Review: Terry – a fly on the wall peak at London’s street culture

Writer/ director/ actor Nick Nevern has definitely found a platform to show himself off: playing the role of London yob Terry in this faux-documentary drama about a dodgy london geezer and his ‘friendship group’ cum clan. They are hooligans and this is a close up and dirty portrayal of yob culture; street thugs with knives, drugs and attitudes. The film is essentially a gritty fly on the wall peak at Terry’s chaotic life and it’s an absolute masterclass on how to make a film on budget, shot on a camcorder and with a budget of less than £500! It could be perceived as a “happy-slap” flick, but honestly, it is much more than that.

Our camera man is introduced; given a name, Charlie, and a face – metal studded with a goatee, he looks much rougher than he sounds. He’s a film student making a documentary for his end of year showcase. He never really elaborates on his exact purpose behind filming Terry and crew, but it is implied that it’s kind of a social experiment, “a human study”. His subject: a sturdy, bald bloke with a predilection for cigarettes and the word ‘fuck’. He’s the very definition of streetwise and he doesn’t take any shit.

This is Terry. He’s a waster. He gets up in his dingy apartment, sparks a fag and then brushes his teeth with his finger over the kitchen sink. He drinks 90% of the day, and the other 10% he does coke. When Terry is around, a knife is never out of reach and things can turn sour, from amiable banter to violence, in an instant. He meanders from party to party with no ambition besides a drink and a good time. It’s a different life, a different culture, and it has different rules – specifically: there are none. Spencer is like the damaged chick Terry has taken under his wing. He’s a wannabe playboy who ends up spending most of his dough on prostitutes, and he sticks to Terry like glue. The two are “basically” best friends. Billy Black is a wannabe gangsta thinking he’s a wise guy. He talks the talk but he can’t walk the walk. He pisses Terry off.

These are the three central protagonists, and although we are slowly introduced to the rest of Terry’s posse, these are the three with whom most of the dramatic action takes place. There’s a lot of testosterone motivating these macho characters, and with so much conflict between the main parties things are inevitably going to get out of hand.

Terry walks a fine line that may not even exist, between a raw, brutal drama and a feel-good buddy movie. Yes it’s brutal, it’s savage and it’s totally unapologetic, but it’s never very intense. It retains an almost light-hearted and nonchalant air throughout, which is a relief because in a different light the content could have been too dark to watch. Instead Nevern finds humour in the unlikeliest of places and it’s difficult not to be swept up in the groups good natured jibing, and nonsensical banter. The chances are you’ll find yourself grinning at the most inappropriate times!

Much like Man Bites Dog, the fantastic french faux-doc about a serial killer, Terry approaches it’s subject with no prejudice and no rule book and it encourages the viewer to do likewise. Also similarly to that film, the camera man Charlie starts out determined to remain distanced from his subjects but is inevitably engaged by them, influenced by them at times, which makes for an interesting visualisation of the effects of peer pressure, affecting both the camera man and the viewer totally subconsciously.

As with most films shot in this handheld style, usually ‘found footage’ horror ventures, the shaky camera work is occasionally over-exaggerated to the point of distraction and in an effort to remain realistic, the voices aren’t always clear in the sound mix, particularly in the pubs and clubs they visit in the first part of the film. (This could also be attributable to the aforementioned £500 budget!). However, the real achilles heel of Terry is actually the pacing. When the action kicks off it is extremely gripping and easy to watch, but it’s a long time before anything really grabs your attention. In fact, I think this is a flaw recognised by the film makers as the film begins with an unnecessary and in hindsight, quite jarring false start, presumably with the intention of sparking some interest before a low key first forty minutes.

For a certificate 18, Terry is surprisingly un-graphic and inoffensive. It is littered with almost constant drug abuse, and every other word is a swear word, but there is no gore and practically no sex, although the one sex scene is a grotty threesome. It’s likely the reason it has been donned such a high certificate is the realistic and cavalier attitude of the characters towards drugs and violence. There is no underlying moral about a correct code of conduct here, nothing to indicate whether their behaviour is acceptable or not, and without a negative stance towards these things, the BBFC will always designate certificates harshly, and perhaps quite rightly too.

Terry is a film that could have gone in so many directions, and the final route it ended up taking might not be the best one. To borrow a phrase from Downey Jr., there are vaguely sinister undertones to the beginning of the movie, Terry is described as “not human”, and is often seen apart from the group, introverted. Or in the midst of a lively evening out, we’ll catch a glimpse of him, staring savagely, suddenly possessed by some inner turmoil and rage.

Everybody seems to respect Terry but as the film progresses you realise that the ‘respect’ is actually fear. People are afraid of him, of his irrational mood swings and sudden bouts of aggression. Terry will batter you for looking at him the wrong way and then carry on laughing. Terry’s mental instability seems to escalate throughout, and at times he goes totally haywire. His state of mind could have been an interesting avenue for the film makers to explore – indeed, initially I thought the film was a portrayal of one mans gradual descent in to insanity through a storm of drug and alcohol abuse. But not so. Nevern had other ideas in mind and in the final act, the film seems to veer off at a tangent and resolve itself in a manner quite unexpected.

Terry is out on DVD now.

Monsters – Trailer and Review – imminent release on to DVD and BD

Here’s the brand new trailer for Monsters which will be landing on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Monday, 28th March. If you don’t know much about the film, I highly recommend it and attach a review I wrote for Smell of Napalm not too long ago.

It’s not an alien thriller, but it’s not exactly your average drama either, Monsters instead blends sci-fi and romance (no, totally unlike The Fifth Element did) in to an extra-terrestrial road trip adventure across Central America.

Comparisons to the recent District 9 are unavoidable, although other than shooting style and alien quarantine zones, the films do address different issues, or rather, different aspects of the same issue – namely life in the aftermath of alien invasion. Perhaps unusually for an ‘alien movie’, the focus isn’t on thrills and blood spills. Director Gareth Edwards isn’t aiming for the jumps and scares elicited from this type of sci fi in the past.

The plot couldn’t be simpler; think a kind of jungle excursion spin on 16 Blocks. A photojournalist, Andrew, is requested by his presumably influential employer to transport his daughter, Samantha, back to the US from within the infected zone. Their journey is inevitably not as smooth running as anticipated and the two are thrown in to an uncertain relationship together.

Monsters is a film of few flaws, but one is that the relationship between Andrew and Samantha seems too forced. Andrew is such an unlikeable jerk from the outset, apparently only concerned by himself and his career. The chance that Samantha would fall for him so readily, especially given that she already has a fiance seems distinctly slim. Their mutual attraction is too rapid and without sufficient development, and whilst their on screen chemistry as the film progresses is almost tangible (unsurprisingly since the actors Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy are married in real life), this is a thorn that sticks sharply from it’s side.

That said, never has this kind of romance been portrayed against such a dramatic and intriguing creative back drop. The ‘infected zone’ in Monsters is a work of genius that totally defies the simplicity of it’s origins: on a studio rig comprised of off the shelf Adobe software and Autodesk 3d Max set up in Edwards’ bedroom.

It might be surprising then that the special effects are actually really good, rivalling much more expensive productions. Admittedly, they are used fairly sparsely, hinting at the enormity of the alien monsters rather than rendering them outright. A tentacle here, an unnatural silhouette there, and so on and so forth. Only in the romantic climax of the film do we see the fruits of Edwards’ labour in their full splendour, a sight I won’t ruin here with words.

The setting in Central America, other than refreshingly exotic, contributes to the alien, unfamiliar theme of Monsters, and the language barrier is used artfully to convey a sense of isolation, and the occasional drop of humour. It’s not a rollercoaster ride by any means, but Monsters will most definitely garner an emotional reaction from you in some way.

Monsters is a road movie of sorts, a trip through the heart of Central America and an exploration of companionship. It should be watched without the preconceptions that usually accompany the genre.

Certificate: 15
Run time: 94 mins
Country of Origin: UK

 

Black Swan

It’s a film about obsession, about beauty, about desire and longing, and about jealousy. It will force a range of emotions upon you, from stark fear to arousal, and it has a soundtrack that will move you to tears. In all honesty, it wouldn’t be amiss to declare that Black Swan is a perfect creation of cinema – a masterpiece.

Black Swan is essentially a modern, twisted retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and it’s utterly exhiliarating. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer in a New York City ballet company who, after years of trying, has finally scored the lead role of The Swan Queen in their upcoming production of Swan Lake. However, it’s a precise role, requiring dual characteristics, both that of the Black Swan and the White Swan, and ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) isn’t convinced that she’s capable of exhibiting the right flare. Meanwhile, fellow dancer, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to effortlessly portray the Black Swan, and Lily starts to fear that the girl is after her part.

Nina, whose character and personality is being repressed by her dominating mother, struggles to find some independence and adopt the free will and spirit of the Black Swan, and she initially befriends Lily, believing that her reckless lifestyle could inspire the freedom she needs for the role. However, it’s not long before Lily seems more of a foe than a friend, and Nina’s not sure she can control the dark side of herself that she is toying with.

Director Darren Aronofsky is famed for his explorative, and imaginative cinematography and Black Swan is a perfect example of this. There are numerous shots throughout that would be worth pausing and just enjoying as still photographs. This combined with intriguing set designs and astoundingly beautiful costumes (designed by Amy Westcott) make Black Swan a visual feast.

Both Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis give career defining performances, particularly Portman, whose acting is surely worthy of Oscar attention, and as little as I know about ballet, it seemed to me they were both spectacular dancers too – certainly they move with a confidence and elegance that charm the viewer.

It would be unfair to neglect to mention Clint Mansell’s superb score that underlies the entire movie. It is heavily drawn from Tchaikovsky’s original music, but whilst that deems it ineligible for Oscar attention, it makes for a dramatic, majestic and emotional score, the likes of which hasn’t really been used with film before. It’s as if the 19th Century composer himself wrote the music.

In terms of genre, Black Swan occupies a definite grey area. In many ways it could be considered a horror. It’s very frightening at times, predominantly due to suspense rather than constant visual shocks, and the shadowy, dark colour palette is especially foreboding. However, it perhaps functions more as a psychological thriller – what you see is rarely what is happening, the ballet director seems to be the architect of some dangerous mind games, and is Nina losing her mind? Undoubtedly there is much more method to the madness than might first appear and it’s this magic of uncertainty and paranoia that will keep you spellbound through to the tragic, heart wrenching climax.

This is a triumph of film making and one to watch again and again. Definitely worth seeing at the cinema.

Certificate: 15
Run time: 108 min
Country of Origin: USA

In the spotlight: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine loversNormally when writing a review, I have the Napalm guidelines niggling at the back of my mind; the format, the structure, the word count. I’m grateful for this film to be writing totally independently, as Blue Valentine is a film that invites much more intimacy from the viewer.

I’m going to kick off with a quick note about the direction and the creative team behind the film as Blue Valentine is a piece of perfectly constructed on-screen theatre. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance and it’s his first feature film in over a decade, and only his second ever. His thoughtful style of direction gives a lot of credibility to the film’s subjects, and his handling of the more carnal scenes in particular stands out as honest rather than racy or erotic. Special kudos should also go to the fantastic costume designers and make-up artists. The changes in era, both through fashion and emotionally are very clear. Gosling’s diminished/ receding hairline is somewhat distracting, but only because I kept asking myself how they’d succeeded in changing him so drastically scene to scene.  Following the brawl he has with Michelle’s ex (and the father of his child), one could swear that his nose is actually out of joint!

Anyway, I digress. Blue Valentine is about a married couple who are struggling to sustain their relationship. More specifically, they are failing to sustain their relationship, and there’s a sad inevitability to the depressing outcome. It’s not abundantly clear exactly why their relationship is suffering but that’s largely irrelevant, and instead the focus flits between their history (their beautiful love story), and their present unhappiness.

Many movies expect you to suspend your disbelief to some degree (if not entirely), but Blue Valentine doesn’t require the same. On the contrary, it is the reality of the circumstances within the film that make it so poignant. In fact, it would be safe to say the only suspension of disbelief required is to take for granted that Ryan Gosling could be so forward almost to the point of being sinister, and yet remain utterly charming. (A feat he has achieved for the second time here, the first being in another heartbreaker, The Notebook).

Ryan Gosling as Dean
Imagine having the class to pull off that suit

Speaking of The Notebook, there are definite comparisons to be made between the two films. Gosling’s character in both is forthcoming, confident and intensely passionate. In both films his characters almost force their love upon their counterparts through persistence and straight up challenge. For instance, in The Notebook Noah hangs by one arm from a ferris wheel, saying he’ll let go unless Allie (Rachel McAdams) concedes to a date with him. In Blue Valentine, upon intuitively sensing that Cindy is concealing something from him, Dean threatens to jump off a bridge unless she is honest and open with him. Both films play with the idea of actual madness as a result of love, that to be ‘crazy’ in love is to the untrained eye still just crazy. Both Noah and Dean definitely have their ‘unhinged’ moments and share the passion that is polluting their sanity.

The controversy in America over the NC-17 rating Blue Valentine was initially cursed with was over the sexual content of the film. It was eventually overruled, and the certificate reduced to an R, but it’s an interesting issue, because it struck me that the sex scenes aren’t sex scenes in the conventional sense, they’re love scenes, which is perhaps exactly why the MPAA found cause for alarm. People are uncomfortable watching emotionally charged, lifelike love scenes, particularly when they’re not shot with soppy lovestruck smiles on the characters’ faces. As Gosling himself said in interview:

“I just think that 10 people that live in the valley, representing parents across America is… how is that possible? They just make these decisions and they decide for these parents what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. So, their tolerance of violence is so different to their tolerance of sexuality, and if there’s violence involved in the sexuality, it’s somehow perceived as entertainment, but if there’s love involved with sexuality it’s seen as pornographic, and therefore not acceptable.”

It’s a curious paradox, but I think he’s right.

Throughout the film it is hard not to sympathise with Gosling’s character Dean, as it is very much Cindy who has fallen out of love with him. The efforts he goes to to maintain and then reignite their flare are desperate, but clearly romantic, and he is evidently very much in love with her despite the uncomfortable rough patch they find themselves in. Cleverly, both characters are likeable in their own way, which leaves the viewer in somewhat of a quandary as to whose side to take. Gosling seems rational; his arguments are sound, his logic irrefutable, but there is no overcoming raw feelings, and Cindy is unhappy, which kind of takes precedent over other considerations, of which there are many. Take for example their child, Frankie (Faith Wladyka – a perfect piece of casting), where does their relationship leave her? On the one hand it would be unpleasant and unfair to raise her between two parents who are sick of one another, and on the other hand it is also questionable whether an all out separation would be equally damaging. These are real dilemmas facing real people day in and day out, and one of the reasons Blue Valentine is such an effective film. It relates to you directly.

Personally I did find the film distressing, with many parallels to my own relationship (which is thankfully still in it’s youthful and love smitten days – long may they live), but Gosling’s wife shares a similar name to my girlfriend, a similar ambition (both desire(d) to be doctors), and I would parallel myself with Dean in some ways too, unfortunately in some negative lights: arrogant, pedantic, occasionally self-righteous, but on the flipside, romantic and deeply caring. It’s easy for a film as convincingly portrayed as this one to get under your skin and I don’t think it’s unhealthy to seriously think about the troubling issues it raises.

It would be dangerous to say much more about Blue Valentine without ruining it through spoilers, or in the very least over analysing it (as an excellent English teacher once described to me – “cutting a canary’s throat to see what makes it sing”).

It is evident that both lead actors have tremendous talent. Michelle Williams was essentially unknown to me prior to this film. Sure, I’d seen Brokeback Mountain, but it didn’t make much of an impression (that’s another story for another time), whereas I’ll definitely remember her face after this one. Gosling, of course, one of my favourite actors, can apparently do no wrong, and here he brings another very human character to life with incredible conviction. While there are talents like these on display, I look forward to the future of film.

LoveSpeaking of which, Ryan Gosling has been confirmed to star in a remake of Logan’s Run and will also be hitting screens again soon in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Drive, both due later this year, following which he’ll appear in George Clooney’s The Ides of March alongside George Clooney, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Clearly a man moving up in the world. I’m more than happy to watch him climb.

127 Hours highlights what it means to be human.

As entertainment, I don’t rate 127 Hours particularly highly, the film is an exercise of endurance as much as it is a portrayal. Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent film, but watching one man essentially procrastinate for five days before hacking off his own arm was never going to be all that enjoyable. The acting is superb and has to be, as the film rides on Franco’s performance and his creative interaction with his immediate environment, specifically a boulder, the walls of the canyon and a few scant tools he has presumably packed in anticipation of a less life threatening incident. The script is inevitably sparse, and the soundtrack isn’t all that noteworthy either.

It should do well enough at the box office partly off the back of Danny Boyle’s reputation (thanks to Slumdog, Trainspotting, The Beach etc.), and partly due to the media frenzy over the gruesome amputation Aron Ralston performs upon himself. In all honesty, it was the latter that intrigued me the most. Reports of ambulances at screenings attending to squeamish cinema goers plagued film blogs and columns during the initial days of release, and must have been a real boon from a marketing perspective, but I feel that these stories were immensely misleading (perhaps unsurprisingly as the press love to have a field day with the slightest whiff of drama). The amputation itself is much less gory and gratuitous than you may have been led to believe. There’s a fair splash of blood, but it’s not exactly an abattoir. Anyone who’s seen an episode of Dexter or a Quentin Tarantino film will undoubtably be sufficiently desensitised to watch unperturbed. I suppose it’s the realism of the situation which is really shocking, but Boyle’s direction is all just a little too stylised for that to really hit home.

Thoughts 60 seconds in to the film: is there enough product placement in this movie??
Thoughts 60 minutes in to the film: so much for the nausea inducing gore…

It might not be evident yet that I would actually recommend this film, but I would, and let me explain why. 127 Hours functions less as a taught thriller than as a study of the human condition; how beyond even the basic necessities of food and water, is the need for social interaction on some scale, be it the company of friends and family, or utter strangers. For instance, the sensation of triumph that Aron must have felt upon freeing his arm isn’t conveyed so convincingly as the angst he experienced isolated from everyone he ever cared about whilst faced with the hard truth that he may never see them again. Alone; he philosophises, musing that his entire life has led up to this moment, each of his choices another step towards his fate in the canyon; he uses his video camera to create an artificial relationship, talking to himself, talking to whoever might watch the video, rewatching a recent encounter he had with some girls on the trail; he calls out to a Raven, as if it might answer him. He strives to belay his loneliness by any means possible.

However, fascinating as the philosophising is, the true power of the film is in it’s climax, as through a haze of grit and dehydration induced blindness Aron spies three walkers. As he struggles to enunciate the word “help”, you, the viewer, is filled with tremendous tearjerking pride, confident in the knowledge that no matter who these three people are, they will help him, because such is the nature of man. They rush to his aid, and the next hikers they pass act the same way, offering water, food, anything they can. It is the spirit of solidarity that is usually only really glimpsed during the aftermath of natural disasters or similar catastrophes, the human connection that at sometime or another unites us all, and it’s a pleasure to be reminded of it through film.

It might not be the nail biting adventure story that you hoped for, and it’s hard to ignore Boyle’s distracting flashy direction, but overall 127 Hours seems to have achieved what it set out to do: it tells a compelling story, it inspires reflection and introspection, and it fills cinema screens with paying customers, and for all of this it must be applauded.

Get Him To The Greek and other tall, tasteless tales

Get Him To The Greek transpired to be as grating and atrocious as I thought it would be. Another ill-conceived comedy that was a waste of time, money and…actually, isn’t wasting time and money bad enough?? I’m hard pressed to decide if Get Him is the worst comedy of the year, or whether it still upstages Hot Tub Time Machine. Despicable as it is, I’m inclined to lean towards the latter.

Russell Brand and Jonah Hill no doubt perform their parts just as the director intended, but Brand appears to spoof himself and Hill, who is so naturally funny it would be an effort for him not to inspire laughter, tries to get by on charisma alone (which is limited in a character who spends the majority of the film vomiting on himself and others).

Speaking of regurgitating shit, Sean Combs is sickeningly awful as Hill’s foul mouthed “fuck” spouting boss, the black man reeling off gangsta homie stereotypes one after the other.

The humour is crass and unoriginal, a rehash of every other tasteless comedy in the past decade. In fact, the only joke in the film is the plot, summed up completely in the tagline/ detailed synopsis: Aaron Green has 72 hours to get a Rock Star from London to L.A.

It’s easy to see why this film reached an audience, it’s about as thick, uninspired and uninteresting as the general population. Sad though, that whilst the Apatow tag has now been associated with so many good or great comedies (think Superbad, Talladega Nights, The 40 Year Old Virgin), his name is also becoming code for: ‘cheap tack slapstick – avoid at all costs’.

Maybe you, like me, attend each of his comedies in the hope that another will be among the levels of comic genius expressed in Freaks and Geeks, or as inspired as Superbad. These days it seems like we’re out of luck. Genuine wit is being pissed away in favour of the school boy toilet humour epitomised by Harry Enfield back in the 90s. It wasn’t funny then and it definitely isn’t now. What we need are more comic pioneers – Simon Pegg, Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Julian Barratt, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, even the K man. (I’ve just realised my list is entirely British…how unintentional. Anyone fancy helping me out with some great US equivalents?)

In the meantime, I’ll settle for more along the lines of The Other Guys – where Ferrell and Wahlberg strike comedy gold, perhaps largely down to director and co-writer, Adam McKay (also the name behind Anchorman). He can start the US list of funnies then…

PS. Even the notoriously negative Peter Bradshaw raves and dollops a full 5*s to The Other Guys – I don’t want to big the man up too far (he chats a lot of shit) but in this instance, he’s not wrong. See his review here.

The Social Network – a masterclass in film making.

Wow. I’m simply full of praise for the team behind The Social Network. Surely Hollywood, not to mention the premium TV channels that have shunned him in the past, are now clamouring for more scripts by Mr. Aaron Sorkin. I’ve written of my admiration for the guy in the past, and I’m sure I will again. His script is quick-fire, quicker witted and utterly compelling. It is saturated with Sorkin style; rapid conversations that are just too smart to be real, multiple topics and scattered trains of thought covered in dialogue scant sentences long, and of course, a sense of humour, all of which combines to create real momentum and audience involvement. (There is also reference to cocaine, a pivotal point for Sorkin due to his own habit earlier in his career. How much that storyline adheres to the truth I’d be interested to know…) At the cinema screening I sat through, the entire auditorium was totally attentive all the way through, an uncommon circumstance these days. And by these days I mean, days in which cinemas are largely attended by loud dickheads who eat and talk and annoy.

Fincher’s direction is top notch as per usual, great pacing, a broad contrast of ups and downs; that emotional rollercoaster people love to speak of was well an truly rolling and coasting.

Equally impressive is the casting and the cast. Even Timberlake, and I can see it’s not going to be long before ‘even’ won’t belong at the beginning of a sentence like this, gave a spot on performance as the infuriatingly slimy and cock sure, Sean Parker (Napster creator). Eisenberg was at his best. Sullen, sharp, unlikeable – a perfect Zuckerberg and last but not least, our beloved friendly neighbourhood Andrew Garfield, playing the hard done by Eduardo Saverin, in what might be his last interesting role for a while as he dons Spidey’s suit.

Except he’s not really last, because three more of The Social Networks greatest assets need a mention.

Well, actually, this is where it gets confusing, because two of those ‘assets’ are actually one person. Armie Hammer, whose acting career is just about to go boom, plays both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and does a hilarious job of it (in the best possible way). Meanwhile, their friend Divya Narendra is played by Max Minghella, another character with a relatively small role who really jumps off the screen and makes an impression.

Ultimately, I think that’s why The Social Network is going to be such a highly regarded film. It offers a spectacular example of film making on every level. Fincher’s on a role, I really hope Sorkin is too. The trailer doesn’t really do it justice but take a look anyway:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB95KLmpLR4[/youtube]

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2Iron Man 2 (2010)

Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Justin Theroux
Main Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson
Release: 30th April 2010 (UK)

Country of Origin: USA
Certificate: 12
Runtime: 124 min

An action packed sequel to the blockbuster hit, Iron Man 2 doesn’t pull any punches trying to better it. Indeed, facing stiff competition and inevitable comparison to every other super hero flick, it couldn’t afford to be anywhere close to lacklustre. It isn’t. On the contrary, Iron Man 2 crackles with excitement and thrills and delivers a satisfyingly concrete story too.

The hotly anticipated second film in what is looking to be an Iron Man Trilogy doesn’t waste any time easing you in but drops you straight back in the action, continuing on shortly after the global revelation at the end of the first outing that Tony Stark is in fact, the Iron Man. The production team had no easy task this round, attempting to up the ante on the original, set up a sequel and simultaneously begin introducing characters and plot lines to carry over in to future films of, for example, The Avengers and Captain America, both in the production pipeline. They don’t succeed flawlessly, but almost…

Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) isn’t a bad guy like Jeff Bridges was in the first film – he has a lot less lines, considerably less screen time and a dodgy russian accent that’s so thick you’ll struggle interpreting even his basic english. He’s a decent villain, but you won’t find yourself hating him, and he never seems all that much of a threat to Iron Man. The real villain of the piece, as loveable as he is, is Justin Hammer, played with glorious finesse by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell evidently enjoys the role and happily dominates the screen in all of his scenes. One particularly memorable moment sees Hammer dancing on to a stage to Average White Band’s funky tune, ‘Pick Up The Pieces’. He’s definitely got the moves; slick, stylish, effortlessly cool and sexy enough to turn on a eunuch. And speaking of sexy – Stark Industries has never had so much sex appeal now that the beautiful Natalia Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) has joined the team. When you see her in action it would be hard not to agree with Tony Stark: “I want one”. It can’t all be eye candy though (although it seems like it at times) and alongside all this glamour poor Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems a touch bland.

You could never claim that Iron Man 2 isn’t fast paced! Not many action hero films start with a boss fight. They tend to be reserved for the final few minutes in what has become a boringly inevitable segment of the super hero movie. Not so in Iron Man 2. Stark and Vanko/ Whiplash face off in the first ten minutes in an adrenaline fuelled exchange that showcases some seriously top notch CGI work. In fact, it’s worth making a note now, that where special effects are concerned, Iron Man 2 is extremely impressive.

Naturally Stark batters Vanko and leaves him to rot in prison, but not before providing a few technological tips about his weaponry to ensure that if he did ever get out…their final encounter will look a bit more flashy. Of course, pride goes before a fall and Tony Stark falls hard pretty soon after.

In fact, for a good portion of the film, the egotistical Iron Man comes across a little defeatist. He’s dying of palladium poisoning, he’s been subpoenaed and the US Government are demanding possession of the suit. Whilst battling evil is all in a days work for Stark, these relatively banal problems are just too much. He does what every troubled hero does – goes on a booze bender. It’s not as dire as it sounds. Whether it’s a drunken punch up fully clad in the suit, clay pigeon shooting with Champagne Bottles or busting clunky moves on the disco dance floor – it’s action comedy gold with extra comedy.

Yes, humour is a big part of Iron Man’s character and the film as a whole. Generally Downey Jr. handles it so fluidly you’d think he was that witty every day, but sometimes the quips are fired and misfired a little too fast to be enjoyed. He’s not the only one spouting one-liners though as it seems screenwriter Justin Theroux dished them out with abandon – even the bad guys ooze enough comic charisma to make you feel upbeat and optimistic about their treacherous scheming.

Iron Man 2 definitely asserts itself as the big brother to it’s predecessor and no doubt this will cause parallels to the other great action hero sequel, The Dark Knight. The fact is though, the films fundamentally differ in one significant respect: there is nothing dark and nothing menacing about Iron Man 2 – it’s simply a film that knows what the viewer wants and all but overdoses them on it. Director Jon Favreau has stepped up just about everything: bigger explosions, grander ego, funnier jokes and of course, smarter technology. Steel yourself – Iron Man 2 will blow your socks off.

Why it’s not all about the big shot reviews (or: “Nev, it’s nothing personal…”)

I’m a subscriber to both Empire and Total Film. They’re both fantastic, informative magazines that score high points for sheer entertainment value. Of course, I enjoy reading them, and I love that as I read, my knowledge of film, my boffery if you like (I don’t), almost perceptibly increases. But more than that, I get a kick out of every instance of poor journalism that jumps off the page at me. Partly it amuses me, and partly it niggles that such high profile magazines still host some awful writers.

Here’s a case study from Empire. It’s a review of Inception. It reads like a first, pompous draft in which Nev Pierce, described as Empire’s ‘Editor-at-large’ (translations welcome), is evidently struggling to express just how confounded he was after Chris Nolan had battered around his psyche. Indeed, he was so confused, it appears he couldn’t write a coherent article. Maybe he was high. It certainly reads like he could have been.

“Marvel at the effrontery of a filmmaker who asks you to emotionally invest in avowed mental construct”…

More jaffa cakes, Nev? Not only is the review more convoluted than the film, but the chances are it’ll have your average Die Hard fan reaching for a dictionary. That’s no reflection of Die Hard fans, hell, even Pierce thought he needed to explain himself:

“Obfuscation masquerading as artistry, aka not half as bloody clever as it thinks it is”…

I hope he doesn’t miss the irony of that statement, but I think he might have.

“For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?”

Nev, next time you’re reviewing a blockbuster, steer clear of the Hamlet quotes, eh? In fact, refrain from all Shakespeare – time and place, you know? It would afterall be embarrassing to be accused of the ‘showboating’ that you praise DiCaprio for avoiding. Frankly, I just wanted to know if it was a good film, worth a watch, a little bit of background maybe. I wasn’t expecting a multi-page thesis.

Read the whole article (linked above) to understand exactly why it wound me up.

In the massively unlikely event you’re reading this Nev – it’s nothing personal. In fact, if you’re hiring over at Empire, I’d love to discuss our differences…

Until then: Empire. Total Film. Up your game.

Inception is a terrific movie, released on blu-ray and DVD on the 6th December 2010.

Vampire (2002)

VAMPIRE aka. Demon Under Glass (2002)

Director: Jon Cunningham
Main Cast: Jason Carter, Garrett Maggart, Jack Donner, Kira Reed

Country of Origin: USA
Running Time: 111mins
Certificate: 15

The themes staked at the heart of Vampire are interesting enough, the balance between science and ethics, and a look at what stage research and study devolves in to transgression. The problem lies in the execution of these ideas on a budget that couldn’t finance a bag of penny sweets – taking this in to account, it’s not such a bad job, but it’s far from cinematic eye-candy.

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The film kicks off as a vampire, Vlad, is caught in an undercover police operation trying to solicit a prostitute. Injured in the ambush, he is taken to a government lab and studied as he heals. Naturally the doctors and scientists assigned to his case become very personally involved, particularly the characters of Dr McKay (Garrett Maggart, The Sentinel) and Dr Bassett (Jack Donner, General Hospital). The scientists begin to discover just how far you can go in the name of scientific research as study turns to torture, and torture to murder; the lines between morals and ethics become distinctly murky as the doctors confront the ultimate dilemma.

Unfortunately there are a number of problems with the shooting of Vampire. The grainy footage is bad even for a B movie, it’s as if the whole thing was shot from various CCTV cameras concealed on set. Particularly the opening scenes of the undercover police sting are so retro you half-expect ‘reconstruction’ to appear in reassuring white letters in the top left hand corner. Patronising stills of the sunrise or sunset between almost every scene attempt to remind you what time of day it is, just in case you’d forgotten: Vampires don’t do daylight (If they did, it’d be the best daylight in the world…wait, no, that’s Carlsberg).

The script, whilst boring, is actually one of the strong points. It goes in to a lot of depth discussing the various angles relevant to keeping a vampire in captivity and under treatment, and is pretty strong on character development. That said, there are a few hiccups in the dialogue, lines that would be hard pressed coming from an 18th century Lord, let a lone a hooker or military operative – this is supposedly 2002, people just don’t say “begging your pardon, sir” or “you sir, presume too much” – indeed, has that ever been the everyday vernacular? And while I’m on the subject of era, their hi-tech government laboratory is about as technologically advanced as my microwave, except with bigger buttons and dials, not to mention the only actual computer screen visible on the entire set has the appearance of a prototype ABC computer monitor, deeper than it is wide, not the gadgetry you would expect to find in the UK equivalent of Area 51. Vampire isn’t just dated visually either. One classic montage has a musical accompaniment that could have been ripped straight from an episode of the original Miss Marple starring Jean Hickson.

Bemusingly, the screenwriter has included the occasional attempt at humour, but this is totally at odds with how seriously the film takes itself, and clashes heavily with otherwise dull cinematic tone. Ironically, the terrible costumes, effects and frequently hammy acting are much more likely to draw laughs and/ or snorts of derision.

Hookers are the victim of choice in Vampire, arousing that morbid blood lust that conforms to the good film formula: sex + violence = excitement. So why doesn’t it work in Vampire? Perhaps because the scarce violence portrayed is less convincing than Charlie Chaplin slapstick and the sexual content is less raunchy than a Carry On film. Don’t get me wrong, these two ingredients don’t necessarily make for a good film, but if you’re going to attempt them, do it with a little conviction! Vampire really needed to decide what kind of film it wanted to be, it dabbles with scenes of action and thriller, and yet the dialogue gets bogged down with in depth discussions (over games of chess!!) about the nature of the human condition. You’ve heard of style over substance? This is kind of like and ill-conceived attempt at the opposite.

Best advice…if you’re a fan of Twilight – don’t watch this. If you’re a fan of Blade – don’t watch this. If you loved that new movie Daybreakers with Willem Dafoe kicking ass – don’t watch this. Why? Because this isn’t a conventional vampire movie. There are no big budget special effects because there was no budget. There are no A list actors for the same reason. There is also not much excitement, terror or any other form of enjoyment. Vampire is essentially just a classic tale of moral dilemma stripped of all the stereotypes that ironically would have made it worth a watch. Unless you’re literally being threatened by a fanged psychopath, probably best to give this one a miss.