Friday 28 December 2012

Best and Worst of 2012 - Best Five Films

We've covered the stinkers, and they were stinkers, but 2012 definitely has many quality films to offer - so with the bad stuff out of the way and never to be seen again, let's talk no further and dive into my favourite five films of the year.

#5 - Avengers Assemble

Avengers Assemble is the end result of four years of build up, starting with Iron Man in 2008 and forming what is officially called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series doesn't end here - we can expect a third installment to the Iron Man series next year, and sequels to Thor, Captain America and even this film are in the pipeline. Avengers does exactly what you'd expect - it's an explosive and insanely fun ride, with a surprisingly gripping and enjoyable story, likeable characters who share a great chemistry and a final battle so manic that it more than makes up for the annoying wait for the film itself. The lead actors are at their finest, and you never get the feeling the film is trying to take itself too seriously - unlike this year's The Dark Knight Rises, this is not a realistic and thematic interpretation of superheroes, but a comic book on the screen. Fantastic entertainment which I highly recommend.

#4 - Dredd

A modest critical success yet a complete box office bomb, Dredd failed to recoup even a mild $45 million budget when it hit cinemas in September. The film is a new adaptation of the famed 2000 AD comic character, who last appeared in a theatrical release in the universally panned (and mocked) 1995 Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone. This time round, Karl Urban takes the helm as the titular badass, and provides a performance that perfectly encapsulates the character's loyalty to the job, intolerance for crime and intimidating appearance to crooks. The film is driven by great character development and excellent action sequences, only really hindered by a sometimes sluggish narrative. It didn't deserve to bomb, and you should check it out for sure!

#3 - Brave

Having received substantially lower praise than other Pixar efforts, Brave's lack of universal acclaim is justifiable in areas - its narrative is much more formulaic than conventional Pixar productions. But does this make it a bad film? Of course not! Brave brings together some of the most likeable characters Pixar has created with a storyline that, while not that inventive, flows nicely and contains strong moral value. It's gorgeously animated and supported by a fantastic voice cast with the likes of Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson and Julie Walters. Not only that, but trust me when I say that you will laugh an awful lot - Brave is easily the funniest Pixar film ever produced.

#2 - Skyfall

Bond is back, and he's better than ever - Skyfall marks the first time 007 has blessed our cinema screens with fast paced action and sinister baddies since the convoluted Quantum of Solace in 2008. Those who were left distinctly underwhelmed by that flick - which is everyone - will have a burst of satisfaction upon watching Skyfall. Not only is the newest 007 blockbuster far more cohesive with its narrative structure, but its emphasis on character development, particularly with Bond himself, makes it emotionally stirring throughout. Its action scenes are incredibly creative and chaotic as always, and its pleasant nods to the franchises rich history alongside the realistic approach creates a perfect blend of the old and new.

#1 - Life of Pi

A story that was considered impossible to adapt into a film for many years due to its reliance on technical prowess, Life of Pi is one of the most inventive, unique and character driven films I have ever seen, and impresses both in special effects wizardry and storytelling. The relatively unknown international cast impress throughout and the character of Richard Parker, who I should say is just a CGI bengal tiger, is one you can quite easily connect to - him and Pi's bond that is developed throughout the film is utterly beautiful. Life of Pi is a huge achievement in filmmaking, and deserves its place to be the greatest film of 2012 by far.

And there you have it - my favourite films of the year. In retrospect, my most anticipated of 2012 before the year even commenced were The Woman in Black, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, all three of which as you can clearly see didn't make the cut and were scored a good but not exceptional 7/10 by yours truly. Films can always surprise you, and hopefully there'll be more surprises awaiting in 2013. Until then!

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Movie Review - Life of Pi

An incredible story that initially struggled to see the light of day, Yann Martel's renowned 2001 novel Life of Pi blends a complex level of adventurous storytelling with religious allegory and spirituality - and now director Ang Lee has brought this fantastical tale to the big screen, but does it capture that same level of emotion?

An unnamed local author (Rafe Spall) approaches Indian immigrant Pi Patel (Irrfan Kahn) after a referral from his uncle that the man's story would form the basis for a compelling novel and, as Pi relates, will make him believe in God. Pi then divulges his story from his teenage years, where he (Suraj Sharma) and his family are caught up in a disastrous shipwreck when moving their zoo overseas. Pi is the only survivor, and is left stranded on a boat for 227 days with their bengal tiger Richard Parker - and that, as Pi explains, is where his greatest journey begins.

Life of Pi is a visual delight - the story itself almost renders the whole project impossible, with the majority of it taking place in the expanses of the ocean with a young boy and vicious tiger stranded in a wooden lifeboat. But of course - Sharma was never at sea, and he was never joined by a real tiger. That may seem like an obvious comment, bit once you see the film, you will have a hard time believing it. Rhythm and Hues Studios have crafted some magnificent CGI special effects which are sometimes very clearly synthetic detail wise but are a visual treat and immensely believable - Richard Parker himself is animated so fluently that he might as well have been a real tiger. Not only this, but there are some gorgeous theatrical moments in the twilight sea and some fantastic use of cinematography - all this combined with a deep and touching score by Mychael Danna makes Life of Pi a huge aesthetic achievement.

Life of Pi not only excels at visual design but also in terms of unique and innovative storytelling - the bond between Pi and Richard Parker is incredibly touching and developed at a beautiful pace. Richard Parker himself is portrayed as a deep and enjoyable character instead of a mindless animal, and him and Pi's relationship carries into many of the film's themes. It's been a while since a film touched me to this degree, and Life of Pi truly tugs on the heart strings towards the end (and even a fair bit at the beginning) which really allows the audience to engage with the narrative and themes rather than watch characters weep and expect to feel sad.

It's all wonderfully acted and edited into nicely flowing story - the jumps back to present day were an older Pi details his story to the novelist provides more backbone to the overall plotting instead of feeling like jarring tonal shifts. Life of Pi is an authentic and emotional masterpiece, with humour, adventure and a ton of emotional resonance - it deserves to be a success and deserves to be met with praise, for it's a story unlike any other that will draw you in with incredible production value and fantastic storytelling - and it's surprisingly made even better in 3D, which in itself is treated as a visual art over a cheap gimmick. Don't hesitate - go see it.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Best and Worst of 2012 - Worst Five Films

2012 is drawing to a close very soon, so as I've been journeying to the cinema a fair bit since the year began, I have plenty of films to adapt into best and worst lists. To kick things off, here are my worst five films of 2012 - I'm only starting with the stinkers because I'm seeing Life of Pi next week which I am confident could make it to my best five list. We shall see!

#5 - The Lorax

An uninspired adaptation of a much loved Dr. Seus story, The Lorax is a prime example of how dumbed down animated films can be. There is absolutely nothing unique, compelling or continuously enjoyable about it - not only are the characters thinner than paper, but its attempt at exploring two narratives doesn't work as well it sounds. Rather than converge the storylines meaningfully, it plays out as if they have little to do with one another, only combining at the very end or providing dull backstory. Shoehorning in the modern day setting with the annoying protagonist Ted was a bad move, and an adaptation that remains true to the original tale would've been so much more entertaining.

#4 - Hotel Transylvania

I thought this would be a funny movie - it actually looked that way based on the trailers. What it turned out to be was a film that just didn't know when to stop when churning out endless slapstick gags, even sacrificing a cohesive storyline for it. Its characters are boring, the humour becomes so cheesy that you can practically smell it and the narrative is hollow and predictable nonsense. It will please the kids, but nobody above - they even shoehorned a Twilight joke into it, and it's absolutely terrible.

#3 - Paranormal Activity 4

Are you one of those many people that thinks this franchise needs to end? Then you'll be sad to hear that it's still got another three instalments or so in the pipeline. Paranormal Activity was an unexpected success, built off a low budget but demonstrating clever resourcefulness by creating tension through something as simple as a door opening. The series was milked even by the time the second iteration hit cinemas in 2010, and has since become a repetitive and lazy horror franchise that simply isn't scary. This fourth installment fares no better, with poor acting, a forced storyline and, to top it off, it's just so fucking boring.

#2 - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

As much as I despise Twilight, this film doesn't deserve to be the very worst of 2012 - but it sure as hell comes close. This 'epic conclusion' to the franchise is nothing more than what we've seen countless times - poorly written romance, atrocious acting and a sluggish and clueless narrative that doesn't go anywhere. The epic final battle is absurd if entertaining, but it all comes to end in the most anticlimactic and unsatisfying fashion that it might as well've not been in the bloody film. It's great to see this tired franchise meet its end, but even its final installment couldn't do anything to redeem the many faults. It's awful, basically.

#1 - House at the End of the Street

Poorly acted, poorly written and downright terribly plotted, House at the End of the Street is the poster child for atrocious horror filmmaking. Most of the film is squandered on lifeless conversations between wooden characters we are trying not to despise, and when it comes to a 'scary' moment, it simply has no effect. The film made me laugh more times than anything else, and its concept is already so absurd and generic that it loses any hope of redeeming itself. Even Jennifer Lawrence, despite her acclaim from The Hunger Games, is awful. Hopefully she was just conforming to the overall shitness of the film.

So there you have it - my top five worst films of the year. By coincidence, these are the only five bad films I even saw in 2012, but even that is something to be ashamed of. No year is without awful cinema, but neither is any year without quality cinema - as you'll see in my next list!

Friday 14 December 2012

Movie Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The recent decision to turn J.R.R Tolkein's classic children's novel The Hobbit into a three part fantasy epic was met with great controversy - unlike its similarly three part predecessor, Peter Jackson's next venture into Middle-earth is fuelled by considerably less source material: a 300 or so page light hearted adventure over a 1000 page three part high fantasy. Controversy aside, Jackson's first installment to this annualised trilogy has finally arrived: with a whopping 170 minute run time, can it possibly justify the pacing and material?

Taking place sixty years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey delves into the adventures ageing hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) has yet to tell his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) - of when the great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a band of thirteen dwarves lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) invite a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to join them on their quest to reclaim the stolen dwarf kingdom in the Lonely Mountain and lay siege to the terrible dragon Smaug who stole it from them, along with their hoards of jewels and gold, many centuries before. As the Company reach the Goblin stronghold amongst the Misty Mountains, Bilbo encounters a strange being dubbed Gollum (Andy Serkis) and an enchanted, golden ring which will change his life and the fate of Middle-earth forever.

An Unexpected Journey is visually stunning - a terrific blend of intricate sets, fantastic locations and polished CGI work makes Middle-earth more pleasing to the eye than ever before. Complaints have been prominently targeted at the overuse of CGI - but does it truly detract from the tangible nature of this world? Not entirely. It's never going to mimic the organic values of natural special effects, but the animation featured throughout Jackson's newest Middle-earth installment is as excellent as the practical sets. The creatures are injected with a great deal of life and charisma thanks to fantastic motion capturing and synthetic detail, and each fictional landscape is as beautiful as the last. While the 3D is a wasted and far too conservative quality, the film and its expansive landscapes grouped with sweeping camera shots truly evolve into something incredible on an IMAX screen. Howard Shore also returns as composer, and creates a musical score that is possibly superior to anything we've ever heard from the Middle-earth film franchise.

The Lord of the Rings films, in most cases, carried hefty run times that you rarely noticed. The story flowed in a swift fashion and most scenes felt crucial to the narrative, even if things felt bloated at times. An Unexpected Journey naturally cannot mimic this, and such a trait will undoubtedly plague its successors. Much like Jackon's previous adventures in Middle-earth, the film almost tops three hours in run time, and this simply doesn't feel natural as many scenes feel bloated and sluggish and the pacing is purposely slow to cram in as much detail and backstory as possible. Interweaving content from the appendices Tolkein penned at the conclusion of The Return of the King, the film incorporates substantially more backstory and interlocking events than its source material, and many character roles are extended and built upon which works in some cases, and fails miserably in others. You do truly feel the run time of this fantasy flick, and that is never a good thing when it's this long.

The narrative is also very episodic - hear me out. The overall film feels like it's own adventure, which may seem like a praise. But in actual fact, it makes the overall story feel like an unnecessarily long quest, which is simply not what the source material offers. Smaug is not the antagonist of this film - you rarely even see him, and this structure does not work for a film of such a simple story. The characters exude plenty of charm and the acting is universally superb, but it is difficult to keep consistently engaged with a slow paced storyline that exploits the rich context of its fictional universe in a way that feels somewhat boring. An Unexpected Journey is a visually rich and explosive effort from Jackson, and its characters are arguably one of the most impressive factors, but the sluggish pacing and unsatisfying conclusion (not to mention having to wait another year to even see the actual bad guy - well, dragon) make it less of impact compared to its decade old brothers.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Movie Review - Rise of the Guardians

It's a fact that has been milked to death when mentioning the renowned animation studio, but one that does at least hold some merit - Dreamworks like their sequels. Evolving even their smallest of films (How To Train Your Dragon, anyone?) into gargantuan franchises is their specialty, and one that for the most part comes off as a huge cash grab even if the money generating sequels share a level of high quality. It isn't rare, however, to see a fresh product from the studio's pipeline, and Rise of the Guardians is here to exemplify this - what it can't exemplify, however, is any form of originality for the genre.

Jack Frost (Chris Pine) rises from a strange slumber inside a cold lake with no memory of his existence or purpose, only being told his name by the godlike entity dubbed 'The Man in the Moon'. As the years pass, Frost utilizes his abilities to manipulate snow and ice to bring joy to children and himself, albeit in a rebellious and careless fashion. When the sinister boogeyman known as Pitch Black (Jude Law) emerges from his own slumber to seek revenge on Guardians North (Alec Baldwin), Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), Tooth (Isla Fisher) and Sandman, Frost is chosen to fulfill his destiny as the next Guardian, which in turn will lead him on a journey to not only save the children of the world but to discover the one thing he has always wanted to know - his own self.

Rise of the Guardians, like any film by Dreamworks, is richly animated, albeit this time around things seem a lot less colourful which actually works in conjunction with the somewhat bleak narrative structure. The overall aesthetic design, while definitely not matching the terrifying motion capturing of Zemeckis, adopts a more realistic approach over a cartoonish and vibrant appearance, which is also something that fits the story nicely and makes the film less reliant on endless visual gags. 

Where Rise of the Guardians loses its footing is with the overall plot and some of the characters, which are both so by the numbers that it feels very little effort was put into developing any sort of original plot with the somewhat unique premise at hand. Virtually nothing about the story is inventive, and the villain is completely ridiculous - Jude Law's voice acting attempts to capture some overall sinister vibe, but just comes off as forced and absurd. The plot is riddled with cheesy dialogue and forced emotional scenes, the only saving grace of these being the likeable main protagonists. Frost is rendered to be somewhat unlikeable, but has a certain charm and his lust for his own past raises some interesting if barely explored inner conflict. The other Guardians, namely the Easter Bunny and Santa, provide much of the film's comedy and help to forward the narrative, but even they feel half baked at times.

Everything is resolved with a lifeless and predictable culminating battle, and the conclusion to this film raises absolutely no surprises whatsoever. I'm not trying to pan it simply for being unoriginal, for it's a decent animated flick - the jokes work, the voice acting across the board is excellent (bar Law mainly) and it goes without saying that it's visually pleasing. But the inventive premise has been squandered on a story so bland and so irritatingly predictable that the film feels like a missed opportunity. Not bad, but certainly not great.