The Woman in Black

This review won’t be very detailed… as I think I only saw about half the film actually in focus through my glasses. The rest of it was spent with my gaze fixed on the bottom of the screen so that I could still see what was going on (over the top of my glasses and so as a vague blur, even four rows from the front) enough to follow the story – but not enough to be scared out of my chair by the sudden, rotting appearances of said Woman in Black.

I wanted to see this film primarily because I wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe not being Harry Potter, and also because sometimes I get these urges to go against type and watch scary films, even though as soon as I sit down I remember that I don’t enjoy being made to jump every five seconds. The Woman in Black wasn’t actually too bad in this respect – it did make you jump but not just for the sake of it, and when it did it was actually terrifying, unlike Drag Me To Hell, which was just disappointing (and exhausting!).

The Woman in Black did reinforce one suspicion that I’ve had for a long time – children are creepy. On a ghost walk in York none of the stories that the guide told were quite so chilling as the one involving disembodied children’s laughter, and small, cold hands slipping into yours as you walked along. Wet, dead children are even creepier, and there were certainly a lot of those in this film. There’s a reason why I didn’t go and see The Ring, and I was reminded of it almost every scene throughout The Woman in Black!

Radcliffe was impressive as grieving, haunted lawyer Arthur Kipps, and Ciaran Hinds a strong supporter as firmly grounded Tom Daily. The real star – if that’s the right word – of the film was the Woman in Black, an unquestionably malevolent spirit on a very effective quest for revenge. The split second views of her are the most hard-hitting, glimpses in reflections, through a zoetrope and just before the camera switches angles. The tension is built and built, in almost every scene there’s an unescapable sense of threat that has you jumping at bottles being opened, or water coming out of taps as you frantically search the edges of the screen for whatever is unquestionably lurking just out of sight.

The film is uncompromisingly bleak, even the ending, which attempts at least a little redemption for all involved, is hardly happy, and I stumbled out of the cinema in serious need of some bright lights and laughter. For scares and chills perfectly balanced against jumps and shocks, The Woman in Black excels. Genuinely frightening, this film for the most part manages to avoid descending into cliche and convention, giving a satisfying and enjoyable – in a dark sort of way! – experience.

Man on a Ledge

This film caught my eye by it’s brilliantly imaginative title – but it is at least accurate. Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks and Ed Harris and Jamie Bell star in this thriller/heist flick.

There is indeed a man on a ledge for most of this film, although it’s clear even from the trailer that something more than a suicide threat is going on. The tension is ramped up nicely in the bank heist, and some of the methods Joey (Bell) and Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) use are truly brilliant (skateboard, anyone?!). There’s just enough tension, thrills and subtle laughs to get the pitch just right, and this film is hugely enjoyable. Worthington can be a little wooden, although in this, as in The Debt, he displays convincing depths.

Man on a Ledge, similarly to Haywire, is a film that reveals its story as it goes along. This film however, strikes it right, and you are drawn in, mostly by the fact that it’s never really clear, until the film is at least two-thirds of the way through, whether Nick (Worthington) is guilty or innocent, or at first, even what he did. The twists are small but manage to be surprising, and the ending is, if cheesy, then definitely happy and satisfying.

A surprisingly enjoyable and good film, one that is well worth watching.

Underworld: Awakening (Spoilers!)

Regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about sequels. And 3D. Unfortunately, this installment of the Underworld cycle fulfils all the worst parts of both.

Selene is back, awakened after 12 years in cryo-sleep in a research facility. She’s lost Michael (Scott Speedman) but gained a daughter (India Eisley). The previous Underworld films were pretty good, I actually really enjoyed Rise of the Lycans, because sometimes, when one storyline has reached a good stopping point (at the end of Underworld: Evolution), there are other aspects of the world to still explore. In Awakening, it appears that the only aspect of Selene and Michael’s story left to explore was what would happen if the film was given a seemingly unlimited effects budget (not a good thing here) and no money for an actual storyline.

For all brief 88 minutes of Awakening (and believe me, it feels much longer) we are treated to uncountable shots of Selene diving in slow motion and full rubber-cat-suited 3D out of windows, off ledges, at Lycans, humans, out of the way of cars, bullets etc – pretty much any excuse to leap and dive and fly gracefully through the air really. This wouldn’t be a problem, if the story warranted the effects, but Awakening is an excellent example of a film where story plays second or even third fiddle to the effects. Yes, Lycan’s transforming into full wolf-ish forms is impressive in slo-mo 3D, but it doesn’t warrant a whole film.

The ending left things open and set for another installment – I can only hope that for that one they remember that they’re supposed to be telling a story, as well as making it look good.

Haywire (Spoilers!)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering – a taut assassin-on-the-run thriller starring MMA champion Gina Careno as gun for hire Mallory, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Haywire – I knew it had been written as a vehicle for Careno after Soderbergh had seen her on a TV fight – but I had no idea about the finer points of the story.

This didn’t really change, even as the film unfolded. I like plots that gradually grow clearer as you feel your way through them, it usually makes for a more immersive experience, but with Haywire, I sat in mostly patient hope that soon I’d be allowed in and really get into the story. The film focused tightly on Mallory’s point of view, and as such we stumbled in her wake as she discovered what was going on. Whether because Careno’s not primarily an actress, or because the role was written that way – and to be fair it could be either – Mallory is a very closed off, self-contained character, who doesn’t let on what she’d thinking or feeling to anyone. Including the audience. This would be fine, but with few external pointers, it made it difficult to get a sense of the larger picture. She was so business-like, almost cold and definitely hard, that it was difficult to believe that anything really affected her on an emotional level. Which made it difficult to fully invest in the story, so that when the final unveiling came, it elicited more of an “oh well, I’m sure she’ll cope” than anything more compassionate.

The stunts and fight sequences were definitely convincing, and Channing Tatum was surprisingly good as sort-of love interest Aaron, but whether through the telling, or the way the parts were written, for me Haywire failed to make a very lasting impression.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

As previously mentioned, I’m not a fan of sequels. Threequels are generally at least one film too much and a fourth installment? Well I was dubious, to say the least.

Ghost Protocol’s trailer pretty much dispelled any lasting doubts, leaving no questions as to whether Brad Bird would be continuing the MI series’ themes of high action and cooler-than-cucumbers tech for his spies. Beautiful, stunning locations and breath-taking stunts add to this roller coaster of a film for which (unlike Drive) the trailer was a pitch-perfect teaser of what was to come.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that the main sequence in the film for full-on wow factor involves Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt swinging around the outside of the Burj Khalifa Hotel in Dubai, and the thrill is only added to by the knowledge that Cruise did the stunts himself. The rest of the film is hardly action-shy; beginning with a spectacular prison-break sequence in which the movie’s tone is set – breath-taking action leavened by just the right amount of comic-relief by Simon Pegg’s Benji, building on the work he started in MI:3. The Kremlin sequence is brilliant – for the technology involved more than anything, and the beautiful buildings and architecture add a fresh feel for being as-yet little used in big, mainstream blockbusters.

Perhaps the only bum-note in Ghost Protocol is that the central premise – unhinged weapons genius threatening nuclear holocaust – has been so done-to-death that to be honest as a threat to world safety it barely raises a shiver. Been there, seen it before – everyone knows that the world is not going to be evaporated. For all its cliched unoriginality, the sight of a missile speeding towards the Earth is still enough to make you grip the armrests of the cinema seat and mutter “come on, come on” as the IMF agents obviously race to the last second to stop it. The rest of Ghost Protocol more than makes up for the unimaginative plot – if the story is uninventive then the way it is told certainly is not, and the pace is so enjoyably relentless that you won’t have time to evaluate the originality of the storyline.

The other IMF team members get more of a look-in in this installment, new agent Jane (Paula Patton) is satisfyingly hard-core, and Benji’s greater involvement can only be a good thing. Jeremy Renner’s Brandt is surprising as the unknown quantity, and Renner did “agent with a troubled back-story” very well, injecting the role with a warmth that I didn’t expect from him. He also showed himself more than capable of handling the action, sharing some of the fight-scenes with Cruise. There was a definite sense of a “team” working together, which made the film less of a Cruise/Ethan Hunt vehicle and more of a dynamic ensemble piece.

Over all, Ghost Protocol proves that the Mission Impossible franchise is far from dead. Brad Bird strikes it neatly between the corny tongue-in-cheek humour of pre-Craig era Bond, and the all out action of Bourne and hits something pretty much perfect. A must for cinema viewing, preferably at an IMAX, Ghost Protocol is thoroughly enjoyable and leaves you looking forward to the next mission.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sequels are often more miss than hit, taking characters and stories that absolutely shone in the first installment, and degrading them with a shoddy, half-hearted attempt at a follow up to bring in a few more million at the box office.

Happily, this is not the case with A Game of Shadows.

The film wastes no time dropping audiences straight into the action, re-introducing familiar characters such as Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a poorly-disguised Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.). The much-anticipated Moriarty (Jared Harris at his silken-voiced villainous best) is also revealed early on, thus confirming (in case there was someone on the planet who didn’t know) who Holmes’ nemesis was to be this time around.

The story picks up a little while after the ending of the first film – there is the sense that Watson and Holmes have been apart whilst Watson prepares to be married, and Holmes retreats into his own brand of genius/insanity as he follows the seemingly random chains of events that lead him to Moriarty. There’s no attempt at character-growth for Holmes or really Watson – which is a blessing, as each so perfectly encapsulated the roles the first time around, that to change them would be to stop them being Holmes and Watson and then really, what would be the point?

For all its familiarity and similarity to the first film, A Game of Shadows is no Hangover 2. Everything that was excellent about the first film it keeps, and applies it to the new adventure, the new mystery and new threats. Racing from London to Paris, from gypsy camps to anarchists’ headquarters to peace summits in Swiss castles, the scenery and set pieces are breath-taking. The visual effects experimented with in the first film are expanded upon and used with much greater effect – particularly in the headlong rush through the forest, where the camera flits from bullet-eye-views to the fleeing Holmes and gang, to the gunners and the relentless pursuit of Moriarty’s right-hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson).

A Game of Shadows is filled with all the suspense, mystery and action that one could wish for, as well as an almost steampunk sense of irreverence and fun in Holmes’ outlandish inventions and approach to things (urban camouflage?!). Moriarty is a fitting foil for Holmes, his Joker if you will, and their final confrontation manages to include one of the most threatening games of chess ever played (except outside of Hogwarts maybe). Difficult though it is to imagine, there is a clear sense that Holmes has met his match, and the audience waits desperately for him to pull some brilliant, left-field solution out of the bag. The ending is a true surprise, and perfectly rounds off the film. On seeing the confidence, brilliance and sheer fun with which Guy Ritchie and his team pulled off this sequel, a third installment to the Sherlock Holmes franchise would be very welcome indeed.

The Three Musketeers

It’s always nice when a film exceeds your expectations – admittedly mine were pretty low for this film – but it was much more enjoyable than I had imagined it would be.

The Musketeers themselves were the backbone of the story (obviously) but the three older ones – Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Aramis (Luke Evans) and Porthos (Ray Stevenson) outshone Logan Lerman’s D’artagnan for much of the film. All of the characters followed well-worn story arcs, but there was enough charm and camaraderie to make their interactions believable and interesting.

The baddies were suitable bad – Orlando Bloom’s big-haired Duke of Buckingham was an enjoyably slimy foil for embittered Athos, but in terms of double dealing and real up-to-no-goodness, Christoph Waltz’ Cardinal crept away with the prize.

Lots of swashbuckling adventures and brilliant swordplay, humour that’s just a little bit cliched but funny all the same (thank you James Corden as the Musketeer’s servant Planchet) and mid-air battles between giant air ships. For outright spectacle you couldn’t ask for more. At times, it was easy to forget that you weren’t watching a Disney Pirates movie – and Musketeers had everything in that Pirates 2-4 has lacked, but there was enough invention that it didn’t feel copied. Except for the music, which had many main themes that sounded as though they’d been lifted straight from Hans Zimmer’s Pirates OSTs.

Outrageously sumptuous set design, costumes and over-the-top characters make The Three Musketeers a wonderfully silly spectacle that enjoyably wiles away just under two hours. Well worth a watch.

The Debt

This film flickers back and forth between the “present” of 1997 and the events of 1966 when three young Mossad agents were tracking down a war criminal with the intent of bringing him to justice. The trio in 1997 are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds, and in 1966 by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington respectively. The casting is brilliant, with the shadow of their younger selves visible in the older agents both physically and psychologically as they deal with a past never fully put behind them.

The story is well told and handled as we have come to expect from Matthew Vaugn and Jane Goldman, with the tension being ratcheted up nicely by cuts between the time periods and the wonderful performance by Jesper Christensen as Vogel – both monstrous and worryingly human in places. The Mossad agents – ambitious Stephan (Csokas), young and un-blooded Rachel (Chastain) and the distant, damaged David (Worthington) are believable and again, all too human in their reactions to the situation, but at times their characters seemed a little like cardboard cut-outs, and the film never really gets under their skin, telling you how they feel and react rather than letting you know them so well you understand them.

The action in the film is brutal and understated – tightly reined in to only what is necessary for the story… until the last third. Then the harsh realism is shaken a little by a strange chase sequence, and final confrontation that would have seemed more at home in a Bourne film or perhaps RED in which Helen Mirren also played a retired secret agent who returns to the field. The ending wasn’t enough to bring the rest of the film down with it, and it wasn’t so jarring that it could sit with what had gone before – it just didn’t seem to sit comfortably with the direction in which the earlier parts of the film had seemed to be heading. The success of their “mission” didn’t really seem the point of the film at first – from the title and it’s retrospective storytelling style it seemed to deal more with the repercussions of the actions of youth, of what one owes their country, their friends and families and themselves.

The Debt is a very good, very tight film that stumbles slightly in the third act but not enough to detract from the overall experience – a thriller based as much in the mind as in sixties East Germany.

Drive

*This review has been edited once I’d got over my initial raving and put on my serious reviewer’s hat once more, rather than the Ryan Gosling fan club one I’d been wearing earlier. Lesson learned – don’t review films as soon as I come out of the cinema, a little distance benefits everyone…

Story-telling without words fascinates me (there will be a post about this in the near future). The volumes that can be said by the tightening of an expression, the clenching of a fist or the subtle stance of a character is, when employed by skilled hands, so much more effective than mere words. After seeing Drive, there will be no doubt that Ryan Gosling has those skilled hands – building the emotional landscape of the central character – the un-named Driver – without a single extraneous word.

Less the action film I was expecting from the trailer, Drive is a strange mix of genres that is hard to pigeon-hole, but so much more enjoyable for its refusal to play by the rules. The first half plays like a slow-burning noir-drama, charting the Driver’s awakening in response to Carey Mulligan’s Irene – interspersed with bursts of shocking, economic violence and emotion that is all the more searing for the sparsity of expression the Driver displays for much of the film. The second half shifts seamlessly into action more reminiscent of gangster films for his quest for vengeance, and it is testimony to Gosling’s breadth as an actor that he handles the emotional subtlety of the repressed, isolated Driver as convincingly as he does the staccato bursts of aggression and emotion that seem to shock him as much as they do the viewer.

Don’t expect Fast and Furious style car chases. They are in there, but due to the camera angles and their placement within the story, they become tense power plays rather than adrenaline-fuelled races. The Driver instead drives through beautifully rendered neon-lit LA streets – an outlet, one senses, for the inner turmoil that he has no other other way of expressing, and the accuracy of the opening getaway sequence is more thrilling than all the high-speed chases put together.

Drive is a brilliant film. Utterly spellbinding and satisfying in a quiet, understated way. The music (by Cliff Martinez) is almost another character, saying much of what the Driver doesn’t, and blurring the line between simply accompanying the picture and actually telling part of the story. Ryan Gosling is brilliant, and director Nicholas Refn Winding is a genius – deserving of his Best Director award at Cannes this year.

30 Minutes or Less

I jumped onto the Zombieland bandwagon quite late on – I was pretty much the last of the people I know to watch it and appreciate the thrills of Ruben Fleischer’s quick-fire script, plot and mix of ultra violence with laughs that you only feels guilty about for the first couple of seconds.

30 Minutes or Less is also by Fleischer, and also has Jesse Eisenberg at the helm, but for all its similarities, it is a different film. Crime has replaced zombies, and although the central premise may be far-fetched, the cast which includes Nick Swardson, Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride, roll with it and whisk you along for the ride.

The film is short, and the plot cracks along at a fair old pace, but as Eisenberg’s pizza delivery guy is on a timer, it doesn’t feel rushed or hurried. Eisenberg’s panic, though familiar, is convincing, and the story packs in enough twists, turns and double-crosses that, even without knowing not to expect by-the-numbers storytelling, there wasn’t a point where it was safe to think you knew how it would end. Even at the end.

McBride’s middle-class loser never really has any re-deeming features, although his side-kick Travis (Swardson) is naive enough to stop the pair turning into comedy villains. Their motivations and methods are comedic, but the characters themselves remain human, even if laughable ones. Likewise Eisenberg’s Nick and Ansari’s Chet react as two regular guys might react to the sudden u-turn in their day, even down to their excitement after the heist, which you know is part relief at having survived.

A fast, fun, thrill of a film that mixes the comedy and violence as ably as Zombieland, and with just as effective results.