Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Tamara Drewe Review

Look at the posters for Stephen Frears’ latest release Tamara Drewe, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it looked like an air-headed Bridget Jones-esque British comedy, perhaps funny but shallow and cheesy.

Hopefully this won’t put people off what is actually a much darker, satisfying and well-rounded film than first appears.

Frears has an excellent track record in his genre-hopping, consistently high quality career, winning over audiences and critics with the likes of High Fidelity and The Queen. Here, he takes on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, based loosely upon Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, telling the story of the titular journalist who returns to her childhood home in the picturesque Dorset countryside, and becomes the epicentre of an increasingly twisting series of affairs and betrayals.

Tamara Drewe is a darker-than-expected treat, with a wonderfully mischievous tone. The characters are bewildered pawns manipulated over the plot, and the generally satirical comedy mocks pretentious authors and vacuous rock stars. It’s all extremely British.

It’s extremely satisfying to sit back and watch as the characters become evermore entangled as the plot moves further and further into farce. Overhanging all proceedings creeps a slightly uncomfortable feeling that soon everything will go horribly wrong.

Frears treads the line between comedy and drama finely, and whilst at times Tamara Drewe is very funny (mixing big laughs and a few smirks and giggles), it is also very affecting due to some fantastic performances. Tamsin Greig is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon housewife who creates her own idyllic countryside writer’s retreat but is constantly battered down by her husband’s (Roger Allam) infidelity and smarmy ego. Allam is excellent as the supremely vile Nick, while Bill Camp brings considerable heart in his well-judged, understated role as an American scholar with self esteem issues.

Also highly notable are Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie as the two roguish schoolgirls who, through the sheer boredom of living in the dull, sleepy village Ewedown end up scheming and causing trouble that begins innocently enough, but snowballs to a dangerous level. Barden is truly hilarious – audiences may recognise her as a former cast member of Corrie, and her counterpart Christie, a complete newcomer, is also extremely funny.

All these supporting characters mean that, strangely enough, it is Arterton’s lead role that occasionally feels underdeveloped. Tamara’s motivations are difficult to uncover, and that’s partly the point – as a woman she has reinvented herself, but she suffers an identity crisis as a result. However, there is rarely any alone time with the character for the audience to get into her head, though Arterton does a great job with what she’s given in a much more interesting role than those she played in Price of Persia and Clash of the Titans.

Tamara Drewe is a smart, sophisiticated and genuinely funny British film that deserves your seven quid, and even holds up on repeat viewings. Don’t expect it to be overly frothy - embrace its moments of darkness and enjoy.

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

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Knight and Day Review

Summer blockbuster action-comedy Knight and Day brings with it the opportunity to reassure yourself that megastar Tom Cruise hasn’t yet gone completely off the rails. Sure, he looks a tad wild-eyed here or there, but his manic energy mainly serves in favour of his character, the mysterious Roy Miller.

The script sees Miller on the run from an imposing government agency, unwittingly involving Cameron Diaz’s June Havens in a convoluted plot of espionage, nerds and lots of ‘Stuff Blowing Up’.

The audience’s indecision over whether Roy is totally crazy or just a misunderstood good guy is a curious case of life imitating art. Or vice versa. It’s hard to tell which.

Either way, it’s great to see Cruise having fun again after the disappointing Nazi-thriller Valkyrie and his downright bizarre and somewhat cringeworthy cameo in Tropic Thunder.

His roguish, knowing smile complements the screenplay’s sharp one-liners and excessive nature of the increasingly over-the-top destruction. The performance goes some way to save Cruise’s downward spiral and reminds everyone why he’s such a star in the first place.

Diaz does her standard ‘kooky’ act as a bright, yet ditzy girl-next-door type, with a superior knowledge about cars and engines thanks to her father. Whilst it’s a clunky aspect of the character, it’s nice that she’s not a totally clueless blonde, and she gets to do her fair share of the action set-pieces.

Whilst Diaz has done this sort of thing many times before, she’s very likeable and easy to watch in an act that she’s become well adjusted to over the years.

The action sequences are well orchestrated and great fun to watch, though are sometimes marred by poor CGI, particularly in a sequence involving a herd of bulls. However, many of the practical effects could put a grin on even the stoniest of faces such as Roy leaping and clinging onto the bonnet of a car June is driving. A desert island scene is as thrilling as it is loud, with lots of ‘Stuff Blowing Up’. Each set piece is grounded by Diaz’s likability and Cruise’s star power.

Whilst the action is enjoyable and exciting, the plot suffers considerably. It’s fairly all over the place, with an under-whelming McGuffin and little sense of danger. Whilst this isn’t the most important aspect of film, with the action and stars being top billing, some intelligence and coherence wouldn’t have gone amiss. The film title also makes absolutely no sense, and is never alluded to in the script.

There’s also the problem of a plot device in which characters are drugged, and we see clips through their eyes as they wake up momentarily during intense action sequences. The first time used, it’s quite funny, but the more frequently it occurs, you begin to feel like you’re missing out on some of the more exciting scenes of mayhem.

In all, it doesn’t matter that Knight and Day’s idea of being a spy is to cause as much wreckage as possible. It’s loud, noisy fun, and whilst nothing special, it does ‘Stuff Blowing Up’ very well in stunning locations, and it’s refreshing to have a blockbuster during the Summer that isn’t a sequel, remake or comic book adaptation.

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

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The A-Team Review

During one of the central action set-pieces in the movie update of 80’s action TV show The A-Team, there is a scenario in which, through an increasingly ridiculous chain of events, a tank complete with parachutes crashes through the sky towards Earth, machine guns rattling and rocket launcher booming as they fire against an enemy plane.
“Are they trying to shoot down the other drone?”, asks one character.
“No, they’re trying to fly that tank”, comes the reply.

If you think that sounds intensely silly, then you would most probably be right. If you think that sounds rubbish, then you’re probably better off leaving The A-Team unwatched and going and seeing Inception again.

While the characters, the theme tune and the catch-phrases from the A-Team are all undoubtedly iconic, I must confess that I am too young to remember the original show myself, and so for this review I am forced to focus mainly upon the film itself.

From the offset, the tone and aim of the A-Team is made very clear. It is here to entertain you, make you grin, laugh, and wonder if it will get any more outlandish. As Bradley Cooper’s Faceman says to his leader,
“This is beyond nuts, boss!”
“It gets better”, responds Liam Neeson’s Hannibal.

The camaraderie and snappy back-and-forth remarks between the characters is both fun and witty, each personality played well and knowingly by the cast.

When it comes to the action though, which is suitably over the top, there is much less of a tongue-in-cheek vibe. This is a legitimate action film, and is often genuinely exciting, just set in a world where nothing is seen as being ‘too ridiculous’.

The script retains the character identities of the original team, such as B.A’s fear of flying, Face’s womanising ways and Hannibal’s pride of his men.

Sharlto Copley in particular, who was fantastic in last summer’s brilliant sci-fi District 9, is great fun as Howlin’ Mad Murdock. Quinton Jackson’s B.A retains his catchphrases and character traits, but sadly isn’t given much to do or much time to develop, but Bradley Cooper is obviously having a ball and Neeson admirably enters into the spirit of the whole thing.

While it’s all thoroughly enjoyable and ridiculous, the movie isn’t without its problems. For such a simple film, the plot is needlessly convoluted, and it can be hard to keep up with who is betraying who. These betrayals are never big twists, begging the question as to why they’re there at all. The A-Team is at its most enjoyable in its opening hour, when it’s at its most straight-forward, particularly in a great pre-credits sequence.

Another problem is the CGI. Special effects are ever-improving, with most of Avatar being almost photo-realistic, but lots of its usage in the A-Team is obvious and sometimes takes you out of the moment when you should be just sitting and enjoying the carnage. It also means that at times there’s little tension. If the audience doesn’t believe that actions onscreen are actually happening, its easy to find yourself thinking that the characters are never really in any danger.

However, this shouldn’t stop people from going to see it. The A-Team is ridiculous, over the top, but surprisingly enjoyable, and it makes absolutely no apologies for that. At its most fun, it’s hard to argue as Hannibal claims that “overkill is under-rated”. With a disengaged brain, its very entertaining. But anyone going expecting substance? I pity the fool.

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

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Rebound Review

Last year, a film called (500) Days of Summer found its way onto cinema screens. It was a refreshing, honest, stylistic take on the romantic comedy genre, both innovative and modern.

Now comes The Rebound, a new rom-com starring Catherine Zeta Jones. The Rebound likes to think it is refreshing and honest. It sees itself as modern, as being something different in the rom-com market. But it isn’t. It’s a confused, lazy and unfunny mess.

It’s telling of the so-called ‘comedy’ that the funniest thing about the film is the irony of Catherine Zeta Jones dating somebody who is actually 20 years younger than her.

Sandy is a 40-something stay-at-home mother living in the suburbs of New York. When she realises her husband is cheating on her, she promptly ups and leaves, taking the children with her. Setting herself up in the Big City, she quickly gets a decent job at a sports news station and an apartment (what, no recession?), complete with a cute guy in his 20s who works in the coffee shop below. Said cute guy, Aram, ends up babysitting for Sandy’s kids, and then...
Well, you can guess what happens from there.

Catherine Zeta Jones is serviceable enough in her role, though she is fairly bland throughout. However, Justin Bartha, playing Aram, is dreadfully one-note, with all his lines delivered in the same monotonous drawl. His part could have been played to similar effect by a robot, or Spock. No emotion necessary.

Then there’s the problem of the jokes. Simply put, The Rebound just isn’t very funny. There are a couple of smiles and the odd chuckle, but nothing close enough to constitute a laugh.

The film veers wildly in tone, with several moments of averagely-done serious drama, punctuated by odd gross-out gags. Most of the jokes are completely random, deriving neither from plot or character, and seemingly tacked on. Those that are character driven aren’t funny, including a cringe-worthy scene in a Women’s Center. A woman beating up a man dressed as a sumo-wrestler? Not particularly amusing. The worst part is that, in context, this could have been a genuinely dramatic and emotional moment.

Halfway through, the jokes run out, and the film becomes more of a straight middle-of-the-road drama. And whilst that means it’s a slight improvement on what’s come before, it’s too little too late.

The ending of the film also presents a problem, with the very last seconds contradicting the 15 minutes which precede it. With events moving back to a more realistic area in this section, though providing none of the emotional heft that it thinks it does, the final shots return to the fantastical romantic ideal that it seemed to have left behind, which just left me thinking: what was the point?

To watch a truly modern and innovative romance, do yourself a favour and spend your £7 on a copy of (500) Days of Summer or Once instead of this mess.

Entertainment Value: 2/5
Genre Value: 2/5
Style: 1.5/5
Overall Rating: 2/5

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Karate Kid (2010) Review

The latest film to get the Hollywood re-make treatment is 80s classic The Karate Kid. Here the story remains the same; bullied kid finds a mentor in a strange old Asian man, learns karate and faces his tormenters in a martial arts tournament. But now, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel-San is Jaden (son of Will) Smith’s Shao-Dre, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi is Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han, and California has been substituted for Beijing. Oh, and it’s not Karate anymore. It’s Kung Fu.

As the opening credits roll, with hip-hop beats blaring from the speakers, it’s clear that this is most definitely an update for a modern audience. I doubted whether a remake of the original would work two decades later - after all, it is very much a film of its time, with its fun, but cheesy and over-the-top appeal. Add to that the hair, the fashion and the music, and it’s difficult to imagine the film being set at any other time than 80s America.

However, the new version triumphs in truly retaining the spirit and charm of its predecessor. The relocation to China works surprisingly well, and serves to distinguish the film, giving it a different identity to the original. The city of Beijing, though being a typically tourists-eye view (characters visit the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City), is represented as being culturally diverse, and the scenery is often absolutely stunning.

Jaden Smith makes for an excellent Dre, clearly inheriting the acting skills and charm of his father. He retains believability as the kid forced to move from his home, friends and comfortable surroundings to a new life in China. His physicality is also extremely impressive - he has clearly worked hard for the role, performing many of his own stunts. When you see him balancing on poles whilst doing the splits, or high-kicking, or sweeping legs, that’s really him. Jacket on, jacket off, indeed.

Surprisingly excellent also is Jackie Chan as Dre’s unlikely mentor, Mr. Han. After a few years of taking roles in children’s comedies, its nice to see Chan back doing some martial arts work in one particularly thrilling sequence, protecting Dre from the group of youths intent on making his life a misery. Yet it is in his acting that Chan really impresses, portraying the sadness of Mr. Han’s past whilst still making him a fun and motivational character.

Parents should be advised that the darkness of this back-story may be distressing for younger children, as could some of the fights, which are surprisingly fierce at times.

As in the original, the film climaxes in a genuinely exciting Kung Fu tournament, with some well-choreographed action and a dramatically satisfying conclusion.

Running at almost two and a half hours, The Karate Kid needs to lose twenty minutes. Though the film never drags, a touch more editing would have resulted in a tighter and more sprightly finishing product. Some of the character introductions are fairly clunky, and the story is generally pretty predictable.

Despite this, the new Karate Kid succeeds because it knows what it is - a drama, with some comedic moments and cool fights. It’s a well known story, simply told, and is different enough to the original to retain a sense of identity but without doing it a disservice. It doesn’t condescend, nor does it think too highly of itself, but, crucially, it does entertain.

Entertainment Value: 4/5
Genre Value: 4/5

Style: 3/5
Overall Rating: 3.5/5