Saturday, 31 July 2010

The A Team

The A Team is the kind of popcorn fodder that puts the viewer in a quandary. Perfectly serviceable, giddily entertaining on its own terms as noisy, big budget junk, comparisons to the fondly regarded TV series will invariably get in the way. Its identity is therefore suspect; those not familiar with its TV inspiration (as with this reviewer) may mistake it for something its not, while the fans of course will be riled up by differences brought about by the star power and effects.

For the purposes of this review, it's best enjoyed simply as the slickest, stupidest kind of summer blockbuster, rather than a direct extension of the TV series. Indeed, the disparaging comments from Mr T himself have put paid to that. As brainless, but still witty, fodder, its acceptable and busy, succeeding largely on the fine chemistry between the four leads who, again, may or may not be doing a good impression of 80s favourites (is this getting dull, yet?)

Regardless, Liam Neeson is as an authoritative a presence as ever, taking over from George Peppard as Col. 'Hannibal Smith', leader of that elite military outfit, The A Team, a man who loves it 'when a plan comes together'. Together with Bradley Cooper's 'Face' Peck, Quinton Jackson's B. A. Baracus and Sharlto Copley's Murdock, they're thrown together on some paper thin gubbins including the old being-sent-to-prison-wrongfully gambit and a largely incoherent thread involving US treasury plates.

Truthfully, director Joe Carnahan is more interested in propelling the audience through a series of awesomely ludicrous set-pieces, all shot at that break-neck speed familiar from the opening of his well-regarded 'Narc'. Thought Inception was a leap of faith? Well, at least that had an internal logic of its own. Wait until you see the flying tank scene in this. It would feel like a heartless, textbook exercise in mega-budget stupidity if it weren't for the talented performers holding it together. Neeson does the pater-familias with guns schtick solidly; Cooper for once is likeable rather than smug while Jackson gets likely the toughest job of the whole production putting a new, less manic face on the series' most iconic character.

He copes well but the scene is rightly stolen by the wonderfully demented Copley as Murdock, crooning You Spin Me Round while dangling on rotor blades and escaping a prison in 3D glasses. Copley can be credited for providing much, if not all, of the demented humour and drive of the film, and seems to get the rest of the cast on their A-game too, forging some wonderful chemistry with his more famous co-stars. Elsewhere Jessica Biel struggles to make an impression in the boys' game as the DOD agent in pursuit, although Patrick Wilson's weaselly villain is good value.

As for Mike Post's iconic theme tune, well, that's barely deployed by Alan Silvestri in his serviceable underscore (a curious quirk of the production - is it going to be doled out more later on in what is clearly hoped will be a new franchise?) But, while clearly there's an identity crisis going on, take it on its own terms and there's fun to be had. Just pity the fool who takes it too seriously!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Toy Story 3

It's becoming a struggle to find more superlatives to ladle on Pixar, but judging by their latest monumental effort, Toy Story 3, we're going to have to dole out a few more.

What Pixar have done in fact, is the impossible: craft a trilogy that has not only matured and expanded its vision since its inception, but has also continued to mine astonishingly complex and profound notions of identity, age and the delightful notion of what happens when we turn our backs on our beloved possessions. It's a delight to say Toy Story 3 is the best of the bunch; not the funniest perhaps (although there are some killer sequences when it hits its stride later on) but certainly the scariest, most thoughtful, and ultimately, most heart-rending.

It's that awe-inspiringly incisive portrayal of humanity as seen from the knees up through the eyes of plastic toys that adds further ammunition to the argument that these films are no longer for kids, if they ever truly have been. It's not just a watershed moment in cinematic culture; it's a watershed moment in culture full-stop, one that will forever change how we perceive human nature. More baffling (just to jump off track) is how live action films often fail to convey this?

Regardless, we pick up several years after the close of Toy Story 2, where Andy (voice of John Morris) is a 17 year old teen, packing up for college. Grungier posters adorn his walls and a laptop sits atop his desk. The toys, bunged up together, and still led by Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) are terrified of abandonment, fears that seem to be realised when they are mistakenly packed off to Sunnyside Daycare Centre, ruled over by apparently benevolent Lots-O-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty). Soothed by Lotso's platitudes that they'll never be outgrown, it soon becomes clear the strawberry-scented softie and his cronies have a sinister ulterior motive, leading the gang to plot to return to Andy before his college deadline's up...

That set-up is rife with the potential for Pixar to fire on all cylinders and sure enough the daycare centre location offers potent opportunities for action both dark (toddlers laying waste to their charges) and rib-tickling (an extended prison break where, among other things, Mr Potato Head acquires a new personality). More than a series of punchline gags though (audiences will never look at the song Freak Out in the same way again) is the extraordinarily mature outlook Pixar maintains in this final installment in the trilogy; from the start, every aspect of the colourful day-glo visuals is coded with a palpable sense of melancholy and sadness, much of which bubbles under the surface for the most part, guaranteeing the film's appeal for adults nostalgic for their lost, departed selves.

That is until that ending which of course it wouldn't do to spoil here. Not since It's a Wonderful Life has a film's climax united so well all facets, all ages of humanity under one umbrella, without becoming the least bit sickly or sanctimonious. It's a breathtaking achievement. Of course, it goes without saying the tale is beautifully voiced as ever (Michael Keaton's scene-stealing Ken may be the best thing he's ever done) and the pacing and action are spot on from start to finish (the finale at the incinerator is agonisingly tense and hellish, rivalling all the great suspense thrillers). But these are largely by-products (and wonderful ones) when compared to that vast well-spring of transcendent humanity Pixar have somehow tapped into. It's not longer a film; it's a cultural artifact, to be looked back on 30/40/50 years from now as an example of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


'You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger...' It's a simple enough phrase but one that conceals hidden depths, much like the whole of Christopher Nolan's extraordinary new film, Inception. Ostensibly, a fairly straightforward tale of cerebral espionage, it comes to unfold like the layers of a subconscious puzzle box, both reinstating and expanding in metafictional fashion on those wonderfully rich and velvety themes Nolan has explored in the past: guilt; consciousness; love; and, of course, the ever fickle nature of time itself, always putty in the hands of this brilliantly talented director.

It's a breathtaking multiplex achievement for the way Nolan refuses to compromise on ideas and intelligence in face of his $200 million budget. In fact, it's certainly one of the most uncompromisingly intelligent blockbusters ever made, driven entirely by its own logic which has to be explained, piecemeal fashion in every other scene, by its cast. Normally, this would grate...but Nolan also knows how to cast actors comfortable with exposition, and here Inception pulls another trump card, driven as it is by attractive yet enormously talented performers.

Always at the centre is Leonardo DiCaprio's engrossing central performance as James Bond of-the-mind, Cobb. Able to invade the id of his chosen victims and extract any secrets his employers wish to purloin, he is beckoned into performing the opposite task, inception, by industrial magnate, Saito (Ken Watanabe). This involves infiltrating the mind of rival businessman, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and planting a literal seed of doubt, in order so his business collapses, leaving the way open for Saito. In exchange, Cobb gets a one-way ticket back to America and his estranged children, products of his earlier marriage to dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a malevolent presence kept alive in his memories who frequently emerges to disrupt his business. With his team assembled - architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), action men Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) - can Cobb maintain the subterfuge?

After a bewildering opening 20 mins, a leap of faith designed to introduce us to Nolan's cerebral trickery, the director really hits his stride in inhabiting with relish an entirely new universe, a baby he first began scripting a decade ago. Refreshingly, he avoids explaining the nitty bitty mechanics of his dream invading; it's akin to watching The Matrix without seeing the characters physically plugging in from the real world. No, Nolan has much larger philosophical, meta-fictional targets in his sights, both broad (the nature of physical reality as a Parisian street flips on itself) and intimate (the differences in scale between dream-time and real-time).

Besides the brains, it's also physically and visually astonishing, the result of a director finally able to fully inhabit his own universe and make it up as he goes along, rather than be hindered by franchise expectations (Batman) or pre-existing source material (brother Jonathan Nolan's short story inspiration for Memento). Trains barrel down streets and Gordon-Levitt fights in a rotating hallway. Later on, one can positively sense Bond fan Nolan's excitement in staging an extended On Her Majesty's Secret Service-esque snow sequence. Yet none of it is there for show; although it might appear en-mass in a confusing muddle, there's always a rich, literary, classical seam to Nolan's visual metaphors, and eagle-eyed (and eared) viewers will pick up on cues planted in scenes minutes before.

Yet none of this would mean anything without that most tender of emotional threads weaving its way through between Cobb and Mal. Frequently criticized for lack of emotional compassion, Nolan here strikes exactly the right balance: the most human quality of all is what drives us deep inside, and it's hard not to feel chills as Page's Ariadne invades this, Cobb's most personal, disturbing place. It also defies the other criticism leveled at the director that he can't fashion interesting or plausible female characters; Cotillard's is likely the best of any Nolan film, the dark, and darkly beautiful, beating heart of the piece.

In the end though, the most extraordinary thing is how Nolan bottles the essence of dreams themselves; maddening, haunting, disturbing, thrilling, confusing. It's a blockbuster possessed of a stunning texture and mood. Dream a little bigger, indeed: it's a statement that can not only be applied to mass-produced cinematic drivel but to the audience itself, emerging bleary eyed and profoundly altered by a truly unique cinematic experience.

Thursday, 15 July 2010


Predators begins with an adrenaline rush of an opening salvo: Adrien Brody's tough nut mercenary Royce in desparate free-fall, just about able to open his parachute and crash onto a hostile alien planet. It effectively sums up the head-on approach of Nimród Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez' reboot cum sequel to the 1987 Arnie classic Predator: frequently generating little more than bluster, but effective enough in grabbing its audience by the knackers.

It's caught somewhat uneasily between those two poles of remake and straight sequel but, for the most part, the filmmakers cut as close to the original as possible. The film is at its best when it does; frequently though, the pared down simplicity is cluttered up with redundant back stories and nuances that steer it closer to the cash cow Alien vs. Predator franchise (the very influence Rodriguez claimed to avoid). After all, 'There's something in those trees' carries so much more menace than a hinted-at Predator blood feud.

But this is jumping ahead. The set-up comes first and it's as brisk and efficient as one would expect. Royce awakes in thick undergrowth and finds complete strangers also dropping in from the sky, including the token female, Isabelle (Alice Braga); an out-of-place doctor (Topher Grace); and a Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien). So far, so payback time. It doesn't take long for the group to realize though, on viewing a sky that features more than one sun, that they're no longer on Earth, but this isn't the worst part. A ruthless race of Predator alien warriors are toying with them, apparently having dropped the misfits onto the planet for the express intent of hunting them for sport.

Note the presence of 'apparently' there; very little of the over-busy screenplay is rounded up and worked over (unlike the characters on-screen), with threads and loose ends left as scattered as a Predator's dreadlocks. A late appearance of a twitchy Laurence Fishburne as a battle-hardened survivor is fun but goes nowhere, as with many of the character beats and motivations (many of which are likely a set-up for a new franchise). One can't help that they're being distracted from the primal battle at the centre, the sense of struggle that made the original so compelling, so frightening.

Which is why, midway through, Antal (directing competently, rather than memorably) decides to drop most of that and start having more fun with his tightrope homage act. The sight of a mud-caked, bare-chested Brody (surprisingly, brilliantly, convincing) finally moves the film in exactly the right direction: a mixture of contemporary, crashing action and affectionate throwback. It goes without saying the creature effects (one of the late Stan Winston's greatest creations) are superbly fearsome, despite some dodgy CGI elsewhere, and the climactic atmospheric mix of torchlight and jungly surroundings will evoke potent nostalgia.

In the end, it's likely composer John Debney who best realizes the potentials and perils inherent in adapting a classic for the modern age, brilliantly enhancing Alan Silvestri's classic percussive work while also deploying a range of defiantly modern effects like electric guitars and squealing horns. It's a tightrope act that the rest of the film struggles to maintain, faithful, exciting and often unnerving though it is.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Seminal Scores: Predator (Alan Silvestri, 1987)

To celebrate the release of Nimród Antal's Predators, here's a fresh look at one of the classic original's key components. Rumbling along and preying on the nerves before exploding in moments of visceral action as Stan Winston's classic monster makes its presence felt, Alan Silvestri's landmark work was key in not only defining his own orchestral sound but the sound of the franchise itself, not to mention that of all peril-in-the-jungle movies to follow...


Derided at the time of release as an inferior Alien knockoff (despite strong box office grosses), John McTiernan's Predator has eventually grown in stature over the years and is now regarded as an action classic in its own right. The story of a group of commandos on a rescue mission in Central America who find themselves stalked by an alien warrior, it's also one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's greatest, most intelligent efforts, and you don't often see that word associated with the Austrian lunkhead. Of course what everyone remembers are the cornball clichés (Ol' Painless/Slackjawed faggots/Get to da chopper), spewed from the mouths of an impossibly macho cast of 80s tough nuts (several of which, ironically, have gone on to successful political careers, including of course the Governator himself).

But there is so much more to the film than a cheesy whiff of nostalgia. For one, the director's terrific juxtaposition of tension (built relentlessly via those wonderful heat signature POV shots) and eventual graphic violence, lends Predator a genuinely frightening edge, the cast's immersion in the sweaty jungle settings so authentic, the sweat virtually pours off the screen. More fascinating though is how it plays against Arnie's crude iconography in the latter stages, stripping him of all weapons and forcing him to take on the creature hand-to-hand, Heart of Darkness style (the evocation of which surely is a sign of brains, not coincidence).

Keeping a tight rein on proceedings is Alan Silvestri's blistering score. McTiernan's signing of the composer was inspired, Silvestri's vigorously robust orchestral approach having been laid down in Back to the Future. Predator of course was a different kettle of fish, forcing Silvestri to broaden his orchestral and percussive palate. In the end, the director fiddled with the score extensively in the film (as he would with Michael Kamen's work on Die Hard, a year later) but there's no denying its effectiveness, a wonderfully old fashioned mood builder that nevertheless galvanized the action genre through the liberal mixture of jungle drums and punchy orchestra.

That iconic Main Theme for terse rattles, percussion and jabbing brass opens the album, preceded in fact by the eerie piece for the Predator itself, a simple progression on four notes, carried often by winds and strings that maintain a suitably otherworldly air. Main Title lays down these competing elements, the exciting central march playing to the machismo of the heroes, while the Predator theme creeps up and breathes down our neck. These ideas are to be continued and developed throughout the rest of the score, the sense of urgency and desperation understandably increasing later on.

Tracks such as The Chopper and Payback Time brilliantly reflect the jungly setting with light percussive tapping dipping in and out of Silvestri's aggressive outbursts. The dynamic musical backdrop seems to punch its way through the soundscape as the characters do with the undergrowth, occasionally calming to reflect the eerily silent all seeing eye of the Predator itself watching from the trees. Throughout, Silvestri maintains a wonderfully propulsive sense of movement, even in slow-burning tracks like Preparing Camp Attack where the rhythmic focus is passed around carefully between different aspects of the orchestra. Occasional music stingers like out of a horror film well match the viewer's initial terror at seeing the Predator emerge on-screen (First Strike).

Interestingly, as the score progresses, the exotic elements are gradually dropped in favour of a more primal, conventionally orchestral sound mirroring the changing dynamics of hunter and hunted. As the sense of fraught action increases (brilliant cues like Jungle Trek and Pig Alarm employ a fantastically brutal sense of momentum), Silvestri continues to pepper his music with little nuances. Goodbye and Mac on Watch for example feature moving trumpet solos while the piping winds in 'Anytime' lure the listener to an inevitable doom, doom which erupts in palpably dramatic tracks like Billy and The Chase.

Moving towards the conclusion, Silvestri maintains a gripping blend of slow-burning terror (the groaning Camouflaged as the Predator misses a mud caked Arnie feet away), heartbeat-style percussion mimicking the pulse of the characters and jungle (Preparations) and riveting action (The Challenge through to Self Destruction). Plus, of course, midway through there's that classic building cue in Predator Unmasked as the monster reveals its hideous visage to Arnie, resulting in the film's most famous quote. Bringing the score to a dramatic close, he brilliantly elevates the on-screen action, adding to the primal sense of barbarity and back to basics simplicity devoid of firearms.

Predator is a landmark effort in Alan Silvestri's canon, an enormous influence on his subsequent action works such as The Abyss and Judge Dredd, as well as works by other composers (John Williams' The Lost World). Although requiring more effort than many action scores due to the extensive range of suspense material, it rewards attention tenfold and adds to the film that extra sense of danger that moves it from competent suspenser to potent battle of wills. Silvestri was to brilliantly expand on his original material in Predator 2, and now John Debney has paid the greatest compliment by drawing on the material in Predators. It's the highest one could pay to a classic score.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Shrek Forever After

It's fair to say Dreamworks' Shrek (taken from William Steig's book) imploded the CGI animation genre from the inside back in 2001. While not an especially memorable breakthrough visually, the knock-out storytelling that was both a parody of saccharine fairy tales and a lovely morality story in its own right secured the film's instant popularity with audiences, one which both tickled the ribs and warmed the cockles. Even Oscar saw fit to reward it in due course.

Then it all started to go slightly down-hill. In Shrek 2 and 3, the star wattage took over and the pop-culture references became as unsavoury as an ogre's mudbath. Always a distant kissing-cousin to market leader Pixar's astonishingly multi-faceted work, the latter day sequels seemed to confirm Dreamworks' worst tendencies; namely, replacing depth with a kind of puerile cynicism.

Thankfully, now that the franchise is facing the music and coming to an end, the studio ups its game and produces the best entry since the first. By restoring the heart through some carefully intricate (though never bewildering) narrative acrobatics, and eliminating the reliance on star voices (the lead villain tellingly isn't voiced by an A-Lister but by Head of Story Walt Dohrn), Shrek finally gets some of its mojo back.

The very mojo that Shrek (Mike Myers) himself is lacking at the outset, stuck in a domestic nightmare of Groundhog Day proportions looking after his kids and harbouring an increasing desire to return to his old anti-social life. Wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) are not best pleased. After erupting in rage at his child's birthday party, he strikes a deal with the devious Rumplestilkskin (voiced with relish by Dohrn) to return to life as a normal ogre for a day. What Rumpel doesn't reveal is his sinister ulterior motive, getting Shrek to sign away the day of his birth, conjuring up another metafictional film comparison as Shrek, George Bailey style, must fight to convince his friends (including Antonio Banderas' now portly Puss in Boots) of his existence, and most importantly, Fiona, of his undying love.

The It's a Wonderful Life device is always a great one for manipulating the audience's emotions and getting them on-board the side of the protagonist. Consequently, the plot-driven dynamics of Shrek Forever After, not to mention Shrek's desparate struggle to convince Fiona of his love before the day is out, lend events a gripping, suspenseful edge, while restoring the backbone long absent since the first film. It's also packed with a delightful kind of incidental detail that shows the filmmakers are again engaging with their own universe; Fiona is now the kick-ass leader of an underground group of rebels, allowing Diaz to revel in her character's pluckier stance, while Dohrn as the delightfully wicked Rumpel is a truly fearsome villain for being able to rewrite the events of the past films at ease.

But, crucially, it's also very, very funny (a killer cameo from the Pied Piper, able to manipulate characters' free-style choices), and genuinely heartwarming. It won't take a genius to see the hint laid down in the title, but it makes it no less touching to finally say goodbye to these characters; nor less satisfying, to see it done so well.

Four Lions

Treading that finest of lines between gentle comic absurdity and edgy observation, Four Lions is a marvellous creation. Comedy has always been that strangest of genres, able to provoke enormous controversy out of that most subjective and personal of art forms: humour. The film's creator, Chris Morris (working on his cinematic debut) of course is no stranger to this himself. Brass Eye famously ripped up the rule book when it came to what British TV audiences should find funny. Lions also has the capacity to unsettle, but in a more provocative, socially incisive vein.

Actually, beyond the sensationalist trailer which would look to make gratuitous humour out of an uncomfortable subject (four British jihadists looking to make an impact, in every sense of the word), it's a far (dare one say it) kinder and more compassionate work than one expects, more dramady than series of unpleasant punch lines. Not that this will sit easy with audiences, humanizing, rather than demonizing, the demons. But, as Bill Bailey pointed out, while it would be easy to paint them as one eyed monsters with lasers under their moustaches, Four Lions refreshingly exposes the fallibility that exists in all men and women.

Much of the credit goes to Morris’ impeccable cast, chiefly the one-two punch of Riz Ahmed and the Fonejacker himself Kayvan Novak, as family man Omar and impossibly dim Waj respectively. Barely competent recording their own fatwa complete with replica AK-47’s, the two actors are superb at putting a human face on those most reviled of religious extremists. Part of a ragtag Sheffield group that includes white convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and Faisal (Adeek Akhtar), who attaches explosives to crows, Omar is keen to make a name for himself as a soldier in the name of Islam, but finds his ideologies competing with that of his compatriots.

Both incisive look at the current British political crisis (Morris claims to have spent three years in research) and a farcical, genuinely hilarious comedy, Lions commendably finds humour naturally in situations and observations, akin to what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did in The Office. The easier way to go (and the one that would have garnered more publicity) would have been to string together a series of tasteless gags, but Morris (who clearly has matured himself) has a wider context in mind than that. As we move into the shockingly dramatic and moving final act, Four Lions has much to say about Britain’s identity in the modern age, even indirectly: it had its Sundance world premier on the day the UK’s threat level was raised to ‘severe’.