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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Review


Michael Bay came out to complain about the treatment of his second Transformers film Revenge of the Fallen, claiming that critics were unfair because the film had to be rushed through due to the writer's strike. I wonder what his excuse is going to be this time for his third in the series, which is just as loud, just as messy and just as dumb.

In the 60s a craft crashes on the moon, triggering the NASA moon landings to investigate. The space agency have kept the whole thing secret. Fast forward to Earth when the Autobots are helping protect the planet from the Deceptacons and they find out what about the craft, which has a senior Autobot on board, thought to be lost forever and his cargo that could change the face of the war between the Transformers forever.

As with the previous films, plot comes second to spectacle and you cannot deny that Bay knows how to deliver loud explosions, impressive special effects and flashy camera trickery. The problem this time is that this only occurs in the final act of the film. For the first hour of this extremely long movie, we get the problems of Sam, the human who helped the Autobots in the past movies.

Shia LaBeouf's geeky boy has now become a man without a job who has a medal from the President and a new girlfriend (gone has brunette, blue-eyed Megan Fox, replaced by blonde, blue-eyed Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) which he has jealousy problems with and feels threatened by her ultra-rich boss (Patrick Dempsey). He has also been shut out of the Autobots operations by the government. Bay, as a director, can handle the action but has always struggled with human drama and here it is most obvious. You have no sympathy for any of the characters as they are so paper thin. Having Sam dated stunningly beautiful women also just seems so unbelievable. Maybe they think being incredibly jealous is cute, so why not flirt like mad to make things worst.

Bay is very fortunate to have on board Frances McDormand and John Malkovich, two the screen's finest and yet Malkovich is given very little to do apart from play a slightly nutty boss and McDormand tries her hardest to bring credibility to the events as a government boss. John Turturro also returns but even he cannot save the dullness of the first hour or so. It drags on...and on...and on.

Until we get to the big battle. Yes, for almost an hour we get mass destruction as Transformer takes on Transformer. This has buildings being crushed, robots being ripped apart and humans being killed and turning to dust. So all of what has happened before with the human drama is replaced by an overlong effects-fest and once again it seems to go on forever. With all the flashy cinematography you get lost with who is fighting who or what is happening. You know that the previous events make you feel nothing as the heroes are trapped in a building slowly collapsing, which should be nail-biting stuff but is very humdrum and lacking in any tension.

One of the good things about the film, and I didn't think I'd say this, is the 3D, especially when the soldiers are jumping out the under attack helicopters.

It will be a massive hit (the queues for the opening day were huge) but this is the kind of summer blockbuster that gives blockbusters a bad name. It maybe big and brash but it will make you feel like you've lost several IQ points after experiencing it. Still it is better than the second film, but not by much.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bridesmaids: Review


For years, Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig has been appearing in comedy movies as a supporting character and usually walking away with the movie (see Paul, Whip It, MacGruber for examples). Now she gets to lead a film (as well as co-write) and I can honestly say that a new comedy star has definitely arrived.

Annie is a troubled woman: a failed baker whose business foiled, she gives unhelpful advice to those coming into the jewellery shop she works, making them leave; her love life is with a man so full of himself that he doesn't like her sleeping over and she lives with a British man and his sister, who she pays the rent for. The only constant in her life is her best friend from childhood, Lillian. When Lillian announces she is engaged, she wants Annie to be the maid-of-honour. If Annie's life isn't in a mess now, it starts heading for a downward spiral given the responsibilities of arranging everything for her friend's wedding. Added to that, she has a jealousy problem with Lillian's new best friend, the wealthy Helen, that could see her making a mess of everything.

There have been a handful of comedies out recently that, frankly, just haven't even been close to the mark (Your Highness and the truly lazy The Hangover Part II being two of them). Well now we, at last, get a genuinely funny movie that will have you giggling throughout with some very big laughs scattered here and there, as well as having the biggest heart i have seen in a film in a very long time.

From the moment it starts to the hilarious mid-end-credits sequence (Don't leave immediately...you will miss a treat!) this is a joyous journey into the destruction of a woman on the edge. That might sound bad but trust me, Kristen Wiig has created such a likeable character in Annie that you feel for her, every step of the way. With her often understated asides, she is a diamond in the rough. In fact every character in this film is so brilliantly drawn-out that it makes the 2 hours fly by.

Rose Byrne is deliciously cute as the friend who takes over everything, while Maya Rudolph is perfect as Lillian. The star of the group of ladies friends is Melissa McCarthy, who almost steals every scene she is in as the gross-out, Fight Club obsessed Megan. She manages to make Zack Galifiankis's Alan from The Hangover, look like a a paper-thin caricature.

The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd is great as the cop that has  more than a crush on Annie, and you want them to get together so much you feel like getting Annie's head and slapping her then going for John Hamm's egotistic lover (a terrific cameo from him). Matt Lucas also pops up as the flatmate. It also has the last performance from the late Jill Clayburgh as Annie's mother, a nice tribute for a really great actress.

To say I really loved this film is an understatement. I haven't laughed so loud at a movie in what seems such a long time (the dress fitting scene is both incredibly gross and painfully funny to watch). It might seem and feel like a "chick flick" but this has so much to offer it, you forget and just laugh along with the antics. The perfect date movie? Absolutely. It's sweet. It's funny. It's sickly (but in a very good way) and any film that has Wilson Phillips singing Hold On at the end is going to send you out with a big fat grin from ear to ear. Miss this and you are missing the sleeper comedy of the year. Superb.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Green Lantern: Review


DC Comics have always been behind Marvel when it comes to making movies of their characters. With only two really big money-makers, Batman and Superman, they need to come up with a new hero from their back catalogue to bring in the bucks and so they bring us The Green Lantern. Trouble is, someone forgot to tell them that to bring in the money you've got to make a really good superhero movie.

I will try my best to explain the plot: Somewhere in the universe are a group of alien creatures who form the Green Lantern Corps. Out to protect the whole universe from evil and to be fearless. One of their kind battles against a giant blob like creature that finds fear and sucks the life out of the fearful. Injured, the hero goes off to find a replacement. He lands on Earth and the ring that all Green Lanterns have, selects Hal Jordan, a maverick, reckless fighter pilot. Now with the powers of The Green Lantern, being able to fly and to conjure up objects from his imagination, he must help in stopping the blob-like creature from killing all the fellow lanterns as well as the Earth.

This is the massive problem with this film. We don't know enough about the Green Lantern (unless you are a real comic-book fan-boy). We know about Superman and Batman so we don't need long explanations as to where they come from or how they became heroes. The Green Lantern, has such a complex background that we have to spend the first 45/50 minutes of the film being told about the Corp and who Hal is and what the Green Lantern can do, then we are given several sub-plots to play around with, as if we don't have enough on our plate.

To be perfectly honest, he is not the most exciting of superheroes either. So he can fly; so can Superman. So he can create objects using his mind; so can Professor X (sort of) from the X-Men. So he's green: so is The Hulk! Try as he might, Ryan Reynolds, who was so good in the excellent Buried, is a likeable enough actor but here he has to balance being a cocky show-off with being mister nice-guy and he cannot pull it off.

Then there's the over plotted sub-plots involving brand new fighter planes, the brainy son of a senator who gets alien blood inside him to turn him bad, the relationship between Hal and Blake Lively as the daughter of the creator of the new planes...one at a time please!

Director Martin Campbell, who we know can deliver excellent action movies (see Goldeneye and The Mask of Zorro for examples) seems to have decided to slowly develop the characters so we can help understand the complicated storyline but instead of helping, it makes the whole thing drag. At under two hours, this felt like it was never going to end. And of course to make matters worse...it's in 3D!

With so many superhero movies coming out, the film makers needed to just go and see Thor, or X Men: First Class, or rent Iron Man to see how to make a really good adaptation. Instead, someone must have made them watch Daredevil, Ghost Rider and The Punisher (the Dolph Lungdren version). Very poor indeed.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Bad Teacher: Review

Cameron Diaz hasn't exactly ignited the box office of late. Shrek Forever After aside, her two previous films, the so-so The Green Hornet and the undervalued Knight and Day both bombed at the box office, so she needs a hit. Bad Teacher could be the film that does it for her.

Elizabeth isn't very good at her job as a teacher, in fact she hates it and is just close enough to leave and marry a wealthy man until he dumps her and she is back in the profession she despises. Making her class watch movies about teaching while she nurses a hangover, she feels there is no escape, until a new supply teacher arrives, the son of a rich watch making family. Dumped by his previous girlfriend, Elizabeth knows exactly how to win him over...by getting larger breasts. However, with lack of funds, she is willing to cheat and steal to get the cash, although fellow teacher and goody-two-shoes Amy Squirrel has other ideas.

This is a role that Ms Diaz absolutely relishes and really gets to prove what a comic talent she is. Her foul-mouthed, debauched approach to life is perfectly pitched and she looks like she is back to winning ways again. Ably supported by a terrific cast, including a surprisingly good turn from Cameron Diaz's ex, Justin Timberlake, playing against type as the geeky new teacher; British actress Lucy Punch going for the award of most over-the-top comedic performance by any actress as Miss Squirrel and the star turn from American Office support Phyllis Smith, who is hilarious as a mousy teacher who is willing to follow whatever Elizabeth says but only to a point. More screen time from her would have been a bonus.

Only Jason Segel, as the gym teacher who is besotted by Elizabeth, lacks a from any real punch, mainly because it seem very underwritten.

While the film has some very funny moments, it is all a little bit too bitty, as if a series of sketches had been written for the same characters and then stitched together as one film. It also has some of the most bizarre editing. One stand-out moment is when Ms Diaz and Mr Timberlake suddenly are enjoying each others company in a hotel room but without no build-up and explanation, and it seems solely there for a gross-out gag and slight plot development.

The other problem is that it doesn't seem bad enough. Cameron's character is foul-mouthed and she is a drug taker and drinker but it doesn't seem to go far enough. You really want her to be as vile as humanly possible, like Billy Bob Thornton was in Bad Santa (no relation) and yet it seems to go so far and then pulls back.

What it does have, however, is a strange charm about it and quite old-fashioned in its values. Just when you think Elizabeth is going to be very bad, she redeems herself with an act of kindness and charity, which does make you...smile.

So not the greatest comedy ever but it has its moments and the performances are good enough for you to stay for the whole length and maybe, on the strength of this performance, Cameron Diaz might get better roles to put her back on top again.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: Review

Before I start, I wasn't a huge fan of the first film. I saw it on a plane to America and while it engaged for a couple of hours but was very quickly forgotten. It was one of the biggest animated movies around and so a sequel was inevitable. This time in 3D (Oh brother!) But wait...it kind of works.

Po, the big clumsy panda has now been accepted as part of the Furious Five but cannot find inner peace, especially when he longs to discover where he actually came for. While tackling with his past, he and the gang must take on a deadly peacock that has created a weapon to stop kung fu and wants to rule China.

This is a much better effort than the first film. More action, more depth of characters and more gags that the adults can enjoy and the kids can look puzzled over. The overall animation is much better too, mixing the original style with Chinese and even cell animation (for Po's identity crisis scenes).

Dreamworks have also employed some of the biggest names to supply their voices. Jack Black has found his niche voicing the panda. He is goofy enough but also a touch of childish innocence that makes Po so likeable as a character. Angelina Jolie also returns as the fighting tiger and Dustin Hoffman's role is reduced but just as significant as Po's mentor. Added to the mix is Gary Oldman as the bad peacock and if you listen very carefully you might even hear Jean Claude Van Damme as well.

The film is let down slightly but the frantic fight sequences, which do get a little confusing and the overall plotting is very simplistic but we are not going into a territory of Shakespearean plotting for a family film (whoops, forgot about Gnomeo and Juliet).

Overall this is a fun and frantic romp with plenty of flashes and colour to keep the very young happy and plenty of nudge nudge and pop reference gags for the tagging along adults. The bonus is that the 3D here actually works. We get to see depth for a change and some of the objects do come out at you (still not enough but it's a start).

If you are looking for something undemanding but will keep the kids happy over the next few weeks, this does the job just perfectly.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Senna: Review


May 1st 1994 and it was a usual Sunday afternoon ritual in my household to sit down for dinner and watch the Formula 1 race. It was coming from Imola and it was a race that already had seen the death of one driver during the practice runs and a serious accident for another driver. Little did we know that we were going to witness the death of a legend, as Ayrton Senna, the triple time World Champion, hit the wall and was killed.

Now, film maker Asif Kapadia has put together a fascinating examination of a man who lived, breathed and, ultimately died for the sport he loved. Using archive footage and unseen family films, this follows from his humble days go-karting, which he loved being involved in (an admission he makes) to his first impressive d├ębut into the sport of motor racing, driving a car that shouldn't have done anything against the might of the big companies, to forming the super team alongside the then World Champion Alain Prost, which would turn into a very bitter rivalry.

What does become apparent is how much he was respected in Brazil, his home country. In a time of great depression and poverty, they took Senna to their heart and he paid them back, becoming a hero in some of their eyes.

The film doesn't paint Senna in a bad light (this probably because of his family's heavy involvement) but he was a legend and it was kind of refreshing not to have too much information about his private life, just on what made him a star. And a star he was. Completely fearless, both on the track and off, he battled with Prost as well as the politics of the sport, never really mincing his words when he needed to.

The other thing that works is we don't have loads of talking heads, but voice-overs while we watch selected and important moments during his racing career as well as news footage chronicling his rise to becoming World Champion and the most influential driver of his time.

As you can imaging, I am a huge Formula 1 fan and so this film is right up my alley but it is far more than just a film for petrol heads. It's about a man who followed his dream and made them come true. It's about passion, belief (he was hugely religious) and a longing to succeed.

This is the second documentary I have seen in a week (the other being Life In A Day...more next week) and so far both films have made it into my top ten of the year. Interesting, inspirational and surprisingly moving. If you like Grand Prix, you will love it. If you don't, you will still love it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

X-Men: First Class: Review


The X-Men, Marvel's masterpiece in most comic book fans eyes, have had a very bumpy journey on the big screen. Bryan Singer almost got it right with the first film and then managed to make an even better sequel with X2 but handled the reins over to Brett Ratner for X-Men: The Last Stand, which was flashy but lacking in substance. The final nail in the coffin was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which, quite frankly was the worst comic book adaptation yet. So can Matthew Vaughn, then man responsible for Kiss Ass, bring the series back to life? The answer is undoubtedly yes!

Set in the 60s, the film follows the beginnings of the X-Men. Charles Xavier has just become a Professor of mutants when he is asked to help the CIA, who have stumbled on a plot to start World War III. led by evil Sebastian Shaw, who has surrounded himself with mutants. In an operation to stop Shaw, Xavier saves the life of Erik Lehnsherr, a man after Shaw for revenge of his treatment during the World War II, where his mother was killed in front of him by Shaw, who at the time was a doctor in a concentration camp. The men team up and bring together a group of mutants in order to stop the forced war and the Cuban Missile crisis.

The first smart move is to not follow on from X-Men: The Last Stand but to start all over with a prequel as such. So no Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen. Instead we have James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik. This is the first master stroke. The two actors take their roles very seriously. McAvoy the more lighter of the two, finds the perfect blend of serious and comic while Fassbender could quite easily be the new James Bond, an ultra cool presence with a violent undercurrent.

Master stroke two is the casting of Kevin Bacon as the baddie. Bacon, in my books, is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors and here he is allowed to shine but is almost out-shadowed by the gorgeous January jones as his side-kick, Emma Frost, who not only looks good in almost every scene but has a presence on screen that is almost bewitching. She is most definitely one to watch (in more ways than one).

The film takes its time to develop characters and relationships which also works. We don't get long, unnecessary action sequences but we get to learn about each of the characters. Erik's past and his search for Shaw is played out nicely with a couple of globe-trotting scenes where he speaks German, Spanish and English. Xavier's relationship with Mystique (nicely played by another one to watch, Jennifer Lawrence, last seen in the brilliant Winter's Bone).

The costumes and period feel of the 60s makes it look and feel like a lost Bond film from Connery's time. In fact the whole Cold War storyline could quite easily be an assignment for 007. This builds to a superb finale with involves the reason why Xavier ends up in a wheelchair and how Magneto came into being.

So often Summer blockbusters tend to be flashy, empty and somewhat disappointing. So far only Thor has come close to being satisfying. Now we have a new ruler. This is smart, intelligent, sometimes very funny (with a brilliant surprise cameo that gets the biggest laugh) and very cool movie. I'd be very hard pushed to find a better film this summer and if you are a fan of the X-Men, you will not be disappointed. Vaughn has finally got the mutants right.  This is is rightly titled. It is certainly First Class.