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Puss In Boots (2011)

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Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. For a second I didn't recognise them...
Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. For a second I didn’t recognise them…

Plot Summary: Puss In Boots gets his own spin-off. Some stuff happens with characters that don’t appear in the Shrek films. The end.

Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy

Director: Chris Miller

Key Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris.

Five Point Summary:

1. Antonio Banderas: perfect casting
2. Humpty Dumpty – surprisingly good.
3. Jack and Jill went up the hill and suddenly became quite evil.
4. Salma Hayek: Also perfect casting
5. Good egg/bad egg?

Out of all the myriad fairy tale creations to emerge from Shrek’s rather sizeable shadow, I think the best character to come out of the franchise was our eponymous feline hero. Combining the swashbuckling element that made Zorro what he is today (you know, somewhat marginalised) with the characteristics of a cat, it was only a matter of time before he ended up with his own cynical cash-in. Sorry, spin-off movie. Whilst the story and the overall plot are typical of what ultimately happened to the main Shrek franchise, there’s enough here to keep people entertained. I know I’m not the target audience for this so obviously from a kids perspective it works on a lot of levels, but whilst the story didn’t always hit the mark, the numerous parts where Puss did his “cat thing” worked well, even if they’re still exactly the same things he’s done since his introduction in the Shrek universe. The big cat eyes, chasing after a light moving around on the floor, even lapping milk out of a glass.

The character of Humpty Dumpty, played to near perfection by Zach Galafianakis, adds a welcome element of grey – specificallly the “is he good or is he bad?” aspect, and Salma Hayek teams up with Mr Banderas yet again. Their movie partnership seems to be the Mexican equivalent of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (not that it’s a bad thing). Hayek plays Kitty Softpaws, a name clearly yanked from the James Bond Lead Female Character Random Name Generator.

Ooooohhhh!
Ooooohhhh!

The story, such as it is, sees Puss, Kitty and Humpty joining forces to steal magic beans from Jack and Jill (not the cute little kids you would imagine, far from it in fact), which when planted will allow access to the golden goose and untold wealth. There’s a couple of twists and turns as Kitty and Puss go from rivals to friends, all of which kicks off initially with a dance-off in a bar. Club? Disco? Not sure. That scene also introduces a cat that makes a surprised noise when a particular bit of news is divulged (it’s worth watching the film just for him, trust me). By the end of the film it all ends up falling a bit flat as a giant goose terrorises the town. This wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t already seen a giant Gingerbread Man in the Shrek films, but it gives Puss chance to show everyone what he’s got, after spending much of the movie on the run, and also allows room for sequels if it made enough at the box office – Wikipedia indicates it cost $130 million but made $507 billion, so I would say another one is likely.

If a sequel does emerge, I would only ask that they spend a bit more time on the story – Puss as a character needs no work and he’s entertaining enough on his own. Puss plus an engaging and compelling story that offers a stronger moral than good egg/bad egg would be a bonus.

Favourite scene: Puss chasing after the beam of light.

Quote: “You have made the cat angry. You do not want to make the cat angry!”

Silly Moment:  Several, actually. The cat that goes “ooooh!”

Score: 3/5

Saw III (2006)

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"You're completely crazy." "Yeah, well you're completely bald."
“You’re completely crazy.”
“Yeah, well you’re completely bald.”

Twitter Plot Summary: Jigsaw is dying and kidnaps a doctor to save him. He ruins things by leaving his trademark tests in the hands of his apprentice.

Genre: Crime/Horror/Thriller

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Key Cast: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer.

Five Point Summary:

1. Jigsaw’s operating theatre looks grotty. Surely there’s a risk of secondary infection?

2. The freezer room is particularly nasty.
3. It’s clear that Amanda is crazy – Jigsaw chose wrong there.

4. Tobin Bell is an imposing presence, but Jigsaw needs more to do.
5. The whole film is just an excuse to think up the nastiest thing possible and commit it to film. Which is moderately entertaining.

This review was originally posted on www.randomstoat.com on 04 February 2012.

A while back I didn’t see much point in watching the Saw sequels – I thought the first movie was pretty much perfect as it was and there was no need to expand the story further. That said, and bearing in mind I’m still subscribed to Lovefilm and Netflix (NB: as of 2013 I’m only subscribed to the latter), I thought I would check out the remaining six films. I’ve actually ended up watching them slightly out of order – Saw 5 is on Netflix streaming so I randomly watched that one in isolation, and have gone back and watched Saw 2 and 3 over the last couple of weeks.As for the story this time round, it picks up from the end of Saw 2 and events unfold from a more emotional perspective – Jigsaw is dying and a doctor is brought in by Amanda, his apprentice for want of a better term, to keep him alive.

Meanwhile a very angry man with stubble finds himself working through a set of puzzles set by Jigsaw. The reason why Angry Stubble Man is so angry is because his young son died after being hit by a car (sadly not a car with sentience, like Herbie) and now he has opportunity to gain revenge on those responsible, including the judge who sentenced the killer to a short six month sentence, the eye witness who saw the whole incident, and the killer himself.

Jigsaw couldn't work out how to cure his headache.
Jigsaw couldn’t work out how to cure his headache.

The traps are all as gruesome as you would expect – chests ripped open, limbs twisted the wrong way, and in one incredibly disconcerting scene, a naked woman chained between two poles, in a freezer, and intermittently sprayed with water. Suffice to say that the combination of freezer, cold water and naked woman does not end well. Ultimately  Angry Stubble Man gets through the tasks for a showdown with Jigsaw. Whilst all of these tasks are going on, Amanda is overseeing the medical treatment of an ailing Jigsaw, and having a bit of a moral quandary of her own. In some ways it’s a subtly different beast to the first two films, humanising Jigsaw and exploring human nature with Angry Stubble Man’s journey, both physical and emotional, through the challenges before him.

Now, if the franchise had finished here I would have had no complaints, and with the death of Jigsaw it seems a natural end point. That said, I currently have no complaints about the remaining four films – from my viewing of Saw 5 it looks like they’ve expanded the story and plugged some gaps as they’ve gone along. Again based on having seen Saw 1-3 and Saw 5, all the films end with a mini-montage where all of Jigsaw’s plans are revealed and innocuous snippets of dialogue make everything clear. I get the impression that the first things scripted are the traps and the ending, with the rest of the story filled in from there. I’m not going to complain about that, however, as it’s a writing style that I use myself on occasion.

It’s funny that horror franchises are the ones that get endless sequels – Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th, Halloween to name but three. In that respect the Saw franchise is in good company. For the record I enjoyed all of the Elm Street movies (oh, except for the remake…), so perhaps I should have given Saw a better chance at the time.

Favourite scene: The freezer room. Inventive.

Quote: “Death is a surprise party.”

Silly Moment: The whole concept. One film was enough.

Score: 2.5/5

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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The best thing about this movie. Simples.
The best thing about this movie. Simples.

Twitter Plot Summary: Years after her Dad is killed in a freak boating accident, Angela goes to summer camp, gets bullied, then people suddenly start dying…

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Director: Robert Hiltzik

Key Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Desiree Gould

Five Point Summary:

1. Aunt Martha – ye gods, that’s BAD acting.
2. Sorry, HOW old is that guy running the place?
3. And why has he insisted on hiring a paedophile as the chef?
4. Who could the killer be?!
5. Brace yourself for the ending.

The 80s are well known for giving us a vast number of cheesy films across multiple genres. Fantasy and horror are the two genres that stand out as far as Edam levels are concerned. Sleepaway Camp is the first in what became a series of films based around a killer at a summer camp.

We start off with a family outing to the beach, but this is no ordinary family – the two kids, Angela and Peter, have two Dad’s! An accident involving a jet ski happens and we then move forward a few years where Angela and her cousin Ricky are being sent off to summer camp by Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is in my top 10 favourite characters in cinema history, certainly my favourite character in this film. That’s despite having less than five minutes screen time. No offence to Desiree Gould who plays her, but it’s a masterclass in bad acting. It comes as no surprise that she only has 6 acting credits on IMDB, the most notable of which is Under Surveillance where she reunites with Sleepaway Camp alumnus Felissa Rose. Aunt Martha is deliciously terrible and is one of the many reasons people should see this film.

Anyway, back to the plot. Angela is understandably a bit shy and awkward after seeing one of her two Dad’s killed. She’s bullied by pretty much everybody else, but is protected by her cousin and a boy named Paul who takes a shine to her. Yet more bad acting ensues, and everybody who badmouths Angela is bumped off in grisly fashion. By grisly I mean it mostly happens offscreen. There’s an inventive use of hair straighteners, you’ll know the scene when you get there.

Sleepaway Camp is also notable for more than just the bad acting and the death scenes. The script and casting choices also come under scrutiny. The script because the camp chef (that is, the chef who works at the camp, not a camp chef) slobbers over the young girls and even attempts to rape Angela before he gets his comeuppance. I can see why they put a character like that into the story, but even so it’s a tad disturbing.

Such a strange, weird old man...
Such a strange, weird old man…

Fashion. This being the 80s, everybody has mullets or big hair, and some of the outfits worn by the apparently straight men are either indicative of the era or they’re secretly in the cupboard. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We do see Angela’s parents in bed together during a flashback, but there’s nothing to see except two straight actors awkwardly stroking each other’s arms.

And finally – in what world does a 60 year old man get a date with an 18-20 year old girl? Note that he isn’t rich, he isn’t a very nice guy, and he isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.  I think the script called for a younger man running the camp yet the director/casting director went for this guy instead. Another incredulity on top of everything else.

You would never call this film a classic, but the shock ending did enough to guarantee a cult following. You’ll probably guess who the culprit is after the first death, but stick with it. I won’t spoil the ending as that’s not what I’m here for, all I can say is watch the film, enjoy how bad it actually is, and then brace yourself for the final five minutes. It gave me the willies.

Favourite scene: THAT ending.

Quote:

“Artie: Look at all that young fresh chicken. Where I come from, we call ’em baldies. Makes your mouth water, don’t it?
Ben: Artie, they’re too young to even understand what’s on your mind.
Artie: There ain’t no such thing as being too young. You’re just too old.”

Silly Moment:  Aunt Martha sending the kids off to camp. A perfect example of bad, bad, bad acting.

Score: 3/5

The Purge (2013)

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Can I interest you in home insurance?
Can I interest you in home insurance?

Twitter Plot Summary: Crime is down to 1% thanks to a 12 hour period every year where all crime is legal. Ethan Hawke and family try to make it through the night.

Genre: Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

Director: James DeMonaco

Key Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaid Kane, Edwin Hodge.

Five Point Summary:

1. Sorry, but the conceit that crime is down because it’s legal for 12 hours a year is silly. People just don’t work that way.
2. Remote controlled baby robot – invented by a strange child.
3. How big is their house?!
4.  Those rich kids outside are creepy.
5. Why has it suddenly become a Rambo film?

Set in the near future of 2022, The Purge is a slightly “out there” concept. Apparently, by giving everybody one night every 12 months to do whatever they like – to kill, to maim, to achieve catharsis – the aforementioned “Purge”, is enough to reduce crime to 1% and to see in a new period of economic wealth and stability. I doubt very much that crime would be reduced to such a low level even if people were given carte blanche to kill whomever they wanted to on a weekly basis, let alone a mere 12 hours every 12 months. Subsequently I think the best way to enjoy the film is to gloss over this little conundrum and disengage your brain. Unfortunately I did question many aspects of both the story and the world in which it exists.

For example – there’s one point when the daughter says “Tell Dad I’m sorry” before disappearing for a bit. Sorry, what? How big is this house, exactly? The parents spend ages scuttling through the house looking for her, all the while trying to find both her and the homeless guy that the son foolishly allowed inside. There’s a number of plot incredulities like this, but there are also a few small twists to the established formula that justify a viewing.

Both kids seem to be suffering from classic signs over over-privileged existence – daughter Zoey wants to be with a boy whom her father disapproves of (and who is probably a little too old for her based on her schoolgirl attire). Naturally she rebels by sneaking him into her room. Charlie, the youngest, messes about with technology and has a creepy little remote controlled car that has a camera built into a baby doll, which he drives around the house. He also sets the story off by letting the homeless guy into the house in the first place. Again, rebelling against his parents but this time with regard to their laissez-faire attitude to The Purge.

There are themes bubbling under the surface – inhumanity to others, our natural predisposition for violence etc, but they’re not given opportunity to breathe. Okay, so Lena Headey’s character is forced to brandish a gun and finds herself woefully incapable of using it properly, but you get the impression the scriptwriter was trying to make a point, probably in the first draft, and that’s slowly been eroded following numerous re-drafts.

I’m actually more interested in the wider world itself – why did the USA resort to electing the New Founding Fathers? What weapons are considered to be above “Class 4”? Is Justin Bieber still alive in this possible 2022? And if he is, why hasn’t somebody done something about it?

Can you believe this storyline? It's ludicrous!
Can you believe this storyline? It’s ludicrous!

Another area I’d be interested to see more of is the political backdrop. There’s plenty of background news throughout the film (and, indeed, the end credits) that go some way to answering this question, but it’s almost deliberately vague, just enough to get you thinking but not so much you know exactly how this future works. There’s several mentions of how the Purge is surreptitiously designed to kill off the poor, who aren’t going to be in a position to defend themselves come Purge night. There’s a couple of comments from Ethan Hawke that, before the Purge, he and his wife were living on the breadline. Who’s to say things could have turned out much differently for them? The same goes to the homeless guy they rescue – he has dog tags so he’s clearly former military yet is living on the streets. What does that say about this new, nirvana-esque United States?

Now, whilst much of the above might come across as a little negative, please be aware that I did actually quite enjoy the film, it’s just a bit confused as to what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a near future sci-fi parable, commenting on today’s society? Or is it a spooky horror as evidenced by the creepy masks worn by the kids outside and the quiet walk around the house in near darkness? Or is it even a violent action flick, which is demonstrated in the final act? It’s actually all three, but the fact it doesn’t stick to a particular style does it no favours. First, more clarity regarding the world in which the film exists, first of all. Second, more build-up, tension and purpose to allowing the homeless guy inside. And third… well, most of the final act could stay as it was.

Also remember that old adage of script writing. If you introduce something in the script, be it a person, object or concept, make sure it has a purpose. This holds true throughout The Purge, so bear this in mind when you reach the finale.

Favourite scene: Ethan Hawke gets to go all Rambo.

Quote: “Our target for this year’s purge is hiding in your home.  You have one hour to find him and give him to us or we will kill all of you.  We will be coming in.”

Silly Moment: Splitting up to search the house for the homeless guy. Seriously, is the house that big?

Score: 3/5

Jonah Hex (2010)

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Sorry, but what is it you actually do?
Sorry, but what is it you actually do?

Twitter Plot Summary: Jonah Hex wants revenge against the man who killed his family. This man just so happens to be plotting to take over the country. So it goes.

Genre: Action/Drama/Fantasy

Director: Jimmy Hayward

Key Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Wes Bentley.

Five Point Summary:

1. I bet Hex has a terrible problem with excess spittle.
2. Why is Megan Fox in this again? Oh yeah, right.
3. Look, famous people!

4. It’s a bit supernatural, but that whole sub-plot is a missed opportunity.
5. The comics did it better.

Unlike almost everyone who will see this film, I am a regular reader of the Jonah Hex comic, although admittedly I’ve only followed it for the last four or five years since it was rebooted by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. I’d heard very bad things about the movie before release: script re-writes, reshoots and changes. There was an early rumour which implied Jonah Hex, the main character, was barely in the film, instead appearing occasionally throughout the run time and essentially being a guest character, much like Blade in the short-lived TV series.  And we all know how that turned out.

Megan Fox always seemed to be shot in soft focus. She also apparently has the ability to kiss a man and instantly make it switch from night to day. In all honesty, does Megan Fox really need to be shot in soft focus? Every time they did a close-up on her face my first thought was that my eyes had gone funky, shortly followed by thinking I was watching an episode of the original series of Star Trek. Her sole purpose is as eye candy and to give the script a tough female character, because any film that doesn’t have some form of “strong” female character is obviously sexist. She’s almost entirely superfluous to the plot (except to conform to stereotype and play the role of the kidnapped “heroine” at the film’s climax), and it seems entirely likely that she shot all of her scenes in a) the same room and b) probably in one day. Everybody, let’s take a look at The Thing – no female characters (except for the voice of the computer chess game, obviously), and the film is fantastic. If there are characters not essential to the plot then don’t write them in. And if you must write characters like Lilah into the script, at least do the decent thing and give them a reason for being there. With almost no exception, every character is a cipher, a generic archetype to push the drab revenge plot along.

Josh Brolin is typically solid in the title role. True, this isn’t a “No Country For Old Men” quality performance, but he seems to enjoy what he’s doing and, to be completely fair, that seems to apply to (almost) everybody involved in front of camera. This helps immensely. I can’t imagine how absolutely awful the movie would be if it was played 100% straight. As it stands it’s a guilty pleasure. John Malkovich in particular seems to relish the evil villain role, for a change not played by an English actor. That guy who played the weird kid in American Beauty (the one who has a strange obsession with carrier bags floating in the wind) shows up for a couple of minutes. Nothing outstanding, but solid enough. Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up for a brief uncredited cameo, which adds a good piece of gravitas to proceedings, if only for a few brief minutes. Michael Fassbender, again, pops up as an Irish knave, and he looks to have fun with the material given to him, but quite frankly this entire film could have been cast with unknowns and it would have turned out almost exactly the same but markedly less entertaining to watch.

Thankfully the locations are very nice to look at and clearly a fair bit of thought has been put into them. Similarly, the Jonah Hex make-up (he’s horribly scarred, the vaguely rubbish origins of which you’ll discover in the movie) works well, but isn’t as hideous as it could be. I think it’s important that the burn was a prosthetic, I can only imagine how bad it would be if they had CGI’d his face for the entire movie run. Then again I’m sure that would have been rather expensive and I don’t think the budget would have stretched that far.

Do what you like, but I'm not watching Jonah Hex all the way through!
Do what you like, but I’m not watching Jonah Hex all the way through!

One other thing taking a vague cue from the comics is the supernatural, fantasy element. The current run of Jonah Hex comics doesn’t play up on this aspect of the character too much, it’s there but not rammed down your throat. Sadly that’s exactly what they do here. It’s a bit silly and doesn’t really need to happen, or could have easily been worked into the story without being as daft as it actually is. Hex brings dead soldiers back for a chat by touching their arm, and Malkovich’s Quentin Turnbull steals a bunch of chemical orbs that have their fair share of “Wild Wild West” about them, so he can go and blow up the White House or some other such nonsense. Bad omens indeed.

The script is surprisingly zingy in places, and if you’re one of these modern day ADD sufferers then you’ll love the quick cuts, the explosions and the ludicrous set pieces. For anyone after another top-notch serious Western movie (of which there are many), then you’ll be sorely disappointed. The short runtime (a measly 81 minutes, including credits) says everything. You’re in and out of the story in record time. If you want bang for your buck, then you’re not really going to find it here. Well, maybe a bit of a bang as things blow up with dynamite pistols (yeah you read that right), but otherwise… no. I’m not even going to blame the director Jimmy Hayward. He doesn’t do a bad job at all for a first timer, and both the production values and the acting is pretty solid, it just doesn’t gel. The script is to blame, plain and simple.

Overall thoughts? A nice, disposable movie but nothing more. It’s very much a wasted opportunity given how brilliant the character is in comic book form. I would have preferred a script that tied more into the style of the comic, and maybe featured a bit of actual bounty hunting other than the brief exposure we’re given at the start of the movie, but you can’t have it all. And ultimately, I still have the original comic to fall back on, so it could be a lot worse. Unless you’re a real glutton for punishment, give this a miss and go watch any one of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns instead. You’ll feel a lot better for it.

Favourite scene: Josh Brolin. Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Cemetery. Supernatural gubbins.

Quote: “You killed me, Jonah!” “You drew on me, Jeb.” “Yeah, that was a mistake.” “Well, obviously.”

Silly Moment:  Dynamite pistols. Very silly.

Score: 2.5/5

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

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"This is what I wear to church."
“This is what I wear to church.”

Twitter Plot Summary: The titular Hobo wants to buy a lawnmower, but he’s trapped by a crime boss and becomes a figure for justice using his trusty shotgun. Srsly.

Genre: Action/Comedy/Thriller

Director: Jason Eisener

Key Cast: Rutger Hauer, Brian Downey, Gregory Smith, Molly Dunsworth.

Five Point Summary:

1. There’s violence, then there’s VIOLENCE.
2. Despite the violence, it’s terribly tongue in cheek.
3. Burning children in a bus? Bad show.
4. Splintered bone shank to the neck!
5. Brian Downey is great, but the film needs a bigger name for a villain.

This review first appeared on www.randomstoat.com on 04 February 2012.

Coming from the same stock as Machete, what was once a spoof Grindhouse trailer has been given the full length treatment, and with cult icon Rutger Hauer in the lead role no less. Hobo With A Shotgun is as Ronseal a title you can think of, as Hauer’s eponymous Hobo cleans up the crime-addled streets of Hope Town.

For me the film had additional appeal as Brian Downey, Stanley H Tweedle in the cult sci-fi series Lexx, appeared as the villain known only as The Drake. I’m sure his name is actually Thomas Drake or something and assumed “The” would make him sound cooler. And it does. Downey was always entertaining in Lexx, another cheap Canadian production (well, German-Canadian – don’t ask me how that came about), but in this he gets to play the villain with gusto and a wicked centre parting.

Hauer is suitably mental as the Hobo, who only wants to buy a lawnmower so he can start up a business. Yeah, bit daft – did he not think about just moving to another town or something? He’d have saved himself a lot of hassle, but then we wouldn’t have a film, so…  I digress. Instead he befriends a girl, lots of violence ensues and, in true Grindhouse fashion, lots of silly violence follows, such as stabbing one of the villains with the shredded remains of the bones in their forearm. It appears that most of the budget was spent first on Rutger Hauer (although I’m sure he’d probably do it for a cheese sandwich and his face on the poster) and the buckets of blood that are lovingly splattered across the screen.

Listen, what you get up to in the privacy of your own home, that's no business of mine.
Listen, what you get up to in the privacy of your own home, that’s no business of mine.

As modern exploitation movies ago, even with tongue firmly planted in cheek there are some quite graphic moments that are clearly intended to shock – the very first scene, after the sedate train journey opening, sees a with his head stuck in the middle of a manhole cover, being chased by The Drake and his goons. After being dumped down a manhole, his head sticking above the manhole cover and his body dangling below, he is then viciously beheaded with a barbed wire chain and a funky car.

A later scene sees Slick, twisted son of The Drake, board a school bus full of children and burn them to death, all to the tune of Disco Inferno by The Trammps. Understandably they don’t emphasise the burning too much, but there is a briefly a young child pressed against the glass screaming and covered in burns. Rest assured that Slick gets his comeuppance in the end, you could say almost poetically.

I think one of the main problems facing the Grindhouse spin-offs is that it could end up being an example of diminishing returns. Planet Terror and Deathproof both had top-notch directors at the helm with a cast and production value to match. Machete had Danny Trejo and Jeff Fahey and maintained the tongue in cheek attitude. Hobo is variable by comparison, and its relatively low budget is obvious. I would have liked to have seen more of the Hobo using the shotgun as it has a reasonably long build-up until he starts dishing out justice, but the wait is worth it.
If you enjoyed the previous full-length Grindhouse movies then you’ll probably enjoy this. For everyone else, you might want to steer clear.

Favourite scene: Rutger Hauer lamenting the state of Hope Town to a delivery room full of newly born babies. Cheesy but Hauer is spot on.

Quote: “You can’t solve all the world’s problems with a shotgun.” “It’s all I know.”

Silly Moment: Girl loses hand in lawnmower, shanks bad guy with exposed bone in forearm.

Score: 3/5

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

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You want to mess with me? Srsly?
You want to mess with me? Srsly?

Twitter Plot Summary: Clooney & Co unite to teach Al Pacino a lesson. And help us forget about Ocean’s Twelve.

Genre: Crime/Thriller

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Key Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould, Al Pacino, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Scott Caan, Shaobo Qin.

Five Point Summary:

1. Pacino must be stopped, no matter the cost!

2. Who’s right, who’s wrong? Very grey.
 Except you want Ocean’s crew to win.
3. Cool, suave and sophisticated. Except for Bernie Mac.

4. Nice ‘tache, George!
5. There’s going to be a plot twist, surely? Nope.

This review (other than a few minor amendments) originally appeared on www.randomstoat.com on 04 February 2012.

The third film in the Clooney “Ocean’s” trilogy sees the group coming together to take down villain Al Pacino’s casino after he swindles Elliot Gould out of a big money investment. The one thing I know from watching any of these films is that there is a clear distinction between so-called “good” and “evil”. Yes, Pacino’s character Mr Bank is an unpleasant chap but it’s a common image from the world of business. Likewise, Clooney’s gang of swindlers and con-artists are on the wrong side of the law but have a moral code that allows us to route for them. On face value though you could easily tweak the perspective of the film so Pacino is the victim we have sympathy for whilst he’s swindled out of half a billion dollars by the heist equivalent of the A-Team. But then there’s a counter-counter argument if you disagree with gambling and the big money that is usually involved, and if you sit on that side of the fence then clearly Mr Bank deserves everything that happens to him. I think my brain has just exploded.

One thing I like about the Ocean’s trilogy (not so much 12, but again, more on that when I review it) is the relatively simple plot – there’s a job/heist to be done and once the team is assembled they get on with it. No twisty-turny plotting, just a good old fashioned heist. I got halfway through the film and was expecting there to be a twist at the end where Pacino has known all along what their plans are, which would then be countered by another twist with Clooney revealing another aspect of the plan that may have been alluded to earlier. As it happens we get a very minor twist with investor Terry Benedict (played by Andy Garcia) trying to steal the Five Diamond awards accrued by Pacino’s character for hotel excellence, but that’s it. Nice and simple storytelling.

Yeah, I still rock this look.
Yeah, I still rock this look.

Given the number of characters in the film it eventually became a checklist of ticking off the supporting cast as they contributed to the plot. And they do so, piece by piece there’s enough room for everyone to have their character moments. It’s always a risk with ensemble films that either some good characters/actors are marginalised whilst the “lead” guys get most of the lines and the action. You could argue that most of the film hinges around Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Pacino, and you’d be right. But as I’ve previously said, everyone has a job to do and screen time is rather generously shared.

Overall, I enjoyed it for its brand of light entertainment but it’s not a film I would want to watch on a regular basis. I think once every few years for the entire trilogy may be about right. Also kudos to Eddie Izzard for impressing in a relatively small role yet holding his own in scenes shared with Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Favourite scene: Seeing their plan unfold. Masterful direction from Soderbergh.

Quote: “You shook Sinatra’s hand. You should know better.”

Silly Moment: Clooney goes undercover with a huge moustache.

Score: 3/5

World War Z (2013)

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Okay, Justin Bieber's just round this corner...
Okay, Justin Bieber’s just round this corner…

Twitter Plot Summary: Humanity will be wiped out by a zombie virus within 90 days, unless they can find the source and a cure. Step up, Brad Pitt!

Genre: Action/Drama/Horror

Director: Marc Forster

Key Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Peter Capaldi

Five Point Summary:

1. That scientist guy was their best hope? Hah.
2. Brad Pitt rocking the Richard Herring look.
3. Feature length film or series of connected mini-sodes?
4.  I want to see more zombies, dagnammit!
5. Ant-like zombies are awesome. And scary.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve watched a zombie film, back in my university days (and up to a couple of years ago) I think I was watching at least one a month. Thinking back I don’t think I’ve ever seen one at the cinema either, so World War Z was definitely on my list this summer. I’ve previously read Max Brooks’ novel of the same name and his Zombie Survival Guide before that, so I knew what I was getting myself in for. From the pre-release news and rumours I knew full well that this would be an adaptation of the book in name only, so despite initial misgivings I knew from a scripting perspective it’s better to have a single protagonist rather than trying to follow three or four different characters. That’s in a film, of course – if you were talking about TV series then you’d have several hours to explore those characters, a film doesn’t have that luxury.

There are a lot of good ideas – the sheer number of zombies is a constantly observable threat, and the speed at which they turn following infection is a frightening idea. It’s also nice to see a few new aspects of an outbreak. In essence it’s a series of shorter zombie tales as per Brooks’ original book, but instead of being told from the perspective of various different protagonists here it’s all from the perspective of Brad Pitt’s UN rep Gerry Lane. First we’re in the US as Lane manages to get his family out of the city and onto a US aircraft carrier. This sequence is the type you usually see in zombie films, with hundreds and thousands of zombies streaming into the streets and attacking all and sundry. They’re incredibly violent creatures, flinging themselves at the living and trying to reach them by any means necessary – that includes smashing their heads through windows and windscreens.

Before Gerry’s had chance to settle on the aircraft carrier he’s quickly tasked with helping to find a cure and is whisked away to mini film number 2 in South Korea. Here he meets a platoon of US soldiers in a very atmospheric, rainswept location. After that it’s off to Israel where they were able to wall off the city before the outbreak reached them. Then finally Gerry lands in Wales, of all places, where a cure could potentially be crafted. The pace slows down considerably at this point, but that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. The whole sequence is incredibly tense and worthwhile stuff, but it’s let down by a lacklustre and incredibly rushed ending. It doesn’t so much as end as fizzle out.

Zombies. Fahsan's of 'em!
Zombies. Fahsan’s of ’em!

Most zombie films (and, indeed, TV series) focus on the conflict between people. Day of the Dead in particular is a perfect example – the zombies are secondary to the conflict between the living. Here, it’s all about co-operation. There’s a scene early on where Gerry is looking for medicine for his daughter and comes face to face with a hooded youth with a gun. There’s a moment where it looks like the youth is going to attack him, but then he subverts our preconceptions and helps find exactly the right medicine that Gerry needs. There’s a couple of bits where humanity’s natural predilection towards violence appear, but otherwise the real focus here is people helping each other. Be it all of the soldiers helping Gerry, or the border guards allowing survivors to enter the city in Israel, or even the small band of scientists uniting against the common enemy (zombies, not the Judean People’s Front), the clear message is that co-operation is key to survival.

The film suffers from the fact a number of re-writes and re-shoots were ordered, and it has a narrative that is somewhat disengaged from the threat of a global apocalypse. Okay sure, the whole reason he’s going off on these adventures is to help locate a cure, but a bit more engagement with the situation would’ve been better. I can see what they were trying to achieve though – we see events from Gerry’s perspective so the action is going to be limited in scope.

From a story perspective I’d suggest that a threat back on the US aircraft carrier would’ve also made for a more entertaining narrative – as it is, you know that nothing bad is going to happen there, which is almost at odds with the entire concept of the film. Given how persistent the undead are, you’d think they would somehow find a way to reach the offshore bastions that represent humanity’s last hope for survival? This would’ve given Mireille Enos more to do rather than sitting around looking a bit depressed. Maybe I’m just looking at this from a rather bleak perspective, but it would’ve made for a far more nuanced and interesting film.

More zombies would’ve been nice as well, until the final sequence in Wales you don’t really get a good look at them, and all of the big action sequences have been spoilt by the trailer – that seems to be a recurring theme lately. It’s a 15-rated film but there’s very little in the way of blood or violence. I think it’s more the threat of their overwhelming odds that justifies that rating.

Whilst it ends hurriedly and without really providing a satisfying conclusion, there’s the suggestion that a sequel could possibly follow. I’m in two minds as to whether I’d want to see that, if they can do away with the script problems and increase/improve the zombie action then I’ll be happy.

Favourite scene: Shuffling slowly through the Welsh health centre. Very tense stuff.

Quote: “Every human being we save is one less we have to fight.”

Silly Moment: Where Gerry Lane’s wife chooses exactly the wrong moment to call him back.

Score: 3.5/5

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

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This'll look good in the trailer...
This’ll look good in the trailer…

Twitter Plot Summary: Early 90s Hollywood does the Robin Hood legend and spawns THAT song by Bryan Adams. On the plus side – Alan Rickman.

Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Key Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Alan Rickman, Brian Blessed.

Five Point Summary:

1. Alan Rickman = awesomeness.
2. So if Robin Hood is supposed to be English, why does he have an American accent?
3. English guy = villain. Always.
4. Did we really need the Celts to show up?
5. All of the gags in Men In Tights now make a lot more sense…

Ahh, glory be to big Hollywood dramatisations of old legends. They can never get it quite right, but still we flock to the cinema like sheep  to see what they’ve done to Nottingham’s finest, Robin Hood. Except for me of course. I watched it for the first time last night (NB: this review was written in 2011) thanks to my Lovefilm subscription. In some ways I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, but in others I’d probably wait until I see it go cheap on DVD and make a purchase. First things first – this film is long. 2.5 hours of story await. Thankfully it doesn’t drag too much, but I found myself reaching the 90 minute mark and hoping the resolution was coming soon, if only because nothing had really happened for a while. Then I realised I had another hour to go and promptly settled in for a long evening. After a quick trip to the toilet.

Before the film had even begun my opinion of it was already tarnished thanks to Mel Brooks. I’ve seen Men In Tights many, many times over the years, with no inclination to watch the “source material”, as it were. I’m now glad I took the time to watch it. From the opening credits you can tell it’s going to be an entertaining movie, as the names “Alan Rickman” and “Brian Blessed” flash up on the screen. Both are undoubtedly legends, and Rickman camps it up mercilessly as the  villain of the piece, having a bit more fun with the role than his earlier appearance in Die Hard allowed. It’s another classic case of making the English guy the villain, but when the English guy is Alan Rickman you forgive the biased view American cinema apparently has of the English. Yes, historically we’ve had our issues, but I wouldn’t think about casting an American as my villain just because the thirteen colonies seceded from the throne. Then again, it might just be because English actors are very good at their job. And Alan Rickman? Fantastic casting choice.

Brian Blessed is not in the film long enough to have an impact, except for a couple of brief moments where he manages to resist shouting his lines. Still, it was nice to see him in any capacity. DIIIIIIVE!!! Sorry… The brief cameo of Sean Connery at the end (ahem, spoiler alert) as King Richard made me geek out a little bit (okay, a lot), and I really don’t know why. He’s on screen for about five seconds and then we’re into the end credits. The point, exactly? It’s very much like Patrick Stewart showing up in Men In Tights (and come to think of it, that appearance makes a bit more sense now).

Guy of Gisbourne’s character is very much a product of the movie’s time. He’s an early 90s surfer dude transferred into a 12th century tale, and made slightly gruffer so he doesn’t stick out like Brian Blessed in a Robin Hood film. Erm…  It may be controversial, but Richard Armitage’s version of the character from the recently deceased (previously moribund) BBC series was a much better take on the character, and has set a high benchmark for future interpretations of Mr of Gisbourne. Maybe it should be as simple as hiring a good actor.

What do you mean, "tone it down a little?"
What do you mean, “tone it down a little?”

Kevin Costner is a vaguely likeable Robin Hood, but the fact we’re in the middle of England in the age of the crusades and none of the speaking cast have a uniform accent, despite all supposedly being from the Nottingham area, grates a little. Little John and his wife are definitely West Country. Kevin Costner, obviously American and Christian Slater is… I’m not really sure. But then as we’ve seen from many other versions of this story, both older and more recent, they’ve never really put much effort into the accents. Yes, even you, Mr Crowe. Costner is a little too laid back for most of the story, but this was back when he was a bankable headline name (whoever thought Waterworld was a good idea anyway?).

Morgan Freeman added a nice touch as the foreigner in a strange land. Cue racist joke here. The script doesn’t overburden the  viewer with excessive comments over his difference to the natives, but there is a nice scene between Freeman and the blind servant who unwittingly puts his foot in it, specifically regarding Moors and foreign folk. From a tonal perspective it’s pretty spot on, not labouring too close to the point but acknowledging that yes, people have been cultural racists for many centuries.

There’s a fair amount of iffy moments in the story. Robin and Morgan Freeman arrive in England, presumably on the south coast. Then, as if by movie magic, they’re in the vicinity of Robin’s home and fighting off a group of Alan Rickman’s men. I wouldn’t mind so much if they had emphasised a passing of time, or given a clear indication of where they had made landfall, but as they did neither of these things I can only assume that the bigwig Hollywood production team decided a basic grasp of geography wasn’t necessary when making the movie.

If having Alan Rickman as your evil villain wasn’t enough, the scriptwriters decided to throw in the Celts to trample through Sherwood Forest and burn down the outlaws’ camp. It’s almost an affront to the power of Rickman to get the job done, and basically confirms that he’s surrounded by ineffectual lackeys who need some big ginger Scots to burst in and do the real dirty work. Much like Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegles in that respect, but much less amusing and much less effective.

The film has nice production values, but ultimately I think I’ve watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights far too often to take this particular interpretation of the Hood legend seriously. And, even better, I didn’t have to sit through Bryan Adams’ interminable power ballad at any point. Result.

Favourite scene: The Sheriff of Nottingham cancelling Christmas.

Quote: “Locksley! I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon!”

Silly Moment:  Pretty much anything with Alan Rickman, he’s turned up to 11. Specifically – him telling wenches to visit his chambers.

Score: 3.5/5

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

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A slight re-working of the original story...
A slight re-working of the original story…

Twitter Plot Summary: It’s the same story as Romeo and Juliet, except they don’t die at the end. Spoilers!

Genre: Animation/Comedy/Family

Director: Kelly Asbury

Key Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Ashley Jensen, Michael Caine, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Ozzy Osbourne, Stephen Merchant, Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, Hulk Hogan.

Five Point Summary:

1. One of the only films where a ceramic mushroom is a character in itself.

2. Elton John’s original tunes = not bad, actually.

3. I like the garden gnome concept.
4. Nanette the frog – best thing in the film.
5. Casting Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare? Genius.

The main review below was originally posted on www.randomstoat.com on 03 December 2011.

In the introduction to this movie the makers acknowledge that Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers has been told time and time again, which would go some way to explaining why the pitch for this film was clearly “Romeo and Juliet. With gnomes.”

There are a number of references to other Shakespeare works (the house numbers are 2B and Not 2B respectively), but for the most part there is little to recommend this film to anyone at all. I wouldn’t go so far as to shoot it in front of its family (thanks, Mr Clarkson) but I’d certainly advise people to steer clear from it as if the movie was the smelly kid at school. No, there’s little to recommend here. Unless you’re a fan of Elton John’s music, in which case this acts more as an extended music video and will offer brief periods of life, intrigue, action and make a bit of excitement. But with gnomes. There were a lot of opportunities for some real laugh out loud moments but for the most part it falls flat and the only saving grace in the final third is the presence of Featherstone the plastic flamingo, voiced by Winnie The Pooh himself, Jim Cummings. Proof, if nothing else, that being a supporting character with a funny voice is usually enough to elicit interest. I also thoroughly enjoyed the camp by Patrick Stewart as the Bard himself. Or, rather, a statue of him.

In brief, the story sees Gnomeo and Juliet fall for each other despite the intense rivalry that exists between the red and blue gnomes living in neighbouring gardens. There’s some fun to be had with the various gnome designs but there isn’t enough emphasis on this aspect for it to really tickle the funny bone. Obviously because the families are at war with one another (or at least have a keen dislike of their rival gnomes) it’s frowned upon when they are discovered to be an item. Events come to a head when a character is bumped off, all out war takes place and an almost possessed lawn mower wreaks havoc across both gardens.And as this is a kid’s movie, don’t expect the usual Romeo and Juleit sad/tragic ending, although they do tease the audience with it almost excessively. Think about the fake endings in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and you’re in the right area for the potential to annoy.

She's just read the script.
She’s just read the script.

The now familiar game of “guess the voice actor” occupied most of my viewing time. No idea who Emily Blunt is and nor do I intend to find out. Jason Statham crops up as the rival; Ozzy Osbourne, whilst mildly entertaining, should stick to singing heavy metal and screaming at Sharon; Hulk Hogan basically appears as himself (Terrafirminator, Brother!); and then to wrap up we’re hit with the Brit actor invasion of Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters, along with some more recent alumni including Stephen Merchant, Matt Lucas and Ashley Jensen. As for James McAvoy, thanks to a recent viewing of X-Men First Class all I could see (and hear) was a young Professor X babbling on about groovy mutations…

If you’re reading this and you have young kids then they’ll probably get entertainment from some of the sillier moments, but from an adult’s perspective there’s little else I can say is enjoyable. The plot meandered, the voice acting was occasionally lacking in quality, and it’s certainly no Disney/Pixar effort. Missed opportunity methinks.

Favourite scene: “Shakespeare” talks to Gnomeo, and you realise he’s being voiced by Patrick Stewart.

Quote: “The story you about to see has been told before. A lot.”

Silly Moment: Racing on lawnmowers. Really?

Score: 2/5

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_L_5vrHoWQ