Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jack Reacher


  • Released Internationally on 20/12/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 26/12/12

Preview (first published 01/12/12 in VIDA Magazine)

Tom Cruise’s post-Tropic Thunder renaissance continues, and just in case the Mission: Impossible franchise loses popularity, he has now landed another role as a modern day action hero, with franchise potential. Jack Reacher is a rather unorthodox but highly effective crime fighter, who uses his past military skills rather than donning any fancy costumes, and he’s quite good with his hands too. This film is an adaptation of just one of the series of novels about the character, and it’s adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who will always be ‘the genius who wrote The Usual Suspects’. If you liked Angelina Jolie’s Salt from a couple of years ago, this should work as the male equivalent.



Review (23/12/12)

This film is fun. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, but rather embraces its role as a smart action film with franchise potential. Tom Cruise is still evidently deeply in love with himself, but to be fair this is one scenario where it works, and his cocksure titular character manages to be both slightly over the top and likeable.

The films opens with a powerful, largely silent extended scene, which as the film progresses is later seen from different angles and provides an intriguing ‘whodunit’ scenario that forms the backbone of the plot. Once that is established, Reacher arrives on scene in stylish fashion, and gets to work. His clever dialogue is often countered effectively by Rosamund Pike’s character, with whom he shows good chemistry. But despite being very witty at times, the script throws in enough humour to make it all very easygoing and engaging. There’s also a fair amount of original action, with even good old fashioned fist fights getting a few new twists.

Throughout all the proceedings, however, not much is as it seems, and things finally fall satisfactorily into place, although the film does lose some originality and smartness in the third act. More importantly, though, the film does a great job of letting the audience get to know Jack, but at the same time leaving enough mystery for us to be curious about what his next adventure will be, if and when he shows up.




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Life of Pi


  • Released Internationally on 21/11/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 20/12/12

Preview (first published 01/12/12 in VIDA Magazine)

With Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children making it to the big screen in 2012, the list of truly ‘unfilmable’ books grows shorter. Here’s another one. The philosophical and quite unique novel from 2001 gets a gorgeous big screen revival, at the hands of celebrated director Ang Lee. One can only imagine the logistical implications of filming a tale where the main character, a sixteen year-old boy from India, survives a shipwreck and lives for more than half a year on a rescue boat with a fully grown tiger. As if the shipwreck wasn’t enough to ruin his day.

Things go surprisingly well, however, and the life-changing journey will hopefully flourish as well on screen as it did on the page. Ang Lee is no stranger to making stunning looking films (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain), but based on this film’s trailers, we’re in for a whole new level of visual awe. It’s exciting to have Lee back in the limelight after a few years of lying low, and this seems to be one film that will appeal to all sorts of cinemagoers.



Review (19/12/12)

If there is one film that deserves a proper big screen viewing, this is it. Shamelessly gorgeous from start to finish, as well as being a near-perfect film in every regard, this was, for me, the cinema-going highlight of 2012, and one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on a screen of any size.

From the word go, you realise you’re in for something special. The opening credits help set the scene, in a zoo paradise in one of the prettier parts of India, and for the duration of a sublime lullaby by composer Mychael Danna, we are treated to scenes that would give any top notch David Attenborough documentary a run for its money. Much like most of the film, I would gladly frame any scene from this opening sequence.

Things then shift into a more playful, humorous mode as we chronicle the early days of our protagonist, and in a quasi Amélie-like fashion the story unfolds with larger-than-life characters and wonderful attention to detail. The opening scenes also introduce us to Richard Parker, the tiger who is so central to this wonderful story, and within seconds I had stopped wondering which scenes were real tiger and which were computer-generated. The tiger is a technical marvel, and throughout the film remains as convincing a digital creation as any Gollum or blue alien.

The first act also introduces the subject of religion, which Pi is fascinated with from an early age. He adopts three religions as a child, much to the amusement of his parents, and without being too heavy or overbearing this sets the film up for what will ultimately be an interesting metaphor for questions of faith.

Before long we skip forward to the crucial sea voyage, and the life-changing storm which casts our heroes into a boat together, for a battle of wits and will that may or may not be all that it seems. The film then adopts a surprisingly engaging tone as the survival battle unfolds, often without words or distractions. Much like in Cast Away, the fascinating situation of the main character makes for compelling viewing, and in this case the relationship with the tiger adds another wonderful layer.

In the meantime, we are treated to numerous scenes that surpass even the opening sequence in terms of beauty and marvel. I tried to keep track of the most beautiful scenes, but after jellyfish, whales, flying fish and meerkats I stopped counting. The artistry that has been poured in this film is all up on screen for us to see, and should leave most audiences open-mouthed.

But in case you’re worried that this is just eye candy and not much substance, the film then delivers with an ending that manages to both immediately satisfy but also provide much food for thought, and I for one was pondering the final message long after I left the cinema. It is, after all, the reason why the book was such a success.

On every level, this is the best film I have seen in 2012, and one of the most beautifully made films I can remember. It should appeal to all ages and most tastes, and I strongly recommend you do it justice by seeing it on a proper big screen, and in 3D. To quote from the film, “You have to see this, it’s beautiful!”.




Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


  • Released Internationally on 13/12/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 13/12/12

Preview (first published 01/12/12 in VIDA Magazine)

It’s finally here. When the The Lord of the Rings trilogy came to a resounding conclusion back in 2003, the general feeling was that there had never been a more satisfying and well-made trilogy of films in memory, and that there weren’t many other books out there that could be adapted and reach such heights. The trilogy also managed the tricky task of pleasing both obsessive fans of the source material and the general film-going public, and there was hardly any aspect of the whole production that was not standard-setting and flawless. So, inevitably, the ending of the trilogy also brought with it a certain feeling of sadness, like that empty feeling you get after a great holiday. Is that it? Do we go back to normal mediocrity now?

Possibly, but it was inevitable that the ‘other’ great Tolkien story would also get the big screen treatment, despite it being a shorter, less epic and more childish tale. But hey, it’s got hobbits in it, and Gandalf, and even Gollum, so why not at least try. Things got delayed, and there was even a point when Peter Jackson, the director and driving force behind the initial trilogy, took a backseat role and handed the project to others. Common sense eventually prevailed, and sure enough we are now getting this prequel part of the tale with the same cast and crew that fared so excellently a decade ago.

Not all the cast needed to return, of course, but it was paramount that Ian McKellen reprises his Gandalf role, since he had inhabited those grey and white cloaks with uncanny precision and he became Gandalf on screen. Less evident but equally talented was Andy Serkis as Gollum, in that ground-breaking marriage of visual effects and character acting, which resulted in a CGI character that has yet to be matched. He’s back, of course, for the expansion of the infamous ‘riddles in the dark’ scene that got a brief mention in The Lord of the Rings but occurs in detail during the events of The Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is also back, since this is of course his story and not Frodo’s, but although Ian Holm does reprise his role, a younger Bilbo was needed for most of the plot, so the main new casting choice was the delightful Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Love Actually, Sherlock) as the titular hafling. Accompanying him on his first adventure are thirteen dwarves, portrayed by interesting-looking but lesser-known actors who all seem to share a fine, manly singing voice.

In a nutshell, the plot involves Bilbo accompanying the dwarves, hesitantly, on a quest to reclaim their ancestors’ gold from the hoard of the deadly dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch - Sherlock, Atonement). Trolls, elves, ‘shapeshifters’ and unusual towns stand in their way, not to mention the pitch black depths where Gollum is fiddling with his precious ring.

The adaptation was originally planned as two films, but earlier this year a not-too-unexpected announcement was made that it will be a trilogy. I hope Peter Jackson has tonnes of great material, and I guess after his previous films we can rest easy in the knowledge that he knows what he’s doing. Let’s just hope it was a mostly artistic and not mostly financial decision. In the previous trilogy it was remarkable how he managed to end each film wonderfully, despite not strictly adhering to the book endings. Here it’s just one book with no immediately obvious satisfying endings mid-way, so that’s at least one surprise those who love the book can look forward to.

At the end of the day, watching more of those characters, in more of those locations, with more of Tolkien’s dialogue, to the sound of more of Howard Shore’s music is better than we can hope for with most other film releases nowadays, so even if it fails to reach the lofty standards of its predecessor, this is still the undisputed highlight of this festive season.



Preview (14/12/12)

The Hobbit is no The Lord of the Rings. The scale of the book was much smaller, and the tone was more childish. But Peter Jackson has very evidently set out to make a Hobbit trilogy that is very similar to his previous masterpiece trilogy, and this might be the main reason why I left the cinema disappointed.

My first problem was one which was rather inevitable. By deciding to make the rather short book into an entire trilogy, and a hefty nine-hour one by the looks of it, there was always going to be a lot of extra material thrown in. This turned out to be even worse than I feared, with plot lines and incidents that are mere footnotes in the book getting entire sequences and lavish detail. They’re interesting to watch, and one might argue that they are fascinating when looking at the Tolkien world as a whole, but with regard to this film in particular they are sometimes dragging, not always very relevant or needed, and they detract from the essence of the quest at hand. I was more than happy when Peter Jackson released the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films on DVD, with added scenes thrown in. But if he plans to appeal to the general movie-going public, the focus should be on telling a good story in style, rather than on less necessary padding.

The second problem was unexpected. The two trilogies unfold in the same world and share many characters, but I was disappointed to see Jackson rehash and recycle entire concepts, scenes and ideas from his previous films. He seems so intent on reproducing the success of the previous trilogy that this one has been structured in more or less the same way, even where the book doesn’t call for it. We therefore get a prologue in the same style, which is fine, except that it includes scenes of battle (with Thorin the dwarf versus the pale orc) that are uncannily similar to the flashbacks of Isildur battling Sauron. The pale orc is then elevated to a status very reminiscent of Lurtz, who led the Uruk-hai in Fellowship.

Even small ideas like Gandalf appearing to grow in stature when he gets angry, and mounted warriors circling unexpected visitors, are repeated. The whole wargs chase scenes and Rivendell sequences also end up looking like leftover footage from the previous films. We even get a council of sorts half-way through the film, just like in The Fellowship of the Ring, which also serves as a very unnecessary opportunity to bring back some of the old cast for a reunion. And just as Gandalf delivered a memorable line to Frodo before (“All you have to do is decide...”), everything grinds to a halt and sounds the same as Gandalf tries to impart a similar quotable line to Bilbo this time (“...simple acts of kindness...”). It starts to get annoying once the moths and eagles return, and it is ultimately distracting from the story at hand.

Thankfully, the story does contain numerous completely new elements which allow Jackson to present something that looks fresh and original. The new wizard, Radagast, is one of them, and the disgusting but somehow endearing Goblin King is another. The pivotal ‘riddles in the dark’ scene is also a joy to watch, largely thanks to the excellent performances by Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo, and Andy Serkis (via motion capture) in a continuation of his acclaimed Gollum role. The pivotal moment when Bilbo finally picks up the ring, however, doesn’t look like the scene many will remember from The Lord of the Rings, and this is one occasion where some continuity and consistency would have been appreciated.

The arbitrary choice of ending point sort of works, although it hardly has the emotional impact of the ending of Fellowship, and Jackson wisely drops in a tantalising glimpse of the much anticipated dragon, as he did in the prologue, since it is mostly once he joins the fray that we can expect proceedings to pick up in intensity, and hopefully in a fashion completely unique to this trilogy. The end credits song, by Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, is my last minor complaint. It sounds just slightly out of place, and doesn’t blend in seamlessly with the famous orchestral themes of Middle Earth like the three stellar songs from the previous trilogy did.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a spectacle to watch - especially in 3D and in the brand new HFR (high frame rate) presentation. There’s enough orcs and dwarves and action and humour to keep everyone entertained, and the overall quality on display far exceeds most films we’ve seen in recent years. If this had been released in a world where The Lord of the Rings didn’t exist, it would be taking the world by storm and wowing us all into silence. But ultimately, it tries too hard to repeat the formula of its predecessor, which is not a wise move since it is a weaker story. Maybe a different director would have been a good idea after all, but then again I’ll reserve judgement because I still hope that Jackson has some surprises in store for the next two instalments, and that the trilogy as a whole will be looked back on as a wonderful piece of fantasy cinema.




Saturday, December 01, 2012

Past Perfect: The Remains of the Day (1993)

Home movie gems from the past few decades that need some dusting but never get old.


Before Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, there was another understated but meticulous treasure that showed the world of servitude and dedication to one’s household in all its soul-destroying detail. A couple of years after he first terrorized the world as Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins gave a completely different but no less amazing performance as a butler who realises that his loyalties and priorities might have been misplaced. Emma Thompson is sublime as his co-star, but it is Hopkins who commands our attention and subtly makes our blood boil. There’s no action, there’s no overstated melodrama, but with the smallest of his gestures one realises the enormity of what has happened in his life. This is not one to watch if you’re feeling sleepy or being interrupted. It’s one to savour with your eyes and ears wide open.