Friday 30 July 2010

The Karate Kid review

The Karate Kid (PG, 140 mins)
Director: Harald Zwart
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

If the words “wax on, wax off” mean anything to you, you’re probably already familiar with The Karate Kid, a fondly remembered part of many an 80s childhood.

Sadly you won’t be hearing those words in this slick remake, one of quite a few changes  - some worse and some for the better. For one thing the kid really is a kid this time out, instead of the 22-year-old Ralph Macchio we got in 1984. Replacing him is 12-year-old Jaden Smith, son of Will, as Dre. And instead of suburban USA, the action now takes place entirely in China where Dre and his mother have moved for her work.

Most fundamentally, the martial arts involved is no longer karate but kung fu, but really that’s neither here nor there, expect for purists. Replacing the late, Oscar-nominated Pat Morita (the much loved Mr Miyagi from the original) is Jackie Chan, playing Mr Han, the jannie in the building Dre and his mother move into.

For all the superficial changes, the template of the original is closely adhered to, as Dre falls foul of local bullies and is taken under Han’s wing and trained for the big competition where he’ll be able to restore his pride and honour.

Jaden Smith has the natural, easy charm of his father and the makings of a real star, while he also pulls off the kung fu action extremely capably. And it may be Chan’s best English language role, one that actually allows him to act and even pull off a big emotional scene with some success. He only gets one fight scene, but it utilises some classic Jackie tomfoolery to allow him to take out the six boys attacking Dre without actually hitting any of them.

The Karate Kid nods to the original without aping it, replacing “wax on, wax off” with the somewhat more prosaic “hang up your jacket”. It’s all part of Mr Han’s muscle memory techniques that will help prepare Dre for the big fight. Training scenes are done with imagination and humour, and without making a meal of oriental mysticism like the original was wont to lean on.

For an action drama aimed at youngsters it’s unusually well paced, with a slow, deliberate build and no flashy editing, treating its target audience intelligently. But though its leisurely pace is to be commended, it could still easily stand to lose 40 minutes from the generous running time.

But that’s not a major problem in a highly entertaining film that still provides pleasures for fans of the original and newcomers alike.

Gainsbourg review

Gainsbourg (15, 135 mins)
Director: Joann Sfar
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

This choppy biopic of musician Serge Gainsbourg begins with his childhood in France during the war, where a focus on his Judaism comes to nothing, one of a number of irrelevancies that haunts it. As usual with biographical dramas, it offers a lot of sketched incidents with no clean through-line and no particular investment in the drama. All of a sudden it’s the 60s and he’s a pianist and a painter, and later still he’s a famous songwriter and womaniser, as we see how his affair with Bardot inspires his most famous song, Je t’aime. Though it does provide one visually interesting addition in the form of a life sized puppet of Gainsbourg that often appears to him, it’s a film of cigarette smoke and whisky that becomes more and more tiresome the more it focuses on the clichés of rock and roll self-destruction.

Beautiful Kate review

Beautiful Kate (15, 101 mins)
Director: Rachel Ward
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Writer Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his old outback home to see his dying father (Bryan Brown) in this handsome Aussie melodrama. We also get snippets of flashbacks to his twin sister Kate, who died some years earlier, and a slow reveal of the dark family secrets as it explores Ned and Kate’s relationship with each other and the hardnosed Brown. It’s a set up for recriminations that covers well worn ground and describing it as Tennessee Williams with kangaroos wouldn’t be too far off the mark. So while it offers competent acting and a nicely drawn, albeit familiar, group of characters, don’t go looking for anything resembling surprises. And with a tendency to drag events out somewhat, it’s ultimately a long journey to no real destination.

The A-Team review

The A-Team (12A, 118 mins)
Director: Joe Carnahan
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

If The Karate Kid hasn’t made all you 80s nostalgists misty eyed, then this one surely will. The Saturday teatime action romp makes the move from the telly to the big screen with all its characters intact: leader and the man with the plan, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson); smooth talking Face (Bradley Cooper); muscleman B.A. Baracus (ultimate fighting champion turned actor Quintin ‘Rampage’ Jackson) and crazy Murdock (District 9’s Sharlto Copley). They're army rangers based in Iraq where a mission to find counterfeit money ends with them framed and in jail. As they attempt to clear their name through a series of elaborate and increasingly ridiculous set pieces, the frenetic action that ensues is often imaginative but much too reliant on over the top CGI, although watching Hannibal’s plans come together offers moderate levels of fun. It’s incredibly loud and hypnotically dumb, although that’s not necessarily a criticism, but the problem is it frequently treats the audience the same way. A nice cast helps but it’s really not as funny as it ought to be, and a little more polish to the script could have made all the difference.

Friday 23 July 2010

Toy Story 3 review

Toy Story 3 (U, 108 mins)
Director: Lee Unkrich

If ever there were a lingering doubt that Pixar Animation is the most consistently excellent studio in Hollywood today, that shred is obliterated by the release of Toy Story 3. Fifteen years on from the original Toy Story, their commitment to the storytelling crafts is unyielding.

Toy Story may have been the first film ever to be created entirely on a computer, but it wouldn’t have made half the impact it did without a rock solid screenplay to support it. Toy Story 2 came along four years later and taught us that there’s nothing more important on heaven or earth than spending time with the people that we love. It remains, to this day, one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.

Since then the alchemists at Pixar, surely through some sort of Faustian pact, have elevated the animated art to such masterful levels that the only danger going in to Toy Story 3 is how it could possibly live up to the first two instalments.

Astonishingly, not only is it a match, it might even be the best of the three. No trilogy in history has managed to start with a masterpiece and then get progressively better; not Star Wars, not The Godfather, not Lord of the Rings.

It opens with an action scene that serves as the perfect reintroduction to characters we may not have encountered in a decade, as Woody the cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks) and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), along with all the other toys belonging to young Andy, get involved in a wild west/sci-fi adventure in Andy’s imagination.

But this turn out to have been a memory from several years before, and Andy has put away childish things and is about to go off to college. He’ll only be taking Woody with him, which means it’s either the attic or the bin for the rest of the toys.

They actually end up at a nursery that at first glance seems like a place where they’ll never be outgrown. Most of the toys want to stay and get played with but, for Woody, Andy is all that matters. What follows is a series of escapes, rescues, action and comedy that’s quite simply perfect in every detail.

What becomes apparent, and it’s something we may not have consciously realised before, is that these toys - these computer programs - have become some of the most beloved characters in movie history. We’re saying goodbye to friends we’ve made and over the course of 15 years and this allows Toy Story 3 to hit emotional highs even Pixar hasn’t achieved before, because we’ve not had this level of relationship with their characters before.

What we don’t get is much time between Woody and Buzz, but by now their friendship is well enough established, and Woody deserves to take his place with the greatest movie heroes, in noblest sense of the word, alongside George Bailey and Atticus Finch.

It’s possibly not the most original of the three, but it’s certainly the funniest, the darkest and the most emotionally challenging but at the same time satisfying. It goes to places and explores ideas about the very nature of existence and fully realised stories containing such thematic richness are incredibly rare.

Pixar’s achievement is most remarkably demonstrated during action sequences so rooted in, and revealing of, character that all other action films this year are rendered irrelevant. And it creates, in its most perilous moments, a meditation on death as profound as anything by Bergman, and a sense of mortality that will have us all looking into the abyss.

That’s it’s the best film of the year by a great distance is so obvious it barely merits mentioning, but there’s something bigger at work here. More than mere movies, Pixar has now created things to live our lives by. Toy Story 3 speaks to us all about the fundamentals of life and death, love and friendship, and it’s as essential as oxygen.

Splice review

Splice (15, 104 mins)
Director: Vincenzo Natali

★ ★ ☆☆ ☆
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star in this icky horror as husband and wife scientists who create a genetic splice between a human and an animal, a half girl, half “something” hybrid with the legs of the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth. Their goal is to cure diseases down the line, but as it grows in size and intelligence at quite a rate, clearly things are going to go awry. Though it attempts to question the morality of such things, Splice is really nothing more than a B-movie creature feature given legitimacy by an Oscar-recognised cast. You can trace its lineage all the way back to Frankenstein, with significant nods to Alien and The Fly along the way, with plenty of ideas, most of them botched in execution. Unfocused, highly predictable and all over the place in the way it develops, it never really convinces as horror before turning truly laughable late on.

The Rebound review

The Rebound (15, 95 mins)
Director: Bart Freundlich
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Like Julia Roberts and J-Lo in recent months, Catherine Zeta Jones makes her big screen return after a lengthy absence in this agreeable romantic drama. She plays Sandy, a forty-ish mother of two who moves with her kids to the city after leaving her cheating husband and begins a relationship with mid-twenties Aram (Justin Bartha). Everything seems to be going well for a while, but will their age difference get in the way? The Rebound is rare among recent rom-coms in that is has a modicum of intelligence about it to go alongside characters we actually care about. It tosses up some believable situations, some daft ones and even a few laughs, but lets itself down when it goes for the more obvious jokes and gross-out moments. But while it’s far from perfect, a measure of maturity and taste means that a genre starved of even remotely tolerable entries for a while now can at least face itself in the mirror again.

Friday 16 July 2010

Inception review

Inception (12A, 148 mins)
Director: Christopher Nolan

OK, this is it. This is the big one. A summer blockbuster season that has so far been curtailed by a lack of releases, the World Cup and downright mediocre product explodes into life with Inception, probably the most anticipated cinema release of the year so far. Early reviews have suggested it’s also the best, and that’s probably true, at least until the arrival of Toy Story 3 next week.

On paper it has everything going for it: a director in Chris Nolan coming off The Dark Knight, the most critically acclaimed and financially successful summer blockbuster of all time and a star in Leonardo DiCaprio who is able to front mega-budget projects like this but is also a genuinely talented actor in his own right.

Most intriguingly, it has a truly original concept that looked, from the trailer anyway, like nothing we’d ever seen before, even if it offered no real idea what it was actually about. Even after a first viewing all may not become clear and this is a film that demands a second visit, such is its depth, complexity and intelligence, all of it taking place in dreams within dreams within dreams.

It’s in the world of dreams that DiCaprio’s Cobb operates, as an extractor who can invade someone’s subconscious to find sensitive information, often for corporate espionage purposes. He’s hired for what is called an inception – implanting an idea into someone’s head without them knowing it, specifically Cillian Murphy being persuaded by a rival business magnate to break up his father’s company after his death.

So, with a hint of Mission: Impossible about it, Cobb assembles his team that will enter Murphy’s mind and sow the seed of the idea. They have only the length of a flight to do it, but the conceptual rules of the dream world mean that time is extended the further down you go, so a few minutes in the real world could feel like months in the dream.

Inception is a wildly inventive blend of ideas and action, building in intensity and excitement as layers are added. It’s all insanely complicated, but with a little concentration you’ll be able to follow the bigger picture as long as you don’t spend too much time trying to process the specifics.

The main action takes place in anything up to four levels of dream, but each layer is well defined and refreshingly there’s never any attempt to hoodwink the audience with ‘it was all a dream’ theatrics like many a lesser filmmaker than Nolan might.

The concept is intriguing enough, but Nolan dresses it up by spending hundreds of millions on mind-blowing sequences of zero gravity combat or a Paris city block folding over on itself, that are all the more impressive for never looking like special effects.

It all makes for that rare blockbuster that doesn’t sacrifice story for spectacle, so while said spectacle is astonishing, the journey of DiCaprio’s character is the film’s main focus. The mission to plant the idea in Murphy runs in tandem with a major subplot where Cobb can’t forget his late wife (Marion Cotillard). Her frequent appearances in his subconscious threaten to jeopardise the mission and add further levels of emotion and poignancy, almost as rare as intelligence in summer blockbusters.

Nolan has been able to assemble an exceptional cast around DiCaprio to play his team of infiltrators, including Ellen Page as the architect of the dreamscapes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy as the muscle and Nolan old-hands like Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine.

But we shouldn’t forget the contributions of DiCaprio and Cotillard, who provide the heart and soul of Inception, all the way to a thematically perfect ending for a sensationally entertaining movie experience.

The Concert review

The Concert (15, 122 mins)
Director: Radu Mihaileanu
★ ★ ☆☆ ☆

Andrei (Aleksei Guskov) works at Moscow’s Bolshoi Orchestra where he was once a great conductor but is now a cleaner. But when he intercepts an invitation to perform in Paris, he gathers a ragtag bunch of old friends and colleagues to pose as the Bolshoi even though it’s been 30 years since they played together. Most of the would-be comical adventures come in the build up to the concert, as Andrei and his co-conspirators try to get by with no money and no instruments. There’s also some mysterious business with the famous soloist (Melanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds) who’ll be playing with them and hopeless subplots concerning political manoeuvring, scams and missing musicians, all of it making for screwball antics of no consequence. Everything is loud and frantic and played as big as possible by an admittedly game cast, but the height of the humour seems to be Allo Allo-style translation mishaps. It’s the kind of over-excited nonsense that would have them rolling in the aisles in France but here it’s tedious, clumsy and irritating before deciding that it doesn’t actually want to be a galloping farce anymore but an emotional fable. The moral of the story is never trust a comedy from a country that thinks Jerry Lewis is funny.

Friday 9 July 2010

Eclipse review

Eclipse (12A, 124 mins)
Director: David Slade
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Given that it’s been about 15 minutes since the last film in the Twilight series, New Moon, was released, you could be forgiven for not being feverish with anticipation for this third instalment in the vampire romance saga.

But the mammoth popularity of both Stephenie Meyer’s novels and the movie adaptations means we’re going round once again, something entirely understandable to the underserved target audience and baffling to non-believers, given the ponderous and singularly humourless nature of the films to this point.

Here’s the story so far: late-teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) has moved to the Pacific Northwest to live with her small town-sheriff father. It’s there she meets Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a vampire, and much overwrought brooding later, the pair are in love.

New Moon added Bella’s growing feelings for her friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who turns out to be a wolf in teen clothing, at least on the rare occasion he does actually get round to putting a shirt on. Bella worries about growing old and dying while Edward never ages, and she wants Edward to turn her into a vampire like him.

This made for movies that were interesting enough but held back by their stiflingly po-faced tone and anodyne leads. The main concern is that we’ve so far spent seven hours being fed what is surely just a one-film story padded out beyond endurance by Olympic-standard levels of moping.

But this seems finally to be paying off in the Bella/Edward/Jacob triangle, which though not immune to several bouts of petulance, at least provides a certain spark this time around. There’s also the preparations for the war that is brewing thanks to bad vampire Victoria, who has been creating an army of newborn vampires and is coming for Bella.

That allows Eclipse to lay off the sullenness for a while and concentrate on the uneasy truce between the vampires and the wolves, who have put aside their mutual distrust in order to protect Bella. This makes for a much needed deepening of the mythology and enables some of the other Cullens to exhibit a bit of personality.

It also heralds the welcome injection of small doses of humour that go a long way towards making this a good deal more tolerable than the first pair, although thematically it never really explores in any meaningful way the consequences, the loss of humanity, in Bella’s desire to become un-dead like Edward.

Variable special effects come into play for the big fight, which manages to be genuinely impressive and exciting in places. But what should have been a rousing action climax is unfortunately no such thing, and instead Eclipse dribbles on for another couple of reels, revisiting already well-trodden ground and leaving us in pretty much the same place we were at the end of the second film.

And so the Twi-hards will count the days until Breaking Dawn (Part 1 no less), leaving the rest of us to wonder, with three down and one and a half to go, is there a point in sight?

Predators review

Predators (15, 107 mins)
Director: Nimrod Antal
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

One of the greatest action thrillers of all time gets a belated second sequel that also functions as something of a reboot, with the ‘s’ at the end of the movie’s title a clue that what’s being aimed for here is what Aliens was to Alien – more of the same and plenty of it. So instead of one unstoppable killing machine hunting a group of well armed badasses, we have several, the fundamental change being that it now takes place on the Predator home-world. In a no-nonsense setup this is where a group of people unknown to each other have been dropped with no idea where they are or why. Led by Adrien Brody’s mercenary, they quickly learn it’s a Predator game preserve and they are the sport.

Though light on action during a scene-setting first half, when it does come it’s well staged with minimal use of CGI or flashy editing, and the original pounding score to add nostalgia value. And if it lacks the range of characters or stature of the actors from first time round, constant comparisons to Predator are unfair. On its own terms Predators is admirably restrained, well paced and respectful of the original without being reverential. Throw in some laughs, some unexpected twists and even some thematic resonance and this is as good as anyone could have expected given the travesties that were the Alien Vs Predator entries. All that’s missing is Arnie.

Leaving (Partir) review

Leaving (15, 86 mins)
Director: Catherine Corsini
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The imperious Kristin Scott Thomas stars in this racy French drama as a doctor’s wife who begins an affair with the Spanish builder (Sergi López - Pan’s Labyrinth) hired to work on their house. It’s an escape from her cold and distant husband, but her leaving him takes her from bourgeois ennui to poverty and increasingly unfortunate events. Details are quickly sketched and the whole thing is told with an economy and grace that only really tips over into melodrama by the time we get back to the heard but not seen gunshot that opens the film. But most of the praise must go to the astonishing Scott Thomas, who deserves enormous credit for keeping a deeply unsympathetic character real and worthy of our attention.

Friday 2 July 2010

Shrek Forever After review

Shrek Forever After (U, 93 mins)
Director: Mike Mitchell
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The first film ever to win the Oscar for best animated feature returns for its fourth and supposedly final cinema outing, and it’s probably fair to say that it’s time to let the sun set gracefully on the adventures of the big green ogre with the soft Scottish brogue.

What began as fresh and subversive almost a decade ago had become stale and money-driven by the time of the atrocious Shrek the Third three years ago. All signs were pointing to a series that was experiencing its death rattle, one that long ago abandoned storytelling ambition for fleeting pop culture recognition and the easiest of kid-pleasing devices. Compared to what Pixar was doing, it had become little more than an embarrassment.

Shrek Forever After reverses the slide to a certain extent even if early signs are not good that this fourth entry will be anything other than ogre poo jokes. But it takes an unexpected early turn with a flashback in which the king and queen of Far Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) are about to hand their kingdom over to the treacherous Rumpelstiltskin in exchange for the curse on their daughter, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), being lifted.

But just as they're about to sign the contract, they learn that Fiona has been saved by Shrek (Mike Myers), as happened in the original movie, leaving Rumpel with a grudge against Shrek. Back in the present, Shrek and Fiona are living happily ever after with their babies. But Shrek is discontented with domestic bliss and longs for the days when he a terrifying ogre instead of a tourist attraction.

So when he’s tricked by Rumpelstiltskin into signing a contract that allows him to be a proper ogre for a day, he has to give Rumpel a day of his life in return and the ‘curly-toed weirdo’ takes the day he was born. If Shrek never existed, Princess Fiona was never saved and so Rumpelstiltskin inherited the kingdom, and Shrek has only until sunrise the next day to find Fiona and have her fall in love with him or he’ll cease to exist.

Though it borrows liberally from It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future, at least with a recognisable plot there’s something to hold on to here. By not relying too heavily on references and in-jokes, Shrek Forever After is free to tell a proper story, even if the real laughs dried up long ago.

But there are some nice visual jokes and throwaway lines and the fine animation is good for making the most of facial expressions and well timed gags, while the always strong voice cast that also sees the return of Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Antonio Banderas as a well-fed Puss In Boots.

It all makes for an agreeable effort that falls somewhere between cynical cash-in and genuine attempt to send the franchise out on a dignified note. Don’t expect any Oscars this time round, but at least Shrek leaves the stage with his head held high.

Agora review

Agora (12A, 127 mins)
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

In 4th century Egypt a battle is brewing between the Christians and the pagans, with Rachel Weisz’s comely philosopher caught in the middle and more concerned with using mathematics and Ptolemaic systems to explain the workings of the heavens. With a budget north of $70m, Agora is clearly intended as a major work, but it’s a sword and sandals epic with the emphasis squarely on the sandals. Trying to condense two thousand years of religious strife into two hours results in an admirable if deeply flawed film, with a subject matter that’s at best dry and sedate and, at worst, thoroughly off putting. The problem is that Monty Python so completely skewered the absurdity of blind faith in organised religion that any attempt at generating sectarian discourse comes across like the AGM of the Judean People’s Front. Blessed are the cheesemakers indeed.

When You’re Strange review

When You’re Strange (15, 85 mins)
Director: Tom DiCillo
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

When You’re Strange is a no-nonsense chronological account of The Doors, from their early days as a supporting act in the mid 60s to front-man Jim Morrison’s death in a Paris bathtub in 1971. From their very first record deal, the focus is on how Morrison’s drinking affected their music and their reputation. What’s particularly valuable about it is that it’s told entirely with archive footage, some of it extraordinary, that shows Morrison both as an impassioned performer and just how inflammatory he was to a crowd. Evocative as a chronicle of a time and place, and with Johnny Depp’s persuasive narration, it mostly shows how the self destructive lizard king joined the list of artists whose death ensured their immortality.

Heartbreaker review

Heartbreaker (15, 105 mins)
Director: Pascal Chalmeuil
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A huge hit in its native France, this breezy comedy stars Romain Duris as a smooth operator who breaks couples up for a living by seducing the woman and showing her how unhappy she is. When he’s hired by the father of Vanessa Paradis and given only a few days to make her call off her wedding, he’s unwilling to take the job as he believes she's happy, but as he owes 30,000 Euros to a gangster he’s in no position to argue. Heartbreaker is fun if over-egged, with some superfluous set pieces but also a certain energy and enough disguises, caper stings and comical Dirty Dancing-inspired moments to keep the attention for the first two thirds. But it runs out of puff and invention, dragging its heels for the final stretch and there’s never any doubt where it’s headed.

Lymelife review

Lymelife (15, 94 mins)
Director: Derick Martini
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

This familiar tale of suburban angst is set in New York’s Long Island in the late 70s where teenaged Scott (Rory Culkin) pines for his best friend Adrianna (Emma Roberts) whose mother (Cynthia Nixon) is having an affair with his father (Alec Baldwin). Meanwhile Adrianna’s father (a very good Timothy Hutton) is suffering from Lyme disease and likes to go shooting. Even though it sets up a varied and reasonably interesting group of characters, Lymelife is one of those films that takes an awfully long time to reveal what it’s actually about, with scenes chopped off abruptly and no great subtlety to the way relationships are developed or skill in their execution. More than anything though, it’s so close thematically and aesthetically to The Ice Storm as to be more or less redundant.