Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Four Lions Review at Row Three

I've posted a review of Chris Morris' feature film debut Four Lions over at Row Three:


Sunday, 27 June 2010

Capsule Reviews June 2010

I've been very bad at keeping up with my reviewing of late. A mixture of being busy at home and work plus a bit of laziness has meant that I've only added one review and a link to some articles here and at Row Three this month. Maybe it's burnout after my Cannes trip or maybe it's because I'm preparing for the launch of Blueprint's upcoming review site (more info on that soon), but it just hasn't been happening. To make up for it I thought I'd knock up another batch of capsule reviews, briefly going over everything I've caught at the cinema and haven't written up my thoughts on over the last couple of months.

Whip It

Year: 2009
Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Shauna Cross
Based on the Novel by: Shauna Cross
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliet Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is a light indie-drama that is cut from the same cloth as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine but doesn't try too hard to be quirky or cool as those films do. That's not to say it's better than them though. It's an enjoyable film about a teenager who uses the aggressive but inclusive sport of roller derby to find a sense of identity as well as rebel against her uptight mother. It supplies Ellen Page with another loveable outcast character to sink her teeth into and for the most part it does well to steer clear of too many sports movie cliches, but towards the end it started to get a bit cheesy for me. It's also a little too breezy for it's own good at times, making for an easy-going but mildly forgettable experience. It was better than I expected though and it's subtlety (in the first two-thirds at least) and lightness of touch was admirable for what could have easily become schmaltzy Hollywood trash. It'll be interesting to see what Barrymore does next.


How To Train Your Dragon

Year: 2010
Director: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Writers: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders & William Davis
Based on the Novel by: Cressida Cowell
Featuring the Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

After churning out Shrek sequels and other decidedly average CGI-animated features for the last few years, Dreamworks finally produce a film to rival Pixar's work. How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly balanced family adventure with enough humour, warmth and set-pieces to keep everyone happy for an hour and a half. It's a wonderfully told story, taking the audience into a time and place where a group of Vikings spend their days fighting off the attacking dragon hordes. One weedy teenager discovers that these creatures are not quite as dangerous as they seem though and befriends an injured dragon unbeknownst to his clan. It's perfect entertainment which will make you smile, gasp and possibly even shed a tear. It also looks great, partly due to assistance from the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and partly due to some impressively well-integrated 3D. For me, animated features integrate the technique more effectively and this is a great example where it really brings some of the characters to life as well as makes the aerial dragon sequences more exciting to watch. I really couldn't praise this film enough, for a family film it gets everything right and I'd advise anyone who thinks that Pixar are the only animated film makers of note these days to think again.


Hot Tub Time Machine

Year: 2010
Director: Steve Pink
Writers: Josh Heald, Sean Anders & John Morris
Starring: John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Sebastian Stan, Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase

A knowingly low-brow and dumb comedy, Hot Tub Time Machine is not art by any means, but is good fun if you're in the right mood. John Cusack and his old high school buddies plan a ski-trip to cheer up one of their party who they think tried to kill themselves as well as attempt to rekindle their long burnt out friendship. They get to the resort and find that it isn't the trendy, youthful hive of excitement that it used to be and resort to getting drunk in their chalet's hot tub, which of course becomes the time machine of the title, which takes them back to the time of their eventful last holiday there. It's not big and it's not clever, but it clearly knows this and just has fun with the group and their situation. There are too many knob-gags for my liking and it's very predictable and corny at times, but I was laughing my way through it all, which is what counts really when your film is called Hot Tub Time Machine. It's clear that the cast share the same attitude and no one takes it too seriously, resulting in a film that will never win any awards, but is a good time if you can accept that it's never going to be anything other than that.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Year: 2009
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: William Finklestein
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Brad Dourif

Bad Lieutenant is a peculiar film. In terms of plot it's a bog standard detective story with a troubled protagonist, but Herzog and Cage turn it into a wildly entertaining fever dream that I couldn't tear my eyes away from. Cage is the driving force, his performance is way over the top, but utterly captivating and joyous to watch despite the horrific deeds his character often instigates. Herzog gives him free reign and himself indulges in some surreal and plain barmy moments, in particular a couple of totally random handicam lizard shots. It all adds to the trippy ride and the film is massively enjoyable, a pitch black comedy if I ever did see one. The end is bafflingly neatly tied up after such a loose and free-wheeling first two thirds. Herzog almost seems to be taking the piss out of the material, having the supporting actors mug their way through all the endings to the story strands as Cage and the audience get confused by how it's turning out. It's a film that has little substance and plays out like a filmmaker just plain having fun with a trashy genre script, but it works really well and makes for an invigorating and laugh out loud funny experience.


Robin Hood

Year: 2010
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Oscar Isaac

I wasn't expecting much from this latest incarnation of the British legend. The story has been told a hundred times, the trailers just suggested Gladiator 2 meets Braveheart, which to an extent it sort of is, and the public and critical response to it has been pretty lukewarm. However I thought I'd give it the benefit of the doubt and to be honest I was pleasantly surprised. What I didn't expect, even though coverage of the film had hinted at it, was how different the story was. This isn't the classic tale of the green tight wearing rogue robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, it's an origin story that introduces the character as a bit of a charlatan really who takes on somebody else's identity for various reasons, but ends up discovering his true calling and leading an uprising in northern England (technically the Midlands I guess). The plot is overcomplicated and there are a few holes here and there, but the new perspective on the story worked for me, breathing fresh life into the legend, even if it wasn't perfectly told. Coming from Ridley Scott the film looks great of course, the period detail seems impressively authentic and the battle scenes are well handled and exciting. Russell Crowe is solid, but didn't blow me away. His accent is way off what it should be (he almost sounds Irish), but at least it's fairly consistent. Cate Blanchett also delivers a decent, but hardly memorable performance. It's Mark Strong as the evil French conspirator that impresses the most. With this and Sherlock Holmes under his belt, he's going to be getting a lot of villain roles coming his way. So all in all it's a decent effort that has it's share of problems and won't appeal to those expecting a rip-roaring adventure in the vein of Prince of Thieves, but is nonetheless refreshingly different and solidly entertaining.


Get Him To The Greek

Year: 2010
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writers: Nicholas Stoller & Jason Segel
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Rose Byrne, Colm Meaney

It was always going to be an uphill struggle for me because I'm not a Russell Brand fan, but I really didn't like Get Him To The Greek. A very simple concept, the film's story is about a hard-working devoted boyfriend Aaron Green's (Jonah Hill) mission to get the drug addled disgraced rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) to a comeback gig at 'The Greek'. Along the way of course Hill cuts loose and both characters discover a lot of home truths and become friends etc. It's predictable fluff at best, but really this wasn't what bothered me about the film. The simple fact was that I just didn't find it funny. For the year's big comedy release it's a poor state of affairs when I didn't laugh out loud once during the whole film. It tries really hard, but somewhere in-between the writing and the delivery it just consistently fell flat for me. There were others in the screening that seemed to be having a great time, but even their laughs died down as the film went on. I found the satire pretty feeble too. It was all annoyingly obvious and a little watered down. My biggest problem was with the songs. Brand supplies vocals for far too many spoof numbers that desperately try to emulate the success of the pitch perfect homages of This is Spinal Tap, but are far too blunt and unprofessionally performed to sound convincing or elicit any laughs. Brand makes for a reasonable rock star at times when he doesn't start singing and obviously suits the role, but when anything mildly demanding is required of him he doesn't pull it off. As with most of Apatow's productions the film has a large proportion of time devoted to 'bromance' as well as some old fashioned romance and these are mildly successful, but never particularly involving, instead just playing out exactly as you'd expect. It all adds to what is quite a dull, flat comedy that totally missed it's mark for me. Brand fans and others will probably disagree as this has received reasonable acclaim elsewhere, but I thought it was pretty much a total failure.


Monday, 7 June 2010

Axis of War: Night Raid

Director: An Lan
Starring: Wang Yongming, Liu Tianzuo, He Dandan, Xu Honghao
Country: China
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 85 min

Night Raid (the final part of the Axis of War trilogy) is a bit of a mystery. I got sent a copy to review randomly without requesting it (I had received an email about the previous two films but hadn't responded due to other commitments) and looking up the film, director and even the rest of the trilogy on IMDB came back empty every time. The film doesn't seem to exist away from the press release Metrodome sent me. Anyway, mystery or not this film arrived at my doorstep so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Well I can now tell you that it's a good old fashioned men-on-a-mission war film all the way. China is getting hit hard by the Japanese and a group of Chinese soldiers on their way back from the front lines stumble upon a huge enemy airfield; a hive of bombers and fighters that have been decimating their forces. The group's major, ashamed of their current orders to head away from the heat of battle, decides to launch a secret and possibly suicidal mission to destroy the base. Along the way the team pick up a female war-photographer and there is lots of bonding and camaraderie in between the action.

Night Raid is quite clearly a propaganda piece for the Chinese government. All of the soldiers are heroes, the Japanese are pure evil and there are lots of 'messages' about the greater good and all that sort of stuff. Because of this the film is obviously heavy handed and simplistic. It's packed with clich├ęs and is cheesy as hell. The performances are hammy and it looks cheap. I could quite easily lay into this film and point out all of it's flaws, but you know what? I actually quite enjoyed myself.

It's not well made enough to give it a high score, but I couldn't help but be reminded of the fun WWII action adventures of the 60's such as Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare as I watched this. OK, so it isn't in their leagues by a long stretch, but strip away the governmental control over the film, the low budget presentation and the ham-fisted treatment of the brutality of war and you're left with a fast-paced, action-packed, trashy beer-and-buddies night-in.

The action scenes are what won me over (a little). They have an old-school charm to them in their obvious use of miniatures instead of CGI and their excessive level of huge flaming explosions. There's all sorts of violence going on in the finale too with some mini martial arts sequences and a little sword and knife-play thrown in for good measure. It's all so ludicrously over the top and silly that it just hit the right note for me, stopping the politics and melodrama from ever being taken too seriously.

It sounds like I love the film now, but at the end of the day as much fun as the action scenes are, I can't get away from the fact that the rest of the film is pretty corny and cobbled together quite poorly at times. There's also a bitter propagandist edge that is hard to shake. If you can ignore this though and imagine it was made back in the early 60's when war films didn't seem to take themselves so seriously you can have a lot of fun with this in a B-movie sort of way.


Axis of War: Night Raid is released on 5th July by Metrodome. There were no special features on the disc I received. The picture quality was odd, it looked older than it should have, but I think it will be down to the source material as the transfer looked consistent and the colours were fairly bold. The sound was a bit muddy at times, but again I suspect this was down to the original master.