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A Perfect Getaway (2009) Dir. David Twohy 25 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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Debuting at the arse-end of a disappointing summer you might expect this paradise set murder mystery from Pitch Black creator David Twohy to be a waste of everyone’s considerable talents; however A Perfect Getaway proves that, for Twohy at least, bigger budget isn’t necessarily better and that he may just have another good Riddick film in him yet.

Milla Jovovich and Steve Zahn star as Cliff and Cydney, a honeymooning couple on a Hawaiian vacation when they discover that another couple of newlyweds have been murdered by a man and a woman on a nearby island. Deciding to push on with their dream holiday they come across two pairs of ‘unhinged’ lovers – Nick and Gina (Hitman’s Timothy Olyphant and Lost’s Kiele Sanchez) and Kale and Cleo (George Kirk himself Chris Hemsworth and Planet Terror’s Marley Shelton) leading Cliff and Cydney to question whether they could be the killers’ next targets.

A Perfect Getaway is David Twohy’s  first non-genre film as a director (though he did script The Fugitive and G.I.Jane) and he does an impressive job of making a lacklustre, slow build script based around one blindingly obvious twist into a taut and exciting piece of work. He clearly hasn’t lost any of the visual flair he demonstrated so effectively in Pitch Black (used expertly to create an otherworldly feel) but which was entirely absent from its over-reaching follow up. Creative set-pieces, a nice split screen chase and no-nonsense choices in the editing room are let down slightly by a bewilderingly long and pointless flashback just over an hour in that hammers the twist over the audience’s head enough times it’s a wonder there aren’t more walking out of the cinema with concussion.

The slow-build/climactic chase structure of the script works well within the confines of the film’s 95 minutes. The problem however is some decidedly dodgy dialogue and a Scream-esque attempt to be postmodern that falls flat on its face, giving any viewer that pays attention to choice hints like ‘act two twist’ and ‘red herring’ no problem in working out exactly where the film is heading. There are very few ‘twist’ films that live up to their attempts to wrong foot the audience (The Usual Suspects and The Crying Game being the best modern examples) and A Perfect Getaway completely disappoints in this respect with canyon sized plot holes and early conversations between characters that make no sense once the twist is revealed, however there’s enough good going on around the centrepiece to forgive its rotten core.

The leads are perfectly watchable, Timothy Olyphant in particular steals every scene he’s in as the former special ops soldier/shark fisherman/screenwriter Nick whose tall tales seem too extravagant to believe, but Hemsworth and Shelton are little more than arbitrary caricatures, with surprisingly little screentime, who serve no purpose other than to throw the viewer off the scent. Zahn and Jovovich seem like an odd pairing initially but do well throughout as the on-edge couple, coming into their own when the film switches gears.

Although it might not be the best advert for Hawaii the film is shot beautifully by Mark Plummer, perfectly capturing the feel of paradise even after the descent into hell but the score is forgettable, default Hollywood thriller fare. Despite a disappointing centrepiece twist; good performances and impressive direction from genre veteran Twohy raise A Perfect Getaway to the level of an unexpected treat and prove there’s still something to look forward to from a promised return to Riddick’s small-scale roots.

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Avatar Preview Impressions 24 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Film News.
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Avatar - Jake

Friday 21 August, 24 hours after the trailer for James Cameron’s long awaited return to sci-fi feature film-making debuted to a mixed response online, viewers around the globe were treated to approximately 16 minutes of footage in glorious 3D from the mysterious Avatar. But after years of lofty promises and barely a glimpse of what the film might look like, did last week’s information overload propel expectations into another galaxy, or sink them in the swampy marsh of Pandora?

Well, it’s hard to say. While the trailer certainly didn’t seem to be evidence of the game-changing motion picture we were all expecting; as an original SF story, set on an entirely alien world which isn’t a sequel, remake or adaptation Avatar is, at the very least, a refreshing change of pace in modern Hollywood. It’s even arguable that Cameron has already instigated his Avatar revolution without even finishing the film as the ubiquitous 3D bandwagon picks up passengers as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and horror hack David R. Ellis whose 3D Final Destination flick hits screens this Friday.

But what about those 16 minutes? For the most part the footage consisted of extended scenes merely glimpsed at in the trailer but there were a few welcome additions. After a brief introduction from a shaggy looking Cameron our first glimpse is of Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch as he delivers a speech (no doubt delivered dozens of times before) to a batch of fresh-faced recruits to be sent down to Pandora. It’s standard boot camp stuff but Col. Quaritch is no Apone. What impresses most about the scene is that Cameron is clearly not treating 3D like a gimmick, hurling objects out of the screen like almost every 3D animated/horror film thus far. The 3D is used to give a palpable sense of depth and for my money is much more immersive in scenes like this than high octane action sequences where the problem of motion blur acts to instantly distance you from proceedings (more on this later).

The next sequence gives us our first look at Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Drag Me to Hell’s Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel putting Sam Worthington’s disabled war veteran Jake Sully into the Apple version of a PET scanner, which will link his mind with his Na’vi Avatar. Weaver looks to be on fine form as the tough talking doctor, bitter at the fact Jake has been chosen to join her on a mission to Pandora despite having no experience of its hostile environment. The scene also makes it clear Avatar’s got a sense of humour, it’s not just going to be environmental messages, strange worlds and aerial dogfights.

The next scene was an extended look at the moment from the trailer where Jake in his avatar’s body wakes up in a lab for the first time. You’ll be happy to know that a combination of the 3D and being able to watch this short scene in full will remove almost all worries you may have from the brief glimpse in the trailer. Movement looks much more natural and the effects work much more convincing than the trailer seemed to imply. Abandon the hope that the Na’vi are going to look photoreal and it’s unlikely you are going to be disappointed by what Digital Domain have achieved with this alien race come December.

The remainder of the footage took place on Pandora. If you hadn’t noticed from the trailer because the Na’vi avatars are genetically engineered with the DNA of their human hosts they take on certain characteristics, in particular facial features. The next scene gave us a brief glimpse of Weaver’s Na’vi avatar for the first time, which looked uncannily like a young, smooth skinned version of herself. In the scene Jake’s avatar has to stand his ground in the face of one of Pandora’s many hostile creatures, an exotic hammerhead rhinoceros with colourful peacock-esque feathers protruding from its skull – it’s a promising hint of what to expect from the world Cameron and his team have been building for the last four years.

The scene concludes with Jake’s avatar being chased by the Thanator glimpsed in the trailer, but unfortunately the scene in full isn’t much of an improvement on the questionable effects work seen there and the rapid, destructive pursuit suffers from wicked motion blur, making a large portion of proceedings near incomprehensible. It’s a common problem with rapid camera movements in 3D films and one that Cameron doesn’t seem to have solved. On the plus side the effects work on Jake’s avatar in this scene is stunning with naturalistic movement and convincing skin textures creating an entirely believable CG creation.

The two remaining scenes both featured Zoe Saldana’s indigenous tribal Na’vi Neytiri, first fighting off a pack of wolf-like creatures who attack Jake and then berating him for making her do so. Saldana’s Neytiri looks suitably elegant and otherworldly but the broken English and hostile relationship which will inevitably turn into affection is something we’ve seen far too many times before.

Thankfully Cameron saved the best for last in a scene where Jake’s avatar, now seemingly an accepted member of the indigenous Na’vi tribe, must bond with a banshee (the flying creatures seen in the trailer) organically, but not after a tense fight on a perilous cliff edge. Again the effects work impresses and the 3D does a great job of making that inevitable ‘hanging off the edge’ moment look even more terrifying. As the banshee takes off there are a few motion blur problems, but it’s not as big an issue as in the earlier scene and once the camera settles further back the remaining moments are electric.

Together with the trailer this 16 minute peek at Cameron’s baby has reassured me somewhat that come December we won’t just be watching Fern Gully meets the Star Wars prequels. There are a few things to worry about, in particular motion blur from the 3D technology and the CG slipping into ‘uncanny valley’ more often than not, but overall there is much more to be excited about than dismayed, and of course even after these 16 minutes it’s impossible to tell if Cameron’s script will deliver on the potential. Come December 18 we’ll all know if Cameron is still the ‘King of the World’.

Avatar Trailer Impressions 21 August 2009

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Avatar tank

Seeing as every man, woman and their no doubt sci-fi loving dog has now seen the teaser trailer for James Cameron’s 3D opus Avatar I thought I’d chip in with a few thoughts of my own. As a huge Cameron fan (Aliens is probably my favourite film) I’ve been following the development of Avatar more obsessively than most, every little sliver of information, every behind the scenes promo picture and even screenshots of the game seemed to confirm more and more that Cameron wasn’t going to put a foot wrong with his $200 million epic. But while there’s a lot to like from the brief glimpse of the film we were given yesterday there are some elements which prove to be an unwelcome cause for concern.

The first impression you’ll get when watching the trailer is that Cameron seems to have nailed the sense of scale this story no doubt requires. Mountains hang in the air like helium filled balloons on the hostile planet of Pandora, the camera swoops over a lush, verdant forest that stretches as far as the mist allows you to see and a frenzied battle in the sky between Banshee riding Na’vi and Hornet VTOL aircraft looks to be a thing of chaotic beauty.

The environmental effects work is stunning, as is the character effects work but there are some glaring early issues. While many touted Avatar’s revolutionary 3D effects work as “photorealistic” before the release of the trailer, not many are doing so now. But in his defence Cameron has always claimed photorealistic computer creations aren’t possible at present and that even the one frame out of 10 that falls into “Uncanny Valley” means the human eye will instantly recognise the effect as a computer creation. This of course is an even bigger problem when you try to create even vaguely humanoid creatures like the blue warrior race Na’vi.

Their skin textures don’t look quite right, far too smooth, but the long shot of Jake’s avatar’s feet look as real as CG feet ever will; the real problems are their faces and general body movement. It all looks disappointingly like something from one of the Star Wars prequels or at worst something from a video game cutscene. In the film’s defence this is all no doubt unfinished effects work, in 2D, that should be polished to perfection once it reaches screens in December but I’m starting to fear that Avatar could not possibly live up to the hype. The Thanator in particular (the large reptilian creature that chases Jake’s avatar when he first arrives on the planet) doesn’t look very good at all with its shiny skin texture and dodgy lighting effects looking more like something out of Doom 3 than a $200 million film. The amploaders look a little too much like the APCs from the Matrix sequels for my liking and strangely even the human characters (barring the early close-ups) look CG as well, more likely down to unfinished compositing effects that will hopefully be sorted out before release.

The final battle in the skies of Pandora looks nothing short of spectacular however, and if Cameron’s purported 14 years of script work is anything to go by the film should have a narrative to back up its astronomical cost. The teaser doesn’t give much of a hint about what we can expect from James Horner’s score, we see very few of the human cast and there’s only one brief line of dialogue in the whole thing but, Cameron gave viewers exactly what they wanted to see – a tease of what one of the most expensive films in the world is going to look like. While it may have soured the impossibly high expectations of most there’s no doubt overall it’s a stunning teaser and hints that Cameron is still on track to deliver one of the best films of the year come Christmas.

For those unaware today (August 21st) is worldwide Avatar day and to celebrate 15 minutes of footage is being screened at select cinemas across the globe. Your intrepid blogger will himself be seeing said footage at 6pm today so expect a full report soon!

Winter of content: The cinema releases to look forward to 19 August 2009

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With the summer blockbuster season crawling to a finish for another year there’s no time to lament the disappointing lack of big hitters this year when there’s a whole winter of genre goodies to look forward to.

The unfathomably successful Final Destination franchise reaches its fourth instalment at the end of August – the imaginatively titled The Final Destination (by the creative minds behind the rebranding of The Fast and the Furious no doubt) – the gimmick this time round, it’s the first in 3D. If it has half the fun factor of February’s My Bloody Valentine 3D it should be one to look out for.

The first week in September sees District 9 and Gamer going head-to-head for the genre crown. Already gaining stellar reviews across the pond District 9 looks likely to be the sleeper hit of the year with a fantastic viral campaign raising expectations through the roof and an intriguing apartheid metaphor premise which, like all the best sci-fi, has something to say about the world we live in today. Gamer on the other hand looks like a bit of mindless fun but little more. It raises more interest than it should by having the creative duo responsible for the lunacy of Crank, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, behind the camera and Dexter himself Michael C. Hall playing the film’s villain.

Space horror takes off the week after in the form of Pandorum, but after a promising looking teaser the recent theatrical trailer seems to hint that the film will share more in common with the likes of Event Horizon and Resident Evil than Alien or fright-fest video game Dead Space. Still it’s got Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid so it can’t be all bad.

New Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates closes out the month – based on one of the most thought provoking comics in recent years by writer Robert Venditti, but directed by Terminator 3 hack Jonathan Mostow. Surrogates is unlikely to be anything more than a watered down, action driven shadow of the comic with a few decent set-pieces and enough explosions to distract you from what should have been a much better film. Then again I could be eating my words in a few weeks time.

Toy Story is getting re-released in 3D at the beginning of October, I’m not convinced the 3D will add anything to an established classic (Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D was underwhelming to say the least) but you can’t argue with the chance to see one of Pixar’s finest the way it should be seen more than 14 years since its debut (God that makes me feel old). If nothing it will also serve as a useful marketing tool for the debut of Up in the UK, almost five months after it first appeared in the States. Why Pixar insist on such a big gap between worldwide releases every year I’m not quite sure, but the wait is always worth it.

October 9 is a busy day as it also sees the release of Megan Fox’s man-eating horror Jennifer’s Body and Scorsese’s much anticipated Shutter Island which looks to be the master’s first foray into the world of the supernatural (not counting his episode of Amazing StoriesMirror Mirror). Both at least show more promise than Zombieland, out at the end of October, which looks like little more than an American Shaun of the Dead with more zombie killing and less Cornettos.

Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture 3D version of A Christmas Carol debuts, oddly, at the beginning of November with Jim Carrey playing not just Scrooge but all of the ghosts that haunt him (a trailer has yet to be released), while Roland Emmerich is back on familiar disaster-strewn territory with big budget effects-fest 2012 exploding onto screens in November. Emmerich has been off the boil recently with 10,000 BC proving to be little more than the dumb man’s Apocalypto, but 2012 shows promise of a return to the much more accomplished works of his early career like Stargate and Independence Day.

The second instalment in the wildly popular Twilight franchise New Moon drops in November but the best is saved for December with Richard Kelly’s new thriller The Box hopefully marking a return to the quality of work seen in Donnie Darko as opposed to his much maligned follow-up Southland Tales; Where the Wild Things Are hopefully proving that a troubled production doesn’t always mean a bad film; and James Cameron’s Avatar hopefully living up to the hype.

To say Cameron’s first theatrical feature since 1997’s Titanic is hotly anticipated would be the understatement of the year. The drip feed of information on his revolutionary 3D work is set to become a torrent this Friday as the world is granted its first glimpse of Pandora and the Na’vi with an online trailer and select screenings of 15 minutes of footage all around the globe. It’s hard to know what to expect but based on past form it’s hard to imagine Avatar being anything other than a stellar return to the big screen for the king of the world.

Legend of the Seeker – Season One Episodes One and Two 18 August 2009

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Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect when investing your precious time in a brand new TV show, but one glance at a 30-second TV spot or even a couple of on-set photos and you will know exactly what to expect from Legend of the Seeker – the new fantasy show, which debuted on the Sci-Fi channel last Thursday. Lord of the Rings by Xena probably doesn’t do it justice but the influences of both were clear in this two-part season opener.

Based on the Sword of Truth book series by Terry Goodkind (the show was originally going to be called Wizard’s First Rule – the title of the first instalment in the series) the set-up for Legend of the Seeker is nothing fantasy fans haven’t seen a hundred times before. A young “confessor” Kahlan (Bridget Regan) is rescued by woodsman-with-a-destiny Richard Cypher (Craig Horner) from a group of armour clad warriors after passing through the boundary between D’Hara and Westland in search of the legendary “seeker” who, prophecies say, will end the tyrannical rule of Darken Rahl. Initially dismissing Richard as the woodsman he is (how many times have we seen that old chestnut?) Kahlan abandons him in search of wizard Zeddicus (Bruce Spence) who is in this land protecting the young seeker under the guise of an old mad-man. Soon enough the truth is revealed, the seeker gets his sword and Darken Rahl’s soldiers kill Richard’s father sending the trio on a quest that promises to change the fate of their world forever.

As far as set-ups go it’s bog standard fantasy fare but it gets the job done and introduces a few unique elements into the mix. Kahlan as a confessor has the power to “touch” people, at which point the person will be devoted to her, confessing absolute truth and even fighting to the death to protect her if needs be. Unfortunately using her power leaves her extremely weak for a lengthy period after meaning two of the shows main protagonists must rely on swordplay in battle, but thankfully the numerous fights featured in this season opener impress with choreography of unexpected quality and production values that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. The sheer volume of slow-motion becomes a bit of a joke by the end but it’s well done and looks better than close-up quick cuts could ever hope to (just less in the future please).

Of the three leads Bruce Spence is the standout. Again it’s standard wizard fare – Gandalf lite if you will – but genre veteran Spence successfully injects the show with a much needed sense of humour, a quality that seems to be entirely absent in Richard and Kahlan. Horner and Regan both get the job done, but little more with line deliveries ranging from middling to awful and some laugh-out-loud bad “looking surprised” acting. It doesn’t help that Horner looks like a Hollyoaks cast-off but they do an admirable job in the action set-pieces and it’s still early days. Unfortunately the creators seem to have made a big mistake casting Craig Parker as Darken Rahl, he played Elf Haldir in Lord of the Rings and its shows as he is far from the imposing figure one would expect from a tyrant, like Sauron if he were a rock star rather than a floating eye.

The series certainly shows promise and as one of the few Dungeons and Dragons-esque shows to hit the screen since the demise of Xenia (not counting the god-awful Krod Mandoon – who thought that was a good idea?) it’s certainly a welcome addition to the weekly roster. It looks amazing (shot in New Zealand no less) and the cinematography is up there with the best on TV, but the cgi is dreadful (a TV budget can’t cover everything) and it needs to do something to distinguish itself from the likes of Lord of the Rings if it’s ever to create a world that feels unique. Far from exceptional but a series that shows a lot of promise.