Friday 28 May 2010

[REC] 2 review

[REC] 2 (18, 84 mins)
Directors: Jaume Balaguero,Paca Plaza
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Two years ago, during a period that ushered in a rash of urban DIY horrors that included the likes of Cloverfield and George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Spanish horror [REC] exploded onto screens with unprecedented ferocity and success.

Taking place over the course of several harrowing hours, it followed Angela, a bubbly TV presenter and her cameraman as they shadowed a Madrid fire crew on their night shift, where a routine call-out to an apartment building turned into an unexplained, unstoppable zombie outbreak, the gimmick being that everything was seen from the TV camera’s point of view.

As an exercise in sustained horror, [REC] has rarely been bettered and remains one of the scariest films of the last couple of decades, able to provoke actual cower in your seat, hide your eyes and hope-the-monster-doesn’t-get-you terror. It’s incredibly rare for that level of quality to be repeated in a horror sequel, and it’s not much of a surprise to learn that [REC] 2 doesn’t really come close to achieving it.

The first shot of the new film is the last shot of the first, as we see Angela being pulled into the darkness by an emaciated, mutated creature. With the building under quarantine to contain the outbreak, a police unit is sent in to document the situation, along with a government official who says he needs the blood of the original victim in order to make an antidote should the contagion spread. With each of them having helmet-mounted cameras, we’re now able to cut to multiple viewpoints, the whole point being that if it hasn’t been captured on camera, it hasn’t happened.

It was the variety of scares that impressed most first round, from slow creeping dread to jump-shocks that you absolutely will not see coming. Here, it’s not so much sustained terror anymore as sustained carnage, with almost every horror moment a variation on someone being attacked by one of the infected while the camera shakes violently and everyone screams.

Plot-wise [REC]2 starts to go slightly awry when a demonic possession element and Vatican intervention is introduced, making the film a lot more indebted to, and quick to pilfer from, The Exorcist than its own mythology. So while it’s slicker, better lit and even more accomplished in the way it uses long, superbly staged takes, there can be no denying that much of its power has been lost.

[REC]2 was a massive hit at the Spanish box office last year and there’s a sense, with two further sequels already planned, that it’s now more relevant as a cash cow than as innovative horror cinema.

The Losers review

The Losers (12A, 97 mins)
Director: Sylvain White 
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Looking to steal a march on the upcoming A-Team movie, actioner The Losers is based on a graphic novel about a group of mercenaries (including the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans and Idris Elba) betrayed by the CIA. Presumed dead and left to rot in Bolivia, they meet Zoe Saldana’s former agent who tells him she can get them back to America so they can find the man who betrayed them, someone she also has a grudge against. So they come up against an arms dealer (Jason Patric) in a well paced adventure that’s full of globetrotting and double crossing and some energetic burst of action that try to incorporate traditional gunplay with heist machinations. By adopting a light hearted approach and a flippantly violent tone, it canters along as harmless fun that isn’t necessarily always funny. So while Patric and his henchman have a nice line in banter, sort of a riff on Dr Evil and his son from Austin Powers, elsewhere it’s just fairly lame bickering by a minor cast.

Tooth Fairy review

Tooth Fairy (PG, 101 mins)
Director: Michael Lembeck
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Dwayne Johnston completes his metamorphosis from action star to children’s stooge with this sickly family fantasy. The artist formerly known as The Rock stars as ice hockey player Derek ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Thompson, so called because of his on-rink signature move of clattering into opponents until their teeth fall out. But when he lets slip to his girlfriend’s young daughter that there’s no such thing as the tooth fairy, his punishment is to become an actual tooth fairy for a couple of weeks. Cue lots of magic potions for invisibility and shrinking as he collects teeth while having to hide his fairy wings from his teammates and family. Normally such setups lead to thoroughly noxious affairs, but thanks to the likeability of Johnston this is simply asinine instead, though padded with subplots and far more ice hockey scenes than should be allowed in any movie. It’s made more bearable by wheeling out the likes of Julie Andrews and Billy Crystal in cameos, but ultimately it all comes down to trite lessons being learned. The real lesson that should be learned by filmmakers is that kids are smarter than them and deserve better than this.

Friday 21 May 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time review

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A, 116 mins)
Director: Mike Newell
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The list of movies adapted from video games is not an impressive one. For some reason no one has yet discovered the alchemy of making a video game work on the big screen and the results have ranged from the dull and mediocre (Tomb Raider or Resident Evil) to the downright catastrophic (anything touched by the hand of Uwe Boll).

Faced with the challenge of filming the popular platform adventure Prince of Persia, uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer seeks to the recreate the success of his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring it to the screen in as spectacular a fashion as possible.

So while the results were always going to be slick and professional, the fear was how the writing team would be able to come up with a compelling story to match the gorgeous production levels. It’s certainly sweeping and epic, with beautifully realised cities and palaces, but the tale of hero Dastan is an underwhelming one.

Taken in and adopted by the Persian king as a young orphan, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) has grown into a great warrior fighting alongside his two brothers as the Persian kingdom grows. But when he’s framed for the murder of his father, he must go on the run with a rival princess, Tamina (Gemma Arterton) to clear his name.

The first strike against Prince of Persia is that Dastan is a bit of non-character, an underwritten vessel who provides us with no idea what he actually wants or needs. Tamina is clearly the stronger character and Arterton outdoes Gyllenhaal at most turns during their prickly relationship.

They spend most of the movie bickering over a mystical dagger, the Sands of Time, which has the power to reverse time. If you’re unlucky enough to have seen Nicolas Cage in the hilariously bad Next, you’ll know that with great time-meddling power comes great ridiculousness, and thus the scene is set for an action showdown that zips backwards and forwards, with certain parties keen to get their hands on the dagger for treacherous purposes.

Nods to the game are fun, with Dastan leaping from wall to wall like a good ‘un, but even then the sequence of run, jump, climb, punch quickly becomes familiar. More than that, the scenes are edited into the ground, taking any grace or precision out of them. See Quantum of Solace for an example of how a free running style can be integrated fluidly into the action and look authentic at the same time.

And yet it’s not dull and it’s not stupid, but it’s also not much more than passable fun that’s just a little uninspired.

The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans review

The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans (18, 122 mins)
Director: Werner Herzog
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Bad Lieutenant was a controversial 1992 police drama that starred Harvey Keitel as a thoroughly corrupt and irredeemable cop. Set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, this in-name-only follow up is neither sequel nor remake but a crazed beast all of its own that brings in Nicolas Cage as the not so nice officer on the trail of some drug dealers.

For all that he’s addicted to painkillers and $5000 in the hole to his bookie, he still has an instinct for good police work, even if he’s more interested in stealing drugs from suspects and intimidating old ladies than making arrests. Director Werner Herzog is too busy having an enormous giggle to worry overly about an actual plot, which goes out the window fairly early.

Don’t for a minute expect a standard police procedural, not from this star and this director, who wisely realise the only way something this ripe can be justified is if it’s a rip-roaring black comedy. And it certainly is that; lurid, over the top and hilarious as Cage rampages through the city, abusing the guilty and the innocent alike, having more fun than he’s had in years, doing insane brilliantly without going bug-eyed.

What’s most remarkable is that it has the salt not to descend into a morality tale like many similar movies would. Just when you think it can’t get any nuttier, Herzog throws in a point of view shot from an imaginary iguana. And really, the only way it could have been any more demented is if he had reanimated the corpse of Klaus Kinski to play the lead.

Cop Out review

Cop Out (15, 107 mins)
Director: Kevin Smith
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Straight out cop-buddy flicks seem to have gone out of fashion, so it’s a surprise to see a real 80s throwback like Cop Out. Then again it’s so clich├ęd it might actually be a parody, as Bruce Willis and 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan play a pair of cops taking on a big drugs case who don’t do things by the book, beat suspects, argue with their captain and end up suspended. This is the first time Kevin Smith has directed a film he hasn’t also written and it’s, so he can only be blamed for the generic action if not the feeble dialogue. Smith doesn’t even appear to be trying half the time, allowing a screeching tone from the off, generated mostly by the idiotic Morgan behaving like a child. Willis and Morgan are a hard pair to dislike, but it’s all just so laboured, with subplots about Willis’ daughter’s wedding and Morgan thinking his wife is having an affair proving to be desperate distractions. Constant references to other, better action movies don’t help matters and there’s only the rarest of inspired moments to relieve the tedium.

Friday 14 May 2010

Lebanon review

Lebanon (15, 93 mins)
Director: Samuel Maoz
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Set on the first day of the Lebanese war in 1982, and based on the director’s own experiences as part of an Israeli tank unit, Lebanon is a tense and admirable but slightly unsatisfying attempt to convey the insanity of war. Set entirely within the tank, it follows four soldiers as they're given orders that take them on perilous missions through bombed out villages like the levels of a video game, an impression reinforced by any action outside shown only through the gunner’s sights. While it forcefully portrays the inexperience and terror of the men, they're never really allowed to stand out or develop as individuals. The unique points of view both inside and outside the tank keep things fresh for a while and the cramped conditions are convincing, but the claustrophobia eventually becomes oppressive . And much like The Hurt Locker, the repetitive nature of the drama can become trying. So while Lebanon is nerve shredding in patches, it can also be a little dull and rambling, and the attention may wander as we stick with these men without really having a clear objective or destination.

American: The Bill Hicks Story review

American: The Bill Hicks Story (15, 107 mins)
Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. In the UK he was one of the most celebrated stand-up comics of the day, but in his homeland of America he was only really known by, well, the people in the know. The British directors of American: The Bill Hicks Story are understandably unhappy about that, and with this documentary account of his life and career, aim to go some way towards correcting that injustice. By using only archive photographs which are then cleverly animated to complement the recollections of those who knew Hicks best, it presents his rise to stardom with taste and vigour, but there’s also plenty of hilarious gig material for fans and newcomers alike. And by withholding actual interview footage of his friends and family until late in the film when his illness is first brought up, it only serves to make it even more moving. But it’s perhaps the film’s greatest triumph that it gives us a profound sense of just what his death robbed us of.

Friday 7 May 2010

A Nightmare on Elm St review

A Nightmare on Elm St (18, 95 mins)
Director: Samuel Bayer
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

With seemingly no end in sight to the cycle of horror remakes, A Nightmare on Elm St is the latest refried mess gifted to a new generation of moviegoers who don’t really know any better.

The problem is, most of the films being remade are genuine classics, so by taking on a 1984 original that was ferocious and primal, blessed with some exceptional imagery and the hallucinatory power of a bad dream, the makers of A Nightmare On Elm St have nowhere to go but down.

All this lazy retread manages to carry over is the admittedly ingenious premise of a bogeyman who invades your dreams and kills you in your sleep. That killer is Freddy Krueger, possibly the most iconic horror figure of the 80s, and the only way to avoid being slaughtered by him is to stay awake. That’s the task facing Nancy and her friends, who have all been having the same dream, of a man with a burned and scarred face and knives on his fingers.

Plot-wise it follows the original reasonably faithfully, going so far as to recreate some of the gags, only nowhere near as effectively. So we get Freddy’s face and hands coming through the wall above Nancy’s bed and a botched version of the scene where Johnny Depp is eaten by his bed and turns into a geyser of blood.

To give it its due, it doesn’t overdose on the CGI, but that’s perhaps more an indication of the lack of money that needs to be spent to fleece modern audiences into seeing any old tat than any great taste or restraint on the part of the director.

Making his feature debut, Samuel Bayer aims for loud and jumpy over creepy and unsettling but ends up with tame and lacklustre, a slick product utterly lacking the nightmarish quality of the original. Early flashes of Freddy are too brief to matter and Bayer is never able to bluff the audience on when the action is real and when it’s someone’s dream.

Explanation and back-story is given precedence over taking things forward in any interesting way, especially when it comes to Freddy’s origin story which is introduced in a completely arbitrary fashion.

Jackie Earl Haley, who made such an impression last year with his performance as Rorschach in Watchmen, replaces Robert Englund as Freddy and he does as well as can be expected in the circumstances, but eventually it’s reduced to a generic teen stalker where really bland actors spout trite dialogue. Don’t be afraid to fall asleep.

Hot Tub Time Machine review

Hot Tub Time Machine (15, 99 mins)
Director: Steve Pink
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It quite often turns out to be the case that movies with the most enticing, on the nose titles are writing cheques that those titles can’t cash. See Snakes on a Plane or Lesbian Vampire Killers for proof of films where those very titles actually end up being the best thing about them.

Hot Tub Time Machine just about manages to break the curse, even if its premise isn’t quite exploited to the full extent of its potential. The joke here, as the title very much suggests, is a hot tub that turns out to be a time machine, discovered by three forty-ish friends all unsatisfied and trapped in their lives. There’s Adam (John Cusack) whose girlfriend has just left him, Nick (Craig Robinson) a frustrated singer and Lou (Rob Corddry), an alcoholic who’s just had a half-hearted suicide attempt.

To help Lou recuperate they decide they need a break, and along with Adam’s nephew Jacob, head to a ski resort where they partied in their youth. It’s here they encounter the titular jacuzzi portal, and end up back in 1986 in a world of leggings, pastel and enormous hair. They can’t mess with the timeline and must make sure they redo the things they did back then in order not to change the future.

This leads to copious Back to the Future references, up to and including the casting of Crispin Glover as a one-armed bellboy, the subject of a nice running joke where everyone is desperate for him to lose the arm back in 1986.

Having one of the greats of 80s cinema like John Cusack in the lead is smart, and at first it seems a trick has been missed by not casting some other 80s stalwarts as his buddies. But then you realise Cusack doesn’t really get much to do and isn’t responsible for most of the funniest stuff, which actually comes from an unhinged Corddry, taking on a role similar to the one Zach Galifianakis had in The Hangover.

The best laughs tend to be small throwaway gags rather than any big set pieces and most of the humour mined is of the ‘weren’t the 80s primitive?’ variety, so jokes about mobile phones and the internet figure highly.

And yet it mistakenly thinks that constant vulgarity for the sake of it is funny, when a well placed bit of crudity could have been much more effective. But it’s best not to forget that this is a movie about a hot tub time machine and, on those terms, it offers chuckles enough to satisfy.

Furry Vengeance review

Furry Vengeance (PG, 91 mins)
Director: Roger Kumble
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
In which Brendan Fraser is a developer whose company plans to tear down a forest in order to put up a housing estate. So the CGI assisted animals fight back in this abysmal excuse for a family comedy, generally involving Fraser being hit in the crotch or sprayed in the face with a variety of excreta as the raccoons, skunks and birds torment him with the aid of terrible special effects. The usually amiable Fraser becomes no more than a human punching bag and because it’s so cheap, everything is reaction shot and aftermath, as the critters use teamwork and nature to overcome their technologically superior enemies. It was irritating when the Ewoks did it in Return of the Jedi, and it sure as hell ain’t funny now.

The Back-Up Plan review

The Back-Up Plan (12A, 104 mins)
Director: Alan Poul
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jennifer Lopez here takes on her first major role in five years and serves to do little more than demonstrate that we didn’t really miss her. The pitch of this woeful comedy is that she becomes pregnant through artificial insemination on the same day that she meets the guy of her dreams (Alex O'Loughlin). It’s a movie that adheres only to the most tired of rom-com elements like the less attractive best friend, the kooky jobs (she owns a pet store, he makes cheese) and the music to let us when something romantic or comedic is supposed to be happening, and neglects everything that makes the genre greats of yore so successful – the interesting characters and situations, charismatic actors and a modicum of interest in whether they end up together through well developed obstacles and believable conflict. By only ever going for the most obvious setups and punchlines, The Back-Up Plan once again proves that the romantic comedy is as dead as Dillinger.

Dogtooth review

Dogtooth (18, 97 mins)
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
This deeply strange but curiously compelling Greek drama looks at three grown children who have never left the confines of the family home and garden, having been told by their father that if they stray outside they’ll be killed by a monster known as a cat. They have no knowledge of the outside world and are subject to experiments from their dispassionate father, leading them to frequently behave like children and believe that Frank Sinatra is their grandfather. As social commentary it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the makers of Dogtooth are trying to say, but it certainly has some interesting ideas about the effects upbringing can have on behaviour and even sanity. A complete lack of explanation or motivation for the parents’ behaviour keeps things sinister and it’s filmed with a clinical technicality that only adds to the sense of oddness and unease.