27 August 2012

Movie Review: The Watch



The Watch
2012, 102mins, 15
Director: Akiva Schaffer 
Writer (s): Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Jared Stern 
Cast includes: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Will Forte 
UK Release Date: 29th August 2012

“The Watch” is borderline dreadful, which in itself is a massive disappointment. Helmed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer (the same guy who directed 2007’s little seen gem “Hot Rod”), with a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad” and “Pineapple Express) and featuring a cast of players that most comedies would die for, the film somehow manages to be a mind-numbing bore. For the opening two acts at least. Granted “The Watch” does find some rhythm in its flurry of dick jokes, sci-fi call-backs and suburban action come the finale, but by then it’s too late, the picture has failed as a piece of basic entertainment, its enjoyable closing portion only highlighting what might’ve been.

After one of the security team at his Costco is murdered, Evan (Ben Stiller) decides the community of Glenview needs protection beyond the local law enforcement, forming a Neighbourhood Watch as a result. His recruits are three in number, each weirder than the last. Firstly there’s Bob (Vince Vaughn) the father of a rebellious teen and a man who sees Evan’s Watch as a way to escape the house for an evening. Then we have Franklin (Jonah Hill), a sociopath rejected by the police, determined to live out his violent vigilante dream. The final addition is recently divorced Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) a concerned citizen looking to help – and maybe get laid if the opportunity arises. Together they attempt to uncover the murderer’s identity, discovering that their enemy may not be human, or even of this world.

With “Hot Rod” Schaffer didn’t have much scope to display his technical craft as a filmmaker, instead relying on inventive visual tics, sharp comic timing and a refreshingly absurd tone to sell the flick. “The Watch” is quite a reverse, a stale, abysmally paced comedy that admittedly boasts some decent special effects. The alien menace never feels overly threatening but they are aesthetically striking, a mean combination of both the Alien and Predator. Of course their demise boils down to a simple knob gag, but hey, that’s “The Watch” for you. Schaffer’s mishandling of the picture’s length is disastrous, stretching the joyless opening chapters out to suffocating length, killing laughter in cinema auditoriums worldwide. It’s weird to observe the picture spark alive in the last 20 minutes, becoming the amusingly pitched farce I was anticipating at the bush of a button. The fact the same filmmaker gives us the wired denouement and stagnant beginning feels almost unbelievable, such is the gulf in quality between the portions.

The cast aren’t great, which given their pedigree is inexcusable. Vaughn does his usual shtick with an admirable amount of vigour, but ultimately his punch lines are sucky, rendering this the latest in a long line of flops for the actor. Ben Stiller is given the most screen-time and a legitimate character arc (he’s infertile) but his performance is incredibly dull. It’s no secret that Stiller can be by turns magnificent and dire; unfortunately it’s the latter Ben who shows up here. Jonah Hill is the worst offender, not because he’s any crappier than Stiller, but because he has a lot of recent reasons to be better. The actor gives a mouldy psychopathic turn, rendering his recent Oscar nomination and the success of “21 Jump Street” distant memories. Perhaps after pumping effort into those expeditions, Hill felt he could coast for a quick hunk of cash here. It would certainly explain a lot. Newcomer Ayoade (who directed the fantastic “Submarine” last year) is watchable because he’s not yet been overexposed and Will Forte (the dopey Chief of Police) is dependably good value.  

The screenplay by Rogen and Goldberg is relentlessly immature, but more criminally rarely funny. The degree of witlessness on show is astonishing, Schaffer having to rely on rushed improvisations to accrue any sort of positive response. There are some okay ideas in the mix, recurring jokes arise from XL condoms, alien goo and a lethal futuristic weapon, but unfortunately the scribes just can’t get them to pay-off. Rogen and Goldberg are funny guys, but their work here is shoddy, “The Watch” essentially representing the sort of failure one looks to have scrubbed from their CV. It doesn’t help that Schaffer’s timing is all over the place, but then again, the “Hot Rod” maestro is given precious little of worth to toy with.

At 102 minutes the film feels painfully overcooked, and even if the finish pumps up the standard it still generally fails to do anything new or memorable. “The Watch” is definitely one of the lesser tent pole outings summer 2012 has offered, a potently disagreeable product, especially given the individuals involved. Go watch something else.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

4 August 2012

Movie Review: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance



Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
2012, 93mins, 12
Director (s): Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor 
Writer (s): Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, David S. Goyer 
Cast includes: Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Johnny Whitworth, Violante Placido 
UK Release Date: 17th February 2012

The recent career of Nicolas Cage isn’t an enviable one; in fact even making that statement seems like a hackneyed move within the context of a review, or any piece of film journalism for that matter. I’ll cut straight to the chase then. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” does little to elevate the actor’s form, the picture a woefully directed blockbuster that trades largely on spastic camera movements and lethargic storytelling. Cage gets a few chances to let his freak flag fly (easily the film’s most rewarding component), but the rest is absolute dross. I thought it would be tougher to make a film worse than 2007’s original “Ghost Rider” than to render something palatable, but film-makers Neveldine/Taylor are more than up for the challenge presented by such a statement. “Spirit of Vengeance” going as far to be completely unwatchable at times.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has left the USA for Eastern Europe, hiding out to protect the world from the demon he harbours within himself. Approached by a religious figure named Moreau (Idris Elba, ensuring that “Prometheus” can’t be classified as his most misguided project of 2012), Johnny is recruited to save a youngster named Danny (Fergus Riordan, another static child actor for the ranks), a boy who contains a power that could allow Lucifer (Ciaran Hinds) to attain maximum evil on earth. Danny and his mother (Violante Placido) are being hunted by an agent of the Devil named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth, incredibly grating and never menacing), requiring Johnny’s specific set of skills as The Ghost Rider to get them to safety.

Cage gets to go absolutely nuts in a few small places. The sight of the thespian losing his cool so energetically onscreen never fails to enthral, directors Neveldine/Taylor sharing a similarly unhinged artistic vibe, complimenting the actor nicely in this arena. So there you have it. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” provides roughly 4 minutes of fun cinematic thrills, all deriving from its leading man’s debatable sanity. Now let’s us move onto the rest of this grandiose folly.

Remember back to 2006. Neveldine/Taylor burst onto the scene with “Crank”, a juiced up and incredibly frantic actioner starring Jason Statham. That film was a modest joy, but everything the duo have attempted since has stunk to high heaven. 2009’s “Gamer” was a satire with virtually no edge. In the same year they produced a sequel to “Crank” named “High Voltage”, a picture I still maintain as one of the most offensively poor thrillers of the 21st century thus far. They also have the prestigious honour of a writing credit on the ignobly famed “Jonah Hex”, an awful feature that also has the distinction of ranking amongst Hollywood’s least profitable summer event movies. Ever. So even before viewing “Spirit of Vengeance” the kudos earned from the initial “Crank” feature was all but completely drained. This sequel isn’t their worst work (“High Voltage” is a tough nadir to dethrone) but their incompetence as both storytellers and pyromaniacs is shockingly evident none the less. The action beats are mostly just basic standoffs between the Rider and packs of goons, Neveldine/Taylor cutting it together so speedily and aggressively that it becomes virtually impossible to invest in the set-pieces at all. Yes, the sight of a man being beaten by fiery chains is cool once, maybe at a push twice. However yanking the visual trick out at every turn is just lazy. For film-makers with such a crazed aesthetic, “Spirit of Vengeance” proves them to be most unimaginative.

The finale is a road chase that falters on the back of some weird and cheap visual touches (what’s with the black backgrounds guys?), “Spirit of Vengeance” regularly emanating an ugly photographic eye. The frame is plastered with greys and bleached out European landscapes, relegating potentially nice scenery into the realm of ugly canvas filler. The film-makers themselves probably don’t even have the balls to pretend they tried to instil the work with any sort of emotional heft. The dynamic between Palcido and Cage sinks because the actress is boring, and in terms of bonding between Rider and boy what do we get? A quick selection of shots showing them goofing off on a motorbike. A careful dissection of human relationships this is not.

Neither Hinds nor Whitworth (looking like a reject from a Guillermo Del Toro film during the final act) injects any sustained threat into proceedings, the finale a forgone conclusion. I haven’t yet alluded to the character’s comic-cook origins, and will do so by informing you that this production was overseen by Marvel. Yes Marvel, the same studio behind “Iron Man”, “Captain America” and this summer’s excellent “The Avengers”. I guess they must have been putting all their creative scrutiny into that picture, because how they felt this tripe was worth releasing theatrically is beyond me. Avoid “Spirit of Vengeance”. If you need your Cage going crazy fix try the 80s giggle-fest “Vampire’s Kiss” or to see him crushing it on the highways last year’s superior “Drive Angry”. This second (and mostly likely last) outing for the “Ghost Rider” brand is just insultingly bad. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

2 August 2012

Movie Review: Ted



2012, 106mins, 15
Director: Seth MacFarlane 
Writer (s): Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild 
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Seth MacFarlane, Giovanni Ribisi
UK Release Date: 1st August 2012

 It’s actually weird to think that “Ted” represents Seth MacFarlane’s motion picture debut, the man has after all been a TV behemoth for almost 15-years. His most famed export “Family Guy” amused me during its early years, but later seasons left me cold. Somewhere along the line MacFarlane forgot that controversial jokes involved more than brazenly shouting politically incorrect things at the viewership, leaving little touches like wit and invention by the wayside. “Ted” definitely represents the most I’ve laughed at a MacFarlane project for a long time, although some of the coasting that has plagued his current TV output does reoccur nastily in spots. It’s not the giggles that save “Ted”; instead it’s the oddly honest and sweet heartbeat the film boasts. MacFarlane has laced “Ted” with an unexpected maturity, at least as far as movies with multiple fart gags go.

During his childhood John (Mark Wahlberg) was not the most popular of kids. After receiving a large plush teddy bear for Christmas, John wishes the toy to life, the result Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) becoming the buddy he’s always desired. During the 80s Ted was a media sensation, but things have since dried up, John working in an average job whilst Ted slums it on the couch, smoking weed and goofing off to old movies. Still, he and John remain firm friends, much to the bemusement of John’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori is sweet, intelligent and only wants what’s best for her man, Ted’s childish behaviour seemingly holding him back. She thus convinces the pair to forgo living together, but the bonds of their friendship prove too strong for a mere relocation.

“Ted” is a humorous flick, although maybe not to the extreme extent promised by its ace trailer. MacFarlane dials back the non-sequiturs and focuses on making a film that deals in the business of comic set-pieces, verbal jousting and punch lines. Not everything lands (I counted two misplaced 9/11 jokes), but when “Ted” works it is admittedly very funny; Lewd, crude and consistently lowbrow, but still funny. MacFarlane seems less interested in starting a fistfight with the establishment (something I feel he’s never actually been that good at, apex “The Simpsons and “South Park” trumps him every time), rather he focuses on mining his flavoursome concept for raw, hard laughs. It’s a simplistic touch that actually makes “Ted” fundamentally satisfying, even if it becomes hard to recall what caused the mirth in a post-viewing atmosphere.

The CGI central character is impeccably rendered; granted a precious lease of life thanks to MacFarlane’s spirited vocal work. Watching a teddy blaze up narcotics, chill with hookers and talk trash was always going to be amusing, but MacFarlane also ensures his fuzzy protagonist leaves an impression beyond the profanity. Wahlberg also deserves major props, the actor reacting with strong timing and incisive improvisational sense against his digital sparring partner, something that can’t have been easy for the usually stern action man. John has his faults, but as numerous and infantile as they are, Wahlberg’s warmth and grounded approach keeps him likable. Kunis isn’t really stretched as Lori but fulfils the role’s basic requirements (although her chemistry with Wahlberg is middling at best), whilst Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh and a host of strange cameo appearances inject further chuckles. I won’t spoil the surprises here.

The bromance in “Ted” is shockingly touching in parts, MacFarlane’s thoughts on extended adolescence and the need to abandon childhood more developed than initially anticipated. Despite featuring a superfluous kidnapping subplot (though this does allow Giovanni Ribisi to be very silly, always a positive) the finale pulls at the heartstrings confidently, McFarlane ditching the absurd for a smidgen of emotion. It works delightfully.

“Ted” is a worthwhile watch, in an auditorium with a game audience it’s an entertaining sit. The individual jokes never quite match the high-concept premise, but it still packs enough punch to make it one of this year’s better comedies. MacFarlane has transitioned his distinctive brand effectively onto bigger screens, showing a competent technical hand along the way. You’ll get exactly what you’re expecting here.

 A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

Movie Review: Detention



2011, 93mins, 15
Director: Joseph Kahn
Writer (s): Joseph Kahn, Mark Palermo 
Cast includes: Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Spencer Locke, Alison Woods, Dane Cook
UK Release Date: 27th August 2012 (DVD/Blu-Ray)

God loves a trier, and try director Joseph Kahn has with his sophomore effort “Detention”. An ADD addled mash-up of teen angst, sci-fi, slasher and Diablo Cody styled riffing, the film is pretty much as confused as it’s possible for a theatrically released motion picture to be (albeit said distribution was brief and very limited). Everything but the kitchen sink has been chucked into this coked out mess, yet despite its inability to tell anything remotely resembling a story, “Detention” does have some charms. Visually the picture is phenomenal, especially given its modest budget, and the cast are uniformly impressive. I admire Kahn’s adherence to individual vision and the underlying intelligence that peppers his dialogue (co-written by Mark Palermo), but there’s no justifiable excuse for how all over the place the final product is.

I’m about to attempt a synopsis. If you’ve seen “Detention” then you’ll be aware just how awkward that task promises to be.

Taylor Fisher (Alison Woods, “Superhero Movie”) is the most popular girl in school, but thanks to an encounter with a serial killer masquerading as horror icon Cinderhella, she is soon very dead. The reaction at Grizzly Lake High School is oddly muted, although depressed Riley (Shanley Caswell, a CV comprised largely of TV work) soon finds reason to care when the murderer marks her out as the next target. Ganging up with cooler than thou Clapton (Josh Hutcherson, “The Hunger Games”), vapid and 90s obsessed Ione (Spencer Locke, “Resident Evil: Afterlife”), geeky wise-ass Sander (Aaron David Johnson) and a host of other weirdos, Riley attempts to deduce the killer’s identity, using various methods, all the while being sentenced to detention by the bitter Principal Verge (Dane Cook, other than Hutcherson the only recognisable face on show).

Hopefully my scribbling reads coherently, but trust me when I say it only alludes to a tiny percentage of the quirk this flick harbours.

Joseph Kahn has been a big name in the music video industry for a while, the director having attained a slick eye for style during his travels in that particular world. “Detention” is primed with bizarre imagery and a hyperactive tone that initially works spectacularly, although its appeals wane considerably during the movie’s second half. Kahn uses his frame in very interesting ways, maintaining welcome freshness thanks to witty use of wordplay on screen, inspired edits and decent digital effects (I again reference the project’s less than massive $10 million budget). “Detention” is a truly original gambit, its notion to mesh High-School drama with so many other genres truly admirable, but ambition doesn’t always equate to success. Yes, there are a few laughs to be had, but the film’s jerky structure and refusal to sit still means it actually becomes kind of confusing, and its constant devotion to snark makes caring about the characters tough.

Shanley Caswell and Hutcherson get the lion’s share of screen-time, both performer’s latching onto the picture’s cynical tone and kinetic thrust. They’re pretty charming and help sell some of the more obnoxious moments proficiently, for Hutcherson especially it marks a nice change of pace, a willingness to move into less family orientated zones. The youngsters are well managed, Kahn turning decent work out of the majority, special mention going to the opening sequence headlined by Alison Woods. Woods doesn’t stick around for long, but her infectious bitchiness and solid connection with the dialogue plants some big guffaws, it’s says a lot about the actress that she remains so memorable despite occupying only about 3 minutes of early footage. Dane Cook plays it pretty straight as the principal, laying down snide and barbed one-liners every so often. As a fan of the comic it’s nice to see him ditching the goofball hysterics that have yet to serve him productively in Hollywood. If he keeps the manic gesticulating for his stage material and provides a few more performances in this style, then Cook’s thespian reputation might resuscitate slightly.

Oh lord, but what of the screenplay? “Detention” is so schizophrenic, so determined to be all things to all people that it ends up looking like a kid’s toy box. We’ve got UFOs, masked fiends, time travelling bears, Steven Segal and Patrick Swayze inspired fight choreography….the list really is endless. Individually some of these scenes are indisputably creative, but as a whole, it just doesn’t sit together satisfactorily. It’s lovely to see a film-maker strive to do something epic, to change the game if you will, but unfortunately in order to do that audiences must respond to your material. It’s not that “Detention” isn’t clever; the snappy dialogue is proof enough to suggest it is, but I just can’t imagine anybody digesting the film and fully understanding it, much less cultivating a burgeoning love for Kahn’s hectic mindfuck.

Of course as with any film that prioritises hip interactions over three dimensional character development, “Detention” struggles to imbue its occupants with any engaging qualities, something that deeply frustrates during the film’s bombastic but muddled climax. With its frantic visuals and deliberate stereotypes it’s clear this project doesn’t belong in our world, not that the director ever seems to have wanted it that way. I’m aware that criticising “Detention” for stretching believability is like attacking McDonalds for being unhealthy, yet I can’t help but feel an extra splash of reality might be exactly what this befuddling effort required.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012