Saturday 27 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Welcome Back Mr. Bond.

50 years. 23 films. 007. Skyfall - the newest outing for the world's most iconic secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) - marks a landmark achievement in film history, with the franchise spanning over five decades and still going strong; so no pressure then Mr. Bond! In Skyfall, Bond's loyalty to M (Dame Judy Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

After 50 years of film history, what is about Bond that makes him so well renowned and enjoyed globally? How is the franchise as relevant today as it was back when Sean Connery first donned the iconic tuxedo in Dr. No? At the centre of each and every Bond film lays the heart and soul of what makes essential mainstream cinema. It's the excitement of escaping into extraordinary world of action and adventure that breaks away from the everyday norm. It's the exotic locations that allow us to see the world's most inspiring locations that we ourselves can't see. It's the glamour and elegance of the expensive cars, gadgets, suits and dresses that allow us to peak into the high life. It's the taboo of having a brief erotic relationship. It's about dreaming of a life that whilst unrealistic isn't entirely implausible, and being able to experience the things that you've always dreamt of. Whilst cinema and the Bond franchise have evolved and changed over time to meet contemporary themes, issues, fears and desires, the essence of every Bond film is timeless, and the pure essence of escapist mainstream cinema. That's why it worked 50 years ago, and that's why it still works today, as the 23rd Bond film Skyfall proves...

Skyfall - celebrating 50 years of 007.

What director Sam Mendes has done with Skyfall, and the reason that it works so well, is take the original formula that made the franchise so iconic, and bring it back to life. Where the last few Daniel Craig Bond films (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) completely reinvented the franchise from scratch, setting them prior to all of the previous Bond films, Skyfall takes this new style and brings it together with the franchise's origins to bridge the divide between the two; returning to and reusing, whilst reinventing and revitalising the franchise. It's modern and relevant, but a Bond film that could have been made 50 years ago. Skyfall uses all of the best bits of the last 22 Bond films and crafts the ultimate Bond film; a love letter and the perfect birthday present to a franchise that has entertained generations of people.

Sam Mendes, newcomer to the Bond family, has proved that he was in fact the right man for the job, by crafting a beautifully shot film in which the cinematography is flawless. Exotic locations such as Turkey, Shanghai, and even London and Scotland are presented spectacularly and are immersed into the plot through incredibly impressive and non-stop action set pieces that make the film an adrenaline pumping romp of a ride. The sets of Shanghai in particular, with their vivid colours and bright lights are truly remarkable and I imagine almost unbeatable on IMAX. With these scenes shot on location, including through the streets and tubes of London, and part of the opening fight which takes place atop an actual moving train through Turkey (no stunt double - fair play Mr. Craig), filming Skyfall is an incredibly impressive technical feat of filmmaking and more than deserves that recognition.

Beautiful cinematography and impressive action set pieces bring London to life - Bond Style.

Daniel Craig leads the cast once again as 007, an actor who I've always enjoyed in the role and this time if anything he actually feels more comfortable and at home in the role than ever before. This time round he's joined by a mostly new and very impressive cast of British talents who make up the rest of the ensemble in this very character driven film. Dame Judy Dench reprises her role as M in her most influential and involving role in a Bond film to date, and one that largely drives the narrative and emotional core of the film. Young talent Ben Whishaw brings the role of Q - 007's gadget specialising quartermaster - back to the franchise, providing a refreshing performance that helps to bring film back to its roots; as too does Ralph Fiennes who plays government official Gareth Mallory.

When it comes to the Bond girls, Skyfall impressively boasts two; Bérénice Marlohe who portrays the traditional glamorous sex icon in her part as Sévérine, and Naomie Harris who steals a number of scenes as the hard hitting, strong female agent Eve - bringing a nice contrast to the film with both the old and the new representations of women being present as we celebrate 007 in cinema. And of course, perhaps the most important supporting role of all is that of the villain's, who in this case is portrayed superbly by Hispanic actor Javier Bardem who plays Silva. Unlike the disappointing villain in the previous Bond film Quantum of Solace, Bardem's Silva works brilliantly as the unpredictable, haunting, and above all else camp terrorist villain who is as entertaining as he is edgy; a sort of combination of Heath Ledger's Joker (The Dark Knight) and Norman Bates (Psycho), with a little bit of 'the only gay in the village' thrown in for good measure!

Javier Bardem as the camp and villainous Silva.

It's fair to say that there has been an elated sense of national pride in Britain this year, with the Queen's Jubilee early on in the year, then the London Olympics captivating the Summer (at which 007 himself was in attendance), and now you can add a third reason to that list as we celebrate 50 years of 'Bond, James Bond' in the Birthday present tribute that is one of the most entertaining and satisfying films of the year: Skyfall. With a stellar cast of acting talents including a show stealing performance by Javier Bardem, Skyfall is an exciting and entertaining romp that has more laugh out loud moments than some of this year's comedies, a series of incredible action set pieces, impressive and exotic locations, beautifully shot cinematography and a character driven plot that left me shaken and stirred - it was both everything that I wanted it be, and everything that it needed to be. Skyfall travels back to the roots of the franchise to find the heart and soul of the Bond films and in doing so simultaneously discovers the definition and appeal of escapism and mainstream cinema. Skyfall closes an ongoing theme from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, in which Daniel Craig's Bond searches for himself to define who he is and become the man we know and love - ladies and gentlemen, Bond is back!

Verdict: 5/5

Skyfall (certificate 12A) is now showing in cinemas across the UK.

Have you seen Skyfall? Agree or disagree with my review? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Trailer Park: Iron Man 3

The Journey to The Avengers 2 Begins...

"Marvel Studios’ Iron Man 3 pits brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds. When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle*. With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man? Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale with Jon Favreau and Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3 is directed by Shane Black." (*So much love for the use of this pun in the studio's official synopsis!)

It has only been a few months since Robert Downey Jr. last put on his most famous suit by gracing the big screen in Marvel's mega-franchise Avengers Assemble, and just one year on; he's back! As the synopsis and the new trailer released this morning suggest, this seems to be Tony Stark's most personal challenge yet (don't count on him giving his Avengers pals a quick call for help in this one), setting up a film which should be more along the lines of the original Iron Man and deliberately steering away from Iron Man 2; the overcrowded nature of which didn't know whether it wanted to be an Iron Man sequel or an Avengers prequel - sounds good to me!

It looks like the trailer is confirming the rumours about the use of the comic book's Extremis storyline with Stark and the Suit starting to become one - something which should prove to make an interesting twist and really push the character to the limits; which probably explains those foreboding and bleak, snow-ridden shots at the start and end of the trailer. With Ben Kingsley playing comic book villain the Mandarin - who is already resembling something of a Bane-like terrorist in this trailer - this third instalment looks like it should be a solid addition to the Iron Man franchise, and rather promisingly not unlike certain themes and tones from Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy; with a new director, a new style and a new tone, Iron Man 3 is already looking set to kick off Marvel's Phase 2 plan with a bang as it ventures its way down the long road to The Avengers 2...

What do you think? Check out the new trailer below and leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Iron Man 3 is set for release in cinemas across the UK on April 26th 2013.

Are you looking forward to Tony Stark's third installment, or is this iron starting to rust? Will it be a blockbuster or lacklustre? Leave your comments below!

Sunday 14 October 2012

Review: Frankenweenie

Spoiler Alert: the dog dies...

In the small American town of New-Holland, a lonely young boy called Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) lives happily with his parents (voices of Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short) and his canine companion Sparky; that is until Sparky is tragically killed in an untimely accident, leaving Victor alone without his best friend. But inspired by his new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voice of Martin Landau), Victor tests the arguments of nature versus science when he brings his pet dog back to life. With is four-legged friend back, all seems well for Victor, but how will everyone respond to the young boy's actions? And when Victor's classmates are inspired to do the same, could the results turn out to be much more horrific than the inhabitants of New-Holland could ever imagine?...

It's been 7 years since Tim Burton last ventured into stop-motion film making with his 2005 film Corpse Bride, but now he returns to the much-loved medium with Frankenweenie. Adapted from his 1984 short film of the same name, this family horror is a very personal project for Burton; being both something that he's wanted to make for years, and a film that is very close to actually being a biographical piece on Burton's childhood (minus the un-dead dogs and giant monsters of course!). So does it live up to his other stop-motion films? No, not exactly, but it's difficult to compare it to the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas (perhaps his most iconic work), which has far more of a fantasy feel whilst Frankenweenie, which is set in a more realistic human-inhabited world, feels a lot more contemporary. But let's be fair, that's not really a criticism; it'd take a lot to beat The Nightmare Before Christmas...

This retro poster perfectly encapsulates the B Movie Monster Film style that the film evokes.

What we get as an end result from Frankenweenie is a fantastically fun piece of family entertainment that is at times quite scary considering its market (good on ya Burton, kids do need a few scares too from time to time; something that most studios shy away from) - which is a very important factor as the film itself actually works brilliantly as a pastiche of classic monster movies. It's unbelievable how many classic horror films and monster B movies that the film is able to pay homage to within its 87 minute run time - the obvious of course being Mary Shelley's classic gothic story Frankenstein, upon which the main story is inspired. But then there are nods to Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Bride of Frankenstein, Igor, Van Helsing, Gremlins, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Godzilla, and many, many more - part of the fun is trying to find them all! This genre pastiche is executed superbly throughout the entire film, which itself feels like one of the B movie monster films that it is referencing; thanks to the choice to make the film black and white (a brave and highly commendable choice), the stop-motion animation that I'm a huge supporter of (which feels appropriate concerning the monster characters which were often Ray Harryhousen-esque clay creations in the referenced films), and even the use of font which is not unlike that incredibly clichéd font that you'd likely recognise from all of those old B movie horror films and their trailers and posters.

With a name like 'Weird Girl' it's pretty obvious that her parents hated her...

The story itself is a lot of fun, with a number of uniquely Burton-esque characters who are quirky but somewhat relatable to too. One of the stand out characters who is aptly named 'Weird Girl' got a lot of laughs from me and others in the audience, not only because as her name would suggest she's weird, but also because we all know one person from our school classes who was like her (and if you didn't know anyone like her, then I have some bad news for you...). It's also interesting to watch the film in a double bill with the original live-action short film that Burton made in 1984 (which you can watch here), especially to see how Burton has kept a lot of the original film (including many shots which appear identicle) and adapted it for the feature length version which is roughly triple the run time; I do recommend watching this either before or after seeing the film, consider this your homework class...

It's not something that I usually do in my reviews, but in this case I'd like to talk a little bit about 3D for a change! Usually I avoid the matter in all of my reviews as my opinion on the cheap glasses gimmick is always the same: don't bother! I've never found the cheap effect to ever add anything to any films - only to take away, primarily from your wallet - and I actually think that if the big 3D king Avatar was released today in the midst of the 3D run that people wouldn't actually care about it that much, and that it was only a big deal because it was most people's first digital 3D release (watching it through rose tinted glasses - well, grey polarized glasses); and the 3D films are almost always available to watch in 2D anyway. However I feel compelled to mention 3D in this case because you know what; it actually added something this time around. Yes, you heard that correctly; I just said something positive about the inclusion of 3D in a film!

Can Frankenweenie change the way we see 3D? No, you still need those stupid glasses to see it...

Now let's get this cleared up straight off - the 3D effects still don't work, but funnily enough that's why the 3D does actually work in this case! Confused? Bare with me; Frankenweenie is a huge pastiche to the classic horror and B movie monster flicks that Burton grew up with, many of which through their releases, re-releases and numerous sequels actually used the gimmicky blue and red 3D glasses back in the day. You can probably imagine the cheap style monster movie posters and trailers that I'm talking about, and a great deal of effort is put into the film to make Frankenweenie feel like one of those films that it's paying homage to. With that in mind, the fact that I was watching it darkened, ghosting and with very little 3D effect actually felt appropriate; and considering that the first thing that you see in the film is Victor showing his parents a low-budget 3D monster movie that he had made with his toys and Sparky, the addition of those cheap glasses actually felt like they were intended rather than being a studio forced gimmick - working as a Brechtian alienation device to make you realise that you are in fact watching a film that is just like those old 3D B movies. Having said that, without the glasses you do get that perfect 2D black and white image which is just as good, and you can also really appreciate the little touches that the glasses-led darkening shadows; but ultimately, the 3D actually feels somewhat justified this time around (consider this a one-off though...)

Earlier this year we saw Joss Whedon pay tribute to the modern horror film for adults in The Cabin in the Woods, now Tim Burton has created a lovely companion that is a pastiche to the early horror genre and B Movie Monster films that Burton adored as a child. Frankenweenie is a lovingly crafted stop-motion animation that may not be the next Nightmare Before Christmas, but certainly is up there. A lot of fun and with a scare or two thrown in for good measure, this is a film that everyone can watch and enjoy together as a family (even one that parents and film-lovers might actually enjoy more); and one of the best things I can say about the film is that it actually changed my mind on 3D if only briefly, with the effect - or rather the lack of any significant one - actually adding something to the narrative of Burton's wonderful film!

But then again, 3D is still rubbish...

Verdict: 4/5

Frankenweenie (certificate PG) is released in cinemas across the UK on October 17th 2012.

Is Burton onto another winner here, or is Frankenweenie destined for the dog house? If you've seen it what did you think? Leave your comments below!

Sunday 7 October 2012

Review: Looper

I wonder if the DVD will have a bLooper reel...

"Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been" narrates young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), "I work as a specialized assassin, in an outfit called the Loopers. When my organization from the future wants someone to die, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. The only rule is: never let your target escape... even if your target is you." Of course I'm sure you can gage the general plot for Director Rian Johnson's Looper from this quote alone: when his future self is sent back from the year 2072 to be executed, young Joe is suddenly confronted by the image of himself 30 years older (Bruce Willis). But after his target escapes, young Joe must stop his older self at any cost before he can do anything drastic enough to paradoxically alter time-lines, as well as to save his own life from the very organisation that he works for.

Imagine picking up your A Level exam results; you open up that brown paper envelope and pull out your results, and look at that: you got an A! How fantastic, that's absolutely brilliant. But then you realise you were just 1 mark off of an A* grade. A brilliant mark nonetheless, but one that is so painfully close to being perfect. This is how I felt after I had finished watching the new sci-fi thriller Looper: a brilliant piece of filmmaking but one that is flawed in a few minor places, frustratingly preventing it from being something really, really remarkable.

Willis and Gordon-Levitt's next project: 'Dude, Where's my Hair?'

Let's back track a little bit first off though and take a look at why the film is brilliant in the first place before I start abusing it! Boasting a well written script, Looper is an original, entertaining and intelligent modern sci-fi that follows nicely in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan's 2010 blockbuster Inception and Duncan Jones' 2011 time travel film Source Code. With a budget that sits somewhere in-between the gargantuan Inception and relatively small-budget of Source Code, Looper results in being a very stylish and very slickly executed piece, with any and all uses of CGI elements being used tastefully and not at all overbearing as they can often result in being in some films today (something that I find can often make a film less timeless as a result of dated looking CGI effects). In particular, this is perfectly seen in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face, which is very impressively made to resemble Bruce Willis' through a perfect combination of make-up and CGI enhancements.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who spent his summer battling Bane's army as Blake in The Dark Knight Rises, shines as the film's tough and gritty leading man role that his career has been leading up to (well, technically only half the lead role I guess...) - it is great to see such a fantastically talented screen-presence finally getting the top billing that he deserves. Supporting him is Emily Blunt who provides a really refreshing and a much needed strong female presence in the male dominated world of the film. Bruce Willis as the other half of the leading man is also a brilliant screen presence, displaying a bit of actual acting which provides a much needed contrast to his OTT gun slinging role in this summer's The Expendables 2. Of course that's not to say that Willis doesn't get any action at all in the film; Looper actually features a number of very engaging and exciting action set pieces throughout, including one particular scene with Willis' character mid-film which despite feeling like a pleasant piece of nostalgia hearkening back to 80s sci-fi action films like The Terminator (a clear inspiration for the film), does brings us nicely onto some of the problems that I had with the film...

Time's up for JGL's next victim in Looper

Despite everything I loved about the film, there were a few minor niggles that put me off somewhat. The Bruce Willis scene that I just mentioned - without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen the film yet - whilst brief does get a bit silly and feels like a scene from something like The Expendables 2. This is perfectly fine in one sense (c'mon, it's Bruce Willis!), but it did feel like a bit of a shame considering how much I'd appreciated Willis' more toned down performance throughout. This particular scene also ends a one of the important narrative strands of the film in a very sudden manor, which unfortunately made it feel somewhat rushed and underdeveloped as a result; especially when the outcome of this means that we get to spend less time with Jeff Daniels' (seen recently in Aaron Sorkin's excellent TV series The Newsroom) character Abe who is a fantastic presence in a role not unlike a slightly toned down version of his brilliant Will McAvoy character from The Newsroom... with a beard! This scene comes during the middle of a very long period of time set on Sara's (Emily Blunt) farm which slows things down a lot and in contrast actually felt too long (although arguably necessary and important to the plot) - I couldn't help but think that time could have been spread a little better during these parts to get the pacing balance just right.

My biggest problem with the film however is the telekinesis sub-plot (referred to as 'TK' in the film) which was somewhat unexpected to say the least. I'll once again avoid spoilers here but for me the whole sub-plot, especially towards the end, felt very random and out of place in the story and perhaps one leap of faith too far that I just couldn't fully buy into. A much more subdued alternative could have been put into place here which would still have allowed the film to come to the conclusion that it needed to. As it stands it did feel like a bit of a shame that within a film grounded so well into a believable sense of future reality to see an element of human evolution that leads to certain individuals being able to levitate objects; I just couldn't buy it. As a result this whole premise feels like it's been put into place by the filmmakers in order to feature some cool Inception-esque slow-motion floating effects into the proceedings (although if you don't think about it too much, it is stylistically very cool).

TK, or not TK: is it one plot too far?

In terms of the time travel storyline, as with all time travel films there are going to be plot holes aplenty. This is simply because time travel is impossible, and so there are numerous theories about how it could work but no definitive proof to support any of them. Therefore the best way to execute a time travel plot in film is to stick to one theory rather than to mix and match theories where and when it feels convenient; in any case though, in terms of time travel the best thing to do is to just not think about or criticise it too much, as there'll always be a problem with it somewhere. In terms of Looper, I did get the sense that it was picking and choosing theories when and where it was convenient, however the premise of the film is one so interesting and original that it doesn't come across as an issue at all - just try to enjoy and to not think about it too much, because if you do it will completely fall apart!...

Not unlike Drive last year, Looper is 2012's end of year gem of a film that you probably weren't expecting to find. With an entertaining, engaging and original sci-fi premise (that sits nicely alongside Inception and Source Code as modern sci-fi greats), fantastic action set-pieces, a wonderful cast and impressive visual effects (featuring enough lens-flares to entertain your average J.J. Abrams), Looper is an intelligent yet simple, stylish and entertaining piece that just so happens to be the big film of the moment - and if you're lucky it might just become one of your favourites of 2012! The more I think about Looper, the more I like it (although the time travel stuff  does fall to pieces if you think about it for too long); it's just a bit of a shame that there are a few problems with the film which ultimately prevent it from becoming something really special. But if you can look past these few minor niggles you'll get a very, very good piece of modern filmmaking that is a real treat.

Verdict: 4/5

Looper (certificate 15) is now showing in cinemas across the UK.

Have you seen Looper? Agree or disagree with my review? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!