Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World War Z

  • Released Internationally on 19/06/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 26/06/13
Preview (as published 01/06/13 in VIDA Magazine)

Watching Malta succumb to a zombie epidemic should be fun, which probably means that this film will be a local box-office hit, whatever the international outcome is. You might recall that, quite a while ago, Brad Pitt was in town, accompanied by the lovely Angelina and their personal child care centre. The result was extensive and ambitious scenes of zombie warfare shot in various parts of Valletta, Floriana, and even the Malta International Airport, amongst others. Shooting then moved to Glasgow, so it remains to be seen who does the best undead impression.

Despite the scale and international appeal of the project, as well as the star at the helm, alarm bells started ringing when extensive reshoots and alterations were announced - something that usually indicates that the film is going to be a bit of a mess. The first trailers didn’t do too much to dispel those worries, with the admittedly impressive footage being a bit too chaotic, and not exactly the best special effects we’ve ever seen.

Hopefully, however, the extensive post-production period has allowed for things to be polished and refined, and we’ll get the epic apocalyptic disaster movie that summer audiences deserve. Zombies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but when you might recognise one of them as Uncle Tony or Aunty Phyllis, I think it’s worth plucking up the courage and heading to the cinema.


Review (25/06/13)
3-word review: Zombies, but serious.

It’s tricky making a zombie film. No matter how much gravitas you pour in, and how big and respected a star you land as your main guy, it’s hard to shake of decades of zombie film reputation and reactions. The reason is quite simple - zombies tend to be a perfect mix of looking terrifying and looking ridiculous. We all know how to walk like one, and if you add a blank stare and outstretched hands - voila! - instant zombie party. Which is why the more successful zombie films in the past have either dialled-up the horror to the point of making it a guilty pleasure gore-fest, or else added generous amounts of humour. In recent years, two good examples of this were Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. The former toned down the gore but had some of the best humour of the decade, and ended up being a joy to watch. The latter took the gore to new extremes, but still managed to coat it all in wonderful, self-aware, dry humour, including an inspired opening monologue that sets the quirky tone splendidly.

Here, however, nobody smiles. There is nothing remotely funny or amusing about the whole film, and it very clearly aims for the ‘tragic, heartfelt, disaster movie’ genre, but replacing the usual recipes of aliens, outbreaks or asteroids with zombies. It very nearly manages in that regard, and the worldwide scope is palpable, and befitting of the film’s title. But inevitably, you can expect to hear occasional guffaws from the audience, because zombies still look ridiculous, or at least they can do when they’re not running after you or biting your leg. Possibly because of this, the Z-word isn’t heard until a good half-hour into the film, and great care is taken not to portray them in any amusing way.

International unity

The paranoia sets in very effectively during the opening titles, with the overused-but-still-very-effective method of using newsflashes. Once Piers Morgan appears, you can tell things are going to get really unpleasant. And sure enough, we cut quickly to the chase, with widespread chaos having set in barely minutes into the film. As is necessary in any such film with an emotional core, we zoom into the main character’s family briefly, but we’re shown enough to make them a key motivation throughout the rest of the film. Normal life is shattered, as within moments ordinary citizens are on the run without their car, without their wallet and without their asthma inhaler.

But then we zoom back out and take in just how bad things are getting. The international scope of the film is well-maintained throughout, with the global fight against the zombie epidemic playing out like some huge competition - some countries are winning, some cities have fallen, some nations have ‘gone dark’. The powers that be are suitably international, with the UN and the WHO being the main players here, and Brad Pitt’s character as their man in the field.

Ideas that work

The urgent search for a cure plays out well, with hints dropped along the way and eventually coalescing into a feasible solution, although the film doesn’t hang around long enough for practical loopholes and problems to be given much thought. The whole zombie phenomenon is also given a few interesting twists not often seen is such films - such as their being drawn to noise, and their being aggravated by the killing of fellow zombies. These minor points help to add tension and drama at a few key points in the film. The other main factor that drives this film forward is how the plot delivers us into seemingly safe locations - sheltered homes, aircraft carriers, planes, countryside - before ruthlessly yanking them away from us, thus driving home the message that “movement is life”. Thankfully, amidst all the wanton destruction and killing, there are also a handful of moments to remind us about the true value of each individual life, especially in the case of a female Israeli soldier who ends up being one of the more interesting characters in the film.

Malta and more

On a purely Maltese level, the film is also highly recommended from a sightseeing point of view, as Malta doubles for Jerusalem in the middle section of the film. There’s lots of Valletta on display, as well as our airport being overrun during an aerial escape sequence. Once the plane manages to leave, it allegedly marks the point where the film’s direction was altered after the first draft was made, resulting in extensive reshoots, a few new early scenes, and an entirely different third act. The last bit, set in a claustrophobic WHO facility in Cardiff, does in fact seem very different from the rest of the film - in tone, in pace and even visually. But it manages to deliver some of the more tense scenes of the film, on a minimal budget, and manages to give this film a satisfying conclusion whilst leaving the options open for the inevitable sequel.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel
  • Released Internationally on 13/06/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 19/06/13
Preview (as published 01/06/13 in VIDA Magazine)

With attention spans and memories getting seemingly shorter, filmmakers are probably justified in never giving up on a film franchise. Just wait a few years, and give it another shot. When Ang Lee’s Hulk wasn’t a success, they tried again a few years later, and when that flopped too, they snuck the angry green giant into Avengers anyway, with record-smashing results. Which brings us to the second attempt at reviving the iconic Superman franchise.
In many ways, Superman is the purest, most impressive and certainly oldest superhero, appearing in some form or another since way back in 1938. As discussed at length in a wonderful dialogue scene in Kill Bill, he is also the superhero whose natural state is the heroic form, whereas the ordinary human clothes he wears whilst on earth are a costume for him to blend in. The red cape was something he was wrapped in from birth, and none of his powers were designed in a workshop or caused by some lab meltdown or insect bite. Yet, despite all these attributes, his popularity waned recently, as moviegoers shunned his red spandex briefs for the cooler outfits and antics of Batman, Iron Man and Spider-man, to name just three of the many recent crowd-pullers. Superman reached his cinematic pinnacle with the first two Christopher Reeve films in the late 70s and early 80s, helped by then-ground-breaking special effects and by one of the best musical themes in cinema history, courtesy of John Williams during his wonder years.
But when Bryan Singer tried to revive the franchise with Superman Returns in 2006, the results were entertaining but forgettable, with too much deference to the original films, and Superman’s good boy image (and red briefs) jarring slightly after 2005’s unbelievably cool and dark Batman Begins. The two masthead heroes from the DC comics universe apparently could not co-exist, and whilst Superman was shelved, Batman went on to dominate recent years with a critically acclaimed trilogy by Christopher Nolan. So, sure enough, it’s Nolan himself who now has a hand in trying to bring Superman back into the reckoning, although he’s producing, not directing.
Surprise, surprise, the red briefs are gone. So is the boyish curl on his forehead. This is no goody-boy superhero - he’s masculine, he’s damaged, and the first glimpses we got of him were him busting out of a safe and him being escorted in handcuffs. A crucial factor in bringing Superman into the current gritty trend of superheroes was casting Henry Cavill (The Tudors), who looks a bit more weathered than 2006’s clean-cut Brandon Routh. The rest of the cast is an exciting mix - Russell Crowe as Superman’s natural father, Kevin Costner as his adoptive father on earth, Diane Lane (Unfaithful) as his adoptive mother, plus Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Amy Adams (The Fighter) as Lois Lane, and the wonderful character actor Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) as the main villain, General Zod.
Directing duties went to Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), directing from a script by David Goyer, who wrote the recent Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan himself has also contributed to the story, and amongst his many usual collaborators, he also brought along veteran composer Hans Zimmer, who was faced with the unenviable task of taking a new musical direction which will inevitably be compared to Williams’ Superman theme. He did a wonderful job with the Dark Knight music, and based on the stunning music which dominated the latest Man of Steel trailer, he might just pull this one off too. There hasn’t been a trailer that caused so much fuss since Inception (also by Nolan, of course).
Now that the film’s release is imminent, the sublime marketing campaign and response so far have more or less guaranteed that the film will be a financial success, probably based on the first few days alone. But the important question will be whether it can stand up to all the hype, and ensure we get to see a quality, well-made Superman trilogy that is as great as those of his peers.

Review (18/06/13)
3-word review: A super disappointment.
I was so let down by this film that I felt sad for the rest of the day. A first-world problem, granted, but it had never happened to me to this extent. It’s my fault, of course. I get caught up in the excitement. I read the news scraps we’re fed as the film is being made. I feed on the excitement and I believe the hype. I felt justified in this case based on the list of key players, and based on the subject matter. Then, in mid-April, the third trailer was released, and I was in awe. I think making trailers is an art form that not all filmmakers succeed at, but this trailer was by far the best this year, and caused an appropriate level of excitement as it spread online. Now, having seen the film, that ‘Trailer 3’ remains for me a perfect mini-movie which contains most of the things I loved about Man of Steel – the key scenes, the best lines, the best parts of the plot, and the best piece of the soundtrack. For me, it’s all I need to remember, and it’s far better than the film as a whole.
A bit much.
I had a hard time rationalising why I hadn’t liked Avengers last summer, but this film helped confirm why. I dislike films that use the ‘aliens’ plot device to signify that absolutely anything can happen, and that for a good chunk of the plot they will throw everything at the audience, in bigger and bigger waves, seemingly trying to outdo themselves. In Avengers it was that wormhole at the end, and all the enormities that emerged. In this case it’s practically the entire third act of the film, as the two main protagonists conduct their alien duel on our planet, with increasingly immense swipes of destruction, increasingly complex technology and ‘powers’, and increasingly enormous vessels. I am fine with science fiction, but the type I love sets out a few basic ‘rules’ for the world we are about to see, and then plays out using a mix of those rules and the rules of reality we are used to. So, to use an obvious alien example, in E.T. we of course know he is an alien, we know what ship he arrived in, and we soon find out what his handful of alien tricks are. But the story then develops using those factors and a good dose of earthly reality we can connect with. The same goes for the more recent Super 8, or to use another superhero example, the Iron Man trilogy. It’s that dose of reality and scale that helps us connect with what’s happening. The Dark Knight trilogy is of course a wonderful example of this, since Batman is a very human and real hero, and the fantasy/sci-fi element is tiny. His technology might at times be stuff we haven’t invented yet, but otherwise we can get a pretty good picture of what is happening. Even Star Wars, which is of course entirely alien and sci-fi, is wonderfully set in a world we can appreciate – dirty, rough around the edges, human. Where farm boys dream of glory, vessels often break down, and having your hand cut off is a huge inconvenience. We’re told what the ‘Force’ is, we’re shown what lightsabers do, we can grasp the concept of spaceships – and then the plot plays out like any earth-bound drama, but in that setting.
Loss of scale.
But here, that sense of scale is thrown out of the window. After a reasonably entertaining, albeit overlong, prologue detailing the titular character’s birth and destiny, we finally get to earth for what I considered to be the best part of the film – the non-chronological scenes of Clark Kent growing up and learning to harness his powers without making a splash. Director Zack Snyder covers these wonderfully, and the focus on Clark’s relationship with his father (a wonderful Kevin Costner) and their agreement to keep the powers hidden is a joy to watch. But once the cover is blown and the final battle begins, the destruction and action takes on ridiculous Transformers-type proportions, with endless, mind-numbing visual effects and wave after wave of to-and-fro hammerings and near-death experiences. How am I supposed to care about either Clark Kent or even his new foe, General Zod, if every scene is trumped by the one after it, and if new powers, options, ships, devices and weaknesses are introduced and used ad hoc? Why should I be awed by the appearance of an enormous spaceship or destruction of a city, if something even bigger could easily just turn up five minutes later. Why should I feel for a battered superhero if his capabilities are being revealed on an as-needed basis? Rarely has an epic battle left me so tired, uninvolved and bored.
Not all bad.
As mentioned above, the growing up scenes are excellent, and I wish they had been the focus here. One particularly interesting concept introduced might prove interesting to those with autism spectrum disorders, and their families. The performances are generally great throughout, although Henry Cavill doesn’t get to do or say too much as the main man. He looks the part brilliantly, however, and is clearly a great choice to take this franchise forward. There’s a scene as he flies up into a jet stream where for a second he looks uncannily like the late Christopher Reeve, which can’t have been just a coincidence. His love interest, Lois Lane, gets an interesting portrayal by the talented Amy Adams, who manages to make her likeable from her first scene, and who prefers jumpsuits and anoraks to the pretty dresses the character is used to. She also gets the best line, right at the end. Russell Crowe, who is thankfully back in a non-singing role, provides a great anchor of stability and wisdom, and delivers the important monologues with class. Another highlight is the obvious attention to the small, but key, moments – the ‘S’ word is only heard once, if I remember well - a good hour-and-a-half into the film. The outfit gets a befitting reveal scene, and the flying sequence that follows is gorgeous and appropriately exhilarating.
In the end.
The bookends are wonderful too – a slow, gorgeous logos sequence at the start, and a brief but perfect ‘What are you going to do when you are not saving the world?’ scene at the very end, which returns to earthly, nostalgic emotion once the action has ended, and nearly managed to make me forget the exhausting half-hour that had preceded it. It also features by far the film’s best piece of music, with a rousing new heroic theme by Hans Zimmer, which was also one of the reasons that third trailer was so jaw-dropping. Just like the film, this last piece of wonderful music unfortunately comes after a long sequence of battering noise (see a wonderful review here), but at least it allows you to leave the cinema with a slightly better taste in your mouth, and hope that the sequel will be better.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Big Wedding


  • Released Internationally on 26/04/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 12/06/13
Preview (as published 01/06/13 in VIDA Magazine)

Another month, another wedding film. This one is a remake of a French film, and covers the familiar ground of a dysfunctional family having to get together for a wedding, with all the awkwardness, drunkenness and varying amounts of love that ensue. The cast is quite impressive, although reviews elsewhere have so far been lukewarm at best. Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon head the veterans section, and Robin Williams makes one of his appearances as a member of the clergy. Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up), Amanda Seyfried (Les Misérables) and Topher Grace (Spider-man 3) lead the younger section of the wedding entourage.
Review (12/06/13)
3-word review: Light and fluffy.

If the cast of this film were a selection of unknowns, I doubt anyone would bother sitting through it. But blessed as this film is with a trifecta of acting titans, as well as an impressive supporting cast, it plays out as an amusing and mostly harmless feast of family awkwardness, which is a tried and tested formula for this sort of wedding film.

Amongst the many issues thrown into the mix for this wedding are the aftermaths of separation, the emotional exhaustion of IVF and the complications resulting from adoption. At the core of the plot, however, is an issue which is rather relevant to Malta, with a light-hearted look at the potential hypocrisy of religious weddings, as everybody puts on a devout face and looks virginal, united and happy for the benefit of the wedding guests and the clergyman at the altar.

Some of the many subplots are more ridiculous than others, and Topher Grace in particular is quite embarrassing to watch at points. But Diane Keaton adds her own unique glow to the festivities, and De Niro ties it all together as the blundering, imperfect, lovable patriarch of the family.

In the end, it’s a comic look at the many different types of love that families are made up of nowadays, and just like most weddings it should be able to provide some connection or entertainment for most audiences, without necessarily being original or memorable.


Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Hangover Part III


  • Released Internationally on 23/05/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 01/06/13
Preview (as published 01/06/13 in VIDA Magazine)

Another trilogy is set to conclude. The second instalment was a bit of a let-down, since it was a replica of the first, just set in Bangkok instead of Las Vegas. The first was of course one of the funniest and most irreverent films of the past decade, so a slight hope remains that this one can return to that level. There’s no wedding this time, and the road trip involves taking Alan (Zach Galifianakis, by far the funniest of the cast) to a ‘retreat’ centre to get his life back together. En route they bump into a new menace (John Goodman, whose career just never seems to slow down), and things, as expected, go haywire. There’s lots of Vegas, with some Tijuana thrown in, and all the old cast and crew are back for the final bash.
Review (01/06/13)
3-word review: Where’s the hangover?.
It seems that director Todd Philips and his team listened to the scathing criticism of the repetitive, unoriginal second film, because this third and final act is very different in terms of plot. The problem is, it veers so markedly off course that it has morphed from a crazy comedy into a slightly twisted crime caper, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The title doesn’t fit any more either, because hardly any substances are consumed, and there’s no hangover in sight (if forced, cringe-worthy, last-gasp additions to the end credits don’t count).
That’s not to say this is a completely terrible film. The opening might have you wondering whether you walked into the wrong cinema, but it eventually positions Mr Chow (Ken Jeong) as one of the main players, in a role that grew in importance over the course of the trilogy. Again, this seems to reflect fan demand, and the actor’s growing popularity since the release of the first film. Your enjoyment of this one will largely depend on whether you find him funny or intensely annoying. I haven’t completely decided yet, but it’s probably the latter. The second part of the film’s introduction manages to outdo even the first film in terms of overdoing it in a bad way, in a scene that would have been funny if handled sensitively, but plays out as a disgusting combination of bad special effects and extreme lack of taste.
With those two complaints out of the way, things improve, as Zach Galifianakis is given ample screen time to display his particular brand of awkward humour. The inevitable guys’ road trip commences, and things get rolling thanks to a few helpful flashbacks from previous films. The darker tone of this film is evidenced by the large amount of dramatic music that is needed to accompany various scenes, whereas the first film was very much the type that could get by with a selection of catchy songs. The plot is simple, with the main protagonists being caught up in a gold feud between two criminals. The details, especially the plot twists and solutions that our heroes face, feel very much like they were conceived by an excited teenager, possibly whilst drunk.
On a positive note, this film does in fact manage to tie off the trilogy in a conclusive way, and definitely leaves a better taste in the mouth than its predecessor. I suspect that any scene featuring friends staring out into the desert from a parked car will from now on remind audiences of this hapless trio, and the script does allow for some welcome nostalgia sequences and montages of similar shots from the three films. There’s even a cute scene with the baby, now a boy, from the first film (and its famous poster). I was actually feeling slightly positive about the whole thing up until the epilogue started. Ah well. At least we got one good film out of this package deal – the two sequels don’t change that.

Past Perfect: Unbreakable (2000)

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


Bigger and louder are usually better when it comes to superhero films, which is probably part of the reason why I find this second outing by director M. Night Shyamalan to be a refreshing and near-perfect piece of restrained storytelling. The concept is brilliantly simple - what would it be like for an average Joe in today’s world to slowly realise that he is, in fact, a superhero, and how would he react to the news and use his powers for good? The person in question is portrayed by Bruce Willis, in one of his outstanding dramatic performances, and he is aided on his journey of discovery by an equally impressive Samuel L. Jackson. Everything you’d expect from a hero/villain story is here - the costumes, the fancy character names, the family backstory, the heroic deed, the heroic musical theme - but it’s so subtle, so carefully awakened, and ultimately so real, that you hardly notice the overall effect until you sit back and take it all in at the end. There’s not a word out of place in the entire film, and despite it being considered a disappointment after The Sixth Sense, I find it to be a much more satisfying film on repeat viewings, and one of my favourite films of all time.