Friday, 1 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World

(M) ★★★

Director: Alan Taylor.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård.

When shooting boy band publicity shots, never look at the camera.
WITH its sequel to Thor, the eighth movie in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, the comic book company's film arm is proving to be not unlike Thor himself - pretty much bomb-proof and unstoppable.

Even Iron Man 2, the runt of the MCU litter, made a mint, but if you're looking at Thor 2 and expecting a turkey or a flop, keep looking.

It's far from perfect - The Dark World has got some serious script issues - but even these can't detract from the fun and spectacle on display.

But be warned - the MCU is becoming an increasingly tangled web of stories and newcomers are less welcome with each new film. References to past events from the series fly by faster than Thor's hammer so prior reading is expected. If you haven't seen the first Thor or even The Avengers, this sequel is not the place to dive into these tales of superheroes, gods, and their growing mythology.

The big baddies this time around are the Dark Elves, a scary bunch of hi-tech ancient ones led by the dead-eyed Malekith (Eccleston), who looks like a pointy-eared shark with a ponytail.

He's seeking vengeance for a past defeat, which he hopes to pull off with a universe-destroying MacGuffin known as the Aether. Naturally, Thor and his hammer are out to stop him.

There are some surprising plot holes in the early stage of the film that don't feel like mistakes, but more like the film has been slightly trimmed to cut down the running time, leaving the audience to fill in some mildly annoying gaps along the way.

Despite this - or maybe as a result of this - the plot moves along at a good pace, dotted with impressive fight sequences, good gags, and a few jaw-dropping CG sequences.

Amid the carnage are good characters and some great performances. Hemsworth seems more at home than ever as Thor, more confident than cocky this time around, while Hiddleston's Loki is again a highlight. Their relationship is central, as it was in the previous Thor film, but has evolved into something new and intriguing this time around.

It's these returning characters - and the development and relationships given to them by the writers and actors - that are a highlight of the film, bringing depth amid the bombast and explosions. The connections between Loki and Thor, Loki and his parents Frigga (Rene Russo) and Odin (Hopkins), Odin and Thor, and Thor and love interest Jane (Portman) that make this a healthy melodrama somewhere between Shakespeare and soap opera. The return of Skarsgård's Erik Selvig is also hilariously welcome.

The humour really is a highlight - it could be argued this is the funniest Marvel movie to date, even outpacing the typically Whedon repartee of The Avengers. Some bit players are there only for gags, such as Kat Dennings' Darcy, Chris O'Dowd's Richard and the otherwise unneccessary Ian the intern, but it is Loki who is again a scene-stealer, delivering moodbreakers and withering putdowns with humourous ease.

The humour does ride on a knife-edge though. It's a necessary foil to the po-faced business of Norse gods flying between realms and saving the universe, but it almost goes too far into self-ridicule (and some fans might find the hilarity hard to stomach).

Take for instance the ending, which is great - it's wildly inventive and hilarious. But it teeters on the edge of wackiness, balancing precariously over a chasm of plot-holes that are filled in with technobabble so as to be less obvious. If you can laugh along and still be gripped, it's a spectacular finale.

Thor was seen as being a risk for Marvel first time round, but they pulled it off with casual ease. It seems to be a trickier world to manage on a second outing, but fans will still be pleased.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pacific Rim

(M) ★★

Director: Guillermo Del Toro.

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini.

"What have I told you about getting your Transformers wet?"

Guillermo Del Toro's Godzilla Vs Transformers - sorry, Pacific Rim - is both as dumb and as awesome as you'd expect.

It's dumb because it's about giant monsters fighting giant robots. But it's awesome because, well, it's about giant monsters fighting giant robots.

The set-up is done with applaudable efficiency in the first five minutes. Enormous creatures called kaiju have come to Earth via a portal deep under the Pacific Ocean and have been wreaking Mothra-style havoc on cities for a number of years.

In order to defeat the beasts, world leaders decided to build jaegers - ie. giant robots - to fight back. They are piloted by two humans who are mentally linked by something called "the drift" and control the machine like two synced-up puppeteers sitting inside the robot's head.

All seemed to be going well in the battle to save humanity until the attacks became more prevalent, the kaiju got bigger, the jaeger program became too expensive, and now we look doomed.

Admirably, Pacific Rim is not about the arrival of the monsters and the need to build these giant robots. It drops us into the thick of it - we get our first kaiju/jaeger fight in a matter of minutes, so Del Toro at least knows what people going to this movie want to see.

There is no tedious build-up, and very little in the way of a Jaws-like approach to the monsters or the mecha. Just a barrage of Cloverfield-type beasties punching on with Optimus Prime's big brothers.

But what happens between rounds in this hyper-heavyweight fight? Well, that's where Pacific Rim suffers and, as a result, so does the audience.

Surprisingly, the biggest problem is the cast. While admittedly most of the dialogue is exposition, the script isn't total rubbish, but some actors handle it much better than others.

Rinko Kikuchi is the best and acquits herself well as the jaeger pilot-wannabe, desperate for revenge but traumatised by her past. Idris Elba is okay despite getting the hammiest lines possible as the jaeger program commander, and ditto for Del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a blackmarket crimelord, but from there it really drops off.

Charlie Hunnam, who is the star of the show despite being so terrible as the lead in Frankie Go Boom and The Ledge, is stilted and utterly uncharismatic, while the "comedy" pairing of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the constantly sparring kaiju researchers seems to be a moronic competition to see who can go the furthest over the top without getting a laugh.

And then there's Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini as Chuck and Herc Hanson, the two Australian jaeger pilots. Not only are their performances rubbish, but they use two of the most hideous Australian accents since The Simpsons came down under.

With all this dire dialogue and bad acting, it's a relief when the monsters and robots start thumping the radioactive snot out of each other.

The special effects are nothing short of astounding, by the way. I know we take these kind of things for granted these days, but there is some seriously impressive CG work here.

Sure, most of the battles take place at night, in the rain or underwater in order to hide the seams, and occasionally Del Toro's camerawork has the same problem as Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in that it gets too close to the action so you can't actually tell what the hell is going on, but when it pulls back and shows these two leviathans duking it out, it's glorious to behold.

But that is about all Pacific Rim has going for it. Even Del Toro's usually visual stylings, so distinctive and sumptuous in Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies, is almost totally absent. Only a small section of the film revolving around Perlman's character Chau bears the signature glow and style of Del Toro.

If you expect nothing more than monsters fighting giant robots, you'll love Pacific Rim. If you were hoping for something more from Del Toro, at least there are monsters fighting giant robots.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Man Of Steel

(M) ★★

Director: Zack Snyder.

Cast: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne.

"What a beautiful day. Be a shame if someone were to destroy it in a blizzard of CGI."

FOR DC Comics, there is a lot on the line with this reboot of the Superman saga.

If Man Of Steel flies like a bird or a plane, it will open the door for DC's own shared universe, which they hope will rival Marvel's ongoing Avengers' adventures.

Bad luck, DC. Man Of Steel sinks like a massive chunk of kryptonite.

It's ambitious, yes, grandiose, yes, and sure to be a hit at the box office, but in almost all other aspects, it is a $225 million turkey.

This rebirth of Superman, which literally begins with the birth of Superman, retells the story many of us know and love - the alien child, sent to Earth just before the destruction of his homeworld Krypton, raised by the kindly Kents of Kansas, and growing into a near-invulnerable superhero.

The twist in this version, as compared to Richard Donner's 1978 groundbreaker, is an attempt to imbue with the story of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent with deeper themes and a more realistic look at the implications his arrival would have. It also ramps up the Christ allegory and picks at the relationship Superman has with humanity.

It's all part of the "Nolanisation" of Krypton's favourite son. Having turned DC's other heavy-hitter - Batman - into a real world concern with a dark edge, Christopher Nolan was attached to this project in the hopes he would help do the same with Superman.

It doesn't work. Man Of Steel comes off as utterly humourless, pompous, melodramatic, dumbed-down, repetitive, and even sporadically boring.

The film makes similar mistakes to that other DC bomb Green Lantern - it tells us everything we need to know in the first act, only to tell us everything again when the main character needs to find out. More editing is badly needed.

And while they were undertaking some more judicious editing of the first half, the filmmakers could have done away with the frustrating non-linear storytelling. Not only is it annoying to have the story jump back and forth between Clark's childhood, his teenage years and his nomadic adulthood, but it continually breaks the emotional flow of the film. Much of that heart comes from a nice turn by Costner as Clark's dad Jonathan, but the fractured storyline gets in the way of the audience connection with him.

Worse than this is the dialogue, which almost entirely falls into one of three categories - "Now I must explain my actions", "This is what just happened" or "This is what's about to happen". There is no subtlety, nobody talks like a real person, and the characters don't develop naturally, if at all.

This dumbing-down goes for the grandiose themes of the film as well, which are boiled down to infuriating obviousness, giving the audience no credit what-so-ever.

And I never thought I'd get sick of explosions and destruction in a movie, but I finally found my limit. It came with about 20 minutes left to go in the film - I actually sighed with relief when the final confrontation was over. And I've seen Roland Emmerich's 2012.

It's all a shame because the cast is great. Cavill makes for a great Superman/Kal-El/Clark, capturing that mix of nobility and humility that Christopher Reeve nailed. Shannon is menacing as Zod, Crowe brings gravitas as Jor-El, and Costner and Lane work well. Only Adams, as Lois Lane, feels out of place, but poor writing hampers her more than anyone.

Are there highlights aside from the cast? Some of the fight sequences are quite good before they become numbing, and the flashbacks, despite being jarringly scattered throughout the film, are nicely done. Snyder makes the film look good, particularly in the flashbacks.

These are slight redemptions. And maybe with really low expectations this will have a brainless charm to it. Maybe this is exactly the Superman movie some of the comic book fans have been waiting for.

But for all its ambition, this Man Of Steel fails to soar, instead crashlanding in a humourless, melodramatic mess of explosions.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Monsters University

(G) ★★★

Director: Dan Scanlon.

Cast: (voices of) Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren.

Mike was just minutes away from being used as a hackysack.

AMID the heavy hitters of Pixar's back catalogue, Monsters, Inc. is the under-rated gem.

Often unfairly overlooked compared to the Toy Story trilogy, Up, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, the tale of scare-mongering duo Sully and Mike Wazowski was a wildly original, creative, hilarious and surprisingly touching comedy caper.

This is why it pains me so much to say this prequel is a major disappointment. Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible film - it's still mildly enjoyable - but it feels so stock standard and flat compared to its dazzling predecessor.

As the title suggest, Monsters University covers Mike and Sully's college years, where Mike is the dedicated student following his dream of becoming a scarer and Sully is the naturally talented slacker expecting to coast through his degree.

A rivalry develops between the two, leading to college head Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren) kicking them out of their scaring course.

The only way to get back into the course is through a foolhardy bet between Mike and Hardscrabble - if Mike, Sully and their geeky fraternity can win the inter-fratenity competition known as the Scary Games, they can return to the scaring course. If they lose, they're out of Monsters University for good.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because the plot plays like a lazy mash-up of "college romp" movies such as Animal House and Revenge Of The Nerds.

The typical college life provides plenty of opportunity for the monsterised sight gags of Monsters, Inc., but again, it feels all too easy. Even the Scary Games feels like a tired trope despite being transplanted into Mike and Sully's world.

The silly sight gags are what is likely to keep the kids entertained because the plot appears aimed at an older audience, ie. one that grew up watching Monsters, Inc. and is now at college. This might make it a cult hit at universities, which is strange for a G-rated movie and makes you wonder if Pixar have completely missed their target on this one.

On the upside, the charms of Mike and Sully, voiced by Crystal and Goodman, that make this mildly enjoyable. Pixar have always been smart enough to realise that making the players more than just pixels is the secret to success, and here we get some heart and soul between Mike and Sully and the rest of their fraternity of misfits.

They all get some good lines, especially Crystal, and there are a few really solid gags and an endless array of adult-aimed nudges.

Best of all is the final act, when the film finally stops being a college collage and heads into intriguing territory. That's where Monsters University finally becomes surprising and interesting.

But it's almost too little, too late. The film predominantly coasts along a slacker student, doing only just enough to get by.

Of course, kids aren't going to mind. This will probably serve as their introduction to the college movie, and in years to come they may realise what Monsters University was riffing on, but in the meantime, it's likely most of it will fly over their heads.

Pixar have played with pre-established genres before, whether it be subverting the superhero ideal (the brilliant The Incredibles) or going weird on the spy movie (the misfire Cars 2).

But this dabble with the college romp feels stale and lazy, and only gets across the line thanks to nostalgic goodwill and some decent gags.

Friday, 3 May 2013

REWIND REVIEW: Jurassic Park

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, B. D. Wong, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards.

Parking inspectors are pretty ballsy in Jurassic Park.
We take computer-generated imagery (CGI) for granted these days, but there was a moment in 1993 when it dawned as the future of film-making, laid out on the big screen for all to see in a single moment of wonder.

That moment was when the power of pixels brought the long-extinct brachiosaurus back to life, walking casually across a green pasture and eating from the tallest trees in Spielberg's box office-busting and ground-breaking Jurassic Park.

Like Dr Alan Grant (Neill) and Dr Ellie Sattler (Dern) in that particular scene, audiences were stunned - the awe portrayed by those two characters mirrored the reaction of those looking up at the big screen in darkened theatres around the world.

It was a jaw-dropping, magical moment. Sure, CGI had been used before, as far back as Tron and The Last Starfighter, and more recently in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

But here was a photo-realistic dinosaur. In broad daylight. No jerky stop-motion, "go motion", or in-camera trickery. It was as if they'd found a brachiosaurus and put it on the screen.

Here was a long-dead creature brought back to life through the powers of science in a film about long-dead creatures being brought back to life through the powers of science. It was a perfect storm of the technology not only catching up with the ideas, but featuring in the right idea. No wonder the film broke all box office records, and was the biggest grossing film in the world (until Titanic came along four years later and sank it).

Twenty years on, without that context of the thrill of the new, Jurassic Park exists now as one of the pinnacles of popcorn cinema - a terrific thrill ride that is more than just the sum of its special effects.

Re-released in 3D for its anniversary (an effect which proves unnecessary but not distractingly so), it's a delight to see this back on the big screen, if only to remind us all of how good the film is.

Its high concept kick-off remains tantalising; what if we could bring back dinosaurs? And from that springboard, Michael Crichton's novel (developed as a script by Crichton and David Koepp) spins a man-versus-nature story laced with the dangers of science, human humility, and dashes of Crichton's directorial debut Westworld and its out-of-control theme park plot.

The screenplay is perfectly balanced, in spite of its much picked-at plot-holes, such as the sudden appearance of a steep drop into the T-Rex paddock, or how the T-Rex manages to sneak up on the heroes in the film's climax. Spielberg, who would follow this with its polar opposite Schindler's List, takes the script's ups and downs in his stride, his pacing and tone not that dissimilar to his work on Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

The technique he accidentally perfected in Jaws thanks to a malfunctioning shark is played out repeatedly and effectively throughout, and it's amazing how satisfying the reveal of each new and potentially dangerous creature is, which is testament to Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn.

The script introduces its characters swiftly and cleverly - the practical, child-phobic paleontogist Dr Alan Grant (Neil), his enthusiastic and tenacious partner Dr Ellie Sattler (Dern), the charismatically odd mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Goldblum), and the Icarus-like visionary John Hammond (Attenborough) are all shown to us through economical but natural dialogue, intelligent performances and smart direction. Malcolm's not-so-subtle wooing of Sattler, Hammond's sudden appearance in Grant's trailer, and Grant's solution to his seatbelt problems are telling examples of the old screenwriters' axiom "show, don't tell".

Maybe some of the effects aren't quite as perfect now, but it's barely noticeable and just nit-picking. When that T-Rex appears out of the stormy darkness, it's still one of the most awe-inspiring sights cinema provided in the '90s, if not ever. And maybe Dern's acting is a tad over-the-top, and the film plays a little loose with the science, but Jurassic Park is a how-to guide for structuring a multi-character disaster film.

That fact often gets ignored in the face of the mind-blowing special effects, but if this was merely a movie with pixel-perfect dinosaurs, I doubt we'd care about it as much 20 years on.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Iron Man 3

(M) ★★★

Director: Shane Black.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall.

It's better than drinking alone.
THE good news is Iron Man 3 is better than Iron Man 2. The bad news is it still can't live up to the excellence of the first film.

It's a shame really. This could be Robert Downey Jr's last film as Tony Stark (his contract is up) and if he should bow out, it would have been great to see him go out on a high.

Not that Iron Man 3 is a total misfire. It features some of the best moments of the trilogy, but it does feel a bit like a missed opportunity. There is so much good material in here - almost too much - that the story barrels along like a learner driver, hanging on for dear life and only just keeping things under control as it swerves wildly through traffic, jumping a few kerbs along the way.

The set-up involves Stark struggling to deal with the fallout from the alien attack on New York (as seen in The Avengers), which has left him with insomnia and a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While he compulsively tinkers and builds in his Iron Man workshop, a terrorist dubbed The Mandarin (Kingsley) has been unleashing terrifying explosions across the US, including one that severely injures Stark's friend Happy (Jon Favreau). This leads Stark to issue a threat against The Mandarin, jeopardising himself and his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Paltrow).

There's so much to like here. Stark's issues following the events of The Avengers make for an intriguing character development, the use of the Extremis virus (much-loved in the comics) is interesting, and the rogue's gallery of villains such as The Mandarin, scientist Aldrich Killian (Pearce) and a team of Extremis soldiers is enjoyable.

Also thrown into the mix well is Captain Rhodes (Cheadle), whose Iron Man-like persona of War Machine has been rebranded as Iron Patriot, much to Stark's amusement.

The level of comedy that has been a consistent triumph of the series is certainly here, although the film does tend to the wacky end of the humour spectrum a few times.

And with such a talented cast, it almost goes without saying that the performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Downey Jr, Pearce and Kingsley.

As for those "best moments of the trilogy" previously mentioned, a "barrel of monkeys" skydiving sequence is awesome, the final battle has some cool pieces, and there's some Spielberg-like magic in Stark's interaction with a young boy named Harley, although it's wonderfully subverted by director Shane Black and Drew Pearce's script and zippy dialogue.

So where's the problem?

Well, there are plot issues that are difficult to discuss without giving away spoilers, but one example is the government's efforts to find The Mandarin appear to have been non-existent until the story called for them, yet Stark can find him when he needs to. The involvement of certain characters is also questionable, while the finale's wrap-up of everything is way, way too neat to the point of ridiculousness. There are other leaps made and it's hard to tell after one viewing whether the script is being subtle or asking the audience to fill in a few too many gaps.

Iron Man 3 almost suffers from Too Many Villains Syndrome, which is a common affliction with superhero sequels, and the film struggles to keep all its characters and subplots in focus throughout. As mentioned, it seems to be a case of having too much good material.

Having said all that, the more I think about Iron Man 3, the more I like it. The initial feeling walking out of the cinema was one of mild disappointment. There were questions, things that didn't stack up. It probably begs a repeat viewing, in which case I reserve the right to change my star-rating down the track.

But for now, my gut tells me this is a three-star film, and hopefully not the last time we see Downey Jr as ol' Shellhead.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cloud Atlas

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

Rainbow Serpent Festival was really going off this year.

DAVID Mitchell's tour de force novel Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, epoch-spanning marvel that's as entertaining as it is ambitious.

It's also one of those books that was always going to be difficult to turn into a film.

As a movie, Cloud Atlas is as bold as the novel. However, it is predominantly a noble defeat - compressing Mitchell's six segments and endless interwining themes into a streamlined narrative proves beyond the grasp of The Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer), Tom Tykwer (Perfume, Run Lola Run) and a willing cast.

The six stories span almost five centuries and in Mitchell's book they run sequentially forward, then back again to the beginning, but in the film they are edited together into a mass of parallel stories that jump back and forth between each other.

In 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Sturgess) is battling illness on a trans-Pacific voyage. In England, 87 years later, musician Robert Frobisher (Whishaw) is reading Ewing's journal while helping composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) write his symphonies. In San Francisco in 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) discovers Frobisher's letters to his lover while she investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant.

Luisa's story ends up as a manuscript in the hands of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) in present day England, where Cavendish is fleeing unhappy clients only to end up trapped in an old folks' home. His story is eventually made into a movie that transfixes Sonmi-451 (Bae), a clone in Neo Seoul in 2144, who is whisked from her regimented life by a freedom fighter (Sturgess) with the intention of using her as a figurehead and catalyst for social upheaval in the corporatocracy they live in. And finally there is Zachry (Hanks), whose people worship Sonmi in a post-apocalyptic 2321.

As you can likely guess, jumping back and forth between these tales is disconcerting, distracting and disruptive. Despite the best efforts of the directors and their editor, Cloud Atlas struggles to maintain momentum or allow an ongoing connection with the characters.

It does allow the film to play up the links that run through the segments though, which are tied together by ideas about past lives, reincarnation, and an undying spirit of survival and determination that runs through humanity, as well as themes of prejudice, love, regret, redemption, freedom, and oppression.

It's these ideals and concepts that give Cloud Atlas a depth that may come to be appreciated over multiple viewings (if you can handle the 172-minute running time). Moments fly by, narratives are set aside almost randomly, and the individual vernacular and style of each story thread can take some time to adjust to, particularly Zachry's post-apocalyptic tale, which is told in a pidgin English that is a struggle to follow at times. But going back to soak it in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status.

Watching it first time through, however, will leave many cold. It's scattershot approach is distancing, despite the best efforts of the cast, who appear in multiple roles though some ingenious make-up work, further highlighting the links between the different time periods, albeit in an occasionally distracting and slightly confusing way.

There's a lot to like about Cloud Atlas and the effort to adapt Mitchell's novel should be applauded. Unfortunately it doesn't quite fit together - it's big ideas and ambitious plotting fly by at the expense of having an engaging story that builds emotion and connects to an audience.

Ultimately, it's a scattershot film that courageously tries to incorporate as much of the novel as possible, only to find it doesn't translate well from the page.