Sunday, 29 June 2008

Wanted: a better script

Another day, another blockbuster. This was another one that wasn't really on my radar until the palm moisteningly exciting trailer which made promise of bullet curving, outrageous driving and mysterious assassin societies operating on the fringes of the normal world. In this sense, the film delivers on its promises as all of these aspects are present and correct. But sadly, as with previous films Nightwatch and Daywatch, while at times visually stunning, Bekmambentov has delivered a movie that ultimately sacrifices content at the altar of style.

Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is the typical everyman loser. Beaten down by the crushing weight of the world, he lives the regular schnook existence in a tedious office job with an oafish bullying boss, and a girlfriend who is openly shagging his supposed best friend. Maybe he should start a blog? His painfully unrewarding existence is somewhat up-heaved by the arrival of Fox (Jolie), the smirking skinny beauty who informs him that the Dad he had thought dead from his childhood was actually one of the world's greatest assassins and was in fact killed in the opening sequence. After a rescue shootout (Gibson is now it seems the next target of the patricidal maniac) and a ridiculous escape drive, Jolie introduces him to the Fraternity, a troupe of assassins descended from an ancient sect of weavers. That's right. Headed by a paternal Morgan Freeman, Gibson is shown that what he had mistaken for panic attacks are in fact the manifestation of his super human powers of reaction and skill possessed only by a handful of people that allows him to shoot the wings off flies. Which he does.

Gibson is understandably perturbed, but given the chance to replace his old life for this new one of guns, cars and sexy ladies, he takes all of five minutes to dump his bird, give his boss a telling off, and crack his best bud round the face with a keyboard. Finding his bank account full of his dead dad's money helps too. And so he signs up with the fraternity who set about training him up at their top secret textile factory, which consists of getting beaten and sliced up by one of the caricature assassins while Jolie looks on smugly. But its ok, because they also have waxy baths that can heal you up quick smart, and visits to these magical tubs become a regular occurrence. When not being brutalised by the gang, Gibson fill his days swotting up on past assassinations or being taught how to "curve the bullet" the trademark shot of the fraternity that, as well as allowing impossible shots to be made, also looks impossibly cool. Freeman also finds time to introduce him to the "Loom of Fate" a mammothly intricate construction, which it turns out is the one giving out instructions on who the gang whack next via its mystical weavings, and Gibson sets about working towards his target, the father murdering Cross via a number of lesser hits and running about on top of trains. Suddenly an expert on all things assassin, Gibson sets off to track down Terrence Stamp's bullet maker and find Cross in the process, which he duly does, and learns more about his and his father's past than he hoped for.

What follows is typical of Bekmambentov. The action here is impressive, not to mention sadistically violent, and there are some nice moments that show a hint of tongue in cheek, but for the most part it is deadly serious and so achingly self conscious that it detracts from the enjoyment. It so badly wants to capture the effortless cool of films like The Matrix or Blade that it never really shows us anything original, instead rehashing ideas and concepts we've seen a million times before in films and computer games, while the ideas on display that are original are just not up to snuff (exploding rats?). Indeed, without a decent sci-fi or mythology to back it up (the comic book origin is largely ignored), the superhuman actions of the characters, and concepts like healing tanks and looms of fate just sound plain silly. As indeed is the whole plot, with its unwelcome goodie/baddie switcharoo that leads to some uncomfortable swearing from Morgan Freeman. The man should not use the phrase "somebody shoot this mothefucker." Its wrong. The whole premise of said switcharoo and resultant denouement make absolutely no sense if you ponder them closely, and herein lies Wanted's main problem. It's stupid.

As you may know, I'm not one to sneer at a far fetched plot, but I do ask that they are believable according to the terms of their own mythologies, and that their characters behave according to their, well, character. And here Wanted is severely lacking. The script is full of yawning holes that make little or no sense that all builds to a climax that leaves the viewer wholly unsatisfied. The performances are all decent, although McAvoy hasn't quite nailed the accent, but no amount of straining can save such daft shenanigans. Even the "normal" opening scenes don't quite ring true, the bullying boss character for example is such a ham fisted piece of character writing that alarm bells of ludicrousness are ringing before anyone's even done a flip in a sportscar. While many of the set pieces are beautifully executed (sorry), a sequence on a train especially so, much of it is so contrived as to undermine how good it all looks. The final "shot" is a good case in point. Yes its very stylish, the way the bullet slowmos backwards through that forehead and whizzes back to it's point of origin via lots of amusing familiar faces and near misses, but it doesn't make a lot of sense does it? Is the (actual) victim so stupid as to assume he has the right target because it looks a bit like him from behind? How exactly was he lured to that particular"X"? Was it a metaphorical visit the bullet takes to all those other persecutors? Or was it just a cool idea you wanted to re-use in a way you thought would nicely tie up the film even if it didn't really make sense? No, it's just all too daft to be truly enjoyable. If you like your action brainless and pretty Wanted is worth a look, but if you were expecting a coherent super assassin origin story you'll be disappointed. What a shame.

Verdict: 2/5
All mouth no trousers

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Monday, 23 June 2008

Duun Duun dun dun dun, da da da da daa da IR-ON MAN

It took me a while to catch the second of the Marvel Movies that continue to teach Sam Raimi how it's done, but Iron Man is definitely a welcome addition to the menagerie of comic book films that are so thick on the ground these days. I always enjoyed a good origin story, and Favreau has turned in a rollicking introduction to the Iron Man character that's choc full of great action, shameless fun times and rampant German car product placement.

Tony Stark is the mega-rich, decadent playboy genius arms dealer, head of a futuristic mega-corp, supplying uber-weapons to the US military complex, safe in the knowledge he is protecting Americans and the world from the threat of bad guys bent on our destruction. His illusions are quickly blown away by said bad guys when he is captured while on a visit to Nonspecificistan by angry terrorist types, armed to the teeth with (gasp!) his very own weapons, and determined to force Stark to manufacture death rays for them. During the attack he receives a nasty dose of shrapnel and a chest wound a squirrel could live in, but is miraculously saved by a resourceful surgeon who installs a fetching hole cover attached to a car battery that stops the shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him. So far so good. Stephen Hawking-esque boffin that he is, Stark constructs a futuristic power source out of fluff and sticks that frees him of his battery, and inspires in him an escape plan just crazy enough to work. Instead of building a rocket of mass destruction as requested, he sneakily sets about constructing a huge tank-like power suit to allow his escape from the cave dwelling baddies, in an all stomping, fire spewing, rocket powered flight to freedom. Obvious really.

Thus returned to civilisation and his limitless wealth with a new hippy outlook, he upsets his stockholders and partner (an imposingly bald and bearded Jeff Bridges, who is of course the real villain) by declaring weapons are bad, we won't make those anymore. Cue hiding in his bat cave, refining his design of his er, non lethal flying power suit that fires all manner of lasers, energy pulses and rockets. To alleviate his terrible guilt of the violence he has begat, he uses his spiffy new suit to fly around the globe, violently destroying the illicitly sold weapons Bridges has been selling under the table to the bad men. The original bad men from act one meanwhile have been busying themselves reconstructing the remnants of the mark one suit, left for scrap in the desert. After a comic book "no I'm the real villain" switcharoo, the now really very evil and just a bit loopy Bridges pinches the plans, massacres the terrorists and sets about constructing his own monster suit, thus providing a worthy opponent for the final act in which the two go at it hammer and tongs.

If the plot sounds a bit wobbly, it is. But as with Hulk, this doesn't detract from the unabashed fun going on, and the script fits it's players like a well crafted mech suit. Downey Jr is instantly likable as the irreverent Stark, wisecracking his way into the hearts of the audience and most of the on screen ladies, including Paltrow's nicely played, if rather limp, Pepper Potts. Bridges proves that he should always be a villain from now on, even if his transition from suspiciously over friendly baldy to all murdering nut job is just a little jarring - all that stomping about, whatever is he hoping to achieve? Everyone else is fine, although Terence Howard doesn't get much to do but look exasperated. The Iron Man suit itself though, as he points out, is indeed very cool, mechanically forming around Stark like a well executed transformer, and bristling with pyrotechnics. The action on display is hugely satisfying with plenty of flying about, smashing people through walls and blowing up of both stuff and things. The movie manages to stay on the front foot for the duration, never seeming to drag even when it's just Downey chatting to his oddly English computer (Paul Bettany) or chastising his over zealous extinguisher bot, or indeed, falling for Gwyneth's drippy charms.

The overwhelming theme at work here is fun, and this pervades to the credits. Like the suit itself, Favreau has expertly engineered a fabulously entertaining movie around Downey Jr's performance and in so doing has set up what may turn out to be a great franchise. Take Downey out of the suit however, and it may ring hollow. Hopes for the future are suddenly high though- especially given the potential in the apparent cross pollination of the current Marvel heavy weights. Vorsprung durch Technik indeed.

Verdict 4/5

Not rusty

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Tuesday, 10 June 2008

You'll like me when I'm angry..

Seems to me, the films I have low expectations of are doing far more things right than those with high ones. Not to say that this re imagining, for it's no sequel, had nothing to worry about. While Ang Lee's effort certainly wasn't widely loved, it nailed the whole comic book feel, and had some great set pieces, so expectations in many quarter's must have been high, my own for whatever reason simply were not. Stood next to Leterrier's new monster though, Lee's Hulk now looks more like the jolly green giant.

The Incredible Hulk - (Hulk2 in the States?) kicks things off with the famously disastrous gamma experiment, seemingly plucked straight from the TV series. By the time the credit sequence has ended, Norton's Banner is the bright spark in exile, hiding out in a decrepit bottling factory in Brazil, learning anger management techniques while trying to not provoke the locals, ogling supermodel co-workers and secretly working on a cure while teaching himself Portuguese. Good times. A mishap prompts his discovery by the rather cross, and more overtly naughty General (Hurt), who has been pursuing Norton ever since his disappearance during the credit sequence, determined to weaponise his mighty green thighs. Enter Blonsky, Roth's greasy limey royal marine brought in to net the elusive Banner, who is quickly seduced by his close encounter with the Hulk into hastily volunteering for the Generals crunchy spine injections, to make himself strooong, like wood.

Needless to say there ensue breathless foot chases, some bulging fights in the dark, pitch battles on campus and all out downtown brawls set across some beautifully shot backdrops. The favelas of the opening section are mostly stunning, with sweeping aerial shots the order of the day, and later visits to the university campus and New York are similarly pretty. Norton is convincing as the troubled (understatement) Banner, and the supporting cast all turn in great performances. While Liv Tyler's Betty has a few too many whiny lines, she is as always easy on the eye so I can forgive her. Roth and Hurt are typically excellent as the sympathetically drawn villains, and Tim Blake Nelson turns in a nicely manic comic performance with a promising, bulgy headed future.

The Hulk himself is a great creation; looking back at pictures of the old one, you can't help but be struck at how much more grown up this incarnation feels. Infinitely more vulnerable too, this version doesn't just get bigger the more you throw at it, real peril is constantly on the cards as the noose tightens round his bulging throat, he even bleeds at one point. Goodness. He is also sufficiently absent from the proceedings to have real impact when he does show up. The first appearance is particularly awesome, and was reminiscent of Batman's first foray into crimestopping in Batman Begins. He also now refrains from leaping huge distances across the landscape, which while kind of cool, always felt a bit silly. The Abomination, Roth's greasy, limey monstre terrible, is deeply cg (George would be proud) but remains grossly entertaining to the end, and sufficiently nasty that the many Hulk smashes to its ugly mug can't fail to satisfy. If anything, they could have pushed the action even further as after the epic campus based carnage, the New York brawl actually feels a little short.

On the whole though, great stuff. This is a tightly scripted and thoroughly enjoyable retelling that pitches what is after all, an overwhelmingly silly premise, just right, and is a great lesson in what good comic book films should be. There are some lovely comedic moments whenever it appears in danger of taking itself too seriously - Stan Lee's obligatory cameo actually raises a smile for once, as does Ferrigno's, and the "you wouldn't like me when I'm hungry" subtitle is inspired. Leterrier has wisely built on the themes of the tv show, playing on Banner's alienation and loneliness, and crafted around it a solid action romp that is overwhelmingly entertaining, despite the almost complete absence of an actual plot. Just goes to show. The surprise guest at the close inspires great hope for the brave new direction this Marvel comic book insurgence is heading, and indeed Leterrier's future in Hollywood.

Verdict: 4/5
A smash!

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Tuesday, 3 June 2008

"..and with great effort, Ben begins to turn the frozen donkey wheel.."

Lost has ended then, with a spectacular 2 hour finale, bringing to a close a really very satisfying season. My how time flies when you're having fun. This was a particularly pleasing closer, rife as it was with everything a finale should have, from shootouts to tearful reunions, from ghostly visitations to Sayid beating someone up. The standout moment for me though was Ben's frozen donkey wheel moving of the island. What. The. Funk? He blows a hole through the back of the teleport thing you expect him to use, revealing an ancient frozen donkey wheel thing, that when you turn makes the whole island vanish, and you, jump 3 years into the future and to the other side of the world? Okaay. Whatever it was, awesome, loved it. I had fun watching the sequence followed directly by when he awakes in the desert. Seamless.

I have now officially given up reading theories or undertaking in any kind of speculation whatsoever, it's clear my head will asplode if I attempt to take in the closing revelation of the recent activities and demise of Jeremy Bentham. All I really know is that guy is not dead, not by a long shot, he will rise again Lazarus style moments after plopping on the beach, you read it here first.

The big question again is, as ever, where next? We know 2 seasons remain.. will they expend an entire season just trying to get back to the island? Surely Lost can't sustain itself away from the island entirely? So then how can we revisit it without divulging the horrors of what happened/is happening after the 6 left? Ooh nearly started speculating, bad Munial. There's plenty of opportunity for clever flashbacks/forwards for clever writers here, and they continue to prove themselves to be the cleverest writers on their, or any block. No, I'm just going to sit back and let it all wash over me as and when. So uh, when? Next year? Waaaah..

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Indiana Jones and The Dubious Quadrilogy

As you know, much excitement surrounded my anticipation for Indy IV, so what's the verdict having finally seen it? Err, not sure. Very mixed feelings. I went to see it with my bro, and our immediate conversation went something like this:

Him: It wasn't very goood.
Me: No, but it wasn't really baad.
Him: Yeah, but it wasn't very goood.
Me: No, but it still wasn't baaad.

After these ruminations the discussion got downright intellectual. This reaction seems quite typical, as many reviews I've seen are similarly split. While expectation was heavy, there was always an underlying knowing it would disappoint to some degree, and so to be given a film that is almost a good Indy film, it seems something of a relief that it's not as bad as our imagination tell us it could have been.

So, detail. The start was kind of shaky - Ford initially seeming a shadow of himself, even his voice seeming unlike the Jonesey we remember, but he quickly settled in and reemerged as, yes, Indy! The escape from the nuke test site was a great moment, and the gradual emergence of the plot (ah yes the plot, more on that later) was nicely paced. There followed some more great set pieces; the motorbike chase across campus was particularly fun and reminiscent of old Indy, and Shia was a pretty likeable character from the off. More typical indianana ensued, maps with red lines on, charming peruvian villages, spooky crypts, jungle chases, familiar faces, man eating ants, burly ruskies up for a fist fight; it was all here.

And there perhaps was the problem. You can imagine George and Steve standing on set with a list on a clipboard, ticking them off as they went. At least they resisted a swordsman vs gun/no gun/some gun gag. Ultimately though, the actual plot, ie the mystery underlying the story was so wafer thin, and well, stupid, that it rather undermined all the good work. Ok, so the other films were pretty silly too, but the mythology they were based on was always compelling. Here though, the titular relic and its origin was just kind of lame, and as the quest played out, you didn't really feel anyone was solving anything, or that there was any kind of point to what anyone was actually doing. The mystery was decidedly un-mysterious from the off, and every semi perilous situation was escaped by frantically waving said skull about. All the nonsense about psychic warfare was never properly resolved, and come to think of it what the hell was supposed to have actually happened at the end anyway??

All that aside, believe it or not, I did enjoy the film. A good romp, it most certainly was, even with the excessive 50's tv obsession determined to make Shia a latter day Errol Flynn (down Lucas), and the cgi heavy money shot finale was genuinely impressive (good Lucas). I suppose it was naive to think they might best any of the previous films, and the question remains as to whether it really needed to be made at all. My feeling is while it didn't really add anything to the legacy, it didn't really take anything away either. But then again, all those beloved characters riding off in to the sunset at the end of Last Crusade was a much more fitting end for our hero. "Close your eyes Marion, don't look at it" is always an option I suppose.

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Monday, 2 June 2008

Russel T To be Fired From Large Space Cannon

Well not quite, but the news that Russel T Davies is to step down from the helm of Dr Who is surely, surely a welcome one. Fairdo's to the man, he reinvented the series rather well (although my personal feeling is that that was primarily down to the quality of Eccleston in the role) but since then he has commanded some powerful stinkers. His penchant for abysmally naff casting and oh so relevant cultural references has made Dr Who painful to watch lately. And his self indulgent series openers, enders and specials have been mind bogglingly shit. Season finale featuring the Doctor as a dobby-esque monkey, only to be transformed jesus style by the power of thought, I'm looking at you. And for christ sake, the Doctor used to occasionally get his sonic screwdriver out, not every time he did anything.

So it pleases me no end that the reins are being handed to a much more capable writer at least, the most recent episode of his being literally the only one so far this season that has not been a complete waste of time, as were his fine previous efforts. Hopefully, Russel T will limit the inevitable damage he will see fit to wreak upon his successor to an implausible setting to start us off in, as opposed to some irrevocable character change like turning the doctor into, I don't know, saints preserve us, a woman or something.

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