Foxy Boxing

Z for Zorro! Z for Zzzz, more like. A hero of American cinema since the 1920s, the swashbuckling Latino Batman has protected the innocent and championed the poor in a countless parade of films, in the process becoming one of the first comic-strip big screen super-hero crossovers and dishing out masked vigilante justice with his signature sword-scrawled initial. Back in 1998 the Spaniard Antonio Banderas gave an updated, ironic take on the role in a flashy comedy action adventure, The Mask of Zorro. Seven years on from that profitable outing, and a good five years since anyone stopped caring, a now rapidly aging Banderas and his corseted co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones return for a tepid, childish sequel The Legend of Zorro, that like tequila, is best taken with a pinch of salt but in my experience, better avoided altogether.

Socially-conscious aristocrat Don Alejandro de la Vega (Zorro’s alter-ego) is juggling marriage to Elena and the duties of fatherhood with the business of derring-do. With the local village voting to join the state of California and the Confederate half of the newly-minted United States arming itself for civil war, Zorro has promised his wife he will hang up his mask and retire to spend more time with the family. She’s raising their son virtually alone, with Zorro departing the family hacienda every time trouble brews in the surprisingly volatile village. But once the bad guys, led by God-bothering maniac McGivvins (Nick Chinlund), attack the village on election day, brave Zorro cannot ignore the plight of his people and once more rides to the rescue. The argument spills over into divorce, and Zorro, broken-hearted, takes to the bottle. Leaning against a wall in an alleyway, drunk and on horseback, there’s a nod to another jalapeno-flavoured Western comedy adventure, Cat Ballou but Banderas, for all the tongue-in-cheek brio he displays here, is no Lee Marvin; he barely approaches Hank. He’s far from alone with the remainder of the cast delivering woefully uneven performances composed of thick slices of jamon, although none as fragrant or appetising. Zorro’s mentor, played by Anthony Hopkins in the original, doesn’t return but in his place comes the audience-friendly son Joaquin, a precocious 10 year old played to within a decibel of annoyance by Adrian Alonso.

The legend trumpeted in the title isn’t Zorro’s hardly-insurmountable marital problems, rather it’s another complicated conspiracy to cause havoc and rob the poor. Armand (Rufus Sewell), the evil genius behind it is French, because the European accent is shorthand for villainy, and because vineyards are vital to the plot. The rest of the story concerns itself with citizenship, stealing land, building a railroad track and a Da Vinci Code secret society with a new weapon of mass destruction. I didn’t care about any of it. While the first movie was intended for a family audience, it came to us as PG-13 and had perhaps a flailing death or two too many for that catch-almost-all rating, this one is firmly a PG movie, and as a result there’s a lot of frantically choreographed swordplay in which no one gets a scratch and a barrage of high-octane explosions that somehow avoid blowing everyone within the radius of a mile to atoms. I found the many fight scenes tedious and repetitive, with the regular, percussive detonations on the soundtrack making a lot of noise over special effects work that is far from what’s expected in an $80 million dollar action movie. It looks and feels more like a south-of-the-border episode of The A-Team.

Worse than the watery action and hammy acting is the astonishingly generous running time, never a problem when you’re enjoying yourself but very death when you’re not. What might have been a zippy 90 minute reunion with old heroes is padded out to almost two soggy hours of tip-swivelling tomfoolery that still leaves manages to leave massive gaps scattered throughout the story. Returning director Martin Campbell, (now preparing the new Bond, Casino Royale) can deliver the big set-pieces well enough but loses complete control of his overcomplicated narrative with any sympathy for his mugging characters lost in the quieter bits. Que malo.

Arse City Blues

Not so much a thriller as a teenage boy’s bedroom wall brought to life, the beautifully photographed but entirely empty treasure-hunt potboiler Into the Blue offers Jessica Alba (above, jesus) gambolling around in a skimpy bikini as a welcome distraction from trying to make sense of an unhinged and derivative plot that is woefully overextended.

Paul Walker stars alongside Alba as Jared and Sam, young lovers who live humbly on houseboat in the Bahamas. She appears to work feeding fish to orcas at an aquarium, while he is repairing an old boat to search for buried treasure. Their rival in the doubloon hunt is Bates (played by Josh Brolin), who has a bigger boat and a nasty piratical sneer. In a pair of crippling coincidences straight out of 1977's The Deep, Jared and his friends discover the remains of a legendary Spanish shipwreck, chock full of golden artefacts, and conveniently less than 100 metres away, a recently crashed drug-running plane with 800lbs of cocaine on board. Sam and Jared, clean-living surf-warriors, want nothing to do with the coke. Somewhat less principled, his lawyer buddy Bryce (Scott Caan) and new girlfriend Amanda (Alba's former co-star on Alias, Ashley Scott) suggest fishing out and selling the coke to a local drug dealer to buy the equipment necessary to excavate the treasure. It’s Catch 22, but none of these people give the impression they can count that high.

Alba is infintely more beautiful woman than beautiful actress. She might be the hottest young starlet in Hollywood, but she hasn’t yet delivered a wholly realised, convincing performance. Junior Caan, like his father before him, can play your typical annoying, macho Yank well enough, with the superficial Walker doing what he can with his highly principled beach bum character. Acting aside, the film is further hamstrung by a long list of clanging absurdities – not least of which is the gang’s discovery, in 60 feet of crystal clear Caribbean ocean, of the long-lost treasure ship – in a world where the waters are busier than the roads. As for Walker holding his breath indefinitely underwater, well, despite what Alba thinks, we’re not here for an anatomy lesson.

Director John Stockwell presents characters that are tissue thin, so the clunky second-half suspenses and artificially mounted tension evaporate off them like sea water from warm skin. The four principals bravely soldier on, reeling from the weight of the thing, bouncing off shock character developments and skipping over the enormous potholes in the plot. When the final reel asks us to follow two separate, but interwoven threads of narrative come to their violent conclusions, with harpoons, explosives and strategically timed shark bites all coming into play, its easier to just sit back and let the luxuriant underwater photography wash over you, like a chilly October dream of a week on a hot white beach.

Into the Blue is the opposite of an essential film, being more an opportunity for some much-needed cinematic sightseeing, but there are mild action thrills and Alba-inspired thigh-rubbings to be had as long as you keep expectations low.

Clay Idols

It’s been ten years since the last proper Wallace and Gromit film, 1995’s A Close Shave but time seems to stand still in this most intricate world, with creator and director Nick Park having spent about half of the intervening decade manipulating his plasticine pals for their feature length debut.

Occupying a trim terraced house along a red-bricked backstreet of a small Northern English town, a place stuck somehow in a time loop between the present and the 1940s, this beautifully matched duo – the bumbling inventor Wallace and his surefooted pet, Gromit – represent an archetypal chalk-and-cheese double act; a Laurel & Hardy whose cosy familiarity and set routines are as much of a source of their appeal as their cute appearance and gentle humour.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit finds the pair, previously astronauts, crime-fighters and sheep-shearers, with a new business venture: Anti-Pesto, a humane pest-control company, which specialises in relocating rabbits whose thirst for greens would otherwise devastate their green-fingered neighbourhoods verdant garden plots. The hotly-contested annual giant vegetable competition is approaching, and Wallace and Gromit are kept busy extracting the plague of pests from the ground with their Bun-Vac 6000, a kind of barnyard Dyson. When Wallace, with his dog’s help, successfully removes the bunnies from the garden of pretty local aristocrat Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter, on her second animated outing this month after Corpse Bride), he gets a flutter of her animated eyelashes for his troubles.

Wallace’s rival for the plummy toffs affections is the trigger-happy hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine (hilariously voiced by Ralph Fiennes). In a typically rash act of misplaced genius, the well-meaning Wallace creates a monster when he connects the innocuous Bun-Vac to his other greatest invention, the Heath Robinson-esque Mind-O-Matic, a kind of electrical mind reader, in the hopes of brain-washing the rabbits into not wanting to eat vegetables anymore. The experiment, naturally, backfires, and soon a giant “were-rabbit” stalks the allotments and window boxes of the terrified population.

The film is beautifully written with Park’s understated, natural humour bolstered by co-writer Mark Burton, who penned DreamWorks' Madagascar; a Katzenberg favourite who brings with him that company’s taste for broader comic touches and pop-culture references.
These knowing puns and contemporary gags include the titles of a row of books that hide Wallace's secret cheese stash (like “East of Edam” and “Grated Expectations”.) Another big laugh comes when a snatch of the dreary Art Garfunkel ballad “Bright Eyes” the theme from 70s bunny-disaster cartoon Watership Down, appears on the soundtrack, cuing a perfectly judged stare to camera from a sighing Gromit, breaking the fourth wall in a joke more sophisticated than Park has attempted before. Wallace reads Aye-Up magazine, and fetches his milk from a fridge made by the Smug company. These rib-nudging jokes fit perfectly well in the hermetically sealed universe Park creates, with W&G retaining their own peculiar charm without being corrupted by DreamWorks desire to broaden their appeal as they extend the running-time. They also, thankfully, manage to extend the half-hour, episodic nature of the work into a three act feature, a challenge in itself. The boisterous script keeps things moving briskly from start to finish and displays all the wit we've come to expect. It is smart, snappy, pun laden, and intensely British, glorying in the world of the toolshed inventor, the giant marrow grower and the angry torchlit mob set on destroying the monster.

The glorious stop-motion animation, a process more akin to medieval torture than filmmaking, is astonishing, even by the high standards Park has set himself. His team of artists effortlessly create big, complicated crowd scenes, with a hoard of cute hopping extras and literally hundreds of tiny, individual moving elements. The best of all the jumping bits of plasticine is Gromit’s eyebrow, a tiny roll of brown marla that Parks raises with a maestro’s finesse, giving full voice to the silent Gromit through gesture alone. It’s as if Park is manipulating the fabric of cinema time for his own peculiar comedic aims, with gag after gag relying on split second timing. If that’s something to be admired in real-life, human actors it is cause for amazement when delivered by the deft hands of a model maker working with equal parts patience and inspiration. Park and Aardman have taken the plunge into computer generated images, but these touches are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible and never jar with the consciously clunky foreground action. The voice work is likewise, a treat. The camera moves beautifully through the action, sharply angled from time to time, paying a sweet homage to its camp Hammer Horror influences. The action is supplemented by finely judged genre lighting and a suitably creepy, but never too creepy, soundtrack.

Five years work for an 85 minute children’s film might seem like an awful lot of laborious drudge, but when the results are so good, so true to their origins and suffused with the frame-by-frame glory of cinema, it is worth every second.

Serenity Now!

Taken off the airwaves back in 2002, before the end of its first season and after just eleven episodes, Buffy creator Joss Whedon's sci-fi television show Firefly has gone on to develop a sizeable cult following, an internet-based community vocal and sizeable enough to spur Universal Pictures into making a mid-budget big-screen spin-off, Serenity.

Whedon’s rollicking, rambling space-set six-gun adventure fully deserves its second chance.

Made with considerably less money than your typical ‘tentpole’ blockbuster, the film starts explosively and doesn’t let up. We're 500 years in the future, in the aftermath of a war that destroyed Earth, in a newly colonized solar system run by an Orwellian cabal called the Alliance. Resisting the Alliance's totalitarian control is Capt. Mal (Nathan Fillion) of the starship Serenity and his ragbag crew of rebels. They are joined on board by Dr. Simon (Sean Maher) and his newly-liberated 17-year-old telepath sister River Tam (Summer Glau), who has been secretly trained by the Alliance as a superweapon, a one-woman army. Naturally they want their experiment back, so they send chief bad guy The Operator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in hot pursuit. This serene, mannered villain is resolute and unstoppable, firmly believing his cause is necessary and vital. With the heroic captain likewise convinced that he’s got something worth fighting for; Whedon introduces a suitable theme of belief and perseverance, perfect for a movie based on an original idea that Hollywood belatedly fished out of a rubbish skip.

The remainder of the story follows a path based on secrets and revelations, and is worth discovering for yourself, so I won’t spoil it.

Fans of his various television shows will recognise Whedon’s trademark pithy wit; mock-heroic, bombastic monologues punctured by snide remarks and sharp rejoinders. That superb dialogue is the key to this space-opera, quick fire and dripping with sarcasm, and not what you’d expect at all. Whedon has crafted an elaborate nomenclature here, based on the drawling, agricultural tones of classic Westerns and the high, odd-sounding syntax of Edwardian costume drama. It flows like music and perfectly fits the quirky story, which firmly remains a sci-fi while bumping off John Wayne and Kung Fu and Zombie Horror and, it has to be said, all points in between.

It's not all glory though. The film is not without its flaws - major structural gaps are barely held together with explosive misdirection and vast reams of story are rushed through with scant regard for newcomers. There are a few too many bad guys, far too many premises and a spiky legion of characters to keep track of. Most damaging is the overwhelming feeling that the events in the film take place in the middle of something much bigger but Whedon blithely assumes his audience is familiar enough with the Serenity crew and the situations they find themselves in that he can skimp on the niceties of character development. It's tough shit to first-timers, like me.

Curiously for a balls-out Hollywood adventure movie, it’s genuinely funny, but writing a gag is in Whedon’s blood. His grandfather John was a television comedy writer for early sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver while his father Tom wrote Benson and The Golden Girls. He also has the rare gift of knowing precisely when to pull an audiences internal strings, with real tension and palpable danger seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and a couple of frantic high-octane set-pieces that glue you to your seat.

Most of science-fiction is old westerns in snazzy jumpsuits. The first wave of Asian directors revered the vast Fordian mesas of those monochrome oaters and adapted the heroic stories wholesale into samurai cinema. Together these two genres provided the foundation for Lucas and Star Wars and almost everything similar since. Whedon has consciously come full circle, ripping his references magpie-like from everything he likes that has gone before and still managing to be both wildly original and tellingly obvious.

Whedon is no gom and grabbed his chance to tell the rest of his abbreviated story with both hands, but makes the rookie mistake of trying to cram everything into two hours. His might be a complicated, half-explained story that still manages to have about five different endings but none of this matters when it is told with innate charm and is thoroughly entertaining.