Friday, 29 August 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – Spin too many plates and some of ‘em gotta fall

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller return to Basin City in this long-awaited sequel to 2005’s powerhouse, ‘Sin City’; the movie that gave the world its greatest cinematic representation of comic book visuals. Even in the decade since, only Zach Snyder has really come close to putting a graphic novel up onto the big screen so faithfully (with ‘The Watchmen’).

But, unfortunately, it’s a case of too little, too late for this particular cult bandwagon. Although Rodriguez and Miller have seven of Miller’s original graphic novels to draw from, it seems that most of the best bits were used up in the first movie and, although there’s a lot of good stuff in this sequel, there are also a number of story arcs that don’t quite hit the mark.

Eva Green is one of the handful of new characters and she plays the titular ‘Dame to Kill For’ with aplomb. It’s unlike her to shy out of baring a little flesh but she goes all out here and absolutely nails the intoxicating purr of masculine desire. Watching her seduce her way around town is a treat and her tale really stands out from the crowd.

Less successful is fellow debutant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who uncharacteristically hits all the wrong notes in a highly derivative gambling-based storyline. And while poker tables are usually a hotbed for tension, Rodriguez’s card-cutting scenes are almost entirely devoid of any real thrills.

That being said, those stacks of cash do provide Rodriguez with one inspired shot in which they chillingly echo the indistinguishable high-rises jutting from the Basin City skyline. And this isn’t the only moment of visual splendor. Rodriguez and Miller make full use of a decades-worth of technological improvements to create an even more sumptuous visual feast. The highly stylized monochrome visuals are gritty and brought to life by a few choice uses of colour that really pack a punch.

But that’s Rodriguez to a T; great with a camera and slightly suspect with a pen. Most of these stories feel like off-cuts from the premium offerings of the first film. The grizzled sleaze is still intact, as is the uber-violence, but the meat surrounding it all is too often second rate.

One thing that has remained consistent, however, is the cast. Mickey Rourke once again proves that Marv is the role he was born to play and his growling is top-notch. Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba also prove to be assured hands a second time round, even if Alba’s performance barely extends beyond her gyrating hips for the first hour.

But, as is so often the case with delayed sequels, a number of key cast members have dropped out in the intervening years. Josh Brolin comes in for Clive Owen – and, if anything, does the better job of the two – and Dennis Haysbert’s cover for the recently deceased Michael Clarke Duncan is seamless. Far more noticeable, however, is Jamie Chung’s work as Miho. Even in her miniscule screen time she makes a real hash job of playing the silent assassin (honestly, how hard can it be!).

Keep your eyes peeled for some neat cameos from the two directors and Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd, and Lady Gaga turning up for two bit-parts. Even in her two minutes, Gaga holds herself better than she did in her whole half hour in Rodriguez’s last movie, ‘Machete Kills’, and she seems to have a real future on the silver screen.

Green’s glorious, Levitt’s lousy, Brolin’s burly, Rourke’s rough and Rodriguez is, well . . . Rodriguez; yet again delivering a movie that shows real promise but never lives up to it. Maybe the disappointing box office will kick him up a gear or two to finally deliver that grindhouse masterpiece he’s so desperate to achieve.

But, then again, where else are you supposed to go to watch Mickey Rourke crush a man’s skull with his bare hands?


Monday, 25 August 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Delightful

One of the surprise box office hits of the year so far, Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, seems to have struck a real chord with audiences. And I’m pleased to say that attention is thoroughly deserved as Anderson delivers yet another delightfully-crafted slice of whimsy.

Ralph Fiennes leads a cameo-stuffed cast as Gustave H, the oddball concierge of the titular establishment, and we spend the duration of the movie following him through his wacky adventures in search of a priceless piece of Renaissance art.

Fiennes is truly remarkable and, alongside his new lobby boy Zero (played by newcomer Tony Revolori), he develops into one half of one of the greatest, and most charming, bromances ever to grace the big screen. Their deftly handled rapport is second to none and sees them both performing at the top of their game.

As do the rest of the cast who all do a stellar job of delivering Anderson’s richly detailed and dancingly lyrical dialogue. And, to think that dialogue that great is left to play second fiddle to the visuals . . .

Anderson treats every single frame with the delicacy of a master craftsman. The result is exquisitely beautiful and his use of symmetry, along with his attention to detail, is unparalleled in modern cinema.

The public have spoken, The Grand Budapest Hotel is without doubt one of the great cinematic achievements of 2014.


Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Inbetweeners 2 – The Boys are Back

Things have changed since the first Inbetweeners movie.

It’s monumental success sparked a number of ‘Britcoms’ to make the leap to the big screen – an effect we’re still reeling from three years later ('Mrs Brown’s Boys D'Movie' and 'Keith Lemon: The Film', to name a few) – the four lead actors haven’t been at school for over a decade and I’ve written 129 reviews.

But have Damon Beesley and Iain Morris (writers . . . and directors, this time round) done enough to adapt to this new cinematic, and cultural, climate?

Well, they’ve tried; we can give them that. They have a remarkably assured handle on the camera and draw some really wonderful images out of the Australian outback. In that regard, it’s a really beautifully shot movie and far more cinematic than the first, which is commendable.

They also explore some really wacky ideas and gleefully let loose in some scenes. The whole thing opens with an impressively mounted fantasy sequence, which is totally unnecessary but fun, and the now infamous water slide scene ends in style. These scenes buzz with a cineliteracy as-yet-unseen in the Inbetweeners back-catalogue, and it really earns the movie a place on the big screen.

That isn’t to say this installment has veered too far off the well-trodden track of the show. Suffice to say, this is very much still the Inbetweeners we all know and love. Even the movie-trickery does little to diminish the fact that the show’s life-blood was always the grotesque rapport between the leads.

And, fret not, it’s still there . . . just maybe not quite on the same level as previous efforts. This time round, there’s more time left for occasionally cheesy moments of reflection. It’s all well and good giving these guys a soul, but that’s not what we’re here to see. The desert scenes in the third act don’t really work in the end, and that’s a shame (because they do go on a bit). But the show always was a tad hit-and-miss, it’s just 22-minutes provided a safety blanket that 96-minutes doesn’t afford.

But, even with a lot more dead air to fill, the movie doesn’t simply collapse in on itself. Even though there isn’t a lot going on plot-wise, the boys pretty much sustain the movie on their own, which is pretty remarkable.

It does help that the four leads are on top form and deliver a set of really great performances. They’ve come a long way from the virtual unknowns of season one and have developed into really impressive performers (in these roles, at least). Blake Harrison, as Neil, is especially delightful.

There’s a lot of great stuff in here. The representation of middle-class gap-year students is spot-on and the whole thing delivers a kind of relatability ‘American Pie’ never offered us Brits. And it’s also funny, like really funny . . . occasionally.

In truth, it’s a pretty trivial exercise giving an Inbetweeners movie a score. The best way may just a single thumbs up, thumbs down; thumbs up and the (millions of) fans will like it, thumbs down and they won’t.

Thumbs up (a.k.a. ★★★ . . . ish)

Friday, 15 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy – Space Losers

It’s hear! The talking raccoon and his tree friend have landed!!

In their strangest, and arguably boldest, move yet, Marvel Studios have released ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ marking the studios first real foray (Thor 2 not included) into the cosmos.

So do they pull off ‘Star Wars’ as well as they nailed ‘All The Presidents Men’ with Captain America 2?

Put simply, no . . . no they don’t. But that isn’t to say Guardians is a dead loss; far from it, in fact.

The always-affable Chris Pratt yet again boosts his leading man credentials as Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star Lord), the team captain and the movie’s key link to Earth. Alongside him are the ever-reliable Zoe Saldana as ‘Gamora’, Dave Bautista’s brick shithouse ‘Drax the Destroyer’ and then the wacky CGI duo of Rocket Raccoon (voiced fabulously by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced, intermittently, by fan-favourite Vin Diesel).

But, whereas ‘The Avengers’ was all about trying to squeeze four massive pairs of feet into a single boot and the conflicts such a team-up presents, Guardians has plenty of room for everyone. Even in the comics, these five characters aren’t especially well known and, along with Nicole Perlman (writer), James Gunn (director and co-writer) has the opportunity to shape each of them to fit perfectly alongside one another.

So it’s kinda weird that they don’t. Even at the end of the movie, they feel distinctly individual. In fact, like the movie as a whole, the Guardians are less than the sum of their parts. The team is all well and good, but the real magic comes in small doses rather than one fell swoop.

But what is rather touching about Gunn’s handle on this material is that he maintains the teams ‘loser’ credentials. They’re a bunch of idiotic, gormless, and unavoidably hostile outlaws. None of these guys are heroes. There is no Cap; no bastion of moral obedience. These guys do what they want when they want, as demonstrated by the Doctor Who-esque ‘where next?’-moment at the end.

But this freedom of spirit comes at a price. It lacks the structure and the discipline of much of Marvel’s work up until now and, while that is rather charming, it’s also disappointingly hit-and-miss. I went in expecting a super-heroic laugh-fest, but the end result is mostly chuckle-free.

The ideas are there, but they lack development or any form of follow-through. The promised hilarity of Groot’s catchphrase never truly manifests itself and countless comedic opportunities seem missed, or at least miss-placed.

There’s also a serious issue with the pacing. While it’s great to see a blockbuster clocking in at two hours (no more, no less), that also leaves very little time for the movie to settle; here’s guy 1, and there’s girl 2, ooooh look, bad guy 6. And that’s not great for the whole empathy thing. While these characters are likeable (some extremely so) they could have been so much more. But before we get the chance to really know them each individually, they’re all stuck in a room together. If anything, I couldn’t keep up with Gunn’s relentless pacing. By the look of this, he isn’t one for meandering storytelling. Peter Jackson he ain't, and he charges straight to the point, or what he thinks the point is, anyway. Ideally, I would have appreciated some time to develop my own opinions about these characters, rather than being force-fed someone else’s and told to swallow it and move on. Which is funny, because if you treated any of these characters in the same way, you know you’d end up with your opinions spat back into your face.

Other than that, everything else is Marvel-manufactured through-and-through. The cast are great, the creative team are refreshing and ‘alternative’ and the whole thing looks incredible (the spaceships, especially).

Like all true losers, the Guardians aren’t the funniest people in the room, they also aren’t the most exciting and they have an unfortunate tendency to try just that bit too hard. But losers also have an undeniable charm and, whatever your thoughts on the surrounding movie, it’s fun spending time with these guys.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ender’s Game – Soulless Sci-Fi

This is my second 'Ender's Game' review.

For my review of the book, head over here.


Literary adaptions are risky business.

Admittedly, it’s rare to have a source sparse enough that you can include every nuance and subtlety, but what you absolutely have to ensure is that you capture, and recreate, the essence of the source material; the tone, the over-riding message, extended metaphors etc.

So, I’m saddened to say that essence is exactly what Gavin Hood’s (director) ‘Ender’s Game’ adaptation is sorely lacking.

He nails the spectacle with frenetic space battles and his team do a great job with the sets and the movies overall aesthetic. He even leaves room for some moments of real visual style. But, he also loses so much of what made Orson Scott Card’s novel great in the first place.

By cutting down on the Battle Room encounters, the audience really has no idea just how lightening fast Ender is. In the novel, there are pages and pages of battles with each one expanding and advancing Ender’s peerless mind. But, in the movie, Ender no longer struggles through these battles. The extremes that Graff and the teachers push Ender to are reduced to a name rising up a leaderboard. He floats to the top rather than trudging there, battered and bruised.

So why care about this kid? He’s got it easy. There’s no internal breakdown, no exhaustion. Any difficulties are left alluded to or forgotten about entirely. But that's one of the charming qualities of Card’s novel; it's proud of the fact it tends to leave very little down to the imagination . . . and Card couldn’t care less because of it. It's clear reading the novel that his confidence in that story is tangible.

Hood, however, seems somewhat ashamed. Gone is the friendship kiss and Ender’s unflinching (and tremendously creepy) love for his sister. Everything is too clean, too perfect, and inexcusably empty.

Some of the cuts are sensible (the Locke and Demosthenes stuff), but fast-forwarding through some of the parts of the novel that often became a slog just seems like an easy way out. However it might have felt reading them, I believe that those slogs were included for a reason. Card wanted us to feel what Ender felt and, when things were tough for him, they were often tough for us as well.

It’s a real shame to admit it but, in this neutered form, ‘Ender’s Game’ barely holds together as a narrative. As opposed to Card’s novel which had a thematic gel holding the whole thing together, whether you like the story or not.

So, in the end, Hood has given us a SparkNotes plot summary of a story that deserves far more than that.


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Ender’s Game Review

I made it back in one piece!

After an unforgettable month spent volunteering in Cambodia, I'm back to the blog.

During my time away, I took the chance to catch up on some reading, starting with 'Ender's Game', a book that's been collecting dust on my 'to read' shelf.

As luck would have it, I had the bonus of Gavin Hood's 2013 movie adaptation playing on the journey back to the UK. So I've put together a two parter to keep things interesting. First up is my review of the book (which I read before watching the movie) and, in the next few days, I'll put up my review of the movie.

I hope you enjoy reading them as it's the kind of thing I'd really like to do more of, if I get the chance.

Thank you!


 A relative once told me that there was a perfect time to read Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’.

‘Sixteen,’ he said, suggesting that it’s impact may diminish the further you are from that prime age.

So, was reading it at eighteen a mistake?

Yes, was my immediate answer. In fact, sixteen seemed a bit steep. To open with a six year-old protagonist seems brave by Card and early chapters left me creeped out by this angsty infant. He seemed oddly self-important and stood as a heavy-handed set-up for the oh-so-familiar ‘chosen one’ tale the book begins by adhering to.

But, as 6 turns to 7, and 7 to 8, thing’s start to pick up a bit.

To Battle School and pages of fiendishly complex and exquisitely planned zero-g skirmishes. They’re thrilling for their relentless pace and provide a real insight into Ender’s highly sophisticated mind. Countless times I was left two or three steps behind Ender as he outwitted his opponents and this, more than any self-aggrandising, sets him apart from us mere mortals.

But, the Battle Room sequences aren’t the whole story and the personal vendetta plot-strand isn’t all that effective. In truth, much of it falls uncomfortably close to military drama stereotypes.

However, Card soon makes up for this by beginning to address the hot-button argument about the futility of war. Like Ender, I was left questioning whether the whole thing was just a great big joke, and to sustain that guessing game right through to the end is a great achievement. As Ender matures, and the adults slowly develop from nameless voices through to highly conflicted individuals, the drama just continues to ramp up.

And, what a climax! Card skillfully manipulates us into a false sense of security; where we think we know exactly how it is. But by the time we release he’s spent the last 50 pages dropping a number of effective red herrings, he’s already swiped our legs out from underneath us and, before I had any time to react, I was left tumbling; disoriented, but gobbling up everything I was given.

Then came the left-field tonal shift of chapter 15, ‘The Speaker for the Dead’. The narrative leaps forward in time and Card provides a beautiful antidote to the jingoistic delirium up until that point. He clears the air, but leaves a sinister calm that is both blissful and unnerving.

His prose dances off the page and paints a vivid portrait of the true nature of war; the loss, the destruction and the resulting ‘peace’. This final chapter, if nothing else is worth the early miss-steps.

And to think, ‘Ender’s Game’ was written a good 40 years before ‘The Hunger Games’ and the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy. Neither of those stories would exist without Card’s seminal novel. He challenged social norms, whilst still remaining accessible and devilishly exciting. But most importantly he trusted his audience to keep up and question the things that seem so settled in their lives.

If you can make it through the early chapters, ‘Ender’s Game’ isn’t just a book for sixteen year-olds – or even eighteen year-olds – it’s a book for everyone who believes that society isn’t quite as perfect as people make it out to be.