Monday 22 August 2011

Movie Review - Cowboys & Aliens

As the 2011 summer movie season draws to a smooth closure, Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens has arrived with a bizarre fusion of cowboys and alien invaders (you knew that already? Oh, I wonder how...). Does it manage to blend these two premises in an ideal fashion? Well, the answer is yes. And no.

In 1873 New Mexico, a man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakes in the desert with a strange metal band attached to his wrist and no memory of his past. He soon stumbles across the small town of Absolution; not only discovering that he is a wanted criminal, but also witnessing a large group of extra-terrestrial invaders kidnap innocent locals. With the only weapon capable of fighting back, Jake must now lead a team alongside Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) to rescue the locals, defeat the enemy and, most importantly, find out where exactly he came from.

Seeing the Western aesthetics juxtaposed alongside soaring CGI space ships isn't as crude as it may initially sound; it's something that may not seem ideal to some, but the visual side of this film is actually very impressive. A good selection of shooting locations help to set and maintain the Western vibe the movie exudes, a factor also complimented by some nicely crafted sets. It's all wonderfully shot, too; the camerawork often seems to draw attention to the expansive environments the characters often navigate through, which again compliments the Western spirit of the film. The CGI effects used when the extra-terrestrial villains enter the fray are also nicely done, but it's ultimately pretty generic and not as impressive as the aforementioned Western scenics.

As we begin in the same situation as our main character, with no knowledge of his past, the story feels a lot more interesting. And it does unfold pretty nicely; well, for part of the film. It gradually explains numerous unanswered questions, and what it does explain is exactly the problem. I won't spoil, but let's just say there's a lot of really daft plot elements in here that not only feel incredibly tacky but also extremely cliché; for instance, the true motivations of our alien villains or the actual identities of some the characters. Speaking of the aliens, they're main problem is a complete scarcity of intimidation or mystery. There's simply no interesting substance to them because they're just generic creatures who never emit any sort of fear; not only this, but their dramatic entrances which spawn some of the set pieces (which, in fairness, are pretty awesome) are rather sporadic. When it comes to the characters, they are quite likeable, especially Lonergan and the Colonel, and they share a solid chemistry together. Well, as long as you ignore the incredibly bland romance that Lonergan and Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) share.

A strong cast featuring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell helps give Cowboys & Aliens a little more momentum with its characters and, to a small degree, its story. The performances are universally excellent, with Craig bringing a gritty yet somewhat comedic charisma to Jake Lonergan (not to mention providing a solid Western accent) and Ford establishing the Colonel as a warrior with a heart. The only real downside is the flat nature of some of the well acted characters; some of them are killed off quickly before trying to be established as an importance, but a few who remain are exceedingly uninteresting (Olivia Wilde comes to mind, despite her being really hot), yet sometimes the movie wants to take them seriously and try to act as if the audience genuinely cares for them.

I didn't expect a masterpiece when I saw this movie, and what I eventually watched was certainly not that. However, if you can bury through the flaws that Cowboys & Aliens suffers from, you'll uncover a reasonably solid and entertaining summer movie. Excellent visuals and performances help to redeem it from some of its faults, but ultimately only those who were interested from the start should give it a watch.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Movie Review - The Inbetweeners Movie

The Inbetweeners is easily one of my favourite television comedies, capturing the awkward vibe of teenage life and blending it superbly with a hilarious wit. So although I'm inevitably saddened by the third series drawing the show to a closure, the big screen adaptation is here to give our hysterical quartet a satisfying write off, and believe me, you fans certainly won't feel short changed.

Having left sixth form, the lads Jay (James Buckley), Simon (Joe Thomas), Neil (Blake Harrison) and Will (Simon Bird) depart for a two week clunge-tastic holiday in Malia, Crete. But things don't go according to plan as the chances of them getting laid by four generous girls they repeatedly encounter begin to deteriorate, causing them to turn on each other unsurprisingly and stir up pure madness in the process.

The Inbetweeners Movie truly is a delight for those who adore the television series; yes, in some parts the gags are of extremely bad taste, and it doesn't possess the same level of wit as its small screen counterpart, but there's going to be a plethora of moments where fans will feel right at home. The characters are their usual, socially inept selves, causing pure teenage mayhem wherever they set foot and managing to turn a basic conversation into a dramatic and equally comedic nightmare. Though the age certificate may suggest otherwise, it's a tad more crude than the show in some respects (you will see for yourself), and it never feels watered down to simply attract a wider audience.

In terms of story, there isn't much depth to this movie. It's essentially just a series of funny events that set up the next. The backbone of the story is certainly here to keep the events sewn together nicely, but it's ultimately the characters and their idiocy that's being focused on, which works just fine. There's a few pacing problems here and there, and some forced emotional scenes (though in all honesty I doubt any of them were intended to be taken seriously) but these don't detract from the solid sense of humour the movie possesses. Though truly a satisfying conclusion for these great, eccentric characters, there's a distinct (albeit not unexpected) lack of depth to the script.

The acting is where the jokes are truly brought to life in a flawless manner; our main quartet steal the show easily with their awkward, snide and downright silly performances, triggering most of the laughs throughout these 95 minutes. The other series favourites like gargantuan dickhead Mister Gilbert and Jay's insane father make small yet hilarious appearances, and the four girls who debut (Laura Haddock, Tamla Kari, Jessica Knappett, Lydia Rose Bewley), while certainly not the source of all the laughs, are a pleasure to watch all the same.

A hilarious if imperfect experience from start to finish, The Inbetweeners Movie succeeds in creating a big screen adventure that almost matches the brilliance of the television series (yes, almost) and will certainly please all long time fans, including you 12 year olds who will undoubtedly sneak into the cinema. Those uninterested certainly won't be won over, but this is utterly essential for those who adore the previous misadventures of the four beloved lads.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Movie Review - Rise of the Planet of the Apes

A decade has passed since Tim Burton's critically panned remake of the 1968 hit Planet of the Apes, and now this classic series is being steered into a new direction with this 2011 reboot that starts afresh; establishing a brand new origin story for a future series and divulging the events that triggered the ape's reign over our world. Far from a lazy cash in, Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds in breathing new life into this somewhat familiar tale, and will surely leave audiences hungry for more.

The story focuses on Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee whose intelligence is radically boosted when his owner Will Rodman (James Franco) tests a potential cure for Alzheimer's on him. Disdained by society and soon imprisoned amongst other apes, Caesar bestows the same intellect boosting virus on his fellow captives, leading to an all out war between apes and humans which will ultimately decide the fate of mankind.

Unlike past iterations, the apes present in this film are all products of computer technology; advanced CGI motion capturing was utilized to model and animate them, which is done in a very lifelike fashion. The mannerisms, movements and facial expressions are all exceedingly realistic, managing to capture the typical behaviours of a chimpanzee yet also conveying a powerful level of humanely emotion to the audience. There are times where the apes look rather synthetic, but it doesn't detract from the experience and for the most part the effects are astounding.

Initially, the story's pacing seems a bit too quick, rushing into the birth of Caesar and his human like cognition without focusing a great deal on the characters. It's not a major issue, however, and it ends shortly upon Caesar's entrance when the emotional complexity is surprisingly well thought out. Caesar is a character explored strictly through mannerisms and facial expressions which, thanks to a fantastic performance by Andy Serkis, works magnificently in communicating a great deal of passion to the audience. The focus here is certainly not apes overthrowing mankind; it's the motivations behind it, which is something evident by the action sequences only being present in the final act, so that viewers can expect a satisfying story and not an endless barrage of noisy violence.

James Franco stars as Will Rodman, the scientist behind Caesar's radical intelligence. The character isn't explored a great deal when compared to Caesar himself, but Franco's performance is still solid, which is more than I can say for co-star Tom Malfoy...I mean Felton. Not only is his character a complete stereotype with no sense behind his actions, but the performance was relatively weak, lacking any real interest and making the character stick out like a sore thumb alongside the rest of the performances (do I really need to bring up Caesar again?).

Though not without its problems, the first of which being an annoying title, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still brilliant summer entertainment. The story is well told and very temperamental, the effects are truly stunning and Caesar is just downright awesome. If the level of quality demonstrated throughout this film carries over into the inevitable sequels, then Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set to pioneer something truly great.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Movie Review - Super 8

Lens flares. Annoying scattered rays of light that dare to interfere with the lenses of innocent little cameras, often rendering what is recorded undetectable. But in the far reaches of the galaxy, there exists a man; a man unlike any other. A man who has mastered the art of lens flare-ography, in order to incorporate the most exaggerated and colourful lens flares into his motion pictures. 

He goes by the name J.J Abrams. And now I will review Super 8, which also has lens flares, courtesy of our aforementioned mastermind.

The story, set in 1979, revolves around a group of children who witness a devastating train crash when filming their own zombie movie. What follows is a series of inexplicable disappearances, attacks and sightings as the children come to realize that the train crash was no accident; and that it has released a menacing presence into their town.

Visually, Super 8 is a very dark film. A large portion of it is set during the nighttime (WITH MANY LENS FLARES), sometimes giving the viewer limited visibility which helps to draw you into the experience, upping the mystery factor so that you end up feeling just as nervous as the characters themselves. It's actually very effective; the alien is rarely shown fully (don't worry, it's not down to stupidly rickety camera movements) so the level of suspense reaches a powerful peak in some scenes, and it provides a sinister atmosphere which compliments the story and themes nicely. A fantastic musical score (composed by Michael Giacchino) also gives life to the film's scenes, escalating the chaos during some of the set pieces, yet also helping to move the temperamental moments at an ideal pace. It's not all great, though; at some points I grew tired of them trying to conceal the appearance of the alien, and felt as if the movie was just trying to annoy me.

The story unfolds nicely as everything progresses. We're left in the dark initially in regards to several character motives and other plot elements, but these are all tied up as we follow the main characters' attempt to figure out the reasoning behind the strange occurrences in their town. It sort of plays out like a mystery tale which the characters must solve, and this is effective in keeping you hooked throughout the course of the story. But after all this tension, build up and eventual explanation, I was really letdown by the ending, which felt extremely anti-climactic. The alien is revealed, but downplayed significantly, misplacing all the tension and intimidation surrounding it; everything just culminates so quickly and in a very unsatisfying manner.

Although I was very skeptical at the prospect of such young actors starring in this movie, I must confess they all did an excellent job. The characters each have their own distinctive personalities (though at times it felt like these were just pulled out of a stereotype hat), their own quirky lines and are all in all very likeable. The only major grudge I had were the moments where every character seemed to be yelling incomprehensible blabber at one another comedically; it's funny at first, but the movie abuses it a bit too much (LIKE LENS FLARES), so it eventually develops into something rather irritating. The alien in the film seems to take a back seat at times in exchange for some character development; this works fine for the most part, as we'll obviously want to learn more about these characters (and we do), but it sort of downplays the whole alien idea; so much so that I sometimes forgot about it.

The style of this film reflects that of many of Spielberg's renowned summer blockbusters, so if you're a fan of those, then Super 8 is worth a watch. A powerful sense of the unknown lies throughout the story, keeping you gripped in regards to how various things will culminate or be revealed. It has its fair share of stupidity, and a weak ending as previously mentioned, but if you're interested (AND LIKE LENS FLARES) then I have no problem with recommending it.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Movie Review - Captain America: The First Avenger

The final installment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before 2012's The Avengers has finally hit cinemas in the form of Captain America: The First Avenger. We've seen the likes of Iron Man, Hulk and Thor on the big screen since it all started in 2008, but now it's time to take a trip to the past and see how the world's first Avenger came to be.

Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the film tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), an aspiring soldier deemed physically unfit to enlist in the US Army. However, after being chosen as a participant for Project Rebirth, he is transformed into Captain America; an advanced super soldier who must guide the United States to victory. He eventually finds himself leading an army to take down the notorious Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the leader of the HYDRA terrorist organization, who has unleashed a god-like threat in order to achieve world domination.

Visually, Captain America succeeds in capturing the essence of the 1940s through some excellently crafted sets, props, costumes and an ideal choice of shooting locations. This is what forms the World War II vibe one would expect; but then, in the spirit of a good ol' fashioned comic book film, we have the abundance of fictional, high tech weaponry and the dynamic CGI set pieces as well as some awesome fight scenes, which genuinely do look cool in 3D. Captain America's suit has also been given a solid revamp; a polished blend of the iconic colour scheme and a bulky army uniform, ensuring that we can still recognize the hero without bursting into hysterics at a ludicrously tight outfit. 

Not only is our titular hero a real pleasure to watch when beating down mindless henchmen, but he's a solid character in terms of depth and emotion as well. He's always likeable; and never made out to be a brutal, cheesy superhero with no purpose but to save mankind. Underneath all his muscle is a heart, and it's really easy to relate to him during some of the hurdles he encounters throughout the film. Our villain, Red Skull, is a bit flat and generic, but remains a solid antagonist; his evil insanity clearly illustrated with every scene. There's a fair few characters you won't honestly care for, though; namely Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) who serves as the Captain's love interest. The romance is bland, forced and rather sappy, which in fairness is the case with a lot of comic book movies, but it doesn't stop the character being anymore wooden.

Chris Evans fits the role of the Captain exceedingly well, never showing him to be a brute or an arrogant patriot. We get the feeling that his superhuman strength is merely physical; he's still a human deep down, and can suffer just like one, which is all endorsed by Evans' great performance. Hugo Weaving is also a great choice for his character; the German accent he has going on is solid, and although the character is (as previously said) a bit generic, Weaving still manages to exemplify what makes an intimidating villain. Though the supporting characters aren't the most interesting, they're all performed nicely, even Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and especially Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips.

If you're a fan of superhero movies, or have enjoyed the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Captain America: The First Avenger is an essential watch. Pleasantly old school with an abundance of satisfying set pieces, fight scenes and a handful of great performances, it is sure to please all fans of the genre and will leave you with a ravenous appetite for The Avengers next year.

Oh, and stay behind for a bloody awesome post credits scene.