29 April 2009

Movie Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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C+

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
2009, 107mins, PG-13
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer (s): David Benioff, Skip Woods
Cast includes: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Durand
Release Date: 1st May 2009

The summer season is officially upon us with the arrival of “X-men Origins: Wolverine” or just “Wolverine” for short. Examining the back story of one of the X-Men’s most tortured souls, the film aims to combine the hefty action of most blockbusters with a more thoughtful character examination at the center. As a result it’s surprising to see that “Wolverine” is such a lightweight action movie, an idea ripe for bleak and intriguing exploration has been reduced to a competently assembled blockbuster working from a linear narrative. I had fun with the movie and wouldn’t be averse to viewing further origin stories but next time I would suggest that Fox work a little harder on the character and less on the supporting acts and ramped up explosions.

The film takes us back to Wolverine or Logan’s beginnings and travels through his extensive lifespan, from his childhood in the 1800’s to the current time. The credits roll through clips of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and comrade Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) as they fight war after war, eventually being recruited by William Stryker (Danny Huston). Stryker has noticed that both men don’t seem to succumb to ageing or physical injury whilst also boasting a set of animalistic claws, and thus adds them to a team of mutants he has been assembling. The squad is initially set on doing good but things start to get nasty and Logan walks out when massacres become part of the job description. Fast forward six years and he now has a peaceful and remote life with the lovely Kayla (Lynn Collins), but things are about to take a dive for the worst. An increasingly aggressive Victor has reappeared all across the map claiming mutant victims as he goes, eventually taking Kayla’s life in the process. As a result Logan agrees to cut a deal with Stryker, by allowing himself to be the test for a new sort of super strong metal, Stryker will in turn equip Logan with the means to exact revenge. Things seemingly go to plan until Stryker attempts a double cross, but Logan now much stronger than before escapes with plans to take out both his lover’s murderer and Colonel Stryker to.

As an event movie “Wolverine” has the key ingredients to work. It possesses a sizeable budget, a decent concept and a likeable star but what it lacks is that little extra spice to make it great. Recent superhero flicks like “The Dark Knight” and “Hellboy 2” managed to pull out that list trick in order to trump their peers, but “Wolverine” in turn never quite manages it. As a fun and breezy way to spend a 107 minutes it’s perfectly ample and certainly looks the big budget part, but in truth the picture lacks that extra dose of imagination to make it sparkle.

Jackman is once again fine in the part of the title hero, though debatably not as good as he was under Bryan Singer in the “X-Men” franchises pinnacle. He has the charm, the delivery and the physical presence to make the role work and can pull a little darkness into proceedings quite comfortably. In truth without a star like Jackman a film like this, working from such a basic plotline might be in trouble. The Aussie hunk anchors the film nicely and provides a consistently adept performer throughout. As Victor, Liev Schreiber probably proves the film’s most kinetic and adventurous performer, not burdened with the back story Schreiber cuts lose and unleashes a scary villain onto proceedings. I’ve admired Schreiber as an actor for some time and once again he repays the faith, his range now encompassing feral and menacing along with the quieter and more refined types he usually plays. Danny Huston is somewhat disappointing as Stryker, acceptable but rather too bland to leave much of an impression. Lynn Collins also marks a misfire, the actress never anything more than a damp squib of a love interest; Jackman’s worst scenes are easily those he has to share with her.

The film is directed by Gavin Hood who does a decent job with the action stuff, and actually provides skilled in building dread on a few occasions. The picture never breaks out of the conventional blockbuster mould but it does the basic stuff pretty well, there are several well staged set-pieces and the climax is a satisfying conclusion. A lot of what there is to like about “Wolverine” can be attributed to Hood’s solid job behind the camera. Fans of the comic books should be pleased to see that the director has drafted in several fan favorites and thanks to well timed action interludes the picture feels brisk and well paced. In the wake of several ponderously overstretched summer movies, viewers should be pleased to know that “Wolverine” never outstays its welcomes.

The key problem with the picture is the unremarkable screenplay and less than detailed examination of the central character, as a prequel “Wolverine” seems intensely more interested in blowing stuff up than actually getting to grips with its conflicted hero. I’m not saying that the story is a shambles or that the writing inexcusable, just not as unique or memorable as the majority might be hoping for. The movie is good fun and does feature several highly enjoyable set-pieces, but in many ways it feels that the script was constructed around the spectacle rather than vice versa. It doesn’t really detract from the fun nature of the product, but it certainly might make it a whole lot easier to forget. Also I never really bought the movies sporadic attempts at comic relief, nearly all of these just came up as clumsy and rarely raised a laugh.

I suppose “Wolverine” is a decent enough way to fire up the industry’s most profitable few months, it’s perfectly watchable, fairly enjoyable and features at least a few excellent performances and action sequences. Still, the story is lacking and there are other flaws to be accounted for to, which combined keep “Wolverine” from reaching the levels of excellence that other recent genre examples have. I’m contented enough with the product, and no doubt this summer will offer up plenty worse, but I just can’t help but hope it has a couple better up its sleeve to.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

Retro Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

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F

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
1992, 81mins, PG-13
Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui
Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast includes: Kirsty Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry, Stephen Root
Release Date: 31st July 1992

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a truly abhorrent feature film; looking back on its wretched state, fans of the groundbreaking TV show would probably be vigorously sick. Joss Whedon conceived the idea and would later translate it into wonderfully witty and exciting vehicle for Sarah Michelle Gellar on the boob tube, but his harsh and relentlessly awful screenplay for this earlier movie is astonishing in that it came from the same man. After all not only did Whedon compose the fabulous TV incarnation of “Buffy” but also penned “Toy Story” and underrated Sci-Fi effort “Serenity”, making us wonder just how hard he hit the liquor in writing up this atrocious slice of cinematic excrement.

Buffy (Kirsty Swanson) is a popular and rather irksome high school cheerleader who according to the mysterious Merrick (Donald Sutherland) was born for greater things. She is “the slayer” an individual unique to each generation that is endowed with special abilities, and is thus expected to annihilate the supernatural evils of the world. Initially sceptical of her abilities Buffy finally comes to accept them, just in time for the rising of Lothos (Rutger Hauer) a mighty vampire with a penchant for destruction. Together with cynical bad boy Pike (Luke Perry) Buffy is faced with the task of finishing the mighty bloodsucker once and for all.

The most endearing aspects of the TV show were its outstanding teen performances and relentlessly entertaining scripts. On the smaller screen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” oozed wit and ferocious energy and the casting was simply impeccable. Here the plot is lame, the characters underdeveloped and bar one or two mildly intelligent one liners the humour flaccid. In the lead Kirsty Swanson is everything that Sarah Michelle Gellar wasn’t, namely irritating, selfish and shamelessly self promoting. How Whedon expected audiences to care about such a bitchy prototype for the character is beyond me, because in this version I was willing the vamps on. Support is debatably worse, Donald Sutherland looks embarrassed to be involved whilst as the principal villains Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens ham it up to a degree that not once do they intimidate. Granted one would expect little else from frickin Pee-Wee, but Hauer was Roy Batty and John Ryder for Christ’s sake, two of the most imposing screen characters of the 20th Century. Maybe it can be charted back to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to show where his career went wrong. Finally Luke Perry is actually ok in comparison to those around him....but that truly is faint praise.

The writing is crappy and the story ghastly, two adjectives few would usually attribute to the work of Joss Whedon. However I’ve been awfully harsh on the man and now it’s time to pinpoint the biggest offender, director Kuzui. Directing with zero panache or grasp of how to compliment comedy with action, Kuzui is the epitome of directorial incompetence. It’s shocking how cheap the movie looks, and the action scenes (if you could really call them that) are scrabbled together so poorly one begins to wonder if Kuzui wouldn’t be better suited to directing budget infomercials. Of course the film doesn’t bother to build up character or provide an interesting narrative, but at least it could have been enjoyable in a really bad way. Kuzui’s inept and lazy direction is simply to dispiriting for that to ever be the case.

The only real worth this has as a piece of celluloid is a display that just because a promising idea has been fucked up once it doesn’t have to be again, and in giving us a glimpse at a young Hilary Swank, displaying little of the acting ability that has now built her a career. Still I believe she was also prominent in the “Karate Kid: 4” a film with an equally dubious reputation, but in truth it couldn’t be any more disappointing or insulting to watch than “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. This is 90’s cinema at its very worst. You have been warned.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

28 April 2009

Megan Fox on set of "Jonah Hex"

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Pictures arrived today of Hollywood beauty Megan Fox on the set of comic book adaptation "Jonah Hex". Wearing some sort of sassy cowgirl costume Megan appears to be looking even more fetching than usual........and my interest in the R rated western just peaked a little further. The film will also star Josh Brolin and John Malkovich and is set for release summer 2010.

Looks interesting.

A few more snaps are over at www.totalfilm.com but they're mostly just more of the same.

27 April 2009

Movie Review: Mutant Chronicles

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C-

Mutant Chronicles
2008, 109mins, R
Director: Simon Hunter
Writer: Philip Eisner
Cast includes: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, John Malkovich, Devon Aoki, Sean Pertwee, Tom Wu
Release Date: 24th April 2009

“Mutant Chronicles” is an ambitious film just not a particularly entertaining or enjoyable one. The film has a few interesting ideas but also plenty of stale ones, certain sequences and ideas seem purely ribbed from films like “Aliens” and even “The Lord of the Rings”. Newbie director Simon Hunter has an intriguing visual palette and solid leading man at his disposal but nearly everything else about the film is messy and confused, not least the meandering and weak screenplay. Fans of this sort of thing might be able to derive a few credible adrenaline kicks from proceedings but otherwise this is a laboured and tired Sci-Fi action vehicle.

The film ladles on the plodding mythology a little too heavy, you know when an overlong voice over narration is required at the start, a film is going to be to dense for it’s own good. “Mutant Chronicles” makes good on that promise and features a wealth of objects, characters and various other intricacies that make the film an ever developing and unappealing mess. Certainly the film has lofty ambitions in terms of creating a believable and unique mythology, but sadly that aim never really comes to satisfying completion. In the distant future Earth’s resources are all but expired, and now four huge corporations dominate the globe and battle each other for the right to most of Mother Earth’s various fruits. One such battle leads to the unleashing of an ancient prophecy, a machine that can turn the dead and nearly deceased into vicious and insatiable mutants, almost unstoppable and with a voracious need to keep their production constant. They spread at a ridiculously fast rate and soon the Earth is engulfed with as many of the human population as possible trying to escape and rehabilitate on Mars. However a Monk named Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman) knows a different way to stop the ravenous hoard and save humanity from extinction. Left behind long ago was a scripture that tells how the machine can be stopped, and so accompanied with this information he recruits a selection of soldiers to go with him and put an end to the evil forever.

There is only one character and performance in “Mutant Chronicles” worth a damn, and that is Thomas Jane playing the embittered central figure in Samuel’s mission. Jane is a pretty decent actor and does have a knack for picking relatively interesting projects, but on this occasion his willingness to sign up for pure craziness has hurt more than help. He gives a reasonably effective central turn and is plenty stoic but the film around him just isn’t up to scratch. I admire his tenacity in pursuing smaller and more intriguing pictures but picking one that has a good script would probably help next time. Elsewhere Ron Perlman coasts on cliché as the wise Monk, and the rest of his reckless renegades are made up of two dimensional performers like Devon Aoki and Tom Wu. Basically it’s slim pickings on the acting front.

So does “Mutant Chronicles” deliver on the action? No, not really. The conclusion has potential and a few moments ramp up the excitement to an acceptable level but mostly this is a film content to get by on promise and gore. What I mean to say is “Mutant Chronicles” smaller scuffles always seem to be mounting to a big pay off but that never happens, audiences will stay purely because the picture seems to promise them something spectacular before the end. Needless to say it just doesn’t deliver, and as for the gore, it’s fairly self explanatory. There are also instances where the film seems to have mild pretensions as a horror film, but director Simon Hunter is not aware of fundamental tension and relies on cheap scares and added blood.

The script is filled with inane dialogue and asinine plot convulsions, and is overstuffed with needless characters. One has to give praise to the pictures atmospheric sets and washed out visuals but they are not and never will be a fair substitute for decent writing. It’s not like anyone ever expected to take tosh like this seriously, but it’s only fair to expect it will deliver satisfying degrees of fun. “Mutant Chronicles” however fails to succeed as even dumb popcorn entertainment, it’s not an utter waste of time but it’s certainly a theatrical inconvenience.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

26 April 2009

Movie Review: Australia

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A-

Australia
2008, 158mins, PG-13
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer (s): Stuart Beattie, Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
Cast includes: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil
Release Date: 26th November 2008

Not everyone is going to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping romantic epic “Australia”, a film built around the land of Oz during WW2. The picture in unapologetic in its scenes of romantic frivolity and patriotic love of the country, but never obnoxious, the spirited performances, lavish production design and well structured story keep the entire enterprise consistently enjoyable. Granted it’s a cut below a number of efforts from 2008 but it’s also a film deserving of more praise than it got, only a true cynic would fail to buy into the unbridled love on show here. No matter, a film this intensely watchable is bound to discover a sizable audience on DVD and maybe transform itself into a genre classic.

Baz Luhrmann developed the project over a four year period, more than twice the time a normal feature would take to go from pre to post production. “Australia” is however far from an ordinary effort, the story sprawls over the countries beautiful backdrop and each frame seems to have been lovingly and neurotically composed by its helmer. This sort of sheer devotion to a project will always help paper over some of its flaws, and in the case of “Australia” it’s Luhrmann’s determination that really elevates it above its peers.

The film is told from the perspective of half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), a native of the Ashley ranch. After the death of her husband Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) comes from England to take control of his ranch in Australia, and ensure that his cattle are sold and she turns a final profit on her husband’s business. In doing this she draws the scorn of local beef mogul King Carney (Bryan Brown), a man desperate to take her stock and gain complete control of the beef industry in the Northern territory. Initially he had used his right hand man and employee of Ashley, Fletcher (David Wenham) to ensure he maintained a tight grip on the market but after uncovering Fletcher’s true loyalties Sarah fires him instantly. Thus she is left in a conundrum, how to move her stock across the country’s vast landscapes and sell them to the army in time. She turns to Drover (Hugh Jackman) a rugged, reckless but charming individual who specializes in herding and moving animals. Together Sarah, Drover, Nullah and other individuals begin to take the mighty beasts cross the land, and on the way romance brews between Sarah and Drover whilst an unlikely family dynamic begins involving them and the recently orphaned Nullah.

In terms of pure cinematic escapism I struggle to think of many films more befitting of those two words than “Australia” a remarkably entertaining and engaging love story set against some beautifully photographed landscapes. Many people have compared the film to Michal Bay’s phenomenally dull “Pearl Harbor”, a film that also aimed to pit love and adventure against a historical time of great significance. However whilst “Pearl Harbor” is just as technically proficient it lacks the genuine emotion and warmth that fill “Australia”. Bay’s film was just explosions and superficial romance, Luhrmann’s is an all conquering and deeply touching quest across the country he so blatantly loves.

As Sarah I was pleased to see Nicole Kidman once again able to deliver a good performance in a good movie. In recent years Kidman has given perfectly serviceable turns but her choice of project has been weak, whether it be the disappointing likes of “The Golden Compass” or the sheer awfulness of “Bewitched”. Finally the talented actress has stumbled back into a project worthy of her talents, and she delivers a sympathetic and nicely evolved performance as the female half of the central duo. Jackman also delivers the goods, he’s reserved yet charismatic as Drover, and together he and Kidman share decent chemistry. They may both be phenomenally good looking people but the movie presents them as more than just pretty exteriors, another aspect that separates it from “Pearl Harbor”. As Nullah newcomer Brandon Walter’s is nothing short of outstanding, he narrates with vigor and creates a child who the audience genuinely like, without the filmmakers having to make him cloyingly sweet. Rounding out the key figures both Bryan Brown and David Wenham do good work, but in truth the pictures uses them more as plot devices than anything else. This is a movie based around the budding relationships at its heart, the cattle subplot and the various villains are simply there to add a little extras meat to proceedings.

Anyone with an appreciation of epic romance or good quality love stories should take to “Australia” mighty easily, Luhrmann constructs a relationship that the audience cares about and which has more emotional resonance than 90% of the alternatives on the market. I really can think of few better date movies to come along in the last year, the captivating story that “Australia” depicts really does feel like the best of the bunch. Those concerned about the films longish runtime also need not fear, even though it clocks in at nearly 160 minutes “Australia” holds the audience for virtually every moment of its generous length.

Visually of course it’s a stunner, never has the outback looked so magnificently gorgeous as it does in Luhrmann’s devoted epic. The camera tracks across the landscape frequently revealing the beautiful sights and magnificent sounds of such a unique country, in many ways it marks the perfect setting for such an idealistic and joyous romance. At times what CGI and greenscreen are deployed seem a little obvious and dodgy, but audience members will feel almost instantly compensated when the next sweeping and superbly photographed landscape shot arrives.

I struggle to understand how many critics have been vitriolic in their hate for the movie; apparently such gleeful and whole hearted entertainment won’t cut it in today’s depressingly black and cynical world. Still I thought it was pretty marvelous and despite a few flaws truly find it a big budget piece of spectacle worth celebrating. I can only hope that a few more directors take a leaf out of Luhrmann’s book and remember film can be loving and fun. Indeed I might debate that’s the very type I and many others probably like best.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

22 April 2009

Movie Review: Babylon A.D

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C

Babylon A.D
2008, 96mins, PG-13
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Writer (s): Eric Besnard, Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Simas, George Maurice Dantec (novel)
Cast includes: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Charlotte Rampling, Mélanie Thierry, Gérard Depardieu, Mark Strong
Release Date: 29th August 2008

"Babylon A.D" was from a critical perspective one of 2008’s least appreciated big releases, a film that was absolutely savaged by critics and has to date just about recouped it’s $70 million budget at the worldwide Box-Office. In honesty the film’s turgid post release statistics sit nicely along its reportedly horrible production, director Kassovitz and Fox falling out at nearly every available moment with the latter camp eventually being given final cut on the finished article, whilst the French director pissed and moaned all the way through the pre-release junkets. So I was surprised to find that the film doesn’t really deserve the label of disgrace which the media have heaped on it, for at least an hour "Babylon A.D" is a perfectly fine piece of Sci-Fi cinema. The problem occurs in the final 40 minutes where the tone shift and the story starts to get confused, the cuts that Fox administered to bring the runtime down are painfully obvious at this junction. So overall as a product its mediocrity, but I was just pleased that it wasn’t a full blown stinker.

A few decades in the future the world has degenerated massively, the planet has become a hive of poverty and over reliance on machinery. A mercenary named Toorop (Vin Diesel) accepts a contract from a Russian mobster, Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu), who instructs him to bring a young woman called Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) to New York. Aurora is accompanied by Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) the woman who has stood by Aurora her whole life, and taught her the ways of the Noelite religion. In order to reach his goal, Gorsky gives Toorop a variety of weapons as well as a UN passport so that not only can he complete the mission, but escape his hell hole of a life and begin a new one in America. Toorop, along with the girl and her guardian, travel from the Noelite Convent where they lived across Russia to reach America. However as their journey furthers it transpires there is much more to Aurora than meets the eyes and eventually that she is the key to a plot which could affect all mankind.

The acting in "Babylon A.D" is passable but not exceptional. Diesel is pretty wooden as the lead but effectively all the part requires is a physical presence and gruff nature- both of which he can bring. It’s unlikely that anyone will remember the character of Toorop as a great anti-hero but ultimately within the forgettable picture he gets the job done. Michelle Yeoh plays herself as per usual, she goes for highbrow and sensitive with a bit of her trademark kung-fu thrown in, basically it’s the same performance you’ve seen from her several times before.
Both Charlotte Rampling and Gérard Depardieu ham it up magnificently though not in an unpalatable fashion whilst solid actors like Mark Strong are totally wasted in pathetically short parts. One can only assume that it’s because of the supposed cuts from the studio that several people’s characters are shockingly south of their abilities. Finally Melanie Thierry is actually very good, she is both engaging and innocent whilst also harboring an air of quiet unknown. I liked the way Thierry played the part indeed she’s probably the films stand out turn.

The opening 45 minutes are so of "Babylon A.D" are in equal parts entertaining and interesting, it builds the excitement well and Kassovitz does a good job of introducing us to his characters. The tone at this juncture feels very much like a Chase movie but one that is well executed and with respectable amounts of tension, in other words the correct ingredients to make the thing work. However after that point it all goes slowly down hill, thanks in a part to confused plotting (FOX!!!) and a sudden level of pretentious religious allegory (KASSOVITZ!!!) that derails the pacing and actually ends up making the film look even more silly. There is very little beneath "Babylon A.D’s" surface and so by cooking up a half baked sense of meaning Kassovitz alienates his audience by trying to make them feel dumb, whilst in turn showing himself up as the biggest idiot of all. His previous films have been a mixed bag, 1996’s "La Haine" was an astonishing work from a young director mature beyond his years, but everything since has been a slow decline. I wouldn’t go as far to say that "Babylon A.D" is his nadir but it does linger around the basin of his CV, and leave him in a position that he needs to wriggle out off.

One cannot overlook Fox’s contribution, much about the end of the feature doesn’t make sense and this is likely the fault of the studios aggressive and unfair tampering. One could even suggest that Kassovitz religious undertones might not look quite as foolish and forced had he been able to keep the film exactly as he wished, so maybe the studio is the real villain. Apparently around 15 minutes of footage was axed which is just enough so the picture loosely resembles what it was before, and enough to do it a considerable amount of damage.

The action in the film is well done and largely good fun but possibly a little to sparse for a picture that largely depends on it. Another thing to recommend the picture is the wonderful cinematography and landscapes, they nearly show up the hyper kinetic action sequences when they occur. The most exciting “big moment” the film throws up is one that like in another Diesel movie "xXx" takes place on the snow, it’s well shot and represents a quick and energetic boost of adrenaline to the picture. Sadly the likes of that sort of efficient action can’t overcome the pictures more glaring faults.

"Babylon A.D" isn’t a good film but neither is it a terrible one, it’s the sort of production that is hopelessly lost in the middle in some sort of hell for cinematic mediocrity. There are a few pleasures on show here but overall it’s uneven and muddled final half kill the picture beyond the rescue of even a hero like Diesel himself.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2008

17 April 2009

Retro Review: Planet of the Apes (1968)

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A

Planet of the Apes
1968, 106mins, PG
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writer (s): Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Cast includes: Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowell, Linda Harrison, James Whitmore
Release Date: 3rd April 1968

It’s not hard to see how “Planet of the Apes” has maintained a cult status in the 40+ years since its release. It’s blend of sci-fi fizz, superb make-up and memorable performances have ensured that it has survived as a genre treasure, and helped it overcome a mess of nasty sequels and an unnecessary remake in 2001. The film is largely remembered for its masterful denouement, but one has to remember this is a piece of cinema able to offer much more than a shocking climax. No film could have enjoyed the longevity that “Planet of the Apes” has based on an ending alone, it’s the tight script and well executed plotline that really are to be credited for the pictures classic status.

Only a cinematic heathen wouldn’t be aware of the basic concept at the heart of “Planet of the Apes”. A group of astronauts headed by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash land in the distant future, on a planet where apes have become the dominant species and humans are their animalistic and feral underlings. The apes treat the humans like slaves and even engage them in zoos, treating them like a plague which needs to be eviscerated. George is separated from the rest of his crew and is caught by the apes, but instantly comes to the attention of their scientists through his communicative ability and understanding of reason and logic. Two of the society’s primary heads in the department, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) bring this to the attention of the leaders of the civilization but they openly scorn the idea of domesticated and educated human. Chief amongst the critics is Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) the chief defender of the ape faith, and of a particularly sickened disposition when it is even suggested that humans be equal to apes. As a result Cornelius and Zira take George to the “forbidden zone” the place where the ape culture supposedly began. They travel through this desert wasteland in the hope that answers concerning the start of the ape’s civilization will reveal the fall of the humans, and when there they discover a terrible secret.

Anybody who enjoys well constructed escapism is bound to like “Planet of the Apes”, a Sci-Fi film that spawned a series so popular DVD reissues still sell well today. That is not to say I’m recommending the continuation of this saga to anyone, rankly this is a classic example of a franchise that should have wrapped up after part one. Yet, what a gloriously enjoyable opening chapter it is, directed with skill and understanding by Franklin J. Schaffner and featuring a handful of truly iconic moments “Planet of the Apes” is a marked must for film buffs everywhere. It’s also worth remembering that this was a science fiction megahit nearly 10 nears before “Star Wars”. It’s not necessarily a better film than Luca’s space opera but there is no denying that Schaffner got there first.

As an actor I’ve always been incredibly hot and cold with Charlton Heston, for instance only two years later his wooden and ham fisted performance in “The Omega Man” was the key reason that movie didn’t work. However in “Planet of the Apes” he makes for a fine hero, cynical and square jawed the audience are rooting for George the whole way through the movie. It also helps that the scripting throughout is exquisite, the amount of iconic one liners on show is nothing short of phenomenal. Heston is really the only heavy duty performer not shrouded under layers of wonderful technical wizardry and without a doubt amply provides the human connection the audience requires. Roddy McDowell also impresses as chief human sympathiser Cornelius whilst as the dastardly Dr. Zaius it’s surely Maurice Evans who steals the thespian show. Zauis is a villain with obvious and at times almost logical motivation, but the entire time you can guarantee its George who the audience want to see come out on top.

In comparison to the effects in Tim Burton’s mediocre reimagining it’s not hard to predict that the make-up and ape attire might have dated a little, and in truth it has. However it’s still pretty passable and considering this was a film made over four decades ago that is an impressive feat. Plus it only speaks higher of the wonderful script and compact direction that in the end it’s this version which will be cherished, rather than Burton’s glossy but confused rehash. There are several magnetic set-pieces on show to, which thanks to well executed camera work are as exciting as nearly anything that Michael Bay could concoct today, only on a twentieth of the budget. However like the best Sci-Fi efforts the picture doesn’t depend totally on exciting action moments but rather on dramatic tension and the ever developing and effortlessly gripping screenplay. Seriously there are hundreds of hired hacks who in taking a leaf out of “Planet of the Apes” book could become far more accomplished directors and writers. Like other seminal blockbuster classics this is a film that firmly understands less is more, and treating an audience with intelligence will only gain you kudos.

Obviously the everlasting element of the film is its masterfully planned finish; the final shot in “Planet of the Apes” is planted in the minds of those who haven’t even seen it. Fuelled by post Cold War paranoia and with an intricate understanding of shock, “Planet of the Apes” ensured that with its curtain call the world would never forget. Based purely on the strength of this shot alone you could debate that the plethora of sequels did the series more damage than good, because despite more than a dozen more apes films never was a scene so potent or memorable to grace the franchise again.

When listing the greatest Sci-Fi movies of all time it’s only right to at least consider “Planet of the Apes”. It may not have the fully created universe like “Star Wars” or the truly horrible creature of “Alien” but I’ll be damned it’s still a masterpiece. I can only use this as a pointer to the event filmmakers of today, CGI can do only so much, but a well written and taut story complimented by good acting can cover virtually any cracks. “Planet of the Apes” deserves its legendary status and long may it be cherished for years to come.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

13 April 2009

Movie Review: Dragonball Evolution

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D-

Dragonball Evolution
2009, 84mins, PG
Director: James Wong
Writer (s): Ben Ramsey, Akira Toriyama (novel)
Cast includes: Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, James Marsters, Chow Yun-Fat, Jamie Chung, Joon Park, Eriko Tamura
Release Date: 10th April 2009

I had no prior knowledge or attachment to the “Dragonball” mythology before sitting down to view “Dragonball Evolution” the Americanized version of the popular Manga series. My only clues as to what to expect came from the fact that the Asian release a few weeks prior had been greeted with venomous response and that it was not screened for critics, two indications that my expectations should be checked for the duration. So the fact that “Dragonball Evolution” still turns out to be rubbish despite absolutely no hype or hope is maybe the most condemning fact of all.

I don’t know how faithful or reverent an adaptation of the source this is, but if the Manga series is anything as tired and uninventive as the screenplay on show here it’s hard to see the cult appeal. The film follows 18 year old Goku (Justin Chatwin), who 15 minutes into the film is already looking for vengeance. The feared Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) has risen again, and in searching for the 7 Dragonballs, he kills Goku’s grandfather. The Dragonballs in question allow as a collective whole the bearer one great wish, and shortly before his murder Goku’s grandfather had passed it on to the 18 year old himself. As a result Goku is burdened with guilt and proceeds to plot his revenge, accompanied by scientist Bulma (Emmy Rossum ) and his grandfathers old friend Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat). Together they hunt for the Dragonballs themselves and try to thwart Piccolo.

The performances in “Dragonball Evolution” are predictably weak; nobody acquits themselves to a degree that exceeds the average in their respective roles. Chatwin isn’t a terrible choice as the sprightly and idealistic lead but he’s not a great one either. He has an agreeable charisma and handsome face but at times his acting is perilously wooden, marking for an ultimately forgettable leading debut. The numerous women who inhabit the film are worse; Emmy Rossum grows into the role a little before the end but ultimately just equates to an attractive face, and her first scene is laughably bad. Jamie Chung and Eriko Tamura on the other hand are purely about the cleavage, all of their outfits seem designed to exploit their busty physiques. Chow Yun-Fat again hams it up and cruises for the paycheck, whilst James Marsters seems half asleep as the supposedly terrifying Lord Piccolo. As a diehard fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” I know Marsters can do good work, but that’s not on display here.

The film kicks off with a few decent small scale action moments, but everything that follows is a consequence of generic ideas and dodgy CGI. The film is a lot like George Lucas “Star Wars” prequels in that nearly every landscape is digitally generated, only in those movies the environments didn’t look like bad cartoons. I don’t know if the post-production effects stage was skipped or if the budget simply couldn’t support the idea but something just isn’t up to scratch concerning the special effects in “Dragonball Evolution”. The action is directly scarred as a consequence but based on the dull premises each one boasts, I doubt even the most advanced CGI in the world could have rendered them exciting.

The mythology is plodding but not as utterly ill explained as the worst genre examples, whilst at 84 minutes at least the picture can claim to be a swift experience. Again not being in anyway familiar with the source means I can make little comment on a fans reaction, but bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking and this is a fairly obvious example. The picture is helmed by James Wong who rose to some success with the “X-Files” and first “Final Destination” film, but since his career has dissipated down the crapper. He returned to helm the neutered and tired third entry in the “Final Destination” franchise and produced the lukewarm 2006 redo of “Black Christmas”, hardly the route a determined and career minded filmmaker should tread. “Dragonball Evolution” probably represents a new low; it’s an exercise in futile genre convention and shoddy craftsmanship. Against any sort of half decent competition at the Box-Office and “Dragonball Evolution” along with parent studio 20th Century Fox are in trouble, because this isn’t worth your time, let alone money.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

11 April 2009

Movie Review: Inkheart

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B-

Inkheart
2008, 105mins, PG
Director: Iain Softley
Writer (s): David Lindsay Abaire, Cornelia Funke (novel)
Cast includes: Brendan Fraser, Eliza Bennett, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Sienna Guillory, Jim Broadbent
Release Date: 23rd January 2009


Adaptations of fantasy seem to rarely be worth the celluloid their printed on, leaving aside Peter Jacksons “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy it’s hard enough to think of any recent contributions to the genre that steer close to being watchable. “The Golden Compass” at least was a noble failure but other barrel scraping fare like “Eragon” and “The Dark is Rising” make me think that more artistic credibility goes into the advertising than the motion picture. “Inkheart” is the latest bestseller to get a cinematic counterpart within the stinky sub-genre, but low and behold it’s actually quite a decent attempt. Iain Softley’s version of Cornelia Funke’s book isn’t perfect but at least on the level of modestly effective entertainment it seems to work.

Mo Falchart (Brendan Fraser) and his daughter Maggie (Eliza Bennett) are travelers who move from place to place in search of rare books. Maggie believes this is because her father’s profession entails such roaming expeditions but the real reason is quite different. Mo is a silvertongue, or someone who when reading aloud can move things in and out of the book in question. 12 years ago Mo read a book named “Inkheart” to his wife, and as a result he brought out numerous characters and tragically sent her in. Now he spends his days trying to find a copy of the rare and much sought after text, in the hope that he can finally retrieve his wife from the fantastical book in which she is trapped. Whilst in Italy Mo finally lands himself a copy of the book, only for Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) to show up and plead with Mo to return him to its pages. Dustfinger was one of the more morally upstanding characters that Mo drew out upon reading the book, and all he wants to do is return to his world and be once again reunited with his wife. Mo fearfully refuses and Dustfinger in desperation turns to Cornelius (Andy Serkis) a snide and nasty character also pulled from the pages of “Inkheart”. Cornelius and Dustfinger cut a deal; if the latter can lead Cornelius to the capture of Mo then he’ll force the man to read Dustfinger back into the book. Thus begins an adventure as Mo and Maggie are captured only to narrowly escape, yet ironically are given reason to once again return to Cornelius realm for a literature fuelled climax.

In terms of scope and plotting “Inkheart” is a more minor fantasy story, it doesn’t entail much globetrotting, features a compact and small set of key characters and ultimately works out to be a speedy and straight narrative. Whilst this slightly less ambitious scale means it never gets close to Peter Jackson levels of fantasy cinema it does allow the film to maintain a clear and concise plot and to be easily and effectively condensed into an average length feature. In comparison to something that aimed for the same runtime but was cut to ribbon as a consequence (“Eragon” is the most awful and befitting example of this) “Inkheart” comes up quite nicely and makes for far more palatable viewing.

The performances are solid if not particularly outstanding, coming of a horrible 2008 Brendan Fraser manages to banish “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” with his agreeable hero on show here. Mo makes for a pleasant and sympathetic hero who is always more concerned with the safety of friends and family rather than beating up enemies and quipping in the aftermath. This good guy personality coupled with Fraser’s neat charisma make him a leading man worth routing for. As his daughter Eliza Bennett is a little amateurish in places but does show promise, she may not be of Dakota Fanning quality yet but that’s not to say she’ll never be. It’s easy to see when a child actor comes onboard and is simply never going to be cut out for this line of work but that’s not the case with Bennett. She’s a little rough around the edges but with more practice and good direction those could quickly be smoothed. In the support cast Helen Mirren and Bettany are adequate as Maggie’s preachy aunt and Dustfinger respectively, whilst there also are amusing supporting roles for Jim Broadbent and Steve Speirs. Sienna Guillory on the other hand is predictably weak as Mo’s lost wife and Andy Serkis happily vamps it up as the villainous Cornelius. He’s never that scary but as an actor Serkis is never less than watchable and here is no exception.

The film is directed by Iain Softley a workmanlike shooter with pictures both good and bad on his CV. His weaker films tend not to be anything worse than inoffensively bland but his better films lack the visual imagination to push them into greatness. Softley gamely uses the $60 million budget to good effect with a few well paced and nicely scaled set pieces, whilst allowing the film to move at a fairly rollicking pace. Still even at a reasonably taut 105 minutes “Inkheart” does suffer from an exposition heavy and occasionally disengaged middle section, a critical hit to what is otherwise a pretty decent film. One suspects Softley could have edited 10 minutes and one character out of “Inkheart” and still ended up with a perfectly serviceable result, but sadly the fact laden in-between damages the picture to a degree that it drops several cuts below excellence.

The CGI in “Inkheart” is mostly acceptable and the brash and fun conclusion wraps things up to a satisfying degree, I imagine fans of Funke’s source where pretty pleased with Softley’s filmed version. The uninitiated will likely struggle to take to it on the same level but there is little point in denying that it doesn’t combine enough action and winsome fantasy to at least offer an enjoyable time. Imperfect as it is, I can see quite a lot to like in “Inkheart”.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

Movie Review: The Foot Fist Way

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D+

The Foot Fist Way
2006, 82mins, R
Director: Jody Hill
Writer (s): Danny McBride, Jody Hill, Ben Best
Cast includes: Danny McBride, Ben Best, Mary Jane Bostic, Tyler Baum, Spencer Moreno
Release Date: 30th May 2008 (Limited)


“The Foot Fist Way” is an exercise in the comedic overdose, a concept that might have worked well as a series of skits or a short film but drawn out to feature length it gets old really fast. It marked the first big opportunity for the now fairly popular Danny McBride and the opening directorial gig for Jody Hill (who is helming this week’s “Observe and Report”) yet it’s hard to understand why either man has been handed such astonishing career opportunities. The film hints at serious comedy talent but never consistently delivers it and was seen theatrically by next to no one. Apparently it was picked up by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell which probably goes someway to explaining how both men have garnered such big breaks, because their film ultimately isn’t up to scratch.

The story follows Fred Simmons, a delusional Tae Kwon Do instructor who is obsessed with his martial arts studio, his student’s progress and movie star Chuck “The Truck” Wallace. As a result of his martial art filled lifestyle his wife cheats on him and thus leaves Fred in a state of mental disrepair, becoming even more embroiled and obsessive concerning Taw Kwon Do than before. As his world tumbles around him Fred decides only one person can make it right, and so along with a creepy friends and a two students he goes on a road trip to convince his idol “The Truck” to put in an appearance at his end of year testing’s.

I wished I had laughed more at “The Foot Fist Way” because when the movie gets it right it genuinely delivers. I’ve liked McBride in virtually everything I’ve seen him in, particularly last year’s “Pineapple Express” and this film is no exception. Without McBride “The Foot Fist Way” would be a considerably dumpier comedy, this represents one of those occasions that without the leading man the film would probably have been reduced to worthless tatters. McBride has an acerbic wit and sarcastic tongue that would be preferable on any comedian, and in this movies better moments they are nearly always on display. One has to remember that this was McBride’s first genuine attempt at comedic success and ultimately despite the patchy finished article that goal was achieved. With the like of “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder” now on his CV there seems no reason why McBride should have to stoop back to the unimpressive regions occupied by “The Foot Fist Way”.

Jody Hill stages the film in a mockumentary style fashion, probably more for economic reasons rather than artistic. Shot on such a shoestring budget it would be cruel to criticize the picture for a lack of visual flair or audacity, but there really is no excusing the unimaginative screenplay. A few good situation gags and acid tongued one liners aside the movie is never really that funny, and the story is just flat out lazy. It took three screenwriters including the leading man to come up with the insipid and hastily staged story of comedic redemption, and despite what I hope does not represent their best efforts I wasn’t buying it for a second.

I would have liked to recommend “The Foot Fist Way” but that fact of the matter is I can’t, it’s too ineffective and uninspired to warrant anything more than a shrug of the shoulders and unenthusiastic expression. I’m glad some of the guys working on it have now climbed higher mountains because they’re obviously talented, and frankly because it should allow them to never have to wallow in this level of comedic mediocrity again.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

8 April 2009

Movie Review: W.

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B-

W.
2008, 129mins, PG-13
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Stanley Weiser
Cast includes: Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Colin Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones
Release Date: 17th October 2008


Within Oliver Stone’s directorial resume there have been substantially more cutting and important films than W., his take on George W. Bush and his reign as President. Stone seems to have lost a lot of the mettle that cut him out as a cinematic maverick over 20 years ago, maybe upon entering his twilight years he’s softened and W. would be the film to prove it. An at times bizarrely sympathetic look at a “patchy” presidential figure there are some points of interest in W. and it’s altogether modestly enjoyable, but one had hoped for a feature a little more controversial and sharp than this placid viewpoint.

The film examines Bush’s tenure as President and the path that led him to such a high profile destiny, Stone using cutback storytelling to forge the story and add as much flesh to the central figure as possible. The movie doesn’t miss many of the defining moments from the Bush administration but it largely fails to concoct them into a fresh or indeed intrepid whole, instead recycling the idea that whilst he made many a bad decision he was not in fact a bad man. It’s not that I want to see Stone make Bush out to be a demon or a political super villain, but a less understanding and harsh approach toward the consequences of those “bad decisions” would have been nice. Iraq et all are mentioned but never unearthed in a fully satisfying or detailed manner, the film frustratingly more focused on the man himself than his unfortunate legacy.

The film never operates well enough as a biopic to have drawn awards contention, but it’s quite shocking that the performances didn’t. W. is a film strewn with great actors doing great work, particularly Josh Brolin as the man himself. Brolin captures the different stages of the man’s mentality rather wonderfully and moulds himself into a believable portrait of such a modern day icon. As an actor he seems to approach the role with the same openness for consideration as Stanley Weiser’s patchy script but from an acting viewpoint it works far better. After all, it’s not as if Bush believed himself to be a political antichrist. Other standouts include Richard Dreyfuss as the infamous Dick Cheney, the lovely Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and James Cromwell as Bush snr. Thandie Newton has her big “acting hat” on for the part of Condoleezza Rice, but other than her excessive attempts at character immersion it’s a great effort from the actors.

The movie is in effect a prolonged failure, though an interesting and intensely watchable one at that. It might strike you as odd that I have given the film a mild recommendation and yet criticize its story and weak grasp so vigorously. That’s because whilst the picture never really sinks its teeth into one of the worlds most scrutinized figures it does remain oddly intriguing throughout. The way in which Stone builds the character into one of redemptive yearning is admittedly clever and the performances are super, despite the indecisive and messy way in which the picture attempts to analyze such a messy presidency. W. is as a political commentary a failure, but as an acting master class and filmmaking curio it might have some genuine worth after all.



A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

3 April 2009

Movie Review: High School Musical 3

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C


High School Musical 3
2008, 112mins, G
Director: Kenny Ortega
Writer: Peter Barsocchini
Cast includes: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleau
Release Date: 24th October 2008

High School musical has literally ravaged the pop culture landscape since 2006, the story of how one little made for TV Disney movie rose up and became a worldwide phenomenon is nearly as fanciful and idealistic as anything featured in the notoriously fantasy fuelled plotlines that inhabit the films. Making stars of its fresh faced and modestly talented cast the franchise received its first theatrical release last year, and it tore up the Box-office just as expected. High School Musical 3 completes the trilogy and delivers a pretty fun opening 40 minutes before descending into the irritating schmuck storytelling that has made the story so appealing to little girls. It’s disappointing that after a promising start the film should fall into the realms of mediocrity it does, after all it’s never worse than average thus compromising the chance to write the really scathing review I’d hoped to scribble.

Now in the their last year at East High and once again victors at the Basketball championships, the students of America’s most morally solid school have to start thinking about life at college. For Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) that means the prestigious halls of Stanford, for basketball wiz Chad (Corbin Bleau) it’s a sports scholarship whilst Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) battle it out for a place in the Julliard School of drama. The person struggling with his decision is Troy (Zac Efron) torn between his love of basketball, theatrics and long time partner Gabriella. Troy has to decide what path he wants to lead but with every sacrifice he risks disappointing someone he loves. As per usual with the franchise the story plays out as the students work on the year’s High School Musical, in this case their last at East High.

The films have become all about the music and in that respect HSM 3 delivers a pretty solid roster of feel good beats. Some songs are bogged down in generic instrumentals and saccharine lyrics (the limp finale is an unfortunate example of this) but for the most part what is offered here is impressive. The standout has got to be “I Want it All” performed by Tisdale and Grabeel about a third of the way in, the song is catchy and director Kenny Ortega offers up a visually lavish setting for the thesps to deliver the rousing number. In many ways this is as much an advantage as a disadvantage, after about 30 minutes there is little left for viewers to see, the picture climaxing far too early. Still as individual listens more than a handful of the songs work and thus the makers should once again have no trouble selling vast amounts of soundtrack and CD related memorabilia.

The actors reprise the roles pretty easily, one thing the series really got right was the casting, with each individual having brought a fair degree of charm and charisma to each of their cereal box smile characters once again. The standout is Ashley Tisdale as the selfish and fame grabbing Sharpay, less of a viable personality than a series of quirks and catch phrases that combine for a proficient comedic foil. She also belts out a show tune like the very best of them. The franchise has always revolved around Efron and Hudgens pity then that for my money they are amongst the least interesting screen entities. Efron can surely sing and has a naturally effective screen presence but his conflicted jock character is uninteresting and distractingly linear. Still he’s turned the one dimensional character into something of an advertiser’s wet dream and Hudgens has had much the same effect as his unnaturally attractive bookworm of a girlfriend. She is the least impressive vocalist of the key characters but saying that is like selecting the least healthy fruit from an all natural salad. Corbin Bleau and Lucas Grabeel also take up their mantles pretty effortlessly; both have sufficient energy and singing ability to make their supporting characters work.

The story takes a back seat for the opening half of the movie in favor of innocent comedy and rousing vocal numbers, both instantly preferable to the generic and predictable conclusion. I have no problem with a feel good finish in a pleasant article like this but the route with director Ortega takes us is never particularly interesting. The destination was always a given but one had hoped the creative team might have made the journey more memorable and less borderline boring. All the required love arcs and relationship issues are also present, useful and fascinating to only those with the most primary experience in such issues.

The film looks quite good and certainly is bubblegum bright, further fulfilling its requirements to the 8 year olds who covet this stuff like the holy grail. It’s upbeat, features a few nice number and features hunky old Efron, in truth the only three things that the target demographic are likely to care about. Adults should approach with caution but I have no doubt that kids will find HSM3 a total blast.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009