Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dark Shadows!

Spring 2012

Supernatural/Fantasy Comedy-Horror.

Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham-Carter, Jonny Lee-Miller,Jackie Earle-Haley, Chloe Graze-Moretz and Christopher Lee.

Certificate: 12A.

Running Time: 113mins. approx.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 26thMay, 2012.

The unique pairing of director Tim Burton and Hollywood A-Lister Johnny Depp, has always made for gold-standard cinematic magic moments over the years. In 1990, Depp landed his breakthrough role in Edward Scissorhands,a classic stylized fable. They followed this up with the similarly-titled Ed Wood in 1994, charting the chronicles of an ambitious Los Angeles filmmaker at the heart of the forties studio-system.
  1999 saw them venture into the murky, yet tongue-in-cheek world of mythical horror in Sleepy Hollow, Burton then ventured into The Nightmare Before Christmas territory, returning to ingenious stop-motion animation with 2005’s Corpse Bride (to which Depp provided the voice of the pint-sized hero), while in the same year, to duo turned their attention to the first of several adaptations, beginning with the Depp as the eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka in the wonderful re-imagining of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, then the ‘cutting-edge’ Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd in 2007, and most recently, Depp donned a fluorescent orange wig, and lime-green eyes to play none other than The Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland – in 3D. These were all huge hits at the box office, as well as prime examples of bringing the offbeat into the umbrella of the mainstream populist summer blockbuster at its most prolific, expertly marketed, lucrative and crowd-pleasing.
   The two are my personal favourite collaborative team in today’s cinema. It’s the combination of Burton’s faultless eye for capturing such a particular zeitgeist with a highly specific aesthetic - (a world inhabited by gloomy cinematographic nightscapes, moonlit, twisty tree-branches and the trademark of Danny Elfman’s woozy, dreamlike score, to which we as the viewer are immediately plunged into.
Technologically and visually too, we’re always looking through Burton’s highly stylized vision, always rendered with rich, glossy flourishes of Computer-Generated Imagery. The sense is always present that these magical fables could be set anywhere, at any time – which naturally, again, increases their appeal for universality.
  Couple this with Johnny Depp’s masterful talent at literally becoming a vast, colourful array of any character imaginable – and, more importantly they’re always so diversely different from the last (from Wonka, to Ed Wood  to Dillinger, The Mad Hatter to Captain Jack Sparrow, J.M. Barrie, Paul Kemp, and Sweeney Todd), he never ceases to amaze me.
  Never more so in fact than in this latest, his eighth collaboration with Burton, to play the eloquent neighborhood vampire Barnabus Collins, in Dark Shadows, based on the sixties American television soap-opera of the same name.
  This is quite simply the best character he’s ever played. Hilarious without knowing it, articulate and sincere. This is clearly a project that both Depp and Burton are very passionate about – and it shows.
  This is visually sumptuous, endlessly inventive filmmaking with a very funny, diamond-sharp screenplay, state-of-the-art visual effects and perfect performances.
  In a classically cinematic, lavish opening sequence of misty ports, crashing waves and high-octane score, the well-to-do Barnabus of Collinswood, is suddenly cursed by Angelique, and buried for a hundred years. Of course, he’s resurrected a century later, waking up in a retro nineteen seventy-two…
  After what is actually a moderately gruesome killing spree for a comedy, an inevitable misfit culture-clash ensues, as Barnabus attempts to move back into his mansion, now taken up by his deeply dysfunctional relatives…
  It’s in the scenes whereby our friendly vampire is first coming to terms with adapting to his new environment, where the film is at its most purely cinematic. These are scenes with a very distinct immersion, which can only be described in the form of what harks back to the great, mainstream powerhouse films of the nineties such as: Hook, Goldeneye, Jumangi, Batman Forever,  – memorable, huge scale score, elaborate, economic swooping cinematography, vivid, block use of colour,and no expense spared on production values.
The films it most closely resembles tonally, are the two early nineties big-screen Addams Family pictures, balancing the difficult mix of humour and the occasionally mild scare perfectly – but always playing for laughs more than screams.
  The world now to Barnabus seems strange – giant yellow fluorescent letter M’s adorning the streets, lava lamps, cars whizzing past as he stops in the road and yells: ‘Take me Satan!’ or singers inside televisions as he asks incredulously: ‘What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself – tiny songstress!’.
  Depp is clearly having the time of his life, he really has never been better – as facially-expressive as ever - particularly with his eyes - accentuating every nuance of sparkling dialogue - his make-up’s amazing too – classic Burton-esque ghostly white face and his hair smoothed right down.
  Michelle Pfeiffer – working with Burton for the first time in twenty years since 1992’s Batman Returns – plays the archetypal matriarch of the family, while Helena Bonham-Carter takes the role of the family’s resident alcoholic physiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman – always tipsy, in need of dark glasses at breakfast, and never without a glass in her hand.
  One of the other great performances comes from Eva Green as the villainous witch Angelique. Her characterization of the stereotypical femme fatale, the ultimate seductress, is a prime example of exactly how the best screen nemises should be – empowered, and enjoying every minute of it. Unable to resist her wicked charms, after getting steamy, Barnabus can only remark: ‘That was a regrettable turn of events’…
  She struts around in her sparkly red dress and lethal lipstick,  putting poetic spells on anyone that stands in her way, including several buildings, as she evilly whispers: ‘Burn Baby, Burn!’. It shows Green, as a highly talented comedic actress.
 When challenged on the fact that she is bloodsucking; she sultrily replies: ‘Aren’t we being a touch hypocritical? Sucking people’s blood seems to be something you’re rather familiar with’.
  It is. After springing back to life after a hundred years, his justification to his victims is simply: ‘You cannot imagine how thirsty I am’…
 But it’s certainly not too scary. There are a few moments, such as a ghostly apparition living in the floor, that are appropriately spooky, but it’s definitely on the side of humour, arising predominantly from either Barnabus’s misadventures, or, cleverly, from an ancient old housekeeper, who remains completely silent throughout, lugging around coffins, cleaning cutlery or dusting candelabras.
  As with any family, there’s the rebellious teenager, asking Barnabus sulkily: ‘Are you stoned or something?’ His unknowing reply is: ‘They tried stoning me my dear – it did not work!’.
As utilized to great effect in the terrific trailers, a wise choice of songs also accompany the soundtrack, including Knights in White Satin, Bang A Gong-Get It On, My First, My Last, My Everything, and On Top Of the World by Carol Carpenter – as well as Barnabus himself, arm outstretched, emotionally reciting lyrics of a well-known song at the time, as if they were from a Shakespearian play: ‘I’m a winner, I’m a sinner, I play my music…in the sun’. Only for him to look out to the sun and start catching fire!
   It’s towards the end that a thrilling use of CGI really comes to fruition, when the many wonderful carvings and statues which adorn the exquisitely designed mansion start to come to life. Snakes from the fireplace, and a certain werewolf, only cease to make Angelique even more vengeful, as she projectile-vomits lime green slime, and rotates her head a hundred-and-sixty-degrees as cracks literally appear in that ever-so youthful complexion. Whether you’re a fan of such sequences which use a lot of state-of-the-art effects in a rather purposely overblown fashion is an open question, but personally, cinema is at its best for me when it’s at its most adrenaline-pumping, fast and consequently – fun, all of which this is, especially in the last half-hour.
  This is one of both Burton and Depp’s very finest films to me, funny, clever, sharp, a technical master-class and the most fun I’ve had in the multiplex since my favourite-ever film – Inception. It’s certainly in my top three movies of 2012 – surely a likely early contender for next year’s Oscars. The only way it could be made better in my opinion would have been the tool of 3D. However, perhaps on this occasion, when the design and cinematography are this immersive on their own, maybe it wasn’t needed. A golden statue is so long overdue for Depp - my favourite actor – and this is the best role he’s ever played!
  Outstanding –an absolute joy!

Rating: * * * * *

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Avengers Assemble



Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, ChrisHemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner,Gwyneth Paltrow, Clark Gregg, Jenny Agutter and Samuel L. Jackson.

Certificate 12A.

Running Time: 152 mins. approx.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 28th April, 2012.

Over the summer months, multiplexes nationwide will play dramatic, huge-scale host to the now customary summer blockbuster, this year in strong comic-book mode. Our very own Andrew Garfield will take over from Tobey Maguire as the web-slinging Spiderman in August, and of course, the outstanding Christopher Nolan has the epic swansong to his faultless vision of the Batman franchise.
  Before that double-whammy however, we have a comic-book culmination, with Iron Man, Captain America,Thor – and perhaps most anticipated of all – a new interpretation of The Incredible Hulk.
Certainly the cinematic event of the year so far in terms of scale – this is hugely colossal, blockbusting cinema at it’s most elaborate – bombastic action sequences, with absolutely state-of-the-art effects further enhanced by stunning 3D technology.
But equally interestingly, this seems to be a further example in a canon of the gradually rising trend of how today’s blockbuster is judged by the major awards bodies.
 The genius of a filmmaker such as Christopher Nolan, who’s spectacularly taking the modern blockbuster into a stratosphere of epic proportions with the likes of Inception in particular, and his vision of the Batman movies, are a cinematic movement of their very own, combining breathtaking effects-laden visuals with mind-bendingly intelligent conceits. With their cyclically-structured twists and outstandingly clever cinematography, these are filmic experiences that require suitable application of brains as well as widening your eyes in amazement.
  Other notable examples include the wonderfully unique and distinct works of Tim Burton, Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Watchowski Brothers The Matrix franchise. All of these are examples of mainstream films that broke through, and received awards-season accolades other than being exclusive to the so-called ‘technical categories’ namely effects or production design - which now included not only acting plaudits but also recognition of their intelligent screenplays. Happily, this is also increasingly the case for several recent comedies, such as the recent works of Woody Allen.
  This combination of huge-scale visuals and increasingly intelligent screenplays and performances in the phenomenally popular studio-based summer blockbuster, complete with a built-in audience, certainly continues here.
It skillfully encapsulates all the knowing witticism of Iron Man, the great propaganda element that made last summer’s adaptation of Captain America so refreshing, as well as the emotional core of Thor. Director Joss Weadon, set for a powerhouse of a year already thanks to the clever, amusing shocker The Cabin In The Woods - knows exactly how to obtain a pitch-perfect balance, mixing humour, action and an emotional pathos.
  It opens witha breakneck set-piece involving Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury zooming into his headquarters just in time for a sneering Loki, to wreck mayhem of megalomaniac proportions (some of the set-pieces are actually quite gruesome throughout). Much car-chasing and gun-toting ensues.
  One of the films standout performances comes from Tom Hiddleston, reprising, and clearly relishing his role as the gleeful, infinitely articulate, slippery antagonist – he’s all green, ultra-modern suit and sly smile, a characterization made all the more effective by the simple fact he’s so self-assured. ‘How desperate are you… (he enquires to an equally intense Fury), ‘…that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?’
  For me, Loki is right up there with the likes of both portrayals of The Joker, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina’s Spiderman villains of The Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus, and Tommy-Lee Jones’s Two Face, just for the sheer magnetic power of all their performances.
The other highlight has to be Mark Ruffalo as The Incredible Hulk. After two previously – shall we say – middling cinematic interpretations – he’s back, possibly played by the most relaxed actor in the business, which also presents the opportunity of exploring a far more easygoing, almost lighter element of the personality of its genesis, Dr. Bruce Banner, who here seems much more used to his alter-ego – thankfully we don’t have to stumble over the dark, troubled back-story of his past – and can instead have both sides of him fully established very quickly. Ruffalo brilliantly allows the much more humorous side of him to emerge, and balances the duality perfectly. A Best Supporting Actor nomination on the way? I hope so. He's definitely the best, most fully-fledged Hulk we’ve had by a mile – aside from also being the best character in the heroic hexagon of Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye and The Black Widow.
  Technically, Hulk’s a triumph, intricate, expressive and just the correct shade of lime.
 I hadn’t actually seen Kenneth Branagh’s Thor before seeing this, but, it actually doesn’t matter – this stands up perfectly well as a standalone film. Chris Hemsworth, this year’s most popular new star, plays the Greek God of Thunder with strength, depth and humility.
  The screenplay maximizes its great amount of humour the most with the interplay between the group of very different personalities. For instance, during a long-awaited stand-off between Robert Downey Jr.’s wonderfully self-deprecating Iron Man and the no-nonsense Thor, observing his Shakespearian-like attire, he asks: ‘Doth Mother know, you weareth her drapes?!’.
  Scarlett Johanssonis suitably sassy as the raven-bobbed Black Widow, and Chris Evans is great, returning as the shield-wheedling Captain America – also one of my favourite characters.
 The 3D flourishes are at as blistering a standard as ever, whether it is the throw of Captain America’s shield, a speed-ramped shot of Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner’s) arrow, or the exhilarating panoramic rocket-deflection of Iron Man’s flight.
This film has performed a staggering achievement at every corner of the Box Office. In America, having been released more than a fortnight after the U.K., it’s Hulk-smashed numerous records well past the $552million-dollar mark, while within just days of opening over here, it goes down in cinematic history as becoming the third highest-grossing movie of all time, putting it behind only Harry Potter andthe Order of the Phoenix and Titanic in terms of takings.
  Isn’t it funny how with the correct mixture of timing (directly at the start of the summer months), an extremely loyal, massive built-in fan-base,  and a clever marketing campaign, it can easily take $552 million, as well as well over £4.5 million pounds over here, whereas the recent John Carter was a well-documented flop.
  As a studio, Marvel have made such a huge amount of money with this, as well as Captain America, Iron Man and Thor sequels, and another Hulk picture for Ruffalo hopefully in the pipeline, that it now comes as no surprise that fellow comic-book company, DC Comics, are soon to follow suit, hoping to repeat the success with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and all their respective villains –to name just a few  – along for the ride. Expect plenty more bombastic comic-book movie conversions for a fair few years!
  Delightfully entertaining, and truly epic. Certainly one of the highlights of the year!

Rating: * * * *

Saturday, 2 June 2012

American Pie: Reunion

Summer 2012

Genre: Comedy Sequel.

Starring: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian-Nicholas, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Seann William-Scott, Natasha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth, Jon Chow. With Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge and Rebecca de Mornay.

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 113 mins. approx.

Seen At: ADVANCED SCREENING: PrintWorks Odeon. Manchester – Tuesday, 24th April 2012.

When the original American Pie was released back in 1999, is was the prominent leader in a cluster of high-school, so-called ‘sex-comedies’ – raunchier materiel than the same year’s milder modern reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – 10 Things I Hate About You. Critics also dubbed this now classic series for a whole generation, as a continuation of the distinctly nineties flurry of ‘gross-out’ comedies, notably started by the Farrelly Brothers with the likes of There’s Something About Mary in 1998, Never Been Kissed, 2000’s Dude, Where’s My Car?, and even Scary Movie - the popular spoof series of another definitively American cinematic cult- product of the nineties – Scream. Such was the sudden demand, a spoof of its own – 2002’s Not Another Teen Movie mercilessly sent-up the conventions of what was by now a tried-and tested genre.
   Nine year’s since ‘The Wedding’ – each of the character’s arcs have moved on considerably. Jim and Michelle now have a toddler, Oz is now a popular Sports News presenter while Heather has a new boyfriend, and Kevin’s now married. Ironically, the most successful is Steve Stifler – played by the scene-stealing Seann William Scott. He now works for an investment firm, but that has done nothing to dampen his, shall we say, ‘unique’ opinions.
 I think the enduring appeal of these films is the combination of a definitive generational demographic – a target market within the thirteen to thirty bracket, who grew up with the series, and wanting to see how the characters have changed. It feels like they’ve never been away, a very naturalistic recalibration of sorts, at the same time exaggerated just enough for comic effect, but the ensemble’s fun at being back together off-screen, translates well on-screen.
  I’m so delighted and refreshed to say that this is the funniest of the four – taking the levels of its comedy to new heights, really drawing on the same tone and pacing of the original, both in terms of the many scenarios very much accentuating their visual humour without ever descending into gratuity or slapstick, but also letting the audience be in on the joke ahead of the characters. It’s this dramatic irony which I think works brilliantly well, that keeps teenagers in their many numbers coming back.  I should say that I was lucky enough to see this at an advancing screening, almost two weeks ahead of its general release, with the cinema almost two-thirds full of people of exactly the intended age-range.
  Visually, the usual, many uncomfortable misunderstandings occur, involving ablutions in ice-boxes, incidents with dominatrix attire, cinema-shenanigans, saucepan-lids and the misuse of various gels...
  Screenplay-wise, the one-liners are as sharp as the ever were, mainly thanks to William-Scott who completely steals the show, but it’s great to see Chris Klein back as Oz as well, gleefully sending up the fact that his character was the victim of a shock axing from a Dancing With The Stars-like reality-show. Eugene Levy is pitch-perfect as ever as Jim’s Dad - with those inimitable eyebrows - and we mustn’t forget the sassy Jennifer Coolidge as of course – Stifler’s Mom (!) – but be prepared for a brand new spin on that great tradition...
   I’m hoping they’ll be a fifth installment, but it does seem to draw to rather a neat conclusion. That said, it’s great that every cast member from the original is back (including the supporting roles such as the hilarious Jon Chow) and they’re certainly not afraid of sending themselves up, for what is a very funny, almost boundary-pushing chapter, in a hugely populist audience favourite... 

Rating: * * *

The Cabin In The Woods

Spring 2012


Starring: Chris HEMSWORTH, BRADLEY Whitford, Richard Jenkins and SIGOURNEY WEAVER.

Certificate: 15.

Running Time: 95 mins.

Seen at: Didsbury

On: Saturday, 14th APRIL 2012.

Over the last fifteen years or so, with the cracking, clever but bloody subversion of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996, it was made clear that the horror genre of the nineties, with it’s teenage students, lavish fraternity houses and usurping of convention, was never again going to consist of  the realistic collection of Carpenter-lead, slow burning shockers it once was. Instead, we had glossy, creeping cinematographic photography, knowing dialogue, an instantly iconic figure in Ghostface, and enough ingeniously enveloped filmic references to keep both a new generational demographic, and even the most revered movie fans astutely happy.
  Now, Buffy creator Joss Weadon produces this highly intelligent spin on the much tried-and-tested scenario of: ‘teenagers holiday in a secluded location and become viciously murdered by utilizing increasingly gruesome methods’.
  Intriguingly however, it doesn’t start that way at all. Rather, it appears  initially as quite a different film altogether. Two disgruntled, ageing television controllers talk of technical glitches and declining ratings, before being freeze-framed by the screech of a crescendo. It’s a highly unique, mis-directional technique, purposely designed to catch the audience on absolutely the wrong foot, thus hooking us in and piquing our interest every perilous, as well as often oddly funny trudge of its subversive way.      Four intentionally artificial, once again glossily attractive teenagers, lead by Chris Hemsworth’s charming athlete (before he was Thor, turning in a brilliantly likeable performance as always), along with a fifth friend, load up a camper-van on their way to that most archetypal of horror-movie clich├ęs, the deserted log-cabin retreat for the weekend, on the edge of a cliff. But not before running into another Eli Roth-inspired sterotype, the unsettlingly sinister redneck who, spitting blood – warns ominously in ambiguous, Southern-American tones: ‘I’ll get you there, getting back – that’s your concern’…
    Of course, it isn’t long before mysterious events begin to occur: double-sided mirrors, peculiarly life-like taxidermy and a family of roaming, relentless zombies, keen to reclaim an ancient diary…
   This though, is just a tiny part of the artifice designed by those same television controllers. The axel upon which the film’s entire premise is constructed. The ‘cabin’ of the title is, in actuality, an elaborate set for a reality-based television series watched by the whole world, with its four inhabitants as their unsuspecting and unaware contestants, as the order of: ‘lets begin’ is enthusiastically trilled, and a joystick locked into place…
 The brilliant and rare conceit, is actually revealed relatively earlier on, with a vulture perishing while flying into the honeycombed electric dome that protects the entire complex. Before its release it was widely reported to avoid the trailer, which did really give away too much.
  Bradley Whitford, along with the always-brilliant Richard Jenkins, are the executives who happily take bets on who’ll die next, as they gradually meet their maker one by one at the entertaining hands of a disguised mix of  smoke-and mirrors machinery, numerously hidden homage-reference and environmentally manipulated aesthetic – which includes deliberately controlled gasses that increase our protagonist’s romances, only to lure them out, into shocking deaths…
  The film really gains momentum halfway through, once those remaining cotton-on to the fact that they’ve fallen victim to superficiality, and attempt to escape off the cliff-face, only to again meet violent consequence.
  The final segment, where the last two delve deep into the actual inner-workings of the studio’s trade secrets, is where the monsters, ghosts and stock characters kick in, thanks to an ebullient indulgence in an emphasis on impressive, computer-generated visuals, travelling through the many lift-shafts, each containing a new relic character of the genre.
  The best of these however has to be a knowing nod to that genres first, most pioneering heroine, due to the actress who plays her, making a gleefully memorable cameo as the show’s unnamed director, who’s previously only hinted at through the fateful ring of an infamous red telephone. Without giving too much away, it’s a wonderful characterization and an  excitedly unexpected performance, as well as another prime example that both Weadon, and director Drew Goddard both know their genre and every meticulous detail of it, inside out. Horror fans will delight in countless references.
Thankfully, it’s not actually scary, trading true horror for tongue-in-cheek, not so serious humour and occasional jumpy shock. As I’ve repeated, I judge comedy-horror to be the most difficult genre, and like the Screams before it, it succeeds in such a cleverly cinematic, triumphant way. It’s been dubbed as: ‘a groundbreaking game-changer’ on the poster – and it truly is. An impossibly clever concept, with endlessly exciting, stylishly shot surprises around every impeccably constructed turn. In years to come, it’ll be a niche-turned-mainstream classic. 
  With a sharply written screenplay adrenaline-pumping blockbuster thrills and funny dialogue, this is the most surprising hit of the year, with it’s appeal rooted in the very foundations of the staple conventions of the horror genre, its many subsequent incarnations, and the medium of cinema itself!

Rating: * * * *