Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Piranha 3D

Put your hands together for Piranha, the only film in the wake of the 3D revolution to realise that the technology is best deployed as a bit of a laugh. It helps of course that the film itself is also one: a delightfully puerile, adolescent, sleazy throwback to a style of moviemaking that reveled in such naughtiness. It's turned out to be a canny slice of late summer programming: after a peculiar 80s throwback year, now we have a proper grind house movie in all its glory to end the season properly.

The key is that acclaimed horror auteur Alexandre Aja respects his audience, however juvenile. After brutal efforts Switchblade Romance and the remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, there's something perversely innocent about Piranha; a sense of purity in spite of all the floating body parts, gratuitous nudity and severed gentlemen vegetables. It's a film that delivers exactly on its base promises, while also carrying a healthy sense of gallows humour.

Said giggles begin in the witty opening sequence where Richard Dreyfuss (riffing on his Jaws character Hooper singing 'Show Me the Way to Go Home') becomes fish food for a vicious school of prehistoric piranha freed from an underwater chasm by an earth tremor. However, he's merely the entree. Spring Break has descended on Lake Victoria, Arizona, where hundreds of nubile, idiotic young things are practically screaming to be devoured. Kick-ass Sheriff Elisabeth Shue attempts to warn of impending danger, little realising that her teenage son Steven R. McQueen (grandson of the screen legend) has been roped in as location scout for porn director Jerry O'Connell, leaving behind his little brother and sister.

Will carnage ensue? Yes, but only after Aja has built up tension nicely, a few brief devourings here, a hilariously manic Christopher Lloyd there, popping up to explain, Doc Brown eyes boggling, how to stop the piranha. Kelly Brook and Riley Steele even enjoy an extended under-water skinny dip, an eye-boggling wake-up call for those who haven't quite got the joke. But it's when poor O'Connell's tadger has been devoured then spat out by a fussy fish - in 3D! - that the film lives up to its poster and really shows its teeth, Aja staging a staggeringly bloody massacre that sees the lake dyed a deep maroon within a matter of seconds.

Yet it's all leavened with a campy sense of ironic distance, and the wonderfully knowing cast prevent it from descending into sadism; those with a strong stomach will crease up at a pair of breast implants floating up from skeletal remains or Ving Rhames taking on the hordes with an outboard motor. It's perfectly realised within its own ambitions, never over-reaching itself which, in this day and age of pretentious big-budget twaddle, is a real boon. Props too for the level-headed recognition of 3D as a flashy gimmick that works best with a flashy gimmick of a film. It's the anti-Avatar: not 5 years in the making, not a harbinger of new technology; just simply, a riot. Take that, James Cameron!

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Fair play to Angelina Jolie: she's probably the only female A Lister of the moment who can take on the big boys at their own game. After a hasty rewrite of the new actioner Salt saw the narrative geared towards her instead of Tom Cruise, one could have been forgiven for seeing it as a publicity coup, an attempt to create a Jane Bond for the Facebook generation. Cynicism aside, Jolie is terrific: bringing that chilly, aloof quality and visceral energy to bear on a film that, sadly, is way beneath her.

It starts promisingly enough, Jolie's titular CIA operative Evelyn Salt being outed as a Russian spy in front of colleagues Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor by Russian defector Orlov (a brilliantly creepy Daniel Olbrychski). This agent, Orlov explains, has come to the USA to assassinate the Russian President. It doesn't help that Ejiofor's Peabody already fosters an ill-defined hostility towards Salt (default setting for dramatic tension in action movies) or that Schreiber's Winter appears to know less about his own agent's background than we do... but these logical gaps are mere tiddlers compared with what's coming. Harbouring plenty of emotional baggage courtesy of her rescue from North Korean torture by arachnologist husband August Diehl, Salt promptly escapes in a bid to clear her name and save him from a similar fate.

In the interests of fairness, none of the film's faults stem from Phillip Noyce's direction, which is pacy and crisp. Veteran of thrillers like Patriot Games and Dead Calm, Noyce has a firm understanding of the rhythms of suspense and can turn the screw with the best of them. The multitude of car crashes, death-defying escapes and fist-fights are staged with efficient aplomb. He's matched, in every way, by Jolie, the real special effect, as adept at scaling buildings in place of her stunt double as she is in honing her character's dangerously alluring ambiguity, which escalates as we move forward.

Then we reach the halfway point...and it all goes completely bananas. Not merely content with forging a Bond/Bourne stew, Kurt Wimmer's script ends up mad as a box of spanners, flinging red herrings, reversals and betrayals at the screen as if his life depended on it. Jolie even turns up as a man at one point before proceeding to leap down an elevator shaft like Catwoman, inconsistencies and plot holes piling up at a faster rate than the body count. It's either audacious in its stupidity...or just stupid full stop.

It desparately needs a measure of ironic distance, a subtle wink to show its late-flowering Ruskie/Commie threat is a deliberately affectionate throwback. Instead it takes itself far too seriously, and comes off worse. Thank goodness then for Jolie who makes this rollercoaster ride more layered and enjoyable than it deserves to be. Credit Salt's saltiness entirely to her; the wider feast is a derivative mess of ingredients that spoils the palate. Who is Salt? She is Angelina Jolie; and not just the character, but the film too.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Expendables

The Expendables? Surely The Expandables is a more appropriate title given the enlarged waist-line of director/star/co-writer Sylvester Stallone? But while Sly's age may be catching up with him, it's obvious he can still stage mindless carnage with aplomb. The Expendables is a man's film with a capital M: a pint of Stella lined with Tabasco and Bovril. With raw steak as main course. In an era when blockbusters are boasting even more cross-gender appeal, Sly's throwback to masculine 80s excess (in a year that has already seen a stream of riffs and remakes) is somewhat refreshing, uniting several generations of talent in a package featuring more testosterone than one can shake a testicle at.

Of course, it's been victim to a very present-day hype machine, the early buzz and posters proudly lining up all those names (Statham; Li; Lundgren; Rourke; Willis; Schwarzenegger) as if indicating they'd all be on-screen together. The end result is noticeably more cynical and manufactured. Willis and Arnie appear for about 5 mins in what appears to be a complacent Planet Hollywood in-joke; while Rourke is privileged above other cast-members by being granted a scene of actual depth and emotion, but doesn't take part in any of the action. The flimsy narrative is pure exploitation (Stallone and co overthrow a dodgy Eric Roberts-funded banana republic), apparently designed as much as anything to deliberately keep the stars apart so nostalgia fans can punch the air when they finally come back together.

The problem is that nostalgia can't be bottled; films only gain such a status over the course of several years. The Expendables therefore is cursed with an uneven tone that wants to romp all over the screen in rampantly un-PC, 80s fashion, but also wants to play safe by the rules of the current decade and wrap things up in a cosily commercial package. Hence all the bone-braking, shotgun-blasting action feels a bit too...neat. As Team America might say, what we really need is a montage. Thinking about it, the entire premise of the movie is a bit of a con: very few of the stars are actually over-the-hill just yet, and most have maintained a successful level of exposure (if not star credentials).

It's still a blast though, in every sense of the word, and Stallone shows a degree of wit (if smugness too) in playing up to the unseen aspects of his ensemble's personas. Statham's Lee Christmas for instance (thankfully devoid of his cod 'American' accent) is really a big softie, struggling to keep his job a secret from girlfriend Charisma Carpenter. Lundgren meanwhile as the rogue element in the group gets to perform a more conflicted variation on his lunk-headed persona, and Sly himself seems unafraid to shy away from his advancing years. Li, however, gets the short-end of the stick, coming under fire simply for being short.

Well, that's Hollywood for you isn't it, biting the hand that feeds but patching it up with a Band-Aid after. Still, when our heroes unite to stick it to Roberts' deliciously sleazy corporate villain, just barely leaving enough explosives for Michael Bay to work with in the next Transformers, it's hard not to turn off the brain and just go with it. Future installments may fly under the flag The BusPass-ables, but for the moment, The Expendables is competently expendable entertainment.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Reel Retrospective: The Prestige (2006): Prestigious Sleight of Hand

Christopher Nolan's, we hope game-changing, Inception further earmarks the director as possibly the most intelligent currently working in Hollywood. So, the time is perfect for looking back at one of his most underrated, masterful efforts, The Prestige. On a glib level, it's about magic...but watch out for that perennial wizard-behind-the-curtain Nolan, who pulls a more subtle trick out of the bag almost completely under our noses. Are you watching closely?


With Inception still blazing a trail through the multiplexes, Christopher Nolan continues to prove himself as possibly the finest big-budget auteur in contemporary cinema. Yet, while each of his films are very much their own unique product (from the head-scrambling Memento to the superhero outings of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), you'd never mistake them being from any other director. Dark, moody, potentially glacial, but always fiendishly clever, Nolan is arguably also the most successful contemporary director at mining a wonderfully rich, literary quality in his films. The Gothic; the consciousness; guilt...it's all there. But the main, all consuming theme is time...and not just the passage of it, but how filmmakers can manipulate it for their own ends on a metafictional level, bamboozling the audience, playing with their expectations.

Take into consideration The Prestige, a typically (and thrillingly) intricate effort based on Christopher Priest’s novel, ostensibly focusing on the rivalry between two magicians in nineteenth century London. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are brilliantly cast as the opposing illusionists, pitted both at the ends of the social scale and in terms of technique. Jackman's aristocratic Angier is the inferior magician but the greater showman, relying on props man, Cutter (Michael Caine) to bring his shows to life. Blaming Bale's lowlier, but more natural conjurer, Borden, for the death of his wife on-stage, Angier's life becomes consumed with the search for the perfect magic trick, the secret to which Borden appears to have hidden in a cipher in his diary.

Of course, Nolan expects more work from his audience than that, playing around with the temporal span of events to magnificent effect. The film actually begins with a bewitching shot of seemingly abandoned top hats in a snowy outdoor environment, before Bale's character intones those attention-grabbing words: 'Are you watching closely?' We then cut to the next scene, where Borden, back-stage during what is reputed to be Angier's final, land-mark show, appears to see his rival drown inside a water-tank. It therefore not only lays out the tricky narrative thrust of the film; it's a subliminal challenge to the audience, asking them to keep up if they want their attention to be rewarded in the long run (which it most certainly is).

Blink and miss it, and the film will likely turn into even more of a slog. From there, it leads us on a terrifically labyrinthine, treacherous journey, complete with more double-crosses, identity switches and red herrings than one can shake a white rabbit at. However, the biggest leap of faith (anticipating Inception) comes when Angier travels to America to meet the famed Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whose apparent teleporter is the set-up for the film’s climactic curveball, an explicit leap into sci-fi territory.

Make no bones about it; beautifully shot (by Wally Pfister), immaculately designed (by Nathan Crowley) and superbly acted though it is, the real star of the film is Nolan himself. Transcending the already gripping period thriller trappings, an era when, for instance, the manipulation of electricity becomes crucial to the plot, the film becomes not only an intoxicating one, but a film about storytelling in its own right, about how the chronological span of events can be twisted not only to suit the needs of suspense...but also to subvert the expectations of its audience. Like Guy Pearce suffering with short-term memory loss in Memento, it works like a magic trick itself, forcing us to replay events in our head and stitch them all together, ideally through repeat viewings.

The most wonderful part of all this skullduggery is the reaction it provokes at the climax, the culmination of all Nolan's subliminal challenges throughout the movie. It's been set-up from the start, both in the classic three act trick structure laid out by Cutter (the pledge/the turn/the prestige) and in that bewildering 10 second opening salvo. The horrifying extent to which Angier goes in exploiting Tesla’s machine is borne out in the almost subliminal last shot of the film, where Borden casts his eye over dozens more tanks, each filled with dead Angier’s who have been cloned through the machine and then drowned at the culmination of each of his magic acts. It’s a wonderful bamboozle not because it provides a twist…but because it provides exactly the ending eagle-eyed viewers will have seen coming a mile off, yet won’t want to accept precisely because of its seeming ludicrousness. It’s a brilliantly subversive coup, transforming a gripping story about magic into a much cleverer, metaphorical one about how audience expectations are manipulated through the magical, time-stretching duration of cinema itself.

As Cutter himself gravely intones: ‘You want to be…


Monday, 16 August 2010

The Last Airbender

Many have said The Last Airbender continues the downward spiral of M. Night Shyamalan's career. Of course, those who twigged 10 years ago that his tedious, ponderous, patronising drivel was exactly that, will likely feel less disappointed than apathetic. Truly, Airbender is a film that wholeheartedly lives up to the low expectations set for it - whether this is a surprise or not is in the eye of the beholder (as an aside, very few film titles are so awesomely aligned with their director's colossal lack of irony or humour).

In the face of the dreadful exposition that mars The Last Airbender, somehow the controversy surrounding Shyamalan's ethnic switching of key characters seems redundant. It's a film that collapses at the first hurdle, at the basic level of acting and script. It's not so much a success with distasteful asides as a film that can't even get the groundwork sorted first. That the drama evaporates within 5 minutes is therefore inevitable. It's a completely deadening, dull experience where nothing feels at stake, where (as is usual with this director) speaking slowly in soft focus close-up is meant to constitute good drama.

Trying to explain the convoluted mess of a plot (adapted from the hit children's TV show) is even more of a headache than trying to justify why H2O intolerant aliens landed on Earth in Signs. In a very Tolkein-esque fantasy universe, Earth, Air, Fire and Water comprise four nations. The hostile, war-mongering Fire nation (who, oddly, seem to patrol on boats for the most part), are looking to solidify their power...until two Southern Water tribe siblings (Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz) unearth an Avatar: young boy Aang (Noah Ringer), who possesses the ability to control all four elements (but, in a bit of odd dramatic flummoxing, needs to learn to hone 3 of them across the remainder of the film). Can Aang master the ultimate ability of water-bending and bring peace to the world? Frankly, do we care?

No, not really. From the bizarre titling of the film as Airbender only with more emphasis on the power of water to the inevitable schoolboy giggles that arise from Shyamalan's typically po-faced delivery ('You always were the greatest bender'), it's a weirdly hermetic affair, accidentally generating humour (in the UK at least) where it doesn't intend to (not the director's fault to be fair) but also stubbornly defying any sort of conventional appeal for international audiences. Shyamalan's egocentric, stubbornly somnambulant style may win over fans in the dreary world of his suspense thrillers but it's a colossal misjudgment here. The largely young cast struggle manfully with one of the wordiest scripts ever to befall a major blockbuster but unsurprisingly come off worst; only Dev Patel as petulant, estranged Fire Prince Zuko manages an OK performance, bubbling over with incandescent anger.

It would be a lie to suggest however that there aren't positives. For one, it's perfectly adequate visually, Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's camera drinking in some delectable vistas. It's also impeccably scored by James Newton Howard, who must have a sixth sense of his own to conjure up such spiritually powerful music on the basis of this nonsense. Yet, it's a world that is designed efficiently by an increasingly misguided director incapable of inhabiting it on an emotional level. Although not so bad that air bends around it, Airbender is the most bizarre kind of mega-budget failure.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Knight and Day

A sharp black comedy that has unfortunately (and perhaps, inevitably) been packaged as a slick, all-action spy extravaganza, Knight and Day is both helped and hindered by its top lining star names. On the one hand, the glittering repertoires of both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are more than enough to suggest they're comfortable with dark, edgy material. After all, Born on the Fourth of July and Being John Malkovich weren't exactly conventionally joyful affairs were they? Both actors certainly seem to be on same page as director James Mangold, veteran of character led, actor-friendly flicks like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, one who can draw nuanced turns out of big-name performers.

But, and it's a big but, compromises will always get in the way when star wattage is involved. Studios get twitchy and test audiences get bored when crude iconographies aren't lived up to. Hence, Knight and Day, in its latter half, takes a sharp nosedive into tiresome mayhem, a pity considering the witty set-up that both Cruise and Diaz are clearly so energised by. Cruise, in particular, emits a wonderful sense of self-parody in the early going, belying the (deserved) public villifcation over his creepy scientology and sofa-hopping shennanigans. When he's reduced however to what appear to be an endless stream of athletics trials for London 2012, it becomes tedious, regardless of his comittment to the dangerous stunt-work.

Cruise is Roy Miller, a spy with a possibly tenuous grasp on reality, something that's not been overlooked by agency operatives Fitzgerald (a typically smarmy Peter Sarsgaard) and Director George (Viola Davis). When Diaz' June, on the way home to her sister's wedding, winds up on Cruise's plane, her life spirals out of control - literally, when he wipes out agents constituting both passengers and pilots. A half-hearted running gag has Diaz being continually drugged as Cruise whips her around the world (including his tropical island bolt-hole) in an apparent attempt to protect her from the operatives who believe them to be in league over the central maguffin (a glorified AA battery).

Before its descent into tedious, B-rent Bourne anarchy, Knight and Day genuinely surprises in its dark, vaguely misanthropic outlook. The vignette where Miller is forced to break to June the news that he has to crash land her plane is a marvellous piece of subtle comic timing, and there are plenty of clever sprinklings elsewhere (a flying motorcycle preceding Cruise landing on the bonnet of a vehicle Diaz has commandeered; a lovely Hitchcockian reveal of a car aboard a transport truck). The somewhat nasty reveling in guns and mayhem, where collateral damage is viewed largely as an inconvenience to the burgeoning romance between Miller and June, also strikes a somewhat edgier tone.

That is until the focus groups clearly had their way and steered the remainder of the film to its dull, predictable finale (it's hardly a coincidence that re-shoots were rumoured to be going on right up to the film's release). By drowning out the zingy dialogue through a multitude of derivative chases (including a misplaced bull fight taking place in, erm, Seville), it loses in charm what it gains in volume. The ambition is clearly still there (note the presence of heavyweight character performers Davis, Sarsgaard and Paul Dano, all wasted as eye candy) but in the end it loses the courage of its convictions. By the end, the cycle is as predictable as night following day.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Karate Kid

The most surprising thing about the new, updated Karate Kid is how old-fashioned and nostalgic it feels. So much so that, ironically, it bears less resemblance to the cynical tosh kids have nowadays, and more to its source, itself an affectionately regarded piece of 80s cheese that gave birth to several lexicon phrases ('Wax on/wax off'/'The Crane'). It's less a remake than a throwback; whether intentional or otherwise.

Jaden Smith fills Ralph Macchio's shoes (and Jackie Chan, Pat Morita's), demonstrating his father Will's effortless star chops as the bullied sprog of the title, Dre, lonely in China after moving there with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). Ignoring the controversial ethnic clouding surrounding the karate itself (it oddly circles that word regardless, substituting it instead with the phrase kung-fu), Dre soon learns to defend himself courtesy of Chan's conflicted maintenance man, working his way up the tournament ladder, while exploring a tentative first crush with a violin player.

It takes a while to get there (god forbid the language barrier device is exploited, as is the suspect notion that hot water is impossible to operate in the far east) but once Chan introduces a neat variation on the wax on routine, the film really hits its stride. Forging great chemistry with Smith (himself able to move from afflicted victim to street punk to young-action-star-in-the- making with ease), it's great to see the megastar doing withdrawn and haunted, although he'll never be mistaken for a great actor. Lavishly filmed by Roger Pratt and sensitively scored by James Horner, the pedigree of Pink Panther 2 director Harald Zwart would never have guaranteed such a handsome production.

It's pure Hollywood corn of course, patronisingly but lovingly observing a culture infinitely more complex and fascinating. Its rigid adherence to the 1984 version is what surprises the most however, sacrificing surprises in favour of a rose-tinted nostalgia, hearkening back to a less cynical era of kids filmmaking (although Lady Gaga inevitably gets a look-in) where one-sided bullies deserve their comeuppance, mentors can't quit with the life-lessons and the underdog always has his day. That the formula still works is less of a shock; you know you're being sucked into a manipulative but still rousing climax.

Transparent then, bland certainly, and with no new wrinkles to a cast-iron underdog set-up. Yet Smith and Chan can always be relied on to pull it out of the bag and the odd image is striking (a silhouetted night-time training sesh). If nothing else, it'll be the one setting the Fresh Prince's boy on the fast-track to super-stardom.