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Film Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Monday, 5 December, 2011 1 comment

Three Star: ***

More things go bump in the night, but did that include the writer’s head? Prepare to go parallel to the series, in this paranormal prequel

In the 1980s the concept of home CCTV was a brave new world powered by shoulder mounted cameras and VCR tapes limited to six hours’ running time. However, after hearing strange noises in the night, such a niggle does not deter Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) from setting up his own amateur system to watch over his family in Oren Peli’s third installment of the supernatural shocker series. This bare bones prequel might reuse the same old formula to get its scares, but a creepy atmosphere is present as always and you will find yourself scanning the screen for the slightest anomaly, with your chest tensed against the inevitable moment of terror.

Of course, two movies later, many of us have grown accustomed to these scare tactics: easy-to-believe shocks, such as a moving curtain or pan falling from its hook, or even someone jumping out of a closet with a mask on and shouting “Boo!” These cheap thrills still have their place though. After all, they continue to work extremely well! It caused the two girls to the left of me to whimper into their popcorn for much of the film. In fact, they were flinching so much, they even ended up booting the row of seats in front of them. That said, the frights are a little more fun this time, with some innovative efforts having been made (including an ingenious modification to an electric fan) in order to give us something new to see. In one scene the tension is achieved with a single simple sheet. The violent undertones are heavier than ever too, and the being itself seems to appear at moments, suggesting evil energy in its rawest form. Flitting shadows are an unnervingly believable manifestation and is by far scarier than falling furniture.

The bulk of the plot focuses on the friendship between Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and an entity named ‘Toby’, which, obviously, takes a sinister turn for the worse. As before, the spirit becomes malevolent towards her and sister Katie (Chloe Csengery), to the extent that this likable family has to flee their home. However, this is where the unexpected occurs and it deviates from the original plot devices. Even though PA3 is about the same two sisters, nothing is explained from PA1 and PA2. In fact, the saga is actually complicated by having things added to it instead. In some ways, it almost becomes another film entirely, and there were traces of The Last Exorcist in its rather disappointing ending. Even the demon seemed to be different to the original and I was unable to decide whether this was intended, or not. If the film had been a stand-alone picture, it would have made little difference. The big questions remain unanswered.

And so this apparent reinvention of the plot seems to suggest that there will be several sequels before we get our answers. Such a notion leaves me feeling a little concerned for the series. It would be a shame if it ended up like the Saw franchise, done to death and relying on upchucks of the same old shocks in order to get a cheap laugh.

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Review: Fortress (DVD) – Borrow or Buy?

Wednesday, 30 November, 2011 52 comments

Four Stars: ****

“No B-17s were harmed in the making of this film!”

It is a war story which has been retold many a time, and yet it never gets old! The tale of a bomber crew up against all odds, who yearn to trade the flak-blackened skies for the comforts of home, as they struggle to complete their tour of duty. And there is no better example of this than the crew of the Flying Fortress Lucky Lass, operating from a sandy strip in the Algerian desert, during the 1943 bombing of Rome.

Despite having a pretty much unknown cast (Bug Hall, Donnie Jeffcoat and Sean McGowan anyone?), as well as the fact that it relies completely on CGI for the battle scenes, the quality of this B-movie was a pleasant surprise over the usual straight-to-DVD releases.

Seeing as there are only 12 flying B-17s left, the film-makers can be forgiven for not being entirely authentic (this is even addressed in the credits, in a very tongue-in-cheek manner) although only extreme levels of scrutiny will reveal any flaws. In other words, you would need to be the ultimate spotter, who can identify incorrect rivets on a gun turret window frame, to notice and/or be bothered by it.

For the rest of the time, the rapid pace of an air war makes us forget that we are looking at a digital rendering, persuading us that the Lass is airborne once more! She looks and sounds just as she should. The attention to detail is not just limited to the aircraft; it would have been so easy for the makers to use generic patch-work quilt landscape scenery, but when we find ourselves peering down the bomb-sight we see an actual rendition of the city of Rome, complete with Coliseum.

Much has been said about the inauthentic dialogue too. Some scenes go as far to suggest the crew are none other than the grandfathers of the lads who star in American Pie, because of the way they speak of birds and boozing during their down-time.

A side-plot even involves a home-made (and thoroughly illegal) still, in which the characters extract alcohol from aviation fuel to make their own moonshine. Fittingly, the still’s owner is a red-haired lad called Bert (Chris Owen), who was none other than the Shermanator in the teen romp comedies! He even speaks of his still in the same way his adolescent alter-ego might talk of an elaborately constructed beer pong game many years later.

But, while this portrayal has been criticised by some, I actually found it strangely authentic. So perhaps they do speak in a fairly modern way … apart from the odd moment, it is not at all that noticeable! Considering the grim reality of fighting in the skies, it is not surprising to learn that crazy hijinks were not an uncommon way to unwind on an airbase. To quote one of the actors: “There’s more to being a bomber pilot than just flying.”

As for the crew’s actual fate, well, just remember that their moment of glory will come at a time when there was still no end in sight for the war. Whatever they achieve now will soon be buried under more bloodshed, and many more young men will be sacrificed before peace is won. Watch this in memory of these magnificent flying machines and the people who flew and fought in them. It might not carry the same impact as Memphis Belle, but I’d certainly watch this one again.

Image courtesy of Pete Markham, Flickr.

Film Review: Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

Sunday, 23 October, 2011 5 comments

Fairy good creature feature: should be brought to light!

It is not unusual for an old house to make noises but eerie whispers are the last thing Sally, abandoned by her mother to the custody of her father and his new flame Kim (Katie Holmes), expects to hear coming from a vent in the basement of the 19th Century Blackwood Estate.

Angst: Sally (Bailee Madison) hears things that go bump in the night...

At first the voices seem playful and entice the girl’s curiosity, even encouraging her to remove the grill over the vent. But there are sinister motives at work in Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash, and when the owners of the voices reveal themselves in a terrifying encounter she sees them for what they are: homicidal fairy folk with a taste for children’s teeth!

Although it has been criticised for failing to work as a horror movie, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark does very well in other ways. The main focus does revolve more around the strained relationship between the girl, her father (Guy Pearce) and her step-mother, but this allows the film to illuminate a key theme: the angst of a terrified little girl, left to face her fears in isolation while her father deems any disturbances as a by-product of her irrational childhood behaviour.

She could easily be saved and yet he is too wrapped up in his own life to stop and care. Kim appears to eventually get through to her and realises something ominous is going on, but even her efforts are limited. In short, Sally is doomed from the start.

Del Toro’s creatures, ugly little grey goblins, are certainly hideous to look at but they spend a lot of time in the limelight. While this means audiences can contemplate their mysterious origin all the more, it does, apart from a couple of jumpy moments, make it rather difficult for them to scare us.

We become accustomed to their odd appearances, to the point where some have even described them as “cute” (I do not share such sentiments). Their mischievous and skittish nature, involving botched attempts to capture their prey, makes it harder still, to take them seriously.

Then again, their terrifying motive generates a sinister atmosphere from the start. You certainly wouldn’t want your children playing with these beasts, no matter what they say.

Before long, their latent viciousness is revealed, and they up their game, raiding the groundskeeper’s tool box for sharp objects! Perhaps this isn’t a scary horror, but it is a disturbing supernatural thriller.

After watching this one, you might feel happy enough to sleep with the lights off, but don’t be surprised if you find the creepy notion of the ‘hidden people’ staying with you a little while longer.

Four Stars: ****

Film Review: The Smurfs

Tuesday, 11 October, 2011 2 comments

Three Stars: ***

A Little Trouble in the Big Apple

Just what is the deal about a family of blue imps living in a random invisible patch of forest, who are all named after their dominant personality traits, limit their vocabulary much of the time to the word “Smurf”, all share the same father and to top it off, live peacefully in a society where there is only one woman? As Gargamel himself jibed: “Nothing weird about that!”

In this reboot of the 1980s cartoon, of which I was never a big fan, a handful of the most memorable Smurfs, including Papa, Clumsy, Brainy and Smurfette, find themselves sucked through a portal and dumped in that famous city where all movie icons end up, New York! Here, they don’t really do much, apart from wait for the portal to reopen so they can go home…but not before winding up in the apartment of Neil Patrick Harris, the psychic guy from Starship Troopers who made us chuckle with those random cameo appearances in the Harold and Kumar films. Meanwhile, the evil wizard Gargamel is hot on their heels, with a dastardly plan to capture them and harvest their essence. In short, the premise sounds crap, and I certainly did groan when the other half suggested we watch it. I was pleasantly surprised.

Despite the constant overuse of the word “Smurf” it is actually quite difficult not to like this film. Although very simple in its structure, and clearly aimed at an easy-to-please audience, the slapstick still managed to have me laughing out loud on numerous occasions. Of notable credit was Hank Azaria, the voice of Moe and Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons, who does a grand job playing the hapless Gargamel. Along with his mocking kitty, he is absurdly inept at catching the Smurfs and spends much of the film trying to deduce the strange world that is New York, with hilarious results.

There’s precious little else to shout about though, and the merging of cartoon and reality is not exactly a smooth transition. The acting from the lead human characters, including Harris (an otherwise first rate actor), seems awkward and suggests a strained interaction with the CGI. Only Azaria comes across as truly convincing. Such issues only end up making the little blue people stand out even more against their unusual juxtaposed backdrop, and some critics might argue that the colourful world created in the original cartoons would have made a better setting. Ultimately, the result is a film which will satisfy those seeking a little light entertainment, but will most likely peeve the die-hard fans looking to relive some of their childhood. Still, I’m sure it will still manage to put a smile on the lips of anyone who is feeling a little blue.

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Review: The Eagle (DVD) – Borrow or Buy?

Friday, 16 September, 2011 2 comments

Three Stars: ***

Some people get Celt, but don’t expect any graphic details

There was once a fortified barrier which extended across the Northern frontier of the Roman Empire. It was called Hadrian’s wall and it was a critical life-line for all Romans. To step north of here meant certain death! And in 120AD, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a Roman legionnaire, plans to do just that with only the company of Esca, his Briton slave (Jamie Bell).

It is a traditional yarn of heroics and betrayal where a gutsy legionnaire valiantly proceeds against all odds into the heart of darkness, Scotland, in order to return the treasured Eagle of the Ninth, the Standard lost to the barren wilderness and its tribes, by his own father.

The very prospect of wandering into the Highlands in order to steal back something of largely sentimental value from a merciless tribe of Celtic warriors, who paint themselves blue and resemble real-life versions of Avatar’s Na’vi, is a compelling one. Much is said of the ancient feuds between Ancient Scot and Roman occupier, and due to an interest in my own family heritage north of The Wall, this was the main draw for me. However, despite the film’s opening with a gripping battle scene, complete with Boudicca style chariots, I was disappointed to find a distinct lack of the visceral grittiness which made Gladiator and the recent Ironclad visually superb!

While the Celts’ hardcore and insane mentality is conveyed well by the director, Kevin MacDonald, I thought his rendition of the Seal people could have been a bit more fearsome. When lost in a labyrinth of glens filled to the brim with 6ft guerrilla warriors, in a literal all-versus-two scenario, you’d expect there to be a greater sense of despair and terror.

In actual fact, the narrative is true to the form of a Boys’ Own adventure, which is no mistake because this film is an adaptation of a children’s book. As a result the antagonist, the Seal Prince, is simply characterised by dumb anger and confrontation, which denies him much depth as a villain. He is only to be feared because he fights with all his mates by his side. To be fair, a simple character is more fitting for a children’s book and I suppose we cannot expect too much of a monster from a 12A.

Tatum’s American accent occasionally slays the authenticity a little too, though this is rescued by Bell’s own acting, as a Briton playing a Briton. The relationship between the two is what the film is really about and their developments drive the story. Expect some twists and turns in the partnership along the way. While The Eagle has much to offer, it fails to soar to the standards of the historical movie greats which adorn the DVD shelf.

Review: The Inbetweeners Movie

Friday, 2 September, 2011 1 comment

Image © Film4, 2011

What happens when you throw a bunch of reckless, sexualised teenagers on holiday? And no, the answer isn’t American Pie. The latest Film4 blockbuster takes the cringingly desperate teens of The Inbetweeners and throws them into the Mediterranean holiday that no blue-balled boy could resist.

The film takes the same general setup as the sitcom series, with Will (Simon Bird) narrating over the course of scene transitions. It’s packed full of laughs from start to finish, although this is British teen humour at it’s most extreme: it’s blunt, vulgar and often quite offensive. This film is  not for the easily offended and definitely one for your grandparents who think that all teenagers are juvenile delinquents…this will only reinforce their point.

From his horrifically cringe worthy masturbation scene (yes, it’s in there) to the ‘emergency’ twenty Euros stored inside his rectum, Jay (James Buckley) stands out as perhaps the most dynamic of the characters, as to be expected from fans of the original series. Neil has his awful fake-tanned face. Will has the phallic image burned into his back. Perhaps worst of all is Simon (Joe Thomas) and his total oblivion to the girl throwing herself at him in the attempts to rekindle his failed relationship. These are all rolling jokes that ensure that you continue to laugh between punchlines. You see, there’s two ways you react to the jokes of this film. The first reaction is with sheer stomach churning laughter, the other being a horrid sinking disappointment at the characters’ (mainly Simon’s) social ineptness.

What the film does do incredibly well is make its audience laugh until their bowels are almost on the floor; quite fitting with all of the poo-related jokes. It’s a very familiar film to anyone who’s watched American Pie, EuroTrip, or any other film involving teens on holiday, but with what I find to be a brilliant British edge. More swearing, more use of the word ‘cock’ and far more awkwardness than you see in the more ‘angst-filled’ American counterparts. The film is exactly what you’d expect; cheesy, predictable and outrageously funny. Don’t watch this film for an insightful look into the teenage mind, or for a reimagining of a genre. You won’t get it. What you get is a solid, tried and tested film formula that has been used once again to create a hilariously funny ninety-seven minutes of cinema.

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Cars 2 Review

Sunday, 31 July, 2011 Leave a comment
The logo for Cars 2.

Image via Wikipedia

And so comes the sequel to Pixar’s ‘Cars’, dubbed as Pixar’s first bad movie. And Cars 2 has widely received similar criticisms that show it as worse than the original. I watched Cars 2 yesterday (from the day of writing) and have given myself 24 hours to let it sink in. The reason? Because I have no idea why it’s gained so much critical infamy.

What I witnessed was a nicely balanced mix of lighthearted comedy, diverse characters and a simple yet addictive storyline. Cars 2 is arguably a better film that the original, partly due to the fact that Pixar realised that ‘Mater’s personality was far more appealing to audiences than the slightly generic personality of Lightning McQueen. By making Mater the main character, they’ve found a more comedic baseline for the film, which really flourishes on many occasions.

Cars 2 is, in my eyes, a good film and one that Pixar should be proud of. I actually went to see this with my dad, as we both enjoyed the first film, and I can honestly say neither of us have laughed quite so much for a while.

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