Friday, 28 December 2012

Film Review | Miracle On 34th Street (1994)

A confession to open this review: at the time of writing, I've never seen the 1947 original version of Miracle On 34th Street. Whilst it therefore may be considered cinematic sacrilege to have seen the John Hughes produced 1994 remake several times, it does mean that I can consider the modern version on its own merits without making constant comparisons to the much-loved black-and-white classic.

Richard Attenborough stars as Kris Kringle, playing Santa Claus at New York department store Cole's which is relying on a successful Christmas season to fend off its recent financial difficulties. Kringle purports to be the real Santa and, whilst initially setting about to convince the non-believing Susan Walker (Mara Wilson) and her mother Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), ends up in court arguing not only for his sanity but also over whether Santa Claus exists at all.

Miracle On 34th Street may not be directed by Hughes, but as producer and co-writer here his fingerprints are all over it. Hughes knows people and seemingly effortlessly creates incredibly human characters often in larger-than-life situations. Kris Kringle is the epitome of this, gleaming throughout with charm and warmth which is brought to life through a fantastically committed and wondrously understated performance from Attenborough. The veteran actor strikes the perfect balance between the harmlessly loopy and endearingly wise and caring elements of Kris' character; many cite Edmund Gwenn from the 1947 version of this film as the greatest big screen Santa of all time (indeed, Gwenn is the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a portrayal of Santa Claus), but to my mind Attenborough has to be considered as one of the all-time greats as well.

Attenborough is supported ably by Wilson and Perkins as the charming, yet damaged, mother and daughter pairing, as well as Dylan McDermott as Bryan, Dorey's patient and adoring boyfriend and later Kris' lawyer. The casting and performances fit brilliantly into the curiously timeless world which Hughes and director Les Mayfield create. Miracle's New York City is enchantingly caught between the modern day and a nostalgic old-fashioned version of the city (perhaps a throwback to the time in which the original film was set and released), giving the film a feeling of quality and a highly polished finish.

The story is one that can be watched and rewatched without becoming tiresome, putting a unique spin on Christmas traditions and creating arguably one of the most magical of all Christmas films without overtly putting the magic on camera. There are no elves or flying sleighs in Miracle: it's magic is much more subtle, and all the more heartwarming for it.

Occasionally the film becomes too schmaltzy for its own good - a montage depicting a date between Bryan and Dorey, set to a vomit-inducing Kenny G version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", is potentially one of the cheesiest sequences ever committed to film - and things occasionally feel a little too gentle, even for a family film. But the pervading Christmas spirit easily wins through, making Miracle On 34th Street a well made and thoroughly enjoyable modern Christmas classic.


Film Review | Arthur Christmas (2011)

With a title based around such a tenuous pun, Arthur Christmas ("Arthur" sounds a bit like "Father", geddit?) was a film I was prepared to watch and then forget, another entry into the middle-of-the-road Christmas cinematic canon. Thankfully, setting my expectations at such an average level meant that Arthur Christmas ended up as something of a pleasant surprise.

The film follows Arthur (James McAvoy), the youngest son of Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) who is well-meaning but clumsy and kept out of the way as much as possible, especially by his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie). When one gift is left behind on Christmas Eve, Arthur and his grandfather Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to find a way to make sure it's delivered before Christmas morning.

Plot-wise, Arthur Christmas isn't anything particularly special. The main story is entertaining but provides very few twists or developments that will surprise; once Arthur and Grandsanta set their plan in motion to deliver the missed present, it's pretty obvious how things will conclude. The family dispute subplot is somewhat more original, but also reaches the most predictable conclusion that you'll have seen coming from somewhere during the film's first act.

Thankfully, there's quite a lot elsewhere to prop up Arthur Christmas's by-the-numbers plotting. The voice cast is a veritable "who's who" of British talent, with each imbuing his or her character with charm and humour. Whilst the script may not crackle with comedy the same way that Aardman Animation's traditional stop-motion efforts do, the jokes here hit the mark far more often than they miss. The animation itself is also impressive - not quite Pixar standards, but with some beautifully realised scenes throughout, as well as some finely constructed action sequences. All of this lends the "modern versus traditional" message and the inventive way it's put across throughout the film tangible credibility, as well as making the film enjoyable even at points when the script is at its least focused or inspired.

Arthur Christmas ends up as a very entertaining Christmas tale. What it lacks in depth or originality in its story, it more than makes up for in the talent on show through both the casting and the animation. It's a new Christmas film with both genuine heart and humour - something that seems to be true less and less often in recent years.


Monday, 24 December 2012

Film Review | The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit was always going to have the inescapable problem of being compared to the Lord of the Rings films, and so the creators of this new film had an important decision to make about how they felt the stories should be presented, both in style and in terms of the solidity of their connection. It would have been perfectly possible to hide the overt links between the two sagas, presenting this story in its own right without explicit reference to the familiar scenes to follow. The links would have been there for those willing to look for them, but could have given the prequel more room to find its own style, rather than, as the filmmakers have decided to do, make the connection a part of the story, giving the viewer no doubt that this is intended to form part of a single, larger story.

While this decision perhaps allows for less background to be given (though I would be interested to hear the impression of someone who hadn't seen any of Jackson's previous fantasy epics), the film suffers from the subtle difference in tone between the stories. While Lord of the Rings is (and feels like) a sprawling epic, with huge sacrifices being made in the pursuit of a greater good, The Hobbit seems closer to a fantasy adventure film. More Indiana Jones than The Godfather, maybe. If you disagree with this, ask yourself whether the sequence with the dwarfs and the dishes would have made it into any of the Lord of the Rings films. This is not to imply that the film is in any way "kiddie", but rather that the characters always feel in "peril" rather than "danger". Perhaps this is a subtle distinction (and indeed, perhaps one true only within the confines of my head), but the absence of genuine concern for the characters' safety leads to some of the more extreme action sequences feeling almost comic, rather than thrilling. Gandalf in particular shouts "Run away" one too many times to avoid a possibly slightly unfair comparison to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Spreading the action across three films is a decision that has been much-discussed, and I will reserve judgement until I see the other installments, but my initial impression is that the films are going to be more satisfying as a single 9-hour marathon than as individual works. There are so many characters in the main party that it is difficult to get beyond introductions and into character development. Part of this is a natual problem with having a large number of similar-looking, similarly-named characters (and part of me wonders whether I will remember the individual roles and eccentricities of each dwarf come the sequels), but part of it is due to the decision to only tell a third of the story in this film.

As far as the execution of the movie goes, it's everything I would expect from Jackson and from a modern high-budget production. The visuals are clean, convincing and rarely get in the way, while the performances are strong, with Sir Ian McKellen in particular able to add more layers to his portrayal of Gandalf than was possible in Lord of the Rings, since the character has more of an active role here. Richard Armitage also does well enough as Thorin Oakenshield; a sort of dwarfish Viggo Mortensen: two thirds brooding beardily to one third hitting people with metal. Martin Freeman trundles along effectively enough as Bilbo, though I'm more interested to see how his character develops in the second and third films, and there maybe is not enough made of his internal conflict over whether to continue with his adventure, or return home.

Two things particularly stood out to me: Thorin's song (Over the Misty Mountains cold/To dungeons deep and caverns old), which was a note of true solemnity and seriousness, and perfectly captured the isolation of the dwarfs and the anticipation of the adventure to come; and the depiction of Gollum, the encounter between him and Bilbo is fantastically minimlist and (particularly towards the start of their interaction) Gollum appears as a genuinely dangerous and fearsome opponent.

Overall, I was not disappointed by the film (though I will not be seeing the next two in 3D, which added nothing but distraction), and am looking forward to the sequels, but I fear that the filmmakers may have made a rod for their own backs in the tight coupling between the two franchises.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Film Review | A Christmas Carol (2009)

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has received countless big screen adaptations, becoming just as much a cinematic staple as a literary one during the festive season. But with so many versions already out there, the challenge for any director bringing us a new take on the story of Scrooge is to bring something fresh and original to proceedings. Robert Zemeckis' choice to make Dickens' Christmas ghost story his third venture into CGI motion capture cinema, following 2004's The Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf, had the potential to be the perfect way to bring the supernatural elements of the tale to life. Unfortunately, it's a potential which the film only manages to partially fulfill.

If you don't know the story (and where have you been if you don't?), A Christmas Carol takes place one Christmas Eve, as miserable miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is haunted first by the spirit of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), then by three ghosts representing Christmas Past (Carrey again), Present (and again) and Yet To Come (yep, Carrey too), in order to convince him to change his ways.

Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol really is a mixed bag; when it get things right, it gets them very right, but it also misses the mark by a considerable margin in several ways. It's often the most chilling and scary elements of the story which benefit the most from the motion capture treatment. The scene in which Oldman's Marley torments Carrey's Scrooge is one of the strongest and most memorable of the whole film. The inclusion of some of the often overlooked elements,such as the personification of Ignorance and Want as creepy children accompanying Christmas Present, are also welcome and inspired touches.

The casting decisions too run the gamut of success. Carrey as Scrooge is strong, but as the three Christmas Ghosts is less successful, distractingly adopting a strange and unconvincing Irish accent as Christmas Past and another which meanders around the north of England as Christmas Present. The same can be said for Oldman in his multiple roles: he is superb as Marley and good as Bob Cratchit, but the idea to use Oldman's face for Tiny Tim is both odd and unsettling - initially not all that noticeable, but once it hits you ironically it's more haunting than some of the ghosts.

It's in some of its more spectacular set pieces that the film feels least successful. Sequences such as Scrooge being shot up into the air on a giant candle snuffer by Christmas Past, or being chased through the streets of Victorian London by a demonic horse and carriage driven by Christmas Future, may showcase the film's technical mastery - as well as undoubtedly giving the immersive element in the 3D version (which I wasn't watching) some mileage. But they ultimately come across as soulless and a little overlong, as well as adding nothing to the story. A tale as ingeniously simple and effective in its concept and message as this doesn't need to have the lily gilded with overblown spectacle.

It's this that ultimately holds this version of A Christmas Carol back from being anything more than just good. There are elements here to enjoy a great deal in isolation, but as a whole the film fails to capture the spirit of Dickens' tale, preferring glossy surface level sheen to anything deeper or more heartfelt underneath. An ultimately ironic verdict for a story all about shunning the material side of life and embracing humanity.


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Film Review | War Horse (2011)

My anticipation of War Horse was perhaps significantly less than that of many. I haven't read Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, now thirty years old, from which the film is adapted; nor have I seen the acclaimed West End production, perhaps most famous for its intricate and impressive full-size horse puppets and the realistic way in which they are brought to life by those operating them. In fact, the biggest draw of the film for me was Steven Spielberg sitting in the director's chair revisiting wartime Europe once again. Nominated for a multitude of awards, including a Best Picture nod as well as five other Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, War Horse certainly on paper held a wealth of potential to be another Spielberg classic.

Beginning shortly before the beginning of the First World War, War Horse follows the life of a horse named Joey, raised and trained by teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) on his father's (Peter Mullan) farm in the Devon countryside, before being sold to the British Army in 1914 when war breaks out.

Joey's story takes him through a wealth of settings, from his beginnings as an unlikely plough horse in Devon through to wartime France at various stages of the war. It's a journey which allows Spielberg as director to create some beautiful and captivating sequences. The cavalry charge beginning in a French cornfield is particularly memorable, as is the scene which sees a terrified Joey hurtling through both British and German trenches before becoming stranded in the middle of no man's land.

Unfortunately, the cinematography of these scenes can only be appreciated in isolation. Structurally, the film is decidedly unsatisfying, with Joey's story moving too hurriedly from one set of human characters to the next. No sooner do we feel settled in Spielberg's decidedly chocolate box vision of early 20th Century Devon at the start of the film than the director moves us on to a new set of characters. Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls, Joey's next owner, is undoubtedly one of the film's strongest characters thanks to the talented actor's performance, but we simply aren't afforded the time to get to know him well enough to truly invest. It's a pattern which happens again and again until the film's conclusion thanks to the plot's rigidly episodic structure. It's a source of constant frustration: other enjoyable talents such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Toby Kebbell receive just enough screen time for us to want to get to know them better, before being snatched from under our noses, thereby building up layer upon layer of unsatisfying and underdeveloped character arcs.

Tonally, the film ranges from the stark realism of the battle scenes, to the heavy-handed sentimentality of much of the final act, to - perhaps least satisfying of all - the ill-advised and amateurish humour generated by a meeting between a British and German soldier in the middle of no man's land, united in their desire to help the injured Joey. In the end, War Horse ends up as a film which never manages to develop fully, and doesn't have a strong or consistent enough script to prop it up. With a running time at least half an hour too long and a host of British talent that deserve meaty roles to sink their teeth into, but end up with extended cameos at best, it's a film which ultimately puts style over substance. Aside from a few directorial flourishes from Spielberg, War Horse ends up as a shallow and mediocre melodrama.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Film Review | Brave (2012)

It's purely coincidental that the Pixar output reviewed here so far have all been either been films that have left me somewhat unsatisfied, or films that are not considered to be amongst the classics that the studio  has produced (or, in the case of Cars 2, both). Time will bring articles focused on the jewels in Pixar's crown, films that have already gone down in cinematic history as both classics and landmarks in animation. Unfortunately, Brave is not one of these films.

Brave tells the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a strong-willed princess in medieval Scotland who defies her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), when she is informed that the sons of the Lords of three other clans in Scotland will compete for her hand in marriage. After following a will-o'-the-wisp through the forest, Merida resorts to extreme measures in trying to change her mother's will, but things don't quite unfold the way she expected.

Once again, Pixar show their artistic mastery through Brave's beautiful landscapes and impressive action sequences. The whole feel of the film fits beautifully with the Celtic legends interwoven into Brave's narrative; it's clear that the studio have painstakingly composed the world in which the story unfolds. It's a shame then that, in comparison to both the scenery and what we've seen from Pixar in the past, the character animation is very good but never outstanding. Merida's flowing fire-hued locks are a wonder in themselves, but the time for wonder at Pixar's ability to create realistic hair was around a decade ago with the release of Monsters Inc. Elsewhere, Brave comes across as possibly the first time Pixar has ever felt aesthetically influenced by rival studio DreamWorks, with the look and feel of the more caricatured players in the story, such as King Fergus and Lords Dingwall, Macintosh and McGuffin, decidedly similar to those seen in How To Train Your Dragon.

Brave's story is perfectly enjoyable, with plenty of entertaining moments throughout. The relationships between Merida, Elinor and Fergus are established nicely in the opening act, although few other characters get much development. Things become notably more comedic in tone as the second act gets underway,  becoming more predictable unfortunately at the same time. Once it's established what Merida must do in order to set matters right, things follow their inevitable course without really threatening any genuine surprises or making you feel as though the expected outcome is ever in question. Like I said, it's enjoyable and entertaining, but compared to many of Pixar's previous efforts it all feels a bit light and ordinary.

Ultimately, Pixar are once again victims of their own success. Brave is undoubtedly superior to a great many animated films released this year. But think about how the opening twenty minutes of Up made you feel; think about how Wall-E's almost dialogue-free opening act is pure cinematic perfection; think about pretty much any scene from the final act of Toy Story 3. Brave never gets close to this calibre of cinema or emotional investment; I found myself waiting for the film to achieve this, then disappointed that it never gets there. Brave is Pixar in safe mode, which still makes it a good, well-made and entertaining film. But it's also likely to be possibly the first Pixar film you'll watch, enjoy, and then move on from without any part of it staying with you.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Film Review | The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Muppet Christmas Carol looked like anything but a safe bet when it was released twenty years ago. Eight years on from their previous big screen outing, 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan, the film was a notable departure from the more straightforward stage musical style that the Muppets were known for. It was also the first major release from the characters since the death of their creator, Jim Henson, two years previously; the film is dedicated to Henson, and his son Brian took on the director's role. These factors combined meant that a Muppet version of Dickens' famous festive ghost story could at the times of its release be considered a sizeable risk. Two decades later and the film is one of the most well-loved film versions of the tale and, arguably, the Muppets' most successful feature film.

The film recounts the well-known story of Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), a miserly misanthrope who detests Christmas. However, during a visit from the ghosts of his deceased business partners Jacob and Robert Marley one Christmas Eve, Scrooge is warned to change his ways and informed he will be visited by three further spirits throughout the night.

The Muppet Christmas Carol gives you an awful lot to like about it all the way through. The casting, both human and Muppet, is spot on: Kermit is the perfect fit for humble optimist Bob Cratchit, with Miss Piggy overacting tremendously in the role of his wife; Statler and Waldorf heckling from beyond the grave as the Marley brothers is simply superb, as is Fozzie Bear in the small but key role of Scrooge's first employer Fozziwig; the best piece of Muppet casting, however, has to go to Gonzo narrating the whole thing as Charles Dickens himself, forming a perfect double act with Rizzo The Rat (as himself) and providing plenty of laugh-out-loud moments throughout.

The way in which the three Christmas ghosts are realised through original Muppet creations is wonderful,  with acute attention to detail and incredible faith to the source material; only the Ghost Of Christmas Present is softened up a little, working to the film's benefit by providing a much starker contrast to the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. Whilst this is a Muppet film, much of the film's success must also be attributed to a faultless central performance from Caine. His Scrooge is the perfect balance of cruel taskmaster, lonely and bitter old man and, becoming more and more evident as the story wears on, a sympathetic figure with some serious emotional damage. His transformation from the start to the end of the film, coupled with the chemistry he consistently demonstrates with his Muppet co-stars, shows just how skilled an actor Caine is.

The combination of fidelity to Dickens' novella, sharp and intelligent humour and some incredibly catchy tunes (you'll have "Marley And Marley" stuck in your head for days after you watch) make The Muppet Christmas Carol a near comprehensive success. It occasionally becomes a little too sentimental for its own good, with some of the scenes involving Tiny Tim (played by Kermit's nephew Robin) laying on the schmaltz a little too heavy-handedly, but the story's pervading morals coupled with this being a Christmas tale allow this to be mostly forgiven. Overall, this is a charming, well made and incredibly enjoyable treat that deserves to be revisited every year during the festive season.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Film Review | Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)

Surprising precisely no-one after the incredible success of the original, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York was released just two years after Home Alone, swiftly cashing in on the unstoppable popularity of pint-sized star Macauley Culkin in the early '90s whilst showing a keen awareness that Culkin's "cute kid" appeal might only last a few more years.

Set a year after the events of Home Alone, the McCallister family are jetting off once again for the Christmas holidays, this time headed to the sunny climes of Florida. Whilst Kevin (Culkin) makes it to the airport this time, things still manage to go awry as he ends up on a plane heading to New York City. Once again, Kevin initially enjoys exploring the city without the constraints of his parents (Catherine O'Hara and John Heard) or siblings. That is until recently escaped convicts Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), whom Kevin helped put away last Christmas, cross paths with our young hero once again.

Home Alone 2 takes a great many of its cues from the first film, with the plot essentially following a similar path to that of Home Alone with the action transferred to New York instead of the McCallister family home. Whilst this is something that never bothered me as a child growing up watching these films, revisiting them as an adult it's a factor which does leave several moments throughout the film lacking in originality. That said, there is enough here to make sure this isn't merely the exact same film being rehashed, with the New York setting providing some memorable moments and settings.

The sequel also retains all the key players in the cast from the original and is all the better for it. Culkin is just as good here as he was in the first film, retaining the charm and mischievousness which made him a star. O'Hara and Heard are reliably strong, and Pesci and Stern too slip straight back into the roles they carved expertly in Home Alone. It's a shame that the script this time gives Harry and Marv a few scenes that are just too silly to be truly satisfying. New additions to the cast range from the welcome (Tim Curry) to the forgettable (Rob Schneider, in a career high).

When all is said and done, Home Alone is a film built on schmaltz and slapstick, and Home Alone 2 not only sticks to the same simple formula but decides to crank up both elements a few notches more. From Brenda Fricker's homeless woman who just doesn't want to get her heart broken again (whom Kevin of course not only befriends, but gives sage advice involving rollerblades about how to overcome her problem) to Eddie Bracken's orphan-loving toy shop owner, when Home Alone 2 turns on the sentimentality it occasionally comes close to excruciating. On the other side of things, the cartoon violence-fuelled finale surpasses that of the original, with the pratfalls and destruction reaching new levels of inventiveness.

Ultimately, Home Alone 2 ends up as the slightly inferior younger sibling of Home Alone. It's enjoyable enough with a strong cast, but falls down when things get too sappy or too familiar. As festive film offerings go, it's not quite the modern classic its predecessor has become, but it's certainly an entertaining slice of '90s nostalgia and much better than a lot of Christmas offerings out there.


Monday, 3 December 2012

Film Review | Home Alone (1990)

Responsible for turning Macauley Culkin into one of the biggest names in Hollywood for the first half of the '90s, Home Alone is now over twenty years old and has become a perennial fixture in many a VHS, and now DVD, player throughout December. And, whilst it has its flaws, the family favourite holds up pleasingly well.

Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, an eight-year-old mischief maker who, thanks to a series of unfortunate mishaps, manages to get left behind whilst his entire family head off to Paris for the Christmas holidays. Whilst Kevin initially revels in his new found freedom, things take a more sinister turn when yuletide burglars Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) target his family home.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first: Home Alone has some uneven plotting here and there, with a middle section that becomes decidedly episodic. Whilst this does allow for some particularly memorable scenes, such as Kevin using dialogue from a gangster flick to pay for a pizza before scaring the delivery boy off, there are also a few sequences which now feel somewhat tedious. Things also become a little too schmaltzy at times, with the moral message - love your family even if they drive you crazy sometimes - laid on very thickly here and there.

There's far more to like than to dislike here though, not least the performances throughout the cast. It's not hard to see why John Hughes wrote this part for Culkin after the young actor's charming performance in 1989's Uncle Buck. Culkin is consistently a likable and enjoyable presence at the centre of the film, delivering a performance which superbly fits the farcical family fun aesthetic. Catherine O'Hara and John Heard as Kevin's mother and father bring credibility and humour to their roles, and there's even a welcome extended cameo from Culkin's Uncle Buck co-star John Candy.

But the most ingenious pieces of casting by far here are Pesci and Stern as the criminal duo terrorising Kevin's neighbourhood. The two have wonderful chemistry and provide plenty of genuine comedy throughout. It's hard to believe that one of Pesci's most iconic and expletive-laden turns, that of Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, was released in the same year as Home Alone.

The film's most memorable asset is, and will always remain, the final act where Harry and Marv are subjected by Kevin to one of the most severe slapstick assaults seen in modern cinema. True, the cartoon style of violence means that we never truly believe the youngster is in any real danger, but that doesn't take away from the pure entertainment that is delivered from this section of the film. 

Ultimately, whilst it's not perfect, Home Alone manages to deliver consistently enjoyable family entertainment laid on the able foundations of a talented and entertaining cast. Two decades on from its release, and Home Alone is more than deserving of its status as a modern Christmas stalwart.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Film Review | Skyfall (2012)

The four year gap between the release of Bonds 22 and 23 - namely Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall - was anything but a quiet bit of downtime for the franchise. At one point, it looked like a very real possibility that the latest installment in the long-running spy series might never see completion, with fears surfacing that the MGM lion may have roared his last after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Thankfully, the financial issues were eventually resolved and Bond was once again on track to return for the 50th anniversary of his time on the big screen. With many being (or convincing themselves they had been) disappointed by Quantum Of Solace, hopes were high for Skyfall to bring Craig's tenure as Bond back to the perfection seen in his inaugural outing, 2006's Casino Royale. And after his patriotic appearance alongside Queen Elizabeth II herself during the opening ceremony of London 2012, many hoped that the latest entry into the long-running franchise would continue the nostalgia, paying tribute to 007's half century on film. On pretty much all of these counts, Skyfall does not disappoint.

Taking place some time after the events of Quantum Of Solace, the film catches up with James Bond (Craig) using a botched mission - after which he was presumed dead - to spend time away from his duties at MI6. However, after learning of an attack against the agency itself, with M (Judi Dench) seemingly a specific target, Bond chooses to return to London to help track down those responsible.

Surely the most pleasing aspect about Skyfall is the amount of ambitious goals the film not only sets itself, but achieves with such success. The film is a roaring tribute to the previous fifty years and twenty-two films the double-0 agent has behind him; this never becomes a "greatest hits" compilation however, with none of the nods to Bond's heritage feeling awkward or ill-fitting. Every moment is knowingly and lovingly crafted, woven into the film's plot and universe seamlessly and purposefully.

The film is also packed with superb performances, with Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva likely to become a firm fixture on any list of Bond's ultimate adversaries. The character is brilliantly realised through the sharp script's most stark and unsettling moments, as well as Bardem's comprehensively excellent turn. Bérénice Marlohe also does well as the alluring Sévérine, undoubtedly the most classically archetypal Bond girl Craig has encountered in the role yet. Naomie Harris' Eve, Ralph Fiennes' Mallory and Ben Whishaw, taking on the role of Q for the first time since the reboot of the franchise, also offer plenty to enjoy.

It almost goes without saying that Daniel Craig is pitch perfect as Bond, but not to mention this would be to do a disservice to what Craig has brought to the role in his three films to date. The fact that Craig is now considered by many as the defining actor in the role ahead of much-loved and praised cinematic icons such as Roger Moore and even the originator of the role on screen, Sean Connery, speaks volumes about the way in which Craig has genuinely taken ownership of Bond.

But perhaps the defining performance of Skyfall comes from Judi Dench. The Dame's unique honour as the only cast member to be carried over from the original timeline of Bond films always felt like one of the best decisions made when rebooting the timeline, and Dench shows just how seriously talented she is here, being given the greatest scope to truly flesh out the character since she took on the role some sixteen years ago as GoldenEye's "evil queen of numbers".

Director Sam Mendes barely puts a foot out of place, making sure that Skyfall's plot moves at a satisfying pace throughout, whilst producing some breathtaking cinematography. Bond's tracking of an assassin through the upper floors of an empty Shanghai skyscraper is one of the most beautifully and masterfully shot pieces of cinema you will see this year. Things threaten to become a little too outlandish for the rebooted Bond universe for a beat or so in Skyfall's final act, but the film soon recovers thanks to some of the most exciting and emotional scenes witnessed in a Bond film for some time, if ever.

Skyfall therefore is a near-comprehensive triumph. Superior to Quantum Of Solace, but marginally off the perfection seen in Casino Royale, this is almost certainly the most likely Craig outing so far to please fans of the classic Bond films of the '60s and '70s. It pays homage to the franchise's origins, as well as its most beloved attributes, whilst managing to remain contemporary, refined, and a superb film in its own right. Skyfall asks and answers the question of whether Bond has a place in the modern world in the same breath, leaving you in genuine anticipation for Bond 24 even before the credits begin to roll.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Film Review | Quantum Of Solace (2008)

For film studio Eon Productions, following the consummate success and heaped praise of Casino Royale's reboot of the Bond franchise was a task simultaneously simple and complex. Eon had many of the elements needed already in place, including a Bond in Daniel Craig who, despite initial resistance, had received both critical acclaim and universal acceptance. However, with a polished and revitalised franchise starting on the highest of highs, maintaining that level of success in Quantum Of Solace was still to be a tall order.

Quantum Of Solace picks up literally moments after the end of Casino Royale, with MI6 agent James Bond (Craig) racing through the streets of Italy with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a member of criminal organisation Quantum, captive in the boot of his car. Still dealing with the death of Vesper Lynd, the love he lost during the events of Casino Royale, Bond is soon on the trail of another key member of Quantum, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whom the secret agent suspects is involved in corrupt international deals.

Since the film's release in 2008, it seems to have become fashionable to bash Quantum Of Solace as a weak and inherently "bad" entry into the Bond franchise. This could not be further from the truth. Whilst I concede that film has its flaws, there is certainly a lot here to like.

Craig's return to the role of 007 is confident and assured, bringing an even greater intensity to the role than that seen during his first outing. If Casino Royale allowed Craig to take hold of the character, Quantum Of Solace sees him making Bond his own. The returning supporting characters of M (Judi Dench), Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) all bring reliable quality through their casting, littering Quantum with enjoyable performances. Olga Kurylenko as Camille Montes is excellent, although her character feels as though she dips in and out of the plot a little too haphazardly at times. Amalric as Dominic Greene again puts in a strong performance, although his Bond villain admittedly lacks the subtle theatricality or unsettling nature of Casino Royale baddie Le Chiffre.

The plot is an area which many seem to have a problem with, but to me it's probably one of Quantum's biggest strengths. It's cerebral and complex, but not much more intricate than that seen in the preceding installment of the franchise. The goings-on within the criminal world here may lack the flair of a high stakes poker game, but the story does have some superb highlights, including Bond crashing a Quantum conference call in an unexpectedly dramatic locale.

The main thing that lets Quantum Of Solace down is its shortfall in one area implicit to the Bond franchise: a sense of humour. By and large this is a humourless affair with Craig brooding and scowling through much of the run-time; this gives the action sequences a pleasing feel of grittiness and intensity, but can leave other parts of the film feeling somewhat dour. Where the jocular 007 spirit does make a rare appearance, it's incredibly refreshing, but also serves to highlight how straight-faced the vast majority of the film is.

Quantum Of Solace never manages to reach the heights of Casino Royale, a film it is destined to be  compared to for ever more. But neither does it deserve the harsh criticism that it seems to receive more and more, especially following the release of succeeding Bond film Skyfall. Quantum Of Solace is in its own right an excellent action espionage film, and whilst it might not be the comprehensive success that Daniel Craig's first time donning the tuxedo is recognised as being, it is undoubtedly a worthwhile and well-made entry into the Bond franchise.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Film Review | The Holiday (2006)

On paper, The Holiday is a pretty average Christmas-themed rom-com, looking as light and fluffy as much of the snow which covers the chocolate-box English countryside in many scenes throughout its running time. But, thanks to a few fortunate additions, it manages to peek its head far enough above the middle-of-the-road line of oblivion to become a little more memorable than most in its genre.

The Holiday is based around the concept of two unlucky-in-love ladies, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) who swap homes to give themselves a break from their usual surroundings in the lead up to Christmas. So, Iris vacations in Amanda's luxury Hollywood villa, whilst Amanda cozies up in Iris' tranquil cottage set in rural Surrey. However, it's not long before unexpected chances for romance turn up.

In many ways, The Holiday does nothing new. It's obvious from the moment Iris meets the unassuming Miles (Jack Black) and that Amanda finds Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law) on her doorstep in the middle of the night how things are going to end up romance-wise; it's just a matter of director Nancy Meyers playing things out. Things aren't much more original in terms of the culture shock both women experience - Iris unsurprisingly gets hopelessly befuddled with Amanda's keypad-protected security gate, and Amanda predictably drives on the wrong side of the road within a couple of hours of being in England. So far, so forgettable.

And yet The Holiday has a few pleasant surprises within it. First of all, the four leads all put in relatively strong performances. Yes, they're rom-com style performances, but nobody grates (although Diaz comes close once or twice). Jack Black in particular is pleasingly understated in a role, whilst not necessarily challenging, that certainly falls outside his comfort zone. There's also a refreshing subplot involving Eli Wallach as an aging Hollywood writer which allows the film to explore a little, and pay tribute to, the golden age of cinema. It's never anything incredibly deep or layered, but there's enough there to raise this a notch above the usual throwaway fare.

The Holiday isn't a classic, and it's modern fairytale, polished white middle class feel will almost certainly be enough to turn some away. It never threatens to be anything truly memorable, but it certainly does enough to make it lighthearted festive fare worth a watch just once a year.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Film Review | The Mask (1994)

Jim Carrey has been something of a "marmite" actor throughout his career, and in The Mask he delivers possibly his most love-it-or-hate-it performance of all. Whether you're a fan of Carrey's green-faced whirlwind or not, it's undeniable that this film - along with two more 1994 releases, namely Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber - launched Carrey as a major star.

The Mask tells the story of Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey), a milquetoast bank employee growing tired of his luckless and boring existence. His life changes completely when he happens upon an ancient and enchanted mask which transforms him into an extrovert lothario with a toothy, lime-hued visage.

The Mask is from the outset a film of two distinct levels of success. The opening act introduces us to Stanley, his workaday life and timid attitude, as well as his best friend Charlie (Richard Jeni). It's fine, but nothing special. Cameron Diaz - in her feature debut no less - is fine as love interest Tina Carlyle, and Peter Greene as the villain of the piece Dorian Tyrell is again, well, fine. The whole thing does what it needs to, but without ever feeling special. In hindsight it's clear to see that Stanley Ipkiss, above Lloyd Christmas and Ace Ventura, is the breakout role that would cement Carrey as more than just a maniacal force of comedy but as genuine leading man material. But even so, The Mask begins in an overall underwhelming way.

At around the twenty minute mark, however, Stanley puts on the mask and the whole film immediately shifts into another gear entirely. The Mask as a character is so outlandish and blatant that, as has already been acknowledged, he is likely to divide audience opinion. To my mind, he is one of the finest physical comedy creations in cinema. The character pays homage to everything from classic Tex Avery cartoons to the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis, with references to a huge amount of classic cinema including Gone With The Wind and The Cincinnati Kid. From the moment The Mask character enters the film, every moment he's on screen is pure gold. Carrey's performance is flawless and comically note-perfect as Stanley's emerald-countenanced alter-ego.

The film essentially ends up becoming the average of these two planes. When the focus is on Stanley's everyday life, things become somewhat less interesting; aside from one or two more entertaining scenes, including one where Stanley consults mask expert Dr. Neuman (Ben Stein, in a pleasing cameo), the film at times feel like it's almost filling in between the appearances of The Mask. But when Carrey dons the green make-up and is allowed to let loose, this is superb. What we end up with therefore fluctuates between the good and the outstanding, but overall is entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable and regularly showcases Carrey at his comedic best.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Film Review | Rango (2011)

We live in an age where computer-animated features are becoming more and more beautiful to the eye and ever richer in cinematic heritage. Aside from a lone anomaly in Cars 2, Pixar are still the studio to beat in the field with a wealth of classics in their back catalogue, many of which are continuing to mature with age. It's therefore becoming less acceptable for CGI films to score points for their achievements in these areas, which is unfortunate for Rango, because how it looks and its references to films gone by are all it has going for it.

The film tells the story of a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who finds himself accidentally abandoned in the middle of the desert. After some philosophical conversation with an armadillo (Alfred Molina), the chameleon heads in the direction of the town of Dirt, calling himself Rango and becoming entangled in the town's drought crisis.

Rango is regularly beautiful to look at, with some breathtaking scenery and cinematography of the desert inspired by many a classic western. It's in the choices of shots and camera angles that director Gore Verbinski is most successful in paying tribute to a bygone era of film making, something which he clearly wants to do through this film. There will be much here for the older members of the audience to take in as tribute to the Wild West movies of yesteryear. The detail and visual style employed in the character design is also incredibly detailed, although I did find in some characters the intensely realistic aesthetic of whatever animal they might be to be off-putting and limiting in how much emotion that character was able to put across.

Sadly, I found very little to like here other than the visuals and cinematic homages. The story is awkwardly paced, throwing you into Rango's story in a rush, then slowing things down to a dawdle. The central story of a town on the brink of collapse due to a vital resource suddenly becoming unavailable - in this case water, which acts as the currency of Dirt - may have its roots in traditional Western tales, but here it fails to generate anywhere near enough interest. There are far too many characters crammed into the story, meaning that Rango is the only character who really feels in any way developed; moreover, with a scant backstory prior to the events of the film the amount of investment I had in our hero could only go so far. There's more life in Rango's wind-up fish Mr. Timms than the supposed romance between him and Beans (Isla Fisher).

Rango also feels confused as to who it's actually for. There are action sequences and visual jokes which feel squarely aimed at kids and really don't fit with the aesthetic look and feel of the film. Elsewhere we have film references and humour which cannot be targeted at anyone other than an adult audience, going straight over the heads of any children and even teenagers in the audience. Whilst I did enjoy moments here and there, with the film's most surreal sequences feeling the strongest, ultimately the two approaches struggle against each other to the detriment of both with Rango ending up feeling like a film lacking in both heart and brains.

The fact that Rango won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars earlier this year says more about the field in which it was competing. When its strongest competition from the mainstream studios was Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots (Pixar's kiddie cash-in sequel Cars 2 rightfully didn't even get a look-in), Rango undoubtedly managed to charm the Academy with its film heritage references and finely crafted visuals. But the story this film tells the strongest is The Emperor's New Clothes. There's nothing of substance here, but allowing yourself to see that means pushing aside the visuals and homages that sit on the surface - finery and embellishments that many seem to have sadly been taken in by.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Film Review | The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (2012)

With jokes about parrots that aren't quite what they seem, women wearing unconvincing beards and non sequitur references to pork products, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists owes more to Monty Python than Johnny Depp's recent swashbuckling adventures. And, I hasten to add, it's all the better for it.

The film follows the exploits of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a notoriously inept pirate who sets his sights on winning the Pirate Of The Year award. After crossing paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) however, the Pirate Captain changes his aim, hoping for success of a more scientific nature in London.

The Pirates! comes from Aardman Animation, most famous for bringing Wallace & Gromit to both the small and big screen, and their charming brand of British humour pervades this latest effort. The whole thing is gloriously silly and surreal. Running jokes, such as the Pirate Captain's crew being known by descriptions of themselves (my favourite example being Pirate Who Likes Sunsets And Kittens), and their obsession with ham (the best thing about being a pirate, apparently), are never explained and all the funnier for it. The humour drives things along, making the whole film a joy; there's more than enough to keep the adults heartily amused, with historical and cinematic references to the likes of Jane Austen (anachronistic, but still funny) and Joseph Merrick (spot on), in a similar style to the best work of animation gods Pixar. The lengthy process of stop-motion animation in which Aardman have chosen to beautifully realise their film complements the tone of the script brilliantly and gives the whole thing a warmth and sheen that only a labour of love can accomplish.

The film would undoubtedly not be the success it is without the comprehensively excellent voice cast. Hugh Grant's turn as the Pirate Captain is a delight from start to finish, giving him an air of loveable idiocy that is unmistakeably British. Tennant's Darwin is understated in comparison, but is just as enjoyable and shows his expert skill at comic performance, allowed now and then to come to the surface in his most famous role as The Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who but fully utilised here. The supporting cast has talent to spare with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton putting in mirthful turns, as well as Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and Brian Blessed making welcome cameos.

The Pirates! does have flaws: the plot feels like it's a little overstretched even for the relatively slight running time of just under an hour and a half, with sections in the middle lacking direction and a final act reveal that feels a bit too tacked on to be truly satisfying. It could also be argued that, for a film focused primarily on pirates, there isn't as much swashbuckling and cutlass-swinging to be seen as you'd expect. But the things that the film gets right more than make up for its minor shortcomings. This is intelligent and expertly-crafted film-making with heart and an unashamed dedication to its very British heritage. So sit back, have a slice of ham, and let the tidal wave of silliness wash over you.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Film Review | American Pie: Reunion (2012)

The year that the original American Pie film was released was the year I turned fifteen, putting me somewhere close to front and centre of the target audience for what would become the first instalment of the franchise. Thirteen years later, and I have just turned twenty-eight, something which the makers of the series' fourth outing (not including the straight-to-DVD cash-ins that I have never gone anywhere near) are acutely aware. This is a film not aimed primarily at the teenagers of today, but at those who were teenagers at the turn of the millennium. American Pie: Reunion plays the nostalgia card throughout, which at times works very much in its favour, but at others is a reminder that a fair few of the high school antics of Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) are probably better left in 1999.

The film sees many a familiar face from the original film return to Great East Falls for a "Class Of '99" high school reunion. Whilst everyone is older and many things have changed, the main quintet use the reunion as a chance to try and rekindle some of the fun that they used to share in their high school days.

American Pie: Reunion lays its cards out pretty clearly from the word "go". The opening scene includes not one, but two wanking gags, as well as paying homage to a certain piece of clothing that played a key role in the opening moments of the first film. This is crude and low brow just as every previous offering has been, but it's also regularly quite funny.

Reunion also never tries to hide the fact that it's paying tribute to the series' origins. The original trilogy suffered from the law of diminishing returns, with the third outing - American Pie: The Wedding - feeling extremely lacklustre from the lazy attempts at humour to the fact that several key members of the cast were missing. Writing and directing duo Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are well aware that one thing Reunion needs to do is rectify this, and on the whole they succeed. So we have all five of the male leads back, even if not all of them get to do much of interest. For American Pie fans, it'll just be good to see them all together. The film is also set - for the first time since the first film - almost entirely in Great East Falls, something which helps to cement the feeling of nostalgia and paying tribute to the franchise opener.

That's not to say that Reunion is an unqualified success. The plot threads that the film weaves vary in quality, from the mostly amusing antics of Jim and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) attempting to rekindle the flame in their marriage after having a son, to the predictable and repetitive subplot regarding Kevin's crisis of conscience over realising he (shock horror) still holds a flame for Vicky (Tara Reid) even though he is now married. It doesn't help that both Vicky and Heather (Mena Suvari), the two key female characters from the series, get absolutely nothing of interest to do, making the whole thing feel somewhat imbalanced.

The inescapable fact that these characters are now meant to be in their thirties also makes some sequences of the film unpleasantly uncomfortable. An entire plot thread involving Kara (Ali Cobrin), Jim's next door neighbour whom he used to babysit and who is now celebrating her eighteenth birthday, regularly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and will make you squirm. It's at points like this that Reunion strays too far from gross-out comedy, becoming just grossly inappropriate.

There is still a lot to like here though, and the good outweighs the bad. The final act ramps up the nostalgia with cameos and references aplenty (disappointingly, Casey Affleck fails to make an appearance as Kevin's long-distance big brother), and provides several moments likely to bring a broad smile, if not a belly laugh, from Pie fanatics. It won't win any new fans to the franchise, but then Reunion patently was never made to do so. It's not as good as the first film, but it's a notable improvement on the third, and arguably surpasses the first sequel in some ways. American Pie: Reunion ends up a worthwhile and enjoyable, if flawed, addition to the American Pie canon.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Film Review | Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

Crank 2: High Voltage is possibly best known to many for its "so bad it's good" tagline: "He was dead... But he got better". Amusing in a ridiculous, throwaway kind of way. If only the same could be said for the film...

Picking up exactly where Crank left off, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) begins the film lying in the middle of the road having just plummeted from a helicopter. Barely clinging to life, Chelios is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters who remove his heart, replacing it with an artificial replacement only intended for short term usage. Chelios escapes and begins hunting down the people who have taken his heart, all the while having to find ways to pass electricity through his body to keep his artificial heart working.

Co-writers and directors Neveldine and Taylor clearly believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Simply put, if you liked Crank, you'll almost certainly lap up Crank 2; equally, if you weren't such a fan of the first film, the second will do nothing to sway your opinion of the franchise.

But whilst Crank had more than its share of problems, it was redeemed at least in part by individual moments of creative flair and invention. Crank 2 has none of this. The action feels tired and repetitive, and even though it's clear that Neveldine/Taylor believe they've raised the extreme nature of the franchise a few notches from the first outing, this regularly comes across as just too ridiculous or too gross to be entertaining, instead prompting laughs of derision. There are a couple of surprisingly surreal moments - including one where a fight between Chelios and an adversary is realised in the style of a classic Godzilla film - but these come across as confusing more than anything else.

With the extreme nature of the action ramped up, unfortunately so too are all the things that are unpleasant about Chev Chelios' world. The racism and sexism are even more prevalent here than in the first film. The Chinese and Latino gangsters throughout never stray from lazy and offensive stereotypes (Neveldine/Taylor even manage to get rice-picker hats in), and racial slurs are thrown about without a hint of tongue in cheek. Every female character is a sex object, and the vast majority are either strippers or prostitutes. But, in the interest of taking things further than in the first film, Crank 2 also finds room for homophobia and mockery of the mentally disabled, playing both for as many laughs as possible and never succeeding.

Crank 2 ends up retreading an awful lot of familiar ground from Crank - in fact there are whole sequences which may as well be lifted wholesale from the first film - but in a less interesting, less impressive and more offensive way. There were actually a couple of points during the film where I questioned whether or not I wanted to plough on to the end, something which I very rarely consider even with the most tedious of films. The tagline may be "so bad it's good", but the film it's attached to is just bad. And when the tagline is the best thing about a film, things can't get much worse.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fuzz Five | Hollywood Superstars Selling Out And Making It Cool

TV adverts can be short films bringing works of art into your home through your television set. They can also be the bane of your televisual life that drive you from your warm, comfortable sofa or armchair to another room in the house: the kitchen, the bathroom, the shed - any room will do as long as there isn't a nauseating opera singer or an anthropomorphic meerkat being projected into it. When the people we usually expect to be entertaining us on a much bigger screen venture into the world of advertising, it can be a cringeworthy disappointment that they've had to stoop as low as selling us things to keep their career afloat. But, occasionally, the marriage of Hollywood A-listers and TV ads can produce something memorable that brings a smile to your face. Here are five of the best...

1. Kevin Bacon advertising Everything Everywhere (2012)
Gracing tellies across the country at the time of writing to advertise new mobile phone network EE, Kevin Bacon puts in a brilliant self-parodying performance, even playing a loosely-regulated version of "Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon" with himself and a dog. This could have been awful, but thankfully it's anything but. It's worth seeing just to hear Bacon talking about Tom Hanks and Frank Carson in the same breath.

2. Ray Liotta advertising Heineken (2004)
I've never understood why Ray Liotta never seems to have made it as a genuinely big name in cinema. His CV includes major roles in films such as Goodfellas and Hannibal, but they share space with credits in Operation Dumbo Drop and Wild Hogs. For me, Liotta has proven himself as a talented actor, and his turn as a humorously menacing Heineken representative in these adverts from 2004 just goes even further in proving that. If I thought disgruntled Liotta could be knocking on my door, I'd make sure I finished my pint too.

3. Samuel L. Jackson advertising Barclays Bank (2002)
There's no question that Samuel L. Jackson is one of the consummate talents of modern cinema with two decades worth of fantastic films under his belt. And in these adverts for Barclays from 2002, Jackson shows that he can make everything  from nonsensical stories about buying shoes to quotes from Shakespeare as cool as a Tarantino monologue. "If a dollar was a chicken, would a chicken be evil?" Jackson asks making you feel like Brett in Pulp Fiction. Go on, disagree with him. I dare you, I double dare you.

4. Willem Dafoe advertising Birds Eye (2010 to present)
This article's most surreal entry (which considering Samuel L. Jackson's effort is pretty impressive in itself) sees Willem Dafoe lending his voice to a polar bear puppet who apparently lives in people's freezers. Dafoe as Clarence (the polar bear's name, according to Birds Eye) is arguably the most surprising actor and role to appear on this list - a glance down Dafoe's IMDb page shows only a handful of TV credits to his name, most of which are one-off appearances and cameos - but the sinister, unsettling quality he brings to Clarence is something to relish. It's an advertising stroke of genius. When a creepy animal puppet says "I'm watching you" in Norman Osborn's voice, you take notice.

5. Christopher Lloyd advertising Nike Air Mag trainers (2011)
Okay, when Nike launched a limited run of the shoes Marty McFly wears in 2015 Hill Valley, how else could they sell them without a Back To The Future tribute ad? Everything about this advert is brilliant, from the Lone Pine Mall setting, to NBA player Kevin Durant spouting line after line from the incomparable trilogy, to the date the trainers will be available with "power laces". It's even directed by Frank Marshall, producer of the original films. But the highlight of the whole thing is undoubtedly Christopher Lloyd returning to the iconic role of "Doc" Brown. So sit back, click play, enjoy, and repeat. In (almost) the words of Huey Lewis, that's the power of Lloyd.

Film Review | Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

In much the same way that "Let the right one in" has been described as a film about children that happens to involve vampires, I would characterise Cowboys and Aliens as a film about aliens that happens to involve cowboys. There is very little about the story that could not have been transposed into modern times, or even switched to involve any cultural group by simply changing the language, weapons and location. What I guess I'm trying to say is that there seemed little reason for the people involved to be cowboys, beyond the snappy title and a couple of half-hearted parallels around the appropriation of resources from natives.

This could have been an interesting opportunity to examine the cultural differences between modern and "wild west"-ern societies through the medium of their respective reactions to alien encounters. Alternatively, the film could have attempted to flip the traditional colonisation view, by having the pioneer society under threat from an imposed alien culture. Instead, this potential is lost as time is spent on the exposition required to cover multiple story strands and include additional characters, none of which are particularly interesting. In addition, once the climax is finally reached, the film descends into pure CGI-powered action-film nonsense.

Daniel Craig does well as the central figure, retaining what little mystery the film hangs onto with his strong, silent visage, but the rest of the cast is pretty average. Even Harrison Ford is given little to do, and as a consequence of the number of secondary characters floating around, is never given a huge amount of direct screen-time with Craig and certainly not long enough to establish an interesting relationship. There are some minor plus points, mostly around the visuals, which manage to blend the alien entities into the action quite believably, without having to resort to shadows and half-shots.

Overall, while not being totally without merit, the film certainly never rises above the most obvious implications of it's high concept starting point.


Film Review | The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

Big screen adaptations of British comedy series have an underwhelming history to say the least. It's hard to pick out a truly memorable example, even harder to think of one that seemed genuinely worthwhile. The Monty Python team arguably have the best record in this area, but then three out of their four film efforts were entirely original with only the actors and their brand of humour making the transfer to cinema. The Inbetweeners Movie, the newest entry in this esoteric genre, had the chance to buck the trend. It doesn't quite manage it, but that doesn't mean that it's a complete misfire.

Serving as an finale to the three series of The Inbetweeners, the film follows the misadventures of Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) as they head off to Crete for a debauched summer holiday after finishing their final term at college.

If you're not a fan of The Inbetweeners on TV, then the film is very unlikely to win you over as a fan. If, however, you can't get enough of the four boys' lewd and crude antics, The Inbetweeners Movie will probably become a firm favourite within the first five minutes of its running time. The Inbetweeners was the first sitcom I watched that I genuinely felt I was too old to fully appreciate; whilst I don't count myself as a fan, I can see why it is popular with a teenage and university student audience. The film version neither won me over any more, nor pushed me further away.

The humour is often low-brow in the extreme, at times pushing things so far as to lose the focus that what you're seeing is meant to make you laugh rather than retch. The film is actually at its funniest when not plumbing the depths of decency, with some spot-on visual jokes - Neil, Simon and Will busting some moves in a deserted club to impress a group of girls is uncannily funny - and sparks of brilliance here and there in the writing. Greg Davies' candid head of sixth form Mr. Gilbert's farewell speech to his students near the start of the film is an undeniable highlight.

What plot there is comes and goes, with the film much more often moving episodically from one scenario to the next leaving this regularly coming across like an extended episode of the series. It's possibly a little too long, at times feeling as though director Ben Palmer is treading water between one joke and the next. But the strong and winning performances from the central four, with Bird and Buckley impressing the most, and the fact that each undergoes some form of development from the start of the film to the end, means that this is on the whole more success than failure. Much of what is here is throwaway entertainment that won't stay with you much past the credits rolling, but there's enough here to make The Inbetweeners Movie an unchallenging but enjoyable watch.


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Film Review | Iron Sky (2012)

Whether you're willing to admit it, a film about an invasion of Earth by Nazis from the Moon has, at the very least, curiosity value. Unfortunately for Iron Sky, that's where the attraction begins and ends.

2018: two American astronauts stumble across a secret Nazi base on the dark side of the Moon, triggering a series of events which leads to an invasion of Earth by the lunar-based fascists.

Iron Sky feels incredibly confused, to the point of almost complete failure. It's a comedy with too few jokes, and even fewer funny ones. The makers of the film also can't make up their minds as to who their target is. Is it the Nazis, who are never lampooned enough to really make them feel like the butt of many jokes (an undoubtedly dangerous moral position to be in)? Or is it Sarah Palin as the US President - never actually named, but there's nobody else the makers of the film could argue the character is meant to be - hamfistedly satirised more and more brutally as the film wears on? At one point, the two sides even become alarmingly comfortable bedfellows. When we finally get to the film's climactic USA vs Nazis battle, it's actually difficult to know who the film wants us to root for, so severely unappealing are both factions.

The plot is ludicrous and nonsensical, and not in a "so bad it's good" sort of way either. I realise that Iron Sky is not meant to reflect the real world, but the world in which the film takes place needs to make sense all the same. Any hope of that is gone before the first act is over. These Nazis fled to the Moon at the end of the Second World War, meaning that Nazi Germany was around fifteen years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of space travel technology. And yet the whole reason behind the Nazis returning to Earth is to collect smartphones and other hi-tech devices needed to power a war machine as their technology is not yet advanced enough. We see them flying spaceships, and yet their idea of a cutting-edge computer fills an entire room. The lack of logic is contradictory to the point of being insulting. You don't approach a film such as this looking for scientific integrity, but the ideas and plot devices passed off here are just downright lazy.

The film's biggest failing is that, without a robust plot or any successful humour, the offensive nature of a lot of what is on display here becomes all the more apparent. Cinematic history offers up a wealth of films which have effectively subverted contentious and inflammatory issues through sharp, well-written humour. Iron Sky is definitely not one of them, thereby stripping it of its comedy lifejacket and laying the film bare as the insensitive and tasteless failure that it is.

There are two small reasons Iron Sky has managed to avoid the lowest score possible: firstly, the action sequences are not awful considering this is not a mainstream offering; secondly, director Timo Vuorensola has the courage to make significant parts of this a foreign language affair, with the Nazi characters regularly speaking to each other in German with subtitles, clawing back a minuscule trace of credibility. In the end though, had Iron Sky had any sort of comedy brains behind it, it could have been a watchable and amusing modern take on B-movie exploitation tropes. What we have instead feels like a half-baked comedy sketch stretched out to the point of implosion, leaving us with a sloppy, unfunny and ugly excuse for a film.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Fuzz Five | Batman Villains Christian Bale Will Never Face

With The Dark Knight Rises signalling the end of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, there are a great many of Batman's most nefarious villains with whom Christian Bale will never do battle under the guise of the Caped Crusader. With that in mind, here are five enemies of Bat who didn't make the cut for the trilogy and how they could be brought into Nolan's version of Gotham.

1. The Riddler
Would it have worked?
One of Batman's most famous foes, The Riddler was most recently brought to life on the big screen by Jim Carrey in 1995's Batman Forever. Whilst I enjoyed Carrey's hyperractive take on the character, his performance was certainly not for everyone and would definitely feel at odds Nolan's grittier Gotham. The Riddler's modus operandi of leaving riddles and forcing his victims and enemies solve puzzles is certainly something that I would have loved to see in the Dark Knight universe. You can almost see him being reimagined as an accomplice, associate or even protégé of Heath Ledger's Joker. Given a Ledger's Joker-style makeover, The Riddler is definitely an adversary that would have fit very aptly into the franchise.

Who could have played him?
As you can imagine, after the release of Batman Begins, and again following The Dark Knight, all sorts of discussions surfaced on the internet as to which baddies might appear in any possible sequels. The Riddler was at the top of many fans' lists, with suggestions of who might play him rife. Casey Affleck is a name I remember hearing in the run up to the release of the first sequel and I like that casting idea a lot, especially after his exceptional turn in 2007's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. David Tennant of Doctor Who fame also fits the bill in terms of the look, and his work in theatre could give The Riddler a pleasing pantomimic style - see also his performance as Barty Crouch Jr. in 2005's Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. A third route to take, and one entirely of my own machination, is Jesse Eisenberg. Imagine a 21st Century, post-9/11 Riddler, a computer hacker or cyber terrorist setting up his riddles and puzzles through computers. Now think back to Eisenberg's superb turn as Mark Zuckerberg in 2010's The Social Network. It would probably have needed the most revision from the source material (not something Nolan has ever had a problem doing when it comes to Batman characters though) but Eisenberg as The Riddler could have been a very exciting prospect.

2. The Penguin
Would it have worked?
Compared to many of Batman's adversaries, The Penguin is arguably one of the least theatrical. He's a gangster, considering himself a "gentleman of crime" and dressing in fine attire, rather than anything as over-the-top as The Riddler or The Joker's costumes. He has his trademark umbrella, usually concealing a weapon of some variety, but that's about as outlandish as the traditional version of The Penguin gets. With a little more realism thrown in, there's no reason that The Penguin couldn't have fit in well as a gangland kingpin amongst Carmine Falcone and Sal Marone in Nolan's films. Just like The Riddler, The Penguin has been portrayed in film before, in Tim Burton's 1992 film Batman Returns by Danny DeVito. Burton's vision of The Penguin was a lot more bizarre, transforming the character from a gangster to a deformed psychopath who lives in Gotham's sewers. Any attempt to bring this version of The Penguin into The Dark Knight Trilogy would have been very ill-advised, being at odds with far too many aspects of this universe.

Who could have played him?
Again, discussion around The Penguin took place between Nolan's films being released, but for me there is one clear candidate: Toby Jones. Physically he clearly looks the part. In terms of his performances, his turn as Dr. Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger shows that he can fit a comic book style of film; his work elsewhere in films such as W. (playing George Bush's right hand man Karl Rove) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (as shady head of British Intelligence Percy Alleline) shows that Jones' ability to bring to life seedy, underhanded characters who wield psychological rather than physical power is ideal for the role. I can only hope that the next person planning to bring Batman to the big screen (2015's Justice League movie anyone?) reads this and realises just how perfect Toby Jones would be for the part of The Penguin.

3. Mr. Freeze
Would it have worked?
Bringing Mr. Freeze into the Nolan version of Batman's world would have been the biggest stretch so far, what with him needing to keep his body constantly at sub-zero temperatures (hence the nifty suit seen in the picture). That said, Nolan made Bane's "venom" work in The Dark Knight Rises with a few adjustments, so I reckon Freeze's permanent refrigeration wouldn't have necessarily been a stretch too far. The "freeze rays" and other ice-based weaponry would have needed to be toned down or significantly altered to make them credible. Freeze's back story as a brilliant scientist working to save his wife from a fatal disease through cryogenic technology would have been a great addition to the emotional character arcs seen through characters such as Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne himself in Nolan's films. Just as long as any version of the character stayed as far away as possible from Arnold Schwarzenegger's ice-pun-spouting version seen in Joel Schumacher's infamously awful Batman & Robin...

Who could have played him?
There are several directions a Nolan version of Mr. Freeze could be taken. If you wanted to play up the psychopathic element of the character, someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman could fit the bill perfectly, bringing the cold and calculating criminal elements of the character to the fore. On the flipside of this, Freeze is a character based in sci-fi, built around the mad scientist archetype; Michael Fassbender, fresh from his turn as android David in Prometheus, would bring a chilling sense of warped genius to the role, akin to that of an evil Sheldon Cooper.

4. King Tut
Would it have worked?
King Tut originated from the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West, making him one of the Caped Crusader's most camp and theatrical enemies. An Egyptologist who develops a criminal split personality, King Tut believes himself to be the reincarnation of Tutankhamen and all of his crimes have some kind of Ancient Egyptian theme. Fitting this version of the villain into Nolan's films would, unsurprisingly, be nigh-on impossible to do successfully. According to the internet, there is also a comic book version of King Tut - a somewhat more serious take on the character who targeted wealthy inhabitants of Gotham with his crimes and left behind riddles in the style of Egyptian mythical creature the Sphinx. Whilst this has slightly more potential, the whole riddle gimmick has been done much better by The Riddler, so there would be no reason for Nolan to opt for a less iconic enemy for Bale's Batman to face.

Who could have played him?
I can imagine Alfred Molina fitting the bill quite well with a decent history in action adventure and comic book adaptations. Richard Griffiths, recently known for playing Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films, could alternatively bring a pleasing thespian style to the role.

5. Batzarro
Would it have worked?
As Superman has his botched clone known as Bizarro, so Batman has Batzarro. Batzarro looks similar to Batman, except with yellow fangs, no eyes and an upside-down bat symbol on his chest. Would Batzarro have worked? Er, no. Not unless Nolan decided he wanted Terry Gilliam or David Lynch as a guest director.

Who could have played him?
Any actor who fancied a quick way of ending their career. Joaquin Phoenix probably would have shown some interest.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Film Review | Casino Royale (2006)

I've said before that Casino Royale is topped only by Batman Begins as the most important franchise reboot so far, mainly because whilst 007's previous rejuvenation in 1995's GoldenEye had experienced diminishing returns with every new Brosnan outing, Joel Schumacher had directed the Batman franchise into a place so undesirable as to seem almost untouchable. Brosnan's last outing before handing the Walther PPK over to Daniel Craig had been the so-so Die Another Day, memorable for being both ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly tired at the same time. Die Another Day is nowhere near Batman & Robin levels of awfulness, but it was enough for the Bond franchise to be put on ice as Eon decided how to rejuvenate 007 for the 21st Century. Four years later, they gave their answer in the form of Casino Royale. And what an answer it was.

The film reintroduces James Bond (Craig) at the start of his career as a double-0 agent. After embroiling himself in the dealings of terrorism financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bond finds himself playing in a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, set up by Le Chiffre and in which Bond must bankrupt the criminal.

Casino Royale cannot be seen as anything other than a comprehensive success. Tonally it is a significant shift from the campy cartoonish antics seen towards the end of Brosnan's tenure as 007. Gone are the fantastical sci-fi and flamboyant unreality, replaced with a gritty post-9/11 world in which Bond can operate as a secret agent rather than a wannabe superhero. Director Martin Campbell shows us that Fleming's secret agent may have germinated from the Cold War, but he can be remoulded superbly to fit into the modern day.

The casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond is an undeniable master stroke. It's hard to imagine now that, prior to Casino Royale's release, fans protested against Craig being given the part for a number of reasons, including the fact that Craig is fair-haired. Craig's performance shuts them up for good. He inhabits the role, showing reverence to the cinematic legacy that comes with the part whilst simultaneously doing things his own way. The opening scene depicting Bond earning his double-0 status (shot in black-and-white to show director Campbell really means business) reintoduces the character perfectly and allows Craig to demonstrate both the cool arrogance and intense physicality he will display throughout the rest of the film.

The cast elsewhere are equally spot on in their roles and the performances they give. Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre is in many ways nothing like a "Bond villain", but is unquestionably the ideal choice for rebooting the franchise. His performance is cold and unnerving with just enough strangeness lurking here and there to let you know you're in Bond's world. Mikkelsen's performance is a perfect marriage between old-style theatricality and modern realism making Le Chiffre one of the most effective adversaries of 007 seen in decades.

Eva Green too is superb as Vesper Lynd, the Treasury representative who accompanies Bond to Montenegro and becomes his love interest. Again, the opportunity to blow off the cobwebs and bring Bond into the 21st Century is taken expertly; the secret agent's relationship with Vesper shows a vulnerability and emotional side rarely explored previously, but entirely in keeping with his relative inexperience having just become a double-0 in the rebooted timeline. This Bond is not yet the jaded womaniser of Connery and Moore, and yet we are given more insight into just how he will become this than ever before.

The film feels crafted to an incredible level of quality throughout, something which has not always been the case with Bond films in the past. The cinematography is beautiful, allowing the plot to unfold effortlessly and the action, humour and drama to segue sublimely all the way through. Fleming's story is adhered to faithfully but not to the point of jarring with the modern day reboot. The film keeps the pace going but never feels rushed, expertly balanced and focused throughout.

As I said earlier, Casino Royale succeeds in all it attempts to do. The division from the previous films is firmly established, but this is still clearly a Bond film through and through. The rebooted timeline is potentially the film's biggest risk, but it works to perfection allowing Craig to take the role and make it his own without four decades of baggage to carry with him. As a closing thought, consider this: Brosnan's final Bond film was released in 2002, the same year as Matt Damon's first outing as Jason Bourne. Bourne wouldn't have given that Bond a second thought. Four years later, Casino Royale's Bond would not only match up to Bourne, but would teach him a few new tricks whilst he's at it.