DVD Review: COLOMBIANA

Writer/producer Luc Besson returns to a genre which he helped define with Colombiana, and although he hands the directorial reins to one of his proteges, the fantastically monikered Olivier Megaton, the French maestro’s fingerprints are all over this film. The story of a sexy female assassin (Zoe Saldana) seeking vengeance on the drug cartels who murdered her family works as a nice companion piece to Besson classics La Femme Nikita and Leon, with the latter being of particular influence in several sequences. What Colombiana lacks in comparison however is the classy, art-house style of these earlier works, yet the increased action, more reminiscent of Besson’s Transporter series (of which Megaton helmed the third), generally works fairly well, and Saldana delivers a capable performance as heroine Cataleya.

That said, Colombiana is not without it’s problems. The film tends to take itself a little too seriously, particularly in some of the largely redundant romantic scenes between Cataleya and underappreciated boyfriend Danny (Michael Vartan), which tend to drag down the pacing and leave you impatiently waiting for the next action scene. Bizarrely, several timeline based continuity errors are also potentially distracting. As an example, for no discernable reason the majority of the film is set in 2007, yet the wall of the office belonging to the CIA agent tasked with tracking down the unknown assassin features a large photo of President Obama, two years before he became president. It’s nitpicking to be sure, but suggests a lack of attention to detail that perhaps hampers the film’s success. Mistakes like this would be more forgivable if the filmmakers were more willing to embrace the silliness and fun elements of the story, rather than reaching for something more affecting than is necessary. Still, it’s more or less a good time waster, anchored by a solid performance from Saldana, an actress who continues to impress in action roles.

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DVD Review: SOMETHING BORROWED

What is it about romance, one of the most well-defined genres in film and literature, that seems so hard to get right? Each year, countless vapid love stories flood the cinema (or more often the DVD shelf), polluting our screens with their noxious, saccharine presence. In 2011, Something Borrowed is perhaps the most offensive example; a pointless, over-long mess populated with unlikable characters and underdeveloped plots.

Something Borrowed is a love triangle of sorts, beginning with our ‘heroine’ Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) sleeping with her best friend Darcy’s (Kate Hudson) husband-to-be Dex (Colin Egglesfield). Floating around in the background is old college pal Ethan (John Krasinski), the only decent person in the whole film, who unfortunately has no bearing on the plot and serves only as a shoddy bait-and-switch device, dropping out of the conclusion completely and with no explanation. Hudson, who seems to have the lame romantic comedy market sewn up at this point, is the worst offender, and Darcy is so wholly despicable that it’s almost impossible to believe that any of the surrounding characters would put up with her self-obsessed demeanour for as long as they have. At times it feels as if the filmmakers are attempting to shake up the formula a little, yet none of it comes together in anything resembling a satisfying conclusion, and ironically a more predictable climax to this story might have redeemed the film at least a little. None of the character arcs are believable or interesting, and at almost two hours, Something Borrowed outstays its welcome by at least 30 minutes.

How films like Something Borrowed continue to get made is understandable; the audience for this nonsense are nothing if not easily amused. However, it’s hard to believe that even the most dedicated romantic comedy fan will find much to enjoy in this film. It is a scar on the face of romance, and doesn’t deserve to be seen by anyone. And for the love of all that’s holy, please stop giving Kate Hudson these scripts.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

Is there anything Brad Bird can’t do? Interest was certainly high when it was announced that the animation director would be making his live-action directing debut, choosing to tackle the third sequel in the Mission: Impossible film series. Brian De Palma’s first, while it hasn’t aged well, is a tense 70s style thriller, John Woo’s M:I 2 increased the action but lowered the intelligence, and in 2006 JJ Abrams reinvigorated the franchise with the exciting and highly enjoyable M:I 3. But all of the previous films have been completely left in the dust by Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, a strong contender for film of the year and perhaps one of the finest action films ever made. To have pulled off such a feat is somewhat remarkable for Bird. While certainly an immensely talented director (best known for The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, two films which would rank highly on any respectable list of greatest animated movies of all time), the ability to transfer his skills to live-action on the scale of M:I – GP with such flair sets him apart as a filmmaker with immeasurable gifts, and one of the most interesting directors working today.

So what is it about M:I – GP that works so well? Tom Cruise, returning as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, once again puts everything he’s got into his role. This franchise is clearly Cruise’s baby, and the famously passionate star characteristically doesn’t shy away from the more perilous stunt work. The level of commitment shown by Cruise is staggering, whether he’s clinging to the side of the worlds tallest skyscraper (130 floors up!), or throwing himself down several levels of a parking garage. Say what you will about his eccentricities, but the man takes a pounding at every turn of this film only to rise and face down the next challenge, the very definition of a fearless performance. Also of note is Simon Pegg making a welcome return in a much larger role than the last film, and his wisecracks and facial silliness provide much needed relief from the relentless suspense of the narrative. The story is somewhat familiar as Ethan and his team fight to stop a psychopathic genius (Michael Nyqvist) hell bent on starting world war three, but what could be a fairly standard affair in less capable hands is turned into something wonderful by Bird.

As you can probably gather, the real star of M:I – GP is Brad Bird. From a dialogue perspective, the film is surprisingly minimalist, as the director boldly lets his spectacular visuals speak for themselves, rather than relying on too much exposition from his characters. Likely because of his background in animation, where the visual style comes literally from the hands of the artist, Bird’s compositions and framing are so meticulously crafted, particularly in some of the more pulse-pounding set pieces. The aforementioned skyscraper climb is one of the most exciting sequences I have ever seen in a film, but it’s merely one of several fantastic scenes constructed by Bird and his team. Even in the quieter moments, seemingly unimportant small gags (Hunt shedding a disguise for example) add so much to the film, like the delicate icing on a huge, many-layered cake. As welcome as a new animated film from Bird would be, the astounding quality of M:I – GP suggests that anything he chooses to do from this point will be hotly anticipated. Whether his Pixar compatriot Andrew Stanton can pull off the same transition with next year’s John Carter remains to be seen, but for now, Brad Bird seems to be a director who can do no wrong.

DVD Review: BBC’s HUMAN PLANET

BBC’s epic eight-part documentary series Human Planet is a fascinating celebration of humanity’s ability to adapt to all environments across the globe, from the comfort of modern cities to the outright hostility of jungles, oceans, and the frozen wastes. Typical of the BBC, the footage contained in each episode is some of the most spectacular yet to be filmed, taking full advantage of improvements in filming technology and accessibility to remote regions. Each episode (covering Oceans, Deserts, Arctic, Jungles, Mountains, Grasslands, Rivers, and Cities) tells several stories relating to how communities survive in their particular environments, and the lengths people go to live in some truly difficult places is at times humbling and deeply admirable.

Where Human Planet shines most is when it focuses its gaze on the more remote people of our planet. Whether displaying the tribal courting rituals of the Wodaabe people in Niger, the mussel gatherers of Arctic Canada, or the monkey breastfeeding of the Awá Guajá in the Amazon, each episode manages to highlight the remarkable existences carved by communities well outside of our seemingly civilized world. Actor John Hurt delivers the narration with appropriate gravitas, delicately pitching whatever tone is most appropriate for the images on screen, whether dramatic or whimsical. That said, Hurt is merely an acceptable second choice, and Human Planet could certainly have been improved had legendary documentarian David Attenborough been involved.

Whatever the reasons for Attenborough’s absence, it also in a sense highlights what many people will no doubt have problems with concerning this series. With previous series such as Planet Earth or Life, the BBC have removed humanity’s presence from their footage as much as possible, yet here we are placed at the centre of the narrative, and, while certainly interesting, pointing the cameras at us isn’t always the most pleasant feeling. Human Planet pulls back the curtain a little on previous BBC nature shows, and the sense that there are always people lurking just outside the frame, ready to swoop in and exploit the natural world is a little unsettling. For the most part, the indigenous people the series focuses on are taking what they need out of necessity rather than greed, but there are hints about the destruction we are causing to our planet. The final episode, Cities, is the most illuminating in terms of the damaging effects of humanity’s spread, but clearly this was not the intended purpose for this series. There is much unsaid, but in the end Human Planet is a worthy addition to the BBC’s vast catalogue of nature documentary series, and has infinitely more value than the majority of what’s on our TV screens today.

RED STATE

While some would argue that a truly great filmmaker is to be able to adapt their skills to almost any story, certain filmmakers seem to work best by locking themselves into a singular style, which they merely tweak here and there with each new film. For the last two decades, no director has been a better example of the latter type than Kevin Smith. To describe the type of films he makes, perhaps the simplest description is this: he makes ‘Kevin Smith movies’. Low-budget, dialogue heavy low-brow comedy is his bread and butter, and on the few occasions where he’s deviated from his formula (2004’s Jersey Girl, 2010’s Cop Out), the results have been mixed at best. With Red State however, Smith smashes all preconcieved notions about what he is capable of as a director, delivering an intense, fast-paced thriller. Red State feels like a film from an ambitious first time director, and in a sense it almost is. This is not a ‘Kevin Smith movie’, and precisely that reason makes it Smith’s most interesting film in years.

That’s not to say that Red State is a great movie, or even a good one. The story begins with three teenagers lured into temptation and subsequently captured by the Five Points Church, an extremist religious group led by the charismatic Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), and builds to a Branch Davidian style standoff between the church and authorities. Drawing comparison with David Koresh’s tragic cult and, most obviously, the Westboro Baptist Church was clearly Smith’s intent, yet he makes it clear that Cooper is neither Koresh nor even Westboro leader Fred Phelps. Cooper and his family are the terrifying extreme of two of right-wing America’s most dangerous fascinations: faith and firearms. It’s certainly inflammatory subject matter, yet Smith chooses to point the finger even further, implicating not only Cooper’s warped ideas in the violence that occurs, but the authorities, in the form of the ATF, as well. The issues Smith wants to address are ripe for analysis, but having them all crammed in to a relatively brief 88 minutes unfortunately dilutes some of the film’s impact. Red State‘s conclusion is also sure to divide opinion, as Smith himself seems to be unsure how to end the siege at the church and resorts to a ham-fisted deus ex machina ending that kills the suspense he built so well.

There are moments of greatness in Red State however. Parks’ performance as Cooper is captivating as much as it is frightening, and the long sermon he delivers in the middle of the film is genuinely chilling. Just like a church member who stares raptly as Cooper quietly and calmly lectures on the evils in society, you just cannot take your eyes off Parks, a perfect piece of casting. Technically, Smith’s direction is also something of a revelation. Never before has it seemed like he was even attempting to inject any dynamic style into the look of his work, yet with Red State Smith seems to be approaching film as a visual medium for the first time, with surprisingly competent results. How people feel about this film is likely to depend on how attached they are to Smith’s usual style, but for viewers interested in seeing a director break out of their mold and really try to push their abilities, Red State has plenty to offer. Whether or not he continues to experiment with his next (and potentially final) film, the two-part hockey story Hit Somebody, it’s refreshing to see that there’s more to Kevin Smith’s talent than he has previously shown us.