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Garden State (2004) August 30, 2008

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Directed by: Zach Braff

You’ve got to be brave to take on the hefty responsibilities that come with the title ‘writer / director / star’, especially when it’s your first feature film as any of them.  And when I say brave, I almost mean stupid, as it’s essentially the filmmaking equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket - there’s nobody to blame if it isn’t a success.  Basically, unless you’re a cinematic legend (Clint Eastwood has earned the right), you’re setting yourself up for a fall.  Unless, you know, your acute sense of emotive introspection reaches deep into the hearts of a generation.  Or something.  But what are the chances of that?

Step up, Zach Braff.  The star of TV’s Scrubs takes the script he started in college and brings it to the screen with the passion and expertise of someone much more experienced.  Doing away with a true sense of structure (in its three acts form, at least), the film floats casually along the path to enlightenment, wherein you discover love, life lessons, and the truth behind the infinite abyss.

The tale starts in the empty Los Angeles apartment of Andrew Largeman, a minor actor made lethargic by medication he has been taking since his was young.  Faced with the prospect of returning home for his mother’s funeral, Andrew kicks the pills and makes his way to New Jersey without them.  During his stay he joins up with old acquaintances, meets a colourful and quirky girl, and confronts his father who he blames for a life of disengagement.  His trip proves to be the awakening to an existence he has never properly experienced.

First off, Braff’s script is both witty and heartfelt, and yes, maybe a tad melodramatic for some.  The essence of his characters is undeniably strong though, and that shows through in both the writing and the quality of performances from a great cast.  Braff himself injects a much needed emotional detachment into his central character of Andrew Largeman, but it is those less close to the source material, like Natalie Portman’s eternally cute free spirit and Peter Sarsgaard as the morally questionable old friend, who really help add colour to the story.  It’s notable that Ian Holm gets less screen time than he needs or deserves (his most major scene was cut from the film), but I guess you can’t have everything.

Music is also an important element in this movie and in keeping with indie tradition (see: Little Miss Sunshine [review] and Juno [review]), the soundtrack is an insatiable mix of low-fi guitars and mood-setting ballads.  I’ve always been a big fan of any filmmaker who takes the time to really consider the music, rather than just throw a bunch of current hits behind the visuals as so many modern flicks seem to do.  Cameron Crowe is well known director-cum-meticulous music purist, and the effort always shows through in even his most derided works.  Here, we get treated to a reflective story perfectly matched by thoughtful cues - Crowe had better watch his back.

As with any self-analysing story, it meets contempt from those who find it clichéd or mawkish.  Indeed, the idea that you only get one life and you should make the most of it isn’t a new realm of exploration for movies - you can go back to It’s a Wonderful Life for evidence of that.  But what Garden State proves is that people growing up will always be inspired by a reminder of this idea, and how each generation should get a chance to experience it through a relatable story.  Luckily, for those who are ready to be spoken to, Braff’s film is a beautiful and honest example of how to get the point across.  It’s little wonder that its legions of fans are ready to defend it to the hilt.

I find myself caught in that generational target-market, and really enjoyed this movie, along with every other college age student who took the time to hunt it down.  There’s little denying that Zach Braff is an engaging performer (when not held back by unlikeable characterisation), and also a talented writer to boot.  In the four years since Garden State was released Braff has starred in a couple of forgettable flicks, but nothing of his own.  This year brings news that Open Hearts, a remake of the Danish movie of the same name, will return him to the tri-sponsiblities he held here - an exciting prospect for those waiting to see what he will do next.  Sure, he’s not earned Eastwood-level filmmaking immunity yet, but that’s not to say that the infinite abyss doesn’t hold it in store.

The Black Dahlia (2006) August 26, 2008

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Directed by: Brian De Palma

The last time Brian De Palma did a boxing-themed opening was for his 1998 film Snake Eyes, an arguably flawed but (I think) entertaining enough thriller that plunged the depths of corruption and attempted to weave a mystery narrative around its flashy cinematography.  But boxing and mystery aren’t the only comparisons with this adaptation of the James Ellroy novel ‘The Black Dahlia’, which similarly couples De Palma’s strong eye for visuals with a story that lacks the ability to hold you through to the end.

Based on the true tale of the murder of Elizabeth Short, the film opens with two ex-boxers, Dwight Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, who now work as policemen in 1940’s Los Angeles.  Not only does their joint-promotion to detective force them to work closely together, but it also causes a love triangle to form between Dwight, Lee, and Lee’s girlfriend, Kay Lake.  As the local press start to intrude on Short’s murder case, Lee becomes increasingly driven to find the perpetrator.  His absence leaves Dwight to conduct his own investigation, and get closer to Kay in the meanwhile.

The film boasts a strong cast who slip easily into their 1940’s personas.  Josh Hartnett is Dwight Bleichert, the central sleuth and our protagonist for the course of the story, a role which he manages to inject some charm into despite being weighed down by a rather convoluted love interest sideline.  Arron Eckhart, who so impressed in Thank You For Smoking [review], is his partner of sorts, fighting his own demons with as much watchability as ever. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson plays her usual temptress character while Hilary Swank emphasizes her posh side in a role that sees her slightly underused.  Finally, Mia Kirshner plays the murdered Elizabeth Short and provides one of the best performances, despite only appearing in brief video tape footage.

As screenwriter, Josh Friedman’s credits are fairly sparse, having previously only worked on the Keanu Reeves action thriller Chain Reaction and the Spielberg-directed remake of War of the Worlds [review].  Maybe not the most inspired background, but the period dialogue and settings here suggest that Friedman has a strong grasp of this particular novel and a little research suggests that he was working on the script for years before production even began.  Which makes it all the more disappointing when a story that starts out as an interesting old-school detective mystery, completely loses steam, resulting in a final act that fumbles its explanations and ends up not nearly as revealing or smart as it thinks it is.

What the movie does have going for it is Brain De Palma himself, proving once again that he can be the strongest asset in a troubled picture.  He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond create a gorgeous noir-infused view of California compete with dark night time corners and washed-out daytime sun beams.  The set design complements the picture with nice period touches that cumulate in a visual experience belonging to a film much better than this one.  A missed opportunity all round it seems, as the opening to make these noir throwbacks grows smaller with every poor attempt.

If it wasn’t for the dodgy plotline and sometimes ill-treatment of the genre it is trying to emulate (many have called the film ‘campy’ in its handling of the classic detective yarn), this might have had something going for it.  Where The Black Dahlia really falls short is in comparisons to the similarly themed but ultimately superior Hollywoodland [review] - a film released in the US just a week before De Palma’s movie hit theatres.  When it comes down to it, Hollywoodland shares all of Dahlia’s strengths (including a stand-out recreation of 40’s California), and suffers fewer of its weaknesses.  As it stands, this film is one for De Palma fans - a mere glimpse of greatness without the right material to back it up.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) August 22, 2008

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

It is usual for sequels to be the product of popularity; a return to characters we were already introduced to so that they may continue their seemingly endless adventures, all while making the pockets of a hungry audience that little bit lighter.  All’s fair in love and box office I suppose, and it would be unjust to say that every sequel strategy turns out badly (The Dark Knight [review], anyone?).  Hellboy II, on the other hand, may be the complete antithesis of this.  A sequel born not of the money-grabbing “give ‘em more” attitude that plagues regular follow-ups, but rather a film that only exists but for the grace of director Guillermo del Toro: the Pied-Piper of Hollywood.
Del Toro is a rare breed, and one who happily mixes his independent foreign language commitments with mainstream Hollywood engagements.  What’s rare is that he has found great success in both.  This makes him like gold dust for the big studios, who want to channel his off-beat credibility and spellbinding imagination into their seat-filling summer blockbusters.  Now, some back story.  Anyone familiar with the tale of Hellboy’s inception onto the big screen will know that it was something of a passion project for the Mexican director.  As a huge fan of Mike Mignola’s comic books, it took plenty of work and proof-of-ability (see: Blade II) before he was allowed the chance to make it for Sony Pictures.  For all intents and purposes the film underperformed, and never captured the public imagination in the same way that Spider-man or Batman Begins did – but the story does end there.

Since then, Guillermo has gone and turned himself into an Oscar-nominated auteur, the success of Pan’s Labyrinth securing him a seat at Sony’s head table when he wanted to come back and do an American film.  But what does Del Toro want to make?  Another dark and interesting adult fairytale?  No, Hellboy II, of course!  So Sony dumps the license for financial reasons and without hesitation it is picked up by Universal; a new studio to fall under the spell of Del Toro’s hypnotic tune.  Against better judgement, they give the go-ahead for a sequel.
Which leads us to this, The Golden Army, a story that sees ‘Big Red’ and chums (minus John Myers this time) take on an indestructible army of mechanical warriors, under the control of the vengeful Elf royalty, Prince Nuada.  Meanwhile, Hellboy and girlfriend Liz are having relationship issues, and aquatic investigator Abe Sapien falls for Nuada’s twin sister, Nuala, after she is brought in by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD) for her own safety.  Both interpersonal bonds are stretched when Hellboy and his crew track Nuada down to stop him before he wages a one-sided slaughter of humankind.
It’s clearly a fantasy movie at heart, as all comic book adaptations are, although this one maybe more so because of its entanglement with goblins, trolls, elves and witches.  As such, it has rather a bit of back-story to get through in the first ten minutes, which can often be the period when you’re paying the least attention.  In order to sidestep this, the film makes use of a wonderfully animated storybook sequence to divulge the plot history.  Built like the workings of a child’s imagination, it’s an inventive way of getting the back-story on screen, and the first of many spectacular visual delights.
Other highlights include the fantastic action sequences, which is an area where Del Toro has really coming into his own.  The high-quality of choreography on display, matched with similarly stylish cinematography, leaves you genuinely impressed at the skill of these sequences, which are light years head of most of this summer’s supposedlyexciting’ blockbusters.  Add to this some superior computer generated effects that appear frequently, but not distractingly so, and you’ve got the kind of old-school action adventure that actually bothers to instil excitement and spectacle into its set-pieces.
Hellboy II is also more evenly paced than its original [review], with time to delve into themes of love and rejection.  I might have liked a little more about Hellboy’s turbulent rise and fall in the public eye, but what’s there is enough to paint a clear picture.  All the returning actors do a fine job, especially Ron Perlman who brings a difficult character to life even under full prosthetics.  Speaking of which, mime actor Doug Jones gets to provide both vocals and movements for his character of Abe Sapien this time, and makes fine work of it.  I’m still a little unconvinced by Selma Blair, who serves to set up a rather ominous plot-point if there’s ever another movie, but it is nice to see an expanded role for Jeffery Tambor, as BPRD chief Tom Manning.  Only Luke Goss gets left out in the cold - his evil Prince Nuada is not the most memorable of villains.
If there’s a criticism to be had it’s that the whole thing has gone a little bit ‘Pans’, which is great for Guillermo’s sketchbook, but a little overbearing for the rest of us.  There’s an awful lot of fantasy creature stuff this time around, way more than just the villainous beasties of the first Hellboy.  Maybe the studio’s concession for making the movie was that they could play a little off the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, but some of it feels awfully familiar - especially the misplaced eyes on the Angel of Death, which is almost a direct lift of the Pale Man in Del Toro’s Spanish fairytale.  Where the unique designs fare better are in the more Hellboy-specific characters, especially the Golden army itself, who whirr and clank to great effect.
Hellboy II is a combination of great fun, great fights, and a good bit of humour (rather like Del Toro, the film is not afraid to make fun of itself).  It’s a terrific summer action flick and an imaginative, single-minded piece of popcorn entertainment.  This film deserves to be a bigger success than it probably will be (because despite best intentions, how do you get people to go see a flick when they either didn’t watch or didn’t rate the original?), but it’ll make money, and it certainly won’t stop Del Toro from moving on to the next big studio project.  He’s got ideas, they’ve got cash.  Time to whip out a merry tune and dance them all the way to Hellboy III.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is currently on UK general release.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) August 18, 2008

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Directed by: Rob Cohen

With two movies, two video games, an animated TV series, and a spin-off feature to its name, the Mummy franchise has been a surprise hit for Universal and original writer/director Stephen Sommers.  Despite all the odds, it overcame the sub-Indiana Jones comparisons and abundance of similar popcorn projects to be a profitable, if not unanimously well loved, summer mainstay.  But that was years ago now, and if the creators should have learnt one thing from their previous exploits, it’s that you ought never try and reanimate something that has long since been put to rest.  The results are never pretty.

This time, adventurer Rick O’Connell and wife Evelyn jet off to Asia in the transport of an important Chinese artefact.  While there, they unexpectedly meet up with their wayward son, Alex, who has just uncovered one of China’s most ruthless ancient leaders, the Dragon Emperor.  Of course, events occur that bring him back to life, and so the family team must go on a dangerous expedition through the Himalayas and beyond, to reach the location of the Emperor’s ten-thousand warriors before he can revive them and seek to take over the known world.

If the plot sounds pretty familiar, that’s because it is, essentially, just the usual rough-and-tumble O’Connell exploits simply transplanted to China and given a new villain.  Yet, even with such steadfast determination to not change the basic elements or character interaction, the whole thing is a huge step down in overall quality.  Everything in this giant mess of a revival suffers from a seemingly lazy attitude that makes the whole project stink of the worst kind of Hollywood sin: the cash-in.

The biggest behind the scenes change is the swapping out of series architect Stephen Sommers for action director Rob Cohen, a choice that sees both the enthusiasm and charm of the originals slip away.  Cohen is a more typical choice for summer blockbusting entertainment, and as the man behind The Fast and the Furious, xXx, and Stealth, his high-octane credentials aren’t in doubt. And yet, despite previous experience, the action in this film is surprisingly weak, mostly consisting of slow-mo fighting swoops and fast-cutting shoot-outs.

Not that the script offers up much opportunity for action divulgence.  The story consists of that very typical “go here, go here, go here” style of plotting, which can be interesting if there’s genuine reason and drive behind the progression of the journey; but of course, that’s not the case here.  Worse still is the dialogue, which is made up of plodding expositional nothingness and horribly derivative comic interludes that start off bad and never get better.  The weak script hurts Maria Bello most, who already has to step in for Rachel Weisz and play against type (and nationality) as an English adventurer.  Bello is a respected performer, which makes it all the more painful to see her desperately extending her vowels and spouting such irritating chatter. 

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that none of the cast come off well here, even the old familiar characters.  Brendan Fraser simply goes through the motions, while John Hannah’s comic-relief is mostly sidelined to make room for newcomer Luke Ford to butch up as the now adult O’Connell son.  Jet Li is the villain who doesn’t say much (good), but doesn’t use his combat skills enough either (bad), as Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong play immortal warriors.  Basically, I wouldn’t be too surprised if this stayed off the CVs of most of those who took part.

And then there’s the CG.  I guess that we have to expect that any blockbuster is going to employ CG with abundance these days, and it’s not without necessity in this, a tale of undead warriors and ancient hidden locations.  There has been some derision directed towards the effects in this movie, but they are, in my opinion, among the strongest elements in a very poor film.  The moments where you can notice a computer standing in for reality (the Yetis, the magic effects etc.) are forgiven by the ability to create a thousand-strong undead army for the conclusion.  Of course, the very fact that this film ends with two armies charging against each other is just another unoriginal facet in this tiresome action spectacular.

The original Mummy films, for all their imperfections, were never outright uninteresting, which is what Tomb of the Dragon Emperor descends into with its lazy plotting and bland characters.  It seems unafraid to cross off all the actions clichés and offers itself up to ridicule at regular intervals - even by Hollywood adventure standards, it’s pretty poor.  With an anti-descriptive title not dissimilar to this year’s Indiana Jones come-back [review], this movie only bests it rival by being even more disappointing.  Universal needs to accept that their cash cow is dead.  Time to seal the sarcophagus, and mark it ‘never to be resurrected’.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is currently on UK general release.

Get Smart (2008) August 14, 2008

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Directed by: Peter Segal

Back in the late 90’s, when TV revivals were all the rage (see: Mission Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, George of the Jungle), there was one project in development that slipped through the cracks and never made it to the big screen.  Missing the boat is usually fatal in Hollywood, but rather unpredictably, this specific cinematic trend held strong into the new millennium, with films such as The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky & Hutch keeping the TV nostalgia pool warm.  Now, ten years since development began, the big screen outing of Mel Brooke’s 1960’s TV comedy Get Smart has finally appeared.  Luckily, that extra decade has made all the difference.

Our protagonist is Maxwell Smart, an analyst for CONTROL (a secret government spy organisation), and a man so good at his office work that he is denied the chance to become a full field agent like he dreams of.  It isn’t until a ruthless attack by evil terrorists KAOS puts the identities of all current government agents at risk, that The Chief has no choice but to promote Max and put him into duty alongside the only other uncompromised spy, the beautiful and skilled Agent 99.  While Max’s book-smarts and 99’s field experience don’t mix at first, they are forced to work together as they discover KAOS is planning a devastating nuclear attack that could come at any moment.

Right from the off, this film suffers a little from trailer-gag syndrome.  Anyone who has been subjected to one or more trailer variations on a previous cinema visit will already have seen some of the bigger jokes.  That’s a shame, but it’s also worth noting that, in this particular case, the trailer catches the mood dead-on.  If you liked the slightly silly, slapstick, ‘written’ style of comedy that the previews promise, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this flick.  As an action comedy, it tries to fulfil a difficult genre mix and therefore has a lot to live up to - but rest assured, it mostly succeeds at both.  While the story often exists only in order to move between a number of set-pieces, it leaves plenty of play for witty dialogue exchanges and up-tempo fight scenes.  The finale, especially, is as over-the-top yet undeniably exciting as any recent adolescent-targeted action flick, for which director Peter Segal should be proud.

Having previously helmed a number of Adam Sandler comedies (Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard), this is a step up in challenge for Segal, whose closest previous experience to this film might be directing Naked Gun 33 1/3 back in 1994.  In order to amp-up the action a bit he attempts to pull a Michael Mann on us, switching between film and HD video in some sequences.  This stands out a little too much on occasion, and doesn’t really add anything to the visual aesthetic in the same way it did in Mann’s Collateral [review], for example.  Still, when it opts to keep things simple, the cinematography during the action sequences is as good as you might expect from an $80 million Hollywood feature.

Writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember take the characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry for the 1960’s TV series, and neatly update the setting for the modern day.  They even work in a way of utilising the show’s more memorable elements, now outdated by modern technology: shoe-phone anyone?  The story isn’t this film’s strong point, however, so when it isn’t ducking in and out of set-pieces, it’s narrowly avoiding over-boiling its characters in unnecessary background or trying to explain away the romantic connection between actors with a 20-year age gap.

And this is where Steve Carell comes into his own.  As a very likeable on-screen actor, someone should be getting a sizeable bonus for this great piece of casting.  He is both bumbling and charming in equal measure, which somehow makes his incompetent and nerdy spy-wannabe much more endearing and enjoyable to watch than Rowan Atkinson’s similar effort in Johnny English.  In fact, even though you could compare the sillier elements in both films, there’s no doubt that Carell’s grasp of dialogue and intonation makes this the superior movie.  For him alone, it was worth waiting the extra ten years.

The rest of the cast fill the typical character slots required by a movie like this.  So we get Anne Hathaway as a sexy Agent 99, Alan Arkin playing The Chief (and working with Carell again after their stint in Little Miss Sunshine [review]), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as cool-guy Agent 23, and Terence “I’m always the villain” Stamp, as his usual ruthless self.  It’s a solid cast, and there’s additional comic support from David Koechner, Terry Crews and James Caan - plus one notable cameo who appears from within a tree!

Get Smart ultimately subsides to a bunch of comparisons with other spy films.  The aforementioned Johnny English is the closest point of reference, but it also holds a little love for fans of Austin Powers [review] or The Man Who Knew Too Little.  Any inherent silliness is grounded somewhat by the moments of action, yet even a favourable description like ‘Mission:Impossible lite’ doesn’t correctly cover what it’s about (plus, it’s awkward to call something ‘lite’ when it actually has a higher UK certificate).  This is perfectly enjoyable summer fun, but nothing more.  I just wish they had taken heed of their own title: a little more smarts would have gone down well here.

Get Smart is on UK general release from August 22nd.

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