Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Epic (U)

It's funny how the sample of something can influence your expectations.

Take Black Star Riders - the band born out of the retired-again Thin Lizzy. Ahead of the album, a track uploaded to Classic Rock suggested a band sounding like Thin Lizzy but under a different name. Then I heard the album. Not so.

What you get is a band with its own clear identity, standing apart from what's gone before and demanding to be appreciated on its own merits.

It's kinda been like that with Epic. Only the other way round.

The trailer promised a bright, funny, fast-paced adventure with the added bonus that the 3D looked worth the extra cash. But that's not what you get, sadly.

The story is an attempt to make youngsters think more environmentally, as M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) moves back in with dad after her mum presumably pops her clogs (it's implied, but not dealt with explicitly, robbing the film of a bit more emotional bite). Dad (Jason Sudeikis) has ended up alone after becoming obsessed with the idea that there are tiny advanced civilisations kicking about in the woods. We're all connected, and don't you forget it.

Oh how people laughed at him. Right up to the point M.K. gets shrunk to their size and meets them all, realising she was wrong to doubt her dad all these years. It's sweet. Feels superficial, but hey, not everything can be Toy Story.

Sadly, the plot is the least of Epic's problems. In fact, while a bit smushy and safe, the plot is essentially fine. It's the other stuff.

For a start, some of the voice casting doesn't work. We have Beyonce as Queen Tara, queen of the wood folk (and singer of closing song, obviously), who sounds like she's reading words on a page rather than acting. Then there's Colin Farrell as Ronin (main soldier/bodyguard type) who carries with him an emotional burden. We know he does because he sighs a lot. He also sounds a bit like Gerard Butler, which isn't a good thing.

Then there's Christoph Waltz, a man I love. A great actor. A brilliant actor. See him in Django Unchained? He was ace. He does, however, sound a tad Germanic. Not a problem per se, but slightly out of place when the rest of your Boggin bad-guy army are clearly American. And so is your son. He's also not nearly evil enough. A deeper voice would have suited Mandrake so much better.

There are some high spots in the casting, though. Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith fame, or American Idol to you youthful sorts) is brilliant as the mystical keeper of the scrolls - and he gets to sing a bit too, which just makes a good thing better.

Then there's Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari (IT Crowd and Parks & Recreation respectively for the TV watchers amongst you) who team up as Grub and Mub, a snail and a slug who have to look after the magical pod that will save everyone assuming Mandrake doesn't get it first.

These two deserve their own film. The jokes are childish, the action slow-paced (obviously), but the two actors are clearly having a ball with the dialogue and that just makes their scenes come alive. Honestly, 90-minutes of those two talking and you've got a brilliant kids' film. But enough of them, back to Epic...

Away from the characters, you've essentially got a film designed by committee. And not a committee brimming with original ideas. Avatar should be in the credits for inspiring so much of Epic, while George Lucas might want to take a look at the scene where young Nod (Josh Hutcherson) is bird racing against some bad guys for a frog who was trying to fix the race. It'll look more than a little familiar to him.

There's also the 3D and the animation.

In the case of the 3D, when it works (the deer stands out - stands out. Get it? Stands out. 3D. I'm wasted on here...) it's good, but too often the action is going past so fast everything just ends up a blur.

As for the animation - you know that thing that happens in Star Wars films (among others) where the actor is clearly looking at a thing that will be drawn in later so his vision isn't quite focused on the right place? How the hell do you manage to do that in a cartoon? Because it happens a lot. Queen Tara is talking to Mub and Grub yet seemingly looking at the middle distance. It's weird.

So, there's a lot wrong with Epic. I think I've laboured that point. So why didn't I hate it?

Because, despite getting bored (and it's only 100mins long), and despite feeling totally disengaged from the characters, two-thirds of the way through I suddenly found myself caring. Ronin's in trouble, M.K. and Nod are trying to save the day, and I suddenly realised I actually wanted them to. And I have no idea how that happened.

There had been moments of mild peril before (the mouse scene is good for that), and I hadn't felt anything. And then, from out of nowhere, I'm having an emotional reaction. It was bloody disconcerting, I can tell you.

After that, Epic is a lot more fun and the final 20 minutes romp along with the audience caught up in the action. It's as if someone else was called in to write a better ending and came up trumps. And given how many writers are credited at the end, that's quite possible.

After the screening, I grabbed the chance to ask the youngsters (who behaved impeccably throughout) who'd been watching it what they thought. It was good, but no Fast & Furious 6 apparently. Which is the very definition of damning with faint praise.

So, not an Epic fail, but sadly not epic either...

Now, go check out Black Star Riders...

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Great Gatsby (12A)

There is an inherent problem reviewing a film like The Great Gatsby - a film that, like others before it, carries with it an automatic weight of expectation based on its source material. Especially in this case when, along with the book, at least one iconic adaptation also exists.

So what do you do? Do you review the film as an adaptation of the book? Do you look at it in comparison to Redford's classic portrayal? Or do you do your level best to ignore all that has gone before?

Part of me can't help but look at it as a telling of the F Scott Fitzgerald classic. It may be more years than I care to count since I last read it, certainly more years than I'll ever admit since I studied and fell in love with it, but having maintained throughout the Harry Potter series that the films should stand alone - they're a whole new medium and audience after all - I have no choice but to disassociate all that's gone before and watch Baz Luhrmann's version with a clean mind.

So, old sport, here goes...

On the upside, and in a break from recent tradition, the first screening of the day was in 2D. Having seen the 3D trailer just before watching Star Trek Into Darkness, I was sure the extra dimension wasn't going to add anything to the story. Given you could still clearly see which bits were being done purely for the 3D effect, I was proven right.

Baz (Can I call you Baz? I can? How kind...), of course, comes with his own baggage. Having wowed us with Strictly Ballroom and re-invented Romeo And Juliet for a whole new generation, he followed the sumptuous Moulin Rouge with Australia (yes, all of it). We know he has an eye for the majestic, but he can also get lost in his own storytelling.

In Gatsby, he brings both sides to the party.

It starts at breakneck speed. Parties and people flash buy with barely time to blink, no shot is held too long (far from it), no camera is held still - the result is you're left with no clue who anyone really is, as no scene is allowed to settle for long enough for you to remotely get to grips with it.

Granted, this perfectly mirrors the lifestyle of the time, the parties where no one knows anyone else and yet knows everyone, the opulence spilling over into garishness in the twinkle of a champagne glass.

Unfortunately, it means we aren't given time to get to care about any of the characters. Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway is as lost as the rest of us as he is swept along in Gatsby's jet stream. Carey Mulligan's Daisy is so lightweight it's a miracle she stays in the frame while Elizabeth Debicki's Jordan is so aloof she almost stands apart from the entire film.

That's not to say the performances are bad - they're not. Debicki's in particular is a great piece of acting, but you want more depth from everyone. You want to spend a bit more time with them, to feel you've got to know them at least a little. A little less hammy charicaturing wouldn't go amiss either.

There is a moment early on when Daisy's husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) hits his mistress Myrtle (a very good Isla Fisher). This should be a BIG moment. It should tell us a lot about one character in a split second, but it could tell us a lot more if we weren't already out of the window and on the balcony with Nick. No time to stop and dwell, must keep a-moving...

In fact, the entire first half of the film is just loud, bright, glitzy and going full tilt. Sure, it looks fantastic - Baz going back to his cross-genre stylings with modern music (overseen by Mr Jay Zed) - but at huge cost to the rest of the film. All style = no substance.

And all this glitz and glamour causes another problem. The great reveal of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio seemingly merging several recent roles into one) should be mysterious and tense as people gossip about who he is - but when it arrives, it happens so quickly any hope of drama is lost.

The second half, meanwhile, is like a different film.

Having eschewed any sense of drama in the first half, Baz then attempts to make the entire conclusion about emotions and drama and tension. Which might work, had we been given the time to get to know everyone - and thus care about their lives colliding and unravelling. But we weren't, so we can't.

And this yanking on the handbrake causes the whole second half to drag. The film comes in at around the two-hour mark, but everything after the ill-fated trip into New York feels like it takes that long to unfold. We've gone from a hare on speed to a tortoise on tranquilisers.

Which is almost criminal, because done differently the final scenes could carry enormous emotional weight.

Things aren't helped with the aforementioned 3D bits. The 'unfortunate event' that occurs should hit you like, well, a speeding car, but such is the desire to make the gimmick work you're taken out of the moment to watch a body get flung about in 3D slow motion. I'm watching in 2D and it was so obvious why the scene was shot this way it almost seemed insulting to the rest of the film.

When we do actually get to the end of the film, you're left wondering why you've spent so much time in the cinema. Nick, who has been our narrator throughout, recaps the whole story with the help of a weird, cross-faded montage of everything you've already watched. Basically you could come in ten minutes from the end and know everything that's happened. Which would have been good to know at the start...

Despite my many, many criticisms of The Great Gatsby, however, I didn't hate it. Yes it annoyed me greatly, but in isolation certain bits are great. The party scenes capture the spirit of the time (or at least how we're told they were - I wasn't there...), the use of Nick as a narrator is strangely engaging and the quirky touch of having his letters appear on the screen as he writes down his tale is a nice touch. Doesn't feel like it belongs to this film, particularly, but I still enjoyed it. Especially when the letters form snow.

In essence, what you have here is two films (well, three if you count the summary). They just don't sit well side by side. It kind of reminds me of that scene in Friends where Rachel tries to make a trifle but confuses two recipes and makes it with mince.

The jelly's good, the mince is good. Just not together.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Bait (15)

Dara O'Briain once proposed the theory that there are no such things as guilty pleasures - if something gives you pleasure, he said, why do you feel guilty about it.

And he had a point. I have more than a passing penchant for the glam metal bands that came crawling out of LA in the mid-to-late 1980s. Don't feel a bit guilty about that.

Then there's Bait. A film so bad you laugh when a man is bitten in half. A film so bad you're quite happy that a man throws his girlfriend's pooch in the drink to save his own sorry hide, because you can't stand all three of them. A bad, bad film, yet somehow I didn't hate it.

And that is making me feel very guilty.

The premise sounds like it should be fun. Tsunami hits small Aussie town, people get trapped with a great white shark, hilarity ensues, no? All while another group are stuck in the underground car park. With a great white shark. It should be gory horror gold.

The fact it isn't is still puzzling me now.

Let's start at the start.

Rory (Richard Brancatisano) and Josh (Xavier Samuel) are lifeguards and friends, with Josh having just got engaged to Rory's sister Tina (Sharni Vinson). Josh should be checking the buoy, but as he's hungover Rory does the decent thing and scoots out on the jetski. Inevitably, a shark pops up, eats the fat bloke we've seen wander past in an unsubtle way and then eats Rory while everyone is scrambling to stop that very thing happening.

Then the opening credits roll, and we're a year down the line. Tina is gone and Josh is working at the local supermarket full of self-loathing and regret.

So far, so bad.

But it gets worse.

We are introduced to the other players in the game - the girl with issues who steals stuff, her boyfriend who works at the store, her dad the cop, the couple in the car park with the dog and the men who plan to rob the place. Oh, and the store manager and the security guard. And the girl who fills shelves. That's everyone in place...

We've had the omens of foreboding, of course. Birds doing weird things, the news story telling us sharks are in town, and the tremor that precedes the tsunami. And all this takes 40 minutes - 40 minutes where you could actually build the tension. But no. We have to put up with some dodgy 3D and more clues than we need that these characters are going to be badly drawn and talk in cliches.

Which is a shame, because once we're in the water, once we're all crammed into one small store (and a car park), there are moments that are genuinely quite tense. There's even a moment which makes you jump. Sure, just the one - but that's better than none and more than you'd expect from the long drawn-out introduction.

From here on in people get bitten and chewed, wounds are healed, personal epiphanies are had and the whole philosophical debate is tackled. Yup. The BIG one. While perched on a shelf unit in a flooded supermarket. It's so bonkers it's brilliant.

Amazingly there is a twist, and you can entertain yourself for a good half hour guessing which one doesn't make it out of the car park. But after that you're pretty much done. Some more gore and goo arrives, but it's all a bit 'meh'.

You see, there are many problems with Bait. Many, many problems. So let's start at the top.

From the get-go, the 3D is appalling. Granted I was watching it in 2D, but you could see which bits were going to be flying out of the screen at you - it was like Avatar had never happened. It could have been cheesy in the good way, like it was trying to ape the 3D "classics" of yore, but it wasn't. There's actually a moment where a metal spinny wheel thing (don't know what it was or where it originated from, that seemingly wasn't important) embeds itself in someone's face. Should be a shock, a jolt,  a moment to squirm, but it's not. It's bloody hilarious.

Then there's the acting.

Now Sharni, bless 'er, might have been great in Home And Away. She might have been the glue holding Step Up 3D together. But she can't act. Looks fine in a bikini early on, sure, but she's grieving for her brother while he's still alive wondering what all the yelling's about. And there's a moment later on which could have been almost poignant - but we cut to Sharni for a reaction, and the moment is not so much lost as killed.

Then there's Julian McMahon. He's been in Nip/Tuck. He's been in the Fantastic Four films. And here he is. Looking confused. Maybe he's doing some sort of community service. Maybe he feels, having done rather well in Hollywood he'd help out at home while visiting the family. Maybe he's a masochist and enjoys this sort of thing. Whatever his reasons for doing this, he shouldn't have. He just looks lost.

And if that wasn't enough, there's the whole science of the thing. For a start, this is the first tsunami in history that fails to knock out the town's electricity. Whole town under water, supermarket awash, and yet the electricity is flowing. Handy, but puzzling to the point of being a distraction. And don't get me started on the whole physics of the thing. The lay-out of this place would baffle the Tardis.

Add to all this a bunch of people you can't care about, special effects made with a Magna Doodle (don't claim budget constraints - Monsters managed, so can you), so many people taking the time to tackle personal issues and a couple you just want to see trapped in their car forever, and you've got a horror film for all the wrong reasons.

So why didn't I hate it? And why does this make me feel guilty?

Well, the guilt centres around the fact that every fibre in my being is telling me that, logically, I should hate this film. But you can't hate a film this hokey. It's kind of enjoyable. It made me laugh. Sure, not in the right places or for any reasons the many writers would feel good about, but hey - don't like it, write a better script.

Watching Bait is a dumb, stupid, pointless way to spend your time - but that's not always a bad thing. Brainless fun does what it says on the tin. Doesn't tax the brain cells, passes the time.

Sure there are better films to watch, but there are many that are a whole lot worse. And they're the ones taking up valuable space at the multiplexes...

* After a one-day screening in Leicester Square, Bait is now available on DVD

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (12A)

One of the problems you can have with a sequel is who are you making it for? Are you out to just satisfy the original film's fans, or are you hoping to expand into a wider audience?

This was an issue facing Iron Man 3, where the decision was wisely taken to assume the whole world had seen Avengers and knew who Tony Stark was. But what to do with a new Star Trek film? Can you assume so many people saw the first of the re-booted series that you can do without back story? Do you bank on the army of TV fans going with you to the big screen, even though you've re-written the history a smidge?

Seemingly, the answer is yes. So if you haven't seen the 2009 incarnation, you might want to do some homework before tackling Into Darkness. You don't need to know what happened, but it helps.

For the uninitiated, here's a quick recap - Chris Pine is now Capt James T Kirk. His dad died in action just as he was being born, and he got recruited into Star Fleet by a kindly Capt Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who becomes his mentor and saviour. Spock, meanwhile, is now Zachary Quinto, and Vulcans are now an endangered species after a Romulan with a grudge took out Spock's home planet. Got all that? Good.

Oh and Spock's getting it on with Uhura (the wonderful Zoe Saldana). But everyone knew that, right?

This time around, Kirk is on a mission to capture a rogue Star Fleet agent (the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch), who has decided to essentially declare war on Star Fleet. From here, friendships are tested, lives put at risk, things blow up and classic lines are uttered. All in 3D. It's a complete geek fanfest.

And that is a very, very good thing. Even the 3D.

Now, granted, if you don't know what Star Fleet is, or the Prime Directive, or that Spock is half-human and now technically homeless (well, half of him is), you might struggle a little bit to keep up - but is there really going to be anyone going to see this film who doesn't know all that?

Probably not, but it's still a risk when you basically pick up where the last one left off.

For the card-carrying Trekkie, however, Into Darkness has something for everyone, with its past being quietly acknowledged (there's a Tribble. A bloody Tribble) while the past is neatly tee'd up once the dust settles.

And this is, ultimately, the best of the series. Better than all of the original ones. Better than all of the Next Generation films. And better than its predecessor.

For a start, there isn't a bad performance to be had here - with Simon Pegg's Scotty arguably stealing the show. From being a more marginal character first time round, Pegg is at the heart of this story, getting involved with the physical action as well as being up to his ears in warp cores. Then there's Alice Eve (daughter of Trevor, star of She's Out Of My League), who joins the Enterprise crew as a new science officer. Gratuitous shot of her in her underwear notwithstanding, she more than holds her own among a cast who have already established themselves as the new frontier of Gene Roddenberry's universes.

The lines are sharp, the humour honest and well-placed, the score is not overly intrusive... and it has serious emotional weight and punch. As the final scenes unfold, you'll find yourself leaning forward and holding your breath. You've come to know and love these characters, and you care what happens to them.

It's a film about trust, friendship, honour, love, family and squabble in a small ship - all of which combine to make Into Darkness a pretty damn-near perfect addition to the Star Trek cannon.

Which is, for me, an amazing achievement when you consider it was shot in 3D.

Now, as I may have mentioned before, I'm not a fan. When done well, it can be interesting. Or, it can be Iron Man 3. But director JJ Abrams pulls it off with aplomb.

Normally, it's used as a gimmick. Things whizz out of the screen at you randomly while the rest of the film just looks normal, but from the off Abrams uses it to add the depth the pro-3D lobby insist it provides.

When we meet the Enterprise crew, they're trying to stop a planet being wiped out by a volcano while running away from the natives. Spears are flying at you, past you, around you, ash is falling, and it all looks stunning. I haven't been this impressed with 3D since Avatar (yes, the film was snoringly dull, but it looked fantastic). I even ducked at one stage.

And as the film unfolds, and the action moves from earth to space and back via sundry other planets, you are so immersed in what you're seeing that the glasses are not even noticed. Which is no mean feat.

Part of the trick is how Abrams has coloured Into Darkness. Where the glasses inevitably darken the screen, Abrams has gone for starker, bolder colours, meaning the richness of tone is preserved. And the action scenes aren't, for the most part, compromised. One of the issues with 3D is how, in the fast-paced scenes, things can blur, but that's not an issue here. The only negative comes in a fight scene towards the end, where the darkness does cause you to wonder who is hitting who, but that's so far into the film it's only a minor quibble.

The one place where it does fall down (and it's not Abrams trademark lens flare styling, which actually benefits from being damped down here) is a few scenes where things are in the foreground and so blurred. Your eye is inevitably drawn to the splodge down the front, detracting from the main scene (hospital and bar scenes are the main offenders, and a red flashing light in a corridor which almost became a character in its own right), but these really are the only issues in a little over two hours. Which must be some kind of record.

This film will be a hit, of that you can be sure - the first film and its heritage will see to that - but it deserves to be.

The modern blockbuster is fast becoming a vacuous, empty experience (yes Michael Bay, I'm looking at you), but Abrams has joined the ranks of Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon in introducing brains to the mix.

Star Trek Into Darkness will make you laugh, make you cry (possibly, no spoilers here sir...), put you on the edge of your seat and throw you back in your chair. It is, in short, a geektastic feast of visual delights.

PS - To make sure you get the full impact of the twists and treats here, don't go looking at IMDB until after you've seen the film. The cast list is a spoiler in itself.

PPS - Enjoy this, we did:

Monday, 6 May 2013

Dragon (15)

There was a time when martial arts films were people hitting each other repeatedly while out-of-work actors over-dubbed the dialogue without any sense of emotion.

Then along came Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The House Of Flying Daggers, which - while fine - were basically epic martial arts ballets. Yeah, sure, they looked good, but it was the ultimate example of style over substance. Still, can't deny it gave an ailing genre a kick in the tights.

So what, then, is Dragon here to do? Reinvent the wheel? Provide mindless violence? Makes us laugh? Well, kind of all of the above...

You see, thanks to Daggers, I approached this with caution. Having been sold the whole 'OMG it's totes amazeballs' stuff, it left me cold. So, when the world started telling me how Dragon was reinventing the martial arts genre, I was curious but a little sceptical.

And yet, it kind of is. But not in any way you'd expect. It's less Daggers, more CSI Beijing...

From the off, however, the story has your attention. A man is living his life and doing his thing in rural 1917 China. Parenting, eating, fixing stuff, helping his neighbours - you get the drill. It's all nice and gentle.

And then the bad guys come and ask the local butcher for his money. Our man Liu Jin-xi (played by the excellent Donnie Yen) is on site and decides to help out by beating the would-be thugs up. No mean feat as he does little but seemingly cling on for dear life. Suddenly we're in top gear.

He manages to kill them both - leading to the arrival of the authorities, a post mortem in the town square (nope kids, no telly in them days) and the discovery that he's only gone and offed a major criminal.

This leads our other hero, Detective Xu Bai-jiu, (Takeshi Kaneshiro, off of The House Of Flying Daggers) to start asking questions and come to the conclusion that our little hero is in fact a major gang member on the run - something Liu denies. And this is where it starts to get interesting.

You see, Dragon isn't playing by the normal rules. Yes, it's set in 1917. Yes, it's set in rural China. But that doesn't mean you can't have some great comic moments with Kaneshiro, or much use of CSI special effects explaining how various nerves can kill you.

It's the ultimate mash-up. And it shouldn't work. But it does.

But that's not to say it's just flashy with a new sense of style - there's a moral quandary at the heart of Dragon that will keep you thinking and talking long after the credits roll. And it's this - is it better to do the right thing legally or morally? And who pays the consequences? If two people believe their path is right, who is actually right?

I've seen criticism elsewhere (one random comment on Facebook, but hey, it's out there) that there isn't enough action in Dragon - and yeah, sure, there could be more. But that's not the point. There's brains at work here to back up the brawn.

And it's good brawn. Good use of slo-mo shots allow for slight comic touches as blood and teeth spew across shops, houses, barns and village squares. An ear is sliced off with precision, heads are hit, ribs are broken, knives and swords are batted away - to have any more would actually detract from what's going on.

That's not to say it's perfect. It's not.

The use of music is eclectic to the point of annoyance (the mash-up works visually, but it needs a singular style on the score front) and the visual tone is similarly all over the shop. Scenes switch from lush greens to drab greys to sepia tones with no apparent point. It's not a major negative, but it definitely niggles.

Then again, if that's the worst thing you can say about a film...

Because, the one thing Dragon has in abundance is fun. And there's not a bad performance to be seen (including the really young cast members). And there's a lot to say for that - because you can have all the style you want, adding substance is a huge boost, but if the audience don't enjoy themselves, you're in trouble.

That's not to say Dragon is going to waltz into people's hearts, I fear. In a screening of seven people this afternoon, only five made it to the credits. Quite what the other two people say after an hour or so that they hadn't been expecting I've no idea, but off they went. Maybe they finally noticed the subtitles...

But it was their loss to be honest. Because while I didn't love Dragon, it kept me in my seat from start to finish. I cared about the characters, I was enjoying the action, I was really liking the CSI elements, and the humour, and the philosophical elements. And that's a lot more than can be said of a lot of the crap that is landing on our screens this year.

If you go into Dragon with expectations, they are unlikely to be met - this is a film dancing to its own multi-cultural tune. But if you go in with your eyes and mind wide open, you're in for one hell of a ride.