Monthly Archives: August 2013

Film Review: Elysium

0 ElysiumWriter-director-producer-animator Neill Blomkamp seemed to spring out of nowhere in 2009, but the auteur has actually been in the game for a while, building a steady portfolio of commercials, shorts and TV series since the 1990s. Honing his directorial chops over such a period allowed him to launch a sneak-attack on Hollywood with the excellent District 9, and – lo and behold – merely weeks after its release, sci-fi had found its latest boy wonder. District 9 was such a critical and commercial firework that anticipation has been sky-high for Blomkamp’s next move: this year’s blockbuster Elysium.

In the same vein as its predecessor, Elysium is based in a grim and grubby alternate reality, this time set 150 years in the future. Decades and decades of conflict have led to a hyper-polarised state of class warfare, between the poor – who live on the overpopulated, over-polluted Earth – and the wealthy, who have been granted citizenship on Elysium: a luxurious and elaborate space station which orbits the poisoned planet. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job, industrial worker Max Da Costa’s (Matt Damon) only hope for survival is making it to Elysium and accessing its state-of-the-art medical facilities. He volunteers to assist the Earth’s underground resistance in return for passage to the space station, but he must also contend with Elysium’s ruthlessly cold Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her top mercenary, Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley): a tough-as-nails badass who is seemingly indestructible.

Matt Damon;Sharlto CopleyVisually, Elysium is stunning, and Blomkamp has done marvellously once more in constructing a wholly immersive alternate reality. Earth itself is a thoroughly disturbing place, and the film is riddled with nightmarish visions of dust-caked concrete vistas, all smeared in lurid graffiti. Elysium itself is a whole other story: a beautifully sleek and stylish vessel which is as aesthetically arresting as it is structurally fascinating. Caps off to the production design team, and to Syd Mead in particular, who has added another wondrous futurescape to his booming roster.

We’re given just enough time to admire the alternately harsh and clinical beauty of each world, because the plot itself quickly escalates into a balls-to-the-wall actioner of the 1980s sci-fi mould. The Terminator provides another key point of reference here, as a multi-layered game of cat-and-mouse is set in motion, combined with a race-against-the-clock impetus for Damon’s Max, who is diagnosed with five days to live following his Dr. Manhattan-esque accident. While this does mean we’re treated to some very gritty fight sequences, it does steer the film into very blunt territory, which it never quite manages to escape from.

The film’s political message is surprisingly less overt than that of District 9, but in almost every other department, Elysium squanders subtlety in favour of big, bold moves, which unfortunately isn’t always to its benefit. There are some truly outstanding concepts fuelling the film, and Blomkamp is clearly a man who knows a meaty plotline when he sees one. But here, it’s a case of too many flavours clashing awkwardly, and all these promising ideas soon churn into a mess. Not enough time is devoted to some of the major relationships at the heart of the film, and several of the set-pieces blur past in disorienting fashion. (At one moment it took me a few minutes to realise someone’s face had just been blown off.)

0 Elysium HairdresserDamon is a robust choice for the protagonist, but Max is something of an anonymous creation, with on-the-nose flashbacks doing little to flesh him out beyond the stock “underdog” hero. As Kruger, Copley is thoroughly menacing, and he gets to relish some very believable moments of badassery. It’s a shame, then, that he’s lumbered with several by-the-numbers villain moments (such as a very forced scene wherein he emphasises his sexual dominance – ugh), and his exaggerated accent walks a tightrope between chilling and amusing. Shockingly, Jodie Foster fails to deliver the goods as the ice-queen Delacourt, instead trading in some clumsy line deliveries, and never fully settling on a single accent for her character.

It was going to take a lot to top District 9, but even outside of such a looming shadow, Elysium stands as another disappointment in this year’s clutch of blockbusters. For all its bite and bluster, its failure to adequately settle on any of its given topics makes it a strangely empty creation. That being said, it gains bonus points for giving us a line for the ages. At the sight of a face mutilated beyond belief, a gravelly South African mercenary grins to his cohort, “he looks pretty fucked up, mate!” The priceless power of the understatement. Apparently, Blomkamp’s next feature-length – entitled Chappie – will have deeper roots in comedy. With material like this, it could suit him nicely.

5/10

A plethora of great ideas which sadly don’t gel, instead forming a hodgepodge of blood, sweat and decimated metal. One has to admire Blomkamp’s ambition (and his keen eye for arresting visuals), but his second effort is a big step down when it comes to finesse.

22/08/2013

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Film Review: Kick-Ass 2

0 Kick-Ass 2 PosterIn the sprawling world of cinema, too many sequels with real potential become croppers because of that simple folly: DARKER = BETTER. Mark Millar seemed to trade on this very idea in the Kick-Ass comic-book series, overloading his second collection with some incredibly brutal narrative swerves, most of which felt crowbarred in for the sake of shock value.

Likewise, the film adaptations follow a progression into murkier territory, yet – thankfully – the gradient is less steep than in the comics themselves. Kick-Ass 2 is more brutal in execution (literally) than 2010’s original, with several of its set-pieces bordering on the truly horrific (watch out for an attempted rape scene, and the assassination of a relatively significant figure), but the fight sequences themselves remain exhilarating in all their pulpy, bone-crunching glory.

Tonally, it’s relatively consistent with the original Kick-Ass, but writer-director Jeff Wadlow lacks the nimble touch of his predecessor Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn’s film was a thorough delight: a subversive superhero flick whose limb-slicing hyperactivity never once sacrificed its big, booming heart. Wadlow’s crack at the universe is serviceable, but too often lapses into the kind of ham-fisted clichés which the original so skilfully outmanoeuvred, and consequently, this sequel dearly lacks the infectious likeability of Kick-Ass the first.

An indeterminate amount of time following the fall of Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his empire, Dave Lizewski (played by the now-bruising Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has hung up his wetsuit to return to the monotonous existence of an everyday teenager. Bored stiff by the civilian life, he reconnects with Mindy MacReady (the dependably strong Chloë Grace Moretz) to retrain himself for the vigilante life. When Mindy promises her guardian to put an end to her crime-fighting ways, Dave joins Justice Forever, a ragtag gang of wannabe-superheroes led by the gruff-voiced Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). All the while, however, Kick-Ass’ downfall is being plotted by Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who – under the new alias of The Motherfucker – wants to avenge his father’s death by destroying everything Kick-Ass (aka, Dave) holds dear.

Kick-Ass 2Even from the offset, it’s clear that this film has a lot of moving parts, and unfortunately, there are too many for Wadlow and co. to adequately balance across the lean runtime. It’s easy to forget John Leguizamo’s all-too-brief stint as Chris D’Amico’s subordinate, and a subplot involving Mindy’s time in high school culminates in a gag which teeters on the brink of self-parody. To be frank, the first third of Kick-Ass 2 is appalling, especially when clumsy exposition collides with horribly-executed shifts in plot. For instance, a crucial, tenderly-developed strand from the original film is cruelly done away with in about 30 seconds of screen-time, with minimal character development in the aftermath. Worse still, Chris D’Amico follows a truly repellent arc which begins with killing his own mother, and Dave’s father is given very short shrift in what should be the emotional fulcrum of the entire ordeal.

Naturally, nobody expects an in-depth character study from a film like this. But there is some seriously fertile ground for psychological exploration, which winds up being criminally undervalued and underused. The consequences of the actions of Kick-Ass and co. should have huge ramifications at times, but they’re all glossed over in a flurry to reach the finish-line. Admittedly, this does help maintain the pulse-pounding momentum of the set-pieces, but this ignorance of character study prevents Kick-Ass 2 from transcending into something truly resonant. Emotional bonds are forged from natural feelings of fear and concern, rather than from sharp characterisation. As an audience, we automatically like Lindy Booth’s Night Bitch for three simple reasons: she’s cute, she finds herself in danger, and she’s established as a love interest early on. But beyond that, there’s little to work with, and the same applies to most of the secondary characters, which gives the film a shallow, slightly superficial atmosphere.

0 Kick-Ass 2 SaleIn terms of plot, then, it’s a disappointment. But when it comes to supplying sheer visceral thrills, Kick-Ass 2 is an unbridled success. There’s a genuinely electrifying takedown on a prostitution ring which allows Carrey to dazzle, and after its awkward first act, the whole film pivots when Chris D’Amico visits his imprisoned uncle. From there on out, the stakes are raised tenfold, and a sense of real danger permeates the remainder of the film. Surprises are in store (both pleasant and truly shocking), and the second half allows some of the film’s stronger assets to shine. Donald Faison is wonderful as Doctor Gravity: a more personable hero than the Colonel, who gracefully brings a sense of wide-eyed excitement to the mix, and Olga Kurkulina gives Mother Russia a vicious brusqueness which works a treat.

On the whole, this is the very definition of a mixed bag, and one which will leave many viewers feeling conflicted. Its weaknesses are countered by a primal desire for mayhem: an equation which ends somewhere highly frustrating. It’s tough to summarise everything that’s right and wrong about Kick-Ass 2, but once the dust has settled and Millar’s next volume is released, perhaps we’ll be able to judge it more definitively. For now, though, take it for what it is: a skewed sequel which thrills, if not enthrals.

6/10

Giddily entertaining, yet horrifically brutal; underwritten yet arresting… Perhaps fittingly, given its subject matter, Kick-Ass 2 is a schizophrenic mess, as shocking as it is… well, shocking.

21/08/2013

Film Review: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa poster

Aside from his own personal slumps, the character of Alan Gordon Partridge has enjoyed quite the capacious career. From his first incarnations on early 1990s radio shows On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You to two BBC series of the deliciously cringeworthy I’m Alan Partridge in 1997 and 2002, as well as countless spin-offs and guest appearances, Alan has amassed his fair share of experience as an entertainer. And thank heavens he’s retained such shelf-life across two decades, because this bullying, socially inept shit is such a rich comic creation, who wholeheartedly survives the leap to the big screen.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa finds Alan (Steve Coogan) trundling along in his usual existence, still jockeying his Mid-Morning Matters show on North Norfolk Digital Radio. However, when the station is taken over by a multinational conglomerate, the proposed alterations ruffle a few feathers amongst the employees. When Alan gatecrashes an executive meeting in an attempt to butter up his new bosses, he notices the head honchos umming and aahing over the decision to axe one of two radio presenters: himself, or the embittered Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney).

After intervening, Alan saves his own skin by throwing Pat to the dogs, but consequently, Pat stages a coup, taking several of the station’s employees hostage and barricading them inside the recording studios. Alan is approached by the police to serve as a mediator between his ex-colleague and the armed forces, which pushes Alan into dangerous territory, but also back into the media spotlight.

1 Siege Face in ActionAs with I’m Alan Partridge, there’s a definite predilection on behalf of the writers to place comedy above story in the list of priorities. Yet while such a strategy befits the confines of a thirty-minute episode (throughout the television series, the lack of progression provides a prime backdrop for the humour), in Alpha Papa, the experience feels quite scattershot. Naturally, nobody’s expecting world-beating triumphs of dialogue, but the script does seem overly keen to zip from punchline to punchline, with romantic and moral progressions skimmed over as quickly as possible, as if the writers were anxious to ensure that enough chuckles were squeezed into 90 minutes to appease fans.

Thankfully, in that area at least, Alpha Papa is textbook. As is expected, the biggest laughs of the film stem from Alan’s archetypal buffoonery, and regardless of the daft mechanics of the siege itself, the Alan-centric set-pieces are the moments which linger longest in the memory. Particular highlights include a plummy rendition of ‘Always on My Mind’, the build-up to an impromptu jingle recording, and the brand of typically hilarious radio chatter which has long graced the Partridge mythos.

In the pseudo-icon’s wake, we are also given time with faces old and new. Rightfully, the endearingly browbeaten Lynn (Felicity Montagu) gets some time to shine, but sadly, Michael (Simon Greenall) is short-changed, with only a handful of moments granted to the Geordie 1 Alpha Papa Boxmainstay. It’s a shame, because his brief appearances are arguably some of the best in the film. Colm Meaney fares slightly better, lending the supposedly antagonistic Pat a human, sympathetic edge which makes him a surprisingly touching asset, and one which could have done with further exploring. Other new ideas and developments are present and correct, though they do tend to blur into the background, with the film’s final moments spent in the service of a narrative strand which never took off to begin with.

Truth be told, as a film in its own right, Alpha Papa is found wanting on several fronts, with its narrative arcs threadbare and forced, alongside a plot which soon pales to riskless. The whole structure does feel more like a serviceable chassis to allow Coogan maximum gurning time: an affliction much better concealed in the likes of I’m Alan Partridge. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that even when the story runs out of puff, Partridge himself doesn’t. Two decades on from his first appearance, and up on the big screen for the first time, Alan still has the magic.

6/10

The story itself feels too slight and undercooked to really make its own mark, but it’s clear that the rib-tickling capabilities of the man himself are very much intact. Kiss his Siegeface!

14/08/13