Tuesday 27 March 2012

Streetdance 2 review

Streetdance 2 (PG, 85 mins)
Director: Max & Dania
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The latest in a long, inexplicably successful line of interchangeable dance movies arrives to haunt us, and in 3D no less. This sequel to the box office smash that was Streetdance follows a dance crew put together from all over Europe with only six weeks until the big competition, which is only arrived at after a full hour of rehearsals and minor dramatic setbacks. Bendy-limbed non-actors throw themselves around with gusto and Tom Conti demeans himself with a vaguely European accent in an entirely plotless, painful excuse for a movie. Be warned: this contains lots and lots and lots of dancing. But because it’s laughable when it’s not concentrating on the dancing and sinfully boring when it is, there’s no place to hide.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists review

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (U, 88 mins)
Director: Peter Lord
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Aardman Animation has been a great British success story for over two decades, hoovering up Oscars left right and centre in the 90s with their brilliant Wallace & Gromit shorts.

Their feature output has been a bit of a mixed bag though, beginning with the successful Chicken Run and peaking with another Oscar win for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But they hit something of a bump with their move to computer generated animation with the lacklustre Flushed Away and last year’s decent but unmemorable Arthur Christmas.

The clumsily titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists marks a return to the charming plasticine adventures that made Aardman’s reputation, and while it’s not up there with the best of their stuff, it’s still a very pleasant diversion in the run up to the Easter holidays.

Hugh Grant, who rarely appears on screen these days, provides a voice for an animated film for the first time, and does a terrific job, playing a pirate captain who goes by the name of, erm, Pirate Captain. He yearns to be Pirate of the Year, but must always watch in disappointment as other more illustrious pirates walk off with the title.

He just doesn’t have what it takes in terms of dastardliness, and is really rather hopeless when it actually comes to plundering and pirating. But when he and his shipmates run into a young scientist named Charles Darwin, an opportunity comes their way when Darwin recognises that the ship’s parrot is in fact a dodo, long thought extinct.

It could be the scientific discovery of the age, and might net Pirate Captain the gold and booty he needs to win the pirate trophy. But to get the scientific acclaim means a trip to London, where Queen Victoria has a real beef against pirates.

Though there’s plenty scope to make fun of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the urge to go all oo-arr is very much resisted here. Instead it’s all very British, typified by Grant’s unexpected yet ingenious casting, and he delivers his most engaged and committed performance in years.

It’s packed with plenty of throwaway gags and visual jokes, though only once or twice does it manage to replicate the sort of manic action that defined Wallace & Gromit. Anachronisms and modern references abound, and there’s a surprisingly large dash of innuendo, but it provides warm chuckles rather than big laughs, and the whole is just not quite at a level necessary to turn it into something of lasting value.

It’s lifted a notch by a tremendous voice cast which, as well as Grant, also include nice turns from Martin Freeman, David Tennant as Darwin and Imelda Staunton as a very un-Queen like Queen Victoria. Ashley Jensen stole the show as an elf in Arthur Christmas, and she gets a number of good moments here as the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.

The result is hardly vintage Aardman then but, much like Arthur Christmas, this is endearing and amusing enough to get the job done.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

The Hunger Games review

The Hunger Games (12A/PG-13, 142 mins)
Director: Gary Ross
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

With Harry Potter having hung up his wand and the Twilight saga drawing to a close in the autumn, the desperate scramble for the next blockbusting teen-lit movie franchise gets underway with this adaptation of the first novel in the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

It’s a bleak futuristic adventure set in a post-civil war North America that has been divided into 12 districts. From each of the districts two tributes are chosen, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to take part in the annual Hunger Games, a battle to the death that takes place in front of a TV audience.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) comes from District 12, a place where people look and live like it’s the 19th century even though it’s many decades in the future. Food is scarce and she hunts and barters for the little she and her family have. When her young sister is chosen to represent the district, Katniss volunteers in her place and is taken, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to the Capitol.

The Games themselves are a long time coming, but when they arrive it doesn’t then turn into Rambo but instead a chilling depiction of how easily people turn to savagery. The tributes have had a few days training before they're let loose in a forest - 24 will go in, 23 will die, with cameras all around to broadcast their every move.

A selection of weapons are available, but a better strategy is to find water and shelter. Some have been training for years and some form alliances, lending a disturbing gang element made all the more troubling because they're children. The violence is brutal and merciless yet restrained in detail but still the lack of blood doesn’t detract from the cruelty of the contest.

It’s anchored by a strong character in Katniss, matched by a fine, confident performance from Lawrence. Colourful support comes from Woody Harrelson, a former Games winner who acts as a mentor to Katniss and Peeta, and Stanley Tucci as a reptilian TV host.

With its potshots at the manipulation and venality of reality TV, and the voyeurism of audiences, the satire is never overdone, and even though any number of socio-political parallels are raised, none of them get shoehorned in at the expense of the drama.

It’s nothing new of course, covering ground already trodden in television satires or gladiatorial style action films for decades. But it brings together its influences in a way that’s mature, intelligent and compelling.

One thing it certainly isn’t is fun, though it’s not without its stirring moments. In truth it’s more like The Road than Twilight, grim and gritty and stripped of colour, at least until they get to the Capitol, where pastel-coiffed oafs live in luxury.

But it’s largely grimy and oppressive and so unlike typical teen fare, with no handholding when it comes to plot and, if anything, sometimes too economical with explanations. We learn that the Games are an attempt to keep the peace, but quite what the benefits are for the winner isn’t made clear and some will perhaps be left wondering just what the purpose of the Hunger Games is.

These may be questions that get addressed somewhere down the road, because this is going to be huge, and sequels are bound to follow.

Sunday 18 March 2012

DVD prizes to be won

Win Wilfred on DVD

The original version of Wilfred, the multi-award winning Australian comedy series about a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, pot-smoking dog that thinks it’s human (and the inspiration behind the recent US remake starring Elijah Wood) is out now on DVD as two separate releases, Wilfred: Season One and Wilfred: Season Two, both courtesy of Fabulous Films.

Much edgier, slightly more sinister in tone and infinitely funnier than its toned down US counterpart, Wilfred is the brainchild of writers and stars, Jason Gann and Adam Zwar, and series director Tony Rogers and is a must-see show for comedy fans and for anyone who enjoyed the Americanized remake, which also stars Gann in the title role, but wants something with a bit more bite.

To be in with a chance of winning both seasons on DVD, simply send an email with your name and postal address to aloneinthedarkcomps@gmail.com by Friday March 23rd.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Sunday 11 March 2012

21 Jump Street review

21 Jump Street (15/R, 109 mins)
Directors: Phill Lord, Chris Miller
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

When we first meet Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) at high school they're a classic nerd and jock pairing. Seven years later they're at the police academy together, where they graduate as a couple of bumbling idiots. Their incompetence gets them a transfer down to Jump Street, an undercover programme that involves the pair of them posing as high school students to infiltrate a drug gang. The TV show from the late 80s that made Johnny Depp into a star has been updated into a nicely self-mocking comedy that doesn’t try to spoof cop movies, or even high school movies. Instead it succeeds by doing its own thing, catching just the right tonal wave of stupid mixed with smart, and riding it for all its worth. Hill has matured into an actor of tremendous range and comic timing, and on this evidence he has the potential to do anything. Just like Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys, Tatum is a revelation, someone not renowned for comedy chops playing it fairly straight and getting results. A couple of plot contrivances in the middle means it takes a bit of a dip, but even this is still able to provide solid laughs in most every scene, something few comedies can lay claim to. Throw in a sensational cameo appearance, and the result is the year’s funniest film so far.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Blu-ray prizes to be won

This competition is now closed.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

John Carter review

John Carter (12A/PG-13, 132mins)
Director: Andrew Stanton

Originally going by the rather more evocative John Carter of Mars, Disney reportedly dropped the second part of the title of this fantasy epic in order to attract a larger, more diverse audience.

With an outlay said to be approaching $300m riding on it, they'll be desperate to secure those votes if this is going to perform at the box office more like their Alice in Wonderland than last year’s disastrous Mars Needs Moms.

On paper the right ingredients are all in place; there’s an exotic setting, fantastical beasties, lashings of digital effects and it’s all incredibly shiny, albeit dulled by the muddy brown gauze of 3D. But something is missing, something which only becomes apparent when you realise you’ve sat through two thirds of the movie and you still don’t really know what the main story is.

A prologue on Mars is first rate mumbo-jumbo, introducing rival cities who’ve been warring for centuries, with Dominic West the chief baddie squaring up against Ciaran Hinds. Hinds’ daughter must marry West in order to save the city, yet West is in possession of a weapon given to him by Mark Strong’s mysterious super-being that has the power to destroy anything in its path and which ought to render much of what follows moot.

Meanwhile, on earth, the year is 1881 and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a rich explorer and ex-soldier who apparently dies suddenly, and leaves his estate to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs – a nod to the man who wrote the John Carter novels on which the movie is based.

Among his possessions is a book that Edgar starts reading and which provides a flashback to 1868, and for a while this turns into a post-Civil war western, as we see John Carter seek a fortune in Apache gold.

But instead he finds a mysterious amulet and gets transported to Mars where he’s taken prisoner by a group of ten feet tall, four-armed green dudes. The gravity on Mars has given Carter the ability to leap huge distances and he impresses them with his fighting skills as part of a lengthy and lumpy setup that overdoes the subplots.

Between this and the power struggle going on between the humanoids, it’s something of a guddle that borrows from all sorts: Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Gladiator, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and more. As a result it’s far from the most compelling mythology ever put forward in fantasy cinema, never quite managing to create a satisfying one of its own. Of course you could argue that Burroughs set the template for those films when he created the story almost a century ago, but visually there’s no getting away from John Carter’s forebears.

The central story is a largely impenetrable gobbledegook, long on exposition and light on action, at least in the first half. But in the brief bursts of swordplay and leaping about that eventually get peppered in, it’s very impressive stuff that should be leading to a big action climax that never really arrives.

It’s never boring exactly yet it never quite catches fire either, though compensating for that are some truly breathtaking sets and special effects. If as much care and attention had gone into the story then John Carter could have been a cracker, but as it stands, Disney may have to settle for modest success rather than true blockbuster status.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Trishna review

Trishna (15, 113 mins)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is transplanted to modern day India, where Trishna (Freida Pinto) comes from a poor working family whose livelihood is threatened when she and her father are involved in an accident. A wealthy admirer (Riz Ahmed) gets her a job at his father’s luxury Jaipur hotel, where he uses his position of power to seduce her. Hardy’s frankly bonkers tale is loosely adapted and updated, but arrives populated with dull characters with little spark between them to make us care about what their fates will be. There’s no hint of dramatic momentum or interesting development, with the normally reliable Michael Winterbottom seeming to have forgotten that drama is supposed to have conflict and obstacles and characterisation, and the result is a safe, trite and pointless chore.

The Decoy Bride review

The Decoy Bride (12A, 89 mins)
Director: Sheree Folkson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

When a big movie star (Alice Eve), due to marry David Tennant’s writer, gets sick of always being hounded by paparazzi, they head somewhere remote to get married in peace and end up on the fictional Hebridean island of Hegg. There Katie (Kelly Macdonald) is a lovelorn singleton who gets roped into being a decoy to divert the press, and she and Tennant get rather arbitrarily shoved together while the real bride goes missing. With a nice light tone that’s frothy without being too zany, this is a predictable and undemanding bit of fluff that’s inoffensive enough but all just a bit wet and underdeveloped, with little reason to invest in the circumstances. Macdonald shows a real flair for light comedy but Tennant is out of his depth and essentially it’s proof that Britain is every bit as capable of making insipid rom-com fare as Hollywood.

Bel Ami review

Bel Ami (15/R, 102 mins)
Directors: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

In Paris in the 1890s, Robert Pattinson is a penniless ex-soldier who meets an old colleague and falls into a newspaper job writing about his army experiences, something he has no real aptitude for. But he soon manages to set himself up as a gigolo, servicing the wives of the most powerful men in the city (Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci, Kristin Scott Thomas), and there’s a soulless dark wit in the way in which he uses his looks and charm to help him get ahead using their talent, influence and money. This latest version of Guy de Maupassant’s oft-filmed novel is handsomely appointed and rigorous in its amorality, which quickly becomes the film’s greatest weapon. Pattinson is very good indeed as a smug git, cold-eyed and calculating but with none of the overwrought pouting that blights the Twilight films where he found his fame. If you can buy him as an out and out scumbag, and view this as the blackest of comedies, then it’s a deliciously depraved treat.