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.

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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

For what was essentially the last battle scene from Deathly Hallows Part 1, this film held together very well. It managed to move from drama to fighting to all out battles whilst maintaining the human core, and handled potentially tricky parts of the story very well.

Part 2 picks up directly where Part 1 finishes, and doesn’t hang about bringing audiences up to speed – which I fully agreed with – if you don’t know what’s going on by now a trip to the video shop might be in order before heading out to see this finale. Harry is very much brought to the fore – although obviously he is the main character in all the films, here even Ron and Hermione take a back seat – this is Harry’s story of Harry’s end – or not. In my opinion Part 2 showcases Daniel Radcliffe’s best performance, his acting showing both subtlety and depth, giving Harry a naturalism which was missing from previous films.

This film was always going to be about the Battle of Hogwarts, and it is beautifully done. The fighting is brutal, whilst never pushing the 12A rating or becomming unbelievable given that its a group of school teachers and their pupils forming one side of the fighters. Alexandre Desplat’s amazing score provides so much more that just background music, telling the unspoken, internal story woven around the stunning visuals, both during the battle – where poignant choral themes counter and illuminate the violence taking place – and particularly in Harry’s walk to meet Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Even by the 3rd viewing, the music ratchets up the tension so high that I was still on the edge of my seat, gripping the arm rests with my heart in my mouth, waiting for and dreading Voldemort’s curse.

Part 2 provides a fitting finale to the Harry Potter series and, as most of the films have done along the way, provides a faithful rendition of the story that captures and complements the essence of the book.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (SPOILER ALERT!)

I think I would go and see a Transformers film just for the sounds – the mechanical humming/whirring (not quite sure how to describe it) that characterises the robots’ movements and transformations, and the slow-mo beat of helicopter rotor blades just make my heart trip a little faster.

Happily, there is more to recommend this film than simply its sound effects – this Transformers cleaves much more closely to the cut of the original and is a definite improvement on pretty much all that was wrong with Revenge of the Fallen. Huge, chaotic battles with absolutely breath-taking visuals (I will try my very hardest to get to see this in an IMAX) fill the screen for much of the film, and one Decepticon – Shockwave – is stunning.

For a Michael Bay film, this one does take a while to get going. There are fits and starts of action, but much of the first half of the film it taken up with getting the characters into the right place for the main showdown to occur. Sam is looking for a job – cue John Malkovich as his mercurial new employer – and letting everyone know why Megan Fox is no longer his girl friend without ever actually saying why. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is the new eye candy and although it was hard to tell over her massively collagen-ed lips, she made Fox look like an Oscar-winning actress and seemed incapable of any expression other than a pout, probably due to said lips.

When the final battle does get underway it is, naturally, awesome. The robots get the most scenes, with the humans mostly leading the eye of the audience, and the fighting in this Transformers is truly brutal. People die, robots are shredded, and Megatron gets a good seeing to. Sentinel Prime is satisfyingly ambiguous and adds another layer to the Autobots = good/ Decepticons = bad theme. This film reunites all the key characters; Lennox and his men, and Simmons with scene-stealing sidekick Dutch played brilliantly by Alan Tudyk.

Dark of the Moon is well worth watching as it presents a return-to-form for the franchise. It is everything you’d expect from a Michael Bay film, and better than you’d hope in a lot of places. It’s up against a lot of comic book/superhero films this summer, but Dark of the Moon well and truly holds its own, and definitely lives up to the excitement caused by its trailer.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Hope springs eternal – or so goes the saying. Despite not being overly impressed with Pirates offerings 2 and 3 I was hopeful that this 4th installment would capture some of the sharp wit and pure silliness of the original “Curse of the Black Pearl”. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, I was disappointed.

It must be difficult to make successful sequels – not successful in terms of box office numbers but ones that preserve the heart and spirit of the originals from which they spring. I loved the first Pirates film – it was clever, the characters were well realised and for the most part brilliantly played, and Johnny Depp created a new legend in Captain Jack Sparrow.

Taken out of their perfectly realised roles in the first film, the characters in this fourth installment seem as though they are parodying themselves, with no real depth of feeling apparent anywhere. Except perhaps between the missionary and the mermaid, although neither were given the chance to grow into their hinted-at roles properly. The soundtrack was almost completely recycled – not just the main themes – I realise with reoccuring characters there will be reoccuring themes – but the music as a whole brought to mind scenes from the first film when I heard it which cannot have been the composer’s intent. Also, several of the highlights of this film -in particular the fight between Jack and Angelica in a room with lots of ramps and cross beams – was very, very similar to the duel between Will and Jack in the first film. Except not as good.

As a final nail in the coffin for this hopefully last installment of the Pirates franchise – the 3D was awful – a lot of the film appearing out of focus to the extent that it was often hard to tell what was going on in a scene and who things were happening to. I realise this is probably a problem specific to my cinema, but it didn’t help with my overall enjoyment of the film!

To conclude – unless you loved the second and third Pirates films, I wouldn’t bother going to see On Stranger Tides. To me it continues the degradation of the gem that is the original and proves that no matter how much money they make, in terms of a satisfying cinema-going experience, sequels rarely live up to their promise.