Sunday, January 27, 2013

Apollo 18 (2011)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
Since moving into my new house the girlfriend and I have been gradually making our way through the television series Lost. As you can tell by the irregularity of my posting, we're quite a long way through (midway through the third series, in fact), much to the detriment of the 5-star 500. Although I won't do a review of Lost, I will point out that with it being my second run through, I do highly recommend it.

But that's besides the point. As you can tell by the title of this post, tonight we sat down to watch one of my growing pile of unseen films (anyone else find it irresistibly tempting to buy films just because?).

I'd bought Apollo 18 on the back of watching Moon, and it follows in the footsteps of my fascination of space seen in Apollo 13. While Apollo 18 is similar to both films in the isolation of the protagonists, it is billed as being Blair Witch in space - not least because of the "found footage" appearance.

Of late, the found footage sub genre has become very popular, from the utterly terrifying Paranormal Activity to giant monster invasions seen in Cloverfield. This is partly because these films are very cheap to produce, but also because they tend to be well received by the audience (if not necessarily critics).

In space no-one can hear you scream... but just in case, cover your ears
Back to Apollo 18, and it (somewhat ironically) adds an element of claustrophobia to space. After three astronauts take off on a secret mission to the moon, they soon realise they are there to do more than just collect rock samples. Shortly after their communications with Houston are knocked out they are mysteriously attacked by an unknown foe.

I must be honest, it does take 20 minutes to get going (during which my girlfriend fell asleep), but once the astronauts start to realise things are amiss it holds the attention very well. Aside from the obviously corny positioning of the cameras (including a predictable motion sensing camera), the whole setup of the moon landscape is almost picture perfect and it is clear that director Gonzalo López-Gallego carefully studied previous Apollo missions to add to the enthralling sense of realism.

The skilled camera work doesn't mean that the main actors (Warren Christie & Lloyd Owen) had nothing to do. Anyone who can stay in character while surrounded by such a barren environment for over an hour deserves their plaudits. Their acting of clear excitement and joy for doing a monumentous task for their country (and Earth) is perfectly offset against the sheer terror of the images that flash on screen in front of the audience. Once the characters realise the predicament that the audience is at that point fully aware of, it is difficult to tear yourself away from fully empathising with them.

While Moon is a much better film as an isolated sci-fi/horror set in space, and Apollo 13 is far superior at showing contemporary astronauts going into space, Apollo 18 finds its own niche. At only just over 80 minutes long, Apollo 18 is a relatively short film by today's goliath standards which makes it perfect for a quick shock.

Just remember to bring the cushions - on Earth, everyone can hear your scream.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
For Christmas, I got £20 from my grandparents (bear with me, this whimsical tale does improve). As someone who has just bought a house, this £20 seemed like the perfect excuse to splash out and get some films in. As a result, I hit the Amazon sales on Boxing Day and snapped up the Alien to Prometheus Blu-Ray box set for £25.

OK, so the £20 was all spent in one go - along with an additional £5 of my own money. Probably the fastest I've spent any Christmas money. Well, later in the Christmas period, I spotted The Avengers box set - again on Blu-Ray - which includes all of the films in the Avengers series, along with the main film itself. I wanted it, but alas I had spent my Christmas money.

But no! If I can spend £5 of my money on the Prometheus box-set, how about if I contributed £15 instead? Then, I would still have £10 remaining from the £20 present (still with me?) which I could put forward to The Avengers. Brilliant. So I bought myself The Avengers box-set (and, err, another 3 DVDs), proclaiming to myself that it was all being paid for by my Christmas money. Thanks, Gran & Granddad!

Anyway, I finally sat down to watch Captain America at the weekend just gone, with my girlfriend claiming it to be her favourite of all of the Avengers films (unsurprising - she is an americaphile). As I've only seen The Incredible Hulk, I reserved judgement.

The story is simple enough - it's the Second World War and the Nazis are at large over Europe. Happily, a German scientist is at hand with a magical serum to produce super soldiers for America who are just joining in to help the flailing allies. Only one - Captain America (Chris Evans) is created. Meanwhile, a malevolent German general (Hugo Weaving) has his hands on a mysterious object known as the Tesseract (not mysterious in mathematics - it's a 4 dimensional 'cube'), which he uses for creating super weapons that obliterate people.

Johann Schmidt pre-facelift
For those who are thinking, "isn't this a bit cliche?", you are absolutely correct. Patriotic Americans (including Tommy Lee Jones as an American general)? Check. Nazi enemies? Check. Super hero dressed in red white and blue? Check. Cheesy love story between said hero and a girl who has no interest in jerks? Check.

OK, so, we've established that it might be difficult to empathise with Captain America, especially if you don't live in America. With its Star Wars style light gun battles, it is a film that is corny in the extreme. This is slightly offset against its accessible humour, but the gung-ho attitude is definitely the overriding factor.

Actually, corny isn't necessarily a bad thing because that is exactly how the comic started out over 70 years ago. There are other nice nods towards the comic in the shift between the old style Captain America and his newer self with the vibranium shield and, later, with the subtle introduction of the Captain's original friend Bucky.

The visuals are expectedly brilliant. The transformation of Steve Rogers the weed into Captain America the macho, is impressive - even more so because the same actor (Evans) is used for both roles. It is almost as though midway through filming he decides to hit the steroids. The battle scenes also look good, but I did half expect a Jedi to appear at a given minute to put an end to the light gun fighting.

All in all, it has to be said that Captain America is a movie made for comic book fans. Unfortunately, it has clearly been shoehorned into the Marvel film series in anticipation of including the protagonist in The Avengers. Unlike my girlfriend, I feel this may be the weakest of the Marvel films.

I'm not looking forward to the argument about whether we see the sequel.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
My love of Les Miserables can be directly attributed to my girlfriend. It was the first musical that we ever saw together. It was her idea to see it, I had no interest in seeing a musical that I had very little idea about. Truth be told, I had very little interest in seeing a musical at all. Let alone one that sounded so... miserable.

Since watching it in the West End,  we have also seen Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked and although they are all good, they don't come close in recreating the pure passion shown in Les Miserables. We also watched the 25th anniversary concert live in the cinema (including mid-interval ice cream), and a 1998 film adaptation featuring Liam Neeson, which, like this film adaptation was more based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel.

To say that we were both keen to see this latest adaptation is an understatement - we were both positively buzzing before entering the big screen. The only thing that could ruin the film would have been incessant clapping at the end of each song. No pressure then.

So, where to begin? Ah yes, I suppose I ought to explain what Les Miserables is all about. Set during the French Revolution in the 18th Century, Les Mis follows the life of one man, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, he goes missing, violating the terms of his parole, much to the disgust of Javert (Russell Crowe) - a Parisian policeman hell-bent on justice. The story continues through the French revolution.

I must admit, I was more than a little disappointed during the opening scenes. Gone were the thunderous bass tones of "Look Down" that I was used to in the musical, replaced instead by a more muted version sung by men pulling a very impressive looking boat. The first interaction between Crowe and Jackman was also slightly disappointing as both men sounded audibly flat.

This negativity is probably due to the film being set in a far larger envionment than the enclosure of theatre that I am used to. The 'live' singing (as opposed to the more standard procedure of adding the music in post production) probably didn't help either. The live set did have its positives though by enhancing the realism. For a small moment during the introduction Hugh Jackman chokes on water as he struggles against the elements.

Anne Hathaway delivers an outstanding performance
The film's first high for me, is also arguably its best moment. Anne Hathaway's rendition of I Dreamed A Dream has been much discussed - especially now that it is award season - and I can say that it didn't disappoint. It wasn't what I expected though, her singing does not rival the now infamous bellows of Susan Boyle, but she does deliver an emotionally heartbreaking version and she chokes back tears. It is as though she has read each lyric of the song and decided how to act accordingly, before finally plugging on a singing voice that a choir would not be ashamed of.

From this point, I could disassociate the film with the musical. I feel this is important as it enables you to see the film more as a visual storyline, rather than a celebration of music. None of the main actors - except Samantha Barks - would declare themselves singers, they are all actors first and musicians second.

The introduction of the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) is also rather dull without the feature of a pantomime dame type actor, although both grow on me and by the end of the film offer a truly hilarious and welcoming distraction from the draining storyline.

I must admit, one of the reasons I went was to see the brilliant Samantha Barks as Eponine. Although relatively unknown compared with the rest of the cast, she is the lone survivor of the big characters in the West End production of Les Miserables. She fought off competition from a glut of other Hollywood actresses, and I'm pleased she did - not only is she the only natural singer amongst the headliners, but she is the best looking too! Sorry, it had to be said.

On the subject of natural singers, it is surprising that more weren't included. I have nothing against the cast - they all did a sterling job - but whoever saw X-Men and thought that Wolverine would be the best choice to sing the high notes in "Bring Him Home" must need their head tested. In Jackman's defence, although he doesn't reach the notes, he does adapt the song to fit around his vocal range and it doesn't sound ridiculously out of place.

Finally, I was pleased there was no incessant clapping after each song that I have heard rumours of (although, bizarrely, Odeon did decide to put an ice cream cart just inside the cinema), and all I had to put up with was my girlfriend squeezing my hand in approving joy of songs that were performed to her critical satisfaction.

While slightly off-putting at the time, it did prove to me that the film was living up to her high levels of expectations, which is why I have no problems in recommending Les Miserables to the casual filmgoer or the most seasoned theatre attender - although for the latter, try to imagine you never saw the musical.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
You may remember last week that my girlfriend and I had a small domestic about which film to watch, which she won (we watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Well, my plans weren't entirely thwarted.

I first heard about Life of Pi in a teaser trailer around March last year where it simply featured an Indian boy on a raft with an adult Bengal tiger. Curiousity got the better of me, but out wasn't until later last year that I got to learn that's basically all that Life of Pi is about.

Confidence was restored when Empire awarded one of its prestigious 5 stars and Life of Pi became my last must-see film of 2012. Empire's big selling point was that Life of Pi is simply a visual spectacle and, true to Empire's word, it's not since Avatar that I have been truly amazed by how technology is utilised in film. Ang Lee certainly knows how to film the previously unfilmable in a vision that is just excellent.

If you haven't seen it yet and were thinking about waiting for the DVD release then don't. Get off of your sofa and get to the cinema and watch it in 3D. Of course, it would be wrong of me as a responsible reviewer to make such an outlandish statement without backing it up with some other twaddle about acting, music and religious experiences, so here goes.

In film, to me, India is only famous for two reasons (Bollywood aside); Slumdog Millionaire, and The Apu Trilogy. Both feature heavily around the life of a single Indian boy, and in that respect, Life of Pi is no different.

Although told from the adult Piscine "Pi" Patel's (Irrfan Khan) point of view, we see him grow from a small child at school and become a man on a raft in the presence of a big cat called Richard Parker. As the Pi who spends most of the time on the screen, and usually alone, Suraj Sharma holds the attention very well and rarely seems intimidated by the fact that there is only the camera and the open sea.

Life of Pi also gives a brief cameo to the new Russian citizen, and a man that holds a certain cult status in my home, Gerard Depardieu. He provides some comedy respite after the extended introduction which drags on a ridiculous amount of time. Although it was useful, I wished it would get on with the film.

The Jungle Book meets Castaway
As previously mentioned, Life of Pi has very strong religious connotations. Without trying to give too much away, we left the cinema agreeing that we enjoyed the tiger story. I jokingly remarked that we must be religious nuts, and on reflection I can even pinpoint the exact moment of conversion.

At the time, and midway through the film, there was a scene that really irritated me because it seemed as though all reason behind Life of Pi was lost and it was threatening to become fantastical garbage. At that moment my inner man of science reluctantly left the room to be replaced by the man of faith. All I can say is that throughout the film you should keep an open mind.

In summary, Life of Pi has come a long way since the teaser trailer a year ago. In essence it is still just one man and his tiger, but the story outside of that is powerful enough to provide more than enough entertainment.

Even with the astonishing visuals aside, Life of Pi is worth watching but, after Ang Lee's extraordinary vision, it becomes a must see cinematic experience.

Monday, January 07, 2013

A to Z Challenge - April 2013

The A to Z Challenge?
Welcome to the introductory post for 2013's A to Z Challenge! For those of you who weren't here last year, don't own a blog or simply don't care, let me enlighten you.

In 2010, Arlee Bird decided it would be a good idea to post thematically from A to Z in the month of April (like any good person, he gave himself Sunday to rest). In 2011 he gathered up the troops for another round. In 2012 I joined and it was the biggest ever year (though these statements are clearly not related).

Last year I blogged from A to Z along the movie theme of this blog, watching 26 films in April and bashing out reviews about them all. Come May, I had poor eyesight and RSI gained many followers and read many cool new blogs, many of whom I am still on contact with today.

What are you doing this year?
This year promises to be much of the same - albeit on a much grander scale. Instead of reducing myself to tears as I beg for the DVD to arrive the day before the review is due, I have decided to do something a little different. I spent the final eight months of 2012 figuring out how to make a movie review blog do something other than blogging movie reviews without going completely off topic.

So, what's the topic?
One idea was the A to Z dissection of a film (A is for... Actor, D is for... Director), before panicking over what I could do on the more obscure letters without blagging it. I mean, Z is for... Zoo and there are plenty of animal enclosures in films, but they're not a key component of a movie unless it happens to be called We Bought a Zoo.

You're right, that was pretty stupid...
In the end I have settled on the A to Z of alternative movie endings. I'll be writing transcripts to undoubtedly improve film endings - which means that instead of serious, critical writing, I get to sit back, relax, and let my imagination run wild. There will be some that are believable, some bizarre and most some will be just downright ludicrous. Whether you want to imagine Sigourney Weaver appearing from Alien's chest or Jason Bourne sitting down with a psychiatrist to figure out exactly who he is, there will be something for everyone.

I have a great idea, pick my film!
What I need right now are film suggestions. I'll be posting up the list of days, letters and films shortly, but get those suggestions in! There are literally no limits on good or bad, on list or off list, watched or unwatched, or old or recent. I'll watch it, pause it towards the end and just write.

I have already polished off 'T' (The Truman Show) as I begin writing the posts and I have a horrible feeling that this year I may in fact lose followers.  Still, I shall persevere.

I want to sign up!
For more information, check out the A to Z Challenge blog where you'll see everything you want to know to join this difficult RSI-inducing  prestigious challenge amongst the blogging community.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
Welcome back to The Shire, Hobbitses. It's been nearly 7 years since we were last here, indulging Peter Jackson's final fantastical view into JRR Tolkien's Return of the King. A lot has changed in that time. In fact, imagine that the 2003-2005 trilogy didn't happen and Bilbo Baggins is sat back in his house utterly clueless as to his future regarding the One True Ring. That's right, folks. We're back where it all began.

Such were the disappointing critical reviews, I spent two whole weeks umming and ahhing about whether to even see The Hobbit. Even when we decided to go to the cinema there was a mini domestic about whether to see Life of Pi. Just for a change, I lost.

So we went to the local Odeon, with me expecting to be bored to death by an overly long adaptation of Tolkien's precursor to his now infamous trilogy - Part 1. At over 3 hours long, this seems to be the biggest criticism of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, especially when you consider that the Lord of the Rings were around the same length from a much more substantial source material.

In truth, it wasn't that bad. There are the occasional filler moments - there is a rather extended scene featuring Gollum (Andy Serkis), which is always going to be popular, that really could have been done in half the time. Overall though, I never actually felt myself getting bored as there was always something on screen for entertainment.

Gollum wishing those in the back row would stop throwing popcorn
For clarification, we went to see the bog standard 3D as there is no local IMAX so I can't comment at all on the second biggest criticism - the impact of high frame rate (HFR - for those not in the know - doubles the frame rate to 48 per second). I did, however, feel distinctly uncomfortable during the opening scene set in the dwarfish past. The camera panning was far too fast and it never gave the 3D chance to settle.

Upon moving to the more relaxed Shire, the 3D is used far more subtly and the extra dimension makes The Hobbit feel far more modern than Lord of the Rings. The most breathtaking scene has to be the arrival into the elvish Kingdom of Rivendell. Rarely has a film offered a more artistic and aesthetically perfect shot of a fantasy land.

There are many references to the original trilogy - mostly occurring at the start of The Hobbit. In fact, there is a whole scene lifted straight from The Fellowship of the Ring featuring Elijah Wood's Frodo as Bilbo recollects the past. The score is also very influenced by Lord of the Rings - making it very easy to become immersed straight away especially with the now-familiar jingle of The Shire.

Having sat with the review written but unpublished for a couple of days now, I ought to point out something bizarre. Perhaps three hours of 3D reeks havoc with my eyesight. I could hardly see anything on New Year's Eve and now, two days later, I can say my eyes have fully recovered from the three hour battering.

Since seeing the film, I have also spoken to a friend who saw the film in both 3D and 2D and he says that the 3D was so subtly done he didn't really notice the difference. I have to admit, I had to keep moving the glasses to check if it really was 3D, and it was only when I put them back on that it really hit me how well used it was.

Finally, I ought to make reference to the characters. As expected, Martin Freeman's Bilbo and Ian McKellen's Gandalf are fully explored, but the 12 dwarves do feel very lacking. Imagine trying to remember all of Santa's reindeer. Sure, there's Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Enhancer (possibly) and Entrancer (OK, I made some up), but it's very difficult to remember all of them in such a small (ironic) period of time.

Hopefully by the end of the trilogy its flaws will be ironed out. The signs are all there for a fantastic trilogy - even if each film is lacking the content in its huge substance.