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Delivers on expectations

Posted : 6 days, 14 hours ago on 12 April 2014 05:04 (A review of The Raid 2)

"It will be a few months. You can't know where I am. And I can't be seen anywhere near you."

Sequels to hit motion pictures are always a dubious proposition, especially action sequels which very rarely live up to their predecessors, let alone surpass them. 2014's The Raid 2: Berandal is one of the rare exceptions to the rule, however. Written and directed yet again by Gareth Evans, this sequel to 2012's The Raid: Redemption confidently raises the bar for contemporary action movies, with astonishing scenes of martial arts that most likely will never be topped. Whereas its predecessor was a small-scale action fiesta, Berandal is closer to The Departed (or Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film which spawned it) as it's imbued with a denser story and it's much bigger in scale. Nevertheless, it feels like an organic continuation, and it delivers the type of bone-crunching fights and breathtaking action beats that the niche audience expect to see.

Picking up mere hours after the events of the previous flick, police officer Rama (Iko Uwais) is recruited to take part in a covert undercover operation which hopes to expose the city's corrupt police. Sent deep undercover as a prison inmate, Rama wins the trust of Uco (Arifin Putra), a pretty-boy gangster whose father heads a powerful crime family. Rama serves two years behind bars, after which he's accepted into the Bangun crime family alongside Uco. Rama's incredible fighting skills render him a valuable asset, and, before long, he's at the centre of the family's criminal machinations, struggling to maintain his integrity along the way. As a war burgeons, Uco becomes increasingly unstable and unpredictable.

Berandal actually started life as an original film, intended to be produced not long after Evans' 2009 feature Merantau. However, after funding fell through, Evans opted for a smaller project which became The Raid. Subsequently, Evans possessed the clout that he needed to finally produce Berandal, retooling the screenplay to follow on from The Raid, therefore justifying the movie's existence beyond mindless cash grab. It's a massive credit to Evans that Berandal is as smooth as it is. There's a dense narrative at play here, with plenty of story to work through over the gargantuan two-and-a-half hour runtime, yet the film at no point feels like homework. Evans perpetually maintains a glorious pace, deploying action sequences when necessary to give viewers a jump-start before boredom can set it. Even more laudable is that it's surprisingly easy to keep tabs on the sizeable ensemble, ensuring that you'll never mistake one character for another. It is a bloated effort, and at least one or two subplots feel indulgent (especially one minor character who's given his own subplot for no compelling reason), but the movie nevertheless comes together and works well enough.

Despite the bigger scale, Berandal is permeated with the same tone and style as its predecessor, with similar digital photography and grimy locales. Without the constraints of a single building, the action feels unconfined, allowing for plenty of hand-to-hand combat in a variety of settings, and there's even a stunning car chase for good measure. Production for this follow-up was ongoing for the better part of eight months, with the final fight scene alone reportedly taking up to six weeks to choreograph and shoot. As a result, Berandal contains arguably the greatest scenes of martial artistry in cinematic history, stylishly photographed by cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono. To be sure, the camera movements are a bit on the jittery side as fists, blades and feet fly, but it's easy to discern what's going on, and the style results in heightened intensity. Evans employed dozens of talented fighters, and puts every single one of them to good use. There is not a single punch or kick which looks faked, and there are so many painful falls and brutal deaths that one must wonder if any of the stunt guys landed in hospital as a result.

Berandal is a vicious movie, convincingly earning its R-rating before the five-minute mark with the image of a shotgun blast obliterating a human head. Also outstanding is a lengthy kitchen brawl in which Rama goes toe-to-toe with a fighter of almost equal ability, resulting in violence so visceral and merciless that you'll be on the edge of your seat the entire time. Evans likely used minor digital effects to depict various wounds as he did with the original movie, but once again it's more or less seamless. Berandal also benefits from a stellar cast, with Uwais showing himself to be both an awesome fighter and a solid leading man. However, its Putra as Uco who dominates the movie, coming across as a suave, psychopathic villain. Other outstanding new additions include Julie Estelle and Very Tri Yulisman, who play a brother and sister duo with incredible fighting abilities. Estelle wields dual hammers in ways that make Oldboy look tame, while Yulisman uses an aluminium baseball bat to hugely painful effect. It's spectacular.

Although there's no denying the jaw-dropping competence of the fight scenes, a number of the conflicts do grow repetitive, and more variety to the action could've catapulted the movie into the stratosphere. Sure, there is a breathtaking car chase, but shootouts are all too rare, which is completely baffling considering that these gangsters should have an arsenal of guns, and it'd be a lot easier for them to just shoot Rama when he engages in fisticuffs with them. This aside, The Raid 2: Berandal is a home run which doesn't fall victim to usual sequel pratfalls. It may be bigger and better, but it doesn't lose sight of what made The Raid a cult success in the first place.


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Everything is indeed awesome

Posted : 1 week ago on 11 April 2014 01:49 (A review of The Lego Movie)

"The prophecy is made up, but it's also true. It's about all of us. Right now, it's about you. And you... still... can change everything."

The Lego Movie is a blast of pure awesomeness, an infinitely enjoyable animated feature which lives up to and surpasses its hype. Masterminded by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it's a strikingly original piece of cinema, on top of being perhaps the boldest motion picture of 2014 so far. Here is a computer-animated movie with deliberately rocky animation to emulate the look of a YouTube stop-motion effort, and it's so infectiously funny and creative that it frequently feels like a devilishly goofy fan film. With an immense sense of energy and plenty of imagination, The Lego Movie is snappy and amusing, and it's difficult to wipe the smile off your face as you watch it.

In the land of Bricksburg, Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a completely nondescript construction worker, with no distinguishing characteristics to make him stand out to his colleagues. Running the city is President Business (Will Ferrell), who brainwashes the public into a carefree life of routine, encouraging them to watch cell-deadening TV shows like Where Are My Pants? and buy overpriced coffee. When Emmet stumbles upon a centuries-old red brick known as the "Piece of Resistance," he's identified by the mysterious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) as the "Special" - the chosen one expected to fulfil a prophecy maintained by blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). With President Business and his minion, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), determined to reclaim the Piece of Resistance, Emmet sets out with Wyldstyle and Batman (Will Arnett), seeking to evade capture and prevent Business' nefarious plans.

The Lego Movie's opening moments are utter perfection, establishing the world inhabited by Emmet while effectively displaying the movie's snowballing tone. The tour of Bricksburg is a joy, with sly visual touches and even a sequence of Emmet's colleagues motivating themselves throughout the workday by perpetually singing Everything is Awesome, a song so insanely catchy that it's destined to become a pop culture staple.

For the majority of its runtime, The Lego Movie is an absolute hoot, providing nonstop laughs and quirkiness as it lurches from one uproarious, creative set-piece to the next at a breathless pace. It feels like the type of narrative that many of us would concoct as kids while playing with toys, before we were restrained by annoying notions of reality. Although an entire feature consisting of such sequences would be fun enough, Lord and Miller go above and beyond the call of duty, dabbling in Pixar levels of maturity for the final act. The story takes an unexpected left turn, leading to a jaw-dropping reveal about the true nature of the existence of this universe. From there, the movie provides a poignant rumination on the wonders of childhood and the importance of playtime which may move some to tears. The Lego Movie not only features Lego prominently, but it's also an affectionate love letter to the toy brand, and it ponders Lego's place in the modern pop culture canon. Who on Earth expected that?

Practically everything in The Lego Movie is made of Lego. The people, the buildings, the fires, the landscapes, the explosions, the water - there is not a single frame of animation that's not comprised of Lego pieces. The movie never tries to hide this fact, constantly calling attention to its artifice in a playful fashion, wanting us to buy this as some homemade stop-motion film. There are plenty of wonderfully quirky touches for the nerds in the audience, from the various uproarious piss-takes and movie references, to the variety of Lego-built kingdoms that the characters tour through. Also impressive are the various cameos, giving the flick an enchanting sense of spontaneity and surprise. Suffice it to say, it would be borderline criminal to spoil any of the pleasures to unearth here, but rest assured it maintains attention almost effortlessly.

The Lego Movie could almost be watched without sound due to the lush visual presentation, but to do so would be to miss out on all the wonderful jokes that are sold with top-flight comedic timing. The goofy dialogue rarely lets up, and the script is peppered with side-splitting wordplay. Not to mention, the vocal performances all-round are spectacular, particularly Liam Neeson who has a ball as Good Cop/Bad Cop. It's also wonderful to hear Morgan Freeman's distinctive voice amid the chaos, while the likes of Pratt and Banks hit their marks beautifully. But surprisingly, one of the movie's biggest assets is Arnett as Batman. The portrayal of the Caped Crusader here is magnificent, with Lord and Miller gleefully skewering the dark, brooding, gravelly-voiced portrayal of Bats that we've been subjected to over the past decade.

If The Lego Movie wasn't masterminded by Lord or Miller, it would have been exactly the type of bland, safe, paint-by-numbers distraction that the project sounded like in the first place. Even though the movie is basically a 100-minute commercial for the world-famous building bricks, it's marketing pulled off in an inspired and satisfying manner. From start to finish, the picture is a through-and-through hoot, a genuine masterpiece which will likely wind up in the year's top 10. And even better is that it has arrived so early in 2014 after a disappointing year of animated movies, setting the bar extremely high. Kids will be in heaven, while adults will appreciate it on various levels. You will also be left wondering just how Lord and Miller were able to smuggle this borderline perfect gem into cinemas.


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A genuine game-changer

Posted : 2 weeks ago on 4 April 2014 05:59 (A review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

"Captain, in order to build a better world, sometimes means turning the old one down... And that makes enemies."

Marvel doesn't have the best track record with second instalments, with Iron Man 2 and 2013's Thor: The Dark World both paling in comparison to their respective predecessors. But whatever curse once existed has now faded with the release of 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a sequel which not only improves upon its satisfying predecessor but also emerges as perhaps the best Marvel feature to date. Whereas 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger was an old-fashioned WWII thriller, this follow-up is a modern spy potboiler with a fresh identity, taking the franchise in new and exciting directions. Helmed by Anthony and Joe Russo, The Winter Soldier is intricate in its plotting, character development and political satire, yet also boasts some of the best action sequences in the Marvel canon to date, making this a hugely enjoyable sit which doesn't require a temporary lobotomy prior to viewing.

While on a dangerous assignment to foil the pirate takeover of a mysterious ship, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), develops suspicions that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and colleague Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are keeping him uninformed on potentially important matters. He's disillusioned by the possibility, but he's forced back into duty with the arrival of the fearless, powerful assassin known as The Winter Soldier. When one of Rogers' friends is gunned down by the formidable foe, it becomes clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised and nobody can be trusted. With high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) wanting Rogers captured, the Captain goes on the run with Romanoff seeking to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. Also lending a hand is war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who's experienced in using a special wing-controlled jetpack.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, The Winter Soldier benefits from a crackling story which allows room for action, pathos, and the opportunity to comment on America's current political affairs. Added to this, the screenplay further develops Rogers as a character - The Avengers barely scratched the surface of Cap's assimilation into modern society, but The Winter Soldier shows the WWII veteran endeavouring to get a handle on the 21st Century and catch up on what he's missed. But it doesn't take long for the rug to be pulled out from underneath him, leaving Rogers to come to grips with the bleak reality of contemporary warfare full of high-tech surveillance and complex tactics, rather than good old-fashioned derring-do. Added to this, there are hefty twists at play throughout the story with huge repercussions, reintroducing unexpected characters and making a huge impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Indeed, the ramifications of the proceedings here will reverberate throughout Marvel's other properties forever. The Winter Soldier is a bold movie, and it feels like the work of an auteur with a vision (or, in this case, two auteurs with a shared vision) rather than a committee of soulless studio executives.

The Russos were perhaps not the most logical pair for a Marvel blockbuster - their last film was the lackadaisical Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree, and they have a long track record in television. Yet, they prove their worth from the first very frame, forging a distinct cinematic aesthetic that's gritty without being dour. Similar to Shane Black's Iron Man 3, the Russos infuse The Winter Soldier with a unique identity, approaching the material not as a standard comic book affair but as a twisty, intense, character-centric espionage thriller. The directors endeavoured to achieve as much of the movie as possible with practical effects, and it shows, with grounded action sequences and suspenseful gun battles which are far more involving than the overly digital set-pieces that have become the norm in comic book flicks. The tone is more restrained, as well, harkening back to '70s thrillers as opposed to its superhero brethren. There are also some amusing little touches here and there, including Cap's list of cultural touchstones he wants to investigate, and a sly Easter Egg on a tombstone towards the film's end.

The action sequences of Marvel productions are mostly built around ray guns, monster punches and magic hammers, but the set-pieces in The Winter Soldier almost exclusively involve blades, bullets, fists and bombs. This is easily Marvel's most violent screen outing, with a gargantuan body count and plenty of shootouts. It retains its coveted PG-13 certificate by keeping blood and viscera out of frame, but it's nevertheless brutal. The Russos also foreground hand-to-hand combat, staging hugely impressive fight scenes boasting superb choreography. Most pulse-pounding is a sequence featuring Rogers battling an entire security team in a crowded elevator, taking them out with astonishing speed and skill. It's all photographed gorgeously by cinematographer Trent Opaloch, while Henry Jackman's accompanying soundtrack is perfection. As with all Marvel movies, The Winter Soldier eventually climaxes with a large action sequence ladled in CGI, but it feels almost obligatory and clashes with the movie's tone. Still, it's not enough to ruin the effort, as the Russos make the battle hugely exciting and even find time for emotion amid the pyrotechnics.

This is Evans' third screen outing as the noble, kind-hearted, muscular Captain America, and he remains absolutely spot-on, infusing his performance with a lived-in quality and coming across as a believable boy-scout type. This particular story asks for Evans to display more pathos than usual, and he confidently rises to the task - he conveys his guilt over the loss of his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), effectively emotes over the difficulty of seeing his beloved Peggy (Hayley Atwell) as an old woman, and even looks uncomfortable about the Captain America legacy when he visits his very own exhibition at the Smithsonian museum. And on top of being a confident hero, Evans charmingly interacts with Johansson and Jackson, with the former being allotted a larger role in the proceedings. Suffice it to say, Johansson is an utter delight, dispersing an array of snappy one-liners and handling the athletic action scenes like a champion.

As Alexander Pearce, Redford is a magnificent addition, providing weight and gravitas to help sell the movie as the '70s political thriller that it is. Redford absolutely kills it, and also makes us believe his power and authority from the very first scene in which he appears. Another welcome newcomer is Mackie, who plays a Rocketeer-type with plenty of charm and appeal. And it almost goes without saying that Jackson remains an effortless badass as Nick Fury. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier himself is a remarkable villain - he's strong, fast and physically intimidating, not to mention the story behind him (which will likely extend into the next movie) is one of the most interesting things in the Marvel franchise so far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a genuine game changer, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre in general. It may clock in at over two hours, yet not a single scene feels unnecessary. It will almost undoubtedly stand as the finest constituent of Phase Two of Marvel's cinematic world-building effort, and it manages to build anticipation for both the next Avengers and the third instalment in the standalone Captain America series. As always, be sure to hang around until the end of the credits for two additional scenes; one in the middle of the credits, and one after the credits. Let's just say that fans are destined to leave the cinema salivating.


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Funny, good-natured and full of great songs

Posted : 2 weeks, 4 days ago on 31 March 2014 10:26 (A review of Muppets Most Wanted )

"Not one single person noticed I'd been replaced by an evil criminal mastermind?"

Despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and character focus, 2011's The Muppets was a delightful revivification of the ailing Muppets franchise, making Jim Henson's iconic creations feel relevant once again. Striking while the iron's hot, 2014's Muppets Most Wanted retains director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who actually improve upon their last endeavour, providing more laughs and plenty of inspired silliness, not to mention a superb selection of original songs. Whereas its 2011 predecessor was fundamentally the ultimate fan film, Muppets Most Wanted aims to get back to Muppet basics as if the gang never left. Thus, this new outing follows the template set by the original Henson-era trilogy, introducing a flimsy plot which blatantly exists as an excuse for gags, antics and songs.

The Muppets was imbued with a very meta narrative, chronicling the Muppet gang getting back together and setting out to reclaim their popularity. Muppets Most Wanted is just as meta, with the little furry guys wondering what they should do for a sequel. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and his friends are soon approached by manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who talks the gang into embarking on a tour of Europe. Meanwhile, evil Russian frog Constantine (Matt Vogel) escapes from a Siberian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey), promptly swapping identities with Kermit to send the famous amphibian behind bars while he takes control of the Muppets. Using the tour as cover, Dominic and Constantine begin pulling off heists across Europe, stealing artwork and artefacts which will lead them to a larger fortune. In prison, Kermit tries to adapt to his new lifestyle, eventually collaborating with his intimidating inmates (including Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement, and Danny Trejo) to stage a talent show. Added to this, a bumbling Interpol inspector (Ty Burrell) teams up with C.I.A. Agent Sam the Eagle (Eric Jacobson) to investigate Constantine's burglaries.

There's quite a lot of story to work through in Muppets Most Wanted, but Bobin manages to juggle the ensemble quite effectively. All the Muppet characters are given a proper look-in - including Fozzie (Jacobson), Miss Piggy (also Jacobson), Animal (Jacobson again) and Gonzo (Dave Goelz), not to mention Walter (Peter Linz), the protagonist of the last film who's part of the gang this time around. And, of course, the inimitable Statler and Waldorf also show up on a few occasions to wittily heckle yet again. Although the flick is overlong at almost 110 minutes, it has a snappy pace and ample momentum, deploying plenty of amusing moments and uproarious set-pieces. Added to this, there is heart, mainly in Kermit's character arc - the subplot involving Kermit feeling underappreciated by his friends and rediscovering his mojo by staging the prison talent show is utter gold.

It would be easier create the Muppet characters digitally, but thankfully the makers of Muppets Most Wanted avoided the temptation, relying on old-school puppetry while only using CGI to erase rods and puppeteers. Hence, the spirit of the Muppets is retained, and it helps that the movie recaptures the meta disposition of earlier endeavours. Just like 1979's The Muppet Movie, the Muppets are all perfectly aware that they're in a motion picture, to the extent that the flick even opens with the troupe singing a song called We're Doing a Sequel in which they acknowledge the difficulties of attempting a follow-up. More than that, Muppets Most Wanted literally begins where 2011's The Muppets left off, showing the crew wrapping their work on the previous endeavour and discussing where to go next. The movie is playful and fun from the very first frame - there's even reference to fan criticism of the last film.

As with all Muppet features, Muppets Most Wanted is one step away from being a full-blown musical. Fortunately, the selection of toe-tapping tunes are of a high standard here. Only a few songs from the last picture were memorable (including the Oscar-winning Man or Muppet), but every musical number here is a winner. Written by Bret McKenzie (who was also involved with the 2011 film), the song list is absolutely fantastic, with a number of instant classics that'll prompt you to rush out and buy the soundtrack. On top of the insanely catchy original ditties, there's also a new rendition of Together Again (from The Muppets Take Manhattan). Plus, Muppets Most Wanted continues the great Muppet tradition of celebrity cameos. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured there are plenty of recognisable faces, amplifying the sense of fun.

Luckily, Muppets Most Wanted returns Kermit and Miss Piggy to the fore where they belong. Both Jason Segel and Amy Adams stepped away for this instalment, but you honestly won't miss them. All of the Muppet performers give it their all here, and still have wonderful singing voices. Of course, one still misses the vocal talents of Frank Oz and Jim Henson, and some of the roles never sound quite right, but it's easy to overlook this aspect and enjoy the ride. The human factor is also solid here, with the likes of Gervais clearly having a ball playing alongside the ironic felt creatures. But Fey is the standout, espousing a cartoonish Russian accent and filling her performance with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Burrell is amusing as the Clouseau-esque Interpol agent, making for a perfect companion for Sam the Eagle. Amusingly, Sam is actually the straight man here to Burrell's bumbling Frenchman, whose behaviour frustrates the American bird to no end.

Purists may continue to complain about Frank Oz's exclusion, as well as the fact that Muppets Most Wanted has a few trivial similarities to The Great Muppet Caper and even climaxes with a wedding between Kermit and Miss Piggy even though they ostensibly married in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Yet, Oz's exclusion was his choice alone and it's no fault of the filmmakers. Plus, the story isn't anything like The Great Muppet Caper at all, and the wedding in Manhattan was just part of a show. Besides, since when was continuity ever a big deal in this franchise? Kermit and Fozzie were identical twin brothers in The Great Muppet Caper, after all.

Muppets Most Wanted is small-scale, good-natured and light, which is good enough. It's funny and the songs work, which is what matters the most in a Muppet movie. Best of all, it's a family film suitable for the kids which also works for adults and franchise fans. Bobin and Stoller have truly found their groove for this instalment, creating plenty of madcap antics for the Muppets while sustaining love and respect for the long-standing entertainers.


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Wonderful relic of the Henson years

Posted : 3 weeks ago on 29 March 2014 06:46 (A review of The Great Muppet Caper)

"I hate to be rude, but we're trying to do a movie here..."

From the very early stages of 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, it's clear that the picture is in good hands. Opening with a bang, this second feature-length Muppet endeavour begins with a hilarious meta conversation about the opening titles, followed by some uproarious Muppet-style antics and a joyous musical number. Fortunately, this high standard is retained throughout, as the sense of fun and wonderment seldom slows down across its 95-minute duration. The Great Muppet Caper is actually the only Muppet feature to be directed by the late Jim Henson, and it remains a wonderful cinematic relic of the Henson years. While not quite as good as 1979's The Muppet Movie, it's a worthy successor, full of enough inspired moments of hilarity to please hardcore fans and provide a fun time for the uninitiated.

In this story, Kermit the Frog (Henson) and Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) are "identical" twin brothers who work as newspaper reporters for the Daily Chronicle with Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz), but they're almost fired when they miss an enormous scoop. To redeem themselves, the trio travel to London to investigate the theft of a number of precious jewels from wealthy fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). Low on cash, they're forced to stay at the dilapidated Happiness Hotel which is also home to a number of other Muppet characters. During their investigation, Kermit also meets Miss Piggy (Oz), Lady Holiday's new secretary who manages to convince Kermit that she's actually Lady Holiday.

As with its forerunner, The Great Muppet Caper gets plenty of mileage out of meta jokes, with the Muppets all firmly aware that they're in a motion picture. For instance, Lady Holiday at one stage gives Miss Piggy the movie's entire backstory, justifying herself by saying that the plot exposition needs to be put somewhere. Later, Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch shows up for what he himself describes as "a very brief cameo." And this is to say nothing of the barrage of amusing one-liners and set-pieces scattered throughout the movie, making this an effortlessly amusing sit for kids and adults alike. However, the movie is not as strong during its final third - Henson struggles to maintain the furious momentum of the first two acts, and there are fewer laughs. Still, the madness is often enjoyable, and though it meanders a little bit, the movie is never a drag.

No Muppet feature is complete without musical numbers, and The Great Muppet Caper fulfils this requirement with confidence. The film is predominantly a homage to old-school screwball comedies and detective capers from the '30s and '40s, but there are also big musical numbers in the vein of Busby Berkeley. For instance, there's a magnificent sequence in which Miss Piggy swims in sync with other elaborately costumed girls while Charles Grodin (who's dubbed in an obvious, hilarious way) croons in a direct parody of Berkeley's movies. There are other wonderful songs as well, and it's hard to wipe the smile off your face during sequences involving the whole Muppet gang. The sense of joy rarely lets up.

Celebrity cameos are another staple of this franchise, and The Great Muppet Caper has a few nice surprises up its sleeve. Former James Bond girl Diana Rigg is a joy as Lady Holiday, while the perpetually brilliant John Cleese pops in for an amusing cameo, starring alongside Joan Sanderson who also appeared with Cleese in an episode of Fawlty Towers. However, the movie is not packed to the gills with cameos like most Muppet productions, and more guest stars would've amplified the movie's sense of fun. On a more positive note, the Muppet performers are as good as ever, and it's always nice to look back on the bygone era of the infinitely talented Henson and Oz.

Although The Great Muppet Caper suffers from uneven pacing and a lack of heart, it's still a great entry to the Muppet canon. It's bigger and grander than its predecessor, and at times feels like a James Bond-esque espionage movie, albeit one that also finds time for some slapstick comedy and a few Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers. It's essential viewing for Muppet fans, while casual movie-goers will no doubt be enraptured by the colourful visuals and the healthy sense of humour.


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One of Aronofsky's finest achievements

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 27 March 2014 06:59 (A review of Noah)

"My father said that one day, if man continued in his ways, the Creator would annihilate this world..."

In spite of what Paramount's marketing campaign would have you believe, 2014's Noah is not Darren Aronofsky selling out with a dumb mainstream blockbuster. On the contrary, this was a long-gestating passion project for the filmmaker, and the product is unmistakably an Aronofsky effort. Incredibly audacious and ambitious, it's a magnificent realisation of the well-worn story of "Noah's Ark," though it's definitely not for all tastes. Noah will become one of 2014's most polarising films (this reviewer witnessed a number of walkouts), as Aronofsky's vision is bleak and brutal - it's much too dark to be confused with a children's fairy tale. Trailers have been selling an entirely different motion picture, with Paramount foregrounding the blockbuster-ish moments as much as possible, of which there is maybe ten minutes' worth in the movie's entire 140-minute duration. Trust me, you don't need to be religious to get swept up in this involving drama which stands as one of Aronofsky's finest achievements.

The last descendent of Adam's good son Seth, Noah (Russell Crowe) lives in fear of the current state of the Earth, doing his utmost to protect wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons. Meanwhile, Adam's sinful son Cain has beget evil across the world, leading many to assume that God - referred to as The Creator - has long abandoned the world. Experiencing a vision of Earth consumed by water, Noah concludes that God plans to destroy the world, hoping to start afresh and wash away the filth of humankind. Travelling to confer with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah is given clarity for his task, setting out to build an ark on which he can survive the flood and save two of each animal. For the gargantuan task, Noah enlists the help of a group of fallen angels known as The Watchers, who are trapped in the form of rock monsters. The family also adopt orphan Lla (Emma Watson), who maintains a relationship with Noah's son Shem (Douglas Booth) but feels uneasy about starting a family. As the ark takes shape, Noah is presented with a problem in the form of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who plots to steal Noah's vessel for his large army of sinners.

Aronofsky does something remarkable with Noah: he turns the utterly unbelievable biblical tale (Ricky Gervais has famously pointed out how far-fetched it is) into a palatable, plausible story. Although there are religious overtones and many of the proceedings hinge on the belief that God exists, Aronofsky keeps the picture strangely grounded, and answers several queries about the feasibility of this story. For instance, the ark is predominantly built by The Watchers over the course of a decade, making the feat seem oddly possible. Plus, God actually sends the animals to the ark, and they hibernate while on-board to prevent the need for food.

Christians may try to deny it, but the bible was far crazier than many of us remember, and Noah embraces this insanity. Fallen angels become personified in stone giants, and Aronofsky pulls no punches in his depiction of this period. Early reports suggested that Noah was to be an R-rated version of the biblical story, and it certainly feels so. The trailers severely whitewash the movie's content, as Aronofsky never shies away from delving into the ugly side of human nature. Some trimming may have been conducted to ensure a PG-13 rating, but it's astonishing how much the movie gets away with in its current form (and how it got a 12A from the BBFC is a mystery). There is savage violence here, with visceral sprays of blood and gory killings, including the image of a young girl being trampled to death. And the horror of the flood is by no means downplayed, as the soundtrack becomes filled with the terrified screams of those not aboard the ark. It's haunting stuff.

It's frankly astounding that Aronofsky was able to smuggle a motion picture like Noah into cinemas, especially bearing in mind the narrative's thematic undercurrents and messages. Indeed, Noah has a lot to say about the dangers of blind faith, about God's ferocity, and about the wickedness of humankind. Christians will no doubt find the movie utterly offensive, as the central message is that mankind's continued existence today was an act of defiance against God. Rather than an uplifting story, this is a heavy drama, and it delves into the harsh choices that Noah is forced to make. Noah survives the flood as a broken man racked with guilt, and he goes to such dark places along the way that it's often hard to relate to him as a protagonist. Even though the flood is the production's centrepiece, the chaos is all over by the 100-minute mark, leaving the final half-hour to work through a gripping psychological thriller routine aboard the ark. It admittedly feels a bit overlong by the end, but the story is nevertheless wrapped up in a glorious fashion, leading to a satisfying conclusion that doesn't feel like a cop-out.

Noah is positively epic in scope, with massive sets and vast locations. The special effects range from excellent to merely passable, with some of the CGI beasties looking a tad too obvious on occasion. Nevertheless, Aronofsky's filmmaking is predictably solid. The arrival of the flood is downright gripping, made all the more nail-biting due to the patient character development which preceded it. It's at least ten minutes of non-stop chills, and it's impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen. Furthermore, Noah is beset with Aronofsky idiosyncrasies, with creative time-lapse sequences and a stunning vision of Adam and Eve. The movie also opens with a brilliant retelling of the Book of Genesis, with gorgeous CGI and brisk storytelling bringing us up to speed and giving motivation for God's wrath upon the Earth. Just as impressive are Noah's visions of the impending flood, which are incredibly disturbing.

Noah is also gifted with a magnificent cast, led by the Oscar-winning Crowe who's a perfect fit for this vision of the age-old character. On top of being tough and physically imposing, he additionally sells the deeper aspects of this role, nailing Noah's vulnerability and clearly conveying the ordeal's psychological effects on him. It's wonderful to see Crowe doing something like this after the tremendous misfire of Les Misérables. Connelly is just as strong, while the always-reliable Hopkins is charming and believable as Noah's grandfather. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Watson, who confidently handles the complex emotions that are asked of her. It's the type of role that she needed to move on from her Harry Potter image. Meanwhile, Winstone is a very memorable bad guy, and he has the right physicality to match Crowe in a brawl.

Paramount test-screened alternate versions of Noah without Aronofsky's knowledge or consent, which is understandable. Since this is an Aronofsky movie through-and-through, the executives likely shat themselves upon seeing the filmmaker's bleak vision take flight in the editing room, and knew it would be a tough sell to the mainstream. Reportedly, Aronofsky was granted final cut, which is very fortunate indeed. It's hard to imagine Noah being overly successful at the box office, but we can forever be glad that this motion picture exists. Take it from a devout Agnostic with no interest in religion: Noah is a visionary masterpiece of immense power. It sticks with you long after the end credits have expired. We have never seen an epic like this before, nor have we ever seen such a gritty retelling of this story.


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Unfairly overlooked and maligned

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 25 March 2014 02:41 (A review of The Shadow)

"I'll be there... around every corner... in every empty room... as inevitable as your guilty conscience..."

For Universal Studios, The Shadow was intended to be the beginning of a new cinematic franchise - the marketing machine was put into overdrive, hyping this 1994 flick through merchandising and trailers. Unfortunately, it landed with a thud, receiving unflattering reviews and utterly flopping at the box office. Yet, it has deservedly gathered something of a cult following on home video, though it still remains a painfully underrated superhero endeavour which deserves a lot more credit than it gets. The Shadow is best described as a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Tim Burton's Batman, and it's every bit as awesome as that description implies. A slice of pure matinee fun, The Shadow is utterly delightful, a tongue-in-cheek comic book adventure which embraces its silliness, with one-liners, over-the-top villains, hammy plotting and gaudy characters. It's easily in the same league as similar productions like Dick Tracy and The Phantom.

A former American soldier during World War I, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has given over to madness, residing in Tibet where he has established himself as a ruthless crime lord. However, he is offered the chance to redeem himself by becoming The Shadow, a telepathic hero who can cloud minds and exert incredible psychic influence over his victims. Returning to New York City, Cranston seeks to use his newfound gifts to clean up the streets, along the way developing an ever-expanding society of sidekicks and allies, including his loyal driver Moe (Peter Boyle). The Shadow is presented with a unique challenge, though, with the arrival of powerful psychic warrior Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who's determined to destroy the Big Apple unless the city bows to his rule. As Cranston sets out to stop Khan, he also meets a strong burgeoning telepath named Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), whose scientist father (Ian McKellen) is under Khan's control.

The Shadow started life in the pages of pulp magazines back in the 1930s, and later in a radio serial with Orson Welles. The character predates Batman, and it would seem that he influenced the Caped Crusader in a number of aspects. The source material never revealed The Shadow's origins, compelling screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) to construct a former life for Cranston before he donned the cape. Without weighing down the narrative too much, Koepp's brisk exploration of Cranston's origins is spot-on, finding him as a brutal warlord and opium kingpin in post-WWI Tibet. It deepens Cranston's character by giving him a villainous back-story, as he is repenting for his sins by acting as a vigilante and working to remove the criminal element of NYC. There's a rich, detailed world at play here, and the movie takes advantage of the characteristics which make The Shadow a unique hero. The movie also maintains the character's dark edge, as he does not baulk from killing.

With the 21st Century begetting comic book movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man, it's refreshing to witness a superhero movie which differs from the "origins story" template. Although Cranston's dark past is established in the story's early stages, Mulcahy subsequently flashes forward a number of years to find Cranston fully established as The Shadow. Origin tales are usually the least fun, as such franchises never really take off until the second instalment, hence The Shadow gets credit for diving straight into the fun stuff. More recent comic book movies are either too soft or too "dark and gritty," but The Shadow is a reminder of a different era, when filmmakers simply took the material with the sincerity it deserved (see also: The Crow). Mulcahy's old-school approach is to be admired, and there's plenty of atmosphere, not to mention the film noir disposition renders it a unique beast in this day and age. Koepp's script is also peppered with amusing dialogue, setting out to recreate the witty, razor-sharp bantering of old screwball comedies.

The Shadow is a visually spectacular motion picture, supported by elegant production design and gorgeous period-specific costumes. Jerry Goldsmith's flavoursome score is a superlative accompaniment; it's one of his most overlooked works, and now the soundtrack recording is a hot commodity among nerds and collectors. Prior to The Shadow, Australian director Mulcahy was recognised for films like Razorback and Highlander, and this project had the potential to establish him as a blockbuster filmmaker. Although its failure has led to an uneven career for Mulcahy, his handling of Koepp's script is spectacular, as the production is full of exciting action set-pieces, and the cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is both effective and artful. Admittedly, some of the special effects look comparatively dated, but there is a certain charm to seeing matte paintings and optical effects which were executed on the very brink of the digital revolution. The Shadow is an enjoyable sit, and the competent craftsmanship is one of its many benefits. It may seem a tad on the cheesy side, but such cheesiness is endearing, not to mention accurate to the source material.

There is a genuinely impressive cast driving The Shadow, led by Baldwin who's ideally suited for the role of the titular superhero. His scowl and gravelly voice is a natural fit for The Shadow, while his tremendous movie star charisma makes him believable as the wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston. Penelope Ann Miller provides the requisite eye candy as Cranston's love interest, while the rest of the roles are filled by such great actors as Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and John Lone. The late great Boyle is particularly good (he has always been adept with comedy), while Lone makes for an excellent villain.

Unfairly maligned and overlooked, The Shadow remains a top-notch example of a superhero flick which does justice to the dense source material while also having fun along the way. And, unlike all of today's numerous comic book movies, it exists to tell a standalone story and establish this universe, rather than leaving tonnes of loose ends to set up sequels. On top of being flat-out fun, it is also a well-made blockbuster which tells a coherent story and contains a solid amount of character development. It's a shame that things didn't work out for the film, as further adventures of The Shadow would be an enticing prospect indeed. There might be a few storytelling and pacing issues, but The Shadow is pure popcorn entertainment which is often enjoyable and features a kaleidoscope of colourful supporting characters.


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Pure schlock

Posted : 3 weeks, 4 days ago on 24 March 2014 09:58 (A review of Pompeii)

"The mountain will kill us all!"

2014's Pompeii is perhaps the first major Hollywood blockbuster which feels like the low-budget "mockbuster" version of itself. Indeed, if a none-the-wiser viewer ever stumbled upon this schlock while channel-surfing, they would likely assume that it was produced by the SyFy Channel or The Asylum. In theory, a filmic retelling of the Pompeii disaster with modern visual effects and a $100 million budget should be an easy home run, but this project was overseen by Paul W.S. (Waste of Sperm?) Anderson, late of The Three Musketeers and multiple Resident Evil movies. The movie founders right out of the gate, with woeful scripting and an uninteresting story destroying any potential for this to be the next Titanic. Running at barely 90 minutes, Pompeii is mostly concerned with bland political turmoil and a forced love story, reducing the volcanic destruction to a mere footnote. Unfortunately, none of the story elements are able to gain full traction under Anderson's watch.

As a boy, Milo (Kit Harrington) witnesses his parents being murdered by powerful Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who decimates Milo's village in the process. Forced into slavery and raised to be a gladiator, Milo winds up being sent to Pompeii to participate the local gladiatorial games which are actually overseen by Corvus. Bonding with fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Milo also catches the eye of beautiful noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii ruler Severus (Jared Harris). Unfortunately for Milo, Corvus has eyes for Cassia as well, seeking to coerce her hand into marriage and have Milo killed in the games. As the drama unfolds, the nearby Mount Vesuvius begins to erupt, threatening to destroy the city and kill everyone, causing mass hysteria.

Unfortunately, the script wastes too much time on scenes of forced conflict and a love story which makes precisely zero scene. Literally, Milo and Cassia only fall in love because the screenplay demands it. Titanic made it clear that Jack's adventurous, spontaneous spirit endeared him to Rose, but here? Milo and Cassia spark to each other when he takes a dying horse out of its misery. Okay then. Moreover, since both characters are so underdeveloped and one-dimensional, it's impossible to believe the romance, let alone become invested in it. Pompeii labours through countless subplots, hoping that all the interminable build-up will result in fully-rounded characters, but Anderson fumbles it up. (In fact, Milo and Atticus are a far more entertaining on-screen pair than Milo and Cassia, and Pompeii would have been infinitely more interesting if there was no romance and the story simply involved the exploits of the two gladiators.) Rubbing salt in the wound is the ending, which aspires to be powerful but fails to earn the right. Instead, it's laughable.

Pompeii wants to be a merger of James Cameron's Titanic and Ridley Scott's Gladiator, but Anderson is neither Cameron nor Scott - rather, he's a boorish director incapable of understanding basic cinematic principals like nuance. Whereas Titanic carefully examined the mayhem aboard the ship as it sank, scenes of Pompeii's destruction are in very short supply. It takes over an hour for the eruption to begin, for crying out loud. There's maybe five minutes of footage of panicked denizens being obliterated by the mountain before Anderson shifts focus to yet another gladiatorial conflict and an uninteresting chase through the fiery city streets. Such scenes are utterly tedious compared to the volcanic fury that movie-goers would expect to see in a flick called fucking Pompeii. And while most of Anderson's cinematic output is R-rated, Pompeii is a PG-13 endeavour, a decision which harms the entire experience. Although the destruction is violent enough within the restraints of its MPAA certificate, the majority of the movie is about bloody gladiator battles, none of which are particularly exciting or even coherent due to herky-jerky photography and awkward editing. Bleeding seems to be optional for characters, as well, and the whole enterprise would be far more entertaining if the matches were closer to Gladiator in terms of violence.

Despite its budget, Pompeii feels astonishingly cheap on occasion. Admittedly, there are a number of impressive money shots once Vesuvius awakens, but it appears that the entire budget was saved for the half-hour of volcano mayhem, hence the preceding two acts look oddly low-budget, more like a television production than a major motion picture. It certainly doesn't help that Pompeii was shot digitally, and even lacks the polish of something like Game of Thrones, which looks far closer to cinema quality than this malarkey. It's a shame, as filming on 35mm could've given the production a far more expensive feel. Making matters worse is the woeful acting right across the board. Harrington seems to be from the Sam Worthington school of nondescript action heroes (and yes, I'm aware Harrington is great on Game of Thrones), while Browning is an utter blank slate. The pair are supposed to represent the movie's heart, but they're complete dullards who share more of a sibling connection. Sutherland, meanwhile, is a special kind of terrible, though Akinnuoye-Agbaje is at least fun.

Pompeii is a tremendous wasted opportunity. In the hands of a superior moviemaking team led by a genuine visionary, we could have been given the definitive cinematic portrayal of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, but instead we're left with this disappointing tosh. It's clear that Anderson wanted Pompeii to be a change of course for his directorial career, but he can't bring it together in a substantive way, with rushed storytelling and insufficient breathing room for proper dramatic growth. A few minutes of halfway impressive spectacle are simply not enough if the rest of the movie is as drab as this. In the end, this is a bad movie which would've been a lot more fun if only it were worse. See, because of the PG-13 rating, it feels too tasteful when Anderson should have ramped up the sleaze and the violence. That sort of approach would've resulted in at least a guilty pleasure rather than the boring cheese-fest that we're left with.


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Sublime entertainment which holds up

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 22 March 2014 02:06 (A review of Young Sherlock Holmes)

"It was a wonderful, heroic moment for Holmes. But little did he know that his amazing powers and talents would soon be put to a much greater test, a test of terrifying and deadly proportions."

An unjust box office flop upon its release, 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes was reportedly intended to be the first film in a new franchise, and it's a genuine shame that such plans never materialised. Years on, it has become a cult item, and for good reason - this is an exciting action-mystery which delivers robust entertainment for kids and adults alike. And the fact that it works so well is a bit of a surprise, as it's an American-produced motion picture shot in Britain starring unproven young actors, but the end result is extremely assured, another little-seen '80s gem which deserves more attention than it gets. As the movie itself acknowledges, the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never delved into the character's early life, rendering such territory fresh and fertile. Young Sherlock Holmes might be a bit cheesy, but it's sold with utmost sincerity. It's simply delightful.

Long before he was London's top detective, Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) was an intelligent young student at boarding school, and his best friend was the portly, nervous John Watson (Alan Cox). Holmes' curiosity is piqued by a string of seemingly accidental deaths in the city, with the victims seeing vivid hallucinations which drive them to suicide. Alas, Police chief Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) doesn't buy into Holmes' theories, and a school prank leads to Holmes being expelled. Undeterred, Holmes enlists the help of girlfriend Elizabeth (Sophie Ward) and his friend Watson as he seeks to establish a link between the deceased and find the cause of the lethal hallucinations.

By now, the "origins tale" template is well-known in cinema, and the formula has grown repetitive due to how predictable it has become. But Holmes lends himself extremely well to such an endeavour, and it helps that the screenplay by Chris Columbus takes full advantage of the opportunity, with witty dialogue and strong, cohesive, wonderfully old-fashioned storytelling. Young Sherlock Holmes was produced by Steven Spielberg (as well as Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself...), hence the movie is exactly the type of entertaining adventure romp that Spielberg has become renowned for producing. What's notable about Young Sherlock Holmes is just how fun it is, all the way through to its core. Running at 105 minutes, director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy) maintains an agreeable pace throughout, and the movie serves up plenty of intrigue, action, and even some rather dark gothic horror moments. It's a bit tonally similar to Spielberg's Indiana Jones films, to the extent that the movie was actually titled Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear in a few territories.

With Spielberg's backing, this is a gorgeous motion picture. Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography is often eye-catching, taking full advantage of the magnificent period sets and locations, and the candlelit look of multiple scenes is striking. The special effects are brilliant as well, and the movie features the first fully digital character in cinema, which was animated by Pixar (the studio started life as a division of LucasFilm). There is some fine stop-motion animation here as well, and the old-school disposition gives the visuals an old-fashioned charm. Best of all, while Young Sherlock Holmes is a tad goofy at times, Levinson keeps things grounded, never slipping into outright kitsch. The film is also supported by a magnificent score courtesy of Bruce Broughton, whose compositions are flavoursome and have their own unique identity. However, the movie is certainly dark at times, and it's questionable as to whether or not some content will be suitable for kids. Indeed, a couple of scenes were uncomfortable even for this reviewer. If there is anything to criticise, it's these occasionally jarring tonal changes.

On a more positive note, the casting is miraculous. Rowe is a pitch-perfect Holmes, nailing his recognisable traits while also being wholly believable in every scene. In fact, it's surprising that he hasn't played the gentlemen detective again, as he could carry his own franchise at his current age. Likewise, Cox is a great pick for a young Watson, and Sophie Ward also makes a great impression as Holmes' love interest. It's the casting of these performers which makes the movie a great sit for the younger viewers - Rowe is the stalwart hero that boys will wish they could be, Cox is the Everyman that kids can identify with, and it's hard to imagine any teenage boy not having the hots for a cutie like Ward. Commendably, the movie does not pull any punches in terms of perilous situations despite the protagonists being kids, making the experience all the more satisfying and exciting. If the movie was made today, not a single gun or sword would be drawn, but in this '80s iteration we get the sense that the teenaged characters aren't safe from this villainous plot.

Young Sherlock Holmes is best described as a mixture of Indiana Jones and The Goonies in a 19th Century setting, and the result is pure entertainment. It's respectful to the works of Doyle, and the Sherlock Holmes geeks will have a ball watching all of the pieces of the established mythology fall into place in such a clever fashion. Give me this type of '80s adventure film over the latest Hollywood extravaganza any day, as it has a special type of charm and heart that simply cannot be replicated anymore. Best of all, it confidently holds up in 2014. And be sure to stick around for a post-credits scene, which definitively wraps up this story and establishes one of Holmes' most iconic archenemies in a shrewd twist.


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Flawed but compelling entertainment

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 20 March 2014 05:12 (A review of The Monuments Men)

"You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it's as if they never existed. That's what Hitler wants and that's exactly what we are fighting for."

The heart of The Monuments Men is in the right place. A historical drama set during World War II, it's an affectionate throwback to Hollywood's golden era, recreating the spirit of war pictures from the '50s and '60s. It's the latest from George Clooney, who directs, co-writes and stars, working with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov to mount a wonderfully old-fashioned war film which was initially intended for the 2013 awards season. However, the release shift to early 2014 does make sense - while The Monuments Men is often compelling adult entertainment, it's also an undeniably flawed effort which cannot quite come together as well as it should. Most notably absent here is cohesion, as the film amounts to a string of vignettes which lack connective tissue. Still, Clooney stages each of the various set-pieces with finesse, and it's admirable that this is a character-driven picture as opposed to a battlefield-centric endeavour.

With WWII entering its latter stages, the Nazis are looting homes and museums, stealing countless pieces of priceless art for Hitler's private collection. Art conservationist Frank Stokes (Clooney) is less than pleased about Hitler's intentions, gaining approval to go behind enemy lines and secure as much precious art as possible. Assembling an allied team of soldiers consisting of specialists and historians - including James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) - Stokes travels to Europe, splitting up the men as they comb through France and Germany for leads in their search. While in Paris, Granger also meets secretive museum employee Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who witnessed the Nazis stealing art and may be able to assist the men in finding various hidden masterpieces in order for them to be returned to their rightful owners.

The Monuments Men is based on a true story, but it's heavily fictionalised - the names of the main players were changed, and the script reduces the titular gang of soldiers from a few dozen down to only seven. While a sprawling three-hour epic with a bigger ensemble would've been more preferable, accuracy has never been a strong suit of Hollywood war epics, and Clooney's picture works effectively enough on its own terms as a dramatisation.

Although the characters are somewhat developed as we observe their exploits on the battlefield, it feels as if a huge chunk of film is missing from the movie's early stages. Basic training takes all of five minutes before the guys are sent into war-torn Europe, unwisely skimming through crucial character development to get to the meat and potatoes of the plot. The Dirty Dozen dedicated more than half of its runtime to plot set-up and character development, but The Monuments Men skips such essentials to bewildering effect. As a result, we get tiny bits and pieces of information about each of these guys, but none of them become fully three-dimensional. Furthermore, there's not enough of a backbone to the narrative; it's all over the shop, and none of the individual stories of the men achieve full lift-off.

Clooney aims for two distinct tones here: a jolly, comedic men-on-a-mission vibe, and a dramatic tone, with a number of scenes showing the severity of war. However, the movie winds up feeling disjointed, as the tonal shifts are not properly negotiated. Nevertheless, The Monuments Men is an enormously handsome motion picture, benefitting from slick production values and superb artistry in every technical aspect. Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is vibrant and sophisticated, evoking a 1950s vibe, while the gentle score by Alexandre Desplat amplifies the power of the story. As to be expected considering the $70 million budget, there's a keen sense of authenticity to the period recreation; sets, costumes and locations are simply gorgeous, maintaining the illusion that this is WWII. Clooney also handles many of the set-pieces beautifully, orchestrating a few fun sequences and some touching moments (a scene set on Christmas Eve is particularly poignant). The Monuments Men is not a battlefield epic akin to Saving Private Ryan, thus images of violence are scarce and the movie is PG-13. However, miraculously, this approach does not undercut the production, and that is no mean feat.

Under Clooney's directorial watch, the performers are flawless from top to bottom. Even though character development is minimal, the all-star cast do an laudable job of carving out a distinct on-screen persona, making sure we never mistake one for another. Clooney is unsurprisingly strong, remaining perpetually focused despite the added pressure of directing the picture. Damon is just as good, and he shares his strongest moments with Blanchett, who's exceptional in her small part, espousing a magnificently lived-in accent. The underused Hugh Bonneville is another standout - his story is easily the most affecting, and he brings great gravitas to the character. Digging further into the supporting cast, John Goodman and Bill Murray are great picks for their respective roles, adding plenty of colour to the proceedings. Rounding out the main players, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban both hit their marks beautifully. Unfortunately, though, since the titular men are often split up, there is not enough of a group dynamic, which is disappointing considering the talent involved.

The Monuments Men would be better served as a miniseries in the vein of Band of Brothers, which would be able to follow a larger ensemble without losing the story's intimacy. One must wonder how much material was left on the cutting room floor, too, as the movie possesses the earmarks of a motion picture that was extensively trimmed in post-production. As it is, The Monuments Men is an interesting misfire which comes close to greatness. The film's technical achievements remain exceptional, and there are a number of brilliant segments and moments throughout the two-hour runtime which render it worth seeing in spite of its flaws.


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