Friday, 26 August 2011

Final Destination 5

A group of co-workers, including Sam, his ex Molly, his best friend Peter and his girlfriend Candice, along with others, head out on a bus trip to a company retreat. However, on the bus, Sam has premonitions of a bridge collapse that would kill them all. Sam convinces his friends and a select few others to get off the bus and the bridge, just as the bridge collapses, much as his premonition had suggested. Sam and his friends have cheated Death, but Death doesn’t like to be cheated. Sam and his friends were meant to die, and one by one, Death will claim the lives of those who should have died earlier...

The Final Destination is a very simple franchise with a basic premise that has been repeated in what is now 5 films: Someone has premonition of death, convinces friends to escape scenario and cheat Death, scenario occurs, friends wonder what happened, Death comes to claim the lives of those who escape in a number of unfortunate accidents, and Tony Todd stands by the side, telling everyone he knew this would happen. Five films of that, no differences. It’s a wonder the franchise has gotten this far, but alas we have the fifth instalment in non-glorious 3D in cinemas now. So is it still a fresh idea? Surprisingly, yes.

The problem with the Final Destinations compared to a franchise like Saw is that FD only has one basic story that has to be repeated over and over again to tie together the gruesome deaths or else it’s an entirely different film. The Saw franchise could invent different plots and convolute storylines to tie together the deaths. The main selling point of the Final Destination franchise, much like the main selling point of the Saw franchise, was the inventiveness of the death scenarios. Let me tell you, there are some real diamonds this year. Although apparently, Death is a screenwriter, because he’s come up with some awfully convoluted scenarios in which to kill his unwitting victims. He also likes the classic horror swerve, where you assume everything’s leading in one direction until suddenly, at the very end, something comes out of nowhere.

This is true of the first two deaths most certainly, as there’s an awful lot going on and the way the deaths pan out leave a few elements either unexplained or unused, there simply to fool the audience into going in one direction before taking them in the completely the other. Saying that, I’m not complaining about that, as it shows there’s been a fair amount of thought put into each of them, and some of them are really original and clever with a decent amount of blood and gore thrown in, and I’m always appreciative of that. On top of that, the film actually look pretty damn good, the CG work looks convincing and the direction of Steven Quale, whilst nothing special, is better here than in certain previous instalments, clearly taking a cue from his experience as second unit director on Avatar.

The performances are, throughout, nothing special. None of the lead actors/actresses deliver anything special, but I put the blame for that squarely onto the script. Whilst the story holds together, much as it has done for the four previous films, and the death scenes are done well, the dialogue stinks. It’s classic horror tropes played out over 90 minutes; there’s the guilt of the party, the love story between the two leads, the “we cheated Death” moments, there’s an asshole who deserves to die, there’s an innocent who is too stupid to live, there’s a schemer who gets their come-uppance... These characters have all been done before and, frankly, they’re all played. Even Tony Todd comes back and plays the same role he played in 1 and 2 and isn’t given anything special to do, which is somewhat of a waste. However, amongst this criticism, I will say there’s a very nice, clever little twist at the end which I won’t spoil, but quite honestly I was impressed by it and I really didn’t see it coming. If you did, you’re a better man than me.

Overall, I had low expectations for this, but this surprised me by being mildly entertaining and able to justify its creation. It’s certainly better than the last two films I’ve seen, and definitely better than the last two Final Destination instalments. Obviously, it could never reach the ‘heights’ of the first, much as in any horror franchise, as the element of surprise is lost, but it plays out fairly well, ambles along towards its conclusion and ties things up in a neat little bow. Hollywood needs to learn the distinction between so bad it’s good and just plain bad. To be fair, there are points in which this is actually stand-alone good, but for the most part, it’s a good piece of silly, cheesy fun where you know exactly where things are going. However, for a film called FINAL Destination, it’s already at its fifth instalment. You can almost guarantee there’s going to be a sixth, but I won't complain as long as it's as inventive as this one.

Rating: **1/2

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Conan the Barbarian

Conan has had a troubled childhood: His mother died during childbirth, while his father raised him to be a warrior and to realise the importance of steel to the Cimmerian people. When a group of warriors ride in, destroy the village and kill the villagers, Conan’s father must sacrifice himself in order to save the young Conan. From that point on, Conan becomes older, wiser, stronger and better with a blade as he endlessly seeks out the warlord who brought destruction upon his life. His quest leads to Conan becoming a true barbarian...

I’m truly at a loss. I'll be honest, normally when I watch a film, I'll sit down as soon as possible to write a review so that you get my immediate reaction to it without anything influencing my judgement. With this, I struggled. I'm not a fan of these fantasy/swords/sorcery films or other media at all. I don't like The Princess Bride. I've never read a Terry Pratchett book. I'm not watching Game of Thrones. And, coming back to the subject at hand, I always found the original Conan the Barbarian dull and uninteresting, I couldn't even find any laughs at how bad it was. All this is why I'm at a loss. I'm at a loss as to why this film even exists, and I was at a loss as to how exactly I could write a fair and balanced review without bringing in my personal prejudices. I shall try, but no promises.

I just find the whole genre uninteresting. The only thing which is somewhat close to this which I liked was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that's almost an entire world apart, so this was always going to be a struggle for me. Upon watching it, I wasn't at all surprised by this. The plot was very samey and cobbled together from various classic stories, the screenplay cheesy and packed full of clichés and the characters were two dimensional and uninviting. However, I can recognise that this film does exactly what's expected of it: There's plenty of fighting, lots of it with swords and such, there's some nice looking ladies, there's a big action hero, and lots of revenge killing. But that's not enough when there isn't a gripping story behind it, rather too much of the action on screen hinges on either a silly convoluted premise or nothing at all, providing some mindless and senseless action. To some that my appeal, but certainly not to me.

That's the main thing I took away from this film: There was a lot of blood, and a surprising amount of boobs on show. This is definitely a film for the guys. Saying that, the female antagonist is played by gorgeous Rose McGowan, and here she's completely unrecognisable, she looks hideous as the powerful witch and it's a waste of her looks, but she actually comes across well as the villain. Now we're taking about performances, let's go to Jason Momoa, who plays the Barbarian himself, and is very good and swinging a sword and looking strong. His delivery of dialogue isn't particularly impressive but it doesn't need to be, because this really isn't about the story, is it? Ron Perlman turns up as Conan's father, and I like Perlman as an actor, and he's OK in this, seemingly playing a human Hellboy. Rachel Nichols plays the female protagonist Tamara and again, she doesn't need to be a good performer, she just needs to look good and she does. Stephen Lang is probably the best actor in the film, playing the antagonist Khalar Zym. I have a theory it's easier to be bad than to be good on screen, and this film proves my theory.

To be honest, this film is just flat. I think that's why I'm having such a hard time forming an opinion on it; it's hard to form an opinion on nothing and that's what this film is. The action isn't major in the grand cinematic scale of things, it's relatively minor, and yet the gore produced is ungodly. The drama isn't there to captivate the audience, and there's no humour in it as if to provide a self-knowing nod. This film has taken itself far too seriously, and that's where its fault lies. Conan has true delusions of grandeur and potential sequels, but based on this, they'll be better off burying this franchise once and for all. Conan has existed since 1932 and in film since 1982, and I've yet to see anything nearly good produced surrounding this character, including this installment.

Overall, it's an unnecessary reboot of a long dormant and ridiculous franchise, made purely to rake in the summer blockbuster money that most cinema goers will gladly fork over for any old rubbish. It's not the worst film I've seen this year, hell not even the worst film I've seen this month, but by no means is it the best. By no means is this even good. I realise this review was short and not at all in depth, but I was never going to like this film, and I could never be subjective about it. There's a good amount of fighting and violence and nudity for a 15, very 300-like, and I appreciated that, but the film just never grabbed me in the way it should do as an outsider looking in to this foreign genre. Apologies, but this film was barbaric.

Rating: *1/2

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Arizona. 1873. A man wakes up with no memory of who he is, where he is, or what the metal bracelet attached to his arm is. He makes his way to the small town of Absolution, where he meets a mysterious stranger called Ella, and is recognised as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Turns out he’s stolen gold from local cattleman Colonel Dolarhyde, and now Dolarhyde wants revenge. However, before he can take his revenge, an alien spacecraft attacks Absolution, and very quickly their feud becomes secondary to the extra-terrestrial invaders who seem hell bent on abducting the locals and destroying everything...

It gives me hope that one day I might be able to enter the film industry whenever I see a film like Cowboys & Aliens come to the cinema. You can picture the pitch meeting, can’t you? “What’s it called?” “Cowboys & Aliens!” “And what’s it about?” “Cowboys & Aliens!” “Well, who does it feature?” “Cowboys & Aliens!” I could go on. Seriously, the film is succinctly and aptly described by its title. This film feature cowboys and it features aliens. Cowboys & Aliens is the be all and end all of this movie. But is there an interesting plot? Is there a reason to watch it? No.

It annoys me that this is so poorly executed because the premise has limitless possibilities to be infinitely cool, and yet it spends so much time trying to balance out the western and sci-fi aspects of the film that it ends up failing on both fronts and being criminally boring and, frankly, awful. It’s too ludicrous to be a western. It’s too dull to be a memorable sci-fi. I realise usually I spend some time ambling towards my point and eventually making a judgement on it, but in this case, I wasn’t even disappointed by the film, I was more infuriated. I’ve been mulling this over for 12 hours as I write this and I don’t think I’ve seen a more frustrating film all year. The story is painfully clichéd and the characters are wooden and two-dimensional.

This wasn’t helped by the casting and/or the performances the cast gave. Daniel Craig is meant to play the classic western brooding, gruff loner/outsider, but you can’t attach yourself to him, even though he’s meant to be the protagonist. They give him a soapy back story and make him the reformed hero, but there’s no emotion involved at all. As for the antagonist, someone needs to help Harrison Ford because I’m fairly sure he had a stroke back in 1983 and no-one checked for the side effects because he went all the way through this, and pretty much every film he’s been in since Return of the Jedi, mumbling his lines and delivering the same facial expression, a seemingly fixed scowl, almost as if he didn’t want to be there. Olivia Wilde is only alright as the female lead Ella, delivering a similar performance to the one she gave in Tron: Legacy but then you don’t need much from her; she just needs to look good. And she does. Above all of this, however, there is a far bigger crime involving one particular piece of casting. Sam Rockwell. He’s here as a secondary character called Doc who doesn’t really do a lot. What a waste. I think Sam Rockwell is a fantastic actor, and has proven himself worthy of lead roles time and again, and to be given a lifeless role like this is shocking. He does well enough with what little screen time he’s given, but good lord is he ever misplaced in this.

I feel like this was a real missed opportunity. They could have avoided every cliché that they so willingly walked into here. Admittedly, the film does deliver exactly what an audience is going to want to see from a film called Cowboys & Aliens. There’s a bar fight. There are abductions. There’s destruction. There are plenty of aliens. There’s a partial romance. In between all that, the writing is just lazy, clearly just a bunch of writers giggling at themselves at the premise and doing nothing extraordinary with it. The script contains some really corking lines like “It’s not your fault” and “I know where they are”, every plot element is flimsily tied together by flashbacks and ‘shocking twists’ and those ‘shocking twists’ are so inane, you’ll either guess them straight away or be dumbfounded as to how ludicrous they are. Naturally, they’re key to the story and deliver information and elements needed to reach the conclusion, but by the time you get there, you’ll be wishing they’d gotten there sooner.

Overall, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t like this film. You know when your parents say they’re not mad, they’re just disappointed? Well I wasn’t disappointed, I was maddened by this. It’s infuriatingly banal and uninventive, and that’s what I’ll take away from this. I will say this though, the aliens looked mildly impressive and the landscapes are fittingly stunning, as they should be for a Western, so it doesn’t fail completely. On almost every other level , though, it does. People will naturally flock to see this, and I understand that, but I hope those people walk out as disappointed as I did so that they learn their lesson like I did. Trust me on this: I have seen Cowboys & Aliens SO THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

Rating: *

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Will Rodman is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. His drug, AZ-112, may be the cure to Alzheimer’s, but his chimpanzee test subject turns hostile and the experiment is finished. However, she was merely protecting her child, who Will is forced to take home and rescue. Will lives with his father, himself suffering from Alzheimer’s, who takes a shine to the intelligent young chimp and names him Caesar. Over the years, Caesar grows older and wiser, whilst Will’s experimental drug appears to cure his father. However, Caesar is growing too smart for his own good, and after a misunderstanding involving a neighbour, he is sent to a sanctuary. It’s not long, though, before Caesar is using his intelligence to plot his escape with the other mistreated apes...

The Planet of the Apes franchise is legendary. The Tim Burton remake is, frankly, forgettable, but the original five films are solid. The original is a true classic. ‘Beneath the...’ is an apocalyptic horror film. ‘Escape from...’ was silly but good fun. ‘Conquest of...’ is a revolution-filled thriller and thoroughly misunderstood. ‘Battle for...’ showed signs of a failing franchise and ended the original series on a sour note. It makes sense that it would be brought back now, what with the advanced special effects and CGI on offer and that it has the potential to spark up a long dormant franchise with multiple sequels. For all of that to happen though, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is going to have to be good. So is it? Well, quite simply, it is good. Really good.

The interesting thing about this film is that it takes a new spin on the story of apes rising up against their human oppressors. Rather than have actors dressing as apes and talking, representing the evolved ape, the apes here are entirely CGI. They are all motion captured, which gives them realistic movements and facial expressions. The problem they were faced with going down this road, creating apes as we know them, was that there was no way of getting them to communicate with the humans. Enter Caesar, plot device de jour. Caesar is born with the Alzheimer’s drug changing his mind, so he learns sign language and develops superior intelligence. Therefore, we have a link between species, and the overwhelming plot gap is bridged.

This all comes down to yet another phenomenal mo-cap performance by Andy Serkis, then man who brought Gollum to life (and will do again in the two upcoming Hobbit films). He gets the mannerisms exactly right, and never over-exaggerates the facial expressions, keeping Caesar more ape than human in that regard. James Franco is deadly serious in his role as Will, not his usual laid-back stoner character, and he puts in a solid performance. He proves himself to be more than a one-trick pony and takes a lot of cues from his 127 Hours performance here in his facial expressions and mannerisms. Frieda Pinto does well enough as the female lead, and John Lithgow is convincing as Will’s Alzheimer’s stricken father. An honourable mention goes to Tom Felton in his first big post-Potter role as the nasty son of the sanctuary owner. Apparently he plays a bastard well, who knew?

At just under 100 minutes, this isn’t too long and offers enough to keep an audience interested throughout. My only slight problem with this, intelligent apes aside, is how long it takes to develop the idea that the drug is revolutionary and that Caesar is smart. It’s an idea which is brought across to you in the first 20 minutes and yet it still goes on explaining that the “drug is experimental” and that “Caesar has advanced intelligence”. We get it, we do. It takes a while to reach where everyone knows it’s going, where everyone wants it to go, and frankly you’ll be relieved when it does get there. I did like the character of Caesar though, the evolution of his intelligence is handled well and he is a human enough character that you begin to associate and sympathise with him by the end. Of course, the end is well written to leave it open for potential sequels, but then it wouldn’t be a PotA film if it didn’t. Also, there are numerous nods to the past: Mention of a missing space mission, a Statue of Liberty, and even the immortal line “Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I’ll be honest; the delivery of the line made me completely mark out, the film won me over there and then.

Overall, it’s a fairly solid summer blockbuster, definitely one of the best this year, as it offers a coherent and well-structured narrative and, movie logic aside, neatly explains itself without bordering on the ridiculous. The apes looked good, an improvement on how fake they looked in the trailers, which was a pleasant surprise, and they were given true emotion and heart. This is close to being a great film; it’s an engaging and intelligent film which you can’t really go too far wrong with. This was a really pleasantly surprising film, it completely caught me off guard as to how good it was, and it's ended up being the best film I've seen in months. If you had told me back in April when the trailer was released that this would end up being my favourite film of the summer, I'd have slapped you in the face and called you a liar. I'd say I deserve the slap now.

Rating: ****1/2

Friday, 5 August 2011

Super 8

In 1979, in the small town of Lillian, Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father, the town’s Deputy, is struggling to cope and Joe is retreating into making a zombie film with his friends on a Super 8 camera. However, shooting one night at a train station, they witness and accidently film a major train crash, where they find hundreds of mysterious white cubes. The accident brings the U.S. Air Force into town and triggers a series of strange events: People, pets and electric devices have begun disappearing, and no-one knows where they’re going. The team of young filmmakers become determined to figure out what’s going on when Alice, the star of their film, disappears... Or perhaps she was taken by a mysterious creature...

Oh, J.J. Abrams, how you love your secrets. First, you produced Lost, which started out with a huge plane crash and led to one of most addictive and infuriating TV series in recent history, the conclusion of which still has people talking a year after broadcast. Then, he came back and produced Cloverfield, a film which was known for months before as its release simply as 1-18-08 and offered no details of its plot in its trailers other than the Statue of Liberty’s head being torn off (though to be fair, that’s all you needed to know). Now, we have Super 8, another Abrams super-secret semi-autobiographical project about a train crash and some sort of alien creature. So has this been overhyped? On reflection, I'd say no. It's a great summer movie that has proper potential and lives up to it.

I'll be honest, this definitely wasn’t what I was expecting from an Abrams project. Though, on that last point, my expectations began getting subverted with every trailer that got released. Super 8 turned from another Cloverfield-style monster movie to a Goonies-style kid-driven adventure film which isn’t E.T., but shares a lot of common DNA and I’m not entirely sure if I was comfortable with that. Upon watching it, it’s a lovely story, and it still does have a bit of that Cloverfield monsterishness though in a far nicer, less apocalyptic chaos kind of way which actually makes for a far more comfortable and engaging viewing experience instead of going ‘OOH look, it crushed a building’ every two minutes.

The group of kids all put in great performances here, especially impressive considering lead actor Joel Courtney, who plays Joe, had never acted before. However, as with all film featuring a group of actors, there is a stand out, and this time around it’s Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota (Where’d she go, by the way?). She’s really fantastic as Alice, daughter of an alcoholic dad and actress in the Super 8 zombie film who develops a young romance with Joe. In particular, there’s a small scene where the actors are rehearsing dialogue for their film, the Super 8 isn’t even rolling, and Alice delivers this amazing heartbreaking monologue which just dumbfounds the kids and left me gobsmacked that someone that young could access as much as emotion as she does in that small moment. And then, as soon as her monologue’s over, she snaps back into normal Alice, the moment passes and it’s as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Fantastic. Other than that, Kyle Chandler is good enough as Joe’s dad, and Noah Emmerich is mildly frightening as the intimidating Colonel Nelec.

As for the alien creature itself, much in the same way you only saw glimpses of the monster in Cloverfield, you only get passing glimpses of this one before a full-on look at its face in the third act, taking a page once again out of the Ridley Scott/Alien book, less is more. However, once it's been revealed, you start seeing nothing but the monster, and ruins the mystique to a degree. There’s something distinctly spider-like about it, and seems like a distant cousin of the Cloverfield monster. I did have a small problem with the train crash, the catalyst for the events of the film. It was well executed, truly it’s a ballet of flying metal and explosions and utter chaos. The problem is it just keeps going. And going. And going. It’s an endless train wreck, which I assume is because Abrams got excited by the bright lights and the loud noises. It’s an important part of the film, is not the most important part, and any realism it might have had is thrown out the window because it becomes distinctly Michael Bay like. Urgh.

Overall, it’s a lovely throwback to both the 1980’s teen adventure film in the same vein of The Goonies, and family-orientated Spielberg films like E.T., which is hardly surprising given Spielberg's role as producer here, presumably to stop him suing Abrams from ripping off E.T. It’s a strange hybrid but it’s pretty cohesive. Spielberg’s influence is clear as the film deals with a young boy dealing with personal emotional problems as well as the wider alien conflict pretence. Abrams has gone and made a film which has a little bit of something for everyone and I know that’s a horrendous cliché, but Super 8 genuinely does. It’s E.T. meets The Goonies, so everybody wins, right?

Rating: ****