Monday, 31 December 2012

My Top Five Films of 2012


2012 was an incredible first (and last) year for The Big Fairbanski film website. 

I will now be taking a break from film journalism so I can pursue other projects. 

The Twitter account will remain active, providing you with tweet-sized reviews and film news. You can follow The Big Fairbanski on Twitter here.

In the meantime, you can read my Top Five Films of 2012.

Jack Reacher

Lee Child's much-loved literary hero, Jack Reacher, finally arrives on the big-screen after seventeen instalments of the best-selling thriller series.


It might never have happened but nothing gets a film moving like a Hollywood A-lister and Tom Cruise took a personal interest in the project. Ironically, Cruise's efforts have been rewarded with hugely negative backlash from the fans, mostly because he has cast himself as Reacher despite falling short of Reacher's trademark 6' 5'' height.

The trivial height debate has monopolised the discussion surrounding this film so let's hand over to Lee Child himself for the final word on this issue: "With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you'll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height." And if Child is happy with the casting decision, then the Reacher-fanatics should be too.

And Child is right. Cruise is a great Reacher: quick-talking, quick-thinking, remorseless, intimidating and at ease with the action. Arguably, several actors could have handled such a role but few have Cruise's charm and he does well to instil Reacher with likeability and some humour. And Cruise also comes with the added benefit of being a one-man stunt machine so director Christopher McQuarrie can get up close in each action scene without needing to cut away to mask a random stunt actor. 


McQuarrie delivers an impressive first outing for Reacher, handling both writer and director duties. His script introduces the audience to all of Reacher's quirks, whether it be his photographic memory, bad-ass brawling skills or seriously diminutive wardrobe. Plot-wise, McQuarrie has picked an excellent Reacher novel to adapt, Child's novel One Shot, which offers an intriguing set-up but also an action-packed finale to keep the Friday night crowd happy. As such, it is very much a film of two halves.


McQuarrie handles both halves well. We know he is comfortable portraying complicated mysteries - after all, this is the guy who won a screen-writing Oscar for The Usual Suspects - and the opening set-up is well-established and cleverly revisited. The montage listing each of the victims is particularly well-executed. Less expected is McQuarrie's skill with the action scenes, whether it be claustrophobic fisticuffs or a tyre-scorching car chase. McQuarrie lets us feel every broken bone.


The biggest problem with Jack Reacher is the ending, where the film begins to run out of steam. The beginning is strong: a mysterious mass-killing, a wrongly-accused sniper and an enigmatic protagonist who wanders into town. But the twists are resolved about two-thirds into the movie and the final reel resorts to a tedious, bullets-flying, hostage rescue. There is even an added level of silliness as Reacher recruits a random shooting-range owner (Robert Duvall) to assist him in the rescue. Presumably, he used the same dial-a-wisecracking-veteran service that Bond used in the finale of Skyfall. It is a bland ending to an otherwise engaging mystery.


There is also a feeble supporting cast. Rosamund Pike's lawyer is solid but familiar, Jai Courtney's henchman is forgettable and Werner Herzog's villainous mastermind is clich├ęd and, at times, unintentionally funny. McQuarrie has clearly prioritised Reacher, giving him the best lines and all of the hero moments. Hopefully this was a well-meaning attempt to launch a franchise around Child's popular character and not just because Cruise wanted another star vehicle for himself.

Either way, Jack Reacher has succeeded in introducing audiences to Reacher. There is plenty of potential for sequels (sixteen more novels of material are waiting to be adapted) and, based on this evidence, audiences will be open to more.

Jack will be back.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Life of Pi

As special effects continue to develop, more and more 'unfilmable' books become ripe for the big screen. Yawn Martel's Life of Pi is one such example of this. Martel's popular novel has always been perfect cinema material. But his story of a young Indian boy, Pi, and a tiger trapped on a lifeboat for several months naturally required some seriously advanced CGI. It was just a matter of time...


Well, now the computers have finally caught up and Ang Lee has accepted the challenge of the adaptation. The effects are utterly convincing and at no point does Martel's stowaway tiger look anything but real. The same can also be said of the zebra, hyena and orang-utan who are all equally important characters in Pi's story. If they were handled badly then all would have been lost but the sophistication of their animation ensures that we can focus on the drama and not the CGI.


The same cannot be said of the various backdrops. The sunsets, sunrises, starry skies and phosphorescent sea-life are all so brightly-coloured and over-the-top that they look fake... which of course they are. Naturally, they look beautiful and Lee has put together some stunning shots. But they do feel a little cartoon-ish. 

Then again, this might have been Lee's intention due to the ambiguous nature of Pi's tale. If you believe it to be a fairy tale concocted by Pi to protect himself from the harsh reality of his experience then the surreal backgrounds are a very clever inclusion. Lee is therefore presenting Pi's story through a rose-tinted lens, like Pi himself.

Performance-wise, Suraj Sharma is a very likeable and believable Pi, handling the humour and the heartbreak with equal confidence. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he was acting opposite imaginary characters and surroundings for most of his shooting schedule. The older Pi, veteran actor Irrfan Khan, is just as emotive, particularly when discussing his parting with the tiger.

Adaptation-wise, there are very few omissions, although the scene with the Japanese insurance men, a comical highlight of the novel, is sadly shortened. Meanwhile, the addition of a love interest for Pi is both short-lived and pointless. 

The biggest missed opportunity occurs near the end when Pi recounts the alternative, less-magical version of his story. This would have been the perfect moment to offer flashbacks featuring the human stowaways, instead of their animal counterparts, but instead this is narrated with a long monologue and no cutaways. It seemed like a bizarre decision, considering the film spends time introducing the French chef and kind Japanese sailor. Possibly Lee's hands were tied by the studio and their desire for a PG rating.

Also, it is hard to predict the longevity of such a film. There is a serious lack of re-watchability when it comes to films predominantly involving just one actor and one location. After all, how many people have seen 127 Hours or Buried more than once?

Nevertheless, Life of Pi is set to be a contender during award season, due to Ang Lee's involvement and the challenges involved in making the adaptation. Indeed, it has already received Golden Globe nominations for Best Film, Best Director and Best Score and no doubt Oscar nominations will follow.

2013 could be the year of the tiger.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is a sophisticated, Oscar-friendly 'rom com', much like Lost in Translation and Before Sunset. It is the sort of film that is designed to challenge actors and has already garnered critical-acclaim by being a hit at the Toronto Film Festival and bagging some early Golden Globe nominations.

The story brings together Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), both suffering from mental health issues. Pat has bipolar disorder and suffers from frequent bouts of rage, whilst Tiffany is a grieving widow who has now resorted to borderline nymphomania. The two meet and help each other overcome their issues, mostly through rehearsals for an upcoming dance competition.

This is a film driven by great writing - courtesy of director-screenwriter David O Russell - and great characters brought to life by strong performances. It is refreshing to see Bradley Cooper in this sort of role, pushing himself as an actor whilst still drawing upon his superb comic timing. He excels alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who makes a welcome return to festival film-making following her recent stint in mainstream action films. Both deserve their Golden Globe nominations and have more than earned some Academy recognition.

The supporting players are just as captivating, with a great turn from Robert de Niro as Pat's father, hooked on football and dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder. De Niro works well with Cooper - both previously starred opposite each other in Limitless - and their scenes vary from tender to hilarious. 

Chris Tucker also shows up, possibly in an attempt to reinvent himself for an indie audience. You may be apprehensive when you see his name on the opening credits - the Rush Hour guy?! - but he comfortably blends into the tone of the film, dialling down his usual loud-mouth humour... but not too much. He steals a lot of scenes as Danny, Pat's friend from the mental health facility.

It may not become an instant classic like Lost in Translation. It lacks an iconic romantic backdrop and Russell's inclusion of a formulaic dance competition leads to a very familiar finale. But in a month bloated with 3-D, big-budget fare, Silver Linings Playbook offers a pleasantly simple piece of film-making: emotive performances, understated directing and an uplifting love story. 

Silver Linings Playbook is cinematic gold.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit trilogy begins with a welcome return to Middle-Earth packed with the humour, horror and heart that we now expect from Jackson's cast and crew.

Any fears that The Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy would flounder like the Star Wars prequels prove unfounded. A possible reason for this is the timing. The Phantom Menace surfaced sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, where LOTR only concluded nine years ago. The smaller waiting period means that Jackson's team is still in the zone, with all of the familiar Oscar-winning players returning: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (co-screenwriters), Andrew Lesnie (cinematography), Andrew Taylor (special effects), Howard Shore (composer) and the rest. 

Also, due to a framing device and the convenient lack of ageing of certain Tolkein characters, we are also treated to plenty of familiar faces, including Ian Holm's Bilbo, Elijah Wood's Frodo, Sir Christopher Lee's Saruman and, of course, Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf (back in playful Grey mode after ending LOTR in his serious White form). 

Most crucially, Jackson himself returned, after briefly handing over the reins to Guillermo del Toro. Great though del Toro is, it just wouldn't have been the same with a different director at the helm. But with Jackson back, The Hobbit seamlessly embodies everything that was great about LOTR, whether it be the grotesque monsters, over-the-top action, slapstick humour or the tear-jerking whimsy of a Baggins.

All of this helps maintain the same feel as the original trilogy, which is where the Star Wars prequels drastically failed.

Bizarrely, many newspaper critics have launched lukewarm reviews at this return to Middle-Earth. It is hard not to see this as a shallow attempt at salvaging integrity. Why can't these critics just sit back and enjoy three hours of pure entertainment?

Most criticisms are levelled at the film's length and the trilogy expansion in general. Yes, The Hobbit began life as a 200-page children's book. But LOTR fans did not spend nine years waiting for a children's film. And Jackson's team operate at such a high level of production that it would be a shame to reunite for one or even two films. So, thankfully, Jackson and New Line made the last minute decision to commit to a trilogy.

Naturally, those 200 pages needed fleshing out in order to make a trilogy. But none of the additions feel forced. The flashbacks are welcome, allowing us to see Erebor in all of its splendour and witness the fight for Moria. The dwarves are thankfully given unique personalities, as opposed to the largely homogenous mass of dwarves in the book. Plus, Gandalf's story is told, shedding light on his unexplained absences in the book when he would vanish for great stretches. Gandalf's side-quest is of particular interest, as it involves the White Council's debate about the Necromancer, which foreshadows the return of Sauron and does some nice LOTR cohesion.

It is testament to Jackson's films that amidst all of the 3-D, faster frame-rate trickery, the audience are always left talking about the performances. Martin Freeman performs a career-best turn and certainly deserves the critical-acclaim for bringing the laughs and tugging at the heartstrings. Freeman even holds his own against Andy Serkis' Gollum, brilliant and textured as ever, who could have stolen the riddles scene from a less-accomplished actor. A further special mention must be given to Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, the animal-loving wizard, who is pure bonkers. He does get some darker moments too and who better to blend dramatic with deranged than a former Doctor Who incarnation?

A slight gripe could be made about the dwarves. Sadly, despite all of the efforts to give them a unique appearance and character, a lot of these personalities have been sidelined and are only evident to those who have read the interviews in film magazines. Some of the dwarves only have one line each and it feels a little depressing watching these professional actors kitted out in prosthetics, only to run around and swing axes. But that is why Jackson famously releases Extended Edition DVD box-sets, with plenty of unseen footage polished and integrated into the main edit. Add it to your 2013 Christmas list now.

An Unexpected Journey gloriously kicks off a new Middle-Earth trilogy and whilst the journey might be unexpected, the high level of film-making was exactly what we expected from Jackson's team. There is plenty left to cover in the next two films (spiders, Mirkwood elves, Beorn, Lake-Town, Smaug, Bard, the Battle of Five Armies) and next December cannot arrive soon enough.

Thankfully, the road goes ever on and on.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II

And so cinema's most bizarre love story finally draws to a close, bringing despair or relief to cinema-goers around the world.

This final instalment ramps up the weirdness to another level. The sparkly, super-powered, supermodel, whooshing vampires are all correct and present but now with a boosted cast list incorporating vampire cousins from across the globe. The Bella-Edward-Jacob love-triangle is finished (one girl's choice between necrophilia or bestiality) but mostly because Jacob has fallen in love with Bella's newborn baby. And for a further dash of strangeness, Bella and Edward's vampire-human-hybrid baby is growing at an accelerated rate. In short, it's business as usual for Stephanie Meyer's creations.

It's fair to say that this Twilight film, like the rest of the franchise, is clumsily-handled. Actors are chosen for their ability to pout over their ability to act, the script is full of laugh-out-loud dialogue delivered with straight faces and an infinite amount of silly decisions are made. Why must the vampires whoosh everywhere? Why is so much focus attributed to an anonymous rock-climber in the opening five minutes? And why does the baby have a CGI face? Considering the legions of female fans, the baby would have been the perfect opportunity to get the audience cooing and aahing. Instead, they turn the baby into a motion-capture monstrosity which is anything but cute. No wonder the Volturi want to burn the damn thing. What was director Bill Condon (an Oscar-winning writer, a Globe-winning director) thinking?

But it is hard to review a Twilight film. No one is expecting a five-star film. The single aim is to keep the Twi-hard fans happy and Condon has certainly achieved this, particularly by ending with a final Edward-Bella montage of highlights from the rest of the franchise.

Even better, the boyfriends are finally rewarded with a big battle, after years of being dragged to the cinema along with their wallets. The Cullens face-off against the Volturi in a limb-pulling, neck-twisting, decapitating, bloody finale, which will cause momentary outrage amongst the female audience ("This doesn't happen in the book!") until a clever resolution is offered. 

And in fairness, there are some notable moments of comedy, particularly offered by Billy Burke's Charlie, who has long been a highlight of this series, when faced with a stripping Jacob.

The important thing to note is that the franchise is complete. Careers have been forged, money has been made and the films now belong to the fans. Twi-hards can watch the DVDs forever more and everyone else can safely return to cinemas free from gushy, adult-friendly, chick-lit franchise adaptations.

Well, at least until Fifty Shades of Grey starts rolling...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Argo

Ben Affleck’s directorial career is going from strength to strength with Argo rounding off a trio of impressive flicks.

Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both criminally under-watched, saw Affleck leap from a personal small-town kidnapping story to a Heat-style citywide tale of cops and robbers.

But with Argo, Affleck takes an even bigger leap into new territory. 

This is his first film set predominantly in a different country, in a different time and with thousands of extras. Affleck has to negotiate the trappings of adapting a true story, whilst adhering to historical and cultural accuracy. He has also picked an obscure, little-known story to adapt and has to make that both relatable and entertaining. Without doubt, this is his most ambitious directorial outing.

However, Affleck’s confidence has been building and he impresses from the get-go. Decades of Iran’s history is tidily narrated through comic book-style storyboarding. This then launches into a siege of the Iranian US embassy, cranking up the tension with fast-paced, hand-held camera cutting, as the workers desperately try to shred documents and escape. It is a heart-stopping opening, rivalled only by the nail-biting final reel. As seen in The Town, Affleck is a master of suspense.

Affleck has also spent enough time in mainstream cinema to know how to convey a complicated story to a Friday night crowd and his script handles the exposition well, whilst also finding time to drop in one-liners and a bit of humour. “Argo f*ck yourself” is one such quote that has popped up on many a Facebook newsfeed these past few weeks.

Affleck’s rise to the directorial A-list is attracting a lot of talent and numerous familiar faces appear throughout. It is testament to Affleck’s integrity that he doesn’t just cast his Hollywood mates. Instead, he has selected much of his cast from popular TV. The supporting players can be recognised from shows such as Mad Men, Heroes, Scrubs, Friends (Joshua!) and Breaking Bad. Most, however, are unknown actors, cast for their likeness to the historical counterparts in order to maintain the documentary feel of the film.

As great as some of the actors are (Bryan Cranston has fun as a growly FBI agent, whilst John Goodman and Alan Arkin get the biggest laughs), you will struggle to remember any of their characters’ names. But Argo isn’t aiming for any nominations in the Best Actor category.

No, instead, Affleck has his sights firmly on Best Director.

And who can blame him? It has been a while since he won Best Screenplay for Good Will Hunting and he had to share that golden statue with his best mate, Matt Damon. Argo suggests Affleck fancies another stroll onto that stage.

His intentions are clear in his adherence to the winning Oscar formula: true story, critically-impressive, political commentary and America saves the day! The Academy will be lapping this up. Affleck has also chosen such a bizarre true story to adapt (retrieving seven Americans from militant Iran by posing as a film crew) that he also ticks the originality box as well.

Not that this is a criticism. Like the better Oscar-winning films, Argo never feels conceited when telling its story. Affleck’s pride as a story-teller would never allow for that. Plus, despite its Academy friendliness, this is still accomplished film-making, reminiscent of both Eastwood’s classical style and Gus Van Sant's documentary approach.

The Oscar race has begun. And Affleck’s directorial talents argoing to get noticed.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Skyfall

The following review contains spoilers...


The Bond franchise's last big milestone, its fortieth anniversary, was tarnished with the painfully disappointing Die Another Day. The combination of face-morphing technology, an invisible car, dire one-liners and a Madonna cameo signified an all-time low for Britain's most iconic spy.


Thankfully, MGM have taken no chances with Bond's fiftieth anniversary.

On paper, Skyfall is the most promising Bond film to date: an Oscar-winning director (Sam Mendes), an Oscar-winning villain (Javier Bardem), the return of two of Casino Royale's scriptwriters (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade) and the best Bond song since Goldeneye (thank you Adele).

So does Skyfall live up to the expectation? 

Well, as the critics, the box office and your Facebook news feed will have confirmed by now: yes, Skyfall is a superior Bond outing. It deserves to be placed alongside the usual Bond favourites, which typically list as Casino Royale, Goldeneye, Goldfinger and Dr No.

Mendes' influence as an Academy-friendly director is abundant throughout, evoking powerful performances from his leads and capturing some stunning shots courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakin (another Oscar-winner). Hands-down, this is the best-looking Bond film of the series. Mendes also proves he can handle elaborate action scenes, with an adrenaline-pumping pre-credits scene across rooftops and trains (although, nothing comes close to Casino Royale's parkour). It is refreshing to see the franchise finally attracting such a high calibre of film-makers and this looks set to continue, with Mendes already voicing his interest to return for Bond 24.

Plot-wise, Skyfall offers something new. Ultimately, this is a story of revenge. M betrayed her former top spy, Bardem's Raoul Silva, and now he is looking to destroy her reputation and shoot her dead. Bond, ever the loyalist, decides to protect her. The simplicity is refreshing. Instead of saving the world, Bond is saving his boss. Instead of ending the film by infiltrating an exotic secret lair, the climatic battle occurs on the moors of Scotland. This comparatively low-key approach allows us to focus on the characters and so the personal stakes are higher than ever. It makes for compelling viewing.

Daniel Craig is well into his stride as Bond and wears the role confidently, handling the action, the flirting and the inner torment with apparent ease. It is testament to Craig's screen presence that he is not overshadowed by Bardem's villain, who is given the best dialogue and lots of great material to sink his (removable) teeth into. Like all good villains, Silva can make the audience laugh, jeer and cringe in discomfort, whilst often winning us over to his cause. Arguably, Bardem's Silva is the most Joker-like performance since The Dark Knight.

Sadly, the Bond girls are less captivating. Naomie Harris' Eve is surplus to requirements, whilst Berenice Marlohe's haunted Severine is woefully short-lived. None of that matters though because Judi Dench's M is the real Bond girl here. Finally, after six previous film appearances, Dench's M is upgraded to a leading role and not wasted in fleeting cameos and exposition. As with The Dark Knight Rises which happily sidelined its hero, Skyfall is equally happy to put Bond aside for numerous scenes. In many ways, this is M's story. She is literally on trial here. The vendetta is against her. All of this is good news for audiences because it means we get to see more of Dench, surpassing Bernard Lee as the definitive M.

But aside from strong performances and competent execution, there are times when Skyfall seriously drops the ball. Sadly, Bond appears to be edging back towards the fantastical elements of the franchise that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace tried so desperately to eradicate. We therefore get the return of Q and his gadgets. Admittedly, these are not too flamboyant (and the dialogue highlights this beautifully) but it is a regressive step. There is a very real danger that one or two films down the line might see Bond once again driving underwater cars or wielding a laser-firing Rolex. Another example of suspended realism is the climatic assault on Bond's booby-trapped childhood home. The final reel plays out like the Bond equivalent of Home Alone.

There are a handful of other problems: there are plot-holes (why did Bond let them kill Severine when he had three helicopters on standby?) and naff lines ("Welcome to Scotland!") and a muddled credit sequence (stags, targets, Chinese dragons... pick a theme and stick to it!). Also, the Aston Martin reveal may have earned a cheer from the crowd but ultimately it was a moment of laugh-out-loud daftness in a supposedly gritty, re-imagined Bond universe.

And as for those CGI komodo dragons... this isn't Lake Placid.

But whatever, this is a birthday celebration and much can be forgiven. The most important thing is that Bond is still looking good at 50. The studio have done plenty of legacy-building in Skyfall, reintroducing Q and Moneypenny and another M and so there is a rich palette on offer for future film-makers when making the next few Bond films.

Because, have no doubt, Bond will be going for another 50 years. Skyfall is not the limit.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a teenage coming-of-age drama based on director Stephen Chbosky's critically-acclaimed novel and driven by three strong performances.

The talented central trio - Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller - each successfully reinvent themselves and shed the roles for which they were previously better known. 

Lerman excels as the understated narrator of the film, Charlie, putting aside his action persona seen in Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers, for an altogether more subtle and emotive performance. Watson is captivating as free spirit Sam, finally casting off the shackles of squeaky-clean Hermione Granger and making the most of the edgier, grown-up material. Lost in Translation made audiences fall in love with Scarlett Johansson and Wallflower will do the same for Emma Watson. Meanwhile, Miller is barely recognisable as the creepy actor who brought the psychopathic Kevin Katchadourian to life. Here, Miller plays the warm, charismatic and hilarious Patrick, offering both comic relief but also a big dosage of heart. 

All three deserve recognition for their performances.

The film successfully honours its source material, which is not surprising considering the producers hired author Stephen Chbosky himself to adapt his own novel for the big screen. Chbosky has therefore delivered a faithful script, packed with light-hearted observations of high-school but also addressing relevant issues faced by teenagers: falling in love, low self-esteem, homophobia and the rest. Despite the presence of the usual high-school motifs - SATs, prom, scraps in the canteen - Wallflower never feels anything less than original.

Wallflower is not afraid to go dark. The story of Sam's first kiss and the incident from Charlie's childhood are particularly chilling. But the feel-good moments are never far away: Secret Santa, Rocky Horror, Paul Rudd's fatherly teacher, a superb graduation prank aimed at Tom Savini's woodshop teacher and the stand-out use of David Bowie's Heroes. Indeed, some of the best scenes just feature the trio sitting around with their friends enjoying each other's company. As an audience member, you will feel part of the gang too.

It is no coincidence that Lost in Translation was mentioned earlier in this review. Wallflower shares much with Sofia Coppola's bittersweet surprise hit. Both are unlikely love stories with stunning soundtracks and a perfect balance of comedy and soul-searching. Equally, both manage to turn ordinary locations (hotel rooms, bedrooms, bars, house parties, tunnels) into glowing, magical places thanks to a lovingly-crafted mix of set design, lighting and direction. It is bizarre to think that Chbosky has never directed a film until now. He has a long career ahead of him.

And, like Lost in Translation, Wallflower deserves unexpected hype and Award Season attention. Above all else, it deserves to be seen, loved and remembered.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Looper

Director reunites with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to deliver Looper, a very different type of film to their previous collaboration, the cult indie Brick

Or is it? 

Because Looper, despite promoted as yet another sci-fi action flick, shares much with the indie mentality of believable characters, a constantly-developing story and the marrying of great actors with great material. Johnson's script is full of great scenes, whether it be the stand-out diner confrontation between Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his older self (Bruce Willis) or the emotional revelation from a troubled mother (Emily Blunt) about her 'special' child. 

Johnson also manages to cram in enough original and clever ideas to ensure Looper remains a science-fiction film, as opposed to being an excuse for action like recent offerings (In Time, Prometheus, John Carter, Total Recall, Cowboys & Aliens and the rest). Not that the action is lacking. There is plenty to keep mainstream audiences munching on their popcorn, as Willis fires dual machines guns and henchmen ride flying motorbikes. But genre-wise, Looper is closer in-line with Duncan Jones' Source Code and happily addresses the sci-fi elements of time-trickery. For example, a particularly innovative scene features a character rapidly losing their limbs because his past self is being brutally maimed by a torturer. Very clever, very haunting.

Johnson is equally capable of holding the camera, as well as the pen, and he assembles his film with the skill that you would expect from a previous winner of the Sundance Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. Like the recent Dredd, Johnson creates a believable futuristic world with a relatively low budget. The exposition-heavy opening is also expertly-crafted. Using a combination of voice-overs, montages and narrative flow, Johnson manages to establish an alternative future, introduce characters and teach the audience about 'closing the loop' and telepathy without ever sounding like a lecture.

Looper's greatest strength is its story, which will not be spoiled in this review. Suffice it to say, the twists and turns will keep the audience hooked. It is genuinely hard to guess where the story is going (a rare find in cinema today), even more so when the action relocates to a corn-farm for the second half of the film. 

A final mention must be given to the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt further cements his leading-man status, now adding action hero to his CV. He also perfects the trademark smirk of a young Bruce Willis. Meanwhile, Willis himself proves that he can still dispatch a room full of henchmen but equally reminds audiences that, unlike the rest of the Expendables, he can actually act. But most impressive is child actor, Pierce Gagnon, who holds his own against all of the grown-ups and steals a fair few scenes himself.

Looper is a refreshing genre-bending marvel: part-blockbuster, part-science-fiction, part indie. It looks set to win over the Friday night crowd and the film critics alike, whilst Johnson edges towards becoming an established name in Hollywood. 

Here's hoping we don't have to wait another four years for the next Rian Johnson film.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Dredd

Dredd is an unusual approach to a comic book adaptation: low-budget, simple plot, small cast, few big names and it's only 95 minutes long. In many ways, it feels like an extended pilot for a TV show. But, based on this evidence, there is plenty of potential for franchise development.

It is not surprising that a Judge Dredd reboot has been approached with caution. 


After all, the eponymous futuristic law enforcer from the 2000 AD comic strip has a relatively small fan base compared to the likes of Spider-Man, Batman and Superman. Plus, the last time Dredd was brought to the big screen was in Danny Cannon's 1995 flop, Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone in the titular role. This earlier attempt floundered at the box office, offended the fans (Dredd never takes his helmet off in the comics), garnered disapproval from Dredd creator John Wagner and earned Stallone a Razzie for Worst Actor, so naturally a relaunch was only going to be green-lit provided it would be a low-risk affair.

As such, director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland obligingly keep things simple. The plot is straightforward: Dredd (Karl Urban) is partnered with a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) on a routine triple-homicide investigation at Peach Trees, an apartment block under the rule of psychotic drug-queen Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). When Ma-Ma's lieutenant (The Wire's Wood Harris) is arrested by Dredd, Ma-Ma locks down the block and the Judges have no choice but to fight their way upwards through multiple floors of henchmen.

Audiences are therefore presented with a low-stakes mission, limited to one location and a handful of characters. The lack of scale is a smart move and offers cinema-goers a gentle introduction to the Dredd mythology. We get a glimpse of dystopic Mega City One, a brief mention of mutants and an element of the supernatural in the form of Thirlby's telepathic rookie, all of which play a bigger part in the comics and have presumably been reserved for a better-funded sequel.

Most crucially, this focussed approach allows newcomers the opportunity to discover Dredd himself, rather than getting distracted by sub-plots and the wider mythology. Urban's Dredd is thankfully faithful to the 2000 AD comics: a grim, uncompromising, incorruptible force, with no time for humour or wisecracks or mercy. And Dredd purists will be relieved to hear that Dredd keeps his helmet firmly on, resulting in some admirable chin-acting courtesy of Urban.

Travis delivers as director, realising that if a film is low on plot then it should be big on style. Travis keeps the action brutal and the tone dark but can equally deliver inventive camera-trickery when necessary, such as when Thirlby's psychic invades a villain's head for information. The frequent drug-induced sequences are particularly captivating. The aptly-named drug, Slo-Mo, allows for some beautifully balletic sequences as glass shatters, bullets fly and blood splatters, all in slow-motion, with saturated colours and added special effects. These sequences were perfected by VFX supervisor Jon Thum and Alex Garland in post-production and justify paying for those 3-D glasses.

Various critics have noted that Dredd shares its plot with that of The Raid, the Indonesian martial arts flick that wowed audiences earlier this year. Many have argued that Dredd suffers from this comparison due to the frenetic - and admittedly better - action sequences delivered by The Raid

But whilst The Raid swiftly negotiated fight after fight, Dredd is more evenly-paced and allows room for the characters to shine. The Raid was populated with two-dimensional characters, headlined by a vanilla hero. Whereas, Dredd offers plenty of engaging characters, such as Thirlby's psychic and Headey's vicious gang leader, with Dredd himself already established as an enigmatic anti-hero. And whilst The Raid relied on Pentak Silat martial arts to excite audiences, Dredd has the advantage of being set in the future which provides plenty of equally cool gimmicks: Dredd's multi-tasking gun (the Lawgiver), his formidable bike (the Lawmaster) and his ever-iconic helmet.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at Dredd, then it would be the lack of scope. But then, as said earlier, this narrow look at the Dredd world was a necessary approach for the relaunch. Predictably, a sequel would heighten the stakes, add some complexity to the story and delve into the wider communities of both Mega-City and the ranks of law enforcement. And hopefully, based on this teaser, cinema-goers will demand a larger-scale Dredd adventure.

But you can be the judge of that.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Expendables 2

Let's get one thing straight: Expendables 2 is not a good film. It offers two hours of terrible dialogue, wooden acting and forced cameos. But it's a hell of a lot of fun and the best bad film that you will see all year.


Thankfully, the sequel fixes the mistakes of its disappointing predecessor, which made the crucial error of taking itself too seriously. But Sylvester Stallone has wisely vacated the director's chair for Simon West, director of the ever-enjoyable Con Air, who knows exactly how to approach this type of film. Namely, make the most of the famous faces and low expectations and just have some fun! 


And West succeeds. In fact, the first ten minutes of Expendables 2 offers more cheese, more silliness and more ridiculous action than was found in the entirety of its predecessor. Audiences can leave their brains at the door and enjoy Jet Li dispatching henchmen with cooking utensils, Jason Statham disguised as a kick-ass monk, Sly facing off against Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger ripping the door off a Smart Car. West knows how to deliver action, as do his veteran cast.

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your sense of humour), the cast cannot deliver dialogue, nor can Stallone write it. The dialogue is comprised of tough guy talk ('Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em!'), bad puns ('Rest in pieces!'), worse puns ('I now pronounce you man... and knife!') catchphrases ('Yippee ki yay!'), laziness ('You have an ego the size of a dinosaur'), nonsense ('You've been back enough, I'll be back!'), racism (the Chinese woman's favourite meal happens to be crispy aromatic duck) and lifeless banter ('If you need me, call me, or I'll kill you').

The acting is as bad as the dialogue but you knew that already. The only cast member in danger of doing any acting is Liam Hemsworth but they kill him off nice and early to keep the plot moving. On the other side of the acting spectrum is Yu Nan, as newly-appointed technical expert Maggie Chan, who is just plain terrible. Presumably, she was cast to make everyone else look good and anyone who can make Dolph Lundgren look like Marlon Brando is a very rare find indeed.

Naturally, Expendable 2's biggest draw is its wish-fulfilment casting. Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are both back with thankfully more screen time and Jean-Claude Van Damme is a welcome addition to the cast as the new villain. He can still pull off those flying kicks. Best of all, Chuck Norris pops up in the most insanely crowd-pleasing cameo ever seen on the big screen. Norris rocks up in a baseball cap, dispatches an army single-handedly, tells an actual Chuck Norris joke (!) and then saunters off into the sunset.

Predictably, Sly isn't done yet. Expendables 3 is due to start filming later this year. Sly has been talking big about rounding off the trilogy and shifting the genre to keep audiences engaged, bless him. But over-thinking it would be a mistake. As ever, the credits will be the biggest draw. And with Sly already approaching Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Nicholas Cage, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Jean-Claude Van Damme (who would play the twin brother of his character in this film!), the box office looks set to be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, Expendables 2 offers enough adrenaline-pumping action and laughable lines to keep you sufficiently entertained until their next outing.

And just to reiterate: Expendables 2 is a bad film. But that doesn't stop it being bad-ass.

Brave

Only an animation studio with Pixar's reputation could produce a film like Brave and leave audiences feeling slightly disappointed. Whilst the standard of the animation, voice-acting and writing is as high as ever, Brave lacks that one crucial aspect that we have come to expect from a Pixar outing: originality.


Arguably, from a Pixar perspective, the world's greatest animation studio were doing something very original indeed. After all, the past two Pixar films have been sequels and so a host of new characters is a welcome arrival. Brave breaks a lot of new territory never before seen in Pixar's feature-length filmography: a female protagonist, a princess protagonist, a British setting, the use of magic and this is the first Pixar film to be set in the past. In short, this is Pixar's attempt at a fairy tale and they put their gritty, well-researched take on the usual cuddlier fair. 


This is also the first Pixar film to focus on a mother-daughter relationship and therefore acts as a thematic companion piece to the father-son relationship in Finding Nemo. The portrayal of Princess Merida's troublesome relationship with her mother is so smartly-written that even the youngsters in the audience might side with the mother. No doubt, the involvement of Pixar's first female director, Brenda Chapman, was the key to nailing this relationship.

However, whilst all of this might be new territory for Pixar, it is old news for the average cinema-goer.

Audiences have seen plenty of rebellious Princess stories over the years: The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and those are just the Disney examples. Brave dutifully follows the formula of such films and therefore feels very familiar. It arrives at a predictably tidy resolution and offers few surprises along the way (with the exception of one big metamorphosis twist which, fair play, they managed to hide from the multiple trailers). Who would have thought a Pixar film would ever be labelled formulaic?

Let's be clear. Brave is still the best animation you will see on the big screen in 2012: lovingly-crafted, beautifully-scored by Scottish composer Patrick Doyle and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the bickering Scottish clans. 

But it lacks the courage to challenge the Princess formula and so Brave fails to live up to its title.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Ted

After a decade of Family Guy and American Dad, Seth McFarlane finally makes his directorial debut on the big screen. However, as with any episode of Family Guy, the reality is a mixed bag of gags, with equal measures of hits and misses.

This is a shame because, on paper, Ted should be an instant hit.

The concept driving the film is a truly original idea: young John's wish is granted and his teddy bear comes to life. But then John grows up (Mark Wahlberg) and he still has his walking, talking teddy bear as a best friend. McFarlane's writing explores the consequences of this scenario, both the dramatic and the comedic: what affect would this have on John's relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis)? How can John act his age with his teddy bear in tow? What would happen when the teddy bear reaches the legal drinking age? Unfortunately, the drama is often handled better than the comedy.


Much of the comedy is hoped to be generated by Ted himself. Sticking with the Family Guy formula, McFarlane aims to produce laughs by having a human partnered with a sidekick that shouldn't do adult things... but does. We have seen this with Family Guy's Brian and Stewie: a dog and a baby that drink, smoke, swear, fight, crack wise and have sex. Ted follows suit. Admittedly, seeing a teddy bear raise its middle-finger, say the F-word and smoke a bong in the trailer was hilarious. But with a feature length film, the joke soon gets old.

The comedy is stop-start. Some jokes land but many fall flat. 

Highlights include Ted's failed attempts to get fired, Mila Kunis picking up poo, McFarlane's trademark pop culture references, Ted squaring off with a chicken and Mark Wahlberg in general, who needs to be given more comedy roles. We also get Sam Jones (the original Flash Gordon) playing himself at a house party, necking shots, snorting cocaine, tripping out, fighting a disgruntled Chinese neighbour ("Miiing!") and overall just being an ageing Hollywood bad-ass.

But the lowlights include Patrick Stewart's opening voiceover which fails to get the film started, a wasted Joel McHale as Mila Kunis' sleazy boss and crude, loud moments such as when John farts in a restaurant. Chaotic, see-what-sticks comedy is fine in a long-running TV show like Family Guy. But with a film, when you only get 110 minutes, you need to have all killer and less filler.

That said, chaotic comedy can work on the bigscreen, as seen with Anchorman and 21 Jump Street (which retains the crown of Comedy of the Year), but only if the gag rate is high. However, McFarlane chooses to give equal weight to the dramatic scenes exploring John and Lori's turbulent relationship. This is not necessarily a bad thing because these scenes are well-written and well-acted. But it does put extra pressure on the comedy, which, as noted, does not always deliver.

Nevertheless, maybe this is being unfair. 

In many ways, Ted is the Avengers of comedy films: highly-anticipated and never going to please everyone. After all, this is Seth McFarlane's first feature film and it was never going to live up to the astronomically high standards demanded by Family Guy fans. As such, it is important to be clear: Ted is a superior comedy. It is certainly funnier than the tiresome rom-coms and formulaic Ben Stiller comedies that are churned out every year. It is just testament to McFarlane's reputation as a TV comedy don that we expected some more belly-laughs.

But McFarlane can walk away from this proudly. And based on the potential on offer here, both McFarlane and Ted deserve another outing on the big screen.