Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Fright Night (2011)

Let’s kill something.

Image: Walt Disney

Tom Holland’s original Fright Night is remembered with a great deal of nostalgia but, if we’re being brutally honest, it doesn’t bear much close examination. It’s neither stylish enough to hang out with The Lost Boys nor as innovative as Near Dark. It’s a cheesy 80s vampire movie that has a great name, some fun make-up, and a lot of charm. How would Fright Night 2011 compare?

Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) finally has things going his way. He’s got a gorgeous, popular girlfriend (Imogen Poots), the jocks are accepting him, and he’s ignoring his geeky former best friend Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). So when Ed tells him his new neighbour Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is a vampire, Charley assumes it’s just attention seeking. But people are going missing, and Jerry wants to be invited in...

It’s surprising quite how fun this updated Fright Night has turned out to be. Not only does it hit most of the major story beats of the original, but it completely understands that odd mix of campy fun, surprising gore, and genuine creepiness. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and screenwriter Marti Noxon don’t try to make this version much darker or moodier, but they don’t make fun of the original either. The vampire next door plot is difficult to play completely straight, but Holland’s original didn’t take that path either. That being said, the clever script and excellent cast help to make Jerry Dandridge a serious threat.

It’s during the first two acts, with its cat and mouse game between Jerry and Charley, that Fright Night is strongest. Noxon has a mixed track record with vamps, as she was in charge of Buffy during its difficult fifth season, but she’s on fine form here. Her screenplay shows off the witty/scary mix that’s very reminiscent of the Slayer. Charley's home situation is played upon by Jerry, who plays upon his newly discovered masculine pride by reminding him that he’s got to look out for his single mum Jane (Toni Collette) as well as his girlfriend. Farrell’s always been an underrated villain and he hasn’t had this much fun since In Bruges. His Jerry Dandridge is quite different to Chris Sarandon’s - all brooding sexuality and jet-black predator’s eyes with a sly sense of humour. It’s great to see a vampire movie that sums up the monster’s motives with “He’s the fucking shark from Jaws!” It’s a target which Farrell aims for and hits. 

Yelchin (Star Trek) is both charismatic and gawky enough to convince as Charley, while Poots (28 Weeks Later) does well as the strong-willed Amy, though Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) doesn’t get enough to do. Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) still hasn’t shaken McLovin but at least he gets to go to a darker place. Finally, there’s a grand comic turn from David Tennant, who’s thoroughly enjoying himself as the swearing, boozing, crotch-scratching Vegas magician Peter Vincent who Charley turns to for help (quite the change from Roddy McDowall’s genteel horror movie veteran). 

The film does stumble in the third act. There’s some unnecessary back-story from Vincent that slows the film down when it should be picking up speed, and the final confrontation doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should. Meanwhile the 3D, though far from the worst we’ve seen, doesn’t particularly do much except make Vegas look gloomy, which is pretty difficult. But this is a respectful update and, for the most part, it gets the laugh/scare ratio right. It’s well-cast and performed with great relish, and it’s gory, funny stuff.

Verdict: Great fun. It’s not perfect but it’s one of the most enjoyable popcorn horror movies you’ll see this year. If only it wasn’t in 3D...

3.5/5

JH

Thursday, 25 August 2011

One Day (2011)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

It’s been a long time coming, but the highly anticipated love story of 2011 is finally here. Based on David Nicholls’ international bestselling novel of the same name, One Day tells the tale of Dexter and Emma who, after spending the day together after graduation (July 15th to be exact) end up forging a lifelong friendship. A friendship that is revisited almost every year, for over 20 years, on that same fateful day.

Verdict: Adapted for the big screen by Nicholls himself, One Day is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s charming enough: there’s chemistry between the two leads, Anne Hathaway (juggling a couple of English accents) and Jim Sturgess, the supporting cast is solid and there are funny moments in amongst the soul-searching, heartbreak and pain, but the film fails to convey the true depth of, and their emotional investment in the relationship. Days feel like seconds in One Day, so as the film reaches its climax you feel slightly cheated as you’ve not been shown much of what happens in between.

One Day is worth a look, but you probably won't remember it the next day.

3/5

FG

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Come In Number 4

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

This week sees the release on DVD of the fourth instalment in Wes Craven’s Scream series. The unsurprisingly named Scream 4 reunites director Craven, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and a bunch of the series’ stars for yet more postmodern horror fun. It joins the swelling ranks of film series which have managed to stretch to four films (and oftentimes many more beyond). These are not essential fourth instalments in sequences – not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Twilight: Breaking Dawn. They are honest to goodness sequels – sometimes unplanned, perhaps unexpected and often entirely uncalled for fourth films.
The place of the third sequel, fourquel or whatever one wishes to call it has always been a complicated one. The first number 4 film worthy of note is Ghost of Frankenstein, from Universal Studios’ monster movies of the 1940s. We had already been introduced to Frankenstein, his Bride (yes, I know, not really his bride, but take it up with the screenwriters, not me) and his Son. With a lack of family members to meet, the series stopped focussing on the unfortunate Frankenstein family and brought the monster itself to the fore, adding good old Ygor for good measure. The next adventure for the poor, misunderstood beast (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman) would see him meet up with Lon Chaney Jr’s poor, misunderstood Wolfman Larry Talbot. Something of a step down from the films preceding it, Ghost of Frankenstein marks not only the moment in which the series begins its sharp decline in quality, but also the point at which studio executives started looking beyond films being of inherent worth in themselves and saw the value in franchise branding, something which continues into the recent day where remakes sell on name alone, and Freddy vs Jason needs no explanation.

It is probably within the horror genre that the fourth sequel is most commonly found. Besides the Universal series which saw Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Frankenstein all rack up at least four films, we have examples such as the postmodern Bride of Chucky, which sees an increased humour content, as does A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream MasterHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers brings back series icon Donald Pleasance to once again do battle with the titular masked maniac, but the rest of the supporting cast are new. Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter turned out to be nothing of the sort, but it does have a sense of effort being put in to end the series on a high note.

Sometimes the fourth part of a saga is the moment when it goes completely insane. Leprechaun goes into space, as does Hellraiser (at least in part). Saw 4 went to great, convoluted lengths to get round the fact that the series no longer had a lead villain, and in a desperate attempt to keep the franchise going and escape the criticisms levelled against the complicated plotting of the previous two films, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides transposes characters from the Pirates trilogy into the plot of an entirely unrelated novel.

Another thing one finds in the fourquel, often made much later than the original trilogy, is a comment on how time has affected the protagonists. Aforementioned Halloween 4 turns Donald Pleasance’s Dr Sam Loomis into a mad, scarred and embittered creature, sometimes almost as frightening as his quarry. The recent clutch of fourth instalments following popular 80’s action franchises brought us RamboLive Free or Die Hard (or Die Hard 4.0 if you must) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (however much we wish it didn’t happen), with each one including some element of meta-narrative commentary on the surprising continuation of the careers of John Rambo, John McClane and Indiana Jones respectively.

So what can be said about the fourth film in a series? Is it emblematic of a successful series looking to diversify? Does it mark the point at which the rot sets in? Must it always comment on what has gone before? It sometimes means a change in a series – this might manifest in a new set of lead actors, the rewriting of the understood rules of the series or an attempt to reboot a franchise. However, many fourth films do not stray too far from what has gone before: Scream 4, for all its pre-release spin promising reinterpretation, actually stays close to the established formula, only offering a glimpse at something new in its closing minutes. Similarly, despite the new cast of perfectly capable actors, the film’s most vibrant moments are those in which the focus is squarely on the stars of the original trilogy. The lesson may well be that if a series is strong enough to reach a third sequel, then the elements which led it to this point are in no need of changing. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

MP

Friday, 19 August 2011

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Born on the battlefield...literally

Image: Lionsgate

Those of us with a soft spot for overblown 80s movies will remember the 1982 original Conan the Barbarian, one of the earliest action forays for the young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, almost thirty years on, Conan’s back on the big screen.

Cut out of his dying mother’s belly on the battlefield, Conan is raised by his father (Ron Perlman) to be a warrior. When evil warlord Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) kills Conan's father and destroys his village looking for part of a magic mask, Conan vows revenge. Now a fully grown warrior (Jason Momoa), he joins forces with Tamara (Rachel Nichols) to stop Zim from resurrecting his wicked bride.

The original Conan was always a bit of a guilty pleasure. It was an overblown, campy swords and sorcery flick from John Milius that didn’t bear close inspection. Its cult reputation also owes a lot to the inimitable Arnie himself. But fans of the original Robert E. Howard character didn’t feel that it was a proper representation and have been clamouring for a more faithful depiction of the barbarian. Unfortunately, this remake is nothing to be excited about. It’s silly and over the top, sure, but it’s also ploddingly dull.

After an effective opening few minutes that, sadly, contain all the best action moments, Conan falls into the usual fantasy movie trap of having a plot that’s so vague that the characters keep moving from place to place but for no apparent reason. Director Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) seems intent on making the action sequences as hard to see as possible thanks to the hurried cutting and the gloomy 3D. Speaking of the 3D, it’s been a while since it’s been quite this pointless and irritating. 

Momoa looks the part but isn’t as effective here as he was in Game of Thrones. The supporting cast is ripe with hammy turns, from Lang’s (Avatar) occasionally-accented villain to Rose McGowan (Planet Terror) as his metal-clawed, oddly-haired daughter. Nichols (GI Joe) is blank as the passive love interest/object that needs saving, and the dependable Perlman (Hellboy) appears only briefly, perhaps due to his apparent obligation to appear in every studio-made fantasy movie.

There are some fun moments to be found, largely due to the overblown nature of the material, but this is still disappointing. The gore-hounds will have some fun with Nispel’s decision to include a fair amount of viscera, but even the most easily pleased of them will still be frustrated by the lack of any decent story. 

Verdict: Not a patch on the not-that-great original. A couple of enjoyably gory moments aside, Conan is a disappointment. Morgan Freeman needs better quality control for his voiceover work.

2/5

JH

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Guard (2011)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

The Guard tells the tale of an Irish policeman (Brendan Gleeson) who must join forces with a black, American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to break up an international drug smuggling ring.

Verdict: Frank, funny, smart and shameless, The Guard is a must-see. Gleeson is at his best as the hilarious, unorthodox cop, while Cheadle shines as the fish-out-of-water agent trying to get a handle on the case, as well as his new neighbours in County Galway. It’s highly entertaining and easily the funniest film we’ve seen so far this year.

4/5

FG

Monday, 15 August 2011

Empire Presents Big Screen: Third and Final Day


The final day of Empire Big Screen was a much more relaxed affair for the Fohnhouse cats. After two days of showcases, Q&As and interviews with some of Hollywood’s finest, we decided to take it easy for the last day and enjoy the movies instead of listening to or talking about what goes in to making them.

We started of the day with the screening of Dario Argento’s classic giallo Tenebrae. The film was introduced by Argento expert Alan Jones, who told us a couple of choice titbits (Silvio Berlusconi refuses to let the film be shown uncut in Italy as his wife plays a murder victim, Adrien Brody banned Jones from the set of Argento’s last movie Giallo) before the movie started. It’s a masterpiece of the genre and it was great to see it on the big screen.

The day wouldn’t have been complete with at least one interview, and that came in the form of a chat with Monsters director Gareth Edwards, who is on board to direct the Godzilla reboot. It wasn’t a really monster interview, as he really wasn’t allowed to give away any of the dinosaur details, but he did tell us what the most random thing he had on him was: a Fantastic Four Oyster card holder and a limited edition white wristband (produced to raise money for charity) that he started wearing during the production of Monsters and hasn’t taken off since!

Gareth Edwards

After lunch we were back on the movie trail, and started off the afternoon with The Troll Hunter, the Norwegian mockumentary/horror about a student news crew that tags along with a government-funded killer of trolls. With a strong emphasis on dark humour to accompany some tense moments and homemade effects, it’s reminiscent of last year’s Rare Exports and we highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that film.

It went from trolls to barbarians next as we hopped over to the Superscreen for the European Fans’ premiere of Conan the Barbarian 3D, hosted by the new Conan, Jason Momoa. Sadly the movie wasn’t even half as impressive as the man himself.

After the disappoint of the first premiere of the night, we ended the evening at the UK premiere of Fright Night, also hosted by one of its stars, David Tennant, who popped in to tell us that it was Fright Night! It was a great choice of film to end the event on, a funny, sexy, (slightly) scary crowd-pleaser.

All in all in wasn’t a bad few days. We didn’t see as much as we would have liked, and the movie line-up contained a lot of old and not nearly enough new, but there were some real gems sprinkled in amongst the chaos.

FG, JH

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Empire Presents Big Screen: Day 2


After the excitement of Friday’s opening day, we were back at the festival on Saturday to see what excitement day 2 would bring us. Could it really get better than apes, centipedes, Dracula and a couple of warriors?

First up on our to-attend list was the Warner Bros. showcase. They delivered some good-looking trailers, including The Dark Knight Rises teaser, the gorily fun opening scene from Final Destination 5, and a video blog from Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit, which focused on the actors playing the dwarves. We moved from 3D gore up to a screening of Wes Craven’s 90s classic horror satire Scream. It was fantastic on the big screen, and there’ll be a full classic review soon.

We then headed off to hear Marvel super artist Adi Granov talk about his work on the Iron Man comic book relaunch, as well as the Iron Man film franchise and upcoming Avengers movie.

We’re all familiar with Tony Stark’s gold and red suit of armour, so it was interesting to hear that for The Avengers, the film’s producer actually wanted a suit that was radically different from what we’ve seen in the Iron Man films. It’s a new franchise, it’s further into the future, and so they wanted that to reflect in the design of the suit. However, upon seeing the new designs that Granov had produced, they changed their minds and decided, not liking the direction in which Granov was going (it included a visible spine!), to stick to what we know and love.

It was all about the music next as we dropped in on composer David Arnold speaking about his scores, including the James Bond soundtracks, Amazing Grace (one of his favourites) and his work with Roland Emmerich, which was followed by a session with the director himself. Stayed tuned for our interview.

We also chatted to the director of the upcoming fantasy mockumentary The Troll Hunter, André Øvredal, who told us that we can expect a lot more great Scandinavian movies in the future now that the region is acquiring the production funds.

The 30 Minutes or Less screening was completely packed out, but we managed to grab a seat at the front. The Jesse Eisenberg/Danny McBride/Aziz Ansari comedy from the director of Zombieland wasn’t perfect but it got big laughs from the audience. It’s dark, crude, and pretty mean, but Eisenberg and Ansari make a great team.

After the film we made a pretty serious attempt to get into the Secret Screening but, even though we were near the front of the queue for those without tickets, we were told there was no room. Obviously we were a little disappointed at missing out – we hear it was a good one – but it was still an eventful day, and it's not over yet. We'll be back tomorrow with the finale report.

FG, JH

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Empire Presents Big Screen: Day 1


EMPIRE PRESENTS BIG SCREEN kicked off yesterday, taking over The O2 for 3 days to bring the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to the gritty, mean streets of London and the spiked, usually musical arena.

This is a first for the popular movie magazine, which aims to bring its Empire to life (annually) in every conceivable way for the film fans, so naturally, we wee Wandercats travelled down to the entertainment hub to get in on the action.

First on our agenda was the 20th Century Fox showcase. Empire’s head honcho introduced proceedings before Fox exec Chris Green presented a series of trailers, including In Time and The Darkest Hour. Our pick of the bunch was Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, a tough-looking drama starring Fohnhouse favourite John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone). There was also a sneak preview of the 3D conversion of Titanic. The scenes looked good but we’re not sure if it’s enough to make us shell out our cash for another ride on the ultimately sinking ship.

Mark Gatiss was also on hand to briefly discuss the second series of the BBC’s much-loved Sherlock. Refusing to give too much away, he told Hewitt that the second series was different from the first because “It’s the second one”. He told the crowd that he was perfectly happy to co-exist with the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movies, and that The Hobbit production was actually working around Sherlock, giving Martin Freeman three months to film his part as John Watson. He felt that Sherlock Holmes adaptations had become too much about “The fog and the hansom cabs” rather than the friendship, and that Sherlock was a rare opportunity to look at how these two men formed their friendship.

We moved quickly to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: THE SECRETS OF WETA, in which visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon spoke about the process of turning motion-capture maestro Andy Serkis into the humanly expressive yet realistic ape Caesar. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Weta’s work, they are the digital powerhouse behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and the record-breaking Avatar. The secrets of Weta were juicy, funny and unrivalled, and these curious cats loved it.

There was no time for a break as we subequently dashed over to the “Comic Book World” for an interview with artist and Watchmen creator Dave Gibbons. Speaking to him about his style, as well as the technical skills required in the industry, he simply stated that acquiring “indispensable”, unique skills is the main thing.

In Kim Newman’s Chamber of Horrors the man himself held a Q and A, taking questions about everything from his favourite Dracula (he favours the original Nosferatu) to the Video Nasties. We asked him what he thought about the “found footage” horror trend, and he told us that, although he thought it was coming to an end, the upcoming Troll Hunter showed that there was some life in it yet. He let us in on the trade secret that once a trend gets to a Mummy movie, that’s usually the death knell, so we’ll know if we ever see a film about a documentary team going into a pyramid that the found footage phenomenon is over.

After a short break Mr. Newman welcomed The Human Centipede writer/director Tom Six on stage. As you’re probably aware, The Human Centipede 2 was recently denied a certificate by the BBFC, and Newman and Six discussed whether censorship was ever right and if Six felt singled out by the censors. Six was amiable and witty, telling the audience that at first he was pleased to be banned as it put him in such good company as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but now it’s a real problem. His first appeal has been overturned, and with the film coming out soon in America and Australia, he’s worried that British audiences will download it illegally rather than wait indefinitely for it. “It’s very stupid that grown-ups can’t choose for themselves” he said. “It’s a horror film, not a Disney film.” He joked that a film like Harry Potter is more dangerous, as it’s more plausible that a child would jump off a roof clutching a broomstick rather than someone actually trying to make a human centipede. On the other hand, Six is thrilled with how the film has become a part of pop culture, with everything from South Park references to student musicals. He is preparing to shoot Part 3 in America next year, and gleefully told us “It will upset a lot of people!” When Newman told him that he’d said the same thing about Part 2 and “look what happened!”, Six grinned and said that he’ll make the film he wants to make. Asked about a Hollywood remake, he replied that it would only work with stars, and that if they could get “Tom Cruise on his knees!” he would love to direct it. Six was funny and charming, especially given he was firing out sound bites like “The whole world is focused on the sandpaper and the barb-wire raping.”

From body horror to teen comedy, next up was the WRITING THE INBETWEENERS discussion. Iain Morris and Damon Beesley frankly and wittily discussed the issues of turning a 20 minute sitcom into a 96 minute film. They talked about the influence of films like Swingers when creating believable dialogue for a group of friends, and how they chose the holiday plot for the film as they are continuing to base the group’s story on their own experiences. There were plenty of anecdotes from shooting the series, and the overall impression was how much they all enjoyed working together. They told the audience that the film would be the last Inbetweeners adventure, and that they had both got a bit emotional when watching the final cut for the first time.

After a morning and an afternoon filled with good conversation, we decided to end our day by attending a movie screening. And not just any screening. A secret screening (one of three that’ll be taking place over the course of the weekend). Friday night’s secret turned out to be the heavyweight flick Warrior. Starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, Warrior tells the tale of two estranged brothers who are forced together by their mutual interest in the world of mixed martial arts. It was a tremendous revelation, and a pleasant end to the first day. Stay tuned for day two…

FG, JH

Friday, 12 August 2011

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Image: Warner Bros

Comic book movies aside, it’s been a summer of big-grossing R-rated comedies, with The Hangover Part 2 and Bridesmaids scoring big at the box office. Now it’s Horrible Bosses’ turn to try its hand.

Nick (Jason Bateman) toils away for slave-driving psycho Harken (Kevin Spacey). Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) has to deal with Pellit (Colin Farrell), the sleazy cokehead who’s just inherited the business. And Dale (Charlie Day) is being sexually harassed by the voracious Julia (Jennifer Aniston). The three friends decide to kill their bosses, but it’s not going to be easy.

In terms of attracting an audience, the biggest draw is clearly supposed to be the bosses themselves, with Farrell, Spacey and Aniston cutting loose and hamming it up gleefully. But it’s the actors playing the hapless trio of employees that are the best reason to watch Horrible Bosses

Bateman (Juno) has been in need of a really good starring vehicle since the much mourned Arrested Development, and although this isn’t it, he shares a great chemistry with his two co-stars. Sudeikis (SNL, Hall Pass) brings an easy charm to his sleazier character, while Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is very funny indeed as the skittish and naive Dale. Jamie Foxx also scores laughs as their “murder consultant” Motherfucker Jones. 

The general plot is pretty dark stuff, but director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong, Four Christmases) keeps the pace brisk and avoids dwelling on anything too mean-spirited (well, mostly). The film works best when it allows the three leads room to riff off each other. A succession of well-constructed in-jokes, quick-fire dialogue, and obscure movie references (Snow Falling on Cedars, anyone?) make their scenes tremendously enjoyable. Things get a little trickier when we’re asked to believe that a trio this likeable and relatable could seriously consider murdering anyone. They’re still good when they’re split up, but the scenes with their bosses grow repetitive. We get it: Spacey’s evil, Aniston’s a nymphomaniac, and Farrell is repulsive (although the latter gets a lot less screen-time). 

It’s let down by a disappointing ending and there are surprisingly few big laughs, but if you’re looking for an entertaining way to pass 90-odd minutes, Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day make it worth your time. 

Verdict: Funny, but not hysterical, it’s the three on-form lead actors that are worth paying to see.

3/5

JH

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Image: Paramount Pictures

JJ Abrams is one of the most important and influential figures in sci-fi today. With Super 8, he’s brought us a nostalgic monster movie produced by Steven Spielberg. Can it be as impressive as it sounds?

It’s 1979 in a small town in Ohio. 13-year-old Joe (Joel Courtney) is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a Super 8 zombie movie. While on location with their friends one night they witness an explosive train crash. Something has escaped from the wreckage and the military move in to contain the threat. 

From the Amblin logo onwards it’s impossible to ignore the Spielberg influence on this film. Happily, Abrams is paying homage to some of the best of the master’s back catalogue. Super 8 is essentially a big love-letter to E.T., with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t match these films, but it’s certainly good enough to stand on its own monstrous extraterrestrial feet.

One of the lessons that Abrams has learned from the early Spielberg classics is the importance of the characters’ relationships. At times it’s easy to forget that there’s a sci-fi element to Super 8. It is, above all else, a story about a boy who is overcoming grief and falling for a girl who has a similarly complicated home life. The patented Spielberg damaged families are present and correct, as Joe and his police deputy dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) communicate as little as possible, both emotionally wounded by the death of Joe’s mother. Meanwhile, Alice (Elle Fanning) has to cope with her drunken deadbeat dad Louis (Ron Eldard) who is somehow connected to Joe’s mother’s death. 

Abrams also shows a movie geek’s love of movies. The glimpses of Charles’ film are wonderfully believable and earnest. Charles screams “Production value!”, star Martin moans about new pages, and Joe first gets close to Alice when applying her make-up. It’s at this stage that we get the spectacular train crash which sets the larger plot in motion. These action sequences are surprisingly infrequent; it’s nice to see a film that knows the importance of a good lull. That being said, it’s during these lulls that the story’s shortfalls and lack of a real plot become apparent. But the set pieces themselves are expertly done. There is a great, unpredictable mix of slow build and sudden shocks, with a sequence on a bus the nerve-shredding standout. 

Vitally, the performances from the child cast are superb, with Courtney and Fanning (Somewhere) the standouts. While there are no stars, there are familiar faces in the adult cast. There are solid turns from Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Eldard (Black Hawk Down), and Noah Emmerich (The Walking Dead) who plays a sinister Air Force Colonel.

It’s certainly enjoyable all the way through, with thrilling sequences and moments of great tenderness. But things noticeably slow down at the 60 minute mark as Abrams seems to be unsure of how to fill the time before the climax. Story-wise, the film is very predictable as he refuses to veer from the beaten track. However, Super 8 does kick back into gear with a nail-biting build towards a slightly unsatisfactory ending. 

Verdict: It may not be the great meeting of minds that sci-fi fans were hoping for, but with great performances and a lot of heart, Super 8 is, for the most part, an immensely entertaining love-letter to the finest work of one of the industry’s best. 

3/5

JH

Monday, 8 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Reimagined apes rebooted.

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

The last time we saw the Planet of the Apes franchise on our screens, it was the best-forgotten Tim Burton “re-imagining” starring Mark Wahlberg. Not exactly a high benchmark to reach, then, but there’s a definite need to get it right this time.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is researching a cure for Alzheimer’s using apes as test subjects. When all the apes are put down, he finds an unnoticed newborn which he takes home. He and his father (John Lithgow) christen him Caesar, and discover he’s inherited the benefits of the serum. As he grows, it’s clear that Caesar (Andy Serkis) is incredibly intelligent, and may represent the permanent cure for the disease. But Caesar quickly becomes aware of his place in the world.

It’s a good idea to move the action back to the not-too-distant future, on a recognisable planet earth. Rise is certainly sci-fi, but it’s grounded in a realistic setting that allows the audience, and the filmmakers, to focus on the characters and the relationship between Will and Caesar. And even if Will’s moral dilemma is never quite satisfactorily explained, Caesar’s growing awareness of his difference to his surrogate family and his responsibilities to his kind are developed slowly and carefully.

Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the sadly under-seen Brit prison drama The Escapist, has a steady hand on the pace of the film, holding back on any big action set pieces until the finale. And while the story may not be especially complex, it’s told very competently. The screenplay (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) doesn’t exactly give us a lot of surprises but the relationships are well-constructed so we care about Caesar very quickly.

Franco is solid in a relatively colourless lead role, and quietly convinces in both his friendship with Caesar and his relationship with his father. Lithgow is typically excellent as Will’s Alzheimer’s suffering dad, and is given much more to work with than Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), who plays Will’s ape-expert girlfriend. Elsewhere, Brian Cox (Red), Tom Felton (Harry Potter), and David Oyelowo (Spooks) add varying shades of villainy. But it’s the man in the motion capture suit who really steals the show, as Serkis shows once again why he’s always the first actor on the list for the job. Caesar is a triumph of Weta technology and Serkis’ performance.

Some summer crowds may complain that the action is kept until too late in the film, while some audience members may feel the issues raised are treated a little too simplistically. But Wyatt knows what he’s doing, and the film is intelligent and heartfelt. For a summer blockbuster, that’s a rare combination indeed.

Verdict: Brains and heart make Rise a worthwhile reboot. Kudos to Wyatt and his team for reinvigorating a knackered franchise.

3.5/5

JH