21 February 2012

Chronicle Review

Found footage is a gimmick that, for a lot of people, does not bode well. Representative of either extreme, vomit-inducing shakey-cam, or just general rubbishness - and yes, I'm looking at you, Blair Witch. But there are those of us who have a penchant for first-person shenanigans - and we've been richly rewarded for our tolerance with excellent movies such as Cloverfield and the first Paranormal Activity. And it's this subset of the population that will almost immediately fall in love with Chronicle.

Telling the story of an unpopular kid named Andrew, who acquires a 'old' video camera to not only create a barrier between himself and the real world, but also to document the systematic abuse that he suffers at the hands of his father. The trials of high school life inevitably get in the way, though, and he, his cousin and the most popular kid at school find themselves in a strange underground cave, where a glowing rock formation pulses with energy, and subsequently knocks them out. They wake up above ground, with no recollection of what happened - but whatever it was, they now have telekinetic abilities, and the film explores quite what the average high-school student might do in this predicament.

For reasons that'll become clear further down, let's start with heaping the praise on it. 

Story-wise, it's not the most original premise, but what it does have is a fresh take on the usual formula of the every-man superhero story. It's a flipside of Kick-Ass and Super's coin - or  rather, it strips the usual superhero story of the 'hero' part, rather than the 'super' part. Filtering this through the rogues gallery of the American high-school is both ingenious and a no-brainer, and whilst it's been done before, in a year where Marvel and DC will be showboating with their primary film franchises, this is refreshingly small and simple, with a character-driven story that pushes forward at exactly the right pace. Story-turns - super-power granting rocks aside - never seem contrived, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity.

It's also wonderfully performed by the core ensemble - with Michael B Jordan (of The Wire fame) putting in a particularly good performance, turning the popular, class-president archetype into an intriguing study in empathy: his Steve's ingratiation with Dane DeHaan and Alex Russell's losers not simply down to their single shared experience, but as the act of a genuinely kind individual. DeHaan escalates his performance as Andrew remarkably, and whilst Russell, playing the main character's stoner cousin, takes a little while to get warmed up, by the end, you're hardly holding it against him.

So, all this praise under advisement, you can now understand my full meaning when I say that somewhere in here, there is a far, far better movie. The sad fact of the matter is that what prevents it from better is also its core gimmick - the found footage stylings. Had they transitioned between found footage and more traditionally cinematic shots in the manner of District 9, this could've been genuinely one of the best superhero movies in years. 

There are attempts at this towards the end, but it never actually emerges from within the found footage box, and because of this, they have to come up with more and more contrived reasons to have cameras in the frame. Don't get me wrong - the manner in which they tackle it is ingenious, and there is a commentary about quite how often, in the digital age, there is someone with a camera watching you, but the sense of contrivance never goes away. There's also a bit of awkwardness in the finale thanks to this, where there's a series of transitions between cameras in the action and the news helicopter that's trying to document it. The odd shift in audio dynamic as the view flicks between these two points mars what is otherwise an exhilarating set piece.

There're a few moments of odd dialogue that clunk a little, a couple of dubious directorial decisions and a few ropey special effects scattered about, but these aren't really noticeable thanks to the lightning fast pacing. The plot is a little sign-posted in terms of predictability, and it's incredibly streamlined, with a run-time of a mere 83 minutes. It doesn't make it any less satisfying, thanks to the relatively fresh angle, but a cynic might brand it simplistic were he to skip breakfast the day he saw it.

All-in-all, it's tough to criticise something that's as technically proficient, visually engaging and thoroughly entertaining as this. The previous criticisms have been pondered for a good while before committing to t'internet, and even now I'm struggling to really justify them. It's a real cinema movie too- sparklingly clear visuals combining with a soundtrack whose bass rattles bones, engrossing you in the experience. There is that niggling sensation that a better movie could've been made given more money and more time, but it's just not enough to derail it. A fresh, darkly intriguing take on the superhero formula, and a great action movie to boot, we can only hope round two is bigger and bolder - because what a treat we'd be in for.

16 February 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I think I can safely say that not a lot of us were expecting to enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes as much as we did. Whilst the entire prospect may have been somewhat appealing - Sherlock, is of course, a classic character - but the constituent elements may have caused the more sniffy amongst us to question its value. 'Hot as shit right now' American actor Robert Downey Jr. in the title role? An out-of-form Jude Law in support? A recently lambasted Guy Ritchie in the directors chair? This, coupled with the debut of the excellent modern update from the BBC meant that the cynical amongst us - and yes, that included me - might've thought this would amount to a rather disastrous cocktail. But come together it did, and majestically so, with its family-friendly, mischevious sense of humour blending perfectly with an intriguing, gothic-inspired story to create a surprise Christmas treat.

The box office takings were hardly insignificant either, and thus along rolls the rather inevitable sequel. But - in the spirit of the Empire striking back - we must ask: is it better than the first one?

Unfortunately, the rather inevitable answer is no. But it does come with some rather large caveats - namely the fact that it's more or less exactly as good.

There are some losses as it transitions into franchisedom - gone is the mystically gothic vibe of the first, Rachel MacAdams and the slightly looser structuring in favour of a tightly-paced, action-oriented flick with a villain whose primary weapon is economics. That and...y'know...predictive kung-fu. The mystery here seems all the less mysterious, and it's open to debate whether the film is better for it.

If you like your action at least considered, then you'll find a lot to like here. The idea of Holmes running a fight through his analytical mind is beautifully toyed with in this one, as he's not coming up against run-of-the-mill fighters now. There does come a moment where the switching between slow-motion and normal speed starts to feel a little gimmicky, but it never really comes to a head, and the fact of the matter is that it looks fantastic - if nothing else, Guy Ritchie has a fantastic eye for tensely directed action. Set pieces abound, and they're all immensely entertaining, from Watson attempting to conduct a rescue of Holmes under sniper-fire, and subsequently coming up with a rather...destructive solution to it, to a cross-dressing, train-based caper that brings about belly-laughs as well as getting the adrenaline flowing.

The story - whilst disappointingly dropping the mystical angle - is still tight and well conceived, and not a plot-hole in sight. It does occasionally feel a little contrived in its attempts to make the adventure a globe-trotting one when it could've easily been contained once again within London, with a brief foray to Reichenbach to cap it off. But this is easy to overlook, as in exchange we get a far grander plot that never drags and keeps the scenery interesting.

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law is still one of the main selling points, though, and they evolve the relationship beautifully. Holmes starts off, once again, having introverted himself due to a lack of an interesting case, and it's up to Watson to balance his affection for Holmes and that for his soon-to-be wife. The dialogue is as joyously tongue-in-cheek as it was in the first one, and Downey Jr's particular brand of 'insane genius' is, I must say, most appealing and engaging, and there's a certain joy to be had from the interplay between this and the more grounded intelligence of Watson that the screenwriters have done a fantastic job of capitalising on.

Elsewhere, Noomi Rappace, whilst good, feels almost entirely peripheral as Gypsy queen Simza, there almost as a MacGuffin that appears to have been accidentally made into an important player only right at the very end of the movie. Stephen Fry is great as Mycroft - or Mikey, as he's known in this interpretation. Whilst there's little familial resemblance, Fry plays off Downey Jr. rather wonderfully - QI's good and all, but he slips into Mycroft's shoes rather comfortably, and I distinctly remember wishing that he was in it more. It's a little let down by a relatively forgettable turn by Jared Harris in the nemesis role, though this could actually be interpreted as intentional - ultimately, the entire point of Moriarty's plan is that he's never implicit or even remembered in the war that his schemings creates. It's just that he's perhaps a little too successful, and this is actually, and oddly, to the film's credit.

All in all, this is a fantastic continuation of the now set-in-stone franchise. Richie does seem to have found another niche that he can operate rather well within, and the characterisations are utterly enthralling. Throw in some great performances, a wonderfully clever script and a neat twist on 'The Final Problem', and this is a sequel that for once doesn't disappoint.