Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Smurfs 2 review

The Smurfs 2 (U, 105 mins)
Director: Raja Gosnell
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Having hauled in over half a billion dollars worldwide with their first adventure, the return of the tiny blue Smurfs was inevitable. This agreeable sequel finds Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) worrying about her place among the Smurfs, since she was a creation of evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) until Papa Smurf turned her blue and made her one of their own. Gargamel meanwhile, defeated in the first film, is now a famed magician in Paris and has a plan to harness the Smurfs’ essence and take over the world. There’s also Neil Patrick Harris and his family returning from the first film and pitching in to help the Smurfs, though this does mean the film can get rather too bogged down in human subplots that will make tots itchy. But if they liked the first Smurfs movie they’ll like this, and the computer graphics used to realise the Smurfs is tip-top, while Azaria doesn’t short change with a full-blown zany performance.

Sunday 21 July 2013

The Wolverine review

The Wolverine (12A/PG-13, 126 mins)
Director: James Mangold
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Though it seemed to have run its course by the conclusion of The Last Stand in 2006, the X-Men series continues to rumble on through sequels, prequels and spin-offs.

Chronologically The Wolverine is set after all of the films that have come so far, which at least dispenses with the problem of prequelitis, the main reason the previous standalone in the franchise, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, didn’t really work.

But though a more worthwhile endeavour, and for all that Wolverine, or Logan to give him his Sunday name, is arguably the most popular and compelling of all the X-Men figures, this is the sixth time we’ve seen this character on the big screen, so perhaps he’s starting to lose his lustre.

We’ve seen him so many times that fatigue is beginning to set in, even with the benefit of a pure, unadulterated movie star in the lead. Make no mistake, Hugh Jackman is sensational as the mutant with claws of the hardest metal and astonishing regenerative powers, but he’s yet to find the story to fully exploit his appeal.

As Origins demonstrated, this is a guy who has been around for a very long time. We first meet Logan here as a prisoner of war in Nagasaki just as the Bockscar flies into view, his healing powers and near indestructibility saving both himself and a Japanese soldier, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), from the atomic blast.

Then we head to the Yukon wilderness in the present day, where Logan is a wanderer and a tortured soul, a loner keen on justice. He’s also dreaming of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose descent into dark and dangerous power forced him to kill her at the end of the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand.

That’s a gritty setup for a hero who has never exactly been defined by his sunny disposition. A no-nonsense title (certainly when compared to the clumsy X-Men Origins: Wolverine) promises much more than it delivers, but this is at least another successful attempt at portraying Logan as a prowling, rage-filled beast.

Maybe there’s something to be admired in a comic book movie that (for the most part, anyway) doesn’t follow the standard path of hero trying to foil super-villain, that does try to be more about character. But it’s a lot harder to actually turn this dark potential into a workable superhero tale which, let’s face it, is why we’re here. And what else is there to learn about this character that we haven’t already?

The other admirable aspect is the strong female characters, beginning with Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who tracks Logan down in Canada to persuade him to return to Japan at the request of the now very old and very ill Yashida. His old friend says he can make him mortal, which sets in motion a dense plot involving the Yakuza wanting to kill Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), power struggles and mysterious ninja protectors, and which ends up with Logan on the run with Mariko.

This exposes one of the major flaws at the heart of the entire enterprise; a plot that would be easier to justify if it were driven by Logan. But he is a passenger in his own story, a tag-along in this Japanese conspiracy plot and family saga, as allegiances switch at the swing of a sword, and who is on which side at any one time is anyone’s guess.

The rest is kinda tiresome, low on incident and long on intricate but largely unfathomable plotting. A few samey fights break up the tedium, as Logan’s claws clang against samurai sword. It’s the least X-Men-like of the movies so far, with barely another mutant to be seen save for Viper, whose encounter with Logan leaves his powers of healing on the wain, which at least gives some momentary interest when he isn’t indestructible.

The movie’s centrepiece comes fairly early, a fight atop a speeding bullet train that for sheer kineticism is hard to beat. But for all that it tries to avoid the usual tropes, inevitably the climax involves a clattering showdown between Wolverine and a super-foe that’s as tired as everything else in the film.

A post-credit tease for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past is almost worth the wait, but until that point The Wolverine is boring and incomprehensible, and that’s the two worst things it could have been.

Thursday 18 July 2013

The World’s End review

The World’s End (15/R, 109 mins)
Director: Edgar Wright
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The movie-making team of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright has been one of the biggest success stories of British cinema of the past decade.

With Shaun of the Dead and then Hot Fuzz they showed that home grown products can be original, imaginative, entertaining and, significantly, capable of drawing a sizeable and appreciative audience.

Now they're back with the long-awaited third of what’s become unofficially known as the Cornetto trilogy, with Pegg once again co-writing with director Wright for what could be described as a bit of a blend of Shaun and Fuzz, combing the first’s monster-bashing with the latter’s sinister small town setting.

Pegg returns alongside his co-star Nick Frost and joining them are Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, completing the group of five friends whom we first meet as youngsters in the early 90s. Living in a sleepy small town, they're a rowdy but likeable group who set out to tackle the Golden Mile, a challenge to drink a pint in every one of the dozen pubs in town, from The First Post to The World’s End.

They never made it round all 12 but now, over 20 years on, Gary King (Pegg) is determined to recreate their crawl. But the rest have moved on, becoming respectable businessmen and family men. With little else going on in his life, Gary drags them back to their old stomping ground to try to relive their youths.

That would be enough for a lot of films, but Pegg and Wright are more ambitious than that. So on top of that setup, the lads quickly discover the town seems to now be mostly populated by aliens, or robots, or robotic aliens, in some Invasion of the Bodysnatchers style takeover.

The result is one of the year’s best comedies, hitting the mark in the early stages through the other guys’ reluctance to take part in Gary scheme, then later when they're facing down their enemies. But it’s also able to hit some strong dramatic and emotional beats. Fittingly, since we’re now dealing with guys who’ve left 40 behind, it’s even more thematically mature than the first two films, tackling aging and regrets, old memories and wounds, as lessons are learned and growth achieved.

Yet it’s still impressive that Frost and Pegg have kept their characters fresh from film to film, Pegg going from layabout Shaun to Fuzz’s hotshot cop to near-destitute alcoholic here. Frost has gone from an even bigger layabout in Shaun to a dim but sweet sidekick to a suited businessman, albeit one with a few smackdowns in his arsenal.

If there’s one level on which The World’s End doesn’t quite hit the bullseye it’s aiming for, it’s in the character of Gary. Set up in the beginning as someone who’s meant to grate, he’s positioned for a clear journey to reformed hero, which is fine but never quite impacts in just the way intended.

But we’re mostly on board for laughs, and this is a film that never forgets how to be funny for a second. Physical gags are brilliantly timed, humour is drawn from the characters, and every actor shines, although Pegg does bag himself many of the top lines.

It also manages to be an exciting sci-fi horror at the same time, while throwing in raucously choreographed brawls, even if everyone suddenly seems to have the fighting skills of Jackie Chan.

In the end, the second apocalypse comedy of the summer is not quite the perfect send-off the trilogy merited, but it’s a pretty close run thing. Pegg and Wright represent all that’s good about British genre filmmaking, and when it comes to collaborations between them, it would be a shame if this is the end.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Pacific Rim review

Pacific Rim (12A, 131 mins)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wildly anticipated, Guillermo del Toro’s first film since Hellboy II five years ago is a thundering slice of sci-fi action that, given its premise and budget, emerges as a typically overbearing, sporadically very entertaining blockbuster.

It’s got problems, and plenty of them, but these are papered over with enough skill, exuberance and spectacle that more forgiving audience members should find much to tickle them.

In an extensive prologue we learn that massive alien beasties, Kaiju, are coming to earth via a portal deep beneath the Pacific, kicking off a seven-year war after humanity’s response comes in the shape of enormous people-controlled robots, Jaeger, used to battle the Kaiju.

One such Jaeger pilot is Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), an orders-ignoring hotshot the likes of which we’ve seen a thousand times in movies like this. They're fighting a losing battle, with the Jaeger programme due to be retired in favour of erecting defensive walls, until it becomes clear that the few remaining robots are earth’s last hope.

With all the bombast and subtlety of a Michael Bay effort, Armageddon and Transformers being the most obviously referenced, and with the woeful banter to go along with it, this is brainlessly chaotic stuff. Elements of Avatar are in there too, and naturally plenty Godzilla, but such considerations aren’t really at the top of the agenda. This is a movie with little but carnage on its mind, and on that front it delivers.

Once the initial heavy bursts of destruction are out of the way, the movie pauses for a lengthy bout of training and character introduction. This midsection finds the film at its weakest, with the most periods of talk, and the clunkiest of interactions and relationships. During this down-time, the need for action is covered by flashbacks and memories and internal squabbling between Raleigh and his rival pilots.

But, notwithstanding the fact that it can get rather dull during that middle stretch, what saves Pacific Rim is its well-drilled structure and sense of pacing, a ruthlessly controlled build that takes us from glimpsed skirmishes to colossal scraps between Kaiju and Jaeger, as cities topple beneath them.

We’re well used to seeing this level of photo-real devastation in Transformers or The Avengers, and right up to last month’s Man of Steel, but Pacific Rim still manages to throw up moments that astonish and, given its very straightforward setup of monsters versus robots, even surprise. A thumping score propels it too, while Idris Elba generally manages to rise above the risible dialogue with a commanding turn as the soldier in charge.

As long as you don’t pay too much attention to most elements of the story, Pacific Rim does the job it set out to do. It gets better as it goes along, which is important, and in its scale and threat it’s genuinely epic. It doesn’t maintain it all the way to the end, and it’s regularly thoroughly dumb, but when it’s good it can be very good indeed.