Aug 24, 2011

Guest Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Meet @AKWregg: film Director and reviewer extraordinnaire. While we were away on holiday in NYC recently, Alex was awesome enough to attend a screening on our behalf and check out Jon Favreau's latest, Cowboys and Aliens. Check out his review below and Tweet him some love!

Director: Jon Favreau
Release Date:  18 August 2011
Rating: (M)
Runtime: 118 mins

Watching Cowboys and Aliens is kind of like getting punched by your grandmother when you are kissing her goodbye. It starts off a little risqué and ends up shameful and degrading. The opening scenes are interesting and just violent enough to shake expectations but they are all too brief before we are introduced to the ACME-standard frontier town and everything rushes into a clump of stereotypes and cliché. The fact that aliens suddenly appear to shake everything up should be a surprising twist but the title of the film kinda gives audiences that change of direction away. This is unfortunate, given that it’s the one true surprise of the film.

Daniel Craig stars as a hard-bitten cowboy stranger in town, quietly spoken and deadly when provoked. One does have to wonder why they went with James Bond as an American cowboy, but such illicit thoughts need to be cast aside for the greater good of Australia’s Hollywood stars. In the end however, Craig’s character never gets beyond the functional archetype. We don’t really care if he lives or dies because to us, he is just a rough sketch of personality. He’s useful in a gun fight, but otherwise uninteresting. In contrast, character actors like Sam Rockwell feel underused in minor, though interesting roles.

Sadly, the great Harrison Ford seems to have been somewhat miscast in this film. Harrison keeps getting cast as older, world-weary characters by directors who clearly just wish he were their action hero. The results are what feel like heroic roles with horrible personal defects. In Cowboys and Aliens, Harrison is a violent torturer and racist, both qualities that we are supposed to believe hide a heart of gold.  I call shenanigans on this actually being possible. Directors and studios need to just bite the bullet and try casting the legendary actor as an actual bad guy. Hey, they did it in What Lies Beneath (beware 11-year-old spoiler).

Ford sees a better role, way off in the distance.
As for Olivia Wilde as the mysterious love interest, also new in town? She is put in a truly awkward position, cast as a completely aimless character whose inexplicably strange actions seem to have no reason or purpose whatsoever until she is revealed as the deus-ex-machina for the entire film, placed there just to explain everything and fix the unfixable. She also begins what is a pretty catastrophic set of plot holes that starts about half way in and runs strong for the rest of the film. How exactly do a race of immortal beings get “wiped out?” Why do aliens with teleportation technology, beam weapons and space travel rush about attacking cowboys whilst naked and on all fours? A towering pillar of Hollywood cliché, they possess both amazing technology and the survival instincts of lemmings. High tech weaponry, space faring intelligence and they decide the only way to deal with heavily armoured humans in frontal charge using tooth and claw? I might consider ants to be an inferior enemy but my battle strategy against them would not be to cover myself in honey and lie still.

At the end of the day Cowboys and Aliens was an interesting idea and with Jon Favreau at the helm, could have been the exact kind of cheesy genre mash-up experiment that Hollywood should be making rather than the never ending sequel train we have been subjected to of late. Ultimately it comes down to a weak script (the framework of which seems directly lifted from the 80s cult classic Krull) and a lack of willingness to go all the way. The film holds back where it should have been brassy. It’s either not funny enough or not serious enough. Basically it should have just given granny the tongue and gotten it over with. Now we’ll always have to live with an idle daydream of what could have been.

- Alexander Wregg

Review: One Day

Director: Lone Scherfig
Release Date: 25 August 2011
Rating: (M)
Runtime: 107 mins

In so far as we can recommend romantic comedies, One Day most certainly ranks above average in the category, its two stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, The Way Back) and Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, Brokeback Mountain, Rachel's Wedding) sharing an easy on-screen chemistry; this in itself is a fine thing to witness as opposed to the oft-forced banter between Jennifer Anniston, Gerard Butler, Katherine Heigl et al. Truth be told, Hathaway probably could have done with some extra tutelage with the accent coach, but it doesn't grate so much over the course of the film as it does in the theatrical trailer. We've downgraded our assessment from 'the ruination of all things holy' to simply 'there'. 

Based on the wonderfully witty novel by David Nicholls (who also penned the screenplay for this adaptation), One Day chronicles the development of the relationship between lovable cad Dexter Mayhew (Sturgess) and bookish, waspish Emma Morley over 20 years on the same day, July 15th. 

Sturgess and Hathaway decide: Chinese again or a curry?

While this device seems a relatively original concept and allows the viewer to feel as though we are viewing important snapshots, make no mistake that this is simply a device. Nicholls carries this through in the structure of the screenplay but unfortunately, here the pacing seems off, the narrative rushed, the sense of 'epic romance': lost. This is particularly problematic, when the build to the emotional crescendo resembles more of a gentle hill climb as opposed to a mountain trek, resulting in a lack of 'crash'.

However, going into One Day as a fan of Lone Scherfig's previous English-language effort, An Education, which so completely hit the mark and launched the career of Carey Mulligan: it was foolish. Our high expectations were dashed, especially so because the films share such blatant similarities: both are adaptations where the screenplay was written by a novelist (if not the novelist), both are British films, both are about young love (though the relationship in An Education offers greater complexity over a shorter timeframe).  

One Day offers very little of the style and glamour that An Education pulled off so easily, which applies not only to the clothes, but also the lighting and camera. The naturalistic, no nonsense 90s aesthetic wears thin very quickly and the images just start to look fuzzy in places: overall, the film was unremarkable to look at. 

Funny, but not in possession of the same vim and vigour the book virtually screams with, One Day was a structurally faithful book-to-film adaptation, but didn't add an extra layer to the story or further illuminate beloved characters. Never judge a film by its art-school, romantic-as-hell poster is all we'll say.


Aug 21, 2011

Review: Midnight in Paris

Director: Woody Allen
Release Date: 20 October 2011
Rating: TBC
Runtime: 94 mins

It's just as well Woody Allen's latest film opened the Festival de Cannes 2011—what a feel-good farce to kick off a festival that is renowned for excellent cinema, but usually of a more serious nature. With Midnight in Paris, Allen makes a return to form, transplanting otherworldly elements into everyday life to both charm us and stretch our imaginations.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful American screenwriter who is slugging through the draft of his first novel. He and Fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), are tagging along on a business trip to Paris with her parents; Gil writes while Inez and her mother plan the wedding to end them all (this includes men, if you ask us).

The opening montage of Parisian cafes, side streets, and waifs riding bikes while French concertina music plays is perfect in setting up the romantic comedy angle, but actually leads the viewer to believe we're in for something more Hollywood than is the reality.

The earth spins back on its axis after a night out with Inez's insufferable wine-sniffing friends, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Gil wanders off, slightly tipsy, to take the scenic route home and ends up lost as the clock strikes midnight and he is whisked off by a band of strangers from the 1920s.

Here, you can see Allen's wonderful sense of humour and flight of fancy come into play: Gil spends time with his literary heroes during his favourite Parisian period and gets to know its characters and chameleons as if they had been in his life forever. He is enchanted by 1920s patroness of the arts—to put it kindly—Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and begins to imagine a new life outside Inez, her sniffy friends, her money-lust and general unpleasantness. All due credit to McAdams for delivering a thoroughly nasty, yet uncomplicatedly boring anti-heroine in Inez: an achievement for an actress usually so likeable and radiant in every role she takes on.

Allen uses his talent for witty dialogue and a keen sense of irony to deliver a script and characters that are both real and entirely fictional at the same time, due to the presence of a separate, meta-fictional narrative. The star-studded ensemble cast featuring Carla Bruni, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston, and Kathy Bates will leave you pondering the absurdities they roll out in such a matter-of-fact manner. 

Allen with Carla Bruni, about to film a scene.
As a filmmaker, Mr Allen has managed to comment on the romantic-minded among us who wish we were born of a different era, when in fact if we appreciated the things in front of us, we would learn to enjoy life a little more. As an actor, Owen Wilson has managed to exceed 'the Woody Allen' by imbuing Gil with an infectious enthusiasm for art, life, and one of the most beautiful cities on earth, Paris: may we lose ourselves there on a cobble-stoned street and recall Allen's wonderful characters sooner rather than later.


Aug 20, 2011

Panel: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Live in NYC, 8 August 2011)

While we were in NYC recently, we were lucky enough to attend not only the US Premiere of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but also the Q&A session with writer and producer Guillermo del Toro, director Troy Nixey, and stars Katie Holmes and Bailee Madison. 

What quickly became apparent was this: the road Guillermo travelled to get this film made was extremely long and more than a little trying. He had been pursuing the rights for 14 years before he could move on his dream, finally purchasing the rights in 1998 and beginning development at Miramax. However, the studio wanted him to Hollywood up the script and sanitise it, which because of his previous experience making Mimic (1997), del Toro wasn't willing to do.

Film Comment Editor Gavin Smith, Guillermo del Toro, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, and Troy Nixey.
The crux of the idea for him was to remake the film but really draw out the elements from the original 1973 John Newland film that he loved, including pagan fairy-lore and the maxim that the creatures did not exist in the realm of 'cute'. The filmmakers wanted to respect the creature designs of the 1973 original. Guillermo commented to a rapturuous crowd of about 200 and mock-offended star, 11-year-old Bailee Madison: 'Fairies in pagan mythology are not blinky shiny little fuckers'. This was not the last time during the panel she told the wiley Mexican film extraordinnaire to keep it clean, but trust us, it was hilariously sassy every time.

Del Toro admitted that while all of his protagonists are children, audiences should also take note of his tendency towards writing strong, female characters. In the original, Sally is a grown woman (as opposed to del Toro's 11-year-old incarnation) and very submissive. To counteract what he obviously felt was a flaw in the script, he wrote Sally as a strong, resourceful young girl and Kim (Katie Holmes) as the slightly awkward, well-meaning stepmother who comes into her own as the stakes are raised. 

First-time feature director, Troy Nixey, appears to have landed a dream gig. Nixey drew comic books professionally for 17 years, before throwing himself into short film (including writing, producing and directing the short Latchkey's Lament). If we're not mistaken, Nixey sent some early concept drawings of the fairies through Guillermo's website upon hearing that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was in development. Guillermo saw them, watched Nixey's short film, then soon after asked Nixey to clime aboard as director. Del Toro felt, at least at a superficial level, that Pan's Labyrinth shared some similarities with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and because of this, had no desire to helm the movie himself.

Nixey then set to work 'mapping out the gameplan for the characters' and according to Katie Holmes, spent a lot of time working with her on her character's backstory and making it all as real as possible. Holmes said she was attracted to the film for a number of reasons, but actually got scared reading the script and felt that was a good sign for a horror film; surely, it's also the mark of a talented writer. 

One of the elements alluded to in the film is Kim's (Holmes) crappy childhood, but Nixey felt very strongly that he wanted to avoid the female leads (Holmes and Madison) interacting in a way that explicitly said that. Nixey and del Toro both felt strongly about the fact that Alex (Guy Pearce and in the film, Sally's father) should play the role of the fairly useless, absentee father-figure in order to show a stark contrast between the men and women, which we felt was achieved in a successful manner.

Young gun (and we think she deserves the title of Scream Queen) Bailee Madison, who is absolutely convincing in the film, was really excited for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark to be shot in Melbourne, Australia. Well thank you, Bailee. We're certain Australia was over the moon to have Guillermo & Co. on our shores and would gladly welcome them back at any time. The actress really got into her character and was simultaneously intelligent, bubbly, and thoughtful throughout the panel.

Unfortunately, after over an hour of this riveting discussion, the panel had to wrap. Del Toro ended proceedings by talking about the film's (R) rating in the United States and thanking the MPAA for making that decision, rather than asking the filmmakers to cut and distort the film from their original vision: 'We need to make like the scary pride parade.' We got a handshake and an autograph from the talented Mr. del Toro and alas, had to wash our hand eventually; it's a bastard riding the subway in NYC, for realsies.

That's all from the red carpet for now, but be sure to check out Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, opening in theatres around Australia on 25 August, 2011 and tell us what you think!

Guillermo del Toro signing autographs afterwards.
Also, a sincere thank you to The Film Society at The Lincoln Center in NYC for putting on this wonderful event.

Aug 10, 2011

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (NYC Premiere 8 August 2011)

Director: Troy Nixey
Release Date: 25 August 2011
Rating: (TBC)
Runtime: 110 mins

Horror: if you were expecting another brilliant ride from the mind of Guillermo del Toro who wrote and produced this number, then yes, spot on. If you were expecting a typical horror film, prepare to delight in the many ways this entirely fascinating remake of the 1973 John Newland film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark subverts and adds to the genre. 

Sally (Bailee Madison), this time a pre-teen, is shipped off to live with her architect Dad, Alex, (Guy Pearce) and his interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes) who are in the midst of transforming an old, gothic-style home on Rhode Island. It's clear from the outset that Sally lacks stability in her life and is something of a nervous, yet angry child.

There is, as you would expect, an innate strangeness attached to the house, and it soon becomes apparent that something or someone wants to assimilate Sally into the bones of it. From here we start getting into the serious horror beats and the deadly serious scares, but rest assured the combination of fairy-lore and the naturally-occuring humour ensure the audience is consistently intrigued and entertained.

Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce check out the new bat cave.

The dynamic that del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins set up between Sally and Kim, a childless twenty-something woman whose obvious and primary goal in life up until now has been to build her career, is so valuable to creating a believable character arc for these two female leads. The development of their relationship is key: Sally's trust in Kim grows steadily as she proves herself to be genuinely concerned with the young girl's welfare, acting as a fierce protector and confidante. 

Bailee Madison may be relative newcomer to this planet, but for one so young, she wields an impressive Hollywood rap-sheet with roles in Bridge to Terabithia, Just Go With It, and many a made-for-television movie. At the premiere in del Toro's brief introduction prior to the start of the film, he described her as 'the grand Dame of horror herself, Bailee Madison'. Sure, she screams her way through this one with applomb, but she also steals every single scene, no matter the situation she finds herself in.

Flashlight gags = so much fun.
First-time feature Director Troy Nixey (who made the short Latchkey's Lament) has used the multitude of tools afforded him (a remarkable writer and producer in del Toro; first-class actors; and an über-experienced crew) to such great effect, it seems likely there are many features to come. In terms of his vision for the film, it's apparent his former career drawing comic books has helped enormously. Paired with Art Director extraordinnaire Lucinda Thompson (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and more recently, Where the Wild Things Are) and Director of Photography Oliver Stapleton, the visual aesthetic has translated into a very visceral 'shiver' on the part of the audience. 

As ornate and eerie as Pan's Labyrinth before it, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark perfectly matches a multilayered story with a mutlilayered visual journey. There are so few current films that can boast this achievement.

Featuring the best apple pie-scene since American Pie, Guillermo del Toro and Troy Nixey have delivered an enjoyable nail-biter rent with a lush design aesthetic, menacing soundscape (not to mention the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, which harks back to the Golden Age of composition), and sharp, lucid writing.

NOTE: For further information on Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, the Q&A summary with Guillermo del Toro, Katie Holmes, Troy Nixey, and Bailee Madison will be up shortly.

Aug 5, 2011

Casting News: Monsters Favourite Joins 'Argo'

Wearing facial hair only acceptable in Brooklyn, or Surry Hills: Scoot McNairy.

Good news for über-fans of Monsters co-star Scoot McNairy: the Hollywoodz are saying he will join Argo, along with classmates Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck (who will both star and direct the Warner Bros. vehicle). Now before you say something clever about Jason and the argonauts, stop. Thank you. According to Variety, Argo is based on a Wired article by Joshua Bearman called "Escape from Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Iran", published in May 2007. Don't bother trying to take a closer look at the article just now: it's the only one of Joshua Bearman's on the Wired site that's not loading. Either nerds broke the internet again, or that's the sound of techies tapping keys frantically to jam up a paywall.