Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer


  • Released Internationally on 27/02/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 27/03/13

Preview (first published 01/03/13 in VIDA Magazine)

Yup, another fairy tale. Fee fi fo fum, etc., but of course this is the supercharged version for the big screen. I have higher hopes for this one though, compared to all the other fairy tale films of recent years. Mostly because it’s directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), but also because he roped in Christopher McQuarrie (also of The Usual Suspects fame) to polish up the script. The film stars Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) as Jack, who finds his way in the world of giants, and of course has a princess to rescue. Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Ian McShane (Sexy Beast) and the inimitable Bill Nighy (Love Actually) also star.



Review (27/03/13)

So far, this has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. The trailers and promotional material for this film didn’t help raise my expectations, but I ended up enjoying myself from start to finish. If accepted for what it is – a light-hearted re-working of a famous fairytale – this film manages to deliver on all levels.

It starts off, as all proper fairytales should, with a bedtime story, setting up the parallel situations of our hero Jack and his counterpoint princess, as they both sit in their (respective) beds, listening wide-eyed as their parents recount the lore of the giants. Fast forward a bit and Jack is of course a poor farmer’s boy, while the princess is, well, a princess. Before long the infamous beans make an entrance, and the grand adventure can begin. Before the beanstalk even starts to sprout, however, I was already fond of the main characters – both Jack and the princess (newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson) are likeable, and with good chemistry between them. The smaller roles don’t disappoint either, with Ewan McGregor having great fun in ‘Tally-Ho!’ mode as the head of the king’s guard, and Stanley Tucci in delightfully crafty mode as the scheming advisor.

We then head, as expected, to the place ‘half-way between heaven and earth’, where giants roam free. The giants, who come in various shapes and sizes (none of which are pleasing to the eye), don’t burst onto the scene, but director Singer manages to build up enough expectation and grant them a tense, silent, ‘reveal’ – a sort of lesser cousin of T-Rex’s appearance in Jurassic Park (with similar sound effects). Their land is depicted as an oddly familiar paradise – resembling some parts of earth, but feeling very different – again, akin to Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park, or Skull Island in King Kong. Some of the set pieces also delight – such as a wonderful kitchen scene reminiscent of ‘Les Poisson in The Little Mermaid.

Back on the ground, the obvious false ending quickly makes way for a riotous third act, including a castle assault that manages to be coherent and entertaining. The single-mindedness of the giants makes them formidable foes, with not a single big friendly giant in sight. Throughout proceedings, the film manages to keep on just the right side of silly – something I felt last week’s Oz failed to do. The ending was another wonderful surprise – I loved it! This is no thought-provoker or event film, but it’s not pretentious, and it’s fun throughout, managing to bring a classic fairytale back to life with gusto.





Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful


  • Released Internationally on 07/03/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 20/03/13

Preview (first published 01/03/13 in VIDA Magazine)

March is usually a very slow month for new releases, since Oscar fever takes over the world of cinema, and the big releases of last year enjoy a brief renaissance in cinemas depending on whether they win some big awards or not. Thankfully, this year, we have at least one potentially huge film to look forward to this month.

I was never a huge fan of the classic Wizard of Oz film. Maybe it’s because I find Judy Garland irritating as Dorothy, or maybe I saw it at the wrong age, but something never quite clicked. There’s no denying, however, that the whole Oz story, concept and mythology is quite fascinating, with that film being just one of the offshoots. So sure enough I loved Wicked (the stage musical which gives the witches’ backstory) and even the theatre version of The Wizard of Oz. There’s magic, there’s homesickness, there’s little folk, and there are of course flying monkey baddies. Plus the yellow brick road, the intensely green Emerald City, and at the end of it, the Wizard, who may or may not be a complete fraud. What’s not to like?

This film is a prequel, giving the wizard’s history - who he is, how he ended up in Oz, what exactly he is capable of, and maybe why he’s fond of green. So, many of the familiar elements will be there, but otherwise it’s a completely original story. The trailers, posters and other promotional material have all gone to great lengths to show the opulent colour and design of the film, and the way Oz has been recreated looks quite stunning. Disney, which is the powerhouse behind the project, has not too subtly depicted the film as very similar to Alice in Wonderland, which was their behemoth box-office smash from a couple of years ago, and which also had a visionary director recreating a magical world.

That was Tim Burton, and this time it is Sam Raimi, who used to specialise in horror before he gave us a wonderful rebirth of the Spider-man franchise. The coveted role of the wizard was landed by James Franco (127 Hours, Spider-man) and the film features three seductive witches of varying intent - Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) and Rachel Weisz (Agora). Zach Braff (Scrubs) and regular, hilarious Sam Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness) also feature. In another move possibly intended to reproduce Alice in Wonderland’s huge success, regular Tim Burton and Sam Raimi composer Danny Elfman was handed the music duties. If all the film’s expectations are met, and if Elfman conjures up a theme even half as glorious as the one he created for Alice, this trip to Oz will definitely be one to remember.



Review (20/03/13)

Things started very promisingly, but ultimately this film left me a bit underwhelmed. The opening titles (below) - possibly the best part of the film - are a wonderfully old-school pastiche that sets the tone for the monochrome, fairground prologue that follows, where we first meet the wizard, struggling to captivate audiences at a not-so-grand fair. As in the original Wizard of Oz, we meet characters portrayed by actors who will take on different roles once within the magical land of Oz.

One tornado later, we land in the colourful and slightly trippy land of Oz, which is introduced in a hallucinogenic blend of bright colours, trademark Elfman music and enough surreal imagery to make the Alice in Wonderland connection not-so-subtle.

Things turn a bit odd, and for the lengthy mid-section I was struck by the rather bland acting, despite the proven skills of all those concerned. Maybe they were phased by all the green screens and imagined settings around them. Or maybe in James Franco’s case it’s all part of portraying the uneasiness the Wizard now feels - as he is forced to progress from fooling tiny audiences in Kansas to fooling a very demanding population in Oz.

At many points I felt the film was on just the wrong side of silliness, and the three witches in particular left me disappointed. The uncertainty over which of them is evil or not is supposed to be a clever plot point, but it turns out as slightly annoying and tedious. Still, it’s clearly not a good idea for the laid back wizard to try womanising with them.

The warm feeling of familiarity wafts by every so often, such as when we realise that we are witnessing a partly reverse journey along the famed yellow brick road. The other high points include the sublimely conceived and depicted China Girl, as well as a rousing montage as Oz prepares for battle, which is when the film really picks up. The final battle, which wonderfully uses trickery as a weapon in scenes reminiscent of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, brings things to a reasonably grand conclusion, with the comforting click as things fall into place and we see how it all makes sense. That’s the charm of a prequel, I guess.





Opening Titles

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Movie 43


  • Released Internationally on 01/01/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 06/03/13

Preview (first published 01/02/13 in VIDA Magazine)

I have no idea why there are so many big names in this film. I’m hoping there’s some surprise in store, but so far it just looks like tonnes of A-class talent was somehow convinced to appear in a film which stoops to ‘Scary Movie’ levels of humour, and unprecedented levels of bad taste. There must be a catch. Which is probably why I for one will end up watching it - hoping against hoping that there’s some twisted brilliance in there, and that the horrendous trailer was all part of the plan. I’m not, however, optimistic.



Review (05/03/13)

Whether this impressive array of fine actors will even show this film on their résumé is debatable, but for us viewers it is unfortunately something we can never un-watch. I had never before felt embarrassed to be watching a film with others around me, but for some reason I did in this case - it’s that painfully bad.

It’s basically a series of sketches, lasting a few minutes each. In some cases, I can easily see how the original concept looked funny on paper - for example, a date with a guy who seems perfect, until he takes his scarf off at the restaurant and he has a pair of testicles instead of his Adam's apple, which nobody seems to notice except his shocked date partner. But, as each sketch unfolds, the overall feeling is one of disgust and disbelief, with not an audible chuckle throughout. The filmmakers might be trying to make a sketch film of Monty Python proportions, but besides failing miserably on nearly all of the sketches involved, they also undermine the whole project by trying to link the sketches together with the most ridiculous, badly acted and stupid story backbone. I suspect I might (just might) have marginally enjoyed the film had it been simply the sketches lined up back to back.

Amongst the acting talent that redeem themselves are Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses), who is enthusiastic and funny as an annoying Batman in a sketch about speed dating for superheroes. But, inevitably, the sketch deteriorates to a point where you desperately wish it was over. This seems to be the general trend, and not a single sketch ends on a good note. One sketch (‘The Proposition’), would have been a good 20-second joke, but as a 10-minute sketch it ends up with the dubious honour of being the most disgusting and unfunny sketch of them all.

It’s hard to recommend this film to anyone, although there must be people out there who find it funny, since it did get made and released after all. Or maybe I should have watched it drunk.




A Good Day To Die Hard


  • Released Internationally on 07/02/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 06/03/13

Preview (first published 01/02/13 in VIDA Magazine)

It’s hard not to like Bruce Willis, and men should hope they age as well as he has. Now approaching 60, he continues to mix dramatic roles (Moonrise Kingdom) with his famous action ones, and the Die Hard franchise would be unthinkable without him. Just like in the previous outing, Live Free or Die Hard, he has a sidekick this time around (Jai Courtney, who was very effective in the recent Jack Reacher) - but this time it’s all in the family. The action is shifted to Russia for this fifth instalment, so John McClane might need to pack something else besides his usual blood-stained vest.



Review (05/03/13)

There are hints of the previous Die Hard films peppered throughout this one - a few bars of Beethoven's 9th, the driving and eventual demolition of heavy vehicles, John McClane’s daughter from the previous film, and of course the bloody vest - but otherwise it plays out like an average action film, albeit with a likeable hero. Bruce Willis has finely honed the art of performing wonderful action heroics whilst always looking bemused and slightly annoyed, giving the impression that he’d rather be elsewhere. The scriptwriters still felt, however, that they had to get him to say he should be on vacation every 25 seconds, which gets tedious.

The traffic carnage is pretty impressive. We’re first introduced to the crippling traffic gridlock in central Moscow, and shortly afterwards McClane and his son proceed to destroy half the cars involved. The bulk of the action then shifts to Chernobyl (where else?), but often tries too hard to be over the top and epic. One shot stood out for the right reasons - a wonderful slow-mo of the Chernobyl sign being chewed up by a helicopter, but a later, climactic scene uses such cringe-worthy CGI that you’ll think you’re playing a computer game.

But I guess it’s reasonably entertaining overall, if you feel like some brainless fun. McClane spends a good third of the film roaming around Chernobyl without protection, so we can look forward to Die Hard with a Third Arm sometime soon.




Friday, March 01, 2013

Past Perfect: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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


Believe it or not, there are men and women walking amongst us who haven’t seen this yet. I found one recently, but the situation was remedied within a few days. Whether watching it now, as an adult, can have the same immense impact as it had on my generation back in the 80s is debatable, but nostalgia or not, it’s hard to deny that this is a technically marvellous and emotionally splendid film. I grew up watching it, and feeling incredibly cool on my bike as a result, and I rediscovered some of that magic when I took my younger sister to the cinema to watch it when re-released in 2002. Since then I’ve caught it a few times on TV, and occasionally get the urge to watch the DVD. There’s always new lines or scenes to appreciate fully, and laugh-out-loud moments that never grow old. And then, as things come to a boil, there’s possibly the best fifteen minutes of film music ever composed, and one of the all-time best examples of the perfect marriage between what you see and what you hear. The escape, the chase, and the goodbye that will leave you in bits.