Thursday, 14 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Review

Fourteen years ago, JK Rowling released the first book in the saga of boy wizard Harry Potter. Six more novels, three spin-off books, fifteen billion dollars-plus of merchandise, a successful film franchise and a theme park later, the final milestone in the chronicles of Harry Potter is here. As the marketing campaign for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 will be quick to remind you: It All Ends.

Has a film ever had such a weight of anticipation laid upon its shoulders? Much like those laid upon Harry himself in this final chapter, the expectations on this concluding segment are almost insurmountable. As the culmination of years and years of build-up, backstory and character development it’s fair to say – this is one of the biggest cinema blockbuster events in history.

Watching the final Harry Potter film, it seems the producers have assessed the magnitude of this closing chapter and understood the importance of getting it right, before setting it all aside and simply making the most spectacular finale they possibly can. Just as each new film in the series has brought a different genre to the fore (from mystery, to thriller, to political drama and road movie) Deathly Hallows Part 2 is an all-out fantasy war film, with all that entails – notably many casualties.

As the second half of the adaptation of the final book, Deathly Hallows Part 2 picks up directly where Part 1 left off. Harry, Ron and Hermione have ditched Hogwarts, now under the tyrannous rule of Professor Snape, and have gone in search of the seven Horcruxes – fragments of the evil Lord Voldemort’s soul hidden in various objects. All must be destroyed if He Who Shall Not Be Named is to be defeated. However, what these particular objects are and where they’re hidden is unknown. Meanwhile Voldemort’s army is amassing, ready to seize Hogwarts in a full-on battle that will inevitably lead to the final showdown between the Dark Lord and the Boy Who Lived. If that wasn’t enough, Harry’s also keeping his eyes peeled for the three mythical Deathly Hallows, said to render the owner ‘Master of Death’. Are the Hallows real? And if so, how can Harry possibly find them?

If the majority of that previous paragraph left you feeling like a Muggle lost in the middle of Diagon Alley, then you’d better brush up on your Potter-lore before apparating your way into the cinema. By this point, it’s assumed that you’re either in or you’re out – even for those who might have forgotten a few of the finer details of Deathly Hallows Part 1, a catch-up DVD session is recommended. Part 2 wastes none of its running time in re-acquainting the audience with the wizarding world before heading straight from a muted few minutes of reflection at Shell Cottage to a magnificent break-in at Gringotts bank.

In terms of spectacle, Deathly Hallows Part 2 delivers all of the action beats that audiences have been waiting for. Since Order of the Phoenix, the promise of no-holds-barred wizard duelling has been teased, and when the Battle of Hogwarts comes around it is genuinely stunning. The special effects are absolutely magnificent. As spells are cast back and forth, the universe feels real, inclusive and natural, whilst still being visually striking. The battle is on an absolutely epic scale with Giants, Acromantula and Dementors also entering the fray. Also brilliant is the sequence in Bellatrix Lestrange’s Gringotts vault, where every valuable object touched immediately explodes into multiple identical copies of itself.

However, all of the flashy style would mean nothing if the characters weren’t ones you root for desperately – this is, after all, no Transformers 3. Over the course of the series, the relationship built between the audience and these now iconic characters is such that the sense of finality in Death Hallows Part 2 brings an emotional load to Harry Potter like no other instalment before it. You’ll marvel as you finally see Mrs McGonagall finally display her considerable magical talents, cheer as Mrs Weasley gets her Ripley-in-Aliens moment, and no doubt you’ll shed a tear as a few well-loved faces meet an unfortunate end. The sequence which at last clarifies Snape’s allegiances, one of the stand-out moments of the books, is beautiful here and without doubt the most tear-jerking few minutes of the entire saga. Alan Rickman’s performance is superlative as ever, and this swansong of his character is simply magnificent. When the climactic showdown between Harry and Voldemort comes around, it doesn’t disappoint, and that’s due as much to the emotional build-up as the waving of wands.

Inevitably, moments from the book are missed out, and in order to find a through line in Rowling’s lengthy tome the narrative predominantly follows Harry. You wouldn’t say this about many other Potter films, but at times there’s a feeling that Deathly Hallows Part 2 could have been a little longer, and the battle might have benefitted slightly from taking more time to show the duelling between other wizards in Hogwarts rather than mainly following the titular character. The plot also at times suffers from having too many MacGuffins, and ironically the Hallows themselves are sidelined in the wider scheme of searching for, and destroying, the Horcruxes.

Like the book it’s adapted from, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 isn’t perfect. However, it is a rousing, thrilling and emotional farewell to a generational icon and without a doubt one of the very best films in the series. Over the past four films, director David Yates has successfully concluded a magnificent fantasy epic that lives up to, without surpassing, JK Rowling’s novels. The final scene, an opinion-splitter which actually works much better on film, provides closure on this integral part of the childhoods of many; for those who grew up with the series, the tale of Harry Potter is over and is ready to be passed onto a new generation. Throughout the eight films, the Harry Potter series will crucially be remembered as one which never forgot about thing in particular: the sheer joyous, childlike wonder and spectacle of magic.

Entertainment Value: 4/5
Genre Value: 4.5/5
Style: 4/5
Overall Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Thor Review

With audiences already well acquainted with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios bring two more characters from their roster of iconic heroes to the big screen this Summer, all whilst counting down the time until the release of their gargantuan super-powered team-up epic The Avengers next year. Whilst the release of Captain America: The First Avenger is still a few weeks away, the potentially difficult Thor marks the first true blockbuster of the Summer.

Of all the projects under Marvel Studios so far, Thor could easily have gone very wrong. Audiences are now completely desensitised to the standard ‘scientific-experiment-gone-wrong’ origin story of the majority of superheroes, and science-fiction in comic book films is commonplace. Thus, asking viewers to accept a decidedly geekier hero (Iron Man has a weaponised robotic suit, whereas Thor has a magical hammer called Mjolnir), with a setting rooted in Norse mythology alongside the aforementioned previously established heroes is a very different matter indeed. Luckily, Thor is a surging jolt of entertainment that may well rank as the Studio’s best effort yet.

In the realm of Asgard, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) readies his first-born son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to ascend to the throne, ahead of jealous younger brother Loki. When a security breach from ancient adversaries the Frost Giants halts the ceremony midway through, a rash and impulsive Thor retaliates, leading to his banishment from Asgard to present day Earth, where he finds an ally in scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

A particularly brave and inspired decision from Marvel was the choice of Kenneth Branagh to direct – the story, taking in sibling rivalry, betrayal and throne-envy, is aptly Shakespearean, and Branagh devotes enough time on character development to ensure that when the numerous action scenes arrive, which they most certainly do, you’ll genuinely care about the outcome. Luckily, he also knows how to direct a battle sequence or two – they are incredibly exciting, with an interesting variation on the same old superpowers we’re used to seeing. A particular highlight comes early on in a pulse-pounding fight between Thor and several Frost Giants.

Most impressively though, Branagh maintains a perfect tone throughout. Thor takes itself seriously when it needs to - you’ll invest in the characters, marvel at the breathtaking action sequences and be drawn into some of the weightier plot points. Yet its tongue is firmly in cheek when it wants to be, and the whole thing is tremendous fun. With several moments of well-judged laugh-out-loud humour, often courtesy of Sif and the Warriors Three, Thor is a film aware of its own potential silliness, and so never lets the grandiose scale of Asgard become laughably portentous.

In terms of scale, Thor feels huge - in the Marvel universe, it doesn’t get much more epic than Asgard and the Nine Realms, and the gorgeous art direction provides a truly otherworldly feel to proceedings.

In the lead role, newcomer Chris Hemsworth is extremely impressive, displaying not only gigantic biceps but decent acting chops, excellent comic timing and considerable charm that should see his Hollywood profile skyrocket. Portman takes it easy after her intense, jaw-dropping role in Black Swan, while Kat Dennings still proves to be an extremely watchable screen presence. Hopkins brings gravitas to the paternal Odin, whilst Idris Elba proves internet forum naysayers wrong as “Guardian of Worlds” Heimdall.

Those looking for tidbits and nods to Captain America and The Avengers will be glad to note the presence of SHIELD and brief appearance of Hawkeye, and, as ever with comic book films, be sure to catch the post-credits sequence.

In almost every way (except the poor 3D conversion, don’t bother), Thor is a triumph. It’s a loving adaptation of the comics, surprisingly accessible to mainstream audiences whilst also catering to the geek crowd. It looks fantastic, the action is exhilarating, and it has a funny and charming lead performance from Hemsworth. Yes, some may argue that Thor is merely a stepping stone to a much larger forthcoming cinematic event, but even if that is the case, it’s so damn entertaining that you won’t care while you’re watching it.

Entertainment Value: 4.5/5
Genre Value: 4/5
Style: 3.5/5
Overall Rating: 4/5

Monday, 28 March 2011


For many cinemagoers, they’re the bane of seeing a film on the big screen. Noisy popcorn bags, twitchy-fingered teens texting and tweeting, screaming kids, over-priced food, and, particularly in recent months, THOSE terrible Orange ads.

Yes, visiting your local multiplex can be an experience that’s often more traumatic than cinematic. Whether it’s a case of a disruptive audience, unhelpful staff, or projection errors, the majority of my recent visits to the local multiplex have been riddled with unfortunate incidents.

Take, for instance, the time I saw Tarantino’s exceptional Inglourious Basterds at my local Showcase – during the first five minutes of the terrifically tense opening scene the projector was set to the wrong aspect ratio. Not only did every character look as stick-thin as Victoria Beckham, but the subtitles were cropped off at the bottom. When the staff finally realised, no apology was made and the film was not restarted. Since then, subsequent trips to that particular establishment have included dodgy sound and rattling air conditioning which rendered the screening an almost unbearable arctic fortress.

In trying to cut down costs, there often seems to be a bare minimum amount of staff on the premises, with no proper projectionists and no-one keeping an eye on screenings to make sure everything’s running smoothly. That said, in the current economic climate, it’s understandable to try and keep outgoing costs low, but is it really worth it at the expense of your customer’s satisfaction?

Worrying also is the increasing price of cinema ticket, which has risen to a standard cost of about £7 outside London. It’s all very well when you can get a £5 student ticket, but once that luxury’s gone, it’s going to be ridiculously expensive to go and see the latest releases, particularly if they’re only released in money-grabbing 3D.

Unsatisfactory multiplex experiences are not always the cinema’s fault however. More often than not, the worst part of visiting your big local chain is the rest of the audience. Sometimes it can be moderately amusing - case in point, my trip to see 127 Hours. As a large group of chavs settled on the row behind me, I immediately thought: these guys are going to be problematic. It was a few minutes before one of them turned to the others and asked “What is this film again?”

This, ladies and gentlemen, boggled my mind. Has the cinema really become just a place to hang out that happens to have moving colours and shapes projected onto a screen in the background? It increasingly feels that way. As the conversation continued, during which one of the group claimed that their dad’s best mate “literally has the word ‘dick’ tattooed on his forehead!”, another explained that they’d come to see “127 Hours! It’s about this dude who has to cut his arm off!” A bare-bones description, perhaps, but a somewhat humorously accurate one all the same.

Luckily, this encounter was during the fifteen minutes-plus of adverts that seems to precede every big release nowadays. What I really can’t stand is talking while the film is actually on. That, and getting your phone out, are the real big no-nos of cinema etiquette. Maybe if we all followed Mark Kermode’s Wittertainment Moviegoers Code of Conduct , the local multiplex would be a better place to be for us all.

For all that’s bad about multiplexes however, they’re a necessary evil. Don’t blame the local Empire for showing Big Momma’s House 3 instead of something actually, y’know, good – blame your peers for paying to see Big Momma’s House 1 and 2 in the first place. I’m sure many cinema chains wish they could show interesting, thought-provoking films as opposed to the same old recycled tat. And whilst independent and arthouse cinemas such as Newcastle’s wonderful Tynside Cinema offer generally a much better quality of service, where else are you going to be able to see The First Avenger: Captain America, or Cowboys and Aliens or the latest guilty-pleasure Jason Statham vehicle when the time comes than at your multiplex? They may not offer the most preferable cinema experience, but, let’s face it: the audience and the industry would be pretty stuffed without them.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Drive Angry 3D Review

The chance to watch Nicolas Cage donning yet another bizarrely terrible wig is one that cinemagoers shouldn’t pass up lightly. When you see that he’ll be co-starring with yet another toupee in a film called Drive Angry, presented in 3D? Well, to say no would be foolish.

First things first – Drive Angry 3D was obviously never going to be, and never aimed to be, an Oscar winner. But if there’s one thing in particular you can take from the film, it’s that it takes a trashy, silly, frankly ridiculous idea and takes it to every trashy, silly and frankly ridiculous conclusion you could wish for. The key to its moderate success is in this self-consciousness which acts as an ultimatum to the audience: go along for the ride, or stay well away.

Cage plays John Milton (yes, really), a dead man who has inexplicably escaped from Hell in order to avenge the death of his daughter and save the life of his baby granddaughter, who has been kidnapped for sacrificial purposes by a Satanist cult. In 3D. Along the way, Milton picks up a walking pair of gratuitously tiny hotpants (Amber Heard), and is pursued by the mysterious Accountant, a scene-stealing William Fichtner.

For what it is, Drive Angry is surprisingly good. Directed by Patrick Lussier, also behind fun horror My Bloody Valentine 3D, the film is a welcome blast of tongue-in-cheek excess after Oscar season. There’s everything you’d expect from a grindhouse project – little-to-no character development, copious nudity, gore and violence, as well as frequent knowing nods to the audience. Fichtner devours the scenery, while Heard is feisty and always watchable.

Cage’s performance is downright bizarre, which perhaps may just be the perfect thing for a film this mad. Whether he’s standing round mechanically, staring blankly at fires, drinking beer from a skull, or spewing out dialogue in monotone, it’s another chance to see how weird Cage can be at times. It’s also kind of entrancing – you literally have no idea what he’s going to do next.

If you enjoyed the likes of Machete and Planet Terror, there’s a decent chance that there’s at least something you’ll enjoy in Drive Angry 3D, with the eye-gouging nature of the 3D effects being particularly appropriate for the exploitative nature of the genre. If this is your sort of thing, it’ll be one of the most fun cinema experiences you’ve had in ages, otherwise avoid.

Drive Angry 3D is as crazy, unnatural and improbable as Cage’s wig, but it’s also loads of fun. There’s a scene featuring Cage having sex with a woman during a gunfight – cigar in mouth, gun in one hand, bottle of JD in the other. If that sounds like insane genius to you, see it.

Entertainment Value: 3.5/5
Genre Value: 4/5
Style: 2/5
Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Fighter Review

As the Oscar season gets well under way, the nominations are overdue a sports movie. Triumph over adversity, crowd-pleasing finales and the chance for an actor to physically transform themselves are often lapped up by voters, and there's a strong chance The Fighter could perform well come the end of February.

In the sports genre, the main problem can be that clich├ęs are pretty much unavoidable. Most of the available narrative paths, even the moderately unconventional ones, have been trodden many times. With The Fighter, chances are you'll know where it's headed.

Yet that doesn't mean it isn't an enjoyable journey getting there. The film centres around the true story of boxer Micky Ward who tries to boost his career just as his crack-smoking brother Dicky, also a boxer, falls further into addiction and further away from his former glory days. With an expansive and controlling family, Micky may be forced to abandon his dependant brother to succeed.

The Fighter is dominated by a series of brilliant performances. Much has been made of Christian Bale's depiction of Dicky, and he is genuinely astonishing. Having lost considerable weight from his bulked-up Batman physique, Bale is simultaneously gaunt yet wide-eyed, funny and goofy, but also deeply saddening. As he slides evermore into his destructive addiction, the waste of Dicky's potential is deeply felt. It's an extremely physical role, and a complete departure from Bale's previous roles.

Amy Adams plays it tough and feisty as Micky's barmaid girlfriend, who opposes his hilariously defensive and devoted sisters, whilst Melissa Leo is excellent as Micky's mother and manager, convinced that being completely dedicated to family is a professional managerial style.

However, Mark Wahlberg is also fantastic as the calm, focused and weary eye of the surrounding tumultuous storm, completely grounding the film when it's in danger of focusing on too many larger-than-life characters. His Micky grants viewers a relatable pathway into the unfolding drama.

The boxing sequences, mostly in the film's second half, are gritty and realistic, well-choreographed and genuinely exciting. Wahlberg excels physically in these scenes, and adds emotion and humanity to the spectacle.

While The Fighter is full of excellent performances and is well made and interesting, it's difficult to become particularly involved in it. You'll sympathise with the characters, you'll marvel at Bale's exceptional performance, and enjoy the visceral fights, but it's not as heart-wrenching or moving as you might expect it to be, never making the leap from being simply a great film to a modern classic.

The Fighter doesn't offer much particularly new, but it is a great example of the boxing sub-genre. The final fight comes off as slightly underwhelming, but it's a solid and enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, with excellent acting and a fun soundtrack.

Entertainment Value: 4/5
Genre Value: 4/5
Style: 4.5/5
Overall Rating: 4/5

Brighton Rock Review

After an acclaimed turn in the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Sam Riley leads an all-star British cast in a remake of the classic Brit-noir Brighton Rock as the iconic Pinkie, a violent young man struggling to make a name for himself in Brighton's criminal underworld.

When complications arise in a murder Pinkie carries out, he is forced to gain the sympathy of innocent bystander Rose, who holds circumstantial evidence of the crime.

Based upon Graham Greene's classic novel, Rowan Joffe's new adaptation shifts the drama from the 1930s to the context of the 60s mods and rockers conflict. While this accounts for an exciting central set piece, the decision seems somewhat superficial, not particularly adding much in terms of plot or themes.

The mods' and rockers' rivalry deserves better treatment, which would seem out of place within Brighton Rock's narrative.

However, Joffe's version begins promisingly – an ominous soundtrack, gloomy lighting and gorgeous cinematography set a menacing mood and the convoluted series of events that results in Pinkie and Rose's unlikely pairing is well orchestrated.

The problems arise in a flabby mid-section. Posters for the film boast of performances from Helen Mirren and John Hurt, yet Mirren's work as Ida, Rose's boss who is determined to get to the bottom of Pinkie's crime, feels disappointingly lazy and bland. Hurt has little to do except sit around and look concerned at the state of Brighton's crumbling society.

The biggest trouble with Brighton Rock is in the central relationship between Pinkie and Rose. The performances are excellent – Riley is brooding, with an undercurrent of fear and sadness, and Andrea Riseborough is absolutely brilliant as Rose, the troubled, beating heart of a film in desperate need of one.

However the script never gives the audience a reason to believe in the budding almost-romance between the pair. Pinkie is, frankly, a thoroughly unlikeable character, and it becomes difficult not to question quite why Rose remains so devoted to him.

The best antiheroes give you a reason to root for them even though you know you shouldn't really, but Joffe's screenplay never allows for this.

That said, Brighton Rock is worth a viewing. The film recovers slightly in its final act, with a dark and involving conclusion. It also looks beautiful – even though the 60s setting doesn't really work, the costumes and sets are fantastically realised, and the sweeping cinematography is striking. But there is always an annoying sense that Brighton Rock should be better than it actually is, and it's a feeling that's even harder to shake once you've left the cinema.

Entertainment Value: 2.5/5
Genre Value: 3/5
Style: 3.5/5
Overall Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Black Swan Review

After the absolute knock-out that was The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky returns, having eschewed the violent but achingly sad story of Randy "The Ram" for the high pressure and dramatic intensity of ballet with Black Swan.

Natalie Portman is Nina, a ballerina who dreams of one day dancing the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She certainly has the skill and precision to play the White Swan, but lacks the roughness and tenacity to portray the character's evil side, the Black Swan. When she is cast in the part, Nina is forced to discover her own inner "Black Swan", driven to, and possibly beyond, the brink of her sanity.

The first hour of Black Swan is excellent – highly atmospheric from the off, with a majestic, heart-pounding opening scene that immediately pulls the audience into the film's dark core. Portman is very impressive, completely believable throughout Nina's personal disintegration, with her initial composure and timidity heightening the character's dramatic fall, piling on the tension. The score is terrifically atmospheric, full of sorrow, foreboding and malice.

While the first two-thirds are certainly extremely well made and performed, it's during the closing 30 minutes that Black Swan ignites with a surge of blazing intensity, becoming an absolute tour-de-force of emotion, eye-popping visuals and sweaty-palmed panic as the genre shifts from drama-thriller to full-blown psychological horror.

Black Swan is completely relentless, with strong elements of Cronenbergian body-horror – it sometimes seems like The Fly with ballet dancers.

However, like the ballet itself, there is an assured epic sweep, a high sense of grandeur – Black Swan is a completely sensory experience, melodramatic and overblown. That's a compliment.

Visually, Black Swan is absolutely jaw-dropping, from the costumes and sets of Swan Lake to the choppy editing in a pulse-pounding club scene, which, while totally jarring at first, incidentally becomes one of the standout moments. Aronofsky's trademark use of handheld cameras gives a visceral intimacy to the ballet sequences.

Despite looking at a completely different form of physical performance, strong thematic parallels can be seen between Black Swan and The Wrestler, particularly the fear of becoming obsolete and the bodily risks undertaken by performers. At times the dual imagery of the White and Black Swans is laid on a tad too thickly – mirrors are ever-present, becoming increasingly fragmented as Nina's psyche does, while images of swans, Rorschach blotches and doppelgangers abound, at times a little too obviously.

However, this is a sole and slight criticism of a genuinely astonishing film. Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis turn in strong performances, but this is Portman's show. The roaring power of Black Swan's denouement will leave audiences breathless, terrified and ultimately speechless, with a spine-chilling, heart-stopping conclusion that lingers long in the memory. Black Swan is a highly deserving awards contender that needs to be seen in the cinema, and offers as much to the horror crowd as it does to ballet fans.

Entertainment Value: 5/5
Genre Value: 5/5
Style: 4.5/5
Overall Rating: 5/5