Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones ~ Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan ~ Director: Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Poster 2011 Gary Oldman Tomas Alfredson John Le Carre[xrr rating=4.5/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: Detached, clinical and brooding, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes full use of the embarrassing wealth of talent at its disposal to deliver an absorbing, intelligent and admirably restrained espionage thriller.

What’s it About?: During the height of the Cold War, British intelligence veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman) finds himself shunted out of MI6 after his mentor Control (John Hurt) – suspecting that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the organisation – spearheads a disastrous mission in Budapest. However, Smiley’s retirement ends abruptly when overseas agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to the UK with information: the mole is real, and is operating undercover at the very highest level. It falls to Smiley to investigate and flush out the enemy hiding right under MI6’s nose…

The Story: It’s tempting when regarding a film such as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to kid yourself that what it accomplishes is easy, or that it’s something you can in some way take for granted. It is, after all, a project which seemed to have everything going for it from the very start; a stellar cast, an acclaimed director and the template of one of Britain’s best-known spy thrillers to work from. Surely all that needs doing from there is to show up on set, flick the cameras on and let the magic happen; job’s a good ‘un, right?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Still 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch Gary Oldman Tomas Alfredson John Le CarreWell, no. Film history is littered with the corpses of would-be prestige pictures – Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men and Joe Wright’s The Soloist spring to mind in recent years – which seemed starred for fame and acclaim due to the their lavishly-assembled personnel, only to underwhelm and disappoint when finally arriving in cinemas. So we must give dues, then, to director Tomas Alfredson and his collaborators on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a work that showcases all-star filmmaking at its very best: an overflowing array of hugely talented individuals coming together for a genuine team effort, each willing to share responsibility for delivering a film of near-undeniable quality and class, one that lives up to its pedigree with room to spare.

Given the nature of that pedigree, that’s no mean feat. As noted, the 1974 novel is an established classic of its genre, calling on author John le Carré’s real-life secret service experience to create a tense and brooding potboiler; more pressure still is added by enduring memories of the equally iconic 1979 BBC television adaptation, which saw Sir Alec Guinness turn George Smiley into one of the most closely-associated roles of his illustrious career. Both the book and TV series have the key advantage over the film of not only getting there first, but also having far more time and leeway to explore the languorous intricacies of this most low-octane of spy stories, in which espionage is carried out via mumbled, shifty conversations involving dour men with briefcases, rather than lantern-jawed beefcakes in tuxedos.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Still 2011 Colin Firth Gary Oldman Tomas Alfredson John Le CarreAs it transpires, the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows very few signs of intimidation about the presumably pitfall-laden adaptation process, aggressively trimming material that covered almost seven hours on TV into a disciplined 127 minutes. What results is a film that moves at a brisk, occasionally disorienting pace through methodical exposition, bubbling tension and undercurrents of character drama. Action junkies will find nothing to sate them here; throughout, the film maintains a languid, stifled atmosphere, with little in the way of flashpoints or adrenaline spikes. But that isn’t to say there’s nothing going on; on the contrary, it’s incredibly fleet of foot in story terms, hopping between different perspectives and frequent flashbacks as it diligently assembles the pieces of le Carré’s narrative puzzle. A side effect of this is that the audience sometimes has to move faster than they might anticipate in order to keep up, but there’s very little here that feels overly unclear, even without in-depth knowledge of the material.

Besides, those who do feel lost during this journey will at least have some high-calibre travelling companions to smooth things over. Again, the pedigree of this cast will lead some to take the quality on offer for granted, but it’s still worth giving credit to the assembled talent for performing so unselfishly in low-key roles that are largely free of fireworks. Typically alpha-male presences like Mark Strong and Tom Hardy show they’re prepared to work hard with slightly more passive and introspective characters; Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch add splashes of rakish colour; Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, meanwhile, inject much-needed presence into characters who otherwise would have come perilously close to being underwritten, considering their key roles in the overall mystery.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Still 2011 Gary Oldman Tomas Alfredson John Le CarreFittingly, however, it’s the top-billed names from in front of and behind the camera that prove to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s greatest assets. As Smiley, Gary Oldman clearly recognises that he’s been handed a potential milestone role in his career, just as it was for Guinness; as a result, it’s hard to recall him ever being better. Oldman’s Smiley is a performance that creeps up on you, a seemingly passive, soft-spoken and unexplosive presence that gradually radiates more power as the film progresses. Observing events quietly through unfashionable bifocals, Oldman slowly seizes control of the film from his illustrious co-stars with piercing gazes and measured delivery, with Smiley’s taciturn single-mindedness bringing to mind some kind of investigative Terminator.

Aiding and abetting Oldman is the work of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, the film’s other main weapon and the secret ingredient in what could have been a rather conventional stew. Making his English-language debut, there was no guarantee that the Let the Right One In helmer’s talents would translate; happily, he acquits himself with distinction, with his drained yet striking palette, ice-cold atmospherics and clinical sense of detachment proving vital in interweaving Smiley’s character with that of his world. Alfredson’s Cold War-era London is a muted and paranoid environment, with the sense of unease only increasing as the threads of le Carré’s story come together and are pulled taut.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Still 2011 Gary Oldman Tomas Alfredson John Le CarreIn fact, if there’s one overriding disappointment about the film, it’s that this admirable slow-burn tension-building never really gets the payoff it deserves. This is very much a film that’s much more about the journey and the process than the final destination, and there’s plenty to be said for that; still, when Smiley’s carefully laid trap finally closes on the villain, it’s with a gentle creak rather than the sharp snap one might expect, leading to an inescapable sense of slight anticlimax. That’s not to accuse the film of needing anything so crass and sensationalist as a last-minute rug-pull or “gotcha!” moment, but it’s hard to imagine many audience members feeling much sense of surprise at the end of this mystery, even ones who haven’t anticipated the outcome.

Despite this, it seems churlish to suggest that many people are likely to exit Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with feelings of disappointment. Naturally, personal taste and mileage will vary with a genre piece of this kind, but it’s hard to recall another major film released this year with such an indisputable level of craftsmanship, skill, intelligence and sheer quality. With any justice, this film should solidify Alfredson’s place as one of the hottest directorial prospects of the moment and could potentially snare Oldman his first Oscar nomination; indeed, with numerous other le Carré books to work with, it may also herald the start of a potentially exciting new franchise. And if none of that comes to pass, then we’ll at least have this smart, clinical and exceptionally adult thriller as consolation.

The Verdict: Brilliantly constructed, sharp as a tack and featuring a magnetic central performance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that’s every bit the sum of its parts. And when the parts are this good, that’s more than enough to qualify as a major triumph.

Movie Trailer – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Extended Trailer)

Rooney Mara Girl with the Dragon Tattoo David Fincher Remake Publicity Shot

It’s been a little while since the ‘leaked’ Red Band version of the initial trailer for this upcoming David Fincher adaptation (and the slightly less effective mass-market version), and now we’ve got a surprisingly long look at the new version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo :

At 3 minutes 45 seconds, this is a hell of a lot longer than we normally get (from reports, it seems to be a cut down version of an eight-minute promo reel that’s doing the rounds), and I’d imagine there’ll be a slightly shorter version once it turns up in cinemas. And, so far, I’m still definitely impressed – having seen the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought it was good but not outstanding (some of which was down to the pulpiness of the original material), and the idea of letting Fincher loose on that kind of story is certainly interesting. What we’ve got looks as slick and technically accomplished as you’d expect from Fincher, combined with an impressive cast and an occasionally bewildering selection of accents. It’s nice to see Daniel Craig looking a lot more charismatic, engaging and real than his recent stiff turn in Cowboys and Aliens, but of course all eyes are going to be on Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, and it looks like she’s doing a damn fine job of taking on a role that’s already been played well by Noomi Rapace (who’s the best thing about the Swedish originals). She certainly isn’t recognisable from her brief but pivotal role in The Social Network, and it’s going to be very interesting seeing how Fincher handles the material, especially with some of the dark places that Salander’s story goes, and the rather melodramatic nature of the novel’s ending (which has apparently been reworked in the movie). We also get a very nice sample of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s new score, which certainly has me intrigued – there’s barely been a week in the last year when I haven’t listened to The Social Network soundtrack at least once, and this sounds like it’s exploring some new territory while still keeping a lot of the old style. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the few films I’m definitely looking forward to over the winter months, and this trailer certainly hasn’t done anything to change my mind…

Movie Review: Troll Hunter (2010)

Cast: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen, Hans Morten Hansen ~ Writer: André Øvredal ~ Director: André Øvredal

Troll Hunter Movie Poster 2010 Trolljegeren[xrr rating=4/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: A triumph of filmmaking imagination on a shoestring budget, Troll Hunter may not be the deepest film in the world, but it displays more than enough creativity, craft and audacity to be a thoroughly entertaining romp.

What’s it About?: This “true” story alleges to be the recovered footage of a trio of Norwegian university students making a documentary about a man they suspect to be an illegal bear trapper. When they catch up to the presumed poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen), they discover instead that he’s a professional troll hunter, tasked with keeping populations of the mythological creatures in check for the Norwegian government. Hans decides to allow the students to accompany him on his excursions and document his work – a decision that threatens to make their university film project rather more hazardous than they realise…

The Story: It’s been curious watching the development of the “found footage” filmmaking subgenre in the last decade or so. It was always inevitable after the phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project that imitators would spring up in its wake, but it’s nevertheless been surprising just how mainstream this once revolutionary filmmaking style has become. From indie efforts like [REC] and Paranormal Activity to blockbusters such as Cloverfield, directors have been queuing up to embrace documentary-style concepts such as the shaky viewpoint, improvisational dialogue and to-camera monologues, rendering these ideas – groundbreaking in 1999 – as conventional and familiar as a fake-out scare or musical sting. This isn’t to say that all found footage movies post-Blair Witch have been worthless (though the quality has certainly been variable), but it can sometimes be difficult to recall exactly what made this genre seem so interesting in the first place.

Troll Hunter Movie Still 2010 Trolljegeren Otto JespersenThis is one of many reasons why writer/director André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter – originally released in its native Norway in 2010, but only now receiving its general UK cinema release – comes across as such a breath of fresh air. A gutsy, good-natured and endlessly creative work that works near-miracles with a tight budget, this is a film that evokes the Blair Witch spirit in all the right ways – and not just because it features long stretches of two guys and a girl running for their lives through a dark forest. Rather, it calls back to the same ideal of making something out of nothing and allowing the boundaries of low-cost filmmaking to act as a guide rather than a limitation, resulting in a movie with a delightfully homemade feel to accompany its pleasingly robust credentials as a cinematic thrill-ride.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Troll Hunter is this: it is exceptionally Norwegian. From its endless shots of wild, haunted landscapes to its constant references to local cultural trends, both ancient and modern, every part of the film’s identity is inextricably tied up with that of its home country. Of course, a Scandinavian flavour is no obstacle to international success these days, thanks to films such as Let the Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but one does sometimes feel in the case of Troll Hunter that it’d probably be impossible to ever fully understand its full range of allusions without actually being Norwegian, or at least coming armed with a list of annotations.

But that matters little when the lore within the film that does translate does so with such effectiveness, most notably in the case of the trolls themselves. To create his creatures, Øvredal comprehensively raids the store of fairy and folk tale conventions, selecting and discarding iconic traits with equal glee. There’s no riddle-solving or fee-fi-fo-fumming involved with these trolls, concepts pooh-poohed as silly children’s stories by the characters; conversely, tropes such as bridge-dwelling, turning to stone in sunlight and sniffing out the blood of Christians are retained, rationalised with cheerfully pseudoscientific explanations and utilised as the basis for tense action set pieces. Øvredal shows equal opportunistic skill in turning contemporary Norwegian cultural touchstones to his film’s advantage – illegal bear hunting becomes a cover for the troll hunter’s activities and the country’s enormous power pylons become anti-troll defence systems, while a clip of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg is amusingly deployed as an off-kilter punchline.

Troll Hunter Movie Still 2010 Trolljegeren Otto JespersenThroughout Troll Hunter flows the likeable sense of a team cobbling together the best film they can with the materials they have to hand, Blue Peter-style. This extends through to its cast, an amiable collection of young unknowns and Norwegian comedians who generally don’t excel, but nevertheless fulfil their roles more than adequately. The clear standout is Jespersen, the titular troll hunter himself, who makes for a compellingly gruff presence as he portrays Hans as a jaded civil servant who’s sick of years of low-paid, underappreciated work and filling in “slayed troll forms”. However, the most remarkable use of resources comes in terms of the film’s visual effects, which utilise a variety of intelligent techniques – smart lighting, evocative camera work, economical use of effects shots – to make a budget of $4 million go much further than you’d think possible. Granted, some of this is accomplished through misdirection, with rapid cuts tricking the brain into thinking it’s seen more than it really has, but you’d be churlish to complain about corner-cutting when the film reveals the Jotnar, its colossal 200-foot showpiece monster, which wouldn’t look out of place in a film with ten times the resources.

Troll Hunter Movie Still 2010 TrolljegerenIn fact, if there’s any major problem with Troll Hunter, it’s that its skill with individual elements of filmmaking technique sometimes exceeds the quality of the film itself. For all the ambition showed in its production, the final work is exceedingly simple, often to a fault; once the initial thrill of being introduced to the trolls has passed, it becomes clear that there isn’t a huge amount more than that going on, with light elements of satire about the oppressive Norwegian government playing second or third fiddle to enjoyable but shallow troll-battling thrills. Beyond the deliberately distant and enigmatic Hans, there also isn’t much in the way of character interest; the central trio don’t really get much development, with dramatic, tragic developments for the group being brushed off with disconcertingly little fanfare. One does feel that the film – with its desolate backdrops and its strangely sad, subdued monsters and protagonists – probably could have afforded to explore its melancholic overtones more deeply had it so chosen; that it doesn’t is a cause for slight disappointment.

Still, when a film gets as much right as Troll Hunter does, it’s exceedingly difficult to wish it anything other than success. It certainly deserves to make back its modest budget and achieve cult status, both inevitabilities once its English-language run is complete; it’ll also be interesting to watch the progress of the equally inevitable US remake, options for which have reportedly already been picked up by Chris Columbus’ production company 1492. Certainly, it’s hard to see how well this would work outside its Norwegian setting, or if its low-rent charms would translate across to a higher-budget production, but none of that should concern Øvredal and crew; however well or badly the remake fares, it shouldn’t take away from the success of their idiosyncratic and hugely charming effort.

The Verdict: It’s not big and it’s not massively clever, but Troll Hunter is everything you want from a cult creature feature; ingeniously made, blackly humorous and full of well-crafted thrills.

Movie News: Oops, He Did It Again – Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray, “NOOOOOO!” and the ever-changing mind of George Lucas…

Star Wars The Complete Saga Blu Ray Cover George Lucas 2011

He almost had me. I was wavering. I’ve recently bought a Blu-Ray player, and despite my better nature, I was finding myself looking at the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray and thinking “Hmm… maybe.” It’s not like I didn’t know what I’d be getting – I knew there’d be no sign of the treasured original versions of the classic trilogy (still only available as non-anamorphic DVDs, mastered from the 1993 Laserdisc Editions), and that it’d essentially be giving us spangly High-Def versions of the prequels and the 2004 DVD versions of the original trilogy (complete with the less-than-welcome addition of Hayden Christensen’s mug edited into the final sequence of Return of the Jedi). After all, there couldn’t be anything left for Lucas to tamper with, could there?

Yes, there could.

The rumours have been flying around for the last couple of weeks – and while it looks like we’re not going to have full confirmation until the release in a week-and-a-half as to whether or not there are any other ‘surprises’ in store, there are a handful of big changes that we already know about. For a start, there has been some audio ‘tinkering’ – some of that is just remixing the original audio, punching up a few elements (and getting right a couple of music-mixing issues that affected the 2004 DVDs, especially the original Star Wars). There’s one major visual change – to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, where the puppet of Yoda has been replaced with a CGI version of the character:

This isn’t exactly surprising, and actually looks pretty good – it’s probably a mark of how little general Star Wars fandom actually cares about The Phantom Menace that nobody seems particularly upset about it (that, and the fact that the Phantom Menace puppet was weak, and somehow looked less convincing than the one used in Empire 19 years previously). If that was the only change, I don’t think anyone would be worked up right now.

It isn’t.

There are a handful of smaller changes to the original trilogy – like the new and utterly ridiculous sound that Ben Kenobi makes to scare off the Sandpeople before his first appearence, the door to Jabba’s Palace which is now three times the size (and very fake-looking), and the slightly unsettling fact that the Ewoks in Jedi now have CG-created blinking eyes (which really doesn’t make them look any less like dwarfs in furry costumes than they did before) – but then there’s the big one. Lucas has decided to have a play around with one of the key scenes of the whole original trilogy – the final moments of the Emperor, where Palpatine is on the verge of killing Luke, and Vader finally turns away from the Dark Side. I can remember watching that scene in the cinema in 1983, aged 9, completely riveted by what I was watching, and the surge of amazement as what seemed absolutely impossible – Vader suddenly becoming a good guy – happened. It’s one of the finest moments of the trilogy – a trio of films that, while the whole Star Wars franchise has lost an awful lot of its lustre in the past decade, still stand as fantastic works of popcorn cinema. And at no point in the last twenty-eight years did I think that scene would be improved by adding a ludicrously over-dramatic scream of “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” from Vader.

Well, thank goodness that George Lucas is on hand to prove me wrong:

Words fail me. They really do.

I can see the thinking behind it – connecting Vader’s final moments with the Emperor to his first moment with the Emperor back at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – except that the completely daft Frankenstein-stagger and scream of “NOOOOOOO!!!” in that film is widely regarded as one of the few moments where the otherwise fairly good Episode III (and about the only of the prequels to be artistically valid as a movie) is genuinely, diabolically awful. The thinking may be plain, but the execution of it, and the fact that Lucas is once again going back in to a film that was finished in 1983 and going “It’s okay guys – just one more change…”, and mucking around with such a critical section of the original Trilogy… it’s breathtaking. It really is. The level of clueless arrogance it takes to do this, and not in any way provide an alternate version of the movie, beggars belief. It’s not even as if I care about Star Wars that much any more, and I’m still kind of speechless.

The sad thing is that there’s no reason whatsoever for this. Multiple film versions are a fact of home entertainment life – the recent Alien Anthology Blu-Ray is a masterclass in presenting differing editions of films, while the granddaddy of them all is the 2007 Blade Runner special edition, which gave us every single version of the film available (a newly tinkered one, and the originals). Hell, if the Star Wars Blu-Rays just had the 1997 versions of the Special Editions versus the newly tinkered versions, that’d be a start – or an option to switch to the original, less-tinkered with audio. But that’s not the way Lucas rolls.

I’m a little sad. I’m a little vexxed. But, most of all, I’m glad I knew in advance so I can save myself some money. I’m sure 97% of Star Wars: The Complete Saga will look gorgeous on Blu-Ray, but I’d rather not have to mentally edit the terrible, terrible 3% out of my brain while I watch them. I’ll stick with the DVDs, thanks very much, and the sad fact that while it gave me some very good times in my formative years, Star Wars really doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.

So thanks, Lucas. Thanks a bunch.

(EDIT: There’s an interesting article over at Entertainment Weekly which makes some good points (even if it also overdoes the ‘kids are stupid, and anything aimed at them is generally rather silly and infantile’ theme) especially that while the Star Wars films are great works of popcorn cinema, they ain’t perfect. It’s okay to enjoy the hell out of them, but it’s also okay to grow up, realise their deficiencies, and that there are much better films out there. I think it says a lot that Empire is still widely counted as the best of the bunch, when it seems that the pulpy energy and vitality in Empire was a happy accident that Lucas made damn sure wouldn’t happen again (I have a major fondness for Jedi, but you can already see some of the flatness and woodenness that bedevilled the prequels creeping in in multiple sequences). It’s mainly as a film lover that this tweaking annoys me – as I said, if Lucas just made the originals (or as close to the originals as we can get) available, he could fuck about with new editions to his heart’s content and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest. The original Star Wars (none of this ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ nonsense) is a significant work of American cinema, and the fact that the director has gone psychotically out of his way over the last twenty years to prevent anyone from seeing it in its original form… well, it’s rather sad. But I’m not really raging about this. I think my days of raging over Star Wars are well and truly over.)

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano ~ Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby ~ Director: Jon Favreau

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Jon Favreau 2011 Movie Poster[xrr rating=2/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: It may have an attention-grabbing concept and a star-studded cast and crew, but summer blockbuster hopeful Cowboys & Aliens has to go down as a major damp squib, stymied by huge tonal misjudgements, a lack of purpose and a shocking paucity of actual fun.

What’s it About?: In 1873, brooding gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory, strange injuries and a mysterious metal band shackled around his wrist. Journeying to the local settlement of Absolution in search of help, the stranger learns that he’s a wanted fugitive, falling foul of local law enforcement and the ruthless cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But all of these problems are soon to become academic when otherwordly lights appear in the sky, and Absolution comes under attack from extraterrestrial forces – ones which may hold the key to Lonergan’s forgotten past…

The Story: You’ve got to give the makers of Cowboys & Aliens this, at least: it’s a bloody good title. It’s commonly said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it anyhow, so it helps if your cover has a name on it that’s as immediately and concisely communicative as this one. “Cowboys & Aliens” – a neat and playful subversion of the age-old cowboys and Indians trope, and a title that’s pregnant with the promise of two iconic fictional worlds meeting in a pulpy collision. More elaborately conceived movies, such as Inception and Green Lantern, have required four or five trailers to explain what they’re actually about, or why we should care: Cowboys & Aliens does it with three words.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good omens for director John Favreau’s movie end. Certainly, that title – taken from a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, which was only at the conceptual stage when the movie began development – created some decent initial buzz around the project, but despite an extensive marketing campaign, the film has underperformed thus far both in the US and internationally, at least relative to its budget and blockbuster aspirations. Undoubtedly, this will lead to assessment of the way the film has been sold, the bankability of its leading players, or the commercial viability of its chosen genre(s), but the explanation may be a lot simpler than that: essentially, Cowboys & Aliens just isn’t a particularly good film, squandering the highest of high concepts in what turns out to be a bland and largely joyless experience.

Certainly, you don’t get the impression that the failure of this movie is down to a lack of trying, at least from an investment perspective. An absurd number of studios – including heavyweights like DreamWorks, Paramount and Universal – have thrown money at Cowboys & Aliens, allowing an almost comical embarrassment of creative talent to be corralled together. In front of the camera are acclaimed stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde; behind it is well-liked Iron Man helmer Favreau, shooting from a script credited to two of Hollywood’s most in-vogue writing duos (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), plus Lost’s Damon Lindelof; meanwhile, backers and producers include the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg. Add into the mix a reported budget of $163 million, and you get the impression that the makers of Cowboys & Aliens took this project very seriously indeed.

Ironically, it’s seriousness that proves to be this film’s most prominent undoing. The filmmakers have gone on record as saying they wanted to avoid taking an overtly broad and jokey approach to this material, which is an understandable and potentially sensible decision; however, there’s a difference between avoiding flippancy and avoiding levity altogether, which is the approach Favreau and co appear to have bafflingly settled on. What results is a handsomely-mounted, competently made but staggeringly solemn experience, which resists almost every invitation to have any fun with its concept whatsoever. Characterisation is limited to a few variations on “scowling”, the visual palette is dark and muddied, and the world of the film is generally a cold, dour and dreary place to be.

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Jon Favreau 2011 This approach hardly plays to the strengths of the director, who was surely hired on the back of his brash, boisterous and jovial Iron Man films; it certainly doesn’t work in favour of the material, which was surely crying out for a more playful treatment than this. Part of the fun of a typical mash-up is watching the well-defined conventions and tropes of two different genres colliding and feeding off each other; Cowboys & Aliens takes Western and sci-fi elements and grinds them up into a consistent but utterly flavourless grey mush. This would be more forgivable if the film had gained in gravitas what it lost in humour, but that can’t really be argued as being the case either, as none of the constituent parts are sufficiently developed enough to be of much interest without the neutered novelty of the mash-up framework.  Cliché-shackled characters, unmemorable aliens, pedestrian mystery elements and curiously underplayed twists wouldn’t really be anyone’s idea of good building blocks for a light, frothy film; they certainly don’t pass muster in a movie that fancies itself as a brooding drama.

Cowboys and Aliens Olivia Wilde Jon Favreau 2011 Movie PosterIn this kind of unfertile territory, the film’s starry cast comes across less like an asset and more as a crippling waste of resources. Craig probably comes out of it best with a typically intense performance as amnesiac protagonist Lonergan, but the material barely tests him as an actor; still, he fares better than Ford, who was probably hoping this film would restore his movie star status beyond Indiana Jones, but who ultimately fails to bring any real interest to Dolarhyde, a half-baked semi-adversarial role that feels like a leftover from a previous draft. Wilde continues to content herself with turning up and looking striking in another sorely underwritten female blockbuster role (see also: Tron Legacy); meanwhile, vastly overqualified supporting cast members such as Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown tussle for scraps on the periphery, making no impression. It says a lot that the cast member who makes the biggest impression is the one who isn’t there: namely Robert Downey Jr, who was originally cast in Craig’s role and would have made an infinitely more interesting foil for Ford (rather than the sour-faced Craig/Ford pairing we get here), as well as adding some much-needed lightness, spark and purpose to proceedings.

In the final analysis, it’s a sense of any actual function that’s the quality that Cowboys & Aliens most demonstrably fails to provide. It’s an uninteresting, middling film that simply sits there, inert, failing to engage any particular audience to any measurable degree; not a big or spectacular enough a disaster to derail the careers of anyone involved, but never doing anything to warrant a place as anything other than a minor, forgettable footnote on a few CVs. For all its potential promise, all Cowboys & Aliens really achieves is showing how easy it is topple off a high concept and fall flat on your face.

The Verdict: Failing to capitalise on the pulpy promise of its title, Cowboys & Aliens is a dreary slog that squanders the talent and money at its disposal, and makes the spectacle of 19th-century outlaws fighting frog-men from outer space seem dry and dull. And I can’t think of anything more damning than that.

[amtap amazon:asin=B000N82K4I]

[amtap amazon:asin=B004BDOF1C]

[amtap amazon:isbn=9781447202110]

Movie News: Selina’s Big Score (Thoughts on the Catwoman costume in The Dark Knight Rises…)

Anne Hathaway The Dark Knight Rises Selina Kyle Christopher Nolan 2011 Batman

Ah, the predictability of Comics Fans – they complain bitterly if a comic or a character remains the same for too long, and then they complain even more bitterly when someone comes along and does something different. I’ve been largely away from the internets for the last week, but it’s safe to say that there’s been a certain sense of “Huh?” in reaction to the first officially released picture of Anne Hathaway in the role of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, from Christopher Nolan’s upcoming ludicrously anticipated third Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. It’s no surprise to find some people are going “I don’t like it!” and “It looks cheap!” and “Betrayal!” amongst many other reactions – and I have to admit, my first reaction to the picture was (a) good lord, Anne Hathaway looks wonderfully bad-ass in that shot, and (b) It doesn’t look tremendously Catwoman-y, does it?

After all, this is Catwoman we’re talking about – a pretty-much iconic role, one of the major parts of the Batman mythos and a character who’s been the subject of more absurdly sexy and over-the-top comic book art than the brain can comfortably encompass. From the moment it was announced that Selina Kyle was going to be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, there’s been massive speculation about what sort of look they’d go for, with most people expecting something along the lines of the relatively recent costume redesign courtesy of artist Darwyn Cooke:

Darwyn Cooke Catwoman Art

It’s a look that’s much more practical than the original skin-tight Catwoman suit (and which the Hathaway look actually sticks relatively close to, apart from the fetishy helmet with the cat-ears); it’s a look that’s stuck in the comic books ever since, and is also strongly featured in the upcoming Batman computer game Arkham City (along with a truly insane amount of cleavage). There’s also the jaw-dropping and iconic art from comic artist Adam Hughes, that’s pretty much cemented the idea of what Catwoman’s supposed to look like – (in short, Audrey Hepburn with bigger cleavage):

Catwoman Cover Art Adam Hughes Issue 46 DC Comics

And that’s the version of Catwoman everybody’s used to – confidant, daring, riding the line between heroic and ever-so-slightly-amoral, and unashamed about using her sexuality to get what she wants. A woman who can get away with wearing a catsuit complete with tail and ears, because she’s so goddamed sexy she can get away with it. A woman who’s so cool, that instead of trying to defeat or arrest her, Batman ends up dating her. An icon.

I can understand people looking at the Hathaway photo and being disappointed. I can understand that Catwoman is one of those iconic characters who audiences have major, major expectations for, and if their expectations aren’t met, there’s going to be trouble. And yet, I like the photo. I like the look. I’m still just as excited about The Dark Knight Rises as I was before, and it’s partly because we’re not getting the version of Catwoman we were expecting.

And really, when you stop and think about it, why is anyone surprised by this? The ‘classic’ version of Catwoman is a ridiculously distinctive character, but she’s also very definitely the kind of character who fits best in a comic book universe. In a world where people like Superman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, it doesn’t seem too unconvincing that a girl might dress up as a cat to aid her life of crime. The most recent version of Catwoman’s origin has her as a prostitute who turned to a life as a costumed criminal to claw her way out of a life she hated, and eventually got herself into the world of the super-rich. She’s even, of course, been a mousy secretary brought back to life by cats and turned into a demented vigilante, in the frankly rather bonkers Batman Returns. And let’s not even talk about the insanely awful horror that was the 2004 Catwoman movie…

But I don’t think any of these iterations of the character would work work comfortably if you just dropped them down in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s version of the Batman mythos. Love them or loathe them (and I know there are plenty who don’t care for Nolan’s Batman movies), both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight give us a rigorously thought out and incredibly grounded version of Batman, to the extent that The Dark Knight frequently feels like a Michael Mann crime thriller where Batman keeps wandering into shot. There’s a deliberate attempt to keep things as real and believable as is possible, and not to throw chunks of the mythology and iconography of the comics in just to please the fans. From the way the Batman costume is introduced to the use of the Joker in The Dark Knight, these are films that are going about their business in a real and serious way – the kookier members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery were automatically out of bounds (Could anyone really see the Mad Hatter or the Riddler making an appearence?), and even the familiar ones were going to be reinterpreted (It’s worth remembering that Heath Ledger’s scar-faced Joker is a bit of a leap from the way the character is normally portrayed).

Basically, I think it was pretty damn unlikely that the wildly sexy, ‘look at me, I’m dressed as a Cat and making sexy cat-noises and I JUST DON’T CARE’ version of Catwoman was ever going to turn up in a Christopher Nolan movie. For better or worse, this is going to be a realer take on the character – it may not be as attention-grabbing or iconic, but it’s what happens when you build a costume to fit the character, rather than moulding a character in order to fit a costume. Plus, it’s what happens when you drop a character like this into a world that’s already strongly laid down after two films – sometimes, the character has to be shaped to fit the world. Another thing that’s important thing to remember – we still have absolutely no idea what kind of Catwoman character we’re actually getting in The Dark Knight Rises, and from the look of this they’re deliberately avoiding the attention-grabbing sexiness, and instead going for what they think a supercool female thief would wear for practical gear (the fact that, as confirmed in other paparazzi-taken photos of a stunt double, she’s wearing flat boots rather than stilleto heels is a very good thing). I’d hazzard a guess that we won’t hear Anne Hathaway say the word “Meow” once. My own personal speculation on this is that this may even be a version of Catwoman who doesn’t even call herself Catwoman – she’s a female cat burglar in a city where a bloke dresses up as a bat; I think it’s perfectly possible a tabloid Gotham newspaper could run a very grainy picture of her crawling across a rooftop with the headline ‘CATWOMAN!’ (A theory I expect to be completely wrong, of course). The point is, anything goes. And they wouldn’t have gone with that costume if there wasn’t a specific reason for it.

Is it as sexy or iconic as the classic Catwoman costume? No it isn’t. But I suspect it’s going to work brilliantly for the character that we are getting in The Dark Knight Rises. Honestly, my first reaction to the costume was similar to my first reaction to Matt Smith’s costume as the Eleventh Doctor Who (a guarded ‘oh’ and a ‘Hmmm… maybe it’ll work’), a look that grew on me to the extent that I now can’t imagine the Eleventh Doctor any other way. Comic fans are a little too used to the ‘But it’s got to look EXACTLY like the printed page otherwise it isn’t real!’ approach – I’ve noticed a similar level of grumbling relating to the new Judge Dredd movie adaptation and its costume redesign, with fans complaining “The helmet looks too big!” and “Hmm, I’ve seen better cosplay costumes”, when Dredd is a $20-30 million indie-produced movie that’s going for a grungier, looser visual adaptation, and simply doesn’t have the budget to make the entire film look exactly like a 2000AD strip. It’s also worth remembering that slavishly following the comic is an approach that doesn’t always work (most recently, in the case of the rather ridiculous Green Lantern costume). Nolan and co are doing something different – and whether or not it works in the final movie, the fact that they’re being daring enough to steer away from the iconic look of a character like Catwoman is something I think should be applauded.

And, finally, there’s two other things to bear in mind:

1: Anne Hathaway still looks damn cool in that picture.

and

2: It could be worse. It could be this:

Catwoman Halle Berry 2004 Movie

*shudder*

Movie Review: Captain America – The First Avenger (2011)

Cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Attwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper ~ Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely ~ Director: Joe Johnston

Captain America The First Avenger Movie Poster 2011 Marvel Studios[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

The Lowdown: A likeable dose of old-school pulp adventure, Captain America – The First Avenger takes us back to the 1940s for an introduction to one of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters. The End Result? Action, fights, romance, and a blockbuster that’s simultaneously great fun and a little too lightweight for its own good.

What’s it About?: It’s 1942, and while Nazi-sponsored supervillain Johann Schmidt – aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – has uncovered an ancient artefact that could grant him unlimited power, wannabe US soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still unable to go and fight for his country thanks to his puny frame and weak constitution. But Rogers’ determination leads to him becoming an experimental subject for a Super Soldier serum, and soon the transformed Rogers is becoming the patriotic hero Captain America…

The Story: (Spoiler Alert – it’s extremely difficult to talk about Captain America – The First Avenger without discussing its ending, and how it fits into the wider Marvel Studios shared universe. As a result, if you don’t want to learn details of the ending, consider yourselves warned…)

It’s weirdly refreshing to see a blockbuster that’s so old-school in its approach as Captain America – The First Avenger. Favouring a gentler visual style and a sense of heart and sincerity, this is a long way from the brash swagger of the original Iron Man – but then, Captain America is a long-lived comic character created in a simpler, more optimistic age. In this case, he first appeared as a contemporary wartime comic-book hero written by Joe Simon and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby back in 1941, and was then revived in the Sixties (thanks to the classic ‘frozen-in-a-block-of-ice’ plot device). The ‘man out of time’ aspect has gone on to become a key part of the character, especially in the acclaimed run written by Ed Brubaker, as well as the character’s appearences in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates (which has ended up as the blueprint for much of Marvel’s celluloid ambitions), but Marvel have surprisingly only given this subplot the minimum amount of screentime here.

Captain America: The First Avenger Chris Evans 2011Instead, what we get is a full-scale origin story for Steve Rogers that harks back to the original Captain America 40s comics (with a certain amount of the Brubaker run), a broad wartime adventure romp of heroic, handsome men battling dastardly villains that also acts as a direct prologue to The Avengers. It’s given a reliably workmanlike and professional handling from director Joe Johnston, a journeyman filmmaker who graduated from special effects work on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars Trilogy. Johnston isn’t the most exciting director in the world, but he has trodden the pulp road before in the well-remembered adventure romp The Rocketeer (even if he also perpetuated the pretty damn bad Jurassic Park III), and it serves him in good stead here.

At its best, Captain America captures the fun of good old-fashioned boy’s own adventures, and Johnson’s fun Xeroxed-Spielberg approach is lively and enjoyable (especially in the hugely entertaining montage showing Steve Rogers’ life as a daftly-dressed fund-raising figurehead for the USO), while he handles the demands of a superhero blockbuster far more confidently than Martin Campbell did on Green Lantern. Most important of all, Johnston knows when to give the cast room to act, and coaxes fine performances out of everyone involved, most notably Chris Evans as the all-important title character.

Captain America: The First Avenger Chris Evans Steve Rogers 2011More than most superhero films, Captain America was going to live or die on its casting. It’d be incredibly easy to play such an old-school example of clean-cut, wholesome heroism with a post-modern wink, and some fans were probably expecting exactly that when Evans was cast, considering he’d been previously been best known for his great turn as the wisecracking Johnny Storm in the otherwise lacklustre Fantastic Four movies. It’s to Evans’ credit, then, that he avoids that temptation completely, instead playing the role admirably straight. Where Robert Downey Jr. got a comparitively easy ride as the brash Tony Stark, Evans goes for determined and wholesome beefcake heroism and pulls it off without a hint of mockery or camp (even in the pre-transformation sequences where some not-always-exceptional CGI renders him as a short, spindly weakling).

Captain America The First Avenger - Hayley Atwell as Peggy CarterIt’s this mix of earnestness and heart that makes Steve Rogers’s journey from heroic weakling to good-hearted superhuman into a genuinely effective one, aided by efficient action storytelling and strong casting. From Tommy Lee Jones’ streotypically gruff General to Stanley Tucci as the mild-mannered scientist who gives Rogers his chance at heroism, there’s barely a weak link – and there’s also finally a Marvel heroine who’s a strong character in her own right, with Hayley Atwell kicking impressive amounts of arse as Peggy Carter as well as proving to be a thoroughly engaging romantic interest (something which Thor was seriously lacking).

Of course, the down-side of Captain America’s relatively simple, subtext-free origin is that there’s not an awful lot going on here beyond the well-mounted, energetic action sequences. As seems to always happen with wartime-set pulp adventures, there are major echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially in the mirroring of Steve Rogers and the Red Skull, as different sides of the same superhero coin) but the Raiders comparisons aren’t always deserved, even in terms of the stuntwork, and there are a few too many times when the film’s happy to be a lightweight diversion and absolutely nothing else. Plus, we once again have a Marvel Studios film that’s oddly tentative about its genre – it happened with Thor, which went a bit too far out of its way to tone down the more mythic elements and present Asgard as ‘advanced technology’, and it happens here in a particularly bizarre way.

In short, just over halfway through a film about a World War 2 hero who’s best known for beating up Nazis, Captain America – The First Avenger essentially stops being a WW2 film. The Red Skull’s organisation Hydra is quickly distanced from the Nazi threat (with Schmidt intending on wiping out Hitler along with everyone else) and played more like generic Bond villains (complete with faceless henchmen) than the genuine evil of the Nazis; while, thanks to the Red Skull’s access to advanced Asgardian technology, the 1940s-set story is soon awash with laser cannons, disintegrations, and the kind of modern brushed-steel interior sets you’d normally get in recent blockbusters like G.I. Joe. It all climaxes with a expansive battle Bond-style final battle that owes a serious visual debt to The Spy Who Loved Me (and a brief one to Goldeneye), and the end result is a a film that spends half its time adoring 1940s style and storytelling, and the rest of it shrieking “We’re not making a period film! Honest!”

Hugo Weaving Johann Schmidt The Red Skull Captain America The First Avenger 2011This is especially weird considering the end of the story, where Steve sacrifices himself to save America from destruction – an act that should represent the whole generation who were willing to sacrifice themselves to fight the Nazi threat, but doesn’t carry the power it should simply because the film’s been distancing itself from World War 2 with such determination. There’s also the simple problem that, stripped of the man-out-of-time aspect (which is being saved for The Avengers, and the planned Captain America sequels), we once again get a superhero origin story where the character’s emotional journey is essentially finished 2/3rds of the way through the movie. Thor wasn’t as consistent in terms of pacing, scale and execution, but it was far more engaging in terms of its central character’s emotional journey throughout the film, as well as in its fascinating multi-layered villain. Here, Hugo Weaving does everything he can to make the ludicrously evil Red Skull a charismatic (if two-dimensional) villain, but the conflict between the two characters isn’t strong enough to drive the remainder of the film, and eventually resolves with a head-spinningly bizarre sequence that’s as blatant a piece of “Well, we’ll be seeing him again” storytelling that Marvel have yet pulled off.

By the climax, everything’s in place and Steve Rogers is awake in the 21st Century, but it’s pulled off in a strangely paced sequence that feels more like the opening of the next Captain America story than the climax to this one. It leaves Captain America: The First Avenger feeling a little too much like a prologue, and not enough of a film in its own right, while it’s another Marvel film that once again has the whiff of corporate product about it – it’d certainly be interesting to see Marvel Studios take a couple of steps back and maybe allow a couple of their films more creative freedom rather than micro-managing projects to death. It’s a pity that the flaws in Captain America – The First Avenger mean it doesn’t quite stick in the memory, as it’s got a sense of fun and a lightness of touch that puts it well ahead of the grimmer recent superhero output, and trashes the hell out of misfires like Green Lantern. One thing, however, is for sure – after this nonsensical amount of build-up, Marvel had better have something really special with The Avengers, or there’s going to be trouble…

(A quick note about the much-vaunted post-credit teaser for The Avengers – it’s short. Really, really short. And so quickly edited that it’s mostly impossible to make out. I understand the importance of the slow reveal, but making people wait through the credits for a micro-tease like this isn’t the best intro to actual Avengers footage they could have done…)

The Verdict: Undemanding, lively and fun, Captain America – The First Avenger is a little too lightweight for a WW2-set superhero film, but charming performances and a fun visual style hold it together despite some weird storytelling choices and an uninteresting bad guy. Evans makes an excellent Marvel hero, though, and once The Avengers ride is over, a proper self-contained Captain America movie could be an enticing proposition…

Movie Review: Cars 2 (2011)

Cast (Voices): Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Thomas Kretschmann ~ Writer: Ben Queen ~ Director: John Lasseter

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter Poster[xrr rating=2/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: Pixar’s sequel to its 2006 animated comedy turns out to be the acclaimed studio’s least successful venture to date: a lacklustre and misguided action comedy that struggles to justify its existence on anything beyond a commercial level.

What’s it About?: Champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has settled into a comfortable life in idyllic Radiator Springs, enjoying time with his best friend Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), when he accepts a challenge to compete in the World Grand Prix. Soon, McQueen and pals are embarking on a globetrotting series of race events; however, suspicious circumstances surrounding the races draw the attention of British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), setting in motion events that will draw Mater into the dangerous world of international espionage…

The Story: All good things must come to an end. It’s an old saying that often proves true,Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter but I think all of us were hoping that somehow Pixar, with their unparalleled track record of critical and commercial smash hits, could be the ones to buck the trend. After all, as of 2010, the Emeryville-based studio had presided over a run of 11 consecutive all-ages classics, redefining feature animation as a medium in the process and inspiring every other major Western animation house to raise their game in order to keep up. So much has been (deservedly) said and written about the studio’s unflinching commitment to quality, creativity and storytelling that it was becoming blissfully easy to believe in a fairytale vision of them as artistically infallible.

That’s why it’s saddening to report that Cars 2 represents the first significant crack in that pristine facade, a technically accomplished but underwhelming film that’s disappointing not only because it’s a failure, but because of the type of failure it is. It would have been almost admirable for Pixar’s golden run to come to an end with an ambitious, overreaching idea that didn’t quite come off, a fate many industry pundits had predicted for conceptually risky projects such as Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille. But it’s hard to make any such argument in defence of Cars 2, a shallow, undercooked movie that says almost nothing and spends an inordinate amount of time doing it.

That this project has resulted in this outcome sadly won’t come as a great surprise to many. The decision to create a sequel to Cars (commonly regarded as the weakest of Pixar’s previous films) was not welcomed with any great enthusiasm, but as a staunch supporter of the original, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – at least, up until the point that the concept was revealed. For all of Cars’ flaws – a slow, deliberate pace and predictable structure among them – it had a deeply personal, surprisingly autumnal message beneath its bright, juvenile exterior. A passion project for director, car enthusiast and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, the 2006 film was a loving tribute to Route 66, the golden age of American motoring, the sad loss of small-town values and the virtues of slowing down to enjoy the little things in life. That the director chose to follow this with a bombastic spy movie parody – divorced almost entirely from the personality and themes of the original – is a baffling decision, particularly from a studio that so successfully extended and embellished the core emotional fabric of 1995’s Toy Story into a remarkably consistent trilogy.

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter The resulting film struggles to define any clear sense of identity or purpose for itself. Lasseter has stated at length that Pixar considers Cars 2 to be a bona fide 1960s-style spy film rather than a parody, but that’s blatantly disingenuous; even leaving aside the fact that the characters are talking vehicles, the slapstick humour and relentlessly flippant tone undermine any pretensions it might have had to being a true genre piece like The Incredibles was. This is as overtly and purely throwaway a comedy as Pixar’s ever produced, its tone defined by lowbrow culture-clash jokes, contrived misunderstandings and vehicular puns both verbal and visual, with Michael Giacchino’s often irritatingly lightweight pastiche score driving it along. If anything, what little effort there is to be genuinely respectful to espionage fiction serves only to undermine the film, as it prevents the script from employing any genuinely subversive material, as well as creating tonally awkward moments of straightfacedness that can’t work in a context that also includes farting tow trucks.

If one were being generous, you could partially excuse Cars 2’s weakness in this regard on the basis that Pixar has never tackled an outright parody before; however, nothing can mitigate or forgive the film’s lapses in terms of characterisation and emotional development, the qualities on which the studio’s glittering reputation is founded. Cars 2 reunites us with almost all of the first film’s major players, while introducing a host of new ones; none of this is to any great effect. As with all good stories, Pixar’s characters work best as conduits through which to explore a central theme; with the exception of a half-hearted and tacked-on moral about (yawn) the importance of friendship and being yourself, Cars 2 simply doesn’t have one, leaving its automotive protagonists to drift aimlessly.

Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen saw his character arc completed in the first Cars, and he develops no further here; key supporting players  from the original, most notably love interest Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), are almost insultingly marginalised; meanwhile, new cast additions such as Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer struggle to bring any life to generic characters. However, the sloppiest handling is reserved for redneck truck Mater, unwisely elevated from a comic relief role to that of full-blown protagonist for this sequel. This would be a bad enough idea on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that he doesn’t really have any particular arc or growth either, remaining a one-note stereotype throughout. US comedian Larry the Cable Guy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he does what he can with the role; ultimately, he’s let down by this material just as much as everyone else is.

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter That a film this problematic was personally directed by someone with as much ability as Lasseter is troubling. After all, this is the man whose unfailing eye for a good story has benefitted not only Pixar, but also played a key role in the recent creative revival of Disney, pulling faltering projects such as Bolt, Tangled and Tinker Bell back on track with a firm and often ruthless hand. It would appear that Lasseter has something of a blind spot as regards the Cars franchise, frequently displaying an enthusiasm for its world and characters that seem at odds with the rather lacklustre reception they receive from wider audiences.

Of course, there is another, more concerning theory: that Cars 2 is a purely commercially motivated cash-in, produced with quality as a secondary concern to the desire to capitalise on the multibillion-dollar merchandising opportunities that have developed around the property. It’s a pessimistic view, and Pixar have shown enough integrity over the years to earn the benefit of the doubt for now. However, with a Monsters Inc. prequel and a rumoured (and seemingly ill-advised) return to the Toy Story franchise among the studio’s forthcoming output, it’s an idea that will be expressed more and more vociferously should the problems of Cars 2 become the rule, rather than an exception.

For the time being, an exception is what Cars 2 is; an exception to 16 years of quality storytelling, multi-generational appeal, sparkling imagination and wit in feature animation. It would be harsh to diagnose terminal creative decline based on this sole failure; at the same time, it would be hypocritical to fail to hold the studio to the high standards it has spent so much time and effort establishing. The world finally knows what a bad Pixar film looks like. Let’s hope never to see another.

The Verdict: Pixar has always had a Midas touch, but on this occasion they simply can’t make gold from a confused, shallow concept that’s tonally at odds with itself, wastes its cast and characters, and ultimately fails to deliver the meaningful experience that the studio has trained us to expect from them.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon  ~ Writer: Steve Kloves ~ Director: David Yates

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Movie Poster 2011 Daniel Radcliffe Rupert Grint Emma Watson[xrr rating=4.5/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: The lavish finale to one of the biggest franchises of recent times, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 plays with massive stakes and wins big, delivering a fine ending to the Deathly Hallows story and an emotional send-off for the Potter franchise as a whole, as well as being a superbly made film in its own right.

What’s it About?: Things are looking bleak for teenage wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends: the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has acquired the most powerful wand ever to exist and the forces of darkness are closing in. Harry’s only option is to complete his task of locating and destroying the Horcruxes, magical artefacts protecting the Dark Lord’s soul: a mission that will involve a daring bank heist, deadly duels and an all-out war on the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, culminating in a final conflict with Voldemort himself. It all ends here…

The Story: (WARNING: No story details in this review will come as a surprise to fans of the book, but anyone who’s managed to stay unspoiled for the last four years may want to tread carefully…)

Let’s make no mistake here: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is a Big Deal.

A lot of films get branded as “event movies” these days; generally, it’s little more than marketing rhetoric, designed to add unwarranted cultural justification to the latest identikit special-effects showcase. Naturally, Warner Bros has been hyping David Yates’ film to the rafters as well, but in this case, its reputation would have preceded it anyway. It’s the direct follow-up to one of 2010’s most successful movies and an adaptation of the fastest-selling novel of all time. It’s also the finale to a cross-media franchise that has produced the highest-grossing film series of all time, one that has been gradually building to this point of payoff for the last decade. It all comes down to this.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Movie Poster 2011 Daniel RadcliffeNo pressure then, Mr Yates? Judging from the finished product, the answer seems to have been: no, not really. The weight of expectation may have been high, but brush away the hype and you find that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is rock-solid enough to withstand it all. A surprisingly different beast from the quietly excellent Deathly Hallows Part 1, the final Potter is a splendidly-mounted production that knows just how to wrangle its sprawling, challenging source material into something manageable, blending complex lore and grand spectacle with sincere emotion and sombre reflection. It’s reverential enough to please the diehards, while being broad and entertaining enough to convince as a genuine cross-demographic crowd-pleaser. Yates is juggling with an unprecedented number of balls here, yet manages to keep almost all of them in the air, in a way that rarely feels like a great strain.

It could have all turned out so different. I’ll admit to having been hugely sceptical when Warner Bros announced in 2009 their plans to divide JK Rowling’s final Potter tome into two parts, a decision I feared had been made for all the wrong reasons. After all, previous films had done a terrific job of condensing breezeblock-sized tomes such as Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix to manageable lengths; opting against taking the pruning shears to the (admittedly far denser) Deathly Hallows could have ended up as a creative and commercial indulgence, a formless maelstrom of needlessly-included material and meandering pacing. Indeed, such criticisms were aimed by a minority of critics at last year’s Deathly Hallows Part 1, but seeing both halves of the story goes a long way to dismissing these concerns. Part 1 was an equally handsome, well-executed production, but it was burdened by the majority of the book’s expositional heavy lifting and slower, uncinematic passages; as a result of its predecessor’s work, Part 2 is able to give a proper account of the truly climactic and conclusive elements of the story, which are delivered with enough scale, gravitas and forward impetus as to make the entire split feel justified.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert GrintAdmittedly, there are hiccups along the way. As a film that’s exclusively interested in endings, it’s perhaps predictable that it has trouble finding a way to start, throwing the audience right into the momentum stream of the previous instalment’s finale in a way that’s somewhat disorienting. Deathly Hallows 2 is weakest in an opening half-hour that really doesn’t fit any conventional ideas of a “beginning”; the Gringotts bank raid sequence, though wonderfully realised, has the feel of a loose end from Part 1, while the subsequent meeting with Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciaran Hinds) comes across as a vestigial element from the book, condensing Rowling’s revelations about the hidden past of Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore to the point of inconsequentiality.

Yet once the action returns to Hogwarts in preparation for the all-out war that closes the novel, the film finds its climactic identity, drawing in iconography from the preceding seven films to create lines of symmetry extending through the entire series. The opening Chris Columbus-helmed Potter entries don’t always get a lot of credit, but they did a fairly stellar job of creating a solid architecture within which the more adventurous later films could safely experiment; Deathly Hallows Part 2 clearly recognises this, and spends much of its running time nostalgically venerating that architecture or cathartically dismantling it. The epic good-vs-evil conflict represented by the Battle of Hogwarts is grand enough on its own, but by setting these events against a backdrop of familiar locations such as the Great Hall and the Quidditch stadium falling to ruin, the film is given an easy shorthand method of evoking the end of an era, one that it does not waste. Credit must also go to Alexandre Desplat, returning to scoring duties from Part 1, who makes the sensible decision this time to complement his own accomplished compositions with some of John Williams’ most iconic melodies, restoring a musical consistency to the series that had been on the wane.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part-2 PhotoOf course, there’s more to this series’ lore than castles and chord progression, and while it can’t be said that Yates makes maximum use of the human players in the Harry Potter legend, it’s arguable that he doesn’t need to. After all, Potter is uniquely able to demand anything it requires from the cream of British acting talent – even if “anything” means “nothing” in many cases. Heavyweights such as Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Emma Thompson and Miriam Margolyes are essentially reduced to roles as glorified extras, present only to serve the series’ overall continuity, though the adult cast retains some standouts: notably Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape delivers one of the most emotionally important moments of the series, and Ralph Fiennes, cutting loose as a Voldemort who becomes tangibly more volatile as his immortal power gradually ebbs away. However, the true lynchpins of Deathly Hallows Part 2 cast are its youngest members, vindicating the remarkable gamble of founding its entire future success of the franchise on the development of a gang of unknown pre-teen actors. Complaints can always be made, but seeing the way Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Matthew Lewis and especially Daniel Radcliffe have come to occupy and embody Rowling’s characters, it’s hard to see how the choices made back in 2001 could have been paid off significantly better.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Daniel RadcliffeIn the final reckoning, and once the surprisingly effective epilogue scene has faded away, it’s this pleasing correlation between risk and reward that resonates most strongly. The Harry Potter films could have easily ended up as a creatively compromised series of cash-ins; instead, Warner Bros utilised the power of the brand to mount an unprecedented experiment in serialised cinematic narrative, hiring the industry’s best talent to tell a seven-year story in (more or less) real time, while betting millions of dollars on untested children and the outcome of a story that they didn’t even know the ending to when they committed to the project. In an increasingly sterile, risk-averse Hollywood environment, that’s a hell of a bet to make; as critical plaudits and record box-office takings roll in for Deathly Hallows Part 2, it can be concluded that it’s paid off handsomely. Whether we’ll ever see anything like it again is unclear; whether this model could ever produce the same success of Potter is unlikely. The long-term legacy of the Harry Potter movies will only become clear in the coming decades; for now, it’s just worth enjoying the end of a not-always smooth but ultimately satisfying ride.

The Verdict: It’s not easy to bring closure to ten years of swirling plotlines and weighty expectations to a close, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 pulls it off with a minimum of fuss, delivering a satisfying adaptation of a challenging book and hitting all of its climactic marks, while skimping on none of the humour and heart that’s given the series its spark.

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Movie Trailer: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The trailer deluge just keeps on coming, and here we have the first decent look at The Amazing Spider-Man, an upcoming superhero reboot that certainly qualifies as risky. In certain respects, I’m glad they’re rebooting the Spider-Man films – while I enjoyed them, the Raimi films never completely gelled with me, while the third film was an overcrowded and near-incoherent mess, and losing Tobey Maguire and (particularly) Kirsten Dunst didn’t strike me as problems. So, when the original plan for Spider-Man 4 collapsed (and considering that Raimi allegedly wanted John Malkovich as the Vulture, possibly this is a good thing) and Sony went for a full reboot, I was intrigued – especially when they suggested it was going to be much closer to the Ultimate Spider-Man incarnation of the mythos, keeping Peter Parker as a teenage highschooler. (For those not in the know, the ‘Ultimate’ Marvel universe was invented as a way to retell classic Marvel stories in a more contemporary way, although it’s evolved and now stands more as an ‘anything can happen’ alternate to the normal Marvel universe.)

When the director was announced – Marc Webb, a music video director who’s best known for helming offbeat romantic comedy drama 500 Days of Summer – I remained intrigued, especially since he wasn’t a natural choice for a big film, and his hiring definitely suggested they wanted a more modern, relationship-based take on the material. When the casting was announced I was intrigued (and also slightly perplexed when Emma Stone, who would have been absolutely perfect as redheaded Spider-Man girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, instead got cast as a different Spider-Man girlfriend, Gwen Stacey), and I knew the selection of Andrew Garfield in the lead role was definitely a good move even before I saw him in The Social Network. The one thing I was hoping, however, was that we wouldn’t get a full origin again – my fingers were crossed that maybe saner heads would prevail, and we’d get something along the lines of Marvel’s recent take on The Incredible Hulk – giving us the character’s origin in the opening credits, and then straight on with the story.

However, that’s exactly what we’re getting in The Amazing Spider-Man, as this trailer confirms, and while this is a nicely shot (and mostly relationship-heavy) teaser, which certainly looks much more modern and without the slight level of retro-cheese that Raimi added (which was, admittedly, trying to capture some of the tone of the original Stan Lee comics, if not always succesfully), it’s the origin. Again. Only a decade after we first got the origin. There’s a different villain (the less attention-grabbing Lizard aka Curt Conners, played here by Rhys Ifans), but a lot of this is going to play the same to the extent that it’s in danger of feeling more like a remake than a reboot. After all, Spider-Man doesn’t have the same wild variations in tone throughout his history that Batman did, meaning it isn’t as easy to do a stylistic shift like what happened between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins. That was a reboot that justified its existence thoroughly (whatever you thought of the resulting film), whereas this reboot is happening simply because (a) it’s Spidey!! In 3-D!!! and (b) Maguire and Raimi became too pricey (especially considering the mess of the third movie), and Sony need to keep making Spider-Man movies or the rights will switch back to Marvel Studios. Yes, I’m sure that the CG-heavy Spidey POV shot will look great in 3-D, and that Garfield will make an excellent Spider-Man, even if it’s going to be hard dismissing memories of him in The Social Network while watching. I’m also sure that Emma Stone will be much more engaging and less slappable than Dunst was as the female lead (although can anyone explain why, despite blonde being her natural hair colour, she looks so much better (and sexier) as a redhead?). Leaving aside the context, this is a pretty good teaser (and certainly more immediately exciting than the rather low-key, threadbare Dark Knight Rises trailer), and I’ll certainly be there to watch the film in 2012… but until then, they’re going to need to pull something fairly spectacular in order to convince me The Amazing Spider-Man has a better reason to exist than ‘Money, Money, Money’…