Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Guard Review

The Guard 
After watching the trailer of The Guard, apart from the ‘spaghetti western’ vibe, there was a sense of In Bruges to the ‘black comedy’ and ‘crime drama’, plus Brendan Gleeson’s presence. However, all too often modern film trailers have become to eager to entice crowds by showing everything. And after a bunch of funny jokes and clever dialogue, The Guard fails to truly replicate the humour and promise from the trailer. This being John Michael McDonagh’s debut as a feature director, and his second attempt at screenwriting, his inexperience shows with a generic story, poor ending and faulty cinematography and sound design. Yet, there is some entertainment to be grasped from some terrific performances, the amazing Brendan Gleeson putting in a fantastic one, and some witty dialogue. But The Guard feels shallow and a missed opportunity. 
The plot follows Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) , a member of the Irish police service, as he goes about his usual business; hookers, booze . Yet after bodies start emerging and FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) becomes involved, a complex web of corruption, drugs and murders follows. Its up to Boyle and Everett to team up and take down the gang of drug dealers, bringing an end to the wave of criminal activity. The story is very much a homage to the ‘buddy cop’ genre such as Lethal Weapon and Beverley Hill Cop ,yet in a distinctly Irish manner. Racist comedy weaves into the typical structure: Two mismatched police officers argue and bicker, but eventually build a partnership that sees them overcome the bad guys, and succeed. There are also strong comparisons to the ‘spaghetti westerns’ genres; A rural village setting being corrupted by evil ‘gunslingers’, forcing a hero to rise with the help of a mismatched sidekick......... This becomes distinctly evident with tracks from the soundtrack beng obviously influenced by the likes of Ennio Morricone. The disappointing ending also has the ‘mysterious ranger’ slant to it, as it attempts to be cryptic or enigmatic. However rather than leaving on a satisfied note, it simply feels lacklustre and ill-advised.
Yet whilst the story may be ‘generic’, the cast is fantastic with some big names. However the focus of the film is between Brendan Gleeson and his unlikely alliance with Don Cheadle. Gleeson is a brilliant lead, creating a strong personality that leaves a lasting and humorous impression. Meanwhile Cheadle is solid and brings seriousness amongst the joking Irish. But when both are on screen, the two never really truly connect. While they share some fantastic squabbles, their dialogue becomes too formulaic and predictable, as Gleeson constantly spurs out racist remarks and smug facial expressions. Its funny to watch, but there’s no depth or emotional chemistry which leaves the two feeling rather shallow. Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham perform well as the ruthless, yet witty drug dealers. But there’s a distinct lack of development to some of the main characters. For example, Katarina Cas’s character is quickly introduced and has a significant amount of screen time, but nothing really becomes of her. She’s merely a plot device, rather than a solid personality, and this is the same for many of the others. 
The cinematography and editing is another area that is disappointing with McDonagh’s directing debut. The recent cliché of 360 panning shots, really feels out of place and poorly undertaken, and so too are the opening aerial ones. There is also a disjointedness to the film's construct and editing. Not to spoil anything, but one scene sees us exploring a character, then the next minutes she has passed away. It seems all too sudden, rushed and undeveloped. 

Overall, The Guard is an enjoyable film but feels shallow. John Michael McDonagh’s script and directing suffers from his inexperience, with some sketchy screenwriting, character development and cinematography. While great individual performances from Gleeson and Cheadle help to create an amusing atmosphere, their partnership never completely works. However, some genuine laughs and solid acting create an relatively entertaining film, but unfortunately nothing more. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

My Neighbours The Yamadas Review

My Neighbours The Yamadas  (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん)  (1999)
After my extensive log of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, many have asked about my opinions and interpretations of the other Studio Ghibli films. But one that many fail to list is one of my favourites of the studio’s backlog, My Neighbours The Yamadas. Quickly overlooked, there is a common apprehension towards the art style and the dramatic contrast from the adventure, fantasy traits of many of Studio Ghibli’s work. However, directed by Isao Takahata, who has a realistic approach to animation (Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies), the film presents the simplistic nature of family life into a very funny and endearing drama.  
The film narrates the concept of a ‘family’, and the successes and pitfalls that are experienced. Starting off at the wedding of Matsuko (Mrs Yamada) and Takashi (Mr Yamada), they are “educated” by the enlightened elderly about the ‘ups and downs’ of marriage. We are then introduced to the rest of the family; Noboru the son, Nonoko the daughter, and Shige, Matsuko’s mother. There isn’t a definable storyline, but a ‘sitcom’ style of structure, with an intro and outro, that shows the Yamada family’s everyday life.
Being based on Hisaichi Ishii’s four panel ‘yonkoma’ manga (Nonochan), each chapter takes a similar form;  a setup, an expansion on the scene, an unexpected development, and then ending on a humorous note. While this may sound formulaic or repetitive, My Neighbours The Yamadas manages to retain the sharp and entertaining characteristics of the source material. The ‘slice of life’ fiction is very much in the same vein as Only Yesterday’s focus on adulthood, however Takahata takes a more light-hearted approach. The film explores ‘marriage’, ‘child-rearing’, ‘father-son relationships’ and other stages of a family, all in a comedic yet charming manner that both an adult audience and a younger one can identify with. While similarities can be drawn with The Simpsons and the millions of sitcoms, Takahata never lets the film fall into recycled and cliché waters. 
Takahata also employs a strong Japanese cultural commentary throughout his film. The prominent use of brief haiku (short poetry) from the likes of Matsuo Bashō and Natsume Sōseki act as segues between each ‘chapter’. An example: “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn”, gives a poetic sensibility to the film and to everyday events. There is a fantastic sequence which follows the magical/ fantasy ‘adventures’ of Takashi and Matsuko, as they travel across the length and width of Japan to “find” their children. Its a amazing scene which involves the Japanese folklores ‘Momotarō’ (Peach boy) and the ‘Taketori Monogatari’ (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), which are cleverly used to represent Noboru’s and Nonoko’s “fairy tale” entrance into the world. 
However, it’s the animation which is the massive step away from the typical style of Studio Ghibli. While detailed backgrounds and top-notch character design have become the standards of Ghibli’s artistic legacy, Isao Takahata has been brave in his unique visual departure. My Neighbour The Yamadas uses a watercolour style of sketching that while looks minimalist, manages to convey a surprising amount of detail and emotion. 100% digitally constructed, the simplistic character designs and flowing colours of the backgrounds, help define the characters and allows for each scenes’ personality to be beautifully displayed.
The Japanese voice acting is superb, really suiting the visualisation of the characters. For a film that relies on the construction of a realistic family, the actors really put in great performance. Touru Masuoka is great as the busy, hard-working Mr Yamada. His constant bickering with his mother-in-law, and unenthusiastic reaction towards work, create a character that represents the general consensus of fathers. Yukiji Asaoka plays the childish and clumsy housewife, that while scorns her children’s behaviour, has a low tolerance for chores and general laziness. Hayato Isobata plays the typical teenager boy, a slacker yet strong-willed and not afraid to question the reality of his family. In comparison, Naomi Uno adds cuteness and normality into the chaotic family as Nonoko. While she doesn’t get enough screen-time, her character still remains memorable. Meanwhile, Masako Araki puts in a splendid performance as the grandmother. The critical and fearless voice of conscience, she finds the ‘joys of life’ in the smaller things. Its a fantastic cast of actors and actresses that create a very believable household. 
The soundtrack, composed by Akiko Yano, is made up of short jazzy piano tunes that perfectly merge with the orchestral pieces from the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. Its one that perfectly manages to match the jovial and charming visuals, story and acting. 
Overall, My Neighbours The Yamadas is a fantastic animated film that definitely competes with many of Miyazaki’s works. Its realistic and humorous perception of ‘family’ is endearing and highly entertaining. While many will be unconvinced by the visual style and a ‘disjointed’ narrative, Isao Takahata’s film proves that a great animated film doesn’t require snazzy and meticulous animation, but requires a funny and smart story, script and characters. This is one not to be missed. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Audition (オーディション)Review

Audition (オーディション1999
Alongside anime, Japanese Horror is another genre that has travelled across the globe. With the likes of Ringu, Dark Water and Ju-On (The Grudge) gaining American remakes, it is clear the Japan’s supernatural stories have gained a significant ‘horror audience’. On the other hand, the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Evil Death Trap and the highly controversial Guinea Pig series form the other violent, deeply sadistic side of a lot of Japanese Horror. As I stated in my short review of Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike has become a prolific and controversial director known for his taboo film-making and persistent use of violence. However it was 1999‘s Audition that gained him international fame, and brought his distinct type of directing to the thriller/ horror genre. And it still remains one of his best works in amongst his lengthy filmography. 
The film follows Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a widower for the past 7 years, who is being urged to start dating by his 17-year old son. His friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer, creates a mock-audition for the “part” of Aoyama’s wife. Various young and beautiful women are questioned and gazed upon. However, he is soon entranced by an ex-ballerina, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Even with a warning from Yoshikawa, and a background that is rather shady, Aoyama is intrigued and enthralled by her looks, charm and emotional depth. But as the two further their relationship, his first impressions soon turn out to be wrong. Yamazaki’s troubled past, and psychological ‘imperfections’ start to become apparent, culminating in tense revelations and twisted events. 
Many have criticised the slow and crawling pace of Miike’s film. With a running time of 115 minutes, it isn’t until halfway through when it dramatically and suddenly turns into a disturbing psychological thriller. Yet, while the ending is typical ‘Miike’, he is a lot more ‘mature’ in his pacing, structure and direction of the plot. When compared to Visitor Q or Imprint, Audition is a more restrained affair that doesn’t linger on the violence, nudity or grotesque imagery. Instead, the majority of the film plays out like a romantic drama creating a false sense of security that truly makes the last act significantly effect. The serenity of the first three-quarters of the film completely contrasts with the last scene which is completely devoted to shocking the audience with grotesque imagery and an unbearably, disturbing torture scene. While the gore is subdued, it’s the sound design and simplistic acting that truly makes the last 20 minutes horrifying. The cinematography, especially the use of lighting, colours and set design really help create the distinctive change in the films tone and atmosphere. The blank white room where the auditions take place differs from the dark, cramped and filthy ‘domain’ of Yamazaki. 
In terms of the acting, it’s not Oscar-winning but it still remains memorable. Ryo Ishibashi gives a solid performance as Shigeharu. Meanwhile, Eihi Shiina is perfectly cast as Asami. She presents herself as an ‘everyday woman’ with no unique features or traits. Her simple yet understanding facial expressions persist throughout the film, creating a charming and cute character. But it’s during the final scenes, when her disturbing glee and joy to her actions adds a more disconcerting effect to the scene. By the end she’s terrifying, but her tragic background and social loneliness adds a complexity to the character which really creates a unique and lasting impression.
Overall, while the slow build up won’t be to everyone’s taste, Audition rewards its audience with memorable acting, and one of the most disturbing and cringe inducing endings. To simple toss it aside as another ‘horror’ film doesn’t do justice to Miike’s construction of a engrossing thriller film with a romantic drama dynamic. It’s all played out realistically and naturally, maybe even too realistically. The premise of a relationship that turns bad is an event that many of us have experienced. And while the image of a 8 foot man wielding a machete, or the walking dead remains easily dismissed as fiction, an insane girlfriend is not out of the question......

Friday, 19 August 2011

Super 8 Review

Super 8
After a barrage of summer blockbusters that have ranged from average to rubbish, Super 8 was a film I was actually looking forward to. However scepticism soon arose due to the long delay for a release. Originally opening in 10th June in the US, even Vietnam managed to experience J.J. Abrams’ film before the UK. This significant ‘hold up’, and a lack-lustre marketing campaign resulted in a disappointing open weekend (£2,207,063) for a ‘Summer Block-Buster’. However that’s not to suggest that the director doesn’t know how to created big-budget,entertaining flicks. Abrams’ directing filmography has been relatively recent with solid action films such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III. Yet, it’s his work, as writer and producer, on the 2008 monster film Cloverfield that has attracted ‘comparison’ between the two films. Initially intrigued by Cloverfield’s premise, the reality was an average film with a disappointing ending, uninteresting characters and an overzealous need to show the monster. Thus it was reassuring to see that Super 8 was a standalone film. 
Set in the Summer of 1979, Super 8‘s plot follows a group of friends trying to shoot a film for a film festival. After filming a tearful scene by the railway station, a catastrophic train crash results in a series of unusual events. People, dogs, engines and other inexplicable events occur across the town. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends aim to investigate the involvement of the Air Force and their biology teacher. But as more troops are introduced and full-scale investigations are instigated, it soon becomes clear that the disturbance is something more extra-terrestrial than the “Russians”. 
Story-wise, its a generic structure that we’ve seen a hundred times. In a sense, its Abram’s ‘tribute’ to the ‘giant monster’ genre, to the 1970s and children adventure films. Abrams has successful created an interesting story that defines itself from the wave of films in the genre, such as Godzilla and King Kong. Like the Goonies or ET: The Extra Terrestrial , the children are the main focus of the story, and Abrams does well to keep the attention on them rather than getting bogged down in scientific explanation and military nonsense. However, his creation of a simple yet effective sense of drama surrounding Joe’s tragic past and his dwindling relationship with his father, adds a mature essence to our characters. The film also constructs a genuine atmosphere of fear as they are thrust into a war zone and lairs. However, it’s the third act where the film begins to falter. There is a definite unwelcome ‘stench’ of Spielberg’s influence that hinders the creation of a solid conclusion. The final scene’s similarity to E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial ‘s departure, and a contrived and daft ‘look in your heart’ negotiation, both leave a sour note to an otherwise entertaining and well-structured film. Another problem is the monster design, which was a similar problem with Cloverfield. The film’s creature somewhat seems uninspired and generic. Meanwhile, the final reveal of the monster is.......weak, and too extensive, which fails to match the structure and style of the last 100 minutes. 
Acting-wise, Super 8 is full of fantastic debut performances from a relatively young cast. Riley Griffith, playing the aspiring film-maker Charles, puts in an amazingly strong performance that definitely overshadows a lot of the adult and experienced cast members. Another debutante, Joel Courtney, plays the lead naturally and superbly, creating a believable and compelling character. Elle Fanning on the other hand, never really impresses with her stale delivery. Ironically, it’s when she’s acting in Charles’ film that she brings a solid performance. Simultaneously however, the likes of Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard offer spirited, and well-acted support for the youthful cast. But with any ‘monster movie’ and especially with a 1970s setting, cliché characters are inevitable. Noah Emmerich plays the stereotypical, hard-arse colonel, whilst the long-haired David Gallagher plays the film’s stoner. These don’t affect the brilliant story-line, but seem to be unnecessarily over-the-top and forced. 
Overall Super 8 is another great addition to J.J. Abram’s directing career, but suffers from a slightly disappointing third act and a few niggles. However the plot remains refined, well-written and engrossing. The fantastic youthful cast, that embarrasses the Harry Potter 'mannequins' , is helped by a solid adult presence and a realistic, natural script. Incredible special effects and sound design also help to produce an exhilarating cinematic experience that definitely blows away the ‘superhero’ competition. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger Review

Captain America: The First Avenger 
‘Superhero Summer’ is over, and Thank God!! However what started with the average Thor (Review), finishes on another average action film. The ‘Captain America’ franchise remains relatively unknown when compared to the likes of Batman and Spiderman. However with Marvel’s push towards ‘The Avengers’ film, Captain America was inevitably going to receive his own theatrical release. Early trailers showed a gritty, and more restrained, realistic approach to the superhero, without the gaudy costume. But after the likes of Green Lantern (Review) and Thor, my patience with the ‘superhero’ film had and still remains thin. In terms of the director, Joe Johnston’s track-record has been sketchy and lacks experience in action film-making. While the likes of Hidalgo, October Sky and Jumanji  were relatively entertaining films, Jurassic Park III  and 2010’s The Wolfman aren’t exactly high-points of his sparse directing career. So with a big budget and a well-established Marvel franchise, what has Johnston conjured up? 
Set in 1942, the plot follows the frail and young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he attempts to join the American military. Constantly being rejected, his ambitious nature catches the eye of a German scientist, Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine’s scientific experiment results in changing Rogers into the ‘super soldier’ Captain America. Meanwhile, Nazi Germany’s HYDRA research development, headed by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), is attempting to weaponise an ‘alien’ energy source and dominate the globe before Hitler. It’s up to Captain America to defeat Schmidt and end the war. 
Following the same structure of many superhero films, Captain America focuses on the origins of the Marvel superhero. Thus we see Steve Roger’s inadequate life, disappointments and physical limitations. We then see his transformation as gains his powers, gets the girl and saves the day. It's all cliché but remains interesting. Yet it's hard to ignore glaring problems and faults in the film’s story and pacing. The film starts off well, quickly establishing Roger’s character and showing his route to ‘super-soldier’. It is exactly when he gains his powers that the film starts to slip into a dawdling bore. Captain America’s demotion to a mire propaganda tool, performing in shows and theatres, is over-long and agonising to watch. From here we are introduced to too many characters, weak story-telling, and tame action scenes. The film is definitely lacking in its intended action department. With all the explosions and gunfire, there isn’t one lengthy action scene. Instead we are treated to a ‘montage’ of battles and motorbike stunts which seems out of place, and hilariously over-the-top. The scene would have been complete with ‘America, F**k Yeah!’ being blasted out. It’s ironic that a ‘training montage’ would have possibly be more suited and relevant. Rogers seemingly is able to know how to throw and ricochet his iconic shield off walls, he’s able to parachute out of planes, and he knows the limits of his new abilities. 

The film’s style is another area which raises eyebrows. While the film is set in the 1940s, there is a clear generic, stereotypical look and tone to the feature’s atmosphere. Simultaneously, HYDRA's soldiers look more like robots with a stupid 'Superman' salute than actual human soldiers. The blurry CGI backgrounds have a similar look to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow  and thus really become tiring and distracting. However the forests, bunkers, and snowy mountains offer a needed change of scenery from the constant ‘superhero ‘cityscapes of New York and Gotham. 
Acting-wise, Chris Evans does his job as ‘Cap’, bringing nothing amazing but nothing terrible to the screen. Meanwhile, Hugo Weaving’s performance is somewhat hindered by awful dialogue and a significant lack of development. While the ‘red skull’ looks off, there is an interesting background to the villain. However it’s never explored, and we merely are told about his ‘transformation’ and his ideologic, aspiring character through uninspired talk and a barrage of bad accents. Tommy Lee Jones puts in excellent performance that brings most of the laughs, while Dominic Cooper also does well as Howard Stark, giving slithers of the personality that Robert Downey Jr gave Tony Stark in the Iron Man films. Hayley Atwell breaks the cliché damsel in distress formula giving a genuine performance that plays well off Evans. However, like Green Lantern and Thor, we see various significant characters from the comic books that are are never adequately explored or even properly introduced. 

Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger is a dumb, dumb film of averageness. While it doesn’t induce the sorts of pain and anger as Green Lantern did, it still remains flawed, unorganised and cliché. While the film starts well, it withers to boring mess that fails even to inform the audience of the villain’s evil plan. Good performances come to the aid of a stale script, but the lack of a bona-fide action scene hinders this ‘action’ summer blockbuster.