Saturday, 20 November 2010

Predators; Twilight: Eclipse


Right from the off Predators shows promise. Adrian Brody gains consciousness in freefall, his ‘chute automatically ejecting thanks to what looks like, at a glance, a predator tech altometer. Once on the ground in thick jungle, the familiar jungle-drum theme from the original plays softly as the camera pans across the tree canopy from below. For the rest of the film the score evokes orchestral pieces from 80s classics in a way that works, rather than simply a display of nostalgia for the sake of it. The full first half hour of the film doesn’t involve any action, instead concentrating on the disparate warriors, warily uniting and trying to fathom how they all came to be dropped from the sky into unending jungle.
The characters themselves are mainly thinly sketched stereotypes - Danny Trejo as a Mexican gang enforcer, a Chechnyan soldier, a quiet, enigmatic yakuza, a death-squad soldier from Sierra Leone, a mouthy death row con with a shiv, an Israeli Defence Force sniper, an incongruous doctor and indie darling Adrian Brody as the hero.
The premise is contained within the trailer, these people have been pulled together to be hunted and as the movie progresses they are picked off one by one; the group are all hunters of people back on Earth and so make for challenging prey.
A film about a group being hunted inevitably makes Predators a chase movie, but the situations that crop up as the predators wheel out a variety of traps and an encounter with another survivor (a scene stealing cameo by Laurence Fishburne) are more than enough to keep you hooked. Though the stereotypical characters are only one of a number of genre tropes to be found, Predators makes use of them in all the right ways. Any criticisms that can be made at the sophistication may be confusing the franchise with the ‘hard’ sci-fi horror of Alien - Predator, lest we forget, featured a cigar chomping wrestler alongside Arnie in one-man-army mode and use of the word “motherfucker” being a key recurring feature.
Though the characters are on the stock side the personality clashes, double-crosses and betrayals do enough to have you caring about at least some of them, and they are sometimes used well - when the yakuza finds a samurai sword, it’s enough to provoke a roll of the eyes, but a one-on-one blade fight with a predator ends in a scene almost poetic, its wind-blown grass echoing classics samurai movies.
It’s hardly going to win any awards and sci-fi action films have been done better, but Predators is not only a decent genre offering but a glimpse at the possibilities of relaunching fallen franchises, they don’t have to go the way of Aliens vs. Predator.

Twilight: Eclipse

I’m certainly not in the target market for the Twilight franchise; despite the promise of a vampire/werewolf tussle (the Underworld films already demonstrate how this isn’t an automatic winning formula) but it was the promise of this clash that almost had me looking forward to this third installment. The trailer mixed up the usual earnest smouldering between the three corners of the supernatural love triangle, Bella, Edward and Jacob with hints of a vampire army on the march to Alaska, facing the wibbly alliance of the Cullen vampire clan and Native American werewolves. What we actually get is mixed.
There’s plenty of rivalry between the boys as they begrudgingly work together to protect Bella, and while the end of New Moon seemed to see her choose Edward pretty resolutely as her love, here it’s as if Jake’s dogged insistence that she feels something for him actually conjures those feelings into existence. This time however the central plot has little to offer those who don’t totally believe in it. New Moon offered plenty of laughs, however unintentional, but Eclipse’s slightly moodier tone somehow dampens any hysterical aspects and deadens the impact of camp.
Unfortunately the sideshow of the big fight fails to deliver. We are told that newly created vampires, newborns, are stronger and faster than normal thanks to their sudden bloodlust, though they can be beaten with skill and strategy. Much was made in New Moon of the difficulty vampires have in dying; as the sun creates glitter rather than flames in its interpretation, it was only the Voltari, the ridiculously camp vampire aristocracy, could bring a vampire’s immortality to an abrupt end. However, it seems that vampires are actually made out of glass or crystals and can be smashed to bits fairly easily, perhaps because they’re ‘new’. Whatever the reason it seems to deflate a key plot point in New Moon. Another moment which hampers immersion is Bryce Dallas Howard in the role of Victoria. There’s nothing wrong with her aside from the fact that the character was previously played by Rachelle Lefevre - it’s not a big issue but still jars.
After being pleasantly surprised by the first installment and having enough to enjoy from the second from the overwrought depictions of Bella’s mopiness, Jake’s shirt-losing abilities and Michael Sheen’s daft costume, I found Eclipse to be a let down with the action too short and infrequent and the main struggle for Bella’s affections stretched a little thin after three movies of it.
Still much better than a tale of obsessed teen romance has any right to be, the third part is nevertheless somewhat of a dip. Hopefully the fourth in the series will see the story branch out somewhat.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

One Missed Call; The Devil's Backbone

One Missed Call

Takashi Miike is arguably best known in the West because of two films, Audition and Ichi the Killer. The first is a sedately paced horror that slowly drops in unnerving scenes until coming out of leftfield with a nasty finale, whilst Ichi is a gonzo gory yakuza picture stuffed to the gills with bizarre characters and more of the fetishistic imagery which Miike usually enjoys throwing at the screen, particularly when source material is on the more pedestrian side.

One Missed Call shares a lot with the run of Japanese horror films that emerged out of the success of the Ring; it shares a chain-letter set up, here using mobile phones to pass on the curse at the centre of the film.
From the start we can tell that Yumi is different from her peers when we meet her at a restaurant, quieter and more distracted than the other uni students. As she and a friend catch up her friend receives a call with a strange ringtone. The missed call results in a voicemail from her own phone, dates two days in the future and from herself ending in a chilling scream. From then on calls from your own phone foretell your death, after which someone from your contact list receives a call from themselves only to die days later and so on.
In many ways One Missed Call is interchangeable with a dozen other Asian horror films from the last decade, but the difference here lies in the execution, Miike managing to twist in elements of dread ever more frequently as the film runs with dozens of scenes ratcheting up the tension and creating genuine fear, scene after scene simply involves skin-crawling moments of the unnatural and unsettling, many with only inferred menace. One scene in a disused hospital sees ghostly hands push heavy jars of foetuses in formaldehyde through doorways into a corridor as Yumi watches - there is no explicit threat here, just the sense that things are very wrong.

One Missed Call succeeds in expanding on the generic plot in ways unexplored in subsequent examples of these types of films - for example whilst most films exist in their own bubble of reality, here news of the curse reaches the ‘outside world’ and a manic TV producer half kidnaps Yumi’s friend in order to broadcast a live show of an exorcist attempting to save her just as her voicemail was made. Much of the imagery has cropped up in other films but none have had such a wealth of oppressing dread permeate throughout, building relentlessly with no real release right up to the ambiguous climax.
One Missed Call is one of Miike’s best films and a must for any fan of Asian horror, a gem not to be overlooked and the scariest film I’ve seen in a long time.

The Devil’s Backbone

Before the notoriety that Hellboy brought, Guillermo Del Toro was critically acclaimed in the horror genre. With his debut Mexican vampire movie Cronos and the Hollywood creature feature Mimic, Del Toro proved as comfortable at the helm of arthouse genre features as he did in lala land.
A number of familiar themes crop up in the Devil’s Backbone that recur throughout Del Toro’s work - he would revisit the Spanish civil war in Pan’s Labyrinth, Spanish horror the Orphanage that he produced echoes the setting of this feature, and the fascination with mechanical devices that began with Cronos and appears here and there in the Hellboy movies, here crops up in the artificial leg on the orphanage matron.
The film is big on atmosphere, the isolation of the orphanage in the middle of sun scorched scrubland, the cavernous, sepulchral emptiness of the gloomy underground pool, the medical specimens on display in the physician’s room and the unexploded bomb in the courtyard all help to build a world where the fantasies of little boys seem closer to reality.
A resistance fighter stuck at the front fighting Franco’s fascists in 1939 sends his son, Carlos, to a remote orphanage as the tide of war turns against him. Soon after arrival the resident bully, Jaime, steals Chis comic prompting Carlos to resist, leading to a series of events ending in him meeting what the boys call “He who sighs”, there is a ghost in the orphanage.
Aside from that there are shady links to the resistance, a stash of gold bars and the angry handyman Jacinto who grew up in the orphanage and may not have returned for the most altruistic reasons. Betrayals and power plays ensue with the elderly matron Carmen and physician Dr. Casares trying to protect the boys with a little help from the other side. As befits the setting, a struggle in the face of hopelessness as the fascists are poised to take power, the film is a dark one though tends to err in favour of unearthly scares rather than gory shocks. In the end the living are more dangerous than the dead, perhaps unsurprisingly.
The film doesn’t offer enough difference to stand up as well as Cronos, and pales in comparison to Del Toro’s powerful Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s still a good film and highlights the talent that he has as a director and will hopefully bring to the forthcoming rumoured Frankenstein and Lovecraft adaptations.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Prince of Persia

Prince Of Persia

Prince of Persia is a Disney film and Bruckheimer production, advertised as coming from the stable of “those who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film is a 12A certificated fantasy action blockbuster. It is all these things and more; it’s a game adaptation.
Video games are a media notorious for spawning stinking movie adaptations - Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros, Resident Evil, Doom, Silent Hill not to mention the cluster of Uwe Boll creations. Even when commercially successful as with Tomb Raider the films tend to be dogs, with the best to hope for being an interesting failure. The Prince of Persia franchise itself has been rehashed within the gaming universe, originally a side-scrolling platformer with then-cutting edge motion capture animation (rotoscoping) allowing for some fiendish traps, the game was remade in 2003 by Ubisoft, now 3D the Prince retained his platforming abilities, enhanced with wall running and all kinds of architectural navigation now taken for granted in video games, spiced up with a bit of sword play but chiefly famous for the sands of time, a device for pushing back time in order to reverse poorly judged leaps and the like - the game’s equivalent of that generation’s fad, bullet-time (first used well in 2001’s Max Payne but influenced by the Matrix which itself drew heavily on video games).

The film takes the opportunity to use a fair amount of the Prince’s acrobatic (and now decidedly more parkour-esque) skills. The Sands of Time are also central to the plot, used in a few scenes to show a swirly, shadowy reversal of time, and also serving as the central armageddon-enabling macguffin.
We are told at the opening of the movie that the Persian Empire managed to stretch from China to the Mediterranean. What it doesn’t explain is how it came to be populated in the main by English actors slapped in fake tan. As is the tradition you cannot have an American blockbuster stuffed with British talent without an American lead, so here Jake Gylenhall bulks up as the Prince Dastan, but wait! Jake also happens to be a competent actor.
First of all he effortlessly holds a praiseworthy English accent to fit in with the other Persians, and then he proceeds to somehow inject some warmth and emotion into his character despite the film’s origins, despite predictable plotting, despite some clunky exposition and despite many corny scenes (being introduced to the shirtless adult prince in a bare knuckle brawl, to show both his brawn and that he hasn’t lost his artful dodger roots being one example).
Prince Dastan holds his title by adoption rather than birth after the king saw him commit a virtuous act (punctuated by a spot of rooftop free-running) as an orphan boy and promptly took him in. As an adult he head a rag tag but formidable group in the army, and end sup capturing a city for his brother by cunning rather than bloodshed. It’s here that he comes into possession of the sands of time and meets Gemma Arterton’s Princess Mina, leading to the central relationship in the film -  predictably the two fight like cats and dogs and then fall for each other, but rather than just echo a couple of cliches the relationship here flows more naturally. The two start off callously antagonistic with each other only for mutual respect to grow due to their actions as events unfold.
Outside of these two we have able support from Alfred Molina as the Persian Delboy and Ben Kingsley as the main baddie, at one point his insistent delivery calling into mind Logan from Sexy Beast, though the menace from the character here is kept mainly beneath the surface.
I even warmed to Richard Coyle in the role of first born Prince Tus after my initial reservations seeing as he’s best known for his role as the dizzy Welshman in the UK’s Poundstretcher answer to Friends, Coupling.
All told Prince of Persia is as fun and engaging as you could hope for from a mainstream fantasy epic, and while it doesn’t have the Captain Jack Sparrow hook it is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Franklyn; Four Lions


Franklyn is an oddly constructed film. Firstly you have a strange faux gothic world of imposing architecture and shadows (a la Dark City) where religion has become mandatory by the state. The faith you have is less important than having one, and atheists are hunted down as terrorists by the state police/priests. Ryan Phillipe plays one such non-believing outlaw in a long coat and full mask get up with echoes of Watchmen’s Rorschach, though one with a capacity for violence that helps him stay one step ahead of the authorities. Aside from this you have a number of narratives taking place in present-day London; Bernard Hill is searching for his missing son, a soldier returned from war with whom he may have some past animosity; Eva Green is an art student whose art project involves filming suicide attempts and calling for an ambulance, which also may be a way of getting at her mother;  Sam Riley is a drippy pretty boy who has just split up with his long-term girlfriend and proceeds to start hallucinating the existence of a childhood love.
As the film progresses these disparate strands intertwine until they all come together at the conclusion. The film retains the air of an independent production particularly in the London scenes which have a shooting style reminiscent of high-grade TV drama, though the religious dystopia sequences do have a genuine cinematic quality to them in both scale and cohesion of a well-crafted world. However this stylistic difference fragments the film a little and results in the melding of the different threads feel a little forced. The ‘real’ London scenes inevitably take place in back roads and sparsely populated buildings off the beaten track due to budget constraints, but a half-empty city lends these scenes a dreamlike quality at odds with the densely packed streets of the stylised faith nightmare.
The ‘twists’ in the story as the parts come together are more humdrum than they hint at individually and the film ultimately doesn’t convince, but the journey does at least try out more ideas than most films and is a fair distraction from mainstream by-the-numbers genre pieces.

Four Lions

To make a film about suicide bombers seems daring enough (although the Sri Lankan Terrorist was made in 1998 and released in the UK in May 2001) when most films about terrorism in this millennium take the pint of view of the West or a general overview of all involved, so to make a comedy about bumbling bombers seems insane, until you discover that the film is British, spiritual home of bumbling, and that it’s the debut feature from Chris Morris.
Anyone familiar with The Day Today and Brass Eye, not to mention the wealth of radio programmes, will know that taking on this subject is far from surprising (search for ‘Bomb Dogs’). That much of the comedy centres around the idiocy of the bombers themselves is perhaps most surprising. Though Morris has never shied away humour based on absurd dimness it contributes to a much higher proportion of laughs than any political/satirical digs or even the twisted wordplay he often favours (here mainly coming through via Riz Ahmed’s frustrated cursing in Urdu).
It is funny, provoking belly laughs throughout as the ridiculous nature of a horrible situation is highlighted, peppered with uneasy scenes of Riz Ahmed’s Omar at home with his wife and child, both of whom are loving and supportive of his dream of explosively martyring himself and others.
The cinematography shares more with TV than it does with cinema with the recurring establishing shots of the bomber’s hideout reminiscent of sitcom styling (perhaps intentional?) and Morris seems to be more comfortable experimenting when using different techniques, mixing CCTV and night vision footage in an echo of The Day Today. Unlike a TV show the film hangs together as one piece and earns a place as on of the better comedies of recent years, British or otherwise.