Poster of the Week – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

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Bitter Tea of General Yen, The

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

In 1930, Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), as a way of ensuring that movies wouldn’t “lower the moral standards of those who see [them]”. Although the Code was formally adopted at that time, it would be another four years before the Code was rigidly enforced, as producers between 1930 and 1934 ignored the Code in favour of strong box office returns on movies with racy material. And one such movie that flouted the Code was The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Its tale of a Chinese warlord and the fianceé of a Christian missionary who fall in love, the movie transgressed against several particulars of the Code, not the least of which was in its depiction of sexual passion. And while most of the posters made to advertise the movie were entirely sedate and gave no indication of the torrid goings-on between Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, this one spells it out as boldly as possible, and leaves the potential viewer in no doubt as to what he or she can expect (if they’re lucky).

General Yen’s ethnicity has been toned down quite a bit, making Asther look more Central European than Chinese, but the title is a giveaway, and there’s also the military-style jacket to reinforce matters. As he approaches the prone character of Megan Davis, there are two very obvious reasons for his interest: her barely covered breasts. Seen today, this rather blatant attempt at prurience doesn’t have as much effect as it would have done back in 1933, but it’s still a bit of a surprise to see such an exposure of flesh so prominently displayed. It certainly gives a good indication of how racy the movie is likely to be – even if that particular image isn’t replicated in the movie itself – and it’s also a further indication that the Code was being flouted as often, and in as many ways, as possible.

A racy, sexually provocative depiction of an inter-racial relationship – unusual for the time – and a great example of how the studios ignored the Code, this poster has a terrific collision of colours and only one worrying aspect to the whole thing: just what has happened to Asther’s right hand?

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

Listen Up Philip (2014)

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Listen Up Philip

D: Alex Ross Perry / 109m

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Eric Bogosian

On the verge of having his second novel published, Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) takes the opportunity to berate the people who didn’t support him when he was trying to get his writing career off the ground. And yet he doesn’t feel any better for doing so. His success is making him unhappy, both with his publisher who wants him to undergo a book tour, and with his girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), a photographer who’s beginning to achieve her own success. As Philip does his best to sabotage his various relationships, his publisher puts him in touch with respected, prize-winning novelist Ike Zimmerman (Pryce). Ike has read Philip’s second novel and liked it enough to want to meet him.

Their meeting leads Ike to offer Philip the use of his country house. Ike feels that living in the city isn’t conducive to producing great writing, and Philip agrees with him. His decision adds tension to his relationship with Ashley who hates that he’s made such a decision without involving her. At Ike’s country house, Philip meets Ike’s daughter, Melanie (Ritter). She’s not impressed by his angry, selfish behaviour, and sees him as just another (younger) version of her father, someone Ike can further mould in his own image.

Ike arranges for Philip to teach at a college for a semester. Again his decision upsets Ashley and she decides while he’s gone to end their relationship. As she begins to establish a life without Philip, he becomes intrigued by one of the other teachers at the college, Yvette (de La Baume), and they begin a tentative relationship. When things with Yvette don’t work out, Philip returns to Ashley but finds that his certainty about their relationship and her needs aren’t exactly what he believed.

Listen Up Philip - scene

An absorbing if not entirely rewarding look at the life of a writer who takes the pursuit of selfishness to new extremes, Listen Up Philip is an unsubtle drama that spends a lot of its running time reinforcing – as if we need it – the idea that Philip is a deeply unpleasant person to be around. From the first scene where he lambasts his ex-girlfriend, Philip’s caustic, choleric attitude is clearly going to be difficult to deal with for the entire movie, and writer/director Perry wisely avoids putting Philip centre stage throughout. He’s quite simply an asshole, something Philip himself acknowledges from time to time, but the problem is that his self-awareness isn’t used to initiate any self-improvement. Philip remains resolutely selfish and arrogant all the way to the movie’s end, and even though he’s played superbly by Schwartzman, the lack of an appreciable character arc is disappointing, and leaves the movie feeling like an extended snapshot rather than a full-fledged story.

There’s also the issue of Philip’s relationship with Ike, a father/son dynamic that never really goes anywhere, other than to show that how Ike is now, is how Philip will be when he’s older, whether he’s as successful or not. As played by Pryce, Ike is as unappealing and dismissive as Philip is, intellectually snobbish, emotionally stunted, and a firm believer in the high quality of his own endeavours. So instead of having one unpleasant, narcissistic character to deal with, Perry gives us two, and the movie seems set to be a bit of an endurance test: can the viewer possibly withstand the deleterious effects of spending so much time with two such disagreeable characters? But, thankfully, Perry splits them up and sends Philip off to college where he can alienate a whole new bunch of characters.

With Philip out of the way, Perry turns his attention to Ashley, and at last the movie gives us a chance to get to know someone we can sympathise with. Moss is just as good as Schwartzman – if not better – and she shines as the under-appreciated Ashley, slowly building up the character’s confidence and determination to improve matters relating to her work, her friendships, and her relationship with Philip. It’s a terrific performance, balanced and intuitive, and the movie becomes more interesting when she’s on screen. (If the movie had been about Ashley, and Philip was a secondary character, then, who knows?) By the end, the viewer is rooting for her to succeed, and Perry gives us the outcome we’ve all been hoping for.

Perry also gives us a very erudite script with plenty of juicy, faux-intellectual dialogue for the cast – and narrator Eric Bogosian – to sink their teeth into. There are literary, cinematic and philosophical references galore, some obvious, some more obscure, but all seemingly included to give the impression that Philip and Ike operate on a higher creative plane than the rest of the characters. It soon becomes overbearing, which may have been the intention, but when the narrator spouts such precepts and apothegms as well, it becomes too arch and mannered to have any meaning, even if it does sound good.

Ultimately, there’s no explanation for Philip’s behaviour that would allow the viewer to appreciate the way he is, and again, this leaves us with a main character it’s hard to associate with, or feel any affinity for. Nihilistic it may be but with Philip so determined not to be happy, and with no intention of letting others around him be happy, not even Keegan DeWitt’s vibrant score, or long-time collaborator Sean Price Williams’ immaculate photography can counteract Perry’s attempts to show how isolated we can become from our friends and family, and ourselves. It’s doubly ironic then that when Philip is off screen, the movie picks up and becomes more involving.

Rating: 5/10 – dour and often feeling like it’s too clever for its own good, Listen Up Philip has two impressive central performances, and a vivid sense of its main character’s vanity, but at the expense of a narrative that holds the attention; a good effort nevertheless, but one that the casual viewer might need to be in a certain frame of mind for before watching it.

St. Vincent (2014)

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St. Vincent

D: Theodore Melfi / 102m

Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Donna Mitchell, Dario Barosso

Vincent McKenna (Murray) is the kind of curmudgeonly old man it’s best to steer clear of. He drinks to excess, gambles too much, and is about as sociable as a dose of the clap; in short, he’s the kind of you’d cross the street to avoid. When new neighbours Maggie (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Lieberher) move in next door, relations are initially frosty as the removals van causes damage to Vincent’s car. On Oliver’s first day at his new school he falls foul of bully Ocinski (Barosso) and has his keys, wallet and phone stolen. He manages to get home but with his mother at work and no other way of getting in, he calls on Vincent to use his phone to call his mother. Vincent isn’t best pleased but agrees nevertheless and Oliver stays with him until Maggie can get home from work – but not before he’s agreed a babysitting rate with her.

The money is important as Vincent’s terrible luck at gambling has left him very short of money. He can’t get a loan from the bank, he owes too much money to loan shark Zucko (Howard), and he’s behind on payments to the care home that looks after his wife Sandy (Mitchell). With Maggie working late more and more, he and Oliver spend more and more time together. Vincent teaches Oliver to defend himself from bullies such as Ocinski, and takes him to the race track where Oliver learns how to bet. He also bonds with the old man, becoming the only friend Vincent really has, unless you count pregnant stripper Daka (Watts), who has a fondness for the old man that she plays down at every opportunity.

When Vincent and Oliver win big at the race track, it’s potentially the beginning of a big change in Vincent’s life, but he still avoids paying Zucko. Meanwhile, Maggie’s husband begins a custody battle for Oliver, leading to an awkward court appearance where the depth of her son’s relationship with Vincent is revealed, and with less than perfect consequences. And matters are made worse when Zucko pays Vincent a surprise visit at home.

St. Vincent - scene

If you’re looking to make a movie where the main character is a caustic, mean-spirited, emotionally withdrawn malcontent, well, in the words of one of his earlier movies, “Who ya gonna call?” The obvious answer is Bill Murray, the one actor who does “grumpy” better than anyone else on the planet, and for whom the art of being a killjoy seems like second nature. He’s the perfect choice to play Vincent, and it’s a good job writer/director Melfi was able to get him to commit to the movie because without him, St. Vincent may not have turned out to be as enjoyable as it actually is.

It’s a particular kind of actor who can pull off such a deceptively difficult role, for while Vincent is outwardly abrasive, there’s a grudging kindness and likeability buried below the surface that is reserved for the people he cares about. As he becomes more and more enamoured of Oliver and Maggie, it’s good to see that the script doesn’t do the one thing that most movies of this kind do without fail: have the main character renounce his mordant ways and become more agreeable. Here, Vincent remains unlikeable to pretty much everyone for the entire movie, allowing Murray to paint a convincing portrait of a man continually at war with a world that kicks the rug out from under him at nearly every opportunity. His antipathy towards the world is entirely understandable, but it’s his willingness to let some people in, while retaining that antipathy, that saves the character from being entirely one note.

Murray grabs the character of Vincent and gives the kind of assured, entirely believable performance that only he can pull off, making the old man by turns acerbically funny, justly melancholy, disappointingly selfish, and unsurprisingly reticent. It’s a virtuoso performance, one that lifts the movie up and out of the rut of its less than original plotting and straightforward storylines. Aside from a couple of instances that don’t turn out in just the way the viewer might expect – the result of the custody hearing, the outcome of Zucko’s home visit – Melfi, making his feature debut as writer/director, has assembled an old-fashioned drama with over-familiar characters we’ve all seen at least a dozen times before, added the kind of spiteful humour that modern audiences appreciate, and has made his movie seem fresh and unconventional.

He’s also procured a raft of excellent performances, and not just from Murray. Leaving behind the forced hilarity of movies such as The Heat (2013) and Tammy (2014), McCarthy excels as Oliver’s mother, playing her with an honesty and put-upon vulnerability that works effectively against Murray’s obnoxious grouch. Watts is equally as good as the pregnant Daka, her hard-boiled exterior the perfect foil for Vincent’s ingrained irascibility; when they spar it’s like watching an old married couple, and the fondness that builds up in such a relationship. Howard, sadly, has little to do but appear menacing in a couple of scenes, and O’Dowd works his magic as Oliver’s home room teacher, a priest with very relaxed ideas about prayer. But the real revelation here is Lieberher as Oliver – like Melfi, making his feature debut – giving the role a delicate, yet simple touch that dispels the idea early on that Oliver is going to be one of those precious and precocious kids that Hollywood is so fond of putting on screen. He’s a natural, comfortable with his dialogue and able to hold his own with Murray (it really feels like he’s been doing this for a lot longer).

With its deft one-liners and subtle nuances, Melfi’s script makes the occasional stumble – Zucko disappears completely after he visits Vincent, Oliver and Ocinski become friends a little too easily (you’ll understand why when you see the movie), and the sub-plot involving Vincent’s wife adds little to the mix – but all in all this is a solid, hugely enjoyable movie that features some terrific performances, a great score by Theodore Shapiro, and enough charm to melt a dozen icebergs.

Rating: 8/10 – a great first feature from Melfi – who’s now one to watch out for – St. Vincent is a breath of fresh air, and rarely puts a foot wrong with its main characters; Murray carries the movie with ease, and the movie’s indie sensibility isn’t allowed to overwhelm the material, making for a very good time to be had by all.

Miss Meadows (2014)

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Miss Meadows

D: Karen Leigh Hopkins / 88m

Cast: Katie Holmes, James Badge Dale, Callan Mulvey, Ava Kolker, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Stephen Bishop

Miss Meadows (Holmes) is a sweet-natured, well-mannered substitute school teacher who hides a dark secret: she’s a vigilante, dedicated to “removing” anyone whose moral compass isn’t attuned as finely as her own. On her way home one day, she’s threatened by a gun-wielding kerb crawler who points a gun at her and tells her to get in his car. Miss Meadows promptly shoots him dead with her own gun… and carries on walking as if nothing has happened.

At the elementary school, Miss Meadows is put in charge of a class whose teacher has just died of cancer. One little girl, Heather (Kolker), has been seriously upset by this and Miss Meadows does her best to console her, and eventually earns her trust. In the meantime, she also meets the town Sheriff (Dale); there’s an immediate attraction but neither of them pursue it immediately. It’s left to the Sheriff to do the pursuing, and he takes Miss Meadows for a drive. As their romance blossoms, a school trip to a local park eventually sees Miss Meadows entering a fast food restaurant in order to get the school children some hot dogs. There she finds a young man has killed all the staff and customers and wants to kill himself. When she tells him he should, he attempts to kill Miss Meadows instead, but she proves quicker on the draw than he does, and she kills him.

Faced with a vigilante in his town, the Sheriff is suspicious that it might be Miss Meadows but he doesn’t have any evidence, other than that she’s lived in previous towns where a vigilante has been on the loose. Meanwhile, Miss Meadows learns that she’s pregnant with the Sheriff’s baby; she doesn’t tell him straight away but when she does he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. Around this time a convicted child molester called Skylar (Mulvey) moves into the neighbourhood. Miss Meadows tries to warn him off but he ignores her and starts hanging around the school. And Heather reveals that she saw Miss Meadows shoot the man in the fast food restaurant.

An incident with a priest leads to Miss Meadows killing him as well but this time she leaves behind a clue, and one that the Sheriff recognises. He confronts her, and out of love for her, tells Miss Meadows her vigilante days are over. But then on their wedding day, Skylar abducts Heather…

Miss Meadows - scene

A quirky mix of drama, comedy, romance and the kind of vigilante thrillers Charles Bronson made in the Seventies and Eighties, Miss Meadows gives Katie Holmes her best role since Batman Begins (2005). As the unfeasibly sweet and wholesome Miss Meadows (we never learn her first name), Holmes embraces the role and gives a tremendous performance, doing full justice to the duality of the character and the changes in tone such a character demands. It’s an assured, confident performance – the kind Holmes hasn’t given in a very long time – but it’s so good that Miss Meadows the movie sadly doesn’t match the  quality of Miss Meadows the character.

While Holmes is mesmerising throughout, her understanding of the role so complete she doesn’t put a foot wrong at any point, the rest of the movie stumbles along around her, the various strands and shifts in tone not quite gelling to create a balanced, effective whole. Matching Miss Meadows with the equally good-natured Sheriff (we don’t learn either of his names) lessens the chance of any real tension between the two when his suspicions are confirmed. Because the script avoids the Sheriff experiencing any personal dilemma at all, the confrontation between the two has no depth to it at all, and it’s almost perfunctory in its execution. Similarly, the scene where Miss Meadows confronts Skylar over tea in his home feels forced because of its mixture of genteel manners and unequivocal threat.

There are other scenes and moments that don’t quite work. The cause of Miss Meadows antipathy towards wrongdoers is due to a childhood trauma that is teased out as the movie progresses, but there are clues to be had in the character’s talks with her mother (Smart). And as those clues are revealed before the full tragedy of the traumatic incident is shown, the viewer is effectively given the same information twice, leaving the incident to play out with little dramatic resonance or emotional impact. It’s poor choices like this that undermine the movie’s persuasiveness, and leave the cast adrift within scenes that often bear no relation to the ones that have gone before, or follow on. The scenes in the Sheriff’s office are the best examples of this, taking place almost in isolation of the rest of the plot, and again feeling more perfunctory than essential to the story.

It’s not all bad, though. Holmes’ mannered, skilful performance anchors the movie, and is so rich it bolsters the movie during those short stretches when she’s not on screen. Dale and Mulvey are more than competent foils for Holmes’ ultra-proper, Fifties influenced femme fatale – the scene where Miss Meadows and the Sheriff make love for the first time is worth seeing all by itself just for her delighted reaction; it’s not just their first time – and the photography by Barry Markowitz is almost painterly in its depiction of small-town life. There’s also an amusing, wistful score courtesy of Jeff Cardoni that is appropriately idiosyncratic, and matches Miss Meadows’ prim nature perfectly. And even though her script doesn’t always meet the challenges it sets itself, Hopkins is on firmer ground in her choice of shots and the way in which she places the camera to achieve the desired comic or dramatic effect (this is a very good-looking, carefully composed movie).

Rating: 5/10 – without Holmes’ assured, ironic performance, Miss Meadows would swiftly become a chore to sit through, even though the premise is a shrewd one; uneven and unsure of which impression to make, the movie aims for a John Waters-style vibe but is ultimately too lightweight to succeed completely.

Mini-Review: The Moonlighter (1953)

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Moonlighter, The

D: Roy Rowland / 77m

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, William Ching, John Dierkes, Morris Ankrum, Jack Elam, Charles Halton, Myra Marsh

Cattle rustler Wes Anderson (MacMurray) is in jail waiting to be tried for his crimes but there’s an angry lynch mob planning to storm the jail and hang him from the nearest tree. When an innocent man is hanged in his place, Wes vows to seek revenge against the lynch mob (and any others). During an encounter with the head of the lynch mob and two of his men, Anderson is wounded in the shoulder. He manages to get away and heads for the town of Rio Hondo where his mother (Marsh) and younger brother Tom (Ching) still live on the outskirts.

While recuperating, Wes hopes to restart his relationship with old flame Rela (Stanwyck), but while he’s been away for the last five years and hasn’t stayed in touch, she’s agreed to marry Tom in order to have a more secure future. Wes is reluctant to accept this but doesn’t try to interfere. Then one day an old friend of Wes’s, Cole Gardner (Bond) drops by with a plan to rob the local bank. Tom, who works at the bank, convinces Gardner and an averse Wes to be a part of the robbery. What happens as a result leads to Wes and Gardner being hunted by Rela, and a shootout in the nearby hills.

Moonlighter, The - scene

Originally released in 3D – in Natural Vision, no less – The Moonlighter is a bland, unexceptional Western that’s of note mainly for the pairing of Stanwyck and MacMurray in their third movie together. Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend, with Wes’s antipathy for lynch mobs being jettisoned once he’s injured, and Gardner’s bank job taking over as a way of moving the story forward. What twists and turns there are, are unremarkable for the most part, though the ease with which Rela is deputised to go after Wes and Gardner is probably the biggest surprise the script – by the usually more reliable Niven Busch – comes up with. It all hinges on Rela’s love for Wes, and how determined she is to bring him to justice (though the actual outcome seems arrived at because of convenience rather than any credible dramatic necessity – it’s a short movie, after all).

Rowland’s uninspired, pedestrian direction makes the movie seem more of a drag than it actually is, though there’s a rough energy to the early scenes leading up to the lynching. However, this energy isn’t kept up, and with the introduction of Rela and Tom the movie begins to falter, trying to set up a romantic triangle that never really takes off or convinces. Similarly, the speed with which Wes agrees to rob the bank seems forced and implausible, but not as much as his acceptance of Tom’s being a part of it. As the reluctant lovers, Stanwyck and MacMurray inject a little of their own energy into their scenes together, but it’s not enough to keep the viewer interested in how things will turn out.

Rating: 4/10 – lacklustre and plodding, The Moonlighter hasn’t the pace or the style to be anything than a standard oater with few pretensions; Stanwyck and MacMurray are as watchable as ever, but the script and direction doesn’t support them enough to help them overcome the dreariness of the material.

10 Reasons to Remember Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

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A talented director who came to prominence in the Sixties with a brace of movies that heralded a prodigious talent, Mike Nichols had a distinct visual style and an even more distinctive rapport with his often very talented casts (he directed seventeen actors who were Oscar nominated for their roles). He made some very fine movies – see below – and even if later in his career, when the movies weren’t always as successful, or rewarding, his work still maintained a level of integrity that few directors have managed to achieve in the course of their careers. He also came up with the “Five Rules for Filmmaking”:

1 – The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.

2 – Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.

3 – There’s absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.

4 – If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody.

5 – Friends may come and go, but enemies will certainly become studio heads.

Film Director Mike Nichols

1 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

2 – The Graduate (1967)

3 – Catch-22 (1970)

4 – Carnal Knowledge (1971)

5 – The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

6 – Silkwood (1983)

7 – Working Girl (1988)

8 – Postcards from the Edge (1990)

9 – The Birdcage (1996)

10 – Angels in America (2003)

Mike Nichols2

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

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Lethal Weapon 4

D: Richard Donner / 127m

Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li, Steve Kahan, Kim Chan, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe, Eddy Ko

An incident involving an iron-suited, flamethrower-wielding criminal leads to two revelations: that Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is going to be a grandfather, and that Martin Riggs (Gibson) is going to be a father. Nine months later the two men are looking forward to the imminent births. Out one night on Roger’s boat, and accompanied by Leo Getz (Pesci), they find themselves nearly struck by a cargo freighter. When the freighter’s crew opens fire on them, Riggs takes the fight to them and boards the vessel. The ship eventually runs aground and the cargo hold reveals a group of Chinese illegal immigrants.

Later, Murtaugh discovers a family hiding in one of the lifeboats. Instead of letting INS know, he allows them to come home with him (but he doesn’t tell Riggs; he also doesn’t tell the investigating officer, Butters (Rock), who is secretly the father of Roger’s grandchild). In Chinatown, triad boss Uncle Benny (Chan) has a visitor in the form of Triad negotiator Wah Sing Ku (Li). Wah has been expecting the family Roger has discovered, as they are an important part of his plan to free four Triad overlords (including one who is his brother) from the clutches of a corrupt Chinese general. The head of the family, Hong (Ko), has an uncle who is a master engraver; Wah aims to buy the overlords’ freedom with counterfeit money.

Riggs and Murtaugh are given promotions to captain, and they start to help Butters with his investigation. A visit to Uncle Benny sees them meet Wah but they don’t find out who he is. Leaving Leo to trail Uncle Benny, Riggs and Murtaugh are unaware of just how close they’re getting, but it’s close enough for Wah to find out where the family are hiding and to abduct them – and then to put Riggs, his partner Lorna (Russo), Murtaugh and his wife (Love) and pregnant daughter (Wolfe) in danger of being burned alive. They all manage to escape unharmed, and with Butters in tow, Riggs and Murtaugh track down Uncle Benny at his dentist’s. With the use of some nitrous oxide, they get Uncle Benny to reveal the plot involving the Four Fathers (the triad overlords). When they liaise with other detectives who work the Chinatown beat, the three men learn about the corrupt Chinese general and where the exchange is likely to take place. Interrupting the meet, they spill the beans about the money, and a vicious firefight breaks, along with a three-way showdown between Riggs, Murtaugh and Wah.

Lethal Weapon 4 - scene

The last in the series, Lethal Weapon 4 could, and perhaps should, have been a whole lot worse, but it’s a measure of the likeability of the characters, and the directorial flair of Richard Donner that, while it may still be the least in the series, it’s also an entertaining ride that will put a smile on fans’ faces. The familiarity of the material and the verbal sparring between Riggs and Murtaugh (however predictable), along with the extended action sequences and the often slapstick comedy, makes this the celluloid equivalent of being wrapped up in a nice, warm blanket on a cold winter’s evening. It’s a huge comfort to know that everything you could want from a Lethal Weapon movie is all present and correct.

With all the series’ highlights in place, the movie does meander in places, mostly when it’s trying to acknowledge the fact that its characters are getting on a bit and are “getting too old for this shit”. Given that this is the fourth in the series, and also given that there’s been a clear decision to end the franchise before it gets too derivative and stale, this acknowledgment is a welcome development. It makes for a satisfactory conclusion to the series, but all the angst and drama of the first two movies – already lessened in Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) – has now been left behind completely. Riggs’ journey from near-suicidal nut job to devoted family man is complete, while Murtaugh is a proud grandfather whose anxiety about the loss of material things (usually his car, this time round his boat) and whatever can go wrong actually doing so, is more accepting of what Fate throws at him. These are now very settled men, and while it’s heartening to see them take on the bad guys one last time, this is a movie that – fortunately – realises it’s time to call it a day.

As lighthearted – and lightweight – as it is, Lethal Weapon 4 still does its best to deliver where it matters most: in the action sequences. The opener, with its exploding tanker and fiery devastation, is as preposterous as it sounds, but is still an impressive start to the movie and at least reassures the viewer that it’s going to be business as usual. There’s the obligatory car chase with its detour aboard a trailer, a foot chase that ends with Riggs dangling from a roof, a well choreographed fight at the Murtaugh home that showcases Li’s martial arts skills, and a climactic shootout that evolves into the three-way showdown mentioned above. All are expertly shot and cut together, and all are exciting to watch, but the familiarity they bring with them makes them less than memorable. It’s a shame, but draws attention to the fact that familiarity doesn’t always breed originality.

It’s difficult as well to bring anything new to the table with such well established characters, and while Gibson and Glover are still as enjoyable to watch as always, there’s more than a hint of tiredness in their banter, as they rework old lines and try to maintain the jokiness of previous outings. This leads to some awkward dialogue being exchanged – mostly around Murtaugh’s belief that Butters is attracted to him – and a sense that all the in-jokes and series’ references were included at the expense of more original material. It’s a trade-off, no doubt willingly made by Donner and the producers, but leaves the movie feeling a little jaded and occasionally lacklustre.

On the performance side, everyone acquits themselves well, particularly Pesci who’s given a completely out of character monologue towards the movie’s end that is surprisingly effective, and Li who provides Riggs and Murtaugh with the series’ first truly formidable adversary. Two scenes aside, Russo is reduced to hovering in the background, while Rock plays Butters as an earnest, slightly duller version of the man Murtaugh may have been when he was younger. Behind the camera, Donner plays ringmaster with his usual skill and expertise, while Andrzej Bartkowiak does a great job in making even the static shots interesting to watch. And no Lethal Weapon movie would be complete without the musical collaboration of Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen, here adding another familiar element with their jazz-infused score.

Rating: 7/10 – the tag line reads “The gang’s all here” and they are, along with all the other “best bits” of the series, in a movie that could have been called Lethal Weapon’s Greatest Hits; fun, if a tad too long thanks to its need to wrap things up, Lethal Weapon 4 is still an enjoyable diversion and provides an admirable send off for its two aging heroes.

Two Shorts by François Ozon: A Summer Dress (1996) and X2000 (1998)

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François Ozon is one of the most interesting writer/directors working currently in movies. He makes socially astute, emotionally complex features, and infuses them with wit and style. He writes great roles for women – Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool (2003); Romola Garai, Angel (2007); Catherine Deneuve, Potiche (2010) – and isn’t afraid to tackle themes surrounding sexuality and sexual identity. Early in his career Ozon made a number of short movies, and unusually, they’re all intriguing for one reason or another. The two movies reviewed here show a marked difference in style and tone, but taken as examples of a writer/director who’s discovering just what he can do, they make for beguiling viewing.

A Summer Dress (1996)

Summer Dress

Original title: Une robe d’été

D: François Ozon / 15m

Cast: Frédéric Mangenot, Lucia Sanchez, Sébastien Charles

Luc (Mangenot) and Lucien (Charles) are young, gay and on holiday together. Lucien is the more extroverted of the two and likes dancing along to Sheila’s version of Bang Bang. Luc, on the other hand, wants to enjoy the peace and quiet and concentrate on getting a tan. When Lucien refuses to stop enjoying himself, Luc heads off to the beach where he strips off and goes for a swim before settling back down to sunbathe. There he meets a young girl, Lucia (Sanchez), who asks him if he wants to go into the nearby woods and make love. Luc agrees and they find a spot in the woods and have sex. When they return to the beach, Luc’s clothes are gone. Lucia lends him her dress so that he can get home without having to travel naked. When he gets back to Lucien, the sight of Luc in a dress arouses him and they have sex as well. The next day, Luc returns the dress to Lucia.

Summer Dress - scene

If that all sounds too slight, even for a fifteen minute movie, then in some ways you’d be right, but then it’s also the point. A Summer Dress is interested in capturing a small series of moments in a twenty-four hour period, but moments that aren’t necessarily profound or destined to have a prolonged effect on its main characters. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a summer fling, a fleeting holiday romance that happens on its own terms and comes without any emotional baggage. As such, the movie is a treat to watch, its young protagonists experiencing life on their own terms and without the judgement of others (a lifestyle we might all like to have). There’s an openness and honesty in their approach to sex that is both carefree and naïve, but so redolent of youth that it’s refreshing to be reminded of it (if you’re well clear of your teens). A Summer Dress is an ode to the time in our lives when there are endless possibilities and life is bright and beautiful and full of promise.

Rating: 8/10 – a simple yet elegantly filmed tale of sexual liberation, A Summer Dress is Ozon at his most playful; with winning performances and the lightest of touches, this is a movie that provides a perfect capsule of time and place and incident.

X2000 (1998)

X2000

D: François Ozon / 8m

Cast: Denise Schropfer-Aron, Bruno Slagmulder, Lucia Sanchez, Flavien Coupeau, Lionel Le Guevellou, Olivier Le Guevellou

Waking up in his apartment the morning after the New Year’s Eve celebrations for the year 2000, a man (Slagmulder) goes into his kitchen and makes himself a glass of water with two Alka Seltzers in it. Then he’s puzzled to find twins in a sleeping bag in his lounge. When he looks out of the window he sees a couple making love in the apartment opposite. Meanwhile, his wife (Schropfer-Aron) also wakes up and decides to take a bath. The man falls from his perch at the window and breaks the glass with the Alka Seltzer in it. When he puts the broken glass in the bin he finds ants crawling over and around something underneath the bin. He then goes into the bathroom where he tells his wife that the ants are attacking.

X2000 - scene

Where A Summer Dress sees Ozon taking a somewhat lighthearted approach to the material, X2000 sees him in a more formal, meditative mood, using heavily stylised, static shots to represent notions of time and space and distance and perception. The man is continually surprised and/or bemused by what he sees, either within the flat or without. It’s as if he’s learning about everything from scratch, his reactions more childlike than that of an experienced adult (when he sees the couple making love he climbs up onto a unit in order to get a better view). His wife, meanwhile, keeps her head under the water, retreating from the world, prolonging the silence in the flat, even when her husband breaks all the glass. It’s a very clinical piece, dialogue-free until the very end, and shows Ozon working with limited resources to great effect. The elliptical nature of the storyline – such as it is – is clearly meant to be left to the viewer to interpret, but that doesn’t stop X2000 from being compelling in its own way.

Rating: 8/10 – with so much going on under the surface, X2000 is open to so many interpretations it’s almost confounding, but this makes it all the more rewarding; the brief running time merely reinforces the quality of Ozon’s perspective on the material and the cleverness of its construction.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

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Brain That Wouldn't Die, The

D: Joseph Green / 82m

Cast: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniel, Adele Lamont, Bonnie Sharie, Paula Maurice, Bruce Brighton

Dr Bill Cortner (Evers) is assisting his father (Brighton) in an operation on a man whose life is slipping away. Cortner Sr is prepared to accept the man’s passing, but Bill persuades his father to let him try something experimental. By a combination of heart massage and brain cortex manipulation, Bill’s efforts prove successful and the man’s life is saved. Afterwards, Bill tells his father about the experiments he’s been carrying out, experiments that involve limb and organ transplants from deceased patients. Cortner Sr voices his concerns but his son remains adamant that his experiments will lead to a time when illness and disease can be conquered by the use of transplanted organs and tissue.

The Cortners are joined by Bill’s fianceé, Jan Compton (Leith). They have a weekend trip planned to the Cortners’ country house (also where Bill has been conducting his research). An urgent call from the house sees Bill rushing to get there, and in the process, causing the car to go off the road. The ensuing crash sees Bill thrown clear but Jan is decapitated and killed. However, Bill flees the scene and heads for the house – with Jan’s head wrapped in his jacket. At the house he’s met by his assistant, Kurt (Daniel), and he quickly arranges Jan’s head in a tray of rejuvenating serum that he’s developed. Once Jan’s consciousness is revived, Bill tells Kurt his plan next is to find a body he can attach Jan’s head to.

Kurt manages to tell Bill about the reason for the urgent call: one of Bill’s experiments in limb transplantation has gone awry, and the “patient” is currently locked away in a room in the cellar where Bill works. Bill dismisses Kurt’s fears and goes in search of a “donor” body for Jan. While he’s gone, Jan wakes up and is horrified at what’s happened to her; she also finds she can communicate with Bill’s previous “patient”. Determined to make Bill pay for what he’s done to her, Jan plans her revenge. Meanwhile, Bill’s search for a woman with an appropriately attractive body proves unsuccessful. He returns to the house to find Kurt even more anxious than before and Jan threatening to stop him. He continues to ignore any warnings, and leaves again to find a suitable woman. Through an old flame he’s reminded of someone they used to know who’s suffered a facial disfigurement. Bill visits the woman, Doris Powell (Lamont), and on the pretext of correcting her scarring, convinces her to come with him to the house. But when they get there, not everything is as Bill left it…

Brain That Wouldn't Die, The - scene

Confusingly (or mistakenly) titled The Head That Wouldn’t Die at the very end of the movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a semi-exploitation movie that surprisingly spends several occasions questioning the lengths to which medical science should go in order to save lives. This philosophical and ethical approach serves to ground the movie more effectively than the standard mad-scientist-playing-at-God scenario it otherwise plays with. That Bill Cortner experiments with dead tissue in his efforts to perfect his transplants – a predictable nod to Frankenstein – it’s ironic that if he’d used live tissue (however unethically), he’d likely be regarded as a true saviour of people’s lives (he even mentions the “recent eye cornea transplants” that have been carried out). Ironic, but not quite as lurid as required.

Scientific discussions aside, there’s a marked prurience on display here, with Bill’s first search for a donor body taking him to a strip club. Cue a scene where a blonde “exotic” dancer (Sharie) moves around with all the flair of a barely animated mannequin, and a follow-on scene where another stripper (Maurice) removes her dress for no other reason than because the script requires her to. And as if that wasn’t enough for early Sixties audiences, there’s a swimsuit contest, and Bill’s eventual intended victim, Doris, is shown in her part-time role as a photographer’s model, dressed only in a bikini. It’s all quaint enough by today’s standards but back then would have been considered quite racy, and in terms of the narrative it’s probably as lurid as the producers could get away with.

As with most “creature features” from the Fifties and Sixties, the movie holds off on revealing its monster until the end. Usually the build-up is more impressive than the actual monster itself, but here that’s not the case. Played by Eddie Carmel, who was 7′ 6¾” tall and suffered from acromegaly, the make-up applied to his face and head is suitably horrific, even if it is reminiscent of The Monster from Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he’s first seen it’s a real jolt, and even afterwards, he commands the viewer’s attention, despite whatever else is going on in the frame.

As the increasingly megalomaniacal Bill, Evers is a poor choice for the committed doctor, his acting skills ranging from cursory to absent, often within the same scene. It’s a struggle to listen to him expound on Bill’s medical theories; even he doesn’t sound that convinced by them. Forced to act with her head through a table for most of the movie, Leith is at least able to provide two separate characterisations for Jan. First, and briefly, there’s the happy-go-lucky bride-to-be, and then there’s the embittered head in a tray. She’s asked to laugh and cackle a little too much but her performance is still the nearest to satisfactory that the movie manages to achieve. Daniel gives the impression that the conversations he has with Jan are all happening in his head, and chews so much of the scenery it’s amazing there’s any left by the movie’s end.

The script, written by Green, is unnecessarily padded out by both its dissertations on medical ethics (they could have been gone over in half the time), and Bill’s tour of places filled with scantily clad females. Once it enters the last ten minutes the movie picks up speed, but the final shot prompts more questions than it can answer. The production values are predictably low – Bill apparently has the use of just a table and a few tubes and beakers for his experiments – and Stephen Hajnal’s camerawork is particularly awkward when asked to provide something more than a standard medium shot. Green directs competently enough but doesn’t have the experience – this was his first movie – to make it visually interesting (despite all the heaving bosoms) and to avoid things becoming too melodramatic. And the uncredited score is as derivative as they come for this type of movie, and in that era.

Rating: 4/10 – filmed in 1959, and regarded by some as a cult classic, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is only occasionally diverting, and only occasionally satisfying; with the look and feel of a movie assembled from rehearsal footage, this is still worth seeking out, if only to see just how badly an exploitation movie can turn out when there’s so little exploitation actually included.

Poster of the Week – Lust, Caution (2007)

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Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution (2007)

Ang Lee’s exemplary drama of political and sexual intrigue is what many critics would describe as “awards worthy”. And so it has proven, particularly at the 2007 Venice Film Festival where it won Best Film (as you can see on the poster). And this is a great example of an “awards” poster, as well as being quite beautiful to look at.

The gold and red colouring immediately makes the poster alluring to look at, the warm flesh tones and splashes of vibrant red acting as flashpoints for the eyes, bold highlights that attract the eye and help settle it on the poster as a whole. The beauty of the image is appealing too, the wariness in the eyes of Wei Tang matching the cold stare of Tony Leung, and drawing attention to the tension in their relationship. With a swirl of blood adding an air of danger at the bottom, the drama inherent in the image becomes more potent (even if there’s no clear indication of what that drama encompasses).

But what’s most interesting – and nearly always is with this type of poster – is the choice of quotes. Each one is a lofty superlative drawn from respected reviewers and their publications, and each one leaves the reader with no doubts as to the movie’s quality. But while superlatives on a movie poster aren’t exactly unusual, here they’re just that little bit too effusive, making the movie sound like a masterpiece (which it doesn’t quite live up to).

And then, as if all the praise wasn’t enough, the designer decides to add the text that reminds everyone of Ang Lee’s prowess as a director, quoting his two most popular movies and giving the impression that Lust, Caution is as good (if not worse) than they are. It’s actually a subtle touch, more so than the review quotes, and more likely to draw in an audience. It all adds up to a movie poster that is deceptively effective at promoting the movie, and deceptively evocative at the same time.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014)

D: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / 86m

Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Ed Lauter, Denis O’Hare, Spencer Treat Clark

Texarkana, October 2013. At an outdoor screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the movie made in 1976 about the murders that took place in the town during the spring of 1946, Corey (Clark) realises that his girlfriend Jami (Timlin) isn’t enjoying the movie. They leave, and find somewhere else to park up. They soon find they’re not alone: a man with a burlap sack over his head and eyeholes cut out is standing in front of their car with a gun in his hand. He forces them out of the car. The man makes Corey lie face down on the ground before killing him with a knife. Jami escapes but not before the man tells her that he’s doing this for “Mary, and so that the town won’t forget her”.

In the days that follow, Jami tries to discover what the killer meant about “Mary”, and goes to the town’s newspaper archives to learn more about the murders in 1946. She meets Nick (Tope) who helps her find the material she’s looking for. She finds a suspect at the time whose son might be responsible for the new crimes and takes her findings to the police. Led by Texas Ranger, Captain J.D. Morales (Anderson), the investigating team – which also includes Chief Deputy Tillman (Cole), Sheriff Underwood (Lauter), and Deputy Foster (Leonard) – allow Jami to explain her theory but reveal that they’ve already explored that avenue and it leads to a dead end.

A double murder occurs and it becomes clear that the killer is replicating the original murders. Jami continues her own investigation and discovers that there was a death in 1946 that was considered to be a suicide but which may have been the Phantom Killer’s final victim. When she also discovers that the man’s wife was called Mary, she begins to piece together enough evidence to suggest that the man’s grandson is very likely the killer. Meanwhile, the murders continue, and Jami finds herself targeted once again, as she and Nick edge ever nearer to revealing the killer’s identity.

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014) - scene

Less a remake of the original movie than a belated sequel – though it has elements of the former – The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an initially interesting, apparently well constructed movie that riffs on the events of 1946 while adding a modern day twist to proceedings that appears cleverer than it actually is.

The movie begins with a voiceover reminiscent of the 1976 movie, and offers a recap of the Phantom Killer’s exploits. It then states that the following events happened in Texarkana in 2013. With such an unnecessary claim made right from the start, the movie’s attempts at creating a companion piece to Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic are seriously hindered, as the credibility needed to make the movie work on the same level is quickly abandoned. It’s a shame, as the meta-movie that was intended shines through from time to time, dispelling the fug of contemporary horror movie clichés that the movie trots out with wearying persistence.

As a result the killings are less intense, eschewing the febrile pitch of the original for a more blood-soaked approach; it’s as if the makers didn’t trust their audience to remain interested unless they threw in a gory moment or two every ten minutes. This leads to unnecessarily silly moments such as when a woman jumps out of a motel room window and breaks her leg (you get a close-up shot of the bone sticking out) – and then makes it to a car and tries to get it started. To make matters worse, when the killer catches up with her and stabs her to death in the car, the windows are treated to the kind of blood spray that looks like it was achieved by ejecting it from a cannon.

Where the movie does score points for originality is when Jami and Nick focus on the original movie and the idea that, in putting his movie together, Charles B. Pierce may have come across evidence that he wasn’t able to either incorporate into his movie, or prove was relevant to the murders. With Pierce having passed away in 2010, they turn their attention to his son – also Charles – who still lives in Texarkana. Alas, this twist in the story is ruined by having Pierce Jr behave like an obsessive backwoods loon, rather than someone who’s just interested in what is a very beguiling mystery (he’s played by Denis O’Hare, but the real Pierce can be seen in the background of the bar where Tillman meets up with a local prostitute).

With the script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa proving so uneven despite a plethora of good intentions, and with Gomez-Rejon unable to raise the material above the level of a slasher movie, this dispenses with character development early on – Anderson’s laid-back Morales remains that way whatever happens – and reveals the killer’s identity in such a WTF? moment (as well as being lifted from another horror franchise) that the viewer will probably be picking their jaw up off the floor. The cast add little to the proceedings, with Timlin unable to dial down Jami’s insipid nature, or provide any energy in a role that the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis would have made their own in the first couple of scenes. Cole is wasted, as is Leonard and Cartwright (as Jami’s grandmother), while Lauter gets the odd line here and there, and Herrmann has a puzzling role as the local clergyman who’s dispensed with – by the plot, at least – halfway through.

As noted above, there are plenty of good intentions here but almost none of them are organised into a coherent, plausible whole. The accent on gore is a misstep, the whole revenge plot is never given the depth or sense of injustice it needs, and the whole scene at the gas station throws what little credibility the movie has managed to retain to the four winds and beyond. As a belated sequel it barely works, but as an example of a potentially clever remake it fails completely.

Rating: 4/10 – a clever premise undermined by sloppy plotting, weak characters and a lack of directorial control, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the less appealing horror movies of 2014; if watched on a double bill with the original, this should definitely be viewed first.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976)

D: Charles B. Pierce / 89m

Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Bud Davis

Texarkana, February 1946. As the inhabitants of the town continue to put the war behind them, a couple park up along the local lovers’ lane. They hear a noise outside the car and find themselves confronted by a man wearing a burlap sack over his head with eyeholes cut out (Davis). He rips out some of the engine wiring before shattering the driver’s window and dragging the man out of the car. He batters the man before turning his attention to the woman whom he assaults before leaving both of them for dead. They survive the attack but with so little to go on the police – led by Chief Sullivan (Citty) – are unable to make any headway in the case.

Three weeks later, another couple are attacked in their car. This time, their attacker shoots the man dead and assaults the woman before killing her too. A police officer, Deputy Ramsey (Prine), almost catches the killer but he makes good his escape. Yet again the police have no clues to help them catch the man, and with the citizens of Texarkana becoming ever more fearful, they call in the help of the Texas Rangers. Led by legendary Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson), the investigation falls under his purview and he arranges for more police cars to patrol the streets, a curfew after dark, and a news blackout.

However, following a junior and high schools prom, a young couple park up in one of the town’s parks but nod off. When they wake they’re attacked by the man now known as the Phantom Killer. The man is shot and killed, while the woman (a trombonist in the high school band) is tied to a tree and murdered when the killer ties his knife to the end of her trombone and repeatedly stabs her as he “plays” it. With still no clues or evidence to reveal the killer’s identity, Morales becomes less sure they’ll catch him. When he kills a man by shooting him in the head through a window and tries to kill the man’s wife (who succeeds in getting to safety), it seems as if the trail will run cold yet again. However, a car fitting the description of the one that Ramsey saw the night of the first murders is reported abandoned. Morales and Ramsey follow a nearby path to an old quarry, and there they find the Phantom Killer…

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976) - scene

Based on real events that took place in Texarkana between February and May 1946, and dubbed the Moonlight Murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown owes much to the drive-in features of the late Fifties and the Sixties, its independent, low budget feel so reminiscent of the movies from – and for – that period that it’s comforting to revisit such a lively era. With its ominous, scene-setting narration, effective recreation of post-war Texarkana, and silent killer, the movie has a quiet power in its killing scenes that makes them quite uncomfortable to watch. The sequence involving the trombone is the best example: in other hands, this could have been unintentionally funny, but Pierce focuses on the horror of the situation and keeps the Phantom Killer’s murderous intent at the forefront of things, his muffled breathing acting as a chilling counterpoint to the pleas of his victim.

All the attacks have an intensity about them that is hard to forget, and these often prolonged sequences are the movie’s strong suit; the movie also makes each successive event as terrifying as the one before. The decision to keep the killer from speaking is a wise one, and with his eyes staring out from his hood, the Phantom Killer’s implacable nature is never in doubt. He’s an early boogeyman, a proto-Michael Myers without the supernatural background. Never caught in real life, the movie posits its own (fictional) account of what might have happened, but it’s as credible as the idea that the police force would employ an officer as inept as patrolman Benson (Pierce).

For while The Town That Dreaded Sundown is incredibly gripping when the Phantom Killer is on screen, when he’s not we’re left with too many unsubtle, almost slapstick encounters with Benson and his inability to follow even the simplest of orders (and which leads to a Dukes of Hazzard-style car accident that feels like it was air-lifted in specially from the series). The character is very much a throwback to the type of comic relief that was prevalent in drive-in movies only a decade before, the kind of witless nincompoop who screws up continually but somehow retains his job and the goodwill of the people around him. Pierce is actually pretty good in the role, but it’s a jarring, unnecessary character, and while Benson may be there to lessen the horror of the murders, he’s on screen too often to be anything other than annoying.

Johnson is his usual gruff self, Morales’ increasing frustration at not being able to catch the killer tempered by his experience. It’s a great performance from Johnson, relaxed and yet coiled like a spring at the same time. The same, alas, can’t be said for Prine, who acts with all the stiffness of several planks of wood, and manages one or two decent line readings late on in the movie (just wait for any exchange over the police radio to see just how bad he is). The supporting cast are all fine without distinguishing themselves, though special mention should go to Davis, whose imposing presence precludes any hint of mercy that the killer may be susceptible to.

Pierce, a native of Texarkana, assembles the material with a fine eye for detail and as mentioned above, makes each attack so intense even the casual viewer will be transfixed. The script, by Earl E. Smith (who also appears as Dr Kress, the shrink who attempts to explain the killer’s motives), is mostly faithful to events as they happened, but anyone familiar with what really happened back then will be able to spot the necessary artistic licence used by Smith to tell the story in such a short running time. There’s some eerily atmospheric photography, especially at night, courtesy of James W. Roberson, and a robust score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava that underscores events with surprising panache. And anyone worried that the movie might be excessively gory will be pleasantly surprised as Pierce keeps the bloodletting to an onscreen minimum, choosing instead to focus on the fear and terror of the victims.

Rating: 7/10 – rough and uneven, but with a clear sense of the horror involved in the attacks/murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a ferocity that acts like a slap to the viewer’s face; a minor true crime classic, and since 2003, shown in Texarkana each year as part of a “Movies in the Park” mini-festival.

Fifty Shades of Grey and the Art of the Advance Warning

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Today I received an e-mail from Empire Cinemas here in the UK, alerting me to the fact that I could now book tickets for Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that isn’t due out in the UK until – wait for it – 13 February 2015.

Empire Cinemas logo

Once I’d got over the shock of being sent such an e-mail a good three months before the movie’s release, I began to wonder why the wonderful folks at Empire Cinemas were doing such a thing in the first place. Sure, Fifty Shades of Grey – in novel form at least – has become a cultural phenomenon, but to open the box office before anyone has seen the finished product (and yes, I’m assuming that’s the case), and before anyone can make a qualified judgement on it, just seems a tad optimistic. But then, if you follow the booking link, the Empire Cinemas website only lists two showings per day that the movie can be seen. Two showings? With all the effort involved in alerting the great British public, there’s only two screenings?

Perhaps – and despite the inference that UK residents are really eager to see the exploits of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele – there’s actually a bit of hedging going on here, with Empire Cinemas dialling back their confidence that the movie will be the big box office success they expect. But even if that’s the case, why on earth are they opening the box office now? Just how many seats do they expect to sell a full four months before the movie opens? And who’s likely to book their seats so far in advance when anything could happen to disrupt their plans in the meantime?

Here in the UK, booking cinema tickets is a fairly straightforward process. Programmes change each Friday, with “advance” booking available from the Tuesday of the same week. Occasionally, and depending on the cinema – I mean you, BFI IMAX at London’s Waterloo – you can book weeks in advance for a particular movie (I’ve had my ticket for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies for a week now)… but months? No, that’s not usual at all.

Unless… unless it’s yet another example of marketing gone awry, an attempt to boost attendance figures and “pre-sell” the movie before it comes out and audiences realise that E.L. James’ “mommy-porn” exercise has been translated into one giant turkey (the latest trailer certainly avoids showing anything too memorable or original). If that’s the case then anyone who books now and not much nearer the time of the movie’s release will have played right into the hands of Universal’s and Empire’s assumption that there is a built-in audience that won’t be able to wait to get their hands on a ticket. (If you’re reading this, and you’re living in the UK, and the idea of grabbing a ticket so far in advance is making you want to grab your masquerade mask and indulge in a little light spanking to celebrate, then stop a moment and ask yourself this: in this day and age of over-priced ticketing and poorly projected movies, will it really make a difference to be one of the first to book a ticket to see Fifty Shades of Grey? And what will differentiate you from someone who buys their ticket, say, the day before the screening?)

Fifty Shades of Grey

Advance word about future movies, and advance screenings, and carefully disseminated information about the movies the studios want us to see at the cinema, are all becoming more and more important to the way in which movies are marketed and advertised. With Fifty Shades of Grey having a fanbase that Universal hopes will translate into big box office returns, this particular degree of advance warning seems entirely unnecessary, but it is indicative of a growing trend in Hollywood (and one I’ve previousy looked at in X-Men: Apocalypse and Cinema’s Dependency on Superheroes). Even Disney/Pixar aren’t immune from it, having recently announced the release in 2017 of Toy Story 4. It’s like having the identity of a Xmas present revealed by an eager relative who can’t wait for you to see what a great gift they’ve bought you – except it’s a present you won’t get for a couple of years or so.

On a personal level, I don’t see the point of revealing movie releases so far in advance, or offering advance tickets long before a movie’s release, or leaking plot details in infuriating dribs and drabs, or creating a viral ad campaign on the Internet – promote a movie, yes, but nearer the time it’s due to hit cinemas. On IMDb there are currently fourteen movies slated for release in 2020 (including a Green Lantern movie – yikes!), but do we really need to know now that they’re on the way? (In case you’re hesitating, the answer is No.) What it all boils down to is the studios trying to tell us what to see, and what to like, and when to do so. And while I know that’s what marketing and advertising and trendsetting is all about, it still doesn’t mean I have to like it, or go along with it. And neither should anyone else.

What If (2013)

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What If

D: Michael Dowse / 98m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall

Following a difficult break-up, Wallace (Radcliffe) wants nothing to do with love. He no longer believes in it, and is in no hurry to hook up with someone new. At a party held by his best friend Alan (Driver) however, he meets Chantry (Kazan), Alan’s cousin. They hit it off, and he walks her home; at this point she reveals she has a boyfriend. Even so, Chantry gives Wallace her number but feeling that nothing good can come of their new association he doesn’t keep it. Sometime later they bump into each other outside a cinema they’ve just been to, and they pick up from where they left off. This time, when they reach Chantry’s home, she asks if they can be friends, to which Wallace agrees.

Their relationship grows as they spend more time together. Chantry invites Wallace to meet her boyfriend, Ben (Spall), and her sister, Dalia (Park). Ben warns Wallace off, while Dalia finds him attractive. An accident leaves Ben in the hospital overnight, and leads to his revealing why he’s so anti-love: his parents were doctors who cheated on each other until they divorced, and while he was a med student his girlfriend (also a med student) cheated on him with another doctor. Now he’s determined not to behave like his parents did.

Ben takes advantage of a job opportunity and moves to Dublin for six months, though he and Chantry commit to keeping their relationship going despite the distance between them. Alan and his girlfriend, Nicole (Davis) realise that Wallace is falling for Chantry, and even though he denies it, they keep pushing him to tell her how he feels about her, even on the day they get married. A disastrous night left naked and stranded at the beach by Alan and Nicole with just a sleeping bag to keep them warm, leads to an estrangement between Wallace and Chantry that neither knows how to fix. Confused about her feelings for Wallace she flies to Dublin and discovers that Ben has been offered a further job in Rio de Janeiro for another six months.

Alan tries once again to get Wallace to come clean to Chantry. Goaded to the point where he feels he has to come clean about his feelings for her, he follows Chantry to Dublin but receives a voicemail message when he gets there from Chantry that tells him she’s returned home and can he meet her. He rushes back and still feeling it’s best that he tells her how she feels, he tells her about his trip to Dublin and how much she means to him. Angry that he went to break up her relationship with Ben – something he’d promised he would never do – Chantry dismisses his claims that she has similar feelings for him, and they part. She accepts a promotion that means her moving to Taiwan. Realising that she’s not handled things too well, Chantry clings to the hope that Wallace will attend her leaving party, and they will have one last chance to make amends to each other.

What If - scene

Romantic comedies, these days at least, come in two forms: the kind that falls back on  gross-out humour to provide something memorable, and the kind that makes an effort to create memorable characters so that the humour flows organically from the actual set up. What If is definitely in the latter category, a rom-com that pitches two of the most appealing, agreeable characters that we’ve seen for a long while, and develops their relationship with patience and a surprising degree of skill.

Adapted from the play Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, What If scores highly by virtue of the script by Elan Mastai – coming a very long way from his debut script for MVP: Most Vertical Primate (2001) – and the inspired pairing of Radcliffe and Kazan. As the couple living in mutual denial of their feelings for each other, both actors excel, raising the movie’s standard plotting and set up into something much more worthwhile and affecting. (This isn’t to say that Mastai’s screenplay is lacking in any way, it’s just that it does follow the basic formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-keeps-his-feelings-to-himself-for-too-long, boy-finally-reveals-feelings-but-girl-feels-betrayed, boy-and-girl-may-or-may-not-be-reconciled that holds up most romantic comedies.)

Kazan and Radcliffe are both on terrific form, creating a convincing, captivating couple that makes it easier to root for them both through their personal and united travails. Kazan is a remarkably intuitive actress, able to adequately demonstrate the pain and confusion of unexpected love with an intensity that’s not often called for in a rom-com, but it all leads to a well-rounded, vivid characterisation and performance that elevates the material. She’s a beguiling actress, her unconventional looks and line readings adding to the believability of both Chantry as a character and her reactions to the developments in her relationship with Wallace. There are numerous moments where she reveals both the strength and the insecurity inherent in Chantry’s personality, and each moment is rendered beautifully.

Matching Kazan for believability and commitment is Radcliffe, demonstrating once again that he is one of the most talented actors of his generation. As the conflicted, honourably-minded Wallace, Radcliffe nails yet another role where he’s required (or so it seems) to be the engine that drives the movie on. Here he expertly dissects Wallace’s character and shows us the torment of a man whose experience of love has been so cruelly undermined by the people most important to him, and before he’s really had a chance to participate in it properly. It’s a measured, perceptive performance, full of insight and wit, and it complements Kazan’s role perfectly.

The secondary characters are well-drawn even if they’re unsurprisingly not as alluring or interesting as Chantry and Wallace are, but the supporting cast have fun with them nevertheless. Driver and Davis are a great match as the overly physical Alan and Nicole, their free-spiritedness at odds with the more closed in, hesitant natures of Chantry and Wallace, while Park is daffily amusing as Chantry’s predatory sister. And in the often thankless role of partner-who-must-be-shown-the-door, Spall makes Ben more interesting (and sympathetic) than the viewer might expect.

With a great script and great performances, the romantic aspects are handled with a great deal of delicacy and skill – the scene where Wallace helps Chantry out of a dress she’s trying on but has got stuck in is a superb case in point; the longing both characters display for each other is unexpectedly moving and outstandingly played. In the director’s chair, Dowse orchestrates things with poise and sensitivity, and shows an innate understanding of the characters and the material. He also knows when to let the camera linger on his leads, and when to go for the “killer” close up. It all adds up to a movie that’s not afraid to look good while pointing up the intimacy of the feelings on display. And there’s a wonderfully appropriate indie-style score by A.C. Newman that enhances and embellishes the action with casual aplomb.

Rating: 8/10 – funny, sad, heartwarming, quirky and absorbing, What If is a cleverly constructed, endlessly entertaining rom-com with two hugely impressive central performances; the perfect movie for singles looking for reassurance that love is just around the corner, or couples who want to rediscover that first thrill of finding someone special.

The November Man (2014)

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November Man, The

D: Roger Donaldson / 108m

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Lazar Ristovski, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Will Patton, Mediha Musliovic, Amila Terzimehic, Patrick Kennedy

Montenegro, 2008. CIA agent Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) and his protegé David Mason (Bracey) are on an assignment to stop the assassination of a visiting dignitary. Devereaux takes the man’s place and while they identify and kill the would-be assassin, it comes at a price: Mason’s lack of experience causes the death of a young boy.

Lausanne, 2013. Devereaux is now retired and owns a small lakeside cafe. One day he’s approached by his old handler, Hanley (Smitrovich), with a job. Devereaux’s ex-lover, Natalia (Musliovic) is in trouble. She is in Moscow working undercover as an aide to Russian President-elect Arkady Federov (Ristovski). Natalia has uncovered intelligence that she says will destroy Federov’s chances of becoming president, but won’t reveal any details unless she’s extracted. Devereaux agrees to get her out. On the day of the extraction, Natalia obtains the evidence she needs against Federov but her actions are discovered. With her position compromised, and with Federov’s men chasing her, she evades capture long enough for Devereaux to find her. However, Hanley’s superior, Weinstein (Patton) gives an order that leads the extraction team – led by Mason – to kill her.

Devereaux kills the rest of Mason’s team but leaves him alive. While Mason is tasked with tracking down his mentor – Weinstein believes Devereaux and Hanley are in collusion, but doesn’t know why – Devereaux seeks to find out just what was going on in Moscow and why Natalia was killed. Using the evidence she gathered and was able to give him before she died, Devereaux tries to find a young woman named Mira Filipova; she is the only witness to war crimes Federov committed in Chechnya, and he will stop at nothing to silence her. With the only clue to her whereabouts being her association with a Belgrade women’s aid centre, Devereaux – and an assassin (Terzimehic) sent by Federov – attempts to find out more from centre worker Alice Fournier (Kurylenko). They go on the run together, chased by both Federov’s assassin and Mason, but managing to stay one step ahead of both. Along the way Devereaux tests Mason’s resolve, learns the truth about Federov’s involvement in a bombing that started the Chechnya war, and finds his twelve year old daughter, Lucy, put in harm’s way.

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An old-fashioned spy thriller where the Russians are – ostensibly – the bad guys, and the CIA is equally corrupt, this adaptation of the novel There Are No Spies by Bill Granger (and the seventh in a series of novels featuring Devereaux) has a simple, retro feel to it, but the now over-familiar Belgrade locations and haphazard plotting, as well as some disastrous attempts at characterisation, leave the movie looking and feeling disjointed and ill-conceived. From its opening sequence, The November Man makes a valiant attempt to bring the viewer on board but then keeps them at a distance thanks to its unfailing ability to jettison credibility at every turn.

Despite the retro feel – at one point Devereaux picks a lock the old-fashioned way – The November Man makes the occasional attempt to appear and feel relevant, but making Devereaux seem like an ageing Jason Bourne merely highlights the scarcity of original thought on display. The script, by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, is littered with ill-considered and poorly written scenes that fail to advance the plot, and which give the impression that, rather than adapting Granger’s novel, they were making things up as they went along. There’s one very disturbing, completely out of left field scene where Devereaux cuts the femoral artery of Mason’s neighbour, Sarah (Taylor), leaving her to die unless Mason saves her (and doesn’t pursue his mentor). It’s an incredibly stupid scene, badly written and directed, and serves only to show how determined the movie is to get it wrong.

The basic plot is sound if unoriginal – someone in the CIA colluded with Federov to instigate the war in Chechnya, but who? – but somewhere along the way the need to add in as many convoluted twists and turns as possible has distorted the movie’s focus and made it more ludicrous than convincing. There’s also some wildly absurd action beats that defy logic, such as when Mason drives at full speed into a wall in order to kill the agent he’s riding with (don’t ask!); seconds later, Mason’s running away from the crash as if nothing’s happened.

Against all this, not even Brosnan can rescue things, even when running along alleyways and hotel corridors like he did in his Bond days. He’s also tasked with constantly looking aggrieved (and judging by how badly the movie’s turned out, he probably knew something was up during filming), but it’s the continual change back and forth between cold-blooded killer and sensitive family man that fails to have any impact. Thanks to the script, Brosnan is effectively playing two different Devereauxs, but they don’t fit together (not even once), leaving the actor struggling to combine the two into one recognisable character. It’s no surprise then that the rest of the cast fare equally badly, though Bracey deserves special mention for the woodenness of his expressions and the awkwardness of his line readings. Kurylenko has a little more to do than be the female lead who gets to “stand-next-to-the-star-and-look-pretty”, and Smitrovich does aggressive even when the script doesn’t call for it.

In the end, The November Man is a soggy mess of a movie that does just enough to hold the attention but without putting in too much effort. Donaldson directs as if he’s only seen every other page of the script, and the location photography by Romain Lacourbas is perfunctory, leaving the backdrop of the movie looking less than interesting. And John Gilbert’s editing lacks the necessary punch and energy to make the action scenes anything more than humdrum and predictably constructed.

Rating: 4/10 – weak in almost every department, The November Man is a dire attempt at replicating the kind of spy thrillers that popped up every other month throughout the Eighties; it doesn’t work here, and hasn’t done in any of the three hundred similar movies that Steven Seagal has made in the last ten years either.

The Boy and the World (2013)

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Boy and the World, The

Original title: O Menino e o Mundo

D: Alê Abreu / 80m

Cast: Vinicius Garcia, Felipe Zilse, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta, Marco Aurélio Campos, Cassius Romero

A small boy (Garcia) living in the countryside with his mother and father is devastated when his father leaves and doesn’t come back. The boy decides to go in search of his father, and in doing so encounters a migrant worker and his dog, a loom worker, and experiences the trials and perils of the world beyond his home. The boy travels a long way and sees many strange things, but his journey eventually finds him returning home, though he finds his quest has brought about an unexpected consequence.

From its beginning – creating dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design – The Boy and the World stands out as a virtuoso piece of animation, a cleverly assembled and thought out work that stimulates the mind as well as pleasing the eye (something it achieves throughout). There are a number of stylistic approaches used here to present the world the boy sees, from the open, sparsely animated countryside where we first meet him (and which is very different from the almost jungle-like environment he inhabits when he’s playing), to the ordered, grid-like orchard where the trees stretch out in row after row, and to the overcrowded, boxed-in structures of the distant city that the boy finds himself in. As the boy becomes increasingly hemmed in by the world around him, so too does the viewer. It’s a clever conceit: that the wider we roam, the more restricted we become.

The movie’s opening sequence, where the image is just the boy and a musical stone (the music is explained later on in the movie), is so simple and effective it’s a wonder that other animators don’t use this technique more often. Slowly, other textures and colours and shapes are added until the screen is filled with the riotous expression of the boy’s fantasy life. It’s a stunning progression, strangely beautiful and uplifting, a cornucopia of hues and tones mixed with swathes of water colours that bewitch and astound with every addition. And with a whistle it all disappears, receding into nothing as quickly as it was assembled; it’s a bravura sequence, superbly animated, and superbly evocative of the way a young boy might give life to a fantasy world.

With such an incredible opening the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that such a visual salvo would be difficult – if not impossible – to follow. But they’d be wrong. The boy’s home and its surroundings are uncomplicated, simplistic even, but totally in keeping with the movie’s reflection of the boy’s experience of life (only the skies are more dramatic). There’s a glorious moment when the boy’s father, waiting for the train that will take him away, is the only remaining image as everything else (except for his suitcase) fades from view. Again it’s this simplicity that makes the moment so effective and so heartbreaking for the boy. (And there’s been very little dialogue, and what there has been, has been in Portuguese which has then been played backwards.)

Leaving home, the boy’s adventure begins in earnest when he meets a sad-faced migrant worker who takes him to the orchard where he picks blossom from trees all day. There the boy hears – and sees – the music his father used to play. The boy runs among the trees, chasing the notes, and though his pursuit ends in disappointment, he remains committed to his quest – and the viewer with him. It’s a marvellous sequence, bolder and more formal in its design than anything seen previously, but still wonderfully emotive.

Boy and the World, The - scene

Later, when the boy arrives at the factory where the blossom is turned into rugs on giant looms, the tone becomes darker. Colours are muted, the curves and circles give away to more rectangular, sharper-edged shapes, and the boy encounters physical danger for the first time. Watching the movie head into more dramatic territory – there’s a hint as well that the factory is facing modernisation – it’s good to see that Abreu keeps the focus on the boy, even while the movie’s scope begins to broaden into areas involving industrialisation and the lack of workers’ rights.

From there the boy ventures by train into the big city, its box-like configuration, confusion of streets, and rampant, soulless consumerism proving too much for him. Lost, but still able to find some beauty in amongst the bustle and mayhem thanks to a kaleidoscope, the boy finds himself on a container ship that takes supplies to huge domed cities in the sky. It’s a startlingly futuristic moment, but rendered in such an awe-inspiring way that we can only share in the boy’s sense of wonder at what he sees. When he returns to the city it becomes clear there is a huge social divide, with poverty more evident than before, and the images become more detailed in order to highlight the level of despair and anguish of the people who live there. By now the movie is as dark as it’s going to get, but with the advent of real footage to show just how badly the world is being treated, the animation is dropped in favour of more hard-hitting examples of the movie’s message.

A bittersweet coda follows, but it’s in keeping with what’s gone before, the boy’s innocence transformed into something a little more modulated. He’s still able to see and hear his father’s music but it comes with a melancholy that the viewer knows he won’t be able to shake. It’s still a fitting ending, though, and the movie ends as it began, in a swirl of dazzling concentric shapes of colour and design until there is only a dot.

There is so much to admire in The Boy and the World that it’s easy to forget that it’s message is often too heavily put across (and illustrated) and there are some moments that lack the emotional heft that the movie displays elsewhere – the slums and its inhabitants are a case in point, with Abreu unable to resist pointing out how badly these people live and are treated, surrounded as they are by the kind of consumer products they’ll never be able to afford. It’s a blunt message, at odds with the more lyrical approach of the rest of the movie, and threatens to tip things over into the social injustice arena rather than have the movie continue to be about a boy’s search for his father.

As for the character designs, there are very, very few fat people depicted, with pretty much everyone appearing rake thin, though this is mainly due to the animation style that Abreu has adopted. Legs and feet are often straight lines, while arms are often held so close to the side that it appears the characters have no arms at all. It’s the adult faces that take the most getting used to, Abreu and his animators having gone for a look with the eyes that wouldn’t look amiss in say, Mama (2013) or The Woman in Black (2012), big long grey slashes that are unsettling to look at. As for the boy himself, he’s possibly the simplest character in the movie, his red-hooped top standing out in the crowd above his shorts and stick-thin legs and below his rosy-cheeked face. And with three strands of hair on top of his head, he’s just too adorable not to look at.

Rating: 8/10 – some viewers might be put off by the heavy-handed attempts at putting across the message about social injustice and the perils of institutionalised poverty, but The Boy and the World has so much more to offer; often lyrical, always beautiful to look at – even when the mood turns dark – and a rare piece of animation that really does let the movie speak for itself.

As the Light Goes Out (2014)

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As the Light Goes Out

Original title: Jiu huo ying xiong

aka Final Rescue

D: Chi-kin Kwok / 115m

Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Bai Bing, William Chan, Andy On, Patrick Tam, Liu Kai-chi, Deep Ng, Michelle Wai, Kenny Kwan, Alice Li, Jackie Chan, Andrew Lau, Susan Shaw, Bonnie Xian

Three Hong Kong firefighters – Sam (Tse), Chill (Yue), and Yip (On) – ignore basic safety rules when dealing with a fire and are brought before a disciplinary hearing to answer for their actions. Chill takes the blame but the trio’s friendship is undermined by the experience, as it was Yip who should have admitted it was his decision to ignore the rules.

A year later it’s 24 December and Hong Kong is experiencing the hottest, most humid weather in recorded history, with the soaring temperatures and an approaching typhoon set to make conditions potentially very dangerous in the coming days. At Lung Kwu Tan fire station it’s Sam’s last day before transferring to another station. It’s a bittersweet occasion as he still works with Chill and Yip (who’s now his station boss). At the same time a new firefighter, a transfer from the mainland called Ocean (Jun), is in his early forties and quickly earns the animosity of Chill when he overreacts to a minor situation at the station.

Meanwhile, Lee’s son, Water (Vincent Lo) is on a school trip to the nearby Pillar Point power station. Along with another station, Pillar Point is responsible for around eighty per cent of the power for Kowloon but while the plant supervisor Man (Tam) is convinced of its capabilities, others are not so certain with the impending weather conditions about to converge. When a fire breaks out in a winery that is adjacent to the main gas pipe that feeds the power station, Sam and his team deal with the fire but have reservations as to whether or not they’ve fully dealt with the situation. Overruled by Yip, Sam remains doubtful but returns to the station.

While Water and his schoolmates are waiting to leave the power station, Sam’s doubts about the winery grow and while Yip is away at a function, he decides to return to the site. The winery warehouse proves to be alight and when efforts to shut off the gas pipe fail, the resulting explosion sends fiery shock waves along the pipe and into the power station, causing devastation and trapping Water and two of his schoolmates, as well as Man, two of his colleagues, and Tao (Yam), a fellow firefighter. Sam must mount a rescue mission to save them, all while encountering situations and dangers that preclude following the rules.

As the Light Goes Out - scene

Impressively mounted, As the Light Goes Out is the kind of disaster movie where the characters’ personal issues and their fears and insecurities are set out carefully from the beginning, only to be abandoned once a big fire breaks out. In fact, it’s the movie’s first half where the rivalries and animosities, all bubbling below the surface for the most part in true Hong Kong fashion, are explored that grabs the attention, even when the winery and its unfortunate location re: the gas pipe is discovered. While the viewer waits for the gas pipe to explode and the devastation to begin, the characters fall in and out with each other, and mistrust is either added to or begun. It’s the potential for emotional disaster that’s more intriguing: whether or not the raft of personal issues will override professional ethics and make the rescue effort more difficult.

Alas, under Kwok’s direction, the sterling effort put into setting up the characters – and Sam in particular – is put aside in favour of the type of selfless heroics that often defy logic and make the viewer wonder what all the fuss of the first hour was for. Even the callow Man steps up to the plate and has his moment of heroism, and while it makes a change to see such a rote character prove less than cowardly, when everyone is working together it actually lessens the drama; you need that sense that someone is going to endanger everyone else at some point in order to increase the tension. As it is, characters do die – one very, very predictably – but the movie lacks any emotional resonance on these occasions, and quickly moves on to the next dangerous situation with barely a backward glance.

As for the disaster itself, there’s the usual inevitability of man’s hubris coming back to bite him in the ass, and the pyrotechnics are suitably impressive, though the scale doesn’t seem quite as spectacular as it might have been. Once the gas pipe explodes and the power station blows up, the main enemy isn’t the fires that sporadically populate the inside of the station but the black smoke that seems to move around with a will of its own. Treated almost like a character itself, the smoke is ever-present at times but rarely proves a viable threat, so the rescuers and the rescued face peril instead from a variety of dangerous obstacles and missing walkways they have to find their way around. Cue some low-key heroics and hastily improvised solutions, and a sense that Jill Leung and Yung Tsz-kwong’s script was originally a firefighter drama that wasn’t intended to be the disaster epic it’s aiming for.

Uneven then, and with moments of unnecessary reflection amidst all the carnage, As the Light Goes Out isn’t the compelling drama it wants to be, and there’s too much that’s perfunctory to lift it out of the doldrums it runs into every now and then. The cast perform well but ultimately are restrained from doing any better because of the script’s need for them to become action heroes. Kwok’s direction is equally uneven and the pacing is off in several sequences that should be exciting but turn out to be surprisingly dull instead. There are better firefighter dramas out there – Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), Johnnie To’s Lifeline (1997) – and this may have had ambitions to join that select group, but sadly, the movie’s lack of focus and mishandled structure holds it back.

Rating: 5/10 – initially full of deft characterisations and engaging performances, As the Light Goes Out segues into its firefighting dramatics and promptly stalls; loud, impassioned, occasionally spectacular, this is a movie that promises much but rarely delivers (and did we really need kids in peril as well?).

Battle Creek Brawl (1980)

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Battle Creek Brawl

aka The Big Brawl

D: Robert Clouse / 95m

Cast: Jackie Chan, José Ferrer, Kristine DeBell, Mako, Ron Max, David Sheiner, Rosalind Chao, H.B. Haggerty, Chao Li Chi

In Chicago in the 1930’s, restaurant owner Kwan (Chi) is being pressured into paying protection money to gangster Dominici (Ferrer). When he receives a visit from Dominici’s henchman Leggetti (Max) and some of his goons, Kwan is physically intimidated but doesn’t pay. As Leggetti leaves, Kwan’s son Jerry (Chan) – who has considerable martial arts prowess but has promised his father he won’t fight – intervenes and leaves the goons thoroughly embarrassed and beaten by using their own moves against them.

When Dominici hears about Jerry’s prowess he believes he’s found the fighter he needs for the upcoming Battle Creek Brawl, a street fighting contest held in Texas. Dominici needs Jerry to combat the fighter backed by rival gangster Morgan (Sheiner), but Jerry  refuses at first. This leads Dominici to have Jerry’s brother’s fiancee (Chao) kidnapped and held hostage. Jerry attempts to rescue her – aided by his martial arts mentor, Herbert (Mako) – but Dominici outsmarts him; they strike a bargain though, and Jerry agrees to take part in the brawl.

Morgan, meanwhile, has persuaded Leggetti to betray Dominici and ensure his fighter’s win by kidnapping Herbert. Having made it to the final round, and facing off against Morgan’s fighter, Kiss (Taggerty), Leggetti threatens Jerry with his mentor being hurt if he doesn’t lose the contest. The only thing Jerry can do is to stall until he can find a way of saving Herbert, and then defeating Kiss.

Battle Creek Brawl - scene

Chan’s first English language feature, Battle Creek Brawl is an enjoyable, free-wheeling martial arts movie that gives the diminutive star the chance to show off his athletic skills and flash the cheeky grin that’s stood him in such good stead for more than forty years. It’s a mainly lightweight distraction, unconcerned with providing any depth to the proceedings, and in many ways all the better for it. It’s a very likeable movie, made purely to entertain its target audience, and on that level it’s a complete success.

Chan’s acrobatics are given plenty of screen time, and as ever he’s a joy to watch, the sheer inventiveness and physical dexterity of his movements proving as entertaining as ever. His wonderfully expressive features and often amazing agility are placed to the fore as much as possible, and writer/director Clouse – with a few awkward exceptions – keeps the camera focused on Chan and leaves everyone else several places behind. The clever intricacy of the fight scenes, particularly the incredibly well choreographed bouts between Chan and Mako, raises the bar throughout, and if Chan’s adversaries are a little too eager to line up and take their punishment, well, that’s always going to be a drawback when working with US stuntmen – it’s a question of timing.

The movie takes place in a strange mix-world of Thirties Chicago and Seventies Texas, with only the costumes and the cars giving an indication that the brawl itself is taking place in the same time zone as the rest of the movie (keep an eye on the Texas backgrounds and you’ll see how jarring it can be). That said, the decision to make it a period piece in the first place makes no difference to the story or the action, but the apparent acceptance of Jerry’s inter-racial relationship with Nancy (DeBell) is a refreshing change (even if it does reinforce the lightweight nature of the script).

With the script’s refusal to add any real intensity to events, the performances are necessarily lacking in substance with even Ferrer struggling to add any appropriate menace to his role. He’s more like a cuddly uncle figure playing at being nasty but in as urbane a manner as possible. As his rival, Sheiner tries to add some threat to events but he’s not given enough screen time to succeed, while Max is given the chance to take on Chan, but with predictable results. DeBell is kept firmly in the background, and of the rest of the cast, only Haggerty as the dastardly Kiss, and Mako as Herbert make any real impression.

Clouse keeps the focus firmly on the fight scenes, and keeps the action moving in ever more exciting ways, and the camerawork by Robert C. Jessup – aided by editor George Grenville – is surprisingly precise and fluid in equal measure; there’s always something going on in the frame and some of it is as interesting to watch as what’s going on in the foreground, especially during the brawl itself, where there are plenty of “bits” that enrich the fights themselves. And to round things off there’s a rich, emphatic score courtesy of Lalo Schifrin that works so well with the material.

Rating: 8/10 – almost too flimsy in its construction and execution, Battle Creek Brawl is still simple yet effective, and a terrific introduction to Chan’s remarkable agility; with an innocence that borders on deliberate naïvete, the movie succeeds by having a great sense of humour and by not taking itself at all seriously – and by showcasing some tremendous fight scenes.

Poster of the Week – Amarcord (1973)

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Amarcord

Amarcord (1973)

There are several great posters out there for Fellini’s movies, and while some of them have a caché that can’t be beat – I’m talking I vitelloni (1953) for one – this particular poster appeals to me in ways that have crept up on me over the years. (Some historical background: I saw the majority of Fellini’s movies over a period of four months back in 2002, and while learning more about them, saw the variety of designs allocated to the posters for his movies; most of them are really expressive and charming.)

Here it’s the breadth of the design, coupled with the number of references to characters, places and events in the movie that impresses the most, along with the clever way in which the eye is drawn to each component of the poster in a way that allows one to focus on one aspect without losing sight of the whole. The dark-hued sky with its portentous colouring is wonderfully dramatic, hinting at some of the conflict contained within the movie, and then there’s the space between the characters and the sea, sparingly dotted with images, a brighter stretch of colour that looks more optimistic.

It also serves as the backdrop for one of the most incredible assemblies of characters from a movie you’re ever likely to see. They’re all there: from Ciccio Ingrassia’s mad uncle, to Magali Noël’s beautiful Gradisca, to Maria Antonietta Beluzzi’s impossibly bosomed tobacconist – an intimate series of representations that border on good-natured caricature yet retain the essence of that character, allowing their personalities to be hinted at or confirmed (to find out which you have to see the movie). It’s like a rogues gallery except that these are all people you’d be intrigued to meet.

And then there’s the bold, swirling script used for the director’s name and the title, a magnificently cursive grouping of letters that maintains its own identity and oversees the image like a proud, protective parent. It all adds up to an audacious, striking movie poster that perfectly reflects the movie it represents.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.

Interstellar (2014)

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Interstellar

D: Christopher Nolan / 169m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Leah Cairns, Timothée Chalamet

In the near future, humanity is at risk of extinction due to a worldwide shortage of food. Ex-pilot, engineer and widower Cooper (McConaughey) runs a farm in the Midwest growing corn, the last remaining crop that is resistant to the blight that has devastated the rest of the world’s crops. Cooper is helped by his father-in-law, Donald (Lithgow), son Tom (Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Foy). Murph is a precocious child who is convinced their farmhouse has a ghost that is trying to communicate with them.  Cooper isn’t convinced but as the phenomena increases he comes to realise that there is a message being sent, but why and by whom remains a mystery.

The message translates into coordinates. Cooper determines to travel to where the coordinates are located, but finds Murph has stowed away in their truck. Letting her go with them, they find themselves at what appears to be an abandoned army base. They try to break in, but Cooper finds himself tasered. When he comes to, he finds himself in the company of a group of NASA scientists led by Professor Brand (Caine) who are attempting to find a way to solve the problem of humanity’s approaching doom. Brand, along with his daughter (Hathaway), have been working on finding another planet to live on. Through the appearance of a mysterious wormhole near Saturn, Brand and his team have sent twelve manned probes into the wormhole and three have returned signals that indicate the planets they’ve found could sustain human life. The next mission, which Brand wants Cooper to pilot, is to travel to each planet and make a definitive choice for mankind’s future.

Cooper’s decision to make the trip alienates Murph and he leaves without reconciling things between them. Along with Brand’s daughter and two other scientists, Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi), plus two robots, TARS and CASE, Cooper makes the two year journey to Saturn and then pilots their ship, the Endurance, into the wormhole. Once on the other side, they have to decide which planet to visit first. When they do they find it covered in water, and with wreckage of the manned probe strewn about; by Brand’s calculations and thanks to the difference in time and relativity, they’ve arrived only a few hours after the probe landed. When nearby mountains prove to be an approaching wave of huge proportions, Brand’s determination to retrieve the flight data leads to a member of the team dying before they can escape back to the Endurance.

Back on Earth, a grown up Murph (Chasten) is now working for Professor Brand; she still feels animosity toward Cooper and still hasn’t forgiven him for leaving. With her brother Tom (Affleck) now married and with a child of his own, and still trying to run the farm, she’s taken the place of Brand’s daughter and is working with him on his research. As the situation on Earth worsens, Murph learns that Brand hasn’t been entirely honest about his motivations in sending Cooper et al on their mission.

The second planet reveals a surprise: the scientist who was sent there is still alive. Dr Mann (Damon) is initially pleased to see them, but he behaves oddly, especially when he learns that their mission’s back up plan – to colonise the new planet with specially chosen embryos – is still feasible. He makes an attempt on Cooper’s life and then tries to gain control of the Endurance. His plan fails, but provides Cooper with the opportunity to head back through the wormhole in the hope that he can be reunited with Murph, while also allowing Brand to get to the last remaining planet.

Interstellar - scene

Ambitious, thought-provoking, and visually arresting, Interstellar is Nolan’s ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a dazzling sci-fi venture into the unknown that finds itself bogged down by the need to emphasise the human values that make us what we are, while making less of the actual space adventure that takes up so much of its running time. It’s a bold experiment, detailed and rich in its scientific background, but one that leaves many questions unanswered by the movie’s end.

While a degree of ambiguity is no bad thing in a movie, here there’s too many elements and aspects of the script that either don’t make sense or leave the viewer wondering if they’ve missed something. It seems clear that Nolan and co-scripter/brother Jonathan have made a great deal of effort to get the physics right, but they’ve done so at the cost of a consistent narrative. At the movie’s beginning, Cooper is shown as a man with somewhat undeveloped parental skills: a problem with Murph’s attitude at school is resolved by his getting her suspended. He encourages her to scientifically investigate their home’s ghost phenomena, but remains unconvinced of her findings. She’s not exactly an inconvenience to him, but the viewer can see that he’s happier dealing with machines. So when it comes time to leave for space, and he suddenly becomes completely committed to Murph and all misty-eyed over leaving her behind, it comes as a bit of a surprise that she means that much to him (but it does set up a later conflict between Cooper and Brand’s daughter, so maybe that’s why it’s there).

The mission itself is another device that doesn’t work entirely well. Ostensibly, the plan is to find a planet that can sustain human life and that humanity can eventually all travel to (the enormity of such an operation is never discussed though – but hold on, there’s a reason for that too). The back up plan – as noted above – is akin to a kind of Noah’s Ark solution, but again the details of just how these embryos are going to be “grown” is never fully examined. It’s things like these, where the reasons behind the mission are glossed over, that make Interstellar such a frustrating watch for so much of its running time. With so much riding on the mission and its success, and with the whole programme being hidden from the public – though wouldn’t someone have noticed the launch of a rocket ship into space? – the notion that humanity is facing extinction is never quite made to feel like that much of a pressing problem. When events on the first planet prove disastrous, the relative time they’ve spent there means that twenty-three years have passed on Earth. This allows for Chastain’s appearance as the adult Murph, but conditions haven’t changed, and if anything, no one seems any more worried than before. Certainly not the adult Tom, whose life running the farm carries on without comment.

Once on the second planet, the introduction of Damon as the unhinged Dr Mann – an unadvertised performance whose secrecy wasn’t really necessary – lends the movie some unneeded action heroics but also leads to musings on the nature of death and the importance of connecting with our loved ones, particularly our children. It’s an attempt at adding depth to a part of the film that doesn’t need it, and hamstrings what little suspense there is (which basically boils down to when is Mann going to go all psycho on everyone). Damon is good but it’s the predictable nature of his character that hampers the set up and by now the audience can accurately guess just where the movie is heading.

There’s more but a special mention should be made for a scene near the movie’s end, where one character finds themselves dismissed by another character in a matter of a couple of minutes (maybe three). It’s an astonishingly abrupt moment, and one that seems to have been written deliberately that way because the Nolans became conscious of the movie’s running time and needed to wind things up as quickly as possible. It undermines the relationship between the two characters completely and, considering it’s a scene that should carry one hell of an emotional wallop, it has the feel of an outtake that was added back in at the last minute.

interstellar - scene2

While the storyline and the plotting suffer from a consistent inconsistency – if such a thing, like the movie’s appearing-out-of-nowhere wormhole, can be said to exist – Interstellar at least looks stunning, its space travel sequences some of the best since 2001, and has Nolan cannily dispensing with sound effects outside the Endurance. The level of detail is impressive, and Nolan displays his usual knack of framing shots and scenes with an eye for the unusual angle and the beautiful image. He’s a master craftsman and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work – even here where the themes and motifs are not as congruous as they should be. (For his next project, it would be interesting to see Nolan direct someone else’s screenplay, one that he doesn’t get to adapt into something with more of his DNA on it than the writer’s.)

It’s also a pleasure to see Nolan assemble such a great cast. Man of the moment McConaughey is excellent as the tough-minded but ultimately emotionally driven Cooper, and Hathaway also excels in a role that, thankfully, isn’t as generic as it could have been; she also gets to deliver a speech about love that is genuinely moving and something all of us can relate to. As the conflicted adult Murph, Chastain provides an emotional touchstone for the audience in the movie’s latter half, giving a more subtle performance than might be expected, and Caine continues his run of Nolan movies with an appearance that, refreshingly, isn’t as overloaded with the usual heavy handed gravitas that this type of role normally attracts. Lithgow, Affleck, Bentley, Burstyn and Gyasi offer solid support, and Foy matches McConaughey scene for scene at the movie’s beginning.

Interstellar is a big picture that would like to be seen as an important picture, the kind that, back in the Fifties, would have had a roadshow release ahead of its theatrical run. But as mentioned above, there are too many “issues” – the overbearing, intrusive organ-based score by Hans Zimmer, Brand’s most important line in the movie being rendered unintelligible, the design of the robots that changes from scene to scene depending on what they’re needed to do – to allow it to be regarded as truly important. It strives hard to achieve this but as with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Nolan’s grip on the material is not as strong or as focused as on previous projects. But again, it’s an impressive visual experience and shouldn’t be faulted on that level, but as the good folks at Pixar always say, “It’s all about the story”, and sadly, that’s not the case here.

Rating: 6/10 – best seen on an IMAX screen – though even that will have viewers scratching their heads at Nolan’s choice of shots in the format – Interstellar sets out to be a profound meditation on love and the will to survive, but falls well short of effectively engaging with either concept, except occasionally; technically superb, this is a movie that, despite its star power and exceptional director, won’t remain in the memory for long because, sadly, it lacks the resonance to do so.

My Top 10 Guilty Pleasures

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If you love movies, there’s always going to be those select favourites that, even if they’ve been critically derided and/or flopped at the box office, that you can watch over and over again, and which will always raise your spirits when you’re having a bad day or need cheering up.  With this in mind, these are my (mostly) guilty pleasures, the ten movies that I can return to time after time, but which aren’t exactly going to feature on any ten best lists (except this one).

10 – Con Air (1997) – D: Simon West / 115m

Con Air

A plane full of vicious criminals, Nicolas Cage with a mullet, Colm Meaney’s apoplectic DEA agent, more testosterone than you can shake an Uzi at, one of the most over-the-top climaxes in action cinema history, a bunny in a box, and Steve Buscemi as a serial killer with a keen sense of irony – what’s not to like in this profane, blustering, blackly comic action movie? It’s a blast of pure escapism, and while it has its fair share of crass, stupid moments, it’s still the kind of simple-minded excess that never lets up in its efforts to entertain.

9) – Q (1982) – D: Larry Cohen / 93m

Q

There are other Larry Cohen movies that are as enjoyable as this one, but it has a marvellous sense of its own absurdity and plays it straight throughout. The big Q himself – Quetzalcoatl – is used sparingly, but when he’s on screen the movie steps up a pace and the flaws in the acting and the production design are forgotten (and forgiven). A great homage to the monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties, Q is often rough and ready in its approach but at its heart it has passion and some very offbeat humour.

8) – Happy Gilmore (1996) – D: Dennis Dugan / 92m

Happy Gilmore

Adam Sandler’s man-child persona is given its most effective outing in this tale of a hockey player who discovers an aptitude for golf. Gilmore’s angry outbursts are a joy to watch, and though the movie is as uneven and lacking in a consistent tone as most of Sandler’s early movies, it’s the energy he brings to proceedings that lifts the movie and gives it such a winning sheen (and angry slapstick is always funny).

7) – Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) – D: Eli Craig / 89m

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Not really a guilty pleasure considering it was well received on release (and probably has a cult following by now), Tucker and Dale’s attempts at surviving the intrusion of a group of preppy college kids with unfortunately murderous intentions is an inventive, fun-filled exercise in subverting the backwoods psycho sub-genre of horror movies.  As our heroes, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine make for a great duo, and there are twists and surprises galore, as well as some great one-liners (“He’s heavy for half a guy”).

6) – Lake Placid (1999) – D: Steve Miner / 82m

Lake Placid

Of course it’s the best in the series, and of course it has a sense of humour that often overwhelms the horror, but the first in the rapidly worsening series is so deftly constructed that the inspired sparring between Oliver Platt’s arrogant hunter and Brendan Gleeson’s sardonic sheriff is just one highlight in a creature feature that just barrels along making the viewer smile at every opportunity. And there’s a wonderfully vulgar performance from Betty White that is as hilarious as it is unexpected.

5) – 1941 (1979) – D: Steven Spielberg / 118m

1941

Spielberg’s pet project is a complete mess, but it’s still a glorious mess, the kind of big budget misfire that still has a heart and a soul and is only interested in providing as much in the way of zany entertainment as it possibly can. The cast do their best but the script hinders any attempt at a cohesive narrative (almost deliberately so), and even Spielberg isn’t as in control of the material as he normally is. But if you go with it there’s lots to enjoy and some of the slapstick is really, really funny.

4) – Blown Away (1994) – D: Stephen Hopkins / 121m

Blown Away

Yes, Blown Away is barmy, and yes, Tommy Lee Jones’ Irish bomber is about as convincing as Sean Bean in The Patriot Games, but it has a simple intensity that offsets the ridiculous nature of the plot. It also features what is simply the most impressive explosion in movie history (spoiled slightly by having Jeff Bridges and Forest Whitaker almost photo-shopped into the sequence). It stretches credulity to the snapping point, and has more than a few moments where the script takes the cinematic equivalent of an extended lunch break, but it has a certain charm nevertheless.

3) – Arachnophobia (1990) – D: Frank Marshall / 103m

Arachnophobia

A thrill ride with spiders, and possibly Jeff Daniels’ finest hour, this heady mix of arachno-horror and small-town dramatics is unsure if it’s a slightly gorier tribute to the creature movies of the Fifties, or an adventure movie with hundreds of web-spinning villains. Either way it still works for the most part, and while some of the spider scenes err on the side of being more teasing than terrifying, the slowburn approach leads to a hugely satisfying climax.

2) – The Quick and the Dead (1995) – D: Sam Raimi / 105m

Quick and the Dead, The

Unfairly overlooked on its initial release, Raimi’s Western gunfight contest is high on impressive camerawork and special effects, but suffers from these aspects being the same reason the movie doesn’t quite work. Over-stylised it may be, and Raimi may not be able to rein in the movie’s visual ingenuity, but even so, surprisingly good performances from the likes of Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobin Bell help things immensely, and it never loses the viewer’s attention.

1) – CutThroat Island (1995) – D: Renny Harlin / 123m

Cut Throat Island

One of the most notorious money losers in box office history, Harlin’s overwrought, effects heavy, leaden-acted pirate movie is still huge fun despite all its problems. Frank Langella steals the movie, the locations are stunning, the stunts are great, and the whole movie revels in its complete absurdity. It’s the epitome of loud, dumb fun, and all the more enjoyable for it, making a remarkable virtue out of being so stupid that it just has to be watched over and over again just to see if it is as bad as it looks and sounds (it is, but who cares?).

The Lady in No 6 (2014)

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Lady in No 6, The

aka: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

D: Malcolm Clarke / 39m

Alice Herz-Sommer

Born in Prague in 1903, Alice Herz grew up surrounded by the intelligentsia of the day, her parents’ cultural salon frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka (who would go for walks with Aiice and her twin sister, Mariana, and tell them stories) and Gustav Mahler. She learnt to play the piano at an early age and was encouraged to take it up as a career by another friend of the family, Artur Schnabel.  She studied at the prestigious Prague German Conservatory of Music (where she was the youngest pupil), and there drew the attention of cellist Leopold Sommer.  They married in 1931, and in 1937 had a son, Raphael.  Alice gave recitals and performed in concerts until the Nazis took control of Prague and Jewish involvement in performances was curtailed.  While several of her family members and friends fled to Israel, Alice remained in Prague to care for her mother who was very ill.

In July 1943, Alice was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt where her skills as a pianist were utilised in over one hundred concert performances, including those for the visiting Red Cross, as the Nazis strove to show that conditions were not as bad as the Allies suspected.  Billeted with Raphael, he and Alice were liberated in 1945 (sadly, Leopold died of typhus in Dachau six weeks before it too was liberated).  Rebuilding her life, she and Raphael emigrated to Israel in 1949 and were reunited with their family, including Mariana.  There, Alice worked as a teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until she decided to emigrate to England in 1986.  In retirement she still played the piano for three hours every day, and remained an inspiration to everyone who knew her.  Remarkably, she was a hundred and ten when she died in February 2014.

Lady in No 6, The - scene

The key to Alice’s life, she always said, was optimism.  She unfailingly looked for the good in life, even during the terrible years when she and Raphael were incarcerated in Theresienstadt.  Like so many of her fellow concentration camp survivors – two of whom are featured in the movie – Alice’s positive attitude helped her to withstand the horror that surrounded her.  She saw “the beauty in life” in almost everything, but particularly in music.  For Alice, “music was magic”.  It could raise her spirits and bring happiness in even the most terrible of situations or circumstances.  With her unwavering memory for classical pieces, Alice could always retreat into her own mind, a place where even the Nazis couldn’t follow her.  It’s inspiring to think that, despite where she was, she was perhaps freer than anyone could imagine.

This remarkable woman is the focus of an equally remarkable documentary short.  The Lady in No 6 is a compelling, fascinating account of one woman’s lifelong love affair with music.  Alice is seen at 109, still mobile, still playing the piano with wonderful dexterity, and still enjoying life with a vitality and energy that would put most thirty-somethings to shame.  She’s always smiling and laughing, and her eyes – only slightly dulled by old age – twinkle with a mixture of mirth and sincerity that is surprisingly wistful when she sits in repose.  Alice’s upbeat nature and lack of pessimism is a joy to behold, and when she talks about her love of music you can see that she’s transported by it.  As she’s said in the past, “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion”.

Wisely focusing on her passion for music for the most part – with an extended but emotive sidestep into World War II – Clarke deftly avoids any hint of sentimentality (as does Alice) and paints an engaging, winning portrait of a woman whose devotion to music has the effect of making the viewer wish they had even a tenth of Alice’s ability and commitment to her art.  Testimony from one of her neighbours provides an idea of how much her morning recitals are enjoyed, and a reminiscence of her time at Theresienstadt reveals the same approval from some of the guards.  It’s a wonderful affirmation of Alice and her dedication to her muse, that her playing has been able to cross social and ideological divides with such incredible efficacy.

Away from Alice and her contagious love affair with classical music, the movie paints a sobering yet hope-infused account of her time at Theresienstadt, with one of her friends recounting a particularly chilling account of an encounter with Josef Mengele.  The focus shifts to take into account the resilience of those inmates who could see no other outcome but their own survival, and while Alice takes a back seat during these moments, it still serves to highlight the tenacity she must have had to endure (and to be so well-balanced in the aftermath of it all).

Visually as well, The Lady in No 6 is a treat, with Clarke’s assembly of various archival materials proving both eye-catching and memorable, his blending of the historical and the modern throwing each element into sharp relief.  The post-production work is highly impressive, and so is the editing by co-writer Carl Freed, both of such a high standard that the movie has a precise, almost painterly feel to it, and the scenes of Alice in her flat feel entirely welcoming, not as if the audience is eavesdropping on her, but that she’s gladly invited everyone in… and couldn’t be more pleased for the intrusion.

Rating: 9/10 – a delightful and inspiring look at the life of an absolutely exceptional woman, The Lady in No 6 fully deserves its Oscar win and is one of the best documentary short movies of recent years; it’s a shame then that we get to spend such a short amount of time in Alice’s wonderful company.

Opstandelsen (2010)

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Opstandelsen

aka Resurrection

D: Casper Haugegaard / 50m

Cast: Marie Frohmé Vanglund, Mads Althoff,  Jonas Bjørn-Andersen, Asta Stidsen, Roxanne Tirkov, Peter Althoff, Hans Maaløe

At the funeral of Simon (Peter Althoff), one member of his family is noticeably absent from the service: his brother Peter (Mads Althoff).  Peter’s other brother, Johannes (Bjørn-Andersen), and his sister, Esther (Vanglund), go to look for him.  They find him in the toilets, snorting cocaine.  He and Johannes argue, but Peter is dismissive when Johannes tells him the family is through supporting him with his drug problem.  Johannes and Esther return to the service; Peter continues to take cocaine.

With the drug affecting him substantially, Peter makes his way to the service.  When he does he finds scenes of carnage, with everyone under attack from the newly risen dead.  Scrabbling away he seeks refuge in another room and is joined by Johannes, Esther, and their younger sister, Maria (Stidsen).  Johannes finds a trap door and they all follow him down into the room below; in the process, Peter blacks out.

When he comes to, he finds they are trapped in a small room beneath the church, and with no safe way out.  Maria has been injured and with no way for her to stem the bleeding, Esther cradles her as she dies.  While the two brothers argue about what to do, Maria comes back to life and attacks Esther.  Peter and Johannes restrain her but have little option in the end but to kill her.  The shock of it all has a terrible effect on Esther and she retreats into her own mind.

Peter takes control of the situation and they leave the room, finding themselves in a maze of underground corridors and rooms.  Coming under attack from the undead at almost every turn, they fight their way to ground level but become separated, leading each of them into confrontations that will decide their eventual fate.

Opstandelsen - scene

A very, very low budget exercise in zombie terror, Opstandelsen is a compact feature that works better as a calling card to the industry than as a fully realised project.  The decision to shoot this as a short film was a wise one, and shows just how padded out by endless running around in tunnels/corridors/woods other horror movies have become.  It also helps the movie hit an above average number of dramatic high points, with the beleaguered trio facing (and fending off) attack after attack in their efforts to escape from the church.

The low budget necessitates some inventive responses to the challenge of presenting a church-bound zombie apocalypse, and while some work very well indeed – Maaløe’s fire and brimstone preaching from the pulpit (and practically blaming everyone there for what’s about to happen), an attack on Johannes through a door, Esther’s confrontation with her mother (Tirkov) – there are others that don’t, most notably the use of camera lights as the only form of illumination during a chase sequence below ground.  The editing is determinedly choppy during several of the attacks and it’s difficult to work out just what is going on (it gives the impression that some of the zombie make up and effects weren’t that great during those scenes).  It’s a shame, as these scenes would otherwise be quite effective at adding further energy to a movie that wastes little time in putting its main characters at risk and showing in gory detail what can happen to them.

There are things to be said for briefly introducing characters before letting the action take hold, but here it does lead to some problems, the main one being the way that Peter shakes off the effects of some very excessive coke-snorting to become as focused as he does (either he’s very used to it or the cocaine wasn’t as pure as it looks).  And the way in which Johannes earnestly prays to God for protection – giving the impression he may fold under the pressure – isn’t followed up or allowed to get in the way of his subsequent heroics.  Otherwise, the narrative follows a fairly standard formula, whittling down its cast until there’s only one survivor, and leaving things open-ended as to where the story might go next.

With a strong, heavily stylised visual aesthetic in play, Opstandelsen is often potent stuff, with its gruesome splatter effects used sparingly and with unflinching attention to detail, leaving the unprepared viewer to deal with some purposely raw and violent imagery; fans, however, will lap it up.  Haugegaard drives the action forward, making the movie a kinetic treat, allowing only the briefest of pauses once the trio leave the room below the trap door.  Some of the more violent, dramatic scenes are abetted by having Lasse Elkjær’s pounding score jacked-up in volume, and the soundtrack is beefed up as well, making all the lip-smacking zombie sounds that much more appalling to hear.  As an attempt to further highlight the awfulness of what’s happening, it’s unnecessary, but it does fit in with the movie’s unsubtle, in-your-face approach to the material.

Rating: 6/10 – very rough around the edges, and with performances that are perfunctory if not memorable, Opstandelsen is a short that bodes well for Haugegaard’s future projects; seriously grim and grisly throughout, fans of zombie movies will find much to enjoy even if the storyline offers very little that’s new.

Apron Strings (2008)

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Apron Strings

D: Vaele Sima Urale / 90m

Cast: Laila Rouass, Scott Wills, Jennifer Ludlam, Nathan Whitaker, Leela Patel, Jodie Rimmer, Kate Harcourt, Peter Elliott, Gary Young

Michael (Whitaker) is a young Indian student whose mother, Anita (Rouass) is estranged from her sister, Tara (Patel).  On the pretext of doing a college project, he visits his aunt at the restaurant she runs, while keeping his visit a secret from Anita.  He and Tara hit it off and he visits more often until she offers him a job there.  Anita, meanwhile, is at odds with the producers of the TV cookery programme she hosts: about the content, about the recipes, and about the costumes she’s asked to wear.

One of Tara’s regular customers is Barry (Wills).  He’s a middle-aged man still living at home with his mother, Lorna (Ludlam) and his Nan (Harcourt).  Barry is drifting through life looking for one get-rich-quick scheme to pay off after another, and he sponges off his mother – who runs a cake shop – with unvarying results: the money is always wasted.  Lorna’s attempts at tough love are undermined by her soft-hearted nature, even when Barry gets into debt through his attempts to get local baker Minh (Young) to buy out his mother’s business.

As Michael gets to know his aunt, and the family history, he begins to pull away from his mother.  This only adds to the anger she feels over her cookery programme, and their relationship suffers even further.  Michael spends more time at Tara’s restaurant until, suspicious of what her son has been doing, Anita follows him there.  Meanwhile, Lorna also has to deal with the return of her daughter, Virginia (Rimmer), several months pregnant and refusing to take on her mother’s ideas of conformity.  With passions running high in both families, each member has to look at themselves before they can make peace with each other.  But can they?

MCDAPST EC005

A subtly ambitious tale that takes in themes of racism, community, homophobia – Michael is gay – injured pride, personal responsibility and motherhood, Apron Strings is a small-scale drama that tells its various stories with simple precision throughout.  Both main stories involve mothers who have become distant from their sons, and who no longer understand them.  The blame for this seems squarely laid at the doors of Anita and Lorna, but it’s offset by their unswerving love for their children, as both women strive to ensure their children are happy.  The movie shows how difficult it can be to be both supportive and unsupportive depending on the situation, and how walking such a tightrope can backfire on the mother.

The movie also shows us how striking out on their own can undermine the best intentions of the two sons.  Michael aims to reunite Anita and Tara but he’s unprepared for the emotions that learning about his aunt and his mother’s fractured relationship are awakened in him.  He finds it difficult to reconcile the image he has of his mother with that of the proud young woman who made a difficult choice in her youth and has fought hard not to let that decision define her.  With Michael so sure of his racial identity, and having such a strong sense of family, that his mother has turned her back on all that, proves too much of a shock.  And yet, by being gay, he runs the risk of his own community rejecting him, making his own need to make a decision about his future all the more important.

Alternately, Barry is a lazy conniver, a wastrel who thinks being rich will solve all his problems, and the problems he perceives his mother has.  He’s the classic underachiever who thinks he’ll make his mother proud by hitting the jackpot, but he fails to recognise that she loves him all the same, and would do even if he was working at a mundane nine-to-five job, and as long as he was content.  But Barry is restless, with no chance of getting a job, or beginning a relationship, and with no pride in his appearance.  He struggles with himself and rebels against his mother’s hopes for him, failing time after time and never learning from the experience.

As the two mothers trying hard to connect with their sons, Rouass and Ludlam both turn in polished performances that make the audience waver in their sympathies for them, as each woman is allowed to appear strong and determined and yet flawed at the same time.  Rouass is at her best when railing against the constraints Anita believes her cultural background have placed on her, and she simmers with an anger that clearly has deep-seated roots.  It’s an impressive performance, a precise, detailed characterisation that is at once charming and distressing in its emotional candour.  Ludlam is equally good, Lorna’s tired efforts to rein in her best intentions and play the hard line blunted continually by what she sees as the need to be a caring, though accommodating mother.  She too is suffused with anger, but it’s an anger that has been compromised over time and it no longer carries the emotional weight that would enable Lorna to overcome the inadequacies she feels in dealing with her son (and her daughter).

Apron Strings - scene2

With two such strong, committed performances, it’s reassuring that under the equally strong and committed direction of Urale – making her feature film debut – the other performances aren’t overwhelmed in the process.  Wills plays Barry as a sad, desperate individual with few redeeming qualities but who is strangely sympathetic as well, a neat trick given the levels of perfidy that Barry will stoop to.  Patel provides the cultural and racial grounding that informs the audience, and paints a moving portrait of a woman whose sense of family obligation has paved the way for her own happiness and sense of purpose in life.  And Michael’s sense of confusion and anger over what he perceives is his mother’s betrayal of her heritage is neatly handled by Whitaker, as well as his conflicted emotions.

Each of these performances wouldn’t be quite so good if it wasn’t for the carefully constructed and multi-layered screenplay by Shuchi Kothari.  Her only feature length screenplay to date, it contains – and maintains – a level of detail that makes it easy for Urale to deliver an affecting, quietly moving piece that looks at the generational divide evident in today’s society, and which does its best to show that bridges can be built when the willingness is there on both sides.

Rating: 8/10 – a moving portrait of two families struggling to deal with the emotional fallout from unfulfilled dreams and desires, Apron Strings is a finely tuned drama that deserves a wider audience; and the scenes of Indian food being prepared are as mouth-watering as you’d expect.

Poster of the Week – Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938)

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Dad and Dave Come to Town

Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938)

For those of you wondering who Dad and Dave were, they were characters – father and son – who featured in four Australian movies made between 1932 and 1940.  In many ways they were a precursor to the Beverly Hillbillies, though the humour in them relied heavily on slapstick.  All four movies were successful Down Under, and even today are highly regarded.

Dad and Dave Come to Town was the third movie in the series, and this poster reflects both the storyline and the carefree approach to the material.  Emphasis is given to the difference that city life has on Dad and Dave’s appearance in the movie, both of their gruff exteriors replaced by noticeably airbrushed “makeovers” (though Dave changes from slightly dangerous looking to appropriately dim looking).  For enthusiasts, seeing Dad and Dave transformed into “city slickers” would have been an irresistible attraction.

The contrast between the rural community they come from and the big city is further highlighted by the warm farmyard scene juxtaposed with the dark outline of the city at the bottom – can it be a good influence on our heroes, or will they prove to be more than a match for city ways?  And as if to reinforce the idea of the city’s wicked ways and its corrupting influence, there’s a couple of scantily clad women alongside the cityscape (as well as a very worrying looking mannequin), all carefully posed to promote the risqué nature of the humour in this particular outing.

What grabs the eye the most though is the colourful garishness of the poster itself, the bright yellows and reds bursting forth from the blue background like typographic explosions (and be honest, how often do you see the word ‘cripes’ given such prominence in a poster?).  The depth and richness of these primary colours makes the whole poster that much more appealing and easy to look at.  It’s the perfect way to enrich an already lusciously presented poster and its alluring images.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Mini-Review: Bipolar (2014)

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Bipolar

D: Jean Veber / 80m

Cast: Andrew J. West, Emma Bell, Beatrice Rosen, Andrew Howard, Lenny Jacobson, Taylor Nichols

At the AltaVista clinic, Dr Lanyon (Howard) is embarking on a series of trials to determine if a new drug is of any benefit to sufferers of bipolar disorder.  One of the volunteers, a young man named Harry Poole (West) is nervous, fidgety and lacks self-confidence.  He stays at the clinic for the trials where he’s assigned a nurse, Anna (Bell), to oversee his treatment.  He soon becomes attracted to Anna and as the trials continue, the new drug prompts a change in Harry’s outlook and his demeanour.  He is more confident, he looks and acts differently, but when the drug he’s taking begins to wear off he becomes aggressive.

Dr Lanyon calls a halt to the trials when similar reactions occur in other volunteers.  Unable to accept this, Harry’s new, more confident alter-ego, Edward Grey, takes over and steals a supply of the drug.  Back at his brother John’s (Jacobson) house, Harry/Edward begins treating his brother badly, as well as his friend Ivy (Rosen) who visits often, and Anna, who is attracted to Harry but finds herself dealing more and more with Edward.  As Edward’s personality dominates Harry’s, Edward’s violent tendencies also come to the fore, until he decides to confront Dr Lanyon when his meds run out.  Lanyon goes to Harry’s home but by now, Edward is in full control… or likes to think he is.

Bipolar - scene

Although the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder can provoke violent reactions and/or outbursts, the illness depicted in Bipolar is more akin to split personality disorder (or at least the movie version of it).  With its premise owing more to the story of Jekyll & Hyde than any accurate medical diagnoses, the movie opts for a found-footage style that is awkward and inconsistent (the two cameras Harry uses at home are moved around to accommodate the action on too many occasions for their use to remain credible), and a denouement that is plucked from the bucket marked “crazy and ridiculous”.  (And if the viewer doesn’t “get” the central conceit, there are two scenes from John Barrymore’s 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shown to reinforce the idea.)

As Harry and Edward, West is either pale and sweaty (Harry) or suave and distant (Edward).  Playing bad for the most part, West never really convinces in either role, and when called upon to release Edward’s evil nature, appears more petulant than frightening.  Bell and Rosen struggle to make much of an impact due to the script’s need for them to be victims (albeit for different reasons), while Howard does “man on LSD” as if he’s only heard rumours about it.  Behind the camera, Veber directs with all the certainty of someone who hasn’t made a movie in eleven years and hammers out any subtleties his script might have had in the first place.

Rating: 3/10 – scattershot and unconvincing, Bipolar is too intent on making Edward a sexist, murderous thug to worry if it makes sense (which it doesn’t); with annoying performances and a script that keeps the viewer at a distance, this is one Jekyll & Hyde variation that is both tedious and uninventive.

Phoenix (2014)

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Phoenix

D: Christian Petzold / 98m

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge

Nelly (Hoss) is a former nightclub singer who was interned in a concentration camp during World War II and subsequently disfigured.  At the war’s end she undergoes reconstructive surgery that makes her look as close as possible to her real self.  The resemblance is striking but there are enough differences that she could be mistaken for someone else.  Nelly recovers from her surgery with the help of fellow survivor, Lene (Kunzendorf).  When Nelly is better, Lene wants both of them to emigrate to Israel, but Nelly has other ideas: she wants to return to Berlin and find her husband, Johnny (Zehrfeld).

Her search takes her to the Phoenix club, where she finds Johnny, but there is no happy reunion.  When he sees her, Johnny doesn’t recognise her, but he does see the resemblance and comes up with a plan to claim Nelly’s inheritance.  After a period in which he will teach her to “be” Nelly, he will present her to their families and friends, and pass her off as his wife.  Nelly goes along with the plan.  She keeps quiet about her identity in the hope that Johnny will one day recognise her, but those hopes are cruelly dashed when Lene learns that Johnny was the person who deposed her to the authorities and which led to her being taken to the concentration camp (and then divorced her the day after).

Upset by this news, Nelly becomes ambivalent towards Johnny and begins to question his plan and its chances of succeeding.  She drops hints about her true identity but he doesn’t pick up on them.  She challenges him and makes things more difficult for him when he tries to tell her about their past, questioning what he tells her.  She also changes the way she is asked to dress and behave, subtly altering the balance of power in their relationship.  As the time approaches when Nelly is due to “return”, she must make the decision to either reveal the truth, or go along with the deception.

Phoenix - scene

A mordant, austere tale about one woman’s attempt to reconstruct her life and reconnect with her past, but under unexpected conditions, Phoenix is the sixth collaboration between Petzold and Hoss, and a great example of contemporary German cinema.

Adapted by Petzold from the novel Return from the Ashes by Hubert Monteilhet, Phoenix is a quietly gripping examination of memory and identity, and the ways in which each can undermine the other.  From the movie’s beginning, with Nelly about to undergo the surgery she hopes will give her her life back, it’s clear that she has lost more than just her looks.  She’s lost her sense of self, and by looking as much as possible as she did – and not differently as recommended by her surgeon – she has faith that this will restore her.  But what is really missing is the self-confidence she had before she was interned, and even looking as she did, she’s still hesitant and unsure of herself.

When it comes to actually rebuilding her life with Johnny she doesn’t find it easy, her emotional fragility keeping her subdued and unwilling to jeopardise the duplicitous scheme her ex-husband has come up with.  Being able to do the “role” justice begins to change matters, Nelly slowly gaining in confidence until she is as much in control of Johnny’s scheme as he is – if not more so.  The power play that develops between them adds tension and a deeper emotional complexity than up til now, and as Nelly begins to assert herself – and not the impostor version she’s adopted – her sense of pride develops as well.  The final scene shows just how far Nelly has come, and it’s a rewarding moment both for her and for the viewer (if not for Johnny).

With Nelly finding that Johnny’s memories of their marriage lack any residual warmth or fondness, she also has to come to terms with the idea that her view of their marriage may not be as truthful as she believed.  As she struggles to maintain that wilting perspective, the moment when she puts it all behind her and decides to move forward is put off until the very end, leaving the movie balanced on a cinematic precipice.  Mean-spirited it may be, but whether or not Nelly and Johnny do go back to each other after all their plotting, is largely irrelevant.  That Nelly now has a choice in the decision is what matters, and by the look on Johnny’s face at the end, it’s not a choice he’s looking forward to her making.

As the uncertain, deceptively enigmatic Nelly, Hoss puts in a superb performance, perfectly capturing the various fears, worries and concerns of a person playing a part and slowly learning how empowering it can be.  Hoss is one of the best actresses working in movies today, and she gives a measured, quietly authoritative performance that shows her complete command of the character and her (somewhat skewed) behaviour.  It’s a fantastic achievement, outwardly clinical in that detached manner people expect from German actors, but ruinously emotional underneath, emoting often with just her eyes, her expressionless face hiding the inner turmoil Nelly feels inside.  It’s an acting masterclass, the kind of role that would go to Nicole Kidman if there was an English language remake (though let’s hope there isn’t).

Phoenix Ronald Zehrfeld Nina Hoss

With his lead actress having such firm control over the main character, Petzold is free to highlight the emotional and psychological aspects of his script, keeping “Nelly” hidden away for most of the movie, even when the war is over and she’s forced to hide behind the surgery she’s had.  Petzold (with Hoss’s help of course) brings Nelly to life with painstaking attention to the more poignant aspects of her tale, most notably in a scene where by dressing as she once did Nelly hopes to reignite a spark in Johnny’s heart, that even though he doesn’t feel toward her as he did before the War, that he might do so now, even though she’s different.  It’s an incredibly touching, hopeful moment, beautifully and sensitively acted by Hoss and Zehrfeld, and on its own, one of the most powerful scenes you’re likely to see all year.

The post-war period is effectively replicated and photographed (by Hans Fromm), and there’s a simple but equally effective score by Stefan Will (who has worked on all bar one of Petzold’s movies).  It all adds up to a quietly engrossing tale that makes a virtue of keeping its main characters’ emotions hidden close under the surface, and by making Nelly’s struggle to unite her past and future all the more enthralling.

Rating: 8/10 – at first glance, Phoenix looks gloomy and uninviting, but Petzold is an astute director and the movie is far more passionate than it seems; with another outstanding performance from Hoss, this is a movie that exceeds expectations and does so with honesty and tremendous skill from its makers.

Evolution (2001)

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Evolution

D: Ivan Reitman / 101m

Cast: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, Ethan Suplee, Michael Bower, Pat Kilbane, Ty Burrell, Dan Aykroyd, Katharine Towne

A meteor crash lands outside of the small Arizona town of Glen Canyon, punching a hole through the ground and coming to rest in a cavern.  A professor at the local university, Harry Block (Jones), is also a member of the US Geological Service.  When he hears about the meteor he heads for the site with his friend and fellow professor, ira Kane (Duchovny).  They meet Wayne (Scott) who was there when the met or landed.  Harry and Ira descend into the cavern and find that the meteor is still warm, and when they begin taking a sample from it, they also discover that it releases a strange blue liquid, almost as if it were bleeding.  They take the sample back to Ira’s lab where he discovers that the liquid contains micro-organisms that appear to be single-celled, and which are definitely extraterrestrial in origin.

He breaks the news to Harry and they go back to the crash site with some of their students on the pretence of conducting a field trip (and to remove the meteor).  They find the beginnings of an entirely new eco-system, as well as evidence of evolutionary advances that are happening far too quickly.  When a flatworm dies from excess oxygen, Ira realises the importance of what they’ve discovered, and convinces Harry to  keep things to themselves until they can assess matters further (it helps that Harry is focused on a potential Nobel prize at some time in the future).

Meanwhile, while working at the local country club, Wayne sees evidence of the flatworms having spread further than the meteor site but he doesn’t say anything to anyone.  Harry and Ira return again to the cavern but are stopped when they find the site has been turned into a restricted military area overseen by General Woodman (Levine).  It turns out that Woodman was once Ira’s boss and that Ira has a checkered past involving an experimental virus that produced some unfortunate side effects.  Helped by Center for Disease Control scientist Alison Reed (Moore), Woodman takes over the site and bars ira and Harry from any further involvement.

While the military continue to monitor the cavern’s growing eco-system, and the creatures that are evolving there, other creatures are finding their way into the local community.  At the country club, one of the members is killed by a creature that is in turn killed by Wayne.  He takes the corpse to Ira and Harry; they later learn that dozens of creatures have died near the meteor site due to being oxygen intolerant.  When one gives birth to its offspring, a dragon-like creature, before dying, the newborn proves able to breathe properly and it flies off to cause mayhem at a nearby shopping centre.  Harry, Ira and Wayne track it down and kill it before warning General Woodman about the growing menace.  Under increasing pressure from the state governor (Aykroyd), Woodman advocates napalming the cavern and the tunnels that spur off from it.  But when Ira and co discover that heat speeds up the creatures’ evolutionary process, they face a race against time to stop them from over-running the planet.

Evolution - scene

An often raucous, good-natured sci-fi romp, Evolution is the type of comic fantasy that makes no bones about how absurd or ridiculous it might be, and throws caution, logic and plausibility as far out of the window as it can manage.  There’s a boisterous, almost schoolboy aesthetic going on, with Jones’ sex-obsessed geology teacher, Scott’s not-so-bright would-be fireman, and Duchovny’s good-natured ex-military scientist proving a good mix, and bolstered by Moore’s clumsy, well-meaning disease expert.  All four are clearly having fun and their enthusiasm, added to the script’s sense of mischief (courtesy of Don Jakoby, David Diamond and David Weissman), makes for an entertaining monster movie that flaunts its lack of scientific realism with wild abandon.

With its focus on making things as fun as possible, Evolution plays out like a movie whose basic concept was probably much simpler, but which, luckily, ended up being a whole lot more involved and wonderfully, gloriously silly.  There’s almost too much to enjoy: Wayne’s practice run at saving a woman from a burning building; Harry’s one-liners – “There’s ALWAYS time for lubricant!” – and extravagant facial expressions; Ira’s mooning of General Woodman; an encounter with Ira’s ex-girlfriend (played by Sarah Silverman); and Aykroyd’s pissed off state governor.  Amidst all the human levity, it would be easy to forget that there are some pretty weird alien creatures to deal with as well, but Reitman co-ordinates things with his trademark ease, and grounds the action with just enough unexpected gravitas to make the threat more credible than it might initially appear.

With the cast on top form, and Reitman orchestrating things with his usual aplomb, the occasional lapse can be forgiven – a cringe-inducing amount of sexist behaviour from Harry, Suplee and Bower being in Ira’s class in the first place (though it’s still funny) – and some of the creature effects are poorly integrated into the action, but there are some great desert locations that are beautifully photographed by Michael Chapman, and John Powell’s stirring score complements the movie throughout.

Rating: 8/10 – preposterous and silly, Evolution is nevertheless the kind of guilty pleasure you can brag about to your friends; even if you only watch it for Harry’s rectal procedure, it will still have been all worthwhile.

The Canal (2014)

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Canal, The

D: Ivan Kavanagh / 92m

Cast: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra, Steve Oram, Kelly Byrne, Calum Heath, Carl Shaaban

Film archivist David, his wife, Alice (Hoekstra), and young son Billy (Heath) move into an old house near a canal.  There are marital tensions: David suspects Alice of having an affair, and their lovemaking is perfunctory and passionless.  While they get used to living in their new home, David’s colleague Claire (Campbell-Hughes) asks him to look through some old crime scene footage sent to the archive by the police.  When he does, he discovers that the house was the site of a murder in 1902.  The discovery has a profound effect on David who starts to imagine he can hear voices in the walls, and he begins to catch glimpses of a man in the house.  He also has nightmares in which he sees the man kill his wife and then dump her body in the canal.

One day, Alice tells David she’ll be working late.  He waits outside the place where she works and sees her leave with a man (Shaaban).  He follows them along the canal to the man’s home.  He finds his way inside and sees them having sex.  David comes away upset and feverish.  He heads back along the canal but becomes nauseous and stops in a disused public toilet to throw up.  There he has what may be an hallucination involving the man he’s glimpsed at the house, and sees Alice at the side of the canal being attacked by the same man.

The next morning, David discovers that Alice hasn’t come home.  He reports her as missing, and the case is investigated by Inspector McNamara (Oram).  David continues to fixate on the house’s history and he learns more about the murder in 1902 and how it fits into a wider pattern of child abduction and ritual sacrifice.  When Alice’s body is found in the canal it’s deemed an accidental death but David’s visions increase and so too his sense of paranoia.  David tells Claire that he suspects the ghost of the man who killed his wife has killed Alice and is trying to kill Billy as well, but Claire doesn’t believe him.  With the help of babysitter Sophie (Byrne) he tries to keep Billy safe, while attempting to find proof of the supernatural events happening around the house.  But when McNamara returns with news that David was seen at the canal the night Alice died, David has no choice but to take Billy with him in a final chance to escape the dead man’s clutches.

Canal, The - scene

Featuring one of the creepiest set ups of recent years, The Canal has enough chilling moments to make it one of the most effective scary movies of recent years.  It’s a refreshing change to watch a horror movie where the nightmarish qualities of the script are brought so potently to life.  Filmed in Ireland, The Canal is a dark, eerie, disturbing movie that uses well set up scares and shocks to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat.  The depictions of past events are often shocking, but are used sparingly, their execution and careful inclusion adding to the tension and the horror.

The mystery of the murder in 1902 and its connection to the canal is the spine of the movie, making David’s growing paranoia and sense of mounting terror its meat.  As the beleaguered archivist, Evans paints a convincing portrait of a man searching for a meaning to the strange phenomena happening around him, while also trying to maintain his sanity.  It’s a standard characterisation seen in many other horror movies but here Evans’ performance lends a credibility to David’s reactions and motivations that isn’t that prevalent elsewhere.  Evans’ sweaty, desperate turn anchors the movie throughout, and his early likeable, nervous approach makes David a sympathetic character the viewer can relate to.  As events become darker and more intense, Evans never loses focus on the character and he helps ground the more lurid developments, so that David’s mounting terror is rendered with complete conviction.

Evans’ performance is one of the main reasons the movie is as good as it is.  Another is the well constructed screenplay by writer/director Kavanagh, with its cleverly realised flashbacks, archival footage and photographs showing what really happened in 1902.  Kavanagh also makes a virtue of the kind of choppy editing style that usually makes things more difficult to process, but here adds to the disjointed, off-kilter and unnerving sequences involving the dead husband and the children who watched him kill their mother before being meeting an even worse fate.  These sequences carry a distinctive power that elevates the material and makes it all the more impressive in its visual styling.

The various scares – the man passing by open doorways, the sequence in the public toilet where blackened fingers appear over the top of a cubicle door, David’s vision of the murder in 1902 – are confidently presented and completely gripping.  It’s occasionally uncompromising, rarely dull or distracting, and a tour-de-force of low budget inventiveness and emphatic editing.  Ceiri Torjussen’s perturbing score adds a layer of menace to the proceedings and there’s sterling work from production designer Stephanie Clerkin that makes the house and its environs look unearthly even in  daylight.

Rating: 8/10 – a genuinely scary movie that deserves a wider audience, The Canal is often a tough watch, but is bolstered by a cast and writer/director who know exactly what they’re doing; moody and demanding, this is entirely worthwhile and not for the faint-hearted.

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.

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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.

Phantom of Liberty, The - scene

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.

Grand Seduction, The - scene

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.

Judge, The - scene

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!

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