Review: Final Destination 5 (2011)

Director: Steven Quayle

**

When a film franchise begins to lag in quality, a few fresh elements can be thrown into the mix to spice things up a little. The Final Destination series has been in such doldrums since the second film. The novelty ran out at the end of the first film, and as time has passed the repetitive nature of these films has sunk in; person envisages fatal disaster, helps others avoid it and death comes to take these survivors out in bizarre, bloody and cinematically OTT ways. Given how well Final Destination 5 sticks to this template, don’t expect Final Destination 6: Cancer Comes A’ Callin’.

This isn’t to say FD5 doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve, but it’s mostly franchise rote as we watch pretty young things get sliced and diced in myriad ways because they didn’t die when they were supposed to. An admittedly spectacular opening scene sees a suspension bridge collapse, and people are crushed/impaled/splatted like ants. It turns out the disaster is a vision witnessed only by Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) who is on a tour bus with his ex-girlfriend (Emma Bell) and his friends and co-workers about to go over the bridge. He saves them from their fate, but the Reaper is a persistent so-and-so. Having his evil way with (amongst other things) a corrective eye surgery laser and acupuncture needles, the remaining survivors learn that they can stave off death if they do his job and kill someone else. This information is imparted by a coroner named Bludworth, played by Tony Todd. Besides the fact that Candyman is above this material, the idea of killing to avoid being killed would have made a neat twist two movies ago, but the emphasis is still firmly on blind-siding the audience with red herrings just to shock them with a surprising death seconds later. Over and over again. In the first films, this was scary/funny. Now, it’s just patronizing.

On the plus side, the opening is a good’un, the ending is surprisingly clever and, with various characters being impaled on all manner of skewers and bars, this is one of the most effective 3D cinema experiences yet. However, diminishing returns at the box office suggest that both 3D and the Final Destination franchise may be on the way out. In a way, it’s a pity since both were just figuring out what works best. The novelty has been rediscovered, but it’s too little, too late.

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Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog

****

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a strange beast. It takes its name from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and both feature a police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel in the original, Nicolas Cage now) whose behaviour on-and-off-duty is morally and legally questionable. However, that is where the comparisons have to end; Keitel and Cage aren’t even playing the same character. This is not a sequel, nor a remake (or a ‘reimagining’ as the studios like to say. Idiots.). The only thing the two films have in common is the name; BL:POCNO director Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film, and Ferrara denounced Herzog’s film before it even began shooting. This can’t end well, surely?

The plot centres on Cage’s Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, working in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s good at his job, despite suffering from severe back pain and addictions to cocaine and gambling. His beat is a city ravaged by Mother Nature and crime (Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography and Toby Corbett’s design and sets create a city that is struggling to rebuild, bereft of the traditional picturesque nature of the South). Against this colourful gallery of ailments, McDonagh is investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants whilst trying to hold his life and his relationship with his drug-dealer girlfriend (Eva Mendes) together.

BL:POCNO sounds like insanity. Strike that; it is insanity! It shouldn’t work. This is the kind of schlocky material that leads to the likes of Showgirls and 8MM. Yet, it does work. Somehow, through all the chaos, the drugs and the violence, a surprisingly entertaining romp emerges. Of course, it helps to have two experts in capturing insanity onscreen. Firstly, Cage is mesmerising; he goes from endearing hero to cackling hophead in the blink of an eye/sniff of a line. No-one does this kind of controlled mania like Cage, and it’s his best performance since Lord of War (not difficult when your CV since then includes Knowing and [shudder] The Wicker Man.) Herzog, meanwhile, brings his uncanny knack for the brilliantly absurd to the fore. As far as this critic knows, this is the only film to shoot a scene from the point of view of an iguana that is actually the figment of a character’s drug-addled imagination (That sentence will make a lot more sense once you see the film). Any man who could simultaneously get a ship hauled over a mountain and control Klaus Kinski could extricate some sense from this mess, and Herzog does. He keeps just enough of the barmy brilliance of William M. Finkelstein’s script intact to allow the plot to come through, and then craziness ensues. When you go to the box office and are about to enter the theatre, just take a deep breath and then let yourself go. It’s often easier to go with the flow than resist the mania.

Review: Please Give (2010)

Director: Nicole Holofcener

****

The centre of Please Give’s universe is a crabby matriarch called Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert). Frankly, she’s a senile old witch who doles out uncomfortably frank criticism to whoever will listen, especially her granddaughters, the caring Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and spoilt little rich girl Mary (Amanda Peet). Next door, Andra’s neighbours Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a second-hand furniture business, with much of their merchandise coming from the families of recently-deceased persons clearing out their belongings. Not that they don’t like their neighbour, but they secretly hope to add on Andra’s apartment to their own once the old bag dies. Ah, what lovely people. Still, they’re saints compared to Mary, who just wants Grandma dead for the sake of convenience.

Nicole Holofcener has a reputation for making films about women; it’s true that the protagonists of Lovely and Amazing and Friends With Money were all women, but to call them and Please Give films about women is to force them into too constricted a category. For example the latter, Holofcener’s latest, juggles a great many themes and ideas and expresses them with humour. Harkening back to Woody Allen’s 80‘s satirical streak (think Alice or Crimes and Misdemeanors), this setup permits the actors to juggle Holofcener’s script and the thematic delights therein. Kate feels guilty about her business, and compensates by giving money to homeless people on the street, and her guilt is not helped by Andra. However, Rebecca and Kate have much in common, though these two women are separated by class divisions and a certain animosity. There are easily identifiable lessons about consumerism (Buying things won’t complete me. Who knew?), the blandness and guilt of wealthy urban life and class divides in Please Give, but it ultimately boils down to our appreciation of the things we have.  All these characters are surrounded by reminders of aging and death, be it an dying grandmother, an image-conscious daughter (Kate and Alex’s, played by Sarah Steele) or the mammograms Rebecca issues to check for cancer. These characters all feel guilty about the things they’ve taken for granted, first and foremost the simple things of life. Thankfully, the film is never emotionally exploitative, maintaining a certain emotional distance and a biting wit all the way.

Guilbert steals many a scene with her blunt opinions about everything, and therein lies the point of Please Give: simple truths and basic remedies are all that are required to muddle through sometimes. Why please others when you can’t please yourself? Thankfully, this moral is brought to life through choice dialogue and unfussy performances. Guilbert and Steele provide great foils for their respective family members to bounce off, while Keener, Hall and Platt are wonderfully likable, despite some huge character flaws. The Holofcener-Keener team has produced another likeable slice of suburban angst, both entertaining and identifiable. Let’s face it; we all know some old bag we’d like to get rid of, but couldn’t do without sometimes.

Review: Blood Diamond (2006)

Director: Edward Zwick

****

As Shirley Bassey once intoned, diamonds are forever (Naomi Campbell could not be contacted to confirm this). As such, the price of diamonds is very high; not just monetarily, but also in human terms. Hundreds of people die each year in the illicit trading of so-called ‘blood diamonds’ in West Africa. This is the basis for Blood Diamond, Edward Zwick’s exciting and relevant exploration of an oft-neglected problem.

You have to love the way awards season brings about a raft of ‘issue films’. The film opens on a meeting of diamond-importing nations as a major diamond importing firm agree to cease the import of blood diamonds. As this meeting is intercut with an attack on a village in Sierra Leone by a revolutionary group, it’s fair to say that these suits ain’t gonna keep their promise. Ooh, eeeevil men in suits! People dying in poor countries! Oscar, please? Zwick, calm down! You have one already, alright?

Anyway, the rebels capture one of the villagers, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who is then forced to work as a diamond miner. He discovers an exceptionally rare diamond and, having escaped his captors, hides the diamond and tries to find his family. However, word gets around about this diamond, attracting the attention of  a diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a journalist (Jennifer Connelly) and various military and rebel factions.

For all its heavy-handed polemical aspects, Blood Diamond manages a difficult balancing act between sincere depiction of horrific atrocities and action-centred thriller, mostly due to Charles Leavitt’s script, and its refusal to shoehorn action scenes in except where necessary. Indeed, the scenes of combat are exciting, but also necessarily horrific as numerous innocent victims get caught in the crossfire. In between, there is plenty of meaty dialogue, and the cast chew it with aplomb. DiCaprio’s Danny Archer is brash and cocksure, and DiCaprio deserves a lot of credit for never making him completely likeable, as well as for sticking with the South African accent. The character of Maddy Bowen is pretty much Female Token No. 37, but Connelly gives her a definite presence. Hounsou gives the best performance of the three leads, with anguish and anger written all over his face as Vandy tries to track down his family while having to lead Archer to the diamond.

For all the excitement and good acting, there are still problems. Zwick is right to believe in the story’s strength, but it’s no excuse to descend into unremarkable filmmaking in the second half of the film, especially when the material is the kind of awards fodder that he is so often drawn to. Edward, Best Director Oscars (usually) go to directors who take risks. Try it sometime! It could also be argued that bloody reality is being exploited for the sake of entertainment, but if it draws attention to a cause, it may not be altogether a bad thing. It’s no stone cold classic, but Blood Diamond is still an urgent, visceral and worthwhile film.

Review: Heathers (1989)

Director: Michael Lehmann

****

Think high school rich bitch, think Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, or Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, right? Wrong! As cruel as some of the characters in those films could be, even their most barbed comments never drew blood. Therein lies the difference between these films and Heathers, Michael Lehmann’s biting portrayal of high-school cliques and geeks. It’s got all the bitchiness, teenage alienation and other high-school clichés, but in their most extreme form and taken to their most extreme conclusions.

Watching Heathers, the greatest mystery has to be: what is a nice girl like Veronica (Winona Ryder) doing with the ‘Heathers’ clique. All named Heather, all sporting shoulder-padded jackets and taking snideness to new heights, they are just incomparably horrible, the kind of spawn you’d imagine Gordon Gekko producing. So why is Veronica wasting her time with them? She’s either conducting a social experiment or a sadist. Either way, her different nature is inescapable; she cares about issues. She feels empathy. She actually gets along with her parents! She also likes the attractive rebel (Christian Slater, stretching his Jack Nicholson shtick to breaking point). Indeed, when she starts dating him, she realizes the redundancy of hanging out with the ‘Heathers’, and Slater’s JD recommends a more drastic approach to influencing the social order at Westerburg High. Murder? How very!

A lesson in the dangers of superficiality is one thing (and a pretty clichéd thing at this stage) but seriously, how screwed up are these kids?! All the adults in this film are either blissfully oblivious, utterly out of touch with their children/students or are completely goofy. JD and his father (Kirk Scott) interact as if they have reversed the father-son roles and are each other. JD also seems to be in possession (or within easy reach) of handguns and explosives, and knows how best to kill the lead ‘Heather’, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). As already highlighted, it’s all the school clichés at their most extreme: why humiliate the school princess when you can kill her? Why emasculate the jock when you can kill him and make it look like a suicide over his closet homosexuality? And so forth. Veronica seems to take it all in her stride, though her diary belies her doubts (“My teenage angst bullshit now has a body count.”). We’re with her every step of her confused way, and  Ryder makes for a very likable guide through this messed-up world.

That said, it’d take a Sarah Palin-sized prude to fail to see the humour in all of this. Exaggeration is the key; the trussed-up sexiness of the ‘Heathers’, the none-more-‘80s interiors and costumes, the insanity of it all. The world of Heathers deserves our scorn; it practically demands it! When a father proclaims his love for his deceased homosexual offspring at his funeral, you know that drama has left the building, taking all good sense with it. The wit is biting, the wounds are deep, and justice belongs to the downtrodden geek.

Review: Star Trek (2009)

Director: JJ Abrams

****

Realistically, there should be something embarrassing about any studio’s attempt to relaunch a tired franchise. In recent years, they’ve had a chequered history; for every Batman Begins, there’s a Superman Returns. Star Trek should really fall into the latter category; based on a campy ‘60s TV show, which was followed by films of ever diminishing quality. Insurrection? Nemesis? No, thought not. However, director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci do a tremendous job of reducing the various stories and history of the Star Trek franchise down to an exciting and heartfelt origin story, accessible to both die-hard Trekkies and complete newcomers.

When a Federation starship is attacked by a vengeful Romulan warrior (Eric Bana), the captain’s pregnant wife is evacuated at the cost of her husband. 25 years later, the child grows up to be James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, cocky), who is a rebel in his rural Iowan home. Federation Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood, dignified) then comes to persuade Kirk to train to become a member of the Federation. If this doesn’t reek of standard origin story by now, it will by the time Kirk meets the classmates who will eventually become his crew on board the Starship Enterprise, such as Uhura (Zoe Saldana, short shorts), Bones (Karl Urban, goofy) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), the Vulcan who bases all decisions on logic and seems to lack emotion.

As you can probably guess, the first hour or so of the film is setup for the rest of the film and the prospective franchise. However, that’s not altogether a bad thing. There are clichés, there are obvious character arcs and relationships and build-up to an inevitable mano-a-mano between hero and villain. However, there is also a tremendous amount of energy and verve here. Indeed, there is one element that is alack in many origin tales, and sets this film apart from the likes of Batman Begins: fun. Star Trek is fully aware of its campy origins and nonsensical premise, and embraces them. The characters are drawn quickly, but Pine and co. give them enough depth to make them distinct and likeable. In particular, Quinto is eerily reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy, capturing the essential dignity of Spock. Even smaller roles, such as John Cho’s Zulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and Nimoy himself as a future representation of Spock (it makes more sense when you watch it) are excellently handled; only Simon Pegg disappoints as a loud (that is to say, annoying) Scotty. Beam him up, indeed.

Humour comes thick and fast, with one-liners bandied back and forth, and the action is on the grandest scale CG can provide. It’s a zippy two hours, and should leave any action hound sated. It’s clearly got an eye on starting a franchise, and is unrepentant in the sheer silliness of the whole endeavour. However, if the next Star Trek is as purely entertaining as this one, we should be willing to embrace our sillier side.

Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Director: Jon Favreau

**

In an episode of South Park, Cartman (whilst dressed as a robot) is roped in by a Hollywood studio to generate possible plot outlines for future movies. He does, and they all sound dumb and most star Adam Sandler. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t star Adam Sandler (Thank heaven for small mercies!), but it is exactly the kind of minimal and, dare we say, dumb idea a machine (or a boy dressed as a machine) would conjour. Take two established genres, mash ‘em together and see what happens! Plenty happens in Cowboys & Aliens, but nothing of note. For a film that dreams of turning at least one genre on its head, it’s bizarrely unremarkable.

The film opens with a solitary man, Jake (Daniel Craig), waking up alone on the plains with no recollection of how he got there. His only clue is a strange device on his wrist. The solitary stranger coming into town to stir things up is an integral part of many Westerns, and if the supernatural element were removed, you’d have the makings of a gritty but still fun little oater in the vein of Sam Raimi’s The Quick And The Dead. There’s a purty laydee (Olivia Wilde’s Ella) for Jake to get close to, and a hard-as-nails authority figure (Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde) to challenge, plus a town full of cardboard cutout characters (preacher, doctor, innkeeper) to create a little southwestern atmos. Director Jon Favreau shows some promise with the Western material, with bursts of gunslinging violence and tough talk (showing some grit that was critically lacking in his Iron Man movies). Unfortunately, we soon see some lights in the sky, buildings start exploding and townsfolk are being kidnapped by spaceships. This causes the gizmo on Jake’s wrist to act up, shooting out lasers and scaring off the spaceships. The stranger’s got a shady past… now where have we heard that before? The film’s reliance on old genre staples is both a blessing and a curse; it grounds the film, but it also allows the five (too many cooks?) screenwriters to get lazy, throwing as much familiar touches into the mix until it becomes patronizing.

As much as we want to go with it, the idea of aliens attacking the old West is too silly. As a posse is rounded up to search for the kidnapped townspeople, and they get the help of some local Native Americans, more silliness ensues. Apparently, another of the townsfolk has a shady (read: ridiculous) past, and the aliens are here for our gold (which was also what the aliens wanted in Battlefield Earth. Not a good touchstone!). Favreau clearly cares more about the Western side of things, given how great the sets and locations look, and how underdeveloped the aliens are (they look like one of District 9’s prawns mated with a brick). Even with the focus on the Western, great actors like Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown are wasted on stock characters. The action is competent, but nothing special, as the set pieces lack the novelty of any of Iron Man’s routs. If they’d hired Clint Eastwood to don the Man With No Name’s poncho once more, and had him go up against Predator, that might have been worth watching. As it is, Cowboys & Aliens boils down to a regrettably forgettable novelty.