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: 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.

[amtap amazon:asin=B0051CBWEU]

[amtap book:isbn=1408810298]

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’…

Movie Trailer: John Carter (2012)

Hmmm. That’s my main reaction to the first trailer to John Carter, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars (the first in the John Carter of Mars series). It’s not a negative hmmm, but it’s not a completely convinced hmmm either, and that’s mainly because this is a project I’m going to have a hard time being objective on. Burroughs’ pulp SF adventures have been massively influential over the years – they don’t quite have the atmosphere and weird poetry of something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but they’re still a brilliant example of early 20th century high adventure, packed with colour and adventure and one man battling against strange foes. They’re also books that were read to me by my father starting from when I was five years old – we got through almost half the entire series, and so there are chunks of the John Carter saga that are indelibly imprinted on my imagination.

This adaptation has been in the pipeline for decades, and became much more likely with the rise of CG – there was a version with the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow attached which never happened (and some might say that’s a good thing), while the most recent director to walk was Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau. However, it’s finally happened under the directorial eye of Andrew Stanton, the helmer of Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, making his live-action debut on a movie that’s also the first live-action Pixar co-production (alongside Disney and – gulp – Jerry Bruckheimer Productions), which is certainly promising (even if, in a fit of nervousness, they’ve lost the ‘of Mars’ from the trailer). And the teaser is intriguing in a whole number of ways, from the lush design to the opening scene that shows they’re keeping the framing device intact – the classic pulp trope of having the tale of wild adventure be a discovered manuscript bequeathed to or discovered by the author. Of course, for anyone who suffered through X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fact that they’ve cast Taylor Kitsch (aka Gambit) as John Carter and Lynn Collins (aka Wolverine’s immensely forgettable love interest) as Martian princess Deja Thoris is a little less reassuring. Also, it’s not quite as pulpy or as – frankly – Martian as I expected, with a lot of shots looking a bit too Earth-like for my preference (I mean, I know it was shot on location in various US desert areas, but it’d be nice if it looked a bit more alien), while the fragments of dialogue we get here are a tad clunky out of context. This is a teaser, of course, that’s simply out to set the scene and get the 99.99% of the audience who aren’t seriously into Edgar Rice Burroughs adventures excited. I’m going to be really interested to see exactly what they pull off here – my fingers are crossed, but it’s going to take a little more than this to completely blow me away…

Movie News: Cities! Explosions! Abstraction! The Dark Knight Rises teaser poster arrives!

It’s started. So far, Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises has been proceeding in the usual state of near-lockdown that he always seems to manage. We’ve seen an official picture of Tom Hardy as Bane, we’ve gotten a whole selection of casting news… and that’s been about it. Well, there are strong rumours that a first teaser trailer will appear on the front of the final Harry Potter movie this week, and now we’ve got the first Dark Knight Rises teaser poster. And they’ve certainly stuck with the abstract route – it’s attention-grabbing, very Inception-like, and certainly seems to be saying that no matter how positive the title may sound, Gotham is going to be taking a serious pounding. I’m not expecting the teaser trailer to tell me much more than this, and I’m perfectly happy that way – one of the reasons Inception was so much fun was that I simply didn’t know that much about it when I went into the cinema, and the trailers were brilliant examples of being intriguing while telling the minimal amount of detail. Whichever way the publicity for Dark Knight Rises goes, Summer 2012 still feels like a long way away…

The Dark Knight Rises Teaser Poster Christopher Nolan 2012 Batman Christian Bale

Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley ~ Writer: Ehren Kruger ~ Director: Michael Bay

Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon Movie Poster Michael Bay Shia LaBeouf[xrr rating=2.5/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: The third in Michael Bay’s profitable yet reviled series of action figure-inspired blockbusters, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a swaggering, belligerent buffet of summer spectacle that’s as sure to please its core audience as it is to alienate and anger everyone else. Non-believers need not apply.

What’s it About?: With Optimus Prime and the heroic Autobots enshrined as protectors of Earth, human ally Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is having trouble finding a job and adjusting to the demands of a normal life. But trouble is on the way for both parties when Cybertronian technology is found on the Moon: a discovery that leads to the uncovering of a decades-old conspiracy, the return of a legendary Autobot hero, and a full-scale invasion of Earth…

The Story: Michael Bay cannot be stopped.

That’s the thought that occurs when stepping out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, ostensibly a commercially-driven, wide-appeal action movie, but one which turns out to be a towering $200 million edifice carved in the director’s own image. After all, this was supposed to the movie that saw Bay returning cap in hand after the critical mauling of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that had its coherence torpedoed by the2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, and which the director himself has admitted was “crap”. Pre-release talk for TF3 has been awash with pledges to right the wrongs of that misbegotten mess, to make amends, to learn lessons.

As it turns out, the very last thing that Dark of the Moon can be described as is “contrite”. Simply put, this is exactly the same kind of excess-riddled orgy that’s defined Bay’s career, but blown up to a scale that feels like an act of deliberate defiance. It takes every element you’d expect from a Big Dumb Action Movie and feeds you an unending supply; by turns, Transformers 3 is a sci-fi potboiler, a comic-book movie, a frat-boy comedy, a 1980s kids’ cartoon, a war film, a music video, a car commercial and everything in between. In IMAX 3D. Sensory overload doesn’t begin to cover it.

Bay’s vision is almost admirable in some ways. There’s an insanely single-minded drive throughout this series to deliver the absolute maximum amount of entertainment per second as possible, but Bay simply doesn’t have the word “stop” in his vocabulary; he keeps dropping more and more into the mix, until you’re left with the cinematic equivalent of a Christmas pudding-flavoured gateaux encased in chocolate and coated in Pringles. Money shot follows money shot, comedy sidekicks have their own comedy sidekicks, while the final hour – chronicling a massive-scale Decepticon invasion of Chicago – is essentially one long, mad, escalating action sequence.

Transformers Dark of the Moon Shia LaBeouf Rose Huntington-Whitley Michael bayOf course, the major issue here is not that the film tries to entertain; it’s the commitment to Michael Bay’s definition of “entertaining”, which can be extremely abrasive to anyone lacking his testosteronal sensibilities. Bay’s Transformers universe is an aggressively masculine wonderland of explosions, brutal violence, lasciviously-filmed cars and women and a juvenile, stereotype-loving approach to comedy, which will clearly rankle with a great many audience members. There’s nothing as show-stoppingly sophomoric as the leg-humping, testicle-endowed robots of Revenge of the Fallen, but there’s still enough of an abundance of effete Germans, Asians named “Deep Wang” and screaming, perma-tanned John Malkoviches to cause pain.

So Dark of the Moon is riddled with easily foreseeable flaws? Well, of course. But honestly? I get the feeling that this is exactly the movie that Michael Bay set out to make. Transformers 2 was the one that got away from him; part 3, on the other hand, is clearly the work of a director at the top of his game – regardless of whether or not that’s a game you’re interested in playing. It’s interesting to compare this to something like, say, the recent Green Lantern – neither movie has been warmly received, but where Lantern was a confused, mumbling, deflated excuse for a film, Dark of the Moon has a strutting, unthinking arrogance and confidence that demands your attention, if not your approval. It believes in its vision and doesn’t much care if you disagree.

It’s a belief that manifests itself, for example, in the casting, which wheels out a procession of big-name stars who are surely here for the paycheque – Malkovich, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey – but who nevertheless refuse to phone it in, annihilating the scenery with the same indecent ferocity as Bay himself. It’s also evident in the sheer scale of the action choreography, which renders toppling skyscrapers, shape-shifting freeway chases, vertiginous wingsuit flight sequences and scenes of city-spanning urban destruction with obscene levels of care and expense, all rendered in top-quality 3D.

Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon Michael Bay ShockwaveWhat underpins this confidence, ultimately, is Bay’s knowledge that he has succeeded delivered a far better film than Revenge of the Fallen, for all that’s worth. Partially, this is due to refinements in his own directorial style – possibly due to the demands of the 3D cameras – that see him slowing down his frenetic editing to deliver sharp, clear and balletic action sequences. But primarily, it’s due to the fact that this film has the advantage of an overall story structure that actually makes sense, delivering the hokey but fun alien conspiracy/invasion tale that Transformers 2 tried and failed to convey. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but the presence of a clear three-act structure – even a ludicrously flabby one – does help to contextualise the robot mayhem, even enabling a couple of reasonably surprising twists. Of course, Bay being Bay, enjoyment of Transformers: Dark of the Moon’s story is dependent on your ability to overlook a number of gaping logic holes, but it’s still streets ahead of Revenge of the Fallen, which featured a plot that wouldn’t stand up to a stiff breeze. It’s also dependent on you not having grown tired of Shia LaBeouf’s fast-talking shouty everyguy schtick, which is often dialed up to unpalatable extremes, although while the new scantily clad, absurdly over-attractive female lead Rosie Huntington-Whitely (replacing terminally outspoken Transformers 1+2 star Megan Fox) won’t be winning any acting awards, she also doesn’t disgrace herself either with a performance that’s nowhere near as horrendous as some of her harsher critics would have you believe.

Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon Sentinel Prime Michael BayStill, if there’s one prevailing and crucial failing that’s never really addressed, it’s the limited role played by the Transformers themselves in all of this. Bay made a virtue of keeping them hidden for most of his original 2007 Transformers film, instilling the robots with a sense of awe and wonder; since making that reveal, he’s seemed unsure of what to do with them, and has disappointingly settled on using them as walking setpieces, rather than actual characters. The Transformers canon can be a messy and disparate affair, but there are still plenty of strong personalities among the Autobot and Decepticon rosters that never get a look-in here. Dark of the Moon has the most robot-to-robot interactions of the series, but most ‘bot characters barely qualify as one-dimensional – the notoriously treacherous Decepticon lieutenant Starscream, for example, doesn’t do any backstabbing in the whole trilogy, while the much-hyped antagonist Shockwave is a red herring non-event. Those with the screentime to impose themselves, meanwhile, often fall victim to misuse and misinterpretation, with the emasculated villain Megatron and the overpowered, distressingly violent Optimus Prime counting as the main victims. Worse still, the fact that this is likely to be Bay’s final Transformers has brought out a vicious streak, leading to a procession of cold, cruel and slightly undignified character deaths, which in most cases feel unworthy of their victims. The robots look great, thanks to fantastic design work and some of ILM’s best effects, but gripes are inevitable when a film’s title characters feel like supporting players at best and cannon fodder at worst.

At the end of it all, it’s hard to know how history will regard the trifecta of Bay-helmed Transformers movies; they’ve been blockbuster successes have likely bankrolled the Hasbro toy franchise for the next decade, but one suspects that the tentative mainstream goodwill towards the series created by the 2007 film, before Revenge of the Fallen tarnished the brand, may never return. With its manifold flaws, Dark of the Moon isn’t going to change that, but Bay will no doubt be satisfied to have departed the franchise on strictly his own terms, heading off to pastures new with a trail of box office records, fuming critics and exploded wreckage in his wake. You suspect he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Verdict: Completing its (unambitious) stated mission of bettering Revenge of the Fallen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a film completely at peace with what it is: a shallow but state-of-the-art action spectacular that dispenses the Michael Bay brand of cheap gratification like sickening candy. Good times are available to those willing to submit; everyone else, stay far away, and save yourself the money on tickets and aspirin.

Movie Review: Green Lantern (2011)

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Tim Robbins ~ Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg ~ Director: Martin Campbell 

Green Lantern Movie Poster 2011 Ryan Reynolds[xrr rating=2/5]

The Low-Down: DC’s latest attempt at a superhero blockbuster, Green Lantern should have been a giddy mix of colourful action and space adventure. Trouble is, nobody seems to have told that to the filmmakers – what we end up with is a deeply mediocre, flatly executed comic-book romp with only a few brief flickers of the lurid saga it should have been.

What’s it About?: Hotshot test-pilot pilot Hal Jordan may be talented, but he’s also an irresponsible risk-taker who ends up derailing a potential big contract for his employers, Ferris Air. But, just as his life seems to be going wrong, an encounter with a dying alien results in him being inducted into the Green Lantern Corps, a group of interstellar policemen who battle against unimaginable forces of evil – one of which is now on its way to Earth…

The Story: Oh dear. Poor DC can’t seem to get a break outside the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies. They’ve been stuck way behind Marvel for years, and even now that Warners is finally getting their act together with some serious franchise-starting action… it’s still not quite happening. They’ve bet a fair old whack of money on Green Lantern (with an estimated price tag of around $200 million, plus the marketing costs on top of that), and I’m sure they can’t be happy to have the first of 2011’s batch of superhero blockbusters that really does appear to have a “Kick Me” sign attached to its back. The $50 million opening weekend (plus a 69% drop-off in its second week) means it’s a long way from being the ideal franchise opener that DC and Warner Bros obviously wanted – and while it’d be lovely to report that this is all terribly unfair, and that Green Lantern is actually a fun adventure that’s catching a small superhero backlash almost purely by accident… I’d be lying through my teeth if I did.

It doesn’t quite deserve some of the vitriol that’s been thrown at it (and is certainly a long way from being as dreadful as the Fantastic Four movies), while there’s also the fact that not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight, meaning that there’s room in the multiplexes for a lighter, more colourful piece of superhero action. However, it’s hard to recall the last time I saw a movie quite so flat  – a blockbuster that simply seems to go through the motions, giving us a sketchy version of the Hero’s Journey and a handful of nicely executed effects shots without ever cohering together into a genuinely thrilling ride.

Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds Publicity Still 2011There’s a pervasive sense of ‘that’ll do’ to much of the picture, alongside the feeling that they’re not doing a fantastic job of getting the reported $200 million budget all up onscreen (with the film looking a little creaky outside the big CG setpieces). One of the original comic book’s strengths is the extensive mythology (which has been upgraded a lot in the last few years by main GL writer Geoff Johns), but the film doesn’t approach this with anything approaching the confidence of Thor. Instead, this is a film that’s desperate to be taken seriously but simply slaps chunks of the mythology onscreen in the hope that it’ll wow us, sandwiching them together with lots of dreary expository dialogue (“I believe you have the power to overcome fear!”). There’s precious little sense of us learning about the universe with Hal Jordan or getting more involved with his character that way – instead, the piecemeal screenplay is just a collection of things that happen, leading up to Hal discovering his inner awesomeness (and, as a footnote, that it’s better to be nice than an arrogant asshat).

Green Lantern 2011 Oa Ryan Reynolds Movie WallpaperThere’s a whole heap of exciting stories to be told in the Green Lantern universe, but the film seems to be terrified to tell any of them for fear of busting the budget. It doesn’t help that by cranking up audience expectations of the footage depicting the Green Lantern Corps’ home planet of Oa (which has basically been the highlight of the publicity campaign, while the far more integral central relationship between Hal and ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris is barely featured in the trailers at all) the film ended up shooting itself in the foot. Yes, the Oa scenes do feature some spectacular moments and memorable characters (most notably the Geoffrey Rush-voiced Tomar-Re, who’s the highlight of the entire movie), and it is the point where the film does finally hit the right note of lurid SF action – but it’s all over within ten minutes, and the rest of the film feels like a let-down. After the colour and variety of the Green Lantern Corp’s home planet, the last thing we want is to be chucked back onto Earth for lots of scenes of Hal Jordan experiencing Olympian levels of angst and more lumpen villainy from the deeply unimpressive adversary Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes over as more of a slightly annoying distraction than an intimidating threat in his own right (while the film’s ‘main’ villain – a floating CGI head with massive cloud tentacles – barely even registers as a convincing threat until virtually the end of the film).

Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds 2011In terms of balancing spectacle, it’s the same problem that the original Michael Bay Transformers movie faced – how to cope with the fact that the budget won’t stretch to setting the entire film on Oa (or with the fact that, thanks to the CGI approach to the costume, every single shot of Reynolds in costume is an effects shot) – and while Bay’s solution was hardly brilliant (filling the film with clumsy racial stereotypes and John Turturro overacting), Green Lantern’s earthbound scenes aren’t exactly much better, frequently feeling like a rather limp and gag-free version of Nineties CG-fest The Mask – or, in one slightly unwise balcony-set scene, Disney’s Aladdin (where it wouldn’t have surprised me if the costumed Hal had immediately taken Carol Ferris for a flight and a rousing chorus of ‘A Whole New World’). The Oa scenes simply crank up the spectacle to a level the rest of the film (bar the climax) can’t hope to match, and it’s hard not to think that maybe (especially in the wake of Avatar, which took audiences to an alien planet for the whole film) leaving Oa for a sequel might have been a wiser move.

Naturally, this won’t stand – Hal has to go to Oa because ‘that’s how it happened in the comics’ – and while fidelity to the source material is usually used as a benchmark of quality for comic book adaptations, Green Lantern is another example to stand alongside Watchmen that sometimes throwing the comic onscreen note-for-note isn’t the best idea. While the film draws massively from the recent run overseen by comics writer Geoff Johns, Green Lantern itself has been around in one form or another since 1940 (with the Hal Jordan iteration of the mythos debuting in 1959), meaning that over the years it’s ended up as a rather odd mish-mash of different concepts from different decades, many of which sit rather weirdly together when thrown into live-action. Most notably, there’s the GL costume’s slightly ludicrous domino mask, which only really works in the scene where the film deliberately mocks it, along with the deeply silly Green Lantern Corps’ poetic oath (Would any modern screenwriter in their right mind attempt to pitch “Yeah! He’s a cop from space… and he also does poetry!”?), and the fact that one of the main characters (who also sports a not-in-any-way-villainous forties moustache and pointy eyebrows) is given the “Honest, there’s no chance of me turning evil” name of Sinestro.

Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds 2011The end result is an occasionally head-scratching pot-pourri of influences, and the film’s solution to this potential problem is to simply throw it all  onscreen and hope for the best. While it captures the general pacing and structure of a Geoff Johns comic well (even down to the exposition-heavy opening), all it proves is that the kind of pacing and storytelling that works in superhero comics often falls flat on the big screen. The film’s story simply consists of important character moments without any of the connective tissue that actually makes it feel like a movie. Things seem to just happen, characters are moved around with little to no logic (especially when Hal heroically bursts into a room at one point for absolutely no reason), plot arcs are introduced and then abandoned (such as Hal’s family, who are given a fairly major introduction in the first fifteen minutes and then never seen again), while even the mid-credits Marvel-style ‘teaser’ scene, obviously inserted to whet the appetite for a potential sequel, instead blows the film’s most interesting character arc out of the water and simply seems to happen because, well, that’s what happened in the comics.

Maybe with a different director, the film could have been sharper – after all, Martin Campbell is a really weird choice for a CGI-fest, with his background being in executing practical action on a grand scale in films like Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While he does pull off a couple of good-looking sequences, he simply can’t bring the film to life and fails to give it the sense of wonder and involvement it needs. But then, he’s saddled with a weak screenplay full of clunky and uninspired dialogue that any filmmaker probably would have struggled with. The cast largely do their best – after being apparently considered for every single superhero role going, Ryan Reynolds gives a confident lead performance, although he’s much better at the cocky arrogance than the mopey soul-searching, and Peter Sarsgaard makes a serious attempt to do something kooky with his villainous role, even though even he can’t make a low-rent telepath with gigantism into a convincing adversary.

There’s also excellent work from Mark Strong as Sinestro, although Blake Lively is rather flat and wooden as Carol Ferris, while both Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins are reduced to looking slightly embarrassed in extended cameos. Nobody’s exactly dreadful – Green Lantern isn’t interesting enough for that; it aims squarely in the middle of the road, and what we get is a perfunctory superhero origin, with all the character moments marked in triplicate for those not paying attention. There’s the potential for a good film here, but so much is lazily underdeveloped (like the conflict between Hal and Hector Hammond over Carol Ferris, which barely gets mentioned for half the movie before suddenly becoming a vital plot point) that once again, DC has been left in the dust by Marvel.

Ultimately, a live-action Green Lantern seems like a flawed prospect from the get-go – it’s a concept that would play much better in animation (reducing some of the budget problems, and enabling the ‘unlimited imagination’ of the ring constructs to really cut loose), and simply feels constrained by the limits of how much this kind of photo-real CG animation costs. An Incredibles-style CG cartoon could, in theory, be a brilliant idea, and the mix of tones in the GL mythos would play much better if it was slightly stylised, but of course, live-action is what the market demands, and that’s what it gets. Of course, a continuation of the franchise isn’t impossible, and it seems like Green Lantern will eventually turn a profit – but on the current form, it’ll have to do a hell of a lot better on its second movie if it isn’t simply going to be written off as yet another cinematic superhero misfire.

The Verdict: A superhero blockbuster that will leave fans of the comic delighted and everyone else wondering what the hell just happened, Green Lantern is not the death knell of superhero movies, or an absolute celluloid disaster. It’s just a misconceived and poorly executed romp that falls a long way short of equalling any of the decent and entertaining superhero flicks in the last ten years.

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