25 June 2010

Retro Review: Alien Resurrection (1997)

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C

Alien Resurrection
1997, 109mins, 18
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast includes: Sigourney Weaver, Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder, Gary Dourdan, Dominique Pinon, Kim Flowers, Brad Dourif
UK Release Date: 28th November 1997


I’ve long been a quiet admirer of David Fincher’s maligned “Alien 3”, a sequel a notch below its epic predecessors; but certainly sharper than most multiplex garbage. 1997’s “Alien Resurrection” is another case entirely. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (he of “Amelie” fame), this fourth entry into the franchise is a massive disappointment, packing some competent action and blood-soaked imagery, but lacking the solid characterization and distinctive atmosphere of the previous outings. At 109 minutes it also grabs the distinction of being the shortest flick in this saga (overlooking the “Alien vs. Predator” cycle of course), and for my money the most generic and unremarkable. It’s odd that following behind three entries by a trio of Hollywood’s most famed directors that a Frenchman with a quirky indie sensibility should direct the most conventional and unimaginative entry in this series. But hey, that’s show business.

Set 200 years after the events of “Alien 3”, “Resurrection” picks up on a remote scientific base, where boffins are trying to clone Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien queen which had been lying dormant inside her. After a successful clone is materialized and the queen extracted so her breeding cycle can shortly commence, the scientists choose to hold onto Ripley and tolerate her icy demeanour around the base. However during the cloning process Ripley acquired some alien attributes of her own, namely that her blood is now acidic and she has reflexes and strength to spare. A ship of pirates then ports with an unusual human cargo (to be secretively used for the boosting of the alien populous) but no sooner have the rag tag team of goons arrived that the creatures break loose and begin to run amok. Thus the newly docked crew have no choice but to team up with Ripley, and try to escape the space harboured facility before the alien threat finishes them all.

My key complaints with “Resurrection” are the same I have with many blockbusters; no depth, no soul, glistening but routine production design and a dearth of interesting characterization. All three of the previous pictures had a real sense of individualism and intelligence, coupled with powerhouse acting and some damn great scares. “Resurrection” brings virtually none of that stuff to the table, content to sit back and play out like any other monster movie; and whilst it’s possibly the goriest film in the franchise, it’s easily the least unsettling. Joss Whedon’s screenplay manages to provide a handful of cool ideas (a chestburster coming out of someone’s head, a sequence with aquatic aliens), but Jeunet rarely aims for anything other than instant shock gratification. The slow burning terror of the previous films is missing, and the moments of fire fight carnage are no match for what James Cameron supplied in 1986’s “Aliens”. They’re reasonably well assembled, but the energy and high octane fear that made Cameron’s picture such a classic has been overlooked, for what exactly I’m not sure.

The maternal concepts of yore are lightly touched upon here (via a clunky final twist to the story), but “Resurrection” is certainly more thematically insubstantial than its predecessors. These ideas are skirted over, but the film’s real focus is on the generally vapid chase sequences. In fairness the first act of the picture is quite promising, but sadly Jeunet never delivers on the early stuff; again reverting to a tension free mash-up of paper thin characterization and creature feature mush. I was genuinely intrigued with the lab based antics and the complete misjudgement of the scientist’s actions (Brad Dourif is awesome as a particularly committed alien zoologist), but the picture sadly forgoes theses elements in favour of something a little more palatable for bland mainstream audiences to digest.

Sigourney Weaver is once again effective as Ripley, albeit this is the least rewarding incarnation of the character so far. In clone form Weaver adopts a sense of predatory uncertainty and dark humour, channelling a little alien into her own performance. However this comes at a cost, the character never feels at risk and has an aura of near invincibility about her; leaving audiences to fear only for the underdeveloped band of pirates she accompanies. They’re comprised of some good actors (Ron Perlman and Winona Ryder in particular) but the screenplay can’t form any of them into a three dimensional or likable human entity. Ryder in particular is saddled with a bafflingly boring character and her relationship with Ripley jumps from one extreme to the next, never feeling natural or indeed beneficial to the final product.

The film looks good from a cinematographer’s point of view, but the set design and visual tone of the picture is shockingly uninspired. The foggy and suggestively disturbing locations from the previous flicks have been abandoned; the only H.R Giger left in this picture is the timeless creature design itself. “Resurrection” is a polished but utterly faceless vehicle, something I can once again only attribute to Jeunet’s crazed need to sate unadventurous modern viewers. The CGI used here is excellent (miles ahead of what Fincher deployed in “Alien 3”) and the animals themselves look ferocious and believable, with some of the practical effects also deserving a mention. The live action aliens are authentically designed and well manned; but the biggest shout out belongs to a sequence involving a selection of failed Ripley clones. It’s gross rather than scary, but the designs sure are imposing and look admirably realistic.

“Resurrection” ends on a bummer of a finale, involving one of the silliest looking screen villains I’ve ever encountered. The very last frame of the film is oddly satisfying (and feels like the right conclusion for Ripley’s journey) but by that time the real damage has been done. “Alien Resurrection” is a movie severely lacking in heart or creativity, and whilst the denouement might seem like a natural finish for one of cinema’s greatest heroines, it’s always bugged me that this final chapter should be the slightly sour experience it is. Maybe Ridley Scott’s upcoming prequel will provide the formidable ending to a franchise that so thoroughly deserves it.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

20 June 2010

DVD Verdict Review: She's Out of My League

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B-

Review Link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/shesoutbluray.php

DVD Verdict Review: From Paris with Love

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C

Review Link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/frompariswithlove.php

DVD Verdict Review: Invictus

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B

Review link: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/invictusbluray.php

Movie Review: MacGruber

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B

MacGruber
2010, 90mins, 15
Director: Jorma Taccone
Writer (s): Will Forte, John Solomon, Jorma Taccone
Cast includes: Will Forte, Val Kilmer, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe, Maya Rudolph
UK Release Date: 18th June 2010


The phrase “based on an SNL sketch” doesn’t usually inspire much confidence, but “MacGruber” actually works well as a feature film, and with a running time of 90 minutes; the picture doesn’t overstay its welcome. The tone of humour utilized is crude, lewd but often very funny, and the film also gains some worth via a few well aimed digs at the cheesy action flicks of the eighties. Fans of bawdy lowbrow comedy should find a healthy amount to enjoy here, and for those appalled by scatological, vulgar or sexualized gags; why are you even reading this?

Following the jacking of a nuclear weapon by arms dealer Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), the US government seek an expert to help them resolve the matter. They turn to MacGruber (Will Forte), a man with more military honours than brain cells and a personal score to settle with Von Cunth. Ten years ago Von Cunth was responsible for the death of MacGruber’s fiancĂ© (Maya Rudolph) at the altar, and now America’s best agent is going to make him pay. Teaming up reluctantly with a young hotshot (Ryan Phillippe) and an old flame (Kristen Wiig), MacGruber is tasked with stopping Von Cunth using his illegally acquired missile, but if he fails the USA could be left to endure a long nuclear winter.

It takes a few scenes for the comedy in “MacGruber” to heat up, but when the script gets going, the laughs keep coming. The style of jesting is relentlessly juvenile, and those who can’t tolerate large portions of immaturity need not apply. That said, “MacGruber” provides enough good spirited and joyfully anarchic comedy to easily justify its existence, tapping into the same crazed and overblown vein of playfulness that made the original SNL skits so popular. The film balances amusing dialogue, irreverent improvisation and gloriously over the top slapstick to achieve its comedic ambitions, all wrapped within a surprisingly attractive looking frame courtesy of director Jorma Taccone. For a movie that only cost $10 million, “MacGruber” is a sharp and reasonably well photographed outing, even if the rare instances of CGI are decidedly less impressive.

As the maverick leading man Forte is fine, he’s no Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler but he carries the picture adequately. He shows an enthusiasm and commitment in the role that can’t be faulted, and whilst some of his character’s tendencies are overly creepy, he ultimately makes a robust village idiot. He bounces well off his straight man, in this case Ryan Phillippe. Phillippe maintains a stiff upper lip and a nice verbal rapport with Forte throughout the production, unveiling himself as fairly accomplished in this sort of part. Kristen Wiig gets some good lines and one breathtakingly funny scene in a coffee shop, but in a way the screenplay short-changes her. She plays second fiddle to Forte and Phillippe for most of the production; when debatably she’s the funniest individual amongst the trio. Val Kilmer is a disappointment as Von Cunth, he plays it in a very generic and surprisingly flat way, avoiding the hammy pastiche that the movie really demands from its villain. As a result he’s the biggest failing amongst the thespians, and in truth he looks ill at ease during many of his scenes.

The picture doesn’t really offer many proper action sequences (hence I would be unwilling to class it as an outright action comedy), “MacGruber” taking aim at the goofy blockbusters of the 80s’ through its garish musical score and knowingly ridiculous set-pieces. The screenplay is predictably light on plot (in fact the story is practically non-existent), but it warrants forgiveness thanks to the high quality of the belly laughs. “MacGruber” doesn’t approach it’s satire with much genuine originality, but it attacks the subject with conviction and a passion for the ludicrous, which is enough to ensure that it’s worth a watch. “MacGruber” is a rare SNL movie that works, and whilst it’s far from a masterpiece; it is guaranteed to do two things. The first is make you laugh. The second is to discourage you from eating celery for a long time.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

13 June 2010

Movie Review: Solomon Kane

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C

Solomon Kane
2009, 104mins, 15
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Writer (s): Michael J. Bassett, Robert E. Howard (characters)
Cast includes: James Purefoy, Mackenzie Crook, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Flemyng, Max Von Sydow
UK Release Date: 19th February 2010

A film based on a literary creation by Robert. E. Howard, “Solomon Kane” is a technically excellent feature with some problematic pacing issues. The project finds the correct grisly tone and is competently handled by Englishman Michael J. Bassett, but sadly things take too long to heat up. It’s nearly the halfway point before the film’s plot really kicks in, and whilst the second half is a hoot (the limp finale aside), it’s hard to get fully onboard with the movie after such an arduous and uninvolving first act.

Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) was once a vicious and murderous mercenary, but after a confrontation with the Devil’s reaper; it transpires that Solomon is doomed to the fires of hell. In a bid to save his soul Solomon renounces violence, but finds his bloodthirsty path haunting him at every turn. Solomon takes up with a family of travellers (led by the dependable Pete Postlethwaite), but whilst on the road the group are ambushed by the evil servants of Malachi (Jason Flemyng), and all but one of the family, daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood), are killed. Meredith is taken captive as a slave, and in a bid to save her Solomon reverts to his old violent ways, tearing up the countryside in a bid to locate and liberate his innocent companion.

James Purefoy is very good in “Solomon Kane”, making the character sympathetic despite the trail of inexplicable bloodshed he leaves behind him. Purefoy has the weather beaten look that Viggo Mortensen so ably brought to “The Lord of the Rings”, giving him credibility as a hardened mercenary who’s done more than his fair share of killing. Adding to his stoic acting, Purefoy handles the action sequences well; bringing a nice degree of physicality and obvious dexterity to the role. A cache of recognisable faces make up the supporting cast (Postlethwaite, Max Von Sydow, Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng,) and they’re are all perfectly fine, but this is Purefoy’s picture , and he carries it with commendable strength.

Director Basset has sculpted a magnificent looking movie despite a constraining $40 million budget, everything from the production design to the CGI beasties look professional and respectable. The action scenes are well executed and pack a healthy degree of blood and guts, Basset also editing it all together with a steady hand and a comprehensible selection of shots. This sort of nicely compiled medieval mayhem is what “Solomon Kane” does best, and it’s pretty much the sole reason why the picture’s second half ranks as credible popcorn entertainment. The final set-piece feels slight and anticlimactic (the minimalist budget makes its mark felt in this section), but overall this is a film that manages to at least offer some well orchestrated visual carnage.

The opening half of “Solomon Kane” is anything but enjoyable, a long and overcooked batch of expository scenes and underwhelming character construction. Granted some of this needs to be here, but at 40 minutes Basset drags the back-story out to a punishing length, when something a good deal shorter would probably have plugged the gaps just as efficiently. The pacing in “Solomon Kane” is severely misjudged, the 104 minute runtime could have easily been condensed into 90, and thus the flagging opening segment wouldn’t feel like such a painfully overdrawn ride. The second half of the film is perfectly good escapist fantasy, the movie’s real problems can all be traced back to Basset’s ill advised choice to devote half his production to pure, unfiltered set-up.

The hoards of digitally conceived hell-spawn are a welcome addition to Basset’s bountiful world, and surely these evils could lend themselves adequately to future outings. “Solomon Kane” is a film that has a modest degree to recommend it, but the cringe inducing and joyless first half is a crippling element that the feature never truly recovers from. I wouldn’t be adverse to further adventures, but next time the hero needs to be treated with a slightly lighter touch and a more thorough devotion to fun.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

3 June 2010

Movie Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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C-

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
2010, 116mins, 12
Director: Mike Newell
Writer (s): Doug Miro, Boaz Yakin, Carlo Bernard, Jordan Mechner
Cast includes: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Ronald Pickup, Richard Coyle
UK Release Date: 21st May 2010


Based on a 2003 videogame of the same name, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is another attempt from producer Jerry Bruckheimer to capture “Pirates of the Caribbean” style magic in a bottle. However in comparison to the first entry in that seafaring saga, “Sands of Time” feels like a decidedly less impressive summer gamble. The director and cast seem like stable hands within which to place a prospective franchise, but the screenplay here is too thin and overdrawn to allow the film any true semblance of success. Adding to the adaptation’s woes are its hollow CGI filled set pieces, rendering the picture nothing but a mega budgeted videogame in its own right; albeit this time the viewer can’t hold a controller. Obviously this isn’t a desirable tone for a filmic experience to be radiating.

After becoming a hero during a raid on a neighbouring city, Prince Dastan (an affable Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into possession of a mystical dagger that allows the bearer to move a few moments backward in time. However upon returning home to Persia, Dastan is framed for the murder of his regal father (Ronald Pickup), and is forced to flee Persia with the dagger’s guardian Princess Tamina (a stunningly beautiful Gemma Arterton)in tow. The pair finds themselves pursued across the desert landscapes by a selection of expertly trained Persian assassins, all the while trying to find a method of keeping the dagger safe and clearing Dastan’s tarnished name.

“Sands of Time” looks adequately epic, director Mike Newell having put his extensive $200 million budget to good use from a cinematographer’s perspective. The movie has a rich and sundrenched glow, which coupled with the authentic set design and detailed shot construction at least allow the experience to work on a visual level. Technically this is a triumphant motion picture, the digital effects are believable (if rarely welcome) and some of the acrobatic action is commendably athletic and fairly impressive. Most of the stunt work in “Sands of Time” is top tier stuff, ranking up there with recent gems like the exuberant free-running found in 2006’s “Casino Royale”. However these moments of leaping and bounding soon become overshadowed by excessive CGI and uninspired spectacle, Newell becoming infatuated with his digital toys and newfound capacity to let the game’s overbearing imagery run amok.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a fine choice as a blockbusting action hero. The actor buffs up and brings respectable charisma to the floor, firing up a sparkling chemistry with the luscious Gemma Arterton in the process. Much like she did in “Clash of the Titans” Arterton has to sell chunks of heavy-handed exposition, but here she’s also free to explore her strong willed heroine arc a little more thoroughly. Alfred Molina also pops up in a role designed purely for comic relief and the advertisement of Ostriches, proving that the problems which plague “Sands of Time” aren’t down to casting. The only real disappointment is Ben Kingsley, the British veteran putting in a flavourless shift as a potential villain.

Most of the action feels insultingly like watching somebody else play a computer game. Leaving the physical work aside; “Sands of Time” struggles to make its mark as a fluidly exciting popcorn film. The movie becomes obsessed with moments of dull CGI overuse, and most of the combat sequences are generically staged and frantically over directed. The cuts are irritatingly rapid and the camera itself is rarely static, it’s not quite Michael Bay levels of hyperkinetic chaos; but “Sands of Time” isn’t far off. The film only slows down to display large swathes of exotic landscape or occasional sneaky shots of Arterton’s cleavage; otherwise it’s just too manic for its own good. Most tellingly of all though, the set pieces are intensely forgettable and lack the creativity or dynamism that all the best blockbusters offer.

The screenplay is a brainless and linear affair, stretched to an unreasonable 116 minutes. The dialogue is fairly poor, albeit that’s to be expected from something sourced out of a videogame. Harder to overlook is the lobotomized and unnaturally simplistic chase narrative, which in a bid to disguise its one dimensional structure is peppered with oodles of convoluted mythology. “Sands of Time” feels like a point and click adventure that drags audiences from one part of a map to another, simply so that a new task can be set and a new objective will need to be obtained. This form of storytelling is perfectly good in the realms of cyber adventuring, but on a cinema screen it gets wearisome fast, and it certainly doesn’t warrant a lavish two hour runtime.

“Sands of Time” isn’t anything better than a mediocre puff piece, well dressed and with some undoubtedly talented folks floating about, but lacking in quality execution or fulfilling plotting. Fans of the pixel laden source might find it acceptable (I really wouldn’t know, I’ve only played it once), but filmgoers seeking hearty thrills or rewarding questing had best look elsewhere. Maybe a sequel could improve matters, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this prince being henceforth banished from cinema screens forever.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010