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Review – La La Land (12a) [2017]

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Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Damien Chazelle announced himself to the world two years ago with aplomb. Since Whiplash left cinemas, viewers have waited patiently to see what he would do next. Well, now, Chazelle has returned with La La Land and it is another masterpiece.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

La La Land is predominantly about Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Both live in Hollywood and are struggling to make their dreams come true. She is an aspiring actress, working as a barista to pay bills; and he is a jazz piano player, doing the odd gig here and there to make ends meet. They bump into each other a few times and a romantic relationship blossoms. But is their relationship compatible with their careers?

  La La Land is a delightful musical drama. It is an unashamed throwback to Hollywood’s lost golden era and it is full of radiant joy. Everyone is happy and they frequently break into song and dance to show the world how happy they are. (If anything, the characters are too happy and this grates on the nerves. Nothing is seriously wrong in their lives and money is never a problem, even though both of the main characters lack funds.)

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

In many ways, La La Land is the polar opposite of Whiplash. Whereas Whiplash was intense, with the passion and pace of a boxing thriller, La La Land is laid back and blissful. Yet, it shares the jazzy elements of Whiplash as well as the desire of its characters to fulfill their ambitions, regardless of the price. The issue of compromise is key throughout both films, and it is interesting to see which direction the characters decide to go in La La Land when they are confronted with the junction of their careers on the one hand and their relationship on the other.

The reasons we have no idea which way the characters will go is, one, because of the tone of the film; and, two, because of the acting and chemistry of the two main characters: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The good-looking pair have worked well together before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, but La La Land is undoubtedly their best collaboration to date. Their characters are clichéd, but Emma Stone shows a solid range of emotional skills and also that she can sing decently too (Gosling less so).

However, the two real stars of La La Land are Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. First, hats off to Hurwitz: his score is wondrous. The music he created for Whiplash was terrific, but this is another level; especially, as the range of jazz in La La Land is extraordinary. Even if one does not like jazz in general, one will love it in this film thanks to Hurwitz.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other's eyes.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.

And then there is director Chazelle. What can one say? He is proving himself to be quite a talent. His understanding of directing, editing, cinematography and choreography is exemplary. He also seems to love what he does and this shines through in every scene. Long may it continue!

Over-all, La La Land is a spell-binding musical drama. It is happy-clappy, but it is charming and its two leads perform really well together. Additionally, the music is gorgeous. Nevertheless, it is Damien Chazelle who steals the limelight. More than anything, he proves with La La Land that Whiplash was not a one-off marvel and that, at the tender age of 32, he is on the right road to a distinguished career.

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Review – X-Men: Apocalypse (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • John Ottman – X-Men IIHouse of WaxFantastic 4 I-IIValkyrie, X-Men: Days of Future PastNon-Stop, 20,000 Leagues Under Sea

The Godfather Syndrome is a common problem for film trilogies. When the first film is a good and the second is better, the third film has a hard act to follow. So often, it cannot raise the bar to the required level and, consequently, the film is unsatisfactory. The Godfather trilogy is the most high profile to fall victim to this syndrome (hence the name), but the third film in the Alien franchise and in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy suffered from the syndrome as well. Sadly, so too does the third film in the X-Men prequel trilogy, Apocalypse.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the 'decadent, corrupt' world of the 1980s.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the ‘decadent, corrupt’ world of the 1980s.

X-Men: Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt with the creation of the most powerful mutant of all time (played by Oscar Isaac). This mutant is not given a name, but his enemies nickname him Apocalypse. No sooner is Apocalypse created when he is entombed and falls into a coma.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Apocalypse is awoken. He sees the world is full of decadence and corruption. So he decides that he must destroy it in order to make a new and better world. He recruits four (angry) mutants to his cause: Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), in order to carry out his master plan. Only the X-Men can stop this plan from coming to fruition. But only if they unite.

Apocalypse’s plot is quite dull, unoriginal and unfaithful to what the X-Men prequel trilogy has been about. First Class and Days of Future Past were original and interesting because they were not about good vs evil. Rather, they were about the polar-opposite approaches of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto to tackle the problems mutants faced in the world (mirroring the stances of Martin Luthar King and Malcolm X during the American Civil Rights movements of the 1960s). Neither Professor X’s nor Magneto’s approaches were completely right or completely wrong, which was what made First Class and Days of Future Past so fascinating and realistic (for the X-Men world that is). However, Apocalypse goes back on this theme and focusses more on stopping an all-powerful, under-developed and poorly written (and so obviously evil) villain. This is a real shame as director Bryan Singer should have done more to continue the theme of the previous two installments.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world... and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world… and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Yet, the near abandonment of the theme running through the first two movies of this trilogy is not the only major problem with Apocalypse’s plot. The storyline is bitty at best and incoherent at worst. As is so often the case in X-Men films, there are many characters with competing storylines. To condense so many storylines into a TV series is a struggle (just look at Game of Thrones). But to do it in a 144-minute film, and to develop the characters as well, is nigh on impossible. As a result, so much in Apocalypse is left under-explained or simply not explained at all: for example why Magneto begins the film in a metal-works factory in Poland (yes, just go with it)? Why, also, does Apocalypse need four assistants to help him execute his grand plan? (One would think these questions are profound enough to warrant answers. But, no, instead Singer spends the time explaining how Professor X went bald and how Storm’s hair turned blonde.)

It is safe to say that Apocalypse’s plot has enough holes to rival Swiss Cheese. However, to some extent one can ignore its many problems and enjoy watching some of our favourite mutants once more. Like in First Class and Days of Future Past, the acting and the dialogue is good. Again, both are a little bit down on the other two movies. But that may be due to viewers becoming accustomed to the high standard of acting set by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in particular.

No, the only real surprise in Apocalypse is how much screen time is given to the new members of the cast; notably, Sophie Turner as the young Jean Gray. Turner’s American accent vacillates across the Atlantic during the course of the film and she does not have the screen presence or the charisma (as yet) of the more senior members of the cast. But Turner does a good job with what she is given nevertheless.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

And like with the acting and the dialogue, the action scenes and the special effects are good without being spectacular. Similarly though, audiences have seen what Apocalypse has to offer before (not only in previous X-Men films, but also in other sci-fi and comic-book movies). This, therefore, leaves viewers feeling underwhelmed and yearning for something more interesting to watch.

All-in-all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a disappointing film. The storyline is a muddle, undercooked and a betrayal from what made the previous two films in the trilogy so engaging. With a plot so problematic, it is no surprise that neither the quality of its cast nor the numerous (inconsequential) action sequences can save this third film from being a let-down. Thus, The Godfather Syndrome has struck again and means that the X-Men prequel trilogy has not got the conclusive third chapter that it richly deserved.

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Review – Captain America III: Civil War (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 3.5/5

Directors:

  • Anthony Russo – LuckyYou, Me & DupreeCommunityCaptain America II, The Avengers III: Infinity War: Part I
  • Joe Russo – Welcome To CollinwoodArrested DevelopmentYou, Me & Dupree, Captain America II, The Avengers III: Infinity War: Part I

Cast:

Music Composer:

Six weeks ago, Batman v Superman (BvS) finally arrived in cinemas. It was essentially about 100 minutes of a jumbled nothingness in order to get two superheroes to take opposing sides and smash each other black and blue. It was a tremendously disappointing film. So upon entering Captain America III: Civil War, with the prospect of a dozen superheroes taking sides and smashing each other up, was one right to be apprehensive? Hell no!

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of signing up the Sokovia Accords.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of signing up the Sokovia Accords.

Put simply, Captain America III begins shortly after the events in Sokovia (the final battle in The Avengers II: Age of Ultron). The world is furious with the Avengers due to the amount of death and destruction they caused. As a result, the UN have issued the Sokovia Accords and want to ratify them, to ensure that the Avengers will be unable to act without UN approval in future conflicts. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) agrees with the need for the accords and general oversight since he feels guilty for the carnage the Avengers caused; particularly as he created Ultron.

However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees. He believes in his own judgement and claims to know when it is best for the Avengers to act, not the UN. This splits within the Avengers down the middle as some take Stark’s side while others take Rodger’s side. Complicating matters further is the return of Roger’s friend, Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Stark believes he is a great danger, but Rogers does not. And so the civil war begins.

Captain America III is a lot of fun. It is 147-minutes of continuous smash ups involving our favourite Avengers characters (minus Thor and the Hulk), with some aspects of a storyline (or three) in between all the fighting. Unsurprisingly, the plot makes little sense. But to give directors Anthony and Joe Russo credit, the plot for Captain America III makes considerably more sense than BvS (despite having three times as many characters). In addition, the tone is consistent and enjoyable due to its carefree comic nature, in stark contrast to BvS’s imbalance of ultra-seriousness and unrealistic, over-the-top fight sequences.

Captain America (centre) and his side of the civil war, consisting of Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Anti-Man (Paul Rudd) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Captain America (centre) and his side of the civil war, consisting of Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Anti-Man (Paul Rudd) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Another element of Captain America III that the directors get right is the lack of background for all the characters upon their introductions, including the new Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland). That is not to say that the introductions aren’t done well. On the contrary, they are apt and very amusing too, but more in a welcome back way (with the exception of Spiderman) rather than in the form of long-winded origins stories. (Take note Zack Snyder: when something has been done well already, i.e. Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s background in 2005’s Batman Begins; or has been overdone badly, i.e. how Peter Parker got his Spidy-powers in 2002’s Spiderman and 2012’s The Amazing Spiderman, there is no need to put in the same tale again that cinema-goers are tired of, and especially not in slow-motion.)

Captain America III gets a lot right. Nevertheless, it is too long and the constant bashing that the superheroes do to each other does become repetitive. One can have a snooze in the movie, wake up and still be watching the same fight scene or a different one. It really makes no difference. Nothing of lasting consequence ever happens.

Team Iron Man, consisting of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Spiderman (Tom Holland) is also on Team Iron Man, but he is not in the picture.

Team Iron Man, consisting of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Spiderman (Tom Holland) is also on Team Iron Man, but he is not in the picture.

Also, like in Captain America II, Civil War’s storylines run out of puff long before the film’s climactic battle(s). Viewers can be forgiven for forgetting (or even for failing to understand) why Captain America and Iron Man are fighting one another by the end. Then again, one could say that about pretty much all the Marvel comic-book films really. And, strangely enough, that is the point: it doesn’t matter. That is why viewers like Marvel comic-book films and why the studios keep churning out more of them.

Over-all, Captain America III: Civil War is an entertaining, light-hearted film. It is funny and action-packed. Yes, those who have seen other Avengers-related films have probably seen it all before, but who cares? Audiences go into comic-book films, like Captain America III, wanting to enjoy themselves, to watch an ensemble of superheroes beat each other up, and to laugh. The movie delivers, which is more than what can be said for another film about an ensemble of superheroes that fought one another recently.

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Review – Whiplash (15) [2015]

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Star Rating: 5/5

Director:

  • Damien Chazelle – Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench, La La Land

Cast:

  • Miles Teller – Project X, 21 & Over, Divergent, La La Land
  • JK Simmons – Spiderman I-III, Harsh Times, Up In The Air, Terminator GenisysLa La Land
  • Paul Reiser – Aliens, Purpose, Life After Beth, 6 Miranda Drive
  • Melissa Benoist – Glee, Danny Collins, Billy Boyd
  • Austin Stowell – Dolphin Tale I & II, Love And Honour, Behaving Badly, Higher Power

Music Composer:

  • Juston Hurwitz – Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench, La La Land

When one sees artistic greatness, whether it is in drawings, music, film, theatre, sport or otherwise, it is natural to gawp and marvel. Great artists, irrespective of their medium, always have stood and always will stand head and shoulders above their competitors. But what does it take to be an artistic great? How does one become a great in their respective field? Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s absolutely brilliant film, may answer those questions.

Andrew (Miles Teller) looking and listening to his mentor, the conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) as Fetcher gives him some advice.

Andrew (Miles Teller) looking and listening to his mentor, the conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) as Fetcher gives him some advice.

Whiplash is a drama, centred completely round Andrew (Miles Teller), a nineteen year old jazz-drummer who goes to Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in America. There, he comes under the tutorship of conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who pushes him hard, first, to enable Andrew to enter into his band, wherein they play a piece called ‘Whiplash’; and, second, in his attempts to make Andrew an artistic great.

Whiplash is an entertaining and pulsating film, with some exceptional performances. In an interview, Miles Teller spoke about the energy coming off the screen throughout the movie. And he’s right, although he also modestly downplayed his own role in making Whiplash come alive because Teller is superb as Andrew.

Samuel Delaney in About Writing explains that for one to achieve artistic excellence one must (metaphorically) punish oneself, make sacrifices, and suffer. In Whiplash, viewers witness Andrew punish himself, make sacrifices, and suffer as he pushes himself to breaking point to have a chance at becoming a great drummer. Better still, though, viewers feel Andrew’s agony as well as the sweat and blood dripping off him. It may have helped Teller that Whiplash was shot over nineteen (uber-intense) days, with him working eighteen to twenty hours under the camera’s gaze. When Andrew is exhausted and feeling the pressure it is probably genuine. At the same time, the intensity of the filming schedule could have hindered Teller. So, it is to Teller’s credit that he is able to perform to such a high standard under exhausting circumstances. He deserves his BAFTA nomination in the Rising Star category as, in part, he provides the energy that radiates from the screen during Whiplash.

Andrew taking out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they discuss their respective ambitions in life

Andrew taking out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they discuss their respective ambitions in life

Yet, as good as Teller is, it is his character’s mentor who steals the limelight. JK Simmons is terrific as Terence Fletcher and it is no surprise that Simmons has been Oscar nominated for his performance as Fletcher. Fletcher is intelligent and passionate, yet he is also manipulative, nasty, vicious and utterly ruthless. When he walks into a room, one senses the fear he induces into his students. But is Fletcher a sadistic prick and a bully? Or is he a good mentor and an effective motivator? It would be easy to answer in the former. But Niccolo Machiavelli writes in The Prince that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved because fear forces people to go the extra mile when they wouldn’t otherwise. Additionally, one could believe that the motivational methods of Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manager of Manchester United Football Club (MUFC), were not always too dissimilar to Fletcher’s, and the success Sir Alex achieved at MUFC between 1986-2013 was extraordinary. Therefore, one should bear in mind the writings of Machiavelli and the feats of Sir Alex before criticising Fletcher. There is logic behind his methods.

However, whatever one may think of Fletcher and his methods, it is worth noting that audiences only see him through Andrew’s eyes. In an interview, Simmons said that there were some scenes of Fletcher filmed without Andrew present. These (apparently) would have given audiences another perspective on Fletcher’s personality, but the scenes were cut from the movie so as to preserve Whiplash as solely Andrew’s story. Simmons suggests that the lack of these scenes does not detract from the film and even enhances it. This probably means that the scenes would not have significantly altered our understanding of Fletcher, so instead of wondering what these scenes beheld we should commend Damien Chazelle for having the resolve to take them out of the final cut of the movie.

The price Andrew pays in his attempts to make it to being a drummer of noteworthy repute: sweat and blood.

The price Andrew pays in his attempts to make it to being a drummer of noteworthy repute: sweat and blood.

Nevertheless, it is not just for taking those scenes out that Chazelle should be commended. He should also be applauded for writing vivid dialogue and for giving the actors room to improvise in scenes to make the scenes more realistic. Similarly, Justin Hurwitz should be clapped for writing some wonderful music that builds on the tension that Andrew (and the audience) endures in Andrew’s attempts to reach the dizzying heights of artistic greatness.

All-in-all, Whiplash is a flawless and exhilarating film, with two phenomenal stand-out performers. On the surface, the movie is about the relationship between a pupil and his mentor, seen exclusively from the pupil’s angle. Yet, Whiplash has a deeper layer. It illustrates the level of dedication and self-torture one must go through to become a great in one’s artistic field and the type of mentor that may be required to attain artistic superiority over one’s rivals.

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Review – The Dark Knight Rises (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 5/5

Director:

Cinematographer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Once in a decade, perhaps, are audiences treated to a trilogy wherein the three films are not only worthy of five stars each, but also raise the bar over the movie that preceded it. Ten years ago, it was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which culminated beautifully in the epic The Return of the King. Now, it is the turn of Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Legend saga, which has climaxed spectacularly with The Dark Knight Rises.

The monstrous-looking, hulking Bane (Tom Hardy). Ra’s Al Ghul’s successor intends to finish off Gotham once and for all, forcing Batman to come out of his virtual retirement.

Eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) defeated the Joker, killed the District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and disappeared. Since then, Gotham has branded Batman an enemy, after he took responsibility for Dent’s crimes to uphold the reputation of the ‘White Knight.’ Whilst away from his former exploits, Bruce has been a recluse, investing some of his considerable wealth in peaceful nuclear energy and the Wayne Foundation, where he uses the expertise of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to good effect.

However, Gotham now faces a new threat. The League of Shadows has returned and is led by the masked, super-strong Bane (Tom Hardy), who is out to destroy Gotham and Batman with it. After Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is wounded trying to take out Bane, leaving the police almost solely in the hands of the young idealist officer, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Bruce feels that the time has come to don the bat-gear again. But how will Gotham take to his return? And what will Batman do with the criminal Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who has a mysterious interest in Wayne Manor and Wayne Enterprise?

Rises’ plot might be slow-moving for the first hour and it certainly requires great levels of concentration for the entire 164 minutes; yet, the film is intellectually-stimulating, absorbing and multi-layered. It also builds up to a stunning, well-thought-through climax, ensuring that those who give the movie their full attention will be rewarded.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the storyline is that Nolan cleverly links Rises with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the two previous instalments in the series. He does this by making the caped crusader rise to a new mental and physical challenge, which is a direct result of his prior victory over the League of Shadows; and by illustrating the relevance of Batman and Harvey Dent as symbols of hope against injustice and corruption. (Not to mention demonstrating how susceptible the fabrics of society are to implosion when the symbols are smashed.)

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) wearing her figure-revealing ‘cat’ outfit while she steals what she needs at night and fights her way out of trouble.

Furthermore, Nolan intelligently incorporated genuine, present-day issues and analogies into the previous two films to make them relatable to the epoch. He does it again in Rises. Like in The Dark Knight, he throws in moral and ethical dilemmas here to illustrate just how tough and messy decisions can be for our political leaders (in the war on terror). And, like in Batman Begins, Nolan underlines how sophisticated, scientific technology can be used as weapons. In the first film in the series, it was the dangers of microwave emitters. In the third, it’s the threat posed by ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs (Iran) and what happens should they fall into the wrong hands.

Arguably, Rises lacks a character with the charisma of the Joker, especially as he is Batman’s traditional nemesis. Nevertheless, the astuteness of the plot and the excellence of the cast make up for this absence. Christian Bale superbly reveals the psychological torment and the multifaceted nature of Bruce Wayne that makes all other comic-book based protagonists, such as those in Fantastic Four, The Avengers Assemble and Spiderman appear immature and superficial by comparison; Anne Hathaway looks as eye-catching in tightly-fitted latex as she plays; Michael Caine again gives a touching performance as Alfred, Bruce’s wise fatherly butler, as does Morgan Freeman as the humorous Lucius Fox, the head of Wayne Enterprise; and, lastly, Tom Hardy is terrifying as Bane.

Just as Nolan did with the villains Scarecrow, the Joker and Two-Face in the other movies, he’s turned Bane from a pantomime fool (as was seen in the unwatchable 1997 Batman & Robin) into a complex and sinister character, with a distressing backstory. It is not merely Bane’s brute strength and intelligence that’s scary, it’s also the glint of frightening fanaticism in his eyes which was probably last seen with Ayatollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Batman (Christian Bale), with renewed vigour, battling it out with Bane to save Gotham from destruction.

While the actors do their parts splendidly, so too do the special effects team and Hans Zimmer. The effects look so real, viewers have to remind themselves that CGI was used. Similarly, the score may not be as grand or uplifting as the one composed by Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings; nonetheless, the dark disposition of Rises entails that Zimmer’s gothic-style music is apt and augments the scenes exponentially.

Over-all, The Dark Knight Rises is an engrossing and special conclusion to an exceptional trilogy. Christopher Nolan has transformed the Batman story from a joke into a dark and very human tale that has relevance to the current era, making all other comic-book based movies seem light and casual in contrast. Once more, Nolan has used intelligence and a phenomenal cast to outdo himself in the same way that Peter Jackson did almost a decade ago. Heaven knows, it might be another ten years before we see a series of such brilliance again.

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Review – 127 Hours (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’ – we’ve all heard the metaphor at some point in our lives. Usually, it is adopted at a moment of indecisiveness or prevarication. For some of people, the phrase may even define their personality. But in July 2003, Aron Ralston discovered its literal meaning and 127 Hours brings to light his remarkable story in great detail.

Aron, played by James Franco, enjoying a stroll in the Grand Canyon. Little does he know that a slight loss of balance is going to change his life forever.

In the summer heat, Aron Ralston (James Franco – Spiderman I, II & III, Your Highness) goes for a cycle and a hike in the Grand Canyon. Since Aron is a guide, he knows the terrain well. He climbs, jumps and walks around as if he owns the place until a small slip sends him tumbling several metres down a narrow gap in the ground. Worse, a boulder falls with Aron and virtually cements his arm between it and the rocky wall. Aron is stuck and very-much alone. He has little food and water, and no means of contacting the outside world. For one hundred and twenty-seven hours (over five days), Aron remains there until the fear of death forces him to make the painful sacrifice of cutting off his trapped arm with a mere pen-knife (and no anaesthetic!) so as to carry on living.

The plot may sound uneventful as more than an hour of the film is based round a man stuck in a still, but frightening situation. Yet, that is far from true. One watches with anticipation what Aron will do in an attempt to move the bolder. Indeed, some of the innovations he comes up with are very intelligent. That he does these things without the use of a hand makes them all the more impressive.

However, 127 Hours would not be half as decent if it were not for James Franco. Franco illustrates here that he has matured as an actor since his semi-pitiful displays in the Spiderman movies. In this film, it is almost solely up to him to keep the audience stimulated for over ninety minutes, and he easily achieves this. Franco superbly portrays Aron before and, especially, after the fall. The all-too-real look of horror in his eyes when he initially realises the depth of his predicament is one that few will forget in a hurry. The different stages he goes through, before doing the unthinkable, are also very interesting.

Franco’s performance is utterly realistic and the tribute for giving him this platform must go to the director, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, The Beach, Trance). One scene in particular, although gory to the point of making one want to vomit (unless one is used to watching the Saw series), is done exceptionally well and with graphic detail.

Aron feeling down and helpess as he can’t move the boulder that has trapped his right arm.

Yet, Boyle also lets himself down a bit. One needs to be brave to make a film like this (especially if he/she wants to make a handsome profit); but, unfortunately, Boyle lacked the courage of Rodrigo Cortés, the director of Buried (which is literally about Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for ninety-odd minutes with a lighter and a mobile phone.) By putting in music and other noises whilst Aron is jammed, Boyle takes away some of the realism in 127 Hours because this would not have happened.

Another criticism of the movie is that one never gets a sense of just how long, boring and lonely it must have been for Aron during those one hundred and twenty-seven hours. One may see the sun rise and fall a few times, or watch Aron gradually run out of water or reminisce over and over again about the mistakes he’s made in his life; but this only captures the length of time he was stuck there for on a superficial level.

Nevertheless, despite these flaws, 127 Hours is entertaining and Franco’s acting fully justifies the nominations that he’s been lined up for. The movie is also truthful and has a nice pseudo-religious dimension to it. Above-all, 127 Hours shows us that, even when caught between a rock and a hard place, mankind’s resilience is extraordinary.

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Review – The Next Three Days (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

I’ve heard that some men will die (or kill) for their woman (metaphorically, at least). However, I’ve never heard anyone say that they’ll study every weakness in the government’s prison system in order to get their lover out of jail. There is probably a reason for it and The Next Three Days illustrates why this might be the case.

John, being a good husband, visits his wife in prison.

Early on in the film, Lara (Elizabeth Banks – Zack and Miri make a Porno, Spiderman IIII), is arrested by the police and sentenced to jail for life for murdering her boss. This leaves John (Russell Crowe – Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Les Misérables), her husband and philosophy teacher/lecturer, to look after their son, Luke. Convinced that his wife is innocent, John seeks the advice of Damon (Liam Neeson – Schindler’s List, Star Wars I, Unknown), a man who has escaped from prison a staggering seven times, to find out a way of getting Lara out illegally. John learns from Damon what he must do to free her and how difficult it will be to beat the counter-measures the state-police have in place to stop escapees from running beyond their reach. For three years, John plans every step and waits for the right moment to strike.

Whilst perhaps a little far-fetched for it to be realistic, the plot makes for The Next Three Days to be full of pulsating tension. Yet, it fails to deliver on this for much of the movie. Part of this is because the fast-beating music is inadequate and, mostly, incorrectly timed. Additionally, the film is too long. There is no need for it to last two hours and twenty minutes. If it would have been half an hour shorter, it would have made for a much better film as only the last forty-five minutes is particularly interesting.

The plans are complete and John, loading up his James Bond-like pistol, is ready to put them into effect to save his wife from a life-time behind bars.

The storyline has its exciting moments; but there are many holes in it. One cannot help but ask oneself why John’s work as a teacher is not affected by his excessive (or, rather, obsessive) workings at day and night? Or why no-one notices his plans to free his wife from prison which are on a wall in a room in his house? Or why John never questions his own sanity? Also, escaping is not an end in of itself. One still has to go with mundane, daily chores after escaping. But, unfortunately, the director, Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale, The Quantum of Solace), does not deal with these issues.

Despite the gaps in the plot, the actors do not do their credentials harm. Indeed, the acting is consistently average throughout the movie: neither especially bad nor great. Nor are they ever tested, which is a bit of a shame because it could have added another dimension (and possibly a realistic element) to the storyline. Instead, we have to watch Russell Crowe kill the dregs of society to give the film some (cheesy) action in a vain attempt for entertainment.

Thus, all in all, The Next Three Days is a disappointment. Whilst, at first glance, the film may look thrilling, if unoriginal (after-all, how many times have we seen a movie about a prison breakout?); it is not as fascinating as it should have been. It might also explain why there is no colloquial expression for someone to free another person from jail. It is far simpler just to say you’ll die (or kill) for them.

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