Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sex and the City 2

Sex and the City 2

  • Released Internationally on 28/05/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 28/05/10

Preview (Published 01/05/10 in VIDA magazine)
The four femme fatales from New York are back. After they decided to wring some more money out of the brilliant TV series with the big screen version two summers ago, the generally good response set the stage for more tales of fashion and romance in the posh sections of Manhattan. The first film stuck to the winning formula that made the series so successful, and it appears that so will this one, albeit with a trip to the desert thrown in. This seems like a good idea, to prevent the film from feeling like a double-length TV episode, as it very easily could. A few celebrities will pop up as cameos to add further big-screen power, including Liza Minnelli and Miley Cyrus, huge female stars at either end of the age spectrum. Cameos aside, however, the series’ fans can rest assured that the four golden girls will all be there, along with nearly all of the regular supporting cast, and with the show’s writer and director still in his plush driving seat.

Sex and the City2

Review (26/05/10)
Abstinence and the desert
There are some interesting plot developments in this latest outing from the female fab four, but they're definitely not enough to fill an entire film. In fact it's quite telling that this would have made a quite interesting 45-minute episode, to add to the many excellent ones that came before it. But to make it to the big screen a second time these love and life lessons are padded with endless filler material and the result is a bloated, self-congratulatory exercise in excess.
All the single ladies
The films starts off disastrously, with a gay wedding that defies everything the two characters in question said throughout the series. It's so obviously an excuse to cram another wedding into the plot that even the guests are surprised. Liza Minnelli makes a cameo appearance as herself, officiating at the ceremony - which is sort of like asking Guy Fawkes to put out your chip-fan fire. The audience then has to sit through an unabridged musical number where Minnelli belts out Beyoncé's finest, though to her credit (or that of the post-production team) she looks and sounds quite with-it.
Less sex, less city
Thankfully, things eventually start rolling, and after the stuttering initial scenes we return to some proper drama from the lives of these four women with attitude. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is having trouble getting used to married life, and her partying plans contrast with the lazy, cosy, evenings that Mr. Big (Chris Noth) wants to spend with his bride at home. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is trying to cheat her body out of menopause, and despite her increasing wrinkles she wrangles a cocktail of hormones to keep her libido blazing. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has two adorable little girls, but they are starting to drive her crazy, and her reliance on the resourceful nanny is tinged with a hint of worry about the effect the nanny's bountiful chest area might be having on her husband. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), as usual the more career-oriented of the four, is struggling at her law firm, where female dominance is still not the norm, and she finds her personal life struggling as a result.
Princesses of Persia
The solutions to all these problems might lie outside New York, however, and the girls end up on an all-expenses-paid luxury trip to Abu Dhabi, courtesy of Samantha's business connections. Most of the film's action unfolds there, and the break from their newly adopted routines helps the girls realise where their priorities truly lie. The choice of setting is a clever one for the filmmakers, with the sparkling city matching New York in the opulence department, while the strict religious boundaries jar with the foursome's (or rather, Samantha's) ideas about how to enjoy yourself on vacation.
In the end
Ultimately, things do reach neat and satisfactory conclusions, albeit via a tortuous (for us) route. The product placements were always a part of the series, but here they've reached occasionally ridiculous heights, including one during the flight to the Middle East which would have seemed blatant even if it was an actual advert. There's also the usual focus on fashion, including an interesting local twist, and yet another musical number, this time in the form of a painful karaoke session. With three of the four wonder-women happily settled, it's inevitable that the focus of the plotline has veered away from sex considerably, but maybe that should have been a hint to end the franchise earlier. After milking this cash-cow for all its worth, creator Michael Patrick King has now chopped it up and served it as kebabs. For the sake of all the excellent episodes that came before, I hope that this is the end of the line.



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


  • Released Internationally on 19/05/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 21/05/10

Preview (Published 01/05/10 in VIDA magazine)

In a nutshell

Before Facebook, before Google, before we even had internet access, there was Prince of Persia. Released back in 1989, and incredibly simple by today’s standards, it was one of the computer games that defined the 90s, and I for one clearly remember my long afternoons jumping over spikes and sword fighting with the fat guy in level six. Since a famous brand is often all it takes to make a film nowadays, it has been developed into one of this summer’s big action films.

Why we’re hyped

I’m usually the first to argue that computer games rarely provide good source material for films of substance, as recent years have clearly shown. What makes me hopeful in this case is a mix of factors. Firstly, an adoptive prince wielding a fancy sword in the dust-laden streets and rooftops of Persia sounds more cinematic than, say, hitmen or bio-hazardous creatures. Secondly, the various editions of the game developed over the past twenty years have provided numerous plot opportunities, many of which have been considered when formulating this script. Thirdly, the film is a project by the Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer powerhouses. If they could make the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy based on a theme park ride, this should be easy.

Who’s in it?

Taking on his first proper starring action-role, Jake Gyllenhaal will be donning the fancy outfits as the hero in question. One of the most talented actors of his generation, he has shown great versatility in films such as Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead and the recent Brothers. I hope he was lured by a promising script, rather than just by a big cheque and the chance to show some biceps. The great Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Elegy, Shutter Island) will be epitomizing all the evil, while Alfred Molina (Frida, An Education) will be the hero’s mentor. Adding some grace to all the sweaty machismo is the lovely Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans) as the princess. The man behind the camera is the Brit Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and the fourth Harry Potter film.


Review (18/05/10)

Life is now

I vaguely remember some sort of plot going on in the background when I used to play Prince of Persia on my 16-colour monitor. A few lines of back-story which I had hastily skipped through at the beginning, and a pixellated princess waiting for me at the end. But I paid little notice. All I was concerned about was the next jump, the obstacles in my path, and the sword-wielding assassin I knew was waiting in the next screen. I lived in the moment, and it was great.

Plot for sale

Unfortunately, this seems to have been the attitude adopted for the film version. The flimsiest of plots, laughable even by computer-game fantasy standards, is hovering in the background as an excuse for our heroic prince to jump deftly from rooftop to rooftop. When the prince was under the control of my battered keyboard, it was thrilling and addictive. But watching it unfold from a spectator point of view, it loses novelty fast.

One jump ahead

Mind you, the numerous rooftop sequences are nicely done. Bathed in the dusty sunlight of Morocco (standing in for ancient Persian Empire), Dastan jumps, clambers, twists and turns his way through the bustling city centres, like a live-action Aladdin on steroids. Incorporating elements of parkour (a recently developed obstacle-avoiding discipline), the filmmakers have obviously put great effort into the action scenes, and I'm sure they'll elicit a few nostalgic smiles from fans of the game.


Once those smiles fade, however, it's back to the awkward dialogue, the embarrassing attempts to keep a straight face whilst spouting pseudo-mythical nonsense, and the overall feeling of predictability which runs through each duel, each chase, each encounter. For a film which uses turning back time and destiny as a plot device, it's quite ironic that the sequence of events is so inevitable.

Saving face

Possibly the only person who acquits himself honourably is Alfred Molina, who manages to imbibe his Sheik scoundrel with humour and affability. Gyllenhaal looks sincere enough, but his faint smiles and laughing eyes make it seem as if he was in on the joke, and realised he shouldn't take his character too seriously. Gemma Arterton fails miserably, however, in what seems to be a direct sequel to her character from Clash of the Titans. Standing proud and stiff (and admittedly looking quite sizzling), she sounds horribly misplaced amongst all the Persians. It takes more than a spray-on tan to make a English girl the ‘Princess of Alamut’. The less said about Ben Kingsley's motivations as the villain, the better.

In the end

I admitted to having high hopes for this one, but they have gone the way of the Persian Empire. The rooftop chases are thrilling, but that's about it. This is one of the huge films of this summer, but in this case it’s a huge disappointment.



Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood

  • Released Internationally on 12/05/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 14/05/10

Preview (Published 01/05/10 in VIDA magazine)

In a nutshell

Mr. Hood needs no introduction. We’ve seen and read countless versions of the story, from fantastic foxes with whistling sidekicks, to Kevin Costner and his princely ways, and even merry men in not-so-manly tights. But that was all quite a while ago, so we’re due for another take, with this one promising to tell the back-story behind the outlaw. The details should remain the same, however – rob the rich, provide for the poor, arrows, friars, etc.

Why we’re hyped

Although Robin’s boots have been filled by various big names over the years, we can now look forward to a visionary director as well as a stellar cast. Ridley Scott has made many excellent films in a variety of genres, but has yet to recapture the epic feel and huge success of 2000’s Gladiator. He nearly managed with Kingdom of Heaven five years ago, but the theatrical cut was a bit of a mess, and Orlando Bloom was a bit of a wimp as the hero. Let’s face it – if you need to rally the troops, beat the odds and win the girl, you’re better off with Russell Crowe.

Who’s in it?

Besides Crowe as the titular archer, the film boasts the presence of the classy and beautiful Cate Blanchett as Lady Marian. As if those two weren’t enough to appeal to all ages and genders, we can also look forward to Max von Sydow (Shutter Island), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), Matthew Macfadyen (Frost/Nixon), Mark Addy (The Full Monty), William Hurt (A History of Violence) and Danny Huston (Birth) in lesser roles of varying menace and personal hygiene. The latest trailer looks very promising, so let’s hope for the best.

Review (14/05/10)

Robin Longstride

This is not the story of Robin Hood’s adventures. It’s a sort of prequel to all the Robin Hood adaptations you may have seen before, and tells the story of how a certain Robin Longstride, after returning from the crusades as part of Richard the Lionheart’s army, helped start an uprising against the tyrannical King John, and ended up being brandished an outlaw. Once this concept has sunk in, the scope and progression of the film become enjoyable to watch, and the ending proves very satisfying.

Political woes

When King Richard’s reign ends, Robin and his closest friends desert the army, and try to make their own way home across the channel. They bump into a covert squad of French soldiers under the guidance of a certain Sir Godfrey, who are attempting to assassinate the king and lay the groundwork for the French invasion of the British Isles. Back in the Tower of London, King John eventually inherits the crown and with a mix of greed and ignorance manages to infuriate the already oppressed and impoverished English people. Tired of wallowing in misery as the state and church squander their precious resources, the villagers across the land start a rebellion, and the well-timed arrival of the charismatic Robin manages to unite them.

The more the merrier

The impressive cast all take to their parts with gusto, and the consistently strong acting is also helped by a script that manages to be grand without going overboard. The mid-section suffers a bit when it’s unclear exactly who is fighting who, but it all works out tidily in the end. Crowe adds a British accent to his Maximus persona, and is convincing as the hero, albeit without enough human flaws. Blanchett’s Marian manages to warm to him, but not too quickly, and Max Von Sydow as her father is, as usual, excellent. Mark Strong is suitably evil as the traitorous Sir Godfrey, King John’s henchman. His shaved head and reckless disregard for protective headgear make him the most easily identifiable of the enemy forces during the various pillage and battle scenes, and his rivalry with Robin develops as the film progresses, culminating in a wet and wild duel during the film’s spectacular climax.

Archers with tonic

The skills with a bow and arrow play an essential part from the prologue right up the epilogue scenes, and reach epic proportions in the French invasion of England - a magnificent scene mirroring the Normandy landings in WW2. It’s more or less everything you would expect from a war movie set in 12th century England, and at times the film is quite clearly a mix of Braveheart and Gladiator, even down to individual shots and actions. But I guess you could do worse than try to emulate those two modern classics. The score is one aspect which falls short, however, with the music being unmemorable and largely intrusive.

In the end

The second big film of this summer season should appeal to an even wider audience that the superhero antics in Iron Man 2. Anchored by predictably good performances from the hero and heroine at the core of the story, the film presents an original story, but told in a fashion we have seen before. It’s undeniably fun and action-packed, and like all good ‘prequels’ ends on a satisfying note with everything falling into place as you know it. If you loved Braveheart, this should be fun.



Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Girl With The Dragon Tattoo


  • Released in Sweden on 25/02/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 12/05/10


In a nutshell

Back in 2004, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson delivered a trilogy of books to his publisher, and died shortly afterwards. They have since become a bestselling sensation, and a Hollywood version of the first book is in the pipeline. The Swedes, however, rightly got there first, and may prove a tough act to top.


The story opens in Stockholm with high-profile journalist Mikael Blomkvist losing a legal battle against one of the businessmen he tried to uncover, and getting sentenced to a short spell in prison. Before he is due to serve time, he receives a mysterious invite from Henrik Vanger, a semi-retired business tycoon who lives on the small island of Hedeby, up north.

The job

Vanger is a broken man since the mysterious loss of his favourite niece, who vanished without a trace during a family gathering on the island over forty years ago. Convinced that one of his jealous family members murdered her, Vanger has been unable to find any conclusive evidence despite years and years of work with the police and obsessive poring over the details of the case. He is ready to pay handsomely for Blomkvist to give the paperwork a fresh look.

The unlikely assistant

Back in Stockholm, we meet Lisbeth Salander, a social misfit with a shady past. She works with a security firm, and has an uncanny ability to access information and profile people - something which makes her a huge asset to the company, despite doubts about the legality of her means. She was indirectly hired by Vanger to present a profile on Blomkvist so that they could assess his suitability. She then gets embroiled in a nasty power struggle with her deviant legal guardian, and we swiftly realise how this tough-as-nails girl means business.

The plot thickens

Needless to say, Blomkvist manages to uncover a few leads in the discarded case, and a tangled Vanger family tree starts to unfurl before us, drawing us and him into their sordid history. But the case only starts to truly crackle when Blomkvist finds out about Lisbeth and her hacking skills, and asks her to join the case. What ensues is a thrilling mix of good old-fashioned investigative drama, with a grisly side-portion of debauchery and psychopathology.


The story is a sprawling and rich family saga, which makes for a thick novel with new characters and twists every few pages. So presenting it all in a two-and-a-half hour film is no minor achievement. But just as Blomkvist maps out the family tree on his cabin wall, we the audience are skilfully shown the faces that matter without it getting too detailed or confusing. The sub-plots are given their due importance, and most importantly, the two main characters are allowed enough time to develop and interact, making them an unlikely duo we can cheer for and worry about.

Lots of substance, slightly less shine

The unsolved mystery at the heart of the story is a fine one worthy of any Agatha Christie classic (the island setting providing ample Ten Little Indians-type suspects), and the solving of the case is enjoyable and often unpredictable. The mixing in of the religious, the perverted and the downright macabre is reminiscent of certain aspects of other gems such as The Silence of the Lambs and Angels and Demons. Whilst making full use of the stunning Swedish scenery, the film occasionally reveals its minor-key roots, and the supporting cast are not always of the calibre of the main twosome. This isn't helped at all by the poor voiceover work provided for this unfortunately dubbed version. Subtitles may be slightly tedious to read, but at least we would get to hear the actors' voices and voice acting, as opposed to a handful of persons who seem to be sitting around a kitchen table with a microphone and a script.

In the end

If you haven't met Lisbeth Salander yet, it's about time you did. She's a wonderfully fresh anti-hero, and her damaged past makes her a potent mix of unpredictability and determination. With the trilogy of books still atop numerous bestseller lists, and with film versions of all three a forgone conclusion, we can expect her to be around for a while. Which is a good thing.





Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Cemetery Junction



  • Released Internationally on 14/04/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 05/05/10


In a nutshell

Cemetery Junction is an intersection in the small English town of Reading, where not much happens. In the early 70s, three inseparable young men find themselves at a different sort of crossroads – whether to break the mould and do something exotic with their life, or whether to succumb to the dreary routine and end up like their uninspiring parents.

From the makers of

With a plot, setting and look that could have it mistaken for a British television drama, the main reason this film is making it to big screens is the pair of names behind it all. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are the talented duo that have graced the past decade with their seminal series ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’. The widespread acclaim they garnered in the process has now allowed them to pursue further projects, and this is their first collaboration on the big screen.

Small fry

But making the jump to the big screen doesn’t mean they had to give up their knack of focusing on the often quaint and mundane life of low-key Britain. Having grown up in Reading, Gervais seems to have poured a lot of himself into this project, and he even makes an appearance as the deadbeat father of one of the three protagonists. The town is slowly stifling its youth, as generation after generation fall into the factory-pub-home-repeat cycle, with no apparent need to leave the town or bother about the beyond.

Daring to be different

Freddie thinks that can change. He joins a life insurance company whose wealthy boss once attended the same rundown school as he did, and who blossomed out of the same junkyard neighbourhood. He sets aside his prankster ways and invests in a tie and briefcase, and starts his steady climb to the top. But his two bosom buddies aren’t amused, and they think he’s gone soft. They stick to their boozing and fighting, and see nothing wrong with continuing to spend the occasional night in the lock-up. But Freddie soon starts to realise that even his pompous company isn’t all it’s made up to be, and if he really doesn’t want to settle for an ordinary life, he has to pack up and leave town.

Who’s in it?

The main trio is portrayed by three fresh-faced newcomers with hardly any big-screen credits to their name – Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes and Jack Doolan. They do the job wonderfully, and when they each take their tough decisions at the end of the film, we can fully understand why. Felicity Jones (Flashbacks of a Fool) is Freddie’s childhood sweetheart, boss’ daughter and colleague’s fiancée, and her sudden appearance on the scene is what sets the train wheels in motion. Ralph Fiennes is in The Duchess mode as he runs his family and company with a deadpan expression and no room for fun, and Emily Watson (Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love) is his long-suffering wife who has had all life extinguished out of her, but still hopes her daughter won’t follow suit. Matthew Goode (A Single Man, Watchmen) and Steve Speirs (Eragon) round off the impressive cast.

Pockets of perfection

The film excels in delivering compact nuggets of family life which are incredibly real and touching, and very well portrayed. Each family situation or tough decision only occupies the screen for a couple of scenes, but largely thanks to the great writing those few moments manage to convey the history, emotion and importance those moments have on the characters’ life. Life is made up of moments, and these moments clearly define these three young men.

In the end

Sneaking in amongst the summer blockbusters, this film probably won’t make any huge waves. But I doubt anyone will watch it and not enjoy every minute of it, and realise that every part of this small film fits perfectly into place. Often hilarious, and heartfelt throughout.





Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2


  • Released Internationally on 28/04/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 05/05/10


Preview (Published 01/04/10 in VIDA magazine)

In a nutshell

Although The Dark Knight rightly received most of 2008's attention, that summer provided another smart, slick superhero film, with Robert Downey Jr. bringing zest and charisma to the lesser-known character of Iron Man and his alter-ego Tony Stark. So, before the ironing starts piling up, he's back.

Why we’re hyped

Not only was the original an entertaining and well-written action film, but it also succeeded where many superhero films fail - it gave us interesting characters and a good story. The ending was particularly ingenious, and left us with a cliff-hanger as the world's media finally found out who Iron Man really is. So this sequel was never in doubt.

Who’s in it?

For the sake of continuity, it's good to see that director Jon Favreau has kept his chair, and of course so has Downey Jr., whose renaissance continues to land him great roles which he pulls off in style. His assistant and intermittent romantic interest, Pepper Potts, remains in the hands of Gwyneth Paltrow. The role of his partner James Rhodes has been given to Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Ocean's Eleven), and Paul Bettany (Creation, Wimbledon) returns as the voice of JARVIS. Two exciting new faces have been added to the arena - Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler, Sin City) looks menacing as 'Whiplash', and Scarlett Johannsen (Match Point, Lost in Translation) might cause a few chest pains as 'Black Widow'. The script was a collaborative effort, but the main contributor seems to have been Justin Theroux, who co-wrote Tropic Thunder, and has also acted in Mulholland Drive and American Psycho. Veteran rock band AC/DC joined A-list composer John Debney to provide the music for the film. Let's hope this sequel is at least as good as its predecessor, rather than sinking under the weight of so many big names.


Review (04/05/10)

He's back

Iron Man 2 succeeds in feeling like a continuation, rather than a sequel. With the prologue picking up during the final scenes of the 2008 hit, the story arc and characters continue unabated, and the vibrant freshness that was so enjoyable first time around is thankfully evident once again. Downey Jr. is clearly enjoying himself developing this superhero, and he perfectly balances the style and showmanship of Tony Stark's public persona, with the recklessness and inner demons which threaten to derail his success and health. Similarities with the actor's own history are probably more than co-incidental, and they are milked for all they're worth.

Weapons of mass destruction

With Iron Man keeping America's foes at bay, he cheekily claims to have successfully privatised world peace. But the government is wary of him getting out of hand, and wants his armour handed over to the state for controlled use and possible replication. Stark isn't having any of it, and he reassures everyone that the technology of America's rivals is lagging years behind his. But that all changes when a certain Ivan Vanko ('Whiplash') appears on the scene during the Monaco grand prix, with a fancy costume clearly as powerful as Iron Man's, and less noble ideas about how to use it. The son of a former Soviet scientist who used to work with Stark's father, Vanko has inherited the secret to Iron Man's technology, and suddenly Stark's rivals want the unsightly Russian on their team. Rourke is suitably menacing and mysterious as the film's most obvious villain, shuffling through his scenes like he's had too much vodka but showing his skills when necessary.

All together now

I say 'most obvious villain' because most characters aren't so easy to pigeonhole. With even Iron Man himself getting a bit rusty at points, one of the film's plusses is that hardly any of the characters are all good or all bad, and those who, like me, aren't familiar with the comics might take some time to decide who is to be trusted and who needs to be ironed out. All the smaller roles are well-cast and interesting, with the actors managing to establish their presence despite having only sporadic minutes of screen-time to do so. Scarlett Johannsen doesn't need to do much apart from standing around looking, well, perfect, although she does get one scene where she can show off her choreographed moves, and in a catsuit, please note. Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable) returns as the spectral head of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation, which will apparently be a unifying thread throughout various upcoming Marvel comic adaptations. Sam Rockwell (Matchstick Men, Moon) also manages to make his role as Stark's competitor a memorable one, showing us what a slightly darker version of Tony Stark would look like.

Summer fun

Billed as one of this summer's main blockbusters, the film manages to meet expectations and will probably draw in the crowds over the next month or so. The effects are largely faultless, although the daytime flying sequences I enjoyed so much in the first film have been scaled back. The writing is engaging and interesting without getting too technical, and there are enough one-liners to make you grin without getting too cheesy. The encounters between our hard-headed hero and Whiplash are fun and spectacular, although oddly brief. The film sticks to everything that made the original so great, yet manages to flex its muscles as the bigger (and probably more expensive) sequel – with everything from lavish set pieces in Monaco to appearances by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

In the end

It’s big, it’s shiny and it’s fun. Yet, unlike other big sequels such as the Transformers one, the filmmakers haven’t gone overboard at the expense of story and soul. It’s not as great as the first film, but probably only because we’ve seen the fancy armour before. Summer is here.