Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Dark Knight Rises

Lowdown: New baddies force Bruce Wayne to put on the cape again.
Review:
Events have transpired to give The Dark Knight Rises historical importance. I, however, fully know by now that I am no fan of Christopher Nolan; I took my time watching his latest effort. Indeed, I was proven right: I will remember his third and final (?) Batman, sequel to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for reasons that do not have much with the movie itself.
I will start with the film, which I have enjoyed but - as per my usual Nolan experience - felt bloated and too in love with itself. The Dark Knight returns to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) several years after the former episode. Without much of a reminder to what took place in that former episode, we are told Batman had since retired. However, Wayne is not in the clear: a mysterious woman, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), collaborates with even more mysterious baddies to strip Wayne of all his fortunes. Even his loyal servant Alfred (Michael Cain) leaves him. And in parallel, the new baddies cease control over Gotham City (played by New York) and look like they are going to wipe it out with the aid of makeshift nuclear weapons. Not, however, if Batman can rise again from his all time low and re-find his passion.
Thus Nolan finds ample ground for his usual theological like ponderings. These are probably more relevant to Americans than the rest of us, as the discussion on who the real terrorist is when the law enforcement agencies themselves blatantly fail to supply justice is portrayed in very American terms. Alas, the discussion, as interesting as it is, is far too long for its own good. Don't get me wrong, though: whatever remains of this film is quite thrilling and exciting enough to create an enjoyable watch. It even provides nice closure to the trilogy, or rather as nice a closure as can be achieved. It's just that, again, I simply do not like Nolan's style enough to truly feel blessed by his work.
That other thing:
When all is said and done, The Dark Knight Rises is a film I am going to remember for completely different reasons. We watched this film off a rented Blu-ray, and as impressive as its quality was that disc we rented had some scratches I could not wipe clean. Repeatedly we had to suffer from mysterious pauses and skipping that worked their way to totally ruin the flow of the film and our overall experience. Now you could say "bad luck" and dismiss it all; I, however, will argue that this came as a timely reminder for the death of the consumption of media through plastic discs. Sure, Blu-rays are able to supply much better quality than the Internet can; but what good is that quality if it is unreliable? What good is that quality if it forces me to plan my movie watching days ahead instead of watch whatever I want whenever I want? And more importantly, why can't the movie studios let me watch the film off the Internet?
Plastic media is dead for me, killed off by a Dark Knight.
Overall: Poor personal experience aside, The Dark Knight Rises gets 3 out of 5 stars from me.

Friday, 26 April 2013

John Carter

Lowdown: An American civil war veteran finds himself in the thick of a civil war on Mars.
Review:
The main thing everyone knows by now about John Carter is that the film's one of the biggest financial flops ever in the field of cinema. It therefore raises the question of why; hence me watching it. After all, as bad as it probably is, it is still a science fiction movie filled with special effects. There shouldn't be too much suffering involved, right?
Actually, I found the beginning - or rather, the first hour or so - to be quite intriguing. After a short exposition we follow John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an American civil war veteran coming from the losing side. Generally disenchanted with life and everything, he finds himself in the middle of a conflict between northern soldiers, Indians and himself. A conflict from which he's rescued through a mysterious event that sends him all the way to Mars.
Carter's Mars is different to the one science is now telling us about. It is brimming with life, both monster like and humanoid like, with the humanoids embroiled in a war between two sides that happen to be conveniently divided into red and blue. Thus a more than coincidental analogy to the USA's Democrats vs. the Republicans, with, it has to be said, the film heavily leaning towards the Democrat side. At least that's where the pretty token female role is and thus where Carter's heart leans; the Republicans, on the other hand, are manipulated by a bunch of mysterious weirdos wielding magical powers (led by Mark Strong) that happen to be the true baddies of the film.
Alas, after the movie gets into gear it seems to lose the plot. Everything turns uninspiring, predictable, and - well - standard. John Carter turns into a film of a type we've watched many times before, a film demonstrating the weakness of contemporary Hollywood: no creativity, but lots of uninspiring, special effects driven action scenes.
Throw in an ending that no really an ending but more like a setup to a sequel that by now we know is never going to come, and you got all the ingredients of a proper flop.
Overall: Redundant and uninspiring. 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

Lowdown: The timid alien has to rescue his flashy and heroic brother from Earth.
Review:
Did you, like me, have enough of computer animated movies for kids, especially those released just on time for school holidays? Did you, like me, find yourself heading to the cinema still with your child, because one has to do something during school holidays? If that is the case then I can report Escape from Planet Earth, which we watched this Good Friday, proved pleasantly good. That is, it was made to the exact same formula we've grown so tired of, the good old Pixar imitation; yet it packs enough punch to make it a cut above the rest.
The story follows two alien brothers. One of them is the heroic one that does foolishly brave things all the time (like baby rescue missions on dangerous remote planets).  As a result, he gains the public's admiration. The other is the one behind the scenes that actually saves the day, more or less. One day the brave brother is tasked to go to earth, where he is quickly captured by the forces of one General Shanker. And then it is up to the other brother to save the day! Only that things are not that simple: it turns out Shanker has a plan up his sleeve, a plan that in a very Old Man's War like manner involves humanity rising on top of all the alien species that currently hold superior status to earth's humanity.
Why is it that I liked Escape from Planet Earth, then? I mean it's not like the plot sounds too revolutionary. Yet the film has a bit of an edge of it which I can perhaps explain through the presence of some names involved with the project. The cast features one Ricky Gervais while one Stephen Fry was involved in the writing, for a start. Then there is one William Shatner portraying the role of one evil general Shanker and doing a very good job indeed. It's not like the names are just there for star power: those names really give the movie an edge.
Gervais and Fry, for example, are famous atheists. And that particular state of mind is evident in Escape from Planet Earth. Not that the movie discusses religion much, but that whole point of view of earth being just one of many planets and humanity not being anything special when compared to other members of the galaxy is closely related to the minds of people unbound by religion. I would also point out these are very Mass Effect like themes, too, and you know how much I fall for Mass Effect.
Overall: Sure, Escape from Planet Earth is one of many. It is not too bad, either. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Total Recall

Lowdown: A remake of 1990’s Total Recall.
Review:
I consider 1990’s Total Recall, as made by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be one of the best science fiction movies ever produced; as an extension I consider it one of my favorite movies of all time. Later on when I stumbled upon the Phillip K. Dick short story on which that movie was based I learned the movie is nothing like its origins. It is because of this distance that I was automatically assuming the 2012 movie also branded as Total Recall would offer a version more loyal to Dick’s original. Wrong: as I quickly found out, the new Total Recall movie is a remake of the old Total Recall movie.
Things start in a rather promising way. The very first frame announces that this one is an “Original Productions” title. Things deteriorate pretty quickly, though, as it becomes evident some scenes have even been copied one to one from the “original” (cue in a scene with the three breasted woman). The premises are slightly different: instead of Mars being a subdued colony we have Australia being a subdued colony of Britain, but the rest is pretty much the same. The key differences? A much heavier reliance on special effects, which is to no one’s surprise given that digital effects weren’t around in 1990; a much heavier reliance on action scenes, with them being longer; an overall portrayal of a very Blade Runner like world; and, of course, different actors. There is a political message here, about us being led into unjustified wars by our leaders, but that message is drowned by everything else.
Watching Total Recall turned out to be quite an off-putting experience. It’s not that the film is bad, it’s just that instead of focusing on the film at hand I could not avoid running concurrent comparisons between this one and the first. And I have to say, other than the special effects department, the first wins every time. The area where it totally trumps over this new Total Recall is originality: not just by virtue of it being there first, but by it offering snippets of original ideas here and there – a 3D game of tennis, public transport porn scanners – that the new version either blatantly copies or totally misses out on.
And yes, then there is the matter of the actors. Again, comparisons are inevitable, and while Colin Farrell is a hundred times the actor Schwarzenegger was, he lacks that wink Arnie had on him throughout the film. He also fails to convince he can repeatedly terminate a whole army of henchmen, something that was never an issue for the big man. Jessica Biel does Melina well enough, but Kate Beckinsale is an absolute disgrace in the role of the wife turned assassin. I don’t know how to put the vast disappointment that her portrayal of this character is into words, but I will say this – Sharon Stone was SO much better it renders Beckinsale pathetic.
Altogether, the above raises one major question – why? Why did we need a new Total Recall? And why did we need one that subtracts rather than adds to the original? I guess the answer, if it exists, lies in some bean counting department. Yet I have to ask why the actors, director and the rest of the artists here chose to take part in this effort.
Interesting scene: The very end provides us with two clues as to whether our hero is dreaming or really living the story. Again, by sticking with ambiguity, the original was better.
Overall: If you have never seen the original then you will probably enjoy this one. It’s a fair sci-fi action flick that probably comes to around 3.5 out of 5 stars. But if you did, prepare yourself for an experience that is different to the movie watching you’ve done thus far. Prepare yourself for a two hour long disappointing comparison.

Monday, 8 April 2013

War Horse

Lowdown: A boy and his horse separate and reunite at both ends of World War 1.
Review:
What can I say about Steven Spielberg? The guy directed some of my favorite films, the stuff I grew up on (see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Lately, though, the guy's been producing duds (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). So which way is it with Spielberg? My theory is that the older and more mature I get, the less appealing I find Spielberg's stuff to be. War Horse, it seems, was made for the sole purpose of confirming this theory of mine.
The story takes place around both ends of World War 1. We start off with a hard working farmer's family from Devon, the Narracotts. The father falls in love, if you can say that, with a young horse and buys him at an auction by offering much more than he can afford. Especially given this particular specimen is more of a racing than a working horse. The son doesn't give up on the horse and together they plow the toughest fields at the toughest conditions before an entire bewildered village and the eyes of the skeptic land owner (who doesn't seem alike the classy material of Downton Abbey's nobility). Classic Spielberg stuff.
Then the war erupts, and the father that finally comes to his financial senses sells the horse to an army officer heading for France. That army officer perishes with most of his company at his very first cavalry charge - as one should have expected when charging machine guns. The horse survives, though, and moves into German hands. Thus starts a long tale of ownership changes between German, French and English sides. War tragedies strike on all sides, and eventually the question turns into whether the horse and the boy (now enlisted to the British army) will reunite.
As I have already hinted, this tale is full of saccharine and improbabilities. War Horse is also full of familiar actor faces; apparently, actors line up to Spielberg's call. What War Horse lacks, however, is any sort of spirit: things are predictable and super corny. So much so that I think I have managed to narrow down my quarrel with Spielberg to this: Spielberg is a director who wishes to assume total control of his spectators' feelings; there is no room left for thinking on the spectator's side. That explains his films' heavy reliance soundtracks, for a start; it also explains why I used to like him more as a kid than I do now.
Quarrel identified, I moved on to thinking why War Horse. As in, what does Spielberg seek to find in this over simplistic story of a complicated time in human history? My theory is based around Spielberg's need to say something about key junction points in the field of humanity. He said things about slavery, he said things about World War 2, he even put us inside gas chambers; World War 1 was a gap in his repertoire that needed addressing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and Spielberg's portrayal of the war is probably one of the better ones ever seen as far as accuracy is concerned. But again, the whole thing feels so artificially manipulative. Say, for example, the scene where our horse brings a temporary ceasefire ala Joyeux Noel (which, may I remind you, was not only there first but is actually based on true events).
Best scene: The second auction for the hero horse, at the end of the film, provides touching closure to our story. If, that is, it wasn't so predictably cheesy.
Overall: Sadly, War Horse is way too sticky with sweetness and manipulation for its own good. 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Looper

Lowdown: A hitman finds needs to kill his future self in order to survive in the present.
Review:
Time travel movies seem to be a dime a dozen these days. They all suffer from that good old time paradox credibility problem, but some handle it better than others; in Looper's case, which happens to be the case of this particular review, the movie is all about the time paradox. As in, you know that good old question of what would happen to you were you to kill your father? Well, that roughly is what Looper is all about.
Our hero is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), only that he's not really a hero in the classic sense of the word. Living in our future, he's a hired killer with a twist: his job is to kill people sent back in time from his own future. Apparently, in the future it's hard to get rid of bodies; the easiest way is to send them back in time to our Joe for execution and disposal. Joe is good at his job and he saves a lot of money as a result, but there is a catch: his last kill would be his thirty years older self, which would thus conclude his contract. Only that his thirty years older self (Bruce Willis) is not so keen on dying; he has found himself in the future, turned good by the love of his life, and he's not about to give up on that life for the sake of this younger no good killer that he was. Thus younger Joe has a quarrel with older Joe, aided by the fact his gang of criminals want Bruce dead just the same but hindered by them not minding killing him in order to get Bruce. Add to the equation a lovely lady (Emily Blunt, who seem to specialize in this science fiction niche since The Adjustment Bureau) as a single mother and a love interest and you got yourself an action flick with a bit of a twist. A time paradox twist.
I heard of people that thought Looper was the best thing ever and I heard of people who responded with a "meh". I'm somewhere in between: Looper is good entertainment, and if you're looking for meaning then this old and wise vs. young and restless is a good analogy for what happens to us all as we get old; it's a somewhat good analogy for the friction between generations in general. Yet I have one big reservation and it is to do with the whole setup: sure, let us assume time travel is available; would you really expect it to be used solely for the purpose of body disposal? Why not travel back in time to win the lottery or make a killing at the stock exchange?
Indeed, the movie seems like it's too much in love with itself. For example, in order to cater for the major twist that has to come at its end, it introduces the whole complicated concept of mutants. Again, that's a big stretch that hurts the film's credibility.
Overall: A nice action film that would have probably been a terrific short given its shoddy background story. Such circumstances would not require as much thinking. In this incarnation, though, I will give it 3 out of 5 stars.