano made eruptive by falling Mentos. This jars with the film’s intentions to lovingly pay tribute to the world of video games, and one might feel a slight tingle of cynicism when such moments pop up.

This is, however, vanquished whenever the adorably sprightly and lovably bratty Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman with a lungful of helium) is on-screen, which is thankfully often. She’s a smart-mouthed young resident of “Sugar Rush” whose dream is to be a go-kart racer; this, in spite of the fact that she is a “glitch,” and that it is strictly forbidden for glitches to race in “Sugar Rush.” Ralph quickly befriends Miss von Schweetz, and promises to help her achieve her goal; King Candy (Alan Tudyk, “Firefly”), the lisping ruler of “Sugar Rush,” has other, more diabolical plans for this malfunctioning tot.

Meanwhile, in an enjoyable sub-plot, Ralph is chased by Calhoun (Jane Lynch, “Glee"), the hard-ass sergeant from “Hero's Duty" supposedly programmed with “the most tragic back-story ever" — her beloved fiancé was gobbled up by a wedding-crashing space bug, one of which Ralph may have inadvertently set loose inside “Sugar Rush." Felix enthusiastically tags along, fearing that his game will be shut down forever if Ralph does not return in time. This leads to a climax that is disappointingly generic in its action-packed mayhem, but which is saved by its characters — it helps a great deal that we have been given time to watch them grow and learn to care about them.

I have a suggestion for the sequel, which, given the film’s box office figures, looks likely. All of the action in “Wreck-It Ralph" takes place inside Litwak’s Arcade and the games contained therein. But what if Ralph and his friends were to venture outside of the arcade and encounter multiple versions of themselves in other arcades — what if Ralph were to interact with another Wreck-It Ralph, like Buzz and the whole supermarket aisle of new-and-improved Buzz Lightyears in “Toy Story 2?" Anyway, it’s just a suggestion. I have a feeling that “Wreck-It Ralph,” like so many family films, will be played on a never-ending loop in households throughout the world when it is released on home video — it will, however, have the rare luxury of being repeatedly placed into the DVD player not just by children but by thirty-something gamers too.


Tuesday, 5 February 2013


In Robert Zemeckis’ stirring addiction drama “Flight,” Denzel Washington plays a drunk so convincingly — and so authentically — that you’ll find yourself suspecting he sneaked a glass or two of bourbon before the shooting of each scene. The trick, he says, is feigning sobriety. "Where actors get into problems is that they act drunk," he told USA Today. “In fact, you're trying to keep it in.” This is evident not just in Washington’s remarkable performance — his meatiest and most emotionally complex since “Training Day” in 2001 — but also in his character, a man so used to keeping it in he’s convinced himself that there is nothing to keep in.

He is William “Whip” Whitaker, an ace commercial airline pilot and long-time alcoholic-in-denial whose smooth charisma and masterful skills in the art of deception have allowed to him to be a substance abuser for years unnoticed. His antics have, however, lost him his wife and the respect of his teenage son, who now live together in the suburbs of Atlanta. We are introduced to Whitaker as he awakens in an Orlando hotel room following an all-night party with stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velazquez, “My Name is Earl”). Groggy and red-eyed, he starts this fateful workday swigging back stale beer, smoking a spliff and perking himself up by snorting a line of cocaine. “It helps straighten me out” he later explains.

This opening, in which we are presented with a full view of Miss Velazquez’s disrobed physique, is crucial in establishing both Whitaker’s condition and that Zemeckis has returned to the realms of adult filmmaking as well as the medium of live-action. After 10 years of playing with motion-capture suits in computer-animated fantasy spectacles “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” Zemeckis is helming his most adult feature yet, a film much more interested in honest, harrowing human drama than whiz-bang special effects.

But there is one sequence in “Flight” that is truly spectacular, coming twenty minutes into the runtime as Whitaker mans a malfunctioning aircraft, still drunk from the previous night. The build-up is a masterclass in suspense: arriving late to the plane with a hangover, Whitaker rouses himself by breathing in a lungful of pure oxygen, tames his throbbing headache with a vodka-spiked cup of orange juice and an aspirin, and proceeds to fly the jet at full speed through bone-rattling turbulence. Soon after, he takes a nap in the cockpit, leaving his rookie co-pilot (Brian Geraghty, “The Hurt Locker”) to take over, and awakens to find the plane in an uncontrollable dive.

The next ten minutes are terrifying in their viscerality and comparable in their raw, disastrous terror to the early tsunami sequence in Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible.” As the plane hurtles down a 4,800 ft drop, Whitaker bravely takes control of the situation, relaxing his co-pilot and calmly giving orders. In a moment of unblinking genius, he “rolls” the plane, turning it upside down in a desperate attempt to stop the dive and achieve stability — a ground-level shot of the jet flying overhead belly-up is a glorious sight.

The plane miraculously lands right-side-up in an empty Atlanta field. 96 out of a possible 102 lives are saved, and Whitaker — like the pilot who successfully landed a malfunctioning US Airways plane into the Hudson River in 2009 — is hailed as a hero by the media. Not wanting the fame, Whitaker secretly retreats to his late father’s rural farmhouse while the news cools down, planning to give up drinking once and for all. But his bad habits are fast to return and come back to bite him in the ass when a toxicology report proves he had alcohol and cocaine in his system on the day of the flight, meaning this Star Spangled hero may go to jail on charges of manslaughter.

A key question in the film is whether Whitaker succeeded in landing the plane despite his intoxication or because of it — being stoned may have been what gave him the courage to attempt such a feat. Whitaker is stubborn that it was the plane’s fault for “falling apart” and that his inebriation played little to no part in the disaster itself. Lead investigator for the NTSB Ellen Block (Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”) is adamant that his inebriation played a vital part, and that a little jail time is what he deserves.

The film itself, it remains advisedly ambiguous on the subject, but looks upon Whitaker with deep sadness as he spirals further and further into a self-made Hell of drink, drugs and depression. Washington, whose brave and tortured performance has rightly earned him an Oscar nomination, at no point begs for sympathy but earns it through his natural gravitas and the knowledge that Whitaker is his own worst enemy: here is a man who stumbles along a fine line between pride and self-pity, who has a crippling weakness that, like so many alcoholics, he fails to recognise and refuses to deal with.

By Whitaker’s side are old friend and pilots’ union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, “Star Trek”) and brilliant attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, “Iron Man 2“), who defiantly build Whitaker’s case even as his drinking continues and worsens. Nicole (Kelly Reilly, “Sherlock Holmes”) is a recovering heroin addict and troubled soul with whom Whitaker falls in love and whose attempts at helping Whitaker are met with anger. And John Goodman, seemingly channelling his comically unhinged performance in “The Big Lebowski,” is Whitaker’s boisterous drug dealer, whose services are required when Whitaker sets off on one booze-a-thon too far — two lines of coke sure can straighten a man out.

God is mentioned many times throughout “Flight,” in passing, directly and when one spiritually minded character asserts it was God who landed the plane, not Whitaker — it can’t be a coincidence that it landed by a church as a baptism was taking place in the backyard. Preachy though it may be, it shines a light on the path Whitaker is to take, a path that takes him from mindless self-destruction to acceptance and then redemption. It’s the sign of a great director — and indeed a great leading man — when he can keep us gripped with a story when we already know its outcome. In “Flight,” I wasn’t just gripped; I was drunk on its power.