Film Review: I, Frankenstein 3D

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29 July 2014.

I, try to make an effort to support the Australian film industry. In the case of I, Frankenstein, it’s more like an overseas production that just happened to be shot in Melbourne. Sure, besides import stars Aaron Eckhart and Bill Nighy, the production employed 500 locals including director Stuart Beattie, but from a creative perspective, it’s like trying to claim Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith as Australian movies. There’s a big difference between an Australian film and one that’s simply shot in Australia.

I, Frankenstein is based on a graphic novel and comes from the mind of Kevin Grevioux, creator of the Underworld franchise, except this time, it’s Demons versus Gargoyles. There was some talk of a crossover between the two worlds but it may have been a little difficult to explain the presence of Bill Nighy as the antagonist in both films, but as different characters.

Charles Wessex (Nighy) is the leader of the Demons, bent on finding the secret of reanimating human corpses so that the demon souls of the underworld (not that Underworld) can return to earth. His target is Adam (Eckhart) the two hundred year old living result of a successful experiment by one Victor Frankenstein. Siding with the good Gargoyles and their queen (Miranda Otto), Adam fights for the future of, um, Melbourne alongside the warrior (Jai Courtney) and beautiful scientist, in a Tara Reid kinda way, Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski).

Post-converted into 3D, the action scenes are competent but nothing new. To keep the blood letting to a minimum, the Demons explode into flame when destroyed. No green screen in Melbourne was safe during the production, with many, many CGI heavy scenes. Only a few physical landmarks are recognisable in the final product, with the National Gallery of Victoria doubling for Central Station. Otherwise, it’s the same dark european type gothic city as depicted so often in these types of films.

Plot holes abound, from the sublime (the bizarre title – I guess Frankenstein is his surname) to the ridiculous (Frankenstein’s two hundred year old diary is in mint condition). Bad guys fully explain their devious plans to a temporarily subdued Adam, sixties Batman style. The human population don’t appear to notice the explosions and chaos around them.

The serious performances from the cast don’t match the silliness of the film. Nighy is at his scenery chewing best. Eckhart and Courtney growl their dialogue. Otto looks bored. Both Aden Young and Bruce Spence are wasted in cameo roles. Strahovski is radiant but I like everything she does.

The most successful element of the film is the art design. The gothic towers, industrial battlegrounds and derelict buildings are quite beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s all been done before.

With a disappointing box office return, don’t expect any sequels. I, am OK with that.

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Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:59  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Monty Python Live (Mostly)

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 5 August 2014.

Last month, legendary comedy troupe Monty Python performed 10 sold out performances at London’s O2 Arena. With the first show selling out in 45 seconds, tickets for Monty Python Live (Mostly) were extremely hard to come by. Luckily for the majority of the planet, the final performance was recorded and will premiere in Australian cinemas this week.

Bringing together John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones for the first time in 30 years (Graham Chapman checked out in 1989 but appears in video sequences), the live show consists of a selection of classic Python sketches and songs, with some added modern references and new song verses.

For dedicated fans, this is a hilarious greatest hits compilation and a fantastic way to become reacquainted with the now much older Pythons, none of whom appear to be slowing down, at least on stage anyway. Newcomers might be tested by the lengthy run time (2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 20 minute interval) and wonder what the fuss is all about.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) is just one of a growing array of special events coming to cinemas. Audiences now have access to opera (New York’s Met Opera), theatre (Driving Miss Daisy with Angela Lansbury), television milestones (Doctor Who: Deep Breath – the debut of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor) and live performances (Andre Rieu Cleans Out His Sock Drawer). Although I’m for anything that draws more people into the cinema, recorded live performances suffer from an audience disconnect and the Monty Python reunion is no different.

Although the camera angles offer cinema audiences undeniably the best seat in the house, there is no substitute for live atmosphere. The video sequences, some new, some old, designed to give the cast time to change between sketches, drag. The etiquette of cinema-going frowns upon participating in the many sing-a-longs featured in the show, although I couldn’t resist the finale, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Sorry if you were sitting near me.

The Dead Parrot, Argument Clinic, Four Yorkshiremen and Nudge Nudge are just a few of the classic sketches recreated on stage. A full orchestra accompanies the Pythons in such iconic ditties as Every Sperm is Sacred, The Lumberjack Song and I Like Chinese. A two storey stage, rolling sets and an all singing and dancing ensemble bring a big Broadway musical feel to the proceedings.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) features many celebrity cameos from the likes of Eddie Izzard and Mike Myers, as well as a surprising appearance from Professor Brian Cox and the legendary Professor Stephen Hawking in the Galaxy Song. The show also features Carol Cleveland, the only female (unofficial) member of the troupe.

Barring retirement funds needing another top-up, this is likely to be the last time to see Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin share the same stage. For fans of classic British comedy, this is a must-see (but take a packed lunch and a cushion). For newbies, a marathon of classic Python movies before the concert film is recommended.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:42  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23 September 2014.

Way back in 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published a single-issue comic, entitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Within five years, Turtle Power had swept the world. TMNT merchandise was everywhere. Driven by the popularity of the kiddie friendly cartoon series, we had action figures, lunch boxes, costumes, t-shirts and breakfast cereal. In Australia, a daily tabloid newspaper even gave away collectible TMNT coins. I still have the full set, stored safely somewhere under my parents’ house.

In 1990, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello made their way to the silver screen with a live action blockbuster featuring animatronic character heads created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Although very clunky, I have very fond memories of watching the feature alongside my cousins in a packed suburban Sydney cinema during the school holidays.

The film also spun off a top selling soundtrack album featuring some dodgy pop songs which happen to mention turtles in their lyrics (as most pop songs do). There was also quite a media frenzy when white rapper de jour Vanilla Ice was announced to appear in the sequel.

By the time the rushed follow-up big screen adventure was released a year later, the TMNT craze had peaked and Mr Ice’s 15 minutes of fame had expired at the 10 minute mark. In 1993, a second sequel debuted to little fanfare.

Following an animated attempt at a reboot in 2007, the “heroes in a half-shell” are back, and if you have kids, your disposable income is anything but safe. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle: Los Angeles), this $125 million live action feature is backed by producer Michael Bay.

With motion capture technology utilised to bring the turtles to life, this film is a Michael Bay production in every way but one. It doesn’t run for three hours. Otherwise, all the hallmarks of a Bay production are present: it’s an overblown, flimsy, yawn inducing disposable piece of toy marketing.

“Actress” Megan Fox stars as April O’Neil. An on-screen charisma vacuum, she is outdone by men in body stockings covered with ping pong balls in terms of acting and depth of character. Funny man Will Arnett is wasted as April’s cameraman, Vern Fenwick. And what on earth is Whoopi Goldberg doing here in a particularly unfunny cameo as O’Neil’s television news channel editor?

The plot follows puff piece TV presenter O’Neil as she attempts to uncover the mysterious Foot Clan which has infiltrated New York City. Witnessing an attack be thwarted by four turtle shaped shadows, she meets our heroes…you know the rest.

Plot holes abound but will probably go over the heads of the intended audience. A not-so-subtle plug for a certain pizza company that is associated with huts (not Jabba) made my wonder how one gets food delivered to a sewer. And a convenient new link between key characters, similar to the recent Spider-Man reboots contributes nothing but frustration. The 3D is passable but adds very little, except the ability to snooze with no-one noticing.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a definite miss in my books, but what do I know? The film has already grossed $333 million. Expect sequels, hopefully sans Vanilla Ice.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:38  Leave a Comment  
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Remembering Richard Kiel

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 16 September 2014.

My Kiel Autograph

In pop culture, it’s funny how the time of your introduction to long running franchises gives you a sense of connection to a particular era of that television or film series. Although I watched from behind the sofa the never ending repeats of Tom Baker era Doctor Who episodes at half past five on Channel 2, my initial taste of first run Time Lord adventures starred Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor. Although generally maligned, and probably the least popular of the incarnations, Sylvester McCoy is my Doctor.

The same with James Bond. My cinematic introduction to 007 was at the now defunct Hoyts Roxy at Parramatta. Sitting alongside my grandmother, I was dazzled by the smooth talking exploits of…err…Timothy Dalton. Sure, there are higher points in the franchise, but the Welsh actor is my James Bond.

I can’t say that the same phenomenon has occurred for Bond villains. By the late eighties, the bad guys were less cartoony and certainly less memorable. I can therefore only assume that my affinity for the metal mouthed giant Jaws came from repeat TV airings of Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me, most likely on Channel 10 and ushered in by Bill Collins.

Richard Kiel, the 7’2” actor who portrayed Jaws, sadly passed away last week. I fortunately had the pleasure of meeting Mr Kiel when he visited Sydney for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo in May.

From all appearances, Kiel was not in the best of health. He struggled to move from his motorised scooter to the signing table. I had a brief chat with him and throughout he could barely lift his head to make eye contact with me. I had brought along a vintage 1979 Scanlens Moonraker sticker set for signing and he had a lot of trouble manipulating the card with his huge hands. Apparently a car accident in 1992 had made his mobility very difficult. Sadly, this gentle giant appeared to be succumbing to gravity.

When Kiel attended a panel alongside one-off Aussie Bond George Lazenby, he rode into the room on his scooter and stayed there throughout the whole session. However, once engaged in telling tales from his Bond days and beyond, his face lit up.

Kiel proudly told the audience how he had received a special watch from the Broccoli family and MGM to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. He spoke very fondly of Roger Moore and their ongoing friendship, as well as regaled us in some stories of their off-screen antics.

Happy Gilmore

I had no idea that Kiel had such a distinguished career, with over 50 TV series appearances and dozens of film credits to his name. One of his final on-screen appearances was as Mr Larson in the Adam Sandler comedy, Happy Gilmore. Kiel described how the majority of his shots are from the waist up, and that the only 2 scenes with him standing have him leaning on something.

Although never surpassing his role in Bond, Hollywood has lost a beloved icon. There may be many James Bonds but there will only be one Jaws.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:35  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: The Babadook & If I Stay

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2 September 2014.

Film Review: The Babadook

Australian screenwriter and director Jennifer Kent has a critical hit on her hands with The Babadook, her feature debut. An atmospheric horror thriller, it is an intense cinema experience which will stay with you all the way home (in the dark in my case) and beyond. I’m definitely going to check the basement for ghoulies before I go to bed, and I don’t even have a basement.

The ever reliable Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as Amelia, a single mum still reeling emotionally from the death of her husband seven years ago in a car crash on her way to the hospital to give birth to their son, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Barely coping with Robbie’s behavioural issues and irrational (but normal) fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet, their lives fall apart when Amelia comes across a mysteriously creepy pop-up book about The Babadook.

Using a modest budget, with some dollars generated by a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign, Kent makes the most of a creepy old Adelaide house, a little CGI, a super scary sound design and plenty of darkness.

Unlike most conventional films of this genre, there’s a real emotional heart to this film, and I found myself genuinely caring for the characters. The performances of Davis and Henshall are superb. See The Babadook (even through your fingers  or under a blanket if necessary) before he finds you.

Film Review: If I Stay

After sitting through this disaster, I figured that the title referred to the question of whether I would stay for all 106 slow minutes of this cheese-fest. I did, but only in the name of film criticism and to save others from wasting their time. Letters of thanks may be sent to the CWD.

If I Stay is actually based on a popular young adult novel of the same name. Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a brilliant cello playing teenager experiencing her first love with the most clean cut baby faced lead singer of a rock band ever, Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley). When inclement weather results in a school “snow day”, her hipster parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) stupidly decide that a road trip with her brother (Jakob Davies) is a good idea.

One inevitable car accident and three deaths later, Mia has an out of body experience running barefoot around the local hospital, watching her family and friends keeping vigil over her comatose body unconvincingly lying in the ICU (hint: don’t watch this film with hospital staff…actually just don’t watch this film).

Will Mia return to the land of the living? Will she go to “the light” (I was cheering for this one)? Why does Mia have to wait for doors to be opened for her, if she is a ghost? What sort of idiot boyfriend would break up with a girl for successfully auditioning for the Juilliard School? Who cares?

Miss Grace Moretz is a talented actress but she is way too good for this material. The rest of the cast, including screen legend Stacy Keach, do their best with a turgid script, which never rises above an episode of The O.C.

I admit that I am not the key demographic for this type of film, but there’s no reason that cinema for teens and tweeners should not be intelligent and thought provoking. If I Stay is neither.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:31  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: The Maze Runner & Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 30 September 2014.

Film Review: The Maze Runner

Based on yet another young adult fiction book series that you will never read, The Maze Runner initially shows promise. Within seconds, the audience is thrust into the action as our amnesiac protagonist arrives via elevator at “The Glade”. We share his disorientation as he attempts to remember who he is, establish his place within the primitive society developed by his fellow inmates and discover why he has been dropped into the middle of a giant labyrinth.

I had high hopes for this film. Sure, I prefer my labyrinths with Muppets, Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie (in a fright wig) but the premise intrigued me. Unfortunately, what first time feature director Wes Ball delivers is a fun ride which ultimately frustrates.

This truly is a teen action film by numbers. We have a dystopian future where unprepared teens are thrown into a deadly high concept arena as part of some nefarious conspiracy. Sound familiar?

As the lead, Dylan O’Brien (TV’s Teen Wolf) is appealing but certainly does have the charisma that Jennifer Lawrence radiates in The Hunger Games franchise. Actor on the rise, Will Poulter (We’re the Millers, Son of Rambow) impresses as the alpha male of the group. In a testosterone heavy cast, lone female castaway Kaya Scodelario (TV’s Skins) does her best with an underwritten role.

The film hits its stride once we leave The Glade (think Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan’s Lost Boys meets an all male summer camp) and start exploring the deadly titular labyrinth. The set designs are inspired, as are the deadly spider-like Grievers which roam the maze.

By the last act, it becomes clear that no resolution will be given to any plot strands. The credits roll on a cliffhanger and you’ll leave the cinema with nothing but questions and a slightly bad taste in your mouth.

Film Review: Sin City : A Dame to Kill For

From the “sequels that no-one asked for” department comes the follow-up to the visually stunning and highly original Sin City (2005). By virtue of being more of the same, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have managed to concoct three more graphic novel-inspired noir tales that now have little impact from a visual style perspective. And also now in pointless 3D.

The majority of the original cast return for this outing, including Mickey Rourke as the overcoat wearing killer Marv. Well received as a supporting character in the original, gruff tough guy Marv is now a central character, which for me is now a case of too much of a good thing. Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba reprise their roles, joining newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and a very naked Eva Green.

The bullets fly and the white blood flows thick. Once you become accustomed (or re-accustomed) to the visuals, it’s just a matter of whether you appreciate the very deliberate storytelling style of the film. I didn’t. I just felt completely disconnected from what was happening on the screen. Maybe that is the desired effect.

Strangely released during the school holidays, this particularly non-kid friendly film is likely to sink without a trace at the box office. Wait for the DVD, or even better still, read the graphic novel.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:28  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Freedom

Australian musical theatre star, Peter Cousens, has reinvented himself as a film director, and his debut feature is not a cheap slasher horror or gritty suburban crime thriller, but a big budget drama tackling important social and historical issues, shot in the US with a big name cast. Aspiring filmmakers should be jealous. I know I am.

Coming hot on the heels of Django Unchained and other slavery themed productions, it is easy to dismiss Freedom as Twelve Years A Slave-Lite but Cousens’ feature is a very different creature altogether.

Screenwriter Timothy A. Chey runs two plot lines in parallel. The first is set in 1856, following slave Samuel Woodward (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family as they escape from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia and begin their dangerous journey to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Not far behind throughout their journey is slave hunter, Plimpton (William Sadler).

Almost 100 years earlier, we meet ship captain John Newton (Bernhard Forcher) who is struggling with his faith and conscience as he transports slaves, including Samuel’s great grandfather, to the New World.

This reviewer found the second plot line to be the least effective. Although developing a human connection to his cargo through a series of incidents at sea, Newton’s final expression of kindness is to pen the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, not save anybody from their hell-like future existence. I suppose the song does provide Samuel and family some comfort and motivation a century later. It may also have helped my understanding of the film had I been aware that John Newton composed the iconic song. Pardon my ignorance, I assumed it was written by God.

Samuel’s tale, on the other hand, is a gripping tale of escape and near recapture, and I was willing Gooding Jnr. and co to get across the border throughout the whole 98 minute runtime.

Although not a musical, Freedom uses music, in particular singing, as a metaphor for the humanity that we all share. I was moved by some of the numbers, sung in their entirety, such as the joyous singalong between the escapees and a troupe of theatre performers, including Australian musical theatre headliner Tony Sheldon. Less successful were a few songs, performed out of context, musical theatre style, especially Samuel’s wife Vanessa (Sharon Leal) breaking into tune whilst walking inside a church. The result was being snapped out of my engrossment and remembering that I was watching a film.

Freedom was shot on location in Connecticut. It looks beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back to the Future, Apollo 13).

The cast is wonderful. I have no idea how Cousens’ managed to enlist such a lineup for his first feature. Cuba Gooding Jnr. really delivers in his best performance in years as his Samuel struggles between the choice of revenge or freedom. William Sadler is capably menacing as a slave hunter with ethics. Even one of my favourites, Terrence Mann (The Dresden Files, A Chorus Line) makes an appearance.

Peter Cousens has concocted a beautiful and haunting film which will appeal to a “Best Exotic Marigold” audience. Despite its religious undertones which frankly did not bother a non-believer like me, Freedom still has plenty to say about slavery, an issue which is just as relevant now as it was in 1748 and 1856.

Published in: on September 6, 2014 at 00:26  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 27th May 2014.

After a lacklustre second sequel, an enjoyable prequel and two disappointing Wolverine solo outings, director Bryan Singer returns to take over the reigns of the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Combining the retro cast of X-Men: First Class (2013) and many of the significant characters from the original, Singer has crafted a mega lineup of mutants that should have any comic film fan salivating. The time bending plot will not disappoint. Unfortunately, as is the way with these sorts of features, not everyone gets enough screen time to satisfy.

In the distant future, mutant exterminating machines called Sentinels have almost wiped out all of the X-Men. A rag tag group of survivors led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) realise that their whole situation is a direct result of the assassination of the creator of the Sentinel programme, Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in the seventies. Using Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) time travelling powers, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to convince Professor Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to put their issues aside and fight to save the future.

Although a welcome presence on the screen, I’m not entirely sure how it is that Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier is alive and well in this film. Last seen being blown into smithereens in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), he then popped up in the post-credits sequence of The Wolverine (2013) with no explanation. I assume his mind control is so great that he can will himself back into existence. In that case, why not also fix your legs and get rid of the wheelchair? Never mind.

Bookended by scenes in the future, the majority of the film takes place in the seventies. Fish out of water Wolverine (Jackman absolutely inhabiting his signature character) attempting to bring the warring parties together leads to many memorable moments, in particular an excellent sequence featuring Quicksiver (Evan Peters) slowing time to ensure Magneto’s breakout from the Pentagon. McAvoy and Fassbender bring back their chemistry as the feuding mutant leaders but once again, Jennifer Lawrence proves that she can steal a movie from anyone. She looks great in blue body paint too.

Hot from Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage is charismatic as the porno ‘tached Trask. Perfectly cast, it is significant that his lack of stature is not even mentioned in the film.

Back to the future (Marty), Stewart, McKellan and Halle Berry’s Storm have little in the way of dialogue, which is a shame for the two former and not so much for the latter. In fact, the biggest chunk of dialogue Stewart gets is in the much anticipated scene with McAvoy as the older (and balder) Xavier meets his younger counterpart. Like the iconic scene in Heat which saw De Niro finally share the screen with Pacino, the double Professor X scene is brief but noteworthy.

The CGI heavy action sequences are well done, with the imposing Sentinels particularly threatening. The scenes set in the future are quite dark, which might frustrate those viewing in 3D (I went to a 2D screening).

With an impressive array of cameos, Singer certainly knows how to craft a compelling X-Men tale. I don’t find his directorial style to be distinctive at all, but I suppose it is comforting to know that all of the franchise entries have the same look and feel. I don’t know if that’s a criticism of other franchise directors Brett Ratner, Matthew Vaughn, Gavin Hood and James Mangold, or a compliment to Singer’s obvious influence on the X-Men movies.

From a storytelling perspective, the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past make the plots of the original trilogy redundant. I suppose this splitting of timelines ala the recent Star Trek reboot will allow for more stories to be told, but I dislike my previous investment in the earlier movies to have gone to waste.

Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd June 2014.

After making a splash on the big screen with his directorial debut, the hilarious Ted (he also voiced the titular talking teddy bear), Seth MacFarlane returns with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Still a powerhouse on television with his three ongoing animation franchises, Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane has placed himself front and centre in the lead role, a gutsy move considering his usual place is behind the camera or microphone, and his poorly received gig hosting the Oscars last year.

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From the beautiful opening aerial visuals of Monument Valley, Utah, alongside a memorable rousing score by Joel McNeely, it is clear that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild love westerns. By the end of the film, you’ll also know that MacFarlane and company also love fart, excrement and lowbrow sexual gags. If you like (or love) all of this stuff, you will have a great time with A Million Ways to Die in the West. I certainly did. I’ve even gone as far as to recommend it to my dad, a western fan, although I have a suspicion that I may live to regret that decision.

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Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer with limited prospects and a lack of the courage required to survive in the Wild West. When his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the far more successful moustache product merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert befriends the beautiful and gunsmart Anna (Charlize Theron) who agrees to help him win his beloved back. Unfortunately, Anna is married to the psychotic criminal Clinch (Liam Neeson), and their blossoming relationship soon has Albert preparing to meet his maker in the inevitable gunfight with Clinch, that is, if he survives a shootout with Foy first.

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MacFarlane has assembled a fantastic cast that is pretty much willing to do anything in the name of laughs. I’ve always found Charlize Theron to be lacking in warmth onscreen but on this occasion she radiates charisma, and clearly has a strong chemistry with MacFarlane. Neil Patrick Harris is at his smarmy, campy best. And the combination of Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a devoutly religious couple who are saving themselves for marriage despite her occupation as a prostitute is dynamite. As for MacFarlane himself, he makes a relatable leading man and I’d like to see more of him in front of the camera.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West is a very knowing comedy. Our hero Albert is well aware that life in the Wild West is hard and usually cut short by a multitude of deadly factors (many of them hilariously depicted onscreen). With quite a few current pop culture references, it is best described as a modern comedy that happens to be set in 1882.

The high water mark for the comedy western is undoubtably Mel Brooks’ sublime Blazing Saddles. Sure, it had fart jokes too, but they worked on more than one level. The famous baked beans scene (I can’t believe I am trying to argue that a fart joke is sophisticated) is not only funny for obvious reasons but it is also clever because it breaks the long established contrivances of the genre. Combine this with the confronting reflections on race and you have a comedy western that has something to say. MacFarlane’s film isn’t nearly half as smart and has nothing more to say than life in 1882 sucked, but that doesn’t stop it from being a laugh a minute romp that those with open minds will enjoy.

Film Review: Godzilla

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 20th May 2014.

Director Gareth Edwards made his feature film debut with the highly enjoyable Monsters in 2010. A low budget sci-fi thriller set after an alien invasion, the film follows a journalist who accompanies an American tourist through the Mexican quarantine zone to safety. Edwards proved he was a writer-director to watch by managing to keep the human story at the centre of our attention amongst an array of skirmishes between the military and CGI creatures. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next.

Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. obviously felt the same way and handed Edwards the reigns to the $160 million reboot of the Godzilla franchise for his second movie. No pressure there then.

The good news is that Edwards has delivered a solid creature feature. The bad news is that there is little else to report. It’s a Godzilla film.

Just like the recent Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro, where the titular villain is strangely only a supporting character, Godzilla is not really the star of his own movie. Like many of the big name actors in the cast, the King of Monsters has little to do in the storyline.

Much of the first half of the plot is dedicated to the emergence of the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), giant praying mantis type monsters which feeds on radiation.

On the human side of the plot, nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) is still mourning the loss of his wife (a wasted Juliette Binoche) fifteen years previously in a meltdown precipitated by an “earthquake”, actually the hatching of a MUTO. Whilst investigating in Japan, he is arrested in the radioactive quarantine area, which prompts his son, army explosive ordinance disposal officer Ford (Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to come to the rescue.

When the male and female MUTO begin a destructive path across the globe to come together and mate, Godzilla arises from the depths of the ocean to reaffirm his position as the alpha predator of our planet. Destruction and chaos ensues, in 3D.

If fighting giant monsters are your bag, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim did it so much better. Godzilla’s monster showdowns all seem to take place at night, and combined with the light loss from the 3D glasses, I left the cinema still wanting to have seen more of the battles.

Edwards certainly assembled an all star cast and I was looking forward to seeing the ensemble in a blockbuster popcorn picture. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough of Cranston or Elizabeth Olson, in the thankless role of Ford’s wife. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins play scientists who conveniently pop up whenever we require exposition. At least Watanabe gets to do the trademark turn to camera and mutter, “Godzirra.”

Godzilla may already have me his match in the plethora of superior CGI filled monster, alien and superhero films on the market.