Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

It is a testament to the quality of 21st century animation when you find yourself walking out of an Aardman film feeling short-changed. But sadly, that is the case with Pirates.

In many ways, this comes as a surprise because Aardman appear to be sticking to their formula: lovingly-crafted claymation, an eccentric bunch of characters, cute animals, a voice cast of big-name British actors, lots of good clean humour and chaotic slapstick action.

If anything, the only complaint about Pirates should be that director Peter Lord is sticking a little too closely to the Aardman formula that gave him such a winning result with Chicken Run.

Aside from the ships and cutlasses, we have seen all of this before in previous Aardman films: we have Mr Bobo the monkey, a mute but clever animal breaking the fourth wall (Gromit); a bewildered hero (Wallace); a psychotic female villain who wields blades and likes eating cute animals (Chicken Run's Mrs Tweedy); a chaotic chase scene (every Aardman creation to date); a hero dangling from a rope at the film's climax (Chicken Run); machinery over-filling and then exploding (Chicken Run again); and a plot involving the pursuit of a Macguffin (here a Dodo but a giant marrow in the case of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

A generous review would accuse Aardman of lacking originality, resting on their morels but creating an enjoyable piece of British animation nonetheless. And due to the popularity of Aardman and the loyalty critics feels to Wallace and Gromit, expect to see plenty of four or five star reviews for Pirates.

However, as an Oscar-winning animation studio, Aardman deserve to hear some some criticism.

The chief flaw with Pirates is that it lacks the belly-laughs of Chicken Run or Were-Rabbit. In fact, the adult gag-rate seems to be the only thing that they haven't taken from previous Aardman films. Young viewers will enjoy themselves but - aside from the monkey and some inventive map jokes - adults will do little more than smile appreciatively.

The characters also fail to inspire. For starters, very few of them have anything to do accept utter idiotic one-liners, such as Russell Tovey's Albino Pirate and Brendan Gleeson's Pirate with Gout. Meanwhile, Selma Hayek's beautiful but deadly Cutlass Liz and Ashley Jensen's Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate are wasted entirely. The audience will be waiting for their stories to go somewhere (look how prominently they feature on the poster!) but they only have two or three lines each. Admittedly, Pirates is based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe so maybe their stories will be explored in a sequel. But don't expect a Chicken Run-style love story. This is strictly a bromance on a boat, like The Boat That Rocked but without the laughs.

All of this is a shame because the Aardman visuals have never been better. This is Aardman's first claymation venture in 3D so expect cutlasses pointing into the camera and a Jolly Roger with springy googly-eyes. Also, this is their most epic adventure to date. The sheer size of some of the scenes is unlike any previous Aardman film, notably when one pirate makes his entrance via a whale and again later as Queen Victoria's QV1 is overflowing with baking soda. Furthermore, the detail packed into every shot is impressive and Blu-Ray owners will spend hours freeze-framing so they can read every joke written on the signs in the background of each scene. Technically, Aardman have come a long way since 1989's A Grand Day Out.

But the technical side is the least important in any film. If only they had spent less time with the clay and more time on the story and character and script. 

Unlike Pixar, those unbeatable leaders of world-famous animation, Aardman prefer to play it safe and stick to what they know. This is particularly frustrating because Aardman should have hit their stride following the Oscar-winning Were-Rabbit. It is high time they tackled something a little more challenging. They need to make a WALL.E or an Up or a Ratatouille, all of which tackled adult themes in a sophisticated but entertaining way. If not, Aardman films will keep falling off the radar into pleasant-but-hardly-essential territory (does anybody even remember Flushed Away?) and it will be Pixar films that we will continue to watch twenty years from now.

Until then, Aardman will keep sticking to their formula. Their reputation alone will guarantee that Pirates will be a box office success and many Wallace and Gromit loyalists will treasure an Aardman adventure on the open seas. 

But don't expect any gold.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Hunger Games

Do you know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris? Battle Royale with Cheese!

Great joke. Also, a very concise and accurate review.

Because, put simply: The Hunger Games takes the plot of Koshun Takami's novel Battle Royale and tailors it for the Twilight generation. 

For anyone not in the know, The Hunger Games is a trilogy by Suzanne Collins which has captured the interest of teenage girls looking for life after Edward Cullen. Their popularity is hardly surprising. The books have a strong female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film), and a three-book love story between Katniss and sweetheart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). 

Admittedly, the plot is pretty cool too. It fits the mould of the Dystopian Death Games genre - particularly Battle Royale - whereby a group of randomly-selected teenagers are told to kill each other by the government for their viewing pleasure. Cue lots of hunting and killing and alliances and betrayals. It's a great concept and has ensured the enduring popularity of Battle Royale and its five-star film adaptation by director Kinji Fukasaku.

The Hunger Games has a promising start. Director Gary Ross makes use of his indie roots and takes time to introduce Lawrence's Katniss, the setting and the idea of the Games. Rather than feeling fantastical, which is always a risk in futuristic films with ridiculous costumes, Ross gives the films a gritty feel with plenty of hand-held cameras, extreme close-ups and different lenses. Like many reputable big-budget films of late, it is fashionable (and respectable) to tackle them with tricks from the indie playbook.

The momentum builds as Katniss and Peeta are both selected for the Games and taken to the capital where they begin their training. This is where the film really hits its stride, as the celebrity culture surrounding the training acts as a brilliant parody of reality TV culture. The unveiling of the contestants is reminiscent of a Big Brother launch whilst Katniss' performance with her bow parallels an X-Factor audition. This is also where the motley supporting cast get their screen time, ranging from memorable (Stanley Tucci's blue-haired host, Woody Harrelson's over-the-hill trainer) to underused (Lenny Kravitz's image consultant, Donald Sutherland's evil President Snow). 

The scenes focussing on the culture surrounding the games are the most original and engaging. Similar films often skirt over these scenes - The Running Man, Rollerball, Death Race - because an 18-certificate audience just wants to fast-track to the violent game itself. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, a teen audience are much more interested in the costumes and the make-overs and the judges' scores and so naturally Ross directs much of the film's running time to the build-up.

Unfortunately, so much time is directed to the build-up that the audience will be fidgeting in their seats by the time the actual Game starts. And the Game is where the film falters and your interest will wane.

There are numerous problems with the Game, which comprises the second half of the film... 

Firstly, this is a 12-certificate film. Anyone expecting the hyper-violence promised by such a great concept as The Hunger Games will be sorely disappointed. Ross is clearly struggling to hold onto that 12-certificate and manages to negotiate around the gore through huge amounts of shaky-cam (so we never actually see the machete blows land) and far too many off-screen deaths.

Secondly, this is a one-girl show. The entire film is told through Katniss' eyes and, aside from Peeta, the other characters barely get a look in. We know nothing about the other twenty-two kids running around the island getting butchered. A handful of them are lucky enough to bag a line but the rest are just nameless, faceless, character-less fodder to make up numbers. Considering the greatest strength of Battle Royale was the diverse character-list and interconnecting stories, it is a terrible shame that The Hunger Games missed this opportunity. Admittedly, the film-makers were limited by Collins' source material (and she is credited as co-screenwriter) but liberties should have been taken.

Thirdly, the pacing is awful. Ross left himself very little time to deliver the actual Game itself and so you would expect a fast-paced, kinetic Game. Instead, Ross quite happily spends ages filming Katniss tying herself to a tree or staring into the distance or enjoying an extended dream sequence. Plus, with a teen love story at its centre, chunks of the Game time is spent showing Katniss and Peeta getting cosy in a cave. Yawn.

Fourthly, the film regularly borders on nonsensical. Magical ointments are flown in to help Katniss heal (twice!), random fireballs are used to stop Katniss leaving the Game arena and CGI dogs mysteriously pop up from the ground. Are they real or digital? If they are digital, how exactly are they going to harm anyone? Presumably, all of this is explained in more detail throughout the books but, like the Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games demands a lot of foreknowledge from its audience and risks alienating those who don't have the source material of their bookshelf. And those CGI dogs are far too reminiscent of Twilight's wolf pack.

Fifthly, sixthly, seventhly... The list goes on. If only the Game lived up to the build-up, this would have been a very superior blockbuster indeed.

Nevertheless, Lawrence's performance ensures this stays a cut above the Twilight saga. Unlike dreary Bella Swan, Lawrence's Katniss can be added to the canon of great sci-fi feminists, joining the ranks of Alien's Ripley and Battlestar's Starbuck. She is cold but with a big heart, beautiful but deadly, tough but not afraid to cry. Lawrence juggles all of this brilliantly, as you would expect from an Oscar-nominated actress. 

In fact, Katniss shares much with Lawrence's Oscar-nominated Ree Dolly from Winter's Bone. Both are over-protective elder siblings, both live in the wild, both are accustomed to skinning furry animals and both suffer a string of mental and physical abuse to keep their families safe. In many ways, this is Lawrence's definitive performance. It draws on her experience with both blockbusters (X-Men: First Class) and indie flicks (Like Crazy) but also reminds us that Lawrence can carry a film, as we saw in Winter's Bone. With two more The Hunger Games films planned, Lawrence has plenty of opportunity to develop the role into something career-defining. Katniss could be her Wolverine or her Jack Sparrow or her Bond.

With The Hunger Games' box office rising and rising, it is clear that audiences are hungry for more. And provided Lawrence is back and the Game scenes are given an adrenaline boost, we'll be game for more.

Only next time, we'd prefer our Battle Royale without the Cheese. We're not that hungry.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street wins the award for Surprise Comedy Hit of the Year and holds its own against previous winners, such as Bridesmaids, The Hangover and even Anchorman.

Based on an eighties TV show starring Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, the concept was always going to be a sure-fire hit for comedy. Two high school kids - Jonah Hill's Schmidt (a geek) and Channing Tatum's Jenko (a jock) - leave school and join the local police academy where they form an unlikely friendship and ultimately become partners. In an inevitable twist, they are sent back to high school as undercover agents to bring down a drug ring. Instead, both use this as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and re-live their failed high school years.

It is obvious why screenwriters Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall chose 21 Jump Street for a feature-film revival. The high-concept combines all the best bits of two of comedy's greatest sub-genres: the Buddy Cop Comedy (read more about that here) and the High-School Comedy. This means you get hilariously-mismatched partners, back-and-forth-banter, guns and chase scenes but this runs alongside cliques, inappropriate teachers, house parties, a school play and the standard climatic prom scene. It is a non-stop, seamless blend of brilliant comedic motifs from both sub-genres and one of the most inspired genre mash-ups to hit the cinemas in recent years.

As with all good comedies, the gags come at you in all shapes and sizes. You therefore get slapstick (Schmidt getting hit by a car), gross-out humour (Schmidt and Jenko trying to gag each other), super gross-out humour (a character picking up his dismembered penis with his mouth), nonsense (Schmidt praying to Korean Jesus), lots of swearing (courtesy of Ice Cube), visual gags (baby photos of Schmidt looking like Jay Leno), in-jokes (Nick Offerman's police detective commenting on the tedious revival of another eighties 'police operation'), inverted genre motifs (fuel trucks not exploding during a high-speed chase), stoner comedy (a tripping-out montage) and a heavy dose of guy-love throughout. 

Reading that back, the gags clearly favour low-brow, base humour but that is no bad thing. After all, who doesn't love Road Trip?

Naturally, this being a comedy, not all of the jokes land. But this sort of chaotic, semi-improvised comedy is always going to be an exercise in hit-and-miss. Most of these misses come courtesy of the supporting cast, comprised of the usual bunch of recognisable C-listers who always appear in this type of comedy: Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell. But thankfully, with such a high gag rate and quick pace, the misses are soon forgotten and another belly-laugh is only ever seconds away.

This is the first live-action feature film for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (they previously only directed Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs) but they appear at ease with comedy. They use the opportunity provided by Hill's story-light script to throw in as many random sketches as possible, particularly the brilliant YouTube summary of what happens if you take drugs. There is also a bizarre animated sequence featuring an ice-cream cone face.

Although, their real skill as directors might just be assembling some great actors and giving them free reign to be funny. Ice Cube seems to be having lots of fun living up to the angry black police chief stereotype, whilst Dave Franco (James' little brother) has graduated from the short-lived ninth series of Scrubs and is making the most of the big screen. He is suitably annoying - and hilarious - as the 'cool kid' douchebag who cares about the environment but also deals drugs.

However, the stand-out by far is Channing Tatum. Put simply, Tatum is a revelation.

After a string of awful films that have given him nothing to do but pose and take himself too seriously (G.I. Joe, Step Up, She's The Man, Dear John), it is good to see him enjoying himself in front of the camera. It appears that Tatum has finally found his calling: comedy. 

Tatum is utterly hilarious as Jenko, the lovable dumb jock. He throws himself into the role, both shredding his handsome leading man image and possibly losing his female fan base in the first ten minutes alone. As a result, Tatum gets all of the big laughs but also carries all of the heartfelt moments, such as when Jenko loses his best friend to the cool clique. And fair play to Hill, who is equally hilarious but happy to step back and let Tatum steal scene after scene. Let's hope we see more of Tatum is these types of roles.

The bad news is that the final fifteen minutes are a bit of a drag: too many bullets, not enough jokes. Comedies should keep the story nonsensical to avoid putting the comedy on hold whilst plot strands are wrapped-up at the end. Anchorman's zoo finale is still the best example of how to finish a comedy. But this is nit-picking and at least some great cameos from the original TV series make the bullet-fest a little more bearable.

In short, 21 Jump Street is that rare experience: a comedy worth going to the cinema for. 

Even more rare, it leaves you wanting more. Luckily for cinema-goers, the sequel has already been green-lit (22 Jump Street?) which means the pre-credits cliffhanger was more than just a tease. Looks like the boys are going to college. And with more of the Hill-Tatum double-act guaranteed, we're sure to be going with them.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

John Carter

John Carter has finally arrived on the big screen exactly one hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs published The Princess of Mars - the novel which kicked-off the entire John Carter adventure series that takes place on the titular red planet. The series has a huge following and is often called the granddaddy of science fiction but with a vast complex universe of Martian geography and characters (many with four-arms) it was declared unfit for a feature length film.

So why now? One word: Avatar.

Due to the unexpected success of James Cameron's Avatar - now the biggest film in the world with a worldwide gross of $2.78 billion - it is understandable that Disney might want a piece of the action. And so John Carter was a logical go-to project. The similarities between Avatar and John Carter are numerous: a vast alien world, a gruff American soldier, very tall aliens, outstanding mo-cap and a plot ripped-off from Pocahontas.

Unfortunately, whilst there appear to be lots of similarities on paper, John Carter is a very different film.

Avatar worked because it was a mainstream film disguised as science fiction. Cameron wrote the screenplay so it could be marketed to everyone: action scenes for the meat-heads, a love story for the girls, an environmental message for the hippies, a military allegory for the thinking folk and lots of in-jokes for film fans. It had mainstream written all over it. That's how you break box-office records.

Meanwhile, John Carter is a fantasy film disguised as science fiction. You therefore get serious-looking people in silly-looking costumes, warrior princesses wearing very little, ridiculous names which are therefore instantly forgettable and lots of unexplained magic. As such, it is far from a mainstream experience.

The problem is, director Andrew Stanton does not have the freedom that Cameron enjoyed with Avatar because John Carter is an adaptation. Therefore, Stanton has to honour Burroughs' source text and that involves staying faithful to a lot of story. A complex plot may be perfect for a literary adventure serial where it has room to breathe and develop. But cramming that much story into two hours was never going to work.

Stanton gives it his best shot anyway but consequently loses his audience from the get-go. The film opens with a narrative voice-over, then a pre-credits sequence, then a framing device whereby Carter's nephew inherits his diary, then an extended flashback beginning with Carter's life as a disgraced Civil War deserter and there is even a dream sequence involving Carter's wife and daughter. And all of that takes place before he has even been transported to Mars and all the crazy names start flying around. Quite frankly, it is exhausting.

To keep all of this plot afloat, the audience are submitted to scene after scene of talking. You almost want to sue the trailer people for false advertising because John Carter is far from the white-ape-fighting melee that you were promised. This isn't mindless brawling popcorn-fodder. This is a story and Stanton is determined to see it told properly. As a result, you will be fidgeting in your seat long before you get to the white-ape arena ruckus.

All of this is a huge shame. No doubt, many a film fan wanted this to be a success, solely for the reason that Andrew Stanton - one of the Pixar Brain Trust - was sat in the director's chair and making his first move into live-action.

In many ways, Stanton can hold his head high. Having created the seabed of Finding Nemo and the dystopic wasteland of WALL.E,  Stanton is no stranger to designing a whole new universe and his Mars does look stunning (although a desert planet will never rival the flora and fauna of Avatar's Pandora). Also, there are few more qualified than Stanton in bringing to life computer-animated characters. The four-armed Tharks hold their own against Cameron's Na'vi whilst Carter's alien 'puppy' is a scene-stealing delight. Plus, Stanton's talent for generating humour in unexpected places surfaces from time to time, such as Carter's repeated escapes from the cavalrymen or a comedy head-slap from Tars Tarkas after Carter leads them to the wrong city.

Taylor Kitsch can also walk away from this undamaged. As Kitsch plays the only Earth character for the majority of the film, he isn't bogged down with the exposition and awkward dialogue that brings down the other actors. Kitsch injects enough charm and dry humour into John Carter to save him from vanilla territory. The montage of his first steps - another great touch no doubt thought up by Stanton - is played brilliantly.

But neither Stanton nor Kitsch can re-write Burroughs' source material (although Stanton should have tried) and that it where the fault lies. Some stories are best told in printed form, especially fantastical adventures with this much scope.

One hundred years was too soon for a John Carter film.