Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

Film #87: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

film 87 power rangers the movie

Rating: 2/5

“You egg-sucking purple pinhead! The Rangers are going after the Great Power! I thought you said this guy was the master of disaster. He’s nothing but a slime-infested jelly donut!”

It’s nostalgia time! Much like Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers: The Movie holds little appeal for anyone who didn’t make the mighty morphin’ teenagers a part of their youth. Watching this on old, secondhand (or thirdhand, or fourthhand) VHS, with the sound fading in and out on a regular basis, I was transported back to the mid-90s, when everyone wore colour-coordinated crop tops (including the guys), roller-blading was the coolest thing ever, and all dialogue had to be heavily punctuated by emphatic ninja-esque hand gestures. Yes, the Power Rangers were camp and daft, but they were hugely successful – over the years there have been many new incarnations (with the show still airing on television), but the movie charts the latest exploits of the original, and best, bunch.

Power Rangers: The Movie has the standard, generic plot of most childhood movies: our heroes’ lives are suddenly thrown into turmoil with the reawakening of Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), a fiendish villain who had been trapped in a giant buried egg full of gunk for the last six thousand years. Finally freed, he quickly traps the television show’s resident baddies Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, trashes the Rangers’ command center and leaves their leader, Zordon, for dead. Summoning the last bit of power available, loyal C-3P0 rip-off robot Alpha 5 pauses in her constant flapping to beam the Rangers off to a remote planet in search for the Great Power, which may restore Zordon and stop the nefarious Ooze from taking over the world.

While most of the staple characters and locations from the television show are acknowledged, this makes pains to distinguish itself as something new (and bigger), and it doesn’t always work. Angel Grove’s resident bullies Bulk and Skull get a few cursory scenes, which seem particularly out of place if you’re not familiar with the tv series. Although it appears that none of the Rangers have parents, the adult population of the fictional town are given some more screentime, becoming oozified zombies thanks to Ooze’s ooze (yes, really) – luckily he still cares about health and safety and gives them all matching outfits and hardhats while they dig up the giant Ectomorphicon Titans (the film’s full of this kind of pseudo-scientific dialogue) that will help him conquer Earth. The titans, when they are finally unveiled, turn out to be giant, shiny, metallic, and supremely dodgy early CGI creations.

The CGI doesn’t stop there, and nor do the alterations. Most disappointingly, the Power Rangers, stripped of their powers early on in the film, never get a chance to fight with their established Zords (the big robots they call from afar to help them fight their battles). In the series, each Ranger would call its Zord, which were cool creatures like Sabretooth tigers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and Mastodons, at which point the stock footage from another Japanese show would kick in. Here, on the distant planet Phaedos, the kids are given new animal guides, and the film’s final set piece back on Earth sees them fighting with these new Zords – Crane, Ape, Bear, Falcon, Wolf and… Frog. Even the most ferocious of these is no match for the much cooler prehistoric Zords they’d started of with, and the lack of familiarity is disappointing. The CGI doesn’t help – the fight scenes are a jumble of shoddy effects and rushed imagery, revealing the film’s age more than even the naffest of 90s tropes.

And what of the Rangers themselves? Like He-Man in Masters of the Universe they are the blandest bunch of teens imaginable and, despite being the film’s protagonists, have a mere handful of lines and no character development whatsoever. Tommy, the former brainwashed Green Ranger-turned White Ranger and leader of the gang, and Kimberly (the hot Pink Ranger) at least seem to be vaguely human; the rest interchangeable, distinguished (and characterised) solely by the colour of their outfits, and are only relevant when fighting the latest group of bad guy minions. While the film takes great pains to show the reactions of each individual Ranger at all times, as a group they are utterly devoid of personality. As usual, it’s their evil nemesis who brings some theatricality to the story; Ooze is flamboyant and wicked, generic but a perfectly acceptable (and expected) kind of villain for a family-friendly kids movie of this kind. It’s just a shame that Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd are so quickly consigned to miniature form and sidelined – each individually easily matches Ooze’s camp personality.

Despite the various problems and, it must be said, disappointments that come along with the film, Power Rangers: The Movie races along – there’s plenty of action to make up for the lack of personality, and the soundtrack in particular really works to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is impressive and important. The pacing is brisk and the various set pieces offer some new (generally mediocre) spectacle to distract from the fact that the story is ridiculous, the acting is sub-par, and the effects are fairly terrible. Admittedly, it’s not actually as camp and fun (in a badfilm sense) as Masters of the Universe, but the nostalgia value was high (this was the very first movie I saw at the cinema without my parents – probably because they’d have done anything to avoid having to sit through it) and, for that reason at least, I left my cynicism (and criticism) at the door and enjoyed the stupidity.

Films #67 & 68: Marnie (1964) & Masters of the Universe (1987)

film 67 68 masters of the universe

Ratings: Marnie, n/a; Masters of the Universe, 2/5

“Stay where you are, He-Man! One more move and your friends will not live to see another day! I give you a choice. Return with me to Eternia as my slave and save their miserable lives, or perish with them on this primitive and tasteless planet. Surrender your sword!”

This may seem like rather a strange double bill, and indeed it would have been, were it not for the fact that, as it turned out, the video case for Marnie was empty. So, for the first (and hopefully last) time, a film has been retired from Movie Lottery, on the basis that it has disappeared. It’s a shame, really, because Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a nasty, though very interesting film; the same can not be said for Masters of the Universe, a camp, ridiculous, 80s kids film that I watched last night for the first time, with little to no knowledge of He-Man. Perhaps the film would mean something more had I the benefit of childhood nostalgia, though I must admit to have rather enjoyed it regardless.

I missed the first few minutes, due to being filled in on some of the history behind these ludicrous characters, but the general gist of the film is this: He-Man is good, and likes wearing nothing but a harness and pants. Skeletor is bad, and you can tell because he wants to control the universe, wears a lot of black, spouts a lot of rhetoric, and has a skull for a face. There’s a device called a Cosmic Key, built by an irritating goblin-dwarf creature, and even though he already has one of his own, Skeletor wants it. Unfortunately for him, his minions (who look exactly like Darth Vader) are pretty useless, and He-Man, two of his friends, and Gwildor (the goblin) escape with the Cosmic Key and land rather unceremoniously on Earth, where they join up with two teenagers and try to stop a galactic war from breaking out. Or something.

Although it seems like Masters of the Universe is a sequel – it throws you into the action immediately, and Skeletor has already taken over Castle Greyskull on the planet Eternia – but in fact it is the first and only film of what was most likely intended to become a franchise. Released in 1987, just following the peak of the toys’ and cartoon’s popularity, it was a flop on release, not even recouping its $22 million budget in the US. This is no real surprise – there are few (if any?) films inspired by toys that have been truly successful (yes, I realise Transformers has done rather well commercially, but critically? Well, I’m sure you know yourselves). Masters of the Universe is particularly shoddy; as a badfilm fan I appreciated its stupidity, but I wonder would even a child have been convinced by any of it?

The story itself is completely generic, and is marginally better once He-Man and his cohorts arrive on Earth, where they are disgusted by people’s meat-eating habits, quickly upgrade a car’s engine (because they care about the environment, obviously), and do not once consider wearing “human” clothes so they blend in a bit more. Luckily they arrive in America, and the native language on Eternia is English, so that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about. Even more fortunately, they meet orphan Julie (Courtney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who very quickly accept all the unbelievable stuff going on around them. Having mistaken the Cosmic Key for a newfangled synthesiser from Japan, Kevin and Julie become instrumental (ha!) in helping good defeat evil.

The fairly big core cast is necessary, because He-Man himself is quite possibly the dullest hero ever conceived. Even his name is dull: He-Man. Man-Man? That’s almost as bad as the literal translation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Ro-Man from Planet Ro-Man! Unlike Ro-Man, however, He-Man has absolutely no personality whatsoever – although, I should say, Dolph Lundgren does look exactly like an action figure. It’s truly uncanny. Luckily, there are plenty of other people (and creatures) to distract from our hero’s inanity. Frank Langella should particularly be commended for his role as Skeletor – despite being entirely covered by a cloak and mask, he chews the scenery in every scene, overemphasising everything and making the most evil of villains both pompously theatrical and, at times, even genuinely sinister (albeit in a camp kind of way.)

Despite the film being a fairly long (for a kid’s movie) 100 minutes, there’s non stop action to keep sugar-filled children entertained. Most, but not all, of this takes place in Julie’s hometown, where apparently every single other inhabitant goes to bed at 8pm and therefore remains happily oblivious to the aliens, portals, giant hovercrafts, and full-scale war going on in the streets. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, and the action is frequently poorly choreographed, overly dependent on psychedelic, epilepsy-inducing light shows, or pathetically harmless (the bad guys are particularly poor shots), but somehow Masters of the Universe is actually quite entertaining to watch. It races along, and when viewed today is on a par with Flash Gordon for dodgy effects and silly, overwrought concepts – but would I watch it again? Well… possibly.

Cinema Lottery #9

cinema 9 only god forgives

Only God Forgives
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s interesting that, since Drive, there have been two Ryan Gosling films that were initially dismissed as Drive Part 2, yet both, despite their marketing, emerged as entirely different films. The Place Beyond the Pines, released earlier this year, was the first and more tenuously connected; Only God Forgives is the second. Of the two, it is the latter that is truly divisive. Audiences walked out en masse in Cannes, its level of violence and lack of characterisation has been met with claims of vapid pretentiousness – a case of style over substance, perhaps. And it’s true that director Nicholas Winding Refn, along with cinematographer Larry Smith, have chosen to concentrate on style but, really, is there anything wrong with that?

Curiously, despite the apparent superficiality, other reviews have adopted an entirely different approach to Only God Forgives’ simple plot (so simple and sparse, in fact, that to go into any more detail than to say it’s a classic revenge story would be to spoil it). Empire claims the entire narrative is like a fevered dream, with Vithaya Pansringarm as an Angel of Vengeance, a supernatural being “summoned from Julian’s subconscious.” Perhaps he is; passages of the film are undeniably dreamlike – even hallucinatory. Julian (Gosling) emerges as a passive observer, only capable of action in his imagination, whether it’s finally touching his prostitute girlfriend or committing acts of violence. He’s barely a person at all, and Gosling barely acts, although there remains something captivating about his blank visage. He is tortured, tormented, and plenty could be (and no doubt will be) written about his Oedipus complex; he’s also a less-than-subtle, though undoubtedly effective, example of a man desperately trying to prove (validate?) his masculinity – just consider that awkward lunch date with his girlfriend and his icy, profane bitch of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Yet how much of it is a dream remains up for debate: Pansringarm’s Chang is, for me, less a supernatural being than a man with strict beliefs about revenge, retaliation, and retribution – he’s the embodiment of the concept of an eye for an eye (and, in one particularly harrowing scene, that eye is literal).

As is to be expected, visually Only God Forgives is a thing of morbid beauty. Bangkok is displayed like a neo-noir, the seediness and sleaziness of the city reflected in neon lighting, sumptuously ornate patterns, and deep reds contrasting with the blackest of shadows. It’s haunting and mesmerising – every scene, and every moment within every scene feels deliberate and controlled. The imagery works perfectly with Cliff Martinez’ pulsating score, which often dominates the soundtrack, adding to the dreaminess of scenes by silencing the film’s limited dialogue. It is alternately eerie, soothing, exciting, or unpleasantly loud; in an entirely stylised world, the relationship between the visuals and the score is more important than words uttered by the characters.

No doubt there will be some that hate Only God Forgives, that wanted (and simultaneously didn’t want) Drive Part 2. This is not that film. Winding Refn has created a piece of abstract art; uncompromising, brutal, limited in characterisation and lush in visual style. It’s slow – so slow, in fact, that scenes look more like tableaux than moving images – and narratively sparse, but for those willing to give it a chance, it’s a rare spectacle, both beautiful and horrific in equal measures.

Red 2
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

Much like its predecessor, Red 2 is entertaining but strangely forgettable; with the exception of Helen Mirren’s ex-MI6 agent Victoria, there is almost nothing memorable about it. Following directly from Red, this film sees Bruce Willis’ now-retired CIA agent embracing domesticity, much to the disappointment of his younger girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) but, inevitably, he’s forced to resume his former life in an attempt to clear his name and stop a deadly bomb. Brian Cox (in a small cameo), Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins join the core cast and they, along with John Malkovich and Mirren (who even lampoons herself, infiltrating a mental institute by claiming she’s the queen), do appear to be having lots of fun, but it’s all rather messy and convoluted. Most problematically, Willis and Parker are the least interesting or engaging characters – Willis appears to barely even be trying any more, relying instead on his now trademark wry smile and deadpan expressions to carry his performance.

Filled with bloodless action and fairly standard intrigue, Red 2 acknowledges its graphic novel origins – there are car chases, daft set pieces, the occasional comic book insert and, despite the potential genocide, a constant lack of real tension or danger. As the action flits from Paris, to London, to Moscow, its quick pace and sometimes frantic editing are a distraction from the cluttered narrative, but it never becomes anything more than mediocre.

The Smurfs 2
Release date: 31 July 2013
Rating: 1/5

There’s little to enjoy or appreciate about The Smurfs 2, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone older than five even wanting to see this dire, juvenile piece of tripe. Its generic narrative, in which evil wizard Gargamel (buck-toothed, hunchbacked, big-nosed Hank Azaria) is still trying to destroy the peaceful Smurfs, is terrible and, despite its simplicity, is given a whopping 105 minutes to reach its inevitable conclusion; after twenty minutes I remembered this is supposed to be a comedy (albeit on the level of bad spoofs and fart jokes); after an hour I started to nod off out of sheer boredom.

The Smurfs themselves are a limited selection of stereotypes – Grumpy, Clumsy, Vanity, Brainy, Passive Aggressive (!), etc – who are all infatuated with equally stereotypical Smurfette (Katy Perry). After a surprise birthday goes awry, the only female in Smurfsville (or whatever it’s called) ends up in the clutches of Gargamel, who has become a world famous magician due to his wondrous talents and slapstick inteptitude. Enter Neil Patrick Harris and his cutsie wife Grace who, along with step-dad Brendan Gleeson (who at least has the wherewithal to be transformed into a duck for some of the running time, thus limiting his screen-time and, by default, the indignity of appearing in the film), must save the day for all Smurfkind, and learn a valuable lesson in the process. There are some bizarre interludes that, presumably, are intended to entertain the parents dragged to this dreck, but they are so desperately jammed in that they just irritate. It’s also just plain weird when, for example, the Smurfs accidentally interrupt a photoshoot involving, inexplicably, pregnant brides. Meanwhile, the CGI is frequently ropey – Gargamel’s cat, possibly the most annoying character, switches constantly, and obviously, between actual cat and computerised cat. Rendered in entirely pointless 3D (of course), the filmmakers haven’t even bothered to exploit this as a gimmick; I can’t think of a single scene in which I even noticed it.

While this is obviously specifically aimed at children, and therefore does not necessarily need to appeal to adults in a similar fashion, The Smurfs 2 is an insult to all audiences; generic, stupid, hammy, boring, and stereotyped. Quite frankly, it’s a smurfing great example of a big, steaming pile of smurf.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Release date: 7 August 2013
Rating: 3/5

Squarely aimed at fans of I’m Alan Partridge, this long-awaited big screen outing sees the action somewhat ramped up, but retains the series’ small-scale atmosphere – it feels small-budget and familiar, with some nice nods to its origins. It also, in part due to the involvement of Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (who takes on both writing and acting roles as before), matches ludicrous slapstick (Alan’s attempts to climb in through a window, for example) with deadpan humour; there are plenty of opportunities to snicker, smile, and cringe at Alan’s ineptitude and awkwardness, but not as many chances to really laugh out loud. Yet I was only ever a casual viewer, who watched the show on repeat due to a friend’s obsession more than my own, so perhaps I am not really the right person to judge the effectiveness of its comedy.

Those uninitiated in the world of Alan Partridge will, however, still gain some pleasure from Alpha Papa if they actually bother going. The narrative follows a standard hostage scenario formula, but remains pleasantly low-key; Colm Meaney’s aggrieved ex-employee at the newly rebranded Shape radio station in Norwich is less a criminal mastermind than a slightly unhinged, fairly normal guy and, instead of succumbing to an unrealistic world of explosions and Hollywoodised action, the situation escalates because of Alan’s sheer obliviousness and socially inappropriate behaviour. He remains dogmatic and utterly deluded in his self-belief, and events unfold in a suitably ridiculous manner.

Despite the small scale, Alpha Papa is well executed. It moves briskly through its relatively short running time (90 minutes) and this economy and lack of ego works well – more often than not, attempts to bring a much-loved sitcom character from the constraints of a twenty-five minute show to feature length simply reveal that characters limitations, but this is not the case here. Yet, at the same time, the big screen really adds little to this intimate little film; indeed, it may benefit from repeat viewings at home, where lines can be repeated and paused over. It may not necessarily open Alan Partridge up to a new audience, but the fans will be delighted.

Cinema Lottery #5

21 and Over
21 & Over

Rating: 3/5

The mediocre releases continue this week, and first up was 21 & Over, a Hangover-esque coming of age movie starring Miles Teller, Skylar Astin, and Justin Chon (The Twilight Saga). Opening on the morning after, the film then flashes back to explain just how Miller and Casey (Teller and Astin) have ended up walking naked, branded, through the university campus. As it transpires, it has something to do with copious amounts of alcohol imbibed to celebrate their friend Jeff Chang’s twenty-first.

21 & Over is crude and often juvenile, but the initially obnoxious characters become rather likeable, and the scrapes they get into are daft, but not overly so – like exaggerated examples of real student life. With Miller desperately trying to cling onto his youth and Casey embracing adult responsibilities too quickly, the message is that there is a balance somewhere in the middle; of course, carnage must ensue before this epiphany happens. Despite the ridiculous situations the three get themselves into, however, the laugh-out-loud moments are rare, though each actor plays their role gamely. There are some surprisingly dark undertones running throughout – the reason Jeff Chang has a gun in his pocket, for example – but really this is a rather harmless, forgettable tale of friendship and growing up.

All Stars

Rating: 1/5

Presumably attempting to replicate the success of Street Dance 3D, a British sleeper hit starring a number of reality competition winners, All Stars takes all the conventions of a dance movie, waters them down for a prepubescent audience, throws in a number of comedians who should know better, and creates a tedious, cliched, irritatingly twee film that makes some serious errors in narrative judgement.

So You Think You Can Dance‘s first winner Akai is Jaden, whose parents won’t let him dance despite his age and his obvious talents, because they want him to concentrate on his schooling. Ethan (Theo Stevenson) is a resourceful chancer who pedals North Korean chocolate to the kids in school, but he really just wants to impress his absentee dad. Ethan spots a (much older) girl one day, and decides to impress her by starting a dance crew; coincidentally, their youth centre is also due to be closed down and turned into a car park. Thus the wonderful idea of a talent show is born. Cue a group of misfits uniting, despite their diversity, to save the day.

All Stars is tripe, tied up with a saccharine bow and, with the exception of Akai, almost entirely devoid of any actual talent. For a dance movie, there is almost no dancing; three dream sequences showcase the most impressive routines, but they feel forced and reveal sloppy, lacklustre choreography. The plot is formulaic, but also worryingly careless – John Barrowman cameos as a father who has had a nervous breakdown, leaving pre-teen Amy fending for herself – this situation is never resolved, for some bizarre reason. Underwhelming, uninspiring, and insipid, All Stars is a sad reminder of how mindless kids’ films can be.

Dead Man Down

Rating: 2.5/5

The first English language film by Niels Arden Oplev, Dead Man Down reunites the director with his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace. She is Beatrice, a woman seeking revenge after a car accident left her permanently scarred; her neighbour is Victor (Colin Farrell), who is also hell bent on vengeance following the murder of his wife and child. As a friendship, and possible romance, develops between the two, Beatrice is further dragged into Victors’ world of gangs and criminality.

Expertly shot, Dead Man Down‘s biggest successes are its two leads. Farrell is taciturn but charismatic as Victor, while Rapace displays a vulnerability that is engaging and believable. Her scars, however, hardly warrant her self-imposed isolation or the insults hurled at her by local kids; nor do they necessarily justify her desire to kill the man responsible. Unrepentantly serious in tone, the plot that brings the two leads together is more tenuous and riddled with holes – how did Victor survive the initial attack, for instance? Why does he need to infiltrate the criminal gang when he could just shoot them all from a rooftop? More disappointingly, the script opts to reveal its mystery to the audience early on, leaving the characters to catch up; while this adds some initial tension, it does little to maintain suspense or intrigue.

Dead Man Down
seems confused at times, unsure as to whether it is a straight up action film (as the opening scenes and the finale suggest) or a more considered, slow-burning psychological examination of revenge, consequences, and salvation; it even delves into detective mystery on occasion. An atmospheric, well acted film, it is let down by its wavering tone and unnecessarily convoluted concepts.

Chimpanzee

Rating: 2/5

Narrated by Tim Allen, this Disney documentary is squarely aimed at children; it is also so careful to conceal any human involvement that it strains believability. With all efforts made to present the events in narrative form, it feels scripted and forced, to the film’s detriment. More problematically, the voice-over opts to emote rather than inform, weakening impressive sequences by stating the obvious, including weak jokes, and speaking on behalf of the chimps. It is also unapologetically subjective, forcing the viewer to think in human terms.

Following newborn Oscar and his family, Chimpanzee captures some incredible moments – the chimps using rocks to break open nuts, creating ant-lollypops to avoid being bitten by the insects, making hammocks out of young branches high in the trees – all of which are over-emphasised by Allen’s inane narration. Lead chimp Freddy’s group is always described as a “family” in contrast to the rival group of chimps, led by Scar (yes, really), which are invariably called an “army.” Clearly designed to distinguish one group as the heroes and one as the villains, the film forgets, or chooses not to mention, that this anthropomorphism is wholly as a result of human decisions, rather than anything “real” captured on camera. In truth, neither group are good or bad; both are simply trying to survive.

It is only in the credits that we see the documentary crew, and it is in these final minutes that the film becomes impressive – without any evidence of them before, it is too difficult to remember that they existed at all. Their achievements are underplayed in favour of storytelling, and the all-too-obvious attempts to tug at heart strings and make the audience consider the chimps in human terms are irritating and tiresome.

Film #20: High School Musical 3: Senior Year

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR

Rating: 3/5

“Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat!”

It’s quite fitting that, as Vanessa Hudgens attempts to destroy her clean-cut Disney image in Springbreakers and Ashley Tisdale commits career suicide in Scary Movie 5, our Movie Lottery draw selected High School Musical 3: Senior Year. The trilogy put both these actresses on the map, propelling them to stardom alongside Zac Efron; technically the ensemble cast focuses on six kids, but the franchise quickly became an Efron-Hudgens vehicle and, of the bunch, it is these two who have proved the most successful since it finished in 2008.

The third and final film follows the same format as the former two, but is bigger in both budget and scale due to its cinematic release – parts one and two are among the many made-for-television movies Disney churn out. If you’re curious (or worried), the only others to feature in our collection are Camp Rock 2: Final Jam and, for some reason I’ve since forgotten, Princess Protection Program. None matched the success and popularity of High School Musical however; it even beat Mama Mia!‘s opening weekend.

Senior Year is rather self-explanatory; basketball star/singing sensation Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), his high school sweetheart Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), friends Chad and Taylor, and their frenemies Sharpay and Ryan Evans are all entering the final months of school. While they attempt to make the best school musical ever – the story of their own experiences – they are all dealing with the knowledge that soon they will be growing up, leaving school, and entering the adult world. Can their friendships and relationships survive? I don’t want to give anything away, but it is a Disney movie, after all.

Featuring over fifty minutes of song and dance numbers – more than half the film’s running time – this is easily the best of the franchise. The songs are infectious, catchy, memorable pop tunes, while the official musical running parallel to their lives allows for some impressive set pieces that pay direct homage to the glory days of the Hollywood musical. Cancan girls, bright lights, stage props and rapid costume changes all feature and, even if the idea of a wholesome, tween-centric musical extravaganza makes your ears bleed, I challenge you to not get at least a little bit caught up in the delightful innocence that runs throughout.

Efron and Hudgens are the glue that holds the trilogy together – they are the best actors of the group (Gabriella’s friend Taylor is horribly affected, while Chad is non-descript as Troy’s bland best buddy; though Lucas Grabeel deserves a mention for his portrayal of flamboyant, camp Ryan) and, particularly in scenes together, are warm and engaging. Their romance, developing over the course of three films, is an idealistic fairytale, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving adult cynicism at the door for an hour and a half.

Naturally, it is twee, overly optimistic, bubblegum bright and absolutely preposterous; everyone is super talented and suspiciously nice, disagreements are mild and quickly replaced by unanimous understanding and support, couples are still content to simply hold hands after three years together, nasty girls learn lessons without complaining and reform instantly (or at least until the next movie), and there’s not even the slightest hint at underage drinking at a house party. Yet it is precisely because of these things that High School Musical is such a joy. In a cinematic world where darker is apparently always better, it’s quite refreshing to see a pure, untainted vision of high school utopia – and, honestly, the songs really are quite good.