Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Review: Kaboom

Rating: 15  
Runtime: 86 min

From the off set the initial free spirited, metro sexual approach to coitus is merely the tip of the iceberg for indie director, Greg Araki's, latest genre mash up. But would we expect anything else after his outlandish 2004 effort, Mysterious Skin, involving a premise of alien abduction and sexual abuse?

A beautiful cast appears no mistake and adds to an ideal, sexually experimental aesthetic of a college campus. It's the glossy image of society everyone expects - realistic or not - it to be. So, frequent nakedness? Check. Hot actors romping with one another whenever they get the urge? Check. Spooky fellas menacing round campus in animal masks? Erm, check. Now that I (at least partially) have your attention, by no means is this American Pie for the noughties. Sure, it has that sex comedy nostalgia in places, but try mixing in the weirdness of Donnie Darko, a dreamy surrealism of Mulholland Drive and a touch of quirkiness a la Garden State for a more coherent image of what Kaboom is.

Starring a host of unknowns, Smith (Thomas Dekker) has just moved away to college and is confronted with a reccuring dream he has - a bizarre sequence that leads him to a door at the end of a bright corridor and into a small room that contains a dumpster. Along the way he passes faces he knows, some he's never met and some he is going to meet, but what does it all mean? Coupled with his confused sexual orientation, he aims to find clarity regarding both mysteries. It all sounds a bit bonkers, but apart from that and a few establishing details, it's hard to explain much else without revealing plot spoilers. Best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), is at his side as he tries to figure out what the visions mean, as she struggles to deal with her own sexual problems concerning new girlfriend/obsessed demon witch, Loreilei (Roxanne Mesquida).

The humour is odd ball yet razor sharp. Witticisms and current cultural references are abound, which serve as a commentary on modernism and 21st Century culture. The third party in this plutonic, yet somehow sexual, bisexual relationship is, London (Juno Temple), who proves a welcome addition to the group. Other supporting roles are merely bit parts including Smith's brainless-but-gorgeous roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka). Everyone, including permanently stoned, The Messiah (James Duval), all contribute fittingly and form a weird and trippy college campus setting.

Kaboom develops quickly from teen sex comedy into a more sinister thriller as the plot expands and thickens. Dekker mirrors (as well as looks strikingly similar to) a young Casey Affleck in his laid back, mellow acting style. It works, as does the, at times, obnoxious, egotistical, comically rude support, as it captures the imagination of today's young generation, as well as boast a broader appeal.

For the most part Kaboom is a tightly written and highly entertaining film. Unexplained questions remain unsolved as the wacky turn of events get stranger by the scene until it (a little too neatly) explains previous discrepancies as they slot into place. However, in contrast to the film's style it's conclusion, the last couple of scenes leading to and including the climax, feel completely disjointed. It's as if the final quarter of an hour is picked up by another director with a completely different vision of the script. Therefore, it becomes somewhat of an anti climax, yet somehow fitting into the oddity and bizarre nature of the film. Its final scene is easy to draw comparison to Mulholland Drive in terms of abruptness.

To describe Kaboom as an off beat comedy cum thriller is an understatement. The well meshed cast and equally infused story proves interesting viewing. A cleverly written and engaging piece that leaves you as befuddled as its likable protagonists.

Source : Internet Movie Database
Images : Google Images

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review: Senna

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 106 min

In all honesty this biopic tale of the late Brazilian F1 driver would be more aptly titled Senna versus Prost (as per the name of Malcolm Folley's publication, The Story of the Most Deadly Rivalry in Formula One). The focus of this documentary from acclaimed film maker, Asif Kapadia, revolves around the real life, bitter rivalry and eventual hatred between two F1 greats. And to make it clear, this is not, I repeat not a film just for racing enthusiasts.

This docu-film just tips the 100 minute mark as it follows a young, gung-ho speedster, Ayrton Senna, from his early days as a Go Karting extraordinaire through to F1 champ. Kapadia journeys us through Senna's extraordinary career as he shoots into the limelight of Formula One, as the Brit director proves that he can successfully derive from fiction to tackle one of the most interesting, successful and talented drivers in its history.

Growing up I was aware of the talents of Ayrton Senna, but unbeknownst to me was the fascinating controversies and battles that took place with the likes of his once close team mate and friend, Alain Prost, and former FIA President, Jean-Marie Balestre. We witness snippets of Ayrton's personal life, his pride for his home nation Brazil, which includes his immense involvement in charity work. Kapadia shows the pressures that come with such fame which, combined with heartbreaking insights of inner feelings and religious beliefs, ultimately shape the film.

Whilst some of his earlier life is documented, Senna primarily focuses on his 10-year stint in Formula One where Kapadia methodically and chronologically progress through each year as we witness various highs and lows, triumphs and disappointments; we really begin to connect with the man behind the helmet.

What's brilliant about Senna is that the drama, tension, conflict, hatred, rivalry, action and twists are all real. It plays out superbly, interspersed wonderfully with voice over interviews from Senna's family and fellow professionals, as we get a sense of respect yet concern for the talented and, at times, reckless star. The fantastically arranged archive footage and contributions are perfectly interwoven to create atmosphere and high tension throughout, which contrast with bursts of his playboy wit and humour.

Keep your friends close: (from left) Prost & Senna.
As a film Senna has even more impact to those uneducated in F1, as per American audiences who went into its Sundance debut blissfully unaware of who the man was, let alone his eventual fate. To be unaware of such a character in the sporting world can be deemed a travesty, yet transforms the experience into a completely different film for those ill educated. Audiences who are aware of Senna's career and know its outcome- the intensity is just as captivating as a documentary, and is nonetheless utterly compelling. Kapadia manages to tug at every heart string and, by contrast, has you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Not only is this great story telling fused with documentary making, it's an exhilarating roller coaster ride that glides through an eclectic array of scenes that never fail to grip, entertain, humour, shock or sadden.

Some of the footage is remarkable. The in-car camera of Senna's F1 vehicle is truly a wonderful (and bloody scary) insight into his world on the track. Not only is it fascinating that we get behind the wheel with him, but to witness the sheer speed he travels at makes Lewis Hamilton look like he's riding his push bike round the local park. Your heart will beat with every straight as he speeds towards corners and will thump even faster as he maneuvers with incredible precision through chicanes and round hairpin bends; we are exposed to the kind of driving that defined Ayrton as a racing genius.

The juxtaposition of his professional and private life is finely balanced. We see a man with ambition as he muses over future aspirations, desires and fears, as well as a expressing his religious faith. The latter cements itself as a reccuring theme and serves as a harsh poignancy towards the dramatic conclusion.

In honesty, as much as I can sit here and tell you about Senna, it's something you really need to experience for yourself. It draws you in, captures you emotionally and doesn't let go until the lump-in-the-throat ending hits. And as for the end of the film, referring to it as a finale or climax is a major injustice, as such a sad and gut wrenching final few scenes are worth a whole lot more and will challenge your inner most strength not to shed a tear. 

Utterly powerful and unforgiving at times, Senna takes us on an unforgettable journey that stays with you long after the final credits roll. Ayrton Senna remains an icon of his generation. A sporting great. One to be celebrated and certainly never, ever forgotten. Incredible.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Rating: PG 
Runtime: 91 min

When I think of animation I instantly picture John Lasseter and the gang at Pixar. Granted, Dreamworks Animation frequently competes as its rival, with occasional monster box office winners such as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda (earning a whopping $915m and $631m, respectively), yet often trail in consistency and quality. I'll honestly admit I didn't think much of Kung Fu Panda. Aimed towards a younger demographic and void of any genuine adult laughs, I was content to stick with the likes of Toy Story and Up.

Kung Fu Panda 2 however, is a completely different bowl of noodles. For one, it's thoroughly enjoyable. Going in with such mediocre expectations, it quickly becomes clear that the metaphorical bar has been significantly raised. The story follows on from Po (Jack Black), having defeated the evil snow leopard Tai Lung, thus affirming his place in folklore as the Dragon Warrior. Now a Kung Fu Master and accompanied by the Furious Five - Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) and Crane (Cross) - Po fulfills his duties as he defends villagers from pot-stealing wolf bandits. Whilst fending off such foes he inexplicably succumbs to a mysterious symbol their leader brandishes on his armour. Cue nightmarish visions of a young Po, which leads him to question his Father, Mr Ping (James Hong), about where he really comes from and who he really is. Meanwhile, vengeful peacock, Shen (Gary Oldman), enters the narrative in hope of averting a foretold prophecy that claims a 'warrior of black and white' shall defeat him in his attempts to rule the country.

The story treads the familiar Kung Fu genre ground. It's a pastiche, as Po is forced to trace his origins and  original home village and parentals, in order to overcome his past that begins to hinder him. However, by no means is KFP2 a serious or harrowing tale: occasional heart felt and touching moments define it as a comedy.

What is surprising is how improvements are made in almost every department. The detailed animation and crisp digital 3-D show a visual improvement, yet on a subtle level: Textures look that bit better, including Po's fur and general character attention is more appeasing. The plot and character arcs are structured in a competent manner, showing progressive development that complements the story. The script is a simple story arc with a coming-of-age tale, as Po attempts to 'find himself' (wherever that may lead him). It builds into a compelling journey, which introduces new characters- including antagonist, Shen- as well as some polished set pieces and beautiful settings. As for entertainment value, the script is much tighter than its predecessor, revelling in numerous laughs and witty one-liners as the talented cast raise the quality a notch. The aforementioned array of voice actors collectively nail the tone of their characters: Dustin Hoffman, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride and one Jean-Claude Van Damme all contribute to great effect.

Many positives shine through, but whilst the focus of the story remains firmly on course, its progression does wobble a little during the latter third as we are prematurely set up with an obvious climax. This results in some predictable plot structure to draw out a foreseen conclusion. However, it doesn't feel tiresome and, at a mere 90 minutes, saves itself when we do reach the finale, enveloping some nicely animated action and fight scenes.

Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn't take itself too seriously, as it tries to connect on a deeper level at times. It succeeds in throwing a tender moment in at the final stages, yet remains a funny, light-hearted and generally entertaining picture. Engaging and filled with likable protagonists, this sequel pleasingly outdoes its former installment, but of course there's still a long way to go to reach the heights of the mighty Pixar.


Monday, 6 June 2011

Review: X-Men : First Class

Rating: 12A  Runtime: 132 min
There have been a string of X-Men movies spanning just over a decade. With a strong franchise birth in the form of X-Men and a brilliant follow up, X-2 really set the bar, yet were superseded by the disappointing X-3 and the abysmal Wolverine catastrophe (the less said about that, the better). So it was with great skepticism that I attempted to prepare myself for this inevitable prequel. With Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn at the helm, what first appears as a no hoper quickly morphs into something of optimism.

It's 1964 as a young, and ahem groovy, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) begins an initiative to track down and unite mutants from all over the world. Subsequently, he encounters others with such 'gifts' to join him, and sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), in using their extraordinary abilities for good. Charles forges a strained friendship with dark horse, Erik (Michael Fassbender), who finds it difficult to let go of his harrowing past. Before we know it, our new batch of mutant misfits are rehoused in a CIA facility quicker than you can say adamantium claw. The time spent here allows for characters to bond and develop what is essentially a young support cast lead by the bold Lawrence. On the other side of the spectrum exist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and smoking hot side kick/slave, Emma Frost (January Jones), who seem hell bent on the annihilation of the human race for self preservation. The narrative explores an overarching political plot where nuclear war is upon us, as the Soviet Union and USA stubbornly square off against one another. The recurring 'survival of the fittest' theory is applied to justify Shaw's actions and plays an integral part throughout. To Vaughn's credit X-Men : First Class displays a confident ability to squeeze numerous back-stories and X-Men history into the equation without making the plot feel cluttered. Cheeky nods and cameos are subtly, as well as unsubtly, dotted in the film, the latter includes one hilarious, stand out effort you will be aware of after you see it. The actual story, too, is developed at a pleasant pace as it builds progressively as characters interact, conflict and betray one another, until we reach a climactic finale.

As per its predecessors, CGI plays a prominant role. Some of the effects look superb and, for the most part, are spot on, however, the standard does dips at times. Minor quibbles such as the visual features of Beast (Nicolas Hoult) -which were always going to be a challenge- and a slight over kill on some effects sometimes fail to deliver. Similarly Azazel (Jason Flemyng) as well as Raven's alter ego, Mystique, aesthetically aren't particularly pleasing to the eye.

Once the characters form the unofficial X-Men, we are exposed to some top notch acting, which involves perfect chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender who resonate on screen together. The latter, especially, oozes suaveness and sophistication in a bondesque fashion. Such a catalyst forces McAvoy to raise the bar in his retorts, and indeed, his overall performance.   Furthermore, there's a romantic spark when it comes to the sub plot love story between Raven and, before Beast mutated, Hank, which serves its purpose adequately, even if it is laced with cheese. 

Aside from the serious and, at times, dark nature of the film, the comedic elements are nicely balanced during some less tense moments. The humour creates genuine laughter largely thanks to Fassbender's exquisite delivery. What makes X-Men : First Class appealing is its no nonsense approach. Straight forward in its attempt to construct interesting and morally unhinged characters, coupled with a non exclusive appeal that allows easy access for both mainstream and hardcore comic fans alike.

Whilst there are many positives to this bold prequel, it is worth noting that there were a few minuses worth a mention. Firstly, as with all prequels, it is imperative to get the script air tight and, for the main part, does achieve this. However, series timelines come into question as some relationships that emerge don't quite fit into previous installments. Vaughn does however claim this prequel stands alone. So, in that respect, I'll let him off then.

As recent trends suggest, franchise reboots tend to be much darker and gritty in their nature. Prime examples are Chris Nolan's exquisite Batman and, currently filming, The Amazing Spider-Man. During critical points, X-Men : First Class threatens to take a shadier route. Character ambiguity directs the film towards a more sinister outcome and, towards the end especially, tantalises with immoral and questionable decisions. Unfortunately just as you think the series is about to turn nastier, morality and convenient plot devices intervene, which result in the inevitable 'good overcoming evil' scenario. For me, a bleaker path would have lead to a much more powerful and deeper film as a whole, but as I say, it's merely a minor criticism. 

It's fair to say that X-Men : First Class isn't quite on par with X2, yet by no means is it a failure. In fact it's one of the best comic book films to emerge for a number of years. With a fine collaboration of actors, and a more than solid storyline, it's jam packed with history, inside jokes, individual character plights and epic CGI. Vaughn really does immerse us into his 60's set world by giving us more than a whiff of era authenticity. Exceptional performances from McAvoy, and notably Fassbender, combined with witty dialogue gives this some serious weight and intellect, which maintains the utmost of class throughout.


Sources : Internet Movie Database 
Images : Google Images