Category Archives: Mystery

Review: Oblivion

Oblivion is about as close to hard Science Fiction as a blockbuster Hollywood film has been since Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Drawing inspiration from a vast array of stories and movies from the genre, Oblivion is ultimately a mash-up of just about every science fiction trope you can find. It’s a sleek and sexy production, complete with the amazing visual and audio style of its Director Joseph Kosinski who made his debut with Tron: Legacy. It drives its story with a complex mystery that is engaging and thought provoking, but it struggles to find room for its characters.

Set around 2070 the story focuses on Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They are all that remains of humanity on Earth after it was devastated by Nuclear war against an Alien race dubbed the Scavengers or Scavs. They repair drones, automated killing machines that protect giant energy production facilities against what remains of the Scavs on Earth. These facilities are producing energy to send what remains of humanity currently residing in a giant space station orbiting Earth to Titan (one of Jupiter’s Moons). However, when Jack finds Julia (Olga Kurylenko) among the wreckage of a crashed space craft, he questions everything he knows about the war and his purpose.

It’s not a simple story, and the film knows it. It spends an awful lot of time on exposition that I would have preferred wasn’t so spoon fed. The structure of the story is episodic, in that every 20 minutes or so of its two hour plus running time you are drip fed another piece of information. It’s not a bad way to tell a story of this kind, but as you hurtle towards the end the twists and turns start to dry up as the writer clearly ran out of ideas. It’s a shame, because a number of the revelations are quite enjoyable, detailed, and thoughtful. It would have been best perhaps to simplify the entire narrative a little more to just these few, discard the rest, and give a little more breathing space to the characters.

The film does waste its actors, with the likes of Melissa leo and Morgan Freeman in supporting roles that are so paper thin in depth that they may as well not have been there. Olga too is completely wasted, seemingly there for eye candy and to look worried from time to time. Cruise and Riseborough on the other hand do get enough time to develop themselves, and they make a decent job of it. You forget it’s Tom Cruise pretty quickly (which is high praise for him) and Riseborough does her best to cement the emotional core of the film. The ground work was laid, but the Director seemingly didn’t want to delve too deep into any of the characters.

Oblivion is just a cut above your standard Hollywood action film as it strives to tell an intelligent story, albeit with its emphasis on entertainment rather than anything deep and meaningful. There are a lot of heady concepts that could have created a compelling and challenging narrative, but the film steers clear of them. It stumbles towards the end, and ultimately leaves a trail of plot holes and head scratching moments. I think most audiences will enjoy what this has to offer, even if it’s just to marvel at its scope and marvelous visuals.

 

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Review: Prometheus

From watching the trailer for Prometheus you would think you’re about to see the prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien. The man who Directed the classics Alien and Blade Runner would surely return some maturity to a genre that hasn’t reached any great heights of late. Prometheus looks and feels like a prequel to Scott’s Alien, but it really isn’t, which will come as a dissapointment to some.

Instead Prometheus is more akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey in tone and depth with a dash of the biological horrors that made Alien so famous. It has some very strong foundations, ideas, and concepts, but it stumbles over its poor script and. It’s a good movie, but its a lot less than what it promised to be.

The film opens with a homage to Kurick’s 2001  declaring that the inhabitants of Earth are really the genetic descendants of an Alien species who seem to have deliberately brought us into existence. Skip forward to 2089 (roughly 30 years before the events of Alien) and a team of explorers have travelled to a distant star on the back of evidence they found on Earth. This evidence suggests what the opening sequence already confirmed, that we were not created by a mystical being called God.

To go any further with a plot description is to ruin the film, because this is a story not based on suspense and bloody thrills but instead on tension brought about through mystery. Needless to say, what the explorers find is not what they expected and it certainly is not going to lead to a happy ending.

The film is shot exquisitely, Scott has an extraordinary eye for detail and scope and every sequence is littered with eye candy and a seemless blend of computer generated effects. He is a master when it comes to the visual components of story telling and the film exudes his signature brand of imagery.The screenplay and script on the other hand, by Jon Spaiths and Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame) is simply not good enough and littered with too many faults to match the brilliance of Scott’s Direction.

The basis of the story, if you manage to get a handle on it, is essentially brilliant. However the details, characters, and components that go into developing an interesting story for a two hour movie are simply not there. It feels rushed with too many characters who don’t get enough screen time to develop. As a result they all fit into stereotypes who seem to behave as if they are exaggerating their characters traits ten times over. It makes you feel like they aren’t real, and their decisions are even less so. The film probably reaches its most absurd point when a character goes through an incredible trauma but because the plot needs to move on quickly every other character behaves as if it never happened.

Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender deserve a mention for bringing what they could to their roles, despite the aforementioned issues. Fassbender especially steals the movie playing an android who attempts to mimic human behaviour to make those around him feel more comfortable. He is very unnerving and believable and displayed the only real charisma in the film, which is strange considering he was playing a robot.

I did enjoy this movie, despite it’s faults. I felt the tension and I was hooked on the mystery of what was playing out. The grounds are here for a fantastic film, but it never really takes off and kept managing to break the tension with a few absurd moments. The film also doesn’t end very well, either the scriptwriter didn’t know what you should see when the curtain was drawn back or he’s already written a sequel. Either way, the films ends as if there is going to be one. Personally I think a film needs to stand on its own, so that is a little disappointing.

I’d recommend Prometheus to anyone who enjoys their Science Fiction or Horror movies, its an above average film in that respect, but really it could have been a whole lot more. It has me hooked however, I want to know more, and there is plenty to talk about in terms of it’s larger meanings and spirituality. If there is a sequel (and there will be) then I will find it hard to stay away.

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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There is a certain expectation of a Spy Thriller these days, they’re almost a form of the superhero movies with usually one unbelievably capable and classy guy pulling off impossible action stunts with super cool gadgets while saving the world from some kind of evil organisation. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exactly none of those things. Instead it’s a highly intelligent, character-based drama, set in a world that a real spy might find much closer to home.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired spy, his wife has left him, and he spends his days in secluded boredom taking in daytime television on his couch at home. He was forced out of British Intelligence when his Boss, Control (John Hurt), resigned after a botched job that saw an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), shot and captured in Budapest. That changes when a field agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) brings a story of an attempt to bring in a Russian Defector gone wrong, seemingly because someone inside British Intelligence engineered it to. There is a mole in British Intelligence, and it seems Control knew it, and Prideaux paid the price.

What follows is a slow and methodical dissection of the inner workings of British Intelligence, the agenda’s at play, and the revelations of how complex the real world of spying must be. You get a sense that you couldn’t go around shooting people and blowing things up like a James Bond or Jason Bourne because the ripples of such activity would have disastrous consequences. It takes delight in creating tension through simple activities, such as stealing a log book from an archive where getting caught won’t mean an extended chase sequence, but rather the end of your career and being labelled the mole yourself.

The whole film fits that understated tone, with almost no audience assistance at hand either. You’re left to put all the complexities together yourself, there isn’t an excess of dialogue and the Director (Tomas Alfredson) asks you to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s that stylistic choice that will probably alienate a large majority of the cinema going public, and it is for this reason also the film is good but not great. John Le’Carre’s Novel for which this film is based on is extraordinarily complex when crammed into a film of this length, I struggle to see how someone who had not read it could fathom the breadth and depth of the events portrayed. I’m disappointed that the tone of the film at times got in the way of telling the good story that it is.

There is quite a large cast and they all turn in believable and thoughtful performances, but perhaps Gary Oldman as the understated George Smiley deserves special mention. Oldman is arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, although he’s not been recognised by the Academy as yet, and in this film he turns in one of his finer most measured performances. With nothing but a look Oldman conveys endless meaning, he keeps Smiley as an enigma with rare moments of outward emotion and a sense of cutting superiority when he does choose to tell those around him his thoughts. It’s hard to play a dull man, but if you could ever make it entertaining Oldman certainly keeps you watching.

Despite all this, and my own four star rating, I find it hard to recommend this film. It is after all a movie you have to invest yourself in to get any reward from it, and for that reason it won’t suit a lot of tastes. If however you are prepared to pay attention, fill in the blank spaces and enjoy the characters for who they are and not so much what they are doing, then this is a film for you.


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Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Let’s cut to the chase, the character Lisbeth Salandar played this time by Rooney Mara is the reason this film is a must see. Stieg Larson’s anti-hero is arguably one of the best modern characters around and she’s brought to life with such fire and interest that she should delight the connoisseur and casual film-goer alike. For those familiar with the 2009 Swedish version of this film, you can read that Rooney Mara doesn’t just match Noomi Rapace in playing Salandar but manages to bring enough uniqueness to be just as intoxicating.

To call this film a remake is a bit of a disservie, Fincher’s film is so much more. As seasoned Director of crime stories (Seven, Zodiac) he brings a mastery to the film that the source material really does deserve. It’s more faithful to Stieg Larson’s original, and you could happily watch both the Swedish version and this one and get something different from both without feeling like you’re suffering from Deja Vu.

The story centres on the relationship between two characters: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara). They come together to investigate a forty year old murder, and in the complex twists and turns the two forge a unique relationship. It’s more intimate in this film that it is in the original, you get much more insight into how to two of them operate and the dynamic of their affection for each other. Daniel Craig brings much to Blomkvist that was missing in the original, and the film is better for it.

In fact, as a whole this version is far superior in characterisation. More time is given to the background and the elements of the story previously left out, giving the ensemble cast much more to do, bringing the tale to life in a far more vivid fashion. Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plumber) and Martin Vagnar (Stellan Skarsgard) lead the supporting cast who all bring the right tone to the dark story. In essence that is what this film is, the absurd and dark relationships between each of the characters and the Vagnar family, it’s very human which is what makes the story so disturbing.

Disturbing might also be an understatement however. It’s an entertaining film, but that word is used lightly as some of the content is very confronting. It gets away with it because Lisbeth is such a wonderful character, even in her darkest most sadistic moments she can illicit feelings from the audience you shouldn’t really be feeling. She is a superhero for lack of a better word, and Fincher knows it, even opening the film with a Bond like sequence. I felt that was a misstep, but the rest of the film doesn’t stoop to that sense of sensationalism.

The opening is not the only misstep, there are some key moments where the Swedish version presents a more interesting takes on things, especially at the fiery climax. You could also feel that at some points this film loses some of it’s momentum, although that may also be a result of knowing the story already. It’s not enough to give it anything less than five stars however, there is more here in these 158 minutes than most films could ever hope to offer.

The soundtrack and cinematic style is dark and edgy, just off-beat enough to suit the unusual character of Lisbeth without becoming an arthouse production. It’s the treatment that the source material deserves, and fingers crossed the entire trilogy will receive the same due. If you’re on the fence about seeing this film, then see it. If you really don’t want to see this film, see it. You won’t experience a story like this with such a superb character as Lisbeth very often.

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Review: Hanna

If you have a friend who keeps complaining that today’s movies are just endless remakes of the same thing, that there isn’t any originality left, they probably haven’t seen Hanna. It’s not that you haven’t seen this story before, you have, you’ve just never seen it like this.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a 16 year old girl, raised in isolation in the artic wilderness by her father Erik (Eric Bana). She’s never seen another living person and has learnt all that she knows from dictionaries and encyclopedias, she doesn’t even know what music sounds like. Her Father has trained her to be the perfect Assasin, brutal in every way, and he has done so for her to kill a woman named Marissa.

One day, he tells Hanna if she wishes to fulfill her mission and kill Marissa (Cate Blanchett) she need but flick the switch on a beacon and wait. She does, Erik leaves, and all hell breaks loose. Marissa is in fact a C.I.A. agent and she is fearful of Erik, he knows something she wants kept secret, and as such she sends deadly men to hunt him down. Instead they find Hanna, she looks sweet, innocent, but beneath her delicate silver hair is the hardest assassin they’ve ever seen.

It’s not an original concept, The Bourne Identity dealt with the morals and ethics behind being a hit man but Hanna takes it many steps further. A young beautiful 16 year old girl, as disarming as they come frequently fells men twice her size without hesitation or feeling. It’s a real challenge to enjoy the action sequences of this film given their cold calculation, but that’s the point I guess. Fortunately director Joe Writght matches the oddity of his central character with a finesse most films are found wanting for.

Watching the stylised sequences with the off beat electronic music is reminiscent of films like Run Lola Run. It’s clever and enjoyable without stripping the story of it’s ethical heart. There is one particular scene in a container yard that’s as skillfully executed as any big budget blockbuster action film, and hits harder than any explosions or over the top set pieces.

Saoirse Ronan is quite a capable actress and she handles the part of Hanna with a fair amount of maturity. She definitely is one of the better actresses of her generation, and what a pair to accompany her in Bana and Blanchett. Their both equally up to the task although they don’t get as much screen time. It’s a shame, especially as Blanchett’s Marissa is a very interesting character, you feel like you really wanted more of them.

Unfortunately that’s where at least my admiration of this film ends. The plot is largely skeletal, lacking any real substance. A great deal is left for you to fill in and while that generally works in thrillers of this nature there really is too much of it. It harmed my ability to relate to anyone in the film, and left me asking too many questions about everyone’s part in the story. The ending does embody this sense of questions left unanswered too. While I understand it, and understands what it’s trying to say, it’s really unsatisfying. A morality tale about a child raised to kill should go places, and this film ultimately ends the way it began – asking the same question.

Don’t let that be too much of a deterrence however, if you like action films and don’t mind ones that have a little brains and meaning, you will enjoy Hanna. There are a few moments that will stay with you for a while after the film, and for an action movie that’s high praise.

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Review: Super 8

If there’s one movie you shouldn’t miss this year, it’s Super 8. There’s more heart and soul in it’s two hour running time than most mainstream movies could ever hope to conjure. It’s the kind of film that reminds you of why you go to the movies.

Reviewing a film like Super 8 isn’t easy, there’s simply too much material to cover and there is the delicate problem of giving too much away. Director JJ Abrams has gone to great lengths to keep the plot of his movie a secret, so much so that the film’s resulting low profile may hurt it’s box office take. He’s the master of what he calls the “Mystery Box”, he doesn’t want to tell you what’s in it, but he sure as hell wants you to enjoy opening it.

The film is set in a small Ohio town in 1979, complete with bad fashion, hairstyles, and fantastic cars. It centres on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), son of Deputy Sherriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), and the tragic events of that winter and how it changed his life. The film opens with one of the most chilling shots that will stay with you for a long time after the film, it’s the kind of story telling you wish you could feel everytime you went to the cinema.

Four months later and Joe is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish a super 8 movie for an upcoming film competition, much to the displeasure of his disconnected father Jackson. Charles has managed to convince Alice (Elle Fanning), an older girl whom Joe likes to play a part in his movie. All chuffed and excited they sneak out at night with their firiends Carey (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach MIllso), and Martin (Gabriel Basso) to film a scene.

While filming they witness a shocking crash, their high school science teacher driving his pickup truck onto the train tracks and smashing directly into an oncoming train. The heavily injured teacher, gun in hand, tells them to go and tell no one or they and their parents will die. It’s a bit dramatic, but the swarming men in military uniforms convince the children to make a run for it and vow never to tell anyone that they were there.

What follows is like a cross between The Goonies and E.T., and it doesn’t fail to deliver. It’s on the one hand a coming age story and on the other it’s about dealing with grief. It’s funny, scary, cheesey, and delightful all at the same time. The young and unknown cast are fantastic, they look comfortable and completely natural, with special mention to Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota Fanning). Those two are mesmerizing sharing much of the more touching moments of the film, especially Fanning who has a very commanding presence for her age.

It’s not without it’s problems true, Abrams must suffer from ADHD because he seems to love to blow things up even when it doesn’t really make sense to. He’s also a bit clumsy with some of the dialogue, but it’s excusable because the rest of the film exudes a charisma I wish other Directors could master. I also think he’s yet to master the elusive art of timing, particularly during the film’s climax. He lacks a sense of pace when the plot demands it, and he under plays some action while overplaying others.

There has also been some debate over the ending, but I think it’s perfect, I think it’s easy to forget what this film is really about, which might be the fault of the film itself. But you only need to listen to Abrams tell you that “Jaws isn’t about a shark” or “E.T. isn’t about an Alien” (here) to see that he wants to tell a story that’s very human and with a lot of heart.

Super 8 is an Abrams “Mystery Box” complete with a satisfying unveiling of the goodies inside. It’s the best movie so far of 2011, and it’s a real treat. You do not want to miss it!

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Review: The Hangover Part II

The Hangover Part II isn’t so much a “part 2” as it is a direct clone of the original.  It’s hilarious, crude, rude, shocking even, and enjoyable, it’s just it’s quite literally the same movie, almost scene for scene.

The entire cast has returned: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Barth, Zach Galifianakis, even Ken Jeong, which is a good thing considering films like this one rely on it’s characters. Alan (Galifianakis) and Mr. Chow (Jeong) stole the first film and part 2 lets the run riot. I felt perhaps these two were a little over played this time, almost becoming satires of themselves. It’s a small problem because without them the film would be a little soulless.

The film is missing a bit of its heart, watching Stu (Harris) dump his partner at the end of the first film was satisfying. It gave the film a sense of journey, that it’s characters had moved forward in their lives and the drug fuelled romp that had just past had some real meaning. This film tries to capture that same sense of journey, but ultimately it falls flat and feels a little thin.

There were opportunities however, new party-goer Teddy (Mason Lee) had an interesting story, but it’s given only a shallow treatment. No, this movie isn’t taking risks plot wise. What it is taking risks with is some of the more shocking content that isn’t just like porn, it really is porn. How some of the content made it into this film without attaining an R 18+ rating is beyond me.

There’s also a smoking a monkey and some racially stereotyped characters to round out the barrage of offensive content. For the record however, the monkey never smoked, it was digitally added later, but of course what do you expect from a film like this? It’s partially built on shock value, and in that regard it does not fail to deliver.

It does have its moments … It is set in Bangkok and really if you don’t know what that means to a Hollywood blockbuster you need to get out more. You’ll laugh and probably gag on your popcorn just as much (see my previous statements) as you did in the first film, and you’ll be thankful it does it all with the same quality. Too many sequels trade off their reputation and cut corners to save money to ensure as much profit as possible, but here everything seems done with a sense of pride. It’s that difference between taking yourself seriously, and taking what you do seriously.

A good sequel often plays on the idea you’re seeing the same thing, it sucks you in to a sense of comfort and then delivers something you didn’t expect. There are numerous opportunities in this film to send the audience into a spin, to abuse the formula and give us a few surprises, the characters and setting are good enough for that opportunity to be there. Unfortunately the film plays it safe, and while it’s certainly not a bad movie, it fails to capture the energy and feeling of the first.

If you didn’t enjoy the first then give this film the wide berth, otherwise it’s a must see in the crowded winter line-up.


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