The Wolverine ***

X-Men fans yearn for an improvement on X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), with more strength to their clawed hero. Director James Mangold and team may well have granted just that with The Wolverine, complete with some impressive action to boot, as well as a more vulnerable Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who is more intriguing to watch.

Comic-book fans will recognise the new Wolverine movie setting as based on a 1982 comic story, where Wolverine is reunited with the man who rescued him from the Nagasaki bombing, dropped at the end of World War II. Mangold has changed things around a bit, but the Japanese setting is initially an exciting one to contemplate.

Indeed, the new film is Jackman’s finest performance yet. Here, he’s both a tower of strength, neatly dispensing with baddies while fighting Wolverine’s weaker human side that is holding him back from being the protector. Jackman doesn’t need to go way over to the dark side again as in the 2009 film. In fact, there is less evidence of this, contrary to what Mangold suggests.

The director still gets the character but his approach is somewhat too orderly in the events of the film. Perhaps this is partly due to the clinical Japanese setting where all set pieces are precisely choreographed and shot with rich, colourful production values, making the whole affair feel like a finely tuned Kung Fu movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in parts and is quite invigorating. However, things get a little confused as we get a dab of Japanese RoboCop thrown in. To add to the increasingly bizarre mix are the soft-focused visits to Wolverine from former squeeze Jean Grey (who died in X-Men: The Last Stand) – basically Famke Janssen in her nightwear whispering persuasive thoughts to her man beast to let it all go. The latter serves as a nice fantasy for some but visually does little else for the plot and throws proceedings off track.

There are some great Wolverine action sequences worth the ticket price, including Wolverine on a Japanese bullet train, taking bullets at a funeral, and being ensnared by ninja arrows like a hunted animal. This certainly shows off all of Jackman’s iron-pumping work in set pieces that appear very demanding indeed. As a result of this, there is a deeper respect for what Jackman is trying to achieve with his character – he literally gives it is all, and then some.

Mangold both gives and takes with The Wolverine, providing the platform for Jackman to go one stage further with the X-Men character while being almost nonchalant with the material that he forgets to indulge in the comical aspect that is missing, as in previous X-Men standoffs. There is a little too much Japanese culture cliché as well, that it feels like an altogether different film, one Wolverine has stumbled into. Still, stick around for the end credits for the finale highlight that guarantees to peak the excitement level.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The World’s End ***

The World’s End is the immature being’s fitting finale to the famed Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy from filmmaking trio Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. It encompasses the ultimate will to stay forever young that the three are best known for, and for that reason, will have a special place in fans’ hearts. That said it was always going to be heavily scrutinised and compared to the others (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), and that’s where it could be argued that it lacks that desired stamp of comic genius and originality that we expect from the trio.

Budding rebel Gary King ruled the school roost back in the day. Now he (Pegg) wants to reunite the old gang and complete the fabled pub-crawl that ends with the last pint drunk in The World’s End, a task they failed to finish 20 years before. With some in trepidation, boffin Oliver (Martin Freeman), bullied Peter (Eddie Marsan), go-getter Steven (Paddy Considine) and now high-flying lawyer Andrew Knightly (Frost) meet Gary on the old stomping ground. However, sinking pints and exchanging memories is not on the beer mats as something sinister has transformed their sleepy hometown…

Packed with music highlights (from Sisters of Mercy to Blur) to indulge any forty-something viewer, the film starts out full of delinquent promise that you can taste the excitement brewing in the characters and revel in the comments and observations. Naturally, the writing trio tap into our innermost desires of nostalgic school bliss that fuel many a school reunion, and this successful element flows with writing ease.

In addition, Pegg delivers one of his finest and most heart-felt comedy performances to date that is both bittersweet, tragic and genuinely uncomfortable to watch as the grown man crumbles in front of his mates who appear to have crossed over (albeit miserably) into adulthood. It’s a nice experiment in role reversal for Pegg and Frost (the latter usually playing the nutter) that works in the former’s favour to the detriment of Frost in this who gets engulfed in Pegg’s shadow. Gary’s darker moments supposedly breed the film’s eerie, twilight side that should deliver us onto the next level, that is, if you can get past the clowning around that peppers an essentially great sci-fi plot: the idea of all sleepy English hometowns being a bed of alien experimentation.

Here, the film offers little more creepy development, short of glowing blue eyes of the trance-induced populous that include an old Bond in play. We have to wait until the very end confrontation – a drink-addled one that should make cinematic comedy history – that whiffs of Monty-Python-esque silliness to find out why the aliens have done what they have done. In the meantime, the albeit well-choreographed battles do reiterate the power of the ordinary man triumphing against adversity that fans so love, but they along with the manic running around water down any chilling moments that could have been better developed to keep the comedy-sci-fi thriller balance nicely and intriguingly brewing.

That said there is a genuine poignancy and touching element to The World’s End that sits comfortably alongside some healthy mockery of the sci-fi genre – although nearly not as much as one would like (as in Paul). Quite what the end goal of this particular Cornetto film is, is hard to tell? It’s a mixed bag of their former ideas that will not be to every fan’s taste, cooling their enthusiasm for the Wright-Frost-Pegg legacy, but as a one-off British bulldog rebellion story that allows any adult stuck in the humdrum of life to relive their fond carefree years, it hits its target.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Frozen Ground ***

When dealing with real-life subject matter of a harrowing nature, it’s important to get facts straight and be sensitive to those involved. A film such as The Frozen Ground from debut director Scott Walker is such an example, based on historic events surrounding Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen who kidnapped and murdered roughly twenty young women in the 1980s. Walker assertively cuts his filmmaking teeth here, managing to balance fact and thrills value well enough to deliver an engaging watch – albeit too safe and clichéd, script-wise.

Nicolas Cage sets his oddball roles aside here to play another ‘uniform’, straight-as-a-die character, state trooper Jack Halcombe. The officer is about to retired from the force when he is reluctantly tasked with one last high-profile case of tracking down the killer of young girls, after one victim, prostitute Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens), manages to escape the maniac’s twisted clutches. The authorities’ suspicion falls on community-spirited family man Robert ‘Bob’ Hansen (John Cusack) who has a previous criminal history. As more girls go missing, time is running out for Halcombe who must get his man before the grizzly evidence is lost forever in the Alaskan undergrowth.

We are nicely enveloped in the drama from square one as Walker’s opener flies us at speed over the vast Alaskan wilderness to show the enormity of the situation – like finding a needle in a haystack. Then we’re in the killer’s retreat as a distraught Cindy is found and released by police, hence beginning the grim discovery. The gritty, shaky camerawork that such crime dramas now favour to induce a sense of urgency and intensity also dates the film for the 80s era, staying gloomily lit until the end and setting a sombre atmosphere to cultivate the ugly chain of events. The cinematography works well for both panoramic and claustrophobic shots to develop a tangible sense of foreboding.

the-frozen-ground-pixThe problems with Walker’s film arise from the script, where it lacks any real passion for the plight of those involved, demonstrating his inexperience, however well researched it may be. Cage does the best he can, portraying Halcombe as both reliable and grounded but simultaneously, rather wooden and two-dimensional. It also begs the question, are we limited in our empathy for this real-life character and his gruelling task because the script reels out the TV cop drama clichés? In contrast, Halcombe’s predictability shows Hudgens in a brave new light, totally dispensing with any Disney sheen here, showing a gutsy and rather exciting new premise as an adult actor in a controversial role.

Indeed Cusack’s Hansen bristles with malice and deviance that is electric, proving again that the actor suits such creepy roles far better than the unconventional action hero or the soppy, loved-up fool. The end exchange between Halcombe and Hansen is worth the wait as Cage manages to pull something memorable out of his character’s bag before the credits roll. It’s also some credit to Walker for his casting and direction, getting two versatile actors who last met face-to-face in thriller Con Air to bat back and forth and produce such intensity and drama at that point. Nevertheless, it does appear to highlight that Walker has concentrated all his writing efforts into that one dialogue, which is a shame and wastes potential with the earlier scenes.

That said as a debut thriller of high-profile interest (in the story of Hansen), Walker has held his own and produced something very watchable and well executed – end photo montage of the real victims aside that feels like a forced ‘add on’ to underline the ‘reality and gravity’ of the story. The Frozen Ground also shows Walker’s emerging skill that with the right script, he could be a director to watch in the near future in the genre.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pacific Rim***

Guillermo del Toro gets the teen audience, totally, so much so, he’s gone and taken a bunch of Transformer Power Rangers and pitched them against alien sea monsters of centuries old-looking. This less than perfect film offers loads of thumping good 3D action, which on occasion can feel relentless to anyone older than thirteen or to those who’ve had past problems distinguishing thrashing 3D Transformer body part from whirling body part. That said if pure entertainment is predominantly seeing Godzilla-like creatures tearing chunks out of man and his metal war machines then Pacific Rim portrays this with full watery throttle, throwing in subtle Blade Runner tones on urban dry land.

It’s just a shame the rest is clunky, insincere and a little too clichéd, script-wise, that it prompts every next step for those ‘hard of thinking’, causing an occasional yawn in parts or inevitable disinterest in others. There is very little del Toro wonderment to this future apocalypse, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, or characters we really care about like in Hellboy, merely hard and fast blockbuster robot-monster action with some token human strife.

Humankind is seeing an increase in attacks from giant sea creatures called Kaiju who rise from the oceans to wipe out cities and populations. Even man’s special weapons used to fight these aliens, face to face, a massive robot simultaneously controlled by two pilots called a Jaeger, seem to be loosing the battle as the Kaiju become wise to their every move. When the Jaegers are forced into retirement, leader of the fleet, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) refuses to retire too, bringing his robots and a former pilot (Raleigh Becket played Charlie Hunnam) and a trainee (Mako Mori played by Rinko Kikuchi) back into action to control a Jaeger along with other pilots to save the world from oblivion.

Without a doubt, del Toro is spot on in creating a vast cinematic scale to portray man’s imminent danger of extinction against a monster enemy. There is always a sense of being submerged and out of your depth when the Kaiju are around and that’s thrilling. These awesome beasts with fluorescent innards certainly feed the imagination. However, very little else is known about them and what makes them tick, short of a flash through the mind of one, and a brief The Abyss-style finale of their world. Another story glitch is the idea that the Kaiju are clones – though all are different looking? This theory also doesn’t add up when one is with child, raising an explosive but intriguing aspect of the story that lacks further insight that you might expect from del Toro’s past work.

The human characters are mainly cheesy, cardboard clones of past sci-fi battle films. Little known Hunnam seems to resemble his other co-star pilots to the point of confusion at times, but all are pumped, attractive fodder for controlling the machines, though little empathy is built up around them to care about their individual plights. There is a window into Kikuchi’s character Mako and her traumatic past, which is beautifully visualised, and del Toro tries to stimulate some mystique into the bond between Pentecost and her that is sadly is blatantly obvious to all. Even the screen presence that is Elba in his ‘finest hour’ giving booming rallying speeches fails to keep us more than interested in just the action alone, and the attempts to inject token emotion into his being fall short by the time the human story catches up.

Del Toro even tries for quirky eccentric types, too, to mix things up in his character list, with the kooky scientist stereotype in Charlie Day as Kaiju fan Dr. Newton Geiszler and Burn Gorman as eccentric Gottlieb. Both are comical to start off with then become increasingly irritating like excitable puppies and incoherent to care for their explanations. It all seems to rest on del Toro’s Hellboy big name Ron Perlman (stay around for the end credits) who stars as a dodgy second-hand Kaiju parts dealer to come up with the goods for the human element. However, Perlman either has too little screen-time or not enough character development to save the story from being rather shallow on the human emotion front. The end result is a flat character array, so thankfully the fighting makes up for that.

Nevertheless, even the CGI confrontations can grow weary, as at lot are underwater shots that move side to side, having little effect in 3D because they are also blurry and darkly lit. The story is called into question again as previous, supposedly less threatening Kaiju are harder to tackle than the alleged ‘super-sized’ one at the end. Again, consistency is key, even with some impressive battles on offer.

Del Toro delivers some monster epic fighting on surface level, along with his calling cards such as the use of symbols, paternal influences and a subterranean chase scene. However, with many continuity errors, borrowed visuals from past sci-fi, fantasy films and limited character development, the overall conclusion is a less than satisfactory for a del Toro film, where the director appears to have fallen victim to the blockbuster hype.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Bling Ring ***

It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know your Dolce & Gabbana from your Louis Vuitton, Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring – based on real-life events – is about the effects of celebrity coveting by a younger, impressionable generation, where materialistic goods plug something seriously lacking more often than not. What seems relatively ‘harmless’ as getting the latest fashion/lifestyle mag showing what’s hot and what’s not gets a sinister big-screen outing in this film. Nonetheless, it’s not probing or controversial enough, in terms of suggesting any true psychological effect, and is again about instant gratification with its slick soundtrack rather than anything substantial. The only real positive to come out of this film is some impressive performances from a bunch of relative newcomers, and Emma Watson carving an exciting new acting groove.

Teenager Rebecca (Katie Chang) teams up with new best mate Marc (Israel Broussard) to find stars’ homes and rob them of their ‘bling’ (clothes, handbags, shoes, accessories etc) when the famous occupants are away. Soon the group expands to include Lindsay Lohan-loving Nicki (Watson) and sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). However, caught on CCTV, their days are numbered. One day the partying has to end…

Our insatiable appetite to know the most personal details of celebrities is what’s at the heart of this film that spends a lot of the time showing off its merchandise – including the nubile forms of its young stars. What starts out as exciting, baring in mind the ‘based on real events’ part, is how ‘samey’ one scene becomes compared to the next – a series of ‘find the pad, raid the pad and party with the loot afterwards’, with little to say at the bitter end. That said, as apparently superficial as it all feels, there is still a healthy curiosity throughout as to ‘who has a closet like this’, and the number of Aladdin’s Caves uncovered are quite spectacular, particularly from Paris Hilton, a victim in real-life.

Another feeling you go away with is how little empathy you have for the (gullible) victims like Ms Hilton who carelessly leave their residences woefully unlocked and unsecured. With a very ‘on-the-fence’ finale from Coppola that doesn’t suggest a point of view on what has transpired, this feeling is further increased. There is a morbid sense of hopelessness for civilised humanity that goes with it, too. It’s an odd and bleak comedown after all the short-lived thrills experienced throughout. There doesn’t feel like any consequence or lessons learned, re-emphasising how futile an exercise the whole film is, however brilliant the acting is. The cast carry what is effectively a rather flimsy premise and this is the film’s disappointment after offering up a fascinating synopsis.

As with celebrity culture, the thrill of The Bling Ring is short, sharp and easily forgettable later on. If nothing else, do catch it for the performances and Ms Hilton’s real-life bling-packed treasure troves but don’t expect to gain much significance from it, albeit some fashion tips.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Now You See Me ***

Best way to describe Louis Leterrier’s new thriller is a ‘magical Ocean’s Eleven’. It has the gloss, the sassy style, the balls and a little extra, magic. But with all the tricks up its confident sleeve, it’s still not a pitch-perfect performance, racing away a lot of the time like the director’s Transporter films to create an illusion of a well-plotted crime caper. With so many twists and turns, it becomes bloated and wasteful, however much fun we have going along for the ride and watching the cast enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

After 30 million euros goes missing from a Parisian bank vault in an elaborate magic trick done simultaneously in Las Vegas, and that money then showers a stunned audience, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) reluctantly teams up with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to track down the illusive Four Horsemen magicians (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco). However, as with their magic, nothing is as it seems as the authorities play a cat-and-mouse game.

Without delving too deeply, Leterrier’s story is initially a highly intriguing one: the idea of magicians who are criminals. Indeed, both are conmen, which should make the former the best robbers in the world, surely? Indeed, the tricks they perform are pretty exciting to watch, done with the backing of serious money (supplied by shady capitalist Arthur Tressler, played by Michael Caine). However, when you finally get to the bottom of why the foursome is doing what it’s doing, the story verges on the farcical and whimsical. Indeed, Leterrier taps into the supernatural a little in some scenes so it’s anyone’s guess where things will go next and how far from the original ‘crime story’ it promises, things will venture. One thing’s for sure, it will get there quick – as is the favoured editing style.

There are some troublesome flaws that cheapen the self-assured, visual affair, such as what exactly is the personal mystery/gain surrounding Dray (this is suggested but never taken anywhere). Could this subplot have fallen victim to the cutting room? If the great Thaddeus Bradley (another magician played by Morgan Freeman) were so accomplished, surely he would have been tempted to be as dishonest as the Horsemen whose tricks he wants to expose, rather than go through all the trouble to make a buck? Also, in terms of real facts, there is no Interpol international police force in operation, a common but endlessly glamorised error in most Hollywood thrillers.

Nevertheless, all the cast put on their best performances that we associate them with; from Eisenberg’s gift of the gab to Freeman’s natural mystique, so there is a lot to be satisfied by. There is also an underlying ‘kick in the teeth’ for authority and the moneymen who pull the strings, a revenge element that is also very pleasing.

And that’s just it: Now You See Me is a crowd pleaser not a cerebral thriller full of clever ideas, and its convoluted plot weakens its momentum that could be razor sharp and nippy.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Internship ***

If the idea of indulging one of the corporate giants accused of alleged ‘tax dodging’ seems abhorrent, then Date Night director Shawn Levy’s ode to Google and its Internet domination in the form of comedy The Internship may be a little too much to swallow.

More so, trying to get past the colourful vision of corporate utopia that is Google in this film, enough to enjoy the comic reunion of Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson may also be this film’s downfall before the first Flashdance pun is peddled. Nonetheless, there is more to enjoy than first meets the eye, however formulaic the underdog theme might be.

Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Owen) are two middle-aged salesmen who were very successful at the height of their game but have since been closed down by the digital age. When an opportunity to join Google as an intern, which could lead to employment arises, the pair decide to go for broke, regardless of how un-tech-savvy they are.

Vaughn and Owen, individually, never seemed to reach the comic banter heights that they do in their Wedding Crashers days – some might argue one runs off at the mouth and the other is too saccharin in recent comedies. However, you can’t deny that together them have great screen chemistry because of their differing personalities, and it’s pleasing to see them back on near form in this.

In fact, their dinosaur wit is well positioned in The Internship because it challenges the effect of the accelerated advancement of technology on interpersonal relationships. Never mocking – and always playing the ‘good-hearted fools’, through them, we reflect on our bizarre and utter reliance on gadgetry that could be argued to hindering communication in recent decades? The 80s references fuel the nostalgic feel for a certain age group watching, but seemed to be lost on a younger audience, possibly also due to Vaughn’s accelerated delivery that does come across as excitable babble sometimes.

At the same time, Levy’s film accessibly addresses the differences in the generations and ways of thinking in blatantly obvious style, peddling some geek stereotypes and obnoxious know-it-alls. Granted, a lot of it is clichéd and borrows from other underdog films (getting drunk frees inhibitions and leads to a moment of genius, for example).  Nevertheless, it’s a film that affectionately shows that there’s ‘life in the old dog’ worth listening to yet and has a genuine unifying feeling to it that will make you go away relatively happy.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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