Friday, 28 February 2014

The Grey – Masculinity in the Face of Adversity

Liam Neeson takes centre stage in this survival picture from director, Joe Carnahan (‘Narc’ & ‘The A-Team’). A small plane goes down over Alaska, and the seven survivors don’t have long to get their act together as they soon discover they’re being hunted by a vicious pack of wolves.

Neeson’s Ottway just happens to be a wolf-hunter back home and he soon takes charge, but a few members of the group don’t take too kindly to his leadership. That all changes, however, when they start getting picked off one by one and it isn't long before they realise they all have two things in common; 1) their survival instinct and 2) their admission that the outside world never really wanted them. Neeson opens the movie by referring to his colleagues as ‘ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes . . . men unfit for mankind’, but when the night is closing in and a pack of wolves are on your tail, social labels are meaningless.

This sensitivity really strikes a chord after the macho foolishness of some of the earlier scenes, and it provides a real weight to the drama. In fact, the spotlight’s soon taken away from the action altogether and the focus is set firmly on this group of unlikely survivors.

But when the action does spring up, it’s as full-blooded as you’d hope. The wolves snap and snarl and, even when they come across as overly CGI, the resulting wounds look too raw and tender for that thought to linger too long in the mind. In fact, Carnahan does an excellent job of compensating for the limited budget and, even when they’re off-screen, he makes the wolves seem truly terrifying. Their faceless howls are particularly effective, and they stand as a chilling echo of The Seven Trumpets of Heaven.

Carnahan also plays with the striking Alaskan scenery. His camerawork seamlessly swings between aggression and delicacy, and he composes some truly breath-taking shots, especially when making use of the magical disappearance of swirling snow on white backgrounds. He drops us right in that forest, where there’s nothing but snow and ice . . . and, boy, is it cold!

‘The Grey’ is a film about man vs. nature . . . or, more specifically, men vs. nature. And, like so many things in life, there’s never a winner.


Monday, 24 February 2014

A Prophet – But why?

It’s quite a challenge to stand out in the pantheon of cinematic crime epics, but ‘A Prophet’ (or, ‘Un Proph√®te’, in its native French) manages to do just that.

What Jacques Audiard's film has on its side is a) its culture and b) its almost mythical sense of wonder. We follow Malik El Djebena's rise through the French mafia, all while he serves a six year sentence for beating up a police officer. Tahar Rahim plays Malik with a blissful naivety and it really opens him up to a unique emotional attachment with the audience.

It's an important connection to have, really, because the stakes start to rise within days of his arrival, and they just continue to escalate. He's always caught up in something bigger and more dangerous than the last job . . . but remarkably, Malik remains calm and hypnotically endearing.

Which brings us to the question of why he puts himself in so much danger? Early on, he seems to value the possible protection his actions could bring, but when he's out killing mob bosses on his 12-hour leaves, his motives remain ultimately ambiguous. As does the film's title, in fact; the religious undertones are all there but, again, to what end?

So, in a way, it's a film that left me hanging, but would an explanation have changed anything? In the end, one thing is obvious; the answers we're given are a perfect reflection of the film's enigmatic central character.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Lego Movie Review – We built this city on Will Ferrell!

Hype is a sly beast. He stalks the internet and, every so often, leaps from the shadows to prey upon unsuspecting movies. His latest target is The Lego Movie and, for once, the barnstorming hype train may well be justified.

Any expectation built up by the dream-team cast had been tempered by the pungent whiff of shameless franchise cash-in, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

While the film is still very much a celebration of all things Lego, it manifests itself in the form of welcome life lessons about creativity and individualism. Even when our lead character starts making rousing speeches about how great everyone is, the film’s already done more than enough to win us over.

For one, it looks incredible and the exquisite visuals occupy an as-yet-unrealised netherworld between stop-motion and photo-realistic CGI. During the slower moments, the pieces move around with a charming rigidity and the horses, for example, are made to look like they’re being moved around by a child. Then everything undergoes a magical transformation when the action kicks in and the pieces start to move with a newfound fluidity. The screen absolutely fizzes with energy and the film’s set-pieces could match any modern action blockbuster. In addition to that, the inclusion of licensed characters means that this is the only time you’re ever going to see Batman, Superman, Dumbledore, Gandalf and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle together in a movie, so that’s a thrill in itself.

The cast are also excellent and the movie’s sense of fun really seems to have rubbed off on them, especially Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson who each give one of the most unpredictable and joyously wacky performances of their careers. Chris Pratt is also tremendously likable as the film’s protagonist, Emmet, and with Guardians of the Galaxy also hitting our screens this year, it may well end up being his time to shine. Then we have Will Ferrell who’s uncharacteristically fantastic as the big bad, President Business, and his performance is one of the reasons the daring framing narrative works.

The Lego Movie is one of those rare pieces of popcorn cinema that manages to appeal to absolutely everybody. The action’s electrifying, the script is witty and subversive, the voice-work is joyous and it’s all brought together in a tactfully-handled framing narrative. If you've ever needed an excuse to take the family out to the cinema during half-term, then this is it.


Monday, 17 February 2014

Legion – The Nativity Story . . . With Machine Guns

Without its nice little twist on the nativity story, ‘Legion’ would be an entirely forgettable lesson in B-movie horror. But instead, it’s a movie that takes a moment to discuss the hardships of being a ‘Joseph’; in the Bible, the oft-forgotten-about surrogate father to the son of God and, in real life, the guy who has a vital role that no one appreciates.

But, unfortunately, it takes a long time to get its point across. Standing in the way is the movie’s primary narrative; a motley crew, stuck in a roadside diner as the apocalypse hits, soon discover that the waitress’ soon-to-be-born child is humanity’s only hope of survival. It may sound gloriously wacky, but, in reality, the apocalypse-y bits are almost entirely devoid of thrills.

Scott Stewart (director) tries his best to cover up the dull action with some adventurous camerawork but, in between the few worthwhile moments of philosophising, there’s just a whole lot of uninspiring noise. Explosions here, shootouts there; and all rendered in scare-free, middling-to-weak CGI.

That being said, Paul Bettany does a solid job of playing the fallen Angel banished from heaven for keeping his faith in the human race.  And, even though the writing has a tendency to make him annoyingly preachy, he still remains a step above the rest of the cast.

There are moments when ‘Legion’ really shines but, in the end, they’re let down by a downright lazy B-movie sensibility.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Mean Girls 2 – Why Does This Exist?

I really don’t see the point in TV Movie sequels/spin-offs to theatrically released films.

The original ‘Mean Girls’ was a massive success when it was released back in 2004, and you can see why; it was witty, fresh, and featured an up-and-coming Lindsay Lohan. Safe to say, it went down a storm with teenage girls who really responded to the frank, but entertaining, tale of high-school stereotypes and young love.

So, on that evidence, ‘Mean Girls 2’ makes sense . . . if only it were released in cinemas. But no, they chose to send it straight to TV and, although my knowledge of advert financing is pretty limited, that doesn't seem to equate to big-bucks.

But, the thing is, it’s not even that terrible and, considering the circumstances, it doesn't feel that cheap. Like its predecessor, we have a teenage girl who’s had an unconventional high school experience but, contrary to the original, Meaghan Martin's Jo is more than ready for the horrors that period of teenage life brings.

However, even with the few (mostly insignificant) changes to the formula, this feels almost totally unoriginal and the similarities are impossible to miss . . . just with weaker actors and dumbed-down writing. It also lacks the charming quotability of the Tina Fey-scribed first instalment.

It may be laughably derivative at times, but ‘Mean Girls 2’ provides some decent high school comedy-drama for those looking for it.


Monday, 10 February 2014

Troll Hunter – Troll!

If it weren't for the films charming blend of tongue-in-cheek realism, magical mythology and a gripping sense of adventure, ‘Troll Hunter’ would just be a fun Scandinavian romp. Instead, it’s that and a whole lot more.

A team of student documentarians led by Glenn Erland Tosterud’s Thomas (imagine a Scandinavian Michael J. Fox, and you’re not far off) go off in search of an explanation for a sudden pile up of bear carcasses in the area. But, in the process, they stumble on something far more sinister . . . trolls, whose existence the government have been trying so desperately to keep under wraps.

The team then join up with Norway’s sole ‘troll hunter’ and head off into the hills to document the intricacies of his unique profession. It’s a perfect set up for some incredible action sequences, especially towards the finale, and they are made ever more impressive by the perfectly judged CGI work. The troll designs are suitably disgusting and they have real heft when they’re lumbering around the great Norwegian plateaus.

The cast also do a great job of holding everything together. There’s a whole lot of staring into the woods at invisible foes, and all the leads do a grand old job of reacting naturally. The found-footage concept - so often exploited - is also used surprisingly well and it remains grounded, without any noticeable flights of fancy.

Somehow, ‘Troll Hunter’ is a film that is openly aware of its lunacy all whilst remaining deadly serious. It’s also a delightfully easy watch that provides a number of enjoyable thrills and spills. Good job, Norway!


Friday, 7 February 2014

Falling Skies – Pilot Review

It may be due to an over-exposure to ‘Lost’, but I'm a sucker for sentimental final scenes in episodic television. So many Lost episodes followed action-packed adventure with moving scenes on the beach, and I always loved those sequences. As did the team behind ‘Falling Skies’, it seems.

In this pilot episode (originally aired in 2011), the group of alien-invasion survivors take a moment to wish a young kid happy birthday . . . and it’s lovely. Which is quite a contrast to the action-heavy food-scavenging mission just a couple of minutes before.

In fact, that’s not the only Lost similarity. The idea of focusing on a band of survivors and the nature of some of the characters all sent welcome reminders of my favourite TV show of all time. And, for that reason alone, I'm well and truly on board.


Monday, 3 February 2014

World War Z – World War (Mess)Z

‘World War Z’ is a terribly messy movie. It’s ill-disciplined, often totally baffling . . . and remarkably entertaining.

Throughout its infamously troubled production, news would regularly leak out about script issues and the movie underwent one of the largest sets of re-shoots I can think of. Yet, somehow, there is still enjoyment to be had.

The first hour or so is fiendishly fast-paced, tearing across the world from set piece to set-piece, barely taking a moment to catch its breath. Then we get to Wales, and the $200m budget suddenly disappears to reveal a slow-burn, small-scale horror-survival picture. It’s really rather strange. Admittedly, it was the final act that caused the most grief for the production team, but it still seems like an odd compromise.

But, when thinking back on the early sequences, it’s pretty hard to not find yourself rather blown away by it all . . . for better or worse. Whatever your views on fast paced, and jarringly CGI, zombies, seeing carnage on that sort of scale is nothing short of incredible. Even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street – a.k.a. Hedonism: The Movie

In my view, it takes a lot to justify any movie running over two hours.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, is three hours long and, as much as I love both him and his lead (Leonardo DiCaprio), it was always going to be a hard sell to keep me from fidgeting. But, against all odds, he didn’t do a half-bad job.

The movie chronicles the epic journey of Jordan Belfort - the real-life stockbroker who went from rags to riches at the end of the last century - and, suffice to say, there is a hell of a lot of source material here. Belfort’s own biography was used as a blueprint and his story covers a good twenty years of dizzyingly debaucherous excess, from brain-melting drug use to hard-core sexual antics. As many people have pointed out, it’s a miracle he didn’t die.

There really is an undeniable thrill in seeing the top 0.01% live a life without rules, where there’s no such thing as ‘too extravagant’ and where anything goes. But, there’s only so much a normal audience can take and by the fifth orgy, it all starts to tire. But, then an inspired, and often cringe-worthily non-PC, sequence adds a bit of spice to the mix and keeps it all going for another twenty minutes or so. The most notable of these being a devastating high that had me laughing harder than I’ve laughed at anything in a long time . . . all while being totally in-your-face offensive.

But despite this sleaze, it’s undoubtedly a movie of class. For a septuagenarian, Martin Scorsese directs like a thrill-seeking teenager and he has the camera flying around to catch every last drop of hedonism. He also has a supreme knack for attracting talent. The cast, in particular, are absolutely stellar and the performances are incredible all round. Kudos, especially, to Jonah Hill who’s more than deserving of his ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ nomination at the Oscar’s. He’s really starting to prove that he is far more than the gross-out comedy roles he played early on in his career.

In the end, however terrible a person Jordan Belfort is, this movie would have been nothing without him and, for that, I suppose we can be grateful?