Gulliver’s Travels *

Genre: Adventure / Comedy

Director: Rob Letterman

Writers: Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, based on the book by Jonathan Swift

Cast: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, Catherine Tate

Running Length:  85 minutes

Synopsis: This particular iteration of Gulliver’s Travels is about the voyage of Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black), a mail clerk at a Manhattan newspaper office, who agrees to travel to the Bermuda Triangle in order to get into the good books of Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), travel editor of the paper. Once there, he encounters freak weather and winds up in the country of Lilliput, populated by “little people” only six inches tall. After being imprisoned briefly with fellow prisoner Horatio (Jason Segel), Gulliver manages to befriend the royal family – King Theodore (Billy Connolly), Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate) and Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) – and becomes the protector of Lilliput, much to the disgruntlement of General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). 

Review: Jack Black can be an entertaining actor in the right movie, but sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Gulliver’s Travels is one such film – it’s basically Jack Black being Jack Black, and in the most annoying way possible. In fact, Black’s Gulliver is so juvenile and unlikeable that it seems almost impossible to identify with and root for the protagonist of the story – and knowing from the very beginning that it will be a happy ending actually grates even more. Irritation factor aside, the biggest negative about Gulliver’s Travel is simply that it’s not an entertaining movie to sit through. 

Needless to say, apart from the central theme, nothing has carried over from Jonathan Swift’s original story. In fact, the producers chose to modernize the story with unnecessary references to Star Wars, KISS, Times Square and Transformers (believe it or not), which doesn’t make the plot any more interesting that it is (not that it is, by most measures). The pacing is uneven, and the preamble before Gulliver beings on his journey is protracted and uninteresting. Coupled with the supposedly funny antics of the leading man – which, to me at least, are not in the least funny – and it becomes an 85-minute movie that’s quite hard to sit through. 

Surprisingly, even the visuals aren’t up to par, which is surprising for most movies employing CGI these days. The CG work incorporating Gulliver and the Lilliputians is serviceable at best, and dodgy at worst, with much it somewhere in the middle. What’s truly unnecessary – and this is becoming the norm these days – is watching this film in 3D. There’s really no creative use of the third dimension, so once again it’s a money grab that would leave you with nothing much else apart from strained eyes and a potential headache. The best thing about watching Gulliver’s Travels? The five minute short film before the feature starts, starring everybody’s favourite prehistoric squirrel, Scrat, from the Ice Age franchise. 

Rating: * (out of four stars)

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The Tourist * * 1/2

Genre: Drama / Thriller

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 

Writers: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, based on the motion picture Anthony Zimmer by Jerome Salle

Cast: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, Rufus Sewell

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), an American tourist in Europe who is en route to Venice, chances a meeting with Elise Ward (Angelina Jolie), a mysterious but ravishing British belle. Unbeknownst to Frank, Elise had engineered the meeting to throw her pursuers off the scent of her lover who had stolen a huge sum of money from mobsters. Frank is gradually led into a web of intrigue, romance and danger as his involvement with Elise deepens, and a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues.

Review: Released earlier this month in the US, The Tourist received an overwhelmingly negative critical reception, and didn’t fare so well at the box office either. This may point to The Tourist being a terrible movie, but I found that apart from the really farfetched plot, the film is sufficiently entertaining as a glossy, leave-your-brain-at-the-door thriller, starring two of the biggest movie stars in the world and set amidst breathtaking scenery. In other words, it’s an escapist film that’s perfect for the holiday season. No Oscar glory for sure, but perfectly serviceable as a two hour diversion.

Both Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have proven in other films that they have plenty of thespian talent, but this is not on show in The Tourist. Angelina Jolie is paid to look, well, like Angelina Jolie, and she of course does this with supreme ease. Dressed in fancy couture and dripping with jewellery, her role in the movie almost seems to be making one red carpet appearance after another. Depp, on the other hand, dials down his sex appeal, giving a very by-the-numbers portrayal of a bumbling American tourist with a heart of gold. Depp does seem to be a bit bored by the role but not to the extent of looking like he’s dialing in his performance. While the two individual performances can’t be faulted much, the chemistry that should be present between the two leads is strangely lacking.

The Tourist is also quite a preposterous film, filled to the brim with movie clichés, and plot twists so telegraphed that you could spot them from miles away. Even the obligatory action sequences are crippled somewhat – there’s never a sense that any of the leads are in any form of true danger, and their characterization is so thin that it’s hard to feel vested for their survival.

Yet in spite of all this, The Tourist works. The gorgeous Venetian scenery is flawless, thanks to veteran cinematographer John Seale, and if one doesn’t question the plot too much, this really is quintessential cinematic fluff – not a hundred percent satisfactory, but good enough to not make it feel like a waste of time. Could it have been a better film? Sure – given the pedigree of almost everyone involved, it almost feels like a crime that the outcome is so decidedly average, but that doesn’t make The Tourist any worse when judged on its own merits.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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TRON: Legacy * *

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Writers: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen

Running Length:  127 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the present, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) – the original hero of TRON – has been missing for over two decades, disappearing shortly after announcing that he has discovered a breakthrough in his research of cyberspace. His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) becomes primary shareholder of ENCON, but has no interest in running the family business. His pseudo-presence in the company is not welcomed by anyone except for Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), an old family friend who is still looking out for the Flynn family’s interests. When Alan receives what seems to be a message from Flynn, Sam goes to Flynn’s Arcade to investigate, but is accidentally transported into cyberspace, where he discovers the world is now ruled by Flynn’s alter-ego, Clu (also Jeff Bridges). Sam finds that Flynn is now a recluse, aided only by the enigmatic Quorra (Olivia Wilde). Joining forces with his father and Quorra, Sam needs to find a way to escape cyberspace, and also to stop Clu from crossing over to the real world. 

Review: While a fair number of viewers will look upon the original TRON fondly, it really isn’t a masterpiece by any measure – apart from the (then) amazing visuals, the film’s storyline and pacing were not great, and seen years down the road, TRON doesn’t stand up to the test of time. However, TRON has evolved into a cult classic, and understandably expectations were high for this sequel 28 years later. While TRON: Legacy would have probably been perfectly fine as a typical sci-fi action movie, it is weighed down by an overly self-important script that seems to want to elevate the film into greatness, but the attempt fails spectacularly. TRON: Legacy is watchable for its visuals, an excellent soundtrack and a handful of good action sequences, but with the confusing plot, middling performances and plodding pace, the resulting film is a very average one indeed. 

Although spiritually a sequel to TRON, the look of the grid has evolved a fair bit due to the advancements of CGI, but it’s a change for the better. The environments are mostly enshrouded in darkness, punctuated only by bright neon strips of light in white, blue and orange, but it’s a very clean look that works very well in context. However, the simplicity of the environment also means the 3D is neither immersive nor very impressive – in fact, the 3D effect is so subtle in many scenes that it seems almost non-existent. As a film that was specifically shot in 3D (like Avatar), it’s a little disappointing that so little was done with it. Technology was also employed to render the young(er) faces Tron and Clu, and while it’s quite impressive, it hasn’t crossed the uncanny valley yet. 

It’s arguably true that a movie of this nature doesn’t require much of a plot or thespian skills, but TRON: Legacy is sorely lacking in both. The film tries to be epic but falls far short – the plot is an incomprehensible mess, far more complex than it should be and explaining way too little, perhaps in an attempt to seem profound. While Jeff Bridges is perfectly serviceable as Flynn, Garrett Hedlund is unfortunately quite wooden in his portrayal as Sam and Olivia Wilde’s character is so one-dimensional she is reduced to being merely a pretty face and a pseudo love interest.  

What TRON: Legacy manages to do reasonably well is in its action sequences, especially those found in the first half of the movie. In the second half, sadly, the action tapers off and is replaced by interminable chunks of dialogue and pointless exposition that just kills the pacing of movie entirely. Another highlight is the excellent soundtrack by French electronica duo, Daft Punk. Surprisingly, most of the score is still a classical one, but with electronic flourishes. It’s perhaps the only component of the film that successfully feels epic, but the rest of the film simply doesn’t match up. 

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Yogi Bear * 1/2

Genre: Comedy 

Director: Eric Breviq 

Writers: Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin and Brad Copeland, based on characters created by Hanna-Barbera Prods.

Cast: Dan Aykroyd (voice), Justin Timberlake (voice), Anna Faris, Tom Cavanagh, T.J. Miller, Andrew Daly, Nate Corddry

Running Length: 80 minutes

Synopsis: Resident of Jellystone Park and “pic-a-nic” basket stealing bear, Yogi (voice of Dan Aykroyd), together with his younger companion Boo Boo (voice of Justin Timberlake, believe it or not), have been the bane of Jellystone Park’s head ranger, Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh). However, when evil Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) schemes to sell the park to loggers to cover up his misappropriation of city funds, the bears, Ranger Smith and visiting documentary filmmaker Rachel (Anna Faris) must band together to prevent the unimaginable from happening.

Review: Let’s just get this out of the way – if you’re reading this review of Yogi Bear, you’re not the target audience of the movie. This film seems solely intended for viewers below the age of 10, and my guess is that Yogi Bear would be a perfectly fine for these little tots. However, Yogi Bear offers so little for anyone else that any form of recommendation seems a little tenuous. This is not to say that Yogi Bear is a bad movie, just that it’s so mind numbingly bland in every aspect that one wonders what gave this project the green light. 

While Yogi Bear is perfectly fine as a cartoon 50 years ago, the 21st Century update renders Yogi and Boo Boo in computer animation while the rest of the film is live action (although there really isn’t much action to speak of, save one sequence). This pairing does make the computer animation stick out even more, and unfortunately the “real” actors simply don’t put in enough effort to bridge the animation-live action gap. This results in an odd, lifeless mess that makes it painfully clear that each and every scene is done in front of a blue screen. It’s likely that even younger viewers would not be able to suspend enough disbelief to make this work.  

The film’s storyline seems to have been built on the same premise as the ten-minute shorts that used to make up the Yogi Bear cartoon, and it’s little wonder that when stretched out to eight times its original length, the plot of the movie is so wafer-thin and predictable. There are absolutely no surprises to be had, and everything is telegraphed so far in advance that one can almost predict every turn of the plot, including the denouement, 10 minutes after the movie starts. It doesn’t help that the so-called villains are the most two-dimensional and improbable I’ve seen in years, even for children’s films. 

Of course, no one really expects Yogi Bear to be a masterpiece, but the hope that this is more than a 3D money grab for the holiday season is totally dashed long before the end credits roll. Yes, there are some decent (but gimmicky) 3D sequences, and there are a couple of scenes that border on being entertaining, but really, not enough to justify the price of admission (especially in 3D). Justin Timberlake also should be lauded for a spot-on voice characterization of Boo Boo, virtually identical to Don Messick (Dan Aykroyd doesn’t fare as well as Yogi’s “new” voice). The only thing to be thankful for, if you eventually do end up in a cinema watching this movie (hopefully not of your own volition), is that it’s a mercifully short one.   

Rating: * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Let Me In * * *

Genre: Horror

Director: Matt Reeves

Writer: Matt Reeves, based on Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a scrawny, timid 12-year old who is frequently bullied at school. When a new girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz) moves into his apartment block together with an older gentleman who seems to be her father (Richard Jenkins), Owen’s interest is naturally piqued, and despite Abby’s protests, a friendship soon forms between the two. What Owen doesn’t realize (until later) is that Abby is actually a vampire, and when her “father” is unable to provide for her meals, she decides to go hunting in the neighbourhood. With her indiscretions during these bloodbaths, it’s only a matter of time before the police (Elias Koteas) get too close for comfort.

Review: One might question the sense in remaking a Swedish film (Let the Right One In) that’s barely 2 years old, but casting aside the fact that Let Me In is a remake, the film actually stands very well on its own merits. Let Me In is starkly different from vampire movies of late – it’s subtle and atmospheric, yet brutally violent when it needs to be. Although there is a pseudo-romance between a vampire girl and a human boy, the soppy melodrama that permeates vampire romance franchises like Twilight are completely missing in this movie – which, to me, is a very good thing. 

The narrative structure of Let Me In is very simple, and there really aren’t that many surprises to be had. However, what really stands out is the quality of acting of the two young leads as well as Richard Jenkins. Kodi Smit-McPhee is very credible as a frightened, socially awkward boy, and it’s very easy for audience members to relate to him. Chloe Moretz may be too attractive and girly to pass off as an age-old vampire, but there’s great chemistry between her and Smit-McPhee, and given the unique situation Abby is in (her new relationship with Owen puts her existing relationship with her “father” into jeopardy) , manages a very nuanced performance. Richard Jenkins has only a handful of scenes, but these are some of the most emotionally powerful in the movie and Jenkins manages to convey a multitude of emotions without even having to speak.

What’s most impressive about Let Me In is how Reeves treats the source material with a lot more respect than many Hollywood remakes.  He has managed to make the film “Hollywood-friendly” while still preserving much of what made Let the Right One In such a good horror film, and yet Let Me In is different enough to justify its existence. Much of the ambiguity in the original has been cleared up, and in some ways this may prove a more satisfying cinematic experience for many viewers.

One of the few problems with Let Me In is its special effects. There’s a lot of gore in the film, but some of these sequences are more cheesy than scary, and the scenes with Abby turning into a vampire are particularly unconvincing. However, it’s clear that Reeves had intended this film to be more a psychological horror film than an outright splatterfest, so it’s a rather forgivable flaw. There may not really be a reason for Let Me In to be made, but Reeves’ sophomore directorial effort is a very accomplished, solid film that deserves to be seen.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Easy A * * *

Genre: Comedy

Director: Will Gluck

Writer: Bert V. Royal

Cast: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Stanley Tucci, Aly Michalka

Running Length: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Olive (Emma Stone) is a somewhat attractive and rather bright high school student, but seems to be coasting just beneath the collective consciousness of the school. This changes overnight, however, when an innocent lie to her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) about her virginity – she pretends that she had a one night stand with a college boy – quickly spreads like wildfire through the school. And when she helps to “straighten” a gay friend (Dan Byrd) via a fake but extremely public “sexual encounter”, her reputation as a harlot is cemented. Olive initially enjoys the notoriety and the perks that come with “helping out” other social outcasts, but very soon the negatives that come with such a reputation begin to outweigh its benefits.

Review: Good teen comedies are few and far between, and truly memorable ones can literally be counted on one hand (Mean Girls and Juno are the most recent films that come to mind, and they are a 2004 and 2007 movie respectively). While Easy A doesn’t quite reach the same stratosphere, it is undoubtedly the best teen comedy to be released this year, and probably in the past few years. Much of this has to be credited to the sharp writing of Bert V. Royal, and to the excellent ensemble cast.

Never resorting to puerile humour, the film still manages to bring on the big laughs, much of it from excellent one-liners that, while incisive, remain very funny. Most of these are of course from Olive (much as it is pretty unbelievable that a high school student can come up with these), but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson get a pretty good share as Possibly The Coolest Parents in the World.

Much of the heavy lifting in the film is done by Emma Stone, and she certainly ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the year. Despite this being her first leading role, Emma Stone handles it more than capably, going toe to toe with a fair number of industry veterans. Her portrayal of Olive is near perfect – everything, from her wit to her insecurities and occasional petulance, is spot on. It’s hard to imagine that a girl as beautiful, smart and confident as Stone could possible be a social outcast and not be able to secure a beau, but her performance is so good most audiences will relate to and root for her anyway.

The film is not without its problems. The plot tends to meander a bit too much, the denouement is a little anti-climactic, and the romantic subplot involving Olive feels rather forced and unnecessary. However, Easy A, like its lead actress, is so charming that one can notice all the little niggling flaws and still find the film a really enjoyable one.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I) * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Writer: Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy

Running Length: 147 minutes

Synopsis: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is growing stronger by the day, and now has control over both the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) drop out of school and attempt to seek out Voldemort’s horcruxes as destroying them will weaken the Dark Lord. Nowhere is safe for the trio, and they are constantly on the run. En route, they find out about the Deathly Hallows, and how it could be a key in the eventual showdown against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. 

Review: Call me a party pooper, but the only thought I had when the end credits rolled on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was “is that it?”. These three words will pretty much sum up my entire review of this half of the complete movie – I had believed it was a flawed decision (apart from the obvious monetary gains for Warner Brothers) to split the movie into two, and having now seen the first half I am sure of it. Coming off the decision to excise the climactic battle in the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), the expectation was that Deathly Hallows will be a spectacle in every sense of the word. However, since the book is further split into two films, there’s once again no payoff in this first installment. Deathly Hallows Part I feels like a continuation of the “filler movie” trend that plagued the previous film, and it’s a largely tedious, meandering two and a half hour movie that, while atmospheric, is plot-wise virtually dead in the water. 

Deathly Hallows is a narratively dense book, but much of the narrative does not translate well on screen, and with Steve Kloves’ screenplay being slavishly faithful (even more so than before, given the lack of timing constraints this time round), this becomes even more apparent. Much of the film involves Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from one (admittedly scenic) location to the next, and sitting around in a tent looking morose. It already was a drag in the book but when depicted in the film the flaws become even more apparent. 

The Harry Potter movies have never really been kind to viewers who are not acquainted in the Potter-verse, but in these last few installments the divide has been even greater than before. Prior knowledge is a necessity if you want to make sense of the ins and outs of Deathly Hallows, and can be frustrating even for audiences who have faithfully watched every Potter movie to date. So much has been left out in the transition from page to screen, and yet the film can still run a butt-numbing 147 minutes, which lends strongly to the argument that the editing for the film needed to be far tighter than its current state. 

Whilst acting has never been stellar in the Harry Potter series, the thespian deficiencies of the main leads, in particular Daniel Radcliffe, have become more pronounced as the films trend towards a more adult sensibility, and kiddish wonder is no longer sufficient. The exception is Emma Watson, who manages to do a decent job, but there is a tendency for Yates to dump most of the heavy lifting on her, and in a way diverts attention away from the “true” lead of Radcliffe/Potter. And, like its predecessors, there’s the British Who’s Who of the movie industry, who unfortunately all seem to be present just to lend their name to the film – literally a waste of talent. 

Of course, for such a big budget movie it’s not all a bust. Yates has proven his proficiency in action sequences, and the higher-octane scenes in Deathly Hallows are as good as any action movie out there. CGI has also improved by leaps and bounds, and digital effects are near seamless in this film. Warner’s inability to convert the film into 3D in time for release may not have been a bad thing – whilst there are definitely scenes that would do well in 3D, so much of the film is static that the payoff wouldn’t have been that great. 

Perhaps when viewed together with Part II, Deathly Hallows would average out to be the finale that Potter fans have waited for. However, taken solely on its own merits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I feels unsatisfying and unfocused, a filmic coitus interruptus that takes way too long to… not get anywhere. 

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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