31 July 2011

Movie Review: Mr. Popper's Penguins

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C

Mr. Popper's Penguins
2011, 94mins, PG
Director: Mark Waters
Writer (s): Sean Anders, John Morris, Jared Stern, Richard Atwater (novel), Florence Atwater (novel)
Cast includes: Jim Carrey, Clark Gregg, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond
UK Release Date: 5th August 2011

For the sake of fairness, I should disclose that the kids in my screening of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” absolutely lapped the picture up. An adaptation of a famed children’s book, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” has a very specific target demographic in mind, namely nippers under the age of ten. It’s important to note that this family flick wasn’t built with the likes of me in mind, but even so I’m happy enough to excuse it as a mild and harmless piece of cinema. Fronted by a likable Jim Carrey, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is perhaps a little overly focused on mining bodily functions for giggles, but most other facets of the flick are substantially less insulting. Primed with a strong set of morals, a few clever sight gags and some very cute CGI penguins the movie emerges as an adequate babysitting device, even if it possesses limited appeal for older patrons.

Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) is a cynical businessman with a profession befitting his sour personality. He specializes in destroying New York landmarks for profit, his latest target a restaurant named Tavern on the Green, owned by the defiant Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). When Popper’s estranged father passes away, the workaholic is rendered indifferent, until he receives his dad’s final gift. Left to him are a gaggle of playful penguins, the birds quickly running amok within their new owner’s luxurious penthouse apartment. At first Popper seeks to dispose of his new guests, but they quickly provide him with a rare opportunity to connect with his children (Maxwell Perry Cotton and Madeline Carroll), and even a chance to rekindle romance with ex-wife Amanda (A thoroughly wasted Carla Gugino). However whilst his domestic life improves, Popper finds his professional aspirations waning, with added strain coming from Nat Jones (Clark Gregg), a shady zookeeper determined to confiscate the penguins and place them in captivity.

Jim Carrey works hard in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, doing his best to inject the obvious plotline with energy and verve. The performance is less caffeinated than some of his other work, but the actor still finds time to indulge his silly side, offering up a Jimmy Stewart impression, some slow-mo spoofing and enough physicality to satisfy fan expectation. The character of Tom Popper is pretty standard, indeed Carrey has covered such redemptive ground before (chiefly in 1997’s “Liar Liar”), but the actor at least puts some genuine conviction behind the performance. It’s all very generic, but Carrey refuses to phone it in. None of the other human participants have much to do, Ophelia Lovibond is occasionally fun as Popper’s alliteration obsessed assistant, whilst Maxwell Perry Cotton and Madeline Carroll submit above average turns given their age groups. No, aside from Carrey the real stars are the penguins themselves, the film using the adorable critters for a variety of slapstick interludes, some of which are admittedly more successful than others. For example, there’s an amusing joke involving a penguin swimming in a fully flooded bathroom, but by the same token the movie pushes the fecal humour a little hard. It’s a mixed bag but “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” probably has at least half a dozen solidly executed gags, which is honestly more than I was expecting.

I have to question the employment of director Mark Waters, a filmmaker who hasn’t been on form since 2004’s “Mean Girls”. His more recent output (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) hasn’t been up to scratch and his vanilla handling of this feature is to the detriment of the overall production. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” hasn’t been edited with much care or precision, the photography (One lovely skyscraper based shot aside) also suffers from disappointingly plain presentation. If it weren’t for Carrey frantically attempting to jazz the story up, then “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” would have very little to offer, its director obviously not particularly excited by the material.

The picture ends on a saccharine note, the film’s various emotional arcs turning to treacle during the dying moments. Expecting anything else would be ridiculous, rendering such a complaint moot, but it’s one I’m going to note anyway. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” didn’t do much for me, the picture a very hit and miss experience, but then again I’m definitely not who it’s seeking to enthrall. This is a film aimed squarely at youngsters, and based on the reactions I gauged earlier they’re more than happy with it.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

29 July 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

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B-

Captain America: The First Avenger
2011, 124mins, 12
Director: Joe Johnston
Writer (s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast includes: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci
UK Release Date: 29th July 2011

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is the last piece in “The Avengers” puzzle, meaning Marvel are now sufficiently prepared to unleash their potential magnum opus next summer. Thankfully “Captain America” doesn’t play out as an elongated advertisement, the film finding its own identity and at least making an admirable effort to operate as its own contained story. There are problems, namely that the first half far outclasses the second, but “Captain America” is none the less an enjoyable dollop of sugary summer confection. The movie has fun playing with its 1940s setting, ultimately emerging as a traditional but generally entertaining action romp.


Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is determined to represent his country in the fight against Hitler, but due to his diminutive stature and poor medical record Uncle Sam won’t have him. When a German doctor (Stanley Tucci) witnesses Steve’s courage firsthand, he offers the young man a chance to partake in an experiment that could potentially morph the tenacious weakling into a super soldier. Steve emerges from the transformative process much stronger, capable of mighty physical feats and with an arsenal of impressive weaponry at his disposal. After a brief stint on the entertainment circuit, Steve is drafted in to help battle Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a devious Nazi who has managed to attain a powerful supernatural tool. With the help of spunky British operative Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and a team of willing underlings, Steve prepares to take the war into his own hands, using his Captain America guise to strike fear into the hearts of the nation’s foes.

Chris Evans assumes leading man duties competently here, turning the potentially one note title figure into a semi-interesting screen presence. There’s limited space for character development with the “Captain America” brand, the hero essentially just a well intentioned pipsqueak endowed with superhuman powers. Evans convinces as the courageous Rogers, and what’s more neglects to adopt the tortured mentality that seems to have become trendy amongst comic book protagonists. It’s refreshing to have a hero contented with his lot in life, striving to fight for a cause rather than brood aimlessly. His relationship with Hayley Atwell is pleasant, the British actress handing in an appealingly steely and sexy performance. They share a believable chemistry, whilst the screenplay allows their relationship time to flourish organically. “Captain America” probably handles its human elements more convincingly than it does the mega-budgeted action beats.

The story isn’t always as comprehensible as it should be, particularly during the cluttered climax. The opening half of “Captain America” is richly photographed and thematically engaging; it’s much more enjoyable watching Rogers struggle for his chance to fight than to observe the rather ordinary final pay-off. Similarly the early sequences with Schmidt are easily the strongest, Weaving chewing into the material with malice and even a hint of subtlety. That all goes out the window when he later turns into a full blown megalomaniac , the actor pretty much making the conversion from unsettlingly wicked to outright cartoon. The creative juices flow much more readily in the first and second acts, director Joe Johnston lavishing loving detail on the period setting and even finding time to unleash a catchy musical number. When “Captain America” strives to be innovative the results are excellent, however too often during its latter stages the filmmakers opt for pedestrian montages and predictable jingoism. It’s hardly offensive, but it certainly disappoints when contrasted with the picture’s stronger facets.

The FX work used to turn Evans from hero to zero is superlative, but some of the other CGI and green screen methods implemented are less awe-inspiring. An assault on a train is particularly beleaguered by subpar digitals, although the film’s standout action sequence, involving Rogers rescuing a selection of captured comrades, is executed slickly and believably. Johnston has a steady hand, framing the action coherently and atmospherically, even if the actual sequences themselves feel somewhat unremarkable. The musical score by Alan Silvestri also adds positively to the throwback mood Johnston cultivates, the composer concocting some pretty nifty tunes to spur the flick forward.

“Captain America” is definitely an above average blockbuster, largely because it at least treats its source with care and the audience with respect. It’s unapologetically old-fashioned and suffers from numerous faults (both in the screenplay and set-piece departments), but on the whole the movie scratches its genre itch efficiently. At this juncture it feels pointless to weigh the various “Avengers” tie-ins against each other, such comparisons being crude at the best of times. Instead I suggest you tackle “Captain America: The First Avenger” as the most gratifying homework assignment you’ve ever had, and hopefully Marvel won’t underwhelm us when it all comes full circle next year.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

28 July 2011

Movie Review: Cars 2

2 comments

D

Cars 2
2011, 106mins, U
Director (s): John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Writer: Ben Queen
Cast includes: Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Owen Wilson, Emily Mortimer, Franco Nero
UK Release Date: 22nd July 2011

I’m one of the few who believes 2006’s “Cars” is worthy of the Pixar label, most disregarding it as a clumsy and underwhelming addition to the studio’s catalogue. The picture maybe isn’t as distinctive as “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo”, but it is modestly amusing, well animated and appropriately cute. A shame the same can’t be said for its sequel. “Cars 2” is easily the worst film Pixar have ever produced, in fact it’s possibly the first certifiably bad movie they’ve ever made. The only positive the follow-up adopts from its predecessor is the sublime animation; everything else is several gears below adequate, never mind inspired. The jokes are juvenile and stale, whilst the storytelling clunks along with no energy or urgency. It’s truly dispiriting to note, but on the back of “Cars 2” Pixar are now a genuinely fallible creative force.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has returned to Radiator Springs after a lengthy and successful racing season, again reunited with girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and moronic best buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). With the World Gran Prix beckoning, Lightning decides to take Mater along for the ride, the duo arriving in Tokyo to partake in the competition. However Mater’s simplemindedness soon lands Lightning in trouble, leaving their friendship on the rocks. Feeling dejected and guilty, Mater accidentally becomes involved with British agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), the operatives mistaking Mater for one of their own. Soon the bumbling tow-truck is thrown headfirst into a world of intrigue and espionage, aiding McMissile and Shiftwell as they attempt to halt the plans of a devious and mysterious villain.

There’s a very clear reason why Pixar have decided to expand on this particular universe, and that’s merchandising. The original 2006 picture turned respectable coin but was hardly from a box-office standpoint one of the studio’s biggest hitters, yet in toy stores the movie became a phenomenon. Such mercenary incentives carry over directly to the sequel’s quality, Pixar forgoing artistic ambition at the behest of selling lunchboxes, action figures and stationary. There’s a real lack of craft evidenced in “Cars 2”. Even when you overlook the crummy screenplay, there’s still a myriad of technical problems, including unsure direction and very flat editing. The CGI still looks tremendous, but other technical attributes are sorely lacking, tainting the picture with an unflattering aura of amateurishness. To think that John Lasseter, the genius behind the first two “Toy Story” flicks, had a substantive hand in this is stunning. Even from a superficial standpoint “Cars 2” isn’t particularly well put together.

In “Cars” Lightning McQueen was the lead, but “Cars 2” is determined that Mater should dominate proceedings. The dopey tow-truck character was amusing comic relief in the initial adventure, but with extended screen time he only becomes annoying. “Cars 2” forces its unwelcome central figure into all manner of unfunny slapstick situations, occasionally resorting to silly faces and botched toilet humour when the other facets start to flag. There’s very little wit here, instead Pixar have designed “Cars 2” to appeal to the youngest and broadest audience possible, forgoing cleverness to instead tickle your average nipper’s preference for potty jokes and acute bathroom based embarrassment. I’m not going to claim I never laughed (I believe I chuckled twice), but given the high watermark Pixar have set themselves in the past, such a ratio isn’t good enough.

The shift to spy based shenanigans doesn’t work, especially given that the plotting is so predictable. Mater stumbles into all the fish out of water scenarios you’d expect (and none you wouldn’t), whilst Emily Mortimer and Michael Caine are obviously gunning for easy cash. Not that McQueen’s Gran Prix storyline is much more invigorating, but at least the race sequences involved in that section have some energy, something Mater’s sleuthing perilously lacks. The attempt to embrace a different tone is clearly genuine, but it’s badly fumbled thanks to the clumsy application of an already suspect script. I did admittedly enjoy Michael Giacchino’s funky genre referencing musical score, but that’s about the most pleasure “Cars 2” provides. It’s a misjudged and wearisome feature, placing adding pressure on Pixar’s next effort “Brave” to redeem the outlet in 2012. Here’s hoping “Cars 2” represents the first, and last time Pixar deliver something this poor.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

24 July 2011

Capsule Reviews: “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Unknown”

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Having missed both “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Unknown” on their respective theatrical runs I caught up with them on DVD, the results pretty mixed. Instead of writing up the usual longish style of review, I’ve decided to implement a “Capsule Review” element to the site, allowing me to offer my opinions on slightly less relevant pictures without wasting needless time. My usual reviews will still be integral and regular, but I feel for less important cinematic offerings this Capsule method is the best way to advance the blog.


D+

Unknown
2011, 113mins, 15
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer (s): Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell
Cast includes: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Frank Langella, Diane Kruger
UK Release Date: 4th March 2011

A scientist (Liam Neeson) loses his identity in wintery Berlin, left bemused as his wife (January Jones) and various imposters deny his existence. This thriller commences with an effective tinge of paranoia, holding its own for roughly 40 minutes. However once the twists start occurring and shady side characters begin to enter the frame, it loses focus, placing too many of its eggs in the brainless action basket. The ultimate revelation, whilst tough to predict, is also pretty unimaginative. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (also behind 2009’s much more entertaining “Orphan) shoots competently, but weak writing and poorly defined characters leave this mystery cold.



B-

The Lincoln Lawyer
2011, 118mins, 15
Director: Brad Furman
Writer (s): John Romano, Michael Connelly (novel)
Cast includes: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, Bryan Cranston, Josh Lucas, William H. Macy
UK Release Date: 18th March 2011

This fairly ordinary but undeniably polished Michael Connelly adaptation gives Matthew McConaughey his best role in ages, but the rest of the film has trouble keeping up. McConaughey plays Mick Haller a roughish defense attorney with loose morals. Happy to help his scummy customers beat the system, Mick endures a crisis of confidence when he starts to suspect a client (a cool Ryan Phillippe) might be a hardened serial killer. Directed slickly by Brad Furman (escaping his DTV origins), the film unfolds at a crisp pace, utilizing its strong supporting cast (including Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy and Bryan Cranston) resourcefully. The middle act features some nice touches and cranks the tension up admirably, although it can’t totally heal the feeble climax. It’s probably worth a rental for McConaughey’s performance though.

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2011

21 July 2011

I could not be less excited…”The Amazing Spider-Man” trailer.

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I’ve either stumbled upon a time machine that’s taken me back to 2002, or Hollywood is now aggressively lampooning its own lack of imagination. At least Emma Stone is better than Kirsten Dunst.

20 July 2011

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses

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B+

Horrible Bosses
2011, 98mins, 15
Director: Seth Gordon
Writer (s): Michael Markowitz, Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Cast includes: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx
UK Release Date: 22nd July 2011

It may not be high art but “Horrible Bosses” is still an incredibly funny film. Director Seth Gordon makes the most of a tremendous cast here, blending the usual bromantic angles with lashings of black humour and an affinity for vulgarity. I imagine on paper the picture was a considerably more macabre affair, “Horrible Bosses” in practice actually establishing a fairly goofy tone. The film refuses to take itself seriously, instead leaving it up to a group of solid comics and a trio of energetic Hollywood stalwarts to carry the picture through. There are moments of subversive madness, but generally “Horrible Bosses” is content to play as a crowd-pleaser, and left me pleased it certainly did.

Dale (Charlie Day), Nick (Jason Bateman) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are best friends who share a common problem; their bosses are ruining their lives. Nick is baited with promises of promotion by his egotistical superior Harken (Kevin Spacey), only to be regularly disappointed and berated. Kurt has to tolerate the leadership of immoral cokehead Bobby (Colin Farrell), sitting in awe as the incompetent lout slowly destroys his own business. Dale on the other hand has a much more intimate set of concerns, namely the inappropriate and sexually charged advances of dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a woman who frivolously disregards the existence of Dale’s fiancĂ©e (Lindsay Sloane in blink and you’ll miss her mode). The guys finally agree that killing those responsible for their misery is the only option, recruiting the help of criminal Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx, adding to the fun nicely) as a result. Soon the boys have a plan in motion, but unsurprisingly their attempts at murder don’t run smoothly.

Utilizing a witty stream of gross-out content, “Horrible Bosses” is able to supply a respectable roster of throaty chuckles. Seth Gordon (2007’s superb “King of Kong” and 2008’s less admirable “Four Christmases”) isn’t a visionary filmmaker, but he possesses decent comic timing and gets the most from his game cast. The movie plugs some unsavory topics to maintain a semi-edgy vibe, which setting aside the bloodthirsty central conceit also include rape, a specific form of male prostitute and the application of numerous bathroom appliances to one character’s anus. It’s a broad sweep of gags for sure, but thanks to some nice improvisational moments and a fundamental understanding of what’s funny, “Horrible Bosses” delivers more bawdy guffaws than any other recent studio comedy.

The cast are phenomenal, amongst the key participants there’s no clear weak link. Charlie Day’s shrillness is a tad annoying in parts, but his manic energy is a sound compensator. Sudeikis and Bateman handle most of the subtler comedy and enjoy the best riffs, the trio of performers maintaining an easy and organic chemistry throughout. Of course all of the bosses are in a showboating mood, Farrell and Aniston playing their roles as live action cartoons. For Aniston her work here is a refreshing career first, the actress embracing her darker side by dabbling in mild nudity and displaying a disgraceful but totally amusing potty-mouth. Spacey on the other hand opts for something a little steelier and more believable, ratcheting up the psychotic menace with every subsequent sequence. He’s not afraid to get silly, but Spacey always has one eye on providing genuine threat, a nuanced choice which grants the picture a kick during its flagging finale.

The screenplay isn’t fixated on characterization or even nimble storytelling, by its conclusion “Horrible Bosses” even feels kind of jumbled. The picture works its way to a predictable climax, which sadly relies on one of the property’s weaker gags (poking fun at Indian phone operators doesn’t feel very original). The journey to that destination however is highly entertaining, even if it doesn’t always flow naturally from an editorial standpoint. The film’s other technical attributes are fine, the cinematography and music selections adequate despite being indistinctive.

It’s probably not distinguished enough to be considered a genre classic, but “Horrible Bosses” deserves attention and kudos none the less. It’s a production that aims to have you giggling; the fact it largely achieves this modest goal is reason enough to recommend it. Will “Horrible Bosses” change the way you perceive life, culture or art? I’d really like to hope not. Will it however leave you with a big smile plastered across your face? You betcha.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

19 July 2011

2011 in review.....so far.

1 comments
"Source Code" from director Duncan Jones is fantastic.


With the year more than halfway over, now seems like an apt time to revise and discuss the first 6 ½ months of 2011. I like to do this annually because while I feel an end of the year top 10 is effective, it doesn’t allow for mention of all the worthwhile movies released over such an extensive time period. At this juncture I have seen 58 films that I would categorize as product from this year (using the UK release calendar), with a fairly even distribution of good and bad throughout.


"Rango" is both bonkers and brilliant.
Instead of starting with best and worst, I’m going to go for disappointments and pleasant surprises. The first of the latter would be “Red Hill” (review link here), a Western that received limited theatrical release in the UK during the spring, and which now has landed firmly on DVD. The film appeared during last year’s London FrightFest, and has been garnering positive reviews since. Generally when it comes to low budget fare with little in the way of distribution, expectations aren’t high, but “Red Hill” is a tense, well acted and exciting genre picture, taking full advantage of its Australian backdrop. It’s unlikely to feature as a yearend top 10 candidate, but is more than worthy of a DVD rental. The documentary “TT3D: Closer to the Edge” (Review here) is very probably the most unexpected delight of the year so far. Chronicling the 2010 motorsports TT championship, the film is visually arresting, primed with excellent characters, a very human heart and some startling race footage. It also makes strong use of the 3D technology, something very few pictures have managed at all, never mind this year. Other pictures that were better than expected include Wes Craven’s “Scream 4” (best in the franchise since part 1, and debatably the year’s most entertaining slasher picture), the long delayed “The Adjustment Bureau” (proof that not every pushed back release is an indication of bilge) and David Schwimmer’s gripping pedophile drama “Trust” (also the subject of a miniscule distribution strategy).



Neve Campbell gets knifey in "Scream 4"
Now for the disappointment, and they are numerous. The chief offenders for me so far are “Battle L.A”, “Your Highness” and “Paul”, all of which toppled well below the standards set by their admittedly impressive marketing campaigns. The worst of this ignoble trio is clearly “Battle L.A” (already a strong bottom 10 of the year candidate), so more on that later. “Your Highness” turned out to be a bad film, not godforsaken, but given its cast, director and hysterical redband trailer the movie was a marked letdown. Its box-office numbers were pretty weak though, audiences clearly having smelled a stinker long before I did. The film which imagines itself as a medieval stoner comedy was painfully short on laughs, its picturesque production design the only clear redeeming quality. “Paul” was slightly better, the natural ability of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost imbuing the piece with at least slithers of giggle worthy material, but ultimately fell cleanly below the required joke to laugh ratio required to create a competent comedy. The extreme amounts of fanboy pandering didn’t help much either, at least for these sensitive eyes. Other notable nominees for the “it should have been better” award include Ron Howard’s watchable but tonally misguided “The Dilemma”, Zack Snyder’s visually awesome but otherwise flawed “Sucker Punch”, Michael Bay’s latest stab at coherence in “Transformers; Dark of the Moon”, Catherine Hardwicke’s WTF inducing reimagining of “Red Riding Hood” and the overhyped alien invasion flick “Attack the Block”. None of the aforementioned films (except “Battle L.A” and maybe “Your Highness”) are going to be worst film of the year players, but they all managed to leave some degree of sour taste in my mouth.



Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch" boasted sex appeal and style - but very dubious storytelling.
So you ask, what really sucked? Well let’s start with “Priest”, a 3D action vehicle starring Paul Bettany. This is an example of a much delayed picture that really did blow, but thankfully it made a relatively minor dent at the box-office. The film is a barely there sort of affair; boasting a paper thin plot, derivative production design and generally poor performances. The movie is inherently uninspired from the beginning, guaranteed to leave even the most undemanding action fans dissatisfied. It’s also worth noting that beyond its climactic sequence (an admittedly well staged oasis of relief) the 3D is useless, bringing nothing extra to the picture at large. Another 3D mess that ranks amongst the year’s crappiest offerings to date is “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, probably the weakest major blockbuster of 2011 so far. Overstretched, tedious and gratingly unimaginative, “On Stranger Tides” has subsequently grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. In many ways it’s the most offensive feature because it still managed to be hugely successful. I’m not going to dissect the movie any further (just know it’s ghastly), but this writer would appreciate it if you would boycott the DVD/Blu-Ray or at least avoid any further multiplex trips to bask in its complete stupidity. Still, “On Stranger Tides” is a masterpiece compared to “Mean Girls 2”, a DTV sequel of truly wretched proportions. An unfunny affront to its well regarded predecessor, this shambolic follow-up isn’t worth the DVD shelves it now adorns. Acted by what feels like a group of rank amateurs and directed with zero skill by Melanie Mayron (I will never forget this name), “Mean Girls 2” is clearly the worst film of 2011 so far. In honesty I can’t see anything toppling it either. Other turkeys to be bypassed are “Swinging with the Finkels” (a disgustingly bad comedy, not far behind “Mean Girls 2” in terms of awfulness), sloppy teen thriller “The Roommate” and of course the aforementioned hunk of blockbuster junk that is “Battle L.A”.



JUST SAY NO!!!!
The finest of the year so far include a few Oscar types (notably “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan”) but also some less openly celebrated (at least for now) creations. The ILM animated adventure “Rango” is a masterfully entertaining work right up there with the grandest Pixar endeavours. Certainly it’s the only major film starring Johnny Depp you need bother watching from 2011. Duncan Jones produced yet another terrific sci-fi yarn with “Source Code” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” was a truly top tier blockbuster. This weekend past the Harry Potter saga came to a strong conclusion with “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (although I’d like to hope it won’t quite make the top 10 cut come December) and “The Fighter” was a fine boxing drama, and one I can confirm that holds up very well on secondary viewings. On that note I’ll conclude this write-up instead leaving you with a few small lists that might help inform your viewing behavior for the next few months. Enjoy!


"Your Highness" wasn't cinematic royalty.

SOME TO AVOID: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, “The Roommate”, “Priest”, “Battle L.A”, “Mean Girls 2” and “Swinging with the Finkels”

NOTABLE DISSAPOINTMENTS: “Your Highness”, “Paul”, “Bad Teacher”, “Green Lantern”, “Red Riding Hood”, “Sucker Punch”, “The Dilemma”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Attack the Block”.

SOME WORTH SEEKING OUT: “Red Hill”, “Scream 4”, “TT3D: Closer to the Edge”, “Never Let Me Go”, “Trust”, “The Adjustment Bureau”, “Arthur” and “Water for Elephants”.

THE MUST-SEE MOVIES: “Black Swan”, “The King’s Speech”, “The Fighter”, “Rango”, “Source Code”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” and “X-Men: First Class”.

"Michael Bay improved but still sort of failed with "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

Daniel Kelly, 2011

16 July 2011

Movie Review: Brother's Justice

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B-

Brother's Justice
2011, 80mins, NR
Director (s): David Palmer, Dax Shepard
Writer: Dax Shepard
Cast includes: Dax Shepard, Nate Tuck, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner
UK Release Date: TBC

I’m not sure why Dax Shepard decided to make “Brother’s Justice”, the bit-part comic’s fake documentary about his trying to become a martial arts action star. Maybe he just wanted an “I’m Still Here” to call his own, although no viewer will be arguing about this project’s authenticity after the final credits roll. Shepard has designed “Brother’s Justice” to play purely for laughs, gently riffing on bruised Hollywood egos, absurd pet projects and the ignorance that regularly accompanies fame. All of these themes were admittedly used better in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder”, but that’s not to say “Brother’s Justice” doesn’t have enough laughs to deem it rental worthy.

Dax Shepard is sick of being a comedian. Tired of playing second fiddle to the likes of Dane Cook and Tina Fey in his movies, Dax decides to strike out and craft a career as a bona fide kung fu superstar. The film he intends to make is called “Brother’s Justice”, casting himself in the leading role, with doubting best friend Nate Tuck roped in to produce. Together they unsuccessfully shop the idea around Hollywood, finding yawns and disbelieving stares everywhere they go. Dax’s celebrity acquaintances aren’t much use either, with everyone from Tom Arnold to Bradley Cooper doing more damage than good.

“Brother’s Justice” just about holds together for its brief 80 minute runtime, providing a short but very digestible dosage of ridiculous comedy. Shepard doesn’t make many fresh points during the course of the movie (he paints himself as deluded, self-important and homophobic throughout); instead beating on the same satirical doors that have already served dozens of other lampoons. However there’s a true commitment to silliness here that can’t be faulted, Shepard unafraid to make himself or anyone else look like a fool in pursuit of laughs. There are at least three very funny sequences in “Brother’s Justice”, Shepard’s knack for sly improvisations helping to sate audience desire for giggles during the dryer patches. Ultimately I found “Brother’s Justice” to be a moderately entertaining and totally tolerable experience. It’s uneven and unoriginal, but it’s got chutzpah to burn.

Aesthetically the movie adopts a low-fi vibe (in an attempt to concoct the illusion of reality), only breaking from handheld camera work during occasional trailers (“Tropic Thunder” again?) for other stories Shepard is trying to make. Bar the very last of these (entitled “Jeung Guns”) none really work, they’re overproduced and generally unfunny. I expect these were added late in production to beef up the final product, but there was really no need, they add little to the sense of fun permeating from the picture. It’s also worth noting that the quality of acting varies wildly throughout. Many of the producers and agents Dax meets with don’t convince at all (and that includes buddy Nate Tuck), but the stars featured tend to fare better. Tom Arnold is erratic, but Bradley Cooper leaves an impression whilst Shepard himself deserves at least mild kudos. I wouldn’t necessarily demand people seek out “Brother’s Justice”, but it represents an amiable enough way to fill your time.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

15 July 2011

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

1 comments

B+

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
2011, 130mins, 12
Director: David Yates
Writer (s): Steve Kloves, J.K Rowling (novel)
Cast includes: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon
UK Release Date: 15th July 2011

With “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” a major series in recent cinema history comes to a close. It’s been 10 years since the first picture to feature the legendary wizard, and boy, how things have changed. Instead of the innocent whimsy prevalent in the early Chris Columbus adventures these later tales have become increasingly gloomy and serious, “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” marking perhaps the sternest Potter adventure yet. It’s a fantasy riddled with violence, death and hopelessness, all brought vibrantly to life through the directorial ingenuity of filmmaker David Yates. Due to the massive scale and constant warfare, “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is a less human offering than its immediate predecessor, but the movie undoubtedly brings the Potter chronicles to a fittingly gargantuan conclusion.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are still on the hunt for Horcruxes, hoping that by destroying them they can eviscerate portions of Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul. Their quest leads them from the vaults of Gringotts to the halls of a now weary Hogwarts, a school supervised by the treacherous Snape (Alan Rickman). When Voldemort becomes aware of Harry’s plans he offers an ultimatum to the residents of the educational institution, either give the young wizard up or face outright war. The forces of good select the latter, turning Hogwarts into a battlefield, as Voldemort’s forces lay siege to the students and teachers. However it’s the mental struggle between Harry and Voldemort that truly dictates the fight, each determined to slay the other in pursuit of victory.

“Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is a true blockbuster, generally forgoing the slower, meditative vibe of “Part 1” in favour of pure anarchy. The middle section of the film feels like one huge battle sequence, Yates pulling out all the stops to provide a rousing and visually impressive interpretation of magical warfare. Key characters are killed and the stakes heightened, the plot maintaining the somber poignancy that allowed “Part 1” to register with such clarity and effectiveness. “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is still very much Harry’s story, the film working to bring the character to a satisfying and emotionally resonant climax, as he faces off with his deadly nemesis. Unfortunately many of the supporting players are sacrificed in the process (Ron and Hermione possibly feature less here than in any previous installment), Yates zoning in on the struggle between Voldemort and Harry. It helps that both Radcliffe and Fiennes are on fine form, the latter displaying a vulnerability in his character previously unseen.

The picture opens with a bang, a terrific vault raiding sequence kicking off proceedings to stunning effect. From there the struggle between good and evil becomes the focal point of the feature, Hogwarts playing out as the primary plateau for this heavily budgeted affair. The production values are faultless and the action slickly directed, Yates ensuring that this final chapter offers a genuine sense of scale befitting of such a mighty franchise. As a companion piece to “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” it’s perfect, the two pictures complimenting each other sublimely. The first was a deliciously character driven piece, high on more simplistic moments of dread and tension. This on the other hand is undiluted razzmatazz, using the heart wrenching developments of the previous film to its advantage. Certainly by the time “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” concludes viewers will have been thoroughly rocked, the creative minds behind it determined to provide closure in the most fantastical manner possible.

Special mention should be reserved for Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the complex Snape, a character often utilized for comic purposes, now given room to grow as a conflicted and dynamic entity. Rickman nails the inner turmoil, providing a welcome dose of tragic pathos. Another figure who steps up the fore here is Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), coming into his own at the helm of the Hogwart’s army. It’s nice to note in the few instances that Yates does decide to cast his camera way from the tale’s central enemies; he picks up on some unexpected personalities, using them to imbue the film with added soul. It’s these sorts of touches that keep “Deathly Hallow: Part 2” fresh.

At 130 minutes the movie is the shortest in the franchise, although pacing isn’t always the film’s strongest facet. Just before the final exchange between Harry and Voldemort (which is incidentally breathtakingly exciting), “Deathly Hallow: Part 2” hits a brief rough patch, the filmmakers lathering on a final splurge of exposition to provide an aura of completion and lace the last act with the appropriate context. I suppose it helps solidify Harry’s destiny, but this section of the movie does drag, particularly a whitewashed sequence in which the title character traverses some sort of afterlife environment. In truth it would be hard to remove this segment and still provide the ultimate showdown with sufficient punch, but that fact doesn’t make this clunky portion of the narrative more involving.

“Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is a brilliant denouement, wrapping things up with merit and energy. In reality the picture isn’t much edgier than any of the other latter Potters (although it is more overtly bloody), but there’s definitely enough harsh material to spook younger fans. I’m not sure exactly where I’d place it in the Potter Pantheon (my gut suggests parts 6 and 7 were a tad sharper), but “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” undoubtedly honours its beloved source. It’ll be sad to see Harry disappear from our screens for good. It’s not always been smooth, but on the whole Harry Potter has been a vital figurehead in the last decade of event cinema. Not only have the movies presented us with well crafted escapism, but also expertly profiled the transition from childhood to adulthood in the process. Dumbledore would be proud.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

8 July 2011

Movie Review: Trust

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B+

Trust
2011, 104mins, 15
Director: David Schwimmer
Writer (s): Andy Bellin, Robert Festinger
Cast includes: Liana Liberato, Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, Noah Emmerich
UK Release Date: 8th July 2011

David Schwimmer’s 2007 directorial debut “Run Fatboy Run” was a bust, a lethargic and slovenly comedy which inexplicably wasted Simon Pegg and understandably stalled the ex-“Friends” star’s filmmaking opportunities for a few years. For his return from director jail Schwimmer has opted to do away with any potential funny business, turning to the controversial subject matter of internet predators for inspiration. The resulting picture is “Trust”, a harrowing and superbly acted drama. Schwimmer handles the material well, leaving much of the heavy lifting to his talented cast, with performers both new and old delivering sterling work.

Annie Cameron (Liana Liberato) is an ordinary 14-year old girl. She comes from a loving family, is a passionate athlete and enjoys using internet chat sites to connect with likeminded youngsters across the globe. Chief amongst Annie’s cyber chums is Charlie, a 16-year old with similar sporting interests. As Annie and Charlie continue to communicate, it transpires that Charlie might be considerably older; something confirmed when a meeting is arranged at Annie’s local mall. Seduced by Charlie’s maturity, Annie succumbs to his sexual advances, leaving her confused and scarred. When the meet-up is brought to the attention of Annie’s parents (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener) all hell breaks loose, her father in particular exhibiting a thinly veiled desperation for vengeance. With the FBI struggling to track the sex offender down, Annie finds her life changing in some very unpleasant ways, confiding her troubles only to therapist Gail (Viola Davis).

“Trust” is a troubling watch, but for all the right reasons. The film tackles its themes with upmost seriousness and respect, painting a grim yet necessary picture of pedophilia and teenage angst. “Trust” is fundamentally about the collapse of a once sound familial unit, exploring the inner turmoil of particular individuals to fuel the heartbreaking drama. The fact Schwimmer and his writers have elected to explore the harsh reality of child molestation in the process only adds to the movie’s relentlessly depressing tone. “Trust” is a very involving motion picture, but it doesn’t go down easy.

Newcomer Liana Liberato is terrific here; it’s like watching a seasoned adult actor portray a teenager. Detailing with tremendous subtly Annie’s sorrow, Liberato never overacts or falls victim to potential melodrama, instead measuring her reactions with a true understanding of the film’s thesis. During the opening quarter the actress is a ball of jubilant energy, but as things get worse she transforms organically into a sullen, ghostly presence. Schwimmer juxtaposes the two sides of Annie marvelously, using Liberato’s intense turn to inform the picture’s central arc. As the parents spinning through this godforsaken scenario both Keener and Owen are well cast, the latter totally convincing as a broken man on the brink of obsession. A monologue he delivers during the movie’s low-key climax is distressingly honest, bringing “Trust” to a poignant if not entirely uplifting conclusion.

The writing is solid, but it’s the actors who deserve the most applause for making the drama work. Schwimmer is occasionally too blunt with his direction, doing a technically competent job overall, but guilty of stylistically exaggerating certain facets in the process. There are several dream sequences which are overwrought, an Instant messaging tic feels outdated and the motel room where Annie suffers her ordeal is lit like a medieval dungeon. Similarly Viola Davis often feels only like a vessel for the film to obviously explain its message, the downplayed intelligence of other moments disregarded in favour of preachy sermons.

The story is compelling for the duration, “Trust” providing us with a chance to gaze upon every parent’s worst nightmare. During the credits Schwimmer inserts a short piece of video footage designed to offer closure on one of the film’s less prominent figures. It’s a haunting addition to this already draining tale, but more importantly it signifies a stroke of mesmerizing genius on behalf of the director. After “Run Fatboy Run” I was actively dreading Schwimmer’s next gig behind the camera, but now on the basis of “Trust” I’m thirsting for more from the artist formerly known as Ross Geller.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

2 July 2011

Movie Review: Larry Crowne

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B

Larry Crowne
2011, 99mins, 12
Director: Tom Hanks
Writer (s): Tom Hanks, Nia Vardalos
Cast includes: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, George Takei, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
UK Release Date: 1st July 2011

Nobody will argue that “Larry Crowne” is anything more than simple, undemanding popcorn entertainment. However given the current uninspired crop of summer releases the film will find itself in competition with this weekend (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Green Lantern” but to name a few), audiences should be encouraged to cough up their cash for this charmer over such CGI-addled monstrosities. “Larry Crowne” marks the return of Tom Hanks as a director (his sole previous credit being 1996’s “That Thing You Do!”), the acting superstar also taking writing and leading man duties. It’s a fairly standard picture in most respects, but “Larry Crowne” at least bothers to provide us with characters we care about, allowing viewers to become invested within the ordinary but unquestionably likeable narrative.

After being fired from a supermarket due to his lack of higher education, Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) decides to enroll at the local community college as a mature student. Selecting a speech and communication class taught by the unhappy Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), Larry adapts to his new lifestyle swimmingly, befriending a free spirited young woman named Talia (an adorable Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the process As the term progresses, Talia helps Larry uncover his true potential, encouraging him to funk up his wardrobe and join her goofy scooter gang. Larry also begins to bond with Mercedes, the latter welcoming such a gentlemanly change from her grouchy marital homestead.

Hanks and Roberts give relaxed but naturalistic leading turns, both now certified veterans within this field of comfy comedy. None of the characters in “Larry Crowne” are hugely memorable, but Hanks does a grand job of making them engaging. In the title role Hanks is his usual warm, sharp and good-natured self, bumbling his way through the picture with confidence and charisma. His chemistry with Julia Roberts is low-key but viable, the actress treading familiar career paces with an equal degree of success. The romance at the heart of “Larry Crowne” is well realized; simplistic but with a hefty dosage of human appeal. “Larry Crowne” is low on original ideas, but it sells all of its conventional facets with sincerity and soul.

The screenplay courtesy of Hanks and Nia Vardalos (she of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame) is vibrant, offering a nice line in background characters. Cedric the Entertainer is good value as Larry’s thrifty but honest buddy, whilst George Takei scores several delightful chuckles in the form of a self-satisfied but oddly appealing economics professor. With the exception of Mercedes’ horny husband (an underused Bryan Cranston) every screen entity on show is at least halfway endearing, a bonus that helps disguise the formulaic storytelling on display. The film also provides at least a dozen chuckles, Hanks and Vardalos cooking up some cute and tasteful jokes for your amusement.

From a technical standpoint Hanks conducts himself acceptably, lathering the film with a fluffy visual polish. Hanks also measures the movie’s quirkier elements sensibly, managing to find the line between enchanting and irritating with refreshing consistency. It’s definitely fun watching Larry and Talia hurtle around on scooters and giving each other nicknames, but had “Larry Crowne” become fixated with this sort of malarkey then it would have devolved into nonsense. Instead the picture only uses these offbeat detours for added spark, Hanks keeping his primary focus on Larry and Mercedes.

The feature concludes predictably, but at a modest 99 minutes at least has the decency to maintain an agreeable pace. I’m sure the generic plot developments and lack of cynicism will cause some to scoff, but in this season of digital excess “Larry Crowne” still feels like a winner.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011