Friday 24 December 2010

The Way Back review

The Way Back (12A, 132 mins)
Director: Peter Weir
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Inspired by the real life tale of a small group of prisoners who escaped a Siberian gulag early in WWII and walked all the way to India, this is a sort of Great Escape: What Happened Next. Facing certain death, the men break out of the camp prepared for a trek of many months, among them a Pole (Jim Sturgess), an American (Ed Harris) and Colin Farrell’s Russian psycho. This leads to a plodding midsection that threatens to become repetitive through endless cycles of watching them walk for a bit, camp for a bit then walk some more as they battle hunger and thirst through deserts, forests and mountains. It’s solid, handsomely mounted and on an epic scale, but there isn’t a great deal of meat to the drama, nor any particular tension, though the three stars offer commanding portrayals of characters of limited interest.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Gulliver’s Travels review

Gulliver’s Travels (PG, 87 mins)
Director: Rob Letterman
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Jonathan Swift’s 18th century novel, Gulliver’s Travels, will know it doesn’t contain a great deal of Star Wars references. With this modern day updating of the story throwing in countless 21st century cultural nods, purists may well baulk. But with a movie that’s positioning itself as a big daft Christmas effects bonanza, they're by no means the intended audience.

It clearly takes place in a world where Swift’s novel doesn’t exist, since Black’s character is called Lemuel Gulliver and no one else in the movie seems to think this is worth commenting on. He’s a schlubby nerd working in a newspaper mail room, and with a longstanding crush on the travel editor (Amanda Peet).

Gulliver somehow manages to bluff his way into getting a writing assignment from her, which involves him heading to the Bermuda Triangle where his boat is consumed by a vortex and he wakes up in the land of Lilliput where the tiny people there mistake him for a giant beast and imprison him.

This is where we’re given the first indication that all is not well with a script that rather throws us into situations, asking us to accept a lot of things without much introduction or explanation. Any sort of close examination will reveal that the writing is feeble, with great chunks of story appearing to be missing.

And yet it keeps on delivering uncomplicated fun and so, powering on, Gulliver meets Horatio (Jason Segel), a commoner in love with the princess (Emily Blunt), whom Gulliver subsequently saves and becomes a hero.

There’s also a subplot involving the jealous and deceitful Lilliputian general Edward Edwardian (Chris O’Dowd) that comes to the fore since the filmmakers don’t really seem to know what to do with Gulliver other than trot out references.

And yet this is where the movie delivers its funniest and most imaginative material, with Black’s semi-improvised shtick often hard to resist as he pretends that all the biggest movie plots of the last 30 years are episodes from his life.

Elsewhere it’s largely juvenile set pieces that offer a lot of bum and pee related stuff. And, as is invariably the case these days, the 3D is largely pointless though it does sometimes cover up the shoddiness of the special effects.

But it’s saved from disaster by the appeal of the cast, especially Black and Segel. Chuck in the likes of Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate as the king and queen of Lilliput and it gets by on its sheer silliness and goofy charm.

And unlike recent fantasy epics like Narnia or TRON, Gulliver’s Travels is never boring, it knows what story it wants to tell – even if it doesn’t always tell it too well – and for all its stupidity, it offers consistently undemanding entertainment.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Fred: The Movie review

Fred: The Movie (12A, 83 mins)
Director: Clay Weiner
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In which whiny high school kid Fred (Lucas Cruikshank) spends a weekend pining for his neighbour Judy (British popstrel Pixie Lott), talking to the camera or fantasising about them doing musical numbers together that are like High School Musical re-imagined by the Chuckle Brothers. Script, acting and production values are all at a garden shed level and it’s just scene after scene of Fred squealing and throwing a tantrum like a toddler, or moronic slapstick that six year olds would dismiss as childish. And that’s it. Honestly. That’s the film. Five minutes in Fred’s company is taxing; 80-odd minutes of his unspeakable nasal screeching is truly jaw-dropping, hand-over-the-mouth horror, and it’s simply staggering that someone considered this fit for cinema release. All flippancy aside, it’s no laughing matter that some poor unsuspecting souls are going to pay good money to watch this, and the people responsible for that should be ashamed.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The Tourist review

The Tourist (12A, 103 mins)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Angelina Jolie pouts and sashays her way through this ridiculous caper as a mysterious woman who meets Johnny Depp’s innocent tourist on a train from Paris to Venice and ropes him into an international conspiracy. With everyone thinking Depp is the guy they're after, he’s chased all over the city by a gangster for stealing his billions, and by Scotland Yard for reasons that are never quite clear, while Jolie strings him along in a succession of revealing dresses. Though fun, it falls some way short of what you’d have a right to expect from the talent involved, mainly due to a wildly veering tone that goes from stale action to clumsy farce to police procedural. And yet the whole is miraculously palatable considering how crummy many of the ingredients are, and watching Depp and Jolie generate just a little chemistry is still better than watching most other actors, with the best scenes generally just involving them doing their superstar thing. Throw in the glorious waterways of Venice and a couple of nice plot developments, and in the end you’re left with a big steaming pile of highly enjoyable nonsense.

Friday 10 December 2010

TRON: Legacy review

TRON: Legacy (PG, 125 mins)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A quick bit of internetting reveals that the longest period between a movie and its directly related sequel is the 30 year gap between The Odd Couple and The Odd Couple II. The problem faced there came with revisiting a classic, so the makers of TRON: Legacy shouldn’t be overly concerned about the 28 years that have passed since TRON given that, as anyone who has watched the original recently can confirm, it’s actually a load of old rubbish.

And yet for all that it’s tatty and incomprehensible, it retains a certain place in the affections of many people, partly due to a blind nostalgia for all things 80s, and partly because of its status as the first film ever to make extensive use of computer generated visual effects, something that was more or less unheard of in 1982.

Occasionally as much rehash as sequel, TRON: Legacy starts out in 1989, where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tells his young son Sam stories about the video game he invented called TRON. But when Kevin goes missing and is presumed dead, Sam grows up as a rebellious orphan, and 20 years later (and played by Garrett Hedlund), his father’s software company is being mismanaged in his absence.

This means there’s some irrelevant corporate shenanigans to wade through first, before Sam is told by his father’s old friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) that he received a message from him. Investigating, Sam stumbles across his father’s secret office at his video arcade and, just like Kevin before him, is sucked into the video game world.

This is where the movie ought to take off as a riot of fights and races, as Sam is mistaken for a computer programme and forced to take part in gladiatorial style combat. He meets who he first assumes to be his missing father, but is in fact Clu (also played by Bridges), a programme Flynn created and who has designs on breaking out into the real world. But his real father is also there, and they must team up to try and stop Clu.

Once the plot is explained it hits something of a higher gear and there’s a certain amount of pleasure in soaking in its sheer moxie and goofy mythology. But it’s all somewhat uninvolving, essentially just a parade of shiny things that combines buckets of cool but empty pyrotechnics with out and out craziness, much of which seems plucked from someone’s imagination with no thought as to how it might fit into a cohesive whole.

In the plus column is a thunderous Daft Punk soundtrack but one of the most entertaining things about it is actually just seeing Jeff Bridges looking like he did in the 1980s, while there’s a bizarre cameo from Michael Sheen who seems to be channelling Malcolm McDowell doing a Bowie impersonation.

Clearly the effects here are infinitely superior to those featured in the first movie, but that doesn’t necessarily make what we’re watching any more fun or exciting. Yes, it’s all incredibly dazzling and gleaming, but it never sets the pulse racing, is frequently rather dull and, most of all, makes absolutely no sense. Just like the original then.

Monday 6 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader review

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG, 112 mins)
Director: Michael Apted
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The third instalment in the movie adaptations of CS Lewis’ beloved series of fantasy novels brings them back to their traditional Christmas release date following the disappointing summer performance of Prince Caspian.

The first impression it gives is of being nowhere near as epic in scale as the first two films, probably in part due to a budget cut following on from the box office underperformance of the previous film. More discouragingly though, it’s also nowhere near as fun, as thrilling or as involving.

With World War II in full swing, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) are staying with their uncle when once again they're transported the magical land of Narnia, this time via a painting that comes to life. They wind up on a ship called the Dawn Treader, where they reunite with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) from the previous entry.

Narnia is at peace, so why have they been brought there? Trying to find out, they sail to the Lone Islands, where people are being sacrificed to a mysterious mist. It’s from here that this episode loses its way somewhat, with a plot that’s both undernourished and by the numbers.

There’s some guff about seven lords with seven swords that must be reunited in order to defeat evil, and it all makes for a rather follow-the-breadcrumbs fantasy quest that bumps along from one fight or escapade to another with little narrative cohesion.

It’s more of a Greek seas or Pirates of the Caribbean style adventure than the Christmas snows and epic battles we’ve been used to, and compared to the likes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, quite weak in its mythology.

Temptation is the key theme, but it seems foisted on in order to give the characters some sort of arc to ensure the film isn’t just a special effects extravaganza. Even on those terms it’s hardly earth shattering, and what’s especially disappointing is that it’s actually quite an ugly film, with clumsy action that’s really quite tedious in places.

There’s solid if unremarkable acting from its young leads, but the newcomer to the series, Will Poulter, who plays Lucy and Edmund’s annoying cousin Eustace, is the only thing about the movie that approaches freshness.

There’s a little amount of magic and a well staged finale, but it’s quite an arduous journey for the audience to get there for a reward that’s not quite worth the effort.