REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan's back to finish off his Bat trilogy, but does the threequel live up to its predecessors?

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spidey's back, with Marc Webb's controversial reboot finally swinging into cinemas. Can he justify it?

REVIEW: Rock of Ages (2012)

So, as it turns out, yes, Tom Cruise *can* sing. What more do you want?

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott marks his return to sci-fi with this sort-of-an-Alien-prequel. But does it live up to the hype?

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Yep. It's all in Spanish. And it's all batshit crazy.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Review]

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Shia LaBeouf lives a fairly abnormal life. You or I might wake up, grab a bite to eat and head off to the daily grind. But LaBeouf enjoys no such frivolities. Seemingly a typical day for our hero consists of waking up, being faced with impending doom and giant transforming robots, before ending in a haze of barrel-rolling gunfire and smog in a bland American cityscape. He wakes in a daze, a typically beautiful woman thrusting cuddly toys in his general direction, and rests in blood, sweat and tears. Such is the life of Sam Witwicky, the recurring protagonist of the Transformers series, who never breathes a minute of screen time without a word; indeed, without a shout, scream or frantic dash in some general direction, Michael Bay must not consider his main character pivotal enough.

But this is to tell a familiar tale with Bay’s Transformers films; a tale told only too often, as criticisms ran abound of the first two instalments. While these were perhaps deserved of the second film, Revenge of the Fallen, such comments were harsh of his first efforts. While there were flaws, these were not detrimental - and as an action piece, it held well. Much is true of Dark of the Moon, for its achievements far outshine its limits to the point that the series has again become enjoyable, rather than the lacklustre and excruciating attempts of the first sequel.

The plot of Dark of the Moon is loose yet formulaic; once more, the Decepticons have returned, much to the dismay of humankind and the Autobots. This time they’re after a series of ‘pillars’ that will help to create a link between Cybertron and Earth, so that a new planet might be created for the transforming bots to inhabit, with humanity as its slaves. In and around this underlying theme we’re introduced to the granddaddy of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (played superbly by an instantly recognisable Leonard Nimoy), taken to, yes, the dark side of the moon, and witness a couple of clever twists and turns - something of a first for the series. And while some plot points may seem overly confusing - characters might sometimes disappear between shots and reappear somewhere else with no explanation - everything’s tied together a bit tighter than before.

The main problem for Michael Bay is one he has failed to overcome since Revenge of the Fallen: the introduction of vast amounts of new characters, and the subsequent underplay of many of them. Falling particularly foul of this error of judgement is Sentinel Prime; arguably the central point of the film, Nimoy’s aged bot is discovered on the moon in the film’s montaged opening scenes, but featured less heavily as the film goes on. The never-ending, hour-long ‘finale’ sees almost no mention of Sentinel until the closing minutes, aside from the odd flicker to a hastily delivered one-liner. Similarly, returning antagonist Megatron is much less of a threat than in previous films; wounded in the second instalment, his presence feels unnecessary and wasted.

Recurring human characters are few and far between - poster boy LaBeouf is back (and predictable as ever), as are his parents and a handful of army boys - but the newbies are more than welcome. Gone is the dull, overrated and overshadowing presence of Megan Fox; here are the alluring, contented and so very British tones of fresh-faced Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly Spencer, Sam’s new love interest. Of course, a few cheesy romantic lines pursue, but not so that they detract from the film’s wittier moments - exemplified by the genius casting of John Malkovich as Sam’s dictatorial employer.

But Transformers stands, primarily, as an action film - it’s neither the plot nor the characters that will draw you to it; rather, the massive and amazing setpieces. And in this respect, Dark of the Moon doesn’t disappoint. Particularly memorable during the Chicago stand-off in the film’s closing forty-five minutes is the struggle of Sam, Carly and a band of soldiers to make their way through a skyscraper while it is simultaneously demolished by the writhing tentacles of Kraken-like Decepticon Soundwave. Such setpieces do carry their misgivings, however - clichés run in heavy frequency, with the near-death experience running in full force. By the final stand-off between Autobot and Decepticon (and apparently this time final means final - Bay has stated this will be his last Transformers outing) you’re left with the expectation that some other plot device will be right around the corner to stop everything once again, and prolong things for just a little bit more, in a film that’s already an obtuse two hours and thirty minutes long, bloated with its own exuberance (but arguably one that can afford to be, given its grandiose and superb special effects).

Luckily, though, this absurd length and overwhelming amount of intense action sequences is no longer marred by the traditional direction of Michael Bay: where in the previous two instalments, you might have struggled to comprehend most of the combat scenes even after a third or fourth viewing - such was the frantic camerawork of Bay - here the pace is toned down, and a clearer sense of events can be grasped. One or two moments still fall foul, especially when minor characters are duelling; often it’s much easier to understand who’s fighting who when the participants are the likes of brightly-coloured bots Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. But even when the screen’s plastered with monotone Decepticons, the action is perfectly pitched to accommodate the audience rather than to blur straight past comprehension.

The third of Bay’s Transformers escapades, then, easily outshines its immediate predecessor, and almost bests the original. Still succumbing to the same flaws that held back the first, however, Dark of the Moon runs a little short of being the perfect action film; an abundance of clichés and overly complex plot see to that. But an amalgam of memorable setpieces, an occasionally witty script and a toned down approach to the intense camerawork combine to make Transformers: Dark of the Moon still one of the best action films you’ll see this year.

See also: Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Dir: Michael Bay
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy
Paramount Pictures, 154 mins, 29/06/11

Synopsis: The bots are back for a third outing, as a Cybertronian spacecraft is discovered on the moon. Thus commences a race between the Autobots and Decepticons to find its secrets...

Photo: TFW2005

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Remember Potter? A Saga Overview

The past ten years have been a tumultuous rollercoaster ride for the Potter franchise - we’re not talking box office figures here, which are pretty much certified high, but instead the ability of each film to hold its own as a piece of cinematic art. Some managed it; others did not. The penultimate chapter, I’m happy to say, did.

With the saga’s climax, Deathly Hallows: Part II, due for imminent release in cinemas, I revisited the first half of the screen adaptation of the closing J.K. Rowling novel; not simply to jog my memory, but also as a reminder of just how far the series, and indeed its pivotal cast has come since the bespectacled boy first appeared on the silver screen in 2001. While that might give the impression the series has only improved, the previous link will hopefully go some way to dismissing such an assumption - for the Harry Potter saga has indeed been a mixed bag.

Starting with Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s depending on which side of the pond you’re sitting) an entire decade ago, the series began positively. An all-round achievement by cast and crew, and much the faithful adaptation, the only criticisms might come in the slightly wooden acting of some of the kids; but they were only young. There was time yet to improve. Otherwise a heart-warming, family-friendly tale, spiced with a hint of danger and demise, the first film bore well with fans and critics alike.

Then, just a year later, the first sequel was upon us: Chamber of Secrets. Harry’s second outing, and one that even, in some ways, began the trend of the series’ spiral into ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’ themes, director Chris Columbus again excelled. While, in this reviewer’s opinion, the source material was weaker than the first venture, the adaptation was even closer than before, and the wonderful acting talents of Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and co. were improved further still by the addition of Kenneth Branagh as bumbling fraud Gilderoy Lockhart.

Perhaps one of the peaks of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hit cinemas two years later. Another gritty turn for the series, but by now the kids were starting to mature a bit too - and further stellar contributions to the adult cast (Gary Oldman and Timothy Spall most notably) were to be applauded. A new cast member volunteered his efforts this time round; Alfonso Cuarón, replacing Chris Columbus in the director’s chair, made good with what was arguably also one of the best Potter books - certainly, the third film received the highest critical acclaim of the series (despite attaining the lowest box office ratings of the seven thus far). A triumph for the saga, the heights of Azkaban would not be matched for six more years.

For the next two instalments, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, while not in any way atrocious films, were under-par for the series. Things got a bit grittier, a bit darker, and inevitably, a few people were bumped off. The big bad, Voldemort, finally had a body to play him (an admittedly brilliant turn by Ralph Fiennes), and the kids got a bit angsty as the teenage years came into full effect. But the main problem with this pair was how far they drove from the source material. Such was the length of the books that this was unavoidable, lest they were split in the manner of the final chapter, but to gloss over the entire first quarter of the novel in five minutes of film (Goblet of Fire being the guilty party here) and even exclude an entire character (Ludo Bagman - again, Goblet of Fire) seemed criminal. As films, they were decent; as adaptations, they suffered. Phoenix was the greater of the two; more majesty in its visuals and scripting, more elegance in its acting and directing, and generally a touch more… magic. But still the Potter series had not begun to seek the highs it attained back in ’04.

The torrid sixth instalment, Half-Blood Prince, represented an all-time low for the saga. Harry Potter had turned into a badly directed olive rom-com, and much that had been wrong with past films was only amplified here. Again, see my full review for further analysis of this; suffice instead to say that, well - there is no more to be said. A pitiful excuse for a film, much less a Harry Potter film, Half-Blood Prince seemingly sought to destroy all the acclaim the series had won through a myriad of poor acting, scripting and general cinematography. Director David Yates had a lot to answer for.

It’s satisfying to say, then, that Deathly Hallows: Part I does indeed manage to rectify some of Yates’ failings. Here we witness moments of ‘movie magic’ that dare to aspire to the heights of Azkaban some six years earlier; from the wonderfully matured Rupert Grint as best friend Ron Weasley to the astounding improvement of Daniel Radcliffe - whom one might now consider a ‘serious actor’, defying all notions of the previous six films - the acting talent excelled. Combined with the closest adaptation to the book (and rightly so, considering the split) since number three, vastly improved visuals and colours, and a script so tight it might as well be a hardback rewrite of the original source, Deathly Hallows: Part I sits proudly alongside Azkaban; a shining example of the Harry Potter saga at the top of its game. And with Part II right around the corner, let’s hope the series can finish even higher.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Blue Bloods - Series 1 [Review]

What struck me most in the four months I’ve been watching Blue Bloods (on a weekly basis as per the limits of Sky TV’s viewing schedule) was how inherently the scripts, week in, week out, bled with typical American morals and values.

There’s the average American family: four generations, tighter knit than your annual Christmas sweater, all in virtually the same profession, aspiring to be ‘just like dad’. Then there are the weekly dinners, a custom of each episode, during which the adults discuss some kind of moral crisis threatening the NYPD (or New York Police Department for the uninitiated), the city, religion or the family itself, whilst the kids sit in blissful ignorance. These themes are threaded through the entire series; most of all, Tom Selleck’s character as ‘man of the house’ Police Commissioner Francis Reagan, acting the moral compass - a man of few words, Frank’s throne is indeed atop the highest moral ground known to man.

And while this blatant attempt to thrust a shiny, gleaming representation of the typical American family into the consciousness of its audience might be considered brazen and unabashed of Blue Bloods’ scriptwriters, the show’s ability to simultaneously handle modern and real threats in the form of criminal activity in North America’s most widely-known city, New York, whilst at the same time managing to keep such a high moral standard, must be appraised.

Throughout the series such issues as drug use, paedophilia, serial murder and rape are drawn upon and discussed, while socio-economic values of class differences in 21st Century USA are in equal amounts exposed and torn apart. This contrasting nature helps to keep the show vibrant and modern whilst reinforcing traditional American culture, with great effect. The format of Blue Bloods is typical in its form as a police drama - but it’s the backbone of the Reagan family that makes it unique.

From 14-year old Nicole (Sami Gayle) to retired Police Commissioner Henry (Len Cariou), the Reagans are a charismatic bunch. Character development over the series is commendable; the main family member Danny, a leading Detective, whom most of the episodes revolve around, is well portrayed as the strong, dependable hero by Donnie Wahlberg (yes, brother of Mark). Over the course of the series, we see Danny go from incredible highs to equally incredible lows - perhaps the most morally temperamental character in the show, Danny’s flashes of anger make for a far more interesting narrative than many of the subplots involved in Blue Bloods.

For instance, there's that of Jamie, who attempts to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his brother Joe (whom, it should go without saying, was also a cop), though seems to do so at such a slow pace he might as well be going backwards. Surprisingly, even Frank’s (Selleck) subplots become less interesting as the series goes on; the incessant ‘moral good deeds’ theme that overrules so many of Frank’s adventures as Police Commissioner becomes increasingly more tiresome.

It’s lucky, then, that these are indeed just subplots. The main storylines of Blue Bloods’ twenty two episodes, however, are each as gripping as the next; from the senseless murder of a homeless war veteran by upper class snobs to even the kidnap of one of the Reagans, all the classic conventions of the police drama are replete throughout the series. And it’s this that’ll keep you coming back time and time again.

Where Blue Bloods’ unique selling point shows signs of weaknesses, so do the more typical conventions of the show prevail. It might not be in the family scene that you find a liking for this show; certainly, it adds to the character development, but ultimately it’s the characters themselves, driven both by said family orientation and their own backgrounds, portrayed by a superb cast, that really drive the backbone of Blue Bloods to become what it is - a heart-warming, gripping and deep police drama. Roll on the second series!

See also: The Chicago Code (2011)

Creator(s): Mitchell Burgess, Robin Green
Cast: Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan
USA, 2010-Present

Synopsis: Police Commissioner Frank Reagan heads up not just the NYPD, but also a family of law enforcers. Issues of morality, ethics, family, religion, politics and more bind and come between the tight-knit family, in more ways than one...