Friday 29 October 2010

Due Date review

Due Date (15, 95 mins)
Director: Todd Phillips
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Due Date is very much being pitched as a companion piece to The Hangover, sharing as it does its director and one of its stars, Zach Galifianakis. What it’s really a companion piece to is John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with a basic setup (man has only a few days to get across the country with someone he despises) and character dynamic (one is straightfaced, the other a boorish nincompoop) that could not be more borrowed from PTA if it were an official remake.

Robert Downey Jr. is Peter, a fretful father to be, trying to get home from a business trip on the other side of the country in time for the birth of his first child in a few days time. Thanks to an incident on the plane caused by the idiotic Ethan (Galifianakis, more or less reprising his Hangover character), both men get chucked off the plane and banned from catching any other flight.

Peter’s wallet is on the flight with the rest of his baggage so his only hope of getting from Atlanta to LA is by sharing a car with Ethan. Cue the cross-country road trip between two thoroughly mismatched souls, and plenty of trouble in the shape of Ethan’s ‘medicinal’ marijuana, lack of sleep, car crashes and run-ins with the law.

Downey plays it more or less straight, not going for glib as he has in his recent action comedy roles, with his exasperation at being driven to distraction by the morons he meets along the way allowing for a very welcome dark edge.

At least with John Candy in PTA, you always knew his heart was in the right place. Here Ethan begins as dumb and inappropriate before it soon becomes clear that he’s an irredeemable sociopath. Mind you, to its eternal credit, the film never quite asks us to accept him as anything else, also managing to avoid the mawkish conciliation so often foisted upon audiences.

It’s at its strongest in a first half that stays quite small, with a few antics on their pit-stops that offer a fair amount of fun. But as it progresses and the need for the set pieces to become more elaborate increases, it loses much of that good will. It doesn’t really offer any tension with the timescale and the introduction of one or two other characters are pointless red herrings.

But it’s all about making you laugh and succeeds on that basis at regular intervals. In terms of laughs generated, it’s not quite on a par with The Hangover when it comes to either quality or quantity, but it’ll do just fine until the real sequel arrives in the summer.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Saw 3D review

Saw 3D (18, 90 mins)
Director: Kevin Greutert
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Considering the star attraction of the Saw franchise, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw, was killed off at the end of Saw III, the plot contortions necessary to allow Bell to appear in the subsequent outings have become increasingly farcical in the years since. Sensibly, he barely appears in this reportedly final entry, but given how dull every other character in the movie is, you actually kinda miss him after a while.

It’s a Saw film and, as such, it’s no better and no worse than the largely indistinguishable previous four entries in the franchise. The days of the inventive and original original, and the fairly watchable first sequel are long gone.

The only reason the Saws still exist is for another round of rusty clockwork contraptions to rip someone’s jaw apart or send spikes into throats and eyeballs. As usual, gorehounds will feel in no way short changed, with blood flowing like half price wine and buckets of flying flesh. Typically though, the 3D adds absolutely nothing, save to make the image even darker than it already was. Appalling acting across the board and rampant idiocy are a given.

After a completely unconnected and irrelevant prologue in which three people are shown trapped in a Jigsaw device in full public view, we move on to the main thrust of the story, which concerns Bobby (young Indiana Jones himself, Sean Patrick Flanery), who has made a nice living from the book and talk show circuit by his supposed status as a Jigsaw survivor. But he’s no such thing, and is brought in to Jigsaw’s game to show him the error of his ways.

Meanwhile Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who some time ago was revealed as Jigsaw’s accomplice, is out for revenge against Jill, Jigsaw’s wife, who left him for dead at the end of Saw VI (if memory serves). It’s entirely possible that if you sat and watched all seven Saw movies back to back, this may all make some kind of sense, but in such an endeavour madness surely lies.

So while the cops look for Hoffman, Bobby negotiates Jigsaw’s traps to try to save his wife. To take things full circle, Cary Elwes from the original returns. And if you can’t work out the series’ ultimate gambit from that piece of information alone, well then you're even more stupid than the makers of this thing.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Burke and Hare review

Burke and Hare (15, 91 mins)
Director: John Landis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It’s Edinburgh in 1828, a time of great scientific endeavour. But the medical schools are running low on fresh cadavers, which means a fine chance for a pair of enterprising Irish immigrants like William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis, who came on board after David Tennant dropped out) to make some easy money.

Beginning with their newly deceased tenant, Burke and Hare discover that Dr Robert Knox will give them £5 for each corpse. But with the bodies not all that easy to come across, they're forced to turn to murder to supply the demand.

With the subject matter, the release date and the fact it’s from the director of An American Werewolf in London, you might be going in to Burke and Hare expecting a horror. In actual fact it’s a knockabout black farce, and a reasonably funny one at that. Considering they barely scratch the morality of the situation, it’s probably the only way to make the material palatable.

Filmed mostly on location in a foggy and dank Edinburgh, the alleyways and cobbled streets of the capital look absolutely glorious. Burke and Hare themselves aren’t actually all that interesting, hence the need for loads of side characters and subplots, like Burke financing a play by the actress (Isla Fisher) he takes a fancy to.

Serkis is funnier and more invested than Pegg by some distance, but supporting players like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry all get a chance to try out their Scottish accents and mostly do quite well - Fisher not so much.

This is a true story expect for the parts that are not, says the blurb at the start, but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that it’s fun, and on that count Burke and Hare just about delivers the goods.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 review

Paranormal Activity 2 (15, 91 mins)
Director: Tod Williams
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Released just under a year ago to decent acclaim and boffo box office (considering its miniscule budget), Paranormal Activity was a horror success story of near Blair Witch proportions. Its simple device of presenting camcorder footage of a couple, Katie and Micah, being terrorised by unseen forces was stunningly persuasive and genuinely frightening.

This quick-out-the-blocks sequel is actually a prequel, set a few weeks before the events of the first film, with the focus now on the family of Katie’s sister, Kristi. As before, everything we see is shot on their own camera, beginning with Kristi and her husband Dan returning home with their new baby, Hunter.

We get snippets of footage of Hunter going from baby to toddler, taking us up to a break-in at their home that leads to Dan and Kristi installing security cameras all around the house, which allows for the action to be covered from various vantage points at all times, rather than just when the video camera is being used.

This means we get to see the increasingly strange goings on around the house, with inanimate objects moving by themselves, and Hunter and the family dog fixated by something in the corner of the bedroom that only they can see.

In many respects it’s the same movie as the first, just done less effectively. The manifestations of malevolent force are far more physical in nature, with cupboards flying open and people being thrown about. But the overriding condition is LOUD, and this is what really cheapens PA2.

Where the original used suggestion and shadow to instil slow creeping dread by making you think you could see monsters in every corner, this simply clatters you around the head with thunderous noises every 10 minutes or so.

While this might instinctively provoke a jump the first time it happens, it soon becomes terrifically boring. In its defence, the overlap with the first film is clever when it comes, although the setup for a third entry is irritating. But, as feared, the rash of imitators in the wake of Paranormal Activity just don’t seem to know what made the original and best tick.

Friday 22 October 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole review

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (PG, 96 mins)
Director: Zack Snyder
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Idiotic title notwithstanding, this is a handsome animation that aims for richness and depth rather than light family fun. Taking place in an owl world, it’s a visually and thematically dark adventure that follows two impetuous brothers who are taken prisoner by evil owls intent on domination and who must find the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole if they're to save the day. There may never have been a more visually ravishing animated movie, but it often seems to be enraptured by its own beauty and story-wise it’s only so-so. Many of the individual flying sequences are staggering but that’s really the only time it comes to life, though it builds well to an all out war between blade-wielding owls, with director Zack Snyder skilfully bringing the same sort of slo-mo carnage that he did to his live action movies, Watchmen and 300.

Alpha and Omega review

Alpha and Omega (U, 88 mins)
Directors: Anthony Bell, Ben Gluck
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Kiddie-friendly animated antics are the order of the day here, with wolf pals Kate and Humphrey unable to mix since she is an Alpha hunter and he is a lowly Omega. With their hunting sources getting scarce, Kate’s father enters her into an arranged marriage with an Alpha from a rival pack to prevent war, but this is jeopardised when Kate and Humphrey are caught by humans and taken from the wilds of Canada to a national park in the US. Little of note or wit happens in this deeply unappealing adventure that’s lacklustre in every department. From a perfunctory script that offers no fun and not very appealing characters to distinctly unremarkable animation, this is a near total bust.

Easy A review

Easy A (15, 92 mins)
Director: Will Gluck
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Teenager Olive lies to her best friend about having a wild weekend fling with a boy to cover up for actually being rather boring. But the rumour escalates and soon Olive has gained notoriety throughout the school, and she starts using her reputation to help the socially impaired improve theirs by being associated with her. Though that may sound tacky on paper, Easy A is actually a cut above the usual high school comedy hijinks thanks to a refreshingly honest approach, uncommonly well written characters and a clutch of superb performances. In the lead the wonderful Emma Stone gives Ellen Page a run for her money in the smart and sassy stakes, but the entire movie is hijacked by the miraculous Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s parents who, if not exactly realistic, are endlessly calm, supportive and hilarious.

Red review

Red (12A, 111 mins)
Director: Robert Schwentke
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Based on a graphic novel, this fun action romp stars Bruce Willis as a former CIA agent who’s designated RED (retired, extremely dangerous) by his old employers who send an army of hitmen after him, forcing him to go on the run with the help of his old colleagues, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Don’t worry about the daft plot and just enjoy some cool moves and slick action and comical byplay from a first rate cast. There’s an easy charm that comes from no one trying too hard, with a low key, softly spoken Willis reaffirming how likeable he is when he isn’t being smug and Malkovich a riot as his wildly paranoid pal. And even though it loses some zip in a protracted finale, it might be the only chance you’ll ever get to see Helen Mirren in evening dress firing a machine gun the size of a giraffe.

Monday 18 October 2010

The Arbor review

The Arbor (15, 94 mins)
Director: Clio Barnard
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Arbor is the name given to a street on the Bradford housing estate that was home to the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, and this documentary consists mainly of her daughters recalling their troubled upbringing both before and after her death in 1990. It’s a film that works well when showing actual footage shot in the 80s, but the device of having actors lip-synching over the real people’s speech is one that distracts. Why not simply show the people themselves speaking or else have actors re-enact their words? This halfway house may be a novel approach but there’s more than a whiff of Nick Park’s Creature Comforts about it, and that coupled with the unrelenting grimness makes The Arbor something of a chore.

Carlos review

Carlos (15, 165 mins)
Director: Olivier Assayas
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of Carlos stating that much of what is to follow is fictionalised. Given that, you may have had a right to expect something a good deal more involving than this plodding account of the career of Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal.

From being recruited in 1973 to his arrest and imprisonment in the 90s, we follow his reign of assassinations and bombings throughout Europe, with Saddam Hussein numbering among his fans and associates. His goal is a campaign of terror to unite revolutionary groups around the world and his notoriety turns him into a celebrity, but it’s never demonstrated just why this is.

As presented here, Carlos is a far from compelling central character who proves himself to be nothing but a lot of talk and a gun. He may start out as charismatic but our interest wanes as the film progresses and he never proves himself to be particularly skilled or useful. One scene where he has to plead with his Lebanese boss that he can do better if given the chance plays like something from The Apprentice.

Like the very similar Baader Meinhof Complex before it, the problem is that for all its style and technical bravura, the film is nothing more than a sprawling collection of incidents, throwing around a lot of historical names and events to little effect.

A solid, but not revelatory turn from Édgar Ramírez in the title role lifts some of the burden, and he impresses whether speaking his dialogue in English, Spanish, French or Arabic. But with most of the characters speaking English most of the time, quite a few of the foreign actors struggle to give convincing performances.

A lengthy hostage sequence in the middle eats up a good portion of the running time but gets us nowhere and for the most part it’s a bit of a slog. At two and three quarter hours, this is the short version, with those who can stomach it able to seek out the full five and a half hour cut made for French television if they so wish.

But for all that spending the same amount of time again in this company sounds like a cinematic nightmare, it may fill in a lot of holes and prove to be more cohesive than this version, particularly in an extremely choppy final hour that consists almost entirely of Carlos moving from country to country looking for sanctuary or being struck down with mysterious ailments without explanation.

Ultimately your appreciation of Carlos may depend a great deal on how you feel about watching terrorists in silly hats sitting around talking about Leninism.

Monday 11 October 2010

The Social Network review

The Social Network (12A, 121 mins)
Director: David Fincher
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A year or two ago there came a flurry of announcements about upcoming movies based on the most unlikely of properties, chief among them board games like Monopoly and Battleship (which is currently in production by the way).

One such curious idea was Facebook: The Movie, and the question on everyone’s lips was how on earth a convincing film could be made based on a website. But that’s pretty much what has transpired in the shape of The Social Network, which details how Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg created The Facebook in 2003, becoming the world’s youngest billionaire in the process.

What keeps it compelling is a clever structure that intercuts the story of the website’s creation with not one but two legal hearings that take place a couple of years later. In one, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is being sued by fellow students who claim that what eventually became Facebook was their idea and they had hired him to work on it. In the other, Mark’s best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who financed the site in its infancy but later had his percentage share vastly reduced, is suing him for $600m.

This comes about after Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, is drafted in to help with the site’s expansion, adding conflict as Mark and Eduardo’s ideas begin to diverge and their relationship is tested.

It’s this deeper look into friendship and loyalty that gives the movie a human angle not immediately apparent in what essentially is a story that boils down to not much more than a bunch of supremely arrogant and irritating rich people redistributing hundreds of millions of dollars between themselves.

But it grips relentlessly, thanks to a trio of first rate performances and lightning fast, scintillating dialogue exchanges in a screenplay from the creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, that’s as revealing of character as it is bitterly funny.

Being a David Fincher movie it was always going to be visually striking, and it may be the best looking college film ever, bathed in a murky, vaguely menacing half-light. This is a director at or near the top of his game, and he propels the film through exquisite use of editing and music, not getting bogged down in ponderous detail like he did in his last two movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac.

If there’s a nit to be picked it’s that while many individual scenes are electrifying, the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. And we never quite get to the bottom of what is driving Zuckerbeg – he’s a genius, always the smartest guy in the room, but no effort is made to paint him as anything other than deeply unlikeable, something pulled off remarkably well by Eisenberg. The final irony of this superb drama is that, just maybe, all he really wanted was to be liked.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Life As We Know It review

Life As We Know It (12A, 114 mins)
Director: Greg Berlanti
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
We’re on the rom-com trail once again, this time with Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl as our would-be romantic pairing whom we initially meet when they're set up on a disastrous blind date by mutual friends. This was some years earlier and they now treat each other as good natured antagonists who suddenly find themselves thrown together by a slightly tasteless twist of fate that sees their friends die and them named as joint guardians of their one year old baby. This means moving into their friends’ house, where they must contend with the usual nappy and feeding escapades that represent the movie at its most painful. It’s otherwise made palatable by more or less believable and likeable characters, with Duhamel as a sort of low rent Timothy Olyphant offering better value than he did in the atrocious When In Rome from earlier this year, while Heigl has been nowhere near this appealing since Knocked Up. But it can swing from tragic to kooky in the space of a scene, there’s never any doubt where it’s heading and it takes an awfully long time to get there.