31 October 2011

Green Lantern Review

Every so often, a movie comes along that utterly stumps me. Green Lantern was one of those films - all the constituent elements for a rollicking good time are present. Great director? Check. Decent writing team? Check. Reasonably good choice of thespians for the leads, villains and supporting character? Triple check. So how on earth did they manage to create such a thin-on-the-ground, back-end of the middle-of-the-road flick?

The answer to this question lies entirely at the script level, and perhaps with the ‘we accidentally threw too much money at it’...thing. There is literally no excuse for scripting this bad, particularly given the pedigree of both the character and the writing team – and the thing that seems to have eluded the production team is that you can’t solve the problems with your script by adding another gargantuan, effects-driven set piece.

Here is a story that has fewer plot points than Star Wars, and yet a thousand times more special effects shots - boiling down decades of mythology both intriguing and fatuous into a mere three story turns and a few bombastic action sequences. There aren't even any twists - it progresses exactly as you might expect, with about as many surprises as a night in with spaghetti Bolognese (what's this?!?! Mushrooms?!?! Oh no, wait..it's just more meat...).

So indeed, our jocky, vaguely arrogant hero learns the ways of the Green Lanterns from a slightly dead purple alien, learns some humility, and then beats up a big, bad alien menace, and ends up getting the girl. But there is literally just wiffle connecting them – ending up as something the Jesus of Suburbia might’ve stitched together, seventeen hours after his last Ritalin dose.

The most telling of these editing nightmares is the ‘training sequence’ that takes place on the Planet Oa. The scene skits fitfully from one character training our hero to another, and it’s in real time. After fifteen minutes of this schizophrenic character dropping, Hal is more-or-less shipped off back to Earth with a pat on the backside. It’s clearly an attempt at fan service, but ends up as more of an insult – making out that this intergalactic police force just hands its power rings out and says 'off you go', despite some earnest efforts to convince us to the contrary.

What’s worse, the entire thing – from the script to the staging - stinks of a certain Tom Cruise movie that involved an arrogant fighter pilot learning some humility. The only thing it’s missing is…y’know…the deeply homoerotic vibe, and even that would’ve at least given this kitsch appeal.

Still, it could’ve resulted in an element of simplicity that had the potential to be vaguely refreshing – Top Gun was hardly a bad film, after all - but it's rendered inert by a complete lack of interesting, connected characters (and yes, that is when compared to Top Gun). Ryan Reynolds does his best with the flaccid script, but ultimately just comes off as a set of teeth hovering in front of a green screen. Blake Lively's Carol Ferris is perhaps the dullest human being ever, let alone the dullest supporting female of all time. Tim Robbins and Mark Strong are completely wasted in roles that are almost entirely peripheral, with the latter’s potential for villainship clearly held back in a ‘we’ll definitely get a sequel!’ move. But the final, crippling blow is Peter Saarsgard's utterly, atrociously awful performance as red-herring villain Hector Hammond. Fine actor though he may be, he attempts to ham it up Anthony Hopkins style, and instead comes across as a screeching, irritating wet fish of a villain, who is ultimately and entirely brushed aside come the big climax.

Okay, so I’m assaulting it a bit here – it certainly wasn’t without its merits. Strong was actually really quite good as Sinestro, and Reynolds, had he had a better plot and stronger writing to work with, would’ve been actually a surprisingly good choice for Hal Jordan, as even in these shambling proceedings, he manages to nail the transition from bastard to do-gooder. The effects are impressively done (when they aren’t completely overwhelming the screen, that is), and there’s an element of fun to be had in all of the set pieces – particularly one that sees him saving a crashing helicopter, which allows Martin Campbell to really flex his action muscles.

It’s just so bloody insubstantial, at the end of the day. There’s so little to it, and yet it lasts for the better part of two hours, with the majority of the film spent faffing about. Had it not been so cynically sequel-driven, or even had a script better than this Top-Gun-with-superpowers knock-off, it could’ve been a decently entertaining movie. As it stands, it’s a sporadically enjoyable, yet ultimately empty affair. The Green Lantern genuinely deserved better than this – some of the most intriguing, integral stories of the DC universe have just been allowed to fizzle out. Let’s hope they still greenlight (hah!) a sequel. Is it way too early to consider a reboot? With distinctly less money thrown at it, and Mark Strong as the main villain? Probably…ah well.

26 October 2011

Contagion Review

Love him or hate him (or, in the case of the Ocean's trilogy, be utterly bemused by him), Stephen Soderbergh is one of those rare directors who, rather than leaving a trademark visual and narrative style, adapts himself to the subject matter as required. Don't believe me? Just go to IMDb, and have a look at his back catalogue. Ignoring sequels (oh please, for the love of God, ignore those sequels), it's incredibly varied, from sci-fi, to biopics, by way of heist movies and historical dramas.Only Peter Weir can claim to be as much of a cinematic chameleon. And now, Soderbergh can add pandemic flick to the list of sub-genres that he's mastered. If I were a director, I'd be green with envy at his eclectic back catalogue. As a critic, I'm simply impressed.

Contagion starts sparsely - there're no title cards, no opening credits, it simply opens with Gwyneth Paltrow in an airport and 'Day Two' in simple text at the bottom of the screen, and this simplicity is what pervades the film from start to finish. There's no focus on fancy cinematography, no impressive camera tricks, no complex motivations or back stories. The focus of the film is on two things - the virus itself and the effort to contain it, the human beings caught up in its wake.

If there is a single common theme to be found between this and Soderbergh's other films, it has the most in common with that depressathon drugs parable Traffic - interconnected stories, linked by character interaction. But here, Soderbergh capitlises on the idea of formite transmission as the connection between the story threads - the fact that what's linking them could be as simple as a handshake, or even that they grabbed the same safety rail on a bus.

Okay, I may have lied when I said no impressive camera tricks. There is just one, and it's a deceptively simply one - clever use of focus. Rarely are we shown the big picture - instead, we've presented with essentially what amounts to a series of close-ups, seeing characters facial expressions, the panic or resolve in their eyes, and most importantly, what they touch with their hands. Presented with the astonishing fact that the average human being touches their face a few thousand times a day, you'll find yourself paying more attention to a character's hands than to the medical jargon or panicked babbling that's exuding from their face, and this is entirely facilitated by Soderbergh's minimalist cinematography.

Obviously, this would fall apart without strong verbal and physical performances. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishburne form the emotional core of the ensemble - the former a father who finds himself immune to the disease and attempting to defend what remains of his decimated family from the virus, the latter a put-upon CDC head-honcho who slips up and is forced to pay for it through the nose. Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and this reviewer's personal favourite Kate Winslet all shine too. If there's a weak link, it's two-fold. First Jude Law's spot on, but utterly confounding Australian accent. Quite why either a) he couldn't be British, or b) they didn't cast an Australian actor, is utterly mystifying. Still, Law does a good enough job, and it's only really a quibble that occurred to me after the film had finished. The second is that the ensemble cast is so very expansive that some characters never get a satisfactory amount of screen time - Cotillard, in particular, vanishes for the middle to late third of the film. But again, this only really occured to me afterwards.

To sum up - engrossing is the word that I would use to describe the film. It's being sold as a thriller, but it very rarely thrills, instead, it's incredibly intense, beautifully written (with a few zingers too: 'Blogging? That's just graffiti with puncuation!' Fucking OUCH!), and above all, entirely absorbing. It's not necessarily a movie that you'll enjoy, but it's an interesting 21st century take on an old chestnut that works incredibly well. Catch it on the biggest screen you can.

18 October 2011

The Three Musketeers Review

If you're an avid fan of this blog - all five of you... - then you'll know that I'm rather keen on surprises, particularly when it comes to movies. Good surprises are my favourite, but obviously there're bad ones out there too, and one must be prepared for both eventualities, especially when you go in to a movie with rather heavy expectations. It's perhaps as much a shock to me as it might be to you that actually, against all the odds, I ended up having a huge amount of fun with The Three Musketeers.

I'm going to dedicate an entire paragraph of this review to the film critic in me that wears a top hat and monocle, and snarfs derisively at the so-called 'tosh' that frequently excuses itself as mainstream cinema these days. Artistically speaking, this movie has practically zero merit - every single shot is derivative of some other, frequently better movie, with director Paul WS Anderson riffing on everything from 300 to Master and Commander, and stopping at every station in between, including a reference to Anderson's own Resident Evil franchise. The dialogue frequently and unceremoniously thuds. There's the bizarre decision to give every 'French' person a British accent, except D'Artagnan, who is saddled with Logan Lerman's smarmy, smug American mannerisms. The story has almost inexcusably been compromised beyond recognition, driven by producer-fueled delusions that it might not sell Stateside. That Alexandre Dumas didn't rise from his grave in search of brain-munching vengeance is perhaps a small mercy...

But about 30 minutes into the movie, this particular aspect of my personality was given pause, and the rest of me spent three minutes ignoring the film, attempting to figure out quite what had silenced him so thoroughly. Then it hit me - the ridiculous choice of accents, the knowing winks to pop culture, the outlandish twists on an established story, the vaguely plastic sheen to the set and costume design, the outrageous moustache twirling of Orlando Bloom and Christophe Waltz as the villains.

This is a bloody pantomime!

Then it started to happen - I started to have fun, and by the time James Corden was on stage...sorry, screen, offering the rest of the cast some cheese, I was having an absolute ball.Yes, it dances a merry jig on Dumas' grave. Yes, for whatever reason, Anderson saw fit to add fucking airships into the fray. But somehow, it emerges as a schlocky, silly piece of genuinely fun cinema, that entertains whilst it's there, and will instantly be forgotten.

There are problems with it, mostly stemming from the moments when it takes itself a little too seriously - it features a grave performance from Matthew MacFadyen as Athos that frequently seems out of place given that there are fucking airships that shoot fire from dragon-shaped cannons. It's more the writers' fault than MacFadyen's, and when he is allowed to join in on the fun, he shines wonderfully.

Then there's Logan Lerman. A fine young actor though he might be - but he's utterly, utterly miscast in the lead(-ish) role. Had he been replaced by a young British actor in keeping with the rest of the cast (or at the very least, been forced to adopt the accent) the smarm might've come across as slyly ironic. Alas, we'll never know.

Still, there's so much on show that is genuinely enjoyable. From the mentioned fire-shooting airships (which subsequently do battle and, in one of the movie's most joyous pieces of silliness, end up crashing into Notre Dame), to beautifully choreographed and shot sword-fights, you can't say that Anderson doesn't have an eye for outrageous (say it with a French accent!) set pieces.

The cast - for the most part, at least - seem to have cottoned on to the nature of the film as well, and have tongues firmly planted in cheek as they bounce across the screen. As mentioned, Orlando Bloom belies his usual wooden performances to bring a villain so deliciously, ridiculously evil and pompous you just can't help but chuckle every time he's on screen. Luke Evans is great as Aramis, and Ray Stephenson is essentially doing a pantomime version of Titus Pullo from Rome as his interpretation of Porthos, which is exactly as fun as it sounds.

So...you'll have noticed my overuse of a certain three-letter word in this review: fun. The movie is by no means good. But it is fun, and a lot of it. Get a few beers in you, see it with other movie-loving mates, and you'll have a ball. Just leave the top hat and monocle at the door, yeah?