Saturday, 21 June 2014

Oculus (15)

There's an old adage that there are no original ideas - and that's never more true than the current horror genre.

From endless sequels to found-footage films that stretch the concept to breaking point just to be part of the latest fad, horror films seem to repeatedly plough familiar furrows.

And that's not a criticism. Done well, a good horror film can rip off everything in sight - but you'll care not a jot as you chew your own hand off trying not to scream.

Which brings us to Oculus.

Causing a stir at Frightfest last year, it stars Karen Gillen (of Dr Who fame, and soon to have a whole new army of geeks trailing after her once Guardians Of The Galaxy lands) as Kaylie, a young woman out to get revenge on the thing that may or may not have torn her family apart.

There's a mirror. There's probably someone in the mirror. There's a trail of bad crap a mile long. You can guess the rest.

Part The Grudge, part The Others, it's as generic a horror film as you'll see this year.

But, again, this isn't necessarily a negative.

There are moments that make you leap out of your seat, there are moments that build the tension really well and there are moments of good ol' twists and turns.

It's all fine.

And then there's Ms Gillan.

Now, fans of Dr Who will tell you she's a great actress. In the pantheon of assistants she's top of the list after some captivating performances and one of the best storylines of recent years.

But films are a whole different kettle of ball games, right?

Not to Ms G.

From the get-go she owns this film, commanding in every scene she's in and radiating a presence I've not seen in a while.

And then there's the accent.

If you've seen The Hunt For Red October, say, or Highlander, you would be forgiven for thinking the Scottish accent is a barrier too high for any actor to hurdle.

Not here.

From the moment she starts talking, Gillen's Yank accent is nailed. She's acting with an American cast and if asked to pick the one non-native it's unlikely you'd pick her.

(Yes, I know, this necessitates the person doing the picking not knowing who the hell Karen Gillen is. I get that. No you shut up.)

Away from Karen G's superb, film-stealing performance, there are other juicy bits to get your teeth into.

Splitting between modern day and back when mum and dad had the mirror installed, Oculus balances the two timelines well, with the supporting cast (Rory Cochrane as the dad, Katie Sackhoff as mum and a slightly-overshadowed Brenton Thwaites as brother Tim) all playing their part in heightening the drama, tension and confusion.

A special word as well about Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso - who play young Kaylie and Tim. For ones so young, they've got the acting chops to deliver the goods.

The effects are good too.

The blood is realistic, it's in your face, and the ghosties are genuinely chilling.

If there's a real problem with Oculus, it's the pacing and final showdown.

While not overly long, by the time we get to the grand finale your attention span is flagging a smidge, and as such the intertwined timelines can confuse slightly where it should be making your head explode.

But that's a small gripe in the scheme of things.

Sure, it won't change your life, but there are worse ways to spend a late night in a darkened cinema...

Monday, 16 June 2014

A Million Ways To Die In The West (15)

You may or may not have heard of Family Guy. You may or may not have heard of American Dad. You may or may not have heard of Ted.

If you have heard of any of these, then you'll have heard of Seth MacFarlane.

You may have heard of him anyway, but putting him in the context of what he's best known for will help you with A Million Ways To Die In The West.

In any given episode of Family Guy you'll have a song and some fart gags. In American Dad you'll have quippy asides. In Ted, you have a bear that swears.

I'll take a moment while you recover from the hilarity of that third idea...



OK, where were we?

Ahh, yes, Seth's stock tropes.

You see - and I say this as a man who really likes Family Guy - with Seth you know what you're going to get.

He's a funny, clever guy, but his humour always ends up throwing itself at the nearest lowest common denominator.

That's not always a bad thing, but where as in the case of a cartoon episode it only lasts for 20 minutes, on the big screen it lasts for 90.

Or nearly two in this case.

And there's another problem...

A Million Ways... is a western. And an homage to westerns.

Now, I know what you're thinking, this has been done before. Well. By Mel Brooks.

So, if you're going to go up against Blazing Saddles, it had better be damn good.

And the idea is a sound one - Seth and the gang look at what life was really like back in the old west. Especially if you weren't keen on fighting, shooting or dying.

But from there, it kind of goes a bit awry.

There's too much swearing for a start. And I'm aware of the irony of me saying that.

You see, swearing is big and clever, but you have to use it well. Tarantino knows how to do a swear, it's how his characters speak. Same with James McAvoy in Filth.

Somehow, when Macfarlane and friends get going, it sounds like a 14-year-old trying out the naughty words for the first time. They don't ring true.

The really do feel like the writers had no other jokes so stuck a few F's in there instead.

And then there's the physical jokes.

While dropping a block of ice on someone's head - with resulting bonce splat and blood spurts - is cartoonishly funny in Family Guy, in a live-action film it seems to jar a tad. The same with the racially dubious humour. It's less harsh/obvious in a cartoon.

It's like they can't tell the difference.

Then there's the fart joke. OK, I did chuckle, but you do cowboy fart jokes at your peril - the best has already been done.

Having said all of this, though, I didn't hate it.

It's too long, it's baggy as all hell and my attention wandered several times, but I did chuckle several times. And the trailer had made me laugh.

It's mostly down to the cast that this film works at all.

Alongside Seth (who, bless him, shouldn't act), we have Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi - all of whom are thoroughly believable and play it with a straight bat to great comic effect.

Sadly this highlights just how out of her comfort zone Amanda Seyfried is, her slightly drippy character ending up soaking wet.

To be fair, she's on a par with Macfarlane, but the others are just so top class that it makes those two stand out in a bad way.

But, still not a terrible film.

Fans of Macfarlane will get everything they want out of his work. Fans of westerns will enjoy some of the more geeky touches - and then there's a nod to a modern "classic" which is almost worth the price of the admission alone.


A Million Ways To Die In The West won't change your life, but there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

(It has just occurred to me that I haven't actually touched on the storyline - there's a reason for that. While there, it's job is to string together the gags, and so it's really not important.

It's a love story and a revenge story, kinda, but it could be about shopping or shoes, all that anyone cares about is the next crass joke)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Maleficent (PG)

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, a man had an idea about fairytales...

Actually, hold that thought - a quick note about Cineworld's new booking policy.

I first encountered it in Sheffield, where I was told I had to pick a seat but was lacking the required seating plan to help make an informed choice.

Turned out a bit moot, anyhoo, as I just sat where I wanted. As, I suspect, did everyone else given there was no one to actually police the whole 'allocated seat' brainwave.

Today, when booking my tickets for the Angelina Jolie wicked witch bonanza, I was able - as I was online - to actually select from my seating plan.


And totally pointless, as once I wandered into screen nine (with the words "you're in row F" ringing in my ears) I again had the run of the place and could park my buns wherever I so chose.

Allocated seats are a nice touch, but how about seeing the plan through to its natural conclusion, stop paying your staff a pittance on zero-hours contracts and actually employ them to do the jobs you - and you're over-charged clientele - actually want them to do?

You never know, you may end up with staff who feel valued and happy customers. Just a thought.

Anyway, I as ever digress. Where was I?

Ahh yes, the Disney fairytale...

Walt is, without doubt, the king of the fairytale movie - birds literally do sing when his writers are working.

And, yes, over the years the Disney cannon has misfired occasionally, but when it's been on target - Tangled, The Princess And The Frog - it's hit home with glitter, pink fluffiness and a warm glow.

And Maleficent is no exception.

Well, apart from the pink fluffy bits. They get the day off.

Telling the tale of the wicked witch of Sleeping Beauty fame, we find that Maleficent was a sweet kid who fell in love with a boy.

And at the right time and appropriate age, she kissed him. And all was well.

Until the boy discovered Maleficent held the key to him making the unlikely transition from cushion-plumping lacky to king.

Then things go seven shades of wrong.

Starting off all light and fluffy, the shift to a darker tone - both narratively and visually - is handled with a deft hand by director Robert Stromberg on his debut.

What helps, of course, is Ms Jolie.

Rocking it up at her most majestic, malevolent best, Jolie simply owns this film. No one else could have made an evil central character sympathetic, her subtle nuances and glances having a magic all of their own.

And while everyone is good - particular highlights include Imelda Staunton as a fairy/pixie sort - to be honest, they don't matter. Jolie is in a league of her own here, stealing scenes and hearts with gleeful ease.

Rivalling Jolie's presence for your attention, however, are the visual effects - be they mud-slinging thingies, trees monster sorts or a bird-man-horse-dragon sidekick, no expense has been spared on making everything look real and magical.

And it's worth every dollar.

This film looks stunning, and the 3D elements (once more I was happily in the flat-screen version) look naturally entwined rather than bolted on with a fanfare.

OK, sure, you can pick your way through this film and point out where the ideas came from, but none of that matters - for two reasons.

Firstly, it's a kids' film. Youngsters will just be enjoying the fact tree monsters are smashing stuff up, not worrying about Tolkien or Potter having come up with them first.

And B, it's a fairy story. It's entertainment. It's here to make you forget the real world for 97 minutes and just revel in the arguing pixie/fairy magic.

And it does it all really well.

If one was to quibble - and I am such a one - the 'wait til you're 16' message is delivered with all the subtlety of dragon, and there's a brief moment when the narrator can't decide if the three fairies are indeed fairies or actually pixies.

Pretty sure there's a difference. Hence the different names.

But whatever they are, they're fun.

You could also suggest the film tells you that family is the only place where people truly love you and boys are nasty and will always let you down.

But I'm probably being quibbly again.

Best not think about it and just enjoy the magic.

Friday, 6 June 2014

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

OK, let's deal with the elephant in the room here - yes, a bad thing happened to Charles Xavier in the terrible The Last Stand, but First Class was a reboot, not a continuation.

Thus, in the same way that the new Star Trek films follow a different time line, so the new X-Men movies are charging down a different path.

It makes bog-all difference to the universe and in no way detracts from just how good Days Of Future Past is.

So there.

And let's make no bones about this - Days Of Future Past is nothing short of immense.

A gripping storyline brilliantly acted with scenes that have you holding your breath. To be honest, isn't that all any of us wanted at the end of the day?

Starting in a future where Trax Industries has sold its Sentinels to the American government, mutants and their human allies are being systematically wiped out.

The only solution it seems is to hold off the advancing army long enough to send someone back 50 years to persuade the younger Charles Xavier (James McAvoy in sublime form once more) that he needs to gang up with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to fix the problem.

But who to send?

Who has the physical wherewithal to withstand such a trip back in time?

Oh, look, here's Wolverine...

Thus the story unfolds. Mystique (is Jennifer Lawrence ever anything other than brilliant?) is on a mission, the gang of four (Beast - Nicholas Hoult - is the only one still hanging out at the now derelict school) have their agenda...

...All the while the Sentinels are closing in on the future X-folks.

And it's this race against time that gives the film the main thrust of its tension and drama - the balance between then and now being struck perfectly, especially during the last act.

No one puts a foot wrong here, there's not a shot out of place, questions (er, young Xavier seems to be walking...) are answered quite naturally and all the while things go boom and bang in fine style.

This is up there with The Winter Soldier in how to make a grown-up, dramatic, serious comic book film.

And it is serious.

Sure, there are some gags and jokes, but the whole tone of the piece is looking at what happens if you allow the threatening of a minority to go unchecked.

That doesn't make DOFP (it's quicker and I'm lazy) a dark film, but it does mean it's tackling a heavy subject - and it covers it well.

For lovers of all things hero, there are nods and winks to other parts of the Marvel universe and the original X-Men trilogy - but you don't have to know your Quicksilver from your mercury to enjoy this.

Taken as a stand-alone film, tie-ins to the first are covered, meaning you're not going to be left wondering what the hell's going on, and the film is so well written that you'll be drawn in and caring about the characters before you can say Kitty Pryde.

Then there's the filming.

Spider-Man 2, you may recall, was done in 3D - and boy did we know it, with endless trick shots done purely for the benefit of having something to leap out of the screen.

DOFP was also shot in 3D, and while I was happy to maintain the tradition of just the two dimensions, it was clear that there were no shots done purely for the sake of trickery.

OK, maybe one. But that had a dramatic imperative.

OK, two - but that bit with Quicksilver running about to Time In A Bottle was fun, dammit.

From start to finish, the whole film feels like it was made this way, without studio execs in the background shoving their money-grabbing oar in.

And that really is where DOFP is just so damn majestic - it's got heart, soul, drama, tension...

And bloody big explosions.

And Magneto moves a stadium (suddenly I fancy a Mountain Dew...).

In short, it's got the lot.

And if you remember who was in the original trilogy, it's got a whole lot more.

From the outset I found myself edging forwards in my seat, and as the film progressed I found myself holding my breath on a number of occasions.

Then came the final scenes, and as the clock ticked down I damn near gouged a whole in the arm of my seat.

It was a bit good.

Even now, I can feel the tension rising as I think back to those closing 15 minutes.

It really does have the lot.

Oh, by the way, unless you're an uber geek, there's no need to stick around for the bit right at the end of the long, long credits.

Yes, it's exciting for the fanboys and fangirls, but the rest of you won't miss out if you wait for X-Men: Apocalypse in a couple of years time.