Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Twenty Feet From Stardom - review

Yes, Twenty Feet From Stardom showcases the fact that women singing backing vocals are talented, that much is clear. Yet the film seems to be rather mixed in its messages. Some singers claim that they prefer staying out of the spotlight, yet appear in a film which will naturally bring them more attention and opportunities. Others claim they are trying to focus on pursuing a solo career yet appear as backing singers in other segments.

However there is some fascinating trivia to be found here.

Hall of Famer Darlene Love sang "Christmas(Baby Please Come Home)", one of the best Xmas songs of all-time and featured in Gremlins but also played Danny Glover's wife in Lethal Weapon.

There is also an interview with Merry Clayton who provided the iconic vocals on The Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter".

There was disappointment when Tom Jones was featured in archive footage singing with some of the women appearing in the documentary but wasn't interviewed. It's a shame as Tom has sung with just about everybody and will gladly talk about it given the opportunity if The Voice is anything to go by.

"Now Darlene, she had a voice similar to Aretha. Now I know that, because I sang with Aretha you know..."

Still none the wiser as to why this won Best Documentary at the Oscars over The Act Of Killing but its an interesting talking heads piece that will get you tapping your toes in the aisle and digging out your old records when you get home... (or pressing shuffle on your iPod. Depends if anyone still has a vinyl collection anymore).

3 stars

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Noah - review

"It is as it was". Words the Pope used to describe The Passion Of The Christ and words that are unlikely to be used when talking about Darren Aronofsky's $125 million epic which plays less like the Sunday School story and more like a dystopian end-of-the-world big-budget episode of Doctor Who featuring rock monsters and a cockney villain.

Yes, you read that correctly. In this version of the story, Noah can be compared to The Doctor.

The character of The Doctor is often described as "a mad man in a box" and that is precisely what Noah can be described as in the second part of the story.

With the help of aliens from another world who are covered in rock, he constructs his massive box filled with at least two of every type of creature on the planet thus being seemingly bigger on the inside than on the outside, and proceeds to become increasingly unhinged as he is forced to make decisions that will affect the course of history.

He is told that the flood cannot be averted, hence it is one of those "fixed points in time" that Steven Moffat is so fond of in his tenure as show runner. This results in some tough choices which include leaving companions to die and contemplating infanticide when he believes that the race of men must be allowed to die.

There can be arguments made that the film is set in biblical times but also that it is a story set in a dystopian future where man has ravaged the earth with violence, war and destroyed its environment and the impending demise by water is not the wrath of God but the result of global warming.

God doesn't actually get mentioned at all in the film, rather it is "The Creator" but Aronofsky basically sticks two fingers up to Creationists with Noah's recital of the story of creation being set to a time lapse video montage of evolution!

Also because the end of the world at the hands of the creator is simply not enough, you need a human enemy to add that extra level of fear and hatred and so Ray Winstone and some extras from Game Of Thrones turn up to become the Raiders Of The First Ark.

And speaking of arks, Russell Crowe does an excellent job with his character's arc from protective family man to saviour to madman and anchors the film with a great performance.

It might be one of the most bonkers mainstream movies ever made but it features some stunning cinematography, an excellent score by Clint Mansell and is a thrilling, epic adventure that should have audiences going into the cinemas two by two if this kind of thing floats their boat.

3 stars

Rio 2 - review

Having never seen the original Rio, there was some quick Wikipedia-ing during the adverts to find out what I'd missed and was relieved to see that it was not much other than your standard fish out of water (or bird out of cage) scenario so it would be easy enough to follow.

The neurotic, domesticated bird who has moved to Rio and learnt to fly and had children with the last female Blue Macau now has to deal with moving to the Amazon (not but that might have been funnier) when they discover a secret tribe of Macaus.

All of the voice return for the sequel so that must have been in their contracts unlike a certain Orange Wednesdays advert from a couple of years ago!

Not only did they pack in an inflated voice cast but they unwisely attempted to squeeze in too many subplots.

There is Blu attempting to win Jewel's father's respect; the handsome ex-boyfriend which promoted jealousy; the Ferngully/Avatar "outsider joins tribe to defeat threat to environment"; a Cockatoo revenge plot; Amazon's Got Talent auditions; the list is endless and no subplot is given the opportunity to be fully fleshed out resulting in an uneven mess.

At first I was surprised that Rio 2 wasn't released in June/July to coincide with the World Cup but I realised that a) Fox needed something to capitalise on the Easter holiday market and b) this film is possibly anti-football.

I say that because the home of the blue Macaus which is under threat from loggers is situated in Manuas. Now Manuas is where they have built a brand new football stadium which has been beset by problems ahead of the World Cup and the England game that will play there.

Are the loggers in the film there to bulldoze the land to make way for the football stadium? Or am I reading too much into the film?

Either way, with a plot stuffed fuller than a taxidermist's menagerie and prioritising random musical interludes that feel shoehorned in now Anne Hathaway has won an Oscar for Les Mis over jokes, the desire for any more Rio films is as endangered as the titular blue macau.

1 star

Monday, 7 April 2014

Divergent - review

Another year, another adaptation of a "Young Adult" literary sensation aiming to take the crown previously held by Twilight and currently sitting atop the head of Jennifer Lawrence and Hunger Games.

So far the likes of Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and The Host have failed to capture the imaginations of the critics, audiences or box office charts.

Is Divergent be able to go in a different direction? Sadly not.

In a future ravaged by a war, society is split into five different factions based on your personality. Abnegation the selfless, Dauntless the brave, Erudite the intelligent, Candor the honest and Amity the peaceful... although apparently some don't fit into a category because they are dressed like homeless people or can flit between categories and are called Divergent.

In a Harry Potter-esque Sorting Hat ceremony, all teenagers chose a faction on their 16th birthday. Tris (Shailene Woodley) discovers she is divergent and chooses to leave her Abnegnation parents behind and become part of the Dauntless group who spend a lot of their time practising parkour and wearing the latest All Saints collection.

There is a potentially interesting story here. The factions were created to prevent further conflict but what caused the original war? The society lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago which is surrounded by a giant fence but what is its purpose? What is it keeping out? Or is it designed to keep them inside?

Unfortunately none of this really explored as the majority of the 138 minute running time is spent having the new Dauntless recruits go through extensive Hunger Games-style training.

With the book being the first in a trilogy, the film feels like nothing more than an extended first act with a undeveloped, tacked-on climax featuring a plot to eliminate one of the factions by a villainous clipboard-carrying Kate Winslet.

The one positive aspect however is the lead actress Shailene Woodley. She starts off fragile and unsure but slowly grows into a tough character, drawing on various Linda Hamilton/Sigourney Weaver action heroine qualities, and nails the emotional beats perfectly.

Divergent might not be able to differentiate itself from the YA crowd but it does have a stand-out lead. The main fault lies with spending so much time laying the groundwork that it rushes the climax... but let's face it, it's a problem that many young adults encounter early on.

2 stars

Locke - review

On paper, a film which just features a man on the phone in his car should not work at all. Thankfully Locke doesn't require any roadside assistance thanks to an excellent screenplay and mesmerising performance from Tom Hardy.

Ivan Locke is a building site manager who is responsible for creating structures which stand the test of time but sees his entire life collapse down around him over the course of one 85 minute car journey to London.

Tom Hardy is the only person on screen during the film and creates a fully realised character with the minimal of dialogue, backstory and a spot-on

Driving towards his final destination, Ivan tries to sort out a disintegrating relationship and career whilst safeguarding the creation of new life and a new build.

Who would have thought that having Bane trying to talk Moriarty through prepping a concrete pour would be one of the most interesting and exciting subplots of the year?

Tom Hardy never once lets his performance slip into cruise control as he subtly shifts through his emotional gears to cement his position as one of the UK's best actors.

From the off the film hits Top Gear and never lets up. This is one car journey you won't be asking "Are we there yet?".

4 stars

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Raid 2 - review

I haven't heard an audience reaction like the one I heard at the Unlimited preview of The Raid 2 since... well, The Raid in 2012.

There were audible gasps, winces, laughs and cheers in all the right places as Iwo Uwais's character fights the mob single-handedly.

I know that's a phrase that is used in many tag lines and plot descriptions "One man's struggle to take down the mob single-handedly" but as the film enters its breathless final act, you truly believe that this man is capable of doing it.

When The Raid was released it was rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest action films of the last decade, one of the most surprising things about was not the amazing fight choreography from Indonesian actors/martial arts experts Iko Uwais (hero Rama) and Yayan Ruhain that put Hollywood to shame but the fact that it was directed by a Welshman!

If there were some to criticise the first film, and I was not one of them, they pointed to a lack of character development and story. The plot for the first film was as straightforward as you get. A crack police team enter an apartment block to arrest a crime lord and have to battle bad guys in order to achieve their mission. Simple yes but it didn't matter when the resulting action was as ridiculously entertaining as it was. Sometimes less is more and this was certainly the case with The Raid.

If the key word to describe the The Raid was "Relentless", then the word to describe The Raid 2 would be "Expansion".

Where the first film took place in the confines of one building, the sequel spans across the city as Rama goes undercover in a local crime family's organisation in order to try and discover and eliminate corruption with the police force.

The plot has echoes of Infernal Affairs and Kill Bill Vol. 1 as a range of characters and motives are introduced in this ongoing struggle for ultimate power, including some new action icons with snappy names like "Hammer Girl" and "Baseball Bat Man".

Because this film has a much more plot-driven story, there is more room for character and relationship building, thus creating more emotional impact.

And there certainly is impact but perhaps not as much as one might initially expect. Some people might get restless when 15 minutes goes by without a fight.

Their patience will be rewarded though because the fight scenes on the whole are on a whole different level than the original with the climatic third act resulting in a one man war more destructive than Commando with one particular one-on-one fight in a kitchen that had me bursting into a spontaneous round of applause in the cinema screen due to its adrenaline-pumping excellence.

With The Raid 2, director Gareth Evans has been able to deliver a sequel that not only expands the universe but also differentiates and improves upon the original. Take a bow Mr. Evans, you have made The Godfather Part 2 of action movies.

5 stars

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Yves Saint Laurent - review

The extent of my knowledge of Yves Saint Laurent amounted to the following... Famous French fashion designer.

Turns out even that was wrong as he was actually from Algeria!

By the end of this French-produced biopic, I knew a lot about the man but little about his actual work. Beyond one montage sequence showing the inspiration and production of his seminal (and much copied) ... dress, the film's main focus is the relationship between Yves and his relationship with business and personal partner Pierre Berge.

At times both characters come across as unlikeable to each other and the audience through a series of arguments and infidelities, which can make it difficult to empathise with them.

Given the subject matter, the film is beautifully produced and looks catwalk perfect but fashionistas might be disappointed by the focus on the people inside the clothes rather than the clothes themselves.

3 stars