Saturday, 30 June 2012

Film Review | Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. In the year of the film's release, Coppola's The Godfather was twenty years old and firmly established as one of the greatest crime dramas, and the greatest films, ever released. It's my strong conviction that, two decades on from when it was first seen, the same can be said of Tarantino's directorial debut.

The film tells the story of a diamond heist gone wrong, depicting the events leading up to and following on from the heist, but not the actual robbery itself. Most of the men involved don't know each other, using colour-coded aliases to refer to each other. As events unfold, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) begins to form a bond with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); at the same time, other members of the group, particularly Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), suspect that the heist was a set up with a rat amongst them.

From the very first scene to the very last, Reservoir Dogs is electrically charged cinema that demands your attention and rewards every minute of it. Tarantino's story is simple, often related using simple imagery - the colour-coded names, the black-and-white suits, the minimalist setting of a warehouse feeling almost like a theatrical stage - but also told with intelligence and skill that forces you to stay on your toes. Many of the director's hallmarks are first seen in this film and used to astounding effect. Tarantino is sharp and in complete control, knowing exactly what he wants you to see and how he wants you to see it. The "commode story" sequence is one of my all-time favourite pieces of cinema, and even after seeing it dozens of times it still sends shivers down my spine thanks to the craftsmanship and power behind every moment of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The script throughout is sharp, witty, compelling; if you ever needed proof that Tarantino is an artist behind the camera, Reservoir Dogs is it.

The cast are flawless, littering the film with a wealth of perfect performances, to the point that singling out any one performance seems unfair. Keitel and Roth are superb as the veteran criminal who allows his hard exterior to be penetrated by a first-timer; the scenes between these two are packed with genuine heart to the point that you often forget how despicable some of the things they are saying and doing are. Buscemi is a joy as Mr. Pink, frantic yet determined and, arguably, the one with his head most firmly on his shoulders. Michael Madsen's performance as Mr. Blonde is brilliantly unnerving, keeping us guessing as to exactly how demented he might be until a certain scene involving a policeman, a chair and a cutthroat razor lays his character bare.

Many hold up Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's next film, as the director's defining work. But as good as Pulp Fiction is, I will always choose Reservoir Dogs as holding that honour. It signified a new era in cinema of indie and arthouse values brought together brilliantly with traditional Hollywood ideology. It also announced Tarantino as a writer and director of whom the world needed to sit up and take notice. Most importantly of all, it's a piece of cinema as vibrant and aggressively engaging now as it was when it was first released, and one that I find impossible to fault.


Monday, 25 June 2012

Film Review | Carnage (2011)

Films based on plays are a curious breed; there are stylistic choices for the director, and none of them are the obvious selection. Do you take the story and characters of a play and retell it using solely the language of cinema, but risk displeasing both theatre fans and the playwright; or do you opt for essentially filming a stage performance, with all the facets of theatrical acting and direction, in the knowledge that what you create may alienate cinema-goers and feel somewhat underwhelming when compared to a full-on cinematic experience? Carnage opts firmly for the latter, and I can't remember the last time I saw such a strong argument for choosing this approach.

Based on the play God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film centres around a visit by one couple, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), to the apartment of another, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), after the Cowens' son strikes and injures the Longstreets' son with a stick whilst playing in the park. What starts as a brief and civil meeting to agree how the two boys can reconcile soon untangles into a much more tense and emotionally brutal affair.

As stated before, Polanski's film feels almost like a filmed performance on a stage, with the vast majority of the action taking place in one room in the Longstreets' Brooklyn apartment. There are a handful of scenes which venture into other rooms, as well as the action spilling into the apartment block hallway more than once, but this is a theatrical film with very little set changes. In this way, Polanski places pretty much all of his eggs in one basket, those eggs being the four actors playing the pair of couples.

It's a move which pays off dividends, with each performer putting in an incredibly strong performance. All four begin the film feeling somewhat forced and unnatural in their portrayals, but it soon becomes clear that this is entirely intentional, with each couple putting on a "performance" for the other. It's when the fur begins to fly that we truly see these actors at their best. Winslet is superb as the put-upon wife trying to make up for her husband Waltz's lack of care for middle class niceties and his constant preoccupation with his mobile phone. Both skilfully shed the layers of their facade as the situation unravels. Foster too is pleasingly strong as the doting mother and houseproud wife, slowly descending into hysteria and desperation. Of the four, Reilly is probably the least safe bet on paper, but he more than holds his own. Beginning the film as the buttoned-down hubby, he finally shows his true colours with a blistering performance from Reilly as an everyman on the edge.

The screenplay too, adapted by Polanski with original writer Reza, is an intoxicating powder keg waiting to explode. The first act of the film threatens to keep things largely civilised, but this is just Polanski waiting to signal the true nature of the uncomfortable yet ludicrously funny beast on show; once he does so, in spectacular fashion no less via one (involuntary) action of Winslet's character, things are firmly kicked into high gear until the credits roll. The dialogue fizzles with an enigmatic blend of realism and rhetoric, with only a couple of moments where what the characters are saying feels slightly too clever for its own good. These are minor niggles however in what is an exceptionally well-written film.

The mirror that the film holds up to a certain subset of society through these characters is hardly a new one, but the way in which Polanski does it has rarely been so entertaining. There is an intricate web of action and reaction, battle lines are drawn and redrawn with each character realigning themselves more than once. We move sublimely between character study to social satire to farce, with the whole thing poignantly put into perspective by the only two scenes set outside the apartment, shown to us behind the opening and closing credits. The brief running time of just under an hour and twenty minutes mean that none of the characters outstays their welcome.

Carnage establishes itself as a gem within theatrical film adaptations. It's smart, slick and deliciously over-the-top, with the quartet of actors at its centre making this the comprehensive success that it is. Polanski may not be the darling of the cinema world for reasons outside his work as a director; however, Carnage is a powerful statement of his expert directorial craftsmanship that still demands respect and the highest of praise.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Film Review | RoboCop 3 (1993)

After the mess and bad feeling surrounding RoboCop 2, it was down to the third in the trilogy to bring some of the credibility of the original film back to the franchise. However, RoboCop 3 suffered the behind-the-scenes turmoil which marred the first sequel: Peter Weller chose not to return as the eponymous cyborg, his experience being so negative whilst working on RoboCop 2; Frank Miller was again brought back to write the script, hoping to reintroduce some of the ideas he'd had for the second in the franchise that weren't used, but again saw his script rewritten to the point of being unrecognisable. He wouldn't return to Hollywood until Robert Rodriguez brought Miller's graphic novel Sin City to the big screen. All things considered, RoboCop 3 seemed anything but a safe bet to bring back the satirical brilliance of the first film.

We return to the dystopian near-future, where OCP's plans to level Detroit and create "Delta City" in its place are underway as many of the city's inhabitants are forced from their homes by armed officers known as "rehabs". After an attempt by RoboCop (Robert John Burke) and partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) to defend citizens against the rehabs goes awry, the law enforcement cyborg joins forces with a resistance group to take down the rehabs and OCP once and for all.

In short, RoboCop 3, much like its predecessor, never manages to overcome the trouble behind its production. The script is schlocky and overly sentimental - a world away from that of Paul Verhoeven's sharp and acerbic original. Some of Verhoeven's hallmarks linger on, although they just serve to remind you of how far the franchise has fallen since its opening installment.

Burke's effort in taking on the Murphy/RoboCop role is admirable, but is hampered by the poor script and Fred Dekker's muted direction, as well as the insurmountable problem that he simply isn't Weller. Allen is a welcome returning face, although her time on screen is brief making her sorely missed for most of the film. New characters introduced are flimsy, from Stephen Root's over-the-top resistance member Coontz to Remy Ryan's irritating and ludicrous juvenile computer hacker Nikko.

RoboCop 3's biggest failing, however, is the change of tone from the first two films, largely in order to gain it a PG-13 rating in the USA upon its release. Gone is the adeptly utilised ultraviolence the first film is known for and that the second film, albeit with limited success, attempted to replicate. Instead we get neutered action sequences and cartoon style violence that for the most part falls flat.

To its credit, RoboCop 3's story hangs together much better than that of RoboCop 2, and in that sense it is superior to the first sequel. But when the story is as mawkish and silly as that related here, it makes very little difference. RoboCop 3 ensures that the franchise goes out on a whimper, certifying the original film as the trilogy's sole worthwhile entry.


Friday, 22 June 2012

Film Review | RoboCop 2 (1990)

RoboCop 2 in many ways exhibits the hallmarks of the "difficult" sequel. Known for being Frank Miller of Sin City fame's first big opportunity to break into Hollywood as a writer, the script was doctored to the point of Miller's original story being almost unrecognisable. The film also attempted to recreate the razor-sharp satire of RoboCop through the hallmarks of Paul Verhoeven, despite the director having no involvement in the film with the sequel helmed by Irvin Kirschner. The question upon RoboCop 2's release was whether or not the film could win through on screen despite the turmoil behind the scenes.

We return to Detroit in the not-too-distant future. OCP is now even stronger, tightening its grip on the city and forcing the police department to strike, meaning that crime is running even more rampant than ever. Meanwhile, RoboCop (Peter Weller) heads up the fight against a new drug, "nuke", pushed by a criminal with a Christ complex, Cain (Tom Noonan).

RoboCop 2's positives are largely carried over from the first film. Weller as Murphy/RoboCop is just as strong, bringing as much of the humanity and cybernetic charm seen in the original to the role here as he can. Nancy Allen, returning as Murphy's partner Lewis, is also strong, as are many of the returning cast such as Robert DoQui. Kirschner's attempts at Verhoeven's satirical and blackly comic news reports and advertisements used throughout the film also work at least some of the time, although often without the subtlety or panache that their originator brought to them.

Less successful is the film's ultra-violence. In RoboCop, the use of extreme gore and violent scenes was a key storytelling device, punctuating the film's message through both shock and satire. Here, much more often than not, it just comes across as violence for violence's sake. There's no message, just blood and death. Ironically, this key feature which raised the first film above many other action flicks actually helps to cement RoboCop 2 as never anything more than a meatheaded kill-fest.

So far, so forgivable. What drags the film down further is its haphazardly episodic structure. It's very hard to see any clear thread running through what's going on throughout the film. What are initially introduced as key plot elements are either quickly disposed of or just forgotten completely. In one scene near the beginning of the film, Murphy's wife is given a heartfelt scene confronting the cyborg created from her husband's dead body. After this, she's barely given a mention. There's nothing here to latch onto, which ultimately makes everything presented seem all the more vacuous.

Where the film falls down almost entirely is in the characters it introduces. Cain never feels like any genuine threat, and Belinda Bauer as the new head of OCP's RoboCop program is just irritating. Worst of all is Gabriel Damon as Hob, Cain's juvenile right hand man. Grating in a typically "annoying kid in an '80s movie" kind of way in the first half, Damon takes things to a whole new level when his role is expanded in nauseating fashion as the film hobbles towards its conclusion.

RoboCop 2 is therefore at best a wasted opportunity that seemingly couldn't overcome its troubled production. Whilst there are aspects here that genre fans will likely enjoy to a point, ultimately this is a shallow husk of an action film and a shadow of the enjoyable and smart original. Weller refused to return for RoboCop 3 after his negative experience throughout this first sequel; undoubtedly, many audience members did, and will continue to do, the same.


Monday, 18 June 2012

Film Review | RoboCop (1987)

RoboCop has always felt somewhat in the shadow of its slightly older '80s cousin The Terminator. Both deal with a dystopian future, both obviously centre around the idea of a human-machine hybrid, and both have no problem dishing out extreme violence and high body counts. But whilst The Terminator is regularly held in high regard as an action sci-fi classic, RoboCop never quite managed the same, at most managing the respectable status of a solid cult classic. With a remake well into development, returning to the original film as it celebrated its 25th anniversary was something I relished, albeit with an edge of wariness as to how well RoboCop had aged.

In Detroit in the near future, where crime is rampant and the police have been privatised by Omni Consumer Products, Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally murdered by a gang led by the brutal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) on his first patrol after being transferred to the city. However, after being pronounced dead, Murphy's body is used by OCP to create "RoboCop", a law enforcement cyborg intended to be the first of many.

Even a quarter of a century on, RoboCop stands up as a very sharp and well-made entry into both the action and sci-fi genres. Even though some of the special effects now seem dated - ED-209's stop-motion belonging to a bygone era of film-making - the impact is not muted; Verhoeven's slick use of ultraviolence at key points in the narrative hitting home with as much impact as it always has.

Neither is the cutting satire of the film's narrative any less effective. The key themes of humanity, corporate society and morality that permeate RoboCop resonate still, maybe even more so today than when it was released. OCP is a evil corporation for the ages, simultaneously lampooning and holding a mirror up to the way in which big business works. And yet RoboCop never feels preachy. The well-constructed news reports and advertisements that crop up throughout the film demonstrate just how creatively and proficiently the film gets its message across without making you choke on it.

The central performance from Weller is also key to the film's success. As Murphy the man, the actor brings a charming humanity in the character's short incarnation on screen; this humanity is skilfully translated to Murphy's cyborg form, making the character both believably robotic and authentically human.

The film isn't perfect; some aspects feel somewhat formulaic with several tropes of '80s action flicks apparent throughout. But whilst RoboCop is a satisfying if somewhat conventional action film throughout, what raises it from being a very good film to a great one is the way in which it uses the conventions of the genre to produce satire both dark and sharp that still hits home today in a thoroughly entertaining way.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Film Review | Cars 2 (2011)

When praising Pixar, you're spoilt for choice as to where to start. For me, one of the key things Pixar get right time after time is their ability to create characters of depth and humanity, whether those characters are people, animals, toys, monsters, or even robots. Hand in hand with this go the worlds these characters inhabit. They feel real - the characters believe in them unreservedly, and therefore so do we - and they are always pleasurable destinations to which the audience can escape. The one exception to these truths is Cars, Pixar's 2006 effort depicting a world populated by anthropomorphic automobiles. The universe presented in Cars never quite rang true or appealed in the same way as, for example, Andy's toys or the employees of Monsters Incorporated. For Cars to become only the second film in Pixar's canon to spawn a sequel in some ways therefore seems an unlikely choice; by the same token, it could allow Pixar the opportunity to flesh out the characters and ideas introduced in the first film, bringing them closer in quality to what audiences have come to expect from the studio.

Cars 2 continues the story of racing car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who now lives in Radiator Springs with best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and the other friends he made during the first film. After some goading from Formula 1 racing car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), McQueen enters the World Grand Prix, a series of three races taking place in Japan, Italy and England. Meanwhile, secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) is working to foil a secret plot involving a new type of biofuel, in which Mater soon finds himself accidentally tangled up.

Reviewing any Pixar film is always what I classify as a "Godfather Part III" review. In the same way that the third part of Coppola's trilogy may pale in comparison to the first two but is actually pretty good in its own right, Cars 2 must be judged against both the studio's previous output as well as the wider spectrum of other films in its genre.

Taking the former point of view, Cars 2 falls very short of the benchmark Pixar have set themselves. Compare this to their most recent output and it simply doesn't stand up in any way. The script is uninspired and heavy-handed in delivering its moral messages. There are almost no traces of Pixar's trademark subtle humour that appeals to both adults and children, and the cultural references just feel tired - be prepared to see wacky Japanese advertising and Mater driving on the wrong side of the road in England. Yawn.

Any opportunity to develop the characters from the less-than-stellar first outing is squandered. Most of the returning cast are reduced to one-dimensional cameos, and big name new additions such as Caine and Eddie Izzard fail to inject any real energy into proceedings. The animation is fine, but often feels no more than functional. The CGI is at its best during the espionage-based set pieces, but things are woefully lacking elsewhere during the race sequences which feel pedestrian and really quite flat.

That said, Pixar at their worst is still quite good in comparison to a lot of the dross currently filling the children and family market. The animation may not be Pixar's best, but it's still relatively vibrant and detailed, in particular the panoramic shots of London and Italy. The story is simplistic, and the grand prix and spy mission strands never quite mesh comfortably, but the film remains fun and keeps the pace up. It's also clear that director John Lasseter is a fan of classic spy flicks, with many pleasing nods to everything from the Bond Films to Austin Powers.

But there are still one or two slip ups that can't be forgiven. Turturro's turn as the antagonistic F1 racer Bernoulli is potentially the film's most solid and entertaining performance. But, having been set up during the first two acts of the film as a credible rival to McQueen, the character is forgotten entirely during the climax; a half-hearted return during the closing scenes feels suspiciously as if Lasseter suddenly realised he'd left one of the film's key characters hanging in mid air.

Cars 2 therefore ends up as by far Pixar's weakest production to date, but still a couple of notches above the average contemporary family fare. All things considered, it's fun and will undoubtedly succeed in entertaining the younger members of the audience. Anyone looking for the humour, heart, charm, expert storytelling or breathtaking visuals of Wall-E, Up or Toy Story 3 will be sorely disappointed. It's hard to recommend Cars 2 when there are numerous five star classics in Pixar's back catalogue, as well as offerings from several other animation studios that are also superior to it. Cars 2 is by no means awful, just seriously disappointing.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Film Review | Prometheus (2012)

I've noted in the past that returning to a franchise a long time after the last installment is a potentially hazardous thing to do in the film business. You run the risk of upsetting a lot of die-hard fans or even tarnishing the legacy and image of well-respected pieces of cinema. The bigger and better thought of your original film is, the higher the risk you are taking. Ridley Scott obviously didn't read my advice, returning to the Alien franchise (or is he?) as director for the first time in over three decades since he helmed the original in 1979. Since Scott kicked things off, we've had three sequels of varying quality, but undoubtedly one of the best loved horror sci-fi franchises ever created. We've also had two genre crossover entries in the Alien Versus Predator spin-off franchise, which hardly did the series' credibility any favours; Prometheus is therefore Scott's chance to pull the film franchise he spawned back on track, but also has the potential to disappoint many who revere Scott as the man who first brought us Ellen Ripley and the xenomorph.

Prometheus tells the story of archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who, after discovering several images from different ancient civilisations all including the same star map, become part of the crew of the eponymous spaceship on a mission to discover the secrets of who created humanity. Amongst the crew is android David (Michael Fassbender), whose agenda becomes more and more suspect as Shaw, Holloway and the rest of the crew begin to uncover the secrets of the moon they have landed on, LV-223.

The film's "shared DNA" with Alien, as Scott has described it, is something of a double-edged sword: it lends the film credibility, and gives ample context to the universe in which it is set; but it also sets the film up continually to comparisons with Scott's iconic franchise opener, which is essentially setting it up to disappoint. The only film in the Alien series that comes close to the quality of the original is the first sequel, Aliens, and one of the key reasons behind its success is that it didn't try to emulate the original. As far as a sequel can be, it was its own film; it continued the story of Ripley and the xenomorphs, but was also individualistic in terms of genre and style.

Ignoring for the moment that Prometheus inhabits the same universe as the Alien franchise, it's a fairly solid sci-fi thriller in its own right. Rapace takes a little while to find her feet, but becomes a compelling protagonist as the film wears on, and by the time the final act began I was rooting for her all the way. Fassbender's performance as David is also compelling and rich, with the android ironically displaying the most depth of any character. Idris Elba and Charlize Theron do well with what they're given, but never really have the chance to fully flesh out their roles. The rest of the cast are fine, but their characters feel more functional than anything else.

Scott also shows he still knows his way around chillingly horrific sequences. There are several genuinely tense and claustrophobic horror scenes, the best of which involving a hi-tech automated surgery table. The only problem is, I came away wishing there were a few more. When Prometheus is making you squirm in your seat it becomes an adrenaline-pumping, terrifying experience. But Scott leaves too long between these moments. Whilst much of the mythology and science is genuinely intriguing and intricately constructed, it's never nearly as compelling as the scary parts, and at times the film begins to get too wrapped up in its own saga instead of providing something a little more entertaining.

Even though it's arguably not part of the Alien franchise (arguments as to exactly how it fits in with the original quadrilogy will almost certainly go on indefinitely, and to give my definitive take on it would involve dropping some massive spoilers), Prometheus lends itself almost too easily to comparison with it as mentioned earlier. It's never as good as Alien or Aliens. But it is superior to Alien³, and is a deeper and better crafted film than Alien: Resurrection.

Unfortunately for Prometheus, when it is inevitably compared to the first film it will almost always fall short: Shaw is not Ripley, and Rapace is not Sigourney Weaver; Prometheus the ship, whilst impressively realised, will never have the gritty, rough-and-ready charm of the Nostromo; the majority of its crew will never feel as human as Ripley's charmingly workaday colleagues. Fassbender is the sole element that matches up to his Alien counterpart, giving just as enigmatic and unsettling performance as Ian Holm's Ash. But whilst the comparisons are there, it's not fair to judge it solely through comparison. On its own merits, Prometheus is an enjoyable and well made film. It is flawed, but there's enough here that works to make it a compelling and worthwhile watch.