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Friday, 25 February 2011

West Is West: review

Back in 1999 a surprise hit British film emerged called East Is East, following the misadventures of the Khan family, headed by George Khan, a Pakistani trying to hold onto the values of his upbringing in 70s Salford. It was a heady mix of broad comedy with dark drama. Twelve years on and the belated sequel is here but unfortunately they should have left it well alone.

It's 1976 and the Khan family have reduced, leaving just the young Sajid along with George and his British wife Ella. Sajid is a troubled young man, constantly skipping school because of bullying and caught shoplifting. When Sajid gives his father a stream of racist abuse, George decides to take the young man back to Pakistan for him to understand his background. When there, Sajid is given over to an old sage to show him the way while George has to face the family he left behind 30 years before, and to get one of his son a wife.

The first film was a huge hit, mainly because while it mixed humour with pathos and some shocking scenes, the characters were likeable. Here, however, things have changed. Vijay Raaz, as the angry Sajid, is such a disagreeable boy you really don't like him. He bad mouths his father, to the point of calling him the racist name that the bullies at school call the boy. He is spiteful, vicious and you really don't care whether he finds redemption or not.

Om Puri, who is an outstanding actor, again reprises his role of George and does another excellent job but the truth about his background is on show here and you find that he isn't as likeable as you first thought.

The first part of the film tries to inject humour but while the first film was character driven with the jokes, here we are reduced to toilet humour and it lowers the tone completely. Having sat through a large portion of the film, the excellent Linda Bassett arrives in Pakistan and you suddenly realise that she was badly missed. The film then changes gear and the drama kicks in, by that point it's all too little too late.

The other problem with the film is the editing. At one point a whole scene is missing and it is obviously on show. Just as you are getting into one subplot, then you are thrown into another without any real chance to digest what you have just seen. Writer Ayub Khan-Din, who did such a good job with the original film, seems to have so many ideas that he wants to cram in, it loses its way many times.

East Is East is a terrific film and I urge you, if you haven't seen it, to get hold of a copy and sit back and enjoy. West Is West, unfortunately, isn't a terrific film and having taken so long to produce a sequel, maybe they shouldn't have bothered.

Drive Angry: Review

In the 70s, movie makers produced low budget, often violent exploitation films that were nicknamed Grindhouse and ended up being second billing to a main feature. Quentin Tarantino tried to produced that with his Death Proof segment from Grindhouse...and failed. Now comes Drive Angry which does manage to capture the feel. It's incredibly violent, incredibly stupid and incredibly bad. So bad, it's actually quite good.

Milton is out for revenge. His daughter has been brutally murdered by cult devil leader Jonah King and has stolen his granddaughter for human sacrifice. Picking up feisty waitress Piper, Milton is on a road of destruction, killing anyone who stands in his way to get to King and get the child. Following him is a mysterious neat-suited man only known as The Accountant. What Piper doesn't know is that Milton isn't what he seems.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. The script is really dumb. Nothing much makes sense whatsoever and every corny line that can be thrown at a script is here for all to see. It's also in 3D which, as you know, I really do not like. At least director Patrick Lussier, who made the 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine, understands that the audience wants more than just depth, and throws all kinds of objects at the screen but it doesn't quite work. Finally Nicolas Cage is a bit of a disappointment too. You would expect him to give us one of his over-the-top loony tunes performances that he has been known for in the past. Instead we get a Clint Eastwood style, quietly underplayed performance that while it works, isn't really what you want.

The positives come in the form of Amber Heard. A very attractive young woman, she is much more than just a pretty face. She kicks some butt big time and while she is obviously there to keep the male audience interested (let's face it, this is aimed at a male audience) she could make for a tough, exciting, leading lady in the future as she brings so much more to a role that could have been played in a clich├ęd manner.

The star of the film, however, is William Fichtner. While Cage disappoints, Fichtner delivers big time. He ignites the screen. After years of being an interesting character actor, he came to the forefront with Prison Break, this should catapult him to stardom. Every line is approached with aplomb. When he appears he commands each scene. It is possibly the best scene stealing performance you will see all year. Brilliantly funny.

So we have an ultra-violent,action-packed thrill-fest that is not for the faint-hearted. Within the first five minutes, a man has his hand shot off in full graphic detail so you know this isn't going to be a subtle journey. Yet it kind of works as an all-action, brainless piece of entertainment. While there isn't the amount of angry driving you would expect from a film called Drive Angry, it makes up for it in energy, tongue-in-cheek humour and gore. Oh, and if you are clever, Cage's character is called John Milton, which should give you a hint about where he is from. See? It tries to be literal too.

Monday, 21 February 2011

I Am Number Four: Review

After weeks of serious, intelligent movies all clambering for award nominations, we are now in the realm of big, dumb, loud blockbusters that will appeal to an audience not really looking for story but more just a good time. The first of those movies is I Am Number Four and after a slightly dodgy start this isn’t that bad.
John Smith has had a very unsettled life, moving from town to town with his guardian Henri. As it turns out, John isn’t from this planet but has escaped from a dying world along with nine others, all protected by guardians. Three have been killed already and it is up to John to find the others, thus making them stronger in a war against an alien race intent on ruling the universe. As John settles into a new life, he meets Sarah, a young girl obsessed with photographing everything and placing it on her website, including pictures of John, causing his anonymity to be in jeopardy.
As the film starts, the performances are pretty ropey but it’s a strange thing when as the movie continues they get better. Brit Alex Pettyfer, who you might remember as Alex Storm in Stormbreaker, starts off quite poor but he really does shine as he starts to discover things about himself he didn’t know. Pretty Dianna Agron, best known for being a star of Glee, is a little too wet to really appeal as the girl that captures John’s heart and I did want her to open her mouth more when she spoke.
Let’s face it, movies like this are not based around performances but more on the action side and while there are moments when the romance between John and Sarah blossoms which seem to go on forever, director D.J. Caruso keeps things moving at a brisk pace and has created some very exciting scenes. The battle in the school, while totally ludicrous, is brilliantly executed with effects and stunt work mixed in nicely.
The film does have, what could be, the scene of the year, in which a mysterious blonde girl (I won’t give away too much), ram shacks John’s previous beachside home and blows it up to a soundtrack of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. It’s a real moment.
So this might not be The King’s Speech or Black Swan but you do come out satisfied that you have been entertained and even though it is nonsense, it’s exciting nonsense that will appeal to anyone looking for something they don’t necessarily have to think about too much.
You can see that the film makers, looking for a replacement for both Harry Potter and the Twilight saga, are hoping that this could be it, as the film is left open for a follow-up. Well if it is going to be as much fun as this, I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Paul: Review

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been riding a crest of a wave ever since their Spaced days. First there was Shaun of the Dead and then Hot Fuzz and now the difficult third album, Paul. I can announce that it wasn't such a difficult third album but it's a bundle of fun.

Graham and Clive are best friends and workmates who go to the world famous Comic Con before heading off on a road trip across America in a RV which checking out the important places where UFOs and alien sightings have occurred. While driving one night, a car overtakes them and then crashes. On investigation, they discover a little green alien called Paul. Reluctantly they decide to help him get to a destination he needs to be at. On the way they kidnap Ruth, a religious nut who hasn't really understood the outside world, while being pursued by Ruth's bible-wielding father, a secret agent and to inept secret service officers. Will the gang get to where Paul needs to go?

Pegg and Frost's on-screen chemistry is almost perfect. The best friends off-screen, they seem so at ease with each other that you feel you could easily be their mates too. What is so nice about this pair is that even though they get top billing, as co-writers, they could have given all the decent lines to themselves and used the American cast as nothing more than extras. This doesn't happen at all. In fact the best liens are left for both Paul and Ruth.

The brilliant Kristen Wiig gets to really shine here as Ruth, starting out as a woman who is against the theory of evolution and ending up with  the worst potty mouth around. She sparkles throughout and is hilarious, especially with some choice throw-away lines.

Seth Rogen is a perfect choice for the voice of Paul, making him a laid-back, weedy smoking wise old owl who knows a few choice words himself. With Jason Bateman as the mysterious secret agent assigned to track them down, he too gets some deadpan moments that will have you giggling.

And you will giggle. Director Greg Mottola (he of Superbad fame) doesn't overcomplicate things with flashy visuals but allows the script to do the work and while it never reaches the heights of Shaun or Hot Fuzz, this is a more accessible film with enough sci-fi in-jokes to keep the geeks happy, allowing plenty of low-grade toilet humour and foul language to keep everyone else amused.

You might not find yourself in hysterics but you will leave the cinema more than satisfied that you have had a great time, hoping that the masterful double act of Pegg and Frost will be back soon with something else for us to enjoy.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Never Let Me Go: Review

This year has already been a cracking time in the cinema with week in and week out another 4/5 star movie. So the release of the opening film of last year's London Film Festival looked like joining the likes of True Grit, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, Tangled, Black Swan and The Fighter. At least, it should have been. However, it doesn't even come close to making that list.

1977 and a boarding school holding both boys and girls is the home for Kathy H, a naive, wide-eyed girl who has a crush for Tommy, a hot-headed young man with no talents whatsoever, particularly in sports or art and finally Ruth, Kathy's only friend who betrays her by stealing Tommy's heart. This mysterious school has a secret and the students are so well behaved, they don't even cross the line that divides them from the outside world. Years go on and Kathy is still friends with Tommy and Ruth but they are now free to live a life outside the school, yet their lives are never really their own and fate has plenty in store for them.

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's award-winning novel, this should have your mouth watering with anticipation. Three of the country's most talented actors in a film written by Alex Garland, the man who wrote 28 Days Later and directed by Mark Romanek, the man behind One Hour Photo. This should be a sure-fire success. Alas it is not, and I can only say that it is a dull, lifeless, cold and totally detached piece that would struggle to keep the attention of a TV audience.

The problem doesn't lie in the performances. Carey Mulligan proves once more that she is one of the best young screen actresses around. A quietly understated performance, she is incredibly watchable and oozes class. Andrew Garfield, who did a great job in The Social Networ, does an even better job here, with a much more showier role than Mulligan but still equally impressive. Only Keira Knightley as Ruth doesn't sit right and she seems slightly misplaced.

The look of the film isn't the problem either. It is beautifully shot and has an almost dream-like quality to it.

The problem is that we are given so much information within the first few minutes that there doesn't seem to be anywhere else for the film to go and so we follow the three friends as they head towards an already plotted out finale. There is no tension, there is no emotional involvement, just a series of scenes in which the characters talk a little, then maybe walk, then talk some more and so on. This goes on for the rest of its 103 minutes running time and by the end you feel very little about anything except glad that it has ended.

This is a film I have been looking forward to for months and maybe I have been spoilt recently with the quality of the work on display (and the work still to come) but I have to confess that I was very bored and as it went on, it became duller and duller. A pity really as Mulligan and Garfield seem to be delivering outstanding performances in a film that goes nowhere. This could be described as the disappointment of the week...maybe even the year.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Gnomeo And Juliet: Review

Here is a film with a terrific concept: Take William Shakespeare's most famous love story, update it without the classical language, animate it for a younger audience to enjoy and set the whole thing in two gardens with warring garden gnomes. How could you lose? Well, by producing a weak script, that's how.

Two groups of garden gnomes have been at war for years. The blue gnomes, led by a young adventurous gnome named Gnomeo, and the red gnomes, with Lord Redbrick in charge of their garden with tough Tybalt always up for a fight. One day, while exploring a deserted garden, Gnomeo meets and falls for the beautiful Juliet until he realises that she is a red gnome, and the daughter of Lord Redbrick. As they say, true love will conquer all, even if it makes the rift between the gnomes even worse.

This Elton John produced film has a lot going for it. The cast of voice talent that have been brought together looks more like a whos who of cinema. James McAvoy is the cocky Gnomeo while Emily Blunt is Juliet. There's also Michael Caine as the Lord while Maggie Smith presides over the blues; Jason Statham as the thuggish Tybalt. Even Ozzy Osbourne lends his Midlands tones to a deer!

The animation is fine, maybe not up to the Disney/Pixar standards but its  pretty good work compared to other British-made CGI animation. So far, so good.

So why doesn't it work? I think the problem is, it is far too clever for its own good. There are plenty of references to Shakespeare's works. One very funny part is when Juliet is battling to keep a bulldog from entering the garden, and while pushing a gate, shouting "Out! Out!" when in the distance you hear the owner shout "Damn Spot! Come here!" All well and good if you recognise the quote but lost on the young audience this film is aimed at. Very clever stuff but for an 8-year-old you want bright colours, likable characters and a little bit of silliness every so often, not intelligent jokes for the well-read.

With 10 (yes, 10) writers on board, you would expect more but I guess it's a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Elton John supplies the songs, some classic and some new, and it is fun listening out for who will pop out next, but you get the feeling that the makers forgot they were making a family film and started throwing in gags that they think are funny. Hence the family filled audience I saw it with started getting very fidgety. Even the little girl sitting next to me said at one point 'It's not as good as Tangled!'

Not a terrible movie by a long shot but one that promised so much but delivers so little.

True Grit: Review

The thought of a remake of John Wayne's classic, Oscar winning western didn't excite me when I first heard about it. Even with the legendary Coen Brothers at the helm (the last time they remade a film was The Ladykillers and it wasn't a classic). However, the Coens haven't remade it but gone to the original source material and have produced one of the finest westerns since Unforgiven.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old girl with revenge on her mind. She wants to find the man responsible for the death of her father. With very little money she is advised to get a US Marshal to track the culprit down and bring him to justice. The only man who is cheap enough for her is a washed-out drunk named Rooster Cogburn. Accepting her case, Cogburn and Mattie head into the wilderness to find Tom Chancy, the man accused and are joined by Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. The unlikely trio must overcome all obstacles, including their own differences, in order to get their man.

The Coen Brothers have created a brilliant character study within a western formula. Three very different individuals with their own demons having to find a common bond in order to work together. At the same time, they have a gripping story beautifully shot by Roger Deakins who is almost a sure-fire winner for best cinematography at the Oscars. It is rich in texture and detail while capturing the traditional western flavour.

The other ace up the Coens sleeves are the performances. Jeff Bridges, fresh from winning last year's Best Actor Oscar. could have quite easily made it two in a row (if it wasn't for Colin Firth) with an impressive creation in Rooster. Not an easy task to take on, considering John Wayne made such him so iconic. Bridges brings out the a man who has lived by the bottle and yet still has 'true grit', who fears nothing and is willing to risk his life for something he believes in, if he isn't flat out from drink. Some of the dialogue is completely incoherent as he mumbles his way through the script but it doesn't seem to matter. Bridges makes him fully understandable just by a look.

Matt Damon gets to strip away the pretty-boy action hero that he has become famous for and under a monstrous moustache,  delivers one of his best performances. While Josh Brolin, in more of a cameo role, as Clancy, still makes an impact.

If the film were to have a revelation, it has to be young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. While watching her performance, it is hard to believe that she is only 14-years-old. She has a maturity and screen presence of an actress who has been working in the business for years. She is tough, smart, intelligent and brings to life a character that could quite easily have been annoying. She is definitely an actress to keep your eye on. The last time I can remember a newcomer almost stealing a film from its stars was when Kristen Dunst starred in Interview With A Vampire.

This is the Coens at their best, and they could help with the return of a genre that sadly comes and goes. Superb, unmissable stuff.