Saturday, May 29, 2010

Heartless (2009)

Heartless (2009) takes place in modern-day London, against a backdrop of gang violence and alienation. Jamie Morgan is a twenty-something photographer who lives in a house estate in London. A large birth mark on his face hsa stopped him developing meaningful relationships with women, while the death of his father has made his relationship with his mother emotionally critical.

After his mother is murdered in front of him, he meets a Mephistophelian character called Papa B, who offers to remove his birthmark in exchange for certain rather gruesome favours. He then he raises the ire of Papa B, who asks him to kill his newly-found girlfriend as compensation.

Heartless is atmospheric, and vibrantly chronicles the fears of modern day city-dwellers; gangs, guns and hoodies are the order of the day. Director Philip Ridley makes London unfriendly and positively dangerous to the outsider, and plays on the fear of hooded teenagers (even casting them as demonic figures).  While hinting at Hellraiser (which itself was inspired by Faust), the director adds his own themes of social isolation and alienation.  The movie also hints at hidden forces that control the spiraling descent of urban life into random, unexpected violence

Jim Sturgass plays Jamie with conviction; he convincingly transforms from a troubled young man afraid of showing his face, to someone brimming with confidence.  An emotionally poignant relationship with his mother is very well played by both actors

A few hokey special effect (including an vaguely unconvincing full body burn suit) made me shrug my shoulders, and a twist concerning the motives of Jamie's girlfriend and nephew are not well integrated into the primary plot.  One element had me vaguely puzzled - a young Indian girl in a Sari who Jamie met through Papa B inexplicably starts calling him Dad.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

The WolfmanThe Wolfman (2010) draws heavily on the grand heritage of the Universal Studio horror movies of the 1920s-40s, and even shares the same ominous studio logo that preceded the films of the era. It drips with kitschy atmosphere and high production values, but unfortunately has few real scares - you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking you're watching a real horror movie.

Lawrence Talbot (Benico del Toro), a stage actor currently performing in Victorian-era London, is approached by his brother's fiancĂ© and asked to return to his father's country estate to investigate his brother's disappearance. Soon after returning, he has a rather unfortunate encounter with a werewolf, and is accused of a spate of recent murders. His father, Sir John Talbot (Antony Hopkins) has to cope with the resulting ire of the local villagers and has his own personal demons to deal with. A major plot twists drips with clichĂ©, and most partially-awake film-goers will pick up on it early on.

Antony Hopkins is a far superior actor than his co-stars; he spits out his dialogue with conviction and articulate grace. The relationship between John Talbot and his son is strained, and Hopkins plays the distant father with believable ease.  The standout scene in the movie takes plan in an asylum, with Hopkins declaring his love for his antagonized son, and at the same time nonchalantly throwing him a straight-razor in case he wants to take the easy way out.

A large part of the movie was filmed on location in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.  The grace and computer-enhanced faded elegance of the location are a beautiful counterpoint to the lushness of the countryside.

The first man-to-wolf transformation scene is superbly directed, with bones cracking and elongating, hair sprouting, and vertebrae distorting under the stress of the change. The special effects are not overblown, but combine with Benico's tortured screams to deliver a viscously creepy moment. It nearly reaches the terrifying heights of the corresponding transformation in another werewolf classic, An American Werewolf in London.

Some of the special effects are, however, inadequate, and pull you out of the film. The computer-generated Wolfman running and leaping through forests and across the rooftops of London moves too fast and is too agile to be believable.

The director Joe Johnston paints the movie with high-budget Gothic gloom. However, I'd be hard pressed to call The Wolfman (2010) a true horror film - it's horror-lite for the movie-going masses. It has none of the escalating build-up and cathartic release of tension of the true horror classics, nor does it offend anyone with any truly edgy material.  There are no risks taken with the plot or the pacing, which given the high budget Hollywood-feel is no real surprise. Watch it for the production values, not the scares.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Nicholas Winding Refn’s introspective Valhala Rising (2009) is occasionally punctuated by unflinching violence, but it’s art house through and through. It’s a visually-spectacular and deliberately-paced character study where the stresses of a brutal journey merge with hypnotic dream sequences to deliver a compelling (but sometimes ponderous) experience

Set in the sparsely populated Scottish Highlands after Christianity has swept through much of Europe, Valhala Rising (2009) starts with a mute and shackled prisoner (later named One-Eye) forced to fight other captives to the death. The Highlands are desolate, with no towns, villages or other signs of civilization. One-Eye escapes, and joins Christian pillagers traveling to the Holy Land to fight the good fight (but with some only motivated by the riches dangled in front of them). A fog-bound journey across the sea to what they think is the Holy Land is psychologically draining and hallucinatory, and the movie reaches a climax when they land and conclude they’re not where they wanted to be.

Much of the movie concentrates on One-Eye’s psychological journey through hypnotic dream sequences – these are sometimes bathed in red and jarring. The music reaches a Nine Inch Nails-like electronic crescendo during some of the more haunting sequences.

Mads Mikellson plays One-Eye with a grinding intensity. He doesn’t speak but is occasionally ignited into action with an axe and his bare hands, breaking necks and disembowelling others with grim efficiency. He is, however, uncharacteristically resolute at the conclusion when he sacrifices himself to save the life of a companion.

Valhalla Rising (2009) reminded me of another recent similarly-paced movie, Van Diemen’s Land (2009), which also features a small group of desperate men travelling across a harsh landscape. Van Diemen’s Land was, however, based on a true story which made it a more grounded experience.

Some may consider Valhalla Rising (2009) pretentious, but the movie doesn’t pretend to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s strictly for those who are willing to experience a film-maker’s interpretation of a traumatic psychological journey. David Lynch-fans need only apply.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Solomon Kane (2009)

The 80s were the gleaming pinnacle of sword and sorcery movies.  We're talking about movie epics like Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaser, Jason and the Argonauts, Krull and Red Sonja.  These were the very essence of pulp, with chiseled (but very solemn) men and beautiful women seeking revenge in fantasy lands of strange creatures, sorcerers of black magick, and swords.  Lots and lots of swords.

As a kid I soaked each and every one of them up.  This is probably the reason why I enjoyed Solomon Kane (2009) as much as I did.  It captures the fantasy vibe of its 80s counterparts and in doing so it held my attention for the full runtime. 

Set in the puritan 1700s, the movie starts with Solomon Kane, driven by an insatiable appetite for material gain, leading a charge into a castle.  After displaying his prowess with two swords and skillfully skewering his opponents, he finds himself  separated from his men, and battling a Servant of Hell.  Seeing his imminent death, he jumps out of a windows and crashes into the sea below.  A year later, still emotionally scarred from the battle, we find him living a monastic life in England, having renounced violence.  After being told by the Abbot to leave, he encounters a family on their way to the New World who show him kindness and warmth. After they're attacked by man-demons and nearly all the family is butchered, he picks up his swords once more to do battle.

Okay - so Solomon's motives are driven by revenge (surprise surprise!), but there are a few twists (including one so obvious and cliche it was telegraphed from half a mile away).

James Purefroy plays the titular character with a grizzled introspection - think Christopher Lambert in Highlander.  He doesn't ham it up, but the performance is by no means subtle. That's probably, however, a function of the script and direction, rather than a limitation of his acting chops.

Purefroy's West Country brogue was unusual simply because it's not the type of accent you associate with action icons (but very apt because Kane grew on his father's estate in Devon)

Much of the movie is set in a rural English landscape, and production design successfully captures an unwelcoming, cold landscape, punctuated by the occasional brutish and ravaged town.  The movie is very grey - don't expect primary colors or cheery Mediterranean pastels. The occasional fire adds a lick of yellow, though

The action largely revolves around hand-to-hand combat, aided by swords and knives, and is relatively entertaining to watch (although as usual quick cuts are the order of the day).  CGI monsters and effects occasionally rear their unbelievable heads, but the movie is at its most successful when Solomon fights against real people (sometimes augmented by prosthetics).

The movie maintains a relatively quick pace, and doesn't lag or get boring. It's entertaining pulp that's a must-see for any fan of the sword and sorcery genre.

SCORE: 3/5

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 (2010) is a sometimes-spirited sequel that again features Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark, the CEO of an advanced weapons manufacturer, and erstwhile but ever-so snarky superhero.  The movie suffers from several unneeded characters and plot threads, and has a flagging middle section which make the entire experience rather underwhelming.

Once again, RDJ plays Stark as a flamboyant, attention-seeking narcissist, and almost every moment with him on screen is scene-chewingly entertaining.  However, Stark is now dying because of the power source that drives the suit. This causes him to ruminate on the time that's rapidly running out for him, and drives him to drink and other self-destructive behavior.

There's a few too many plot threads; these include
  • Ivan Vanko (played with smoldering intensity by Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist whose father was wronged by Stark's father, and who builds powered whips with which he attacks Starks while he races in Monaco (the action highlight of the movie)
  • A rival weapons manufacturer, headed by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who hooks up with Ivan Vanko to build a better Iron Man suit
  • A US Congressional Committee that wants Stark to relinquish his Iron Man suits 
  • The theft of an Iron Man suit so that the US Army can weaponize 
  • An Expo to highlight just how simply wonderful Stark's weapons technology is
  • Stark's dysfunctional relationship with his father
  • Stark's rapidly deteriorating health due to the effects of Iron Man suit's power source, and the search for a less-harmful replacement
  • Stark's alcoholism and self-destructive spiral
  • Stark's growing but still veiled overtures to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his executive assistant. Paltrow is underused has little connection to the primary plot thread and I suspect was only casted because she's great eye candy
  • The Avengers, a mysterious group of superheros, headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who places a soon-uncloaked mole in Stark Industries to keep tabs on Tony Stark
  • ...and a few other
These plot threads should have twisted, knotted and combined into a revelation that drove the finale into an emotional frenzy; however, this doesn't happen, and the multiple plot lines only caused the movie to drag.

Several plot threads were simply unneeded and cause the movie to drag; they should have been removed to give the movie a punchier pace (some, for example, are only present to clearly signpost spin-offs). While I was watching the flagging middle third of the movie, my thoughts drifted to the much more cohesively plotted The Dark Knight, a much better comic book adaptation.

The action scenes are zingy and well directed but are spread a smidgen too thin.  The CG has very high production values (Vanko's attack on Stark at Monaco is visually breathtaking) but since the movie creates few emotional connections with the characters, the action scenes don't have the payoff the should have (again, compare this to the far superior The Dark Knight).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book of Eli (2010)

The Book of Eli (2010) is another in a long line of post-apocalyptic movies that follows an enigmatic figure as he travels across a desolate wasteland.  The movie emulates the barren style of spaghetti westerns, with Denzel Washington successfully channeling the quiet confidence and menace of Clint Eastwood.

The plot is suitably spartan.  Denzel Washington plays Eli, a man who has journeyed across a post-apocalyptic US for thirty years, on a seemingly God-given mission to safely take a book West to some unknown destination.  Others are desperately looking for a copy of the book, including the self-styled leader of a small town Eli travels through. The leader, played by Gary Oldman, is ambitious and hungry for power - he wants his town to grow, he wants this book for the power it would hold over others.

The production values are impressively high, and the movie successfully visualizes a world that has slowly decayed, with highways torn apart and entire cities crumbled into the dirt.  Obviously made with a higher budget than another recent post-apocalyptic film, The Road (2010), the visual look of movie never misses a beat.

Denzel takes center-stage in a number of impressively stage fights, in which he fends off attackers with knives, guns, and his own fists.  I think at some level I was largely impressed because it was Denzel Washington in these fights - something that I'd never expected from him.  However, on several occasions quick edits and cuts distract from the fluidity of the action scenes (although one relatively long take of Denzel fighting in silhouette form against a bright sun was stunning).

The movie attempts a now-standard Sixth Sense style twist at the end when it reveals a fact that's designed to change your perception of the preceding 100 minutes.  This, however, stretched credibility a bit too far; I didn't feel cheated at the leap of faith required to successfully accept the twist, but more puzzled.