Friday, 2 August 2013

Oz The Great And Powerful

PG / 130 mins. approx.

Seen Twice At Didsbury Cinemas On: Saturday, 16th March, and Thursday, 4th April, 2013.

In 1939, L. Frank Baum’s classic tales of wicked witches and flying monkeys were immortalized in glorious Technicolor, and the memory of an innocent, apple-cheeked Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow – an iconic cinematic image for multiple generations – was born.
   Now, almost 75 years on, a new generation of children are treated to a version which both encapsulates and capitalizes upon the current trend  in the mainstream 21st Century cinematic experience: obtaining exactly the correct balance of 3D – used as a tool to surprise and occasionally, mildly shock.
  Although purists may raise more than a few eyebrows, it’s important to judge this entirely on its own, but also to acknowledge those numerous references hidden away for an homage to posterity.
  Who else could make this work better than Disney, who couldn’t have been cleverer in their choice of director, a man who’s more than accustomed at bringing culturally iconic figures to particularly vibrant life – Sam Raimi.
    Of course, he was tasked with rebooting the first trilogy of Spider-Man movies – beginning back in 2002 – with resoundingly joyous success. Those films, as with Oz - have two magic potions in common.
   Stylistically, they’re operated on a complete dream-time-level canvas thanks to the first of these - Raimi. Just as his contemporaries such as Tim Burton especially, and also Christopher Nolan, did as well.
   Of course, this doesn’t examine those vastly paradoxical complexities that Inception does – but what is does share, is a similar sense of unlimited grandeur.
   There’s a sense with this very specific set of directors, that even when adapting source material, their inventiveness can propel their films anywhere. Nolan made his Batman trilogy a brooding, seminal paradigm for our time, delving into territory other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch.
  Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, (although far sunnier tonally), embodied a similar sense of inventive audacity, using not just entirely believable computer-generated imagery, but a far more old-fashioned sense of grounding the narrative in an almost kinesthetic believability for the audience. Spider-Man and the teenager under his mask were just as important as the spectacle around him.
  What impressive spectacle it was though – the action-set pieces used cinematographic technique that fizzed with colour, and explored camera angles that panoramically encircled villain, hero and victim simultaneously – often without the usual rapid cutting between shots. It was the nearest equivalent at that point to the quintessential blockbuster comic-book movie – with the comic-book climbing to web-slinging life before our eyes.
  The second, and equally crucial, is the casting of James Franco. Propelled into stardom by that same Spider-Man trilogy, is was his character - that of the villain’s son, Harry Osbourne – that was far more interesting to me – not Tobey Maguire’s somewhat pedestrian take on the iconic red-and-blue-suited hero.  Franco’s Harry was the far more ambiguously complex of the two: soulful, conflicted, and, the series progressed, driven by vengefulness…
   Franco’s immense charisma was obviously something Raimi noted, and here he returns, perfectly cast in the title role, but formally as Oscar Diggs, a failed and fraudulent travelling magician, conning and frequently charming his way - out of trouble.
Commencing as the original did, in narrow-ratio black-and-white, with a terrific paper-cut-out, kaleidoscope title-sequence (in eye-popping 3D), an  early moment sees a girl in wheelchair ask Oscar to make her walk. ‘Not now kid’ is his dismissive reply. Even earlier, after a completely fictitious tale of how a relation of his died in battle, when asked which one, his get-out clause is: ‘There are so many’.
  Franco is always an actor with such a twinkle in his eye, never more-so than in this film, which is why we forgive Oscar these lines instantly – they were funny.
It is his performance alone - redeeming Oscar Diggs from resourceful trickster to genuine hero - which solidifies both the comic, and emotive centre of the film. His physicality, vulnerability, but above all his sheer range of facial expressions that are so accomplished. Like Johnny Depp and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Franco shares their effortless charm, flair for soulful, subtle nuance, coupled with a mischievous, impish smile. These brilliant character actors always portray the balance of emotion through the truthfulness in their eyes. Whoever their character, you’re always on their side.
  Franco shares another shares other similarities with the two actors. An eclectic choice of project: whether in mainstream blockbusters like Oz, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or Raimi’s 2002-2007 Spider-Man trilogy - or much smaller independent gems - such as Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the recent Spring Breakers and clever self-parody This Is The End or 2010’s exceptional biopic Howl – each genre is given equal weight.
   He’s also turning to directing films himself. This probably won’t be an Academy Award-nominated performance, but like all the aforementioned actor’s work, it’s extremely heartfelt, and should be an Academy Award-winning one.
   Caught up in a tornado-storm in a hot-air balloon, (cue more spectacular use of 3D, as ropes snap, dust settles, and his top-hat nearly swirls onto our heads), Oscar soon finds himself in Oz. The rotoscope then slowly opens out into widescreen, the black-and-white traded for vibrant Technicolor. This is where the artistry is really allowed to flourish – literally.
  Speaking of Oscars, this is a production of the most beautiful order. It’s due to the brilliant production designer Robert Stromberg, winning twice for Avatar and Alice In Wonderland. There’s a definite influence of the latter particularly, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – not only the sense of the central protagonist being somewhat of a misfit in a totally unfamiliar landscape, but also the glossiest, most colourful landscapes imaginable. An actual yellow-brick-road was fully constructed, flowers bloom, and flocks of tiny bluebirds soar over our heads. The river-fairies, repeatedly whistle the first eight notes of Pop Goes The Weasel. When Oscar whistles back the reply, he and we thanks to 3D – both get a face-full of spurted water!
Bubbles the key protagonists fly in, fog, lightning, broomsticks, waterfalls, candy-floss-clouds, and all-important fireworks – all feature substantially – and are beautifully designed and lovingly crafted to dazzling effect.
  We then meet the first of three witches, the beautiful and sultry Theodora The Good – played with a great sense of unbalanced moral ambiguity by Mila Kunis. Her costume, as is the case with all of them, is particularly striking, all deep-plum hat and luscious lipstick.
  My favourite scene in the film hints at how ‘good’ Theodora may indeed be – or not. After the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s stealing turn as Evanora – the Wicked Witch of the East. ‘What do you know about goodness?’ she asks Theodora: ‘Deep down you are wicked’. ‘I’m not WICKED! Fireballs suddenly shoot out from both Theodora’s hands. ‘Sister, that temper really is wasted on you’. The two siblings’ animosity only seeks to intensify when Oscar meets the third and final witch – Michelle Williams’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Glinda The Good.
   Adorned in white silk finery throughout to signify connotations of purity, Williams succeeds with the most difficult role: making a character infused innately with moral goodness be earnest, instead of overly sweet or sentimentalized. It’s a stunning achievement by Williams – one which is fully deserving of another nomination.
  He said we’d rule Oz together…’ exclaims an unstable Theodora in a pivotal exchange. A particularly clever touch sees Theodora’s tears burn up like licks of flame down her face as she becomes manipulated into an increasingly desperate sense of jealously which Kunis conveys wonderfully – Theodora’s certainly the witch that’s given the most interesting transformation…
   Did he...?’ is Evanora’s chillingly rhetorical whisper, feigning a suspiciously sarcastic sympathy. ‘Are you quite sure it wasn’t you who said it to him…’?
  Of the three witches, Weisz’s green and black-costumed Evanora (the perfect juxtaposition of envy and deliciously relentless intent) – is the one who’s plight I was the most enthralled by. She adopts diction that could break glass, a personification in perfect poise no citizen of Oz would ever dare cross, and is Shakespearian in her quietly domineering method of delivering dialogue. Without giving too much away, don’t trust her with apples! ... ‘Oh it’s nice isn’t it? How clear everything is…It’s just your heart withering away’… Citizens of Emerald City – witness what happens, when you defy me’...
  Raimi has brilliantly expanded upon a world universally adored for 74 years, elaborating on an endlessly magical landscape faultlessly for an entirely new generation or two - on characterization, origin-arcs but most movingly – themes, themes that spellbound the globe all those years ago. Redemption, good triumphing over evil, these are timeless lessons for all families. There’s even the inclusion of a somewhat shall we say emotionally ‘fragile’ little china girl whose family were taken.
  Never at any point do we actually know her name – might it just be Dorothy? With her simple white apron over a powder-blue dress – that’s certainly my estimation as to what Raimi and his team of visionaries may be alluding to.
  There’s a near-heartbreaking scene where her legs are broken off when we find her in the decimated Chinatown: ‘I’ll never get back together…I don’t know if I can’. Ever the friendly optimist, Oscar says: ‘I think you can’. Improvising with some very traditional, boarding on the rustically rudimentary use of some superglue (key later as projections, theatrics and majestic duels come to climactic fruition (‘What’s the matter Glinda?’ Out of Bubbles?’) – she’s quite literally, back on her own two feet – along with an adorable monkey-butler Finley, who’s miles too small to fit Oscar’s top-hat on his head.
  There’s more than a fair few flourishes of old in here, the classic iconoclastic nature of Raimi as director, is fondly acknowledged with exuberant verve. Munchkins – ‘Thank you, you put the merry into the merry Land of Oz…but guys – take five’ – he insists, after they’ve barely had the chance to burst into a welcoming refrain.
  There’s a fleeting appearance from a lion, a brief tantalizer of what may be around the corner for the future – not to mention the famous, or should that be infamous Flying Monkeys. ‘Do not fail me, a second time’. Fearlessly obedient, off they screech almost directly into the lens, in all their shrouded, GCI, 3D horror, to chilling effect. The Wicked Witch of the West, just the slimily-tainted shade of green - has a horrific line: ‘Each brick in the road that was once yellow will now be made red with the blood of every, tinker, tailor and munchkin throughout all of Oz…’.  TEAR THEM APART!’ is the monkeys’ blood-freezing command.
   The action-sequence enthusiast in me, was hoping for the heightened, gripping, deeply fantastical sense of jeopardy or peril to be pushed to the near-approached 12A-Level, but after the previous smash-hit of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s Alice In Wonderland, Disney again followed suit, and stuck with the choice of a PG rating, presumably to hope for the broader appeal of a more family-dominated audience.
  The final, most cruicial of elements arrives in the exhilarating sound of the score. Is there anyone who writes populist, memorable, wholesome, wonderfully orchestral blockbuster scores quite like the astoundingly prolific Danny Elfman?
  From the opening second, when those beyond-iconic gates of Magic Kingdom’s castle promise adventure in the rare form of black-and-white stock, the opening titles play out akin to a puppet-theatre, as wistfully inventive shapes spin, twirl and swipe into our very faces – foregrounding  the unfairly malighned tool of 3D, fulfilling it to the very pinnacle of its technical potential immediately. Mariah Carey sings the wonderful ‘Almost Home’ over the final credits, which is emotional, gutsy and punchy in equally proportionate thirds.
  Magical, in the most transporting, unapologetically joyous way that it is possible to reach on celluloid. Here’s hoping the rumoured two further sequels in the proposed trilogy’s artistry is realized with every bit as much verve, exhilaration, care, visually stunning detail and fun. An experience I was privileged to enjoy twice in the cinema, and one I’ll never forget, thanks to the perfect directorial choice of Raimi, and flawless performances all round. It’s populist, studio-based cinema at its most elaborately exuberant – a trait quintessentially Raimi.
 Walt Disney himself, rather like when his medium-changing studio made their debut with Snow White in 1937, would be every bit as reverently proud, and if I daresay just as moved and humbled as I, to see a timeless classic be reinvigorated into the next ether of the cinematic realm with a perfectionist passion similar to his own…
My favourite film of the year by quite a distance…
 And to you ‘Oscar’ Diggs, I say finally: Best of luck in 2014, where Oscars of a similarly celebratory sort, will hopefully be awarded to all!

  Rating: * * * * *


Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Watch


Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade & Billy Crudup.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Monday, 3rd September, 2012.

Comedy in populist, mainstream Hollywood is currently in quite a transitional phase. The mid-to-late nineties were Jim Carrey’s broadly comedic rubber-faced golden years; with the likes of Dumb and Dumber The Mask, Liar Liar, but also the slightly darker, edgier, left-field idiosyncratic gem: The Cable Guy, in 1996, directed by a certain, (then up-and-coming) Ben Stiller.
  Late nineties teen-comedy, was the next order of the day, followed in the light of audiences Screaming for the parodied side of Wes Craven’s Ghostface thanks to Scary Movie, or high-school-set students either: cleverly consulting Shakespeare’s more shrewish side, to brilliantly decide exactly what were the 10 Things (they) Hate(d) About You in 1999. Just before that, a bunch of teenagers were ravenous for their next raunchy slice of American Pie.
In 2001, Stiller burst onto that very same mainstream scene with the uproarious Meet The Parents. Two sequels intermittently followed, with varying success, and a steady stream of commercially successful crowd-pleasers in between. Among them was 2004’s Dodgeball, an enjoyable, if somewhat rather overrated ‘gross-out’ sports comedy.
   This was the film that, if little else established the dynamite pairing of Stiller’s collaboration with one of my very favourite actors – Vince Vaughn.
  Now they’re starring again, as one half of four suburbanites, thrown together through the most implausibly outrageous of circumstances. An alien attack has come to fruition in a Costco-inspired megastore of all barely conceivable locations. Stiller and Vaughn, together with Moneyball’s Jonah Hill and British actor/director Richard Ayoade - playing a self-assured but ultimately unfulfilled misfit, form a Neighbourhood Watch group.
  The style and premise – namely that of forming a quartet of contrasting, 21st Century Ghostbusters, actually works (if not up to those dizzily entertaining, box-office-smashing standards) – considerably better, and in a slightly funnier, more involving way than Dodgeball did.
  That most fiendishly difficult of equilibriums – the one between broadly comedic laughs while coupled with the occasional innocuous scare – is actually obtained marginally successfully – if not particularly memorably.
  The dialogue is never quite as sharp as expected, but in Vaughn’s wonderfully cynical vernacular of course, is delivered with his now customarily quick-fire rapidity. He steals the film, away from Stiller in a sense, with Stiller still stuck to playing it rather straight-laced, while remaining a reliably staple presence in the comedy cannon.
  It’s more left to Vaughn (as a likeable everyman) and particularly Ayoade and Hill, to provide the majority of what are, more often than not, fairly muted giggles when they should be unstoppable ones.
  The aliens themselves - summoned after the impulsive meddling of a futuristic, spherical metal orb that blows up a cow (much to their open-mouthed, enthused incredulity) – are welcomed rather than run-from.
  One of the funniest scenes, involves them revelling in the prospect of having pictures taken with the seemingly dormant alien (now in sunglasses), only to be the perilous, hapless victims of another attack, moments later.
  Human form also comes under suspicious question, with a clever sequence where members of the public are assessed for their extra-terrestrial potential.
  First on the list of possible culprits, is a very funny performance from Billy Crudup as an outwardly sinister, voyeuristic next-door neighbour figure, somewhat reminiscent of Norman Bates – all squinty-eyed and cold emotion - a vast antithesis to the reveal as to what’s actually happening behind his front door!
  Proceedings become more elaborate, but slightly overblown in the latter stages, and it’s quite male-centric throughout, but overall this is fizzy, undemanding fare, with a typically appealing cast – it’s just not written with quite enough of the comic pop as you’d hope for, given the talent involved.

Rating: * * *

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Bourne Legacy

Action Thriller/Reboot

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Paddy Consadine & Albert Finney. 

Running Time: 126 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 25th August, 2012.

Originally based on the pulpy series of bestselling novels by Robert Ludlum, in 2002 - when Matt Damon burst into the intelligence sub-genre with an unusually intelligent bang with The Bourne Identity – rivaling Pierce Brosnan’s ultimate exstravagant last outing as Bond (the spectacular Die Another Day – my personal favourite Bond movie; fantastical in every sense), Damon and director Paul Greengrass instead opted for gritty realism and brutally visceral fight sequences. Bond produces obviously took note of the surprising impact it made, as they of course then followed suit, choosing to next introduce Daniel Craig.
  Damon and Greengrass though, after the phenomenal success of Bourne’s Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively, chose not to have the above-poster top billing, passing the mantle onto the increasingly popular Jeremy Renner – importantly though, not playing Jason Bourne, but rather in the role of brand new renegade agent Aaron Cross.
  For my money, Renner’s a far more unassuming presence on screen than Damon is, it’s just a shame that, rather like Damon, he appears so devoid of emotive facial expression, that it’s very difficult to, in turn, emotionally invest in his fate in almost any ensuing jeopardy.
  Incidentally, those distinctly intermittent, yet frenetically involving bursts of set-piece are extremely few and far between. For the most part this is driven on a fuel of dialogue, only with more of the dialogue and much less of the drive. James Newton-Howard’s only occasionally punchy score is often glaringly present to only act as ominously-strung padding from one action sequence to the next.
  The director is the very smart choice of Tony Gilroy. His film, Micheal Clayton is a fantastic, quiet, slow-burner of a thriller, full of superb performances – (in my opinion it was George Clooney’s finest ever dramatic performance).
 The action sequences themselves are actually extremely well-staged, make great use of bullet-ricocheting sound effects, and are similarly brutal to Damon’s, with Renner proving to be in fine physical shape – (he’s an increasingly dominant action star: Hawkeye in Thor and The Avengers -  and he’s previously played morally ambiguous agents already, in 2003’s S.W.A.T. and the fourth Mission: Impossible: - Ghost Protocol, so he would be. It’s just a rather ironic shame that, as Aaron Cross, he gives us his least engaging performance to date. It’s to the screenplay’s plodding detriment, not his own fault, which spends much of its very overlong running-time pre-occupied with what is often highly scientific expositional terminology, all concerned with how Cross is genetically engineered.
  Edward Norton is reliably terrific, equally morally ambiguous as a cool-headed manipulator, and Rachel Weisz is extremely strong in the somewhat thankless role of a scientist, but she is given a singularly affecting scene under house-arrest, where a suitably frantic infiltration follows.
  From the outset, the screenplay treats this installment very much as a continuation of the previous trilogy, with endlessly elusive reference to ‘Tredstone’ and the so-called urgent prospect of ‘Burning the programme to the ground’ without ever even remotely attempting to explain what the ‘programme’ actually is, or, more to the point, why Edward Norton and his shadow-lit team want to do that so badly.
  Previous, brilliant supporting talent such as Joan Allen, the fantastically eclectic David Strathairn, and even Albert Finney, are only there to make fleeting, blink-and-you’d-miss-them appearances.
  There is an excellent climactic, beautifully-shot red motorcycle chase, with Renner as always looking super-cool in simple, black sun-shades, and it’s good that Gilroy, as he did with Clooney for Micheal Clayton, gives his central protagonist of Aaron Cross, a surprisingly intriguing, and fairly dark back-story as to exactly why he is the way he is.
  This, solidly entertaining as it is, could be a potential reboot of the Bourne franchise, with Renner possibly in future sequels – if today’s Hollywood franchise factory is any accurate yardstick. If so, lets hope the next one’s screenplay sees that Renner packs a little more punch emotionally, as well as physically, with a lot less long-winded dialogue in between…

Rating: * * *

Saturday, 22 June 2013



Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Seth McFarlane, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Stewart & Ryan Reynolds.

Running Time: 106 mins. approx.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Monday, 13th August, 2013.

I confess, I’ve never actually seen Family Guy. Based on Ted’s humour though, tonally at least, the two probably aren’t dissimilar. It’s directed by the show’s creator, the multi-talented talented Seth McFarlane, who also voices the title teddy.
  Mark Wahlberg, an actually now so associated with serious, conflicted anti-heroes, usually cops are redemptive troubled souls, now turns excellently to gross-out comedy in the Farrelly Brothers mould: fans of Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene will know exactly how sharp the satirical edge will be.
  Narrated by the dulcet tones of Patrick Stewart, we see that John has the Christmas present of all, his own Teddy Bear and friend for life. In a very smart opening montage, eagle-eyed movie-fans will delight in references to their very cinematic appreciations, from queuing up in costume for The Phantom Menace, to a Raiders Of The Lost Ark poster on John’s bedroom wall. One particularly distinguishing feature (batteries not included*), is that fact that Ted can talk – and not just when you squeeze his paw. Rest assured though, the grown-up John and his deceptively cute-looking counterpart are suitably foul-mouthed, throwing parties of a vastly more alcohol-fuelled, adult persuasion. At one point, Ted introduces four young girls to an incredulous John and his girlfriend (Mila Kunis): ‘This is Angelique, Heavenly, Shareene and Sauvignon Blanc!’.
  The bar of what is deemed acceptable taste, doesn’t exist anymore. It seems literally that any lurid linguistic observation or highly puerile sexual reference can double as hilarity. It’s not that it isn’t funny – it is hilarious, but only at the expense of being shocking first, in an abundance of ‘How did they get away with that?’ - induced gasps from ours and plenty more a  screening, which immediately dilutes its comedic impact. Consequently, this means that the imminent sequel, perhaps won’t hold onto novelty for very long. Where McFarlane has succeeded far better, is in zeitgeist, and parody. There are a great many extremely well-judged referential gems hidden throughout, from an ongoing motif of a shared fascination with eighties’ nostalgia (the second Indiana Jones reference involves Ted’s torn ear and a door left ajar, and their shared love of Flash Gordon leads to a Sam Jones cameo).
  Lines of dialogue like ‘That’s my bad I was sending a tweet’, after bumping into another car, or: ‘Back off Susan Boyle!’ – Ted’s inevitable fame leads to kidnap from a scarily convincing Giovanni Ribisi as the father of an Omen-esque son - are surefire crowd-pleasers with a welcome absence of innuendo.
  It’s easy to overlook the technical skill of what’s been achieved through seamless CGI to create Ted. Instinctively, he can accomplish any action, without the audience ever knowingly marveling, very much in the style of what Robert Zemeckis achieved with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, and then much later, employing motion-capture with The Polar Express.
  Never in the best of tastes, but it is undeniably, very funny. 

Rating: * * *

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Lorax


Starring (Voice Talents Of): Zac Efron, Danny Devito, Ed Helms, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle and Betty White.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Thursday, 2nd August, 2012.

From The Cat In The Hat, The Grinch and Horton Hears a Who!, Dr. Seuss has created an array of idiosyncratic, yet oddly endearing characters.
 ImageWorks, the company behind 2010’s surprise hit Despicable Me, now have The Lorax, a diminutive tangerine creature akin to the appearance of an orange segment.
  Set in a synthetic Technicolor toy-town, (where air is only bottled and run by Rob Riggle’s tiny, evil conglomerate magnate – a male doppelganger for The Incredibles domineering boss) - a pre-teen is smitten with a beauty next door, and he promises to show her a real tree. The Once-ler is an aged, conflicted former woodcutter who tells him the only way to recapture a flourishing, economically healthy land is to enlist the help of the orange troublemaker.
  I’ve rarely seen more glossy, fluorescent, aesthetically optimistic computer-animation. It’s a master-class in the tactile and the kinaesthetic, a veritable candy land of colour, texture, and intricate detail. Bubblegum pinks, pop-up flowers (3D reaches it’s vibrant best here), sugar-plumb-esque truffola trees, and those unmistakably apple-cheeked, almost plaster-scene faces (but always expressive).
  The voice talent on display is eclectic, from Danny Devito’s rapid mischievousness means the Lorax is nothing by hilariously loveable, to Betty White’s delightful Grandma, complete with dentures! The songs (luckily not too many) are memorable and the jokes are funny – if overly reliant on the side of slapstick.
  It’s a total feel-good charmer and a wonder of technical superiority, but it’s screenplay never quite works entirely coherently at feature-length. It occasionally feels like a series of short films strewn together with not a consistent enough narrative throughline, and the dialogue could’ve been a touch sharper. Still an absolute delight – superlative animation – the best since Megamind.

Rating: * * * *

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