Thursday 20 December 2012

Jack Reacher review

Jack Reacher (12A, 130 mins)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Fans of the Lee Child novels which brought us the character of Jack Reacher are apparently up in arms because he’s supposed to be a massive, hulking former soldier turned drifter. Reacher here is played by the distinctly non-massive Tom Cruise, but that really isn’t a problem unless you’re totally hung up on the height thing, because Cruise is a movie star of the highest order.

In a coldly terrifying opening, a gunman takes out random passers-by from a distance with a high powered rifle. An arrest is made, with Richard Jenkins as the DA looking to put the guy away and Rosamund Pike as his daughter, a defence lawyer who hires Reacher as an investigator to find out the truth.

This first adaptation of Child’s books is being sold as some sort of revenge thriller in the style of Taken, when in fact it’s much more of a traditional police procedural, albeit a highly compelling one. Reacher is a man of action though, and capable of beating up anyone who crosses his path, which he does frequently.

Everything about it screams ridiculousness, and luckily it knows it, otherwise the would-be slick banter and clunky exposition would be too hard to swallow with a straight face. Reacher’s past gets explained to us in a way that would be moronic if it weren’t so tongue in cheek, but it could sometimes do with an injection of pace or a complete commitment to luridness to match its silliness.

Werner Herzog of all people turns up as the bad guy heading the conspiracy, and he adds ripeness, Cruise is magnetic, and Pike is terrible, all making for a hugely enjoyable slice of pulp.

Life of Pi review

Life of Pi (PG, 127 mins)
Director: Ang Lee
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel, Life of Pi, has long been considered unfilmable, and without advances in visual effects technology, it may well have been.

This is a film in which, for probably half the running time, there’s a computer generated tiger on screen that for not one second looks anything other than real. That’s a remarkable achievement, up there with your Gollums and Jurassic beasties in terms of quality and realism, and not one that should be taken lightly.

The fact it’s in service of an ambitious but ultimately less than fully satisfying story doesn’t necessarily add credence to the unfilmable debate, but does perhaps reveal that it’s the kind of material that simply works better on the page.

That’s further backed up by the necessity of an all-encompassing narration to get the story across and accompany the episodes because, in its protagonist Pi, we don’t have a character forging his own path, at least initially, but being swept along by fate.

We begin in Canada, where Irrfan Khan’s adult Pi is telling his story to Rafe Spall’s author in a framing device that may at first seem clumsy, but which actually proves to be central to the film’s thematic intent.

“Believe what you want”, he tells him, as he recounts how he began life in India as a young boy called Piscine, after his uncle’s great love for swimming. Shortened to Pi, he follows three different faiths while his parents run a zoo that houses a tiger called Richard Parker. Pi doesn’t understand the nature of animals, thinking he and Richard Parker can be friends, but by the time he’s a teenager (and played by Suraj Sharma) his family are forced to sell everything and move abroad, transporting the zoo to Canada with them.

This makes for a stately first three quarters of an hour or more, until a stunningly executed shipwreck leaves Pi and Richard Parker on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, along with a zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena, although the latter three don’t last long.

What follows is a battle for survival against the elements, hunger and the tiger, which while frequently exhilarating, can become repetitive. Though ostensibly a family film, it acknowledges the violence, the nature of nature as it were, though there are lots of animal antics for kids to coo over, and meerkat fans will be in raptures.

The vast amount of CGI is brilliantly realised yet never draws attention to itself, and there has rarely been a film this gorgeous, especially once we’re out on the open sea with its fantastic pastel shades. But it’s also quite static and given to treading water, missing that vital kick of emotion so that while beautiful, it’s never transcendent, and interesting without ever being able to fully exert a grip.

There’s empathy but never real soul as it rambles towards its point. Because, above all, Life of Pi is a rumination on the power of metaphors, in both storytelling and religion. Depending on your point of view it’s either a stirring parable or a nice story, well told. Its ultimate gambit is a bold one, but it’s not going to be for all tastes.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A/PG-13, 169 mins)
Director: Peter Jackson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Over the Christmases of 2001, 2002 and 2003, New Zealand director Peter Jackson delivered with The Lord of the Rings a trio of rich, rewarding fantasy epics that garnered billions at the box office, 17 Oscars and left a lasting legacy as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.

It was a well too deep not to return to, and after years of legal wrangling and delays that eventually saw the departure of would-be director Guillermo del Toro, Jackson returns for a new prequel trilogy. And we all remember what happened the last time someone made prequels to a beloved trilogy.

Jackson has only made two films since the trilogy closed nine years ago, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, and the fear that he’s sunk into self-indulgence (something never exactly far from the surface when it came to The Lord of the Rings, if truth be told) is confirmed here.

The final instalment of Harry Potter started an insidious trend towards splitting films adapted from popular books into as many parts as possible for maximum profits. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not a long book. And yet it’s one to which Jackson will devote around 500 minutes of screen time between now and the summer of 2014.

Though it’s a chance to reunite with some old friends, in one of the many instances of padding that stretch this first film’s ridiculous running time, we begin on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring did; the birthday of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit.

As Bilbo (Ian Holm) writes about his adventures that he will tell to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), we also get a separate prologue about the great dwarf city of Erebor, which was devastated and then occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug.

From there we jump back to 60 years earlier, when Bilbo was a younger hobbit, and now played by Martin Freeman. He meets the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who along with a bunch of dwarfs, descends on Bilbo’s home wanting him to join an adventure, a quest to take back Erebor from Smaug.

It’s really an awful lot of extraneous gubbins, watching 13 dwarfs turn up and eat and sing and carry on for what would be about a quarter of the running time of most normal films. Where The Lord of the Rings took its time to establish a world of richness, this is simply characters sitting about, and it’s deeply indulgent.

And for all its stunning spectacle and massive action, it was at its heart a story of friendship and overcoming adversity, and peaceful creatures showing courage in the most trying of circumstances. This deals with similar themes, and Freeman is well cast as the reluctant hero, but it’s often much too beholden to a formula.

The opening half is leisurely beyond necessity, with only the occasional raised eyebrow from McKellen to keep you going. A stop at the realm of Rivendell offers some more recapturing of past glories, as Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett’s elf lords return, alongside Christopher Lee’s Saruman, but it’s a brief respite from the drudgery.

And then of course there’s Gollum, the computer generated foe voiced and motion captured by Andy Serkis, who was such a highlight of the original films. His smaller part here is very welcome, and his battle of wits with Bilbo showcases the film’s strongest moments.

On the action front, Jackson has revealed his cards one too many times, and every sequence follows an identical pattern: the introduction of an enemy in the shape of an orc or a goblin or a troll, then an extended chase and battle, before a saviour appears from off-screen to rescue the situation.

But beyond the lack of involving incident, it’s also shorn of any character depth or range. Most of the dwarfs (and there are 13 of them, remember) are entirely anonymous. Those that get a bit of screen time, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott among them, offer no real lasting impression, leaving the rest to simply get lost in the mire.
Mention must be made of High Frame Rate, a process in which the film is shot and projected at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional 24. This is no mere aesthetic misstep, but a hideous error that blights the entire production, rendering the image like a 1970s TV show shot on videotape, flat and shiny and just plain odd.

On the one hand, the story and the content must be king. But there’s no escaping that the visual majesty of Jackson’s original films played a significant part in their success, and to have that diluted is a tragedy. Why spend this much money to make something that looks like an Australian soap blended with the old ITV fantasy adventure show, Knightmare?

It just adds to what is a supremely disappointing spectacle that alternates between boredom and silliness. The genuine hope has to be that Jackson was rushing towards the Christmas release date for this opener, and with a year until he unleashes Part II, let’s pray he has the time to fix his mistakes.