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The Uninvited (2009) May 25, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , add a comment

Directed by: Charles Guard & Thomas Guard

Every time a supposedly original American horror flick arrives in cinemas, it’s always a sure bet that you’ll be able to disprove any inherent uniqueness by tracing its origins back to somewhere else.  If it’s a slasher flick, then simply peruse films from the genre made thirty years previous.  If it’s a moody, usually family-based thriller, complete with jump-cut trailer and dark overtones, chances are it has Eastern roots.  The Uninvited arrives as one of the latter – playing directly into the stereotypical mould of Asian remakes by being excellent in concept, but uninspired in execution.

To clear up a potentially confusing point from the outset, this is not a remake of Soo-youn Lee’s Uninvited, but of Ji-woon Kim’s mystery thriller, A Tale of Two Sisters.  As such, the story picks up as Anna, a teen girl who suffered a breakdown after the death of her mother, is released from the psychiatric institution where she had been staying.  Anna returns home to her father, her sister Alex, and her father’s new girlfriend, the mysterious Rachel Summers.  While initially fine, it isn’t long before Anna starts to have nightmarish dreams and visions that warn her to beware of Rachel.  As the two sisters investigate, they uncover Rachel’s true past – as a murdering gold-digger.  But left alone with her for the weekend, Anna and Alex can only hope they stay alive long enough to tell someone.

On leaving the screening of this film, which had its Stateside release in January but has been inexplicably delayed until April in the UK, I was asked if I could sum it up in one word.  These post-screening questions are fairly normal in a preview situation, but even so, one word seems an extremely limiting way to collect feedback.  Just one word to summarise an entire story, its characters, the setting, the way it made you react or feel, or maybe the complete lack of those things.  I had the meaning I wanted to convey in mind – one of adherence to a standard formula, that ’straight down the line’ exemplification of someone making a horror movie with a blindfold on, by memory.  None of these concepts fit the one word quota though and I was running out of time.  The word I was scrabbling around for was, of course, “generic”.

And that is a perfect way of describing The Uninvited for those who understand that this genre, and particularly the new PG-13 date-movie subdivision of it, has many flirtations with originality and genuine surprise, but regularly boils it all down to the ’scare, scare, scare, twist’ pattern of events that have turned these films into simplified clones.  That’s not to say that the pieces in-between can’t be interesting or entertaining, but certainly once you’ve seen your protagonist tentatively open one creepy looking bin bag set to an eerie silence, you’ve seen her open them all.  Or at least you’ll wish you had; Anna opens no less than three creepy bin bags during the movie’s short 87 minutes.  Trashy, indeed.

Despite this repetitive upset, the cast equip themselves well for their roles.  Emily Browning is suitably distant and mysterious as the mentally plagued receiver of vivid dreams, while Arielle Kebbel fits the more rowdy, rebellious sister role just as well.  The excellent David Strathairn has a less defined part playing the shortsighted father figure, but it is Elizabeth Banks who comes out on top of the pile, as the duplicitous new girlfriend with a secret past.  Once again she proves her versatility, having appeared in both uproarious comedies (Role Models, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and political dramas (W. [review]) in the past 12 months, she again impresses with her turn as the devious but mild-mannered Rachel – the titular ‘uninvited’.

As far as scripting goes, writers Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard have limited Hollywood credits between them, yet turn Ji-woon Kim’s original screenplay into something that takes the initial, well devised concept, and pieces it together with all the elements we expect from the teen horror genre.  Their ‘happy families’ opening naturally gives way to increasing threat, all cumulating in a devastating finale – nothing new, but still done in a way that is attention holding and will have you trying to second-guess the final outcome.  When the conclusion arrives, again, there’s the awkward feeling that you’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t really take away from the impact of an ending that at least takes the time to clarify itself and tie up the lingering loose ends.

The Uninvited is indeed a film built around the frame of successful contemporaries like The Ring and The Grudge.  Even with its more explicit Asian elements twisted (lank, dark haired children are replaced by lank, ginger haired ones), you can see the skeleton of an Asian horror underneath.  Directing duo The Guard Brothers have stepped up from their short film roots to make a full length feature that plays to its crowd and fulfils the requirement of making you jump every fifteen minutes or so.  The fact is, if you’re part of this audience and you want to see this film, then you’ll be expecting a certain type of story, told in a certain way.  It wouldn’t hurt to throw in some added suspense outside of the well signposted scary moments, or even some more interesting characterisation, but it also seems unlikely that you’ll come away disappointed.  If you aren’t part of this group, however, may I recommend you don’t RSVP.

 

Hunger (2008) May 19, 2009

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Directed by: Steve McQueen

Warning: Hunger is an immensely difficult watch.  It contains filmmaking that doesn’t care for or pander to its audience, leaving you helpless under its control.  There are few compromises.  It’s a film so visceral and gut wrenching that you’ll later find it hard to believe most of its running time was spent in a dialogue-free haze.  But none of this is by accident, in fact it all appears deeply calculated by writer / director Steve McQueen.  If not exactly palatable for mainstream consumption, this story of Bobby Sands and his fatal protest should be top of the menu for enthusiastic followers of challenging cinema.

Set in Northern Ireland during 1981, the film introduces us to life inside the Maze Prison where members of the IRA are being held under a brutal regime.  To try and fight back against their oppressors they stage a dirty protest, but even this proves unsuccessful.  One inmate, Bobby Sands, knows that drastic measures are required if they are to gain the status and rights of political prisoners.  His plan is a hunger strike, with a number of prisoners refusing food, all starting at staggered intervals.  Bobby is the first to strike and also the first to show the devastating effects of deterioration.  As he nears his last days, the courageous and steadfast Sands must accept the consequence of his chosen action.

To help us through this unsavoury tale, the film is loosely built in three parts: the hardship, the counter-strategy, and the action.  Each has a distinctly different feel to it, while all share a love of drawing out the pain, be it visually, or through dialogue.  The first section, hardship, is where the brutality lies.  It is an immensely vital part, and yet at times it is so uncomfortable that you just wish it would end.  There’s little dialogue, just slowly played scenes of prisoner life, broken apart by bouts of viscous violence.  It’s also the only time in the film where we follow an outsider, a prison guard who bathes his wounds and shows little expressive remorse.  He’s an odd character, and just when it looks as though we may be lead to sympathise with him, the film makes sure that we don’t.

The middle section is actually only related to strategy in a much as it’s where all the talking happens.  Happy to let over an hour of his film pass by with barely any words, McQueen uses this second act to cram in all the spoken explanation you could ever want, in a scene that’s both brave and a little showy.  This seventeen-minute single-shot conversation takes place from one static position, but is not played as a feat of endurance for the audience thanks to assured performances by Michael Fassbender (playing Sands) and Liam Cunningham.  It may be an effect brought on by lack of previous dialogue, but the opening to their discourse seems rather forced, maybe a little staged – only later do you find yourself feeling comfortable with this lack of movement, and falling deeper into the explanation.

It should also be noted that when the shot finally cuts away, it is not to a new scene, but rather to reposition in the current one.  It’s a shame to say that despite the hard work by both actors to keep such a difficult scene together, it is the story told by Sands after the cut which really caught my attention.  Still, it neatly makes way (after a bit of a time jump) into the final section.  These closing scenes return to the quiet unease of the movie’s opening, albeit without the sense of menace surrounding it.  In terms of giving a physical performance, Fassbender looks not just unwell, but severely impaired, as he rolls his head around in a state of immobility.  This, while not as grim as the prison scenes, is no more easy a watch.

It all cumulates in a film which works harder on your stomach than your head.  As writers, Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh clearly had this in mind, while in the directors chair, McQueen has no problem breaking the rules of conventional filmmaking.  We hold still for what seems like an eternity on certain mundane actions, while huge moments in Bobby’s story are skipped over or left for the pre-credit text wrap-up.  That’s not to say that the film doesn’t find time to frame some interesting shots though, it’s just a shame that the most protracted scenes don’t offer a bit more poignancy.

Hunger will not, by any means, be to everybody’s taste.  A film that sees men bludgeoned to within an inch of their life before another slowly wastes away in a sparse, ill-equipped hospital bed, is hardly anyone’s idea of a good Friday night.  Nor will it serve as a complete testament of the Bobby Sands story (a quick bit of research reveals more about the man than this film alone tells you in 90 minutes).  But what it does successfully achieve is making you feel it.  Every hardship suffered, every blow dealt.  Every self-justification, and every agonising moment as a man feels his last days slip away.  Despite a ponderous attitude and odd pacing, Hunger puts you right in there throughout its three acts.  It’ll make you feel it – even if you’d rather not.

Fast & Furious (2009) May 12, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 2 comments

Directed by: Justin Lin

‘New Model, Original Parts’ declares the neatly constructed tag-line for this, the fourth instalment in Hollywood’s most popular street racing franchise.  The hope is that posters bearing the stern faces of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodrequez will instill some back-to-the-roots goodwill in an audience desperate to forget the horrors of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift [review].  In fact, the film’s confusingly similar titling may well hold a clue to its intentions: delivering a stripped down version of the first film while maintaining just enough of the essential components so that it holds some sense of relevance.  And it works, but only as a product of the series that made it.

Rather pleasingly, we find ourselves back in the drivers seat with Dominic Toretto (Diesel).  Still a fugitive from the law, he runs a fuel hijacking racket with his crew including girlfriend, Letty (Rodrequez).  A turn of events leads Dominic no choice but to flee once again, this time leaving Letty behind to live in Panama.  But it isn’t long before he receives a call that will bring him back to his old haunt of Los Angeles, to settle a score with the new crime boss in town.  It’s here he comes back into contact with Brian O’Conner (Walker), now working for the FBI on a case that hopes to bring down the same mastermind.  Old rivalries spark anew, as the two expert drivers infiltrate the crime ring and then fight to be first to enact their own brand of justice.

The biggest story here is that some wise producer has managed to convince all four of the original cast members to return, something which every sequel so far has been sorely missing.  Paul Walker couldn’t hold 2 Fast 2 Furious alone, and Diesel’s cameo in Tokyo Drift was only a painful reminder that the terrible film you’d just seen hadn’t been about him.  The fact is that for all its inherent stupidity and facile glamour, the first film in the series made a concerted effort to construct a dramatic story around all the padding.  By dragging us back into the lives of these characters, the film has the opportunity to play on those original relationships and make use of their existing history.

But while it’s nice to be back in the company of Diesel’s macho car enthusiast and Walker’s rebellious cop (continually reinstated despite numerous grievances with the law), the film doesn’t exactly keep itself on level ground, with the inclusion of a rather convoluted racing-obsessed criminal mastermind and his convenient driver-recruitment program delivering a route to plenty of mindless thrills.  Screenplay writer Chris Morgan, who also had a hand in last year’s action spectacular Wanted, treads the line between keeping his characters intentions in focus and respecting the necessity to exploit all things vehicular.  It is by no means a dazzling script, and the original film’s wince-inducing rivalry banter occasionally makes a return, but that’s not to say it doesn’t do the job.

More important, at least for the genre, are the action sequences.  Combining pulse-pounding street races with break-neck editing creates that expected level of excitement and incomprehensibility from the driving scenes.  Director Justin Lin may have been behind Tokyo Drift’s tedious drift races, but here he sticks more thoroughly to what makes those race sequences interesting; speed, not cornering technique, is the rightful initiator of high tension.  An excellent opening sequence involving a petrol tanker heist turns out to be the jewel in this film’s crown, invoking a real sense of anxiety along with some impressive stunts and over-the-top driving.  It only serves to highlight how disappointing the finale which follows is, set in a confined location that does no justice to the supposed speed, danger, or logic of the motoring.

Finally, the returning cast reprise their respective roles as if they had never been away.  For a few, they almost haven’t - especially Brewster and Rodrequez, whose film careers topped out on The Fast and the Furious.  It’s not as if any of the characters are that deep anyway, nor is it much of a stretch for Diesel to play lawbreaking hardman, or Walker to inhabit the roguish anti-hero.  The fact that no other characters are even given the time of day when it comes to development shows that this is a film set rigidly on sticking with what works.  And aside from an early plot twist, that’s exactly what happens, so if you weren’t enamoured by Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner’s deceitful friendship the first time, you probably won’t be again.

I’d argue that even since 2 Fast 2 Furious (both a grammatical and a cinematic step down), the franchise has been running on empty.  This instalment may give it just enough fuel to cross the finish line - and as tired a metaphor as that might be, I do mean ‘the finish line’.  As in: stop.  Because now this revisit angle has been successfully exhausted, it seems frivolous to continue wrapping anonymous street racing stories in the Fast & Furious brand merely for the sake of it.  This film pulls off a neat trick by managing to claw back some credibility for a series that mostly revels in silliness and a prominence of style over substance.  It’s slick and fast, with just enough furiosity left to see it through to its all-at-once surprisingly grounded and typically unrealistic conclusion.  Time to hand in your keys and quit while you’re ahead, Universal.

Fast & Furious is currently on UK general release.

Star Trek (2009) May 6, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 5 comments

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Boldly going where ten movies have gone before, J.J. Abrams steps up to bring the legendary Star Trek franchise back to the big screen - for the first time - again.  That working titles for this project included both ‘Star Trek XI’ and ‘Star Trek Zero’, prove that this daring reboot will never be able to shake off the ties of its original creation, no matter how hard it tries.  And it tries pretty hard.  Abrams is a defining factor in this effort, bringing with him a modern sensibility, a taste for action-heavy plotting, and most of all, a budget.  It’s amazing how $150 million can help you glide through even the final frontier without so much as breaking a sweat.

The film takes us right back to the very start, as brave commander George Kirk becomes captain of a Federation starship in the fleeting minutes before he must sacrifice his own life to save his crew.  Among that crew is his pregnant wife, who is busy giving birth to their son as George makes his last, fatal stand.  And it is in the shadow of this that James T. Kirk grows up; fatherless but still a skilled academic, Kirk finds himself without direction or purpose.  That is until a Federation captain recognises his name and convinces him to sign up for Starfleet.  It is here at the Academy where he meets a gifted Vulcan named Spock, also a societal outcast due to his half-human heritage.  The two initially lock horns, but end up working together when assigned to the prestigious Starship Enterprise – a partnership that Kirk discovers will be crucial to his future existence.

If there’s one easy way of summing up how this 21st Century Trek outing differs from its original material, then its with a marketing bracket.  This movie has ’summer blockbuster’ written all over it, and while the original release was supposed to be last Christmas, the delay has only helped shift the film into a more natural stomping ground.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine may well have pipped it to the post as the first big budget, marketing-friendly action flick of the cinematic summer ‘09, but Star Trek is likely to put that dog down in the race for sheer spectacle.  Right from the off there are space battles, explosions, and a frantic energy that’s both tiring to keep up with and impossible to tear yourself away from.

In a carry over from Abrams’ last cinematic effort, Mission: Impossible III, the film then moves at a running pace throughout with barely a pause for breath.  Just like the over-stretched marathon athlete, though, when it does inhale, the breaths are too important to waste.  So we end up with sequences that come packed with exposition, merely because there are no other places to impart this information.  One scene towards the mid-point which stops to explain Spock’s future is a particularly over-stuffed diatribe and plot hungry in a way that doesn’t fit the general flow.  The fact that this plethora of origin material finds a place in the movie at all is both a credit to, and a criticism of, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers [review], M:I-3), who pull their usual trick of crow-barring in the details so that everything makes sense, even at the expense of sounding desperately over-explanatory.

The knowledge that we know where things are going, at least in this opening instalment, means the film often plays to a formula, establishing rivalries and relationships that will pay off during the final assembly of the well known Enterprise crew.  Even with this hindrance, it handles the inception stories well, giving its main characters the necessary background to establish their traits as well as their future destiny.  Trek fans will be pleased to see their beloved history treated with, if not exactly slavish reverence, at least enough respect to maintain that overarching friendly optimism present in Star Trek’s folklore - a brooding Batman Begins styled reboot, this is not.  Meanwhile, those who have no interest in the Trek universe can still munch popcorn and enjoy two hours and six minutes of blistering summer fun.

This is where Abrams comes into his own.  The action scenes are plentiful and regularly spectacular.  From an exciting and extremely well put together pre-credits sequence, through the slightly pompous title card, and on to the numerous shoot-outs and imploding planets of the following two hours, everything is expertly constructed and shot for eye-popping visual effect.  Even some potentially redundant young-Kirk material is saved by smart music-led editing that helps establish the hell-raising focus of this new character incarnation.  On the less positive side, J.J. still has the tendency to shoot dialogue scenes uncomfortably tight at times, and if you’re planning on visiting a starship at any point might I advise you bring some sunglasses, as the countless lens flares on display in this film suggest you’ll need them. 

On the casting front, this new generation of talent have a lot to live up to.  Chris Pine takes James T. Kirk and plays him to suit the modern, bar-brawling rebel that only a reboot affords, while Zachary Quinto has the much more difficult job of stepping into the iconic shoes of Spock.  Half fallible human, half logical Vulcan, Qunito handles the role impeccably, standing out as a worthy successor (or is that predecessor?) to Leonard Nemoy.  Then there’s Zoe Saldana playing a fine but slightly underused Uhura, and Karl Urban having a great time as Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy.  With the rest of the cast you can play ’spot the actor’: Simon Pegg in a reduced role as Scotty, Eric Bana playing the misguided evil Nero, John Cho sitting aboard the bridge as Sulu, and is that really Charlie Bartlett’s Anton Yelchin [review] playing a Russian-accented Pavel Chekov?

For all its history and legions of devoted followers, this new era of Star Trek marks its path as big budget, action-oriented fun.  It is not deep or introspective, nor does it ponder any of its larger themes.  Like the drinking habits of its new captain, it isn’t served with a twist, but demands to be taken straight up.  None of this should be held against it, but nor should it act as a buffer for the film’s faults.  It is undoubtedly a “wow” picture, and one which will have its immediate praises sung by fans and critics alike.  As the lens flares clear from your mind, however, it is notable how many of the standard action movie traps the film falls into.  It frequently defies logic for the sake of plot, it loses grasp of character development in the second half, and, for some, what is removed by not making a serious and intellectually considerate Star Trek piece cannot be made up for with explosions alone.  But there are more grounded determiners at work here; like summer audiences, and Abrams reputation, and that $150 million.  Understand that, and you’ll understand why this is an excellent starting block for a franchise that Paramount hopes will live long, and prosper.

Star Trek is in cinemas worldwide from May 8th.

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