April Is World Cinema Month

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Foreign cinema

Looking back over the reviews I’ve posted here on thedullwoodexperiment, it’s not exactly a surprise to discover that the majority of movies I’ve reviewed have been English language movies. English is my native language, I have more access to English language movies, and while I can occasionally convince other people to watch a foreign language movie with me there are often too many considerations to be taken into account to make it worthwhile – “what’s it all about?” being the least of them.

But while English language movies will always remain the staple ingredient of my movie diet, I have too much regard and fondness for foreign language movies to ignore them completely (three of my All-Time Top 10 are movies “not in the English language”), and as often as possible I head for the land of the subtitle and allow myself to be transported to parts of the world, and people, I have little knowledge or awareness of. It’s a learning process, as well as a hopefully entertaining one, and to celebrate my love of foreign language movies I’ve decided that April 2015 will be World Cinema Month at thedullwoodexperiment.

This means that each day there’ll be a review of a foreign language movie from a country where English is not the main language. My aim is to find and review thirty different movies from thirty different countries and highlight just how diverse and yet not too dissimilar movie making is around the globe, and to maybe, just maybe, encourage readers and followers of thedullwoodexperiment to take a chance and follow me on this journey of (further) discovery.

I aim to watch a range of movies from a variety of genres and decades, and where appropriate to give some background information about some of the countries chosen and their movie making history. I’m looking forward to this very much, and hope those who follow thedullwoodexperiment, or who may be just occasional visitors, will be prompted themselves to look further afield, and with a bit of luck, find a movie they’ll come to treasure.

P.S. For those of you who are thinking, “What? No English language movies at all?”, there will still be some of those throughout the month. Watch this space!

Tracers (2015)

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Tracers

D: Daniel Benmayor / 94m

Cast: Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Adam Raynor, Rafi Gavron, Luciano Acuna Jr, Josh Yadon, Johnny Wu, Sam Medina, Amirah Vann, Christian Steel, Wai Ching Ho

Cam (Lautner) has a problem: he owes the Chinese Mafia $15,000 and his work as a bike messenger isn’t earning him enough to meet the repayment schedule that’s been arranged. When his bike is totalled in a collision caused by a female freerunner, Cam doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. But the next day he finds that his “girlfriend” has dropped off a new bike where he works. Cam goes in search of his mystery benefactor and eventually catches up with her. Her name is Nikki (Avgeropoulos) and she’s part of a small group of tracers that includes her brother, Dylan (Gavron), and friends Tate (Acuna Jr) and Jax (Yadon). Cam is attracted to Marie and at first it’s his main reason for hanging out with them, but when his new bike is stolen and he has to move out of the garage space he’s renting because the Chinese Mafia threaten his landlord (Vann) and her young son (Steel), he tells the group that he wants “in” on whatever it is that they do (and which is probably both illegal and lucrative).

Cam eventually meets Miller (Raynor) who tells him that he runs the group as a kind of specialist team, hired to carry out dangerous or high risk “jobs” that are illegal, most of which involve stealing. Cam goes on a job with them that turns out to be a test, which he passes. But the money he’s earning isn’t enough to pay off his debt. At the same time, he and Nikki become closer, even though she is with Miller. They begin seeing each other, though Miller becomes suspicious. When Miller announces a big job, one that will earn each of them around $20,000, Cam sees his way out. But when he’s picked up for the job and Nikki isn’t taking part, he begins to wonder if Miller is setting him up. But the job, a robbery at the “bank” of a notorious Korean gang, goes wrong and in their attempt at escaping, Jax is killed and Cam ends up being arrested. But there is a surprise in store for him, but one that he might be able to turn to his advantage – if he stays alive long enough.

Tracers - scene

Since the first and subsequent Twilight movies, the career of Taylor Lautner hasn’t exactly set cinema screens alight. From being lost in the giant ensemble that was Valentine’s Day (2010), to the entirely risible Abduction (2011) and an uncredited turn in Grown Ups 2 (2013), his career seems to have stalled. On the strength of Tracers it doesn’t look as if it’s going to get any better any time soon.

It’s not that the movie is all bad or that Lautner is – in fact, he’s just about bearable – but it is the kind of movie that the word “disposable” was made for, occasionally exciting but generally quite benign and underwhelming. No one is required to do too much in the way of emoting, and the script seems determined to include as much in the way of bland dialogue as it can, while each character wanders from scene to scene with the vacant approach of someone under hypnosis. Even when Cam and Nikki end up in bed together it’s all Lautner and Avgeropoulos can do to make it seem like they’re attracted to each other.

But despite all this, where the movie does score points is with its parkour scenes, which stay just this side of inventive, and manage to install some much needed energy and thrills into proceedings. It’s also good to see that Lautner has put in his time learning how to participate without looking like an amateur, and if he’s not given anything too dangerous to jump across/down from/over, then it shouldn’t be a surprise. That said, it’s fun to watch his training montage and work out which fails were choreographed and which were originally meant to be outtakes.

With the camera following Cam and the gang from time to time on their parkour routines, the excitement of the chase is never far away, and there’s one sequence which looks set to emulate the foot chase from Point Break (1991), but unfortunately it’s over almost as soon as it’s started – did no one think to strap a helmet-cam on someone at any point? And the twin action sequences toward the end of the movie raise the raise things out of the doldrums of the previous hour. But without these elements – shot with an energetic, well-paced attention to low angles by DoP Nelson Cragg – Tracers is a largely humdrum affair that screams banality from every (other) angle.

Outside of Lautner, the cast are largely forgettable, with the exception of Wu who brings both humour and menace to his role as Tong enforcer Jerry, and Vann who portrays Cam’s landlady with a quiet grace that makes her the most credible character in the whole movie. Benmayor lacks the experience needed to meld the characters and the action together into a unified whole, and directs much of the movie as if from a distance, almost as if he were leaving the cast to direct themselves (and if so, that wasn’t such a good idea either). With his attention wandering – sometimes within a scene – it makes for an uneven, debilitating viewing experience that you won’t want to repeat.

Rating: 4/10 – with parts of the movie feeling padded out and slowed down unnecessarily, Tracers only picks up when its cast fling themselves over and around various rooftops; bordering on vacuous, it’s a movie that could be viewed as the second nail in the coffin of Lautner’s career.

Match (2014)

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Match

D: Stephen Belber / 92m

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard, Jaime Tirelli

Tobi Powell (Stewart) is an aging ballet instructor at Juilliard. He’s a lonely man, given to rejecting offers of friendship from his colleagues, and he lives by himself in an apartment in New York’s Inwood hamlet. Despite this he agrees to give an interview to Lisa Davis (Gugino) who is writing a dissertation on the dance community during the Sixties. Accompanied by her husband, Mike (Lillard), the three meet in Tobi’s favourite Greek diner. Lisa is bright and attentive to Tobi’s flamboyant personality, while Mike is more reserved. The interview continues at Tobi’s apartment, but Mike, who is ostensibly there to support his wife, begins to ask more pointed questions about the Sixties and in particular, Tobi’s sexual liaisons.

Tobi is initially perplexed by Mike and Lisa’s focus on the sexual mores of the period until they mention the name of a dancer he knew called Gloria Rinaldi. Tobi had a brief affair with her in the latter part of 1967, but she gave up a potential career as a dancer to have a child. That child is Mike and he thinks Tobi is his father. Tobi denies being this and tells them both that it would have been impossible as he always wore a condom in those days. Mike doesn’t believe him and becomes aggressive; Tobi asks them both to leave. Instead, Mike refuses and pins down Tobi so he can take a DNA swab from Tobi’s mouth. Having got what he came for, he leaves, but not before Lisa has made it clear that she’s unhappy with the way things have gone.

While Mike heads for a nearby forensics lab where a friend works, Lisa stays with Tobi and they begin to bond over prune pastries and Tobi’s love of knitting. He lets her know he can see the cracks in her marriage to Mike, and Lisa admits Mike has become a different man in recent months as the idea of finding and confronting Tobi has eaten away at him. Moved by Lisa’s honesty, Tobi shows a newspaper clipping he’s kept from when Mike was fifteen and he’d taken part in a fencing competition. He reveals that he knew Gloria was pregnant and that she asked him to be the child’s father but he refused; instead he decided to focus on building his career. And when he saw the newspaper clipping he sent Gloria a sum of money towards Mike’s college fund. But with all this he still can’t be Mike’s father: it’s all too late.

When Mike returns to the apartment, both men are forced to confront some unpleasant truths about each other, while Lisa is left to hope that some degree of reconciliation can be found.

Match - scene

Originally a stage play by writer/director Belber that opened in 2004 (and featured Frank Langella, Jane Adams and Ray Liotta as Tobi, Lisa and Mike respectively), Match still retains the look and feel of a stage play and the type of staging that betrays its theatrical origins. That’s not an entirely bad thing, but it does contribute to several occasions during the narrative where certain developments feel artificial and/or forced.

There’s always a degree of contrivance that accompanies a theatrical adaptation, and Match is no exception. In opening out his play from the constraints of Tobi’s apartment, Belber has chosen to also constrict it (the play ran half an hour longer), and while this possibly helps, there is still a sense that the story gets a little rushed once the trio reach Tobi’s humble abode. Following a number of flamboyant embellishments to his answers, and as many sidetrack comments as he can muster, Tobi is side-swiped by Mike’s bullish demeanour, and while there’s an argument that the movie needs to pick up some speed – and get to the crux of the matter – by this point, it’s done in such a clumsy way that Belber’s careful character building is given the cinematic equivalent of a knee-capping.

From here on until the end of the movie, Match struggles to regain the momentum it has carefully built up, and the characters’ attempts at connecting with each other become more unlikely and more laboured. Tobi and Lisa at one point have a discussion about the pleasures of giving and receiving cunnilingus, as unlikely a conversation as any that two strangers would have within a couple of hours of meeting. They go through Tobi’s collection of self-made knitwear and go up to the roof where Tobi tries to get Lisa to dance. It’s uncomfortably like a courtship, and despite Tobi’s obvious homosexuality, these events still provoke an uncertainty about Belber’s motives in putting these two characters together for so long. And when Mike returns, his confrontation with Tobi is resolved – with admirable speed, but at the expense of a fair degree of credibility.

With the narrative proving unwieldy and uneven, it’s a good thing that Belber has chosen well with his cast. Tobi is the kind of camp, peacockish character that an actor of Stewart’s calibre can bring to life with the twitch of an eyebrow, or the shake of a scarf. He dominates the movie, revelling in Tobi’s arch, semi-pretentious musings, his passion for life at odds with his self-enforced solitude, and still having an insatiable curiosity about the lives of others. It’s a performance that appears effortless, and Stewart is hypnotic throughout, smoothing over the cracks in Belber’s script with a well-timed expression here and a well-considered line reading there. He’s ably supported by Gugino, though Lisa appears largely out of her depth in the situation, two steps away from being entirely subordinate to her husband. When Tobi recognises the problems in their marriage, Gugino shows Lisa to be a woman looking for the answers to questions she hasn’t thought of, and displays the character’s sad-hearted vulnerability with admirable understated precision.

Unfortunately for Lillard, Mike is required to be a kind of aggressive deus ex machina, bulldozing his tight-lipped way through Tobi’s rambling reminiscences and being unnecessarily abusive to Lisa. It’s a dangerously underwritten part, but Lillard manages to salvage some of the pent-up sadness and disappointment Mike has been feeling throughout his life, and he makes it all the more evident when he challenges Tobi’s assertion that Gloria chose her life.

Belber proves to be an erratic director, depending too much on close ups to impart sincere emotion, and never quite knowing where to place the camera in Tobi’s apartment, leading to some odd framing that sees the characters either squeezed into shot and/or suffering a kind of temporary dismemberment. The scene at the forensics lab is dramatically unnecessary (but does remind us that Mike is still part of the story), and the ending, while entirely predictable, is an example of the way in which Belber wants to both punish and celebrate Tobi’s decision all those years ago, but can’t make up his mind which is the more appropriate.

Rating: 6/10 – with strong, committed performances from its main cast, Match maintains the audience’s interest despite some clumsy, ill-considered plot developments and a sense that it’s all a bit too overwrought for it’s own good; the fact that it’s taken ten years to reach the screen may give potential viewers enough of a warning, however, not to expect too much.

Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife (2014)

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Let's Kill Ward's Wife

D: Scott Foley / 82m

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Scott Foley, Donald Faison, James Carpinello, Greg Grunberg, Dagmara Domińczyk, Amy Acker, Marika Domińczyk, Nicolette Sheridan

Ward (Faison) has three close friends: David (Wilson), Tom (Foley), and Ronnie (Carpinello), but since his marriage to Stacey (Dagmara Domińczyk) and the birth of their son, his chances of spending quality time with them has almost reached zero. The reason? Stacey has him browbeaten and henpecked and bullied and reduced to asking permission to see his friends (which he doesn’t get). When a planned Father’s Day trip to the golf course sees four end up as three, his friends start to muse on the idea of killing Stacey and ridding their lives of her forever. But while Tom and Ronnie dismiss the idea other than in principle, screenwriter David begins researching how to kill someone and get away with it.

At a party held at Ward’s house, the friends, along with Tom’s wife, Geena (Acker), and David’s ex-wife, Amanda (Marika Domińczyk), are all together when Tom receives a phone call from actress Robin Peters (Sheridan), whom he has recently interviewed for the magazine he and Ward work for. She flirts with him and he arranges to meet her. But Stacey overhears the conversation and threatens to tell Geena about it. In a fit of pent-up anger, Tom mashes her face into a cake. She comes up for air but slips on a piece of the cake and crashes to the floor, unconscious. She stirs, and Tom panics and strangles her.

He manages to keep the body away from prying eyes until everyone but his friends and Geena and Amanda have gone. He tells them what’s happened, and after the initial shock, they all decide to cover up Stacey’s murder, and then to dispose of the body. Ward is stunned but not unhappy, and goes along with the plan. When it comes to deciding what to do with the body, David reveals several ways in which they could get rid of it, and they decide to dismember it and bury the portions in various different locations. But there is a potential fly in the ointment: Ward’s nosy cop neighbour, Bruce (Grunberg), who senses something is up with Ward, and who keeps an eye on his and his friends’ comings and goings in the run up to the disposing of Stacey’s body.

But when it comes to actually dumping her body, Ronnie has a crisis of conscience that threatens the plan, and Ward is followed by an increasingly suspicious Bruce…

Let's Kill Ward's Wife - scene

There’s a moment in Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife that may well be too much for some viewers, and may prompt them to give the rest of the movie a miss, believing that there are some things – even in a black comedy – that shouldn’t be filmed. The moment in question involves Ward’s full bladder and his dead wife, and it’s the moment in the movie where any connection the audience might have had with Ward and his friends flies out of the window and heads south for the rest of eternity. Up til now, the easy complicity and the joking around have been awkwardly amusing, but here the script – by Foley – aims for the blackest of black comedy and misses by several country miles (there’s another moment later on, with a line of dialogue, that tries the same thing, but it also falls flat). These two moments are indicative of the script’s shortcomings – of which there are many – and why some movies shot on a low budget and in a short period of time… should remain unmade.

It’s true that there’s ambition here, but it’s almost choke-slammed into submission before the movie even begins. At their son’s Christening, Stacey berates Ward for his behaviour in front of all their guests, but he’s done nothing wrong; and while it’s a scene that’s played for maximum awfulness – and to show just how much of a shrew Stacey can be – it’s also a scene that feels too overwrought to be credible. And Stacey remains a shrew right up until she dies, with no attempt to show a different side to her personality, and with an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it explanation as to her bullying behaviour. It’s a one-note characterisation and harms the movie in ways that Foley hasn’t considered because he’s more interested in showing the four friends and their camaraderie. But they’re just a bunch of guys who can’t relate to women, and for whom casual misogyny is pretty much a way of life. Ronnie is a would-be Lothario, while Tom is planning to cheat on his wife because it’s easier than telling her she doesn’t turn him on anymore and trying to fix things. And apparent commitment-phone David can devise a plan to dismember and dispose of a dead body but he can’t devise a way in which he can win back his ex-wife. (And if you think these “issues” won’t be resolved by the movie’s end, then you need to think again.)

As the movie stumbles from one unconvincing set up to another – David proves to be a bit of a criminal mastermind, the friends all strip down to their underwear in order to get rid of their clothes… but before they leave Ward’s house, Ronnie fails to take a shovel with him to his burial site and has to use a golf club to dig the hole, Bruce proves to be the worst cop in the world – it soon becomes clear that writer/director Foley hasn’t got a grip on either the material or his cast’s performances. Wilson comes off best by making David gleefully amoral when it matters, and he wears a Cheshire Cat grin throughout. Faison plays Ward as either dazed or confused or panicky, and Carpinello adopts a breezy Brooklynite persona for Ronnie that is too close to parody for comfort. Of the rest of the cast, only Acker makes any kind of impression, but then only briefly before she’s required to turn into an unlikely sexpot. As for Foley, well, let’s just say this isn’t his finest hour.

With too much in the way of fixed camerawork going on, Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife isn’t the most visually arresting of movies, but Foley and DoP Eduardo Barraza do at least keep things moving within the frame, and their reliance on low angle shots occasionally pays off. There’s a score by John Spiker that rarely deviates from being twee and stiffly supportive of the action, and the movie’s brief running time proves to be an unexpected blessing.

Rating: 3/10 – considering the potential of its subject matter, Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife is a ridiculous, self-consciously careless attempt at making a whip-smart blacker-than-black comedy; with no one to root for, or care about, it’s a movie that tries too hard and as a result, fails to deliver.

Mini-Review: Get on Up (2014)

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Get on Up

D: Tate Taylor / 139m

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis

Get on Up recounts the life and career of James Brown (Boseman), but does so in a painfully non-linear way that sometimes makes it difficult to work out just when a scene is meant to be taking place; often it’s only Brown’s hairstyle that gives the viewer a clue. Opening with a scene set in 1988 where Brown accidentally fired a shotgun in a business property he owned and which lead to his arrest (shown much later in the movie), the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth skips back and forth in Brown’s life, from his abandonment by his mother (Davis) and then also his father (James), to his early start in the music business as part of the Famous Flames alongside Bobby Byrd (Ellis). With still further flashbacks and changes in direction, his rise to fame is examined, as well as the lengths he went to to maintain that fame.

What arises from all this is the notion that Brown was an intensely driven man who expected unwavering loyalty from the people around him, and whose talent hid an angry narcissism. He regularly treats people with disdain, particularly supposed best friend Byrd, and seems only to have had a “relationship of equals” with his manager, Ben Bart (Ackroyd), while preferring to be called Mr Brown rather than James by everyone else. It’s a trait that’s returned to again and again throughout the movie, and seems to be the only aspect of Brown’s character and personality that Get on Up is concerned about. And with the continual chopping and changing of the narrative, we learn little else about the man, or what motivates him; this has the effect of leaving the viewer adrift for much of the running time, as the movie veers away from exploring his personality in greater depth or detail.

Get on Up - scene

What does work, thankfully, is Boseman’s towering performance as Brown. The actor captures Brown’s sheer physicality and presence superbly, and although efforts to make him look like the singer in his later years don’t quite work, it’s still an amazing portrayal, fuelled by an energy that fizzes off the screen. On stage, recreating Brown’s movements, Boseman captures perfectly every crazy dance step and pirouette with ease. And he carries that intensity with him away from the stage or studio, giving as complete a performance as he can manage, even when the script isn’t completely supporting him. The same can be said for the likes of Davis, Ackroyd and Ellis, who all make more of their roles than you might expect.

Taylor focuses more on the musical numbers, recreating Brown’s live performances at every opportunity and using these sequences to inject some much needed zing into the movie, and to keep it from stalling. They are the best things in the movie, and the pace picks up every time one comes along. Otherwise, Taylor gives us a somewhat bland retelling of Brown’s life and one that, despite the lengthy running time, still feels rushed. The movie also has too many scenes lacking any resonance or connection to the other scenes around them (one moment of domestic abuse comes out of nowhere and feels included just for the sake of it). With this lack of focus, the movie proves only fitfully rewarding.

Rating: 6/10 – vibrant and alive when it “plays the hits!”, Get on Up falters when it tries to show Brown’s life away from the limelight; with Boseman’s astounding performance rescuing things time after time, it’s a movie that only does partial justice to the life and times of the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul.

You’re Not You (2014)

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You're Not You

D: George C. Wolfe / 102m

Cast: Hilary Swank, Emmy Rossum, Josh Duhamel, Stephanie Beatriz, Jason Ritter, Julian McMahon, Frances Fisher, Marcia Gay Harden, Ali Larter, Andrea Savage, Loretta Devine, Ernie Hudson, Ed Begley Jr

Kate (Swank) is a successful classical pianist who begins to experience muscle spasms in her hands that affect her playing. Eighteen months later, Kate has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and needs daily personal care. With her regular caregiver having left, Kate is being looked after by her husband, Evan (Duhamel), but he works full-time and is unable to look after her during the day. Kate makes arrangements to interview a replacement caregiver. The first interviewee is Bec (Rossum), a college student who, despite her lack of experience, makes enough of an impression on Kate to be hired. And despite a first day that goes less than smoothly, and against Evan’s objections, Kate determines that Bec should continue as her caregiver.

While Bec and Kate get used to each other and develop a bond, they also learn that Evan has had a short affair with one of the women in his office. It leads to Kate feeling that she’s holding Evan back; she tries to get Bec to take her to an assisted living facility but Bec refuses to go through with the visit and instead they go to Evan’s office where Kate tells him she wants a divorce. Meanwhile, Bec has relationship problems of her own: she’s been sleeping with one of her tutors, Liam (MacMahon), but while she wants to end things, he doesn’t. And she’s attracted the interest of a young man named Wil (Ritter), who she believes is too nice for her.

Kate and Bec meet another couple where the wife has ALS, Marilyn (Devine) and John (Hudson). Their positive attitude and obvious love for each other give Kate the boost she needs to deal with her illness more effectively and she becomes more outgoing; she even allows Evan to express his feelings and regrets to her. At Xmas, Bec’s parents pay a visit, but a heated conversation between Bec and her mother (Harden) has Kate feeling that she’s holding Bec back from living her own life. Consequently, she fires Bec and arranges for her mother, Gwen (Fisher) to look after her. When Kate’s breathing becomes so bad she ends up hospitalised, Gwen wants her to be put on a ventilator but it’s revealed that Kate has given Bec authority to make any medical decisions relating to treatment or care. Knowing that being on a ventilator isn’t what Kate wants, and against Gwen and Evan’s wishes, she takes Kate home…

You're Not You - scene

Adapted from the novel by Michelle Wildgen, You’re Not You provides pretty much everything you could ever want from a movie trying its very best to make having a debilitating disease seem not so bad. This type of movie – or indeed any type of movie where the protagonist faces a difficult personal battle – always strives to “accentuate the positive”, making the illness/life changing event/seemingly insurmountable problem/horrible setback the trigger that allows the affected character to display resilience and fortitude in the face of such a terrible obstacle. It’s wish fulfilment on an adversarial basis, where triumph of the will trumps, if only temporarily, the problem that can’t be beaten (or which will require a high level of personal sacrifice). And so it proves, with Swank’s ALS sufferer fighting her husband’s selfishness, her dwindling social status, her own growing physical disablement, and a script that coats everything with the rosy glow of female empowerment.

This is a movie that ticks all the boxes. Main character shows stubborn attitude to dealing with illness? Check. Secondary main character shows increased ability to deal with own issues as a result of spending time with main character? Check. Family and friends of main character show complete lack of understanding re: issue main character is dealing with? Check. Main character has “dark moment” where suicide seems like an attractive option? Check. These and more pop up throughout the movie, making it seem like a “greatest hits” disease movie, rather than the heartfelt drama it wants to be.

What doesn’t help as well is that we never really get to know Kate as a person. Sure, she’s an accomplished pianist, and sure she’s bright and funny in the way that accomplished people are, and sure she appears to have reconciled herself to the eventual outcome having ALS dictates, but all this has happened before Bec comes on the scene. Swank is an accomplished actress but even she struggles to make Kate more than a cypher to hang an illness on. And when her speech necessarily worsens, Kate – and Swank – becomes even less of a presence in the movie. Thanks to Jordan Roberts and Shana Feste’s superficial screenplay, there’s no real depth that allows Swank to adequately portray anything like the absolute terror someone must feel as their body slowly but surely shuts down. All we’re left with is a selection of expressions that show patient acceptance or occasional, brief disappointment.

Rossum fares better, but that’s because she has more screen time (and not because Bec’s problems are any more interesting than Kate’s), while Duhamel flits in and out of the narrative as the penitent Evan, looking sheepish and lost for the most part, and blander than a beige throw rug. The rest of the cast come and go without making much of an impact, and as we head toward the inevitable outcome, emotions rise to a level where heartstrings are plucked to predictable effect but still without any depth behind them. Wolfe – making only his second feature – adopts a slightly diffident, low key approach to the material that keeps the audience from getting too involved, and which stops the movie from being as dramatic as it should be. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with the tragedy of Kate’s dilemma without fully embracing it.

Rating: 5/10 – too derivative of every other “disease of the week” movie, You’re Not You struggles to attain any dramatic traction, and wastes the talents of its star; a so-so attempt that is likely to leave viewers wondering how patient they have to be before they’ll be able to connect with the storyline.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 19m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe

With the Wasp having used the radium machine to destroy Mandrake’s home – and everyone in it – it’s by some small miracle that no one is seriously harmed, aside from Dr Bennett who is found pinned beneath the rubble. While Webster is charged with taking him to hospital, Raymond heads home. Mandrake searches through the debris and finds a further clue to the Wasp’s identity. He enlists Lothar to help him by retracing their steps from the day before when the Wasp’s lieutenant, Dirk, escaped being followed by them. They find the abandoned store that Dirk entered. Mandrake realises that the rear of the store leads to the Wasp’s hideout, and that Raymond’s store, Bennett’s office, and Webster’s apartment are all close by. He sends Lothar to watch all three while he ventures deeper into the building.

In the same anteroom where Dirk met his untimely end, Mandrake finds himself in danger from the same poison gas that killed the Wasp’s chief henchman. He uses his handkerchief to buy himself some time until he can exit the room. Once out, he finds himself inside the Wasp’s inner sanctum. Mandrake unmasks the Wasp but is held at gunpoint. He explains his reasons for suspecting the Wasp’s real identity, before wrestling the gun away from the master criminal and engaging in a brutal fistfight. The Wasp manages to escape by car but is chased by Mandrake and Lothar, a chase that leads to justice being served and the Wasp’s plan for “world terrorisation” brought to a timely end.

Mandrake 12

And so, we come to the end of twelve weeks of thrills and spills, and endless fight scenes, and car chases, and suspicious behaviour, and blatant sexism, and some very dodgy acting. It’s been an entertaining, if occasionally very silly ride, with cliffhanger endings to each chapter (the life-threatening danger of which is usually ignored at the beginning of the next episode), and such an extreme sense of its own absurdity that it more than makes up for the preposterousness of the script by Messrs. Poland, Dickey and Dandy. It’s been crazy, escapist fun: chock full of holes and about as convincing as the idea of James Corden taking over on The Late Late Show (wait… hang on a minute…).

As Thirties serials go, Mandrake, the Magician has been gloriously stupid at times, and instead of embracing the supernatural skills of its cartoon strip character, has made him into a low-rent magician who’s somehow parlayed his (not-so-) special magic skills into a crimefighting repertoire. And he’s not been the brightest of individuals: in Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery we see him scanning the ceiling of the Wasp’s anteroom while poison gas seeps up through the floor, and he only notices it as if by accident. Bravo, Mandrake!

But these types of serials are easy – too easy in fact – to criticise and make fun of (see the reviews of all eleven previous episodes), but taken as a whole, this particular serial borders almost on being a guilty pleasure. It has bucket loads of panache and a fair degree of charm, and while it revels in its own foolishness, there’s an acknowledgment that however serious the viewer takes it, it’ll never quite overcome just how idiotic it all seems. From its poor treatment of Betty (rarely has the love interest been given so little to do), to its complete refusal to involve the police in any way, shape or form, Mandrake, the Magician provokes as many smiles as groans, and is a slightly less than perfect way to spend nearly four hours of your time. It’s cheap and cheerful, always fun to watch, and if the identity of the Wasp is never in doubt then so be it – it’s all part of the enjoyment to be had.

Rating: 7/10 – Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery rounds things off in style, with the long awaited showdown between Mandrake and the Wasp taking centre stage; still displaying a sure sense of its own clumsiness (as do all the other episodes), it makes for a fitting end to a largely inventive, slightly goofy, often farcical serial.

The Homesman (2014)

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Homesman, The

D: Tommy Lee Jones / 122m

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Caroline Lagerfelt, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep

In the Nebraska Territory in the 1850’s, three women – Arabella Sours (Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Richter) – fall victim to madness after enduring various hardships. Their pastor, Reverend Dowd (Lithgow), calls upon one of their husbands to take them to Hebron, Iowa where there is a church that will take care of them. With one refusing to do it at all, and the other two proving less than ideal, spinster and homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) accepts the task, hoping that the “adventure” will help with her own feelings of isolation and depression.

Buddy encounters George Briggs (Jones), and saves him from being hanged for using another man’s home. She persuades him to accompany her and promises him $300 if they make it to Hebron. Briggs agrees but makes for surly company, and challenges Cuddy at every opportunity. However, they come to a mutual understanding, and Briggs’ experience proves invaluable when problems arise, such as one of the women wandering off and being found by a man (Nelson) who wants her for his own, and when they find themselves being watched by Indians.

However, when they find the desecrated grave of an eleven year old girl, Cuddy elects to restore it while Briggs continues on with the women. But Cuddy loses her way and finds herself back at the child’s grave. When she finally catches up with Briggs, she suggests to him that they should marry, but he rejects her offer, telling her – like som many other men before him – that she is too plain and too bossy. Later, she comes to him naked and they have sex. The next morning, Briggs makes a terrible discovery, one that changes the whole nature of the trek to Hebron.

Homesman, The - scene

Achingly stark yet beautiful at the same time, Jones’ adaptation of the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman, is a melancholic, richly detailed portrait of the hardships of frontier life in the 1850’s, and the different ways in which loneliness can affect even the strongest and most determined of people. Through the journey that Cuddy, Briggs and the three women make, the movie delves into notions of longing, despair, loss and, more curiously, faith (though to a lesser degree than the others). It’s a confident, expertly constructed and devised movie, and it features a handful of strong, finely detailed performances – from Jones, Swank, Streep and Lithgow – and also features some stunning photography courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto, but ultimately it’s a movie that plays too much to convention.

Part of the problem lies in the relationship between Briggs and Cuddy, two people for whom loneliness has become their lives. But where Briggs is comfortable in being alone, Cuddy isn’t, and strives to match herself with someone (at the beginning of the movie it’s another homesteader (Evan Jones), but her desperation is alienating). When she and Briggs meet it’s inevitable that she will offer him the same proposal of marriage it seems she’s made to everyone else. That Briggs will refuse her is another inevitability, and one that robs the moment of any dramatic tension; it also makes Cuddy’s willingness to strip naked and sleep with him too desperate (that Briggs would agree to this approach is unsurprising). What follows is robbed of any potency by Jones’ not allowing any build up to it – it’s presented so matter-of-factly that it makes Cuddy’s importance to the narrative seem irrelevant.

And so the focus remains on Briggs, a curmudgeonly old fox who lacks several degrees of decency, and who develops an unlikely sense of responsibility to the three madwomen (and purely, it seems, because they’ll follow him wherever he goes, a development that’s never really explained). He’s otherwise a selfish, mean-spirited man with no measure of social conscience, but who seems to gain said social conscience without a second thought, and who tries to echo Cuddy’s desperate need to fit in and be accepted by making a similar (uncomfortable) proposal to Steinfeld’s waitress. In Jones’s hands, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character overall, but his personality and way with others is too wayward to afford consistency, and Briggs’ initial roguishness gives way to behaving in whichever way the script needs him to.

With Jones the actor hamstrung by Jones the co-writer – along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver – it’s left to Jones the director to save the day. If there’s one aspect that he’s very, very good at, it’s in the look of his movies. As in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Jones’ mastery of the frame is simply superb, each shot crafted with a care and attention to light and shade and detail that is consistently impressive. His use of perspective is also finely attuned, the various landscape shots peppered throughout the movie displaying a level of natural beauty married to the width and depth of the image that is often breathtaking. And it’s no different in medium or close up shots: Jones displays such a sure knowledge of what’s he doing and how he’s presenting it that each scene has a rare quality to it, one that few other directors would be able to reproduce.

The movie moves along at a measured pace that gives the cast adequate time to make an impression, and which shows Jones to be generous when sharing the screen with someone else. He gives supporting actors such as Spader, Fichtner and Steinfeld plenty of room to impress, and stands well back to let them do their thing. Though the script gives them little to do except stare off into the distance, Gummer, Otto and Richter, are effective as the three women driven mad by circumstance and hardship (particularly Richter, who has a chilling and very disturbing scene with a sowing needle). They don’t quite achieve the prominence the story allows them at the beginning, but all three characters are convincingly portrayed throughout.

There are casual nods to the sexism of the times, and the grim nature of trying to survive in what was an often harsh, unforgiving environment is well depicted. The final twenty minutes serve more as a coda than a final act, and some viewers may feel this section is a little off-centre as a result, as the three madwomen arrive at their destination and Streep’s affable pastor’s wife takes centre stage (her performance is a reminder, if any were needed, of just how good an actress she is). And the final scene itself ends the movie on an awkward, offhand note that smacks of contrivance rather than a satisfying end to the story.

Rating: 7/10 – absorbing if uneven, The Homesman scores highly because of Jones’ ability as a director and his often glorious use of the camera; with its story often straying off into some unwanted dead ends, this journey is only occasionally involving, and only occasionally matches the commitment made by its cast.

Amira & Sam (2014)

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Amira & Sam

D: Sean Mullin / 90m

Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche, Ross Marquand, Taylor Wilcox

Former Green Beret Sam (Starr), fresh out of the army, visits an old friend, Bassam (Nakli), who was an interpreter during Sam’s time in Iraq. He is there to repay a debt, and in the process he meets Bassam’s niece, Amira (Shihabi). However, she is rude and unwelcoming to him as her brother was also an interpreter, and he was killed by friendly fire.

Having lost his job, Sam visits his cousin Charlie (Wesley) for help. Charlie is a hedge fund manager, and Sam’s visit prompts him to ask Sam to help him land a potential investor he’s had trouble convincing to come on board. In exchange for Sam’s help, Charlie agrees to pay him $50,000; he also gives him the keys to his father’s boat, which Charlie has inherited but doesn’t use. Glad of the support, Sam agrees to help out. Meanwhile, Amira is stopped by a police officer while selling fake DVDs on the street; a check on her I.D. reveals she is in the country illegally. She runs away from the police officer and heads back to her uncle’s. Stuck with a job that requires him to be away for a few days, he contacts Sam and asks him to look after Amira until he gets back.

Sam agrees but Amira is less than happy about everything. She reluctantly allows Sam to take her to his apartment. He meets Charlie’s prospective investor, a Vietnam veteran called Jack (Rasche), and impresses him so much that Jack increases his investment beyond what Charlie was expecting. Feeling good about things, Sam takes Amira out on the boat and their relationship thaws as a result. Soon after, Charlie invites Sam to his engagement party, but asks him if he can wear his Army dress uniform; Sam agrees though he’s a little reluctant. He takes Amira with him but some of Charlie’s colleagues prove too aggressively racist toward her and an altercation ensues, during which Amira accidentally hits Charlie’s fiancé, Claire (Wilcox). She presses charges and Amira is arrested. As a result, she has only twenty-four hours before she’ll be deported back to Iraq – and there’s nothing Sam or Bassam can do…

Amira & Sam - scene

An unusual mix of interracial romance and army veteran adjusting to “normal” life dramatics, Amira & Sam is an absorbing combination of sub-genres that overcomes a somewhat staid, foreseeable approach to Sam’s troubles with his cousin, and scores heavily when portraying Amira and Sam’s growing relationship. It doesn’t try to be clever, but it does get its points across with a winning charm, and thanks to the well thought out script by writer/director Mullin, and the performances of the two leads, is a pleasure to watch.

There’s plenty to enjoy, from Sam’s horrible attempt at doing a stand up gig, to his letting Amira steer the boat (and then jumping overboard), to the awkward conversation he has with Jack about the realities of post-Army life. The movie is peppered with scenes that work because of the care and attention given to the characters, with even Charlie’s duplicitous nature proving less stereotypical than expected. And Mullin shows a complete command of the material, keeping it grounded and realistic, letting the narrative unfold at a steady, convincing pace, and placing the emotional lives of Amira and Sam at the forefront.

As the “unlikely” couple, Starr and Shihabi display a definite chemistry, their scenes together evincing a surety and a confidence that not only makes their relationship all the more credible, but all the more engaging as well. As these two very different people discover a common ground and develop their feelings for each other they become a couple for whom the word “cute” seems entirely appropriate. Mullin captures the first flush of romance with ease, and in the hands of his leads, that burgeoning romance is handled with aplomb. Starr has had a varied career in front of the camera, mostly as a supporting actor, but here he takes on his first lead role and shows a range and a capability that should have been exploited a long time ago. His deadpan looks and unhurried style suits Sam perfectly, making him feel like someone we might know in our own lives. Shihabi is equally as good, investing Amira with a tenacious yet sensitive quality that proves a match for Starr’s interpretation of Sam, and which makes their romance all the more credible. The bond they develop, and their need for each other, is never in doubt.

Less effective are the scenes designed to add some secondary drama to the proceedings, such as Charlie’s investigation by the SEC which feels entirely predictable, and the racial outbursts at the engagement party, which have been a longtime coming and which feel like the movie is ticking a box. And yet the idea of Sam being exploited by Charlie, of his Army veteran status being used to win over investors, is dealt with succinctly and the point is made with a minimum of fuss or attention. Likewise, the notion that Sam can be a funny guy in front of an audience when he’s clearly more of a storyteller, a feature of his personality that is explored casually but with a great deal of efficiency, is also a plus. Mullin proves how capable and subtle he can be in these scenes, and again, is helped immeasurably by his cast.

With a pleasing visual approach courtesy of DoP Daniel Vecchione, linked to Julian Robinson’s astute editing, the movie looks good and has a bright shine to it that reflects and enhances the romantic aspects while never downplaying the reality of Amira’s predicament or Sam’s need to “assimilate” back into society. It’s an enjoyable movie from start to finish, confidently assembled and memorable enough to warrant a second or third viewing.

Rating: 8/10 – surprising in places and yet overly familiar in others, Amira & Sam is a confident mix of comedy, drama and romance that features two first class lead performances; any flaws the movie may have are more than compensated for by the sheer goodwill the movie generates throughout.

The Road Within (2014)

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Microsoft Word - RDW_1SHT_F

D: Gren Wells / 100m

Cast: Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick, Ali Hills

Following the death of his mother, Vincent (Sheehan) is persuaded by his estranged father, Robert (Patrick), to attend an experimental treatment centre for his Tourette’s. After meeting with the head of the centre, Dr Rose (Sedgwick), Vincent is taken to the room where he’ll be staying, and meets OCD sufferer, Alex (Patel). Alex is horrified at having a roommate and does what he can to get Vincent moved to another room but his plans fail. Vincent also meets Marie (Kravitz), who is there because she suffers from anorexia (and who almost died a few months before).

Vincent and Marie strike up a friendship, but when he gets into trouble with Dr Rose, it’s she who offers an unexpected solution: take Dr Rose’s car and go wherever he wants to go. Vincent decides on the ocean so that he can scatter his mother’s ashes. He and Marie take off one night, but not without first having to abduct Alex and take him with them (he was going to inform on them to Dr Rose). When their absence is discovered, Dr Rose contacts Vincent’s father and tells him what’s happened. Despite being a politician in the middle of an election campaign, Robert agrees to come and help find his son.

He and Dr Rose struggle to get along as they pursue the runaways, while Vincent, Marie and Alex begin to forge stronger relationships. When Robert and Dr Rose catch up with them at a lake, they manage to get away. As they travel to the ocean they begin to learn to trust each other, and Vincent and Marie grow closer, while Robert, through talking about his son to Dr Rose, begins to realise that he’s not been the kind of father that Vincent needed while he was growing up. Meanwhile, Vincent and Marie’s relationship becomes intimate, but this angers Alex, who has seen her manipulate other patients at the centre in the same way. He takes off and leaves them stranded.

They catch up with him at the next town, and there is a violent confrontation, but it leads to a reconciliation, and they carry on to the ocean. But when they get there, Marie has a relapse and is taken to hospital, leaving Vincent to make the hardest decision of his life so far.

Road Within, The - scene

A dramatic comedy – or comic drama, whichever you prefer – The Road Within is an enjoyable, if formulaic, road movie that pitches itself somewhere to the left of inspirational, and partly to the right of sentimental. It’s a feelgood movie about people who can’t always, if ever, feel good about themselves, and as such has an air of wish fulfilment about it that it never quite shakes off. Alex’s OCD is a good case in point: he has to open and close doors four times before going through them but this comes and goes at the script’s discretion, and when he doesn’t do it it’s ignored rather than celebrated. But in the end, the movie is intelligent enough not to administer any miracle cures to Vincent, Marie or Alex, just some appropriate development in the way they deal with their conditions.

First-time director Wells, working from her own script, creates a narrative that most viewers will recognise from other road movies, and while sometimes familiarity can cause viewers to react in a blasé, seen-it-all-before way, here the journey is entirely important for the way in which it makes the characters interact. If the movie had been set entirely at the centre, then the metaphor of travelling toward an understanding of themselves would have been negated. And sometimes, comfort zones have to be left behind if we’re going to make any progress. These are obvious points to make, but the movie makes them with a sincerity and a sense of humour that allows the viewer to invest in the characters and care about what happens to them.

Thanks to the cast’s clever and often intuitive performances, the characters of Vincent, Marie and Alex never seem like the caricatures they could so easily have turned out to be. Vincent lives in the shadow of his father’s disappointment in having a son who causes him embarrassment, while Marie’s rebellious nature hides a young woman’s need for approbation despite how her illness makes her feel about herself. And Alex wants to be normal even though he knows at the same time that the likelihood of that ever happening is so minimal as to be impossible. Sheehan displays a vulnerable side to Vincent’s character that makes him instantly likeable, but there’s a deeply angry side to him that Sheehan exhibits with equal effectiveness, both aspects given due weight throughout. Kravitz gives Marie a bruised quality that highlights the suffering she’s endured and makes her the most damaged of the trio; it’s a surprisingly delicate performance, and one that keeps the viewer’s attention on her in any scene she’s in.

Patel, however, operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kravitz, portraying Alex as a screaming, panic-driven doomsayer – every pothole he hits while driving is someone he’s run over, like a pregnant woman – and providing someone for Vincent and Marie to play tricks on. It’s a confident performance, strident at times, but as with Sheehan and Kravitz, he portrays the character’s burden with sincerity and no small amount of sympathy. (This helps offset the several occasions when his tantrums make the viewer want to reach through the screen and give him a good slap – or wish the other characters would.)

The movie is attractive to watch, with beautiful location work at Yosemite National Park  proving a highlight, and the various themes of longing, connection and displacement given pertinent, if sometimes too gentle, attention, and Wells’ direction keeps the focus on the main characters’ often unsteady but quietly determined steps toward making their lives better, even if it’s just in small ways. This keeps the movie grounded and credible, and if the way in which Robert opens up to Dr Rose near the movie’s end seems a little too predictable or unlikely, then it’s a small misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable production.

Rating: 8/10 – not without some minor flaws – but none that keep the movie from being entertaining – The Road Within takes three people with serious illnesses and refuses to use those illnesses to define them; blackly comic in places – Vincent’s outburst at his mother’s funeral sets the tone – and with its heart in the right place, this is a movie that rewards the viewer on a small scale, but very effectively nevertheless.

Cymbeline (2014)

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Cymbeline

D: Michael Almereyda / 98m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Peter Gerety, Kevin Corrigan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Delroy Lindo, James Ransone, Spencer Treat Clark, Harley Ware, Bill Pullman

Imogen (Johnson) and Posthumus (Badgley) are young lovers who have married in secret and exchanged gifts of a ring (for Posthumus) and a bracelet (for Imogen). Their marriage is not to the liking of Imogen’s father, biker king Cymbeline (Harris). He banishes Posthumus, and so paves the way for his second wife, the Queen (Jovovich) to advance her own son, Cloten (Yelchin) as Imogen’s husband, in an attempt to secure control of the biker gang when Cymbeline is dead. Aided by his servant, Pisanio (Leguizamo), Posthumus goes to stay with his friend Philario (Ransone). There he meets Iachomo (Hawke) who wagers that he can seduce Imogen to prove that she isn’t as virtuous as Posthumus believes. The wager accepted, Iachomo visits Imogen and when a direct assault on her virtue backfires, he portrays it as a test of her commitment to Posthumus – which she accepts. Before he leaves he asks her to look after an item for him overnight, which she also agrees to.

The item is a chest, one that Iachomo has hidden himself inside. While Imogen sleeps he climbs out of the chest and puts together evidence that he has slept with her. He takes this evidence back to Posthumus who, enraged by Imogen’s seeming duplicity, sends two letters: one to Imogen asking her to meet him at Milford Haven, the other to Pisanio asking him to take her there and when they arrive, to kill her. Pisanio, however, is unable to carry out his order and shows Imogen his letter. He has her disguise herself as a boy and tells her to travel on to Milford Haven; he also gives her what he believes to be a remedy for travel sickness that he has taken from the Queen, but which is a potion that will mimic death.

Meanwhile, Cloten discovers Posthumus’ plan to meet Imogen and heads to Milford Haven himself with the intention of killing Posthumus and bringing Imogen back to marry him. Imogen has reached the town already and fallen in with Belarius (Lindo) and his two “sons” Guiderius (Clark) and Arviragus (Ware). She tells them her name is Fidele. While they are out hunting, they encounter Cloten who insults and then threatens Guiderius, who in turn kills him and then beheads him. Imogen, feeling unwell, takes the remedy and becomes as dead. Belarius decides to bury her with Cloten’s body; when she wakes she believes Cloten to be Posthumus as he is wearing similar clothes. With both she and Posthumus believing themselves lost to each other, an impending war between Cymbeline’s gang and the Rome police – to whom they pay a tribute – proves to be the unlikely cause of their reconciliation.

Cymbeline - scene

In adapting the play by William Shakespeare, writer/director Almereyda has done two things very well, and two things not so well. The first is to employ an incredibly talented cast, all of whom are able to take Shakespeare’s lines and make them sound as natural as modern day speech, fully understandable and with clear purpose in their meaning. The likes of Hawke – reuniting with Almereyda for the first time since Hamlet (2000) – Harris, Leguizamo and Lindo provide convincing interpretations of the prose and help the casual viewer through some of the more confusing aspects of the plot (mistaken identities are key here). The second is to condense the play’s final third into a more manageable “wrapping up” of things, even if it all feels rushed and at the expense of the movie’s previously more measured pace.

But where Almereyda gets those things absolutely right, where he gets it absolutely wrong proves too damaging for the movie to recover from. The first is to set the action in a modern day setting, mostly Brooklyn, and to flavour the movie as if it were a version of Shakespeare meets Sons of Anarchy. This backdrop, given that it should enhance the drama – the Queen persuades Cymbeline to back out of his arrangement with the Rome police in the hope that war between them will see him dead – instead seems ponderous and ill-considered, more of a budgetary consideration than a narrative one. It leads to some incongruous moments, such as Cloten pushing a motorbike along a gravel road, Imogen choosing her nom-de-plume thanks to a T-shirt worn by Guiderius, and Posthumus getting about on a skateboard. While some of these tweaks may have appeared sound in the pre-production phase, on screen they’re not as effective as was probably hoped for.

The second problem is with Almereyda’s direction itself. The movie plods along from scene to scene with little energy or flair displayed, and struggles to provide any momentum to take the audience with it. There’s a signal lack of connection between scenes that makes for a stop/start experience, the narrative appearing jumbled and ill at ease with itself, like a story that needs more cohesion. With so many subplots and supporting characters, Cymbeline looks and feels like a movie that can’t quite get a grip on what it’s trying to say, or even how to say it. Again, if it weren’t for the very talented cast, the movie would founder even more, and the audience would be left adrift, waiting – unsuccessfully – for Almereyda to place his authority on the material and make it work with more style and verve.

Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays (written at a time when he seemed to be bored with them), Cymbeline is a strange choice for a movie adaptation, its tale of thwarted lovers and political machinations proving not quite as amenable to the translation as might be expected. It also looks very much as if it were shot too quickly – some of the set ups look rushed or improvised. Still, it’s a brave choice by Almereyda, but if he has any plans to adapt any more of Shakespeare’s works, he might be better off securing a bigger budget, and concentrating on the script rather than directing. After all, “the play’s the thing…”

Rating: 5/10 – a dour, unimpressive adaptation, Cymbeline is rescued by a set of strong performances and an astute conflation of the plot; not as engrossing as it should have been, but not as awful as the early scenes seem to indicate.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 19m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Trapped in the east wing of the Green Valley Rest Home, Mandrake and Betty manage to survive the Wasp’s attempt to kill them. The Wasp orders his men to abandon the place and in the ensuing confusion, Mandrake and Betty are able to get out. There they are met by Raymond, who tells them he was knocked out by some of the Wasp’s men, and Webster, who tells them he was captured but managed to escape. They find Bennett in the rubble, shaken up but alive. Mandrake and Webster go back into the rest home where they discover a tunnel that leads away from the home and out to the highway; there Mandrake finds a clue: a receipt from a car hire company.

At his home, and with everyone assembled, including Professor Houston who has been working on a machine that will be able to nullify the effects of the radium machine that the Wasp has, Mandrake tells them about the receipt, and asks them all to return at eight o’clock that night. He and Lothar head for the car hire place and see Dirk and some of the Wasp’s men drive away. They follow but Dirk manages to avoid them, and he meets up with the Wasp at his secret hideaway in the rear of an abandoned store. The Wasp reveals his plan to use the radium machine to destroy Mandrake’s home at eight o’clock, and to be there when it happens. Then he traps Dirk in a room that he floods with gas, and kills him.

At Mandrake’s home, eight o’clock draws near. He and Professor Houston reveal the nullifier, which causes Bennett, Webster and Raymond to each display an uncomfortable reaction. But as the Professor goes to place the final component he drops it onto the floor. As everyone searches for it, the radium machine – set on a timer – begins to activate, and the whole house collapses around everyone.

Mandrake 11

With its focus on making as many of its characters look as likely to be the Wasp as ever before – even Professor Houston is made to look suspicious – Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight is easily the best episode so far as the writers aim to wind things up with as much brio as possible. The early scenes outside the rest home have a brisk feel about them as each character’s explanation for being at the home is considered, and Mandrake begins to suspect the Wasp may be someone he knows. But he tells everyone his plans, and puts himself in harm’s way yet again (he’s clever, but now and again you have to wonder…).

But even though this episode has a lot going for it – not least the comical ways in which each character acts suspiciously – there’s still the usual number of odd moments that don’t make sense or challenge credibility. When the Wasp kills Dirk it’s in the same ante-room that he came through before meeting his boss, yet he enters the room through an entirely different door than the one before. As the radium machine begins to do its work, Betty and Tommy come running into the room and she shouts “The lights are off upstairs!” as if it was a major crisis (Weston also delivers the line to the floor for some reason). And even though the tunnel from the rest home leads out to the highway, it’s still not too far away for Raymond and Bennett to see Mandrake and Webster when they emerge from it.

With only the one brief fight scene – so brief that Kikume’s stunt “double” isn’t required – this chapter concentrates more on the narrative and proves even more enthralling for doing so. With one last chapter remaining, and the identity of the Wasp to be revealed at last, this episode sees the serial coming into its own at last after so many chapters that only provided filler.

Rating: 7/10 – it’s fair to say that the excitement is mounting, and Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight delivers the promise of an equally exciting conclusion to matters; a great precursor to Chapter 12 but an entertaining episode in its own right as well.

The Better Angels (2014)

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Better Angels, The

D: A.J. Edwards / 95m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Braydon Denney, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Cameron  Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship

Indiana, 1817. Eight year old Abe Lincoln (Denney) lives with his father Tom (Clarke), mother Nancy (Marling), and younger sister Sarah (Blankenship) in an area of “unbroken forest”. They are joined by Nancy’s orphaned cousin, Dennis Hanks (Williams) who becomes an older brother to Abe. Abe’s father works as a farmer and a carpenter; he’s a taciturn man who doesn’t drink alcohol, gamble or curse, but he is a harsh disciplinarian, and Abe often finds himself being punished for some misbehaviour or minor infraction.

Abe has a better relationship with his mother, who is kind-hearted and supportive of his attempts to educate himself. She is a nurturing influence, one he thrives under, and the time he spends with her helps offset the onerous chores he has to do on the farm. But Abe is left adrift when Nancy contracts milk sickness and dies. His father tries to carry on but it doesn’t last long. He leaves Abe, Sarah and Dennis to manage the farm while he goes off to find another wife. When his father returns, it is with a new bride, Sarah “Sally” Bush Johnston (Kruger), a widow from Kentucky who has three children of her own. In her own way she proves as supportive and nurturing of Abe as Nancy was, and despite some initial reservations, Abe warms to her.

As their relationship deepens and strengthens, Abe’s relationship with his father remains the same, with an added emphasis on Abe’s “toughening up”. It’s around this time that Abe’s honesty becomes more noticeable (even if it leads to his being caned by his father), and his education receives a boost from the attention of local schoolteacher Mr Crawford (Bentley). Crawford seeks Tom’s permission to provide Abe with extra tutoring; as he tells Sally, Abe won’t be a backwoodsman for very much longer. Tom agrees, and Abe is set on the path to securing his future.

Better Angels, The - scene

An idyllic looking reminiscence on the early life of Abraham Lincoln, The Better Angels is a deliberately slow-paced meditation on the influences that helped the young Lincoln grow up to be the man he became. Taking as its focus the period of his life when he lost and gained a mother, the movie is a studied, thoughtful examination of the trials and joys of growing up in a wooded wilderness.

Shot in glorious, lustrous black and white, the movie paints a compelling portrait of a time and a place where life was certainly difficult, and sometimes harsh: the family’s cows get sick and die from eating poisonous weeds, and Nancy dies as a result of drinking their infected milk. When Tom Lincoln goes off to find a wife, it seems uncaring and thoughtless to leave his children and Dennis to cope until he returns, but this was part and parcel of life in America during that period, where a normal childhood had to be grabbed whenever possible. It’s to Edwards’ credit that he’s able to show that the young Lincoln was able to be a child as well as a farm labourer, and that he was able to find beauty in his surroundings, both in his two mothers and via the ever-changing natural habitat he was a part of.

Abe’s relationships with Nancy and Sarah are the heart and soul of the movie, delicate and affectionate and heartfelt, with both Marling and Kruger providing very different, yet very intuitive performances. Marling behaves almost like a wood nymph, her love of nature and the way in which she embraces it allowing Abe’s mind to embrace it too. Kruger is equally effective, imbuing Sarah with a quiet determination that Abe will realise his full potential, and unsupportive of her new husband’s strict approach to parenting. (It could be argued that without these two women in his life at such a formative time, then Abraham Lincoln’s future would have been entirely different.) As his stern, reticent father, Clarke is a stoic figure seemingly bereft of feeling and only able to connect with his son when correcting him. Indeed, the nearest he gets to showing any tenderness is when he’s teaching Abe how to wrestle, but it’s an awkward tenderness and borders on uncomfortable – for both of them.

The young Abe is played with quiet composure and assurance by Denney (making his movie debut), and he’s a great find, matching his adult co-stars for sincerity and skill. He has a natural ability that allows the viewer to engage and understand Abe instantly. Nancy mentions at one point that Abe is asking her questions she can’t answer; looking at Denney you can believe it. He’s also effective in scenes where he and his mothers bond through learning and their mutual appreciation of nature, his expressions of curiosity and understanding perfectly shaped and naturalistic. It’s a tremendous performance, and anchors the movie superbly.

With a quartet of understated yet superb performances at its centre, The Better Angels‘ glowing black and white cinematography emphasises the poetry and the beauty of the seasons, and is exhilarating to experience. Edwards’ use of shade and light, executed with tremendous precision by DoP Matthew J. Lloyd, is hugely impressive, immersing the viewer in shots of extraordinary seductiveness. Rarely has unspoilt countryside looked so alluring or captivating, and rarely has it looked so beautiful as it does here, in black and white. With every scene captured with breathtaking attention to period detail and highlighted by some of the most exquisite framing and composition seen in recent years, the movie is a visual treat par excellence.

Rating: 9/10 – some viewers may bemoan the slow pace and emphasis on recurring shots of natural beauty, but The Better Angels presents a fully realised world that is immersive and often deeply profound; with Edwards in full control of both the script and the world he’s recreating, this is a movie that resonates long after it’s been seen.

X/Y (2014)

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X:Y

D: Ryan Piers Williams / 83m

Cast: America Ferrera, Ryan Piers Williams, Melonie Diaz, Jon Paul Phillips, Amber Tamblyn, Dree Hemingway, David Harbour, Common, Adam Rapp, Maria Dizzia, Danny Deferrari, Sue Jean Kim

Mark (Williams) and Silvia (Ferrera) are unhappy with their relationship, with both of them feeling unappreciated, and with both of them failing to communicate with each other. These issues come to a head when Silvia reveals she’s slept with someone else called Jason (Common). Mark takes some of his stuff and moves in with his friend Jake (Phillips). While he tries to work out what to do next, he also tries to get a movie script he’s written off the ground via his agent, Todd (Harbour).

Elsewhere that morning, one of Silvia’s friends, Jen (Diaz) is waking up in the bed of a stranger she met the night before. She leaves before he wakes up, but leaves a bag behind so she has an excuse to see him again. At a coffee shop she leaves her number for the guy behind the counter, Phil (Deferrer). She meets Silvia and they talk about Mark leaving, but when Jen tells Silvia she “fucked up”, Silvia gets defensive and deliberately upsets Jen to the point where Jen tells her to go. Later, Jen goes back to retrieve her bag only to find the man she met is married.

Mark’s friend, Jake, meanwhile, is trying his best to get over the break up of a five year relationship. He has meaningless sex with a woman in the club where he DJ’s, but can’t connect with a woman, Claudia (Hemingway), he meets at a photo shoot and who is clearly attracted to him. He spies on his ex-girlfriend and uses his emotions to fuel the artwork he paints. Silvia’s separation from Mark means more time to have sex with Jason but her work begins to suffer as a result, and she begins to realise that she and Mark splitting up hasn’t been for the best after all.

X:Y - scene

While not pushing any boundaries at all in its depiction of the lives of four fairly messed up individuals, X/Y does have an honest approach to the material that helps carry it through some of the more dull and unsurprising stretches. It’s another movie that reminds us that people in relationships are notoriously bad at talking to each other, and that they only really confess their feelings to their friends: Mark and Silvia tell Jake and Jen respectively how they feel about each other, but somehow find it too difficult when in the same room together.

While this is standard operating procedure for most romantic dramas, the problem with this type of movie is how much depth the characters’ problems have. Here, Mark and Silvia have been together for six years but seem to have reached a point where they’re making each other unhappy but without understanding why. Unfortunately, over the course of the movie, the audience doesn’t find out either. Mark admits at one point that he doesn’t always know what he wants, and there are times when the multi-character set up means the movie doesn’t either. While Mark and Silvia’s relationship takes up most of the narrative, the time spent with Jen and Jake offers the viewer nothing more than two people who are struggling not to connect. Both characters are adrift, grabbing illusory notions of love and emotional attachment where none is present. Jen’s sadness at being alone prompts her to binge shop despite being unemployed; Jake moves from one pursuit to another in an attempt to outrun his sadness at being alone. But Mark and Silvia have each other, even though they’re apart, and while Jen and Jake’s problems add some range to the material, they’re vignettes that don’t add any depth to the basic storyline.

With Mark and Silvia’s troubles bookending the movie, and its centre proving something of a distraction, it’s left to the performances to rescue things. Real-life couple Ferrera and Williams are entirely credible as a couple too entrenched in their own differences to see how unimportant they are. Ferrera brings a rawness to her scenes with Williams that makes Silvia more sympathetic than she appears, her judgmental attitude giving way as the movie progresses to a more ambivalent awareness of how she’s behaved, and finally to a better understanding. As Mark, Williams brings less to the table, but that’s more to do with the way the character is written: he’s the typical male who thinks everything is okay until he finds out it isn’t… and then he’s completely bewildered. Williams does a good job in getting that across while making Mark’s initial need to keep his distance entirely understandable; he wants his relationship to work but not at the expense of his pride.

As Jen and Jake, Diaz and Phillips acquit themselves equally well, with Diaz proving again why she’s one of the most intuitive actresses working today. As the seemingly vapid (but clued up) Jen she almost steals the movie in terms of performance. When she confronts her one night stand and his wife, it’s a small masterpiece of injured pride and smiling revenge, and the movie benefits from her involvement (and seems somehow less of a piece after her segment is over). Phillips has the most challenging role, keeping Jake’s deep-rooted insecurities and emotional instability from becoming too much for the audience to believe in, but he juggles the various dilemmas Jake has to face with equanimity and quiet inspiration.

All told, X/Y is a valiant effort but somehow it doesn’t quite hit the mark, leaving the viewer with the sense that, not only has this been done before, but it’s probably been done in a better fashion and with more to say. Williams directs with an acceptable, if unremarkable, visual style that improves when he uses close ups to highlight the emotional tension in a scene, and he often lingers on characters’ faces to good effect, their feelings allowed full expression without any chance of doubtful interpretation. The soundtrack features a selection of indie songs that come and go without making much of an impression, and while this isn’t unusual – so many soundtracks nowadays seem like a contractual obligation than a benefit to the movie they’re in – they do distract from the overall feel that Williams is aiming for.

Rating: 5/10 – feeling like a collection of short films stitched together, X/Y lacks the drive and energy needed to make its audience care about its characters and their problems; not without its good moments, but lacking in necessary detail, the movie isn’t as compelling as it needs to be.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

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American The Bill Hicks Story

D: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas / 102m

Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Kevin Booth, James Ladmirault, David Johndrow, John Farneti, Andy Huggins, Steve Epstein

From an early age growing up in Houston, Texas, it seems that Bill Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian. At the age of thirteen he joined forces with his friend, Dwight Slade, and they started writing comedy material together. At fifteen, they snuck out of their homes to attend an open mic evening at the Comedy Workshop – and were a hit. But then Slade had to move away, leaving Hicks to build a career for himself.

He acquitted himself well on the comedy circuit, but early signs of alcohol abuse became more prevalent – and obvious – as Hicks used drinking in his act. While this allowed his true comic persona to show through, it lead to his addiction to cocaine, and a period in which his career virtually stalled. His initial promise, and fame, waned and it wasn’t until the late Eighties that he put his addictions behind him (though he continued to chain smoke throughout the rest of his life, even incorporating into his act). In 1990, Hicks’ career took an upturn when he appeared at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. And later in the same year he appeared for the first time in the UK, where his brand of confrontational comedy caught on with audiences in a way that had never happened with US audiences; in short, they got him.

Hicks’ reputation increased off the back of his time in the UK, but even with such a boost he was still an acquired taste in the US. In 1993, he was scheduled to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, but his entire performance was cancelled from the show because the producers felt the content – which included references to the anti-abortion movement and religion – was unsuitable (the routine was finally aired on the show in 2009, and can be seen here). By this time, however, Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had also spread to his liver. He kept it quiet, but began joking that each performance he gave might be his last. He died in February 1994, aged just thirty-two, but he remains one of the most popular, and influential, comedians of the last twenty-five years.

American The Bill Hicks Story - scene

If you’ve never seen any of Bill Hicks’ stand up routines, or watched one of his live videos, then it’s difficult to understand just how good a comedian he was. He used his keen intelligence and acerbic wit to poke fun at US mainstream society and its relation to politics, religion, consumerism, and state controls. He was often vitriolic in his routines and unflaggingly dismissive of social apathy, refusing to accept that as one audience member once said, “We don’t come to comedy to think!” If you were in the audience at one of his gigs, you had to be ready to be challenged, and not in a softly, softly way either; Hicks was uncompromising.

In telling his story, from his early life growing up in Houston, through to his final gig in January 1994, American: The Bill Hicks Story picks out the highs and lows of Hicks’ life and career, and paints a portrait of a man who left behind an indelible body of work, and who was taken from us too soon. The movie benefits from the involvement of his family: mother Mary, sister Lynn, and brother Steve, all of whom speak candidly about Hicks and his various battles with addiction, as well as the effect these had on his career. Hicks also spoke about these issues in his routines (though he remained an advocate of LSD, psychedelic mushrooms and marijuana), and he did so candidly; it’s somehow reassuring to learn that his family are the same. With their honest, heartfelt contributions, the movie is able to acknowledge Hicks as a troubled individual, but also one who was able to deal with it all, and use it as a tool to inform and educate his audiences.

Co-directors Harlock and Thomas have done a great job in assembling the various interviews that pepper the movie and give it a great deal of balance throughout. There are dozens of clips of Hicks doing what he did best, and they’ve been chosen with obvious care – one montage of Hicks accepting or having a drink onstage shows just how bad his addiction was. There’s plenty of archival footage of Hicks growing up, and the makers have adopted a graphic animated style to the material that keeps things interesting away from Hicks’ routines, and often proves inventive. Using cut-outs and graphic overlays, the movie is visually engaging and compelling, and although some viewers may have trouble keeping up with who’s providing the voice over at any given time, it doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the material.

Hicks, like Lenny Bruce before him, was unafraid to challenge the establishment, and his disillusion and anger towards the powers that be are given full expression, and allow the viewer to see the passion Hicks displayed on stage. Whether or not the movie is entirely successful in showing the man behind the comedian is open for debate, as Hicks’ private life is barely touched upon unless it involves his family (for example there’s no mention of a girlfriend, or indeed, any kind of significant other), or the friends he made on the comedy circuit in Texas. But the movie’s focus is clearly on Hicks the comedian rather than Hicks the private individual, and as such, works supremely well at providing a fitting eulogy for a man who once said, “Do I have a message? Yes, I do. Here’s my message: as scary as the world is – and it is – it is merely a ride…”

Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable, affectionate look back over the life of one of America’s finest – if not fully appreciated – comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a worthy endorsement of Hicks’ life and career; by turns funny, sad, poignant and moving, but above all funny, the movie is a celebration that is both imaginative and sincere.

Oh! the Horror! – Backtrack (2014) and The Last House on Cemetery Lane (2015)

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Backtrack

aka Nazi Vengeance

D: Tom Sands / 97m

Cast: Mark Drake, Sophie Barker, Rosie Akerman, Miles Jovian, Julian Glover

When Ralph (Drake) undergoes past life regression at the suggestion of his friend Claudia (Akerman), he has visions of Nazis in the small English village of Plumpton, and the deaths of an unknown woman and her three children. Confused and upset by this, Ralph manages to persuade his girlfriend, Andrea (Barker), along with Claudia and her boyfriend Lucas (Jovian), to go on a camping trip to the South Downs, and to investigate the area that Ralph saw glimpses of. Finding the village proves more difficult than expected, and while Ralph and Claudia explore further afield, Andrea and Lucas stay with the tents and continue the affair they’ve been having. While in the midst of having sex, an old man knocks Lucas unconscious and threatens Andrea with a shotgun. He ties up both of them and takes them to an old farm building where he tortures them before leaving to find Ralph and Claudia.

Ralph and Claudia return to the tents but don’t immediately realise that their partners have been abducted. Later they do, but by then it’s late and they decide to bed down for the night and go for help in the morning. The old man attempts to grab them but they manage to escape. Having got away, Claudia suggests that Ralph undergo further regression in an effort to find out more about what happened in Plumpton, and if it has any bearing on what’s happening to them now. Ralph learns he was one of the Nazis he saw before, and that he was responsible for the deaths of the woman and her children. He and Claudia seek shelter in a church but the old man is laying in wait for them; they too find themselves held captive with their partners in the old farm building and at the mercy of the old man’s thirst for revenge.

Backtrack - scene

Sometimes, when watching horror films – especially if you’ve seen way too many of them for your own good – there’s often a point where you know exactly what’s going to happen next, and how, and why. This is the feeling you get after the first five minutes of Backtrack, and the feeling persists throughout. For example, when Ralph and Claudia realise their other halves have been abducted, neither of them can make a call on their mobile phones (naturally). Or when Ralph realises he was a Nazi – something the viewer’s known all along. Or when Claudia tells Ralph to keep a Swiss Army knife in his pocket because, you know, it just might come in handy later on. But these examples of lazy storytelling aside, this is a movie that gets it wrong on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing.

While the basic idea of Backtrack is okay for this sort of thing – revenge-driven World War II survivor targets reincarnated souls who killed his family – the movie is defeated from the beginning by some really really really terrible dialogue (think Harrison Ford’s famous quote, “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it”, and you’ll find you’re not even close to how bad the dialogue is). Defeat comes as well through its cast’s complete inability to make the dialogue sound even remotely normal (even Glover, a classically trained actor, can’t do anything with it). And to make matters worse, the cast are uniformly awful, giving amateurish performances and exposing their lack of experience, and lack of knowledge of their craft in every scene.

Stepping away from the world of documentaries for which he’s best known, Sands does a ham-fisted job in every sense, and fails to inject any tension or drama into the proceedings, leaving the cast to fend for themselves and showing no sign that he’s recognised the absurdities of Mick Sands’ apparently first draft script (the old man stalks the two couples by tractor, one that must have the biggest muffler in the world attached to it, as it doesn’t make a sound). With basic attempts at framing and composition, and the feeling that a lot of shots were first takes, the look and feel of Backtrack is that of a movie that should have had a lot more attention paid to it at all stages of its production.

Rating: 1/10 – dire in every way possible, Backtrack is an object lesson in how not to make a low budget horror movie; if the choice is watching this or watching paint dry, then watch the paint – at least it’s got a more credible story arc.

 

Last House on Cemetery Lane, The

D: Andrew Jones / 81m

Cast: Lee Bane, Georgina Blackledge, Tessa Wood, Vivien Bridson

When screenwriter John Davies (Bane) rents a house for a couple of months in order to work on his latest screenplay, he finds there’s a sitting tenant up on the third floor: a blind old lady (Bridson) who never leaves her room. Annoyed at first because there was no mention of the old lady in the advertisement he saw, John is reassured by the estate agent (Wood) that it won’t interfere with his work. He spends a day or so visiting the nearby town and reminiscing on the visits he made to the area as a child. Then, one day, he meets a young woman, Cassie (Blackledge) in the garden. She apologises for being there, but John is unconcerned and, slightly smitten, tells her she can visit again if she wants to.

As his relationship with Cassie develops into something more romantic, John begins to have nightmares and experience strange phenomena. At night, a record player comes on and plays the same song each time. A doll in one of the bedrooms is found on the stairs, and a picture that hangs in the hallway ends up on the floor without being touched. He contacts the estate agent to see if the house has a history, but she says there’s nothing to tell. Cassie suggests using a ouija board, but John rejects the idea – at first. One night he uses one to find out if anything has happened in the past, and it tells him that there was a murder there. Convinced that the old lady must know what’s going on, he visits her, only to find that nothing is quite as it seems, and that his life is now in danger.

Cemetery Lane

With the look and feel of a short movie expanded to meet the needs of a full-length feature, The Last House on Cemetery Lane contains a lot of padding and a shortage of actual drama. The first twenty minutes contain enough off-putting moments to make even die-hard horror fans tune out from boredom, and though the introduction of the blind old lady adds a bit of mystery to proceedings, John’s walk through the nearest town, and then along the beach (accompanied on the soundtrack by a trenchant piece of AOR) seems almost like a test: if you can endure this, then the rest of the movie will be a piece of cake (or a walk on said beach). And even though writer/director Jones begins throwing the odd bit of supernatural phenomena into the mix, the movie finds itself focusing on John and Cassie’s relationship instead, subjecting the viewer to mildly interesting scenes where they get to know each other and trade inane lines of dialogue.

It’s not until John consults the ouija board that the movie begins to pick up pace and reminds itself as to why it’s here. The old lady’s revelations, though, prove less than original and lead to a violent showdown that borrows from Halloween (1978) for a key moment, and which lacks any real tension thanks to the clumsy way in which it’s shot and edited. And with a clear resolution to the tale, the script then undermines and ignores its own logic, both insulting itself and the patient viewer. With so much going on that lacks adequate attention from Jones, it’s left to Bane to carry the bulk of the movie, and while he’s worked with Jones on several previous occasions, even he can’t help the viewer along when the going becomes dull.

A haunted house mystery where the real mystery is why the movie was ever produced, Jones’ strives for atmosphere but misses it by a mile, and never develops his own tale beyond its mundane opening scene. There’s the germ of a good movie here, but Jones and his crew can’t quite get a grip on it.

Rating: 3/10 – only occasionally intriguing, The Last House on Cemetery Lane is a throwback to the kind of rural thrillers made in the Seventies, but without any energy or attempts at effective pacing; with a score that’s more irritating than eerie (not to mention too loud in places), any pleasure to be had will come from its brevity, and its brevity alone.

Everly (2014)

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Everly

D: Joe Lynch / 92m

Cast: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Akie Kotabe, Gabriella Wright, Caroline Chikezie, Jennifer Blanc, Jelena Gavrilovic, Aisha Ayamah

Everly (Hayek) has been held captive for four years in an apartment building by notorious gangster Taiko (Watanabe). She hasn’t seen her five year old daughter, Maisey (Ayamah), or mother Edith (Cepeda), in all that time. Having made the decision to help the police by informing on Taiko, her plan to get out from his clutches begins to backfire when he finds out what’s she’s done. He leaves her to several of his gang, who abuse her, but she has a gun hidden in her apartment and she uses it to kill them. With her police contact having been disposed of by Taiko, he calls to tell her that she won’t be getting out of the apartment alive. He puts a bounty on her head, and soon, the prostitutes working on the same floor are all trying to kill her.

Everly deals with all of them except for Anna (Wright), with whom she strikes a bargain: let her have two hours to make sure her mother and daughter are out of the city, and she’ll let Anna kill her and collect the bounty. Unable to get a sizeable amount of money to them, she thinks of a way in which they can come to her. Before that can happen she has to fight off various would-be assassins, and deal with one of Taiko’s gang she calls Dead Man (Kotabe), who is bleeding to death on her couch. He helps her to avoid being killed and when Edith and Maisey arrive he watches over Maisey while Everly explains the situation to her mother. But the arrival of The Sadist (Igawa) and his group of Kabuki-masked sidekicks puts Everly and her mother in mortal jeopardy, as Everly finds herself caged and forced to watch as her mother is threatened with various forms of acid.

Everly - scene

Beginning with a dark screen and a soundtrack filled with a woman’s cries of pain and then followed by an overhead shot of a heavily-tattooed, and naked, woman stumbling into a bathroom, Everly announces itself as a less-than-subtle action movie from the get-go. And so it proves, with ever more ridiculous bouts of frenzied action, ever more inane dialogue (which culminates in Taiko arriving and displaying his knowledge of the Psycho’s Book of Villainous Monologues), ever more uncomfortable moments involving the five year old Amayah, and the narrative skipping merrily from one absurd scene to the next in its quest to be as over-the-top as possible.

And therein lies the main problem with Yale Hannon’s overcooked screenplay: it tries too hard to be hip, funny and profane. Its hyper-stylised violence aside, the movie is a cornucopia of awkward humour – Maisey wanting to open a Xmas present that has a policeman’s head inside – and misjudged sentiment: Everly being able to convince Anna not to kill her straight away. (As plot devices go, this one is about as credible as Everly being shot in the side and it leaving huge entrance and exit wounds, wounds she then shrugs off for the rest of the movie.) Add in The Sadist’s cruel, icy menace, and Taiko’s barely suppressed rage, and you have a script that borders on misogyny at the same time as it propagates the idea of the strong, determined woman who’ll defend her family at all costs (as long as she’s wearing a tight-fitting, bust-enhancing bra and top).

Hayek is lumbered with a role that allows her to show Everly as brave, vulnerable, resourceful, sensitive, determined, and sometimes scared and fearless in the same scene (there are times when the actress looks as bewildered by what’s happening as the viewer probably is). But this is a movie where the main character is the movie, and without Hayek throwing herself into it – literally – a lot of what passes for serious dramatics would fall flat on its face in seconds (that original choice Kate Hudson would have been as good is hard to imagine). Hayek is rueful, proud and undeniably sexy (even when spattered with blood), and she dominates the movie, her sharp-angled features as expressive as ever, and her sheer physicality in the role proving a decided bonus.

Of the supporting cast, Kotabe as the kind-hearted yakuza “Dead Man”, and Cepeda as Everly’s worried, and harried, mother make the most impact, while Watanabe tries to be cold-hearted and threatening but succeeds in making Taiko peevish and grouchy instead, and considering the relative ease with which she’s offed around two dozen or so people, unable to realise just how deadly Everly can be (frighteningly so, in fact, showing an aptitude for handling and using guns that is never even close to being explained properly). With the main villain given such a build-up, to have him “monologue” and give Everly too many chances to kill him, it’s a wonder he’s made it as far as he has.

On the technical side, Steve Galner’s cinematography adds a pleasing amount of gloom to proceedings, and the movie never once looks as garish as you might expect. The action scenes are ably assembled by editor Evan Schiff and have a visceral intensity about them that keeps the movie ticking over from one outlandish stunt to the next, and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design helps play down the fact that the apartment varies in size from scene to scene. Overseeing all this, Lynch displays a fondness for odd camera angles that don’t always enhance the image, but he does score highly in the way he stages each new assault on Everly with a fair degree of visual inventiveness.

Rating: 4/10 – uneven throughout, and lacking the flair needed to carry this beyond being just a vicarious thrill-ride, Everly is a balls-to-the-wall action movie whose reach is let down by its grasp; Hayek is great, but is let down by haphazard plotting and shifts in tone and perspective that don’t always work.

Trailer – I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)

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When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it would have been regarded as a bit of a long shot that the same performer would still be playing the same role, and on such a regular basis, over forty-five years later. But in the case of Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch), that’s exactly what’s happened. This documentary about the man in the orange and black striped leggings has all the hallmarks of a lovingly crafted appreciation of one of the show’s (largely) unsung heroes. As a trip down Memory Lane for many of us, it’s a reminder of just how good a performer he is – and if you’ve seen his recent spoof of Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), how good a performer he still is.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 16m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Having both been thrown clear of the train crash, Lothar finds Mandrake unconscious at the side of the wreckage. While he goes to find a doctor, an ambulance arrives and takes Mandrake away. Lothar catches sight of it, and later, tells Professor Houston, Betty, Dr Bennett and Raymond about it. Deciding that a search of the local hospitals is the best way forward, Betty and Raymond try to find Mandrake together, while Bennett searches on his own. Meanwhile, Mandrake is taken to a room in the Green Valley Rest Home and tied up. Later, Webster is brought to the rest home as well, and chained to the wall in another room.

Betty, Raymond and Bennett arrange to meet at their last destination, the Green Valley Rest Home. Bennett arrives first and is locked in another room. When Betty and Raymond get there, he decides to look around the grounds; eventually he goes inside and gets involved in a fight with two of the Wasp’s men. Betty is caught also, and she’s locked in yet another room. The Wasp appears in person to interrogate Mandrake, but when he’s brought from his room, with a hood over his head, it turns out to be his guard. Loose in the building, Mandrake tries to find a way out. Betty also manages to escape her room and the two meet up. But with corridors being blocked off by the Wasp and his henchman Dirk, they’re herded into the east wing, which is then blown up.

Mandrake 10

Pushing the narrative forward, Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster is yet another fast-paced episode that packs a lot into its short running time, and which succeeds in having fun with the identity of the Wasp. With all three suspects gathered together in one place – Bennett, Raymond and Webster – it’s up to the viewer to work out just who is the masked criminal (though there is another clue hidden away amongst all the mayhem). It’s a clever move, designed to throw doubt in the viewer’s mind if they’ve settled for one particular character already, and it adds a level of drama that’s been missing for several episodes. And with Mandrake sidelined for most of the chapter, it’s a welcome change of focus.

It also makes for a pleasing change in tone, with the emphasis on action in the previous two episodes downplayed in favour of putting everyone in peril, and giving its supporting players a lot more to do. This allows directors Nelson and Deming a chance to adopt a more studied race against time scenario, rather than the breakneck speed they’ve had to employ thus far. And there’s still time for a few series’ favourites, such as a couple of rounds of fisticuffs, and Mandrake’s hat going with him in the ambulance – even the Wasp’s men know how important it is to him – and being knocked off and then quickly put back on during a fight.

Rating: 6/10 – with two episodes to go, Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster shows the serial heading towards its conclusion with a much needed injection of gusto; playing up the Who-is-the-Wasp angle works a treat, and results in an episode that shows the serial won’t be on auto-pilot all the way to the end.

Bad Asses on the Bayou (2015)

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Bad Asses on the Bayou

D: Craig Moss / 85m

Cast: Danny Trejo, Danny Glover, John Amos, Loni Love, Jimmy Bennett, Carol Sutton, Sammi Rotibi, Davi Jay, Judd Lormand, Jeff Pope

Pensioners with attitude Frank Vega (Trejo) and Bernie Pope (Glover) are still the best of friends and still annoying each other. When their friend Carmen (Love) calls to say she’s getting married, and she wants both of them to come to Baton Rouge for the wedding – with all expenses paid by her father Earl (Amos) – they head on down for the festivities. They meet Earl’s wife, Lois (Sutton), Carmen’s brother Ronald (Bennett), and Carmen’s wheelchair-bound fiancé, Geoffrey (Rotini). But on their first night at Earl’s mansion home, intruders break in and kidnap Carmen, despite Frank’s best efforts to stop them. The next day, Earl receives a ransom demand for $5 million, due in thirty-two hours.

The local chief of police, Broussard (Jay) takes charge of the investigation, but he’s aware of Frank and Bernie’s notoriety and warns them against getting involved. In no time at all they ignore Broussard’s advice, and using a clue found by Ronald, track one of the gang of intruders to a local club. There they force him to tell them the name of another gang member, Landry (Pope), who is more “connected”. While Carmen remains imprisoned in an abandoned factory, and her family struggle to deal with her kidnapping, Frank and Bernie ignore a further, more serious warning from Detective Williamson (Lormand) and track down Landry who tells them where Carmen is being held. At the same time, Carmen manages to escape from the room where she’s been imprisoned. She ends up in an office where she’s able to fax her location to the police.

However, the fax is intercepted by one of Broussard’s deputies who takes it to his chief. On their way to the abandoned factory, Frank and Bernie are forced to stop by uniformed police. Broussard is with them, and it becomes clear that he’s behind the kidnapping. He knocks Frank unconscious; when he comes to he and Bernie are on their way to an airstrip. Broussard’s plan is to have them thrown out of a plane to their deaths. But Frank and Bernie have other ideas…

Bad Asses on the Bayou - scene

The first Bad Ass movie, released in 2012, was based on the real-life exploits of Thomas Bruso. It was an uneven mix of wish fulfilment action beats and cornball humour that did enough to warrant a sequel, Bad Asses (2014). This upped the humour, thanks largely to the involvement of Glover, and showed that there was mileage to be had from a pensioner – or two – who wasn’t prepared to take any shit. With no sign that the series is stopping any time soon, and with the budget getting bigger with each instalment, Bad Asses on the Bayou shows the series stretching credibility and common sense in its efforts to provide a good time.

Lacking a cohesive script, the movie opts to play out like a Seventies low budget actioner, with dreadful leaps in both narrative and characterisation, and with writer/director Moss clearly having assembled his script from the bottom of the bin marked “clichés”. So we have Frank and Bernie bickering in a bank and foiling a robbery. We have Frank and Bernie taking out purse thieves at a gas station (actually well choreographed). We have Frank dispensing wisdom to a bullied Ronald, Carmen played as a sassy, high-energy stereotype, Bernie hitting on women around three times younger than he is, and the odd moment of sadistic violence (Frank pushing Landry’s face into a fat frier). And to cap it all we have intermittent scenes where Bernie’s recent liver transplant causes him pain at the wrong time (but which is never developed any further than that).

There’s also some poorly executed attempts at humour – Bernie: “I ain’t running” – and Moss hasn’t decided if he’s spoofing his own creation yet, but with Trejo’s performance bordering on tired already, and Glover playing Bernie exactly as he did in Bad Asses, the series is in danger of disappearing up its own absurdity. It’s not enough this time round for the movie to flirt with plausibility and then leave it high and dry like a forgotten bride at the altar, or for it to include moderately well executed action sequences that show off where the bulk of the budget has been used. Instead of using the extra money to strengthen, expand or add depth to the original concept, Moss and co have taken Frank and Bernie out of their comfort zones and relocated them to the Deep South – and fallen back on the same approach they used in the first two movies, thus making the change of scenery no real change at all (and Frank and Bernie never actually spend any time “on the bayou”).

With Baton Rouge proving a poor, unfriendly backdrop to the main storyline – a short montage of the sights of Baton Rouge shows very little that could be considered attractive about the area – and a visual style that highlights blandness each time, Bad Asses on the Bayou is the least interesting of the series to watch in terms of its look and feel, and is a movie propagated with too many similar-sounding rap songs. If there is to be another Bad Ass movie, and this one promises a next instalment titled Bad Asses in Bangcock (yep, that’s how they’ve spelt it), then let’s hope that Moss works from someone else’s (better) script, and Trejo and Glover are given more to do than beat people up and make cheap wisecracks.

Rating: 4/10 – the law of diminishing sequels kicks in with a vengeance, leaving Bad Asses on the Bayou looking and feeling like a half-finished idea that sounded good at the time; with a sense that everyone involved is treading water, or just going through the motions, keeping the series going may not be the best way forward for both the makers and for future audiences.

Mini-Review: The Wedding Ringer (2015)

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Wedding Ringer, The

D: Jeremy Garelick / 101m

Cast: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Affion Crockett, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Jorge Garcia, Dan Gill, Corey Holcomb, Colin Kane, Aaron Takahashi, Alan Ritchson, Ken Howard, Olivia Thirlby, Mimi Rogers, Cloris Leachman, Ignacio Serricchio, Jenifer Lewis

Though Doug Harris (Gad) is a successful tax attorney, when it comes to his impending marriage to Gretchen Palmer (Cuoco-Sweeting), he’s having no success in conjuring up a best man or any other friends to be his groomsmen. With literally no one to call on, Doug hears about The Best Man Inc and checks it out. He meets best man for hire Jimmy Callaghan (Hart) and explains his predicament. Jimmy realises he needs a “Golden Tux” (seven groomsmen), which has never been done before. He takes on the challenge and finds seven “friends” for Doug who will be able to attend various pre-wedding functions and be there on the day.

Jimmy assumes the role of Bic Mitchum, a military priest fresh from a tour in El Salvador. He and Doug spend time getting to “know” each other before Jimmy meets Gretchen’s family, including her ultra-competitive dad (Howard) and immediately suspicious sister, Allison (Thirlby). Doug and Jimmy do well enough that Gretchen doesn’t suspect a thing, though as the wedding day gets nearer and nearer, a bond develops between Jimmy and Doug that Jimmy is wary of, as his one stipulation is that their relationship is purely a business one. But on the day of the wedding, Jimmy learns something that changes everything, including his role of best man, and Doug’s role as the groom. Does he keep to the terms of his agreement with Doug, or does he put it all aside to help Doug?

Kevin Hart;Josh Gad;Affion Crockett;Jorge Garcia

The latest movie in Kevin Hart’s seemingly unstoppable rise to superstardom, The Wedding Ringer is a comedy feature that pauses on too many occasions to ram home its message about the importance of friendship, and largely forgets to include the belly laughs it so desperately needs to work. It’s workmanlike stuff, the script by director Garelick and Jay Lavender never really coming up with situations or diversions that prove really funny. It is amusing – what happens to Gretchen’s gran (Leachman) at the lunch is surreally hilarious – but only in fits and starts. Like many comedies released in recent years, there’s too much exposition and too much emphasis on the set up rather than the pay off. What doesn’t help is that Hart appears to coasting on auto pilot, while Gad (easily the better comic actor) is stuck playing the straight guy.

The whole premise is weak, and Doug’s explanation for his situation seems improbable, while Jimmy’s lack of friends seems equally unlikely. There are lots of other contrivances on display, and they all stop the movie from being anything more than a loosely connected series of scenes that are there to tick the boxes. Garelick makes his feature debut but fails to impress, and the whole look of the movie is one step removed from a TV episode. Ultimately, it’s a movie that doesn’t try very hard, and gives new meaning to the word “underwhelming”.

Rating: 4/10 – with Hart citing The Wedding Ringer as his “best work to date”, some viewers may think it has a lot going for it, but the truth is more banal: it’s just not as funny as it should be; predictable and too pedestrian to be effective, the movie is a disappointment, and wastes its more than capable cast.

Cake (2014)

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Cake

D: Daniel Barnz / 102m

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, Chris Messina, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson

Claire Bennett (Aniston) attends a chronic pain support group following a car accident that has left her severely injured and in constant pain. At one meeting she learns that another member of the group, Nina Collins (Kendrick), has committed suicide. When it’s Claire’s turn to express how she feels about this, she is cruel and acerbic. When she gets home, she finds a message on her phone from Annette (Huffman) who suggests Claire find another support group. There’s another message, from her estranged husband, Jason (Messina), but she ignores it.

Claire has a housemaid, Silvana (Barraza), who also drives her from place to place when needed. They have a combative relationship, especially when it comes to the amount of medication Claire consumes (she even hides extra pills around the house). However, Claire relies on her too much to fire her. One night, Claire has a vision of Nina in which Nina challenges Claire as to why she hasn’t committed suicide herself. The next day, at her aquatic therapy appointment Claire tries to drown herself but her instinct for survival stops her. Following this, Claire contacts Annette and blackmails her into giving her Nina’s address. She goes there and meets Nina’s husband, Roy (Worthington).

A mutually supportive relationship develops between them. This leads to Claire beginning to feel a little better about herself (though she still persuades Silvana to take her to Tijuana where she can get some stronger, non-prescribed medication). She starts to make things up to people, including Annette, and allows Roy to bring his son over to her house for lunch. The visit prompts several unhappy reminiscences but while she’s able to deal with them it proves impossible when Claire receives another, unwanted, visitor: the man (Macy) who caused the car accident. Claire attacks him and later takes an overdose. In hospital, and following another disturbing vision of Nina, she makes the decision to try and get by without any further medication.

Cake - scene

An often stark, unshowy drama with spells of unexpected indifference to its own characters, Cake nearly overcomes its dour presentation thanks to an inspired performance by Aniston. In many ways, the movie wouldn’t be as good without her – she provides some much needed depth throughout, and a strong focal point. Claire is a great role for any actress, but Aniston is convincing from beginning to end, every painful twitch and grimace played so naturally the viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Aniston had deliberately injured herself ahead of filming.

With her puffy face, lank hair and baggy clothing, Claire is a woman whose only focus in life is her physical pain; beyond that, everything else is of minimal importance. She’s wounded, physically and emotionally, and is struggling to move forward. Without her medication, or her caustic view on life, she would have nothing. Struggling to keep mind and body together, she bullies Silvana, manipulates Roy, and keeps her distance from Jason, but even with these interactions and off-kilter relationships – especially her visions of Nina – she begins to find a way back to the person she was before the accident. It’s a gradual, carefully shaded portrayal, with Aniston keeping a lot below the surface but using her eyes to convey the warring emotions inside Claire. It’s an honest, deeply affecting performance and Aniston’s presence in the movie, as mentioned above, makes it all the more compelling.

If Aniston hadn’t committed to the project, or a similar performance hadn’t been provided by another actress, then Cake would not be as good a movie as it is. The problem lies with Patrick Tobin’s emotionally redolent screenplay, which focuses so completely on its main character that, Silvana aside, everyone else is underwritten and orbit around Claire to little effect. Roy and Claire’s relationship always looks to be a platonic one, so the usual will-they-won’t-they dramatics are ignored from the moment they first meet (there’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between Aniston and Worthington that undercuts things even further). The only other character of merit is Nina, but Kendrick is stuck with playing her as interfering and annoying rather than as the representation of Claire’s conscience that she should be. Thankfully, Barraza gives a wonderful performance that often matches Aniston’s for emotional honesty, Silvana’s increasing affection for Claire given full expression through every exasperated sigh and shrug of her shoulders.

The rest of the movie contains a lot of elements that don’t appear fully formed or thought through. Nina’s suicide, the McGuffin that propels the movie, is never explored from the angle of why she was at the pain support group in the first place, and the note she leaves, while meant to be poignant, instead comes across as poorly chosen and clichéd. Macy’s character turns up for no discernible reason other than as a chance to inject some much needed (actual) drama into proceedings; by this time we know the circumstances of Claire’s accident and its consequences, so it’s baffling as to why he’s there. And a later sequence that sees Claire chatting regretfully with Nina while lying across a train track, and which should be one of the movie’s standout moments, is let down by some trite dialogue and Barnz’ clumsy framing.

Further problems are caused by Barnz’ inability to maintain a consistent tone, and to move the camera in ways that might prove visually interesting, or at least stave off the criticism that most scenes are made up of dull shots of Claire being upset. It’s a bland, desaturated movie to watch, with disjointed rhythms and a lack of grace when dealing with shifts in emphasis and mood. There are moments of black humour – Claire asking Roy where he got the granite for Nina’s headstone as it’s the same material she’d like for a kitchen revamp – but Barnz doesn’t treat them any differently from occasions when Claire is feeling maudlin, or angry, or reflective. Yes, Claire is in some ways emotionally numb (if not physically so), but not to the extent that she’s operating on the same level at all times. But Barnz hits a plateau early on and rarely makes any attempt to aim any higher.

Rating: 5/10 – saved from being completely off-putting by Aniston’s intense, award-worthy performance, Cake is a movie that struggles with its own premise and never gets off the ground; occasionally heartfelt but mostly sterile in nature, it’s a movie that holds too much back in terms of its narrative to be successful.

Mini-Review: Focus (2015)

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Focus

D: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa / 105m

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Brennan Brown, Dotan Bonen

Longtime conman Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) meets inexperienced grifter Jess (Robbie) and despite his initial misgivings, agrees to tutor her in the ways of becoming a real con artist. He takes her to New Orleans where he involves her in a series of minor cons such as pickpocketing. He introduces her to his crew as they prepare to hit the town during the Superbowl weekend. Altogether they amass $1.2 million from their efforts, but Nicky takes Jess to the Superbowl game where he’s challenged by compulsive gambler Liyuan Tse (Wong). The bets grow bigger until Nicky loses the money he and his crew have gained. He gets Liyuan to go for double or nothing and loses again. It’s only on when the stakes reach an even higher level that Jess realises it’s all a con designed to part Liyuan from his money.

With their relationship becoming romantic, Nicky’s reservations about becoming involved with a fellow con artist lead him to pay off Jess and leave her in New Orleans. Three years pass. Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a sting on local businessman and racing car team owner Garriga (Santoro) when he discovers that Jess is Garriga’s girlfriend. His feelings for her resurface, making it difficult for him to continue with the sting. He tries to pursue her at the same time, but Jess is reluctant to get involved with him a second time. Garriga’s head of security, Owens (McRaney) is suspicious of what Nicky is actually up to, and when he and Garriga become aware of the true sting, they grab Nicky and Jess as they try to leave town. Taken to an abandoned warehouse, Nicky has to find a way to keep both of them alive.

Focus - scene

Will Smith’s recent big screen appearances – the dreadful After Earth (2013), and cameos in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014) – have been less than overwhelming, so it’s no surprise that he’s returned with a role that allows him to express the kind of genial, roguish charm that he’s more renowned for. However, thanks to a script by directors Ficarra and Requa that never quite works out what type of movie it is, Focus allows Smith only occasional chances to shine, and in the end, leaves him as stranded as Jess is in New Orleans. At one point, Nicky says that he can convince anyone of anything, but in practice he never convinces the viewer that his feelings for Jess are real, or even that he’s as good a conman as he makes out.

Away from Smith’s painful attempts at looking lovelorn, we have a movie that struggles to add any thrills to proceedings and only really comes alive thanks to Wong’s involvement at the Superbowl game; his extrovert performance is the movie’s one highlight. Afterwards it’s all downhill with a less than convoluted con game that steals shamelessly from The Sting (1974) and asks us to take such a leap of faith in terms of what happens to Nicky that most viewers will be picking their jaws up off the floor in stunned disbelief (or amusement). Slackly directed, and with a supporting cast reduced to mouthing platitudes, Focus won’t hang around long in the memory, and proves another stumbling block in Smith’s return to the A-list.

Rating: 5/10 – good location photography and a glossy sheen to things lift Focus out of the doldrums, and the pickpocket sequences – overseen by Apollo Robbins – are cleverly constructed and edited; with Robbie adrift in a sea of watered-down machismo, however, this is not a movie that serves its cast particularly well and is worryingly predictable.

It Follows (2014)

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It Follows

D: David Robert Mitchell / 100m

Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary

Jay (Monroe) is nineteen and embarking on a new relationship with Hugh (Weary). At the cinema one night they play a game where they have to choose someone they can see that they’d like to change places with. Jay gets Hugh’s choice wrong, but when it’s his turn, Hugh points out a woman in a yellow dress that Jay can’t see; with Hugh visibly upset, they leave the cinema. On their next date, Jay and Hugh have sex in his car. Afterwards he drugs her. When she wakes, she’s tied to a wheelchair in a ruined building. Hugh tells her he’s sorry but he’s had no choice: he’s passed on to her a curse that means she will be stalked by an unknown entity until it catches her and kills her. Then it will go after him and then on down the line of everybody who’s ever been affected.

They both see a naked woman walking slowly but steadily toward them. Now that Jay has seen an example of how the entity may appear – to make matters worse, it might also appear as someone she knows – Hugh takes her back to his car and leaves her outside her house. Jay reports the incident to the police but they find no evidence of the naked woman, and Hugh has disappeared. When Jay goes back to school she sees an old woman in a hospital gown walking toward her across the grounds and then inside the building. Jay flees and tells her sister Kelly (Luccardi) and friend Paul (Gilchrist) about the curse and what it means. Along with another friend, Yara (Sepe), they agree to stay with her that night for support.

A smashed window in the kitchen leads to the entity gaining entry to Jay’s house. It tries to attack Jay but she escapes and flees to a nearby playground. Her sister and friends catch up with her, as does her neighbour, Greg (Zovatto), who’s seen Jay leave in a panic. He offers to help. Using his car to get there, they go to Hugh’s address but it’s abandoned. However, they find a clue that leads them to his real address. They confront him but he refuses to help, except to advise Jay that she should sleep with someone else to pass on the curse.

The group travel to Greg’s lake house but Jay is attacked there as well. Fleeing in Greg’s car she crashes it, ending up in hospital with her right arm in a cast. While there she sleeps with Greg (much to Paul’s disappointment as he has a crush on her). Days pass and the entity isn’t seen by either of them, until one night when Jay sees Greg break into his own house. She rushes across the street in time to see the entity kill Greg in the guise of his mother. She flees, but when she returns, Paul tells her he has a plan that might kill the entity once and for all.

It Follows - scene

Every now and then a horror movie comes along that critics praise to the skies as being the “new best thing” in horror. Recently it was The Babadook (2014). Now we have It Follows, a movie that brings us a new creature to fear. But where the Babadook made itself known through the pages of a book – Babadook is an anagram of a bad book (the clue’s there for anyone to see) – the implacable entity in It Follows makes itself known through sex. As the logical extension of all those slasher movies from the Seventies and Eighties where promiscuous teenagers made up the bulk of the killer’s victims, and the virgin was left to fend off and despatch said psycho, David Robert Mitchell’s second feature gives the sexually active no way out from their predicament.

It’s a great idea, one that should be filed under “careful what you wish for” perhaps, and the script cleverly introduces the idea that passing on the curse won’t make any difference, almost from the start. This makes the movie the most nihilistic horror movie in years, and it becomes an object lesson in how to maintain hope against all odds. Mitchell makes it clear: Jay and Hugh and anyone else they have sex with are – cue: ominous predatory silence – doomed. And yet we still root for Jay and her friends in their efforts to avoid the inevitable. Even when Paul says he has an idea of how to kill the entity, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still hold out hope that he’s right. For if he’s not, then aren’t we all – say it quietly now – doomed as well?

Having a supernatural creature in the role of sexually transmitted disease is a fine metaphor, and one that Mitchell has great deal of fun with. By allowing the creature to appear in any guise it chooses, the movie becomes a series of guessing games for the increasingly paranoid audience (forget the characters – half the time they’re not even looking). And although Mitchell shows a preference for having his entity appear as a nude or semi-nude woman, they’re sufficiently creepy, reanimated even, to add a chill when they’re first spotted (the director does redress the nudity issue though, with the sight of a naked man on the roof of Jay’s house – what he’s doing there specifically is a bit puzzling, however). And there’s an added resonance when it appears as a family member – eagle-eyed viewers will recognise its first appearance as Hugh’s mother when she turns up later in the movie. That said, being chased, however slowly, by your naked, corpse-like mother is wrong in all sorts of ways, and again, Mitchell shows he’s unafraid to pile on the psychological horror in his efforts to make the viewer uncomfortable.

With an ending that’s suitably ambiguous, and likely to annoy viewers who like a more clear-cut resolution to their movies, It Follows is a horror movie that does its best to offer something new and different, and by and large it succeeds. It doesn’t try to explain everything – like where and how the curse got started in the first place – and it doesn’t try to over-elaborate its basic plot. Instead it tells things plain and simple, and if the sight of Jay running away time after time seems too repetitive, then what else can she do? It will find her; all she can do is postpone the inevitable.

As the beleaguered Jay, Monroe gives a finely tuned performance that anchors the movie and gives it an emotional core for the viewer to connect with. Jay’s not as strong as you might expect the heroine of a horror movie to be, but Monroe gives her a tenacity that helps carry Jay through. Gilchrist has a slightly unenviable role as the lovelorn friend who gets passed over for the hot guy across the street, but he shades the character well, expressing Paul’s disappointment and pain with an economy of expression and attitude. Zovatto and Luccardi have little to do in comparison, and Sepe even less, but Weary makes Hugh appropriately anxious and frightened.

It Follows - scene2

The movie is bolstered by some of the finest camerawork – courtesy of Mike Gioulakis – in a horror movie since John Carpenter let Dean Cundey loose on the streets of Haddonfield. Mitchell’s use of space and distance, particularly the way in which he utilises the foreground in a shot, is remarkably reminiscent of Carpenter’s work, and as a homage, offers some superb moments that linger in the memory: Hugh’s car with the ruined building looming ominously behind it; the entity as a tall, cadaverous man appearing out of the shadows in Jay’s house; the vast space to the left of shot as Jay sits on a swing in the playground; seeing Yara appear on the beach when she’s already on a lilo offshore; Jay’s point of view when she sees Greg breaking into his own house; and in perhaps the most obvious visual nod to Halloween (1978), the entity having a sheet thrown over it so that Paul et al can see it.

There’s a terrific score as well by Disasterpeace that is as unsettling as the visuals, a dark electronic discordance that is sinister and harrowing at the same time. With all this, the movie proves as well-constructed and well delivered as you could hope for, and if there is to be a sequel – entirely likely given its critical and commercial reception – then let’s hope Mitchell is the one to see it through. In anyone else’s hands it’s likely to be a letdown.

Rating: 8/10 – a genuine surprise, It Follows is that rare beast: a horror movie that is fresh and surprising and creepy and keeps its scares and any gore to a minimum, choosing instead to focus on the terror inherent in its protagonists’ situation; beautifully shot and with a killer soundtrack, this is bold, compelling stuff, and a shot in the arm for a genre that seems to have one foot in the grave more often than not.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

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Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The

D: John Madden / 122m

Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tina Desai, Diana Hardcastle, Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig, Penelope Wilton, Lillete Dubey, Shazad Latif, Claire Price, Rajesh Tailang, David Strathairn

With the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a success, and extra rooms being added due to its popularity, owner Sonny (Patel) and his manager, Muriel (Smith) travel to San Diego to meet with Ty Burley (Strathairn), the owner of a string of hotels that cater to the elderly. Their plan is to purchase another hotel in Jaipur, but while Burley is enthusiastic about their plan, he tells them that any agreement will be dependent on his sending an anonymous inspector to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; it will be their recommendation that wins or loses the deal.

Back in Jaipur, Evelyn (Dench) and Douglas (Nighy) have yet to make a commitment to each other. They skirt around their friendship, too afraid to confess or reveal their true feelings for each other. In the meantime, Douglas works as a part-time tour guide (though he’s terrible at it), while Evelyn works for a company sourcing local fabrics. Another resident, Madge (Imrie), is having trouble deciding which one of two suitors to accept if they propose, while Norman (Pickup) and Carol (Hardcastle) are adjusting to being a couple after years of casual relationships. And preparations for Sonny’s impending wedding to Sunaina (Desai) are well under way.

The arrival of new guest Guy Chambers (Gere) has Sonny in a fluster as he thinks Guy is the anonymous hotel inspector. He goes all out to impress him, even to the point of showing him the nearby hotel he’s looking to buy. But a problem arises: an old friend of his and Sunaina’s, Kushal (Latif), has bought the hotel as an investment opportunity. Angered by this, and jealous of the time Kushal is spending with Sunaina arranging the wedding, Sonny puts his marriage in jeopardy. His problems are further added to when Guy shows a romantic interest in Sonny’s mother (Dubey).

Evelyn and Douglas continue to avoid committing to each other, and the arrival of Jean (Wilton), Douglas’s estranged wife, adds confusion to the mix. Madge finds her feelings for her suitors moving in an unexpected direction, and Norman begins to suspect that Carol is having an affair. With Guy and Sonny’s mother hitting it off as well, and Muriel receiving some unwelcome news following a check-up at the clinic, it’s left to Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding to bring everyone together, and to help everyone resolve their issues, and seal the fate of the second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The - scene2

The continued health and well-being of its stars permitting, the unexpected success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) was always likely to inspire a sequel – or, in this case, a follow on – and it’s a relief to find that the elements that made the first movie such a hit haven’t been ignored or forgotten about. And so, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, like its predecessor before it, is by turns funny, dramatic, sad, hopeful, colourful, affecting, and undemanding. This last isn’t a negative, however, but a recognition that this is a movie that doesn’t have to try too hard to be entertaining or provide its audience with anything more than they’re expecting. It does what it needs to do with the utmost confidence, and it doesn’t disappoint.

It’s a movie with a great deal of heart, and a great deal of affectionate humour too; and, for a movie with such an predominantly aging cast, a lot of energy. Madden directs Ol Parker’s script with an eye for the subtle moments in amongst the more farcical elements (Norman trying to “save” Carol), or those that seem too unlikely (Guy being attracted to Sonny’s mother). And he gets them: Douglas’s wistful wedding speech; Madge’s tearful recognition of the relationship she really wants; Sonny’s doorstep apology to Sunaina; Evelyn’s uncertainty about meeting Douglas in Mumbai; the manager of the Viceroy Club’s comment about their bedrooms: “They’re for guests when they’re tired… or fortunate”; and Guy’s quietly moving speech to Sonny’s mother.

Helped tremendously by its returning cast, writer, and director, the movie has an advantage right from the start: everyone knows what to do. If things seem too reminiscent of the first movie, then that’s a plus on this occasion, as familiarity breeds endearment and acceptance. It helps that actors of the calibre of Dench, Smith and Nighy are so loved by audiences around the globe, and that they rarely put a foot wrong or try to sell an unconvincing emotion. They’re past masters at this type of movie and their roles, and they inhabit their characters with ease. And if the main plot and various accompanying storylines seem a little obvious or straightforward – predictable even – then, again, this isn’t a negative. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

The various Indian locations are used to good effect and remain a perfect backdrop for such an unlikely tale of success (both the hotel and the movie). The peace of the hotel is contrasted nicely with the din and the hubbub of the street scenes, and Ben Smithery’s cinematography adds a painterly sheen to everything, making the sights seem even more colourful than they are. There’s a well-choreographed dance routine to round things off, as well as a more sombre farewell to one of the characters, and the sense that if there were to be a third movie, the recognition that it might struggle to keep matters as interesting as the first two.

Rating: 8/10 – a sequel that’s as effective as its precursor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an enchanting, appealing return to Jaipur and some much-loved characters; while not pushing any boundaries (or needing to), it remains guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most indifferent of viewers.

Trailer – The Lady in the Van (2015)

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Promising yet another spirited, and occasionally vulgar performance from the ever-reliable Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van looks and feels like another British movie that will tug on the heartstrings while also having its audience laughing at the more absurd elements of this true story. With a script by Alan Bennett taken from his own experiences, and featuring a supporting cast that includes James Corden, Dominic Cooper and Jim Broadbent, this may not set the box office alight, but it should find a place in several moviegoers’ hearts when it hits our screens.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 9: Terror Rides the Rails

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 13m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell, Lester Dorr

Mandrake and Lothar manage to avoid plunging into the raging torrent created by the dam burst and head back to the gas station where the Wasp’s men disappeared before. Beside it is a locked fence with a Private No Thoroughfare sign on it. The attendant (Dorr) tells Mandrake he doesn’t know anything about where the path beyond leads but Mandrake isn’t convinced and offers him $5000 for any information about a “rare” insect called a Wasp. He leaves the attendant his card and he and Lothar return home. There, with Betty and Dr Bennett in attendance, Mandrake receives a call from the attendant (whose name is Gray). But the Wasp’s chief henchman, Dirk, listens in on his call and sends his men to make sure Gray doesn’t talk.

Mandrake and Dr Bennett leave with Lothar to meet with Gray but just as they get there, the gas station is blown up and Gray is killed. Later, the Wasp informs Dirk that Mandrake is removing the platinite from his home and taking it to the smelting plant in the Crestline mines, and is planning to travel there by train from Giles Crossing. The Wasp wants him stopped before he gets to the train station, but his henchmen fail to do so, leaving the Wasp no choice but to use the radium machine to cause a landslide and derail the train that Mandrake and Lothar are travelling on. With the pair on board, the train leaves the tracks, sending them to “certain” death.

Mandrake 9

Just when you thought the chapters couldn’t get any shorter, along comes Chapter 9: Terror Rides the Rails. Brief, but containing as much incident as can be crammed into approximately ten minutes (the remaining three minutes feature a recap of Chapter 8 and a preview of Chapter 10), it’s a pacy, animated episode that once again reveals the Wasp’s uncanny knack for knowing what Mandrake will do next, a half decent explosion at the gas station, Mandrake and Lothar calmly climbing up out of the way of the dam burst (after appearing to fall into it), a car chase involving gunfire from both vehicles, Betty reduced to having one line: “But it may be a trap!”, and the Wasp standing up from behind his desk as if it will strike home the importance of stopping Mandrake from getting to the train station.

With so much crammed in there’s little time for any advancement of the plot, and even less time for subtlety. Co-directors Nelson and Deming, who have so far shown a fleeting regard for coaxing good performances from their cast, let Hull off the hook from some shameless eye-rolling once the train comes under attack, and allow Kikume to wrench the steering wheel all over the place during the car chase – even though both cars maintain a fairly straight line throughout. A lot of scenes have the appearance of being the first (and only) take, but again, it’s the energy and the vigour of it all that sees it through, and leaves the viewer anxious to see the next chapter.

Rating: 5/10 – you can’t fault the approach, with writers Poland, Dickey and Dandy maintaining the hell-for-leather vitality of the previous chapters, and despite its obvious flaws, making Chapter 9: Terror Rides the Rails as entertaining as its predecessors; throw in some unexpected sleight-of-hand at the gas station and an equally unexpected lack of fisticuffs, and you have an episode that offers more surprises than usual.

Project Almanac (2014)

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Project Almanac

D: Dean Israelite / 106m

Cast: Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks

Budding inventor David Raskin (Weston) has been accepted into MIT but is unable to afford his tuition. When his mother (Landecker) finds out she plans to sell their home. In an attempt to avoid this happening, David decides to see if he can find anything amongst the various inventions left behind by his father (Weeks) before he died on David’s seventh birthday in a car crash. Instead he finds an old camcorder that contains footage of his seventh birthday party. Watching it back he’s shocked to discover himself as he is now in the background of one of the shots. He shows this to his sister, Christina (Gardner) and his two friends, Adam (Evangelista) and Quinn (Lerner). With their help David finds the blueprints for a “temporal relocation device” that his father was apparently building.

They then find the prototype he was working on and using some additional resources, such as the battery from the car of the girl David has a crush on, Jessie (Black-D’Elia), they manage to get the machine to work. But Jessie discovers what they’re doing and she becomes part of the group. All five travel back in time to the previous day and decide to play a trick on Quinn, but it nearly backfires on them. Making a pact to always use it together, they use the time machine for personal gain, Adam winning the lottery, Christina getting her own back on a school bully, and Quinn passing an important test. They also decide to travel back three months to a Lollapalooza festival where David has a chance to declare his feelings for Jessie. However, he hesitates too much and the moment passes. When it becomes clear that Jessie is upset by this and growing distant from him, David travels back alone to the festival to fix things.

But even though he and Jessie are a couple when he comes back, the change has caused a ripple effect that has culminated in a plane crash that killed everyone aboard. David goes back again to fix things but this time it causes a different set of problems. Jessie begins to suspect that David has manipulated their being together, but when they both travel back to correct things, Jessie meets her past self and is erased from that particular timeline. Worldwide catastrophes occur as a result, which prompt David to travel back to his seventh birthday and warn his father of the consequences of building his machine…

Project Almanac - scene

As with No Good Deed (2014), Project Almanac is a movie whose release has been delayed for reasons unknown, but anyone watching the movie – also known and advertised as Welcome to Yesterday before ending up with its current title – will have a fair idea of why when the quintet win big on the lottery (but not as big as expected), and Adam says, “I’m not winning the lottery a second time!” Casting aside its biggest mystery – just what was David doing at his seventh birthday party? – the movie opts for several bouts of wish fulfilment first before sending in the expected trials and tribulations of changing the past (has anyone noticed that the ripple effects in these movies are always for the worst, and never the best? Isn’t that equally as likely to happen?).

The script, by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, never really has a clear goal for its characters and never really gets its head around the conundrums of time travel, preferring instead to pull the rug out from under David et al with often ill-considered consequences attached. As attempts to heighten the drama they’re less than successful: one minute David’s mother has a job, the next she hasn’t; one minute Adam’s fine, the next he’s been run over; one minute David’s in one timeline, the next he’s not – and he has no idea what’s been happening in either. If it’s frustrating or maddening for the characters, imagine what it’s like for the poor viewer, having to sit through yet another time travel movie that doesn’t fully explore the possibilities inherent in its plotting and storyline. In the end it takes an unconvincing way out and doubles back on itself in a way that you know the makers think is clever, but if you give it enough thought, you’ll soon realise it’s a cheat.

With the plot and story chock full of holes, and constantly undermining itself, Project Almanac also plays havoc with its characters and their continuity. David is meant to be intelligent and inventive with a streak of geek in him that makes his relationship with Jessie that much more awkward to navigate. But the script throws out any intelligence he has when he goes back to Lollapalooza to change his and Jessie’s life together. Would someone so smart really want to manipulate his “true” love in such a way? And why is he suddenly so insensitive and shallow? And why can’t he see that with each trip he makes he runs the risk of losing everything? (Because the script needs him to, is the answer to all these questions.) And as this central romance takes prominence, the rest of the group become less interesting and less involved, and are reduced to making dire predictions about David’s tampering with time travel.

To make matters worse, the found footage style of filming used here often makes no sense, particularly in the scene where David travels back to Lollapalooza – just who is filming him and Jessie if this is now a separate timeline and he’s making his move? It’s moments like these that further undermine the credibility of events and make the movie such a disheartening viewing experience. Making his feature debut, Israelite pulls off some clever visuals, but shows his lack of experience throughout, leaving his cast adrift for most of the movie and along with the screenwriters, making the science seem too absurd for its own good (it’s handy that David’s high school has a good supply of hydrogen tanks – hydrogen tanks, really?). One plus is the lack of a musical score – as it should be – but it’s a sad state of affairs when the absence of something is a movie’s best feature.

Rating: 3/10 – with too many stupid decisions made by an apparently intelligent character – he got into MIT, remember? – Project Almanac is another in the long line of low budget time travel movies that fails to capitalise adequately on its basic premise; continually underwhelming, it remains risible throughout and entirely forgettable.

Summer of Sam (1999)

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Summer of Sam

D: Spike Lee / 142m

Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Saverio Guerra, Brian Tarantina, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Mike Starr, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ben Gazzara, John Savage, Michael Badalucco, Spike Lee, Jimmy Breslin

New York City, 1977. The serial killer known as Son of Sam (Badalucco) is terrorising the city, randomly shooting people. He sends taunting messages to the police who are no nearer to catching him after seven murders than they were after the first. Against this backdrop, a group of friends try to make sense of what’s happening as well as trying to deal with their own problems. Vinny (Leguizamo) is a hairdresser working in the Bronx. He’s married to Dionna (Sorvino) but cheats on her every chance he gets. His best friend, Ritchie (Brody) has adopted a punk lifestyle, complete with spiked hair and punk clothing. It bothers Vinny and the rest of their friends, but proves attractive to Ruby (Esposito), who’s treated poorly by everyone else because she’s perceived as “easy”.

With the police struggling to make any headway in the Son of Sam case, the lead detective, Petrocelli (LaPaglia) approaches local crime boss, Luigi (Gazzara) for help in catching him. His men begin compiling a list of suspects, an idea that spreads throughout the neighbourhood and which is taken up by Vinny’s friends, led by Joey T (Rispoli). Suspicious of Ritchie’s new lifestyle, they add him to their list. Meanwhile, Vinny and Dionna’s marriage is unravelling. Vinny is still seeing other women – including his boss, Gloria (Neuwirth) – and he’s flirting more and more with drugs. He and Dionna are invited to a gig that Ritchie’s band is playing at CBGB’s but Dionna refuses to go inside. Vinny suggests they go to Studio 54 instead but they’re not able to get in. A photographer (Savage) who’s coming out of Studio 54 takes a liking to Vinny and they go with him to Plato’s Retreat, a swingers club. There, Dionna and Vinny have sex with other people, but on the way home Vinny becomes resentful and accuses Dionna of being a “lesbian freak”. Outraged by his accusation (and his double standards) she reveals she knows about his affairs and leaves him stranded at the side of the road.

Ritchie’s relationship with Ruby, however, is going from strength to strength, even though he dances at a gay club and prostitutes himself with the clientele. When Brian (Garito), one of Vinny’s friends, discovers this and tells Joey, it serves to make Ritchie more suspicious in everyone’s eyes, and when an artist’s impression of Son of Sam is published in the newspapers it looks enough like Ritchie for Joey to believe he is the killer. With Dionna having ended things with Vinny, and his reliance on drugs taking over his life, he’s persuaded by Joey to lure Ritchie out into the street where he can be attacked by his “friends”. But what none of them realise is that the police have made a breakthrough in the case, and that a terrible injustice is about to be carried out.

Summer of Sam - scene

Filmed in and around the actual areas where David Berkowitz killed six people and wounded seven others between July 1976 and July 1977, Summer of Sam is a jarring, hedonistic movie that paints an hallucinatory portrait of the time, and which acts like a fever dream of desire and mistrust. It’s a scurrilous, profane movie, sometimes scabrous and full of bile, as its characters deal with their own personal hells, all potent counterpoints to the madness experienced by Berkowitz. It deals with themes of betrayal and promiscuity, xenophobia and suspicion, and is unforgiving in its attempts to shine an unforgiving light on the social mores of the time.

The time period is recreated with verve and attention to detail (though it does get quite a few of the punk-related details wrong), and Ellen Kuras’ cinematography captures the vibrancy of the era, as disco battled with punk, and misogynism and distrust maintained a firm stronghold in Italian neighbourhoods. The lighting often makes scenes, and especially interiors, look grimy and slightly soiled, a trenchant reflection of the characters and their rude approach to life and each other. Lee explores and exploits the late Seventies with gusto, ramping up the intensity of the emotions and the spirit of the times, and encouraging a handful of career-best performances from his cast. The movie benefits enormously from its depiction of the fear and terror people felt in the wake of Berkowitz’s murderous activities, and the closed-minded vigilantism that grew out of them.

The movie generates such a speed and a momentum that it propels the viewer toward its denouement with alacrity, and through the machinations of Vinny and his friends, with undisguised relish. All this leads to a movie that operates at such a pitch that there’s little room for subtlety or tenderness. However, Lee’s confident handling of the narrative more than compensates for any rough handling or delirious imagery. When the heatwave of the time results in a power outage which in turn leads to rioting and vandalism, it’s depicted with a torrid matter-of-fact quality that it fits in completely with Lee and co-scripters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli’s aggressive, no holds barred approach to the various storylines.

Lee is incredibly well served by his cast, who enter into things with complete commitment. Leguizamo, one of the most prolific and versatile actors working today – he currently has five movies in various stages of post-production – puts in a career best performance, expertly displaying the narcissistic selfishness of a man who projects strength but who is battling his fear of commitment every day. It’s a riveting portrayal, and even when he’s not the focus of a scene the viewer’s eye is drawn to him, as if at any moment he’s going to demand their attention again. He’s matched by Sorvino, whose quiet, unassuming portrayal of Dionna in the movie’s early stages gives way to a gutsy, impassioned performance that matches Leguizamo’s for emotional ferocity. Like her co-star, it’s a career best outing, and it’s a shame that post-Summer of Sam she’s not appeared in any movies that have allowed her to shine as she does here.

Brody offers strong support though he’s given less and less to do as the movie progresses, while Esposito suffers the same fate. Badalucco is an imposing presence as Berkowitz, and sharp-eared viewers will recognise John Turturro’s voice as Harvey the Dog (who tells Berkowitz to “kill”). LaPaglia’s detective flits in and out of the narrative (and is nowhere to be seen when Berkowitz is arrested), Gazzara coasts as the local mob boss, and Savage is on screen for all of a minute. The soundtrack consists of a great mix of contemporary songs alongside Terence Blanchard’s driving score, and there’s terrific use of The Who’s Baba O’Riley two thirds of the way in to accompany a brilliant montage (another song by The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again, is used near the end for another very dramatic sequence, but it’s not as effective).

Rating: 9/10 – Summer of Sam won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is one of Lee’s most daring, uncompromising movies, and has a charge that few other movie makers could achieve or maintain over such a long running time; demanding and uncompromising, it’s a movie that doesn’t pull any punches and is all the better for it.

The Rewrite (2014)

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Rewrite, The

D: Marc Lawrence / 107m

Cast: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, Bella Heathcote, J.K. Simmons, Chris Elliott, Allison Janney, Caroline Aaron, Steven Kaplan, Emily Morden, Annie Q, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Aja Naomi King, Damaris Lewis

Keith Michaels (Grant) is a Hollywood screenwriter who had a big hit with his first script, Paradise Misplaced. But since then his caché has faded to the point where he can’t even get a job doing rewrites on other scripts. When his agent, Ellen (Aaron), tells him about a job teaching screenwriting at Binghamton University, he refuses to take it, but his lack of money persuades him to take it. He arrives in Binghamton and while at a fast-food restaurant, meets some of the university’s students, including Karen (Heathcote) who has signed up for his class.

The next day he wakes up in his new residence with Karen asleep beside him. He heads off to work and meets the university’s head, Dr Lerner (Simmons). He shows Michaels his office and leaves him with seventy script submissions made by students who want to attend his class; all he has to do is read through them and pick ten students whose work he feels is good enough. Instead, Michaels selects his students – eight of them at least – by checking their files and picking the ones he finds the most attractive (including Karen). On his way to a faculty meeting later that day he runs into mature student Holly Carpenter (Tomei) who gives him her own script and asks that he consider her for the class. Then, at the meeting, he falls foul of tenured professor Mary Weldon (Janney) when he rubbishes the idea of female empowerment and the novels of Jane Austen, Weldon’s specialist subject.

When he ends his first, very short, lesson with the proviso that his students meet back in a month after they’ve completed their scripts, Michaels finds that Weldon is also head of the ethics board and is looking to get rid of him, and if she finds out about his relationship with Karen, it’ll be all the ammunition she needs. He resumes lessons, and begins to take a closer interest in everyone’s scripts; at the same time he tries to end things with Karen. His relationship with Holly develops as she takes an equal interest in him, particularly in his son Alex, whom he hasn’t spoken to in a year. But when Weldon learns of his fling with Karen, he finds he has only two choices: either leave quietly, or face an enquiry which will eventually be made public. With one of his students, Clem (Kaplan) producing a script that Michaels can use as a way of boosting his career, he has to make a decision that proves to be harder than he expected.

Rewrite, The - scene

The fourth collaboration between Grant and director Lawrence – following Two Weeks Notice (2002), Music and Lyrics (2007), and Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009) – The Rewrite is an amiable comedy sprinkled with astute literary and cinematic references, and features a romantic subplot that is practically traditional in this type of movie. It’s a fun, good-natured movie that coasts along for most of its runtime, but often redeems itself with a witty one-liner or a heartfelt scene that gives its talented cast a chance to make the material shine that much brighter than expected.

Much of the fun to be had comes from Grant, who downplays his usual tics and grimaces (though they’re still there) and provides a performance that’s a breezy mix of egocentric and rueful, charming and nonchalant. His more mature look is a pleasing addition to the mix and suits his character’s down-on-his-luck situation; Grant’s face makes Michaels’ moments of regret that much more effective. In the scene with Tomei where he talks about his son Alex, Grant reveals a vulnerability and a sadness we don’t see very often in his performances, and it serves as a reminder that, when required, Grant as an actor is capable of far more than just being a bumbling fish out of water.

Grant is ably supported by the likes of Tomei, Simmons and Janney, seasoned pro’s who can do this sort of thing in their sleep, and if their characters seem painfully underwritten at times it shouldn’t be surprising as this is Grant’s movie pure and simple, a star vehicle created for him and which he navigates with ease. It’s a good job too, as Lawrence’s script spends a lot of time ensuring that Michaels doesn’t encounter any real problems on his way to personal redemption. With the movie robbed of any real drama as a result, it’s left to Grant et al to inject a degree of seriousness at appropriate moments, and offset the more woolly aspects of the material.

However, Lawrence’s central conceit, that teaching can be as rewarding as doing, is ably demonstrated and the scenes where Michaels critiques his students’ work are among the most rewarding in the movie, and The Rewrite improves whenever these scenes occur. Again, it’s a good job, as without them (or the cast’s enthusiasm) the movie would be too familiar and unsurprising to be persuasive, and the goodwill Grant’s presence provides would be wasted. It is funny, though, but like so many comedies that don’t take the “edgy” approach of movies such as Sex Tape (2014), and instead rely on tried and trusted set ups and tropes, it struggles to provide its audience with anything new or original.

Still, it’s innocuous and pleasant enough to make it a not entirely disappointing prospect, and Lawrence’s direction – while a little wayward – does enough to ensure the viewer’s attention is held from start to finish. With efficient if unspectacular cinematography from Jonathan Brown that unfortunately adds a layer of blandness to some of the visuals, and a occasionally distracting soundtrack that mixes original songs with a score from irregular composer Clyde Lawrence, the movie’s aim doesn’t appear to be particularly high. But, perversely, it succeeds against a veritable truckload of odds by being oddly endearing and defiantly sweet.

Rating: 6/10 – sporadically effective and bolstered by Grant’s easy-going performance, The Rewrite is a middling comedy that comes alive in fits and starts; a tighter script – ironically – would have improved things, but even so, it hits the spot when required.

All the Wilderness (2014)

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All the Wilderness

D: Michael Johnson / 76m

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Danny DeVito

Following the death of his father, James Charm (Smit-McPhee) has become emotionally isolated and withdrawn. While his mother, Abigail (Madsen) relies increasingly on extra glasses of wine to cope with her loss, James takes to roaming the nearby woods and sketching the dead animals and insects that he finds there. He attends therapy sessions with Dr Pembry (DeVito) but is largely uncommunicative when it comes to talking about his father. Before a session, James meets Val (Fuhrman); there’s an immediate connection, one that’s cemented when she catches him sneaking out during the session. As he heads home he sees a young man (Ross) playing an abandoned piano in an alleyway.

Later on he bumps into the young man while on a bus. The young man’s name is Harmon, and along with a friend, he invites James to tag along with him for the night. At a food area, James finds Val selling doughnuts out of a van. They have an awkward exchange but Val is pleased to see him. Harmon then takes James to a party, afterwards they head back to Harmon’s place where James smokes his first weed and, unwittingly, begins to open up about his problems. The next night he goes back to the food area and sees Val again. She writes an address on his palm and tells him to meet her there the next day.

Feeling unsure about their burgeoning relationship, James meets Val and they head out of the city to a lake where they spend time getting to know each other. Back in the city they meet up with Harmon at another party. But James witnesses Val and Harmon kissing and he leaves. At his next therapy session, Dr Pembry challenges James as to why he sees him. When he tells James he thinks it’s because he feels guilty for not being able to support his mother, and that he should just get on with life, James begins to see things differently. He confronts Harmon and patches things up with Val before heading home to speak to his mother and revealing something about his father’s death that nobody else knows.

All the Wilderness - scene

A lyrical coming of age tale from first-time writer/director Johnson, All the Wilderness is a slow, mood- rather than plot-driven movie that has a strong visual flair and does its best to be different in a genre with (perhaps) too many antecedents. Taking the basic idea of a teenager torn between clinging to his father’s memory (albeit in an unusual way) and finding a way out of his grief, the movie covers mostly typical territory, but thanks to a good central performance by Smit-McPhee, never seems forced or too over familiar.

James is initially an intriguing character, though his obsession with recording – and predicting – death does seem a little heavy-handed, especially when you add his fondness for Chopin into the mix, as well as his choice of reading material, Moby Dick. But Johnson’s script is smart enough to introduce these embellishments and then not play on them too much except to provide some occasional flashes of humour later on. As we get to know him, James’ uncertainty and social awkwardness gives way, and we see someone taking their first tentative steps in growing up. Again, the script does a good job in balancing the difficulties of dealing with grief and the need to leave it behind, and as James begins to do so, Smit-McPhee’s physicality and demeanour become more confident, and his emotions fall into place, allowing him to realise that the wilderness his father spoke of – a slightly clumsy metaphor for life and death – is not something he has to be a part of.

While James isn’t particularly self-destructive, his relationship with his mother is tested by his going AWOL to see Harmon and Val, and though the ensuing confrontations between them feel perfunctory, and Madsen is required to step back almost throughout, it’s the actors approach to them that stops them from being entirely redundant. It’s the same with James and Val’s trip to the lake: they exchange personal information, mess around in the water, and establish a bond that, despite what happens between Val and Harmon, won’t be broken. It’s thanks to Smit-McPhee and Fuhrman that this fairly brief sequence works so well, and makes their later talk in the wake of that kiss all the more credible.

Johnson does make some mistakes though. Pembry’s “resolution/advice” comes at the end of approximately six months of sessions, and appears to be so simple (and obvious) that you have to wonder why it’s taken him so long to say it. And James’s reaction to it is also too expedient to be taken entirely seriously; all of a sudden he’s focused and determined and knows exactly what he needs to do. James also imagines hooded assailants chasing him through the streets, and while this idea adds some much needed energy to the movie, their appearance is never properly explained (and in one case seems designed only to get James on the bus where he properly meets Harmon).

Where the movie scores highly is in its look and feel, with DoP Adam Newport-Berra giving the viewer the sense of how James sees the world around him, with all its sights and sounds either slightly distorted or given heightened emphasis. There’s also a good use of space and lighting that makes some of the images seem more original in their framing and composition than you’d expect. And there’s a great mix of classical and indie music on the soundtrack too.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid debut by Johnson, All the Wilderness deals with themes of loss, fear and personal responsibility and, by and large, makes them seem fresh; but with too much that’s familiar, not every attempt to subvert the formula works, leading to a movie that works for the most part but not entirely.

Trailer – Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015)

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It’s an amazing story: two eleven year old kids, neither of whom really know what they’re doing, remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot – all bar one scene. This documentary shows how they made their movie and brings them back together to shoot that one remaining scene. It has all the hallmarks of a movie that will amuse and amaze in equal measure, and hopefully, will be as entertaining – in its own way – as the movie it’s based around.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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Nightcrawler

D: Dan Gilroy / 117m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Kent Shocknek, Leah Fredkin

Louis “Lou” Bloom (Gyllenhaal) unemployed; to make ends meet he steals things and then sells them. When he sees a freelance film crew working at the scene of a car crash, he asks their boss, Joe Loder (Paxton) how they make a living from what they do. Loder tells him about selling the footage to the TV stations; this inspires Bloom to steal a racing bicycle and trade it for a radio scanner and a camcorder. Later that same night, Bloom gets in close at the scene of a carjacking and films the victim dying. This gets both Bloom and Loder moved on and they become rivals as a result. Bloom takes his footage to a local TV station where he meets morning news director Nina Romina (Russo) who not only buys the footage but encourages him as well.

Bloom hires an assistant, Rick Carey (Ahmed), and together they start visiting as many crime scenes as they can but even though Bloom has no compunction about manipulating the scenes to provide himself with better footage, Loder still beats him to several important stories. However, his work begins to be shown more and more, and he’s able to get better equipment. Knowing she can’t do without his footage, Bloom also blackmails Nina into having sex with him. When Loder beats him to a major plane crash story, it leads to Bloom sabotaging Loder’s van. When Loder crashes his van and is severely injured, it’s Bloom who gets the footage of his rival being loaded into an ambulance.

Later that night, Bloom and Carey arrive at the site of a home invasion. Leaving Carey outside to sound an alert when the police get there, Bloom sees the gunmen leaving and films them. Going inside the house he finds three dead bodies, all of whom he films. He gives Romina a copy that doesn’t include the gunmen, and the footage is shown, even though some of Nina’s colleagues feel it’s unethical. The police become involved and ask for Bloom’s footage but he gives them another edited version. Then, using the footage he’s held back, Bloom tracks down the gunmen and he and Carey follow them to a nearby restaurant. They tip off the police, but when they arrive, things don’t go quite as Bloom planned.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unscrupulous news cameraman in the thriller Nightcrawler

A mesmerising, audacious drama set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles that’s never looked so foreboding at night as it does here, Nightcrawler features a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and makes for a riveting viewing experience. It all hinges on writer/director Gilroy’s script, a fervid foray into the dark underbelly of daily news gathering that exposes the often desperate need for more and more “potent” material, and the betrayal of ethical concerns in the search for ratings. It’s a bravura piece, challenging and appalling in equal measure, and in the character of Louis Bloom, shows how little appreciation can be given to the feelings of others in the pursuit of fame (and presumably fortune).

Bloom is a grim-faced, skeletal-looking, fixed-eyed monster, oozing an unstable charm, flattering just enough to get his foot in the door, dismissive when someone can’t or won’t help him. He’s the upbeat loner whose interaction with others is continually designed to improve his lot in life, to make things better for him before anyone else. As charismatic as he seems, there’s a mania lurking close beneath the surface that serves as a warning to everyone around him. But Bloom is adept at reading others; he knows when and how to press their buttons, to manipulate them, or if necessary, threaten them into doing what he wants. And if threats don’t work, well, he’s not averse to making sure he still gets what he wants, anyway he can. He’s a ruthless, predatory menace.

As the amoral stringer, Gyllenhaal gives a super-charged performance that is easily his best yet, his gaunt physical appearance a perfect fit for the rapacious Bloom. Gyllenhaal makes him uncomfortable to watch, a creepy, unsettling presence wherever he goes, those big eyes of his hinting at madness and danger. Even when he’s silent he gives off a dispiriting air, as if even what he’s thinking (and no matter how banal) is somehow as poisonous to others as anything he could actually say. Gilroy has created one of the most defiantly unprincipled characters in movie history, and Gyllenhaal has seized his chance with undisguised relish. (It’s still a mystery that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for the role.) Working on what seems like nervous energy, Gyllenhaal paints a convincing portrait of a man willing to do anything in order to succeed, and whose sociopathy is frightening. In the aftermath of the police’s arrival at the restaurant, the true nature and extent of his emotional detachment is revealed – and Gyllenhaal makes it truly disturbing.

It’s one of many scenes that Gilroy artfully constructs that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat and which is anchored by Gyllenhaal’s impressive performance. As Bloom’s career blossoms, his amoral nature finds its mirror in Nina’s equally amoral disregard for conventional programming rules. In some ways she’s worse than Bloom, her lust for the material he provides as uncomfortable to watch as the ways in which he’ll procure it. When she sleeps with him the idea that she’s being blackmailed lacks currency; if anyone is being exploited it’s Bloom. Russo is superb in the role, giving ample expression to Nina’s vicious impropriety and matching Gyllenhaal for intensity. It’s been a long time since The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and while she’s made a couple of interesting movies in the meantime, she’s not had a role that is as challenging as this one, and it’s great to see her inhabit the part with such fierce intelligence.

In presenting such a couple of despicable characters (made for each other but otherwise doomed to be alone), Gilroy has taken a considerable risk in making a movie without a sympathetic main character. But such is the awfulness of Bloom (and Nina’s) behaviour, and so complicit do we become as an audience, that we can’t take our eyes off them. In the same way that Bloom produces highly upsetting footage and Nina watches it with barely disguised impatience, Gilroy engineers things so that we too are drawn inexorably into a world we would otherwise avoid. Just how far will Bloom go? Will he film anything that Nina won’t be put off by? How much further can they take all this? All questions that the audience feels compelled to discover the answers to.

Nightcrawler - scene2

As well as his talented cast – Ahmed and Paxton provide sterling support as Bloom’s naïve employee and experienced rival respectively – Gilroy has surrounded himself with a pretty talented crew. Bringing his script to life, the movie is beautifully shot by DoP Robert Elswit, the night-time scenes having a luminosity to them that makes L.A. a character in itself. In the editor’s chair is Gilroy’s fraternal twin brother, John Gilroy, who has assembled the material with such care and attention to the movie’s emotional moods that each scene has a resonance that exists both alone and in conjunction with other scenes (and to add to the charges of nepotism he’s also Russo’s brother-in-law). And there’s a marvellously evocative score by James Newton Howard that subtly underpins the action without overwhelming it.

Rating: 9/10 – with a riveting, powerful performance from Gyllenhaal at its centre, Nightcrawler is a nightmarish journey into the heart of one man’s personal darkness; formidable and emotionally rigorous, it’s also a movie that rewards with each successive viewing, and stays in the mind long after it’s ended.

Unbroken (2014)

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Unbroken

D: Angelina Jolie / 137m

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, C.J. Valleroy

As a young child, Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Valleroy) is always getting into trouble, whether it’s through stealing or drinking. He’s also bullied at school because of his Italian roots. One day he’s caught looking up women’s dresses from beneath the bleachers at a track meet. He makes a run for it which is witnessed by his older brother, Pete. Realising how fast Louie can run, Pete decides to train him to be a runner. Louie earns a name for himself and as a young man (O’Connell) is chosen to represent the US at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He does well and sets a record for running the final lap of the 5000 metre race.

In 1943, Louie is a bombardier in the United States Army Air Force, stationed in the Pacific. On a search and rescue mission, his plane crashes into the ocean, leaving himself and two of his crew, Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock), adrift in two inflatable rafts. Fighting off starvation and the attention of marauding sharks, they survive as a trio until the thirty-third day when Mac dies. On the forty-seventh day Louie and Phil are rescued by a Japanese military ship. Now prisoners of war they’re initially interrogated for information about the Allies and then transferred to separate P.O.W. camps. Louie ends up at a camp in Tokyo that is overseen by Corporal Mutsuhito “Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi). Watanabe makes a point of mistreating Louie, partly because of his fame as an Olympian, and partly out of jealousy.

Louis is given the opportunity to make a radio broadcast that will be heard in the US. He’s able to reassure his family that he’s alive, but when he’s asked to make a second broadcast that’s critical of the US, he refuses. Sent back to the camp, Watanabe makes all the other prisoners line up and punch Louie in the face as a punishment for not making the broadcast. Two years pass. Watanabe is promoted and leaves the camp, much to Louie’s relief. But when the camp is damaged in a bombing raid by US planes, the prisoners are moved to another camp where it transpires that Watanabe is in charge. Watanabe’s mistreatment of Louie continues, until one day when Louie’s resilience and inner strength lead to Watanabe being embarrassed in front of his men and the rest of the P.O.W.s.

Unbroken - scene

Adapted from the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut is a sincere yet curiously dull affair that never quite engages the viewer, despite its obviously worthy subject matter. Zamperini’s plight was horrendous and yet this is a surprisingly sanitised version of events, with only Watanabe’s bouts of cruelty giving the movie any edge (it’s a strange movie that makes the viewer want to see more abuse in order to make it more involving).

This is partly to do with the script – a combination of drafts and rewrites carried out by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese and Joel and Ethan Coen – and the directorial decisions made by Jolie. The script does a good job in reflecting Louie’s life as a child, and it’s these early scenes that have the greatest impact, with their nostalgic appreciation for an earlier, more innocent time. Jolie paints these scenes in a rosy hue and quickly establishes a mood for the movie that the audience can appreciate as being straightforward and unfussy. But once Louie is adrift on the ocean it’s where things begin to unravel, and the movie loses traction. The drama begins to leak out of the movie just as it should start to be truly engrossing, and nothing Jolie does from then on ever comes close to retrieving it.

Once Louie arrives at the P.O.W. camp and encounters Watanabe, Unbroken settles into a predictable series of abusive moments that give O’Connell repeated chances to adequately display Louie’s agony and suffering, and Miyavi the chance to impart a degree of homoerotic self-loathing. There’s a surprising lack of tension to these scenes, and Jolie’s direction of them seems to be carried out at a distance, as if her respect for the material is stopping her from taking any risks. As a result, the audience becomes more of a spectator than a participant and the movie becomes unrewarding.

The movie isn’t helped either by some annoying inconsistencies. After spending forty-seven days adrift at sea, Louie and Phil’s physical deterioration is persuasively shown in a scene where they’re made to strip naked (Gleeson looks really awful). And yet it’s all undone by their carefully groomed facial hair – or lack of it – and equal lack of sunburn. It all contributes to the idea that what Jolie is going for is war-lite, a diffusion of the horrors that really happened, and while this isn’t a bad idea per se – we don’t always need to see just how bad things actually were – here it’s as if she’s taken basic notions of heroism and courage and made them more about stoicism and acceptance.

Unfortunately as well, Jolie fails to raise her cast’s performances above the level of satisfactory, with only Miyavi making any impression, his bland mask of a face hiding a dangerous sadism that seems to pain him as much as it pleases him. In contrast, O’Connell’s rise to international stardom takes a stumble. It’s not his fault, he’s just not given much to work with other than “look worried, look despairing, and grimace in pain”. With these constraints in place, he looks stranded at times, as if he knows he should be giving more but has been instructed not to.

Despite all this, there are some good things about the movie, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s emotive, intimate score, and Roger Deakins’ Oscar nominated cinematography. The former is one of the composer’s best works in recent years and lifts the movie out of the doldrums with ease, and unobtrusively as well. Deakins is a master of lighting and mood, and he has an instinctive way of placing the camera, which helps Jolie’s pedestrian approach tremendously. Together, these two elements give the movie a boost it would have missed out on altogether.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking passion and drive, Unbroken is a dull, ponderous affair that is a less than rewarding experience for the viewer; as a tribute to Louis Zamperini’s fortitude and spirit, it could certainly have been more dramatic, but as a (very) low-key examination of one man’s will to survive it fares slightly better.

Mini-Review: No Good Deed (2014)

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No Good Deed

D: Sam Miller / 84m

Cast: Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, Leslie Bibb, Kate del Castillo, Henry Simmons, Mirage Moonschein

Denied parole after serving five years for manslaughter, Colin Evans (Elba) makes his escape from a prison transport vehicle, killing a guard and the driver in the process.

In Atlanta, Terri Granger (Henson) is coping with the demands of a baby and young daughter Ryan (Moonschein). When her husband, Jeffrey (Simmons), comes home early from work and announces he has to leave right away to visit his father, Terri worries about the way he’s behaving (even though he reassures her that he loves her). Her friend, Meg (Bibb), suggests they have a girls night, to which she agrees. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Atlanta, Evans is stalking the woman who was his fiancée, Alexis (del Castillo), before he went to prison. He confronts her at her home with evidence that she’s seeing someone else; when she admits to it, Evans kills her.

With a violent storm raging, Evans crashes his car and seeks help at Terri’s house. He’s respectful and agreeable but when he calls for a tow truck and is told he could have a long wait due to the storm, Terri invites him in and gives him some dry clothes to change into. He mentions that his fiancée has been cheating on him; Terri is sympathetic (if a little unnerved by his telling her this so quickly). Meg arrives with wine and is clearly attracted to Terri’s guest. During a shared smoke break, Evans tries to get Meg to question Terri’s honesty, but when she doesn’t he kills her too. Evans tells Terri that Meg has left but Terri sees Meg’s umbrella is still there; she also discovers that the phone line has been cut. Realising that Evans is dangerous she attempts to leave with her children, but the escaped convict has other ideas.

No Good Deed - scene

A movie that all involved clearly took part in for the pay cheques, No Good Deed should be rechristened No Good Movie. Turgid and lacking in genuine excitement, the movie is a home invasion thriller that defies belief from the moment Evans is referred to as a “malignant narcissist” to one of the final scenes where multiple injuries leave Terri without a mark on her. It’s dull, it’s unimaginative, it’s repetitive, and a complete waste of its stars’ time and efforts. In fact, it’s so bad that a nadir of sorts is reached when Henson has to show fear and desperation to a police officer and succeeds only in looking as if she’s desperate for the toilet.

With Terri alternating between victim and victor (and sometimes in the same scene), and with Elba showing very little sign of the acting talent we know he has, the movie sputters its way through to one of those “Hollywood” showdowns where the attacks keep coming despite painful blows, stabbings, and the kind of injuries that would have ordinary people calling for an ambulance before the first flush of pain fully registered. It’s also a drab movie to watch, and is directed with an eye for awkward framing by Miller who probably got the job off the back of directing Elba in several episodes of the BBC series Luther. But here his lack of moviemaking experience shows and he fails to make much out of Aimee Lagos’s awful, awful script.

Rating: 3/10 – unsurprisingly pushed back for theatrical release on three occasions, No Good Deed squanders any good will by continually insulting the audience’s intelligence; poorly executed and lacking in energy, the movie seems content to undermine itself at every turn.

Blackhat (2015)

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Blackhat

D: Michael Mann / 133m

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen

When a nuclear plant in Chai Wan, Hong Kong is targeted by a hacker (van Wageningen) and the cooling pumps made to explode and cause a radiation leak, the Chinese authorities hand over the investigation to cyber warfare officer Chen Dawai (Wang). When the same hacker infiltrates Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange, causing soy futures to rise, it becomes clear that he’s using a Remote Access Tool (RAT). Dawai insists that that he be allowed to work with the FBI on a joint investigation, and he travels to the US where he joins forces with Agent Carol Barrett (Davis). Once there he reveals that the original code for the RAT was written by himself and another hacker named Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth). Hathaway is currently in prison for committing computer crimes; Dawai wants him released to help with the investigation.

With Nick on board – though security tagged and accompanied by US Marshal Jessup (McCallany) – and with Dawai’s US based sister, Lien (Tang) helping as well, they discover that the soy futures hack was designed to siphon off nearly $75 million, but they don’t know why. When they discover the hacker has had a mole in the Trade Exchange, Nick and Lien find he’s been killed but was supposed to meet his boss at a restaurant. Nick finds a clue to the hacker’s identity, while the money is traced to a mercenary named Kassar (Coster). An attempt to apprehend him in Hong Kong fails and several of Dawai’s men are killed.

A break in the investigation comes with the retrieval of a data drive from the nuclear plant. Although it’s been corrupted by the radiation leak, Barrett tells Hathaway about a program the NSA uses called Black Widow which assesses corrupt data and is then able to reconstruct it by “filling in the blanks”. Her request to use it is denied however, which prompts Hathaway to use it anyway, hacking into the programme and using it to discover that the hacker’s server is based in Jakarta. At the same time, Lien discovers that the hacker has an interest in a remote site in Perak, Malaysia.

Hathaway’s use of Black Widow is detected, and Barrett is ordered to bring him back to the US. Dawai alerts him about this, and Hathaway and Lien (who have started a relationship) attempt to flee Hong Kong with her brother’s help. But Kassar ambushes them. Hathaway and Lien manage to get away and they travel to Perak to see what is so interesting about the site. It’s there that they discover the hacker’s true motives, and devise a way in which they can stop him.

Blackhat - scene2

It’s always a pleasure to watch a Michael Mann movie. You know going in that it’s going to look beautiful (especially if there are scenes shot at night – and there’s always scenes shot at night), there’ll be a level of machismo that few other directors can attain, some pulse-pounding action sequences, and a storyline that will have been researched for the utmost authenticity. And so it proves with Blackhat, Mann’s first movie since Public Enemies (2009), and a return to the world of modern day criminals for which he has such a proven affinity. However, while Blackhat‘s plot and storyline are drawn from recent events – in this case the Stuxnet computer worm that apparently ruined one fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010 – and it paints a convincing portrait of cyber crime and how systems can be breached, it badly falls down in its attempts to show just how cyber crime can be detected and defeated.

There are several problems with the overall plot that don’t add up, and it’s these problems that stop the movie from being as effective – or gripping – as Mann intended. The first is the coincidental nature of the relationship between Dawai and Hathaway and they’re having written the RAT code. It’s an unnecessary, and clumsy contrivance that asks the viewer to believe that they wrote this code as a test of their abilities and then they just left it on the Internet, apparently unaware of what it could be potentially used for. The second problem is the idea that a felon, serving time for computer crimes, would be allowed out of the country in order to help with the investigation. Hathaway is even allowed to take part in the attempt to capture Kassar in Hong Kong; how was that allowed to happen? All he needs is a desk and a computer – he doesn’t need to be globe-trotting with everyone else.

The third and most glaring problem is the way in which senior agents such as Barrett and Jessup allow Hathaway so much leeway in his efforts to catch the hacker. At the point where the Black Widow program is introduced, the speed and the ease with which Barrett goes along with Hathaway’s plan to hack into it is breathtaking for the way it undermines any authority she had up to that point. It would have been a better idea for Hathaway to have done it behind her back, thus making the need to bring him in once his hack is detected that much more dramatic, but Morgan Davis Foehl’s script instead takes the opportunity to throw all further attempts at credibility into the trash bin.

And like so many of his colleagues before him, Mann is unable to make looking at computer screens and tapping on keyboards anywhere near exciting. To offset this he focuses on the characters and their reactions to what’s happening on the computer screens, but this is even less exciting, and the viewer is subjected to endless reaction shots that are meant to convey various emotions but ultimately mean nothing as most reactions are ones of surprise or moments when a light bulb goes on over someone’s head.

Against all this, the cast do their best but Hemsworth is miscast, his performance only convincing when he’s required to physically go up against the bad guys. Wang and Tang both give earnest performances, but struggle with the script’s insistence on making their characters crime movie stereotypes: he the diligent cop battling professional prejudice, she the hero’s girlfriend (despite being independent and having a mind of her own the script still requires her to “stand by her man” when the going gets tough). Davis flits in and out of the narrative, while you could be forgiven for forgetting that McCallany was there at all, his character’s job to babysit Hathaway at all times conveniently ignored when the script requires it.

As with any Michael Mann movie, Blackhat does at least look impressive, DoP Stuart Dryburgh providing the kind of hyper-stylised, glossy feel to the night-time exteriors that we’ve come to expect from Mann’s movies. The scenes set in Hong Kong have a wonderfully organic, shiny aspect to them that makes the backgrounds and the locations the most effectively shot for a Mann movie since Collateral (2004), while the lighting throughout offers enough mood and intensity for a dozen other thrillers. But, ultimately, it’s not enough to rescue a movie that is let down by a poorly constructed script and its sympathy-free characters. (In fact, the movie has been so badly received that one of its distributors, Universal Pictures International, has decided not to release it theatrically in Australia at all.)

Rating: 4/10 – while Mann is a clever and experienced enough director to keep things moving, there are too many cracks to paper over no matter how quickly he does so; a major disappointment, Blackhat is a reminder that even the most talented of directors don’t always get it right (sadly).

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 8: Across the Deadline

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 17m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell, Dick Curtis

Climbing up to the overhead wire just as the hook holding up the trestle car straightens out completely, and sends the car plummeting to the canyon floor below, Mandrake rejoins Lothar and Webster as they fight off the Wasp’s men. The henchmen flee in their car, with Mandrake et al. in quick pursuit. The Wasp’s men hide out at a gas station, leaving the famous magician to return home; their leader informs Dirk of what has happened, and he tells them to pose as telephone repair men in order to plant a dictaphone in Mandrake’s home. When they get there, Betty and Tommy let in two of the Wasp’s men.

Mandrake returns home and immediately realises the two men are phony. He has a fight with them but they both escape. Meanwhile, the Wasp has Dirk and another of his men, Dorgan (Curtis) set up Professor Houston’s radium machine so that he can use it to destroy a dam. Still needing some more platinite to complete Houston’s new machine, Mandrake and Lothar return to the canyon where Webster has been mining some more of the precious metal. While Webster leaves to get a magnetic test kit, Dorgan takes a flag marker out to the dam and places it as a target for the Wasp to use with the radium machine. At the canyon, some of the Wasp’s men confront Mandrake and Lothar and a fight ensues. The Wasp destroys the dam, and the waters flood the canyon, causing massive destruction and into which both Mandrake and his loyal assistant fall to their deaths.

Mandrake 8

Three fist fights, a car chase, the Wasp getting out from behind his desk, Betty having even less to do than Tommy, Mandrake running in from another room (and at quite a distance) while the Wasp’s men shoot into one of his magic tricks (a cage he’s obviously disappeared into), Webster panhandling for platinite that’s already been mined – see Chapter 7: Gamble for Life – and the worst exploding dam effect seen in many a year, Chapter 8: Across the Deadline scrambles from one scene to the next with all the energy and vigour of a small child with ADD. This is another filler episode, adding nothing to the serial’s overall plot, and lacking in sense throughout.

And yet it still retains the serial’s rude charm, and provides the usual amount of unintentional laughs in amongst the seriously played theatrics. There’s little that can be said when the Wasp’s men are able to escape by holing up at a random gas station in the middle of nowhere, or by having Dirk and Dorgan test the radium machine on a lump of concrete, as by now the writers have abandoned what little plot development had been gained in the previous episode and decided to throw in the first idea that came to them – whether it works or not.

Rating: 4/10 – not the best of episodes and spurious in its plotting, Chapter 8: Across the Deadline becomes an episode to be endured on the way to the finale; at least it’s fast-paced, and the sight of Mandrake and Lothar congratulating themselves for having avoided a landslide is guaranteed to raise a chuckle.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards – The Oscars 2015

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Oscars 2014, The

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again, when fashion designers get a free plug for some of their more expensive creations, when various stars generally fail to look happy for their fellow nominees when they win the coveted statuette, and when millions of us tune in to see a veritable orgy of fixed smiles, congratulatory backslapping, and a stream of actors and actresses who usually prove unable to read a teleprompter or tell poorly written jokes (and not forgetting the predictable round of halting acceptance speeches and several winners’ attempts to thank everybody and their auntie’s next door neighbour’s cat).

Hosted by first-timer Neil Patrick Harris, there was the traditional opening number celebrating the movies (and with help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black), followed by a heartfelt speech about the power of the movies to inspire and move us. There was a fitfully amusing running gag involving Harris’s predictions locked away in a clear plastic box and being overseen by Octavia Spencer. A highlight was Harris’s “tribute” to Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as he came from backstage in his underwear.

Meryl Streep provided a moving introduction to the In Memoriam section, and there was a tribute to The Sound of Music (now fifty years old) that featured clips from the movie and a performance by Lady Gaga that was – gasp! – actually pretty good (and received a standing ovation). And who should come out afterwards but Julie Andrews herself.

Winners in bold.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Robert Duvall – The Judge; Ethan Hawke – Boyhood; Edward Norton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher; J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Whiplash (2014) -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.

Not much of a surprise but definitely well deserved, Simmons’ speech was mainly a tribute to his wife and children, and parents everywhere. Presented by Lupita Nyong’o.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero; Inherent Vice – Mark Bridges; Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood; Maleficent – Anna B. Sheppard; Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran

Completely expected and Canonero’s fourth win, she was gracious and thanked Wes Anderson profusely. Presented by Jennifer Lopez and Chris Pine.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher – Bill Corso, Dennis Liddiard; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier; Guardians of the Galaxy – Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, David White

The second win for The Grand Budapest Hotel and entirely deserved, members of the team and Wes Anderson were thanked with gratitude. Presented by Reese Witherspoon.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Ida; Leviathan; Tangerines; Timbuktu; Wild Tales

Ida - scene2

Superb result and a great moment for its director, Pawel Pawlikowski, who made a witty speech and was clearly overwhelmed by it all (and was the first who overran his time… and got a big cheer for it). Presented by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman.

Best Short Film, Live Action

Aya; Boogaloo and Graham; Butter Lamp; Parvaneh; The Phone Call

This award was open to all and one of the winners called Oscar a “big bugger”, and a nod to Sally Hawkins for providing her services on the movie for free – and they went over their time. Presented by Kerry Washington and Jason Bateman.

Best Documentary, Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1; Joanna; Our Curse; The Reaper; White Earth

Too close to call but the winner has poignancy to spare, and the winners thanked everyone involved, particularly their families. Presented by Kerry Washington and Jason Bateman.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Thomas Varga; Interstellar – Gary Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten; Unbroken – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, David Lee; Whiplash – Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley

The second win of the evening for Whiplash in a category that could have been won by any of the nominees. Presented by Sienna Miller and Chris Evans.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Aaron Glascock, Martín Hernández; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Brent Burge, Jason Canovas; Interstellar – Richard King; Unbroken – Becky Sullivan, Andrew DeCristofaro

Without Whiplash as a nominee, this was almost a fait accompli, and the winners thanked everyone connected with the movie, as well as their families. Presented by Sienna Miller and Chris Evans.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood; Laura Dern – Wild; Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game; Emma Stone – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Patricia Arquette

One of the more predictable results of the evening, Arquette thanked a plethora of people and threw in a plea for equal rights for women in America – which got a huge round of applause. Presented by Jared Leto.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, Daniel Sudick; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Erik Winquist; Guardians of the Galaxy – Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, Paul Corbould; Interstellar – Paul J. Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott R. Fisher; X-Men: Days of Future Past – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer

Not really a surprise (though it should have gone to Dawn…), the winners thanked everyone in general and gave a special mention to Kip Thorne. Presented by Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Best Short Film, Animated

The Bigger Picture; The Dam Keeper; Feast; Me and My Moulton; A Single Life

Well deserved – it really is a great movie – and the winners were appropriately humble. Presented by Anna Kendrick and Kevin Hart.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Big Hero 6; The Boxtrolls; How to Train Your Dragon 2; Song of the Sea; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

BigHero6

Disney win again (without a Pixar movie in contention), but this was the best result for the category, the movie having so much heart. Presented by Zoe Saldana and Dwayne Johnson.

Best Achievement in Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock; The Imitation Game – Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald; Interstellar – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis; Into the Woods – Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock; Mr. Turner – Suzie Davies, Charlotte Watts

It was either this or Mr. Turner but a good result nevertheless, and another heap of praise for Wes Anderson (and deservedly so). Presented by Chris Pratt and Felicity Jones.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Everything) – Emmanuel Lubezki; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert D. Yeoman; Ida – Łukasz Żal, Ryszard Lenczewski; Mr. Turner – Dick Pope; Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Lubezki’s second Oscar in a row (and the first award for Birdman…) was expected but it really should have gone to Ida. Presented by Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain.

Best Achievement in Editing

American Sniper – Joel Cox, Gary Roach; Boyhood – Sandra Adair; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Barney Pilling; The Imitation Game – William Goldenberg; Whiplash – Tom Cross

As at the BAFTAs, the absolutely positively must-win choice, and an absolutely positively deserved award, and a great nod to Damien Chazelle. Presented by Naomi Watts and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Best Documentary, Feature

CITIZENFOUR; Finding Vivian Maier; Last Days in Vietnam; The Salt of the Earth; Virunga

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A superb result for such a superb movie, and great to see director Laura Poitras accepting the award, and condemning the powers that be over their treatment of ordinary people. Presented by Jennifer Aniston and David Oyelowo.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Begin Again – Lost Stars (Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois); Beyond the Lights – Grateful (Diane Warren); Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – I’m Not Gonna Miss You (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond); The Lego Movie – Everything Is Awesome (Shawn Patterson); Selma – Glory (Common, John Legend)

Maroon 5 performed Lost Stars, while there was a cast of (what seemed like) thousands led by Tegan and Sara who reaffirmed that Everything Is Awesome. Tim McGraw subbed for Glen Campbell on I’m Not Gonna Miss You, then Rita Ora sang Grateful surrounded by laser lights, and in keeping with their original collaboration, John Legend and Common performed Glory against the backdrop of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (though Common’s hand gestures were a little too distracting). And Glory received a standing ovation, with many in the audience in tears.

Pretty much the only choice and Common gave an impassioned speech about democracy that revolved around the Edmund Pettus Bridge, while Legend reiterated the need for freedom and justice and continued voting rights. Presented by Idina Menzel and John Travolta.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat; The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat; Interstellar – Hans Zimmer; Mr. Turner – Gary Yershon; The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson

With Desplat finally winning an Oscar (and seeing off the challenge from himself), this was a great result and Desplat was a gracious winner. Presented by Julie Andrews.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo; Boyhood – Richard Linklater; Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman; The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness; Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

The movie’s second win and highly regarded, though not as cut and dried a result as it seemed. Iñárritu gave a bit of a rambling speech but it was heartfelt and didn’t go on for too long. Presented by Eddie Murphy.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

American Sniper – Jason Hall; The Imitation Game – Graham Moore; Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson; The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten; Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

An unexpected result given Moore’s “treatment” of Turing’s life, the writer gave an awkward speech that mentioned his attempted suicide at sixteen and some life-affirming sentiments – but he still got some of the audience to stand and applaud him. Presented by Oprah Winfrey.

Best Achievement in Directing

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest HotelAlejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Richard Linklater – Boyhood; Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher; Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game

As the tide swung in Birdman‘s direction (excuse the pun), Iñárritu gave an initially humorous speech that evolved into an expression of the effort that artists put into their work, and then into a big Thank You to everyone connected to the movie. Presented by Ben Affleck.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Steve Carell – Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper – American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game; Michael Keaton – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne

Despite the growing possibility that Michael Keaton would take the Oscar, this was a great result that saw Redmayne overjoyed by his win and giving praise to everyone in sight. Presented by Cate Blanchett.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night; Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything; Julianne Moore – Still Alice; Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Julianne Moore

As with the BAFTAs Moore won but both Jones and Cotillard gave better performances. However, her speech acknowledged her co-nominees, and then she thanked pretty much everyone connected with the movie, before mentioning Alzheimer’s and thanking her family. Presented by Matthew McConaughey.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

American Sniper; Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Imitation Game; Selma; The Theory of Everything; Whiplash

Birdman2

Iñárritu got everyone associated with the movie to come up on stage, and found even more people to thank, including Keaton who briefly showed how grateful he was to be there, before Iñárritu rounded things off by making a short political speech about Mexican immigration. Presented by Sean Penn.

And so it was a tie between Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Everything) and The Grand Budapest Hotel with four wins each. With a few unexpected results amid all the predictable ones. The show as a whole became less and less interesting as it went on and Harris’s initial enthusiasm seemed to waver until even some of his jokes weren’t getting a laugh (though his predictions provided some amusement, even if they arrived too late). And the most valuable award of the evening? The Lego Oscars of course.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

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Two Days, One Night

Original title: Deux jours, une nuit

D: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne / 95m

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Batiste Sornin, Simon Caudry, Alain Eloy, Myriem Akeddiou, Fabienne Sciascia, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Hicham Slaoui, Philippe Jeusette, Yohan Zimmer, Christelle Cornil, Laurent Caron, Serge Koto, Morgan Marinne, Gianni La Rocca, Ben Hamidou, Carl Jadot, Olivier Gourmet

In Seraing, a small Belgian industrial town, Sandra (Cotillard) works at a solar panel factory. The workforce consists of seventeen people, but Sandra has recently been off sick due to a bout of depression. During her absence, her boss, Monsieur Dumont (Sornin) has realised that the work can be done just as well by sixteen people instead of seventeen. As a result, she has fallen foul of machinations orchestrated by her foreman, Jean-Marc (Gourmet), and Dumont has given the rest of the staff a choice: they can have a €1000 bonus or keep Sandra in her job. Thanks to Jean-Marc’s scare tactics and bullying, the staff have voted for the bonus. Sandra has all but given up on her job when her co-worker Juliette (Salée) calls to say Dumont has agreed to meet with them. He agrees to a secret ballot, to be held on the Monday morning (it’s currently Friday afternoon).

All Sandra has to do is visit the rest of her colleagues over the weekend, explain about Jean-Marc’s role in things, and ask if they will vote for her to keep her job at the secret ballot. But Sandra hasn’t fully recovered from her illness, and her confidence is at such a low that she just wants to curl up in bed and ignore everything going on around her. Urged on by her husband, Manu (Rongione), and furnished with a list of addresses by Juliette, she sets out on Saturday morning by public transport to persuade her colleagues to vote for her. Some agree readily, others inform her that the money will ease their own problems. She manages to change the minds of a few, but by the end of the day she’s only halfway to getting the numbers she needs.

Driven round by her husband, she continues on Sunday but although she makes further headway, by the afternoon the whole thing begins to look even bleaker when she suffers a setback. Filled with despair, she takes a whole bottle of Xanax but when a colleague changes her mind and visits Sandra to tell her, her hope returns. With the pills flushed out of her system at the hospital, Sandra resumes her visits to her remaining colleagues. But by the time of the secret ballot on Monday morning, it’s too close to call and she has an agonising wait to hear the result.

Two Days, One Night - scene

The latest from the Dardenne Brothers, after their wonderfully simple and affecting The Kid With a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night is another simply told, emotionally honest drama that features a strong central performance, and tells its story with a minimum of artifice and a maximum amount of intelligence.

Its tale of a woman fighting to retain both her job and what little self-confidence she’s managed to keep following her illness, Two Days, One Night takes a straightforward storyline and imbues it with such emotional depth, and makes such an impact, that it lingers in the memory long after it’s ended. This is due in no small part to Cotillard’s superb portrayal of Sandra, a role that she inhabits so completely and so effortlessly that if you started watching the movie from just two minutes in, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary. As the movie progresses, Cotillard’s beautifully shows the depth of despair and terror that Sandra is feeling about her situation, and the way in which she clings to each small victory with undeniable relief. By the time Monday morning arrives, she’s still nervous and she’s still unsure how the vote will go, but she’s gained so much confidence in herself, and so much more courage than she had on the Friday that you’re praying the ballot will go her way.

Cotillard gives such a brilliant performance that it’s a testament to the abilities of the Dardenne Brothers that she doesn’t dominate the movie to the point where the other characters and their stories are overwhelmed. Each of her colleagues has their own story to tell and each is indelibly presented, with special mention going to Cornil as a woman with an abusive husband (and who tips the balance when Sandra takes her overdose), and Magomedgadzhiev as a male colleague who doesn’t react in anything like the way Sandra expects when she catches up with him.

The Dardennes show a clear appreciation for the rhythms and symmetries of daily life, with Sandra’s home and family life and their importance for her naturally presented. It’s contrasted with the homes of her colleagues, none of which she sees except from the doorstep. Even when someone is home she’s never invited inside, as if she were an outsider, and this unspoken rejection adds to Sandra’s struggle, as she has to go further almost every time in tracking someone down (at one point she bumps into one of her colleagues by accident). It all adds to her sense of impending failure and shows just how difficult such a simple “exercise” can become when so much rides on it. The Dardennes capture every high and low of Sandra’s journey and by setting it in such a familiar, provincial environment, they reinforce how perilous ordinary life can be when something unexpected happens.

Alain Marcoen’s exquisite photography breathes added life into the movie’s mise en scène, and is complemented and enhanced by Marie-Hélène Dozo’s confident, precise editing (some scenes were filmed in a single take, adding to the verisimilitude). With the Dardenne Brothers free to weave their magic on the material, the movie becomes a spirited, uplifting look at one woman’s dark journey to personal redemption.

Rating: 9/10 – a quietly effective, quietly rousing tale of an underdog finding strength in the unlikeliest of circumstances, Two Days, One Night is a triumph for the Dardennes and a delight for the viewer; Cotillard is superb, and confirms her place as one of the finest actresses working in movies today (as if we needed reminding).

Mr. Turner (2014)

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Mr. Turner

D: Mike Leigh / 150m

Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, David Horovitch, Joshua McGuire, Kate O’Flynn, Leo Bill

Eminent painter Joseph Mallord William Turner is famous for his land- and seascapes. He lives in a big house in London with his father, William (Jesson) (who acts as his assistant), and his devoted housekeeper, Hannah (Atkinson). He has children he’s estranged from: two daughters from a relationship with Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Sheen). He rejects their attempts to procure financial support from him, even when they visit with his first grandchild. When he’s not at home, Turner travels the country (and sometimes abroad) making sketches that he can expand into paintings when he’s home.

He also visits members of the aristocracy and valued patrons. On one such visit he’s accosted by the struggling artist Benjamin Haydon (Savage), who asks him for the sum of £100 to help him avoid ruin. Haydon’s entreaties lead to Turner promising to lend him £50 instead, which Haydon accepts. When his father dies, Turner becomes depressed but the need to draw and paint is stronger than his despair. Shortly after, Turner visits Margate where he finds lodging with Mrs Booth (Bailey) and her husband (Johnson). He stays there awhile and finds himself enjoying the couple’s company. When he returns a second time he learns that Mrs Booth’s husband has passed away.

In the meantime his anarchic behaviour at the Royal Academy of Arts beguiles and amuses some of his fellow artists, and angers and upsets others, such as Constable. He appears to deface one of his own seascapes with a splotch of red, then removes himself. His associates are appalled and discomfited at this, until he returns and shapes the splotch until it resembles a buoy. At this their respect is renewed, and Turner’s notoriety is upheld, along with the acceptance of his genius. Around this time, Haydon, who has had his run-in with the Academy, visits Turner and tries to repay part of his debt. Turner, whose reputation is that of a curmudgeon, relents and waives the debt.

Returning to Margate he begins a relationship with Mrs Booth; they find a place together in Chelsea where Turner spends most of his time. But when the young Queen Victoria voices her disapproval over one of his paintings, his fame and public support begins to diminish. And following an attempt to experience what it feels like to be in the midst of a snowstorm by having himself strapped to the mast of a sailing ship, his health deteriorates as well.

Mr. Turner - scene

Biopics of famous artists usually depend on their having lived eventful, passionate lives away from the canvas, but what is a director to do when their subject lives a fairly hermetic life, and who feels compelled to sketch at every opportunity (even when they’re with a prostitute and still mourning the loss of their father)? Unfortunately, Mike Leigh never really finds an answer to the question, which leaves Mr. Turner somewhat dry and determinedly episodic.

Turner’s life did have a few memorable moments but they largely occurred when he was much younger (the movie covers the last twenty-five years of his life). His younger sister died aged four and his mother was committed to an asylum where she later died. At the age of fourteen he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts school, and into the Academy itself a year later (Sir Joshua Reynolds was on the panel that admitted him). Perhaps the movie should have focused on these events, showing us how the “painter of light” earned that sobriquet.

Instead we have a movie that begins with Turner at the height of his powers and fame, and which seeks to concentrate on his private life, but without convincing the viewer that there’s any connection between the two. Despite his reputation for being a social malcontent, the Turner we encounter here is more open and friendly than expected and appears to be acidulous only with people he actively dislikes – there’s a great scene where the art critic John Ruskin (McGuire) reflects disapprovingly on a style of painting he clearly has no understanding of and Turner soundly rebuffs him. But while Leigh may be attempting to separate the man from his reputation, that he proves to be a more rounded individual shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In his relationships with women things vary between interesting and banal, and with his visit to a prostitute having a much different outcome than might be typical, that his emotional life was unconventional is to miss the point. There’s an element of desperation in his exploitation of Hannah that would border on abuse if she wasn’t such a willing accomplice, while his “wooing” of Mrs Booth speaks more of two lost souls finding each other than anything more dramatic. In both relationships however, Turner remains on the outside, receiving comfort when he needs it, and giving little back in return. It’s indicative of the female role in society at the time, 1826-1851, that Turner does all this without a moment’s consideration (or remorse) for his actions, and Hannah and Mrs Booth remain grateful for being part of his life.

Outside of these relationships there’s little else that serves as a way of learning more about Turner’s life, and as a result, the movie adds scene after scene that either reinforces what we already know about him, or adds nothing more to the narrative than the opportunity to show off some more of Leigh’s fastidious period recreation. This is hugely impressive, though, and is one area in which Mr. Turner can’t be faulted. Suzie Davies’ production design coupled with Charlotte Watts’ set decoration and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design, and all lovingly shot by DoP Dick Pope (and all four of them Oscar nominated for their efforts) make the movie a visual treat that is as richly rewarding as the reproductions of Turner’s paintings. It’s heritage moviemaking of the highest order.

Mr. Turner - scene2

Despite problems with the movie’s narrative and structure, Leigh is still able to show why he’s one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic directors working today, and why any of his future projects will still command attention and respect. Leigh’s work ethic and methods are well-known, as well as his organic approach to the material he and his cast are working on, and with Mr. Turner those methods are all in place, leading to a clutch of excellent performances and some splendid supporting turns. Spall is simply magnificent, grumbling and grunting his way through scenes with a sour face and occasional flashes of charm. It’s a deceptively simple and sympathetic portrayal, and Spall inhabits the character completely, so much so that you forget he’s acting. He’s matched by Atkinson, whose screen time is much less, but who brings an unforgettable sadness and pathos to her role as Turner’s subjugated housekeeper (and for those who might be wondering why Hannah looks so dreadful by the movie’s end, it’s because she suffered from psoriasis). As Hannah’s “competitor” Mrs Booth, Bailey expresses more in one rueful smile than some actresses manage in an entire movie, and her pleasant, amiable approach to the character serves as a telling counterpoint to the gruff demeanour of Turner himself.

A movie then that requires a great deal of perseverance but which is helped immeasurably by its cast and its presentation, Mr. Turner is likely to divide audiences into two camps: those looking for a story to follow, and those who can forgive its absence. With too many longueurs for its own good, the movie struggles to be as effective as it needs to be, but retains just enough energy to help audiences reach the end. It’s a close run thing, though, and with so little explained throughout, will definitely try some viewers’ patience.

Rating: 7/10 – fans of Leigh’s might be tempted to forgive the lack of a recognisable storyline, but without it Mr. Turner suffers accordingly; strong performances and often beautiful compositions and framing can’t prevent the movie from feeling hollow, nor the material from seeming as if it wasn’t quite as fully developed as it should have been.

Top Five (2014)

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Top Five

D: Chris Rock / 102m

Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, Anders Holm, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharaoh, Ben Vereen, Kevin Hart, Luis Guzmán, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, DMX, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe

Andre Allen (Rock) is a stand-up comedian whose move into movies has brought him international fame thanks to the Hammy trilogy where he plays a cop in a bear costume. Wanting to put the Hammy movies behind him and focus on more serious projects – his latest movie, Uprize, is about the slave revolt that began in Haiti in 1791 – Andre is also a recovering alcoholic and about to get married to reality TV star Erica Long (Union).With only a couple of days to go before the wedding, Andre agrees to an interview with the New York Times’ Chelsea Brown (Dawson).

The interview gets off to a poor start when Chelsea asks him a banal question that prompts him to challenge her to ask the questions she really wants to ask. She wants to know when he stopped being funny and why, and about his alcoholism. He tells her about the time he hit bottom, in 2003 on a trip to Houston, where a night of sex and drugs with a couple of prostitutes (and the unexpected involvement of his tour promoter) led to accusations of rape and his being arrested. He also credits Erica with helping him achieve sobriety and stay that way.

As the interview continues, Andre introduces Chelsea to some of his friends. He’s relaxed with them, and they all joke that he’s never been funny and still isn’t. At a press conference for Uprize, Andre is chagrined to hear calls for another Hammy the Bear movie. He and Chelsea stop off at a hotel so she can meet up with her boyfriend, Brad (Holm), whose birthday it is. Unfortunately, she discovers that Brad has been hiding the fact that he’s gay (despite some very obvious clues in their sex life). Upset and angry at being so easily duped, she’s less than happy when Andre expresses his disbelief at how naïve she’s been. They argue, but the argument leads to their kissing and ending up in a club bathroom about to have sex. They manage to stop themselves; Andre asks to borrow Chelsea’s phone to make a call. While he does he discovers that she is actually James Nielson. He confronts her. Chelsea admits to the deception but tries to explain that she does like him and that she regrets not having told him sooner. Andre refuses to accept her explanation and leaves her behind in the club. From there he goes to a convenience store where he gives in to temptation and starts drinking again…

Top Five - scene

A romantic comedy that weaves in some interesting dramatic elements, Top Five is an astute, cleverly constructed movie that shows Rock firing on all cylinders and mixing gross-out comedy with intelligent observations on fame and media exposure, as well as trenchant examinations of modern day relationships and their ups and downs. It’s a confident movie, unafraid to take a few risks, and Rock proves he has a gift for exposing some of the more absurd aspects of his profession, in particular the fame that can be gained from a movie trilogy based around the exploits of a cop in a bear costume (“It’s Hammy time!”).

He’s also more than adroit at creating a romance between Andre and Chelsea that anchors the movie and proves far more affecting than expected. Partly this is due to his script, which for the most part tries hard to avoid becoming standard romantic fare (though it follows an established formula), and the obvious chemistry he has with Dawson. As they travel the streets of New York, challenging each other, debating, laughing, supporting each other, the warmth and growing affection they feel for each other is so charmingly done that you find yourself rooting for them. As it becomes clear that their existing relationships are less than satisfactory, their slow pull towards each other becomes as rewarding for the viewer as it is for them. Dawson is always an appealing presence on screen, and here she proves a great foil for Rock’s often acerbic approach to his own material.

Of course, this being a Chris Rock movie, the focus is as much on the comedy as the romance, and here he succeeds in providing a slew of laugh-out-loud moments, from Cedric the Entertainer’s unexpected “party trick” to Andre and Chelsea’s discussion on the requirements for becoming the next President, to Chelsea’s punishment of Brad’s anal fixation, to Andre’s bodyguard Silk (Smoove) and his penchant for the larger lady (his encounter with Sidibe is brief but wonderful), to Andre’s adding “stank” to a radio promo – Rock maintains a high hit rate throughout. He also infuses several dramatic moments with a level of humour that adds poignancy and pathos to the material, and gives the likes of Union and Shepherd a chance to shine in scenes that hold a lot more weight than is immediately apparent.

While Rock scores highly with his script, and employs a cast who all make the most of their roles (and are clearly having a great deal of fun in the process), he’s not quite as successful in creating a visual palette that elevates or enlivens the material, and certain scenes have a perfunctory feel about them as a result (DoP Manuel Alberto Clara worked on Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Vol. I & Vol. II and there are many similarities in style between those movies and this one). That said, there are some occasional moments – Andre’s impromptu appearance at a comedy club, the scene where Andre trashes the convenience store – where the visual approach works in the movie’s favour.

All in all though, Top Five is a movie that provides much to enjoy and admire, and serves as a reminder that when he puts his mind to it, Rock is one of the more gifted comedians working in movies today (it’s also amazing to think that he’s only recently turned 50; he definitely doesn’t look it). Let’s hope this is just the first of many more similar projects to come.

Rating: 8/10 – a disarmingly enjoyable romantic comedy, Top Five benefits greatly from its charming central romance and Rock’s willingness to offset the comedy with telling moments of drama; a winning return to form after the less than successful I Think I Love My Wife (2007), this has something for everyone and rarely disappoints.

Swamp Fire (1946)

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Swamp Fire

D: William H. Pine / 69m

Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston, Pedro de Cordoba, Marcelle Corday, William Edmunds, Edwin Maxwell, Pierre Watkin

Coming home from the war, bar pilot Johnny Duval (Weissmuller) is a veteran whose return is tinged with a bittersweet quality. He lost both his ship and his men during the war and he’s haunted by the event, so much so that he’s lost his confidence as a bar pilot completely. But he does have the love of Toni Rousseau (Thurston) to look forward to, and the welcome of his friends. Travelling through the swamp to his home at Cypress Point, his row boat is side-swiped by a motor boat being driven by Janet Hilton, a wealthy socialite who lives at nearby Delta Island. With her motor boat run aground, Johnny offers to take her to Cypress Point where she can rent another boat. Once there, she wastes no time in alienating Johnny’s friends, including Toni, before leaving.

Johnny goes back to work for the Coast Guard but he takes a junior role, until one night the bar pilot on his ship feigns an illness that leads to Johnny taking over and seeing another boat through the river’s perilous sand bars. The boat belongs to Janet’s father; she’s also on the boat and makes advances towards him, but even with that and other distractions such as an hallucination from the war, he guides the boat safely through the waters, and regains his confidence. Quickly promoted to a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, Johnny resumes his usual work as a bar pilot. In the meantime, Janet continues to pursue him, much to the annoyance of Toni, and to the satisfaction of Mike Kalavich (Crabbe), a trapper who wants Toni for himself. Johnny decides to marry Toni and the date is set, but the night before, he finds himself persuaded to guide a ship through dangerous fog. There is a collision with another boat, one that leads to the death of Toni’s grandfather (de Cordoba).

Unable to cope with the guilt of what he’s done, Johnny goes away on leave and bar hops until he’s so drunk he stumbles into the path of a truck and is knocked down. He ends up in hospital and is there for two weeks before anyone discovers who he is. The news makes the papers and Toni and Johnny’s boss, Captain Moise (Maxwell), head to the hospital to bring him home. But when they get there they find Johnny has already left – in the care of Janet Hilton. At the Hiltons’, Janet tells them – falsely – that Johnny doesn’t want to see them, or anybody, from Cypress Point. Janet takes further steps to stop Johnny and Toni from contacting each other. With both believing the worst of the other, Johnny and Toni’s relationship falters then fails, until the capture of one of Kalavich’s comrades in poaching leads to Janet’s duplicity being revealed. But while Johnny tries to find Toni, Kalavich, enraged by this turn of events, decides to set fire to the swampland, putting them all in danger.

Swamp Fire - scene

The first of two movies uniting former Olympic swimming champions Weissmuller and Crabbe – the second would be the Jungle Jim adventure Captive Girl (1950) – Swamp Fire is an absorbing, though pedestrian drama that unfolds at a steady, if sometimes soporific pace, and which offers both actors a chance to spread their wings in roles they wouldn’t normally have played. Weissmuller, though as wooden as usual, does his best as the taciturn, PTSD-suffering Johnny, and makes a decent fist of his love scenes with Thurston (he certainly kisses her with gusto). Crabbe has the greater challenge, playing a disgruntled bad guy with a dodgy Cajun accent and a pencil-thin moustache, but it’s a more natural performance, and he seems more at ease in the role than Weissmuller does as Johnny, and the movie gains a noticeable energy whenever he’s on screen.

They’re kept apart for most of the movie, however, leaving room for Weissmuller to romance both Grey and Thurston in equal measure, and to show that his muscular frame still looks good in a T-shirt (he doesn’t go bare chested in this movie, perhaps because of the extra weight he’d put on at the time). The twin romances are agreeable, if not entirely believable. Grey’s character is so stuck up and manipulative that when Toni ends up in the river and at the mercy of an alligator, it’s likely the viewer will be wishing it was Janet in the water. The character vacillates between arrogant, passive and flirtatious (sometimes in the same scene), and Grey doesn’t always know when to move from one aspect to another. Thurston plays Toni as if she were more of a tomboy than a young woman with eyes for only one man, but she’s consistent in her approach to the character and makes slightly more of things than the script – by Daniel Mainwaring (credited as Geoffrey Homes) – would appear to allow. There’s an argument that both roles are underwritten, but the truth is they’re quite stereotypical for both the time the movie was made and its milieu.

In the hot seat, Pine – noted for being a producer more than a director – shows a sure hand in moving the camera around and elicits good performances from the supporting cast, including Edmunds as the local bar owner, and Maxwell as Johnny’s suppportive superior. The Louisiana locations are well chosen for their beautiful scenery, and make for splendid backdrops to the (occasionally) overheated emotions of the main characters (though the amount of rear projection work going on almost negates their effect). As well as being involved in several river collisions, Weissmuller gets to wrestle and kill an alligator – the danger of which he brushes off with manly stoicism – and there’s a catfight between Grey and Thurston that is, sadly, over almost as soon as it’s started. The fiery climax doesn’t look as impressive in the long shots as it does close up, but the emotional undercurrent is brought to the fore, making the denouement unexpectedly compelling, and satisfying as well.

Rating: 5/10 – like a lot of low-budget, modest post-War productions, Swamp Fire is borderline forgettable, but despite its faults, is a pleasant enough diversion for sixty-nine minutes; Weissmuller and Crabbe make for great adversaries, and the plot isn’t as banal as it seems, making this a notch above other, similar movies from the period.

Mini-Review: Life’s a Breeze (2013)

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Life's a Breeze

D: Lance Daly / 80m

Cast: Fionnula Flanagan, Pat Shortt, Kelly Thornton, Eva Birthistle, Gerry McCann, Lesley Conroy, Willie Higgins

Thirteen year old Emma (Thornton) is tasked with visiting her Nan (Flanagan) twice a day to make sure she’s okay. Nan lives in a big old house with lots of clutter and her layabout son Colm (Shortt). They’re part of an extended family that includes Colm’s brother Des (McCann), his sister Annie (Conroy), Kelly’s mother Margaret (Birthistle) and their various spouses. Everyone has a fondness for Nan but are too busy with their own lives to pay her much attention. One day, Colm asks Emma to take Nan out for the day so that the family can surprise her by giving her home a makeover. When they get back, the clutter has vanished, there’s a new sofa, new kitchen appliances, and a new bed been installed. But Nan has only one question: where’s the mattress from the bed?

She asks because she kept all her life savings inside it, a sum that amounts to almost a million Euros. At first, the family doesn’t believe her but, unsure that she’s not telling the truth, they track down Arthur (Higgins), the man who took all the rubbish away. He tells them it’s gone to landfill, but when they visit the site they’re unable to find it. Nan thinks Arthur’s been lying and they follow him out of town to a place at the side of the road where he dumped everything, but the mattress isn’t there. Then Colm makes the mistake of going on a radio show and alerting everyone to the mattress’s disappearance and the money inside it. What began as a small-scale “search and rescue” mission now develops into a country-wide search for the mattress and the million Euros, and the family in danger of losing everything.

Life's a Breeze - scene

An Irish/Swedish co-production – with some scenes filmed in Sweden – Life’s a Breeze is the type of modest, low-key production that often succeeds just by being modest and low-key. However, while it’s moderately funny and it has a spirited cast who could do this sort of thing blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, the short running time is an indication of how slight the material actually is. It’s also a simple tale, and while it skirts around issues relating to the elderly, personal dignity and avarice, it does so with such a lightness of touch that these attempts at adding some depth don’t always pay off.

That said, it is mildly diverting, and Daly handles it all with a confidence that helps make up for the less than attractive visual design and the often uncoordinated cinematography (Daly again, but uncredited). Ultimately though, the movie’s strengths are its cast and its score. Flanagan portrays Nan with a quiet sense of despair at the “idjit” antics of her family, Shortt does panic like it’s a daily occurrence for Colm, and Thornton displays a maturity that makes Emma the most interesting character of all. And the score – by Daly and Declan and Eugene Quinn – is jaunty and upbeat, and provides a suitably catchy counterpoint to the action.

Rating: 6/10 – with a little bit less going on than meets the eye, Life’s a Breeze is pleasant enough but isn’t likely to remain in the memory for long; boosted by an impressive first-time performance by Thornton, the movie is amusing, moderately charming, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

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Jupiter Ascending

D: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski / 127m

Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jeremy Swift, Kick Gurry, James D’Arcy

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) works as a cleaner with her mother, Aleksa (Kennedy), and her aunt. She has no prospects, no will to succeed, and no man in her life. Shackled to her mother’s Russian family, she is unaware that she is the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family. The Abrasax family are part of an alien race whose business is that of seeding planets and harvesting the inhabitants once they reach a certain physical maturity. The Abrasax matriarch had Earth as part of her portfolio, and its importance as a source of youth-giving serum is not lost on her offspring, Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Middleton) and Titus (Booth). Each of them is trying to acquire Earth for themselves, and when they learn of Jupiter’s existence, they initiate plans to either manipulate her or kill her (or both).

Jupiter can claim her genetic forebear’s titles and properties but if she does it will freeze out Balem and his siblings. His response is to send agents to Earth to kill her, but Titus sends a genetically engineered hunter called Caine Wise (Tatum) to protect her and bring her to him. Wise enlists aid of fellow hunter Stinger Apini (Bean) but a group of mercenaries manage to capture Jupiter and take her to a planet owned by Kalique. Kalique informs Jupiter that the conditions of her mother’s will were such that Earth would belong to her genetic reincarnation should one come forward. All Jupiter has to do is to claim her inheritance and her brothers’ plans will be thwarted.

Aided by Stinger and the Aegis, an intergalactic police force, Caine rescues Jupiter from Kalique and takes her to the planet where she can begin to claim her inheritance. Titus appears on the scene and tells Jupiter he plans to uphold his mother’s wish that Earth not be harvested, and that if she marries him it will ensure both Earth’s safety and an end to Balem and Kalique’s scheming. Titus isolates Caine from Jupiter and reveals his real plan which is to marry her and then have her killed, thus inheriting Earth by default. He has Caine expelled from an air lock, while Jupiter agrees to marry Titus…

Jupiter Ascending - scene

Originally set for release on 25 July 2014, Jupiter Ascending finally arrives on our screens and… is… well… just… terrible. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) – that would be difficult – but it is shockingly, depressingly bad in ways that are completely surprising given the calibre of the directors, the cast and the crew. Already a box office bomb, with very little chance of its $176,000,000 budget being recouped any time soon, Jupiter Ascending is a classic example of what happens when you ask two feted filmmakers to come up with “an original intellectual property and franchise” – take a bow, Jeff Robinov (Warner Bros. president). The result? A movie that makes no sense at any point during its entire running time.

It’s a spectacular movie, true, but this is yet another sci-fi movie that is a triumph of style over substance. If there had been half as much effort put into the script as there has been into the special effects and the design of the movie then we might be talking about the movie in terms of it being a modern classic. But so successfully have the Wachowskis sabotaged their own script – sorry, “intellectual property” – that instead we have to talk about the movie in terms of it being an (almost) unmitigated disaster. Take the notion that only the human race can produce the serum that keeps the Abrasax family so youthful. So far, so good. But if this is the case, and the Abrasax family have “seeded” Earth in order to produce this serum, why haven’t they done it on other planets? Surely that would make sound business sense (not to mention keep them eternally young)? (It seems not.)

There are plenty of other elements within the script that don’t make sense, such as the whole idea that Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of the Abrasax’ matriarch. How or why this should even happen in the first place is skipped over by the Wachowski’s, and it hovers over the movie like a particularly stinky McGuffin. And the speed with which Bean’s character changes sides (and is forgiven) has all the dramatic intensity of someone changing their washing powder instead of their allegiance. It’s all in service of a script that careens from one unlikely scene to another while ramping up the visual spectacle to such a pitch that the characters appear incidental to the vast spaceships and the vast sets inside them (though the Wachowskis have seen fit to ensure that no room is too small that Caine can’t pitch and hover around it with ease).

The cast look uncomfortable throughout, with Tatum doing his best not to appear confused (or wishing he was making another movie entirely), and Kunis unable to make Jupiter less irritating than she’s written. Bean appears to be apologising for each line he has to utter – his rhapsodising about bees is a highlight – while Booth mistakes petulance for silky menace, and Middleton is saddled with the weight of too much exposition (and wrinkles). And then there’s Redmayne, soft-spoken for most of the movie and evidencing Balem’s more psychotic tendencies by shouting loudly whenever he’s annoyed. By the end it’s become the movie’s most flamboyant performance, but it would have been better utilised in a pantomime than a science fiction movie trying to take itself seriously.

The action scenes are suitably large-scale and ambitious but still rely heavily on the bad guys being terrible shots, and Wise being able to get off a kill shot from any angle. The Renaissance feel to many of the sets and the overall design is, however, impressive, but the production facility on Jupiter is too overblown, and seems designed more to be destroyed (as it eventually is) than anything else. And therein lies another problem, the Zack Snyder Equation™, which posits that if there is a chance to provide mass destruction on a monumental level then it should be grasped with every gigabyte possible. It seems movie makers still haven’t caught on to the fact that while this may make for an arresting visual sequence, we’ve still seen it way too often now for it to have any meaningful effect.

Rating: 4/10 – with stumbling, forlorn attempts at comedy thrown in here and there – “I love dogs”, Jupiter’s Russian family, any time Famulus (Mbatha-Raw) makes an appearance – Jupiter Ascending succeeds in undermining its own credibility at nearly every turn; a space opera masquerading as something more (though exactly what is hard to determine), this sees the Wachowskis reprising themes from The Matrix to less than impressive effect.

10 Reasons to Remember Louis Jourdan (1921-2015)

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Suave, debonair, charming, handsome, a hit with the ladies – you could be forgiven for disliking Louis Jourdan just on principle, but the French actor had a likeability that made him popular with both genders. Over the course of a career spanning seven decades, Jourdan was the dependable character actor – a description he would have endorsed – who often gave better performances than the movies he made deserved. If he was never quite the star he should have been, it didn’t seem to matter to him, and it shouldn’t matter to us. He leaves behind some indelible screen appearances, and this wonderful quote: “I didn’t want to be perpetually cooing in a lady’s ear. There’s not much satisfaction in it.”

Louis Jourdan - Felicie nanteuil

1 – Félicie Nanteuil (1944)

2 – The Paradine Case (1947)

3 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

4 – The Happy Time (1952)

5 – Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

6 – The Swan (1956)

7 – Gigi (1958)

8 – Can-Can (1960)

9 – The V.I.P.s (1963)

10 – Count Dracula (1977)

Louis Jourdan - Count Dracula

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 7: Gamble for Life

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 16m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Escaping (of course) from his crashing plane, Mandrake parachutes to the ground in time to aid Professor Houston in getting away from the Wasp’s men at the ironworks in Dorgan. Unfortunately he has to leave his radium machine behind. The Wasp alerts his men to watch Mandrake’s country home. While they keep watch, Webster arrives. Mandrake needs him to help retrieve some platinite to help the professor build another radium machine. Tapping into Mandrake’s phone line, the Wasp’s men learn that he needs to collect some parts from Houston’s home. They get there first and ambush the magician but Lothar intervenes and they get away – but without the parts.

The platinite can be found in a canyon where the Suburban Telephone Company have a base of operations. Mandrake, Lothar and Webster travel there. At the same time, the Wasp’s lieutenant, Dirk, continues to implement his boss’s plans to sabotage all the local communication networks by sending them to the same site. As they arrive, Mandrake and Webster decide they have enough platinite and start to head back to their car. Alerted to the presence of the Wasp’s men by the site foreman, Mandrake and Webster tackle them. One of the men climbs a gantry and heads across the canyon in a trestle car. Mandrake jumps on and the two fight but the hook the car is hanging from is slowly straightening out. The Wasp’s man falls over the side, and as Mandrake watches him fall, the hook straightens entirely, sending the trestle car crashing down into the canyon.

Mandrake, the Magician Chapter 7

One of the more amusing episodes (and probably not for the right reasons), Chapter 7: Gamble for Life sees more things happen by chance than by any logical design. The Wasp instructs his men to watch Mandrake’s country home when he can’t know that’s where he’ll go, and instead of telling his men to go the canyon (because that’s where Mandrake and the platinite will be) they get there under their own steam – what a coincidence! Other amusing moments: Mandrake parachuting to the ground sans chapeau, and then rushing to Houston’s aid with hat firmly back on his head; telling Houston to “Buck up, man” when the professor claims he can’t make it; a gate telephone that drops down out of nowhere; and Kikume’s stunt double wearing an ill-fitting wig to make him look more like the real thing (not happening).

For all the poorly choreographed fight scenes and glaring lapses in logic and common sense, the series continues to be highly enjoyable, and often because it is rough and ready around the edges. Hull is still a somewhat smug Mandrake, everyone else has to stand in line to wait their turn in front of the camera, and the fisticuffs to narrative ratio is still approximately four to one. It’s good to see Webster, a character who otherwise pops in and out of the material, given a bit more to do, and the showdown at the canyon is one of the better set ups so far. Of course, there’s five chapters to go, so the writers have got a lot to do to wind this up, and judging by the preview for Chapter 8, they’re still not in any hurry.

Rating: 6/10 – as fast-paced and entertaining as ever, Chapter 7: Gamble for Life maintains the devil-may-care approach to the material already established and at last shows Mandrake getting one over on the Wasp by rescuing Professor Houston; it’s all thrilling stuff and it’s still a pleasure to come back to each week.

To Be Takei (2014)

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To Be Takei

D: Jennifer M. Kroot, Bill Weber / 94m

George Takei, Brad Takei, Howard Stern, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Brad Savage, Lea Salonga, John Cho, B.D. Wong, Daniel Inouye

George Takei’s early life in Los Angeles was blighted by Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of all persons considered a threat to national security, particularly any Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Takei and his family were moved to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. After a year, the introduction of a “loyalty questionnaire” – which his father refused to sign – meant they were relocated to a camp in Tule Lake, California. At the end of the war they were allowed to return to Los Angeles.

Takei did well in school, and eventually enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. He became interested in acting – though he admits he was a “performer” long before then – but it wasn’t until the late Fifties that he began to find work, initially doing voice over work on movies such as Rodan (1956). A couple of Jerry Lewis movies (albeit playing racially dubious roles) gave him a small degree of exposure, enough to be considered for the role of Sulu in Star Trek. As part of the multi-ethnic crew, Takei’s appearance was a tremendous boost for Asian-American actors, but in real terms his career continued at a steady pace, mostly in TV.

1973 saw the beginning of Takei’s political career. He ran for the City Council of Los Angeles, but narrowly lost out. However, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to the team responsible for the planning of the Los Angeles subway system. His political career came to a close in the early Eighties as the Star Trek movies became increasingly popular. Concentrating his efforts on acting, Takei saw in the Nineties by finally becoming Captain Sulu in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). At around the same time he became involved in The Howard Stern Show, and is the show’s semi-regular announcer even now. The new century saw him as busy as ever but 2005 was a defining year: in October, Takei revealed that he was gay and had been in a relationship (with Brad Altman) for eighteen years. To many it wasn’t a shock as he’d been a supporter of LGBT organisations for some time, but it led to his becoming a more vocal supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage; at present he’s a spokesperson for the Human Rights Act “Coming Out Project”.

In 2008, he and Brad married and together they tour the world giving speeches and making convention appearances and turning up on TV. Takei has embraced Facebook in a big way and currently has around eight million followers; his daily posts are funny and occasionally, controversial. And in 2012 he appeared in the stage musical Allegiance, a project he helped initiate and which is set in a Japanese internment camp in World War II.

To Be Takei - scene

If you sat down to write a book or a film script or a stage play, and you made your main character a somewhat diminutive Japanese-American homosexual who finds fame as an actor on a science fiction TV show, it’s a safe bet that publishers and backers would look at you funny and then laugh you out of the room for being so foolish. After all, who’s going to believe a story as far-fetched as that? And yet, George Takei is living proof that you can be all that and more.

Charting his life and experiences, To Be Takei is an amusing, warm-hearted look at a man who, over the last fifty years, has become a pop-culture icon. It’s a sweet-natured movie, much like the man himself, and is a wonderful introduction to a man who laughs at everything (unless you say being gay is a lifestyle – he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms it’s not, it’s an orientation). He has a great laugh too, a rich, soulful chuckle that punctuates his speech as if he can’t control it. Seeing him being so cheerful, and so much of the time, it’s plain to see he’s a man who’s lived not only a full life – he’s currently 77 – but is still doing so and with no intention of slowing down. His energy levels are prodigious. But it’s most likely his childhood at Rohwer that informs this, and the scenes where he discusses his time at the camps in Arkansas and California add a depth and a meaning to a life that, otherwise, seems to have been a model of fun and excitement. That it hasn’t left any permanent emotional scars is a testament to his resilience and his refusal not to let it affect him in any meaningful way. It’s these scenes that resonate the most, especially when they dovetail into those that show the development of Allegiance.

The movie follows Takei and Brad as they attend various functions and travel round the US. At one point they’re up in the mountains scattering Brad’s mother’s ashes. The wind proves to be blowing in the wrong direction and some of the ashes end up on their clothes. George’s pithy observation? “And I think your mom’s going to be at the cleaner’s too.” The relationship between George and Brad is the cornerstone of the movie, their devotion to each other so evident that when they’re taking the mickey out of each other, you’re laughing with them because it wouldn’t even occur to you to laugh at them. Even when Brad is in manager mode and bossing George around, there’s a deep-rooted affection there the whole time that makes it all the more marvellous to witness.

As well as his time in the internment camps there’s a fair amount of time devoted to his exploits in Star Trek, and the ongoing animosity between George and William Shatner – “Speaking of fat alcoholics… good evening, Bill.” – but it’s the contributions of Nimoy, Nichols and Koenig that add a poignancy to the proceedings, and reinforce just how much he’s loved by his old “comrades in space”. In fact, the movie is very good at providing just the right amount of time for each phase of his life and career, and for the current day activities he gets up to. Balancing out what really has been an incredibly varied and rewarding life, it’s to the movie’s credit – and Takei’s – that he remains as likeable as he’s always been. He’s so highly regarded and he’s so open and honest about things that by the movie’s end you feel you almost know him, such is the attention to detail and interest in him shown by Kroot and Weber. And with the honesty and commitment shown by Takei and Brad, the movie also paints a lovely portrait of two people who are still enamoured of each other after more than twenty-five years.

Rating: 8/10 – a documentary about a remarkable man presented in a fun, entertaining way, To Be Takei is a joy to watch, and made all the more so by Takei’s obvious enjoyment at being filmed; even if you only watch it to see his public service announcement regarding Tim Hardaway – “Oh my” indeed – you’ll find yourself wishing you could spend just a little bit more time in his company.

Late Phases (2014)

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Late Phases

D: Adrián García Bogliano / 96m

Cast: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Erin Cummings, Tom Noonan, Tina Louise, Rutanya Alda, Caitlin O’Heaney, Karen Lynn Gorney, Larry Fessenden, Dana Ashbrook

Blind Vietnam war veteran Ambrose McKinley (Damici) moves into a gated community called Crescent Bay with his dog Shadow. He has an antagonistic nature, and a poor relationship with his son, Will (Embry). He meets his neighbour, Delores (Gorney), but aims to pretty much keep himself to himself. That first night, Delores is attacked by someone or something; Ambrose hears the commotion and tries to work out what’s happening. Delores’s attacker then turns their attention to Ambrose. Shadow defends Ambrose and the attacker flees, leaving Shadow fatally wounded.

Ambrose is found the next day and the police arrive to investigate. He learns that this isn’t the first time someone in Crescent Bay has been attacked, and that the community is always finding its dogs killed by some animal. When it’s also mentioned that the attacks happen regularly each month (and around the time of the full moon), Ambrose begins to suspect that his and Delores’ attacker is a werewolf. He keeps his suspicions to himself but begins to plan and prepare for the next month’s full moon, aiming to kill the creature and put an end to all the attacks and dog killings.

He’s persuaded to attend the local Sunday church group, where he meets Father Roger (Noonan). He suspects the priest of being the werewolf as he talks about people’s dark sides and how he keeps his own dark side under control. Ambrose also runs afoul of the other Crescent Bay residents by using a shovel as a walking cane, and by his continued aggressive attitude. He has silver bullets made, and ensures he has several guns hidden about his property. But as the next full moon approaches, the person who is the werewolf realises what Ambrose is up to, and begins making their own preparations…

Late Phases - scene

With werewolf movies becoming more prevalent in recent years, Late Phases arrives with a modicum of expectation based around the involvement of Bogliano, an Argentinian director whose movies have a unique brand of intensity about them, and its fairly unusual setting, a gated retirement community. It’s a broadly entertaining movie that is confident enough to show its monster within the first fifteen minutes, but like so many other horror movies that start off promisingly, Eric Stolze’s script soon opts for implausibility instead of being more carefully thought out.

It’s a shame as the movie gets quite a few things right. The main character of Ambrose is a refreshing change from the usual screaming teen queen, his curt, uncompromising nature and abrupt manner maintained (almost) throughout. Damici proves a great choice for the role, his glowering features and sardonic scowl completely in tune with Ambrose’s determined animosity. He’s a practical man and he approaches the idea of a werewolf being on the loose in a practical manner, with no room for doubt or hesitation. He doesn’t try to convince anyone there’s a werewolf carrying out the attacks and he doesn’t try to enlist anyone’s aid on the night. He just gets on with it.

His talks with Father Roger combine musings on the duality of man with notions of honour and personal belief, and though they do include dialogue that is cliché driven, it’s good to see a horror movie take time out to examine pertinent themes, and in some depth (it’s also good to see Noonan back in a movie after several years on various TV shows and making shorts). Alas, the same can’t be said for Ambrose’s relationship with his son, which hinges on his inability to show emotion, and which has a predictable resolution. Damici and Embry manage to make these scenes more effective than as written, but they’re still pretty perfunctory.

Another plus is the decision not to use the “w” word. At one point, Ambrose asks the question “What do silver bullets make you think of?” The reply? “The Lone Ranger.” It’s a lovely moment, played completely straight, and underlines the confident nature of much of the script. However, this is a horror movie and certain illogicalities have to be adhered to (or so it seems). While pacing out steps in one of the rooms in his property, Ambrose turns on a couple of lamps – would a blind man need to do that? He finds a claw embedded in the wall of his new home (within about a minute of his going inside) – as an early warning of what’s to come it’s great, but wouldn’t a realtor (or someone) have spotted that long before he moved in? And the police are woefully inadequate in dealing with attacks that go back twenty-five years but are on the ball when some of Ambrose’s neighbours complain about his behaviour. (And let’s not mention the gate security guard who seems to work 24/7.)

The movie reveals the identity of the werewolf approximately two thirds in and while most viewers won’t be surprised by the revelation, they probably will be surprised by the fact that this werewolf can bite people and pass on the curse while in human form. This leads to a risible showdown between Ambrose and several werewolves that features possibly cinema’s first ever example of “were-fu”. It also reveals that werewolves are unable to move out of the way when a blind man points a gun at them, and have to stand in the line of fire for around twenty seconds bellowing before attacking Ambrose one at a time. And there’s a minor subplot involving a headstone that amounts to a bad joke when it’s finally brought into play.

Late Phases - scene2

There’s a transformation scene that’s not too bad given the budget, and a pleasing amount of gore to keep genre fans happy, and there’s an emphasis on keeping the special effects practical rather than enhanced by CGI that works in the movie’s favour, but while Bogliano adds some much needed energy to things in the two big setpieces that bookend the movie, there are still too many occasions where the viewer will be shaking their head and asking themselves, did I really just see or hear that? The rest of the cast provide adequate support, and there’s some effectively framed scenes and shots courtesy of DoP Ernesto Herrera. Wojciech Golczewski’s score can be a little intrusive at times, though it does provide some atmospheric support during the quieter scenes, and the movie thankfully avoids the temptation to set up a potential sequel.

Rating: 6/10 – with a bit more care and attention paid to the script, Bogliano’s first English language movie could have been a much more robust and compelling movie; as it is, Late Phases is worth seeking out as an attempt at doing something a little different within an already crowded genre.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

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Two Faces of January, The

D: Hossein Amini / 96m

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan, Omiros Poulakis

Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American working as a tour guide. He meets an American couple on holiday there, Chester and Colette McFarland (Mortensen, Dunst). They invite him to dinner and he accepts, mainly because he’s attracted to Colette. Later, after dropping them off at their hotel, Rydal discovers Colette has left a bracelet behind in the taxi. He decides to return it. Meanwhile, the McFarland’s have another visitor, a private detective named Vittorio (Warshofsky). It transpires that Chester has defrauded several people in an investment scam, and it’s this money that is allowing the McFarlands to travel around Europe. Vittorio and Chester scuffle and the private detective is killed. As he attempts to get Vittorio back to his own room in the hotel, he’s discovered by Rydal. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is merely out cold from drinking too much, and together they get him into his room.

Chester convinces Rydal that he and Colette need to leave Athens as soon as possible, but their passports are being kept by the hotel. Seeing a way of scamming some money out of Chester, Rydal agrees to help them; it also gives him a chance to be nearer to Colette. He arranges for new passports to be given to them in Crete, where they all travel to next. Without identification papers they’re forced to wait on the quayside for the next day’s bus to Chania. While they are there, Colette visits Rydal in his room while Chester is sleeping. Back on the bus, Colette panics when she sees photos of her and Chester in a newspaper and thinks they’ve been spotted. At a rest stop, Colette gets off the bus and the two men chase after her. They walk on and eventually reach the ruins of Knossos.

Rain causes them to seek shelter in the ruins. Chester lures Rydal down into the lower levels and knocks him unconscious. When Colette realises what he’s done they argue and she falls to her death from some steps. Chester flees, leaving Rydal to come to the next morning and be seen by a group of schoolgirls and their teacher as he leaves. Rydal hurries to catch up with Chester, who has collected the new passports and is heading back to Athens on a ship. There is a confrontation between the two where each tries to outwit and out-threaten the other, but both come to realise that they are bound together by their actions over the past couple of days, and would find it easy to implicate the other if either informed the police. But when they get to Athens airport, Rydal finds that Chester has one more trick up his sleeve.

Two Faces of January, The -scene

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is a ponderous, though well acted drama that never quite gets off the ground, despite an intriguing storyline and some glorious location photography. As written and directed by Amini – something he’d been working on for around fifteen years – there is a distance between the audience and the main characters that stops them from ever becoming likeable or sympathetic. We never get to really know them either. Chester is a cheat but it’s just accepted that he’s a cheat; there’s no back story to explain why. Colette is aware of his duplicity and has obviously chosen to stay with him but we never find out why either. It’s confusing as well when their previous happiness is so quickly overturned by the arrival of Rydal in their lives: does she really love Chester or is she too a fraud? And Rydal’s past, with his father issues and need for independence, is also glossed over, with the questions, “Why Athens?” and “Why a tour guide?” completely unanswered.

There is one clear motivation that drives them all however: escape. But it’s clumsily used as a device to keep the narrative and the characters moving, and while Amini uses it to show how each is trying to escape themselves (and more so than the authorities), this is also clumsily done. What we’re left with as a result is a mini-travelogue where it seems that the characters are constantly outwitting each other – or appear to be – but in actuality aren’t doing anything of the sort. Chester imagines all sorts of deviousness in Rydal’s behaviour (and Isaac’s performance goes a long way to suggesting this, even though it’s not true), and he’s continually on his guard for some new twist. But ultimately he’s the author of his own downfall, and has no one to blame but himself for what happens.

Amini never reconciles Rydal’s willingness to keep in with the McFarlands, even after he knows what they’ve done, and while his attraction for Colette is an understandable reason in itself, there are moments where he’s making decisions about carrying on but we never find out what his reasons are. It ends up being a problem for the narrative when it just feels that if he didn’t, the plot (and the movie) would grind to a halt.

In adapting Highsmith’s novel, Amini has jettisoned the homo-erotic subplot between Chester and Rydal in favour of a more conventional love triangle approach, and in doing so he robs the movie of a potential, and valuable, source of tension. For otherwise, the movie plods along looking good but feeling empty, its characters relying heavily on plot contrivances such as Rydal just happening to know someone who can provide forged passports, and Colette getting so easily frightened and leaving the bus.

As Chester, Mortensen puts in a good performance but even he can’t reconcile the character’s initial fearfulness and vulnerability with the more callous character he becomes. Dunst has a couple of emotional scenes that show off her skills as an actress, but again she can’t reconcile Colette’s initial happiness with her husband with the antipathy she shows toward him once they leave Athens (she already knows they’re on the run, why should this make her feel any different? And this is before she learns of Vittorio’s death). Rounding off the trio, Isaac portrays Rydal as a conspiring victim, unsure of himself as he gets in deeper and looking for a way out, even though he can’t see one. It’s a confident performance, not as conflicted as Mortensen and Dunst’s, but unfortunately, still a little shy of being satisfactory.

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With the scenery providing a welcome (and thankful) distraction from the unwieldy and undercooked melodramatics, the movie adds a particularly awkward scene at a customs hall where Chester and Rydal act so suspiciously it’s a wonder they aren’t picked out of their respective queues sooner. And the denouement, included to add some much needed excitement, is so poorly edited that any sense of vitality is diminished quite rapidly. There’s a great movie to be had from Highsmith’s novel, but alas, this isn’t it, and for that, Amini is the only one to blame.

Rating: 5/10 – with its cast unable to elevate the material or make up for Amini’s lack of directorial control, The Two Faces of January fails to provide any tension or mystery; plodding, and with a weak resolution, the movie looks great throughout but offers little that’s arresting to occupy the viewer’s time.

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