Friday 27 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World review

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A, 112 mins)
Director: Edgar Wright
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A couple of questions are raised going into Scott Pilgrim Vs the World which, as with almost every other film these days, is based on a graphic novel.

The first is whether director Edgar Wright can parlay the success he found with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz into his first shot a proper Hollywood feature. That’s not to say that he’s necessarily taking a step up here, because anyone familiar with his zom-rom-com and cop spoof will know they're two of the very best films of the last decade, British or otherwise. But it is the first time he’s made a film with a fairly substantial chunk of purely American money, and Hollywood will be watching to see if he can pull it off.

There’s also the question of whether the film’s star, Michael Cera, can finally shake off his Juno/Superbad likeable nerd persona and deliver a sufficiently different and truly interesting character and performance.

Cera plays the titular Scott Pilgrim, who at 22 is something of a slacker, in a band and dating a high school girl called Knives Chau. But when he sees new girl in town Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party he falls for her hard.

What takes this to a level beyond that of the standard teen rom-com is that, in order to date Ramona, Scott must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. That’s evil as in they want to kill him, and defeat as in fight to the death.

It all takes part in a world that, though more or less real, is part comic book and part video game. With its quirky scene transitions and on-screen graphics and text, it could easily tip over into arch and irritating but Wright quickly establishes the world and sets the rules for what is to follow, and there shouldn’t have been a moment’s doubt that he could handle it expertly.

And what does follow is every bit as insane as the premise suggests. Everyone appears to have superpowers, so the characters can soar through the air as they battle, and withstand atomic blows in the process. It ends up playing like a much funnier and far less bloody Kill Bill, with each of the fights offering something different, more original or more comical than the last as Scott ploughs his way through the hordes to face the final showdown with Gideon (Jason Schwartzman).

As for Cera, it’s not a complete departure but it’s a step in the right direction, playing a character who’s still reasonably sweet but also self-obsessed and a bit dim. Taking part in numerous fights scenes obviously helps Scott stand out from the usual Cera shtick, and he even gets to display an unseen darker side while still remaining funny.

Of the seven evil exes, Chris Evans and Brandon Routh make the biggest impacts, the former as a smug actor, while Routh (who played Superman in Superman Returns) provides big laughs as a psychic vegan.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is bouncy, demented and packed with so many fun characters and moments that it becomes difficult to pick a highlight. It’s one of the most fresh and inventive action comedies of the last few years, and one that can proudly position itself beside Kick-Ass in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Dog Pound review

Dog Pound (18, 91 mins)
Director: Kim Chapiron
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
 At a youth correctional facility in Montana, three new inmates aged 15 to 17 arrive for varying offences: hothead Butch, ladies’ man Davis and quiet Angel. The facility’s stated aim is to rehabilitate the boys, the guards are fair, and if they serve their terms without incident they may have a future. With such solid foundations, it’s a shame Dog Pound spends so long peddling the clichés of every prison movie ever made, serving up incidents from the daily routine involving drugs, violence both unprovoked and recriminatory, and codes of silence. But the sobering conclusion is that for all the good intentions, one way or another through circumstance, bad luck or their own actions, the system will consume these boys, and it’s this that leaves Dog Pound bleakly memorable.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid review

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (PG, 92 mins)
Director: Thor Freudenthal

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Based on a bestselling series of books by Jeff Kinney, the misadventures of 12 year old Greg (Zachary Gordon) are told in zany, episodic style, with plenty animated illustrations taken from the book to cater to fans. Greg is trying to survive middle school where he thinks he should be higher on the food chain, but his every attempt at improving his status results in disaster and humiliation, unlike his best friend Rowley who embraces his lack of cool and whose stock rises as a result. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it was just Greg getting picked on, but it’s his delusions of grandeur that make Wimpy Kid so engaging. It’s smart and sharp and young Gordon is a wonderfully adept performer, and while its lessons about the value of friendship are well earned, it’s not above talk of cheese touches and nuclear cooties, all of which adds to the appeal.

The Girl Who Played With Fire review

The Girl Who Played With Fire (15, 129 mins)
Director: Daniel Alfredson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Just five months on from the release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this first sequel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy takes in the further adventures of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), now independently wealthy and free of her abusive guardian, Bjurman. Meanwhile at Millennium magazine, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has hired a young writer to do an expose on trafficking, but when he and Bjurman turn up murdered, Lisbeth becomes the prime suspect. As Mikael and Lisbeth both look for the truth, the film is conducted as a series of interrogations amid a blur of new characters, few of which are compelling. It’s never boring exactly but given what has come before, the content of this sometimes overwhelmingly talky thriller just can’t compete with Dragon Tattoo. It should be edge of the seat, propulsive stuff but it comes over like a lukewarm TV drama. But the most damaging flaw is keeping Lisbeth and Mikael apart for almost the entire film, since it was their combustive relationship that gave the first film its edge. A strangely apathetic Nyqvist sleepwalks through lifeless conversations and Rapace gets nothing like the opportunity she had first time round to shine. Here’s hoping when she kicks the hornet’s nest in the final part later this year, the results are a good deal more satisfying than this.

Friday 20 August 2010

The Expendables review

The Expendables (15, 103 mins)
Director: Sylvester Stallone
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Stallone. Statham. Li. Lungdren. Rourke. Willis. Schwarzenegger.

It’s a cast list that could only really be matched if someone came up with a movie poster that read:
De Niro. Pacino. Nicholson. Hoffman. Duvall. Spacey. Brando. Which really would be impressive considering he’s been dead for six years.

And yet Sylvester Stallone the director really has managed to assemble that first lot in the service of this brainless action extravaganza, albeit with the screen-time of Brucie and Arnie totalling less than two minutes. Still, nice to see them all together at last.

For an actor and filmmaker who was an object of derision for most of the last two decades, Sly has regained a great deal of dignity and respect in the last couple of years with his final tilts at Rocky and Rambo, so expectations for this were perhaps set higher than might normally be the case.

We’re introduced to the Expendables during a hostage situation, as Stallone and his crew of mercenaries (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lungdren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture – the characters do have names, but that’s not important) face off against Somali kidnappers.

Following the mission, Mickey Rourke pops us as the middle man who tells Stallone of their next possible job – to be hired by Bruce Willis’ CIA agent to take out a rogue general who has turned a central American island into a drug producing dictatorship.

Treading a very fine line between hokey fun and utter drivel, this is the kind of film that comes with so much built in good will that you want to give it the benefit of the doubt. The last thing you’d expect to be accusing it of is dullness, but after the prologue the next bullet fired in anger is a long time coming. But the bacon is saved by an outstanding sequence during Sly and Statham’s recce of the island before we hit another slump in the sometimes strained build up to the climax.

Instead of action we have to make do with an overdose of would-be easy banter that begins to grate after a while because it’s delivered by actors with no great gift for the playful. Stabbing people in the neck and blowing up entire countries, fair enough - but light comedy, not so much.

When the final reckoning does eventually come, it’s a bone-crunching, limb-slicing onslaught, with levels of violence that push the 15 certificate to its absolute limit. It’s almost as bloody as the last Rambo film but without the rage, with an apocalyptic body count and a chance for the other members of the team to finally get to show what they can do.

Fans of the likes of Commando should be thrilled, as everything about it screams of the 1980s, from the cast to the hackneyed story, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yet Stallone refuses to completely commit to the demented tone necessary, even though he knows it’s nonsense.

Much like the 64-year-old star himself, The Expendables is a bit creaky and should have delivered a good deal more, but it just about gets the job done.

The Illusionist review

The Illusionist (PG, 80 mins)
Director: Sylvain Chomet
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Based on an unproduced script by the inexplicably popular French comedian Jacques Tati, this near-silent animation is set in a lovingly rendered Edinburgh in the 1950s. A struggling magician leaves Paris and heads to Britain looking for work, steadily making his way north until he ends up in a village in the Highlands. There he befriends a young girl and they make their way to Edinburgh where he tries to find work while she attempts to put him in the poor house with her constant demands and expensive tastes in shoes and clothes. Looking like a forlorn watercolour, there’s no doubt that Edinburgh has probably never looked lovelier on film. But there’s a good deal more entertainment value to be had trying to recognise city landmarks than there is in the wafer thin story itself. It’s intended as paean to the dying of music hall tradition and a gentler way of life, but there’s a very good reason why such variety acts are a thing of the past. It’s little more than an extended sketch, with side characters and subplots that threaten to be interesting but are then discarded as quickly as they're introduced, while the girl’s indeterminate age makes the nature of their relationship questionable. It could have made for a charming short but as a feature, it’s stretched almost beyond endurance.

The Human Centipede review

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (18, 92 mins)
Director: Tom Six
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Human Centipede starts out like any other horror, as two young American women on holiday in Germany break down in a secluded spot. They find themselves at the house of a doctor who turns out to be a mad scientist with a dream of creating a human centipede by surgically conjoining three people by means best left unmentioned. As a genre exercise it exists purely on the basis of its premise, and then fails utterly to deliver on it because Dutch writer-director Tom Six is so in love with his central conceit that he neglects to build any meaningful story around it. It’s so stretched and sparsely plotted that we’re well beyond the halfway point before we get any centipede action, at which time it can’t even provide the basic yuck factor you might be expecting. So it not that it’s horrific, it’s that it’s thuddingly tedious and ultimately pointless. And if you’re wondering why it has the subtitle First Sequence, rest assured that a sequel (Full Sequence) is already in the offing.

Friday 13 August 2010

The Last Airbender review

The Last Airbender (PG, 103 mins)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

For a director who was once heralded as the new Hitchcock and the new Spielberg following the stunning success of The Sixth Sense, the rollercoaster career of M. Night Shyamalan has seen an awful lot more downs than ups lately.

The misbegotten Lady in the Water was followed by the somehow even worse The Happening, but it was hoped that his first foray into a big budget, special effects driven summer blockbuster could reverse the slide.

Sadly, the simple fact is The Last Airbender is an unwatchable fiasco, a hokey mishmash of incomprehensible exposition and lame fights lacking in a single moment of entertainment. It’s based on an animated TV series called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but obviously a certain big blue cat opus already had dibs on the first part of that title.

It takes place in a world where each of the four elements (Air, Fire, Earth and Water) can be controlled by gifted individuals known as Benders and legend tells that the Avatar could control all four. Peace and harmony had broken out across the land, but then the Avatar disappeared when the Fire nation destroyed all the Airbenders.

A century later, a brother and sister from the Water nation find a young boy frozen in ice called Aang, an Airbender who may be the Avatar, and Aang must learn to bend not just air but the other elements in order to restore peace.

The ensuing result of all this gobbledegook is gibberish of the highest order that makes the old Japanese TV show Monkey look sensible by comparison. But far worse than simply being irredeemably daft, The Last Airbender fails fundamentally on a filmmaking level.

Nothing about it works, first and foremost the atrocious acting of all involved, with line readings that sound like they’re being read off the page for the first time with no director present. Risible dialogue that may well have been written by a ten year old introduces so many random elements that most of the sequences could play in any order, giving no clue at any moment who is doing what to whom and why.

Lethargic action scenes consist almost entirely of Aang kicking up some wind to knock someone over or someone pitching a fireball.

But most heinously, after filming was completed, someone’s realisation that a few extra bucks could be squeezed from unsuspecting punters means that the movie has undergone an 11th hour conversion into 3D. It’s a hastily cobbled disaster so badly executed that if you take the 3D glasses off, it will make no difference whatsoever to what you’re looking at 90% of the time. Don’t waste your money.

Marmaduke review

Marmaduke (U, 88 mins)
Director: Tom Dey
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

If you didn’t think an adaptation of a newspaper comic strip could sustain a full length movie, well you’d be absolutely right, as the adventures of the unruly Great Dane are brought to live action life with real dogs given computerised help to make them appear to talk. Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his family move to California where he meets a bunch of new friends, jeopardises his owner’s job and learns some lessons in humility. In place of anything remotely resembling a story we get a series of barely connected destructive slapstick sequences, dogs behaving like humans and various bodily functions. It’s all painfully lazy and unfunny, treating kids and adults alike with contempt. Bad dog.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue review

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (U, 76 mins)
Director: Bradley Raymond
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Somewhat surprisingly hitting cinemas rather than the usual direct to video route for Disney spinoffs, this animated adventure for Peter Pan’s tempestuous and resourceful fairy friend sees Tink and her pals spending summer at fairy camp where they must stay hidden from humans, with the fun beginning when she’s found by a little girl with the standard inattentive daddy issues. With its rather plastic looking CGI and bland songs, this is shiny and colourful stuff but hardly magical. Quite why there are modern speaking fairies with American accents in Edwardian England isn’t broached, and there’s no notion of Peter other than the very briefest visual allusions, but while it doesn’t take any chances or offer much for anyone else, under eights will find little to complain about.

The Secret in Their Eyes review

The Secret in Their Eyes (18, 129 mins)
Director: Juan Jose Campanella
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes caused gasps earlier this year when it pipped strong favourites The White Ribbon and A Prophet to the Oscar for best foreign film. But while it may not quite be on a par with Haneke’s chilling German effort, this engrossing thriller makes a worthy winner. The terrific Ricardo Darín plays Esposito, a retired Buenos Aires prosecutor attempting to write a novel about a murder case he worked on in the 70s. Told mainly in flashback, we see how the investigation affected him in the intervening decades, stealthily weaving Esposito’s personal life and relationship with his boss Irene into a compulsive narrative that manages to be genuinely surprising. Haunting and graceful, it reveals its secrets slowly, only occasionally threatening to lose its grip, before bursting to life during an astonishing chase at a football match that delivers one of the most impressive sequences of the year.

Black Dynamite review

Black Dynamite (15, 84 mins)
Director: Scott Sanders
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Beautifully evoking the blaxploitation movement of the 70s, this riotous spoof follows Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White), a former CIA agent and all round love machine, on the trail of the crimelord who killed his brother, shaking down jive turkeys and taking out suckas with his kung fu skills. As an approximation of blaxploitation it’s spot on in every detail, from its overly earnest acting to the shonky photography and editing and, but for the very occasional misuse of CGI, it could have been filmed in 1974. But like the best spoofs, it doesn’t just parody, but plays as a completely straight-faced genre entry, resulting in a consistently funny movie that’s knowing without being smug. Can you dig it?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice review

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (PG, 109 mins)
Director: Jon Turteltaub
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s second fantasy blockbuster of the summer following Prince of Persia is this daft but fun adventure that starts with practically an entire movie’s worth of backstory in a prologue that shows how Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) was once an apprentice of Merlin. His centuries long search for a successor ends in modern day New York where he meets student Dave (Jay Baruchel) whose help he needs to defeat the bad sorcerer (Alfred Molina) who betrayed Merlin. It’s a typically goofy hodgepodge of silly names and cheesy mythology that might have flown in the 80s, often labouring under the misguided notion that any old rubbish with a wizard in it will automatically hoover up the Potter crowd. But slick effects, a nice sense of humour and the always likeable Baruchel keep it just the right side of nonsense.

Friday 6 August 2010

Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore review

Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (U, 82 mins)
Director: Brad Peyton
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Look kids, it’s the sequel nobody wanted to the film nobody remembers. 2001’s Cats and Dogs hailed from a time when filmmakers were still in thrall to the power computer effects gave them to make animals talk and operate machinery. A decade on our new curse is 3D, and both technologies are to the fore in this ugly follow up that retains few of the characters and even less of the cast members from the original. The basic conceit is that dogs are good and cats are evil, as police dog Diggs (voiced by James Marsden) is recruited by a canine spy agency to take on Kitty Galore (Bette Midler channelling Eartha Kitt) who plans to unleash a device which will send all dogs crazy and allow her to enslave mankind. It’s not completely hateful, just incredibly lazy, and it’s clear that very little thought has been invested, with lots of whizzy things and doggy puns in lieu of actual characters or story, and plenty celeb voices (Roger Moore, Nick Nolte, Christina Applegate) to plug the void still further.

Knight and Day review

Knight and Day (12A, 109 mins)
Director: James Mangold
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Tom Cruise’s critical and commercial reputation has taken a battering in recent weeks, ever since the thoroughly underwhelming performance at the US box office of Knight and Day, his new action romp.

The question of whether the star wattage of the one-time top dog in Hollywood is still at full power has come up repeatedly, even more so when you consider that the project he left to do this instead, Salt, has turned out to be quite the hit for Angelina Jolie.

But it’s possible that too much shouldn’t be read into it because Cruise and his co-star here, Cameron Diaz, are actually on fairly decent form, and Knight and Day would probably be just as lacklustre and uninspired whomever its stars were.

Cruise plays Roy Miller, who meets Diaz’s June when they get on the same strangely quiet flight. As they chat it looks like we’re heading for standard rom-com territory, but suddenly Roy has killed everyone on the plane and they’re on the run.

He’s being tracked by the FBI, who would have June believe that he’s a rogue agent, while Roy claims they’ve set him up, and amid all the chases and shoot outs, June has to decide whether he’s a psycho or the good guy. The answer to that question is never in much doubt, although we have to plod though an awful lot of plot developments that don’t make much sense to get to that point.

It’s that clumsy plotting that holds back this spy caper of would-be frothiness. With its Hitchcock style setup, Bond trappings and 21st century pyrotechnics, everything is in place to make it work, from its exotic locales (Austria, Spain) to a MacGuffin that’s being sought by bad guys pretending to be good guys, as well as actual bad guys.

And yet it never takes off, though it continually threatens to before stalling again. A deliberately slow start looks like it’s going to ease us gently into the mayhem to follow, but in fact it could be accused of lethargy. It’s frustrating that it just never zips as much as it ought to and flashes of entertainment fail to compensate for the overall sluggishness.

The action beats do crop up at regular intervals and they’re distracting enough, mostly consisting of car chases enhanced by buckets of special effects. But the problem with such carefree use of CGI is that, although it allows filmmakers to do things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, it’s immediately obvious that what you’re watching isn’t actually real.

At best it takes the weight and momentum out of a scene and any sense of danger, at worst it looks like a cartoon. It’s no coincidence that the very best movie chases (The French Connection, Mad Max and the rest) were done with no trickery whatsoever.

The stars do their best to keep it on the rails and it’s they alone that stop Knight and Day from being a total snooze. Cruise does nutty quite well and Diaz is feisty and perky, apart from when June consistently and irritatingly does very stupid things just to further the plot.

But while they're an agreeable pairing, it doesn’t really generate the expected, or necessary, laughs. Sad to say, their appearance on Top Gear the other week was a good deal more fun than this.