(500) Days of Summer

October 15 2009 at 10:20 pm (Cinema reviews)

500 daysOn the surface, there’s really nothing unique or special about (500) Days of Summer apart from its maddeningly oh-so-clever use of brackets in the title. But unlike most romantic comedies and more like actual, real life relationships, it’s the perfectly nuanced nothing-specialness of the central relationship which makes the film so enjoyable.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a greetings card writer who one day claps eyes on the boss’ new assistant Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He knows immediately that she is ‘the one’ and clumsily pursues her. When he finally gets close to her, she tells him that she’s not looking for a relationship and she doesn’t believe in true love. They split up, he mopes around trying to get over her and begins to look back on their time together.

It’s better than it sounds (in fact it sounds a bit like the tale of woe that you’d hear from one of your boring mates down the pub). The story itself is so mundane that it would star Jennifer Aniston and Matthew McConaughey if it were told straight. However, its stars are a large part of what makes the movie – Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are recognisable but not in an A-list, cover-of-Heat way. That’s what makes the characters so sympathetic – they could be your best mate, your brother, that girl in your office. They hurt, they cry unashamedly and, in the case of Tom, they drunkenly sing karaoke.

Gordon-Levitt, in particular, impresses. A far cry from the weird kid in Third Rock from the Sun, he once again proves his leading man status after his bruised turn in Brick. He strikes just the right note as an ordinary guy – vulnerable, disgruntled, deeply human and seemingly devoid of ‘interesting’, unconvincing quirks.

This is strange since the movie is full of neat gimmicks. Tom goes to the cinema – a potentially throwaway scene – and sees him imagining himself in a black and white European arthouse film. The morning after his first night with Summer, his sheer elation is expressed through an increasingly gaudy dance number, complete with cheerleaders and a cartoon bird. It’s with touches like this that the tone of the doom-and-gloom plot is raised, keeping it zipping along at a nice rate, rather than weighed down with indie kookiness.

And, yes, the story is presented in a seemingly random order (those pesky brackets actually serve a purpose, to frame the changing numbers, rolling like a fruit machine), but this makes it akin less to Memento or Pulp Fiction, and more to the arbitrariness of human memory. Immediately after we see an early in-joke in their relationship (later revisited in a wonderful Doves-soundtracked scene in Ikea of all places), we see the same gag repeated hundreds of days later, but by now, like their relationship, it has lost its sheen. It works in just the same way as your brain would connect two related events. Moments of unbridled joy (Tom and Summer attempt to outdo each other screaming a one-word obscenity in a park) jostle for attention with scenes of inconsolable misery.

In both celebrating the euphoria of love and bemoaning the brutal comedown of rejection, (500) Days of Summer succeeds where other romantic comedies fail by adopting a positive, whimsical tone – it seems to say love hurts but it’s worth the pain. It’s not perfect – an on-off voiceover gets in the way even if it is occasionally necessary, and Tom’s guru-like little sister is one quirk that’s a little hard to take – but it still remains a winning example of a humdrum genre. (4/5)

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Pandorum

October 14 2009 at 5:10 pm (Cinema reviews)

pandorumCrew members Lieutenant Payton (a beardy Dennis Quaid) and Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) wake up from suspended animation in an enormous spaceship and realise that neither of them can remember what their mission is. While Bower goes off in search of the reactor (ie, runs around in the dark), the other stays behind to guide him remotely (ie, hangs around looking grizzled and bored). Bower’s quest sees him meet Exotic Sweaty Woman, Warrior Who Speaks A Strange Language, Scummy Older Plot-Exposition Man and the monsters from The Descent. The camera moves around so fast that you generally don’t know what the hell is going on, which doesn’t matter anyway because whatever the hell is going on is going on in the dark. (2/5)

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The Final Destination (3D)

October 14 2009 at 5:09 pm (Cinema reviews)

The Final Destination PosterCopied and pasted from the previous three, this last instalment in an increasingly shoddy series adds nothing to the franchise but the hope that this really is the final Final Destination.

The idea of a coherent or original plot was dashed after the original inspired outing, so all that anyone expects by now is some devilishly convoluted Mouse Trap-style set-ups and some dumbass teens getting finished off in a variety of gruesome ways. But even that, apparently, is now too much to ask for. The original disaster takes place at a race track (obviously) and the subsequent accidents occur in such odd and tenuous places at a swimming pool and a shopping mall. The deaths themselves are disappointingly tame, and even have the gall to include a rehash of the sudden truck squish from the superior first instalment.

The frustrating thing is that it’s impossible to totally despise because the appalling acting, the brainless script and the ridiculous CGI make it quite a laugh. As a horror, it’s a disappointment, so watch it as a comedy instead. (A generous 2/5)

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

September 3 2009 at 9:58 pm (Cinema reviews)

the_time_travelers_wife_posterHenry (Eric Bana) suffers a genetic disorder that means he zips uncontrollably back and forth through time. During these journeys, he meets Claire (Rachel McAdams) at various stages of her life. The couple fall in love and marry, but Claire gradually realises that being married to a time traveller is both a blessing and a curse.

Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel was a big and brilliant epic of love, longing and mind-melting time warps. Although perhaps inevitable that it should become a film, what’s surprising is that it’s so meagre. Although director Robert Schwentke does a good job of telling the frankly ingenious plot, the film’s short running time means that much of what made the book so special has been omitted. That said it’s a proper tearjerker and worth watching, even if just for Rachel McAdams, who is and always has been utterly perfect in every way imaginable.

Read the book instead. And stare at a picture of Rachel McAdams for 107 minutes. Mmmm, Rachel…

Rating: 3/5

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Moon

July 30 2009 at 7:16 am (Cinema reviews)

moon-poster-2In a typical summer filled with whiz-bang effects and louder-than-hell explosions, it’s comforting to know that Moon exists. Harking back to the heady days when serious sci-fi was young and hadn’t yet been tarnished by the garish CGI brush, it’s a film that makes you think and cry, rather than punch the air.

In the not-too-distant future, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works for Lunar Industries, which mines for Helium-3, a substance found on the moon’s surface which provides efficient and plentiful fuel for Earth. Nearing the end of his lonely three-year stint on a lunar space station with only computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company, Sam is eager to get home to his wife and child. But after an accident, he wakes to find that he is not alone and he begins to learn some ugly truths about himself.

Being the son of space child David Bowie seems to have inspired director Duncan Jones (born Zowie Bowie – even his adopted name is much more low key than you’d expect) and has given him a charmingly offbeat style. By setting the film almost entirely in a space station, with clinical white sets that have been dirtied by moon dust, Jones makes it look like an extended episode from series two of Red Dwarf, and that can only be a good thing. The exterior shots are done with models and the moon’s surface looks like it was built by a particularly talented Blue Peter presenter. CGI is inconspicuous and used sparingly. It is the rarest of things: a contemporary low-budget science fiction film.

Into this Michel Gondry-esque arena steps Sam Rockwell, in a double performance (surely it cannot be giving too much away to reveal that the mysterious stranger is himself) that should see him finally rise from propping up indie films to mainstream lead success. His fantastic performances once again mirror Red Dwarf: the first Sam is shabby but lovable just like Lister, while the second has Rimmer’s short-tempered, crossed-armed pomposity. Spacey, however, channels HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, his dulcet tones making GERTY both soothing and sinister.

While Moon wears its influences on its sleeve (shades of Alien and Silent Running are also apparent), what marks it as unique is as much its intelligent script and zippy dialogue as its fascinating plot. Today’s sci-fi seldom merges bleakness with a genuinely thought-provoking narrative, while remaining gripping. Apart from a couple of moments of light relief, Moon is a heartbreaking film that deals with identity and inconsolable loneliness. The saddest moment has Sam breaking down in a moon buggy, crying ‘I just want to go home’ before the camera pans up to the bright blue disc of Earth in front of him – tangible, yet beyond his reach.

Despite such seriousness, it’s a deceptively short film that feels longer because so much is packed in – a testament to Jones’ impressive pacing – just one of the reasons to keep an eye on him as an emerging talent.

Rating: 5/5

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Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

July 30 2009 at 7:15 am (Cinema reviews)

iceage_3_posterRemember when Toy Story first came out and everyone wanted to see it, even adults? Grown-ups packed into cinemas worldwide telling themselves that cartoons aren’t just for kids, and they were right. When Ice Age came out, that theory still held water, but there are many moments in this second sequel where you step outside yourself and realise that you and your mates are watching a kids film.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s a marked improvement on the utterly forgettable Ice Age: The Meltdown, for a start. After a long set-up in which sabre-toothed tiger Diego (voiced by Denis Leary) is bored and restless, mammoths Manny and Ellie (Ray Romano and Queen Latifah) are expecting a baby and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) is lonely, we finally see what’s below the ice – a lost civilisation of dinosaurs. The fact that this doesn’t make any sense (the big scaly ones live below the surface of the ice and still manage to live in a sun-drenched world) is neither here nor there – it’s all about ridiculous spectacle rather than historical accuracy.

There’s plenty for the kids, of course – even the dinosaurs aren’t convincingly scary. In fact, it’s not until Simon Pegg’s adventurous one-eyed weasel Buck shows up, that anything remotely interesting happens – proof, if it were needed, that Gloucester’s finest export makes any film 64% better (or whatever percentage is cool these days), even if he’s only lending his voice. The story might be nonsense but there are enough spills and thrills to keep adults awake until the end credits. Watching it in 3D, however, is rather pointless. There’s nothing to warrant spending another an extra £2 to wear some oversized glasses that don’t improve the film.

Rating: 3/5

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Overdue cinema review #3: The Hangover

July 26 2009 at 9:14 pm (Cinema reviews)

hangover-posterOccupying the middle ground between Very Bad Things and Dude, Where’s My Car?, The Hangover offers little in the way of comedic invention. Four friends go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, get so wasted that they cannot remember the events of the previous night and spend the rest of the trip trying to find the groom who has gone missing.

It’s done quite well with the framing device of a phone call kickstarting the flashback. Their groggy detective work also gets good mileage out of a variety of increasingly preposterous situations from getting tasered by children to stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger.

Having said that, the characters are weary stereotypes – the good looking, laid back leader, the uptight guy (who even wears glasses) and the funny but dim-witted fat guy. The film has been surprisingly well received despite being very generic – it’s no more unique than, say, Road Trip or Sex Drive.

Rating: 3/5

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Overdue cinema review #2: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

July 26 2009 at 9:11 pm (Cinema reviews)

wolverine_1Of all the characters in contemporary fiction to warrant the now popular ‘prequel’ treatment, Wolverine doesn’t sound like an obvious choice – I had learnt by the end of X2 as much about the character as felt necessary. What’s next? Dobby the House Elf: The Early Years? The three X-Men films felt like Wolverine’s anyway (most of the other characters seemed secondary) so why Wolvie should get his own movie is anyone’s guess, particularly when it’s so toothless.

Logan (Hugh Jackman, growly, seething) and his half-brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber, growly, occasionally looks like the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz) are inexplicably indestructible and really quite cross. In a prologue we see a young Logan kill his father (who turns out not to be his father at all) and the brothers kick bottom in the last 200 years of warfare only to become bitter rivals by the time they reach the 1980s.

With the cumbersomely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (that dastardly colon threatening more to come), there are no peripheral characters to steal focus from the mutton-chopped cigar-chomping badass, so it ends up as little more than a snarl-off between Logan and Creed. It’s hilariously macho and has some unashamedly clichéd action scenes (roaring with rage at the sky over the death of a loved one, nonchalantly strolling toward the camera away from an explosion). The script and acting are appalling, and there is an inevitable over-reliance on CGI, which is also substandard. Even when you do get to see some long overdue X-Men like Bolt, Gambit and Deadpool, their appearance is far too brief.

Watch X2 instead. Hell, watch X-Men: The Last Stand instead.

Rating: 2/5

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Overdue cinema review #1: Coraline

July 26 2009 at 9:09 pm (Cinema reviews)

coralineProof that kids are much more resilient than most adults think, Coraline is the kind of cautionary tale that appeals to little ones purely because it is so weird and creepy.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is left to her own devices by her workaholic parents when they move to a new home. Bored and restless, but imaginative and adventurous, Coraline finds a secret passageway in the house that leads her to a magical alternative world in which her parents (who have buttons for eyes) dote on her and want her to stay, but at considerable cost.

Director Henry Selick adapts Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel to the screen with wonderful visual flair using a mixture of stop motion and computer generated animation. The real world is drab and washed out, while the alternative world is colourful and vibrant, and both realities are populated by a madcap cast of characters including neighbours Russian circus giant Mr Bobinsky (voiced by Ian McShane) and retired burlesque actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voiced by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders).

Like a cross between a modern day Alice in Wonderland and a child-friendly Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline is a visual wonder, even if it sometimes seems to say ‘look at me’ a bit too much, especially if you watch it in 3D. However, it’s praiseworthy for having a moral (appreciate what you’ve got because it could be a lot worse) without coming across as too preachy.

Rating: 4/5

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Star Trek

June 7 2009 at 4:58 pm (Cinema reviews)

StarTrek2009PosterThe number of people who say Star Trek when they mean Star Wars (and vice versa) is remarkable. It’s not just laymen either – it’s a faux pas occasionally made by even the spottiest Comic-Con attendee.

 

It’s an easy mistake to make. Not only do the names sound similar but the two franchises are weighty beasts, and both have obsessive fanbases that range from graduates in Klingon to those who dress as Han Solo to get married.

 

Sci-fi nerds must be a scary bunch to film directors especially to those who are tackling the beginnings of such impenetrable lore as the birth of James Tiberius Kirk. J.J. Abrams seems undaunted though. After conquering TV schedules with Alias and Lost, making Mission: Impossible cool again and dazzling audiences with Godzilla-meets-The-Blair-Witch-Project sci-fi-horror Cloverfield, Star Trek probably sounded like an easy undertaking. He clearly knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing here is making a Star Trek film that’s significantly not for diehards.

 

Opening with a blistering battle in which Kirk is born seconds before his father bravely sacrifices his life for his crew, this is a film which grabs you by the pointy ears from the beginning and never lets go. Next up, Spock’s childhood in which he’s picked on for having a human mother (played inexplicably but not unsuccessfully by Winona Ryder). It becomes clear early on that the film is all about these two characters meeting and becoming friends – the other iconic characters are merely picked up along the way, and that is the film’s secret weapon.

 

The casting is so effortlessly perfect that it seems as if this handful of actors will actually grow up to become the characters they portray. Chris Pine makes for a suave, laidback Kirk and creates a great sense of camaraderie among his new crew. As well as looking the part, Zachary Quinto is as conflicted as Spock as he is menacing as über-baddie Sylar in TV’s Heroes. Top marks also to Zoe Saldana for her sexy Uhura and Karl Urban for his gruff Bones. But for the most part, the acting hits just the right balance between impersonation and performance, finding unique character beats between each ‘Dammit Jim’ and ‘Illogical captain’.

 

But this is not just a showcase for funny accents (yes, Pegg, that means you) and party pieces. This is a sci-fi film after all, and the action truly stands out. From the opening battle, to Kirk running from a giant unidentified beastie, it’s a breathless two hours that manages to thrill and amuse. One of the most exciting scenes has Kirk, Sulu (John Cho) and a random crew member dressed in red, in a death-defying skydive onto a midair Romulan platform followed by a good old-fashioned punch-up. Needless to say, only two survive.

 

Such in-jokes are mainstream enough for the uninitiated to appreciate – it’s a neat trick showing non-Trekkies that they know more about the characters and situations than they think they do. Even without all that, it is, above all else, fun. The script zings with witty banter, the odd bit of slapstick and some fast-paced plotting that sees Romulan Nero (a dastardly Eric Bana) travel back in time to seek vengeance on a key character. Let the plot wash over you for best results.

 

That Abrams has turned such a vast, unwieldy piece of pop culture into a colourful, shiny and easily digestible piece of entertainment is no mean feat. A sequel is already on the cards so we can look forward to more adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Or is that the other one?

 

Rating: 4/5

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