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I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007) April 7, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007)

Dir. Francis Lawrence; starring Will Smith, Alice Braga

It’s surprising to see such a restrained, mannered big-budget Hollywood film delivered by music video director Francis Lawrence. Lawrence failed to ignite much devotion from casual comic book fans with his muddled adaptation Constantine, so it’s refreshing to see a young director, bred on the quick-fix conventions of recent blockbusters, produce such an interesting, and at times, powerful film.

I Am Legend sees Will Smith’s military scientist Robert Neville stuck in a post-apocalyptic New York City alone when a cancer cure turns the populace into flesh-eating, genetically-mutated zombies. He is entirely alone apart from loyal pet dog Sam. Lawrence mixes some beautifully haunting images of a desolate city with flashbacks of an earlier period when the virus began to spread. In present day, Neville travels by daylight, broadcasting everyday on radio in the hope of finding more survivors. By night, when the mutated humans come out to feed, he works in his fortress-like laboratory desperately trying to find a cure.

The film may be littered with plot holes but this doesn’t detract from Neville’s story. This is indeed a character study of an obsessed but decaying man, dealing with a loss of lives he feels responsible for, and who, imprisoned in the endless expanse of an empty city, begins to mentally and physically breakdown. Although immune to the virus, he is not immune to its destructive affect on the modern, thriving society he can only remember in dreams. Now he only has his work and the dog for company. Finding a cure is as much a delusion as it is a compulsion. It’s the only thing he has left to live for.

Will Smith portrays Neville as a brilliant mind on the brink of insanity. His daily jaunts to the local video store see him talking to the mannequins as if they were real patrons, and he even believes one of them is flirting with him. Seeing this very logical scientist lose all sense of reality is as much tragic as it is heartfelt. When he does finally meet a survivor he can’t deal with them being in his life, in his space. He has become so overwhelmed with a single goal, and so accustomed to a life without interaction with any other human being, he’s almost unwilling to accept he’s not alone.

Lawrence doesn’t confuse the issue with too much exposition. Much of the background story is left unnourished - we don’t know why Neville and his dog are immune to the virus, or why the mutations are harmed by sunlight (apart from it being a generic part of a Vampire’s make-up). Lawrence, on the other hand, forces us to focus on Neville’s adaptation to this new world - the pseudo-caveman with all the mod-con gadgets in the world but no one to share them with. But, the film could have done without the poor execution of special-effects for the mutations themselves. There isn’t the sense of authenticity shown in the likes of 28 Days Later as the zombies in I Am Legend look like something cut and pasted from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy.

While Lawrence resorts to convention at the end, the climax is not without its considerable surprises. As Bob Marley’s Redemption Song plays over the credits, I Am Legend leaves you with a sense of the human spirit, and the strength of that spirit when faced with even the most impossible situation. It’s hardly a perfect film but with Lawrence’s assured direction and Will Smith’s captivating one-man show, I Am Legend deserves an audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, USA, 2008) March 6, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

Dir. Matt Reeves; starring Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel

I was like many intrigued by Cloverfield’s marketing campaign: the unnamed movie with a poster that depicted a decapitated Statue of Liberty. The trailer, which first appeared alongside the release of Transformers during the summer of 2007, showed the home video footage of a seemingly serene New York city party being interrupted by first the indication of an earthquake, then an explosion in a nearby building. Producer J.J. Abrams, who gave the world the television series Lost amongst many other production and writing credits, provided the mere hint of disaster with Cloverfield’s initial promotion. But the adventure story masked within wasn’t given traditional genre convention, there was no clarity to the good or evil, it was simply that old curse of the video tape: just as we are about to get to the best bit the machine chews the cassette.

Unfortunately, Abrams ability to market the movie and create media hype is a genius that ends there. As I suspected, Cloverfield is the accumulation of several other better films, and the lack of footage in the trailer not only hides the true nature of the story but also poor plotting, bad acting, and a complete lack of originality. The film is clearly the big-budget regurgitation of the YouTube online video revolution where shaky cameras have become a part of our media diet. In that same instance, Cloverfield plays into reality television’s penchant for actuality, while playing off what made The Blair Witch Project so successful. But it ends up feeling like the b-roll footage from 1998’s Godzilla. As if we’re shown these catastrophic events - not in brilliant 35mm widescreen with grandiose helicopter shots and dazzling special-effects - but by Joe Street, running terrified around New York city with his hi-def video camera.

But that’s the point isn’t it. Take an everyman and his expensive Christmas gift, and follow his plight as he tries to escape a city under siege. Yet while Cloverfield might seem like a unique piece of entertainment it’s rather insulting. After all, the events depicted in the movie are nothing more than a fantastical retelling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. Isn’t it rather insensitive that, ultimately, the film is nothing more than a perfectly executed exercise in commercial productivity?

It is difficult not to compare Cloverfield with The Blair Witch… [MORE]

Full review featured on Helium - Click HERE 

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, USA, 2008) February 25, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure , 2 comments

Dir. Jon Favreau; starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb

Iron Man, partly through sheer entertainment but more so through quality, highlights the deficiencies of Spiderman and its ilk. There is little hiding my dislike of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise, a set of films which, along with X-Men, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Superman Returns and a long list of others, have turned me away from Hollywood’s penchant for the superhero. Small mercy’s aside – Hellboy, Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, Fantastic Four, Unbreakable – the new breed of superhero lacks the sort of creative muscle Superman and Batman were brandishing back in the 1970s and 1980s. What Jon Favreau’s Iron Man highlights is the fact superhero films can still be good movies under the merchandised gloss of their action set-pieces. It also examples the glaring flaws of the Spiderman franchise, a set of films only worthwhile to film students as how not to do teen romance.

John Stark is the genius inventor and owner of a military weapons manufacturing company. He’s got everything he ever wanted – women, money, power. When the convoy he’s travelling in is ambushed in Afghanistan, he’s captured and forced to build weaponry for a violent insurgent group. Instead of building a weapon for the group holding him captive, he creates a device he can use to escape with. The device, a reinforced iron suit powered by a tiny nuclear reactor, provides the user with power, protection and ammunition. Finishing the suit, Stark escapes, heading home to perfect the design and add some innovative touches. But, when he thinks all is safe, the iron suit is put the test once again when he discovers the real reason why he was held captive in the Middle East.

Favreau’s Iron Man stakes its claims in a grounded reality governed by technological advancement. This makes the titular character a more authentic proposition. But Favreau also underpins the fantastic with a very contemporary theme – how technology interacts with our lives, and the endless moral dilemma of military weaponry.

Some have criticized Favreau for taking the more realistic elements from the comic book for Iron Man’s first cinematic endeavors but that’s what makes his film so successful. Iron Man, far from being a superhero with supernatural powers, uses technology to dominate his enemies. This in turn highlights the film’s theme of power and greed. If the world’s most powerful weapons can be made, bought and used by the most powerful nation on earth, their mere existence (and destructive capabilities) becomes attractive to those with less than humane ideals. As Stark questions after his captivity, should weapons of strategic and/or mass destruction be built in the first place? For all their protective capabilities, they are only non-destructive if left unused, and as he finds out, no matter what policies are put in place to ensure weapons are in the right hands, they can and indeed do fall into the wrong ones.

Iron Man’s penchant for authentic if far-reaching science is also seen in Jeff Bridges’ cyborg monstrosity which becomes Stark’s chief villain. It’s a predictable plotline – Bridges hardly hides his hatred for the man who has everything: it’s all in those cold, calculating eyes – but he makes a sadistic and believable baddie in the mould of Lex Luther. The film becomes less interesting when the two metal goliath’s go hammer and tongue but at least Favreau gives so… [Please read my full review HERE]

Children of Men (2006, USA/UK, 2006) February 22, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , add a comment

Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak but brilliant film set in a self-destructive future born out of fascist authoritarianism and humanity’s loss of fertility is a damning, uncompromising picture of one possible eventuality. As a picture postcard of what a British National Party-run Britain could be, Cuaron’s film is the perfect antidote to their political and cultural ignorance. The film is deeply affecting, not just in its graphic depiction of violence and a society overrun by narcissism and government indignation, but in its believable view of a future not too distant from our own. Children of Men is a fascinating, original and frightening film that cuts so closely to the bone it actually hurts.

Clive Owen plays Dillon, a working man who has left his activism days behind him. When an old flame (Julianne Moore) arrives with a proposition, he finds himself thrust into a political nightmare. Britain, in the 2020’s is, like every other nation on earth, dying out. Infertility has taken hold. No babies have been born for nearly twenty years and when the youngest man on earth is murdered, the tabloid news has, as you’d expect, nothing better to focus on. Migration has become a thing of the past in the United Kingdom. All non-Brits are holed up in detention camps not unlike Nazi ghettos during World War 2, and random acts of brutality and murder are rife. Dillon is tasked to help a refugee escape the country. What he doesn’t know is that a miracle has occurred - the girl is pregnant. However, after Moore’s character is brutally killed by her own people, Dillon finds himself trying to escape the police who wrongly believe…[MORE]

Vantage Point (Pete Travis, USA, 2008) March 14, 2008

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , 5 comments

Vantage Point Links: Trailer / Imdb

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Berry Levy; starring Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Fox, Edgar Ramirez, Bruce McGill, Sigourney Weaver
Dennis Quaid has always been an actor I’ve admired. His emotion is right their in his face – in the jagged contours of rugged skin and eyes that can look straight through you. Since he lost the pretty-boy shine of his 1979 underappreciated classic Breaking Away, and a little later the rightly unappreciated Jaws 3, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most dependable assets. However, often the films themselves haven’t stood up to his understated stature. Indeed, if it wasn’t for his output in 2000 (Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Gregory Hoblit’s Back To The Future-like Frequency) many wouldn’t even know who he is. It’s a shame then, given high expectations from an energetic trailer and promise shown previously by director Pete Travis, that Vantage Point has to shelved under Patriotic Pap with all the other vacuous Hollywood actioners of the past few years.

Essentially, Vantage Point fails because it negates to recognise the inherent criticism of its narrative is also a criticism of itself. We are presented different viewpoints of the same event – beginning, not arbitrarily in a newsroom – evidentially showing that perspective can really affect opinion and knowledge of an event. That in itself isn’t particularly profound, but in terms of the media (especially the U.S networks such as Fox), it’s something worthy of investigation. However, director Pete Travis quickly forgets his opening ten minutes, finding more satisfaction in glossing over a clichéd and particularly convoluted plot with flashbacks to different characters. That’s where we find the route of the problem. Vantage Point may be unique for the first half-hour (it’ll suck you in with its quick pace and fast-editing) but the narrative extravagance wears off. You take the film at a stripped-down, bare-bones level, and it becomes an overblown movie, that is at times confusing and frequently makes little sense.

The plot concerns the American president’s visit to Spain for a public meeting regarding world terrorism. Unfortunately, or should that be ironically, the president gets shot twice from a sniper secreted in one of the nearby buildings. An explosion is heard and then another huge blast destroys the podium where the president was addressing the crowd. The initial pandemonium after the shooting is turned into utter devastation. We see this same sequence played out from several viewpoints – the GNN news team and their cameras (with Sigourney Weaver in charge), the secret agent guarding the president (Dennis Quaid), an onlooker and his video camera (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish police office (Eduardo Noriega), eventually getting to the president himself (William Hurt).

I didn’t have a problem with the repeated narrative but I did have issue with the way it was used. The first half hour is tense and exciting but ultimately unfulfilling. Travis hardly gives us a political thriller with any bite, so the next best thing would be at least a critical evaluation of the all-too powerful U.S. media. Maybe how their anchored news based on bias, political and commercial agendas affects mass audience, told through Hollywood action and suspense. But no, we get red-herrings, the usual patriotism, and the same kind mass audience manipulation seen in the likes of Fox news. When the film reverts back to the beginning for the fourth time you can’t help but will something else to happen, and although each character’s view gives us something new, it’s insignificant. That’s because the film’s biggest twist (twist being far too kind a word) is held back until halfway through when we shift further back in time to the president’s viewpoint.

In terms of twists – yes, it takes you by surprise – but it doesn’t treat the audience with any respect. If you’re going to show different viewpoints starting with your basic U.S. news network team with all their cameras and a reporter complaining of censorship, you’re setting precedence for the rest of the film. That being, given all the perspectives of an event, only then can you formulate a true meaning from it. Getting one perspective may be clouded in judgement, coloured by prejudice, and so on. The film doesn’t simply offer us all angles and allow us to generate opinion, it provides us information in a specific way, allowing plot details to come out and therefore placing the audience in the events as the director wants you to see and hear them. Okay, so aside from the manipulative hand of the director (it’s a film, we expect to go from A to B to C, from the first act to the second to the third), Travis holds back on the perhaps the most important perspective of all - that being the president himself. What we find out essentially – without giving it away – is that, yet again, human life can be easily discarded as long as someone stands in the way of a bullet heading the president’s way. This precarious tone didn’t sit right with me but it certainly wasn’t the only thing from the president’s viewpoint that failed. What you learn in literature is that red-herrings are fun but you shouldn’t hide something from the audience that the characters already know. I’d forgive this if (because we as an audience are inherently sided with the ‘good-guys’ we wouldn’t know what the ‘bad-guys’ know) the film didn’t use this as the most important aspect of the plot and indeed, the whole set-up for the film’s finale. However, it does, and therefore it’s one of the films major downfalls.

Perhaps the most telling reason why Vantage Point cannot be considered anything more than a letdown is the ending. Simply, the finale is too far-fetched. The audience is asked to suspend its disbelief for a film that has prided itself on documentary realism (Travis’ trademark handheld camerawork) and a sort of honest depiction of terrible, possibly real life events. First off, we have to accept that Dennis Quaid’s car can withstand a side-on crash and still manage to travel at speeds in pursuit of his target. We then have to accept that our culprit (I’m going to issue a spoiler warning right here, which will be in effect until the end of the paragraph!), having gone to all the trouble to set the whole assassination up (clearly proving he has little regard for human life), will swerve to miss a little girl standing in the road thus turning his own car over and thwarting his plans. In addition, Quaid’s car just so happens to crash fifty yards away, and in the midst of several smashed vehicles, he heads right for Bad Guy Number 1’s, opens the door and low and behold, case solved.

I think Pete Travis’ film’s ability to masquerade as something more than it really is, is the cause of my distaste. After all, as a piece of Hollywood fluff, it doesn’t do a lot wrong. It’s very quickly paced, doesn’t outstay its welcome with a running time around ninety minutes, and features some great character actors. Although I didn’t feel Forest Whitaker excelled, he’s still a wonderful talent, and there’s some lovely moments between him and a little girl before and after the shooting and explosions take place. Said Taghmaoui is also strong in his role but he doesn’t quite hit the sadistic unease of his Iraqi soldier in Three Kings, and that chilling speech about Michael Jackson’s face. Stand-out, as mentioned, has to be Dennis Quaid who’s like an old west gunslinger that has hung up his boots but come out of retirement for one last showdown. In the right role, which he definitely is here, all the lines on his face speak a thousand words and a hundred stories. In support, Sigourney Weaver plays the controlled TV news director who loses her rag when all hell breaks loose, but it’s a shame she isn’t more prominent.

Vantage Point is like cinematic plastic surgery. Essentially, director Pete Travis has given a face-lift to the convoluted, unoriginal Hollywood action film we’ve seen a hundred times, yet, forgot to patch up the cracks. It’s a calculated film with a cold message that will ultimately leave you unfulfilled.

Rating: 2 out of 5

© Copyright Daniel Stephens 2008

Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007, USA) February 22, 2008

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , 1 comment so far

Directed by James Wan; written by Ian Jeffers; starring Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund, Staurt Lafferty, John Goodman


It you want to see a movie that so perfectly encapsulates deux ex machina look no further than James Wan’s Death Sentence. It’s an unoriginal piece of filmmaking that hinges on one of the biggest horror clichés in the book. It’s a shame because director Wan definitely has an eye for action and suspense. Indeed, Death Sentence (about a man driven to revenge after his son is murdered and his family terrorised by a urban gang) might be messy but it’s taut and intriguing when Wan concentrates on his action sequences. It isn’t surprising since this is the writer-director who brought us the brilliant Saw. What is rather discouraging is the fact his blood-splattered revenge movie lacks Saw’s unique ability to stay one step ahead of the discerning horror fan and viewer. The grander scale of Death Sentence seems to limit the effectiveness of Wan’s directorial capabilities proving that bigger budgets and bigger stars hinder the talents of those once forced to utilize the ‘reigned-in’ limitations of low-budget independent cinema. When Wan attempts to be subtle in Death Sentence we find the film digress to colourless melodrama and soap-opera styling.

It’s also a shame that although the film does have a few twists they can’t help the fact it’s all in the wake of better cinematic excursions. As a take on I Spit On Your Grave, Death Sentence doesn’t have the political or socialistic undertones, while it doesn’t hold a candle to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Wan is a long way from creating the characterisation and tone of something like Deliverance, while his film lacks the vitality and overpowering tension of Dead Man’s Shoes. The film also lacks a strong central performance largely because Bacon’s Hume isn’t as well-written as say William Foster who was so brilliantly embodied by Micheal Douglas in Falling Down. Yet, the film begs and borrows from the more assured hands that feed it, and there is no more damaging criticism than the obvious truth – we’ve seen much better many times before.

Perhaps Wan’s main point here is how a man (in this case Kevin Bacon’s Mike Hume) degenerates from a loving father to a bloodied, shaven-headed killer. This is without a doubt the film’s most interesting aspect but it’s also the most poorly handled. It goes back to the beginning of the movie when the murder of his son takes place. They stop for petrol at a filling station because, quite out of the blue, Hume runs out of the stuff just after picking up his son from a hockey match. Immediately, I switched off. I couldn’t believe the film hinged on the most over-used cliché in horror film and literature. This sets precedence the film never gets over. Hume’s degeneration is based solely on unbelievable, poorly executed plot points and fake aesthetics. Are we really to believe shaving your head makes you immune to pain and a marksman with a shotgun? The film’s worst scene comes when – after buying what can only be called ‘a shit-load of guns’ – Bacon uses a how-to manual to learn how to use, fire, load and reload the weapons. He clearly struggles as he drops bullets and can’t load them properly. Suddenly, seconds later, after shaving his head and turning a solemn, bemused facial expression into stone-faced anger, he’s John J. Rambo. It’s the worst way to use a montage sequence and Wan does it clearly believing his audience are pre-schoolers (a fatal mistake since such young children wouldn’t even be allowed into the theatre to watch the movie).

As an action film it’s better than average – at times, taut and engaging. But as a piece of cinema that looks at one man’s destruction and the fall of patriarchal society, it’s soap-opera with Hollywood bells and whistles.

Rating: 2 out of 5

R.V. (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2006, USA) June 1, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure , add a comment

Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay by Geoff Rodkey; starring Robin Williams, JoJo, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Chenoweth

I’m not saying my sister has bad taste in films, I’m just saying our tastes differ, and when she recommended Robin Williams’ 2006 film R.V. to me, I had some reservations. I had seen the trailer and liked what I’d seen but thought surely it was a low-grade National Lampoon’s Vacation with childish humour that didn’t equate very well with an adult audience. After watching it, in many respects I was right, but Sonnenfeld is a director who for me personally, makes three bad films to every good one, and while R.V. might be bereft of the wry sarcasm and ensemble selection of characters from Harold Ramis’ National Lampoon’s Vacaton, it maintains the fish-out-of-water histrionics and innocent, familial values that made the aforementioned film so endearing. R.V. isn’t a great film, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be ignored by anyone wanting ninety minutes of escapist fun. Yes, it’s aimed at young teens, and it’s slot on Sunday afternoon television is already assured, but Robin Williams has a ball with his character (getting back into comedy after several dramatic roles), and while the humour might not be to everyone’s liking (indeed, comedy can be such a fickle genre to review), I found myself getting caught up in the physical eccentricities of it all and really warming to it.

The film reminded me of a few eighties movies, perhaps the reason I liked it so much. It has an obvious homage to Richard Donner’s The Goonies when the family of characters find themselves falling down a rain-soaked hill that looks uncannily like a waterslide. There’s a little bit of Parenthood in there, and most certainly National Lampoon’s Vacation. Indeed, the film takes on the very same ideals, which make it interesting for parents who watch it with their kids. The film begins with Robin Williams’ character Bob Munro telling his very young daughter that they will be the best of friends forever. We then cut to several years later when the daughter is a rebellious fifteen year old who not ‘hates’ her father. Munro finds himself being alienated from his family – he works too much and doesn’t get to spend time with his wife, while his son struggles to come to terms with is small stature, and his daughter desperately seeks individualism. Munro himself can’t really understand where it all went wrong. He started a family and, effectively, in working hard to support it, has become a bit-part player. This sets up the vacation, which Munro uses as a ruse to get to a business meeting he doesn’t want to tell his wife about. Throughout the journey, Munro begins to bond with his family and learn about himself, especially the value of a family unit.

You could easily say it’s pretty rudimentary storytelling, almost contrived, and it is to a certain degree, but Sonnenfeld keeps the pace up and never allows the film’s message to become preachy. Where it falls down is in the characters beyond Munro, who are little more than caricatures. His wife is dutiful but wants the exuberance of their early relationship to come back, his son and daughter are both rebellious but all they really need is some tender loving care from their father; it’s uninspired and seriously hampers the film on multiple viewings. But what makes the film so watchable is Williams, who energises the movie with his great physical humour, his love of comedy excreting from every pore.

R.V. is enjoyable in a innocent, childlike, Sunday-dinner-round-the-table, type of way. If nothing else, it’ll keep the kids happy for a couple of hours.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (Liam Lynch, 2006, USA) May 29, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure , 3 comments

Dir. Liam Lynch; screenplay by Jack Black & Kyle Gass; starring Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Jason Reed, Ronnie James Dio, Tim Robbins, Dave Grohl, Ben Stiller

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny is a film aimed primarily at their fans. It’s also targeted, unfortunately, at those who enjoyed This Is Spinal Tap, the Beatles in Yellow Submarine, rock opus Tommy, or Eric Idle in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. But beyond its novelty, it pales in comparison.

At times, the film seems more concerned conforming to rock and roll conventions like the psychedelic hallucinations brought on by a rampant overindulgence with acid that made Yellow Submarine so unique but ultimately completely rubbish. The Beatles movie might have been a strange affair with little merit, but at least it was honest. The Pick of Destiny wants to be the Yellow Submarine of the MTV-generation, it wants to celebrate music like Tommy, and it desperately wants to be as funny as This Is Spinal Tap, but it’s nothing more than a poorly-scripted set of sketches (Black and Gass are much more suited to their television work and comedy sketches seen on The Complete Masterworks).

Jack Black tries his level best to make it work, and has some amusing moments, but he’s not helped by Kyle Gass who reminds me of a middle-aged man at a wedding party trying to score with the twenty year old bridesmaids. Gass is a master of the guitar but he’s a terrible actor.

Apart from a beautiful transition for the opening credits when electric guitar-driven music is seamlessly dissolved into an orchestral score (this is right about the time when you’ve still got high hopes for the film), it’s incoherent, messy, and seriously lacking in laughs. I’m both a fan of Tenacious D and Jack Black, but this isn’t a celebration of rock n roll, it’s a feature-length promotion for a sub-par rock album that won’t sell very well.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006, USA) May 22, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , 7 comments

Dir. Tony Scott; screenplay by Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio; starring Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Elden Henson, Bruce Greenwood

As the closing credits begin at the end of Déjà Vu, a title appears commemorating the people of New Orleans for their ‘strength and enduring spirit.’ Clearly, the film alludes to those who lost their lives, and the many that tried to save life, after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Yet, the film has more close ties to the unnatural disaster that appeared in New York on the 11th of September 2001, and that eternal question of ‘what if’. What if you could go back in time and stop those planes from taking off? The film shares the sentiments of other time travel movies such as Back To The Future, and more recently, Frequency and Timecop, but at its heart, it’s a quintessential American hero movie. It’s about facing adversity and challenging all the one holds sacred.

After a bomb explodes on a boat in New Orleans, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) begins to investigate, finding some unexplainable ties between himself and one of the female victims. When he learns that she was found dead an hour before the explosion he begins to question the line of enquiry and the FBI invite him to help with their enquiries. He’s introduced to a new piece of technology that allows its viewers to see events as they occurred four and a half days prior. However, they can’t pause or rewind the footage and they can only view events four and a half days before the present day. Therefore, they have to wait until they can watch the footage of the exploding boat. Their job in the mean time is to decide where to look on the boat, and who to look for, as they only get one chance to get it right. But when Carlin realises they can influence the events in the past, stopping the tragedy before it happens becomes his prime objective.

There’s was a moment around the fifty minute mark where I felt the film was being far too complicated for its own good. Scott takes the influences of big brother, CCTV, and government spy satellites one step further from his own 1998 film Enemy Of The State. Here he depicts a way of seeing into the past and uses very specific scientific details to tell us just exactly how it works. However, the threat of total invasion of privacy is quite apparent in Enemy Of The State, the way the government watches the world is believable and based on fact. Déjà Vu bends the rules slightly, taking fact and adding quite a lot of fiction. Certainly when the film really gets going, it’s a roller-coaster of adventurism, explosions, bad guys, and car chases, but Scott never really sets his audience up for the fantasy aspect of his story. Suddenly we are asked to stretch are imagination from a hard-nosed police investigation (with the psychological angle of a cop seemingly breaking down) and a mysterious terrorist threat, to a time-travel fantasy about folding the space-time continuum, Einstein-Rosen bridges, worm holes, Wheeler Boundaries, and EM pulses. When Carlin asks, ‘What if there’s more than physics’, I’m pleading there isn’t. The problem is that it comes out of nowhere, and while it is a twist in the tale, the surprise element is extinguished my confusing science and the attempt to fuse reality with unreality. It’s fundamental storytelling – take for example, Jurassic Park which, setting aside all the marketing campaigns, began by showing us a caged beast attacking game keepers. It set-up what was to come. In Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis filled the early part of the movie with ‘time’ metaphors, and in Frequency we are introduced to the mystical qualities of the Aurora Borealis and hearing old radio broadcasts. In Déjà Vu, Scott throws in a few red-herrings (the film’s title is a clue, as is Carlin finding a voice recording left by himself, finger prints in a building he never knowingly went to, and a message seemingly addressed to himself) but doesn’t completely set-up the big, time-traveling jolt to the system, and even then, behind all the science, he can’t hide the odd plot hole. While you could argue the plot intricacies make for a more fulfilling second viewing, and in effect, directly set-up what is to come, the film simply does not prepare the viewer for its change of direction. Essentially, I wasn’t ready to suspend my disbelief so suddenly, and it takes some time for everything to position itself back into place.

However, when the movie settles back down, and you take on-board that essentially the film is about influencing events that happened four and half days ago in order to prevent tragedies in the future, there’s enough high-octane thrills to make you forget about any problems you might have with the film’s plot logic. Indeed, while I have reservations about the middle part of the film, the first fifty minutes is intriguing, while the last half hour is thrillingly eventful. A lot of the thanks have to go to Denzel Washington who provides another powerhouse performance, and beautifully grounds the fantastical with a very raw representation of a man desperate to save life.

Déjà Vu might not be as polished as Scott’s Enemy Of The State, or as well-orchestrated as the director’s other collaboration with Washington on Man On Fire, but it’s frequently more enjoyable than Spy Game and Domino. It is at times a little over-complicated with a messy plot but it’s an entertaining action movie that never outstays its welcome.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Doom (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005, USA) May 18, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, Horror, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , 6 comments

Dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak; screenplay by Dave Callahan & Wesley Strick; starring The Rock, Karl Urban, Rosamund Pike, Ben Daniels

In one of the great self-reflexive moments that Kevin Smith does so well, Ben Affleck tells Matt Damon in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, ‘you gotta do a safe picture, then you can do an art picture. But then sometimes you gotta do the paycheck picture because your friend says you owe him.’ It’s a great little moment in a great little movie, and fittingly, describes the sentiments of Rosamund Pike who turns up in Doom surely because she either has bills to pay or she owes a friend. The Libertine, Pride And Prejudice, and the Devil You Know actress surely knew what a mess she was getting herself into when she read Callahan and Strick’s script. I’ll just backtrack for a second – did I just say it took two people to write this awful film – I think I did.

Essentially, Doom is like a high-budget TV movie with nothing resembling conflict, characterisation, or originality. Any videogame conversion to the big-screen can be forgiven for a lack of original material but the film struggles to find any conflict within its rocket-scientist mumbo-jumbo and over-complicated plotting. For a film that concerns a group of combat marines going into battle (after a distant planet issues a distress call), you’d expect a certain amount of tension, but director Bartkowiak seems either unable or unwilling. There’s a silly moment when The Rock tells his marines it’s ‘game time’ as they exit a helicopter to go into a building. The marines check the area for danger as an elevator opens with the audience half expecting something nasty to appear. Alas, it doesn’t and the men enter the elevator. Danger must surely be close? Not exactly, as the marines find their floor, we learn they’ve entered a building that acts, much like an airport, and transports them to the planet that needs their assistance. Essentially, they’re at a futuristic airport. So, we wonder, why all the gun-ready, macho-posturing as they first got into the elevator, because there was no danger whatsoever. Retrospectively, it’s laughable, as you could see the Wayans brothers or the Zucker’s using such a gag as parody, not serious, supposedly tension-building drama. In fact, I countered at least three false starts for The Rock and his gang of idiots before they face any real danger. By then, I’d switched off and started self-palm reading, something that was difficult because it was far too dark to do it properly, and secondly, I have absolutely no idea how to palm read.

Fundamentally, Doom is a complete failure because it doesn’t do the one thing it should. That is, to offer exciting and dramatic action, underscored by a relevant and overpowering threat. You think about the films it wants to be - Aliens and Predator - and they both had what was required in abundance. In Aliens, even before the marines face any direct threat, tension is created because they go to a planet they and the audience know could be populated by evil, unstoppable monsters. The fact that when they initially get there, everyone on the planet has disappeared, heightens this level of suspense (what happened? Why? Where are all the people?). The soldiers are faced with desolate corridors, artificial lighting beginning to fade, and the obvious signs of struggle, a last stand. Likewise, in Predator, when the soldiers find another slain group of marines, they begin to question what exactly they are up against. Can they defeat it, where another group of soldiers failed? Both these scenes appear well before any proper combat and yet the audience is left excited in anticipation. Doom is far too confused in its build-up, pedestrian-paced, and makes the cardinal sin of paying homage to films far better than itself.

Perhaps, the film’s main problem is Bartkowiak, a cinematographer-turned-director, whose credits at the helm include Romeo Must Die and the Steven Seagal film Exit Wounds. He paints Doom in stylish blacks and greys, with futuristic colour flourishes, and doesn’t allow himself to show too much of the excellent production design, wisely keeping it in shadow. Yet, his control of off-screen space is less refined. He struggles to focus our attention as the messy plot that features caricature, paper-thin characters has them scattering all over the place. Bartkowiak doesn’t know whether to stick or twist, and we’re left with a languid pace that meanders on a very confused course. He draws too much on what other filmmakers have done before, and can’t overcome the clichéd script with its uninventive plot and awful dialogue. The film is also devoid of humour, something that has certainly helped other videogame and especially comic book adaptations.

Maybe I went into the film with higher expectations than I should have had. I didn’t expect an especially great action film, but I did expect a sense of adventure. When Bartkowiak goes to Doom-vision (filming the shot in much the same way as the game is played in first person perspective) I felt it was inspired. At the very least it celebrated the film’s roots, and gave the videogame fans something intrinsic to enjoy. It was also a very good piece of filmmaking (but arrives far too late in the movie), probably attributed to Bartkowiak’s cinematographic background, as he uses fast-paced edits and a claustrophobic mise-en-scene to place the audience directly into the action with danger all around. Yet, unfortunately, it’s one bright spot in a great expanse of humourless, tensionless black. Doom is uninspired, big-budget Hollywood. Where have we heard that before?

Rating: 1 out of 5

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