30 July 2013

Movie Review: The Conjuring



The Conjuring 
2013, 112mins, 15
Director: James Wan
Writer (s): Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Cast includes: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King 
UK Release Date: 2nd August 2013

Opening several weeks ago stateside, “The Conjuring” has proved to be both an unlikely hit with critics and audiences, a rarity for any summer film, much less one stemming from the horror genre. Directed by James Wan (last seen guiding 2011’s middling frightener “Insidious”), “The Conjuring” purports to be based on true events, the story of a family haunted by malevolent ghouls and the demonologist couple sought to protect them. It doesn't sound very original, and in truth very little about “The Conjuring” is, in fact it’s a picture that largely derives its kicks from adhering to familiar old school techniques. Yet like “Oblivion” earlier in the year, “The Conjuring” boasts an energy and artistry that helps absolve its devotion to genre convention. All the bumps and screams come in the expectant places, but Wan brings a regimented technical skillset to proceedings, forming a theme park ride of a movie rife with unusually intimate characterization. You won’t get much new out of this beast, but if intense fear-mongering theatrics are your bag, this definitely charts as one of 2013’s more polished examples.

Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) have moved themselves and their young daughters out to an idyllic country farmhouse, a dreamy abode for the promising family to kick-start a lifetime of domestic bliss. Things quickly go awry, their dog found slain in the garden, Carolyn reporting mysterious bruising in her sleep and the girls plagued by visions and disturbances during the night. As the spectral presence grows increasingly hostile toward the family, they seek the aid of ghostbusting duo Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) a husband and wife team with longstanding credentials in the field of supernatural banishment. It doesn’t take long for the Warrens to realise the Perron’s have been afflicted with a particularly nasty demonic burden, rallying a small team of devoted helpers to do battle with the spirit and absolve the family of nocturnal torment.

If “The Conjuring” does one thing right, it’s the treatment of character. I’m not suggesting the film provides a plethora of nuanced entities on which to hang the shrieks, but it does establish likable protagonists with distinctive vulnerabilities, and deploys decent actors to flesh them out. As with nearly anything in which she features, Farmiga is the standout as the compassionate but worn Lorraine Warren, a woman devoted to motherly pangs of her own and struggling with the extensive evils she has encountered over her storied career. Farmiga is a quiet, sympathetic and caring screen presence, graceful and reassuring, yet with enough doubts and troubles of her own to help the evolution of tension. The horror genre is not one the actress has traversed many times in the past, but she proves a predictable pro, dialling up the heart and humanity in Wan’s haunted house fracas. Wilson makes a solid counterpoint (they are both believably in love and crucially devoted to their own young daughter), but interestingly “The Conjuring” is more preoccupied with its female contingent. This is underlined by the attention provided to a game Lili Taylor, who also does fine work as a mother desperately attempting to shield her clan from terror, the interactions and narrative juxtapositions which flow between her and Farmiga serving some of the film’s more thematically engaging content. A horror flick observing facets of the maternal experience is hardly a revelatory concept, but “The Conjuring” conducts it with just enough emotional detail to amply fill the movie’s dramatic requirement. Wan definitely prioritises the FX and thrills, but just enough attention is applied to Farmiga and Taylor’s relationship throughout, and come the bombastic finale it pays-off rather acutely.

In the tradition of classic horror cinema “The Conjuring” starts slow, builds at a moderate pace before delivering a final act of frantic, nonstop chaos. The structure is adeptly handled, the movie indulging a wide sphere of horror influences and styles along the way. It would be hard to suggest Wan’s work here is visionary, but he does crib fantastically from more renowned film-makers including Sam Raimi, William Castle and even Steven Spielberg; blending pacey boo moments with slow-burn creepiness and gruesome prosthetic magic. The production design, cinematography and practical effects have all been tweaked to maximise their eerie allure, much like the narrative the mise-en-scene is a victory of craft over invention. The suspense is mounted with genuine delicacy, the movie creaking and whispering exactly when it should, never smothering the audience with too much carnage or action. Until the end that is. In its last 15 minutes “The Conjuring” turns into an inferno of possession and violence, placing just about every primary character in substantial peril. It’s a manic collection of whirring and screaming that earns its place, an appropriate parallel to the silent menace of the picture’s bulk.

The sound design and musical score are of phenomenal value, primed with hisses and unsettling bellows. Wan has a nice photographical sensibility and choreographs his frames with utmost competence, even if it does occasionally feel his precision comes at the expense of innovation. The director knows just when to strike a match or unleash a demon, lending the feature a thoroughly haunted aura, before delving into the visceral and macabre mechanics of demon baiting and exorcism. People say the best horror films have rich subtexts, a comment I tend to agree with, and it is here where “The Conjuring” perhaps disappoints. Genre landmarks like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Rosemary’s Baby” definitely boast a host of fertile ideas. I’m not sure Wan and his screenwriters have sunk much more than solid dramatic chops and hellishly enjoyable set-pieces into this humdinger, thusly failing the ultimate test of greatness. This probably seems like a harsh critique to lobby at a horror feature, especially with the genre in such a soggy state, but there are legitimately people out there praising “The Conjuring” as a future touchstone. In 10-years I honestly don’t see it hitting that mark.

It’s hard to predict how “The Conjuring” will stand the passing of years. In the moment it’s ridiculously entertaining and effortlessly watchable, but whether it packs enough inspiration to outlast its media approval and jovial viewing experience is another matter. Only time will tell. That said if there’s one way to see this thing it’s in a crammed theatre with a hungry audience, ready to purge their lungs of nervous laughter and hollers of shock. In those circumstances it’s impossible not to recommend this superior creepshow, a strong reminder that sometimes the old ways are the best.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

25 July 2013

Movie Review: The Heat



The Heat 
2013, 120mins, 15
Director: Paul Feig
Writer (s): Katie Dippold 
Cast includes: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin
UK Release Date: 31st July 2013

In 2011 Paul Feig became a Hollywood hit-maker with his menagerie of muliebral madness “Bridesmaids”, a feature that scored vast amounts of kudos at the box-office and even nabbed notable awards consideration at the 2012 Academy shindig. Working from a script by Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids” was a female-centric spin on a usually male occupied genre, throwing a bunch of unlikely chicks together for a messily edited compilation of pre-marital shenanigans. I appreciate the picture means a great deal to some, and I can’t begin to argue with its lucrative legacy, but ultimately in the wake of increasing hype “Bridesmaids” left me a little cold when I first encountered it on a balmy summer afternoon in 2011. It nabbed sparing giggles, but fundamentally the film felt like it received a free pass from movie goers, reacting positively toward its devotion to the fairer sex, forgiving its patchier film-making facets as a result. For a start “Bridesmaids” is desperately in need of an unprejudiced session in an editing suite; by its conclusion the movie hits a repetitious gag formula, wearily pulling its bloated carcass over an obscenely delayed finish line. I wasn’t repulsed by the film- heck, I was mildly entertained- but the fact of the matter is “Bridesmaids” has no business being heralded as any sort of contemporary classic.

Now Feig is back, and he’s doing for the buddy cop sub-genre what he attempted with “bachelor party” style theatrics two years ago. He’s feminised it right up, even recruiting old buddy in knee-slapping crime Melissa McCarthy to help ease the transition. The results are the same. If I took one thing from “The Heat” it’s that somebody should probably inform Feig he doesn’t have to use every single little innocuous piece of footage he shoots in the final cut. Edit the damn thing man!

Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is loathed by her underlings, yet her savvy detective skills have landed her with the chance of a big promotion. Sent to Boston in order to prove her worth, Ashburn is tasked with bringing down a drug kingpin, paired with fiery Detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) to crack the case. Needless to say the varying tactics utilized by consummate professional Ashburn and “Bull in China Shop” Mullins don’t always sync, leading the duo on a route of sleuthing uncertainty and unlikely friendship.

Sounds revelatory, right?

I ask you this. Is justifying the reuse of hackneyed old storytelling on the basis of gender diversity not sexism in action? That’s the only reason “The Heat” appears to exist, in order to subsidise the female portion of the population for all the formulaic genre pap NOT aimed at their gender over the last 50 years of cinema. The plot is a barely there amalgamation of clichés and skits, some of the latter amusing, but none of the former excusable. There are no surprises here, and not only does Feig topple back on every procedural benchmark in the storytelling arsenal, he also finds time to repeat them to egregious effect. There’s a genuinely funny sequence in which McCarthy dresses Bullock so she won’t draw attention to herself in a nightclub. It’s snappy, profane and demonstrates the sound synergy between the performers. It provides a host of good laughs, and a sensible film-maker would know to move on, push the narrative forward and derive the next dollop of humour from elsewhere. But no. Feig stretches the nightclub angle to punishing effect, getting lost in fits of spastic slapstick and goofy grinding, succumbing to Bullock’s sleepiest facial gesticulating and McCarthy’s sporadically witless grasp of improvisation. Both actresses are generally quite decent in “The Heat”- hell in a few scenes McCarthy’s an absolute joy- but at this specific juncture the mirth’s exhausted. Yet Feig plugs away, drawing the movie’s languorous pace out further, sucking some of the glee derived from the earlier, jocose material.  It’s just a single example of “The Heat” hanging around for far longer than it should, and more troublingly highlighting its hollow gender fuelled justification. Is it okay to assume that because girls don’t usually take front and centre in these genre diversions, their mere presence validates sedate writing and a moronic over-extension of pratfalls? To me, that’s an insult and rings excruciatingly hollow.

I did laugh. More than a few times in fact. However the moderate bursts of comedic generosity are only a nice distraction, never salvaging the feature’s major issues. Bullock and McCarthy make a fine team (although McCarthy should ease up on the Pro Plus Caffeine School of Acting), and yes I realise they’re GIRLS. Very funny GIRLS. But just because they’re GIRLS doesn't give the creators of “The Heat” license to tie up their feature using a dry, drab and entirely predictable narrative. It also doesn't explain why Paul Feig sees fit to have an hour of workable material stretched to the point of nauseating fatigue, finally shutting its mouth at the 120 minute mark. So here’s an idea. In the spirit of storytelling dexterity, female celebration and my sanity; Mr. Feig should hire a GIRL to precisely cut his next effort. Maybe a woman’s touch will help keep it below the old 90 minute mark , eh buddy?

 A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

23 July 2013

Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)



The Wolverine 
2013, 126mins, 12
Director: James Mangold 
Writer (s): Scott Frank, Mark Bomback 
Cast includes: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Rila Fukushima, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova 
UK Release Date: 26th July 2013

Remember 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? Most fans certainly try not to; the initial exploration into one of Marvel’s most recognisable faces was greeted with riotous disdain. It was a problematic feature for sure, scuppered by a sub-par script and a series of backroom production disputes that left poor Gavin Hood in the directorial lurch. Fox weren’t content to let this franchise character rot on a rock of perpetual mediocrity however, resuscitating the spiky haired mutant and Hugh Jackman simultaneously in the hope of a more satisfactory outcome. “The Wolverine” certainly seems to have enjoyed a smoother journey to the big screen than its predecessor, Jackman in particular vocally addressing the upbeat contrast in creative process for the press. Adopting a Japanese setting also encouraged a promisingly international change for the character – a fresh, visually interesting setting – which combined with an artful director (James Mangold of “Walk the Line” fame) suggested “The Wolverine” might correct the wrongs of four years ago. It’s an infinitely more coherent picture than “Origins”, but sadly fails to establish much of an identity, whittling away its hefty runtime on repetitive character beats and unremarkable action. “The Wolverine” isn’t an expressive or sophisticated work, feeling stale and out of date from the start. Maybe if this film had arrived in 2009 instead of the pesky “Origins” things might be different, but in 2013 it can’t keep up with increasingly steep genre competition.

Summoned to Japan by an old friend whose life he helped protect during the Atomic blasts in Nagasaki, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is offered the chance to end his battle with immortality by the now dying Mr. Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi).  Yashida has found a way to transfer Logan’s condition, and is keen to be the recipient of the curse, but the mutant is unconvinced. However asking politely was only Yashida’s first course of action, resorting to skills harboured by sidekick Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) to extract Logan’s invincibility by force. Left vulnerable and mired within mysterious familial politics, Logan ends up protecting Yashida’s grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) in the wake of her grandfather’s sudden demise, fleeing Yakuza and a host of gnarly elders enraged by Mariko’s generous inheritance. With his flesh now vulnerable, Logan is forced to yield to his inner beast, leaving aside his haunted past for Mariko’s safety.

Jackman is terrific in the title role, but since donning the adamantium talons in 2000’s “X-Men” there’s been little question of that. The actor has the appropriate physicality and snarly demeanour, but has also consistently engaged with the character’s conflicts and fears throughout the course of his Marvel tenure, expertly moulding the toughest guy in the room into a bundle of tormented question marks. The greatest crime of “The Wolverine” is the lack of growth provided by the screenplay, forcing Jackman to toy with the same concepts that stronger film-makers have been asking him to mine for over a decade now. When Bryan Singer tapped into Logan’s past in 2003’s “X2”, fireworks erupted, Jackman was able to survey the character’s move from lone wolf to team player with panache and maturity, using his frazzled past to inform a movement into a position of mentoring. “The Wolverine” gives Jackman no fresh ground to traverse; it’s all broad heartbreak and repetitious pangs of guilt, brought out using hackneyed dream sequences involving deceased love Jean Grey (a jobbing Famke Janssen). The dynamic with Mariko is a watered down parallel to the character’s interactions with Anna Paquin in the initial burst of Singer flicks, but alas there we cared about the source of Wolverine’s newfound protective urges. Here he and Mariko form an unlikely bond with too much urgency and too little nuance, flirting uncomfortably with romantic clichés involving lumbering bodyguards and fine yet oddly profound women. “The Wolverine” is actually an impressively gender neutral affair, giving several of the lady figures ample chance to kick butt (particularly Yashida’s mutant servant Yukio portrayed  by Rila Fukushima), but unfortunately the key entity is left marooned in a narrative arc obsessed with empty calorie acts of redemption. “The Wolverine” is hollow, no two ways about it.

The picture generally takes itself very seriously (only letting Jackman growl for comic effect sparingly) and any hope of a meaningful Japanese attitude seeping into the picture’s DNA is quickly expelled. “The Wolverine” embraces its new setting on Hollywood’s terms, bringing out stereotypical samurai imagery and unmemorable mantras to help justify the switch-up, but there’s not much of an atmosphere beyond these obvious tweaks. Mangold doesn't seem that interested in examining potential cultural difference in the Marvel universe, opting to overlook the fascinating question of mutant existence through Japanese history, in favour of colourless ninjas and moodily lit oriental structures. The fish out of water element feels jettisoned on the grounds it might have clashed with the new found tonal severity, but the omission of what it means to be Wolverine outside of American territory is wildly underwhelming. The Asian influence on the picture never amounts to more than a gimmick, occasionally inspiring picturesque frames rich in international calling cards, but hardly altering the decidedly Hollywood nature of story or action at all.

Mangold has dabbled with blockbusters before, namely in his underrated 2010 throwback “Knight & Day”. In that feature Mangold displayed a brilliantly kinetic sensibility and steady editorial rhythm, maintaining star allure (Tom Cruise headed up that venture) amidst the increasingly delirious set-pieces. Here the film-maker maintains composure but fails to ratchet up momentum or imprint identity onto proceedings, a lot of the action in the feature feeling like the work of a competent second unit as opposed to a passionate visionary. One fantastic beat involving typically hands on surgery and swordplay threatens to inject a much needed dose of vigour before hurtling into the final act, but the feature’s denouement is simply a tension devoid menagerie of CGI and paint by numbers villainy. If “The Wolverine” stumbles for its opening portion it cataclysmically underlines its shortcomings at the end, leaving the audience with a painfully open perspective of the film’s lack of human interest or over-arching potency. He’s more or less the same superhero we meet at the start come the finish, which speaks volumes concerning the product’s lack of soul or storytelling ambition.

It’s not a doggedly awful film (solidly lensed cinematography, Jackman in dependable form and one excellent, grisly interlude see to that) but “The Wolverine” isn't the final word on this literary figure by any stretch. It’s a fluff-piece, complied with minimum enthusiasm by an admittedly talented director, once again leaving a supposedly bountiful character flagellated. I take less issue with the religiously undefined supporting players, but the disconcerting ambivalence aimed in the direction of Jackman’s most famous screen role is upsetting. Maybe it’s time to ditch these individual capers, because if you can’t get your talisman right, then there’s little hope for successfully adapting the less blatantly vibrant personalities into worthy cinematic enterprises. Let’s leave the X-Men as a team from now on. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

18 July 2013

Movie Review: The Frozen Ground


The Frozen Ground 
2013, 105mins, 15
Director: Scott Walker 
Writer: Scott Walker 
Cast includes: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, 50 Cent, Radha Mitchell 
UK Release Date: 19th July 2013

“The Frozen Ground” isn’t a picture that inspires much confidence on paper. A director making his feature debut, starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack (both coming off several clunkers), Vanessa Hudgens and most tellingly 50 Cent. Not exactly a titillating proposition. “The Frozen Ground” revolves around the Robert Hansen case of the 70s & 80s, a reclusive serial killer responsible for the death of dozens of Alaskan women. Film-maker Scott Walker cribs a lot from the David Fincher handbook for his visual presentation, but the effort actually manages a surprising degree of sincerity and thespian respectability in its attempt to honour the victims of Hansen’s spree. It’s a workmanlike feature on the whole, but “The Frozen Ground” does attain a certain quantity of genre appeal, a solid procedural with a familiar but polished style.

Having narrowly escaped a murderous assault, Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is brought to the attention of Alaskan state police, notably Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage). Halcombe is weeks away from retirement, but becomes embroiled in the case when Cindy offers the name Robert Hansen (John Cusack) as the identity of her abductor, a local family man with an unusually problematic history of violent and psychologically offbeat behaviour. As several other bodies are uncovered in the Alaskan wilderness, the product of the same killer, Halcombe begins to suspect Hansen is his man, but evidence is short on the ground. Cindy is uneasy about testifying, undergoing a strained and grimy existence selling herself on the streets, whilst Hansen appears to be covering his tracks with the impeccable touch of a pro. Battling against the killer’s intelligence, Cindy’s fear and his own personal issues, Halcombe attempts to bring evil to justice.

“The Frozen Ground” is wastes no time in informing viewers of its connection to true events, Walker unveiling the extent of Hansen’s villainy pretty early in proceedings. This isn't a twisty whodunit, but rather a recount of vile criminal activity, and on those grounds it’s moderately fetching. Walker concocts credible atmosphere utilizing the barren and ominous stretches of wilderness where Hansen murdered his victims and seedy streets and bars riddled with scumbags and helpless hookers, hardly imbuing “The Frozen Ground” with a hopeful aura. It’s a picture that very much commits to the damning of Hansen and his bloodthirsty yearnings, Walker credibly depicting a community and town (Anchorage) where the fiend’s shadow looms large. Right from the start Walker pummels the audience with graphic, grittily photographed and creepy imagery, maintaining the aggressively bleak palette for the movie’s entirety.

Walker is invariably a better director than a writer, as evidenced by the story’s scattershot structure. In the first and second acts huge swathes of backroom speculation and exposition are swapped, most of it important, not all of it easily absorbed. Strangely Walker often seems much more focused on the character of Cindy (played believably by a committed Hudgens), basking in the depressing challenges of prostitution and stripper woes. Hudgens convinces beyond her years, combining steely ignorance and devastating vulnerability cogently, allowing individual instances in her own sad narrative to find a degree of poignant tragedy. The film-maker and actress convincingly render these moments intimate and unsettling, but at the expense of the wider tale. Whilst it may have damaged the substance of Hudgens’ work, one does feel a tighter fixation on the criminal facet might have allowed “The Frozen Ground” to leave a firmer stamp on the genre. As it stands it’s strong for large isolated stretches, but messy as a whole.

Cage and Cusack don’t set the world on fire, but they’re better here than they have been for a while. Cage is working the more restrained and human angle, forcing most of his energy into building a solemn rapport with Hudgens. It never quite gels, but that’s more the fault of superficial bonding material (shallow shared familial traumas) than either’s performance. Cusack occasionally threatens to push the psycho loner shtick a bit far, but generally finds an eerie and watchable balance, especially during the final interrogation portion with Cage. Cusack builds from confident liar to caged animal organically and with dramatic rhythm, bringing a fierier side out in Cage as a consequence. Gifted Australian actress Radha Mitchell is wasted as Cage’s shrill spouse, but for the most part the casting is serviceable. Well, aside from one notable exception. Not only does he manage to have the most ludicrous hairstyle in a feature that also stars Nic Cage (a genuine achievement), 50 Cent also indulges stupid stereotypes and mannerisms in his “pimpin’” portrayal of Hudgens’ professional overlord. The rapper drags a few promising scenes down with him, his inclusion a miscalculation from Walker’s perspective.

“The Frozen Ground” ends with a slideshow tribute of the murdered, a slew of innocent young women, left in lifeless ruin by an evil maniac. It’s a touching and affecting supplement and one that almost unequivocally proves Walker’s heart was in the right place. Artistically “The Frozen Ground” is a patchy work, but there are spare moments of inspiration and flair, which coupled with its reverence and goodwill insist it deserves a passing grade. Ultimately it is DVD fodder, but I guess in a quiet sort of a way that still marks a semi-recommendation. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

13 July 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim



Pacific Rim
2013, 130mins, 12
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Writer (S): Guillermo Del Toro, Travis Beacham 
Cast includes: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Max Martini 
UK Release Date: 12th July 2013

It’s been five long years since Guillermo Del Toro last wove his cinematic spell over the world, his previous two pictures 2006’s magnificent “Pan’s Labyrinth” and 2008’s solid franchise extension “Hellboy 2”officially stamping him as a bountiful talent. Stalled projects (he was long mooted to helm the current “Hobbit” saga) were the principal reason for his temporary disappearance, the vanishing act leaving fantasy fans with a distinctive unscratched itch. With a budget reportedly just shy of $200 million, “Pacific Rim” is an epically sized return for the film-maker, lathering mammoth scope and hefty CGI requirements into Del Toro’s usually more modestly scaled style, the marketing drawing unquestionable parallels to Michael Bay’s equally colossal “Transformers” projects. However unlike those dubious actioners, “Pacific Rim” is an original idea being shepherded by a peerlessly imaginative mainstream director, the result a heartening and bombastic 130 minute joyride. In the spirit of summer cinema much of the dialogue in “Pacific Rim” is ridiculously tin-eared, but elsewhere the picture is a delightful combination of B-movie monster flick goodness, accessible emotional fundamentals and deliberately cartoony thespian contributions. “Pacific Rim” is a film that harbours a tangible affection for cheesy genre cinema, and with its gargantuan budget, is able to honour and expand upon predecessors in that arena like few before it.  

Earth is under assault from the Kaiju, a giant race of monsters erupting from an alien portal at the base of the Pacific Ocean. In response to the wanton destruction induced by Kaiju attacks, the military have devised the Jaeger program, a strategy that deploys mighty mechanical humanoids piloted by two trained operatives to directly combat the beasts. The Jaeger pilots have to sync up their minds and memories using “the drift” – an ethereal telekinetic connective tissue – and initially the results are promising. The large robots clobber the first wave of marauding critters, but as the monsters get bigger, rise more frequently and begin to appear in twos, the game changes. In a final bid to halt impending doom the department’s leader Stacker (Idris Elba) recruits reclusive Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), the latter having lost a sibling during a fateful Kaiju skirmish. He’s teamed with Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who boasts secretive reasons of her own for desiring revenge on the encroaching predatory menace. Also on hand to help is Dr. Newton (Charlie Day), a biologist specialising in Kaiju science, who suspects a bond can be formed between beast and man using drift technology. Together the team must bind together, as a creature induced apocalypse threatens.

Del Toro is in no two minds concerning the central hook for “Pacific Rim”, the feature is all about the smackdowns. Envisaging battles that take place all across the globe, at land, sea and air, the film-maker delivers several stunningly executed set-pieces. Of course with such a monumental production cost the film looks incredible, seamless CGI and atmospheric neon-dappled cityscapes infusing the picture with a noteworthy genre identity, but at no point does “Pacific Rim” reduce itself to computer effects hitting each other. The frighteningly cool creature designs and attention to human life in “Pacific Rim” both govern nearly every battle the film offers; pilots are always in emotional or physical jeopardy against scaly opponents with variable organic weaponry. The film’s prologue contextualises the dangers of Jaeger combat memorably, with every subsequent beat finding points of tension within the structure of any given episode. Lives are always at stake and the monsters are capable of lethal and unpredictable manoeuvres, granting “Pacific Rim” a phenomenally tense aura. Spectacle is present, but ultimately it’s Del Toro’s ability to meld it effectively with Spielbergian threat and momentum which gifts the picture a beating and vulnerable heart upon which to layer its thrills.

Some of the performances exceed expectation (Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Day are the nicest surprises) but whilst most are merely adequate, each possesses a necessary energy that compliments the material. Hunnam is ludicrously aloof as the muscle-laden lead, whilst Idris Elba barks with broad and suitable authority in the role of commander. These turns and indeed the over-arching stabs at characterization feel ripped from classic fantasy serials and sci-fi cinema, Del Toro wielding a selection of entertaining stereotypes to stellar effect. It helps that that film-maker never forgets to inject the movie with a sense of dread and soulful expectancy, individual scenes really tapping into the childlike horror monsters can instill. One sequence in particular allows a character to be slowly stalked up an empty Japanese street, the monster slowly gaining before cornering them in a nightmarish fit of ferocity. These are the circumstances that fuel ancient fears, Del Toro accessing a base and inherent phobia familiar to us all, being rendered helpless by a merciless, mysterious and otherworldly menace. It might not connect as tangibly with contemporary global issues, but aesthetically “Pacific Rim” does recall 1954’s “Godzilla” in the way it channels primal unease.

Lightness of touch is skilfully explored through comic subplots; Ron Perlman (as a sleazy specialist in dealing alien tissue) and Charlie Day bounce off each other vibrantly throughout the middle act, Del Toro saving the grandstanding bombast for his reverently assembled bouts of metal on flesh. Kids of all ages should get a massive kick out of “Pacific Rim” and parents should champion it as a largely appropriate viewing experience. There are instances of violence and intensity, but Del Toro has designed the feature as a time-machine, removing these palpable concepts from the darkness of current affairs. “Pacific Rim” celebrates the majesty of fantasy, the nobility of heroism and the possibilities provided by hulking, fictional villains with unstoppable euphoria, reducing every audience member into a gasping, buzzing embodiment of pre-pubescent glee. Even the romantic angles are pleasingly desexualised and earnest. This is a call-back to the B-Movies that elated Del Toro as a kid, and with “Pacific Rim” he’s continued the bravado tradition for a lucky next generation.

Some of the scripting is brutal, which proves particularly hard to digest when the more limited actors (I’m looking at you Hunnam) are tasked with making it sound credible. But tonally, visually and structurally “Pacific Rim” is a knock-out, a vast success designed to join that specialist league of blockbusters (“Star Wars”, “Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”, “Avatar”) that influence and enliven audiences into a sugar-addled frenzy. It’s an experience satisfactorily arranged to deliver laughs, spills and shrieks of mirth, and from where I was sitting at least, it evoked a staggeringly positive reaction from my bedazzled film-going companions. Please don’t leave it so long next time Guillermo. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

8 July 2013

Movie Review: Now You See Me



Now You See Me
2013, 115mins, 12
Director: Louis Leterrier 
Writer (S): Boaz Yakin, Ed Solomon, Edward Recourt 
Cast includes: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine 
UK Release Date: 3rd July 2013

“Now You See Me” regularly instructs the viewer to look closely, summarising that by scrutinizing the smaller elements you’ll miss the bigger picture. The movie does eventually make good on this unofficial coda, with a reveal few audience members will see coming, and even fewer are liable to accept. The film isn’t a total bust, allowing great actors’ individual moments of delirious showmanship, but “Now You See Me” transforms into claptrap during its second half, descending into a mire of pointless imagery and silly plotting. Logic was never going to be the friend of a magician-heist flick helmed by the dude behind “Clash of the Titans”, but the extent of the friction far surpasses even what I anticipated. “Now You See Me” is a dumb movie; slickly made, rife with spirited performances and prone to occasional moments of dizzying wonderment. But that doesn’t change the fact it boasts fewer functional brain cells than a blonde rock.

Excitedly recruited by powers unknown, four street magicians are morphed into a band of global superstars known as the Four Horsemen. Egotist Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), ambitious Henley (Isla Fisher) mischievous Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and snappy youngster Jack (Dave Franco) come to the attention of the FBI when they rob a Parisian bank during a stage show, showering the crowds with millions in pilfered currency. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol desk-jockey Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are reluctantly paired to decode the case, desperately attempting to stick evidence or motives on the cocksure entertainers. As the Four Horsemen’s thefts escalate, Rhodes and Dray chase the elusive gang all across the country, stumbling at every turn. Eventually they turn to the mysterious Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) - a specialist in debunking magicians- for answers. Yet even he might be ill-equipped to fathom the Four Horsemen’s ultimate goal before the pesky tricksters attain it.

Louis Leterrier proves a decent fit with the material, the French film-maker imbuing the product with glossy panache and an understanding of set-piece science. “Now You See Me” is a film of separate moments, some of which hit welcome peaks of sumptuous popcorn entertainment. The strongest example is the movie’s secondary show, executed in a New Orleans’ theatre; the sequence a solidly structured blend of money-shots and question-baiting smarts. This 15-minute window fully demonstrates how good “Now You See Me” might have been, had it stuck to gently toying with audience expectation and delivering concisely executed action. Leterrier sifts between a ballsy outcome, cool magic tricks and a satisfactory foot-chase competently, incurring amusement in a giddy fashion. Sadly other chunks of proceedings decide that defying logic through sheer idiocy is a more appropriate route, running the movie into a fit of brainless tedium.

Characters are established efficiently and some of the performances are very credible. Eisenberg, Fisher and Harrelson are the chief purveyors of dynamic thespian fizz, but Mark Ruffalo and Morgan Freeman aren’t too far behind. No, the issues here stem from uneven storytelling and an attempt to come across as intelligent. There’s nothing more grating than a moron posturing as a genius, and that’s exactly how the final throws of “Now You See Me” appear. There’s an unexpected twist, but it adds precious little weight or meaning to the feature, simply fiddling with little hints and tips belted out during the stronger, earlier segments. I’m not sure what the film is trying to say, although I assure you somewhere in its muddled DNA the picture harbours a fuzzily established, needlessly self-aggrandizing moral. It doesn’t help that “Now You See Me” only fully embraces mystery come the finale, cramming as many explanations into the flat climax as possible. When the movie is diverting it doesn’t burden itself with half-baked resolutions or exhaustingly dull contrivances. Instead it banks on the rowdier scenes packing enough momentum to supply ample gas, much to its benefit. With “Now You See Me” less is more. When not desperately slithering around begging for you to gasp at its attempted cleverness, the feature is very tolerable. Sadly the denouement practically devotes itself to undeserved notions of cerebral superiority.

Placing magicians on the run sounds like a delightful summer conceit, and there are times when Leterrier moulds the idea into a jovial movie going experience. However the screenplay over-reaches, highlighting its rickety foundations in a rather ugly and unflattering manner. It’s a miss that occasionally threatens to transform into a homerun, but ultimately “Now You See Me” strikes out. Consider the piece a nearly man of its own dopey volition. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

5 July 2013

Movie Review: The Internship



The Internship 
2013, 119mins, 12
Director: Shawn Levy 
Writer (s): Jared Stern, Vince Vaughn 
Cast includes: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, Max Minghella, John Goodman, Josh Brener
UK Release Date: 3rd July 2013

Remember when the teaming of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn was something to get excited about?  No, me neither. Whilst both performers have impressed individually over the course of their careers (although it’s been a while), I don’t view them as some sort of dynamic duo worth frothing over, chiefly because I’m completely ambivalent toward their 2005 box-office smash “Wedding Crashers”. An overrated contemporary comedy with editorial issues up the wazoo, “Crashers” has somehow attained the mantle of a modern genre classic, a lofty status far exceeding its actual status as passable fluff. One has to ponder why it’s taken so long to rekindle the Wilson/Vaughn magic then; surely audiences in 2006 and 2007 would have been more receptive to a reunion than us curmudgeons of 2013? Irrespective that’s the year of “The Internship” a techie comedy that puts Vince and Owen through their paces as old dogs in the youthful temple of Google. If that sounds dreadful, join the club, and certainly the movie doesn’t disappoint with its cloying and rubbishy final toss of the dice, unveiling a third act of crippling nonsense. Yet, somehow, the opening segments of the vehicle actually pack a lot of entertainment value, a sort of je ne sais quoi derived from the natural and amusing interplay between the leads. It also helps that director Shawn Levy manages to keep the core of the feature incredibly likable, a big plus for a comedy with a patchy structure. It’s far from great cinema, but “The Internship” is a lot more tolerable, nay enjoyable, than I anticipated.

After being fired on the pretence their shared skillset is outdated, salesmen Billy (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) are left stranded in a saturated job-market. Striking out in search of prospective employment, Billy stumbles upon the opportunity to undertake an unpaid internship at web conglomerate Google, coaxing a sceptical Nick along for the ride. On arrival it turns out they’re considerably older than any of their competition, quickly written off and castigated by snotty over-achiever Graham (Max Minghella) and over-worked love interest Dana (a wasted Rose Byrne). However when thrown in with a bunch of ragtag  geeks, Nick and Billy’s zeal for professional life takes over, granting their younger associates a necessary dollop of mature perspective.

Wilson and Vaughn (also on co-scripting duties) immerse themselves in “The Internship” with energy and a smile, bubbling around the picture with enough motor-mouth charisma (Vaughn in particular) to imbue the product with heart. They share a neat chemistry, allowing “The Internship” to retain a warm, fuzzy core worth valuing. Around them it’s the younger cast that compliment proceedings most vocally. Max Minghella (“The Social Network”) is a venomous joy as the chief antagonist, wrapping his tongue around sarcastic put-downs like an old pro. Vaughn and Wilson are amiable from the first frame; Minghella colourfully reverses that by layering on the pantomime villainy from his own personal starting position. As a Google employee with faith in the elder statesmen, Josh Brener is unbelievably irritating, but the other components of the misfit squad are considerably more endearing. Some of them even manage to have, y’know, relatable arcs which in turn enrich Nick and Billy’s central story.

A burgeoning romance between Wilson and Byrne is ham-fisted, but elsewhere “The Internship” mostly succeeds. The screenplay actually gives the leads some funny set-pieces and dialogue to fiddle with, including an impromptu trip to a seedy dance club. Director Shawn Levy balances the sillier facets of the picture skilfully with its wider messages, allowing “The Internship” to communicate some fundamentals on personal growth and ambition satisfactorily. I mean it’s not a probing investigation of the human condition, but during the initial two acts the movie delivers identifiable flickers of soul and decent bursts of giddy PG-13 mirth. Given where my head was at going in, I consider that a result.

Of course portions of the 120 minute runtime can’t help but function as a commercial for Google, highlighting its noble manifesto and accepting corporate infrastructure. This reaches boiling point during the frustrating climax, a saccharine, predictable and largely laughter starved 30 minute period that almost sinks the entire property. I don’t begrudge “The Internship” for reaching a generic denouement of nerd victory; rather I loathed the clumsy and exploitative manner with which it arrives there. Levy showers this section with artificial fist-pump contrivances more likely to stimulate your gag reflex, and the standard of comedy drops monumentally. In the first act Will Ferrell appears in uproarious fashion as a lecherous mattress salesman. Toward the end Rob Riggle surfaces in an unfunny and garish series of punch lines involving gerontophilia. The differing quality of these separate instances provides an accurate gauge of the film’s crass last minute slide.

That said, “The Internship” definitely hits more than it misses. It’s not a massively original or determined vehicle, instead coasting affably on tangible charm and solid humour. Interestingly I felt, despite an equally lengthy duration, “The Internship” is a smoother storytelling endeavour than “Wedding Crashers”, with a central thesis that actually resonates on a wider level. That’s pretty faint praise coming from me, but in the case of this disarmingly tolerable beast, I’m surprised to be offering any praise at all. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

4 July 2013

Movie Review: World War Z



World War Z
2013, 116mins, 15
Director: Marc Forster
Writer (s): Drew Goddard, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, Max Brooks (novel)
Cast includes: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Peter Capaldi
UK Release Date: 21st June 2013

World War Z” has endured its fair share of woes on route to multiplexes this summer, rumours of over-budgeting and extensive rewrites crippling expectations rather thoroughly. Based on Max Brooks novel of the same name, the film isn’t actually the disaster its tumultuous production history might suggest, in fact “World War Z” is a perfectly adequate summer enterprise. There’s nothing revelatory here, and the story certainly feels like it might have been unduly tinkered with, but the picture packs enough momentum to carry audiences smoothly to the 116 minute finish line. Overseen by Marc Forster (he behind 2008’s weak Bond entry “Quantum of Solace”), the film presents a world believably shattered by sickness and monsters; despite its narrative deficiencies “World War Z” does communicate a palpable and atmospheric aura of global desperation. 

In the space of a morning Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are left stranded in a Philadelphia overrun by hysteria, as vast chunks of the population turn feral and begin to spread some sort of infection. Gerry, his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their daughters are extracted on the basis that Gerry will resume work with the United Nations, tasked with travelling to the source of the disease in Korea. With the virus having erupted on a global scale, Gerry and his military cohorts attempt to understand from where the illness has developed in a bid to try and halt the lethal rabble now being referred to as “zombies”.

The narrative progression of “World War Z” never feels very organic, the story jerking its characters around the globe with only slithers of rhythm or purpose to fuel the never-ending journey. It’s this bizarre and at times illogical structure that hurts the film most, leaving needless questions of motivation bobbling about during crucial sequences where audience investment should be elsewhere. Nobody could accuse the film-makers of working the character development front rigorously; leaving aside some base level familial interaction and Pitt’s general likability “World War Z” isn't a particularly humane effort. The movie essentially feels like ideas and sequences from separate zombie flicks stitched together, a best of reel in search of a fully-formed script. The saving grace just happens to be that many of the individual set-pieces are actually very effective. 

Forster still hasn't fully grasped the necessary editorial chops to render exciting fire fights, so one should be thankful “World War Z” is relatively light on hardcore combat. Instead the picture’s chief set-pieces adopt a survivalist aesthetic, with a few neat innovations to keep the brain-chomping antagonists fresh (actually the undead don’t snack on cerebellums here, for shame). Two lengthy episodes standout as expert genre film-making, the first an attempt to refuel an exposed plane at night (SWITCH OFF THE PHONE!), the second a taught stalking sequence set within whitewashed welsh interiors. Both of these scenes ratchet the tension up credibly with tangible stakes and a mood of legitimate fear. Forster does generally do good work when establishing indications of impinging danger in “World War Z”, the zombie menace representing an intimidating threat thanks to well executed instances of fright and occasional bursts of visceral imagery. It should be noted that for a PG-13 (15 in the UK) “World War Z” is very intense. 

There’s barely a supporting cast to speak of, the majority of players just military grunts ripe for slaughter. A little too much of the feature unfolds within the safety of aquatic naval HQ, meaning that the family dynamic is never under threat, a mistake given that “World War Z” hangs much of its deeper ambitions on the future of Gerry’s beloved nuclear clan. Still, each of the countries the movie elects to explore are ordained with appreciatively unique visual identities, Forster doing a fine job of depicting different cultures reacting to the same extreme scenario. The zombie CGI is a bit shonky, but the wider production values are rich and believably detailed, although such lavish design is to be expected from a film with a budget of roughly $400 million. 

This adaptation has proved shockingly fruitful at the box-office so far, to the extent that a sequel has already been approved. Forster has built a pandemic addled Earth worth exploring, although certain rectifications will be necessary for a franchise to blossom. The feature potentially talks a better game than it provides (it’s a little soft on the “big ideas”); more dedicated to sledgehammer panic than unlocking a nuanced political or even emotional coda. However I’m guessing we should all just be thankful that “World War Z” is anything other than a bloated turkey, even if it merely amounts to fun, forgettable seasonal fodder. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

2 July 2013

This Week in Capsule Reviews- 02/07/13


Movie 43 (2013) – D-

Believe the buzz, this festival of renowned actors and relentless crudity is an absurdly ugly waste of time. I watched the version framed by kids excavating the internet for filth (worthless), but was mildly taken aback when the first two skits (involving misplaced testicles and cruel home-schooling) provided a few light giggles. However from there on in "Movie 43" is embarrassingly inept, failing in the remaining 80 minutes to provide anything resembling a formidable joke. It's also catastrophically immoral and artistically bankrupt, with some of the weakest punchlines I've ever seen committed to celluloid. Indulgent and offensive. AVOID

Stoker (2013) – A-

Playing like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" with a more artistic and gothic sensibility, "Stoker" is a compelling and incredibly shot coming of age story. Mia Wasikowska's enduring popularity within Hollywood remains a mystery to me (she's typically mediocre here), but Matthew Goode sizzles uneasily as an uncle who comes to stay following the death of her father. Park Chan-Wook frames every shot with foreboding and picturesque purpose, fully embracing the wonderfully inappropriate and edgy directions the screenplay lunges. It's trippily edited and effortlessly seductive, climaxing on a shocking but wholly memorable moment of maturation. Stunningly emotive and startlingly graphic.

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)– B

Reverently assembled prequel from an interesting director, who uses his love of the 1939 original and cinema as a whole to charming effect. Some of the casting is a bit iffy (Raimi clearly never saw "Max Payne", because despite her many talents Mila Kunis still doesn't convince as a badass), but in the title role Franco proves wonderfully suited to the flamboyant arrogance of the part, and keeps things fleet of foot and likable. Raimi directs with more edge than a Burton, so whilst the landscapes are vibrant and over-produced, the set-pieces and stakes manage to cultivate a sense of momentum and purpose. Commercially it resembles 2010's "Alice in Wonderland", but in practice "OZ" is a much more engaging work. Imperfect but consistently respectful to its source and fun on its own mega-budgeted terms.

All three films now available to rent & buy in the UK on DVD/BD/Digital Download 

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013