Not only is this arguably the greatest war movie ever made, it is also one of my all time favourites; a visceral, blistering tour-de-force of powerhouse filmmaking and bravura acting, topped by some of the most stunning cinematography captured on film. This weekend sees the re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, cleaned up and back on the big screen, and I urge anyone to go out and see it, even if you already own it. The Helicopter beach attack, cued to “Rise of the Valkyries”, is surely worth the ticket price alone.
Monthly Archives: May 2011
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
(David Bowers, 2011, USA)
The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie had an undeniable charm that counterbalanced the more than occasional regression into childishness, carrying the film through sequences aimed squarely at a young, juvenile audience. The sequel, Rodrick Rules, is just the same, if not more so, and offers little distraction to a formula established first time round. As with many a high school flick, a new installment signifies a new school year, and just as George (effortlessly endearing Zachary Gordon) begins to settle into his first sophomore term, new problems arise; the arrival of beautiful new student Holly Hills (Peyton List), who barely notes his existence despite his consistent fawning, a sinister new teacher who doesn’t forgive and forget, and the insistence of his parents to bond with his older brother Rodrick, who stops at nothing to make his life hell. Cue strained, clichéd sibling rivalry, childhood angst and genre-standard toilet humour, which is more tactful than humorous.
As watchable and charismatic as Gordon is in the lead role, the film is once again owned by George’s roly poly best pal Rowley (Robert Capron), responsible for the films best lines, and hygienically-challenged Fregley, though he is vastly underused. Once you are privy to gags that are about as sophisticated as a teenage rock group with the name ‘Löded Diper’, then you know exactly what you are in for; a perfect film for the kids and a slight but not unbearable one for the accompanying adults. I’m not sure how popular these films are with their target demographic, but a third outing wouldn’t be unwelcome.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 2010. [Film] Directed by Thor Freudenthal. USA: Dayday Films.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, 2011. [Film] Directed by David Bowers. USA: Fox 2000 Pictures.
The Hangover Part II
(Todd Phillips, 2011, USA)
Given that the finale of 2009′s humorous and hugely popular comedy The Hangover pretty much wrapped up its story by filling in the blanks of its narrative macguffin, detailing the events of the raucous night before through the somewhat ingenious use of snapshots during the credits sequence, the prospect of a sequel was both puzzling and questionable due to the original’s status as a standalone feature that prided itself on being just that, a self-contained genre rejigger that never took itself too seriously. It was also one of the least likely films of 2009 to warrant a sequel, yet two years later here we are with this second ‘part’; less a continuation, more a renovation of the first film, which copies nonchalantly its content and plot devices at a consistently verbatim rate, The Hangover Part II is a sluggish, pointless and overly vulgar shot for shot copy of its far superior predecessor, though it is neither as clever or as tactful.
Whereas the first was merely mean-spirited, the sequel is borderline distasteful, with once likeable characters now vulgar shadows of their former selves; Bradley Cooper, whose apparent charm and adoration as a watchable leading man escapes me, is thoroughly unlikeable and Ed Helms, playing the affable dentist Stu, shrieks and winces his way through each and every scene, grating all too quickly. Zach Galifianakis, once hilariously eccentric, again replays the same character he quickly became typecast with since the original gave him his name, pedaling the same old wacky shtick he has now become so synonymous with, going for easy, lowest common denominator gags that miss more than they hit. He plays the mentally challenged Alan pretty much the same way he did first time round only with more of a sinister edge, making his affection for a drug smuggling, cigarette-toting monkey the only evidence of him being an actual human being, raising one or two minimal smirks in the process, but that’s as far as it goes.
Justin Bartha, the previous husband-to-be and vanished member of the ‘wolfpack’, again plays second fiddle to the three protagonists, missing out on the quest to find the latest misplaced victim of the group, Teddy, the teenage brother of Stu’s fiancee, who he is due to marry. Also resurfacing is Ken Jeong, a revelation in the first film as the effeminate gangster Mr. Chow, now brought back to the fold merely for penis sight gags and annoyingly lewd absurdities, annoying and vastly overused this time round. Paul Giamatti even crops up in a small role as an ill-tempered businessman, stealing the entire film right from under the lead’s noses.
Of course, the film isn’t exactly the same as the original. The setting shifts from Las Vegas to Thailand and the seedy underbelly of Bangkok, the sight of the latest forgotten evening which mirrors the tonal lapse into darker territory, making even the most gross jokes of the original seem meager and tame. Rest assured that Thai ladyboys and other xenophobic clichés are put abundantly to good use. The Hangover at least balanced its distasteful elements with some genuinely funny jokes embedded within an original narrative structure, delivering clues in dribs and drabs, this time however the jokes are banal and gratuitously disgusting, as embarrassing to watch as the inevitable cameo in the final scene. Well, almost, it needs to be seen to be believed.
The major downside brought on by the original was that it established a formula that its sequel fully exploits, pathing the way for a groan-inducing self-awareness (“It happened again” is said several times) that verges on desperate parody. Todd Phillips struck gold first time round and even tried relaying a similar template to last years unsuccessful, Planes, Trains & Automobiles-lite buddy movie Due Date (again with Galifianakis), and has again attempted to repeat the tricks of his runaway smash, but it hasn’t worked. Painstakingly giving almost every element from the first a dirtier equivalent, The Hangover Part 2 is as unnecessary in content as it is in existence, an experience not to be entered into lightly.
- The Hangover, 2009. [Film] Directed by Todd Phillips. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
- The Hangover Part II, 2011. [Film] Directed by Todd Phillips. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Planes, Trains & Automobiles, 1987. [Film] Directed by John Hughes. USA: Paramount Pictures.
(Thomas McCarthy, 2011, USA)
Paul Giamatti is arguably one of the finest and most reliable actors of his age still working in Hollywood today. With total ease, he hops from intimate character studies like American Splendor and Sideways, to 13th Century action adventures ala Ironclad and even crops up in high profile blockbusters like this years The Hangover Part 2, all the while maintaining his confident adeptness with making the most of the material he is given. He comfortably slots into his role in latest film Win Win, Thomas McCarthy’s third directorial effort, where he plays Mike Flaherty, a family man struggling to make ends meet despite straddling both his job as a loyal small town lawyer and as a volunteer working at a high school coaching wrestling. Yet when the teenage grandson of a client he has secretly double-crossed comes to town looking for a home, Mike learns that sacrificing his morality in favour of making a quick buck may have cost him more than he bargained for, as he and his family begin to warm to the perturbed adolescent.
As likeable and cosy as McCarthy’s film is, it’s also got very little going for it; setting aside Giamatti’s winsome characteristics, it becomes abundantly, but never immediately, clear that he is effectively an unlikeable guy who does less than reputable things. Tricking an elderly man on the cusp of senile dementia into living with him to gain a sizable guardianship fee, then hiding it from his latest paternal conquest, is not, on the face of it, the machinations of an esteemed “pillar of the community”, which he is referred to at one stage by his frustrated best friend. Yet McCarthy nevertheless paints him as a hero who has to do what he must to support his family, a family made bigger with the arrival of Kyle, a conflicted youth played with lifeless monotony by newcomer Alex Shaffer. Sure he looks and acts the part, but his lack of emergency reflects the sedateness of the narrative progression, going from one scene to the next in a clichéd and formulaic fashion.
Never as funny as it thinks it is, no matter how hard it tries, the film is also too neat, with scenes and conflicts either wrapping themselves up all too tidily or resulting in easy contrivances; Kyle is a pro at wrestling, Mike just so happens to be coaching a flailing wrestling team, etc. Though the contemporary American indie prides itself on minimalist approaches to everyday occurrences, Win Win can never shake off its gutless vulnerability, making it overly generic despite dolling out its weary life lessons at a watchable pace. Pity it’s entirely unmemorable.
- American Splendor, 2003. [Film] Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini. USA: Good Machine.
- The Hangover Part 2, 2011. [Film] Directed by Todd Phillips. USA: Green Hat Films.
- Ironclad, 2011. [Film] Directed by Jonathan English. UK: Mythic International Entertainment.
- Sideways, 2004. [Film] Directed by Alexander Payne. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
- Win Win, 2011. [Film] Directed by Thomas McCarthy. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
(Rob Marshall, 2011, USA)
The second and third entries in the increasingly tiresome Pirates franchise were laborious exercises in excess, milking a once promising franchise by counteracting the fun of the original and complicating their already baffling plots, swapping high seas thrills for convoluted, and often needlessly complex narrative twists, ensuring that their 150 minute plus run-times rendered any welcome they may have once had worn all too quickly. Four years after the series apparently walked the plank, Jack Sparrow, sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow, enigmatically played once again by Johnny Depp, is back for a new adventure and a new set of characters to trick, charm and play with, and although the film repeats the same formula as its predecessors, it is somewhat surprising to note that On Stranger Tides is not the disaster it could have been. Sure it’s baggy and overlong, with its existence purely based around profiting from the money spinner that is the lead protagonist, who is still as watchable as ever, but it breathes fresh air into a stale series and features a narrative that actually knows where it’s heading this time round.
It is somewhat unnecessary to describe the plots of these films as they always meander around some semblance of a cohesive storyline, twisting and turning before arriving at some kind of conclusion, but On Stranger Tides is tighter and more focused, effectively picking up where At Worlds End left off with Jack departing on a mission to uncover the Fountain of Youth. What should be noted, however, is what is different this fourth time round; Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s Will and Elizabeth respectively have been axed, as have the use of numerous villains, to be replaced by Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane, who plays the morally questionable villain Blackbeard, captain of the fire breathing ship the Queen Ann’s Revenge. Cruz, a cunning, and sexy, addition to the cast, plays Angelica, Blackbeard’s supposed daughter and an adversary or perhaps former love interest of Sparrow’s, who can more than handle her own in the treacherous business of piracy. She’s clearly having fun with the role, and she gets some cracking one liners, but her relationship with Sparrow is not as fleshed out as it probably could have been, given the broadness of the films running time. Franchise stalwart Geoffrey Rush returns once again as Barbossa, not so much a pirate anymore but a privateer in the court of King George II (Richard Griffiths in cameo form), who has more than loyalty to the monarch on his mind.
During production, it was reported that the budget for the film had been dramatically slashed and directing duties had shifted from series mainstay Gore Verbinski, who collaborated with Johnny Depp in the superb animated film Rango earlier this year, to Chicago helmer Rob Marshall, two moves that greatly benefit On Stranger Tides, a watered down fourth installment that readily trades a reliance on CGI whizzbangs for more economical set pieces that are, although occasionally lifeless, still as catchy as ever, despite the repetition. Though Marshall demonstrates some cinematic restraint, clearly quite hard with films of this caliber, ardent fans will not feel slighted, and will be happy to find that the finale leaves the doors wide open for more installments, obviously, with a post-credits sequence that is actually worth waiting for, if only to see more of Cruz. The Pirates franchise shows no signs of age, which is either good or bad news depending on the taste and attention span of the viewer.
Once again proving that he can fit back into the Jack Sparrow mold with considerable ease, Depp continues to ride the waves of reliability, delivering another humorous performance without breaking a sweat, even if his character doesn’t really progress much. I initially wanted to dislike On Stranger Tides, but for all it’s imperfections and distractive subplots, it is a comfortable addition to a franchise that, for me, has reached the shores of guilty pleasure, and further proof that I’d rather see pirates swashing some buckle over robots punching each other any day.
- Chicago, 2002. [Film] Directed by Rob Marshall. USA: Miramax Films.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007. [Film] Directed by Gore Verbinski. USA: Walt Disney Pictures.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011. [Film] Directed by Rob Marshall. USA: Walt Disney Pictures.
- Rango, 2011. [Film] Directed by Gore Verbinski. USA: GK Films.
(Joe Wright, 2011, USA)
Collaborating once again with her Atonement director Joe Wright, Saoirse Ronan stars as Hanna, a sheltered but extremely capable sixteen year old trained by her father (Eric Bana) from an early age in everything from basic survival skills to bi-linguistics and, more importantly, lethal combat, all the requirements of a successful assassin who must adhere to the repeated guideline ‘adapt, or die’. When their secret hideout in the wilderness of Finland becomes exposed, Hanna embarks on a stealth mission across Europe where she must evade the capture of a team of ruthless operatives under the rule of corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who will stop at nothing to eliminate the two assassins by any means necessary.
Joe Wright’s previous cinematic offerings have all demonstrated the director’s ability at mixing big stars with sumptuous visuals, whether it’s the rather average period drama Pride & Prejudice, the aforementioned Atonement; an immersive if slightly flat adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, or 2009′s painfully dull The Soloist, which, oddly, aimed to shed light on mental illness by actually dodging the issue as much as possible, an approach that can similarly be said of Hanna, a different type of film altogether. Though he directs the numerous, if few and far between, action sequences with considerable brio, Wright forgets to actually focus on the film’s characters and storyline, which potentially could be of some interest if it wasn’t so baffling and underdeveloped. Who is Hanna? Why is she an assassin hidden away from society for so long? And why specifically is Wiegler so passionate about killing her off? By the time the credits roll, we don’t really know, and clearly neither does Wright.
Swapping substance for style only disillusions the audience to a certain extent before the cracks begin to show, and just as Hanna starts at breakneck speed and throws you in at a curious deep end, questions start becoming unanswered and characters are given dialogue which holds no dramatic clout, making the action insubstantial and emotionally arid. Though the performances are actually rather good, with Ronan as watchable as ever and Blanchett stepping into her well-heeled villainess with devilish ease, they are let down by slim characterisation and a bizarre turn from Tom Hollander who takes overstatement to a whole new level. Plus points come in the form of a thumping and incredibly befitting score by The Chemical Brothers who, like Daft Punk’s accompaniment to Tron: Legacy and Jonny Greenwood’s electrifying score for There Will Be Blood, add to the increasingly high-profile new wave of electronic composition, heralding a new spin on contemporary film orchestration.
As I’ve said, Hanna boasts some blistering action, a few laughs and some sublime cinematography, but it’s frenetically directed to within an inch of its life and the unmemorable narrative grinds to a halt too often, despite its consistently frenzied pace. Watchable but weightless.
- Atonement, 2007. [Film] Directed by Joe Wright. UK: Universal Pictures.
- Hanna, 2011. [Film] Directed by Joe Wright. USA: Holleran Company.
- Pride & Prejudice, 2005. [Film] Directed by Joe Wright. UK: Universal Pictures.
- The Soloist, 2009. [Film] Directed by Joe Wright. USA: DreamWorks SKG.
- There Will Be Blood, 2007. [Film] Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. USA: Miramax Films.
- Tron: Legacy, 2010. [Film] Directed by Joseph Kosinski. USA: Walt Disney Pictures.