Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Priest (2011)

Paul Bettany kicks arse for the Lord.

Image: Sony Pictures

Priest was due to come out over a year ago but was delayed thanks to a lengthy conversion to 3D before finally getting a quiet release into cinemas. The second of Paul Bettany’s action-horrors with director Scott Stewart after the disappointing Legion, the hope was that this sci-fi vampire western would be an improvement.

In an alternate future, the war with vampires has led to mankind finding shelter in walled cities under the protection/rule of the church. Church ordained killers called priests drove the vampires into guarded reservations, and have since taken regular jobs and dingy apartments. But when Priest (Bettany) finds out that his brother’s daughter has been kidnapped, he breaks his oath to obey the church and rides out to find her, accompanied by a cocky sheriff (Cam Gigandet) and old friend Priestess (Maggie Q).

Firstly, and somewhat predictably, the 3D conversion has been a waste of time.  Secondly, Priest has more pressing problems. After an animated pre-credits sequence that explains the back-story and has more blood than the rest of the film, we’re introduced to the Blade Runner/Judge Dredd city that sets the dour and grim tone. For a film that mashes together so many genres and references there’s not a wink or a knowing tip of the hat to be had.

The film is based on Min-Woo Hyung’s comic book series, and Stewart has acknowledged the debt the story owes to The Searchers, but in addition to the films already mentioned the influence of The Matrix (of course), The Road Warrior, and even 1984 are a little too obvious. We’ve never read the comic but there’s enough here to suggest that it might be worth a look, although it’s not been translated particularly well to film. The steam-punk technology and weaponry allows for a little inventiveness in the action sequences, but for the majority of the film there’s a sense of plodding predictability. 

Bettany is too interesting an actor to be wasted on a part that requires him to do nothing but scowl and intone vampire facts hoarsely. Presumably he was sold on the action and the chance to play a warrior priest who hunts vampires through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Gigandet (Twilight) and Maggie Q (Mission Impossible 3) are game but are given little to work with. Karl Urban (Star Trek) grins his way through his hammy turn as villain Black Hat, but getting all the best lines doesn’t help with a script as weak as this. Christopher Plummer appears as the Big Brother Monseigneur, and Stephen Moyer (True Blood) pops up briefly as Priest’s doomed brother. The most energetic performance comes from cult legend Brad Dourif who appears for about three minutes as a con artist.

Despite the occasional nice touch, Priest fails to rise above its plodding, cliché-ridden script. The 12A certificate would suggest that they’re going for a young audience, but the chances are that they’ve seen at least some of the films this is referencing, and will be just as annoyed as the adults by this bloodless twist on a tired formula. Finally, this leaden film takes itself much too seriously for a western/vampire/sci-fi mash-up.

May hold enough entertainment for a half-watched late night movie on DVD with friends, but this is a dull missed opportunity.



Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

In case of alien invasion...hug a hoodie.

Image: Optimum Releasing

Horror comedy is a notoriously tricky genre to pull off. For every Shaun of the Dead that successfully mashes genres, there’s a Lesbian Vampire Killers, which...does not. Add a sci-fi element, and you’re just trying to make things difficult for yourself. So, how does Joe Cornish (best known for BBC Radio 6’s wonderful Adam and Joe Show) fare with his alien invasion com?

On a council estate in south London, a gang of youths led by Moses (John Boyega) are mugging nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) when they’re interrupted by something crashing to the ground. It’s a small but fierce alien monster, which Moses and his friends swiftly beat to death. But it’s not long before there are more of these aliens hurtling towards the estate, but these are much bigger and a lot more fierce...

Attack the Block takes several risks. First off, it’s a very ambitious debut, with no little amount of action, horror, and special effects, all taking place within a fairly confined area. Then there’s the cast of unknowns, apart from Whittaker (Venus, St. Trinians) and Cornish’s friend Nick Frost, who has a small role as a local drug dealer. Finally, he’s chosen a gang of hoodies as his heroes. It’s asking quite a lot to expect the audience to get behind an antihero who we meet while threatening a pretty young woman with a knife.

Though the film starts with Sam, the perspective quickly shifts to Moses and his friends and we find ourselves invested in the bike-riding hoodlums. The young cast are superb, finding the balance between the humour and the drama nicely. The biggest parts are given to Boyega and Alex Esmail, who plays the mouthy Pest, but Franz Drameh (Dennis), Leeon Jones (Jerome), and Simon Howard (Biggz) are all good. It's thanks to them, and some nicely paced back-story from Cornish, that we stay engaged and that we’re rooting for them against the monsters rather than the other way around. Whittaker also does well as the tough nurse who needs some convincing to side with her assailants, and quickly gets all the convincing she needs.

Cornish has also made good choices with the creatures themselves. The design is simple and scary. And when these monsters bite, they bite hard, with well-judged amounts of red painting the tower block walls. Crucially it’s also very funny, with comic relief from Esmail, Frost, and Luke Treadaway (Heartless) as posh student Brewis who finds himself stranded on the block. 

There are a few jitters here and there but this is a first film that shows confidence and skill as well as a fresh take on a genre that’s had its fair share of stale misfires. 

Funny with some genuine scares, Attack the Block is a terrifically entertaining debut from Joe Cornish.



Monday, 23 May 2011

13 Assassins (2011)

There will be blood

Image: Artificial Eye

Takashi Miike is not a director who is known for trying to fit his vision to mainstream sensibilities. The director of such censor-baiting movies as Ichi the Killer, Audition, and Dead or Alive has now given us a samurai movie, and we were all very curious to see what a Takashi Miike samurai film would look like. 

Feudal Japan. The age of the samurai is coming to an end as peace spreads through the land. But the Shogun’s younger brother Naritsugu is a sadistic tyrant who must be stopped at any cost. Retired samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) is contacted to attempt a suicide mission to assassinate Naritsugu. 13 men will face off against over 200.

Loosely based on a true story, as well as a 1963 film, Miike’s 13 Assassins is not only his most mainstream work to date but a well-crafted, thrilling film. Clearly, the film owes a debt to The Seven Samurai, and Western audiences may think of The Magnificent Seven. It’s the fact that Miike has made a film in that mould that is unusual. There is attention to the mechanics of plotting that the director doesn’t always seem bothered by. The film takes its time setting up the characters, especially, but not limited to, Shinzaemon and his gambling nephew Shinroukuro (Takayuki Yamada), who joins his mission. While it would be an exaggeration to say that we get to know each of the 13 assassins well, Miike does spend time developing the majority of them. In the best “guys coming together for a mission” tradition, there’s the funny one, the old one, the rookie, the stoic badass, the family member, etc. 

Clearly, it’s relatively conventional, with a very familiar storyline. But thanks to the time taken to build the story and the excellent performances, particularly from Yakusho and Tsuyoshi Ihara as the aforementioned stoic badass, it feels fresh. It’s interesting to see the personal touches that he brings to this film. While there’s nothing that will send viewers running for the exit, there are still a few moments that fans will recognize as Miike-esque, as we witness the extent of Naritsugu’s wickedness. The visceral nature of the fight sequences gives a modern touch to the old-fashioned themes of honour and duty. Then there’s the blood.

The film builds to a climactic battle between the titular warriors and Naritsugu’s small army of samurais, led by Shinzaemon’s old dojo rival, at a tiny village. As Shinzaemon unveils a banner that reads “Total massacre”, the bloodbath begins. It’s an incredibly choreographed fight sequence that goes on for over half an hour. Miike follows each assassin’s progress as they carve their way through their opponents. Because of the time we spent with the characters, we care when they get hurt. And although the samurais are willing to lay their lives down for their cause, that doesn’t mean that doing so is a quick or easy process and Miike is only too happy to show this.

It might move a little slowly for some viewers at just over two hours, but we can whole-heartedly recommend this expertly crafted samurai film from a director who’s shown that his skill set goes beyond the weird and the disturbing. 

Visceral, bloody, thrilling. 13 Assassins is a superb piece of entertainment.



Friday, 20 May 2011

Just the Two of Us

To celebrate the great animated feature that is Mary and Max (currently showing on Film4), we've decided to take a look at some movie duos that stick together until death – in most cases - do them part.
Jeux d’enfants (Love Me If You dare)
Image: Mars Distribution
In this French tale, protagonists Sophie and Julien become embroiled in a game which involves them completing dares upon the transfer of a small, jolie box. The game continues into their adult lives, but things gets complicated, and dangerous, when the two start to fall for one another. With neither one willing to admit their feelings, the dares become the focus to avoid dealing with the truth. It’s a risky romantic-drama with a twist.
Thelma and Louise
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The ultimate movie of female empowerment. Louise, the docile housewife, heads off for a weekend getaway with her single pal Thelma; however, after a fatal confrontation at a bar, the girls are forced to change their destination and head into the unknown.
Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are the perfect pair as they show us a friendship that’s worth going to the ends of the earth for. Girl Power!
Grave of the Fireflies
Image: Toho Company
It may be an animation, but Grave of the Fireflies has a story and visuals to rival many live-action movies. Set in Japan at the end of World War II, the movie tells the tale of two orphaned children battling to survive without means. It’s a movie about kids, but there’s nothing childish about the sentiments you’re left with.
Pursuit of Happyness
Image: Columbia Pictures
After years of watching Will Smith goof around in crowd-pleasing roles, he finally delivers a performance that proves he’s more than just a Hollywood cash-cow. In this family tale, Smith must find a way of providing for his son after a miscalculated investment looses him his wife and their savings. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that’s worth a ride, though the need to replace the “I” in "Happiness" is still unfathomable.
Brokeback Mountain
Image: Focus Features
The epic love story of two cowboys who, in spite of town rules, start a relationship. The affair is documented over twenty years as they both marry and have kids yet continue to meet regularly for fishing and frolicking. These aren’t the ingredients for a happy ending, but Brokeback Mountain proved to be a gay love story with universal appeal.
The Green Mile
Image: Warner Bros.
The Green Mile doesn’t contain your typical loving duo; Hanks and Duncan aren’t brothers, lovers or even, initially, friends, but the understanding that develops between them as Duncan’s character awaits execution is affecting to watch.
Image: Touchstone Pictures
It’s not often movies makes you cry (unless you’re a sensitive sole), but this one has you at goodbye, when you learn that best buds CC and Hillary won’t be growing old together. Mix that in with trips down memory lane and a poignant theme song (“Wind Beneath My Wings”) and you’re off. Off with Midler and her eagles.
Free Willy
Image: Warner Bros.
Who doesn’t appreciate a little bit of animal lovin’? Certainly not us! It’s not everyday a big fat whale attracts our attention, but there’s no denying the bond between Willy and Jessie. “Now come to me, Willlllllly.” Undeniable.
Image: Pixar
Up is an average movie - in the sense that it’s a shame everything still has to be wrapped up so U-ly after 10 movies - but the opening 15 minutes is a standout, sensitive, symbolic montage that epitomises the notion of “Just The Two of Us”, as we’re whisked through the life and courtship of Carl and Ellie.
The Krays
Image: Rank
The wild card.
At the forefront of organised crime in the East End of London in the 60s, twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray soon rose to become the most notorious gang leaders of the city’s criminal underworld. Based on their story, The Krays chronicles their lives from their humble beginnings to their psychological turns, as they went on to commit a number of horrific acts, including giving someone the notorious “Chelsea Smile”.
It obviously takes blood brothers to play blood brothers as the Kemp sibling were brought in to immortalise them on screen.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Soundtrack to Life

La Prima Vez (Owain Phyfe) - Pina OST

Hanna (2011)

My, what big teeth Cate Blanchett has...

Image: Universal Pictures

After massive success with his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, Joe Wright dropped the ball with the awful, maudlin The Soloist. Hanna looked to be something of a departure for the Pride and Prejudice filmmaker, an action thriller in which the hero is a 16 year old girl.

Hanna (Saorise Ronan) has been raised in the wilds of Finland by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) with no other contact with the outside world. She has been trained all her life for one purpose: kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a corrupt CIA officer who was Erik’s handler. But when Erik lets Hanna out into the world, things aren’t so simple. Can she evade capture long enough to reunite with her father, and will she find out the truth?

So, has Wright found his form? Well, some of it. It’s definitely more entertaining than The Soloist, but there seems to be something of a conflict of interest here. At its surface, Hanna is an action thriller in the Luc Besson mould, with Ronan’s pint size killer recalling a more naive Natalie Portman in Léon or a less foul-mouthed Chloe Moretz in Kick Ass. There’s a sub-Bourne conspiracy going on with Blanchett’s spook and Bana’s mournful killer. But it’s clear that what Wright is really interested in is the fairy tale.

He’s not interested in using it as a subtext either. At the start of the film, we see Hanna reading a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales. Once Hanna escapes the CIA’s clutches, Marissa heads to Berlin where she recruits Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a sadistic killer who runs a sex club. Blanchett and Hollander seem to have received the same instructions: “When you think you’ve gone over the top, go further”. So Hollander (In the Loop) struts around in a tightly fitting tennis uniform whistling one of the film’s themes, threatening children with his German accent, while Blanchett goes for a mix of Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf (we’re repeatedly shown her brushing her teeth) and the Queen from Snow White, all while enjoying a Southern drawl. By the time Hanna takes refuge at Wilhelm Grimm’s cottage while Marissa stalks around, it’s difficult to take it seriously.

It falls to an underused Bana and Ronan to keep us engaged. Ronan is superb, playing the mixture of cold-hearted killing machine and inquisitive teen perfectly. When Hanna meets up with a hippy British family (parents played by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng, both convincing as irritatingly smug hands-off parents), she is hit with a barrage of questions and pop culture information from the teenage daughter. When the parents ask what her mother died of, Hanna blithely states “Three bullets”. It’s an excellently judged performance that shows how talented she is, but it does seem at odds with the outrageous turns from the villains.

Wright does handle the action scenes very well, especially a continuous tracking shot of Bana beating up goons in a tube station, but there is the sense that he’s not really that interested in the punch-ups. He’s interested in the retelling of classic fairy tales, which is all too clear by the increasingly loopy finale that throws a predictable twist into the mix before a relatively satisfying conclusion. However, the continually shifting tone means that although Hanna is enjoyable, it’s irritatingly inconsistent.

A bit of a mess, but a lot of fun. Ronan is superb, and Blanchett and Hollander’s outrageous villains are worth your time.



Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Insidious (2011)

The creators of Saw bring everything but the Indian burial ground...BOO!

Image: Momentum Pictures

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have had a hard time following up their first feature Saw. The duo tried their hand at Hammer horror with Dead Silence, but reportedly fell afoul of an unhappy studio, while their revenge thriller Death Sentence didn’t exactly set the world on fire. They continue to rifle through classics with Insidious, which has built up some impressive word of mouth on the festival circuit.

Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have moved into a new house with their two sons and baby girl. However, when eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, Renai becomes convinced the house is haunted. But there’s something much more insidious at work...

So, after a Hammer homage and a Death Wish throwback, we’re given a love letter to all of our favourite haunted house movies. Wan and Whannell have created a jigsaw (no pun intended) movie that actually holds together surprisingly well. The first fifteen minutes are rife with cribs from The Exorcist, the music cues are highly reminiscent of The Shining, and the bangs and scraping noises will call to mind Robert Wise’ classic horror The Haunting. And when otherworld-expert Elise (genre veteran Lin Shaye) and her bumbling team show up, the film takes a direct turn into Poltergeist territory.

But it’s all done really quite well. The film is surprisingly, and refreshingly, po-faced about the subject matter, which is vital when things take a turn for the ridiculous in the final third. Wan uses a bleached colour palette which creates an unsettling atmosphere right from the start. For the first half at least, Insidious is damn creepy with some brilliant sequences as the tension builds. Reportedly made for only $1 million, the film looks very impressive.

However, the filmmakers aren’t content with creepy. Wan and Whannell also want to make you jump out of your skin and they rarely let up. When the jumps work, they work brilliantly. They’re sometimes ruined by showing a little too much, something that becomes increasingly problematic as the film progresses. As Elise convinces Josh and Renai to face their problems head on, Insidious grabs the kitchen sink and hurls it at the audience. Some of it works very well, and some of it really doesn’t. But it’s a fairground ride of a film that we haven’t really seen since Sam Raimi’s wonderfully delirious Drag Me to Hell. The Aussie duo know their genre, and Insidious is so entertaining that, despite its flaws, it’s very easy to like.

The film is cannily cast with solid actors rather than stars, although that may also be due to the limited budget. Byrne (Get Him to the Greek, Sunshine) and Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) provide a solid emotional core, both convincing as a married couple and while going through the stages of scepticism to belief. Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street) does solid work, and Barbara Hershey (Black Swan, The Entity) pops up as Josh’s mum.

It’s very likely that the film will be much scarier to film-goers who don’t watch a lot of horror. Genre fans will either be charmed or irritated by the constant nods/lifts.  While it may not be original, this is a well-put together mix of boo-scares and chills that may not be perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.

Scary and well-crafted, it’s a bit silly and referential for its own good, but it is refreshing to see a film that has the courage to take itself seriously even as it goes for broke. Damn good fun and the uninitiated will be terrified.



Monday, 9 May 2011

Thor (2011)

Hammer of the gods indeed.

Image: Paramount Pictures

Thor seemed like one of the least likely Marvel comics to succeed as a film. The studio were clearly committed to the character, announcing him as part of the upcoming Avengers. But a movie about a Norse god having to get by on Earth that would have to fit into the greater Marvel framework? Directed by Kenneth Branagh? The jury was out.

After disobeying his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and leading an invasion into enemy territory, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stripped of his power and unceremoniously hurled to Earth. There he crashes into Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist who wants to know where he came from. As Thor gets used to his new surroundings, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has plans for Asgard...

It’s a pleasure to report that Thor is one of the most enjoyable comic book movies in a long while and a definite return to form for Marvel after the disappointing Iron Man 2. The emphasis here seems to be on making it big and making it fun. The production design is bright and bold, while the film is filled with plenty of nicely-judged comic moments that allow Hemsworth (Kirk’s dad from Star Trek) and Portman to show their lighter sides. Branagh shows that he has a deft hand with the funny stuff, but what is surprising is that he also delivers during the action sequences. The battles between the Asgardians and the Ice Giants are suitably impressive, while Thor’s assault on a SHIELD compound is a bruising highlight.

The Asgard sequences were probably where the film was most likely to flounder, but Branagh sensibly goes for broke, and comes out smiling. We’re given flamboyantly dressed heroes, the glittering golden set dressing, the weapons vault that apparently has all the secret weapons on full display, not to mention the Bifröst, or “Rainbow Bridge”. It’s all very silly, but the actors’ performances match their surroundings. 

Hemsworth was perhaps the biggest gamble of all the summer comic book movies as the only unknown, but he gives a funny and affecting performance that nicely captures not only the grand theatricality of the material but the quieter moments between Thor and Jane. Portman gives a grounded performance that shows a warmth that we haven’t seen for a while, and she sparks nicely off Hemsworth as well as Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard, who play her colleagues. Up in Asgard, Hiddleston manages to distinguish Loki from other recent comic book villains; all wounded pride and envy rather than maniacal cackling. Hopkins gives Odin all the Sir Anthony Hopkins he’s got while actors like Idris Elba (The Wire) and Ray Stevenson (Rome) give similarly muscular performances.

It’s not Marvel’s best yet, and is certainly not as memorable as Iron Man. Thor is a bit long, and there’s probably not a lot about it that you’ll remember after leaving the cinema, but it’s a tremendously enjoyable movie. Marvel also thankfully decided to shoehorn less Avengers stuff in than they did with Iron Man 2, although Clark Gregg’s Coulson shows up, as does a certain Avenger (in a very brief and frankly pointless cameo). Hemsworth and Branagh have succeeded on bringing the character to life. 

Big, funny, and very entertaining, Thor’s not quite Iron Man but it has set the benchmark for this summer’s comic book movies.