Thursday 18 July 2013

Review: The Frozen Ground

Based on shocking true events, American crime thriller The Frozen Ground follows the police manhunt for Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a man responsible for the raping and murdering of a number of young females in a small and desolate town in Alaska. Led by Sergeant Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), the investigation gains a lot of traction after escaped victim Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) provides her witness evidence - but time is ticking fast as Hansen is out to find and finish what he started on the one girl who can prove his guiltiness...

The most remarkable thing about Scott Walker's The Frozen Ground is the wording that fades on and off of the screen in the film's opening moments: 'based on true events.' Cemented by the unbelievable facts presented at the film's conclusion, and the tribute to the victims at the opening of the closing credits, a huge weight is brought to the film with the realisation that the psychotic inhuman mind of Robert Hansen is actually a very real one, and that these unimaginable events did occur. Pair that with the edgy and disturbingly brilliant performance given by Cusack in the role, and it's a strong formula for the stuff of nightmares!

This is however more or less where the film draws the line at unfortunately being anything more than an average police thriller.

John Cusack as the psychotic Robert Hansen in The Frozen Ground.

The Frozen Ground may be a film of great performances - with Cage's down to Earth role providing a satisfying and surprisingly non-meme generating performance, and Hudgens fully shaking off the High School Musical alumni appearance as the strong traumatised escort (the only exception being a small role played by 50 Cent, a man seemingly unable to convey any form of emotion) - but even these aren't enough to cover up the fact that the film is little more than anything you can see in an American crime show such as CSI  or Criminal Minds. This is not to say that this is a totally bad thing, but it does however prevent it from becoming anything more than completely generic and average at best. It also doesn't help that at a running time of an hour and three quarters, the film does drag on at times; and as it, I did find my attention span beginning to grow thin on occasion too. As a result of it feeling like an episode of a TV show, I can't help but feel it might have benefited from a shortened running time, as well as a slightly simplified plot that doesn't leave lose ends, as The Frozen Ground did do at times too.

By no means is The Frozen Ground a bad film, but its inability to become anything different or overly cinematic does leave it feeling like something that you have probably seen before. It's leading cast, especially the performances of Cusack and Hudgens, do help to make The Frozen Ground a bit more interesting, and help to present a story that very much deserves to be told; yet especially in the midst of the summer blockbuster season of big cinematic releases, it might be just well to save some money and wait for this one to hit TV and DVD first instead.


The Frozen Ground (certificate 15) is released in cinemas across the UK on July 19th.

Are you looking forward to seeing The Frozen Ground? Perhaps you already have? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Thursday 11 July 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

Film trailers can be deceptive things, can't they? More often than not they'll make a film look better than it actually is, but occasionally they can even make the film look worse. To watch one of the many trailers released for Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim would be akin to taking a trip down memory lane during the times when loud trailers for loud films like Transformers and Battleship polluted multiplexes and made one fear for a mind-numbing future of cinema. Yet, the actual film is far from the horror that you might expect it to be. Take note Michael Bay, the big blockbuster for 2013 has just landed, and it's a force to be reckoned with...

Pacific Rim opens with two definitions appearing on the screen in a retro-futuristic green font: one for the word 'Jaeger' - the giant robot-like, human controlled battle suits - and the other word, 'Kaiju' - the inter-dimensional beings that travel through a rift in the Pacific Ocean and so often threat the future of the human race. And with that information made known from the get go, we have our set up and the action well and truly begins. Connected to their robot exoskeleton and their co-pilot through a mind link that make all three act as one, it is up to the pilots within the giant Jaeger Rock'em Sock'em Robots to battle off category-3 monsters and their own inner-demons to save Earth from a threat that dates back to pre-historic times.

Jaeger pilots bring a physicality and vulnerability to Pacific Rim's ambitions action scenes.

What sets Pacific Rim aside from other recent genre films from the Michael Bay generation of filmmaking is the focus on the film's characters. In a similar vein to a film like Top Gun, the friendships, relationships and brotherhoods between the Jaeger co-pilots who march into battle together brings a depth to the film and its characters, who when joined together through the mind-link process (which allows the pilots to access the inside of the other's mind and access their personal memories and thoughts) only strengthens this depth through an interesting philosophical idea which is there for anyone who wants to consider it.

As a result of this concept, we do not get a film about giant robots - as large metal beings who cannot suffer and feel no pain - but the vulnerable human pilots at the centre of both the suit, and the film; whose presence and personality adds a drama, engagement and sense of peril to the film's large scale fight sequences. Through the premise of the pilots fighting through the suit also comes a large physical element too, as we witness not just a giant battling 'bot hitting the monstrous creatures from the deep, but the puppet-master human pilots themselves simultaneously doing the same moves too. As a rule of thumb, genuine human fight scenes will always be more effective than CGI, so pair that conceit with the various other physical fighting scenes that the film features, and suddenly a film that was initially doubtable is actually a lot more entertaining than you might expect it to be.

Lead Charlie Hunnam in one of Pacific Rim's CGI-free fight scenes.

Yet I'm going into a lot of analysis here, and there is reason to question whether or not this level of critical interpretation is even necessary. To bring it all down to what really matters, Pacific Rim is simply a lot of fun to watch. Very well-paced and by no means overstaying its welcome, the film is an exciting action romp that does the job of keeping its audience both entertained and feeling like a child again (if they are not one already). There is no two ways about this; this film is a guilty-pleasure summer blockbuster indulgence that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The monster movie genre has died away somewhat in recent years, and judging by this and the upcoming Godzilla reboot (by Monsters director Gareth Edwards) this is the start of a fresh, stylish and contemporary yet retro homage to a genre that is currently resurfacing like the monster threats that it features.

You'd be forgiven for having a total lack of interest for Pacific Rim after witnessing the trailers that cry out to the audience that made Michael Bay's Transformers films into a billion dollar franchise. Yet the end result is in fact a highly entertaining adrenaline ride that knows exactly what it needs to do to be a fulfilling summer blockbuster, and achieves it. Of course it has its moments of CGI fighting and destruction - it would be a rubbish monster movie if it didn't - but Pacific Rim proves that despite some particular examples of recent years, this is not always a bad thing. At the film's centre are the people inside the giant metal suits and their stories that drive the narrative and bring drama and engagement to these big blockbuster set pieces, which are as enjoyable as they are ambitious. Indulgently stylish and absolutely epic in every sense of the word, Pacific Rim is every bit as good as you'd hope it is, and not at all as bad as you feared it might be.


Pacific Rim (certificate 12A) is released in cinemas across the UK on July 12th.

Are you looking forward to seeing Pacific Rim? Perhaps you already have? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Friday 5 July 2013

Review: Monsters University

In 2001, Pixar Animation Studios opened up the bedroom door into the monstrous world of Mike and Sulley, the lovable duo for whom scaring the children of the human world is just the usual 9 to 5, in the instant-classic, animated film Monsters, Inc. Now, 12 years on, the unstoppable Billy Crystal and John Goodman voiced double act are headed back to school to discover where it all began, in prequel Monsters University.

Set well in advance of the original film, Pixar's first prequel sees Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan's university days in the School of Scaring at the prestigious Monsters University. The youthful dreams of two ambitious scaring majors are the same, yet their ethos of getting there couldn't be more different, and when the pair meet for the first time these inseparable friends rather surprisingly bring out the worst in one another as their differences cause them to clash. As a fierce rivalry instantly emerges with severe consequences that threaten their prospective futures in scaring, the duo must learn to work together with one another to succeed in the annual Scare Games - competing as part of the underdog fraternity, Oozma Kappa.

Things get off to a rough start between future friends Mike and Sulley in Monsters University.

The difficulty in creating a prequel is quite obviously that going into the film, you already know how it is going to end - and just by reading the above synopsis I'm sure you can gage a good idea of how Monsters University will pan out. Therefore, it is to the credit and creativity of the filmmakers at Pixar that they are able to pull off a prequel that despite this inevitable hurdle is actually able to play the time-setting to its advantage and throw some unexpected curve balls at you along the way too, as Mike's story takes front and centre this time around. It's of course all about the journey rather than the destination, and the film's message of dreams and ambitions going awry, and finding the silver lining in that moment of revelation which resonates with the film is a bold and ambitious one, and has a strong emotional pay-off to it. It won't have you crying into your 3D glasses like the opening of Up or the climax of Toy Story 3, but these engaging and relatable characters, regardless of how monstrous they may appear, have a pure human soul that we can all relate to on some level. Everyone will have had their dreams shattered at some point in their life - where lifelong plans are scuppered in an instant - for those people, this is their film; when the traditional 'work hard and you'll achieve' moral just won't cut it anymore because it just won't happen, the message that something even better come when you accept yourself for who you are is truthful and powerful.

Yet Monsters University is not a film designed to tug at the heart strings. If the conclusion to the original film has taught us anything, it is that laughter is the most powerful form of emotion of all, and for people sitting down to watch Monsters University, prepare yourself for what it quite possibly the funniest film in Pixar's 14 film history. Whilst all of the studio's other films have had a noticeable focus on the humour, from the very first frame right to the end of the credits, Monsters University focuses on the laughter department more so than any other Pixar film to date, and absolutely delivers at each and every opportunity; with it's fantastic dialogue and well-timed slapstick set pieces coming from the comedic mind of fresh-blood director Dan Scanlon.

Mike stands up to the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) in Monsters University.

As the film opens onto the very first shot, we are instantly reminded of the richly creative world that we are returning to - and Monstropolis has never looked better. Expanding the world to venture into the university environment feels like a very natural move, as we stay in the brilliant concept of the 'everyday' working life that made the concept of the original so wonderfully unique: if the first saw the monsters going to the factory for the 9 to 5, then it makes sense to focus on another career-based institution such as the schooling system. With that concept instantly comes a fresh twist on a recognisable world, and whilst the usual college movie antics are obviously toned down a bit for the family market - there are no monsters doing J├Ąger shots, although most of them do walk around naked - it still has the natural feeling of a university environment, and all of the recognisable individual types that you would come to expect from it too. It's the world's first family college movie, and it's every bit as funny as you want it to be.

Naturally, with the original film being so well loved by people all over the world, the question is often asked as to whether University is an equal or worthwhile follow-up to Inc. Of course we don't need a follow-up, especially not with the original being the classic, fully-closed story that it is, but instinctively there is the concern that returning to the franchise unnecessarily can sour the memory of a well loved film (just ask the adults who grew up with the original Star Wars films as a child) - but when do we ever need a film? What the prequel element of Monsters University allows the filmmakers to do is to return to some familiar faces, and at the same time have some fun with your memory of them by twisting your expectations, or just by simply having fun with their youthful appearances. There are so many little nods and winks towards the original, allowing the film to actually improve your appreciation and understanding of the monster world and its inhabitants in many ways - you'll certainly never look at Steve Buscemi's Radall the same way again. However it is naturally the friendship between Mike and Sulley that benefits the most from the prequel, as watching the inseparable pair becoming the unbeatable team that we know them to be by setting aside their differences - and in fact using them to their own advantage - really makes you understand and appreciate their story from the original film on another level. Regardless of how it compares to the original, as a stand-alone film, it is nothing short of a complete joy to see the pair back on the big screen together in a film that focuses on further exploring these characters - the original film's two greatest assets.

How will underdog fraternity Oozma Kappa fare in the Scare Games of Monsters University?

So to answer the question on everyone's lips: it's tough to say if Monsters University is as good as the original, as it is very different film, and they both have strengths in different areas. What it does do is absolutely stand-up alongside it; perhaps some of the originality has worn off (as you'd expect from returning to a franchise, you've seen this world before), and it may not have a set-piece as extraordinary and unforgettable as the door chase sequence of the first (although what film does!?), it's a laugh out loud hilarious film that will have audiences members of all ages roaring with laughter from start to finish, with an engaging and heart-warming story that packs a bold and valuable message at the same time.

If nothing else, Monsters University is a testament to the lasting brilliance of the original film and to Pixar's ability to create great characters and stories that people of all ages will adore and invest in emotionally for generations to come. With humour and heart in abundance, this may not be another Pixar tearjerker, but it might just be their funniest film to date. 12 years after Monsters, Inc. first wowed audiences, the world may not have been crying out for another instalment, but it got one - and rest assured the world will sure be glad it got it! Welcome back Mike and Sulley, it's a pleasure to see you both again my old friends. Now I guess the 12 year wait to Monsters Retirement Centre starts right here...


Monsters University (certificate U) is released in cinemas across the UK on July 12th.

Are you looking forward to enrolling into Monsters University? Perhaps you already have? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!