Wednesday 27 March 2013

Movie Review - The Croods

After a slew of hugely successful animated hits in recent years, Dreamworks had a nasty surprise with their previous film Rise of the Guardians - not only did critics maul the weak story despite the colourful visuals, but the film also went on to make very little profit and force the studio to undergo an $83 million write down and lay off hundreds of staff members. It was the first time since Bee Movie in 2007 that a Dreamworks picture had caused financial difficulty, but can the studio instantly get back on track with their latest family flick The Croods? Well, let's hope so!

Thousands of years in the past, The Croods are an ordinary family of neanderthal cavemen, living by the one rule of overprotective patriarch Grugg (Nicolas Cage): never leave the cave. Eep (Emma Stone), their somewhat estranged daughter, disobeys the strict guidelines and stumbles across an intelligent human named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who survives with his intellect and inventions instead of brute strength. When his prediction of the world shattering and ending starts to come true, Guy finds himself tangled up in a quest for safety with The Croods as they all journey to a a safe paradise; one he describes as tomorrow.

The Croods is a formulaic story, with scenes that you can predict will happen based on the natural conventions of recent animated films (for example, a scene where everyone falls out with each other). What makes the film emerge successfully from its generic coating is the beautiful wit threaded nicely into the narrative and characters. The Croods is genuinely funny, never trying too hard to make you laugh through dumb slapstick or excessive pop culture references. Whether it's Guy's stick thin build compared to the cavemen protagonists or Grugg's obsession with his wife's mother dying, there is plenty to laugh at from beginning to end for children and adults alike.

The Croods also boasts a ton of heart, even if the main romance doesn't feel as natural as it could've been. Each character is incredibly likeable thanks to the stunning animation and fantastic voice acting - Nicolas Cage stands out prominently, instantly making Grugg the funniest character in the film but also one you can feel for during certain scenes. The only main gripe that arises from everything is the iffy pacing, which isn't a complete mess but not fully polished. Emotional moments are sometimes forced aside in favour of humour, which feels like an awkward conversation with a friend who passes off sappy emotion with forced jokes. It doesn't always work, but The Croods remains a loveable family adventure from beginning to end and is far superior to Dreamworks' last effort.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Movie Review - Oz the Great and Powerful

The 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is one of Hollywood's most treasured films and a significant part of the history of cinema; you'll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't seen it at some point in their lifetime, be it as a kid or dying old man. Sam Raimi's prequel to the story seems like it has all the right boxes ticked beforehand; a unique premise, a great cast and a vibrantly crafted depiction of Oz itself. Unfortunately, those ticks simply aren't enough to save it from the problems it manages to create for itself.

During 1905 Kansas, circus performer Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is whisked away in a violent hurricane to whymsical, colourful world of Oz, where he becomes tangled up in an ancient prophecy that pits him down as the foretold saviour of the land from the tyrannical Wicked Witch. His one chance of redemption rises from the challenge, leading him on a quest to save Oz from the overflowing evil and prove he can be more than just a good man - he can be a great one.

Oz brings back memories of Tim Burton's god awful Alice in Wonderland from 2010 when it comes to the visual effects: a huge emphasis is put toward CGI and motion capturing to sculpt the vibrant fictional landscapes, from the beautifully nostalgic Emerald City to the iconic routes of the Yellow Brick Road. A smart level of visual design has been injected into the aesthetics too; everything is tinted in a black and white vibe and played out in a retro 4:3 aspect ratio until Oz itself floods the screen, truly bringing the colour of the film to life. The live action sets, props and actors are blended with the visual effects seamlessly, creating a film that looks fantastic throughout. In IMAX everything looks even better, but perhaps the tacked on 3D wasn't necessary. Well, the same can be said for any film.

Unfortunately, Oz squanders its unique premise on a storyline that has no ingenuity; everything from start to finish is far too predictable, and when the few twists do come into play they are handled terribly. Simply watching the trailers of this film is likely going to confuse you as to how the Wicked Witch is portrayed, and although I won't spoil the details of her rise to the green skinned, menacing persona, I can tell you that she sucks. There's bags of potential to make her an intimidating and twisted villain but thanks to a piss poor performance and the dreadful motives for the character everything just falls flat. Just to rattle off a few more concerns: the forced romances are rubbish, the monkey sidekick does my head in and there is a huge lack of direction and focus. This in turn damages the overall pacing, with the plot chugging forward slowly and then racing through its final moments with no development or concentration.

The acting is generally okay, but Franco is the only exceptional performer, proving to be funny and likeable even with his character's selfish motives (which admittedly do clash with some of the tones the film tries to force). But when I say the acting is okay, it really is just okay. I'm sure the actors struggled with the average scripting, but even with this in mind the performances are not fantastic. Oz the Great and Powerful is nothing short of a letdown; Raimi and all his crew have taken a great idea and drowned it in a mediocre script, and then attached a title which the project really doesn't live up to.

Friday 1 March 2013

Hollywood 2013

It was during my induction day at my new college during July 2011 when I was first introduced to the prospect of attending a week long trip to Hollywood under the A Level Film Studies course. The provisional schedule given to us by our excessively excited teacher promised trips to the 85th Academy Awards as well as the Universal Studios and Disneyland theme parks. Needless to say I was extremely excited for it despite the hefty £1300 cost.

And now, it's over. Last Saturday we finally departed after well over a year of hype and I just came back yesterday to the miserable weather and culture of England. I can't possibly not share my experience with you all, so here I shall cover all the good stuff day by day. Enjoy!

Day One - Arriving at Los Angeles

This was without a doubt the weakest part of the trip and my spirits and anticipation dwindled slightly after such a stressful and slightly disappointing 24 hours. I had barely slept the previous night due to my excitement and the coach journey to London Heathrow Airport was admittedly very enjoyable due to the equally exciting atmosphere of the other 40 or so students attending. Arriving at Heathrow was long and dull as expected and there wasn't much to do in the way of shopping in our terminal. The flight came at 3:15pm and lasted just over 10 hours, which seems unbearable but was made more relaxed due to excellent on flight entertainment choices and a quiet plane, meaning we could move about and chill out across multiple seats with ease. During the flight I watched Argo and Ted - the former was excellent, the latter not so much.

Once we got to LA, things took a turn for the worse. The coach driver was held up due to misunderstanding where to collect us, wasting an hour of potential free time. The hostel itself wasn't as pleasing as I thought it would be - it was far from a shithole, but the rooms had a very dull appearance and the common rooms weren't very upbeat and social. I was very tired and spent little time going out in the evening, retiring to bed fairly early after a huge letdown of a day.

Day Two - The Oscars

The Oscar day was literally just us joining the already massive crowd of people viewing the red carpet from as close as possible behind a massive fence. We weren't close enough to get a look at most of the major attendees or get autographs, and admittedly it was a bit of a disappointment. We did see Steven Spielberg and Amy Adams pretty well but our distance from the Kodak Theater meant we often stood motionless as crowds cheered from the opposite side just to make us feel more envious. Standing beside the red carpet lasted for nearly four hours and was not consistently enjoyable. The general atmosphere, however, was really thrilling and intense.

The day concluded with us visiting the pawn shop used in Pulp Fiction, which still looks exactly as it did back in the film, and then an evening meal at a nearby buffet restaurant where we also got to view the Oscars on TV. A good day overall - one to remember.

Day Three - Universal Studios

The two theme park days were without a doubt my most anticipated - Universal Studios was the first of the two and it did not disappoint. The theme park/film studio hybrid resort is far smaller than the one in Florida which I visited in 2001 but just as thrilling and varied, with excellent rides and a fantastic studio tour. The studio tour lasts just under an hour and takes you across multiple backlots from Universal history, including the Hill Valley town square from Back to the Future and the Bates Motel from Psycho. You also get to experience a 3D King Kong section where 3D screens positioned in a huge building give the illusion of the tram interacting with the expansive environment and its characters. Another cool part was a demonstration of practical pyrotechnics from the Fast and Furious franchise.

The rides included The Simpsons Ride (a simulator with a charming Simpsons appeal), Jurassic Park (water ride with stunning animatronics), Revenge of the Mummy (an interior dark rollercoaster) and Transformers 3D (a 3D simulator ride with excellent effects). All the rides in the park demonstrate superb visual and practical effects and provide tons of thrills to boot. It's one of the best theme parks I've visited in recent years and definitely worthy of its fame.

After a fantastic day here, we chilled out for a meal at the Hard Rock Café and had some shopping time in the nearby streets. This was where my happiness during the trip had reached its maximum - and it was only going to get better.

Day Four - Disneyland

I'm crazy about anything related to Disney: especially the theme parks. I've visited the one in Paris and Florida, but the California one was relatively unknown to me aside from the choice of rides I had previously looked up. The absence of the awesome Rock N Rollercoaster was a letdown, but I was more then looking forward to coming here. We began our day in the California Adventure park, going on the Hollywood Tower of Terror (a dropping elevator ride with a very creepy Twilight Zone vibe) and California Screamin' (a fast rollercoaster themed after an old fashioned fair ride). We then migrated to the main Disneyland park, only to discover that Thunder Mountain (one of my favourite rides) is closed until October 2013 for extensive repairs. Though this was a huge disappointment, there was much else to enjoy.

We went on Splash Mountain (a water ride with a 50 foot drop), Space Mountain (an indoor rollercoaster in the dark), Haunted Mansion (a ride that takes you through a haunted house with brilliant effects) and the Matterhorn Bobsleds (a rollercoaster type ride that has you whizzing through a Yeti-inhabited mountain). I had a fantastic time overall despite the closure of Thunder Mountain and was sad to have to leave. The day ended with a visit to the school used in Back to the Future and then dinner at the Bubba Gump restaurant, a place themed after the 1994 hit Forrest Gump, with staff even hosting quizzes about the film to guests. The best day of the holiday in my eyes.

Day Five - Touring Hollywood

The final day depressed many of us - we had to get up very early and pack up our cases and bags, leave our hostel rooms and hand back the keys before departing. This meant that although we all looked forward to the Hollywood tour, we were essentially to leave for the airport immediately after it had ended with no more evening free time at the hostel. This in itself was one of the worst parts of the trip and left many of us in shitty moods for a while.

Before the tour began, we sat down at Pat and Lorraines Coffee Shop which some of you may know is the location where Tarantino shot the opening scene for Reservoir Dogs. At this place we met two people: Bryan, our extremely upbeat tour guide, and Richard Brake, a Hollywood actor who has appeared in many films including Batman Begins as Joe Chill and one of Thor's soldiers in the upcoming Thor: The Dark World. He allowed us to ask numerous questions about his career and life and gave us all autographs and photos. He's a really nice guy and very laid back about his work and was clearly not upset in any way that some of us didn't know who he was which I greatly appreciated. He even seemed interested in my filmmaking ambition!

The tour took us to many locations from films including houses from Halloween, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the TCL Chinese Theater where a film premiere was undergoing preparation and the Hollywood Museum which featured props, sets and costumes from Hollywood productions spanning decades. It was all very interesting and made even more fun by our excellent tour guide who found something to say about almost everything he saw.

Once it was all over, we drove back to LAX airport and flew off home. The ten hour flight was rough and left us all jet lagged, but one final surprise awaited us - Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter himself, was on our plane! Some people in our group wrote to him and he briefly met us all at the Heathrow Airport baggage collection, apologising for being in a hurry and being unable to give us autographs or photos. This was beyond incredible, especially as it came out of nowhere, and a great way to end the fantastic holiday.

And so Hollywood came to an end after months and months of preparation and excitement. It lived up to the hype easily and was one of the best weeks of my life. This wasn't just because of the stuff we did but the people I was with, who made it a funny and exciting trip from beginning to end. Above you can see our mini group with Mickey Mouse; we call ourselves Team Spielberg for reasons that'll take too long to explain (I'm the gorgeous guy on the bottom left). I'm so glad I went in the end and I hope the 40 or so lucky bastards going next year will have just as much fun as we did.

Check out my Hollywood video here:

Thanks for reading and see you soon!