Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3

  • Released Internationally on 18/06/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 28/07/10

Preview (first published 01/07/10 in VIDA magazine)

The computer animated gem that started it all way back in 1995 is back. After a 1999 sequel that was as brilliant as the original, the host of colourful toy characters have been spending some quality time being bashed about by children all over the world. But since most good franchises come in trilogies, the minds at Pixar have opened the toy chest for a third and (they claim) final adventure. Andy, the much-loved boy who owned Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Potato Head and the rest, is now eighteen, and his mother unceremoniously sends all his toys off packing to a day-care centre, there to be systematically dismembered by a new army of children every day. Our heroes meet a host of new toys there, but Woody for one has no plans to stay put. The excellent voice cast are all back, as is editor and director Lee Unkrich who worked on the previous two films, as well as Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars and Monsters Inc.. The screenplay was written by Michael Arndt, who shot to the A-list after writing Little Miss Sunshine.

Toy Story 3-2

Review (27/07/10)

Old Friends

I hadn't revisited the famous toys of Toy Story since seeing the second film upon release. Yet as soon as this third chapter got underway, a certain feeling of familiarity and affection arose, and I was eager to see what lay in store for these colourful characters. The exhilarating opening sequence offers a welcome change from the bedrooms and streets where we normally see these plastic heroes, and sets the tone for the adventures ahead. A few characters have gone missing, but the usual suspects are all still there, waiting patiently in Andy's toy chest for him to spend some time with them or even glance in their direction. Hardly likely considering he's engrossed in his laptop and upcoming move to college.

No toy gets left behind

The inevitable happens, and we arrive at that point that most mothers love and most others dread – the clearing away of clutter. As Andy prepares to fly the nest, he must decide what to take with him, what to throw away, and what deserves the middle ground of being stored in the attic. These anxious moments are even more tense for the toys in question, and as the garbage truck creeps up the street outside, the toys are faced with a moment of destiny of epic toy proportions. Woody (Tom Hanks) gets some preferential treatment as Andy opts to take him to college, but camaraderie prevails and the toys manage to stick together and avoid the worst.

Sunnyside down

The action then shifts to Sunnyside day-care centre, where the toys are dumped, but which looks promising with regards to quality playtime spent with children. The horde of toys at Sunnyside are presided over by the cuddly Lots-O'-Huggin' bear, or Lotso for short, who welcomes the new toys warmly but later turns out to have a shady past and resulting character issues. The film then shifts into Great Escape mode, with Woody returning to help mastermind the toys' escape from this bright but terrifying compound. With Lotso's henchmen on the prowl after lights out, Sunnyside isn't somewhere you'd want to stay the night.

Why it works

The film can be summed up as a wonderful escape movie sandwiched between a touching, nostalgic beginning and an emotional ending. Each part of the film works because of our attachment to the toys in question, which is something the minds at Pixar are skilled at developing. Rather than sully the memory of the two previous films, this final outing tops them both and doesn't need to resort to fancy gimmicks to keep things exciting. The final scenes are a master stroke, and complete the story arc in a satisfying way that makes perfect sense once you look back on it.

In the end

Possibly the best animated film of the year so far, although certain dragon trainers offer some stiff resistance. A film that should prove a highlight with children, and that will probably resonate even louder with adults, or at least those who remember the time when they had toys of their own.




The Karate Kid



  • Released Internationally on 11/06/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 28/07/10


Preview (first published 01/07/10 in VIDA magazine)

Not another sequel, but rather a remake of the original 1984 film. The kid in question is now portrayed by Jaden Smith, who had a promising introduction to the movie world in The Pursuit of Happyness, and is starting to look uncannily like his father, Will. After moving to Beijing with his mother, the young kid runs into some bullying and lots of culture shock, but he pulls his act together thanks to the guidance of a local kung-fu master. Filling in the classic mentor role is none other than Jackie Chan, who has so many martial arts films under his belt that it doesn't matter what colour it is.




Review 27/07/10

Rocky and friends

On a superficial level, this film is a familiar, satisfying and rather simple underdog story, which we’ve seen before in numerous versions set in numerous cities. This time around the city happens to be post-Olympics Beijing, and the medium happens to be kung-fu (not karate, by the way). But it’s pretty formulaic – new kid in an unfamiliar setting, gets bullied, finds a past-his-prime mentor who decides to take him under his wing, thinks get tough, they argue, things get better, we see a rousing training montage, and the big final tournament arrives. Then things take a bad turn and all looks lost, but our underdog hero wins in the end. Hugs, sweat, slow-motion, meaningful glances. Yet some similar movies manage to be both very entertaining and heart-warming despite adhering to the above predictable storyline. This one manages, but not in a big way.

The Golden Child

One of the main distractions is the kid himself. This film was produced by Jaden Smith’s star parents, and is very obviously a film with one sole purpose – to be a star vehicle for their son. Which I guess could be seen as Hollywood-style good parenting. But it also makes the whole project seem a bit unnecessary and self-centred. Why remake a film less than 30 years-old which many people remember and which has spawned countless other sequels and similar films? Is this kid too impatient to wait until an original project comes along? Is it so important that he starts to star before he starts to shave? In his defence, Smith Jr. does remarkably well, and besides being blessed with good genes, seems to have enough presence and basic acting to pull the title role off. Even more impressive are his martial arts moves however, which are evidently done by him in a number of scenes. He may be pint-sized, but I wouldn’t recommend stealing his lunch-box.

Awkward moments

Also tarnishing an otherwise straightforward sports movie is the age of the main characters. Smith seems rather young to be going through the aggression and romance issues his character faces in Beijing, and the final tournament is rather brutal considering the participants were only recently weaned off breast-milk. Taraji P. Henson, such a memorable mother to Benjamin Button, seems rather at odds with her son here, and I suspect any reasonable mother would have withdrawn him from the tournament after seeing the sort of bouts it boasts. Jackie Chan goes through the mentor role as expected, nursing a personal tragedy of his own but still managing to make his pupil a winner. The schoolmates and adversaries are all rather stereotypical children, and act more as struts to Smith’s needs rather than as characters of their own.

In the end

Apart from a solitary, beautiful scene with a cobra, this film goes through the paces without ever being too memorable. If you like martial arts, and Jackie Chan, this is one entertaining underdog story you’ve seen before, but won’t mind seeing again. If you’d rather not watch pre-pubescent boys beat the life out of each other, you might want to look elsewhere for something more original.






Thursday, July 22, 2010




  • Released Internationally on 16/07/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 21/07/10

Preview (first published 01/07/10 in VIDA magazine)

In a nutshell

Once in a while a film comes along that makes you want to rush to watch it without even knowing exactly what it's about. Sometimes it's hype, sometimes it's reputation, sometimes it's a brilliant marketing campaign of trailers and posters that look great without giving too much away. Sometimes it's all three.

Why we're hyped

Christopher Nolan (and DiCaprio).

Who's in it?

If the name Christopher Nolan doesn't ring any loud bells, it's probably because his Hollywood star is relatively young, and because his genius is behind the scenes. After exploding onto the scene in 2000 with one of the most original films of the decade, Memento, he proceeded to reinvent, reboot and revitalise the Batman franchise, collaborating with his screenwriter brother to bring us the excellent Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. This time around he's done the writing himself, and the film is being promoted as a psychological thriller, with mind-boggling trailers and taglines that tell us our 'mind is the scene of the crime', but little else. Which is fine by me - if there's a truly original story to be enjoyed, I'd rather not have it spoiled or spoon-fed beforehand. Based on his flawless reputation, Nolan has attracted a string of respected names to the project - Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer), Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose), Ellen Page (Juno), Michael Caine (The Dark Knight) and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins). The special effects look just as stellar, and in a summer congested with sequels, remakes and filler material, this stands out as something truly creative to look forward to. Let's hope it's even half as good as his previous films.



Review (22/07/10)

Whether Inception ends up being the best film of the year is hard to predict, but it's hard to imagine anything more original, inventive and complex coming along anytime soon. From the opening piecemeal scenes, the films quickly establishes itself as a story that will take some unravelling, and set in a world, or worlds, with a strong sense of style.

So what's it all about?

To try and summarise the plot would make this review into a minor thesis, and would be a disservice to the masterful way director Christopher Nolan feeds us the rules of the game as we delve deeper into his labyrinthine creation. Suffice to say that the film is about dreams, and the main characters are individuals trained in creating dreams for individuals to inhabit while they sleep, inside which these conmen can steal ideas from the person's mind. This process of navigating one's dreams to covet their inner thoughts is called ‘extraction’, and presents a useful but potentially dangerous possibility. Much harder to achieve, but much more devastating in its effect is 'inception' - the opposite of extraction - whereby an idea is planted like a seed inside a person's mind, there to take root and grow to affect his decisions and life. Cobb (DiCaprio) is the most skilled extractor around, and he is given the job of a lifetime when a powerful Japanese tycoon (Watanabe) offers him his former life back in return for an inception assignment. Cobb assembles a team of experts, and the game is on.

Helping hand

It is no mean feat keeping a sense of urgency going for nearly two and a half hours, but Nolan succeeds brilliantly, and this is one film where you will not want to take your eyes off the screen for fear of missing something crucial, or amazing. When Cobb's team start delving deeper and deeper into dreams within dreams, Nolan makes use of new team members who need some explaining and guidance, so as to help us, the audience, who desperately need both. But the script manages to finely balance the explanation and theory with extremely vivid action and practice, preventing the storyline from becoming too tedious, as had happened to the Matrix sequels, which you might be reminded of when Cobb and co. plug in and conk out.

Technical brilliance

Just like his previous films, this one looks and sounds great. Even if you're struggling with the finer plot details, it's hard not to sit back and awe at the sheer class of what you're enjoying on screen. The cast shines without exception, and lesser-known Tom Hardy deserves a special mention for managing to hold his own as the smooth-talking Eames, the forger of the team. When called for, the visual effects are top-notch, and include some dreamy sequences we're unlikely to see anywhere else. Frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer picks up where he left off with his Dark Knight musical score, and delivers a similarly harsh soundtrack which helps propel the action forward but delivers some melody and moments of respite when needed. Nolan has apparently been fine-tuning the script for roughly a decade, and apart from a few 'not again!' moments, it's slick, smart and as far as I can tell, watertight. But don't expect everything to be gift-wrapped and nicely resolved, because like many of the best thrillers this one leaves room for interpretation at a number of points.

In the end

A film to be marvelled at, seen more than once, reflected upon and discussed. If you want something refreshingly different this summer, take a leap of faith into the intricate imagination of the one of the best filmmakers in the business.

Mark's Mark?




Thursday, July 01, 2010

Shrek Forever After


  • Released Internationally on 20/05/10
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 02/07/10 (also in 3D)

Preview (first published 30/06/10 in VIDA magazine)

In a nutshell

Everyone’s favourite green ogre (Shrek, or Fiona, depending on your tastes), is back for the fourth and final adventure. They have a new nemesis, and he’s short with red hair.

Why we’re hyped?

The third instalment may not have set the world alight, but it had a tough job topping the first and second parts of this alternative fairytale, which remains one of the freshest and funniest franchises around. In less than a decade, Shrek has firmly established himself in popular culture, bringing with him a barrage of quotes and jokes, and giving rise to numerous imitations. Along with Pixar’s stellar output, Shrek is largely to thank for the constant output of smart, hilarious and spectacular computer animation we get to enjoy today. So it’s fitting that he is sent off with a bang, in what the filmmakers have promised will be the final chapter. Something tells me this won’t be a simple sentimental ‘happily ever after’ type closure.

Who’s in it?

The four main stars return. Mike Myers’s faux Scottish accent has become synonymous with the titular ogre, despite no rational reason for it being there. Cameron Diaz continues to sound better than she looks as his blushing, verdant bride. Eddie Murphy, the highlight of the original chapter, is still stomping around as the ever-faithful sidekick, Donkey, and Antonio Banderas once again lends his silky voice to the star of the second film, Puss in Boots, who now has a motivation and weight problem. Voice actor Walter Dohrn is the new major addition as the fiendish Rumpelstiltskin, whose infamous tantrum has now developed into a larger, more anti-social problem. Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine) also joins the cast as Cookie the ogre, and the wonderful John Cleese and Julie Andrews reprise their roles as Fiona’s entertaining parents. It’s curtain call time for possibly the best original character of the past decade.


Review (01/07/10)

Green and unamused

You'd think Shrek of all creatures would know that the grass is always greener on the other side. But he doesn't, and as his new life with Fiona and the triplets starts to settle down into a routine of burps, nappies, lack of sleep and not a moment of quiet, he starts to miss the time when he was a feared, secluded ogre with nothing to keep him from taking relaxing mud baths all day. So, in a moment of frustration, he says some regrettable things to Fiona, and storms off for some time to think. Enter Rumpelstilskin, a fiendish little redhead with an old grudge and a disturbing pet. He pounces on Shrek's moment of weakness and offers him an apparently simple deal - twenty-four hours of his single, villager-chasing days in exchange for some other day from his life - such as some day from his baby years which he doesn't even remember. Shrek doesn't sleep on it, and signs, which is never a good idea.

Fiona, warrior princess

What follows in a wonderfully inventive and entertaining Shrek adventure in what could be described as an alternate universe - what the kingdom of Far, Far, Away would look like if Shrek had never appeared on the scene and Rumpelstiltskin ruled the roost with his cackling army of ashen-faced witches. This idea works, because it allows us to rediscover the beloved characters and locations all over again, without the storyline having to toss in new elements to keep the novelty factor going, as happened in Shrek the Third. So we meet Puss in Boots, who has outgrown his boots and most other garments in sight thanks to a life of lazy pampering. And a ruffled Donkey who lives a hard life carting slaves and has to sing for his supper. Fiona, on the other hand has grown into a Xena-type revolutionary princess, who leads the resistance against Rumpelstiltskin. And none of them have any idea who this Shrek guy is, despite his insistence that he's their best friend.

Cool mule

As Shrek's friends rediscover him, and Shrek learns to appreciate how great his life was before that ill-fated contract signing, so do we. Which makes this fourth and final chapter a joy to watch. Donkey is given his due prominence, and Eddie Murphy does his usual stellar job as he sings, dances, and even tries to introduce 'flip-flop Fridays'. The music often takes centre stage, with Rumpelstiltskin employing the skills of the Pied Piper to smother the resistance, with hilarious musical results. There's even a brief but wonderfully timed Lionel Richie moment that is one of the musical highlights of the show. And when against all the odds everything falls nicely back into place for our thick-skinned hero, we're treated to the expected swamp-party to end all swamp-parties, which appropriately serves as a curtain call for the entire story, including good old Farquaad.

In the end

After a disappointing third outing (but only by Shrek's high standards), the franchise finishes with a flourish. A fitting end to a fantastic fairytale.