Happy Birthday! – thedullwoodexperiment is a Year Old Today

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It’s incredible to think that I’ve been doing this for a year now, a year in which thedullwoodexperiment has exceeded all my expectations – not that I had very many – and which has, in its own small way, found a home on the Web that hopefully has proven thought-provoking, entertaining and informative.

When I wrote my first review – Touchy Feely (2013) – it was with a sense of trepidation.  I didn’t know if anyone would read it, or if they did, whether they would like it, agree with it, disagree with it, or just be dismissive of it.  But as I added more and more content, and I started getting more and more traffic, I could see that my efforts weren’t entirely in vain.  As I gained a few followers (still something that seems incredibly weird to me), I also gained more confidence in what I was writing, in my choice of movies to write about, and thanks to some generous comments and feedback in those early days, the momentum I needed to keep going when it seemed no one was interested (those were dark days indeed).

But now I feel I’m in a position to continue with even more confidence that, with all the other movie blogs out there, my little piece of the Net is getting the attention that it deserves, and that it’s appreciated as well.  It’s a tremendous feeling when I log on and find someone has liked a review or a post; it makes it all the more worthwhile.

So, a big THANK YOU to everyone who’s read a review, or a post – whether you’ve liked it or not – and especially to those very kind and generous people who are currently following thedullwoodexperiment.  As it’s customary to say on these occasions, “I couldn’t have done it without you”.

With Phase 1 of my version of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe now complete, it’s time to look forward to Phase 2, and making this particular blog even more well-known than it is now.  Hopefully I’ll pick up some new readers along the way, and hopefully they’ll like the blog enough to tell their friends etc.  (That’s a big hopefully, by the way.)  I have some ideas for the blog that will happen in the next twelve months, and a lot of them I’m really excited about.  A couple of new “additions” can be seen from today.

But the reviews will continue to be the focus of the blog.  I hope to include even more reviews in the next year, and not leave some out like I did this year – my apologies to 47 Ronin, several Roger Corman movies, Pride, and a few low budget horror movies that I just couldn’t bring myself to write about.  I’ll continue to review a wide range of movies from a variety of eras and countries, and not just the latest new releases; I think that’s only fair.

Finally, if you’ve ever wanted to leave a comment, positive or negative, and decided in the end not to, can I suggest that you just go for it?  Hearing from other people, bloggers and non-bloggers alike, is always special, and feedback is always greatly appreciated.  So, don’t be shy, and let me know what you’re thinking.

That’s all for now, folks!

Life After Beth (2014)

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Life After Beth

D: Jeff Baena / 89m

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) has been devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Plaza).  Unable to fully come to terms with her passing, Zach spends time after the funeral with her parents, Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon).  His behaviour concerns his own parents, Judy (Hines) and Noah (Reiser), as well as his brother Kyle (Gubler).  When Zach goes to see the Slocums but they don’t answer the door, or return his phone calls he’s initially upset.  He decides to try one last time to see them but when he does they still don’t answer the door.  Knowing they’re inside, Zach looks in through one of the windows… and sees Beth.

Forcing his way in, Zach confronts the Slocums who tell him that Beth came home on the night of the wake and seems fine, but she has no memory of dying; as far as she’s concerned she has a test at school the next day even though it’s summer break.  The Slocums allow Zach to visit Beth but insist he doesn’t tell her what’s happened to her.  Zach reluctantly agrees and the two resume dating, but Beth’s behaviour is erratic and demanding.  As time goes on it becomes more difficult to hide the fact that Beth has come back from the dead.  She begins to deteriorate, but her parents continue to reject Zach’s pleas to tell her the truth.

Things come to a head when Zach bumps into an old schoolfriend, Erica (Kendrick) at a restaurant.  He tells her about Beth’s death (but not her resurrection).  When he leaves he (literally) runs over Beth who is unharmed.  Erica appears and is surprised by Beth’s appearance.  Beth realises Zach is keeping something from her, and forces him to tell her what it is.  He shows Beth her grave and the hole in it where she got out.  She runs off.  Zach returns home to find his dead grandfather has returned as well; it becomes clear that the dead are returning in droves and the town becomes a disaster zone, with vigilante groups culling the undead.  Still in love with Beth he races to the Slocums to rescue her, but now Beth is constantly in need of food, preferably human flesh.  Zach is faced with a terrible choice: to travel far away with Beth and keep her safe, or send her back to the grave.

Life After Beth - scene

A rom-zom-com with plenty of heart (and other body parts), Life After Beth is a deftly funny diversion that treats its central character with dignity and affection, even when she is trying to devour someone or has degenerated into a snarling zombie.  It walks a fine line between horror and comedy, and adds romance to the mix with surprising ease, making its absurd premise all the more believable.  It’s all cleverly done, and though it would have been easy to do so, doesn’t rely on self-reflexive in-jokes or knowing nods to the camera.  Life After Beth is played largely straight, incorporating humour with a relaxed confidence, and making the horror elements as gruesome as the material needs (which isn’t very gruesome).

The partly traditional romantic tale is well catered for – boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, girl turns into ravenous monster, boy still loves her – and is handled with assurance by Plaza and DeHaan.  Plaza effects Beth’s transformation from slightly confused corpse to psychotic girlfriend to the aforementioned ravenous monster with a surprising amount of charm, investing Beth with an unexpected warmth that offsets the cruel trajectory her character takes as the movie progresses.  With her pinched features and wide eyes, Plaza makes Beth both dangerous and (relatively) innocent at the same time.  As the bewildered and conflicted Zach, DeHaan shows an aptitude for comedy that might not have been readily apparent from his previous movie roles, and is a delight to watch as he struggles with his feelings for Beth in the face of her rapidly deteriorating behaviour.  Together, they’re a winning team, sparking off each other and making Zach and Beth’s relationship entirely credible – even if one of them is dead.

Writer/director Baena’s only previous credit is the script for David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees (2004).  With such an assured movie as this it’s a shame he hasn’t had any other projects produced since then.  He gets the tone just right, even when he throws in some awkward necrophilia, and as mentioned already, obtains strong performances from his two leads while allowing his supporting cast to do what they do best: almost steal the movie.  Reilly is on great form, turning self-denial into a personal mantra, and Shannon is terrific as well, her offbeat screen persona a perfect match for Geenie, a woman who responds to life just a second or two too late (watch out for how she feeds Beth at one point).

The movie extracts so much good will in its relatively short running time it’s almost embarrassing, but Life After Beth is that enjoyable; at times it’s a romp, at other times  it’s a sly meditation on love’s permanence and the sacrifices we make to hold onto it.  Baena even finds time to add one of the year’s funniest moments as Beth leaves home strapped to a cooker.  It’s laugh out loud funny and worthy of an award all on its own.

Rating: 8/10 – everything a good rom-zom-com should be, Life After Beth is a small-scale delight; witty, with plenty of pathos and charm, it’s refreshingly mounted and seductively light-hearted – in short, an absolute joy.

The Anomaly (2014)

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Anomaly, The

D: Noel Clarke / 97m

Cast: Noel Clarke, Ian Somerhalder, Alexis Knapp, Luke Hemsworth, Brian Cox, Ali Cook, Art Parkinson, Niall Greig Fulton, Michael Bisping

When Ryan (Clarke) wakes up in the back of a moving van and finds a young boy called Alex (Parkinson) shacked to the dividing wall, he puts aside the strangeness of the situation and helps the boy escape when the van comes to a halt.  Chased by two men into a cemetery, Ryan learns that Alex’s mother has been killed by the men chasing them.  He uses military training to incapacitate one of the men before a third man shows up who seems to know he is.  Before he can find out any more, he finds himself in an office but older now and with a beard.  Further changes in time and location happen to him and he learns that this will happen every nine minutes and forty-seven seconds.

Not knowing why this is happening to him, or why he can’t remember anything before he woke up in the van, Ryan sets about finding the truth.  The mystery third man turns out to be Harkin (Somerhalder), a colleague Ryan’s host body works with.  Ryan’s consciousness is being manipulated by a Dr Langham (Cox), but solar flares are interfering with the satellite link that aids Langham in controlling him; this allows Ryan his nine minutes and forty-seven seconds of autonomy.  As Ryan begins to piece together the conspiracy his host body is involved in, he finds himself aided by a prostitute called Dana (Knapp).  She believes his story, and his further persuaded to help him by his attempts to get her away from her pimp, Sergio (Bisping).

Harkin is attempting to sell the mind control technology to the highest bidder, while supporting a scientist (Fulton) whose DNA work has led to the discovery of a virus that will cause hideous mutations if made airborne.  Both these projects can be linked in such a way that it will be possible for one man to control everyone in the world.  Intent on finding Alex and rescuing him – he’s the scientist’s son – Ryan uses the knowledge he learns about the mind control programme to stay one step ahead of Harkin and two US agents (Hemsworth, Cook) who are trying to acquire the technology for their own government.

Anomaly, The - scene

Set sometime in the future – London and Times Square are given a bit of a makeover – The Anomaly takes its sci-fi premise seriously and never lets up on the drama and the potential horror of worldwide mind control.  The movie sets a grim tone early on and never really lets the viewer forget just what’s at stake, making Ryan’s search for answers and then a solution all the more dramatic.  However, the movie’s structure, where Ryan moves from one seemingly disparate time and location to another every ten minutes or so, soon becomes tiresome and seems more of a concept that was committed to early on, but which wasn’t fully thought out.

Linking the various locations and characters proves to be a hit-and-miss affair, with Ryan and Dana meeting up when the script demands it rather than in any organic, credible way, and the same can be said for Harkin’s interventions as well.  There’s a thread of plausibility somewhere in the movie but it’s lost amid the slo-mo action sequences – fine once but then just repetitive pieces of violent choreography that make Clarke and myriad stuntmen look clumsy – and the need to continually establish what’s going on every time Ryan’s on/off switch gets triggered.  It’s a frustrating experience, peppered with the kind of dire exposition that makes it look as if the cast are having to remind themselves of what scene they’re in.

Both behind and in front of the camera, Clarke wears his usual slightly baffled look (as well he might with the material), and fails to assemble the various plot threads with any real confidence that it will all make sense by the movie’s end.  He also shows a knack of putting the camera in entirely the wrong place during the action scenes (which adds to the notion that he and the stuntmen look clumsy).  Clarke is a talented actor and director – he also contributed to Simon Lewis’s convoluted screenplay – but here the material defeats him, and he never shows that he has a firm grasp of how to present things.

The rest of the cast fare either badly or worse, with Somerhalder annoyingly diffident for most of the movie and then going all cruel, sadistic villain in the last ten minutes, a sea change that again seems arranged more out of necessity than as a real piece of character development.  Knapp does fearful in little or no clothing, while Hemsworth’s “old school” agent is the nearest the movie comes to providing any levity.  It’s Cox you have to feel sorry for, though: he’s strapped inside a perspex box with electrodes stuck to his head and no lines.

With little wit or originality on display, The Anomaly is a sci-fi action thriller that plods along, convinced of its own relevance, and yet has nothing to say beyond be careful what scientists get up to in their labs.  It’s not a complete waste of time, but it will test the average viewer’s patience.  And a good answer to the movie poster’s tag line, If you only had 9 minutes, 47 seconds what would you do? would be: see if I can fast forward the whole movie in that time.

Rating: 4/10 – Clarke and sci-fi prove to be unsatisfactory bedfellows in a movie where the highlight is Clarke being blasted with a fire extinguisher; The Anomaly is low budget nonsense that is rarely coherent, and “viewer discretion” should be used throughout.

Fury (2014)

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Fury

D: David Ayer / 134m

Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg

April 1945, Germany.  A battered, disabled tank lies amidst the carnage of a recently fought battle.  Its men – Collier (Pitt), Swan (LaBeouf), Garcia (Peña), and Travis (Bernthal) – are battle-hardened and weary but they have an unshakeable bond.  Under Collier’s tough, uncompromising leadership they’ve survived countless skirmishes, encounters and battles.  Now, with the war nearing its end, they are all looking forward to peacetime.

Travis gets their tank – named Fury – moving again and they head back to base.  There, much to Collier’s disgust, they are assigned a new driver/gunner, Ellison (Lerman); Collier is disgusted because Ellison is too young, he’s only been in the Army for eight weeks and he knows nothing about tanks.  Introduced to the rest of the crew, Ellison is treated with disdain and told to take a bucket of hot water and clean out the inside of the tank.  When he does, he finds the partial remains of the previous driver/gunner.  Meanwhile, Collier and three other tank commanders are given a mission to meet up with Baker Company and from there take over a small town.

On the way to the rendezvous, Ellison’s inexperience causes the death of several men including the lieutenant (Samuel) who was leading them.  Now led by Collier, the convoy carries on and they meet up with Baker Company and their commanding officer, Captain Waggoner (Isaacs).  Before seizing the town, Waggoner needs the tanks to flush out a German unit that has several dozen US troops pinned down in a field.  Fury and the other tanks get the job done, but Ellison’s inexperience nearly causes more casualties.  When the fight is over, Collier tries to make Ellison kill a captured German soldier, putting a gun in his hand and telling him to “do his job”, which is to kill Nazis.  Ellison refuses but Collier puts his hand over the young man’s hand and pulls the trigger.  Ellison is horrified by it all but it proves to be a turning point, and when the nearby town is taken he is less nervous and is able to despatch the Germans without feeling too sick or nervous.

With the town taken, Collier and Ellison investigate a building where they’ve seen a woman peering from a window.  They find the woman, Irma (Marinca) and her niece Emma (Rittberg).  While Collier washes up, Ellison takes Emma into the bedroom and clearly attracted to each other, they make love.  Later, while the four are about to have a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew barge in and spoil things, before orders are received to report to Captain Waggoner.  He tells Collier and the other tank commanders that there is a nearby crossroads that needs holding because of a large German troop movement that’s heading in that direction.  But on their way there, the tanks find themselves under attack crossing a large field, and very soon the whole mission is in danger of failing.

Fury - scene

After the less than impressive Sabotage (2014), writer/director Ayer returns with a movie that paints a portrait of extreme heroism under one of the most difficult of environments, and with a keen eye for detail that grounds both the action and the characters.  It’s a challenging piece of moviemaking and provides a reminder of just how awful tank warfare could be.

And yet, Fury is a curious mix of the heroic and the mundane.  Ayer’s script paints each man as a distinct individual – Collier as noted above, Swan as religiously minded, Garcia as more carnally oriented, Travis as a bigoted animal, Ellison as a callow liability (at first) – but it doesn’t take the time to explore or delve into those characters any further than those broad brush strokes allow.  Collier speaks fluent German but the reason for this is never revealed, leaving the audience wondering if it’s part of a back story that was excised from the final script, or if it’s just a case of Screenwriting Expediency 101, a way to keep the crew ahead of the Germans without them having to work too hard to get there.  Ellison is the only character who gets a story arc, and while his initial shock is well presented, though predictable given his introduction, when he does take to killing Nazis, all of a sudden he’s enjoying it.  The change in attitude is too quick, and is an example of Ayer’s script downplaying motivation in favour of the next big action sequence.

The extended sequence in the apartment of Irma and Emma is another case in point where Ayer seems to be scratching the surface of an issue, highlighting the essential need, even in wartime, for people to hold on to their innate humanity.  Collier and Ellison treat both women with the utmost respect but when the rest of the crew bundles in creating tension around the table and being hostile and objectionable, the tone shifts uncomfortably and Travis in particular is allowed to behave as if social manners were alien to him (he later apologises to Ellison but it’s not in the least convincing – if it were to happen in real life it would appear forced and contrived).  The whole sequence becomes uneven and any message that Ayer was aiming for becomes lost in the telling.  He then adds a layer of tragedy that speaks of the callous nature of war but which, for the viewer, will only come across as an unnecessary twist in the tale.

With so many apparent flaws in the screenplay, and with its shifting tone proving hard to pin down, Fury presents a problem for the viewer in that it’s a movie that attempts to take a snapshot of one part of what happened in World War II and to make it resonate beyond that snapshot.  This is almost a timepiece, a movie where the overall picture is lost in the mist and shadow that permeates the fields and roads that the tanks travel through.  It’s not a bad approach as such, but without that wider focus, Fury limits itself to being solely about the men inside a tank, and with no real effort to expand on their characters, it becomes a snapshot with no context.

Screenplay issues notwithstanding, the movie is on firmer ground with its action scenes, making the tank skirmishes urgent and vital, and deftly playing up the cramped conditions under which the crew operate, making a virtue of the economy of movement needed to load and fire the shells (try and count how many times we see Swan’s foot press down on the firing pedal).  These scenes are impressively shot and edited together by Roman Vasyanov, and Jay Cassidy and Dody Dorn respectively, and offer a few heart-stopping moments along the way.  But Ayer then settles for a final showdown between Fury and the advancing German troops that lifts action beats from every direct-to-video war movie you’ve ever seen, and which sacrifices credibility for the kind of careless heroics that undermines (and overturns) everything that’s gone before.

Fury - scene2

On the whole, Fury isn’t a bad movie per se, it’s sadly a movie that never quite realises its full potential.  It does feature some very good performances however, and these raise up the movie when it most needs it.  Pitt is as intense and commanding as ever, dominating every scene he’s in and making it difficult for the audience to concentrate on anyone else.  But matching him – thankfully – is Lerman, putting in a career best performance that quickly obliterates any embarrassing memories of him in the Percy Jackson movies or The Three Musketeers (2011).  As Ellison grows up on screen so too does Lerman, showing a range and a conviction that’s eluded him up until now.  It’s a pleasure to watch him match the likes of Pitt and his co-stars, all actors who, on their day, can impress beyond all expectations.  (Well, maybe not LaBeouf, but here he’s tolerable and seems required to stare fixedly at Pitt for most of the movie, but good luck with working out what emotion he’s meant to be feeling.)

Ayer is a talented individual, and he’s written some great scripts over the last fifteen years; he’s also making a name for himself as a director as well, but to date End of Watch (2012) remains his most fully realised project.  Fury will definitely attract audiences initially but there’s a sense that, ironically, it won’t have “legs”.  Which is a shame, as the movie could have been so much better had Ayer been more rigorous with his script.

Rating: 7/10 – slightly better than average but with enough problems to make viewing the movie more disappointing than not, Fury bristles with energy during its action scenes but otherwise is sluggish; one to see on the big screen though, and with one’s expectations firmly kept in check.

The Riot Club (2014)

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Riot Club, The

D: Lone Scherfig / 107m

Cast: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid, Ben Schnetzer, Freddie Fox, Olly Alexander, Matthew Beard, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jack Farthing, Michael Jibson, Natalie Dormer, Tom Hollander

Two new students at an Oxford university, Alistair Ryle (Claflin) and Miles Richards (Irons), are from privileged backgrounds but couldn’t be more different.  Alistair is cold and aloof, and arrogant in his approach to others.  Miles is more carefree and open, and less snobbish.  Despite their very different personalities they both find themselves sought after for membership of the Riot Club, an exclusive fraternity that favours drinking and debauchery and any other hedonistic pursuits.  With their annual dinner coming up, and both young men needed to meet the required numbers for the dinner to go ahead, the Riot Club recruits them (but not before they have to undergo a variety of tests to prove they’re worthy of membership).

In the meantime, Miles has begun a relationship with Lauren (Grainger), a young woman of humbler origins.  But as the selection process for the Riot Club begins in earnest, Miles fails to see the warning signs of being part of the club while Lauren sees them all too clearly.  When she starts to question Miles’s need to be a part of the Riot Club, a rift begins to open up between them, but they remain friends nevertheless.

With the club having been banned from most of the pubs and bars and restaurants in Oxford, they are forced to hold their annual dinner at a country pub.  The landlord, Chris (Jibson), is delighted to have them as it will mean a substantial amount of revenue for the pub, but his daughter, Rachel (Findlay) isn’t so sure, or so keen to have them there.  The evening arrives and the club members quickly become drunk and rowdy, causing a disturbance and behaving with appalling manners.  When the prostitute (Dormer) that club member Harry Villiers (Booth) has arranged baulks at giving oral sex to all ten men, Alistair secretly uses Miles’s mobile phone to text Lauren and get her to come to the pub.  When she arrives, thinking that Miles is looking forward to seeing her, she is shocked to find herself verbally abused and asked to substitute for the prostitute.  Even worse, Miles fails to do anything to help her; she leaves in tears.

As the evening progresses, the Riot Club members become increasingly unruly, and when they discover that the food they ordered isn’t exactly what they asked for, they grow aggressive and begin to trash the dining room, egged on by Alistair, who spouts class-based bile.  When Chris sees the damage they’ve done and tries to remonstrate with them, things take a darker, more violent turn…

Riot Club, The - scene

Featuring the cream of young British male acting talent, The Riot Club is a demanding, disturbing look at the ways in which privilege and contempt can go hand in hand and lead to the most horrifying of situations and circumstances.  Adapted by Laura Wade from her play, Posh – itself based on the exploits of the Bullingdon Club – The Riot Club depicts the kind of arrogant, dismissive behaviour most viewers will take for granted, and therein lies one of the movie’s main problems: even at its most melodramatic, the club’s actions aren’t quite as appalling as the movie would like them to be.  True, they’re abusive, disdainful, egotistical, misogynistic, conceited and full of their own self-importance, but we’ve seen this kind of misconduct before, and while it’s competently presented, viewers won’t be surprised by the direction in which the storyline travels.

What we have here is a spurious social commentary made up to appear relevant in relation to the latest ideas about the class divide (and acerbically delivered in a caustic speech by Claflin near the dinner’s end).  In truth it boils down to the standard, predictable belief that the haves are dismissive of, and abhor, the have-nots, and look down on them as inferior and unimportant when weighed against the needs of the so-called elite.  It’s hardly news, and Wade’s depiction of these privileged young men is often as cynical as the characters’ attitudes, leaving the viewer unsure if she, in her own way, is as contemptuous of them as they are of Lauren et al.  There’s an attempt as well to provide a political as well as social context to the club members’ behaviour, but it comes across as too prosaic to have much of an impact.  Alistair’s desperate assertions notwithstanding, it’s clear there’s no excuse for what they do, and the script rarely tries to provide any credible explanation.  This leaves the club’s self-aggrandising dissipation with no other justification than that they behave the way they do purely because they can, a message that is clear from the beginning.

In transferring Wade’s play to the screen, Scherfig wisely stages things with a nod to the material’s theatrical origins, and the dinner party itself achieves a certain claustrophobic ambience after a time, and while Scherfig keeps the camera moving – often dizzyingly so – the movie traps the viewer in that room with the Riot Club and keeps a seat there for them throughout, in an attempt to make them in some way complicit in the debauchery.  It’s a neat idea, but doesn’t quite work, the camera forced to move outside the room too often to maintain the effect.  Otherwise, the dinner party and all its tawdry developments – the movie’s own main course, if you will – have a cumulative effect that is surprisingly effective from a visual perspective.  In fact, the movie looks good throughout, a tribute to both DoP Sebastian Blenkov and production designer Alice Normington.

Of the cast, Claflin stands out the most by virtue of being the movie’s most clearly defined villain, an acid-tongued, rancour-spouting advocate of class hatred.  It’s a fierce, uncompromising performance and confirms Claflin isn’t afraid to “mix it up” outside of the heroics of The Hunger Games.  As his foil and target, Irons makes Miles a little too insipid to be entirely credible or likeable, while Grainger quietly steals the movie with a well-rounded portrayal of a young woman for whom the best privilege is being where she is, and having a sense of achievement her more aristocratic co-students can’t (or don’t have to) fathom.  In amongst all the sturm und drang, its cast members such as Jibson as the conflicted Chris that make the most impact, while Booth, Reid and Alexander et al. struggle to do much with their less detailed roles.

A clutch of good performances however, fail to make up for the unevenness of the material and its often simplistic notions of class warfare.  That the members of the Riot Club are snobbish and uncaring of others is a given; that they don’t show any signs of self-awareness means their unrestrained amorality becomes both unpleasant and increasingly dull to watch.  To see so much bad behaviour taking place, and with continued impunity, makes The Riot Club a frustrating experience to watch and one that arrives at its final “point” with a dispiriting vindication that robs the viewer of any catharsis from what they’ve seen up til then.  And that’s a mean trick to play on anyone.

Rating: 5/10 – visually arresting at times, and with strong performances that offset the often muddled dramatics, The Riot Club has energy to spare but doesn’t quite know what to do with it all; suffocating at times, and not as “relevant” as it might have been thirty years ago.

A Good Marriage (2014)

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Good Marriage, A

D: Peter Askin / 101m

Cast: Joan Allen, Anthony LaPaglia, Stephen Lang, Cara Buono, Kristen Connolly, Theo Stockman

Darcy and Bob Anderson (Allen, LaPaglia) are the perfect couple: loving, considerate, still attracted to each other, and with two bright, well-adjusted children, Petra (Connolly) and Donnie (Stockman). Everyone says what a good marriage they have. On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Bob gives Darcy a pair of earrings that represent her birth sign of Pisces. Darcy is delighted by them.  In return she offers to purchase a coin that avid collector Bob has been looking for but he tells her he’d rather wait for it to turn up in some change.  Both happy in their affection for each other, their lives continue as normal, with Darcy running a mail order business that sells rare coins, and Bob working as an accountant who often has to travel away.

In the news is a serial killer called Beadie who has just claimed his tenth victim, a woman named Marjorie Duvall.  Beadie kidnaps and tortures his victims before killing them and dumping their bodies; later he sends any I.D. cards they had to the police with a note taunting them for not being able to catch him.

One night, while Bob is away on a trip, the TV remote won’t work and Darcy goes out to the garage where the spare batteries are kept.  While looking for them she dislodges a box under a bench.  She sees some magazines inside the box and pulls them out, as some of them are ones she’s been looking for.  She also finds an S&M magazine that shows pictures of women being bound and humiliated.  And at the very back underneath the bench is a hole in the wall that contains a box that Petra made for Bob when she was younger – a box that contains Marjorie Duvall’s I.D.

Shocked and horrified, Darcy can’t believe what she’s found.  She Googles Beadie and his killings, and becomes completely convinced that Bob is Beadie when she sees a picture of Marjorie Duvall wearing the same earrings Bob got her for their anniversary. And then Bob comes home early from his trip, and the truth about Beadie is revealed. But now Darcy has an even bigger dilemma…

Good Marriage, A - scene

Adapted by King from his novella of the same name (and which can be found in his short story collection Full Dark, No Stars), A Good Marriage is a slow-burn thriller that lights the blue touch paper very early on but which, sadly, never really bursts into flame at any point.  As with the original novella, King focuses on the little details and inherent rhythms of the Andersons’ life together, leaving the thriller elements to (almost) fend for themselves.  They’re only brought in when King needs to drive the story forwards, but otherwise they seem of secondary importance, whereas the relationship between Darcy and Bob takes centre stage.  To some degree this is entirely necessary, but it also stops the movie from being as dramatic as it could have been.

Part of the problem with A Good Marriage is Darcy’s reaction – and subsequent actions – when Bob arrives home and she learns all about Beadie.  For some viewers it will appear unconvincing and contrived (it will help if you’ve read the novella), while others will find it completely unbelievable.  Even if the viewer gives Darcy some considerable leeway for her behaviour, it still hurts the movie to see her behaving in the way that she does.  Even Allen, an actress with more smarts than most, can’t quite pull it off, and the movie’s middle section slows down even further, making a movie that is already moving at a slow, steady pace now almost glacial.

While the audience waits for things to pick up, and Beadie to claim another victim, King and director Askin throw in an unexpected twist that turns the movie on its head and proves to be A Good Marriage‘s standout, bravura moment, a quintessential King literary moment made uncomfortable flesh, and which is reminiscent of that scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966).  With that moment out of the way, it’s time to properly introduce Lang’s supporting character, a retired detective who thinks he knows who Beadie is, and have him provide quite a bit of extraneous exposition.  It all leads to a final scene that – on screen at least – appears entirely superfluous and adds nothing to what’s gone before.

As Darcy and Bob, Allen and LaPaglia at least share a degree of chemistry, and their early scenes together are well played and playful at the same time.  As the movie darkens, Allen becomes more distant as Darcy, while if anything, LaPaglia takes the opposite approach and makes Bob seem like he’s permanently on a cheerful streak.  If this sounds awkward to watch, and difficult to believe, then it is, but King is too clever a writer to make it appear too incredible, and it suits the mood of the movie as the viewer waits to see what’s going to happen next.  Both stars put in good performances on the whole, though it must be said, Allen – who doesn’t always look like herself from certain angles – has the harder job, and she doesn’t always nail it in the way she would normally.

The supporting cast aren’t given much to do – this would work well as a two-hander on stage – and Lang’s detective aside, are interchangeable in terms of their importance to the story.  Buono’s saucy neighbour is a potential victim for all of a minute, while Connolly and Stockman fail to make much of an impact, and are sidelined at the halfway mark.  Askin, along with DoP Frank G. DeMarco keeps things visually subdued as befits the material, and while the pace of the movie is kept deliberately slow, Colleen Sharp’s astute editing makes each scene, individually at least, interesting to watch.  However, the score, by Saunder Juriaans and Danny Bensi is too generic to add much to the proceedings.

Rating: 5/10 – while it’s very faithful to the original novella, A Good Marriage still isn’t the best example of a Stephen King adaptation, even if it is penned by the man himself; some parts are extraneous, while others are meant to increase the tension but fail to do so making the movie – on the whole – a bit of a disappointment.

Poster of the Week – For a Few Dollars More (1965)

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For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

The sequel to Sergio Leone’s surprise hit, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), had several interesting posters designed for it at the time of its release, but this one is interesting for a couple of reasons.

The first thing to realise is that this is very much a poster that follows on from its predecessor, both in terms of design and reference.  The image of Clint Eastwood is taken from the poster for A Fistful of Dollars (though just what’s going on with his left eye is a little strange), and the third tag line below the title is an updated version of a similar tag line from the first movie – that one read, “It’s the first motion picture of its kind! It won’t be the last!”  It’s not often you see that kind of continuity in movie posters, but it’s a nice touch (even if it is bragging a little).

The principal tag line is urgent and attention grabbing, a bold statement of intent, and promising a showdown that will be exciting and dramatic.  However, the description of Lee Van Cleef’s character – the man in black – is undermined by the poster’s image of him in very obviously brown coat and trousers and red waistcoat (though perhaps the artist was working from an early character or costume design).  Van Cleef’s horse, clumsily included behind him, is there to show off the range of his arsenal, giving a clear indication (despite its positioning) of the danger facing the Man With No Name, and adding to the sense of threat in the main tag line.

There are other elements that don’t work as well – the gold coins dotted around, the slightly awkward second tag line – and at first glance it’s not as bold or inventive as some other posters for Westerns, but its warm tones and straightforward imagery work well enough to draw the eye more than once, and in its way, proves unexpectedly evocative.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Tammy (2014)

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Tammy

D: Ben Falcone / 97m

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Nat Faxon, Toni Collette, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Falcone

Tammy (McCarthy) is having a bad day: first her car is hit and totalled by a deer, then she’s fired from her job at Topper Jack’s for being late.  To make matters worse, when she gets home she finds her husband, Greg (Faxon) having a romantic meal with their neighbour, Missi (Collette).  With no car, no job, and her marriage over, Tammy does what she always does when things go wrong: she plans to leave town.  However, her mother (Janney) refuses to lend Tammy her car.  Enter Tammy’s grandmother, Pearl, who’ll let Tammy use her car, but under one condition: that she can come along for the ride.  Tammy has her misgivings but when Pearl says she can pay for the trip as well, Tammy agrees she can come along.

After a first night where they both end up drinking too much, Tammy wants to go home, but Pearl persuades her to stick with the trip, and they head for Niagara Falls.  On the way Tammy stops off to go jet skiing but she wrecks the jet ski and Pearl is forced to pay for it.  Next they go to Louisville where they visit a bar that serves the best barbecue around; there they meet Earl (Cole) and his son, Bobby (Duplass).  Pearl and Earl quickly hit it off – so much so that they end up having sex in the back of Pearl’s car – while Tammy and Bobby make a more restrained connection.

The next morning, Tammy discovers Pearl in a liquor store mixing whiskey in a Slurpee and trying to buy alcohol for some minors.  The police are called and both Tammy and Pearl are arrested.  Pearl pays for Tammy’s bail, but doesn’t have enough for herself.  Tammy robs a local Topper Jack’s to get her released but she’s beaten to it by Earl.  The robbery makes the news, and Pearl persuades Tammy to return the money.  From there they travel to meet Pearl’s old friend Lenore (Bates) and her partner Susanne (Oh) and be a part of their annual Fourth of July party.  Earl and Bobby turn up as well, and although Tammy and Bobby’s relationship deepens, Pearl’s drunken behaviour on the night causes a rift between grandmother and granddaughter that leads Tammy to rethink her life and what she wants from it.

Tammy - scene

Co-written by McCarthy with her husband (and director) Falcone, Tammy is ostensibly a comedy, but by the movie’s end it’s morphed into a somewhat sombre drama that abandons laughs in order to get across its message: that you can be whoever you want to be as long as put in the effort.  This shift in tone does two things: it adds some much needed depth to proceedings, and makes the viewer wonder how much better the movie could have been, played as a straight drama.  For this is the strange problem with Tammy: the more serious aspects are handled far more effectively than the comedic ones.

Part of the problem here is that, thanks to The Heat (2013) and Identity Thief (2013), McCarthy’s particular brand of comedy is fast becoming “old hat”, with her childish prolonging of bad behaviour and infantile arguments having lost their ability to amuse already.  It’s not so much that McCarthy is a one-trick pony, more that she plays the same character in each movie and with little variation.  But here, thanks to the way in which the script has been developed, McCarthy shows how adept she can be when giving a more balanced performance (perhaps it’s because she’s acting alongside the estimable Susan Sarandon; she certainly ups her game in their scenes together).

With the storyline proving more and more lacklustre as matters progress, and with Tammy herself made more considerate and less “dumb” as she interacts with Bobby and Lenore, the humour fades in service to the demands of an increasingly serious chain of events.  It’s almost as if McCarthy and Falcone ran out of funny ideas and decided to make more of an issue of Pearl’s alcoholism, while at the same time bringing Tammy up short and make her more responsible.  It’s like watching a character being made to grow up at the same time as the movie she’s in.

So, are the opening scenes funny?  Absolutely, but at the expense of Tammy’s likeability, and while the script wisely allows her to leave behind her childish attitude, it’s clear that her behaviour is so closely tied to the movie’s humorous set pieces that without them it struggles to reassert its identity.  Sarandon acts like she’s taking some time out from acting more sensibly and with greater purpose, while supporting turns from Janney, Cole, Collette and Aykroyd are little better than cameos.  Bates is fun to watch as a lesbian with a fetish for blowing things up, and Duplass brings his indie sensibility to a role that is largely there to help Tammy regain her self-esteem (as if she can’t do it for herself).

Falcone directs with confidence even if he doesn’t quite have an entirely sure hand on the material, and gives his cast the room to spark off each other.  It leads to mixed results throughout, and some scenes are less effective than others, particularly those where Tammy’s challenging of authority is more a scripted necessity than a clearly defined character trait.  But as noted before, the sobering final half hour – in a weird way – rescues the movie and the director is on firmer ground.  And there’s one last comedic flourish courtesy of a clutch of outtakes, and the revealing of McCarthy’s “secret” – now that’s funny.

Rating: 5/10 – disappointing in its approach and execution but still largely watchable, Tammy provides evidence that McCarthy needs to find herself a serious role to play, and soon; not as warm-hearted as it would like to be, and short on belly laughs, the movie gets by on McCarthy’s easy-going charm and Sarandon’s devil-may-care approach to the material.

Serena (2014)

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Serena

D: Susanne Bier / 109m

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Toby Jones, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Ana Ularu, Sean Harris, Kim Bodnia

1929, North Carolina.  George Pemberton (Cooper) owns a timber company that is in need of further investment to stave off closure.  With the Depression having made his own outside investments worthless as collateral for a loan, George is left to find other means of securing his company’s future.  He has land in Brazil that he could sell but the land has been purchased with a view to being the apex of his timber empire; he needs his current operation in North Carolina to be successful in order for him to be able to make the land in Brazil an even bigger success.

While at a rare formal event with his sister, George spots a young woman (Lawrence) he’s immediately attracted to.  His sister informs him that the young woman’s name is Serena Shaw, but he should be careful about entering into a relationship with her.  Serena has a troubled history: her family perished in a fire that only she managed to escape from, and the experience has had a traumatic effect on her.  George ignores his sister’s warning, introduces himself to Serena, and they embark on a whirlwind romance that sees her become Mrs Pemberton.

They arrive at the small town of Waynesville, where George has his base of operations and he introduces Serena to some of his men, including his business partner Buchanan (Dencik), who takes an immediate dislike to her.  Serena takes an active role in the timber business and further alienates Buchanan while winning the respect of her husband’s workers, particularly Galloway (Ifans), who acts a a foreman when he’s not going on hunting trips with George.  Soon, Serena falls pregnant, but while the couple’s personal happiness increases every day, cracks begin to appear when Serena learns that George already has a child, the result of a brief affair with the daughter of one of his workers, Rachel (Ularu).  Against Serena’s wishes, George supports Rachel and his son, and gives her a job.

Meanwhile, Buchanan has gone behind George’s back and has been negotiating a sale of the business with rival interests that include the sheriff, McDowell (Jones).  George rejects their offer, and while he tries to keep the business afloat, his support for Rachel and his son leads Serena to make a terrible decision that will have far-reaching consequences for all of them.

Serena - scene

Filmed in 2012 with the Czech Republic standing in for North Carolina, Serena is (almost) the kind of romantic drama that Hollywood used to churn out by the dozen in the Thirties and Forties, where the determined but naïve young wife comes to live on her new husband’s plantation/ranch/estate, earns the respect of everyone around her, and then falls in love with another man just as she discovers her husband isn’t the man she thought he was.  Except here she doesn’t fall in love with another man, instead she develops homicidal tendencies toward his illegitimate son and the child’s mother.  It’s a twist on the standard plotting, to be sure, but in the hands of screenwriter Christopher Kyle and director Bier, Serena proves to be a bit of an endurance test, rather than an enjoyable throwback to old movie formulas.

Adapted from the novel by Ron Rash, Serena is a stilted exercise in period drama that never really gets off the ground, despite the pedigree of both its director and its cast, and some impressive location photography.  It’s a muddled movie that never feels like it’s being allowed to breathe properly, or fully explore the issues and motivations of its central characters.  George is meant to be a strong empire builder, the kind of land baron whose ruthlessness will win out against any challenge.  In reality, George is too soft; he doesn’t have the edge needed to fend off the likes of Sheriff McDowell, or manage his affairs – either personal or business – with the kind of remorseless determination you might expect.  In short, George is a straw man just waiting to be knocked down by one of his opponents.

This leaves Serena as the more dominant character, both in their relationship and in the movie as a whole.  Her troubled past gives rise to a need to assert herself, to be in control.  But when things begin to spiral out of her control, and she seeks to reassert that control, she quickly “loses it” completely, and with barely a backward acknowledgment of her previously normal behaviour.  We’re in Lady Macbeth territory here, and while Lawrence is a very talented actress, even she can’t pull off the major shift required in Serena’s “development” as a character.  In fact, the bloom is barely faded from her marriage to George before hints as to the eventual outcome of their union are signposted, and while these hints are to be expected, they’re often too clumsily inserted into the narrative to be entirely effective.

As a result, the third teaming of Cooper and Lawrence remains unconvincing, with their relationship only occasionally having any resonance, and the vagaries of their characters making their scenes together often feel disjointed and missing some unifying element – it’s as if they’re each reading from a different draft of the script.  As the movie descends into rampant melodrama – there’s a fire, a race against time, a character becomes a single-minded killer – Serena lets scenes go by without any consideration for how incongruous they are, or how lacking in real emotion.  Often, it’s like watching a rehearsal, where hitting the mark is more important than delivering a performance.  The rest of the cast perform adequately enough – Ifans, though, is miscast – but even they can’t salvage things.

SERENA_D11-2819.CR2

Bier has made some very good movies in the past – Love Is All You Need (2012), After the Wedding (2006) – but here she fumbles the material completely, and leaves the viewer adrift on a sea of tangled motivations, uninspiring developments, and tension-free dramatics.  The movie lacks a spark, something to make it more interesting and more urgent than it actually is, but instead it plods along and never grabs the viewer’s attention.  By the end, when the tragedy is complete, it’s not just the tragedy relating to the characters that’s arrived at, but the tragedy for the viewer who’s made it all the way through and received so little reward.

Rating: 4/10 – disappointing on so many levels, Serena is hampered by a lack of dramatic focus and a script that remains turgid throughout; when even actors of the calibre of Lawrence, Cooper and Jones can’t rescue things, then it’s time to up camp and move on.

Son of a Gun (2014)

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Son of a Gun

aka Guns & Gold

D: Julius Avery / 108m

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Matt Nable, Jacek Koman, Tom Budge, Eddie Baroo, Nash Edgerton

Sent to prison for a minor crime, JR (Thwaites) soon learns that being “connected” is the only way to survive.  Through a shared interest in chess, JR is taken under the wing of notorious bank robber Brendan Lynch (McGregor).  When JR is threatened by another inmate, Lynch and his accomplices, Sterlo (Nable) and Merv (Baroo), step in and save him.  Owing his life to Lynch, JR finds himself part of the robber’s plan to attempt a breakout.  When JR is released some months later he goes to see Lynch’s associate, Sam (Koman).  Set up in a beautiful beachfront home, JR meets Tasha (Vikander), a hostess in one of Sam’s clubs; she acts as a go-between JR and Sam, and he quickly becomes smitten with her.  Despite his attempts to get to know her better, Tasha remains at a distance from him.

After some weeks of waiting, JR is finally given the details of the breakout.  He hijacks a helicopter and uses it to effect a daring “rescue”.  Once on the outside, Lynch is soon offered the chance to carry out a gold heist, not from a bank but from the smelting plant where gold ingots are made.  Lynch agrees to take part in Sam’s plan (along with JR and Sterlo), and while the details of the heist are worked out, JR finds himself making some head way with Tasha, and a romance between them begins to emerge.  With the heist about to go ahead, Lynch is forced to take along Sam’s unstable son, Josh (Budge).  Josh proves to be the liability Lynch thought he would be when he shoots one of the plant workers.  A faster response by the police adds to their problems and their getaway is complicated by Sterlo’s being shot.  They manage to rendezvous with Sam and they hand over the gold for him to sell and give them their cut later.

Sam, however, double crosses them, especially as he’s discovered that Tasha and JR are planning to go away together once JR receives his money from the heist.  With Tasha in tow, JR and Lynch lay low while avoiding both the police and Sam’s men.  Lynch comes up with a plan to get the gold back and take his revenge on Sam, but as JR becomes increasingly concerned about Lynch’s reliability, he realises he needs his own plan if he and Tasha are to have the future they’ve been planning.

Son of a Gun - scene

Aussie crime dramas seem to be coming thick and fast at the moment, and while home audiences appear to be less than enthralled – Son of a Gun has proven a modest success Down Under – Avery’s feature debut has much to recommend it, despite being rough around the edges.  It’s sharpest in its opening twenty minutes, with JR finding his feet in prison and a mentor in Lynch.  There’s a palpable sense of menace in these scenes, both from Lynch and from the inmate who’s threatening JR and while the outcome is never in doubt, Avery uses some clever framing to add to the tension.

Once on the outside, the movie switches from intense prison drama to heist thriller and ups the pace, giving McGregor a chance to show Lynch’s more deceptive, amoral nature, and Thwaites the opportunity to make JR more self-confident and less of a bystander.  Avery use this section of the movie to more clearly define the characters but it has the effect of making the movie’s ensuing twists more easy to predict.  This doesn’t mean that Son of a Gun is any less engaging, but it does make it more of a movie where the viewer can tick off in advance each ensuing incident with complete confidence.

That said, Avery does obtain a trio of substantial performances from his lead actors, with Vikander making an impact as the pessimistic, emotionally withdrawn Tasha.  McGregor has the harder task, Lynch’s hardened attitude belying a softer, more considerate side to the character.  McGregor makes this dichotomy work though (and where some other actors might not have), and puts in one of his freshest performances for quite some time.  As the initially naïve JR, Thwaites turns in a performance that cements his position as a rising star, and has the viewer rooting for JR from the outset.

While Son of a Gun may not be completely satisfying – the prison breakout betrays the scene’s budgetary limitations, the movie’s denouement isn’t entirely convincing, some of the minor characters conform to genre stereotypes a little too much – there’s more than enough to hold the viewer’s attention and reward them at the same time.  The natural beauty of Western Australia is dialled down to reflect the cheerless nature of events, and there’s an emphasis on the casual brutality that sees several characters removed from the story without a backward glance.  Avery shows an intelligent awareness of where to place the camera, and he keeps scenes moving fluidly throughout, aided by some equally astute editing by Jack Hutchings.  A word too for the score by Jed Kurzel, that skilfully weaves genre motifs with a more propulsive approach and which complements the movie without becoming overbearing.

Rating: 8/10 – leaving aside some problems caused by the low budget, Son of a Gun is a largely impressive feature debut by Avery, and bodes well for future projects; coarse,  violent, and unexpectedly poignant in places, this is well played out and another welcome addition to the list of worthwhile Aussie crime dramas.

Mini-Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

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Million Dollar Arm

D: Craig Gillespie / 124m

Cast: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Tzi Ma

Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is struggling to sign that one sports superstar that will make his agency a success, but when his best chance falls through, he’s on the verge of giving up.  Then inspiration strikes from two unlikely sources: Susan Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent and televised cricket.  Creating the concept of a TV show that searches for potential baseball talent in India, particularly pitchers, J.B. eventually discovers Rinku Singh (Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Mittal), two young men with no experience or understanding at all of baseball.

J.B. brings them to the US, where as part of winning the show they undergo training for a year under the auspices of veteran coaches Ray Poitevint (Arkin) and Tom House (Paxton), but things don’t go as smoothly as J.B. had hoped, and Rinku and Dinesh struggle to come to terms with playing baseball and adjusting to their new way of life. With their prospects of being signed to a major league baseball team slipping away from them, and J.B.’s business under threat too, it all hinges on a try-out designed to show just what Rinku and Dinesh can do.

Million Dollar Arm - scene

Another true story of unlikely triumph over predictable adversity, Million Dollar Arm  – the name of the show J.B. creates – takes one of the most surprising rags to riches stories of the last ten years and gives it a bland makeover that robs it of any appreciable drama while promoting the aspirational aspects at every opportunity.  In short the movie is heavily Disney-fied, a by-the-numbers tale that treats the material with reverence but at the expense of any real emotion.  It’s a shame as Rinku and Dinesh’s story has the scope and range to allow the exploration of several wider issues, not the least of which is racism, a subject that Million Dollar Arm engages with fitfully and with obvious reluctance.

Thankfully, the cast are on hand to guide the audience through, providing assured performances – Bell, as J.B.’s lodger and love interest, steals every scene she’s in – and in the director’s chair, Gillespie musters things with enthusiasm despite the restrictions inherent in the script.  The movie is brightly lit and often gorgeous to look at – thanks to DoP Gyula Pados – and A.R. Rahman’s score is infectiously rousing and uplifting.

Rating: 5/10 – entertaining enough, though on a deliberately vapid level, Million Dollar Arm is an undemanding movie that sticks to a very rigid formula (and never lets the viewer forget it); with the outcome never in doubt, it’s left to the more than capable cast to raise this out of the doldrums it otherwise seems happy to inhabit.

The Trouble With Horror Sequels: Wrong Turn VI (2014) and See No Evil 2 (2014)

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If you love horror movies then you’ll be more than familiar with the idea of the indestructible killer.  Brought to life in brilliant fashion by John Carpenter in Halloween (1978), the unstoppable serial killer has become a staple of horror movies ever since, and if you’re a movie studio with a death-defying killer on your books, what can you do?  The answer is: make as many movies featuring them as you can before the public gets too tired of them.

This is the way the makers of the Wrong Turn series have gone, and since the debut of Three Fingers, Sawtooth and One Eye back in 2003 – yes, it’s been that long – they’ve sliced and diced their way through unlucky teen after unlucky teen and carved out a place for themselves in the world of low budget, made for home video horror movies.  And if anyone thought, eleven years ago, that the original would spawn five sequels, then they should be predicting lottery numbers and not how many cheap variations can be made out of one less than expandable idea.  Which leads us to:

Wrong Turn VI

aka Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort

D: Valeri Milev / 90m

Cast: Anthony Ilott, Chris Jarvis, Aqueela Zoll, Sadie Katz, Rollo Skinner, Billy Ashworth, Harry Belcher, Joe Gaminara, Roxanne Pallett, Radoslav Pardanov, Danko Jordanov, Asen Asenov

Part four – the aptly titled Wrong Turn 4 (2011) – attempted to provide an origin story for the series’ trio of maniacal cannibals, but this instalment ignores that attempt altogether and creates another one.  It’s no better or worse than the previous idea, but is indicative of the problems in making a fifth sequel to a movie that told you all you needed to know in the first place.  No one expects a brilliant plot or storyline from a movie with VI in the title, but it’s the feeling that the makers are content to put in as little effort as possible that rankles the most.  There’s the requisite handful of horny, less than whip-smart faux teens to be despatched in occasionally inventive ways, and absolutely no sense that any of the series’ less than iconic trio will ever be put in any meaningful danger or even be injured.

Wrong Turn 6 - scene

Wrong Turn VI tries to be different by having its three deformed murderers involved in a bizarre plot to maintain the “purity” of their hidden community, and which is set largely in a hotel that is “inherited” by troubled twenty-something Danny (Ilott).  It’s ridiculous, nonsensical stuff, a badly constructed hook on which to hang a series of gory murders.  It’s a movie that’s tension-free and treats its audience with a large dollop of contempt, and yet the producers are already planning a seventh movie to foist upon us in 2015.  With all that, it seems equally clear that fans of the series have a low tolerance for the repetitive vagaries of the franchise, and aren’t too bothered if the acting and direction are poor, the dialogue is atrocious, and the trio’s make up varies in quality from movie to movie (Three Finger looks awful in this instalment, as if he’s part melted in the sun).  It’s all about the kills, and one surreal murder involving a fire hose aside, Wrong Turn VI offers little that’s new or inventive or even interesting.

Rating: 2/10 – a chore to sit through, Wrong Turn VI is a waste of ninety minutes of anyone’s life; as mentioned above, the movie is a contemptuous, cynical exercise that deserves to be avoided like the proverbial plague.

So, then, what about…

See No Evil 2

D: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska / 90m

Cast: Glenn Jacobs, Danielle Harris, Katharine Isabelle, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Chelan Simmons, Greyston Holt, Lee Majdoub, Michael Eklund, Nancy Bell

Where Wrong Turn VI puts every deformed foot wrong in its efforts to achieve some degree of plausibility, See No Evil 2 is surprisingly nimble on its feet, and, for a sequel appearing eight years after its predecessor, does more with its Halloween II (1981) set up than you might expect.

This is largely due to the involvement of the Soska sisters, Jen and Sylvia, who made genre favourite American Mary (2012, and which also starred Katharine Isabelle).  For once, a horror sequel is in the hands of directors who really understand what works and what doesn’t work, and who manage to elevate material that’s sorely lacking in some departments to a level where those failings can be readily forgiven.  The movie spends time introducing its characters, and does it so well that even Simmons’ airhead gains the viewer’s sympathy.  As with any horror sequel – or pretty much any stand alone horror movie – there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before, but it’s the way in which it’s put together that makes all the difference.  And it has a major plus in the presence of Danielle Harris, an actress with a great pedigree in horror movies.

Despite being a WWE produced movie (not always the best advert for a movie – see Leprechaun: Origins (2014) if any proof is needed), See No Evil 2 has a great feel to it, and the Soska’s display an ingenious ability in framing shots and using large areas of unoccupied space to often unnerving effect.  They can’t quite overcome Jacob Goodnight’s uncanny ability to navigate the morgue where the action takes place with such incredible ease, and the flashbacks to the first movie are more for the sake of newbies than anything else, but it’s all done with such confidence that when other things happen just so the movie can move forward, the viewer doesn’t feel like they’ve been treated as if it doesn’t matter.  There’s the expected nihilistic ending, an unexpected twist around twenty minutes from the end, and kills that are effective if not too flashy (or even that gory).

See No Evil 2 - scene

Rating: 6/10 – not so good that you can’t predict how things will turn out, but a well directed and solidly paced sequel that in many ways, improves on the original, See No Evil 2 has a lot going for it; Isabelle provides an amazing turn as the not-quite-on-the-same-planet Tamara, and for once, watching characters running up and down deserted corridors isn’t as demoralising as in other movies.

Comparing the two movies, it seems obvious that care is a forgotten word in the world of horror sequels, and that while See No Evil 2 is clearly the better of the two, it only achieves that position by being lucky enough to have the right directors in place.  Without the Soska sisters, Jacob Goodnight’s second outing would be just another derivative stalk ‘n’ slash horror, with no verve to offset its jarring lack of ideas and solid if unspectacular retread of Halloween II.  Wrong Turn VI doesn’t even have that luxury, and shows how bad a movie can be when it appears that the template is more important than the finished product.  The future for both series’ antagonists is likely to see an even further reduction in the quality of their respective instalments – just how worse the Wrong Turn movies can get will be interesting by itself – but unless their producers really put some thought and effort into what they’re doing then these movies will remain for aficionados only.

10 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year

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Pick any year and you’re likely to find ten really good films that were released during that year, but 1974 is a year when there were ten really great films released.  It’s not a year that stands out when first thought about, but upon closer inspection it seems like a banner year, when movie makers pulled out all the stops and gave us a succession of impressive movies that even now, still resonate and attract viewers in high numbers.  (And if truth be told, this list could have been stretched a little further, but 13 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year didn’t sound right.)  So, in no particular order, here are those ten movies we’re all still talking about.

1) Chinatown – Roman Polanski’s stunning neo-noir thriller transformed Jack Nicholson into a superstar and made Robert Towne’s elaborate, gripping screenplay – one of the most compelling, intelligent screenplays ever written – the main reason for seeing the movie.  With superb performances from Faye Dunaway and John Huston, this incredible movie still has the power to unnerve and startle with its story of corruption and greed in 40’s Los Angeles, and that tragic revelation.

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2) Lenny – Revisiting the life of counter-culture, angst-ridden comic Lenny Bruce was always going to depend on the actor playing him, but Dustin Hoffman turns in an amazing, detailed performance that is possibly his best ever.  With a career best turn from Valerie Perrine, deft, sympathetic direction from Bob Fosse, and a grimy, authentic recreation of the clubs where Bruce vented his anger at the hypocrisies of society, Lenny still has the potential to shock and surprise, and takes no prisoners (just like Bruce himself).

3) Fear Eats the Soul – German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder had made a number of excursions into movies for TV before he wrote and directed this vital, important tale of the relationship between a Moroccan migrant worker (the soulful El Hadi ben Salem) and a German woman in her mid-sixties (the affecting Brigitte Mira). Ageism and racism are given short shrift by Fassbinder’s script, and the growing relationship is portrayed naturally and with little sentiment.  It’s a dour movie, to be sure, but uplifting at the same time.

4) The Godfather Part II – The crowning glory of Francis Ford Coppola’s career and a movie that’s nigh on faultless, The Godfather Part II is the classic example of a sequel that is better than its predecessor… so, so much better.  Even Brando’s presence isn’t missed.  With its flashback sequences detailing the origin of Vito Corleone’s role as Godfather conflated with the inexorable rise of his son Michael to the same position, this has tragedy and triumph in equal measure, and features astonishing achievements in directing, scripting, acting, cinematography, sound, editing, costumes, art direction, and set design.  In short, it’s a masterpiece.

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5) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – With its fierce, tension-wringing set up and feral, nightmarish family of cannibals, Tobe Hooper’s second feature still has the power to shock, and leave audiences feeling drained by the end.  The iconic image of Gunnar Hansen with a literal “face”-mask and revving a chainsaw – once seen, never forgotten – sums up the movie’s terrifying approach to its subject matter, and confirms (if anyone needed reminding) that low budget horror can be startling, original and a once in a lifetime experience.

6) A Woman Under the Influence – Possibly the finest examination of mental illness within the family, John Cassavetes’ stinging, heart-rending drama features a tour-de-force performance from Gena Rowlands as the emotionally downtrodden Mabel, a woman whose ill treatment by her husband and children leads her to suppress any positive feelings for fear of being judged as “unbalanced”.  Not a movie for everyone but one that isn’t afraid to confront a complex, contentious issue with poise and a piercing intelligence.

7) The Phantom of Liberty – If you like your movies chock-full of symbolism, surrealism and absurdist humour, then Luis Buñuel’s collection of barely connected episodes will capture your attention and never let go.  It’s a modern masterpiece of (mis)direction and subversive behaviour, and features a seasoned cast that includes Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti and Adolfo Celi, all of whom enter into the spirit of things with undisguised gusto.

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8) The Conversation – It’s that man Coppola again, this time with an introspective low-key look at the self-contained life of a surveillance expert (the superb Gene Hackman) who finds himself drawn – against his better judgment – into a perfectly weighted mystery.  The chilly, withdrawn mise-en-scene is expertly crafted, and Coppola’s script delivers more and more as the movie heads toward its incredible denouement.  To release both this and The Godfather Part II in the same year – well, that’s just insane.

9) Young Frankenstein – Mel Brooks’ finest hour, even though Blazing Saddles was also released in ’74, this grand homage to the Universal horrors of the 30’s and 40’s is an undeniable treat, full of terrific one-liners – “To the lumber yard!” – and wonderful visual flourishes.  Co-writers Brooks and Gene Wilder are on top form, and their affection for the Fronkensteen movies made by Universal adds to the joy of watching Mary Shelley’s classic tale unfold in its own, very unique manner.  And the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sequence is just inspired.

10) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – Ignore the turgid remake with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, this is ten times as good and ten times as gripping.  Walter Matthau is the grizzled cop engaged in a battle of wits with train hijacker Robert Shaw, and as the movie ratchets up the tension, audiences are treated to one of the finest thrillers ever made.  Bravura movie making from all concerned but anchored by a fantastic job of direction by the underrated Joseph Sargent.

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If you agree or disagree with my choices, feel free to let me know.  And if there’s another year with an equally brilliant selection of movies released, feel free to let me know as well.  But more importantly, if you haven’t seen some or all of the movies listed above, then what are you doing reading this?  Get out there and watch them!

The Grand Seduction (2013)

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Grand Seduction, The

D: Don McKellar / 113m

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch, Liane Balaban, Cathy Jones

After eight years of surviving on state benefits, the inhabitants of a tiny harbour in Newfoundland called Ticklehead, are given a potential lifeline when a multi-national company plans to build a chemical waste recycling plant there, and provide full employment for the community.  The catch?  Unless they have a resident doctor, the plans will fall through.  The stroke of luck?  A doctor, Paul Lewis (Kitsch) caught at an airport with cocaine and sentenced to a month’s community service as Ticklehead’s temporary medic.  When the locals, headed by Murray French (Gleeson) learn of his imminent arrival, they decide to spend the ensuing month doing their best to get him to stay full time and save their community.

To help with this, and because Lewis likes cricket, the villagers build a cricket pitch and pretend to be huge fans of the sport.  They also leave Canadian bills of increasing value where Lewis will find them, and on the understanding that if he feels lucky in Ticklehead he won’t want to move on.  By selling themselves and the harbour, the people of Ticklehead aim to make Lewis feel like an important and much needed part of the village.  They also monitor the phone calls he makes to his girlfriend, Helen, looking for clues about the things he likes so they can make his stay all the more amenable.  Murray even tries to get the local post office-cum-general store assistant, Kathleen (Balaban), to flirt with Lewis but she won’t do it.

As their plan begins to pay off, problems arise with the siting of the plant.  A “bribe” of $100,000 needed to cement the deal, and which human ATM Henry Tilley (Critch) attempts to raise by means of a loan, eludes them.  And the boss of the multi-national company decides to visit Ticklehead and see for himself that they have the required one hundred and seventy inhabitants needed to see the plant manned efficiently.  And Lewis’s relationship with Helen begins to unravel, as his enthusiasm for the harbour goes unreciprocated until he learns an unpalatable truth.  Murray and the rest of the villagers are overjoyed: now Lewis doesn’t have any ties.  But as ever, things don’t work out in quite the way they’d planned.

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A remake of Seducing Doctor Lewis (2003), The Grand Seduction is a great big, fluffy cardigan of a movie, a warm confection that elicits good-natured smiles from the viewer at practically every turn.  There is absolutely nothing new here and yet as is so often the case when something so familiar is performed with such confidence and affection, the experience is rewarding beyond any and all expectation.

And so it proves here, with Gleeson leading a cast that wouldn’t have been amiss in an Ealing comedy, and proving once again that ensemble casts representing a small community rarely ever disappoint.  If it reminds viewers of Local Hero (1983), then that’s no bad thing (and that movie carried the blueprint of Whisky Galore! (1949) firmly clutched to its chest).  It’s a fish-out-of-water movie too, with Kitsch’s bemused, deceived plastic surgeon all adrift at first, but finding his feet with ever-increasing confidence, and gaining a sense of purpose he didn’t have before.  Kitsch is better known for his action/fantasy roles but here he dials back the heroics to play a normal nice guy who may well have appeared colourless on the page, but who proves to be more sensitive than he seems in the beginning.

With the likes of Pinsent and Critch providing solid support – and a large portion of the laughs – it’s left to the ever dependable Gleeson to provide the movie’s dramatic backbone, imbuing Murray with the kind of rugged, roguish charm that wins over both Lewis and the rest of the villagers (even when they know he’s ‘playing’ them).  It’s the kind of role Gleeson could probably do in his sleep but he’s so effortlessly impressive it’s like observing a masterclass; he doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout.  He and the rest of the cast all help to elevate the material, making the slightness of it so trivial it’s barely worth mentioning.

As directed by McKellar, The Grand Seduction is an appealing piece of cinematic confectionery, its picture postcard locations photographed in all their roughhewn glory, and its (admittedly) lightweight construction proving a plus rather than the expected minus.  McKellar has the sense to go with the flow rather than try to make something different out of Ken Scott’s original screenplay (here adapted by Michael Dowse), and infuses even the smallest of scenes with both a painterly eye and a generous amount of good-natured, but not overwhelming sentiment.  It’s often a delicate balancing act, but McKellar demonstrates in scene after scene that he’s more than up to the task.  As a result, the movie never falters in its ability to entertain.

Rating: 8/10 – the kind of movie that makes a mockery of the phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt”, The Grand Seduction is a minor gem, and a movie that deserves as wide an audience as it can achieve; it may appear too whimsical for some, but that would be doing the movie a major disservice.

Poster of the Week – The Polar Express (2004)

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Polar Express, The

The Polar Express (2004)

Widely regarded as one of the quintessential Xmas movies, The Polar Express is a breath of digital capture fresh air, its sense of childlike wonder easily transporting its audience into a snow-filled fantasy land that should make even the coldest heart glow with wonderment.  Even if this early example of the animation format still looks a little too artificial in places (and faces), its charm wins out every time.

This particular poster gives a great sense of the astonishing journey ahead of the small boy who stands in front of the titular locomotive, his awestruck gaze held on its snow-flecked lamp and the searching, probing, powerful beam of light that bursts out from it.  It’s a light that points the way to an incredible journey, and heralds the trip of a lifetime.  For the boy, standing there with (no doubt) wide-eyed fascination, it’s an amazing dream come inexplicably true, and his stance reflects his amazement at the sight of the enormous, magnificent train in front of him.

The size of the train is, perhaps, deliberately exaggerated to enhance the fantastical nature of things, a way of highlighting the magical experience that lies ahead.  Its prominence is a powerful statement and oddly reassuring as well: whatever happens, and wherever it’s going, the Polar Express will get its passengers there no matter what.

But the train isn’t the whole of the image.  There’s the snowman, one arm thrust out as if in presentation of the train, its countenance both knowing and mysterious.  He’s saying, “Go on, step aboard, you won’t regret it”.  There’s the backdrop of the houses, all dark and pensive, waiting for the dawn to bring them to life.  And lastly there’s the tall tree on the left hand side, its branches reaching out to the falling snowflakes as if to catch them and thereby make itself beautiful.

With so many impressive, beautiful elements, it’s the tag line that caps everything off with perfect, heartfelt simplicity: “This holiday season… believe.”  It’s no wonder then that over the last ten years, so many people around the globe have done exactly that.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

The Judge (2014)

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Judge, The

D: David Dobkin / 141m

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Defence attorney Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) has made a name for himself by getting acquittals for some of the guiltiest defendants ever brought before the bench.  When his mother dies unexpectedly it means his returning home after twenty years and dealing with his estranged father, Joseph (Duvall), who’s the local judge.  On the day of the funeral, Hank is reunited with his high school sweetheart, Samantha (Farmiga) but he remains unable to bridge the gap that keeps himself and his father at a distance from each other.  Later that night, Joseph takes a drive to a nearby gas station to get some groceries.  When Hank gets ready to leave the next morning, he notices that Joseph’s car is damaged, as if it’s hit something.

Before his flight can take off, Hank hears from his older brother Glen (D’Onofrio) that the police are investigating a fatal hit and run from the night before and are talking to Joseph at the station.  Against his better judgment, Hank gets off his flight and heads to the station where he learns that the man who died was someone the judge had let off years ago only for the man to kill the girl he’d been stalking.  When blood is found on Joseph’s car that matches the dead man’s, the police arrest him.  Family tensions increase when Joseph decides to appoint local lawyer, inexperienced C.P. Kennedy (Shepard) to represent him instead of Hank.  But at his arraignment, where he’s committed for trial, the judge realises his mistake and asks Hank to take over his defence.

It emerges that Joseph has increasing memory problems and he can’t remember anything after he left the gas station and had to make a detour due to a flooded road.  As Hank begins to build his case, Joseph proves unhelpful and the two clash repeatedly.  At the same time, Hank learns that Samantha has a daughter, Carla (Meester), and that he might be the father.  With family issues coming to the boil over events that happened twenty years ago, along with a special prosecutor (Thornton) being appointed to try the case, Hank finds himself under growing pressure to find a way to meet all the demands being made of him, and solve the puzzle of what happened the night his father went for groceries.

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A family drama wrapped up in a courtroom drama, The Judge is the kind of movie that looks glossy, feels important (on its own level), and sounds impressive but is actually none of those things, being instead a kind of kitchen sink drama where so much is thrown in and very little is as compelling as it first appears.  Take, for example, the case of Hank’s brother Glen, who was a promising baseball player until an accident caused by Hank ended his career before it began.  It’s an issue that Joseph brings up a few times and is one of the sources of their estrangement, but neither of them have ever thought to ask Glen how he feels about it all (he’s actually made his peace with it but we don’t find this out until the end).

Likewise, the issue of whether or not Joseph deliberately killed the ex-offender is of secondary importance in comparison to the movie’s need to have him and Hank reconcile – and which takes place in the courtroom, and with everyone sitting back and letting them show that they really do care about each other etc. etc.  But will the audience care by this point, having already sat through over two hours of undercooked “woe is me” dramatics?  Because therein lies the movie’s biggest problem: Hank is too much the aggrieved party.  His marriage is heading for divorce, his colleagues across the courtroom floor have no time for him, he can’t make his relationship with Samantha work, he doesn’t understand his father at all, and he believes too much in his own talent to have an inkling of what humility is all about.  In short, he’s an arrogant prick, and even though he’s presented as charming and a bit of a “good” bad boy, and all this is meant to be attractive, especially with Downey Jr in the role, it’s a character we’ve seen too many times before to end up rooting for.

The judge’s motives remain muddled throughout, as he wavers between wanting to be honest and upstanding, and maintaining his legacy after forty-two years on the bench. Hank is a chip off the old block and all the arrogance can be seen in the way in which Joseph conducts himself, cleaving to his own idea of what’s right and wrong, and to hell with anyone else’s opinion.  The phrase, “two peas in a pod”, is perfect for them, but it doesn’t make for affecting drama, and there’s no tension at all.  We know what’s going to happen from the outset with these two and it involves re-found mutual respect and admiration, and a shared understanding of past events.  The movie is one big therapy session and it struggles to rise above the level of a predictable TV Movie of the Week.

Against this, Downey Jr and Duvall put in credible enough performances but fail to energise the material, and spar off each other so predictably it’s like filming by numbers.  Farmiga and D’Onofrio fare better but then their roles are smaller and they have less focus on them.  Thornton’s role is a step above a cameo but he makes the most of it even if it is a reprise of so many other roles where he’s had to be both smug and menacing.

Dobkin assembles things with a nod to almost every other small-town, local-boy-makes-good-then-comes-back-to-confront-the-issues-that-drove-him-away drama we’ve ever seen, and signposts pretty much every plot development with the excitement of someone who can’t wait to show off his next scene.  Carlinville is a pretty town, shot beautifully by Janusz Kaminski, but what we see of it is mostly restricted to the judge’s house, the courtroom and Samantha’s diner.  It’s a slightly claustrophobic effect and is rarely betrayed by a long shot.  Thomas Newman’s score provides standard support for the proceedings, but like so many other aspects of the movie, is never compelling enough to elevate matters.

Rating: 5/10 – competently made but lacking on so many levels – emotionally, dramatically, as a thriller – The Judge is one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but proves largely underwhelming once it’s transferred to the screen; if you’ve got actors of this calibre in front of the lens and they can’t make it work, then maybe it’s a movie that should’ve remained as just a great idea.

Kill Me Three Times (2014)

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Kill Me Three Times

D: Kriv Stenders / 90m

Cast: Simon Pegg, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Bryan Brown, Luke Hemsworth

In the small Western Australian town of Eagle’s Nest, bar owner Jack (Mulvey) suspects his wife, Alice (Braga), is having an affair.  He’s a jealous man, and hires a “consultant”, Charlie Wolfe (Pegg), to find out if his suspicions are true.  Meanwhile, Alice has been chosen by dentist Nathan Webb (Stapleton) and his wife Lucy (Palmer) to be the substitute corpse in their plan to fake Lucy’s death and claim on her life insurance (Nathan has huge gambling debts that he needs to clear as quickly as possible).  When Wolfe provides proof of Alice’s infidelity – with garage owner Dylan (Hemsworth) who she plans to run away with – Jack wants her dead and asks Wolfe to take care of it.

Alice books an appointment with Nathan for later that day, and the Webbs decide it’s the perfect opportunity to put their plan into action.  When Alice arrives, she’s drugged  and put into the boot of Nathan’s car.  Lucy drives Alice’s car to a nearby quarry while Nathan heads there in his car, though he has to stop off at Dylan’s garage for some petrol first.  At the quarry, a mishap with Alice’s car sees it still end up in the water as planned, and the Webbs head back to the main road where, despite an attempt by Alice to get away, they put her in Lucy’s car, douse it in petrol and set light to it, and send it over the cliff edge.

Unknown to the Webbs, Wolfe has been following and taking photos of them.  When they reach a local beach house where the owners are away travelling (and where Lucy will hide out until the insurance money comes through), Wolfe sends Nathan an e-mail containing some of the photos he’s taken and demanding $250,000.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, local bent cop Bruce Jones (Brown), having seen Lucy’s car in flames at the bottom of the cliff has put two and two together and believes Nathan has actually killed her for the insurance money.  He blackmails Nathan for half the insurance money.

Back at the bar, Wolfe tells Jack that Alice is dead (though he keeps quiet about the details) and asks for his money.  It’s now that Jack discovers Alice has robbed him over three hundred thousand dollars he had in his safe.  He manages to put off paying Wolfe until the next day, but finds himself in even more trouble when Dylan turns up demanding to know where Alice is and what he’s done to her.  And while all that’s happening, Nathan agrees to meet Wolfe at the quarry to pay the blackmail demand…

Kill Me Three Times - scene

What follows on is an increasingly maze-like series of twists and turns and counter-twists that make Kill Me Three Times a hugely enjoyable and darkly comic thriller that picks up momentum after a slow start, and gleefully begins killing off its cast in ever more violent ways.  It’s a fine balancing act, mixing traditional thriller elements with a more extravagant comic sensibility, but without letting either ingredient overwhelm the other.  It’s the kind of off-kilter movie the Australians do so well and here, under the auspices of director Stenders, proves that they’re still more than capable of making this kind of movie and instilling it with originality and verve.

The movie’s chief asset is the script by first-timer James McFarland.  Structured in three parts – part one focuses on Alice’s murder by the Webbs, part two on the various back stories and how things move forward following Alice’s death, while part three ties things up neatly and in a nice big bloodstained bow – Kill Me Three Times avoids any potential pitfalls in its narrative by making its characters’ motivations quite clearcut and even relatable (whether you like them or not).  With such an investment made in the characters, the story is that much easier to accept and go along with, and despite an opening half hour where everything is established (and is necessarily slower than the rest of the movie), once all that is dispensed with, the movie becomes faster, funnier and more engrossing.

Behind the camera, Stenders – who made the criminally under seen Red Dog (2011) – shows a keen understanding and appreciation for the impulses driving the characters and elicits great performances from all concerned.  He’s also got a great eye for composition, highlighting the natural beauty of the Western Australia landscape and shoreline, and framing each shot with skill and conviction.  As a result the movie is often stunning to look at, his collaboration with very talented DoP Geoffrey Simpson paying off in dividends.

As the amoral psychopath Charlie Wolfe, Pegg is on fine form, inhabiting him with a carefree exuberance and just the right amount of bemused mirth.  As the observer of all the machinations and double-crosses and manipulations and blackmail going on, Wolfe is our eyes and ears, allowing us to see just how awful these people are – Alice and Dylan aside, though they’re not entirely innocent.  In a sense, his lack of artifice and straightforward approach to matters makes him seem less “evil” and more of an anti-hero.  Whichever way you view it, it’s still one of Pegg’s more enjoyable performances (and he gets the movie’s best line).

In support, Stapleton is great as the nervous, weak-minded Nathan (a million miles away from his turn as Themistocles in this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire), Palmer is suitably abrasive as his Lady Macbeth-like wife, and Braga earns the audience’s sympathy and support by virtue of being entirely likeable as the put-upon Alice.  Brown does glib menace with aplomb, Hemsworth makes dumb seem appealing, and Mulvey broods as if Jack’s life depends on it (which, actually, it does).  It’s a great ensemble cast, and you can see the fun everyone had making the movie coming out in the spirited and enthusiastic performances.

Kill Me Three Times won’t change anyone’s life, or inspire people to go on to do great things, but it is an entertaining and rewarding way to spend an hour and a half, and if it does so by shamelessly drawing in the viewer and keeping them hooked on what’s going to happen next, then that’s no bad thing, even if things do get (very) nasty and violent.

Rating: 8/10 – a hugely enjoyable romp that takes itself just seriously enough to make the thriller elements bitingly effective, Kill Me Three Times is at times happily “wrong” in all the right ways; with beautiful locations and a great cast clearly having a blast, this is strong, confident stuff that’s definitely worth seeking out.

CITIZENFOUR (2014)

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CITIZENFOUR

D: Laura Poitras / 114m

Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Ben Wizner

In January 2013, while preparing to make the third in a series of documentaries looking at the US government’s continued attempts to restrict freedom of information and human rights – the other two movies are My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) – director Laura Poitras was contacted by someone using encrypted e-mails.  The sender, who called themselves CITIZENFOUR, was very cautious in their approach but said they had access to files that proved the National Security Agency (NSA) was deliberately collecting and storing the e-mails, telephone calls, mobile (cell) phone calls and texts of millions of Americans through back door links to service providers such as AT&T.  Realising the importance of this information, she and the (then) anonymous contact agreed to proceed slowly so as to gain each other’s trust, and to avoid any intervention by the NSA.

Eventually, in June 2013, they agreed to meet in a hotel in Hong Kong.  Poitras took her camera along and it was there that she met Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine year old “infrastructure analyst” working for the NSA who had become concerned about the way in which the NSA’s surveillance programmes were being used.  Over the course of eight days, during which Snowden was interviewed by online reporter Glenn Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, he revealed the extent of the NSA’s illegal activities, its joint operations with other countries such as the UK, and the ways in which it carried out these activities.  With Snowden’s approval, Greenwald and MacAskill began to publish copies of files that he provided, and on June 9, Snowden made his identity public.

Shortly after, Snowden’s passport was revoked by US officials, and while the world’s media began to learn of the extent of the NSA’s intrusion into not only the lives of every American but the lives of millions of foreign nationals as well, Snowden sought a country that would give him asylum.  Thanks to the efforts of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong, and after a time spent in the “no man’s land” of the international lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he was granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia (which has been extended by another three years).  Meanwhile, the files he downloaded and made available to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill continue to be published by the world’s media.

CITIZENFOUR - scene

The bulk of Laura Poitras’ fascinating and compelling documentary is taken up by the extended interview with Edward Snowden, in which he lays out the extent of the NSA’s “involvement” in the daily lives of every single American who uses a computer, a mobile phone,  and/or a telephone.  Even though we know the story by now – and even if we’re not aware of all the details – it’s still an intensely dramatic moment when Snowden reveals just how much of an intrusion is being carried out.  In a sense, the sheer size and scope of it all is mind-boggling, but it’s a tribute to Snowden’s casual intelligence that he presents the facts as concisely and eloquently as he does.  Anyone watching CITIZENFOUR will be left in no doubt that the NSA has been – and continues to – work illegally in the name of homeland security and the prevention of future terrorism on US soil.

Do the ends justify the means?  If it’s illegal in the first place, then clearly not.  But what CITIZENFOUR does so effectively is to show just how pervasive the NSA’s approach really is, how it liaises with other countries’ intelligence networks such as the  UK’s GCHQ, Australia’s ASD and Canada’s CSEC, and how even world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel are not immune from being targeted.  With this in mind you have to question the reasoning behind the NSA’s practices and if anything will change in the long-term (most likely not) but as a document of record the movie is an important addition to the continuing struggle to retain our civil liberties wherever we are in the world.  It’s important for us to know what our leaders are doing, and it’s equally important that we don’t just accept their excuse that it’s “in the national interest”, especially when our basic right to privacy is being treated so dismissively.

Thanks to Poitras, Snowden’s whistleblowing carries greater weight by being captured at the point at which he had decided to come out of the shadows.  He’s a quietly spoken but still impassioned man who comes across as committed, focused, and fully aware of the potential downfalls of his actions.  As it becomes clear just how long he’s been wrestling with the idea of exposing the NSA and its practices, the enormity of his decision is made all the more impressive.  And when his ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, reveals that Snowden – if he returns to the US – would be charged under the Espionage Act, which recognises no mitigating circumstances or defence for any actions taken, it becomes even clearer just how much Snowden may have to give up in the future if, as it seems, that future is in another country.  Whatever your thoughts on whether he was right to do what he did or not, his personal integrity is something that can’t be doubted.

With such a huge gift dropped in her lap, Poitras has assembled a riveting, quietly authoritative documentary movie that explains very complex ideas in a simple, convincing manner and which never condescends or dumbs down the issues.  It’s an impressive piece that provokes astonishment, anger, sadness, disgust and horror in equal measure and which should be watched by anyone with an interest in the protection of civil liberties (in whichever country they live in).  With Snowden making it clear just how much these liberties have already been eroded, and with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter being targeted as well (this review could, in theory, lead to thedullwoodexperiment being added to some kind of watch list), CITIZENFOUR is a timely reminder that those in charge rarely have our best interests in mind when they go about defending us from others.

Rating: 9/10 – Snowden’s sincerity and self-deprecating position is the movie’s trump card, revealing a man with infinitely more integrity than those he worked for; one of the best documentaries of this or any year, CITIZENFOUR is extremely potent and a great example of political reportage.

Rosewater (2014)

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Rosewater

D: Jon Stewart / 103m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Haluk Bilginer, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Dimitri Leonidas, Nasser Faris, Jason Jones

An Iranian-born journalist, Maziar Bahari (Bernal), travels to Tehran in June 2009 to cover the Presidential election for Newsweek.  In the run up he speaks to supporters of both President Ahmadinejad and his main rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and while his own opinions favour Mousavi, he remains outwardly neutral in his reporting, even when on the day of the election he finds himself barred from an open polling station at the same time that news is being broadcast that Ahmadinejad has won.

In the days that follow, Bahari films on the streets as the Iranian people protest against what they feel have been rigged elections.  During one such protest, Bahari films a crowd outside a military barracks that come under fire from the militia in the building.  He arranges for the footage to be seen outside Iran.  On June 21, while staying with his mother, Moloojoon (Aghdashloo), Bahari is arrested and taken to Evin prison where he is charged with being a spy.

Kept in solitary confinement, Bahari is regularly taken to a room where he is made to sit facing a wall but with a blindfold on.  Here his interrogator (Bodnia) keeps asking him who he is spying for, and is it with the aim of trying to undermine and/or overthrow the Iranian government.  Bahari rejects the idea, and does his best to convince his interrogator that he is just a journalist but the interrogator, in turn, rejects his assertions.  Days pass in this way as various forms of psychological and physical torture are used to break Bahari and get him to confess.  Eventually, after several weeks he makes a televised confession that he is a spy.

Despite being what the Iranian authorities have wanted all along, the confession serves only to highlight Bahari’s plight on an international level, and helps his pregnant wife, Paola (Foy), with her campaign to get him released.  Back in the prison, the interrogations continue but now Bahari begins to regain some level footing by making up stories about his travels, stories that his interrogator believes wholeheartedly.  And then, on October 20, after a hundred and eighteen days, Bahari is offered a chance at freedom: agree to be a spy for the Iranian government and he will be released.

Rosewater - scene

Based on the memoir, Then They Came for Me, that Bahari co-wrote with Aimee Molloy, Rosewater is a compelling, occasionally provocative drama that benefits from solid performances, a clever script courtesy of first-time writer/director Stewart, and a skilful re-creation of the events that led up to Bahari’s confinement.  The movie begins with Bahari’s arrest, a tense scene that carries an uncomfortable hint of menace towards his mother.  From there we flash back to Bahari preparing to leave London for Tehran; the audience gets to see how confidently Stewart is able to set up the story, explaining concisely the basic political situation in Iran, and the importance for the people of the election.

The concise nature of the opening scenes allows the audience to spend more time with Bahari in Evin prison, and it’s here that the movie explores the surprising nature of captivity and its effect on the individual.  Bahari is never conventionally tortured.  There are no beatings, no physical restraints put in place (other than the blindfold), and only one attempt at violence that is conducted more out of frustration on the interrogator’s part than from any premeditated action.  But it has a profound psychological effect on Bahari, and Stewart – aided greatly by Bernal – shows how he did his best to survive by creating interior dialogues with his deceased father and sister.  These scenes are among the most effective in the movie as, for the most part, despite it seeming that Bahari is able to come up with a constructive way of dealing with his captors, by and large he’s unable to do so.  These dialogues allow him to feel and be strong in his own mind, but not in the interrogation room.  It’s a subtle acknowledgment – that often, our strength is something we can only convince ourselves of – but one that Stewart pulls off with deliberately muted style.

With much of the prison scenes allowing little of the outside world to creep in, Bahari’s loneliness and isolation is powerfully presented, though as time goes on and he becomes almost inured to the passage of time, Stewart gradually opens up the movie to show us what’s been going on in the meantime.  Again, it’s a clever move, and adds to the sense that time is passing slowly (which, for Bahari, it must have done).  It’s not until a guard refers to him as “Mr Hillary Clinton” that we – and he – begin to realise that he’s not been quite as alone as it’s seemed.  From there the movie begins to gain pace as the prospect of Bahari’s release becomes more likely, and Stewart allows the tension to unwind.  It’s a slightly counter-intuitive approach but it works in the movie’s favour.

Rosewater - scene2

With Stewart so firmly in control of the material it’s good to see he’s also firmly in control of the performances.  Bernal is an actor who continually impresses, and here he inhabits Bahari with ease, displaying his nervousness and fear and desperation with conviction (though perhaps his best moment is when he dances around his cell to a song only he can hear).  It’s a measured, contemplative performance, one that brings a greater depth to Bahari as a man than audiences might expect.  As his nemesis, and user of the titular liquid, Bodnia is also on fine form, a more traditional style of interrogator who would usually favour a more physical approach, but who finds himself increasingly out of his comfort zone.  When Bahari talks about his “obsession” with sexual massages, his willingness to believe these stories is both comic and pathetic.  The two actors spar around each other with skill, and both are equally mesmerising in their scenes together.

The rest of the cast haven’t quite as much to do in comparison, though Leonidas stands out as Bahari’s “driver”, Davood, and Faris plays the interrogator’s boss with patronising detachment.  Aghdashloo and Bilginer are persuasive as always as Maziar’s parents, though as his sister, Farahani has too little screen time to make any real impression.  This being a Jon Stewart movie there’s also plenty of humour to be had in amongst all the drama, and one scene will have audiences laughing out loud thanks to Bernal and Bodnia’s skill as actors.  The photography is sharply detailed and the movie is brightly lit throughout, at odds with the more gloomy aspects of events.  There’s also an effective score courtesy of Howard Shore that adds weight to the emotional content, but doesn’t overwhelm it.  A couple of gripes aside – Bahari’s hair and beard remain the same throughout the entire hundred and eighteen days he’s imprisoned, the interrogator seems a little too out of his depth to be kept on board the whole time – this is riveting, engrossing stuff, and a triumph for all concerned.

Rating: 9/10 – Rosewater takes a tale of imprisonment and loss of personal freedom but somehow makes it completely accessible and not in the least claustrophobic, while still reinforcing the seriousness of the situation; a great debut for Stewart and one that  succeeds with apparent ease.

Dracula Untold (2014)

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Dracula Untold

D: Gary Shore / 92m

Cast: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye

Set in the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, fealty to the Sultan of Turkey is observed by the giving of a thousand boys to be trained in his army.  Such is the early fate of Vlad Tepes (Evans), who grows up to be a fierce warrior and friend of the subsequent Turkish ruler, Mehmet (Cooper).  Turning his back on war, Vlad returns home to rule his people.  He marries Mirena (Gadon) and has a son, Ingeras (Parkinson).  After years of peace, Vlad is alerted to the presence of Turkish scouts in his homeland.  He tracks them to Broken Tooth Mountain, where in a cave that reveals itself as a slaughterhouse, Vlad comes face to face with a monster (Dance).  He escapes, but not before two of his men have been claimed by the creature.  Returning home, Father Lucien (Kaye) advises Vlad of the creature’s origins, and its vampiric nature.  They decide to keep their knowledge a secret between them.

A Turkish envoy, come to collect his master’s tribute, tells Vlad the Sultan wants a thousand boys for his army.  Vlad wavers over doing his duty to the Sultan and doing what’s best for his people.  When the Sultan’s envoy adds that Mehmet wants a thousand and one boys, and the extra boy should be Ingeras, Vlad is even further torn.  But at the point of giving his son to the envoy, Vlad makes a fateful decision: no boys will go to the Sultan.  War is inevitable, but Vlad seeks a way to avoid his people being decimated by the Turkish hordes.  He returns to Broken Tooth Mountain where he confronts the vampire and asks to share in his power.  The creature agrees but stipulates that if Vlad is to drink any human blood in the next three days then he will be cursed as a vampire forever, and unable to be fully human again.

When the Turks march on Castle Dracula, Vlad goes out to meet them alone… and he decimates their forces.  With a greater army on the way, headed by Mehmet himself, Vlad orders his people to move to a monastery high up in the mountains, somewhere it will be difficult for the Turks to attack directly.  A surprise attack leaves Mirena and Ingeras in peril, but Vlad saves them using his newfound powers.  The next day, at the monastery, suspicions over Vlad’s new powers leads to him being attacked by his own people.  He survives to rebuke them, telling them that what he has done is because of them, and that they should be concentrating on Mehmet’s approaching army.

Arriving just before dawn, the Turkish forces are met by Vlad but they prove to be a decoy for a smaller force that gains entry to the monastery and targets Mirena and Ingeras.  With their fates intertwined with his, Vlad is forced to make a decision that will affect all their lives, and bring him face to face with his boyhood friend.

Dracula Untold - scene

Dracula Untold is yet another reboot of an established and well-defined character that seeks to make them look less like a monster and more like someone who has to be bad in order to do good (this year’s Maleficent is another example).  It’s a strange phenomenon in the movies these days, almost as if moviemakers feel they have to apologise for these characters’ behaviour.  It also ends up rendering them relatively anaemic (excuse the pun) in comparison to their original incarnation.  And so it proves with this reimagining of the Dracula story.

While the initial idea is sound – show how Vlad Tepes, Transylvanian prince and hero to his people became Dracula, bloodthirsty monster feared by all – the movie fumbles its way through its attempts to create an origin story partly based on historical fact and partly on romantic fiction.  Vlad is shown as a peaceful man reigning in a vicious, cruel capacity for violence but even though we see the the results of his warlike nature – the infamous impalings on the battlefield – it’s hard to associate the two differing temperaments.  As played by a suitably brooding Evans, Vlad is a bit of a wimp in the opening scenes, browbeaten by the Turkish envoy and then dismissed by Mehmet in a scene where Vlad pleads for clemency in relation to the thousand boys.  Vlad doesn’t appear the proud leader of men he’s meant to be, but more an easily cowed man with no stomach for a fight.  It’s only when he saves his son and kills some of Mehmet’s men that he shows some mettle.

It’s here that Dracula Untold finally becomes a vampire movie, reintroducing Dance’s withered creature, and setting up a future storyline if the movie is as successful at the box office as Universal hope it will be (they have a modern Monsters Cinematic Universe in mind).  The bargain is made, allowing the inevitable tragedy of such a bargain to begin playing out.  Vlad tries to deny his thirst for blood while Mirena marvels at the disappearance of his battle scars.  And in a scene of limited ferocity and actual bloodshed, Vlad takes on a thousand Turks and kills them all.  But it’s all done at a remove, with the intensity of the situation dialled down a notch or two, and Vlad’s predicament reduced to the level of suffering occasional stomach cramps.  From here, the movie picks up the pace but it’s at the expense of time-related logic and dramatic credibility.

With Vlad needing to defeat Mehmet and his army within three days, the Turks’ ability to travel huge distances in such a short space of time goes unquestioned, while Vlad creates a vampire horde of his own to take them on (would a ruler who truly cares for his people do such a thing even if they were on the verge of dying?).  And the script tries for an ironic twist – Vlad’s fate is sealed by the one person he loves most – that feels hackneyed and short on originality.

Muddled though the movie is for the most part, it’s stronger in its performances.  Evans brings a brutish physicality to the role that suits the warrior Vlad, and he dominates scenes just by being present.  He’s a more thoughtful actor than you might expect from his resumé, and he does his best to offset some of the more florid dialogue in the script, as well as making Vlad a more rounded character.  Gadon also gives a good performance, matching Evans for intensity in their scenes together and making Mirena slightly more than the wife who waits anxiously at home while her man goes off to battle.  Dance radiates a cold disdain as the trapped “master vampire” though his voice retains too much of its recognisable charm to make that disdain truly chilling.  Parkinson proves an adequate match for the demands of a role that could so easily have been more stereotypically presented, while Kaye as Father Lucien has a small but pivotal role that he acquits himself well in (even if some audience members will be saying to themselves, “but that’s Dennis Pennis”).  The only disappointment is Cooper, once again confirming his limited range as an actor, and making Mehmet look and sound like an arrogant jerk.

Dracula Untold - scene2

In the director’s chair, Shore (making his feature debut) uses his experience working in   high-end commercials to provide some impressive visuals – one shot shows Vlad taking on the Turks as reflected in the blade of a sword – and shows a confidence that bodes well for the future if it’s combined with a better script.  He’s clearly comfortable directing actors as well, and the performances are as much to his credit as to theirs.  The photography by John Schwartzman is predictably gloomy, though it avoids the steely gray-blue aesthetic of the Underworld series, and there’s a dramatic if occasionally intrusive score courtesy of Ramin Djawadi that is used to good effect throughout.

Ultimately, Dracula Untold is a bit of a mixed bag, its historical pretensions never fully reconciled with its need to reinvent its title character.  The script – by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – remains jumbled throughout and it’s this lack of focus that hampers things the most.  As an entreé into the revamped (excuse the pun) world of Universal’s collection of classic monsters it’s maybe not quite the start the company were looking for, but it’s also not as bad as it could have been.

Rating: 5/10 – despite some occasionally severe deficiencies in the script, Dracula Untold is a solid, unpretentious reintroduction to the world’s most (in)famous vampire; a good mix of the epic and the intimate also helps but the characters remain at too much of a remove to make us truly care what happens to them.

Son of 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015

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The original idea seemed simple enough: pick out fifty movies due in 2015, provide a brief overview of each one, and settle back in the knowledge that the most intriguing, most interesting, and most looked-forward-to movies were included.  But as with the best of best laid plans, more and more movies keep popping up that deserve to have been included in the original posts – 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 1 and 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 2.  So here are ten more movies coming in 2015 that, hopefully, will tempt audiences into their local multiplex.

Minions - poster

1) Tomorrowland – A sci-fi fantasy starring George Clooney and Under the Dome alumni Britt Robertson about a place that exists somewhere in Robertson’s consciousness (or maybe space and time – or both), this is the movie that Brad Bird turned down Star Wars Episode VII for.  Now if that’s not intriguing…

2) The Revenant – Set in the untamed American West in 1822, this revenge thriller sees Leonardo DiCaprio’s left for dead frontiersman out to get the two men who abandoned him.  Co-starring Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleason, this adaptation of a true story by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (2000), this year’s Birdman) looks set to attract awards by the bucket load.

3) San Andreas – Dwayne Johnson is the rescue chopper pilot who finds himself making a perilous journey to rescue his daughter after a massive earthquake devastates California.  With Ioan Gruffudd and Kylie Minogue along for the ride, this could be either 2015’s premier disaster movie, or just a plain, flat-out disaster.  Here’s hoping it’s the former.

San Andreas - scene

4) Macbeth – Adapted by Todd Louiso – remember him from High Fidelity (2000)? – and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, this promises to be a gritty, heavily psychological interpretation of the Bard’s most accessible play.  With a supporting cast that includes David Thewlis and Paddy Considine, the only potential drawback is relative newcomer Justin Kurzel in the director’s chair.  But as the Bard quite rightly points out, “The play’s the thing…”

5) Untitled Cameron Crowe Project – With only We Bought a Zoo (2011) having come along from Crowe since 2005, this look at a military contractor involved in a love triangle features a dream cast that includes femme du jour Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper and Bill Murray, and will no doubt feature yet another of Crowe’s quirky, idiosyncratic screenplays.

6) The Finest Hours – This dramatisation of a true story set in 1952 after two oil tankers were destroyed in a blizzard off Cape Cod, and the Coast Guard rescue operation that followed, looks set to be a tense nail biter of a movie.  Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) directs a cast that includes Chris Pine and Eric Bana, so expect plenty of testosterone amongst the waves.

7) Spotlight – A powerful retelling of the Boston Globe’s exposé of the cover up of child molestation in a local Catholic archdiocese in 2002-3, Spotlight has an impressive cast (2015 seems set to be the year of great ensemble casts) that features Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.  Grim subject matter aside, this should still be gripping stuff.

Spotlight - scene

8) By the Sea – Set in the 70’s, this romantic drama sees married couple Vanessa and Roland struggling to keep their marriage going while staying in a small French seaside town.  Uniting Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for the first time since Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), and directed by Jolie, this could be more rewarding than it seems at first glance (plus Pitt has been making some great choices in recent years).

9) La La Land – It’s a romantic musical comedy drama and stars rising star Miles Teller as a jazz pianist who falls in love with Emma Watson’s aspiring actress.  With writer/direcotor Damien Chazelle building on the promise shown by Whiplash (2014), this has all the hallmarks of an engrossing, emotionally charged drama.

10) Rock the Kasbah – Barry Levinson continues to chop and change genres with this comedy surrounding a music producer (played by Bruce Willis) who aims for one last shot at the big time with a golden-voiced young girl from Afghanistan.  With support from the likes of Kate Hudson and Bill Murray, this could be a mordant satire or a crazy parody of shows like The X Factor; either way it should be a treat.

That’s all for now!

Poster of the Week – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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Rocky Horror Picture Show, The

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

There were many posters created to promote Richard O’Brien’s affectionate tribute to 30’s horror and 50’s sci-fi, but this is one of the best.  For its time, the movie was a slightly subversive treat, its air of permissive sexuality (in any form) allied to some great song and dance numbers.  Now, almost forty years on, it’s less shocking, but it’s become perhaps the cult movie around the world.

Looking at the poster now it doesn’t have the same effect it would have done back in 1975.  The sight of Tim Curry in make up,  shiny basque, stockings and high heels no longer has that risqué quality that intrigued audiences who hadn’t seen the stage show, but it’s still an arresting image, a bold statement of intent that hasn’t lost its impact entirely.  His haughty, scornful look is another great touch, challenging the potential viewer as if to say, “Do you have what it takes to watch this movie?”

And then there are the lips – courtesy of Patricia Quinn, Magenta in the movie – a now iconic image that is recognised everywhere.  On their own they’re like a fetish object, full and curvy and inviting and infused with an indefinable promise of things to cum.  With Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter draped across them, they become even more erotically charged, the combination of willing lips and waiting body making the movie’s invitation to “Don’t dream it, be it” all the more alluring.  It’s a powerful merger of two already compelling images, and is extremely effective.

Lastly, there’s the title itself, a dripping, blood-red example of the kind of title graphic used in the 40’s, a fond recreation of a style that represented shock and horror and terror “unlike anything seen before”.  And with a black background that allows everything else to stand out in sharp relief, this is a poster that draws the eye and makes it hard to look away.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Mini-Review: Jersey Shore Massacre (2014)

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JERSEY SHORE MASSACRE, poster art, from left: Chris Lazzaro, Giovanni Roselli, Danielle Dallacco,

D: Paul Tarnopol / 88m

Cast: Danielle Dallacco, Angelica Boccella, Giovanni Roselli, Chris Lazzaro, Nicole Rutigliano, Ashley Mitchell, Christina Scaglione, Brenton Duplessie, Brett Azar, John Michael Hastie, Leonarda Bosch, Ron Jeremy

A group of friends – Teresa (Dallacco), Dina (Boccella), Joanne (Rutigliano), Valerie (Mitchell), and Gigi (Scaglione) – decide to head for the beach for the weekend but a double booking on the place where they’re meant to stay means they end up staying at Teresa’s Uncle Vito’s place on the edge of the Pine Barrens.  They head for the beach anyway, and meet a group of guys – Tony (Roselli), Freddy (Lazzaro), Vinnie (Duplessie), Gino (Azar), and Joey (Hastie) – with similar ambitions for the weekend: to party hard and get laid.  They all head back to Uncle Vito’s where they start to get to know each other better, but there’s a killer on the loose, and he’s hell bent on murdering them all.

Intended as a spoof horror – the spoof element being the characters who bear a strong resemblance to the characters in the TV show, Jersey ShoreJersey Shore Massacre is  an unsophisticated, deliberately awful parody of that particular show, as well as a fond tribute to various horror movies of the last twenty years (it’s nice to see both Friday the 13th and The Shining being alluded to… as well as many other horror classics).  It makes fun of the show’s conventions, and boasts some unexpectedly funny one-liners as well as a further in-movie spoof entitled Fat Camp Massacre.

Jersey Shore Massacre - scene

But poking fun at a bunch of narcissists will only get you so far, and so it goes here, with a cast who look and sound the part – with the exception of Dallacco who looks like she’s wandered in from another show entirely (one with an IQ requirement that’s in double figures) – but who are as annoying as their small screen counterparts.  Having them killed off in ever more inventive ways goes some way to making the movie more palatable but it’s still riddled with casual sexism and even more casual attempts at acting.

Co-writer/director Tarnopol struggles with the set up and appears undecided as to whether his version of the Jersey Devil should be into torture porn or straight forward slaying, and there’s a shower murder that would have had Hitchcock shaking his head in dismay.  All in all it’s as amateurish as you’d expect, and further proof that just because someone can make a movie, it doesn’t mean they should.

Rating: 3/10 – as bad as it sounds, and good intentions aside, the kind of spoof that works only if the original source isn’t already an example of self-parody; when the cast whine louder than the sander used on one victim, then it’s clear – if the title Jersey Shore Massacre hadn’t convinced anyone already – that this is low budget stuff and less than impressive.

Good People (2014)

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Good People

D: Henrik Ruben Genz / 90m

Cast: James Franco, Kate Hudson, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Spruell, Omar Sy, Anna Friel, Diarmaid Murtaugh, Michael Jibson, Oliver Dimsdale, Francis Magee

Tom Wright (Franco) and his wife Anna (Hudson) have moved from America to London to make a fresh start, and to renovate the house left to Tom by his grandmother.  Where they’re living, they rent the basement to a man named Ben Tuttle (Magee).  When they find Tuttle dead from an apparent overdose, the police investigation brings them into contact with DI Halden (Wilkinson).  Although Tuttle had a criminal background, Halden is after bigger fish: Jack Witkowski (Spruell), a vicious gangster whom Tuttle had recently helped steal a consignment of liquid heroin from French drug dealer, Khan (Sy).  Later on, while clearing the basement, Tom finds a hidden bag of money with over £300,000 in it.  With bills mounting and his grandmother’s house costing more to put right than he’d expected, Tom suggests they keep the money hidden and when the time is right, begin to use it to settle their debts and get ahead.

Anna reluctantly agrees to Tom’s plan, but both use the money in small ways, and it comes to Halden’s attention.  Tuttle’s whereabouts, meanwhile, have come to the attention of Witkowski, who has been looking for him since the theft of the liquid heroin.  Tuttle had double-crossed him and taken both the money and the heroin, as well as contributing to the death of Witkowski’s younger brother.  Witkowski visits the basement flat and finds the heroin but not the money.

Tom is then approached by Khan who is looking for revenge on Witkowksi and his drugs and money back.  He impresses on Tom the importance of being a team player, leaving no doubt that he and Anna will suffer if they don’t help him.  Things get worse when Witkowski returns to their home, attacks Tom and demands the money.  Anna arrives home and bargains for their lives, stalling long enough until, by good fortune, Halden appears and Witkowski leaves.  The Wrights come clean about the money, though Halden tells them they’re not out of the woods yet.  He suggests setting a trap for Witkowski and they organise a rendezvous in a park to drop off the money.  The trap goes wrong and Halden is shot, leaving Tom and Anna to negotiate another meeting… but this time at Tom’s grandmother’s house.

Good People - scene

By most standards, Good People is – and let’s make this perfectly clear from the outset – a shockingly bad movie.  It labours under the misapprehension that it’s a thriller and it’s almost entirely a case of what you see is what you get – there’s little or no depth here, and even less that’s credible or convincing.  Based on the novel by Marcus Sakey, the movie stumbles and staggers its way from disjointed scene to disjointed scene with barely a moment to pause and consider where it’s going or how it’s going to get there.  There are problems literally everywhere, from the police’s inability to trace any of Tuttle’s relatives (while Witkowski finds a cousin at the drop of a hat), to Halden’s vigilante-style approach to police work, to Tom’s attempts at action man heroics, to a number of undeveloped subplots, and the extended showdown at the end that seems to be de rigueur these days (and stretches the boundaries of human physical endurance).

Matters aren’t helped by muted performances from the two leads – unsurprising in Hudson’s case as she’s off screen more than she’s on – and Wilkinson overdoing the weary policeman routine to the point where it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he fell asleep during a scene and started snoring.  And he delivers his lines with a kind of bored, indifferent approach that begs the question as to why he took on the role in the first place (surely he’s still not making mortgage payments?).  Spruell exudes an icy menace (one of the few positives the movie manages to provide), while Sy comes across as less a disgruntled gangster and more like a petulant catalogue model made to wear a jacket with an ugly stain on it.  And Friel, as Anna’s friend Sarah, has a priceless moment where, after being held hostage with her baby by Witkowski, escapes the house at the end and promptly runs off without a backward glance.

There really isn’t much to recommend about Good People.  Kelly Masterson’s screenplay gives new meaning to the phrase “all over the place”, and is a major step down from his adaptation of Snowpiercer (2013), while in the director’s chair, newbie Genz displays a liking for odd camera angles that add little to the proceedings other than to leave the audience trying to work out what they’re looking at.  The cinematography by Jørgen Johansson makes London look interminably grim and depressing, and there’s an unfortunate emphasis on subdued lighting that adds to the movie’s too-sombre look.  There are also issues with the continuity within individual scenes that haven’t been addressed in the editing suite.

Rating: 3/10 – unappealing, contrived and as wearying to watch as Tom Wilkinson’s equally weary performance, Good People is dispiriting fare that never really knows what to do with its basic plot; one for Franco or Hudson completists only, or fans of pedestrian thrillers that leave out the thrills.

Obvious Child (2014)

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Obvious Child

D: Gillian Robespierre / 84m

Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Paul Briganti

Donna (Slate) is an aspiring comedienne who uses her own life as the basis for her stand up routines.  On stage she’s fearless and bold, inviting audiences to share in her bewilderment at the stains she finds in her underwear, and the equally bewildering state of her sex life with boyfriend Ryan (Briganti).  When he splits up with her after a gig, Donna doesn’t know what to do.  Matters don’t improve when her boss at the bookstore where she works – the wonderfully named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books – tells her it’s going to be closing down.  She looks to her parents (Kind, Draper) for advice but they both say the same thing: treat the current changes in her life as a challenge.

Donna uses the break up with Ryan as part of a routine but it goes badly.  Afterwards she meets Max (Lacy) and they hit it off and end up having a one-night stand.  Weeks later, while out on a shopping trip with best friend Nellie (Hoffmann), Donna realises she’s pregnant.  Not ready to have a child yet, she decides to have an abortion.  It’s at this point that Max reappears in her life, but while they begin to build a relationship together, Donna doesn’t tell him about the pregnancy.  It becomes even more difficult to tell him when he reveals he can’t wait to be a grandfather after they see an elderly couple in a restaurant.

When Donna arranges with Max for him to come to her next show, she leaves with old friend Sam (Cross) before he can get there.  They have an awkward moment at the kerbside that derails their relationship, leaving Donna feeling guilty and Max feeling confused.  She tells her mother who confides that she was in the same position when she was young.  From this, Donna decides to tell Max but he doesn’t find out until he goes to another of her shows and hears her discussing the pregnancy (and her plans to abort it) as part of the routine.  The next day, and just as she’s leaving for the clinic, Max turns up with flowers…

Obvious Child - scene

Expanded from a short made in 2009, Obvious Child is an indie movie that mixes traditional romantic comedy fare with more considered dramatic elements and fuses them together to make a curious mix that is both beguiling and intriguing to watch.  It all hinges on whether or not you buy into the character of Donna as a confident artist on stage, but an insecure, diffident person off stage.  Thanks to Slate and writer/director Robespierre, Donna is someone we can all relate to, her lack of self-confidence away from the mic no different from the way in which any project or hobby or interest can elevate our faith in ourselves, if only for a short while, and allow us to put aside the more humdrum or mundane aspects of our daily lives.  Donna’s also in her early twenties, still unsure about a lot of things, and like most of us at that age, still trying to find a place in the world around us.  Her stand up routines are the way in which she works things out and puts some perspective on her life.

With Donna so cleverly and concisely drawn as a character, it leaves plenty of room for Slate to develop the role into something with a much greater depth than you’d normally expect from a comedy with such dramatic overtones.  Donna is a mass of insecurities, flaws, uncertainties and self-doubts, but once she becomes pregnant she undergoes a sea change.  It’s gradual but it’s there, a growing capacity for clear decision making, as the demands of Donna’s life become easier to deal with and her perception of herself becomes less debilitating.  In short, deciding to have an abortion proves the making of her.

Abortion as a means to self-empowerment may not be the angle the filmmakers were aiming for, but it’s there nevertheless, and whether by design or not, it makes Donna all the more credible as a character.  Cliché or not, adversity often brings out the best in people, and here, despite a couple of wobbles early on, Donna’s decision is one that proves to be a turning point, allowing her to grow and improve as a person.  Slate is flawless in the role; she’s funny, poignant, touching, and she doesn’t strike a false note in the entire movie (and it’s helpful that’s she’s reprising her role from the short).  It’s a star turn, able and arresting.

The rest of the cast provide more than capable support, with Lacy making Max the kind of amiable, dependable boyfriend material that all mothers would like to see their daughters hook up with, and Hoffmann providing an often acerbic turn as Donna’s best friend.  Robespierre provides everyone with great dialogue – the exchange between Donna and her father at the dining table; Nellie’s admonishment, “You’re dizzy because you played Russian roulette with your vagina” – and directs loosely but with a judicious use of close ups.  Donna’s stand up routines are darkly hilarious, and it’s great to see a female comic speaking as candidly as she does about such otherwise “hush hush” topics.

The subject of abortion may not be to everyone’s taste, and pro-Lifers may feel angered by the approach the movie takes, but this is one woman’s considered, positive reaction to an event she’s unprepared for, and on that level it works tremendously well.  Robespierre and Slate et al. should be congratulated for making a movie that doesn’t shy away from its contentious topic and doesn’t seek to complicate matters by referring to all the other agendas out there that relate to the issue.

Rating: 8/10 – an indie movie that is honest, emotive and rewarding, Obvious Child crams a lot into its short running time, and has much to recommend it; a breath of fresh air and seriously funny.

Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)

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Spider Baby

D: Jack Hill / 84m

Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Mantan Moreland

A messenger (Moreland) approaches a lonely old house located way out of town on an unmarked dirt road.  On the porch he looks in an open window, hoping to find someone at home. It’s the last thing he does.  For this is the Merrye House, home to a family blighted by inbreeding and a resulting genetic disorder that causes mental regression from around the age of ten.  Looking after the last descendants of this particular branch of the Merrye family is Bruno (Chaney Jr), the family chauffeur who promised to look after the children when their father died years before.  He’s kept them safe and away from prying eyes, knowing that their behaviour would see them taken and locked away.

There are two daughters: Elizabeth (Washburn) and Virginia (Banner), and a son, Ralph (Haig).  Elizabeth thinks it’s natural to hate everyone, and that everyone else is prone to hate too.  Virginia is fixated on spiders, and keeps two tarantulas in a writing desk; she has a special spider game she likes to play as well.  Ralph is a grinning halfwit, unable to communicate except by grunts and gestures.  All three have developed murderous tendencies, though Bruno has done his best to instil some degree of socially accepted behaviour in all of them.  They trust him to look after them, and he does so willingly.

The messenger’s letter informs of an impending visit by distant relatives Emily (Ohmart) and Peter (Redeker), their lawyer and his secretary.  Their aim is to dispossess the children of their home and profit from the sale of the house.  When they arrive, Bruno and the children attempt to be hospitable but the lawyer, Schlocker (Schanzer) is suspicious of them and their avoidance when discussing an aunt and uncle that should be living with them.  Emily reacts coldly, while Peter is equitable and treats them with respect.  Schlocker’s secretary, Ann (MItchel) gravitates towards Peter but is also uneasy, especially at the prospect of spending the night.  When the issue of two few rooms means Ann having to stay at a hotel in town, Peter offers to take her.

After they leave, Schlocker waits until everyone has gone to bed before he starts to snoop around.  He’s discovered by Elizabeth and Virginia, but not before he’s had a nasty encounter with their uncle.  They murder him, and when Bruno finds out what they’ve done, he realises it’s really the end of everything.  With a plan in mind to keep the children safe forever, he leaves the house.  Meanwhile, Ralph is spying on Emily while she undresses for bed.  When she sees him at her window she runs from the house.  All three children pursue her, but it’s Ralph who catches her. and with unfortunate repercussions.

With all the hotels in town full, Peter and Ann return to the house.  Peter agrees to play the spider game with Virginia and finds himself tied to a chair.  At the same time, Ann is grabbed by Ralph after she sees the children’s father, and helped by the two girls, is taken to the cellar where they try to kill her.  Help comes in an unexpected form, but with things having gone too far, Bruno’s return heralds a more permanent solution.

Spider Baby - scene

Filmed in 1964 but unreleased until ’67 because the producers went bankrupt, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a movie unburdened by notions of good taste or civility.  Its tale of a family of “retarded” (the movie’s term for it) degenerates at the mercy of an inherited disorder, the movie doesn’t lack for chances to be exploitative or horrific or unnerving.  There’s humour as well, a penchant for weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and above average performances, elements that fuse together to provide a rewarding experience, despite its creaky sub-haunted house scenario.

The key to everything is writer/director Hill, making his first movie and showing an undisputed flair for the macabre (not bad for someone who started their career at Disney).  The movie has an eerie quality that eludes most horror movies from the Sixties, and it has a pace and style that helps avoid the usual pitfalls, adding greatly to the more outlandish moments such as Ann being expected to stay in the room where the father’s remains are still in the bed.  Even when Schlocker begins his prowl round the house, a sequence which, for the period, is often the cue for an extended and usually dull interlude, here it’s given a welcome boost by the Merrye House not being a rambling mansion, and by the unexpected intervention of Uncle Ned.

With certain expectations undermined, Hill is free to tell his story as imaginatively as he wants, and he’s aided by a cast who all seem as committed as he is to making the best movie they can from the material.  Chaney Jr gives what is possibly one of the best performances of his later career – if not the best – his sad, weary face a joy to behold whenever he’s on screen, and more expressive than a dozen of his other movies all put together.  Chaney wasn’t in the best of health at this stage of his career, and the filming conditions weren’t the best – no air conditioning – so he does look inappropriately sweaty throughout, but his quiet, almost retiring approach to the character of Bruno is effective and oddly profound.

Spider Baby - scene2

As the children, Hill’s choice of actors also pays off.  Washburn and Banner play the sisters like errant schoolgirls, remonstrating with each other over their behaviour and curiously displaying little or no affection.  Their quirky, strange, off-kilter view of people and the outside world is by turns amusing, worrying, and terrifying.  Without Bruno’s guidance, you wonder how unfettered their behaviour would have become, and the two actresses display that kind of blithe dissociation with ease, inhabiting their roles with impressive composure.  Haig hasn’t quite as much to do but his jerky physical movements are often unsettling and his slack-jawed facial expressions, while often humorous to watch, belie a disturbing preponderance for lustful abduction.  With his bald head and pop eyed stare, Haig draws the attention throughout.

Redeker narrates the story with a smooth, urbane charm, and maintains a wide-eyed naïveté that contrasts well with the theatrical hysterics of his character’s relatives.  It’s an easy-going performance, skewed towards providing much of the movie’s comedy, his reactions to the more outré events providing a lot of beguiling amusement.  By contrast, Ohmart is the chilly relative who can only see dollar signs and intolerable weirdness.  She spends the latter part of the movie in just her underwear (apparently chosen specifically by Ohmart for use in the movie), and looks great.

Spider Baby looks great too even today, its crisp, atmospherically lit scenes often beautifully executed by DoP Alfred Taylor.  Hill shows a good eye for composition as well, blocking scenes with confidence and an intuitive feel for unnerving camera angles.  As well as encouraging strong performances from his talented cast, Hill also makes a virtue of the movie’s low budget to create a series of interchangeable sets that add tremendously to the claustrophobic feel of the Merrye house.  A mention too for the score by Ronald Stein: suitably creepy in parts, aptly stirring in others, but always complementary to the action.

Rating: 8/10 – with a better presentation and attention to detail than might be expected, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a wild ride bolstered by strong performances and a clever script; not weighed down by some of the stylistic excesses of later, similar movies, Hill’s debut sticks out by being effortlessly creative, and delightfully grotesque.

Gone Girl (2014)

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Gone Girl

D: David Fincher / 149m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Sela Ward, Scoot McNairy

One morning in July, Nick Dunne (Affleck) comes home to find signs of a violent struggle and his wife, Amy (Pike), missing.  He calls the police and when they arrive, Detective Boney (Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Fugit), soon find further evidence that something bad has happened.  Soon, Amy’s face is everywhere, and while it’s assumed at first that she’s been abducted, Nick’s behaviour doesn’t ring true and he becomes a suspect in what may be his wife’s death.  With evidence building up against him, Nick and his sister Margo (Coon) try to figure out what’s going on, but they’re stumped at every turn.  It’s only when they make a startling discovery in a woodshed on Margo’s property that they begin to realise what’s really happening.

At this point in the movie, as well as in Gillian Flynn’s original novel, there is a major plot twist, and both incarnations of the story begin to move in a new direction, opening out what is a fairly claustrophobic small-town mystery into something that strains credulity and begins to founder under the weight of its attempts to be cleverer than it needs to be.  There are many, many problems with the plot against Nick Dunne, not least Nick’s conveniently inappropriate responses in front of the police and the media, but also the introduction of Amy’s diary.  This offers a disjointed view of Nick and Amy’s marriage that’s meant to put doubts in the minds of the audience as to Nick’s innocence, but which has its effectiveness rendered null and void by the aforementioned plot twist.

It’s not unusual to watch a thriller and find yourself questioning the logic of what’s happening, but with Gone Girl it’s a constant process.  There’s little doubt that Flynn’s tale of marital discord has a degree of cultural relevancy, and her examination of the hidden duplicities and feelings within a marriage is sharper than expected, but ultimately, what we’re talking about here is an above averagely presented potboiler that marries trenchant observations on the media and modern marriage with more traditional thriller elements, and which muddles its way through to an ending which can be seen as either depressingly nihilistic or just desserts for a character – Nick – who has been outclassed from the beginning (though it seems at first glance that it’s all happening because the person doing it all really holds a grudge).

Gone Girl - scene

What happens in the movie’s second half, as Nick attempts to regain control of his life, and defend himself from the police and the media, is confidently arranged and presented by Fincher, but with what the audience knows is happening elsewhere, the movie maintains its measured, effective pacing but at the expense of the tension that’s been built up before.  It’s not the movie’s fault; it is, after all a very faithful adaptation by Flynn of her own novel, and Fincher seems happy to go along with the twists and turns and her reliance on dramatic licence to steer her characters through.  The weaknesses that plague the second half of the novel are present in the movie, and have the same effect: they make everything too unbelievable, and lead to a denouement that will either have audiences who haven’t read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that it?”, or audiences who have read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that still it?”

So – is Gone Girl then a bad movie?  The answer is very definitely No.  In Fincher’s hands, Gone Girl overcomes it’s cod-psychological thriller origins to become a dark, unsettling movie that picks at the conventional notions of love and marriage and finds murky, troubled waters flowing just below the surface.  As an examination of how two people can fall out of love with each other so easily, and be so ready to hurt each other in the process, the movie scores on all counts.  Nick and Amy, once so right for each other, are now adversaries, both looking to come out on top.  It’s an unfair fight; after all, if Nick was a box-cutter, he’d be the last one you’d use to open up something (he’s just not that sharp).  But Amy is sharp, smart as a whip in fact.  She’s Amazing Amy, the ultimate version of herself that her parents created when she was a little girl, a prodigy who always excels, who always ends up the winner, just because she’s Amazing Amy.  (Amy has always been in competition with her literary alter-ego, but the movie only mentions it in passing, while the novel explores the idea in greater, and more rewarding, depth.  It’s important to take in, though.)

Fincher excels at fleshing out the characters.  Nick is smug and stupid and reckless and self-satisfied and callow and foolish, and he has no idea how idiotically he behaves.  He’s like Bambi in a hunter’s sights, a prize just waiting to be claimed.  Affleck gives perhaps his best performance in years, earning our initial sympathy then dashing it to the ground in one superbly orchestrated scene that pulls the rug out from under the audience with undisguised pleasure.  Nick is twitchy, nervous, anxious, panicky – all the things you’d expect when someone is increasingly viewed as having killed their wife, but Affleck never puts a foot – or an inappropriate grin – wrong, imbuing Nick with an easy-to-warm-to naïveté that hardens as the movie plays out, his nervous energy transformed into a need for redemption in the public’s eye.  As mentioned before, Nick is a frustratingly obtuse character, but Affleck makes it a positive.  Even when Nick is doing or saying something witless, like posing with a woman for a selfie, it’s witless because it’s part of his nature, his way of dealing with people.  He’s like a puppy: he just wants to be loved.

Gone Girl - scene2

Conversely, Amy has always been loved, her parents’ books about her excelling alter-ego having made her treasured by default.  But that affection comes with an expectation that everyone around Amy will feel the same way about her, and if she’s in a relationship then it’s all or nothing, her way or no way.  Pike is a revelation here: as we learn more and more about Amy, she reveals more and more of the fractured person Amy really is.  It’s a role that would test any actress, but Pike – who probably wasn’t most people’s first choice for the part – claims the role as her own and pulls off a devastating performance.  She’s an actress who shows everything with her eyes; watch those and you’ll know everything her character is thinking and feeling, and some things you might not want to know.  She complements Affleck’s performance superbly, and she even manages to make some of Flynn’s more tortured dialogue sound appropriate and convincing.

In support, Dickens is excellent as the detective who never feels entirely satisfied with the way things keep happening, her experience telling her that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  As one of Amy’s old boyfriends, Desi Collings, Harris is awkwardly emotional and manipulative at the same time, the kind of creepy paramour most women would run a mile from.  Coon offers solid support as Nick’s sister but the role is  stereotypically rendered: she believes in him no matter what, even when he does something really stupid.  And Perry – as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt – has fun with a role that could have done with a bit more bluster, and he provides some much needed levity from the seriousness of the situation.

Marshalling the production into something much greater than its origins, though, is Fincher, a director able to elevate any material he’s given – save Alien³ (1992) – and make it riveting to watch.  In hand with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher makes Gone Girl an impressively visual experience, with shots and images that linger in the memory, and never so cleverly as with Nick and Amy’s home, a large, airy property that serves to highlight how far apart from each other they actually are.  Fincher also takes the more outlandish aspects of Flynn’s story and makes them more credible (though even he’s powerless to override the flimsy psychology that underpins the ending), and he makes the audience want to know what happens next, even if it might be obvious.  With two commanding central performances as well, Gone Girl cements Fincher’s reputation even further, and if at some point down the road Flynn decides to revisit Nick and Amy’s marriage, there shouldn’t be any question as to who should direct the movie version.

While it may divide some audiences – especially those who like their endings to be unequivocal (although this is, in its way) – Gone Girl is nonetheless superior movie-making, and should be regarded as such.  Fincher shows a complete understanding of the characters and their motivations, and delivers one of the most unexpectedly energised movies of the year.  It’s a thriller, yes, but at its heart it’s a movie about the expectations of love and the slow decay of a relationship, where passion turns to pain and love turns to hate.  And it’s relentless.

Rating: 8/10 – the script’s deficiencies knock this one down a point, but this is still very impressive stuff indeed; a taut, engrossing thriller that impresses with every scene, Gone Girl is that rare movie that grips the audience despite its faults and becomes a movie that everyone will want to talk about afterwards.

Horns (2013)

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Horns

D: Alexandre Aja / 120m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Juno Temple, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, David Morse, Heather Graham

Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) has earned the enmity of the small town he lives in.  His longtime girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Temple) has been brutally killed in nearby woods, and everyone thinks Ig killed her.  With the townsfolk threatening him at every turn, and news crews following him wherever he goes, Ig protests his innocence but is continually ignored.  Even his friends and family suspect or believe he did it; only his best friend, Lee (Minghella), a lawyer, believes he’s innocent.

When a candlelit vigil is held at the place where Merrin was murdered, a drunken Ig rages against a God who could allow her to die.  The next morning he awakes to find two tiny horns growing out of his forehead.  Horrified, he goes to his doctor where he becomes aware of a startling side effect that the horns have brought with them: the people he encounters are compelled to tell him their darkest thoughts and desires once they’ve seen the horns.  He also learns that he can persuade them to act on these desires.  Using this ability he begins to visit people who knew Merrin in the hope of finding clues as to her killer’s identity – or even find them in person.  Everyone reveals something about themselves that is otherwise hidden except for Lee who doesn’t see any horns at all.

Ig suffers a setback when he learns a witness has come forward to say that they saw him leave a diner with Merrin on the night she was killed.  Ig knows this isn’t true, but at first he can’t think how to make the witness withdraw their statement.  The arrival of a bed of snakes that he can control solves the issue but brings him no nearer to finding Merrin’s killer.  It’s only when he confronts his brother, Terry (Anderson), that he begins to discover what exactly happened that night, including a fateful meeting at the diner that he had with Merrin, and which he’d forgotten.

As the clues mount up and Ig gets nearer the truth, an unexpected revelation leads to an attempt on his life.  Surviving the attempt, Ig sets a trap for the killer, and in the process, learns the tragic truth about his beloved Merrin.

Horns -scene

There’s a moment in Horns when Ig suggests that a couple of TV news reporters should “beat the shit out of each other” with an exclusive interview as the prize for the winner.  What follows is a free-for-all brawl between news teams that is both funny and ferocious at the same time.  It’s a perfect example of the tone of the movie, a delightfully perverse adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel that offers a mix of very dark humour and fantasy alongside a very traditional whodunnit.  It’s a bold, audacious movie, encompassing romantic drama, horror, broad comedy, and childhood flashbacks to often dizzying effect.  It’s also a great deal of fun.

Under the auspices of Aja, Horns is never less than riveting, its structure so cleverly constructed by screenwriter Keith Bunin that a few minor plot stumbles aside – the presence of the snakes (never properly explained), the killer’s apparent amnesia when confronted a second time by Ig – the movie grabs the attention from the outset, thrusting the viewer into Ig’s predicament with economy and style.  Its greatest trick is not to make Ig instantly likeable, and while it’s no stretch to believe he’s entirely innocent, his behaviour is self-destructive and aggressive, leaving just that sliver of doubt that maybe, just maybe, he might have killed Merrin.  And with a major motive introduced two thirds in, the movie still manages to throws doubts at the viewer with deliberate glee.

Radcliffe – building a quietly diverse and impressive career for himself post-Hogwarts – is the movie’s trump card, giving a well-rounded, nuanced performance that requires a lot from him as an actor.  He’s more than up to the task though, and is simply mesmerising throughout, justifying entirely the decision to cast him.  It’s a rich, deceptively detailed portrayal, much more resonant than we’re used to in what is ultimately a horror fantasy.  There’s a scene towards the end where Ig reads a letter written to him by Merrin.  The pain and anguish Radcliffe evinces, along with Temple’s perfect reading of the letter, makes the scene achingly sad to watch (and also the movie’s standout moment).

The supporting cast offer sterling support, from Garner’s turn as Ig’s would-be girlfriend Glenna, to Morse as Merrin’s heartbroken father.  If there’s a weak link it’s Minghella, an actor whose features lend themselves well to looking perturbed or querulous, but who regularly struggles to persuade audiences when more convincing emotions are required.  Temple continues to impress, her role in flashback as Merrin giving her another chance to shine (along with Radcliffe, she’s carving out a very interesting career for herself), and there’s a pivotal role for the underused Graham that reminds the viewer – however briefly – just how good she is.

The fantasy elements are effective, with a final transformation for Ig that is impressively handled, and the striking British Columbia locations are lensed to subtly remarkable effect by DoP (and David Lynch alumni) Frederick Elmes.  Aja keeps the focus on Ig and Merrin, the true heart of the movie, and holds back on the bloodshed to a level that, while it may annoy some horror fans, is in keeping with the overall tone of the movie (that said, he can’t resist including one splatter moment).  With a denouement that ups the pace and provides a satisfying conclusion to events, Horns succeeds on so many levels that it’s a very jaded viewer who will be disappointed by what the movie has to offer.

Rating: 8/10 – an above average fantasy thriller with dark comedic overtones, Horns is another daring outing from the very talented Aja; with a deep well of emotion for it to draw on, the movie succeeds in marrying a variety of disparate elements into a rewarding and gratifying whole.

Poster of the Week – Journey to Italy (1954)

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Journey to Italy

Journey to Italy (1954)

One of a multitude of poster designs created for the movie, this particular example is striking for a number of reasons, not least it’s decision to represent its leading lady with a less than flattering illustration.  Bergman was still a big star in ’54, even if she had left her family for Rossellini, the movie’s director.  This was the third film they made together, and its tale of a ruined marriage was reflected in the compositional choices made for this poster.

On the left is that curious representation of Bergman, her gaze drawn by something we can’t see, her pensive expression making it hard to work out what she’s thinking.  Below her we see a young couple embracing – is she remembering this, is it part of her past with her husband, or is it something she sought but never found?  (The answer can be found in the movie.)  And above her, merging with her hair, a gondola that’s broken in two.  An obvious metaphor perhaps, but not so obvious at first glance.

And then there’s that central image, a still taken from the movie itself, with Sanders in full on predatory mode, his gaze fixed on the young woman in such a way that his intentions couldn’t be any clearer.  He’s sizing her up, thinking ahead maybe to when he can be alone with her.  But look closely at the young woman and she’s looking at him right back, aware of the significance of his attention but unafraid, challenging him perhaps, or ready to acquiesce.  Either way, she’s on an equal footing with him.

The movie’s original Italian title, at once a literal statement of its subject matter and a cogent summing up of what happens to Bergman and Sanders as their trip threatens to unravel them as individuals and as a couple, is mostly in vibrant red, highlighting the passion that lurks below the surface of both characters.

With so much information packed into one apparently pedestrian looking poster, it’s a testament to its designer – whoever they were – that it belies its commonplace appearance and is far more subtle and effective than it looks a first.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

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Walk Among the Tombstones, A

D: Scott Frank / 114m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam David Thompson, Mark Consuelos, Sebastian Roché

New York, 1991.  Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a cop with a drink problem.  When armed robbers hold up the bar he’s in, he chases them outside and shoots all three of them, fatally.

Eight years later, Scudder is an unlicensed private detective, still working in New York, and a recovering alcoholic.  When a fellow AA member, Peter (Holbrook) tells him his brother, Kenny (Stevens) wants to offer him a job, Scudder isn’t really interested at first, but he decides to see what the job is about.  Kenny offers him $20,000 to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife.  Kenny’s reluctance to involve the police tips off Scudder that he’s a drug dealer, and he declines the offer.  When Scudder returns to his apartment later, he finds Kenny waiting for him.  Kenny tells him about the kidnapping, and how he was left to find his wife dismembered in the trunk of a car.  He also leaves a tape recording the kidnappers made of them torturing his wife.  Scudder decides to take the case.

Sensing that Kenny’s wife may not have been the kidnappers first victim, Scudder visits the library to go through the newspaper records.  He strikes up a conversation with a young boy, TJ (Bradley), and together they discover two other murder victims where abduction and subsequent dismemberment have occurred.  Scudder visits the cemetery where the second victim’s body was discovered, and talks to one of the groundskeepers, Jonas (Ólafsson).  Jonas behaves suspiciously, and when he leaves work, Scudder follows him to his apartment.  While there he discovers that the partner of the second victim lives in the building opposite.  Beginning to see a connection, Scudder goes up onto the roof of Jonas’s building and finds a shed that contains evidence of Jonas’ involvement in her kidnapping and murder.  When Jonas returns, he gives Scudder a name – Ray – then jumps off the roof to his death.

Later, Scudder learns that the first victim was a DEA agent, and that the kidnappers may be rogue or ex-DEA agents themselves, as the second victim and Kenny’s wife were both linked to drug dealers.  When they kidnap a fourth victim, the daughter of a Russian drug dealer, Yuri (Roché), he calls on Kenny and Scudder’s help.  Scudder negotiates a ransom drop in the same cemetery where he met Jonas, but the drop goes badly, and the kidnappers get away… with TJ hiding in their van.

Walk Among the Tombstones, A - scene

Adapted from the tenth book in the series of Matt Scudder novels written by Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a grim, atmospheric crime thriller that features a brooding, melancholy performance from Neeson, and suitably gloomy New York locations.  It’s a look at the darker, seedier side of Life that is impressively realised by writer/director Frank, and draws the viewer in from its opening shootout (which has tragic consequences), to its blood-soaked denouement in the basement of the kidnappers’ house.  Brief moments of levity do occur but they’re few and far between in a movie that anchors itself so effectively in the underbelly of criminal life that some viewers may be put off by its downbeat, distressing approach to the source material.

Carrying the movie like a well-worn overcoat is Neeson, his battered visage telling the audience all they need to know about Scudder and the kind of life he’s lived.  The scenes where he’s attending various AA meetings, while appearing as no more than standard character development, are instead chances for Neeson to show a more reflective, considered approach to the character.  These add subtly to the overall performance, grounding Scudder while the other characters aren’t quite so well fleshed out.  Neeson is a strong, credible actor, and when he’s the focus of a movie (as he is here), then the audience will follow him anywhere, even in something as nonsensical as Non-Stop (2014).

And it helps, because while A Walk Among the Tombstones is determinedly dour, this is a movie that does itself no favours when addressing its bad guys and what they do.  It’s dark, edgy stuff, and made all the more potent by the performances of Harbour and Thompson, who make Ray and his accomplice Albert two of the nastiest villains seen for a while, with the more garrulous Harbour making some truly horrifying dialogue sound even worse by virtue of Ray’s emotional and moral detachment.  These guys are evil, pure and simple, and as the black heart of the movie, are incredibly effective and completely justify Jonas’s decision to jump off the roof.

With a strong, capable hero and two loathsome villains in place, it’s disappointing that the remaining characters don’t quite resonate as much.  As Kenny, Stevens is oddly distant, his anger at his wife’s murder coming across as what’s expected of him rather than a real emotion (even after he’s gone through what happened).  TJ is the annoying would-be sidekick with a poignant back story that threatens to derail the movie – isn’t it enough that Scudder is looking to personally redeem himself, without the added responsibility of a homeless child as well (and one who, when hospitalised, isn’t handed over to social services)?  That said, Bradley does have a screen presence, and he makes the most of a potentially irritating character.

Morally complex it may be, and with drug dealers painted more sympathetically than usual, nevertheless the movie is a crime thriller, and as it ramps up the violence towards the end, the slow deliberate pace of the first half is ramped up as well, and gives the audience another chance to see Neeson in action hero mode (watch though for the table that breaks before it’s landed on).  There’s a satisfying conclusion, and if another Matt Scudder movie doesn’t get made, Frank’s polished, considered outing will stand on its own as an above average entry in the private eye genre.

Rating: 8/10 – stronger and more powerful than the average crime flick, this benefits from a committed turn by Neeson and has a funereal approach that works far better than perhaps it should; confident, absorbing and persuasive, A Walk Among the Tombstones is stirring stuff and shouldn’t be missed.

 

Maps to the Stars (2014)

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Maps to the Stars

D: David Cronenberg / 111m

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Kiara Glasco, Dawn Greenhalgh

Arriving in Los Angeles, Agatha (Wasikowska) is met by limo driver/aspiring actor Jerome (Pattinson).  On the way to where she’s staying she asks him to drive to a spot up in the hills near to the Hollywood sign, though when they get there there isn’t a house where Agatha expects it to be.  Meanwhile, child actor Benjie Weiss (Bird) is in the middle of negotiations to star in the sequel to the movie that has made him a star.  However, a recent bout of substance abuse has the studio insisting on his sobriety.  At the same time, well-known actress Havana Segrand (Moore) is doing all she can to land the part her mother played in a remake of a 60’s classic.  Through a lucky piece of networking, Agatha ends up working for Havana as her P.A.

Agatha has burns from a fire that happened when she was younger and it’s revealed that she’s spent the last seven years in a psychiatric hospital as she caused the fire.  Her reason for coming to L.A. is to make amends to her family, parents Stafford (Cusack) and Christina (Williams), and her brother, who it turns out is Benjie.  When they learn she’s back in town they have different reactions but she sees them each in turn with differing results.  As troubled as Agatha is, she’s unaware of the ghosts Benjie sees, ghosts that are pushing him toward a violent outburst.  And Havana is tormented by visions of her mother (Gadon) before she died, visions that feed into her insecurity about playing her mother’s role.  A relationship blossoms with Jerome but is eventually undermined by Havana, while one of Benjie’s hallucinations causes a tragedy he can’t run away from… except with Agatha.  With violence blighting both their lives, they decide on a solution to their problems that will give them both peace from the demons that haunt them.

Maps to the Stars - scene

The first movie that David Cronenberg has made – if only partially – in the US, Maps to the Stars is a biting satire that explores the various tensions within one of the most dysfunctional families in recent movie history.  The Weisses are so screwed up as a family it’s a wonder any of them can function normally on a day to day basis.  Dad Stafford is a self-help guru cum massage therapist whose sense of his own relevance is underlined by the famous people he’s met, like the Dalai Lama.  He’s distant from his wife and son, and is worried that any adverse publicity will expose the secret he and Christina have shared for years.  For her part, Christina acts as a kind of manager for her son’s career, advising him and attending meetings with the studio.  She gets little recognition for her efforts from him, and she too is afraid their secret will be revealed. Both characters are unhappy and edgy in their own skins, and there is a distance between them that has become enforced through necessity, but their dependence on each other is the only way they can express their love for each other.

Benjie is thirteen and the kind of spoilt-minded child actor who thinks it’s okay to disrespect people and be abusive and mean-minded.  There’s a certain amount of insecurity about him, but it’s smothered by his “fuck you” attitude, and his need to be in control of his own life, independent of his parents.  By contrast, Agatha is the child who wants to make amends, who wants to see her family reunited, but doesn’t realise – or expect – that her optimism is misguided.  Her troubled history (controlled by several different medications) is in danger of defining her as an individual, and her job with Havana, and her romance with Jerome, help boost her confidence in dealing with Benjie and her parents.  When they both go wrong, she discards her meds, and it’s only when she does that she’s truly able to deal with things, even if the way in which she does is far from appropriate.  Self-confidence aside, it’s her schizophrenia that keeps her strong.

All four actors – Cusack, Williams, Bird and Wasikowska – prove excellent choices for their roles, and each one holds the viewer’s attention with ease in each of their scenes; when some of them are together, it’s like an embarrassment of riches, and it’s good to see Cusack back on form after the likes of Drive Hard and The Prince (both 2014).  But this is Moore’s movie all the way, her portrayal of an actress on the verge of becoming irrelevant both tragic and horrifying in its naked neediness and self-serving hypocrisy.  Moore’s no stranger to tortured female characters (whether self-inflicted or not), and here she adds yet another to the list, making Havana pitiable, self-destructive and venal in equal measure.  It’s a bravura performance, with Moore displaying Havana’s emotional vulnerability and lack of empathy, particularly in the horrifying scene where she celebrates getting her mother’s role through tragic circumstances.  She’s hypnotic to watch, and by far the best part of seeing the movie.

Good as the performances are though (and they are very good), there isn’t any easy way to connect with the characters.  Agatha has most of the viewer’s sympathy, but that slowly changes as the movie progresses.  Benjie is virtually irredeemable, while Stafford and Christina are too wrapped up in themselves to care about anyone else.  This is also a movie made with a degree of distance between the characters and the audience, and this appears to be down to Cronenberg’s approach to both them and Bruce Wagner’s screenplay.  His direction is as inventive as ever, and he deposits the Weisses and Havana in various large, open spaces to highlight their isolation (particularly their own homes).  As a movie that shines a light on how dysfunction and self-destruction can both encourage and propel certain people toward terrible actions, it’s a triumph.  But as a movie that identifies root causes and solid motivations for those actions it’s not so successful, leaving the viewer to scratch their head at how the characters can be so self-destructive, and with no attempts to seek help (even from Stafford).

However, there is a degree of dark humour here that some audiences will recognise, as well as moments of soap opera absurdity that threaten to undermine the overall cleverness of the script.  These are also predictable moments, and while some are necessary for certain storylines to move forward, it’s a shame that they’ve been included, as they actually cause the movie’s flow to stutter when they occur.  Still, there’s more here that’s good than bad, and it’s compelling on several levels.

Rating: 8/10 – another winner from Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars has a few, minor faults, and will certainly divide audiences, but fans will lap it up, while newcomers to Cronenberg’s oeuvre may be non-plussed by the observational approach; with a raft of intriguing, well-constructed performances, the movie offers far more than is obvious at first glance.

Top 10 Actresses at the Box Office

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Having looked at who makes up the Top 10 Actors at the Box Office, it’s time to see which ten actresses are the most popular with the cinema-going public.  There are a couple of actresses you might not expect to see in the list, but with the preponderance of movie series’ that are out there, most shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

NOTE: HGM stands for Highest Grossing Movie, and the figures represent the worldwide gross.  And all figures are courtesy of boxofficemojo.com.

10 – Anne Hathaway / HGM: The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – $1,084,439,099

Anne Hathaway

While you might not hear the phrase, “Let’s go see the new Anne Hathaway movie” very often, nevertheless she has made some good commercial choices over the years, from The Devil Wears Prada (2006) to Alice in Wonderland (2010), all the way to her Oscar winning performance in Les Misérables (2012).  With a role in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Interstellar, and a return to Wonderland in 2016, her place on the list seems assured for some time to come.

9 – Scarlett Johansson / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,594,910

Scarlett Johansson

Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Johansson has made a number of movies that have performed well (if not spectacularly), and she’s often the best thing in them.  With some canny choices behind her – The Prestige (2006), We Bought a Zoo (2011) – it will be interesting to see how her career develops, as, Black Widow aside, she doesn’t seem to gravitate to one particular kind of role.  But with multiple trips to the Marvel well ahead of her, her place on this list is assured.

8 – Sandra Bullock / HGM: Gravity (2013) – $716,392,705

Sandra Bullock

With a career that now spans over twenty years, and with a proven track record in both drama and comedy, it’s Bullock’s more recent forays into drama that have won her the most acclaim and industry kudos.  She doesn’t always make the right choices – Gun Shy (2000), All About Steve (2009), a certain sequel that Keanu Reeves wisely side-stepped – but she has a loyal fan base that will probably keep her in the Top 10 for the foreseeable future, even though at present, the only movie she definitely has on the horizon is next year’s Minions.

7 – Sigourney Weaver / HGM: Avatar (2009) – $2,787,965,087

Sigourney Weaver

Weaver’s inclusion on this list is due mainly to her role in James Cameron’s epic, and the combined totals for the Alien series – even Alien Resurrection made over $161m – as, like Scarlett Johansson, she’s made a number of movies that have performed well enough at the box office but which aren’t as repeat-friendly as you might expect.  Still, with three Avatar sequels in the pipeline, Weaver’s likely to be heading on up the list come 2017, but with a career that’s often been more about the material than the box office, it should be the other movies she makes that will be the more interesting to watch.

6 – Kathy Bates / HGM: Titanic (1997) – $2,186,772,302

Kathy Bates

Betcha didn’t see this actress being on the list anywhere!  Cameron’s blockbuster aside, Bates has appeared in some well-received movies over the years, from Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) to About Schmidt (2002) to The Blind Side (2012), as well as her Oscar winning role in Misery (1990).  She’s an actress you can rely on whatever the movie, and while she’s not a box office draw by herself, she’s definitely earned her place on the list (though how long she’ll remain here will probably be down to her fellow listees).

5 – Cate Blanchett / HGM: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – $1,119,929,521

Cate Blanchett

Perhaps of all the actresses in the list, Blanchett has the best resumé, her movie choices over the years having proved that she has a keen eye for a good script.  Even where a movie hasn’t quite worked out as its makers would have hoped – Bandits (2001), Robin Hood (2010) – she’s still been eminently watchable and, as in the wretchedly disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), has risen above the constraints of the material.  Her alliance with Peter Jackson and the realm of Middle Earth has certainly propelled her to this point in the list, so she’s another actress who won’t be dropping out anytime soon.

4 – Helena Bonham Carter / HGM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – $1,341,511,219

Helena Bonham Carter

Your husband is a gifted, visionary filmmaker who regularly finds roles for you in his movies.  Do you turn him down, afraid of cries of favouritism?  Or do you take every opportunity he gives you, and so cement your place in the list of the top ten actresses at the box office?  It’s a no-brainer really, but Carter’s place at number four does rely heavily on her work with Tim Burton and the latter entries in the Harry Potter saga.  But even so she’s a remarkably talented actress who does some of her best work in movies that get very little exposure – Till Human Voices Wake Us (2002), Enid (2009) – and with a return trip to Wonderland fast approaching, she’s not moving from this list for some considerable time.

3 – Julia Roberts / HGM: Pretty Woman (1990) – $463,406,268

Julia Roberts

Is it really almost twenty-five years since Pretty Woman made an overnight star of Julia Roberts?  (Well, yes of course it is.)  One of the most consistently successful actresses of the last quarter century, she’s achieved her place on the list without the benefit of being part of a franchise (the first two Ocean’s movies are the nearest she’s come to being in a series), and by virtue of making some very astute choices; a case in point: Charlotte’s Web (2006) took over $144m.  Despite a couple of missteps in recent years, she’s still an actress who commands attention, and with a role in the upcoming remake of The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), it seems she’s not about to slow down anytime soon.

2 – Emma Watson / HGM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – $1,341,511,219

Emma Watson

The youngest member of the Top 10 owes her place to a certain bespectacled wizard, but with This Is the End (2013) and Noah (2014) both taking over $100m at the box office (and Noah considerably more), she seems to have secured her future (and put Hermione firmly behind her).  Watson effectively has the world at her feet and it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to make as many interesting movies as she’s made in the last few years.  Whatever happens, her place on the list is assured (and especially if J.K. Rowling bows to popular demand and comes up with Harry Potter: The Adult Years).

1 – Cameron Diaz / HGM: Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758

Cameron Diaz

Ruling the roost is an actress whose career has had its ups and downs in recent years, but even the critical duds have made money (The Green Hornet (2011) somehow made $227,817,248 – incredible).  With the Shrek franchise, plus fourteen other movies that have broken the $100m barrier, Diaz is an A-lister who consistently brings in the audiences (especially when she’s starring in a comedy).  With the remake of Annie due later this year, and a return to being a Bad Teacher also on the cards, Diaz’s mix of safe movies interspersed with more edgy fare looks set to continue to keep her in the top spot.

The Longest Week (2014)

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Longest Week, The

D: Peter Glanz / 86m

Cast: Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde, Billy Crudup, Jenny Slate, Tony Roberts, Barry Primus, Laura Clery

Conrad Valmont (Bateman) is a man in his early forties who has never had a job, lives in a hotel apartment owned by his wealthy parents (who he hasn’t seen in years), and who has few real friends.  He sees a therapist, Barry (Roberts) on a regular basis but pays little heed to what Barry advises him.  When his parents split up, neither one of them wants the responsibility of continuing to pay his allowance, so one day Conrad is told by the hotel management that he’s being evicted.  On the subway, travelling to a friend’s, Conrad sees a young woman (Wilde) he finds himself attracted to, and even though they only exchange looks, she gives him her phone number.

Conrad arrives at his friend’s apartment, but lies about the eviction, and tells his friend, Dylan (Crudup), that his suite is being redecorated.  Dylan welcomes him in, and later they attend a party where Dylan introduces Conrad to the woman he’s currently dating; it’s the woman on the subway, and her name is Beatrice.  There’s clearly an attraction between Conrad and Beatrice, and it’s something Dylan is afraid of.  He tells his friend repeatedly not to try anything with her.  Conrad agrees to stay away from Beatrice, but he reneges on the agreement straight away and starts seeing Beatrice behind Dylan’s back.

The three of them – plus a date for Conrad, Jocelyn (Slate) – go out for the evening, but the two couples pair off, leaving Dylan with Jocelyn, and Conrad with Beatrice.  Conrad tells Dylan he’s seeing Beatrice and Dylan throws him out.  He goes to stay with Beatrice but keeps quiet about his circumstances.  The couple go to see a theatre performance but Conrad inexplicably leaves Beatrice on her own; later that same evening, he sees her and Dylan in a cafe together.  An argument leads to Conrad telling Beatrice he’s homeless and broke.  They break up but not before Beatrice reveals the reason she and Dylan met up that night.

Leaving Beatrice’s, Conrad is knocked off his scooter by a truck; he suffers minor injuries.  He tries to get back with Beatrice, and rebuild his friendship with Dylan, but there’s a twist in store for him, one that will change things for the better and for good.

Longest Week, The - scene

With the look and feel of a sophisticated romantic comedy, The Longest Week is a movie that does its best to appear artless and affecting, but which ends up being a bit of a hard slog to get through.  With such a narcissistic main character, Peter Glanz’s debut feature struggles to involve its audience in Conrad’s efforts to win the heart of the fair Beatrice, and makes him largely unsympathetic throughout.  His privileged existence is portrayed as a fait accompli, an unfortunate outcome from his parents’ continual travelling abroad.  Cocooned in his suite, Conrad has little idea of how to engage with “real” people, even his trusted chauffeur, Bernard (Primus).  When he’s evicted – and later, when he tries to sneak back in with Beatrice in tow – his world view remains the same, and his sense of entitlement is rarely compromised.  With such a closed off, selfish main character, the movie is at an immediate disadvantage: it makes it very hard to like him.

As portrayed by Bateman, Conrad is an arrogant martinet, a slightly jaded rich kid who’s never really grown up.  Bateman is good in the role, but he still has to try hard to make Conrad likeable, and – thanks to Glanz’s script – he doesn’t always succeed.  He gives a mannered performance that highlights Conrad’s sense of entitlement, while at the same time, doing his best to redeem the character by the movie’s end.  It’s too much for the actor to achieve under ordinary circumstances, but with The Longest Week having the look and the feel of a Wes Anderson project (with extra added nods to Woody Allen), it’s a performance that feels incomplete, as if Bateman was given a character study that was missing a vital page in the middle.

Wilde and Crudup hold their own, but their characters aren’t very well defined.  Beatrice is close to being a cipher, a woman who exists (within the script) to justify Conrad’s gradual change in the way he sees the world.  The change is minimal, though, and undermines the preceding ninety minutes, leaving the viewer wondering if the storyline was adequately transcribed to screen.  For a character’s story arc to have such little effect, and promote such little change, makes for an uncomfortable movie, and an equally uncomfortable viewing experience.  It’s not Bateman’s fault, though: he does his best with a script that settles for enigmatic instead of decisive.

Glanz directs with confidence but it’s in service to a script that’s as lightweight as a feather and he seeks to add depth and meaning at every turn, but without success.  Sometimes arch, but mostly forgettable, the movie has little that’s new to say about relationships and keeps its comedy locked up except for “special” occasions.

Rating: 4/10 – lifeless and uninvolving for long stretches, The Longest Week is a romantic comedy where both elements don’t quite connect; with characters that are hard to care about, it’s a movie that’s as shallow as its main protagonist.

Loom (2012)

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Loom

D: Luke Scott / 21m

Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Jellybean Howie, Jae Jung, Patrick Foy, Evelyn Edwards, Gino Aquino, Erica Piccininni

Tommi Galvin (Ribisi) is a technician in a protein growth factory, monitoring and manipulating meat products for the mass consumer market.  He’s quiet, fastidious, and apparently conscientious about his work: with colleagues he’s peremptory and quite curt.  What they don’t know is that Tommi is stealing growth hormones to help with a project that he’s working on at home.

His latest theft of the growth hormone appears to have the desired effect on his “experiment”, but the arrival of two law enforcement agents (Jung, Foy) leads to an unexpected, unfortunate reversal of fortune.

Loom - scene

Made to showcase the new 4K camera technology, Loom is a bleak, dystopian piece of science fiction directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Luke.  The world of the future is presented as a bland, antiseptic place where Man interacts on a conservative, non-social level, and where the environment is regulated and controlled for the greater good.  It’s a largely sterile world, all neutral colours and impersonal living and work spaces.  The production design by Chris Seagers is crisp and precise and expands on current architecture to provide a convincing look at the future, and supports the storyline’s examination of how we connect with other people in the face of an a sterile, distant social order.

With the world around Galvin so well constructed, Loom focuses on the sense of alienation he feels; even when he’s spending time with his “partner”, Escha (Howie), there’s a disconnect that you can see he wants to overcome but is struggling with.  His agitation at the arrival of agents Seville and Walton gives rise to an emotional reaction to subsequent events that is reassuring for his continued humanity (though it’s likely he’ll be either on the run or in prison).  Galvin’s calm, measured demeanour is impressively played by Ribisi, his passive features hiding a personality that’s striving to make a difference, if only for himself.  As Escha, Howie has a difficult role that requires her to behave with a childlike detachment, though she’s scarily effective too when the agents turn up, and she and Galvin’s relationship is threatened.

In the director’s chair, Scott displays a confidence and control in the material that augurs well for future projects, and aided by cinematographer Darius Wolski, paints a picture of the future that feels eerily prescient.  The movie is often deceptively beautiful to look at, and the clarity of the image more than upholds the decision to use the 4K cameras.

Rating: 8/10 – intriguing – though not as thought-provoking as its set up might lead viewers to expect – Loom is an impressive debut from Scott, and features a surprisingly complex performance from Ribisi; well worth seeing, and a movie that leaves you wondering what happens next.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

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Sin City A Dame to Kill For

D: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller / 102m

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jaime King, Juno Temple, Stacy Keach, Marton Csokas, Jude Ciccolella, Jamie Chung, Julia Garner

Basin City, night.  Marv (Rourke) is having trouble remembering what’s happened to him as he surveys the wreckage of two cars and the bodies of two young men lying in the road.  As the night’s events become clearer, he remembers an encounter with four young men, and being shot by one of them.  Heading for the Projects, two of the young men attempt to ambush Marv but they’re stopped by unseen assailants.  Marv kills them both and chases the other two down, bringing his memory full circle.

At Kadie’s Bar, a poker game in a back room is presided over by Senator Roark (Boothe).  Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), a drifter, invites himself into the game and wins big, earning the enmity of the Senator.  Later, Johnny has the fingers of his lucky hand broken by the Senator, and is shot in the leg as well.  Johnny swears revenge but Roark is dismissive of the threat, believing himself invincible because of the power he wields.

Elsewhere in Basin City, private eye Dwight (Brolin) receives a phone call from someone he’d hoped he’d never hear from again, old flame Ava (Green).  They meet, and she reveals she is in an abusive marriage, and is fearful for her life.  When she’s forced to leave by Manute (Haysbert), who works for her husband, Dwight decides to find out more.  He goes to Ava’s home but is caught by Manute and viciously beaten up.  Back at his apartment, Dwight receives another visit from Ava and they have sex, but again Manute arrives and takes her away.  Enlisting Marv’s help, Dwight returns to Ava’s home, where he kills her husband, Damien (Csokas), but soon realises he’s been set up by Ava who shoots him.  Marv (who’s blinded Manute in a vicious fight between the two) rescues Dwight and they get away to Old Town.  Helped by old friend Gail (Dawson), Dwight recovers and enlists her help in seeking revenge on Ava.  They return to Ava’s home to settle matters once and for all.

Johnny finds a doctor (Lloyd) to help him with his injuries and he returns to the poker game where once again he beats Roark.  His victory is short-lived as Roark turns the tables on him once more.  While Roark reclaims his standing, Nancy (Alba), a stripper at Kadie’s, plots to kill him in revenge for the death of Hartigan (Willis), a cop she cared about.  But Nancy drinks too much and hasn’t the courage to act on her anger.  In a fit of rage, she disfigures herself, which leads Marv to offer his help.  Together they make their way to Roark’s estate, where Nancy comes face to face with the Senator.

Sin City A Dame to Kill For - scene

Arriving nine years after its predecessor, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For retains many of the earlier movie’s characters, the same visual approach, hard-boiled dialogue and non-linear storytelling, and extreme bouts of violence.  As a companion piece, the movie works well, but there’s something missing from the experience: anything new.

The first movie worked precisely because it was new.  The mixture of live action and CGI, allied to heavily stylised violence and Frank Miller’s nihilistic characters, was, in its own way, a refreshing change from other violent dramas (and thankfully proved hard to duplicate).  The problem here is that Miller and Rodriguez have stuck too closely to the original formula, leaving Sin City: A Dame to Kill For looking and feeling like a greatest hits version of the first movie, rather than a bona fide sequel.  It’s disquieting to realise as you watch the movie that everything’s the same, and with that realisation it also becomes clear that this outing is going to lack the verve and complexity of Miller and Rodriguez’s first collaboration.  The tone is the same and there’s no variation.

Worse still is the lack of investment in certain characters, notably Johnny who we don’t really care about, despite his opposition to Senator Roark, and Nancy, whose bitter reluctance to act against the Senator seems forced rather than natural.  Twice she has him in her sights while performing a routine, and both times she fails to pull the trigger.  Credible?  No; and nor is Marv appearing in each storyline, and helping out in the same fashion on two separate occasions (it’s also problematical that he died in the first movie – why is he in this one?)  Hartigan returns as a ghost but makes almost no impact on Nancy’s story, while Gail and her team of female assassins are treated like bystanders.

Even the cast can’t raise this one from its slumbers, though Green makes the biggest impression, making Ava one of the most deceitful and alluring femme fatales to be seen for some time (she’s naked quite a lot as well, and shot in a fetishistic fashion that is reserved only for her).  Brolin subs for Clive Owen, and Boothe steps out from behind Rutger Hauer to play the movie’s main villain with aggressive panache.

Ultimately, the stories aren’t strong enough, or interesting enough, to resonate beyond a first viewing, and by the end, even the violence has lost its charm, becoming repetitive and – sadly – unexciting.  What’s left is an uneven mix that doesn’t know how to straighten itself out or make itself more coherent.

Rating: 5/10 – below par in pretty much every department with just enough being done to make the movie look better than it actually is, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a sequel that tries hard to recreate the magic of its forerunner, but never really succeeds; if a further entry is planned, Messrs Miller and Rodriguez will need to spend more time at the drawing board before committing anything to film.

The Equalizer (2014)

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Equalizer, The

D: Antoine Fuqua / 131m

Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis

Robert McCall (Washington) is a quiet, reserved man who works at a hardware store in Boston and is generally well liked by his colleagues.  At home he lives a somewhat monastic, ordered lifestyle, and the only time he appears to go out is when he goes to a local diner and reads his latest book.  As a regular he gets to know Terri (Moretz), a teen prostitute with ambitions to be a singer.  When McCall witnesses her being mistreated by her pimp, Slavi (Meunier), and then she ends up in the hospital, badly beaten up, he decides to do something about it.  He pays Slavi a visit, and when negotiations don’t go as he’d hoped, he kills Slavi and four of his men.

What McCall doesn’t know is that Slavi was part of the East Coast Russian mob, and he’s singlehandedly taken out the Boston hub of that organisation.  The mob sends a fixer, Teddy (Csokas), to find the person responsible, but it takes a while, during which time McCall gets on with helping others who are experiencing crime-related problems.  When Teddy finally tracks him down, McCall decides to turn the tables on him and become the hunter instead of the hunted.  Striking at the mob’s operation while staying one step ahead of Teddy’s efforts to find and kill him, McCall reveals further aspects of a past that no one knows about, and which he keeps hidden.

When Teddy discovers a potential weakness in McCall’s character, his friendships with the people he works with, he holds them hostage and gives McCall an ultimatum: either give himself up or they all die.  But McCall has other ideas…

Equalizer, The - scene

Adapted from the US TV show that ran from 1985-1989 and starred Edward Woodward, The Equalizer is a big screen reboot that trades that series’ subtlety and clever plotting for a more direct, impactful approach, despite its slow burn opening and attempts at deft character work.  It’s a long while before McCall’s visit to Slavi, and during that time we get to see him at home, at work, at the diner, leading a normal life of sorts, but obviously lonely rather than a loner.  We learn that he’s a widower, and that he’s working his way through a list of books his wife was aiming to read before she died.  He helps a co-worker, Ralphie (Skourtis), prepare for a security guard exam, jokes with other co-workers that he was once one of Gladys Knight’s Pips, and encourages Terri to change her life and follow her dream of being a singer.  He’s kind, attentive, supportive, fair, but still a bit of an enigma.

It’s all “good stuff” and gives Washington a chance to show off his acting chops (which are considerable), and serves to introduce McCall as just more than the violent avenger he’s soon to become.  But the drawback is that once McCall faces off against Slavi and his men, all that character build-up is jettisoned in favour of a more traditional action thriller style movie, and Washington stops being Mr Average and becomes an invincible righter of wrongs.  In many ways this is unavoidable, the nature of the story giving the director and his star little option but to revert to the tried and trusted approach of blowing shit up and killing a whole bunch of stuntmen.  But thankfully, and despite the increasingly derivative nature of the narrative, Fuqua’s distinctive visual style and Washington’s reliable acting skills hold the viewer’s attention, and offset some of the more ludicrous moments (McCall walks away from a series of huge, multiple explosions at such an insanely slow pace it’s less a case of a cool looking moment than a clue that Denzel can’t run that fast anymore).

In the end, The Equalizer reveals itself as an origin story, prepping the way for potential sequels (though Washington has yet to make one).  On this evidence, any further outings will need to address the issue of how much McCall’s character will be focused on, and whether or not aspects such as his borderline OCD is dealt with (it’s featured, but isn’t developed, the same as his use of a stopwatch to time certain moments and incidents).  The storylines will need to be a bit more impressive as well, and a more serious adversary to give a much needed sense of threat; Teddy is certainly psychotic but McCall outwits and dispatches him too easily, leaving any possibility of tension or doubt about the outcome so far behind it’s practically invisible.

As a vehicle for Washington, The Equalizer is a good fit, and he’s ably supported by Csokas, Moretz and Harbour, while Pullman and Leo appear as old friends of McCall who know his history.  Richard Wenk’s script works best when focusing on McCall as Mr Average, and his relationships with Terri and Ralphie are skilfully drawn.  The action scenes are expertly choreographed (though a fight between McCall and one of Teddy’s men is scrappily edited: blows are landed but who’s being hit is mostly a mystery), and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography adds a vitality that helps counter the familiarity that builds once Slavi bites the dust.

Rating: 7/10 – although it eventually proves an entertaining introduction to Robert McCall and his “set of skills”, The Equalizer is too formulaic to have much of a genuine impact; a good vehicle for Washington but not a movie to stay in the memory for too long despite the positives (that the movie then squanders).

Poster of the Week – Vera Drake (2004)

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Vera Drake

Vera Drake (2004)

At first glance, this poster for Mike Leigh’s 50’s set drama looks drab and unappealing, its bland colour scheme and triple image of Vera herself (as played by Imelda Staunton) lacking any appreciable vibrancy or vitality.  It’s a poster for a Mike Leigh movie, a dark, often uncompromising look at the life of a woman whose personal sense of morality was at odds with both society and the criminal justice system of the time.  It’s a hard sell, even with Leigh in the driving seat, but whatever your views on the movie itself, the poster is unassuming, yet brilliantly devised.

The main focus is obviously the triptych.  An image of Vera repeated against differing backgrounds that in some way reflect the description given of her in each panel.  In the first, she’s a Wife, and the wallpaper depicts a wild growth of branch and flower, a more sensual, earthy tone that emphasises the carnal nature of marriage.  It’s telling us that Vera is first and foremost a woman (which isn’t so obvious when watching the movie).  In the second panel, she’s a Mother, and the wallpaper is less attractive, more formal, its ordered pattern highlighting the conformity that Vera has taken on by having a child.  Her life is no longer as carefree as it was.

And then there is the final panel, a stark portrayal of Vera as a Criminal, the background a bare brick wall, the kind you might encounter in a prison cell.  It’s a powerful conclusion, reflecting the distance Vera has travelled from that first, happier, image.  Here is one woman’s journey in Life portrayed succinctly and with effortless flair.  This is a tremendously evocative poster – for a tremendously evocative and moving movie – and while the press quote may seem a little grandiose, there’s no denying that, as far as the poster goes, it really is “magnificent”.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

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Magic in the Moonlight

D: Woody Allen / 97m

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Catherine McCormack

Berlin, 1928.  British magician Stanley Crawford (Firth) astounds audiences as Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, making elephants disappear and appearing to materialise himself out of thin air.  After another successful show, the arrogant, rude-minded Stanley is met by his old friend from childhood Howard Burkan (McBurney).  Burkan is also a magician, and he comes with a proposal: for Stanley to travel with him to the Côte d’Azur and expose a young American woman who is posing as a medium and exploiting Burkan’s friends, the Catledges.  Stanley, who abhors fake mediums and enjoys exposing them, agrees to go.

At the Catledges, Stanley is introduced to the young woman in question, Sophie Baker (Stone), and her mother (Harden).  He pretends to be a businessman called Taplinger but he is unable to restrain his skepticism, and although he does his best to hide his true identity, Sophie proves adept at “receiving” clues as to who he really is.  Still convinced she’s a fraud, he observes her during a séance but is unable to detect any trickery.  The next day, Sophie reveals she knows who Stanley is, and she warns him that she really has a gift, and that he shouldn’t doubt her.  But Stanley is becoming increasingly besotted with her, and while he has some lingering doubts, he finds himself spending more and more time with her, despite Sophie being wooed by Brice Catledge (Linklater).

Stanley takes Sophie to see his Aunt Vanessa (Atkins).  Sophie asks to hold a piece of Vanessa’s jewellery, and when she does, she reveals information about an affair that Vanessa had, and which Sophie couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of.  Now convinced that Sophie has a gift, he determines to hold a press conference where he will admit that his previous disbelief has been overturned.  The results of a further séance reinforces Stanley’s change of mind and heart.  Later, at a ball, Sophie asks him if he has any other feelings about her, but Stanley is baffled by her questions, and she leaves, disappointed.  Things come to a head when Aunt Vanessa is involved in a car crash, and Stanley finds himself praying for her survival on the operating table.  Will he embrace his newfound regard for the unseen, or will his skepticism return in the face of such a calamity?

Magic in the Moonlight - scene

This year’s annual movie offering from Woody Allen follows on from the sublime Blue Jasmine, and in comparison with that movie, Magic in the Moonlight is more Woody-lite than anything more substantial.  It’s a whimsical tale for the most part, anchored by a Scrooge-like performance by Firth that at times skirts perilously close to complete misanthropy, but which is rescued by the sheer pomposity of the character and his outlook on Life.  Crawford’s petulant skepticism and sarcastic attitude verges on the unpalatable throughout, but thanks to Firth, and Allen’s skill as a writer, he has just enough hidden vulnerability for the audience to connect with.  However, for large stretches of the movie he’s deliberately insufferable, and it’s difficult to understand what on earth Sophie could see in him (opposites do attract, but here it’s a little too extraordinary).

With its lead character so defiantly unlikeable for so much of the time, it falls to Stone to put some warmth and heart into the proceedings.  As the good-natured ingénue, Sophie, Stone is affecting, appealing, effortlessly lively, and the complete antithesis to Stanley, her winning smile and wide-eyed features both endearing and captivating.  It’s a more extrovert performance, but with a degree of subtlety that is best seen when Sophie enquires after Stanley’s feelings for her.  Her earnest entreaties, and her reaction to Stanley’s dismissal of the notion that he has a romantic interest in her, is cleverly done, and mesmerising to watch.

However, two good central performances aside, this is still a movie that trundles from one scene to the next without requiring much of a response from the audience, or indeed, any real investment in the plot or the characters.  The plotting is predictable, and the theme of science versus religion (or at least, the paranormal) is handled with Allen’s usual surety, but there’s still something lacking, a spark, perhaps, that stops the movie from being either memorable or touching.  The outcome is never in doubt, and while Allen pulls a dubious sleight-of-hand to get there – as well as twisting Stanley’s arm mercilessly towards the very end – a less conventional conclusion would have made all the difference.  (And how many more times will Allen trot out the old May-December romance we’ve seen so often in the past?)

The supporting cast – Atkins aside – have little to do except make up the numbers, and if no other characters stand out as much then it’s no one’s fault but Allen’s, his less than absorbing approach, and lightweight direction failing to lift the admittedly unsubstantial material.  That said, there are some delicious lines of dialogue here and there (as you’d expect, even in Allen’s lesser works), and the South of France is beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, the colours (of the surrounding countryside in particular) popping and flaring in a way that hasn’t been seen in any of Allen’s previous work.  There’s the usual round up of jazz favourites from the Twenties and Thirties, but not all the compositions fit in this time, and Alisa Lepselter’s editing often leaves scenes hanging around just those few frames longer than necessary.  It all adds up to a Woody Allen movie that feels like a stopgap before the next really good project.

Rating: 6/10 – there’s just enough here to keep audiences occupied, but Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the romantic comedy delight of say, Midnight in Paris (2011); with a curmudgeonly central character holding it back, the movie ends up feeling like a magician’s parlour trick, but one where everybody knows how the trick is done.

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

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Leprechaun Origins

D: Zach Lipovsky / 90m

Cast: Stephanie Bennett, Andrew Dunbar, Melissa Roxburgh, Brendan Fletcher, Dylan Postl, Garry Chalk, Teach Grant, Bruce Blain, Mary Black

Backpacking through Ireland, two young American couples – Sophie (Bennett) and Ben (Dunbar), Jeni (Roxburgh) and David (Fletcher) – are heading for a mysterious village that has a standing stone on its outskirts.  At the inn, the friends get talking to Hamish (Chalk), a local who appears friendly and welcoming, and when he learns they are interested in the village’s history, he offers them the chance to stay overnight in a cabin just outside the village.  The friends take up Hamish’s offer, and though the cabin isn’t exactly comfortable, they settle in for the night.  Some time later, Jeni hears a noise outside.

The four friends soon realise there’s something “out there” and that it wants to get in. When it does, the quartet escape the cabin only to discover that Hamish has set them up to be sacrifices to a creature they call a leprechaun.  Horrified to find that the legend is real, the four now find themselves having to defend themselves from the murderous attacks of the leprechaun, but also from a determined Hamish and his son, a more sympathetic Sean (Grant).  As the leprechaun picks them off one by one, it becomes clear that the only way to survive the night is to reach the standing stone, which not only marks the village boundary but is the point beyond which the leprechaun cannot go.

Leprechaun Origins - scene

It was perhaps inevitable that, in the wake of all the other horror reboots that have been foisted on us over the last six or seven years, the Leprechaun series would be dusted off and given the update treatment.  However, the only thing this particular remake/reboot/reimagining proves is – once again – that some movies shouldn’t be made, especially when there’s as little imagination and skill involved as there is here.  The original sextet of Leprechaun movies may be fondly remembered for their cheesy humour and semi-inventive killings, and they may have made Warwick Davis even more well-known than his turn as Wicket in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, but they still got worse as they went on until the last entry, 2003’s Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, had all but jettisoned the horror in favour of infantile humour.  With that in mind, the producers’ decision to go a different route is to be applauded.  Alas, it’s the only thing they got right.

They say it’s easy enough to make a horror movie, but on this evidence, the adage should read: it’s easy enough to make a terrible horror movie.  Because Leprechaun: Origins is exactly that: a terrible horror movie.  It features by-the-numbers, uninspired plotting that sees the four friends running from one building or vehicle to another ad nauseam; phoned in performances from a cast who give new meaning to the word insipid; direction that distracts due to its waywardness and lack of cohesion; dialogue that sounds like it was dictated through hidden earpieces and repeated by the cast; the by now obligatory Canadian locations that are blandly photographed (by Mahlon Todd Williams); a score by Jeff Tymoschuk that does little to increase the minimal amounts of tension created by Harris Wilkinson’s unimaginative script; a creature that is supposed to be single-minded in its purpose but which pauses/hesitates/suspends its attempts to kill everyone when the script requires it (and whether they have gold on them or not); a special effects budget that limits itself to one (admittedly effective) kill shot; and the entirely predictable post credits scene that sets up an equally predictable sequel (though hopefully this outing will do so badly it won’t happen).

With the movie looking so much like a drab, lacklustre slasher movie – though without the benefit of having an actual slasher in it – the casual viewer might expect the leprechaun itself to be more effectively realised than the Gollum/Orc-style creature presented here.  Worse still is the movie’s advertising, which heavily promotes WWE “superstar” Hornswoggle (aka Dylan Postl) as the leprechaun.  It’s a bit of a cheat on WWE’s part to do so as Postl is unrecognisable beneath the layers of leprechaun make up, and has no lines either (though this is probably a good thing).  Literally anyone could play the role in these circumstances, and while it’s always been the case that WWE tailor their “superstars” movie roles to their experience/acting skills, it doesn’t say much for Postl that he’s buried so completely in the part.

And lastly, a quick mention for the deceptive running time.  The end credits (including the post credits scene mentioned above) run for a full twelve minutes, so the movie is, in real terms, much shorter… but it still drags like watching a balloon slowly deflate.

Rating: 3/10 – woeful from start to finish, Leprechaun: Origins screams “cheap and nasty rip off”; with cast and crew displaying a bare minimum of commitment or creativity, this is one reboot that has little or no chance of striking gold.

 

The Guest (2014)

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Guest, The

D: Adam Wingard / 99m

Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Lance Reddick, Chase Williamson, Joel David Moore, Ethan Embry, Tabatha Shaun

Shortly after the death of her son Caleb while he was in Afghanistan, Laura Peterson (Kelley) receives an unexpected visit from a young man who served with Caleb and has come to honour a promise he made.  David (Stevens) is welcomed into the Peterson household and despite initially unsure reactions from dad Spencer (Orser), daughter Anna (Monroe) and younger son Luke (Meyer), he soon wins their trust.

But when strange incidents begin to happen around town – Spencer’s boss is killed in mysterious circumstances, Anna’s boyfriend is implicated in a murder – incidents that in some way benefit the Peterson family, Anna starts to wonder if David is everything that he says he is, even down to his having served with Caleb.  While Anna’s suspicions grow, Luke overhears David talking to a plastic surgeon on the phone (though he doesn’t tell anyone).  When Anna calls the military base that David said he was last stationed at before he was discharged, their response is to send an armed unit, led by Major Carver (Reddick) to apprehend him.

With David needing to move on sooner than he’d planned, it becomes clear that he has no intention of letting anyone he’s met in the last few days be left behind for the military (or anyone else) to talk to.  He sets about killing the Peterson’s and anyone else he feels is a liability.  With Carver in hot pursuit, David tracks Anna and Luke to their local high school, and an inevitable showdown.

Guest, The - scene

After the less than sophisticated home invasion story depicted in You’re Next (2011), director Wingard and writer Simon Barrett turn their attention to a more subtle variation on the same theme, with a cuckoo in the nest approach that reaps dividends thanks to a more controlled script, and strong performances from Stevens, Monroe, Kelley et al.

Thanks to Barrett’s more credible set up, The Guest draws the viewer in, allaying any initial fears the audience may have that this will turn out to be as predictable as, say, The Stepfather (1987).  But, while it’s a fair assumption to make – David is handsome, charming and polite, there are family tensions that mark out the Petersons as easily dividable – the way in which David’s more dubious undertakings are carried out have a disturbing frisson to them that obscures their obvious wrongdoing (and makes them partly acceptable for the audience).  Laura’s need for secondary contact with her son via David is understandable, and her vulnerability is well played by Kelley; there’s a quiet desperation to her scenes with Stevens that is often more touching than expected.

Spencer is a man at a standstill, attempting to make sense of his life through railing at what he sees as its inequalities, and yet, when he learns of his boss’s demise, and the promotion it means for him, his sense of place is so disturbed he can’t fathom how to react.  Orser (a much underrated actor) excels in what is an unsung role, and it’s great to see him in a movie where he’s not there to make up the numbers as in the Taken trilogy.

As their troubled offspring, Monroe and Meyer have larger roles but they’re a little too generic, with Anna’s doubtful behaviour and Luke’s need for an older brother substitute feeling more tired than dramatically necessary, and despite good performances from both, they can’t elevate their characters above the limitations set within the script.

With so much attention given to the Peterson family dynamic, it’s reassuring to find that David is much more complex than you might expect, and Stevens relishes the opportunity to take a trip to the dark side, making David attractive and dangerous at the same time, his military “training” having created a monster whose sense of morality is fleeting and impersonal.  That he chooses to help the Petersons in the way that he does is never fully explained (and is one of the ways in which the movie often feels more contrived than it needs to be).  Stevens is riveting as David, dispelling any memories of his role in TV’s Downton Abbey, and proving a superb choice in the title role, alternately charismatic and treacherous, and showing no contrition for his actions.

Beautifully filmed on location in New Mexico by Robby Baumgartner, The Guest benefits from a great cast and is smartly directed by Wingard who is improving with each movie he makes.  The movie’s midpoint sees some pacing issues and the Eighties style slasher finale at Anna and Luke’s high school is a little out of place – and makes the viewer wonder just what the school’s budget was to have created such a Halloween inspired maze/dancefloor/entrance etc.  And there’s a final shot that both echoes that Eighties conclusion and undermines it all at the same time.  It’s an understandable move by Wingard and Barrett but a bad one nevertheless, and is the cinematic version of leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

Rating: 7/10 – its unexpectedly derivative ending aside, The Guest is a welcome addition to the psycho thriller genre; gripping for most of its running time, it features a terrific performance from Stevens and shows no problem in being seductively cruel throughout.

Mini-Review: Not Safe for Work (2014)

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Not Safe for Work

D: Joe Johnston / 74m

Cast: Max Minghella, JJ Feild, Eloise Mumford, Christian Clemenson, Tom Gallop, Molly Hagan

Tom Miller (Minghella) is a junior lawyer at the firm of Rosen, Byres and Emmerich.  In his attempts to get ahead he manages to antagonise one of the firm’s senior partners, and is fired.  As he leaves the building along with everyone else, he sees an exchange of briefcases that raises his suspicions.  He goes back up to where RB&E have their offices, and sees the man (Feild) who took the briefcase tampering with some of the electrics for that floor.  When the man is disturbed by Janine (Hagan), an RB&E employee, he cold-bloodedly shoots her.

Tom tries to raise the alarm but the telephones are dead and his mobile phone signal is blocked.  With only Roger (Gallop), an ex-colleague, and Emmerich (Clemenson), the partner who fired him, still working in the offices, Tom tries to stay one step ahead as he tries to figure out why the man is there.  With two high profile cases about to go to court, Tom has to find out which one the man is there to hinder, and who sent him.  A cat and mouse game develops when the man discovers Tom’s presence, a game that leads to further danger when the man tricks Anna (Mumford) (one of the firm’s secretaries and Tom’s secret girlfriend) into returning to the building.  Tom has to find a way of keep Anna safe from harm, while foiling the man and his attempt to set off an incendiary device in the firm’s file room.

Not Safe for Work - scene

Filmed in 2012 but only now gaining an audience, Not Safe for Work is a tepid, low budget thriller that hides a plethora of plot holes beneath its glossy surface, and emerges as a solid, if slightly pretentious thriller that coasts along on the back of its own improbability.  It’s a movie that’s hard to dislike despite its faults, and while Johnston does his best to create tension and a modicum of thrills, he’s powerless to overcome the ludicrous nature of Adam Mason and Simon  Boyes’ script, which plays like a first draft that was never rewritten.

Minghella is an unlikely hero, while Feild aims for urbane hitman, but misses the target by a mile, creating an arch, self-conscious performance that invites hilarity even more than it does menace.  With a twist that – of course – can be seen coming from as far off as Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in the end, the movie works hard at what it does, but winds up being largely unremarkable.

Rating: 4/10 – there’s a neat premise at the heart of Not Safe for Work, but it’s one that’s buried beneath layers of unnecessary artifice; the brief running time is a bonus, though.

Into the Storm (2014)

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Into the Storm

D: Steven Quale / 89m

Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep

Documentary filmmaker Pete Moore (Walsh) is having a hard time finding tornados to film for his latest project, despite help from meteorologist, Allison Stone (Callies).  When a storm warning is given out near Silverton, Oklahoma, Pete and his team rush there only for the storm to peter out.  Meanwhile, at the high school, the senior class is having its graduation day.  Assistant principal Gary Fuller (Armitage) is worried about the impending weather spoiling the day and wants the ceremony postponed.  He’s overruled and it goes ahead; partway through, the storm hits and a tornado causes damage to the school buildings and grounds.  At the same time, Fuller’s eldest son, Donnie (Deacon), is several miles away with fellow student, Kaitlyn (Carey), filming a project at an abandoned paper mill.  When the tornado hits there, they find themselves trapped beneath the debris.

Moore and his team continue to chase the ever-increasing number of tornados that keep springing up, while Fuller, accompanied by his younger son, Trey (Kress) try to rescue Donnie and Kaitlyn.  Their paths cross and they team up to find the youngsters (though Moore is still more interested in getting footage for his documentary).  They find them, but realise that a tornado the size of which has never been seen before is heading for the high school, and only they can save the people taking shelter there.

Into the Storm - scene

Into the Storm invites obvious comparisons with Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996), and while the special effects certainly look more impressive, there’s a level of detail in the earlier movie that’s missing here, and though this movie’s super-tornado dwarfs anything seen before, its scale and ferocity keeps changing (it chucks 747s around like so much matchwood, but can’t lift Moore’s tank-like tornado chaser until the screenplay says so).  What’s also missing is a decent script, John Swetnam’s attempts at excitement falling flatter than a pancake, and his characters behaving and sounding exactly like the stereotypes they are (they even behave predictably: Moore is a boorish ass for three quarters of the movie then suddenly acts selflessly – as if).

The script isn’t helped by Quale’s flaccid direction and a cast who look as if they know just how poor the script is, and have decided to do just as much as is needed to get their lines out with a minimum of effort.  Armitage is stranded in his role as the tough widower trying to raise two wayward sons, while Callies keeps stopping to (try to) have unnecessary phone calls with her five year old daughter.  And then there’s the dumbest duo on the planet, Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep), the redneck comic relief, who put themselves in harm’s way in the hope of becoming famous on YouTube.

While the movie aims for incredible scenes of destruction in between the banal theatrics of its characters, Into the Storm ultimately fails because there’s no one to care about, and the tornado scenes are about as thrilling as watching ice cream melt.  But it is a short movie, and while the decision to shoot found footage-style adds a level of immediacy to the devastation, it’s not enough to rescue the movie from falling far short of where the cow ends up.

Rating: 3/10 – adequate special effects and a mercifully short running time can’t make amends for the paucity of imagination and delivery on show here; the only area in which Into the Storm succeeds is that it’s a step up from being a SyFy Channel release.

Poster of the Week – Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

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Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

With the advent of CinemaScope in 1953, the movies became bigger, grander, and more expansive, as befitted the new anamorphic format.  And as if to emphasise the new screen size, movie posters became bigger, grander, and more expansive as well, with landscape designs becoming more and more prevalent.  The first CinemaScope movie was The Robe (1953), a biblical drama starring Richard Burton.  As can be seen from the poster above, it spawned a sequel that featured a character from that first movie, the slave Demetrius played by Victor Mature.

What’s interesting about this particular poster is its devotion to cramming in as much incident from the movie as possible, much like the screen image audiences would see, a wide, panoramic view of the action.  There’s the carousing and revelries of the citizens of Rome (that might not be consensual given the look on the woman’s face in the bottom left hand corner).  There’s the sight of three tigers all leaping at Demetrius in the arena (with the Coliseum and another gladiator highlighted behind them), and in the bottom right hand corner the figure of Peter (played by Michael Rennie) clasping the robe that will be passed to Demetrius.  And almost taking centre stage, Demetrius and Messalina (played by Susan Hayward) locked in an embrace that unfortunately makes the titular hero look like a vampire feeding off his latest victim.

With the movie’s villain, Caligula, relegated to the far background of the Romans and their debauchery, the poster encapsulates several of the movie’s main highlights but saves room for its most important attributes.  These are the technical advancement (and miracle) of CinemaScope, along with the innovation that is “high-fidelity directional-stereophonic sound” (not forgetting the movie’s having been filmed in Technicolor as well).  Leaving no room for its cast or director (at the very least), the poster makes no effort to include anything further than the title and it’s relation to The Robe; it’s as if it expects moviegoers to be aware of who’s in it etc. already.

Making a virtue of promoting the movie’s spectacle, this poster for Demetrius and the Gladiators is a visual treat, drawing the eye here and there, and stripping back the usual cast and crew information in favour of those arresting images.  It’s a bold move, but one that pays off handsomely.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Lucy (2014)

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Lucy

D: Luc Besson / 89m

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Analeigh Tipton

In Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is coerced by her week-long boyfriend, Richard (Asbæk) into delivering a mysterious briefcase to a man called Mr Jang (Choi) at his hotel.  While she waits in reception, she sees Richard killed outside, and then finds herself grabbed and brought to Jang’s room.  The briefcase is opened to reveal four bags of a blue substance.  The substance is tested on a drug addict who is then shot dead by Jang.  He then offers Lucy a job; she refuses and is knocked unconscious.  When she comes to, she finds she’s been operated on.  She’s taken to a room where there are three men who are in the same situation as she is.  Jang’s plan is explained to them: each has a bag of the blue substance inside them.  They will travel to various European destinations where the bags will be removed and they will be paid for their trouble.

Lucy is taken to a cell where she is chained to a wall.  She antagonises one of her captors and he kicks her repeatedly in the stomach, causing the bag inside her to split and release the blue substance into her body.  When another of her captors returns, she overpowers him and escapes; she is shot in the process but is able to remove the bullet without feeling any pain.  She goes to a nearby hospital where she forces a surgeon to remove the bag inside her.  When she tells him it’s something called CPH4, he tells her that it’s something produced by pregnant women at around six weeks that provides nutrients for a foetus.  He also tells her that she’s lucky to be alive with that much CPH4 having leaked into her.

Lucy returns to Jang’s hotel room where she learns the destinations of the three men. She then visits a friend, Caroline (Tipton), and uses her laptop in order to find out about brain function.  She learns about the research of Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), and with her new abilities allowing her to manipulate electronic systems, contacts him via the television in his hotel room in Paris.  She tells him what she’s able to do and how her brain function is increasing in leaps and bounds, and that she’ll be there to see him in person in twelve hours.  At the airport she contacts French police officer Pierre Del Rio (Waked) and tells him about the drug mules, and convinces him to have them picked up when they land in Rome, Berlin and Paris respectively.

In Paris, and with the drug mules all in French police custody, they are taken to a hospital to have the bags removed.  Jang’s men arrive and grab the bags but Lucy incapacitates them and steals them back.  She and Del Rio head for the university where Norman has assembled some of his colleagues.  Jang and his men follow them and while a pitched battle breaks out in the university between the police and Jang’s men, Lucy ingests a synthesised version of the CPH4 that sees her take the next step in what has become, for Lucy at least, her evolution.

Lucy - scene

At the end of Lucy, French policeman Del Rio asks perpetually puzzled Professor Norman, “where is she?”  The answer is displayed on his mobile phone – viewers will have already guessed the answer – but it’s indicative of the movie’s less than well thought out idea about brain function that it effectively challenges not only our notions of evolution but of God as well.  If Lucy’s use of one hundred per cent of her brain means she no longer exists in human form but continues to live on some other plane of existence, then Besson (directing his own script) seems to be saying we all have the potential to be omnipotent and all-seeing.  If he is, then it means Lucy is perhaps the most philosophical and metaphysical action movie ever created.

However, while Besson is clearly a moviemaker who likes to have fun with his audiences, Lucy is not one of his better efforts, ending up as a ragbag of ideas that doesn’t make any coherent (or cohesive) sense and which often gives the impression that, like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “He’s making it up as he goes along”.  As Lucy’s brain function expands towards one hundred per cent, she has a variety of experiences that apparently come and go, or can be turned on and off at will (and with very little effort).  These experiences also happen independently of one another, as if Besson had a tick list of cool effects he wanted to use at each stage of Lucy’s “development” (on the plane to Paris, Lucy begins to disintegrate, but the reason for this is never satisfactorily explained – but, again, it looks cool).  With this “anything goes” approach it’s to Besson’s credit that Lucy becomes less and less of an action heroine as the movie progresses, content in its later stages to just incapacitate Jang’s men and to leave the shootouts and the bloodshed to the French police.

It’s this undermining of accepted action movie devices that adds a level of originality and cleverness to proceedings – witness the car chase sequence where Lucy, driving for the first time, is merely in a hurry to get to the hospital and is unconcerned about the police cars that are trying to stop her; she’s not even trying to outrun them – but the movie’s best moment by far is perhaps it’s quietest, Lucy talking to her mother on the phone and trying to explain how she can feel things like the heat leaving her body before saying goodbye to her for the last time.  Johansson is hypnotic in this scene, and she’s equally good throughout, her questing gaze hinting at secrets that only she can see; it’s hard now to think of another actress in the role.

The rest of the cast are reduced to virtual walk-ons in Besson’s version of The Lucy Show.  Freeman essays another of his bemused expert roles but to even lesser effect than usual, while Choi (still refusing to learn English for a role) plays the urbane gangster Jang with a great deal of muted style.  Waked is little more than a bystander, and Rhind-Tutt comes in for one scene to explain Jang’s dastardly plot before disappearing back from whence he came.

On the whole, Lucy feels like an experiment in cinematic form that was forced to conform to the demands of mainstream movie-making, and as such, falls between the two disciplines.  It’s a shame, because if it had had a more judiciously constructed script, Lucy could have been 2014’s most adventurous and challenging action movie.

Rating: 5/10 – with far more intriguing ideas and concepts about the meaning of existence than it knows what to do with, Lucy is too uneven to be completely effective; but as an action movie with a mind-bending twist, Besson should be applauded for at least trying to be different.

The Trials of Cate McCall (2013)

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Trials of Cate McCall, The

D: Karen Moncrieff / 89m

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, James Cromwell, Mark Pellegrino, Anna Anissimova, Taye Diggs, Kathy Baker, Clancy Brown, Brendan Sexton III, David Lyons, Ava Kolker, Isaiah Washington, Dale Dickey, Amanda Aday

Cate McCall (Beckinsale) has her fair share of problems.  Despite being a talented lawyer, she has a serious drink problem that has resulted in her being put on probation and assigned to work in a small law office.  She’s also trying to retain custody of her daughter Augie (Kolker) following the break up of her marriage to Josh (Lyons).  As she fights to regain control of her life, Cate is assigned an appeal case involving Lacey Stubbs (Anissimova).  Lacey has been convicted of murder, but claims she was set up by the lead detective on the case, Welch (Pellegrino).  She also alleges that, while in prison, she was raped by a guard.

With the help of her mentor, Bridges (Nolte), Cate begins to look into the case and finds quickly that some of the witness testimonies don’t match up, and that there are problems with the police evidence.  Lacey maintains her innocence, while Welch proves evasive and aggressive when Cate talks to him.  As Cate begins to suspect a miscarriage of justice has taken place, the pressure of trying to deal with both the case and spending time with Augie begins to affect her ability to maintain her sobriety.

The appeal hearing sees Lacey’s case upheld, but Cate’s success is short-lived.  No sooner is the hearing over than she begins to uncover further evidence that Lacey has been lying all along.  But can she trust this new evidence?  Now Cate has to find out whether or not she was used by Lacey, and in the process, decide if being a part of Augie’s life is appropriate for her daughter while she still has a drink problem.

Trials of Cate McCall, The - scene

From the outset, The Trials of Cate McCall tries hard to be different from all the other courtroom-based dramas out there, and in terms of its title character, it certainly succeeds.  Cate McCall is, frankly, a bit of a mess, and while the reason for her drinking problem is adequately explained, the movie’s determination to make things difficult for her at almost every turn borders on the sadistic.  It’s only within the confines of the courtroom that she’s allowed to hold it together and have any success; outside, and she makes mistake after mistake, sometimes deliberately.  There is an element of masochism as well in these moments, as if Cate is punishing herself, and while on a psychological level this is all completely understandable, it makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience.  It’s not long into the movie before the viewer will be wondering, just how much more can this character take before she puts her head in the oven?

But Cate’s work keeps her going, even while she screws up everything else in her life.  The two worlds she inhabits, her professional and private lives, are addressed with equal gravitas, and thanks to Beckinsale’s committed, earnest portrayal, the movie is on solid ground when Cate tries to deal with the responsibilities of both (even if she fails more often than not).  It’s an unselfish performance from Beckinsale, an actress who can do a lot more than wear tight-fitting black leather and make fangs look sexy, and she’s at her best when the script piles on the setbacks (she even ends up in jail at one point, that’s how bad things get for her).  Beckinsale is also clever enough to ensure that Cate isn’t entirely sympathetic, and this helps make the character more credible.

She’s ably supported by the likes of Nolte (grizzled, understanding), Cromwell (sanguine, duplicitous), Anissimova (nervy, put-upon), and Pellegrino (arrogant, shady), and there’s a winning performance from six year old Kolker as Cate’s troubled daughter (Augie though – really?).  With such a good cast – and one that can find room for actors such as Brown and Baker in minor roles – the movie’s mix of domestic drama and courtroom machinations is handled well by writer/director Moncrieff, even if there are moments where plausibility is stretched so thin it’s practically see-through (the prosecution’s withholding of exculpatory evidence is a case in point; the ease with which Cate and Welch bury their differences is another).

But all in all, the movie is a worthwhile watch though it plays flat through certain stretches – the repetitive bickering between Cate and Josh, the subplot involving Cromwell’s lecherous judge – and the issue of Lacey’s guilt can be guessed from the beginning, but away from the courtroom there’s enough to keep an audience engaged and wanting to find out what happens next.  Ultimately though, and aside from the reliability of its cast, the material isn’t solid enough to withstand close scrutiny (or cross-examination), and while it’s entirely respectable in its aims and intentions, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Rating: 6/10 – with alcoholism, murder and a custody battle occupying the time of its main character, The Trials of Cate McCall is actually less intriguing than it thinks it is; Beckinsale is the movie’s major asset, and while there’s nothing to suggest this might be the beginning of a series, another visit with Cate could still be something to look forward to.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

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Zatoichi the Fugitive

Original title: Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 86m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Miwa Takada, Masayo Banri, Jun’ichirô Narita, Tôru Abe, Jutarô Hojo, Sachiko Murase

Zatoichi (Katsu) is travelling alone in the countryside when he reaches a town where a sumo challenge is taking place.  Having won the challenge, the blind masseur is relaxing by a river when he is attacked by a lone yakuza.  Zatoichi defends himself, and as the yakuza lies dying from his wounds, he tells Zatoichi he only attacked him for his mother’s sake.  Zatoichi learns the man’s name and out of duty to him, learns where she lives and offers her his apologies.  The man’s mother, Maki (Murase), forgives him, but as Zatoichi leaves he’s stopped by the man’s clan boss, Yagiri (Abe), who demands his life in return.  But before any more blood can be spilt, Maki and the boss of another clan, Sakichi (Narita) intervene.  Sakichi takes on the responsibility for taking Zatoichi’s life, sparing him until the end of the festival that is taking place.

Zatoichi decides to rest at a local inn.  He is tended by Onobu (Takada), who is in love with Sakichi, though her father is against any match.  Also staying at the inn is a drunken ronin, Tanakura (Hojo) and his wife.  Zatoichi is surprised to find that she is Otane (Banri), the woman he was in love with.  As he begins to deal with the emotions this brings up, Zatoichi becomes aware of a plot involving Yagiri and the innkeeper to take over Sakichi’s territory; Tanakura is there to aid them.  With the festival drawing to a close, Yagiri tries to engineer matters so that Sakichi has to confront Zatoichi, but the young boss is too much of a coward to actually do so.  A fight between Zatoichi and some of Yagiri’s men leads to a final showdown between the masseur and Tanakura, and a tragic outcome.

Zatoichi the Fugitive - scene

The fourth in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive is a slightly misleading title in that Zatoichi isn’t on the run, and everyone knows exactly where he is throughout.  What isn’t in any doubt, though, is that this instalment of the Zatoichi saga is just as well realised and absorbing as the previous entries.

The basic template is also firmly in place.  Zatoichi arrives in a small town, there’s bitter rivalry between two yakuza gangs, an innkeeper’s daughter may or may not provide a romantic interlude for our hero, various swordsmen will try their luck singly or in groups to kill Zatocihi, domestic intrigues will come to the fore, betrayal and treachery will occur as naturally as the characters breathe, and there is an eventual showdown between Zatoichi and an equally proficient samurai.  It’s all very familiar but it’s all so well executed that it’s almost comforting to watch.

While the sword fights are, on the surface, the main reason to watch a Zatoichi movie, it’s the drama that sets up these encounters that makes all the difference, and prove why the series is so effective four movies in (and with twenty-one still to come).  The script by Seiji Hoshikawa retains Zatoichi’s sense of honour and his deep sense of regret when he’s forced to kill someone, Katsu’s troubled looks and humble demeanour perfectly encapsulating the profound respect he has for (most of) those around him.  Here we see a little more of his anger than before, and directed at more than just the main villain, Yagiri.  With the character’s stoic nature already established, to see him more emotionally invested in his swordplay makes for an interesting broadening of the character and his humanity.  And, for the first time, we see how physically vulnerable he can be when Tanakura manages to wound him (though not too seriously, of course).

Zatoichi’s interplay with Onobu and Otane are given roughly equal screen time, and the distinction between them is made clear by their feelings about their own lives.  Onobu wishes to be with Sakichi and sees happiness for them both, while Otane regrets the future she’s already chosen.  Both actresses give impressive performances, though it’s Banri (playing Otane for the third time) who demands the most attention, her sorrow and despair at the way Otane’s life has turned out etched on her face like a mask she can’t remove.

With so much going on beneath the surface of all the characters, returning director Tanaka’s confident approach pays dividends throughout, and the movie looks glorious thanks to the vibrant colours of the Japanese countryside which are often stunning to look at.  The sword fights are the most exhilarating yet, and there’s a very clever display of Zatoichi’s “sword drawing” skills.  With a quietly emotive score by Akira Ifukube that complements the mounting tension, this entry in the long-running series is as effective and commanding as its predecessors (and how many Part Fours can say that?).

Rating: 9/10 – another superb entry in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive ups the emotional content and has a gripping denouement that resonates long after the movie sees Zatoichi moving on; with Katsu giving yet another flawless performance, this is better than anyone – perhaps even production company Daiei – could hope for.

The Boxtrolls (2014)

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Boxtrolls, The

D: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable / 97m

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Simon Pegg

In the town of Cheesebridge, there is a clear hierarchy in place: there is the Establishment, as represented by Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), who wear white hats as a sign of their social standing and influence; there are the common folk who are poorer by default; and then there are the Boxtrolls, cave-dwelling scavengers who avoid human contact as much as possible.  The Boxtrolls are a curious breed who wear cardboard boxes they can retreat into like tortoises when danger arises, and who have a strange language all their own.  They are feared by the human population of Cheesebridge, and are being hunted down by Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley).  Snatcher’s plan is to rid the town of the Boxtrolls and by doing so, rise up from his humble beginnings and claim a white hat; he has an agreement to this end with Lord Portley-Rind.

Amongst the Boxtrolls is the unexpected presence of a young boy known as Eggs (Wright), who has been raised by them since he was a baby.  Eggs knows both English and the Boxtroll language, and ventures out with them at night to search for scrap they can salvage and turn into something more useful.  While on one such trip, Eggs meets Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Fanning), and her astonishment at seeing him with the Boxtrolls leads her to question why Snatcher is hunting them down.  But with her father unwilling to listen to her, Winnie teams up with Eggs and the Boxtrolls in order to show the people of Cheesebridge that their suspicions and fears about the little creatures are unfounded, and that Snatcher is up to no good.

Snatcher, however, is one step ahead of them.  He devises a machine that threatens both the Boxtrolls’ underground home, as well as Lord Portley-Rind.  Meanwhile, Eggs learns that he’s not a boxtroll and that he’s a child who has long been thought of as disappeared.  While he and Winnie piece together his past – and Snatcher’s part in it – at a prestigious gala, Snatcher steps up his nefarious plan by using his machine to intimidate Lord Portley-Rind into giving him a White Hat.  Only Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls can stop him…

Boxtrolls, The - scene

The latest from Laika Entertainment – they also made Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) – The Boxtrolls is an adaptation of Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!  It’s in keeping with their usual visual approach, an arresting mix of stop-motion animation augmented by CGI and traditional hand-drawn artwork, creating an endlessly fascinating and detailed Victorian-era steampunk aesthetic that keeps the eye transfixed throughout and is uniquely ravishing beneath the surface grime.

It may be a dark, ostensibly moody looking movie, but thanks to Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s clever adaptation – and once the potentially difficult set up of the Boxtrolls’ world is established – the movie reveals a heart and soul that makes it a joy to follow along with, making its cardboard box-wearing stars immediately likeable and endearing.  The Boxtrolls themselves are a lot like a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren, their childlike wonder at the world around them giving them a naiveté that suits their characters and personalities.  Their quirky habits and foibles are rendered with charm and compassion, even when they’re busy playing pranks on each other.  With their innate sensitivity and goodness brought to the fore from the outset, it’s left to the scheming Archibald Snatcher to provide the villainy, and he’s a suitably impressive creation, dextrously voiced by Kingsley, and looking like he’s stepped straight out of one of Dickens’ workhouses.  He’s a gloriously hissable bad guy, and every time his face leers forward it’s like an assault.

Snatcher’s aided by a trio of equally grotesque associates, Mr Trout (Frost), Mr Pickles (Ayoade), and Mr Gristle (Morgan), and as sidekicks they provide some of the more knowing, self-aware humour (watch out for a wonderful pre-end credits piece of post-modernist deconstruction – really).  As the battling youngsters, Eggs and Winnie, both Wright and Fanning offer winning performances, while Harris is instantly recognisable as the straight-laced, luxuriously whiskered Portley-Rind (though viewers may have trouble recognising Collette as his wife).

There’s so much to enjoy in The Boxtrolls it’s almost a struggle to keep up with each new development or piece of background whimsy (like a lot of densely detailed animated features, the movie benefits from repeat viewings), and there are finely tuned moments of anarchic fun in amongst the more darker elements, but thanks to the combined efforts of co-directors Stacchi and Annable the movie achieves a balance that keeps it from tipping over too far in one direction.  From its often remarkable production design courtesy of Paul Lasaine, allied with Curt Enderle’s inspired art direction, the movie looks and feels like a world that’s truly lived in.  The story is involving, and if it all ends a little too predictably, it’s no bad thing.

Rating: 8/10 – another triumph for the folks at Laika, The Boxtrolls is irresistibly charming; exploring further the themes of abandonment and belonging that suffused Coraline and ParaNorman, this is animation that rewards on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing.

Kristy (2014)

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Kristy

D: Olly Blackburn / 86m

Cast: Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till, James Ransone, Chris Coy, Mike Seal, Lucius Falick, Mathew St Patrick, Erica Ash

Justine (Bennett) is a slightly nerdy college student who’s planning to spend Thanksgiving on campus as she can’t afford to get home for the holiday.  Her boyfriend, Aaron (Till), tries to persuade her to come with him to stay with his family but she won’t accept his kindness.  With only her friend, Nicole (Ash) and campus security guard Wayne (St Patrick) for company, Justine is looking forward to spending some time (largely) by herself.  However, Nicole heads home too, leaving Justine (nearly) all alone.

When she goes out to get some supplies at a local gas station, she encounters a young woman (Greene) whose strange attitude and challenging manner Justine attempts to placate in order to avoid an ugly encounter with the gas station attendant.  With her offer rebuffed, Justine voices her disappointment at not being able to just help someone.  The young woman rounds on her and tells her she’s the “Kristy”.  Later, on her way back to the campus, the young woman uses her car to block Justine’s, but Justine gets past her.  She tells Wayne what’s happened and although he’s sure nothing worse will happen, Justine isn’t so sure.

It isn’t long before she’s proven right.  The young woman appears in her room carrying  a knife.  Justine gets past her but soon learns the young woman isn’t alone: she has three male accomplices, all wearing tin foil masks and hoodies, and all carrying weapons.  A game of cat and mouse begins between Justine and the intruders.  Wayne is murdered and Justine is forced to run from building to building in an attempt to avoid being killed as well.  Even when she seeks help from the campus maintenance man, Scott (Ransone), who has a shotgun, the intruders outsmart him and Justine is left to fend for herself once again.  She must use every ounce of ingenuity she has to outwit the intruders and stay alive…

RANDOM

With its mix of Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980) and every school-based slasher movie ever released, Kristy could be accused of being derivative and unimaginative.  But in the hands of director Blackburn and writer Anthony Jaswinski, the movie is strong on atmosphere, as tense as barbed wire, and features some sterling, predatory camerawork thanks to DoP Crille Forsberg.  It’s an impressively mounted picture as well, the university environs – in particular, the swimming pool – put to very good use, the wide open spaces of the grounds proving just as claustrophobic as the interiors, Justine’s attempts at hiding or escape placed against a pitiless, unremarkable background of beiges and off-whites.

It’s a very measured, well-constructed mise-en-scene that benefits from Blackburn’s close attention to detail, validating his decision to combine tightly framed shots with wider, equally threatening compositions that add immeasurably to the sense of unease the movie displays from the first moment an overhead light begins to flicker in the dorm’s laundry room.  But while there’s a sure hand behind the camera, in front of it there’s a commanding performance from Bennett, her slightly geeky, girl-next-door looks and demeanour explored with effortless simplicity in the opening twenty minutes, from her interaction with Aaron to a deceptively effective montage of her activities once everyone’s left.  Justine is instantly likeable, the kind of young woman who makes you smile from the off.  Bennett invests her with a goofy charm, and while she spends the middle third running from the intruders, once Justine decides to take the hunt to them instead, she applies a calculating side of her character that comes across as entirely natural (it’s less the worm turning, more the worm realising she’s actually more than a match for her tormentors).

As the unreasoning, psychotic leader of a cell that’s part of a wider, Internet-based cult, Greene is hidden for the most part under a pink-tinged hoodie, only her facial piercings and chapped lips allowed any prominence.  She gives an angry, embittered performance, her coiled physicality threatening to erupt at any moment, making her the most unpredictable character of all; you watch her to see just what she’ll do next.  As her homicidal accomplices, Messrs Coy, Seal and Falick are hidden behind their masks but their presences are felt even when they’re off screen (Kristy is one of those movies where the viewer can’t quite be sure that one or more of them won’t just pop into view when it’s least expected).

There is violence throughout, from an opening montage of video clips of the cell’s other victims (which are posted on the Internet for other cult members to “enjoy”), to the outcome of Justine’s showdown with the young woman, but there is very little actual bloodshed, and Blackburn wisely avoids the kind of brutality that would have taken Kristy down the torture-porn route.  Instead, and aside from one crowd-pleasing contact blow that is entirely justified, each kill is rendered out-of-shot and with an emphasis on good old-fashioned sound effects.  In fact, the sound mix is one of the most effective aspects of the movie (take a bow, Michael B. Koff), particularly when the intruders are stalking Justine through the kitchens, their knives and weapons scraping against the fixtures and walls with hideous potency.

As mentioned above, the movie is indebted to several other horror outings, and while there will be those who won’t see beyond those influences, and will see deliberate moments taken from those movies – the fate of one character is lifted wholesale from Kubrick’s masterpiece – any naysayers will be missing the efficiency and verve that Blackburn et al. have employed to make these staple ingredients appear fresh and invigorated.  It’s very difficult these days to come up with something new in the horror arena, and while the thriller elements are pushed to the fore here, this variation on the home invasion sub-genre is refreshingly presented and, one unnecessary post-end credits sequence aside, belies its derivative nature to provide a riveting viewing experience.

Rating: 8/10 – unnerving, gripping and rewarding in equal measure, Kristy is a step up from other movies of a similar nature, and treats its audience accordingly; with clear intelligence at work both behind and in front of the camera this is one horror/thriller that really does deserve a wider audience.

Eraser (1996)

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Eraser

D: Charles Russell / 115m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Vanessa Williams, James Coburn, Robert Pastorelli, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Andy Romano, Nick Chinlund

John Kruger (Schwarzenegger) is a US Marshal who works for the Witness Protection programme; he “erases” people’s identities, sets them up in their new lives, and then makes sure they remain safe.  Lee Cullen (Williams) is an employee of the Cyrez Corporation, a weapons manufacturer that she suspects is selling arms to foreign terrorists.  She gains evidence of this as part of an FBI undercover operation, but the plan goes wrong and Cyrez learns of Lee’s involvement.  When killers are sent to her home, it’s Kruger who saves her.

Setting her up in a safe house until she can testify at an upcoming hearing into Cyrez’s business affairs, Kruger is approached by fellow Marshal Robert Deguerin (Caan) who tells him that witnesses in the programme are being killed; Deguerin wants his help in finding the mole who’s leaking the names.  They travel to one of Deguerin’s witnesses but unbeknownst to Kruger it’s a set up: Deguerin is the mole and he’s using the trip as a way of bringing Lee out into the open (he’s also working for Cyrez).  Kruger alerts Lee and she leaves the safe house, having previously agreed to meet Kruger at the New York Zoo.  Escaping Deguerin’s clutches, Kruger meets up with Lee and together they manage to evade Deguerin and his team.

With the information that will expose Cyrez copied to a disc, the only way Kruger and Lee can get a step ahead of everyone else is to learn what’s on the disc, but it’s heavily encrypted and the only way they can read it is to break into Cyrez’ headquarters and use one of the computer terminals.  Aided by one of Kruger’s witnesses, Johnny Casteleone (Pastorelli), they break in and discover that an arms shipment is being loaded onto a ship at the Baltimore docks that night.  They’re discovered, and as they try to escape, Lee is captured by Deguerin.  With Johnny’s help, it’s down to Kruger to stop the shipment and save Lee in the process.

Eraser - scene

One of Arnie’s later action forays, Eraser still looks good for the most part, even if it does have that Eighties vibe that is looked upon nostalgically at the moment (and which isn’t bad for a movie made in 1996).  Looking back at the movie after nearly twenty years it does have its faults – a complete disregard for logic or the laws of physics to name but two – but it also plays it seriously (Arnie’s one liners aside), letting the absurdity of the whole situation unfold with grim determination, as if by doing so the audience won’t dissolve into tears of laughter at every risible plot development (case in point: when Kruger and Lee break into Cyrez, we’re told they can only access the disk from one secured room… except they do it from an office terminal instead… which hasn’t occurred to anyone at Cyrez).  It’s this decision to play it straight that in the end allows the movie to hold up as well as it does.

Schwarzenegger glares a lot as befits a character who trusts no one (until he needs their help – so much for an elite operative who always works alone), and he strides through the movie like the enduring colossus he’s made out to be, shrugging off injury at every turn and allowing nothing to stand in his way.  It’s a commanding performance, the kind that subsequent action stars are still trying to emulate, and he carries it off with confidence and brash fearlessness.  Kruger is a throwback to the type of character Schwarzenegger played in the Eighties – Ben Richards in The Running Man (1987), Ivan Danko in Red Heat (1988) – taciturn, pitiless and single-minded.  It’s the kind of role that’s well-suited to Schwarzenegger’s abilities: short on dialogue, long on shooting people and blowing things up (though it is fun to hear him say “improvisation”, an unexpected gift from the screenwriters).

With the likes of Caan, Coburn and Cromwell providing equally serious-minded support, Eraser benefits enormously from their involvement, though even they have trouble when called upon to utter such glorious lines of dialogue as “We’re way beyond bullshit here” (quite ironic, really) and “Gentlemen, keep your eyes open and your assholes puckered”.  Caan plays Deguerin as a creature of circumstance, an opportunist who doesn’t care who he steps on or kills to get his cut, while Coburn plays the head of the Witness Protection programme as someone who can’t quite believe what’s going on (like the audience).  As Lee, Williams plays her part with brio and wide-eyed disbelief at the corruption going on around her.  She’s the viewer’s connection to the movie, their way in amidst all the mayhem.  She holds her own amongst all the testosterone on display, and is resourceful enough to fend for herself when necessary, making a welcome change from other damsels in distress at the time.

But this being an action movie first and foremost, it stands or falls on its action sequences, and at least here the movie succeeds without need for any further criticism.  There may be more bullets fired than in a small African war, and a higher body count than in same, but each sequence is choreographed to good effect, and Schwarzenegger displays his customary physical dominance in close quarter fighting.  There are plenty of explosions, some impressive stunt work in the final harbour battle, and a sense that not only is bigger better, but that it’s damn well imperative.  Russell orchestrates the various set pieces with a keen eye for casual brutality, and is ably supported by Adam Greenberg’s roving camerawork and Alan Silvestri’s propulsive score.

Rating: 7/10 – with its over-the-top violence bolted onto a script with more holes in it than a string vest, Eraser races along to its explosion-heavy finale with scant regard for the terrible plot it’s trying to outrun; but thanks to some committed performances and Arnie doing exactly what he does best, this is one action movie that – somehow – retains a sense of fun that gives it a much needed boost.

 

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