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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ANGELS & DEMONS (2009) - Ron Howard

The Da Vinci Code was a massive global success. It was one of those books that comes along every so often and you couldn’t help but see people everywhere reading it. I read it myself, eager to see what the big deal was. It was entertaining enough, but ultimately throw-away pulp trash. The film version of the book, released in 2006 was set to be huge. But it was pretty much a mess of a film and while doing good box-office, was pretty much a critical flop. Angels & Demons, the prequel (although filmed as a sequel) is released this year, reteaming director Ron Howard with Tom Hanks as Indiana Jones with no balls, Robert Langdon. The book is seen by many as far better than The Da Vinci Code. Does the film follow suit?

No. It does not. It’s a fucking mess. It is a film so incredibly stupid and ridiculous that I actually felt like somewhere, Ron Howard was laughing at me for being duped into seeing it. In fact, he’s probably laughing at the world. As is Brian Grazer, his producer. Because they are making a shed load of cash from one of the dumbest, idiotic and insulting films I’ve ever seen. It takes place just after the death of the Pope, and while the new Pope is being decided by a bunch of cardinals during what is known within the church as Pope-Idol. Just before Pope-Idol, a particle of anti-matter is knicked from the Large Hadron Collider (I shit you not). This plot point, not in the book, is a blatant attempt to make things up-to-date. The Higgs boson particle has the ability to reduce Vatican City to a smouldering hole. The Illuminati, long thought to have been wiped out by the Church have kidnapped the four Pope-Idol finalists and are holding all and sundry to ransom. Only Robert Langdon, a personality vacuum in human form can stop the Illuminati and help the new Pope take his place as King of the Catholics.

To start off, the plot of the film ranges from snore-inducingly boring to laugh-out-loud hilarious. One of the major complaints that emerged after The Da Vinci Code was released was that everyone stood around explaining things to each other. It proved to be surprisingly boring. Ron Howard took these issues on board, and fair dues, he did ramp things up for this film. Instead of standing around explaining things, now everybody runs around explaining things. Oh yes, by making people both move and talk, the action has been ramped up a billion percent.

However, the first half of the film remains overwhelmingly dull. Robert Langdon, a man of non-action wanders from church to church staring at statues that, and I am not exaggerating here, point in the direction of the next clue. He is literally following a series of really nicely sculpted signposts. The dialogue ranges from boring exposition to dull history lessons, to incredibly clunky lines like ‘GET ME A MAP WITH ALL ROME’S CHURCHES ON IT!’ Tom Hanks, whom I like as an actor is essentially just a face to pull in the crowds. His Langdon is nothing more than a book with a stupid hair-cut. He has all the personality of a damp sock and the daring of a petrified field mouse. In one spectacularly action-free moment, Langdon watches while the main villain kills two policemen. Instead of doing something to save the second policeman, he stands and watches as the killer stalks the cop and very slowly kills him. I was half expecting Hanks to pull up a chair, grab some pasta and enjoy the proceedings.

Joining Langdon on his quest to kill suspense is Vittoria Vetra a sexy and unbelievable scientist who wants her particle back. She is absolutely inconsequential to the plot aside from the fact that her character is also incompetent. She needs to get the particle chamber back before the battery powering it fails, resulting in a matter-anti-matter explosion that will kill millions. Had she brought a spare battery, things would have been a lot easier on all.

But by far the highlight of the film is Ewan McGreggor as Oirish priest, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. McGreggor provides the comic relief of the film as he stumbles over the script with an accent which is ludicrously bad. From what I’ve seen of McGreggor on The Long Way Round, he seems like a genuinely likeable and nice guy. He does good work for charity. But by Christ, the guy is a shockingly awful actor. Aside from a pretty decent performance in Trainspotting, where he was none-the-less overshadowed by a far stronger supporting cast, he really hasn’t delivered one outstanding role. And Angels & Demons ranks up there with his worst.

As with all action films, the second half of Angels & Demons is where things kick into overdrive. And it’s at this point where logic, believability and reality are ritually burned at the stake. At this point, proceedings become so incredibly stupid that I thought I’d passed out from boredom, hit my head and was seeing things that weren’t there. I’m strongly tempted to spoil the high-point of this carnival of the absurd, but I really wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. I am just sorry I can’t be there with you to hear the guffaws of laughter that will inevitably ensue. It was with no amount of surprise, that during the credits, I saw David Koepp’s name. From the guy who brought you Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. You should begin to know what to expect. And, like that film, the main character stands aside and watches everyone else do the work. It would be no surprise if it emerged that Koepp did little writing but took credit for a team of other writers’ work.

Angels & Demons is insultingly bad. Twists and turns are performed with all the ineptitude of a bad slight-of-hand artist. It attempts to distract you with one thing while setting up a twist. But if you take a second to actually think about things, you know exactly where proceedings are going. Apart from that bit I mentioned above. Nobody could see that coming. Set-ups are blatantly sign-posted and pay-offs are subsequently dull and predictable. Characters gleefully (if not literally) announce ‘listen, I have this ability. If it comes in handy at some point, you know where I am’ making plot points as subtle as a Fox News Anchor. It’s really lowest, lowest-common denominator stuff.

Many claim Angels & Demons is a better story and film than The Da Vinci Code. I disagree. While The Da Vinci Code was dull, silly and stupid, at least it wasn’t mind-bogglingly stupid. After watching Angels & Demons, you feel like someone has beaten you with a hammer of idiocy. It’s going to be hard to top this for the worst film of 2009. And it’s still only May.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

STAR TREK (2009) - J.J. Abrams

For as long back as I can remember, Star Trek has been around in my life. I remember the first time seeing The Next Generation way when I was about nine years old, and since then, in some way shape or form, Trek has been around. So when the series seemed to die off a few years ago, it seemed like something was missing. Despite the decline in quality since the end of Deep Space Nine, the affection for Kirk, Spock, Picard and all the rest still remained. So it was with a sense of trepidation I sat down to watch J.J. Abrams’ reimagining of the origins of the most famous of the varied Trek casts, with Star Trek, the eleventh movie in the series.

Star Trek opens with the birth of James T. Kirk, a birth literally under fire. Kirk’s parents are crew members of the USS Kelvin which has come under attack from a gigantic Romulan vessel that has emerged from a special anomaly. Kirk’s father is killed and we jump a few years ahead. The young James Kirk is a man seemingly without a purpose. He’s a smart and capable young man, but lacks direction. After a bar room brawl, Kirk is approached by Captain Christopher Pike, a man who served with his father. He challenges Kirk to do better than his father. Something Kirk initially rejects, but then signs up with Star Fleet. Meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young Spock has gained entry to the Vulcan Academy. He has achieved this, despite what his elders view as his deficiency. Spock is half-Vulcan, half-Human. Rejecting his elders, Spock also joins Star Fleet. Three years later, the cadets are due to graduate. However, Vulcan is attacked by the same Romulan ship that destroyed the Kelvin. Kirk, Spock, and eventually all the familiar faces board the Enterprise to rescue Vulcan.

First off, a trend is broken. Star Trek, which is the eleventh in the series falls into the category of the odd Star Trek film. Throughout the series, the odd-numbered films have been the poorer of the series, but despite this trend, Star Trek manages to break free and become one of the best of all the Star Trek films. It seems unfair to put it up against the others, however. Firstly, the film features only one member of the original cast, or even the Next Generation cast. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as older Spock. But that’s all that will be mentioned about that. Also, the film sets in motion an alternate universe featuring familiar names, albeit with different faces. So to put this film alongside the others seems redundant.

J.J. Abrams has yet again struck gold with this film. It is by far one of the most purely entertaining films of this year. From the opening battle to the closing credits, there is barely a moment wasted. Abrams fills every frame with a high attention to detail and plot point after plot point. The film is packed full of sly references to the original series, but while these moments are put there for the legions of fans, the film is still totally accessible to the newcomer. It’s a delicate balance that Abrams has managed to pull off magnificently. The only real complaint I have with his production is his choice of composer. Michael Giacchino creates the music for the film, having worked on Abrams’ highly successful television series, Lost. There are moments when the music seem to have been lifted straight out of the show and dropped into the film. For someone who has watched both Lost and Star Trek, it takes you out of the film for a moment. However, this is a minor complaint is an otherwise excellent film.

The most decisive element to the film, which would either alienate or draw in audiences, was the choice in casting. And once again, Abrams has nailed it. Chris Pine takes over the iconic role of James Tiberius Kirk from William Shatner, who has defined his career as the Captain of the Enterprise. It’s a tough and unenviable job for Pine to do, but he really is excellent as Kirk. He nails every nuance of the character, and is extremely watchable. The other iconic role is that of Spock. And in Zachary Quinto, Abrams has found an actor eerily similar to Leonard Nimoy’s early performance. These two characters are the most essential to get right, as they are the foundation of the series. And both Pine and Quinto are perfectly cast in their roles. Eric Bana plays the villain, Nero. Along with Bruce Greenwood, who plays Christopher Pike, Bana is one of the most experienced actors in the cast. But neither of these actors ever overshadow the younger cast. They do enough for the other cast members to showcase their talents and provide ample support. To go through each cast member would take forever, so I’ll just say that they’re all excellent in their roles. Each of them takes enough of the characteristics from the original characters so that we know for sure who they are. But they never descend into charicature.

The only other complaint I would have with the film is that it doesn’t seem ‘big’ enough. What I mean is, I kind of expected a more epic threat to the Federation than one man, his ship and his cronies. When it comes down to it, it was a film about two ships going head to head, rather than a large-scale encounter between two forces. Although, it does make sense to keep things small. Like a great many prequels, this is an introduction film, and as such must concentrate on characters over plot. But this is not to say the set pieces aren’t entertaining. The special effects are top-notch, the action sequences are exciting and the pace is relentless. After seeing a dreadful prequel in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s good to see that when a bit of care and attention is put into a film, the results are fantastic. It’s a damn shame George Lucas couldn’t have let someone like Abrams take the reins on The Phantom Menace. Star Trek shows how it should be done. The saga is in good hands.


Monday, May 11, 2009

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) - Gavin Hood

Another month, another superhero movie. It’s getting a little tedious at this stage. The big names, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, X-Men have all been done. And yet, in an attempt to squeeze another few pennies out of a dying genre, the big studious continue to wheel out these movies. Sure, some are entertaining. Some are even genre-defying. And then, you have films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. An attempt to set up a franchise spin-off from another franchise. Seriously, Fox should just rename these films Cash Cow: Wolverine. Gavin Hood attempts to give us the mysterious back-story to X-Men’s most iconic character, Wolverine.

We all know Wolverine. The nigh-invulnerable, adamantium-boned, claw-slasher. As the anti-hero of the X-Men, he is inevitably the most popular character. But his past is shrouded in mystery. He’s a product of the Weapon X program. Where he’s come from is unknown. But in this film, which is essentially a 2-hour flashback, the missing pieces are put into place. We see kiddie Wolverine, born sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. After a disaster involving his father, Wolverine and his half-brother, Victor, also known as Sabretooth wander the earth, getting involved in the American Civil War, both World Wars, Vietnam until their both recruited into a special ops program run by William Stryker. After a crisis of consciousness, Wolverine leaves the program to lead a quiet life with his girlfriend. But things don’t quite work out when Sabretooth returns to kill Wolverine’s gal and draw him out of hiding. Wolverine agrees to take part in Stryker’s Weapon X program in return for a chance at revenge.

I liked X-Men. I liked X-Men 2. The third film was a dreadful piece of shit, thanks to Fox’s interference in production and a hack director in Brett Ratner. So hopes were high that this film would restore some of the magic that made the first two X-Men films very enjoyable. Oh, how misplaced our hopes were. To put it simply, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a complete disaster of a film. At every level of the production, the film is a failure. The script is a complete and utter mess. Characters are never fully realised or fleshed out. For a film that explores what makes established characters act and think the way they do, there is very little character development. From the moment the opening titles began, I knew the film was in trouble. But the script is not the only problem.

The production itself is quite shockingly poor. The CGI, which is an essential part of these big-budget special effects fests, is jaw-droppingly bad. At moments, I found myself really asking if what I was watching was a complete film or had the cinema I was in been slipped a copy of the workprint that was leaked to the world. I am not kidding when I say that the CGI in this film is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. At one point, Wolverine is examining his newly adamantium-clad claws in a bathroom. The effects are so bad that the claws look like cartoons. In other moments, they float over Wolverine’s hands where they’re supposed to be protruding from his hand. It’s incredibly sloppy.

The direction is piss-poor. Gavin Hood may have some small amount talent for doing drama, as seen in Rendition. However, if X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a showcase of his abilities for doing big budget, high concept actioners, he shouldn’t be allowed behind the camera again. Scenes are badly composed, action sequences are horribly shot, and the editing is all over the place. At one point, Wolverine knocks Gabit out with a punch. Literally seconds later, Gambit is sprinting across a roof and leaps off, only to land back where he’d just been punched, without any explanation as to how or why he got back onto the roof in the first place. That’s just one is a long laundry-list of badly executed scenes.

The acting in the film isn’t the worst part of the production. Hugh Jackman is pretty comfortable in the Wolverine role, and when he has things to do, he does them well. Otherwise, he wanders about looking dour and waiting for things to explode behind him. It’s unfortunate for Jackman that he’s left with a god-awful script to work with. Liev Schreiber, also a good actor, is given very little to do as Sabretooth. Turn up, growl and leap about. Not exactly a challenging role. Everyone else is barely worth mentioning. Except for Will I Am. Note to future filmmakers- rappers do not make good actors.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is terrible. It is a terrible, awful, disaster of a film. The number of awful superhero movies vastly outnumbers the good. Maybe it’s time to cease the genre and allow maybe one or two superhero movies come along every few years. Maybe when the scripts are polished, the productions are planned properly and the studios allow creatives to control the making of the film. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a prime example of a badly executed attempt to cash in on a popular property. It’s just a shame further films from this dying franchise are already in production.