Sunday, 28 March 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)


Plot Summary: Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who one day decides to become a super-hero, even though he has no powers, training or meaningful reason to do so.

Over the last decade it has become an industry standard for studios to release at least one superhero film as a tent-pole release for their summer schedule. More recently, starting with Sin City, a new trend in releasing smaller budgeted, more violent comic book adaptations in March has surfaced. Films such as 300 and Watchmen aren’t particularly suitable for summertime, in which cinemas are dominated by mass-appeal blockbusters, and stand more of a chance in an earlier part of the year. New entry in this strategic release model, Kick-Ass, is based upon Mark Miller’s extremely violent comic book of the same name and is directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust). Kick-Ass does exactly what it says on the tin and, although it’s let down by a few tonal missteps, is best summed up as a wildly entertaining synthesis of Spider-Man and Kill Bill.

Make no mistake, Kick-Ass is tremendously violent and it doesn’t give a damn if it offends you. Bullets fly, legs are severed and, in one of the film’s most splatter-hungry moments, a man is blown up in an industrial microwave. To make matters worse (read: better) a lot of the time the pain is being dealt out by a twelve year-old girl, uttering profanity ridden punch lines such as, “OK you c*nts, let's see what you can do now”. The film then, is clearly not one to take grandma to see on the Sunday matinee. The ensuing fight scenes are some of the best I’ve seen in years; inventive, cool and funnier than a Bugs Bunny Saturday morning cartoon. The two stand-out scenes would have to be the first involving ‘Hit-Girl’ (the previously mentioned twelve year old, played by Chloe Moretz) which is hilariously abrupt and highly visceral and the slick and satisfying one-take attack by ‘Big Daddy’ (Hit-Girl’s father and partner in crime, played by Nicolas Cage) upon a warehouse full of gangsters.

The film is more than a collection of Tarantino worthy action set-pieces however, as most of the story focuses on Dave’s (Aaron Johnson) adolescent trials and tribulations. They aren’t, as you might expect, riddled with Peter Parkeresque clichés and outdated morality struggles as the story attempts to take a more modern and humorous look at today’s teenagers. Dave isn’t a loner or a complete loser but isn’t exactly one of the popular kids either, marking a refreshing twist in genre conventions. The insertion of pop-culture references such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as a sub-plot which sees Dave pretend to be gay in order to get close to the girl of his dreams, also make the film much more culturally relevant. Kick-Ass also works very well as an amusing parody of superhero films, beginning as it means to go on with a false-start involving an Armenian teenager testing out his Icarus-inspired costume whom plunges head first into a taxi rather than soaring into the skies.

In fact Vaughn has so much to pack into Kick-Ass that it could have easily become an overly long mess of ideas. The director pulls it off though, employing a swift and energetic pace that manages to keep almost the entire narrative intact in less than two hours; an achievement in of itself. The soundtrack is similarly energetic and fun, comprising of a selection of modern licensed tracks which give the film an extra sheen of cool. The film is also impressive from a technical standpoint, taking most of its stylistic cues from the medium it’s adapting. Caption cards reading “Meanwhile” and “Six months later” laid over the screen, a bright and bold colour pallet, as well as a gorgeously animated flashback, all aid in creating the look of a comic book come to life. The acting on display is first class and you can tell everyone involved had a blast making the thing. Aaron Johnson does a good job of making Dave’s somewhat senseless actions seem empathetic and Chloe Moretz seems an actress wise beyond her years; she makes you truly believe a twelve year-old girl could kick that much ass. Nicolas Cage is also on rare comedic top form here with a perfect deadpan delivery and brilliant parody of Adam West’s Batman.

For the most part, Kick-Ass is a very faithful adaptation of the comic book and for that alone it should be praised. Most of the films pitfalls, however, occur when it chooses to stray too far from the source material. Notable changes to the relationship between Dave and his love interest, Big Daddy’s back story and the ending of the story only make the film cheesier and more fantastical than it needed be. For a film seemingly so intent on creating a semi-realistic world in which real people try to be superheroes, additions such as a jet-pack with mini-guns attached just seem unnecessary (even if they are fun in their own way). Additionally, the conclusion of the Dave’s romantic aspirations clashed with the overall tone of the film and here is also a slight awkwardness to some moments in which tragedy and comedy are blended together. Nevertheless, Kick-Ass is the most invigorating and exciting comic book adaptation to come along for a long time and is certainly not to be missed.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)


Plot Summary: Swedish thriller based on Stieg Larsson's novel about a journalist and a young female hacker.

As a disclaimer to this review I’d like to outwardly admit that I don’t particularly like detective/crime mystery films (for the most part). As a consequence I’m obviously going to have enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo far less than someone who does; so feel free to add an extra mark onto my final verdict if you’re one of these people. Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish film which adapts the first in a series of bestsellers called ‘The Millennium Trilogy’. After the release in its native country last year it was box office smash and it’s now being released widely throughout Europe. The film itself is somewhat of a contemporary or ‘alternative’ take on the murder mystery genre due its depiction of sexual violence, the striking female lead and her reliance on computers and the internet. It’s a well made thriller which makes some interesting choices but overall feels like it’s missing something.

As mentioned, the main selling point of Dragon Tattoo is the two main characters who both band together (professionally and later, sexually) in order to solve a forty year-old murder case. Mikael (played by Michael Nyqvist) is a writer for a communist magazine, disgraced and heading to prison since losing a libel case against corrupt businessman. He’s not exactly Dick Van Dyke. It’s really Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), though, who stands out here for several reasons. First of all, her goth/alternative look is extremely striking; piercings, tattoos and of course, primarily black clothing dominate. Her feminist attitude and resolve is demonstrated in a variety of different scenes throughout the film, combined with her troubled past and general mystique, make her a thoroughly compelling character. Both roles are very well written and acted and as a result it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that they make the film.

Dragon Tattoo is also well, if not particularly interestingly, shot from start to finish and does a good job of creating a dramatic and mysterious set-up for the murder case. The film is also rather uncompromising in its depiction and critique of the general male population. Not all men are portrayed as evil or perverted and it’s not quite a true ‘feminist film’ but as the original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, suggests the film-makers clearly have things to say about the male dominated society we all live in. This appears in the film in truly harsh and gritty scenes in which Lisbeth is assaulted in full view of the public by a group of drunk men at a train station, sexual assaulted by her probation officer and finally in the murderous exploits of the Vanger clan. Not that Lisbeth takes it lying down, she fights back at her male oppressors with full force; in one particularly hard to watch scene she even drugs, ties up and rapes a man with a dildo.

The violent direction taken by the film-makers is an interesting, if not exactly enjoyable, decision which adds some much needed dramatic weight and realism to events. Even with these unique elements present in the film, Dragon Tattoo still ends up feeling fairly formulaic. The identity of the killer and the whereabouts of the victim will be obvious to most keen-eyed viewers and nothing in particular really stands out and grabs the audience. Dragon Tattoo also has a rather long running time which some may find trying. The first hour of the film takes far too long establishing the characters and plot and there appears to be about four endings. The main ending itself also felt uncharacteristically upbeat and felt off with the rest of the film. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a well made film and is a fairly different take on the murder mystery film which fans of the genre are bound to enjoy.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Shutter Island (2010)


Plot Summary: Drama is set in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is investigating the disappearance of a murderess that escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and is presumed to be hiding on the remote Shutter Island.

A new film release from legendary film director Martin Scorsese (director of such classics as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas) is always going to be a big deal and Shutter Island is no exception. His follow up to 2006’s The Departed has been a long time coming, not least because it was delayed for four months, but it’s now gracing screens across the country. Based upon Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name Shutter Island is an interesting mystery come thriller which borrows heavily from the likes of Val Lewton and Alfred Hitchcock throughout. It feels almost needless to say, this is Scorsese we’re dealing with here, but the film really is expertly put together. Considering this and the potential of the set-up of the story, Shutter Island could have been one of the director’s best but it is unfortunately held back by its misguided pacing and a somewhat weak conclusion.

As mentioned, and from the very first shot of a ferryboat emerging from ominous misty seas, the film-making pedigree on display here is as spellbinding as you’d expect. Scorsese and his crew really push themselves and the result is a joy to witness. Shutter Island is beautifully photographed and the imagery captured in decaying ruins, gothic architecture and surreal dream sequences could easily stand alone outside of the film. The sound design and editing also deserve a mention here as both are used in unconventional and surprising ways to further bring the audience into Teddy’s emotionally complex mindset. Jump cuts, would-be continuity errors, mismatched lip synch and layers of sound all work together to express the fractured state of our central character’s mind.

The acting, ranging from relative newcomers to experienced veterans of the screen, is thoroughly convincing and is typical of the calibre of film-making on display. Scorsese does a brilliant job of setting up the secretive and questionable nature of the titular Shutter Island; creating a truly living environment and a very involving and mysterious tone. The story that unravels on the island is a compelling throwback detective thriller and will keep you guessing as to what is going on in the institution and indeed, Teddy’s mind. Shutter Island isn’t a horror film (the closest it comes is during the scenes in the illusive ‘Ward C’) but certainly draws upon the genre and produces a strangely compelling eerie atmosphere. This is aided by the selection of modern classical pieces supervised by Robbie Robertson which really convey the haunted feel of the film.

Not all, however, is well on Shutter Island. The film makes many twists and turns and many possible outcomes are hinted at but the final reveal is a very disappointing one. You know when you guess an ending early on and think, “No, it can’t be that easy to figure out”. Well guess what? With Shutter Island, it really is. This is a shame as the film is better than that and could have done something much more interesting with the story. This is, on the other hand, saved slightly by a very powerful final line which poses many more questions than it answers. There is also a slight pacing issue present as the third act struggles to keep up the momentum it has so carefully built up and it becomes a bit dull until the aforementioned reveal. Shutter Island is very well made film from a man who clearly knows what he’s doing and is certainly an enjoyable experience overall, but it could have done with a much more intellectually rewarding ending and a shorter running time.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)



Plot Summary: The story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner with spectacular results.

Graffiti artist Banksy is most certainly a divisive pop-culture phenomenon; some see him as a counter-culture legend, others see him as a sell-out who uses style over substance and others would just rather see him in jail. Personally I try not to get too caught up in any supposed meaning or political motives behind his works and simply enjoy them for their amusing, and sometimes beautiful, imagery. In an interesting move he has now turned his attention to film-making with his pseudo-documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, having first premièred at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The resulting film is not merely a film about Banksy but is also a documentation of the general graffiti community, a unique character study and an interesting critique of the art world.

Exit first starts as a documentary about graffiti artists from around the world but mostly focusing on LA. It’s highly interesting to watch as it’s a subject not often tackled in film and is also an important one as graffiti art is, by nature, only temporary. Watching these artists go out at midnight, scale all manner of buildings (all the while trying to do it undetected by the authorities) and create their pieces is exciting and fascinating to watch. The work on show here ranges from the amusing to the spectacular but is never less than inspiring. Their slip-ups and encounters with the police are also very funny while simultaneously reminding us that they too are human; ensuring they are not raised to superhuman levels of admiration. These moments are filmed by Thierry Guetta a French immigrant living in LA who, in an interesting twist, becomes the focus of the story.

This is where the film gets really complex as Thierry is a weird, interesting and above all, hilarious character that's legitimacy is dubious. Is he such a large personality, such a blundering buffoon, that it’s hard to believe he’s a real person and not an actor playing a role in a mockumentary. The uncertain intent of the film-makers is undoubtedly going to divide audiences but, whether or not Thierry is a real personality or a character made up by Banksy, the artistic questions and issues his character raises are still valid. After Thierry has a chance meeting with Banksy and befriends him, Banksy tells him that he should do some of his own work and put on a show. This is where Exit gets really interesting and something more than an amusing look at the graffiti art world. Thierry (now operating under his new moniker, ‘Mr Brainwash’) does as he is instructed and begins to make extremely derivative and unoriginal artwork and plans an over-the-top, extravagant art show to garner as much publicity as humanly possible.

I say ‘make’ in the loosest sense of the word as his work process boils down to finding popular images in books and commanding a team of paid artists to do the hard work for him. He uses his famous friends within the graffiti community to promote his show and during its production he is more likely to be seen taking interviews than hanging up paintings. To the audiences’ surprise, his show is a massive hit and he makes more than a million dollars from it. This is where a lot of Exit's best laughs come from as so-called art critics walk around his exhibition stating how great his work is, when it is clear that his work is artistically worthless. This sudden rise to undeserved fame brings up many criticisms of the art world and asks; what does it take to be considered an artist? These art critics seem more interested in not looking stupid than in actually stating how they feel about Thierry’s work and are more than eager to spend amazing amounts of money on it just because it’s fashionable.

This is most probably not just about Thierry’s work, but also seems to be an examination of how Banksy’s own work has been commodified and had external interpretations thrust upon it. Banksy does, in fact, appear during the film in person (albeit with his face covered and his voice altered) and when he does he comes across as a very down to earth, humorous and level-headed individual. Likewise Rhys Ifans, who often seems like a rather annoying personality, provides a particularly restrained and low key narration for the events unfolding. The soundtrack, supervised by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, also does a good job of accompanying the images with a variety of good quality hip-hop tracks. There are, however, a couple of ill-conceived moments during the film. The scene giving some exposition on Banksy verges slightly too close to hero worshipping and a back story about Thierry’s lose of his mother is completely unnecessary. Nevertheless Exit through the Gift Shop is an exciting, unique and highly amusing tale that has some very important things to say about art and art culture.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Crazies (2010)


Plot Summary: About the inhabitants of a small Iowa town suddenly plagued by insanity and then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply.

The horror genre has been plagued by a trend in remakes for the last ten years, some of which have been good, many of which have been terrible. This time it’s zombie film-making legend George A. Romero’s turn as his 1973 film, also entitled The Crazies, has been given the remake treatment. The common consensus is that remakes usually work best when the original film had a good concept but was let down by its delivery. If this is true then The Crazies is a perfect candidate for a remake as Romero’s film had an original and politically edgy set-up but was given a minuscule budget and was, quite frankly, rather poorly directed. Thankfully Breck Eisner’s update was given a much higher budget and ends up being better than its predecessor in almost every way, providing a solid, if not outstanding, horror experience.

The film begins, rather bravely, on an image of the town in ruin. This bleak opener lets the audience know what they’re in for as the film slowly builds up the tension until all hell breaks loose. This is one thing that The Crazies does very well in much of its later scenes (especially in comparison with the original); building up tension and then providing an unflinching and gory finish. Eisner knows just how long to hold back the action, creating a creepy and tense atmosphere, and when he lets rip the resulting carnage is never less than satisfying. The cinematography, along with a suitably eerie score, compliments these scenes well, tingeing the images with a dark and gritty spectrum of greens. The Crazies also does a good job of making its audience respect its two core characters, a job too often neglected by similar genre offerings.

Married couple David and Judy are not idiots, they’re trained professionals (a police officer and doctor, respectfully) who won’t have you shouting at the screen in disbelief. It helps then, that both Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell also deliver solid performances which do their roles justice throughout. The main appeal of The Crazies is of course, the core concept. There is a virus loose in your hometown and it’s turning everyone you know into the murderous ‘crazies’ of the title. Not only this, but the government, aided by the military, must contain the virus by any means necessary before it goes global. The scenes of containment, its failure and the attempted clean-up involving the military are indeed genuinely shocking as families are separated without explanation, shot down in cold blood and eventually victims of mass burnings in an attempt to contain the biological hazard (provoking comparisons in one’s mind to many a historical incident).

This is, however, also where the film falls short. Since the release of Romero’s original in 1973 countless horror films have depicted ruthless states of martial law (28 Weeks Later standing as one of the better recent examples) which leaves The Crazies with little new to say. Additionally, even though this is the superior version, the original dealt with this subject matter with much more depth. Other, unrelated, problems also pervade the film. For all its tension building The Crazies is often host to many obvious jump scares, and also a number of false scares that at times it verges on the ridiculous. These techniques are overused in the genre and are rather tired. There are a number of glaring plot holes throughout the film (how did David get back to the police station? Do you die that quickly from being hung?) and the ending is also particularly underwhelming. Nevertheless, The Crazies is a surprisingly good remake and one of the more enjoyable horror films to grace the screen in recent months.

Final Verdict: 6/10

Micmacs (2010)


Plot Summary: A man and his friends come up with an intricate and original plan to destroy two big weapons manufacturers.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes films of the Marmite variety; you’ll either love them or hate them (and I’ll admit outright - I fall into the former category). His quirky French tales continue to divide audiences due to his preoccupation with oddball characters, distinctive sense of humour and unconventional cinematic style. However, as opposed to someone such as Tim Burton, Jeunet has not yet become a caricature of himself due to his somewhat meagre output over the last eighteen years. Micmacs, his first film in five, is being billed as somewhat of a comeback and has been described as a synthesis of his first film, Delicatessen, and his breakout hit; Amélie. Herein lies the problem with the film; while it’s certainly solid filmmaking and highly enjoyable, Micmacs feels a little like Jeunet’s very own Sleepy Hollow.

Micmacs feels as if it’s missing something, that original spark which made his earlier films such a joy to watch. The previously mentioned comparison is very telling for the film is neither as darkly twisted as Delicatessen, nor nearly as touching as Amélie. Micmacs once again tackles the old theme of outsiders fighting for justice, scenes detailing the minute details of individuals’ habits; even the end credit sequence is lifted straight from Delicatessen. There is, however, much to love about the film. Micmacs is beautifully shot in Jeunet’s signature gold hue throughout which really brings the screen to life and aptly conveys the fantastical world of the narrative. The weird and wonderful characters all have their own, distinctive qualities and are all likeable to the extent that you wish you knew them in real life. Their schemes and inventions are all highly creative, making a lot of the scenes feel like watching something in between a circus show and an art exhibition. All the while a playful, typically French sounding orchestral soundtrack perfectly complements these eccentric characters and their exploits.

The actors themselves do a wonderful job, with Danny Boon (playing the main character, Bazil) giving the standout performance. Boon is apparently a major comedic actor in France but has not since found fame outside of the country which is a shame. His mannerisms, miming and general screen presence provides a lot of the film's laughs and as such Boon becomes of the best things about the film. Micmacs is also very clever in its delivery and comedic tone; more than several scenes had me laughing out loud. The story of corrupt weapons dealers, however unconventionally portrayed, is an important one which has many parallels to contemporary French (and worldwide, for that matter) politics even if it is rather predictable in its conclusion. All in all Micmacs is a very amusing and heart warming film but, in drawing a little too much from his previous work, Jeunet falls just short of brilliance.

Final Verdict: 7/10.