Tuesday, 21 August 2012

SUMMER 2012 REVIEW: The Blockblusters

I didn't mean to see this at all, but this actually worked in my favour. Watching and listening to the output of scorn, disgust and actual pure hate of this film from expectant fans in the days after its release, I had only one emotion: enjoyment. You see, I can't stand films set in space (see Star Wars, Trek, Moon, 2001, etc) so whilst everyone else was getting in a tizz about it, I remained oblivious to all trailers, clips, feature articles, knowing next to nothing about it apart from it being a 'vague prequel to Alien', which in itself I've only seen once, and I think I was doing something else during the majority of it. But then I was dragged to go and see it by the (then, not quite) hubby, and despite my extraordinarily crafted sulking-stubborn deployment, go and see I did. I thought I wasn't going to have a clue what was going on, and certainly the prologue didn't help matters. But once we got into the story, it was a simple affair really, and so akin at times to Jurassic Park that I found it kind of lovable: scientists travel to an unknown destination, seeking out answers to the creatures that lived before us, straying off the path of the leaders, taking things which they shouldn't, escaping from a massive storm in buggies... I personally loved that bit, it just needed a bit of Jeff Goldblum to spice it up a bit. The planet the action takes place on - LV223 - is so beautiful and dramatic, I loved the ship's descent, hovering above valleys, waterfalls, and mountains, and was crushingly disappointed that all we got to see there was the inside of a big temple. It made me wish this has been a completely different film - a hybrid of this and Avatar would be nice please, Mr Hollywood (without Sam Worthington, obvs). No doubting Prometheus was beautiful to look at, and despite the storyline being somewhat unambitious for something trying to be so er, ambitious, it's sci-fi lite approach/misfire (whichever way you look at it) was a joy to me, and I lapped it all up eagerly. Something I thought was going to be heavy and obtuse was actually a big old adventure! Having had no pre-conceptions and avoided the hype, I somehow emerged the biggest fan of Prometheus ever (which isn't to say I've largely forgotten it now). Michael Fassbender was particularly brilliant as super android David, and having no sci fi models to compare him to found him surprisingly like Edward Scissorhands, with the utter devotion he has to his maker, in this case a completely unrecognisable Guy Pearce (halfway through I was still waiting for him to turn up... then realised he'd been there all the time). Less impressed by the rest of the cast, but this was more down to the poorly drafted characters they had to breathe life into - Charlize Theron the most wasted, Noomi Rapace the most devalued. Traits and motives shakily established, half heartedly carried through. And some really rubbish deaths, too! I won't wander too much into the Alien debate, especially after having only watched the one shit sequel, but I will point out Ridley Scott never said this was a direct prequel, but that it was "two or three films away from that" - so expect a trilogy of prequels ala Star Wars before you get your answers then... and realise it's not so hateful after all.

Snow White and the Huntsman
The problem with SWATH herein lies in the credits: "screen story by Evan Daughtrey, screenplay by Evan Daughtrey, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini" - and separately - based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale. It has a lot of underlying narrative to it, and ultimately they all try and squeeze themselves into the finished film, leaving a story uneven in tone and a pogo stick of quality. Yes, this is a different take on the classic well-known tale of a girl hated by her step-mother for her beauty, who is taken into the forest on the preconception of death, only to escape and find a new home with seven dwarves. It's an epic fantasy adventure, with nods from everything to Lord of the Rings to Labyrinth, and though I adore these films, I don't want to see hotpotch versions of them popping up again and again. It was at its best when Snow and the Huntsman are on the run from the Queen, exploring the land around them and allowing the large editorial team's imaginations to go mental. I LOVED the opposites of the Dark Forest and the Faerie Sanctuary, and only wish we could have stayed in these places longer instead of having to go back to the castle. The troll was ace, too. I'd be perfectly happy to sit through several more adventures in this visually breathtaking land, bulging with personality. Oh, if only that could be said for the people that inhabit it! Snow, The Huntsman, the Queen all yelled, and fought, and cried, and went through the whole wheel of emotions as loved ones are taken from them and individual hardships become unbearable - yet somehow you don't feel like you're on anybody's side in particular. The desire to make the story more complex - introducing backstory and new characters blurs the line between good and evil, and whilst this could have made the story rich and satisfying, it only succeeds in creating apathy and entanglements (alongside The Hunger Games, the second most banal love triangle of the year). The special effects are impressive, but the end result feels limp. Not the finest hour for any of the main cast, though the ensemble of British excellence that is the dwarves, when they finally turn up, is thoroughly watchable, and provide the only true emotion in the film. What the film sorely lacks is focus, and an endgame: it leaves itself open for the inevitable sequel, but devoid of humour and lacking the passion to get us excited for the next instalment. Amid recent scandals, it'll be interesting to see where this goes next.

The Amazing Spider-Man
This is a better told origin story than Sam Raimi's 2002 incarnation, with likeable characters that sparkle on screen, but it lacks the spectacle and awe of the action set-pieces the former engraved in us. Not the finest label to give a superhero film, it's cute: Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone - loved up in real life - are adorable as childhood sweethearts Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey (ignoring the comic books), and their natural chemistry and individual charisma make them eminently watchable - particularly loved Stone's pattering away of her father whilst she hides an injured Spidey in her bedroom, and Garfield's pitch perfect languid and lanky teenager. The relationships elevate the film, not just between the lead characters, but between Peter and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, as he rebels against their guardianship whilst clinging onto them as his only family. It's a big theme here: with more time spent on what happened to Peter's parents than working on the villain of the piece, Rhys Ifans' Lizard (this film will always be memorable for me for the woman who declared as the credits rolled at the end, "who's Rhys Ifans?"). His motives are murky, and the climax of the film cliched and predictable, with Spidey saving New York from his biological takedown with ease. Well, with a bit of limping. That's what I wrestled with the most: the scene of New York's construction force coming together to make a path to Oscorp for a wounded Spidey to swing to felt like it should have been a soaring joyous moment, but instead felt empty. The prowess from Marc Webb in this area was sadly lacking, but perhaps he will learn for the sequel - he doesn't need to worry about his cast anymore. There was lots of humour which I loved too (small knives!) and it did what every superhero film should do - embrace its fantasy with a great sense of fun. Great egg gag, too.

The Dark Knight Rises
There are many things I admire about Christopher Nolan, and being no Batophile myself, can appreciate what he's done with these characters, and this world, to make them believable, credible, and sublimely assured. But I think he played it safe here. A perfect blend of the dark and brooding Batman Begins and the chaotic beauty of The Dark Knight, this works perfectly to finish the story and to please the many hoards of fans. But I just wish he had made it its own thing and gone against the grain to make something as individual as its predecessors. Though I still personally find Begins the dullest, Rises is the least interesting of the trilogy. Smartly and sensitively dispelling the Joker, the third film picks up several years later, with Batman and Bruce Wayne both in hiding (has no one figured it out yet?), whilst Gotham is slowly being disarmed by Bane (Tom Hardy/Deckard Cain). Forced to take a stand, a rusty Bat - but with some brand new weapons that only made me giggle - is pitted against this new strand of enemy: brute force. The Batman/Bane stand-offs are gritty and real, but with it lacklustre. Action too is a yawnfest, having seen this all before and better in The Dark Knight. It's the plotting which is superior, and even though the twist left me less satisfied than an avid reader of the graphic novels, it was a proper twist and not a retcon - wonderfully gratifying to discover the hidden clues left by Nolan upon several re-watches. At 165 minutes I was quietly stressing, but this never drags which is a testament to the richly layered storytelling and characters. The newbies were great - Anne Hathaway much better at the beginning when she's being insane and a teeny bit bisexual with Juno Temple (you know it) though she becomes tiresome later on, particularly when she bursts into save Batman's life in the final fist-off with Bane. Joseph Gordon Levitt stood out as Blake, and though a little ineffectual in moments, can now handle himself well under Nolan's camera. The ending was cheesy as hell, and a lot more black and white than some people are making it out to be (not everything is Inception, peeps) but thankfully finishes, putting a tidy end on this trilogy. The most comic book of the three films, you could lift several scenes and put them onto glossy paper. After watching them within a few days of one another, I was surprised how much this echoed The Amazing Spider-Man at times - despite its darkness, Batman has finally embraced its genre!

Pixar's latest dips into fairy tale and myth for the first time, and sees them also set a story abroad (as opposed to under the sea or in space), as they head for medieval Scotland. Despite the brilliant animation company being pocketed by Disney back in 2006, Brave is the first film where that relationship becomes fully apparent. Perhaps it's the use of a female protagonist in (oh my God I want her hair) Merida - the first for Pixar, but just another creation in a long line of Disney princesses - she reminded me a lot of Aladdin's Jasmine, facing the same predicament of having an arranged marriage with a suitor when she's not ready, and wants to be free to make her own choices. But instead of fighting with her father, Brave tackles something unique in the long stream of animation films from these two power houses: the mother/daughter relationship. Beautifully depicting baby Merida being completely besotted with her mother, this precious bond has been strained by tradition and a mother's sense of duty against a stubborn teenager who feels powerless and ignored. A tomboy anyway with a love of archery and adventure, Merida has an easy connection with her carefree father, but it's her close and therefore more suffocating relationship with her mother that she beats upon, and desperate to get out of her prescribed destiny, runs away to strike up a bargain with a witch to change her fate. This is - along with Up - grown up Pixar, with a maturity to its story stifling out the traditional wacky capers and hilarious quotable jokes for a change, which is a shame because though charming it does lack in the delight factor. Males will also find it difficult to relate to the more subtle, delicate parts of the film - brilliantly done - which presides on a mother and daughter literally working together to 'mend the bond that has been broken' - a torn tapestry perhaps, but we all know what the bigger life lesson is on offer here. Brave is gorgeous to look at, with an exquisitely haunting soundtrack capturing the myth and lore of rural Scotland perfectly, making up for what's disappointingly lacking from the narrative. The first half was wonderful, top-end Pixar, with an opening that rivals the very best the company has ever produced. I was confident the lukewarm reviews had missed something. The discovery of the witch's cottage magically took me back to the best cartoon witch I've ever seen on the screen in Journey Back to Oz, and I was in story telling visual heaven. Then they crucially made a decision which changed the whole tone of the film, reeking of Disney in every way, which just spoilt it for me. In fact, I'd go so far to say Brave connivingy cheats you as a viewer, as the majority of the second half of the film is missing from the trailer. They'll probably say not to give the big reveal away, but I cynically suspect it's because it's achingly tiresome. Here we go again, you'll mutter, let's bring in the animal humour. You have at your feet a whole world of magic, beauty, dynasty  - and yet you decide to do this? Definitely not one of Pixar's best as they missed a trick, but has plenty of heart and a headstrong, likable protagonist, exploring the theme of family in a new, and gently satisfying way. If you're a girl then you will be moved to tears.

I'm slightly bemused as to how well this is playing to audiences, though I can understand its appeal: it's the debut big screen venture from comic writer Seth Macfarlane, best known for American Dad, The Cleveland Show, and of course the juggernaut Family Guy. But avid fans of his work - and I am one of them - will know Family Guy lost its mojo years ago, and the creator himself has even confessed to secretly hoping it'll finally (ironically) get cancelled by Fox soon as it's run its course. Films is obviously the area he wants to move into now - but with Ted, in which he voices the foul-mouthed titular furry character, it's just Family Guy re-moulded. Current Family Guy at that - meaning the jokes often hang in the air awkwardly, instead of zipping neatly by. Ted in himself is just a different variation of Brian, with exactly the same self righteous tendencies and liberal recreations - I found all the constant smoking/womanising/expletives tiresome (at least Brian writes hilariously shit novels). In fact the dynamics were pretty similar all round, with Mark Wahlberg's John being lazy, stuck in a dead end job, perfectly happy stuck in a juvenile rut not going anywhere. And whilst Mila Kunis (who plays Meg in the cartoon) is the more grown-up, successful one - she shares the same sense of humour and that is why they love each other and she can accept his flaws. It's Peter and Lois! Too bad the best thing about Family Guy is Stewie, and there was no equivalent here. We did get the actor who plays Joe - you can tell immediately - who has a hilarious gag, with Ryan Reynolds cameo-ing - yet again for Seth Macfarlane - playing a gay character. Kudos to him. Norah Jones was less winsome. The plot in itself was yawningly predictable, down to the beats and the character arcs, but was overall quite sweet and I did shed a tear when Mila Kunis makes a wish which brings Ted back to life. The cynic in me knows it's only for the sequel - I think the film would have found a more bittersweet and mature depth if they had chosen to end the magic there. I would have much preferred that ending - she could have wished for John to have the strength to finally let go, as in the end, nothing really changes. Wahlberg and Kunis were great though, with a real fun chemistry between them which made them really watchable as a couple. But I have to say - there needed to be more Joel McHale, as he's just brilliant. Playing here Mila Kunis' boss as a more leery Jeff Winger - perhaps in the more infuriating moments of the film it was just me crying out for a Community movie instead. The most interesting part of the film by far was the sub plot involving the creepy father and fat kid, who are desperate to get their hands on the magical teddy bear, making the last 15 minutes of the film what the whole thing should have been - solid joke, after joke, after joke - the best one coming right at the very end - Ted's worth sticking around just for that beauty. Patchy overall, I probably won't be investing in this again, less the inevitable sequel. It's a worry Mr Macfarlane may have already peaked, or he may need to change up his schnizzle as if he's bored, then we're all bored.

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