Jun 28 2012

Review: Young Adult

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 4:43 pm

If you ever had the common misfortune of growing up as neither beautiful nor popular, you’ll remember wondering what will happen to the beauty queens and football heroes that used to lord it up at school. Having been told that the meek will inherit the Earth, you wait for the day when the nerdy and awkward kids at school become tech millionaires. In this fantasy, the popular kids are now forty, living in a trailer and lining up at the dole queue every week. But more than often, in real life, that is not the case.

Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron) is a 37 year-old prom queen who now ghost writes a series of young adult novels set in high school. Having reached a dead end with her latest book, she returns to her hometown on a mission to rescue her old boyfriend (Watchman’s Patrick Wilson) from what she’s convinced herself is a loveless marriage. When she rocks back into town, she ends up meeting an old bullied classmate (Patton Oswalt). Oswalt recognises her but she has completely forgotten him except for the fact that he was ‘the hate crime kid’: he was ruthlessly crippled as a teen because his assailants thought he was gay. But he’s not. There’s a running theme of characters stuck in arrested development: Mavis never got over her break-up so by penning books about schoolgirl crushes and senior proms, she’s effectively re-writing her past again and again; Oswalt seems well balanced and erudite but he still bears the scars of his beating and fills his evening distilling whiskey in his garage and painting action figures.

Mavis is bitchy and self-centred but more importantly, she’s delusional. She’s completely bitchy and off-the charts crazy and she’s utterly convinced that her ex is miserable. Theron does a fantastic job wringing the hilariously awkward moments of the film as well nailing her moments of tragedy. Fans of TV’s Arrested Development will know that she’s fully capable of playing comedy, but it’s strange how she’s rarely called upon to be funny in films. Stand-up comedian Oswalt –who you may recognise from The King of Queens or as Remy in Pixar’s Ratatouille– is also a revelation, holding his own in scenes opposite the Academy Award winning beauty. Though few people saw his 2010 independent comic drama Big Fan, it showed him to be a comic actor of great vulnerability and sincerity and his performance here in Young Adult only confirms his immense potential.

Reuniting the Juno power-team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, Young Adult is a slightly different creature from Cody’s earlier works. Instead of being about adolescents, it’s about the people whose best years are well behind them. Where once they looked hopefully to the future, they can now only look back and wonder. Gone are the snippets of slang and way-cool pop culture references but what remains is the beating heart of pain that made Juno such a endearing film.

Jun 22 2012

Revenge: your next favourite show?

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 5:01 pm

Set in the wealthy and glamorous world of upstate New York, Revenge is the new series from the creator of One Tree Hill. The show follows Emily Thorne, a woman intent of exacting revenge on a large, interconnecting network of rich and influential people who framed her father for a crime he didn’t commit. Having lived there as a child, she now returns to the Hamptons under a different name with a plan to take her victims down one by one. At the centre of the conspiracy lies the Grayson family, led by society darling Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), an ice queen of epic proportions.

Early episodes follow quite a unique structure: while Emily winds her way to the Hamptons social scene with the help of Nolan (Gabriel Mann), her confidante and local tech billionaire, each instalment sees her tracking a single victim who contributed to her father’s downfall. Her plan includes elaborate schemes to ruin each targets in different ways. If you were to consider CSI a ‘police procedural show’, then Revenge could certainly be labelled as ‘revenge procedural’. By having a new story each week, viewers dipping into random episodes can have something to latch on to even if they’re not up to speed on the dense soap opera narrative.

Obviously, The Count of Monte Cristo is a big influence,” star Emily VanCamp told blinkbox in a recent interview. “The show is loosely based on the book and it carries on that theme. [In preparing for the role] I re-read the book and watched all the films and it’s interesting because they’re all told from a male point of view [but now] it’s great to see a young, ass-kicking woman take on the role.”

Like The Count of Monte Cristo, the popularity of Revenge has been partially attributed to its class war dynamics. In a recent Vanity Fair article, it was suggested that in the wake of the 2008 financial disaster, hedge fund managers and corporate bankers became the new hate figures to the poor and huddled masses: “The vast wealth depicted in movie/TV drama today is divorced from manufacturing and an invisible army of laborers doing their part; it’s divorced from anything resembling work. It’s floating and caressing, immortalizing. A long taste of paradise.”

When pressed to comment on the vicarious pleasure Revenge’s audience takes from Emily’s story, VanCamp agreed: “I think so much of television is about hitting the right audience at the right moment and even though we might have been trying to just create a great piece of entertainment, something really resonated with the American people. I think it’s sort of resonating worldwide. That’s why it’s hard to pigeonhole it as just a night time soap.”

Is it possible that Revenge is the first major TV show of the Occupy generation? That seems a little far-fetched, perhaps. If the show had intentions of being political, it would also be guilty of wanting to have its cake and eat it. For as much as the series is about plotting the downfall of the rich and undeserving, the characters sure do attend a lot of glamorous high-society parties. Oh, the parties! There seems to be a charity polo match or extravagant birthday party just about every week. The number of outfits VanCamp and Stowe wear every episode would suggest that under their fine craftsman houses are mazes of cavernous walk-in closets. If there’s one thing TV audiences love more than watching rich people get their comeuppances, it’s watching rich people living it up! Why else would Dallas and Dynasty have been such a big hit in the 80s? Why else would BBC and ITV continually make period dramas about minor aristocrats?

In fact, Madeleine Stowe’s stone-cold matriarch is the closest thing American TV has to Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess, with her icy putdowns and withering looks. For as lofty as we’ve made the show sound in the last paragraph, Revenge is also unashamedly arch. VanCamp says “the campy element is what makes it cool. It’s that element that takes it back to the old soaps. You have to find the humour in these things and that’s why it’s hard to put us into any category because we’re not trying to be anything else but great entertainment and be unique and find the fun in it.” And she’s right: in the end, the thing that’s kept viewers in America glued to the television hasn’t been the politics or the glamour. In the end, Revenge is just a good soap opera. The rest of it is really window dressing designed to take the ‘guilty’ out of ‘guilty pleasure’ viewing. On British television it’s only four episodes into its first season and we wouldn’t be surprised if it went on to become this year’s breakout hit.

Jun 21 2012

Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 5:14 pm

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterThere are a lot of horror mash-up movies floating around these days. It’s as though studio executives have set up a wire tap to listen into teenagers’ inane school yard conversations: Who would win if Godzilla fought Superman? Wouldn’t it be cool if Ryan Giggs was also a time travelling werewolf hunter? This mash-up trend pays tribute to the kind of campy 70s B-movies where the title of a film told you everything you needed to know about the movie. If you were watching Blacula, you know you are in for a rollicking film about black Draculas. In exactly the same way, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pretty much the film you expect it to be.

Using the life of the 16th President of the United States as its baseline, AL:VH creates an alternate history in which the vampires of the American South have rebelled against the union in order to keep their slaves (who also happen to be their staple diet). After witnessing his mother dying at the hands of a vampire, young Abe Lincoln vows to avenge her and in his quest, he encounters Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a wealthy young man who mentors him in the way of hunting bloodsuckers. After training Lincoln to twirl his axe like a baton (this is apparently the core skill of the vampire hunter), Henry insists that his protégé live a monastic existence, forgoing friends and family for the greater good. He naturally ignores this command, falling for Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and launching a highly visible career in politics.

Adapting his own novel, writer Seth Grahame-Smith (who also penned the popular mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) has incorporated elements of Lincoln’s story where possible. In classic historical fiction style, we see that Lincoln learnt every one of his principles and maxims in his quest to cleanse Illinois of vampires. There are plenty of nods and winks to anyone with a basic knowledge of Honest Abe’s life but the movie isn’t campy enough for its own good. Director Timur Bekmambetov handles action sequences very ably, but these characters are portrayed  very reverentially and the tone  of the performances don’t quite mesh with crazy story.

Bekmambetov benefits from the solid cast, with stage actor Benjamin Walker taking his first lead role as Lincoln himself. Looking uncannily like a young Liam Neeson, Walker carries off the various ages of the president with great aplomb, only to be let down by unconvincing old man make-up. In fact, Lincoln is the only man who seems to age in any meaningful way. In later scenes, Winstead and Anthony Mackie look the same apart from the talcum powder in their hair while Lincoln goes from young man to geriatric in a few short years. It seems a decade of vampire hunting and federal governing really takes its toll on a man’s face.

Some of the computer generated effects are quite bad but the theatrical 3D version features a fight that takes place on top of a train that is one of the best 3D scenes of recent times. While the action itself doesn’t arrive as regularly as one would expect, the movie never lulls in part thanks to its solid cast. British thespians Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell (as the evil Vampire slave owner) both look like they’re having a blast while Walker showcases his ability to bring some gravitas to totally stupid movies.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has not been hyped or publicised as much as most other summer blockbusters and it works in its favour. If you have low-to-no expectations of this movie, you just might enjoy it as pure popcorn fare.

Jun 15 2012

Review: Rock of Ages

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 3:03 pm

Rock of AgesIf you were to take a gander at the shows now playing at London’s West End and compare them to those from ten years ago, you’d notice one striking development: the rise of the jukebox musical. Whereas the theatre-going public used to eagerly wait for the next Andrew Lloyd Webber production, there’s now a staggering number of shows ‘inspired by the hits of’ ABBA, Queen, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Frankie Valli, Green Day – the list literally goes on. On screen, the trend continues: the successes of Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia and Glee have now inevitably resulted in Rock of Ages.

Set in West Hollywood 1987, this star-studded production is set around the fictional Bourbon Club where we meet Sherrie and Drew (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta), aspiring young rock singers who tend bar while they wait for their big break. Running the club are Alec Baldwin’s rock and roll burnout and his right-hand man Russell Brand (whose accent suggests that he hails from some seriously fruity part of the midlands). Featuring the songs of Bon Jovi, Poison, Foreigner and big bands, Rock of Ages is less a celebration of Rock than it is of 80s Pop. This means that pretty much every track will sound familiar to even the least rock-savvy viewers, giving everybody in the audience regular moments when they think Hey! It’s that song!

The moment you meet the main couple, there’s no question as to what direction the story is heading: boy meets girl, boy gets success, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It’s a story that has been told so many times but for some reason, it really didn’t bother us. From the very first scene where we’re treated to one of the movie’s many mash up numbers, it becomes quickly apparent that the plot is largely there to function as lubricant, guiding the story from song to song. After all: there are twenty songs in a film 120 minutes long. That’s an average of one musical number EVERY SIX MINUTES! The dialogue, while unmemorable, is deployed almost exclusively as a way to segue between songs and justify the lyrics within the context of the story. There are a few good gags peppered along the way, but the writers/editors have had the good sense to get out of the way of the music.

And the music is good. Everybody in the cast seems very comfortable with the songs, including Tom Cruise who plays legendary rocker Stacee Jaxx in way that suggests an Axl Rose/Keith Richards hybrid. Brand and Baldwin are given relatively little to do but their scenes together are a lot of fun. Diego Boneta could be the film’s major revelation, playing the young lead. Looking like a beefy version of Bret from Flight of the Conchords, he’s charismatic and reasonably funny when the script calls for it.

One of the big weaknesses (and there are a few) of Rock of Ages is also tied into its biggest strength. While they’ve assembled a killer collection of hit songs, a lot of them are very similar: they start off a bit quiet before they crescendo into a rousing power anthem. As a result, the already flimsy second act feels a little shapeless.

It would be tough recommending this film as a piece of narrative cinema, but I don’t think it aspires to that standard at all. Like Mamma Mia and The Rocky Horror Picture Show before it, Rock of Ages wants to be that movie you see with your friends while you munch on a big bucket of popcorn. It’s a light and enjoyably musical that will most likely have you singing its songs on the car trip home.

Jun 08 2012

Review: Prometheus

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 2:54 pm

Why is Prometheus the most anticipated movie of the year? On one hand, it’s been thirty years since Ridley Scott last directed science fiction, a genre in which he created not one but two all-time classics. On the other hand, it’s also a prequel to Alien that promises a return from the crash-bang nonsense of the Aliens vs. Predator franchise, co-written by Lost’s Damon Lindelof. On the face of it, Prometheus has everything going in its favour. But we all know what can often happen to the best laid plans. The last time we saw a visionary director return after decades to make a prequel to his much loved space classic, we ended up with the trifecta of cinematic effluence that was the Star Wars prequels. Are viewers in for a similar disappointment with Prometheus?

Scott has insisted that Prometheus is not a prequel to Alien, however the action takes place in the same universe decades before the events of the 1979 classic. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who discovers a number of cave paintings on Earth that feature an identical constellation. Interpreting these glyphs as an extra-terrestrial invitation, she mounts a mission to this far off system, hoping to discover the secret of man’s origin on Earth. Along for the ride is an expansive crew that includes Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, a corporate employee sent to monitor the mission; Logan Marshall-Green as Charlie, a fellow archaeologist and love interest to Rapace’s Shaw; Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, a grizzled blue collar type that recalls Alien’s Captain Dallas; and Michael Fassbender as David, a life-like android in the vein of Lance Henriksen’s robot character Bishop from Aliens.

To avoid dropping any spoilers, we’ll won’t reveal too much of the plot. The important point to take from the story is that Scott and his writers have decided to focus the story on the search for the origins of man. The premise poses a possibility that millions of years ago, aliens came to Earth and planted the first seeds of sentient life; that humans did not evolve per se, but were intelligently designed by higher beings. This theory is not particularly new.  An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation used a similar story to explain why all the alien races in the Star Trek universe looked kind of human. But the way in which this idea is tackled in Prometheus is a little baffling and unclear. Rapace’s character, a devout Christian, seems to be on a mission to find God. One can only assume though, that if she found God in a scary spaceship at the end of the universe, he would not resemble any deity from the Judeo-Christian mould. (Nerd Alert: Finding God at the end of the universe was also the plot of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) Another character appears to be seeking these aliens so that they can live forever while the rest of them don’t seem majorly fussed by all the crazy things happening.

The main problem with Prometheus lies in the fact that just about every character isn’t terrifically well written. Certain crew members who are brought on the mission would never have passed basic psychological evaluations on account of being idiots and cowards; Rapace’s character is burdened with a conflict of faith, oscillating between despair and devotion at the drop of a hat; and Theron’s character is hiding a secret that becomes obvious a full hour before it’s finally revealed. The cast do what they can with the material they’re given, but by the time everyone starts dropping like flies (or do they?), the audience isn’t invested enough in the characters to care whether they live or die. Fassbender’s David is by far the most interesting character but even he suffers from motivational inconsistency.

But it would be unfair to call Prometheus a dud; it’s a pretty good film that was given the impossible task of improving on a classic. There is much to like in the production design and direction; there’s even a central sequence that might rival the chest-burster scene from the original. But above all, Scott’s intellectual and conceptual ambition is what makes this a noble effort.

The Star Wars prequels were an opportunity for George Lucas to revisit a universe he had created and work it over with the technology that had developed in the intervening years. But instead of embellishing the dark, dirty, mythology of The Empire, Lucas created kids’ films; a Wonka’s factory of colour and shapes, populated by offensive caricatures designed to be converted into toys. With Prometheus, Ridley Scott shows a will to tackle his old films from a fresh perspective which makes his speculated sequel to Blade Runner a very tantalising prospect indeed.

Despite the general tone of this review, we quite enjoyed Prometheus. If you haven’t seen it yet, we recommend that you catch it in the cinema. But to get the most out of it, you should probably start lowering your expectations immediately.