Tuesday, 17 September 2013

White House Down - The Review

White House Down won't win any Oscars or Baftas for best film. It will possibly win Razzies, but that's not to say it’s a bad film. 
What it is is two hours of gloriously silly escapism. If I didn't know better I'd say director Roland Emmerich was sending up the Die Hard saga and its countless clones.  

Yes, coming a few months after Olympus Has Fallen, that other Die Hard in the White House-style drama, it does look like a carbon copy, but the difference is that WHD is hugely fun and entertaining. 
(For me, Gerard Butler’s movie was mean spirited and weakly scripted). 
Okay, this newer epic isn't exactly Shakespeare, but it’s bursting with great one liners, such as the exchange between James Woods and a generic terrorist. 
To paraphrase: “Want some cake?” Asks Woods, chomping dessert as well as scenery. 
“No man. I'm diabetic.”
When's the last time in a Die Hard-style thriller you heard an exchange that gloriously flippant?
Then there’s Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), assigned to hack into the White House defence system. He proves to be one of the most flamboyant antagonists, making the most of what could have been a one dimensional character. 
Some supporting characters here could sustain their own short film at least, and Skip is one of them. 
Channing Tatum, reminiscent of 80s-era John McClane, is fun and likeable as the similarly monikered John Cale. 
Jamie Foxx lends charm and wit as the Obama in sneakers-style President James Sawyer, while solid support comes from heavyweights such as Woods (who looks like a shoo- in to play J Jonah Jameson in future Spider-Man instalments), Richard Jenkins and the ever engaging Maggie Gyllenhaal. 

Okay, the special effects aren't great. One of the explosions would have looked dated in Emmerich’s 1996 classic Independence Day, which is referenced in the exposition-heavy first act. 
However, all the obvious green screen work and CG crowd scenes don't get in the way of the fun. 
Most of the movie looks like glorious cut scenes from a fun video game anyway. 

Emmerich is a master of the action set piece, and here he's having a great time; a chase on the White House lawn has to be seen to be believed, while there's plenty of soap-style twists and turns to keep you hooked until the finale. 

Remarkably I found the literally flag-waving finale moving, which is absurd considering the overall tone.
Then again, I had watched Rush a couple of hours before, so maybe that had softened me up for any sucker punch moments.  

It remains to be seen whether WHD enjoys the same repeat factor as 2012 on TV, a gloriously guilty pleasure which never fails to engage me on Blu Ray. 
However, on a wet Tuesday afternoon, it proved well worth the price of admission; an epic romp you laugh with instead of giggling at. 
And I for one wouldn't mind seeing Tatum back for another round of terrorist-bashing adventure. 
Or at least a prequel short with hacker Skip Tyler, in the style of Marvel’s One Shot films. 
Alas, given the relatively poor box office returns, I get the feeling we have a long wait for any prequel or sequel.  

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Riddick - The Review

Roger Crow

Contains spoilers

I used to have a lot of time for Richard B Riddick, the gravel-voiced killer convict. 
Back in 2000, Pitch Black was the surprise low-budget sci-fi thriller of the year. Nicely scripted and directed by David Twohy, it gave Vin Diesel his breakout role as RBR. 

Taut, creepy, and surprisingly enjoyable, the thought of a follow-up was a tantalising prospect.
However, by 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick, it seemed too much money had been spent on special effects, mammoth sets, and gothic costumes, and not enough on Twohy's muddled script.

Despite an excellent set piece, in which the eponymous hero and his colleagues attempted to out run the lethal sunrise on a prison planet, and Judi Dench as a diaphanous alien, TCOR was a mess.

However, at least the video game was a lot of fun.

So when it was announced director and star would be re-teaming for a third chapter, I hoped it could redress the balance.

Sadly, Riddick - the movie - is a massive let down.

Despite being the ruler of an army of fearsome Necromongers (life-sapping alien bad guys from film two - who must have had a hand in the life-sapping editing), somehow Riddick is conned into leaving his empire for what is supposed to be his home world... but isn't. 

Like a moist calculator, none of this adds up.

Despite his survival instincts, he thinks standing on the edge of a cliff face, like Wile E Coyote, is a good idea.

Imagine his surprise when the bad guys turn on him and one shoots the ledge so it collapses, and takes him with it. 

The first third of Riddick drags like a wet bank holiday Monday, or a party political broadcast in bullet time. 

Despite being stranded on a planet full of a ravenous dingo-type predators, our hero manages to fend them off, pinches one of the cubs/puppies (reminiscent of Scrappy-Doo in the Scooby-Doo live-action version), and clashes with assorted scorpion-like beasts.

Arriving at a way station with grown dingo, he activates a beacon to call for help. Only Riddick would never call for help. He's far too macho. 

Act two sees the arrival of two parties of feuding Mercs, aka bounty hunters, one of who wants Riddick's head in a box, a bit like Albert Finney in Dennis Potter's swansong, Cold Lazarus. Only inanimate. 

We know this because he seems to tell us every five minutes, though his accent is so thick, subtitles would have helped.

Then again, they would help with most garbled action films these days. 

Most of the Mercs are generic idiots. Twohy's a natural when it comes to creating none-too-bright secondary characters, as he proved with the maddeningly overlong Waterworld in 1995. 

However, there is a sub-plot involving the father of a deceased character from Pitch Black, who few fans of the original cared about, and Battlestar's Katee Sackhoff will leave Big Bang Theory followers drooling as a lesbian sniper. 

Indirectly, hers is perhaps the most troublesome antagonist, largely because of the shockingly dated, homophobic reactions she causes in assorted characters, including Riddick. 
Any sympathy I had for the gruff anti-hero goes out of the window with a couple of horrendous lines of dialogue.

And by the time she descends from the heavens, angel-like to rescue Riddick from swarms of lethal predators, part of me wished she'd left him to die. 

Not since James Bond managed to turn Pussy Galore 50 years ago has a heroine of sorts had such a dramatic change of sexual preference. 

Clearly the sight of Riddick on a rock also made her realise that sexist, murderous ex-cons are everything she's been lacking in her life - when she's not shooting their dog that is. 

Made for less than $40million, Riddick is a masterpiece of economy, no doubt helped by the Star Trek TV-style sets and judicious use of Universal's props warehouse, which I was lucky enough to wander around last year. 

(I'm guessing there's a few left over costumes and gizmos from TCOR and Serenity dusted down.)

Alas, some of the special effects are shockingly bad, especially during the hover bike scenes. 
When are film-makers going to learn that hover bikes in fantasy movies look rubbish? See Judge Dredd and the Star Wars prequels for further proof.
Aesthetically they just look like a kid's toy bike with the wheels pulled off. 

If you've been weaned on adult fantasy comics, such as Heavy Metal and Marvel's epic Illustrated, chances are you yearn to see good stories well told in exotic universes. 
Riddick could have mined that rich seam of inspiration to craft something thrilling and inventive. Sadly it's just an overlong, annoying fantasy Western with a cast of mostly unlikeable characters.

Okay, it's not as bad as Diesel's previous sci-fi offering Babylon AD, but it comes close.

Elysium (this year's other hardware-centric sci-fi epic with a bald hero) may not have been perfect, but it was about something other than macho posturing and mundane alien-slaying. Twohy and Diesel could do worse than take notes if Riddick returns. 

To sum it up in two words? Chronic and ridiculous.

To see this in a different way, go to

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Way, Way Back - The Review

I've seen a lot of films this year. Blockbusters, dramas, comedies. But while I thrilled as Logan clashed with a giant android in The Wolverine; marvelled at giant robots and their pilots in Pacific Rim, and smiled at the heroes of Kick-Ass 2, I didn't empathise with any of them.

However, rather aptly, The Way, Way Back took me way, way back to being an awkward teenager.

That's one of the few good things about middle age. You can empathise with two generations of characters if they're well defined.

For newcomers it centres on Duncan, a socially awkward 14-year-old who reluctantly goes on summer holiday to a beach house in Cape Cod with mum Pam, her strict boyfriend Trentand his daughter Steph.

At their beach house, we meet boozy neighbour Betty (a scenery-chewing Alison Janney), and her kids, Susanna and Peter.

Could Duncan and Susanna begin an archetypal Summer of '42 style romance? Possibly, but TWWB is about much more.

It's a study in awkwardness, and that gaping hole in a lonely teenager's life desperate to be filled by friends, if not family.
Any teen whose family has been wrecked by divorce should empathise with that huge void caused by a missing dad, brother or both. Basically it sucks, but as a teen it's hard to express how much. 

When Duncan crosses paths with laid back, too-cool-for-school water park manager Owen at the local pizza diner, so begins a beautiful friendship. 
Dad-free teens dream of having a mate as cool as this.

Part big brother, part surrogate father, Owen is one of the year's most beloved characters. 
He has the wit and delivery of Tony Stark, and more than once I thought the sublime Sam Rockwell must be a shoo-in for the part if Robert Downey Jnr either prices himself out of the part or, heaven forbid, retires.

New employee Duncan, and the audience are introduced to the park's assorted workers:Caitlyn, Lewis, and Roddy. For our young hero this is a glorious escape from his unhappy domestic life, suffering the presence of love rat Trent, and his mum's boozy friends.

Storywise I could fill in all the blanks, but this is not a hugely plot-centric movie. What it does is capture that glorious feeling of youth, summer, first love, and charts a character arc that is believable and absorbing.

Despite the presence of Steve Carell and Toni Collette, this is not Little Miss Sunshine 2. Yes it's as charming and watchable, but for me far more rewarding.

AnnaSophia Robb dazzles as obligatory cute neighbour Susanna; Liam James is wonderfully awkward as Duncan, while writer/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon also pop up as supporting characters Lewis and Roddy.

The best movies are those you have no expectations of. Those whose trailers promise little, but whose rewards are countless.

I tired of Rash and Faxon-scripted The Descendants, but here they hit a home run. 
The glorious New England backdrops don't hurt a bit either, and by the third act we feel we've breathed the same air as these characters.

Like Life of Pi, The Way, Way Back is that rare film which gets under the skin and lingers for days after. 
Some films, like You're Next (which I saw immediately beforehand) aren't worth the price of admission, but for me this made up for it.

It may not have had the tent pole budget of Iron Man 3 or Star Trek Into Darkness, but this mines a richer seam of humour and drama that should touch a chord with teens and forty somethings alike. 
Highly recommended.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

You're Next - The Review

In the late 1990s, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson turned the horror genre on its head with meta serial killer thriller Scream
Chances are you know this already because you've seen it. Most people have, but the usual tropes of the genre are more indestructible than Freddie, Jason and Pinhead combined. 

You’re Next, the 2011 low budget stalk-and-slash thriller (finally getting a national release), owes a debt to Scream and countless other genre classics, but I doubt in 10 years filmmakers will be desperate to emulate its scares.

It opens with a couple having sex, so we know they're going to die; there are no actual opening titles as the first victim’s blood spells out the title on a window. 

Then we meet a rich neighbouring family arriving at their remote vacation house. 
Mother Aubrey hears something upstairs and wants to leave. Husband, Paul, investigates, but in one of the best shocks, is startled by his son, Crispian
Paul has a few sons, all of them annoying. 

A day later the other offspring and their partners arrive, and during an annoying family row, one of the gathered is shot with a crossbow bolt. 

Despite the windows suddenly being lethal areas, our shocked and stupid protagonists insist on staying as close to them as possible while screaming. A lot. And when there's no screaming, there's that thunderous score turned up to 11. Foghorns blaring at a wake would have been more welcome. 

Aside from that, I'm not sure what was more annoying, the unconvincing acting, zero family dynamic (even for a dysfunctional clan), or weak script. 
However, a John Carpenter-style theme wasn't bad, albeit over-used. 

On the plus side it is laced with dark humour; a wounded victim with a bolt in his back catching it on lethal piano wire was a nice/nasty touch, and death by kitchen appliance helped puncture the tension bubble in the third act. 

For any thriller, credibility is key and this was sorely lacking any because I didn't care about the characters. 
The key twist is obvious when we discover the animal masked killers' motive. However, the third act does claw back some respectability with a flash camera adding fresh licks to the death by strobe cliche, while a door-operated weapon gag tips its hat to A Nightmare on Elm Street

Earlier this year The Purge exploited the ’yuppies under siege’ idea more effectively, only that fell apart in the third act. 
This is the reverse, and despite a drawn out finale, and OTT killings by resourceful Aussie heroine Erin (the film’s saving grace, Sharni Vinson), the result is not a complete waste of time. 

With a better cast and some tighter script editing, this could have been something special. 
As it is, You’re Next is just a 90 minute-plus diversion, little more.