Monday 29 November 2010

Monsters review

Monsters (12A, 93 mins)
Director: Gareth Edwards
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Probes that were sent into space some years ago have crash landed back on earth with something on board, and now most of Mexico is a quarantined infected zone. With enormous tentacled beasties on the loose, an American photographer is tasked with escorting the daughter of his wealthy boss across the zone back to the States. Like District 9 before it, Monsters is sci-fi that wears its allegory on the front of its jumper, but unlike District 9, it’s a shallow, rambling effort with little beyond its initial premise. It should be commended for what’s been achieved on a tiny budget, with a wonderful sense of mood and place, but there just isn’t enough incident. And that doesn’t necessarily mean we need more monster attacks, it simply means we’re entitled to more interesting drama than the rather tepid road movie cum romance foisted on us. There’s a train of thought that because it's low budget and a bit quirky, it’s automatically better than a Hollywood equivalent costing 100 times as much. But you still need the storytelling, and for long stretches of Monsters, particularly in the middle, absolutely nothing happens, with no real payoff for all the teasing we have to endure.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest review

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (15, 147 mins)
Director: Daniel Alfredson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Picking up exactly where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, this conclusion to the blockbusting Swedish trilogy that began earlier this year with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is anticlimactic in the extreme. Given the glacial pacing and the fact that a large percentage of the antagonists are very elderly men, The Girl Who Kicked the Zimmer Frame would be a more accurate title. When we last saw our heroine Lisbeth Salander, she’d had a showdown with a Russian defector who turned out to be her father, which has left her in a hospital bed with a bullet lodged in her skull. Meanwhile journalist pal Mikael Blomkvist is trying to clear her name and expose a bigger conspiracy involving Swedish government officials during the 1970s. For an alleged thriller, this is one of the most sluggish pieces of cinema of the year, an almost completely inert slog through scene after flabby scene of people talking about a plot instead of actually giving us one. Clunky direction facilitates some lazy performances and the occasional rather tepid action beat and, just like the major flaw of the second part, Salander and Blomkvist share almost no scenes. Considering the weakness of the final two films, the best thing now might be to view the terrific Dragon Tattoo as a standalone movie.

Monday 22 November 2010

London Boulevard review

London Boulevard (18, 103 mins)
Director: William Monahan
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

London hard-man Mitchell (Colin Farrell) has just been released from prison when he is hired as a minder cum handyman for Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a world-famous but semi-retired actress. As a constant target for paparazzi, she lives practically as a recluse, and Mitchell divides his time between her home and trying to avoid the attentions of the local crime lord (Ray Winstone, naturally) who sees big things in him. This latter aspect provides passing interest in a very sub-Carlito’s Way manner, but when the screen is given over to the impossible to swallow romance between Mitchell and Charlotte, London Boulevard attains school play levels of badness. Whether it’s the dreadful dialogue, the complete lack of characterisation in their non-existent relationship or the amateur hour acting from an unusually stiff Knightley and deer-in-headlights Farrell, the result is less a movie than a flimsily connected patchwork of scenes, many of which look as though they were shot without the benefit of a director.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (12A/PG-13, 146 mins)
Director: David Yates
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

And so we come to the beginning of the end, and there’s good news, bad news and some slightly disappointing news. The good news is that the producers have abandoned their plans to do a last minute retrofit of this second to last Harry Potter adventure into 3D. The bad news is that we still have to wait until July for the conclusion of the conclusion.

The slightly disappointing news is that is probably the weakest entry in the series for quite some time, and certainly a major step backwards from the stunning sixth part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That’s partly because it’s only half a film, so hopefully it will be a game of two halves, with a lot more to enjoy after the interval, but it's also partly because it's often more than a little dull.

Since we’re getting to the end of the adventure, it’s probably worth recapping how we got to this point for those not in the know. As a baby, Harry Potter was orphaned by the dark lord Voldemort and sent at the age of eleven to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he’s spent the last six years learning magic and about his destiny as the chosen one.

Along the way he’s made some friends and some enemies, and the formula up until now has been fairly uniform – a new school year at Hogwarts, with lessons and spells to be learned, and dangers to faced, alongside all the normal perils of being a teenager. But Harry and his friends have bigger things to be concerned with now, like the fate of the world for example. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his minions, the Death Eaters, have been spreading terror and violence throughout the wizarding world, and even into the human one.

They’ve also infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, and traitors abound. Harry is under the protection of the Order of the Phoenix, but isn’t safe, and Voldemort’s plan is a simple one – kill Harry Potter, the one thing standing in the way of him being all powerful.

So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out alone into the wider world to search for the remaining Horcruxes, devices that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul. They already have one Horcrux that they can’t destroy, and no idea whatsoever where the others are or even what they look like.

This forlorn journey takes up most of the running time here, and allows for a sense that they're finally putting their years of training at the school to use, that it’s all been building to this. But it’s a film cast in doom and gloom from its very opening that sees that the Warner Bros logo turn to rust.

It’s a dark and dangerous world that aches with melancholy, with internal disputes among the trio about their lack of progress only adding to the growing sense of despair. A little darkness is all well and good, but this is supposed to be a magical adventure, and the mood of desolation is almost too much at times. But while it might not entertain young children anymore, as a mature mystery it just about keeps the series on track.

Much of that is to do with the strength of the acting from the three leads, and it’s remarkable to see how far they’ve come since their first stilted efforts eight years ago. New characters played by the likes of Bill Nighy and Peter Mullan are briefly fun, while some returning ones like John Hurt barely get a chance to show their face. Maggie Smith doesn’t appear at all, but most missed is Alan Rickman, who has long cast such a devilish shadow as the treacherous Snape. He turns up briefly at the beginning before disappearing along with just about everyone else, and hopefully there will be much more of him come the finale.

In terms of action, it mostly involves Harry, Ron and Hermione being attacked by Death Eaters. Wand battles abound, and they play just like gunfights, which is fun at first but grows repetitious, and there are quite a few dead ends in a plot that meanders and sags in the middle when the three of them go to the Ministry building. Some events are given far more screen time and magnitude than they could possibly deserve, while others are skipped over with one line of dialogue.

The visual effects are as top drawer as you’d have a right to expect from something with a budget of several hundred million dollars and the production design is as rich and detailed as always. But a change in cinematographer from Half-Blood Prince means it’s not quite as dreamy looking, though in fairness the greyer, colder look here reflects the content.

But the highlight of the entire film might well be a mesmerising animated sequence that reveals just what the Deathly Hallows of the title are all about. It’s an exquisitely eerie segment that should provide the jumping point to a rollicking last half hour, but instead we’re taken to a slightly damp finish when we might have been expecting a devastating cliff-hanger.

What we have here is an uneven movie that is at turns touching, exciting and tedious. But ultimately it’s a movie that gives a distinct sense that maybe there isn’t enough content to justify it being split into two parts after all.

Friday 12 November 2010

Skyline review

Skyline (15/PG-13, 92 mins)
Directors: Colin Strause, Greg Strause
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A bastard mash-up of Independence Day, Cloverfield and War of the Worlds, Skyline begins as a number of what appear to be bright blue meteors crash into the streets of Los Angeles in the middle of the night, waking up our main characters.

This is actually a flash-forward and we go back to earlier that day to find out a bit more about them: there’s Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his pregnant girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson) who’ve just arrived in LA to visit Terry (Scrubs’ Donald Faison) and stay at his fancy apartment, along with another pair of young ladies who remain largely anonymous.

Formalities over, we get back to where we came in, as they look out to see a giant alien craft that has opened up over the city and is lifting thousands of people into it, while smaller ships go from building to building hoovering up the stragglers. And then there are the aliens themselves to contend with....

Though far from a disaster, and not without its fun moments, Skyline is a bit if a waste of time. The biggest problem is that the whole thing is entirely absent of context, variety or nuance. There’s an attack, they run, someone might die, then they squabble some, followed by an attack by a slightly different beastie, then they squabble some more and run some more.

With its modest budget, the action is confined almost entirely to the apartment building and its immediate surroundings, which just adds to the sense of repetition and staleness. And while the visual effects sometimes really hit the spot, occasionally they're as sketchy as hell.

It’s also not in the least bit shy about pilfering from its forebears, so look out for the dogfight from ID4, the invasive tentacles and semi-organic stylings of WOTW, and any number of checkpoints from The Fly to The Matrix.

Throw in dull characters, a risible epilogue, a good deal of smell the fart acting and a score straight from Star Trek: TNG and you’d probably be as well giving an alien invasion movie from your DVD collection a spin instead.

Monday 8 November 2010

Unstoppable review

Unstoppable (12A/PG-13, 98 mins)
Director: Tony Scott
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

As a well established star and director partnership, Denzel Washington and Tony Scott have made some sweet music and churned out some desperate nonsense together over the years. From the success of Crimson Tide, it’s been a slow decline into the very silly Deja Vu and last year’s lumbering The Taking of Pelham 123. Their latest venture finds them back in the world of trains, but at least it’s a significant improvement over that pudding.

Inspired by an actual incident that took place in Ohio in 2001, Washington stars as a veteran engineer, while Star Trek’s Chris Pine also jumps onboard as a rookie driver just out of training who accompanies him as they shift freight around southern Pennsylvania. But thanks to the actions of a moronic employee, there’s an unmanned train heading towards them from the other end of the state.

To make matters worse, it contains several cars of hazardous chemicals, and if it makes it to the town of Stanton and a 15 mile an hour bend, there’s no way it will be able to stay on the track. When various attempts to slow it down or derail it fail, the only option left is for Pine and Washington to couple an engine to it and slow it down from behind before it reaches Stanton.

It’s a solid setup for an old fashioned disaster movie that may not quite have the momentum of a runaway train, but that provides enough goofy fun in enough places. There are some well staged collisions and derailments as the train ploughs its way through anything in its path, and it’s not too much of a Tony Scott film, with the director thankfully keeping his flashy visuals and hyper-editing to a minimum.

Because they need something to talk about, Pine is involved in a legal dispute with his wife, and Washington is estranged from his teen daughter, while they also have to contend with bosses more concerned with the financial implications than safety. These are fairly pointless distractions, but thankfully we’re in the presence of very good actors playing dependable characters, and their byplay manages to keep the interest. Rosario Dawson has a rather thankless role as a controller, but she gets to have some sparky exchanges to distract us when there isn’t really that much happening out on the tracks.