Violet & Daisy (2011)

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Violet & Daisy

D: Geoffrey Fletcher / 88m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolfini, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Danny Trejo, Tatiana Maslany, Lynda Gravatt

Two teenagers, Violet (Bledel) and Daisy (Ronan), when they’re not obsessing over singing sensation Barbie Sunday, are professional assassins.  They work for a man called Chet but they’ve never met him; instead they’re given their jobs via an intermediary, Russ (Trejo).  When their next assignment – to kill a man who’s stolen from Chet – is given to them the set up seems a little strange: the man has contacted Chet and given his name and address.  As planned, the pair wait for the man at his apartment, but fall asleep while waiting for him to come home.  When they wake, they find he’s covered them with a quilt and is unsurprised to see them; in fact, he tells them he’s been expecting them.  With the hit already not going to plan, Violet and Daisy decide to just shoot the man and have done with it but when they try – blasting away at where he was sitting moments before – they find he’s got up and made them cookies.

Now out of bullets, Violet leaves the apartment to get some more, leaving Daisy and the man alone.  They start to talk, learning about each other, and a bond develops between them.  The man reveals he’s also expecting another set of killers to pay him a visit as he’s stolen from their boss as well.  They’re part of a rival organisation and when they arrive at the man’s apartment, Daisy stalls them long enough for Violet to return and kill them.  Learning more about the man, and discovering he has terminal cancer, Violet once more leaves the flat to re-stock their arsenal, still determined to carry out their mission.  The man tells Daisy about his daughter, April (Maslany), and his regret over the way his relationship with her has deteriorated.  As it becomes increasingly clear that the man has engineered his death by stealing from Chet and his rival, it’s down to the two girls to decide if this is one hit that shouldn’t be carried out.

Violet & Daisy - scene

The feature debut of the screenwriter of Precious (2009), Violet & Daisy is a singularly adventurous movie that does its best to wrong foot its audience throughout, and maintains a quirky, offbeat charm through its sometimes whimsical script and its trio of lead performances.  The set up is intriguing, and provides a lot of laughs as Violet and Daisy try and get the measure of a man who isn’t afraid of them, or the fact that they’re there to kill him.  While their confidence doesn’t quite desert them, it is undermined by the man’s calmness, and how nicely he treats them.  It’s fun to see the pair heading off to another room (while remaining in earshot) in an effort to decide what to do, their experience counting for little in the face of such cooperation and concern for them as individuals.

This basic premise is fleshed out by the inclusion of the rival killers and the history that Violet has with them, as well as a nosy neighbour, Dolores (Gravatt), and the threat of Chet’s number one assassin (Jean-Baptiste) lurking outside the building (to take out the man or Violet and Daisy is never clear).  The girls’ relationship is explored as well, giving both actresses the chance to provide strong, compelling performances that highlight the disparity between the girls’ feelings about the way their mission has gone awry.  Ronan is superb as always, Daisy’s somewhat gauche behaviour during the early part of the movie giving way to a measured, more emotional response to the situation, her growing liking for the man giving her a confidence that she didn’t have before.  As the initially controlling Violet, Bledel has the more obviously showy role but as the movie progresses, she shows the vulnerability beneath the confidence, and while it would be taking it too far to say their roles are reversed, by the end there’s a balance that actually compromises their working relationship.  And Gandolfini is as artless and affecting as ever, imbuing his character with a quiet determination that perfectly illustrates his need to give meaning to the end of his life.

Fletcher organises his cast and the material with a poise and assurance that belies the fact this is his first director’s credit, and the movie’s mix of violence, black humour and indie drama makes Violet & Daisy a real pleasure to watch.  With top-notch performances, and an unshowy, yet deadpan approach to the situation, Fletcher creates a winning crime drama that has a strong visual approach and features equally strong performances.  The references to the singer Barbie Sunday are probably the movie’s main weakness, giving Violet and Daisy a fairly spurious reason for taking on the job in the first place, and there are a few moments where the humour does a disservice to the drama it’s meant to offset.  But these are minor issues, and don’t hinder the movie at all.

Rating: 8/10 – an underrated gem, Violet & Daisy has lots to offer, and rewards the viewer from start to finish; Ronan and Bledel make a great team, and the movie’s indie sensibility means it provides a fresh take on what could have been a much more straightforward and predictable tale.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

D: Matt Reeves / 130m

Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer

Set ten years on from the outbreak of the ALZ-113 virus, and which has decimated the human population, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with Caesar (Serkis) and his fellow simians having made a home in the woods north of San Francisco.  They have an education system, and a code of behaviour that allows each sub-species of ape to live in harmony; their most important rule is that “ape shall not kill ape”.  Caesar has a wife, Cornelia (Greer), and son Blue Eyes (Thurston); Cornelia is pregnant with their second child.  On a deer hunt, Blue Eyes is attacked and wounded by a bear.  Caesar comes to his aid but the bear is too formidable an opponent.  It’s only when Caesar’s friend Koba (Kebbell) joins the fray that the bear is killed.  With Caesar admonishing his son for getting into such a predicament, Blue Eyes is hurt and upset and begins to resent his father’s attitude.

Later, Blue Eyes and his friend, Ash (Doc Shaw) encounter a human, Carver (Acevedo).  He panics and shoots Ash.  Alerted by the gunshot, Caesar and several other apes rush to the scene.  They find that Carver is part of a small party of humans led by Malcolm (Clarke).  Caesar tells the humans to leave but sends Koba and two other chimps to follow them.  Malcolm and his party return to their base in San Francisco where it becomes clear their fuel reserves are close to running out and their purpose in being in the woods was to find the nearby hydroelectric dam that could be restarted and restore power to the city.  The humans’ leader, Dreyfus (Oldman) is suspicious of the apes and frightened by how advanced they have become.  When Caesar rides in to their sanctuary and tells them he doesn’t want any conflict but will fight the humans if necessary, Dreyfus in turn escalates the tensions the humans already feel, and prepares them for “a war”.

Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to let him and a team – including his wife, Ellie (Russell) and son Alex (Smit-McPhee) – have three days to get the dam running again.  Caesar agrees to help them but Koba mistrusts the humans and fears Caesar is too soft on them.  Again, an incident involving Carver and a gun has Caesar telling the humans to leave but this time Caesar allows them to stay in order to help Cornelia who has fallen sick since giving birth.  Koba, who has been scouting the humans’ compound and is aware of their arsenal, accuses Caesar of loving humans more than apes.  Caesar attacks him but stops short of killing him.  Koba returns to the compound and seizes some weapons, killing two men in the process.  He then returns to the forest where he uses a rifle to shoot Caesar who falls through the tree canopy.  Malcolm’s group run for their lives and in the process find Caesar’s body.  He guides them to his old home with Will Rodman (James Franco), where he begins to recuperate.  Meanwhile, Koba, having made it look like the humans have killed Caesar, attacks the human compound.  Dreyfus and the humans mount a defence but are soon overrun.  Now it is the humans’ turn to feel what it’s like to be caged…

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - scene

The unexpected success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was due largely to that movie’s intelligent handling of its plot and various storylines, allied to some of the most impressive motion capture performances seen since the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  With Rise proving such a formidable reimagining of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it seemed unlikely that a sequel would be as good, but thanks to an equally impressive script – by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver – and virtually a quantum leap forward in mo-cap rendering, Dawn more than holds its own against its predecessor, and does so with a darker visual style and more interplay between the apes.  It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears, the heart and the soul, gripping throughout, with trenchant observations about the (not-so-many) differences between humans and apes, and how mistrust can so easily spawn unwanted bloodshed.

The focus is firmly on Caesar in this outing, his leadership abilities and how they shape his approach to the humans, brought to the fore from the beginning, his memories of his previous life still haunting him.  The movie shows his strength and compassion, matching his awareness of the humans capability for duplicity with his knowledge that, like himself and his extended family, they’re just trying to survive.  Caesar’s matched by the character of Malcolm, two “people” who are able to acknowledge the benefits that can be found in the two groups’ working together; it’s not unfair to say that during the course of the movie the two become friends, and this adds an extra layer of meaning to the cooperation between the two species.  As Caesar says at one point, in respect of Will Rodman, “[He was] a good man… like you.”

The movie pits Caesar and Malcolm against more fundamentalist characters in each faction, with Koba’s animosity towards the humans borne out of the pain and terror he experienced as a lab animal, while Dreyfus sees the apes as the cause of humanity’s destruction.  Neither character has much time for unity or the notion of making peace between the two groups, but they are both passionate in their own ways, even if their actions are potentially disastrous to both groups; that their personal feelings are allowed to sway their actions – in the same way that Caesar and Malcolm are able to generate mutual self-respect and understanding – show clearly, and quite cleverly, that whichever side of the argument characters are on, the similarities between the groups are many.

With this dramatic groundwork in place the movie is free to embellish upon those themes with an emotional layer that acts as an evincive counterpart to the action, and underpins those sequences with simplicity and conviction.  It’s an often delicate balancing act, but again, the script is well-constructed and while the course of events is in many ways as predictable as the flow of a river, it’s the many unexpected undercurrents that are continually surprising and moving.  Reeves, who is already attached as writer/director of the next Apes movie, due in 2016, allows the action to flow organically from the drama of each development in the plot, and extracts excellent performances all round.  He maintains the visual style of Rise while augmenting it with a more subdued approach to the lighting (but then this is meant to be a “darker” movie), and keeps the camera moving in ever more inventive, and unexpected, ways.

On the performance side, Serkis and Kebbell offer truly astonishing performances, making it even more difficult to say that motion capture isn’t a valid form of acting, the two actors’ expressions clearly conveying their characters’ emotions through the digital assembly.  There’s not a single misstep in either of their portrayals, and while Serkis’ innate understanding of mo-cap is as commanding as ever, it’s Kebbell’s performance that is the more compelling, making the traumatised Koba one of the most remarkable, and memorable, characters seen in recent years.  By comparison, the (recognisably) human cast offer sterling performances but have to make more of an effort to make an impact.  Clarke, one of Australia’s best exports, overcomes some perfunctory characterisation to breathe life into Malcolm and make him more accessible than he at first appears, and Oldman does the same with Dreyfus, heightening the character’s paranoid leadership through the sadness he still carries with him over the loss of his family.  In support, Russell is solid despite having little to do, Smit-McPhee is in the same boat, while Acevedo makes Carver’s xenophobia vivid and deplorable at the same time.

If the movie stumbles once or twice – and it does – it quickly picks itself up again and marches on boldly, its intelligence and surprisingly complex take on what it means to be “human” carrying it forward with an almost Shakespearean air of confidence.  The CGI apes fit seamlessly into the forest surroundings, and if sometimes their facial expressions aren’t quite as sharply detailed in medium shot as they are in close-up, it’s a minor distraction (and is no doubt already being addressed for the next movie).  With an even greater threat facing Caesar and the ape community in the future, Dawn serves as notice that science fiction, when it’s as well thought out and assembled as this movie is, can be as compelling and significant as any modern day drama, and just as impressive.

Rating: 9/10 – thought-provoking and convincing in equal measure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that rare sequel: one that complements and expands on its predecessor with accomplished ease; with some knowing references to the original series of films, and a firm grip on what it wants to say, this instalment rewards the viewer on so many levels it’s as brilliant an accomplishment as you’re likely to see all year.

Mini-Review: Ping Pong Summer (2014)

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Ping Pong Summer

D: Michael Tully / 92m

Cast: Marcello Conte, John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Myles Massey, Susan Sarandon, Helena May Seabrook, Emmi Shockley, Joseph McCaughtry, Andy Riddle, Robert Longstreet, Amy Sedaris, Judah Friedlander

On vacation at the beachside resort of Ocean City with his parents (Hannah, Thompson) and sister (Seabrook), thirteen year old Rad Miracle (Conte) makes friends with fellow teen Teddy (Massey), attracts the attention of pretty but wayward Stacy (Shockley), and earns the enmity of older, arrogant bullies Lyle (McCaughtry) and Dale (Riddle).  Rad has two hobbies: hip hop and ping pong.  When Lyle challenges him to a game, Rad loses badly.  Dejected, and with Lyle and Dale picking on him at every opportunity, Rad challenges Lyle to another game of ping pong.  With the help of reclusive neighbour Randi (Sarandon), Rad learns how to improve his game in advance of the match, while also navigating the treacherous waters of his growing feelings for Stacy.

Set in 1985, and drenched in nostalgia, Tully’s love letter to the vacation spot he visited as a child is an often poignant examination of growing up and the pains that go with it.  There’s nothing new here, but Ping Pong Summer deals well with the heartfelt experiences that teenagers have to go through, and despite a shaky start, goes on to become both enjoyable and emotionally engaging.  Tully uses Super 16 film stock to help recreate the look of the times and there are enough references to 80’s culture to anchor the period effectively.  It’s obviously a labour of love for the writer/director, and that shines through in the awkwardness of Rad’s relationships with Teddy and Stacy and the way in which Rad wanders the streets of Ocean City with barely disguised ennui.

This would probably be less interesting in other hands, and it’s thanks to Tully that the performances – despite being fairly low-key – are as accomplished as they are.  Conte is a winning presence, amiable and as socially inept as you would expect while as Rad’s parents, Hannah and Thompson do well with their limited screen time, while Seabrook is memorable in a secondary role.  Massey and Shockley are great as friend and possible girlfriend respectively, while the rest of the cast provide first-rate support.  With a great contemporary soundtrack, Ping Pong Summer is a welcome addition to the coming of age genre.

Rating: 7/10 – Warm-hearted and sincere, Ping Pong Summer benefits from its clear affection for the characters and the time; a little too lightweight over all but able to generate enough good will to see it through.

Poster of the Week – Westworld (1973)

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Westworld

Westworld (1973)

When I first saw Westworld it was on a double bill with its sequel Futureworld when that movie was released in 1976.  At the cinema where I saw them both, there was only the poster for Futureworld on display, so I didn’t see this particular gem until quite some time after.  Given the disparity between the two movies – and an audience that consisted of myself and three others – maybe my hometown’s long-defunct ABC cinema should have gone with this poster instead.

There’s a lot going on here, from the faceless man at the control panel with all its futuristic dials and buttons, to the monitor screens that show images of Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, a saloon, and what looks like the Gunslinger (Brynner), this glimpse of what happens behind the scenes at Westworld is intriguing for its combination of humans and technology, and gives rise to the question, which one is in control?  For standing over the control panel is the Gunslinger, a figure that bears ominous signs of damage and proves itself to be a robot, Brynner’s face slid aside to reveal the circuitry beneath the façade.  It’s an arresting visual conceit, and one that is reinforced by the bullet wound in the robot’s torso, the combination of blood and wiring adding to what is already amiss about the character.

The extended tag line is well constructed too, with its underlining of the word anything, the implication all too clear, and the clever misspelling and debasement of the last word, an expressive augury of what will happen in the movie, and how anything can and will become too terrible to imagine.  It supports the central image of the implacable Gunslinger, and adds a further layer of threat – not that’s it really needed.  And then there’s the title,  bold and expressive in red, cutting across the image with authority, actually drawing attention away from the imagery and the text, the strongest component of a poster that draws the eye to it with calculated ease.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

D:Dean DeBlois / 102m

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington

Five years after the events of the first movie, the villagers of Berk are now co-existing peacefully with dragons.  While everyone has settled into this new arrangement, Hiccup (Baruchel) is still as restless and inquisitive about the world as he’s always been.  While out one day mapping new lands with his dragon Toothless, Hiccup is joined by Astrid (Ferrera) and together they encounter a dragon trapper named Eret (Harington).  He tries to capture the two dragons but Hiccup and Astrid escape; they also learn that Eret is trapping dragons for Drago Bloodfist (Hounsou) who is building an army of them in order to conquer the surrounding lands.  Returning to Berk, Hiccup tells his father, Stoick (Butler), about Drago.  Stoick adopts a siege mentality, telling Hiccup they must prepare for the worst, for Drago is not a man who can be reasoned with.  Hiccup doesn’t believe this, and with Astrid, goes off to find Eret, where they promptly surrender in an attempt to be taken to Drago.  However, Stoick, village blacksmith Gobber (Ferguson) and Hiccup and Astrid’s friends find and rescue them.

Hiccup and Toothless carry on with their search for Drago but are surprised by the appearance of a masked dragon rider, who captures them with ease.  The rider is revealed to be Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Blanchett).  She went missing twenty years before when Hiccup was a baby, and has been saving dragons the whole time, learning about them and keeping them safe in an island haven created out of ice by a giant, alpha dragon.  As mother and son reunite, Stoick tracks Hiccup to the island, while Astrid and friends abduct Eret and get him to take them to where Drago is readying his army of men and dragons, but they are captured and Drago learns of Berk and its dragons.  Stoick and Valka are reunited, but soon Drago attacks the island.  Valka and her dragons put up a strong resistance, but Drago has an ace up his sleeve: another alpha dragon that challenges and defeats Valka’s.  With Drago’s alpha dragon able to control all the other dragons, including Toothless, Drago moves on to Berk.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - scene

Expanding on the original movie’s themes of tolerance and understanding, How to Train Your Dragon 2 once again reveals that the biggest threat in a world full of dragons is Man himself.  With Berk now a harmonious place where dragons are part and parcel of daily life, Hiccup’s search for new lands and new experiences is a neat reflection on the movie itself, a way for the series – part three is due in 2016 – to beef up the drama and bring the wider world and all its complications back to Berk.  By broadening the movie’s horizons, the storyline attempts to become richer and attain a greater depth, and in doing so, rewards the audience at (almost) every turn. The introduction of two new protagonists, Valka and Drago, stops the movie from being a retread of the first movie, and allows How to Train Your Dragon 2 to work as a movie in its own right, while at the same time, pointing the way to a greater, three-movie story arc that has yet to play out fully.  With the reintroduction of Stoick, Gobber, Astrid, Snotlout (Hill) et al – old friends all of them – the mix of the familiar and the new is a (mostly) winning formula.

Of the two new characters, Valka is the more fascinating, an absentee mother who has greater empathy with dragons than with her son or husband.  Her abandonment of Hiccup when he is merely a baby is one of the movie’s more surprising scenes, a moment when a mother’s love for her son is outweighed by her horror at the injustice she sees happening around her.  With this back story fleshed out, the stage is set for some familial conflict, but writer/director DeBlois avoids any emotional confrontations, and instead opts for a reconciliation between Valka, Stoick and Hiccup that tugs very, very effectively at the heartstrings but fails to elevate the drama inherent in such a situation.  (With Valka’s past behaviour all forgiven in an instant, the viewer could also be forgiven for wondering why her absence was so important in the first place.)  In comparison, Drago is the more straightforward character, but carelessly so, his thirst for power so poorly referenced and explained that he becomes just another necessary tyrant for the hero to overcome, an almost stock villain complete with obligatory sneer and sharply angled features.  What could have been an interesting connection – Drago lost an arm to a dragon, Hiccup his foot – is brushed over as soon as it’s revealed, and even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the good that can come from a symbiotic relationship with dragons, maintains his conquering mindset.  It’s all too convenient, poor motivation that preserves the threat he represents, and the need for a large-scale, crowd-pleasing climax.

There’s a lot of rushing in the movie, a hurrying to get to the next scene, the next big animated showpiece, that stops How to Train Your Dragon 2 from being entirely successful.  There is one event that is so unexpected, and so dramatically effective that its subsequent glossing over is close to unforgivable – it would also have made for a better ending to the movie, as well as providing Part 3 with a strong opening.  It should have a lasting effect on several of the characters but instead is shunted aside in favour of the aforementioned climax (which ends the movie predictably and with a complete lack of resonance, despite Hiccup’s upbeat voice over).

In spite of all this, the movie is on the whole, an absolute joy to watch, the animation often breathtaking, and the warmth it carries over from the first movie working completely in its favour.  It’s good to see Hiccup and his friends so credibly older, their teenage years now left behind and their adult lives just beginning.  The animators have aged them well, and it’s a pleasure to be reacquainted with them.  The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is as moving as before, and so too is his emerging romance with Astrid: it’s gently done and handled with great affection.  Their friends all get their chance in the limelight, particularly Ruffnut (Wiig) who develops a major crush on the unfortunate Eret, and there’s sterling work from the sheep.  Back on composing duties, John Powell provides an emotionally rousing score that complements the material with assured ease, and in the director’s chair, DeBlois proves more than capable of helming a movie on his own, showing a flair for, and an understanding of, the material that bodes well for Part 3 (providing he gets someone to co-write the script with him).

Rating: 8/10 – missed opportunities aside, what’s on screen is bigger, bolder, and in places, more beautifully rendered than in the first movie; funny as well – and in all the right places – How to Train Your Dragon 2 may disappoint some younger viewers with its more adult themes, but this is animation of often stunning quality and with a top-notch cast who all know exactly what they’re doing.

Hercules (2014)

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Hercules (2014)

D: Brett Ratner / 98m

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews

Having completed his legendary Twelve Labours, Hercules (Johnson) is now a mercenary for hire, accompanied by seer Amphiaraus (McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Sewell), child of battle Tydeus (Hennie), archer Atalanta (Berdal), and nephew Iolaus (Ritchie).  Together, this motley band of friends in combat are approached by Ergenia (Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys (Hurt), to rid Thrace of a local tyrant called Rhesus (Santelmann).  When they reach Thrace, Hercules finds that Cotys’ army is comprised mostly of farmers with no combat experience, and even fewer martial skills.  Aided by his companions, Hercules sets about moulding the Thracians into an army that will be able to defeat Rhesus’ greater force, and restore peace to the kingdom.

After defeating a force of mesmerised villagers, Hercules is apparently ambushed by Rhesus and his men, but he turns certain defeat into triumphal victory, capturing Rhesus and taking him to Cotys’ palace.  Here, though, suspicions arise that Hercules and his companions have been used in a power play orchestrated by Cotys to seize the Thracian throne, which is rightfully due to Ergenia’s young son, Arius (Andrews).  Unwilling to let this betrayal stand, Hercules sets out to put things right.  He finds Cotys more than ready for him, though, and is swiftly captured.  In chains, and with Cotys threatening to kill Arius if it means his keeping the throne, Hercules must use all his strength and fighting prowess to restore peace to the kingdom.

Hercules - scene

2014’s third Hercules movie – along with The Legend of Hercules and Hercules Reborn – this version certainly boasts a bigger budget and a more focused script than the other two, as well the better cast, but it still stumbles trying to maintain a consistent tone, its Braveheart-lite battle scenes offset by an admittedly acerbic line in humour, a darker back story involving the death of Hercules’ wife and children, and a plot so predictable that you can guess way, way in advance which one of Hercules’ companions doesn’t make it to the final credits.

Adapted from the Radical Comics series The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, the movie does its best to provide a fun, light-hearted romp, but in its attempts to add some depth to a story that doesn’t really need it, it flits from one approach to the material to another without deciding on any one in particular, leaving the movie feeling a little disjointed and formed from various elements that haven’t quite gelled together.  A good example of this is the way in which Hercules’ fame through his Twelve Labours is open to question: did he really do all those things alone, or did he have help from his comrades, and are the tales surrounding these feats mere hyperbole?  Initially, it’s a neat touch: when presenting his patron King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with the heads of the Hydra, they are revealed to be the heads of men wearing serpent disguises; later, his visions of the three-headed dog Cerberus are revealed to have a more banal explanation, but this jarring of myth and reality is one of the few aspects of the movie that are effectively done (and despite a prologue that clearly states that Hercules is the son of Zeus).

Elsewhere, it’s little more than an excuse for much macho swaggering (even from Berdal), and as mentioned above, an often trenchant line in visual and verbal humour, with Sewell given all the best lines and relishing the chance to be the trusted friend rather than his usual role as the shallow betrayer.  Johnson is given occasional moments in which to really act, but for the most part remains a somewhat stoic presence, just managing to overcome the plainly ludicrous requirement of wearing a lion’s head on top of his own.  The largely British cast all treat their characters and dialogue with an awareness of ultimately how silly it all is, and make it all the more enjoyable for doing so, Hurt in particular tasked with switching from anxious patriarch to murderous tyrant in the same scene and yet still keeping it all entirely credible.  And there’s intense support from the Scandinavian contingent, with Hennie almost unrecognisable as the same actor who appeared in Cold Lunch (2008) and Headhunters (2011).

Behind the camera, Ratner oversees things with energy and confidence but there’s still too many moments in the movie where the visuals take centre stage for the effect they create than for what they do in service to the story (the final confrontation on the steps of Cotys’ palace is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and leaves the characters the movie’s spent so much time with reduced to mere bystanders).  Some of this is to be expected – this is an action/adventure movie, after all – but it seems a shame that Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos’s script couldn’t have been more tightly focused on Hercules himself rather than the b-movie plot it fails to enliven or make more interesting.  That said, the movie is splendid to look at thanks to veteran DoP Dante Spinotti, and there’s a stirring score provided by Fernando Velázquez that enhances the battle sequences vividly, and provides some unexpectedly emotive support in the quieter stretches.

Rating: 6/10 – like so many peplum movies, Hercules‘ strongest suit is in its action sequences, which are well-staged even though they don’t offer anything new; a pleasing performance from Johnson may help see in a sequel but at this stage, it might be a few more years in coming – if at all.

Mini-Review: The Other Woman (2014)

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Other Woman, The

D: Nick Cassavetes / 109m

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Don Johnson, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Kinney, David Thornton

When Carly Whitten (Diaz) discovers that her latest boyfriend, Mark (Coster-Waldau) is married, her attempts to move on are hampered by Mark’s wife, Kate (Mann), whose attempts to bond with her leads to their becoming unlikely friends.  When they discover that Mark is seeing yet another woman, Amber (Upton), they enlist Amber’s help in getting back at him.  Despite her initial intention to make Mark suffer, Kate relents and sleeps with him, which causes a rift between the three women.  When Mark takes Kate with him on a trip to the Bahamas, Carly and Amber go along too, giving Kate the opportunity to see that Mark hasn’t changed his ways – they see him with yet another woman – and confirm that he’s been defrauding some of the companies he’s invested in via his work.  They use this information to confront Mark and get Kate a divorce, while also exposing his fraudulent activities to his boss Nick (Thornton).

Other Woman, The - scene

A comedy that relies largely on slapstick for its humour and unconvincing plot developments – Carly really knows Mark’s home address? – The Other Woman is tired almost before it begins, its attempts to be hip, funny, and relevant undermined by a lack of plausible characters and rational dialogue, as well as predictable lashings of girl power.  The movie strives to be clever, but it never quite hits the mark, recycling old romantic comedy scenarios and ending with a showdown that requires Coster-Waldau to behave like a human cartoon.  It’s also a movie that drags in certain scenes, its running time padded out with unnecessary bits and pieces and extended conversations, leaving the women’s final showdown with Mark feeling hurried and badly set up.

Directing from Melissa Stack’s outdated screenplay, Cassavetes directs capably enough but without bringing anything new or surprising to the material, leaving it to pass muster on its own without any support.  Diaz plays Carly with all the commitment of someone filling in before the next, more exciting project, while Mann struggles to elevate Kate beyond stock comedy wife.  Upton has little to do, Coster-Waldau is not as horrible as he needs to be, and Johnson’s role could have been played by anyone, so generic is it.

Rating: 4/10 – another disappointment in the rom-com arena, with no rom- and in dire need of decent -com, The Other Woman is dissatisfying and undercooked; a waste of everyone’s time and talent, and with a particularly ponderous script to reinforce how bland it is.

Speed (1994)

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MSDSPEE FE005

D: Jan de Bont / 116m

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck, Glenn Plummer, Richard Lineback, Beth Grant, Hawthorne James, Carlos Carrasco

When some of the workers in one of L.A.’s high-rise office buildings get into an elevator, they don’t realise they’ve just become hostages in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between ex-cop turned bomb-loving nut job Howard Payne (Hopper) and the police.  With the elevator wired up with explosives, it’s down to maverick cop Jack Traven (Reeves) and his partner, Harry Temple (Daniels), to rescue the hostages, and capture Payne.  However, while the hostages are rescued, Payne manages to escape.

Some time later, Traven is getting his morning coffee and doughnuts when a nearby bus explodes, destroying it, and the driver, completely.  A pay phone rings; it’s Payne, with a challenge for Traven.  There’s a bus rigged with explosives that will be armed if the bus travels at over fifty miles an hour.  The catch?  If it slows below fifty miles an hour, then the bomb will go off, killing everyone on board.  Jack’s mission is simple: to find the bus, get on it and stay with it until Payne’s ransom demands are met.  Once on the bus, Traven’s presence leads to the driver (James) being shot and wounded.  Luckily, passenger Annie Porter (Bullock) takes over from him, and Traven explains why he’s on the bus.  He also manages to alert Temple and their boss Lieutenant McMahon (Morton).  With various obstacles and problems to overcome – a very sharp right turn at an intersection, a gap in the freeway – Traven and Porter keep the bus moving above fifty, while Harry tries to track down Payne.

Eventually, Traven realises that Payne has been watching the bus via a hidden camera all along.  McMahon, with the aid of a local news crew, hijack the signal and overlay a recording of Traven and the passengers sitting quietly on the bus.  With this in place, Traven attempts to defuse the bomb but without success, but he does get the passengers off (and himself) before the bus – now roaming an airport – collides with a plane and explodes.  At first unaware of what’s happened, when Payne finds out he goes to where the ransom is to be left and abducts Annie, heading down into the subway.  Traven goes after him, and while Payne is taken care of, he and Annie have a bigger problem: the train’s brakes aren’t working, and Annie is handcuffed around a pole…

Speed - scene

The surprising thing about Speed is that after twenty years it’s still as exciting as it was on first release, it’s high-concept storyline and mixture of vehicular mayhem with a vivid sense of humour, still hitting the mark, and still an object lesson in how to mount and execute an action movie.  It’s also a small miracle that it was made at all.  Graham Yost’s original script – originally intended for Jeff Bridges and Ellen DeGeneres as Traven and Annie – ended when the bus blew up; the addition of the subway scenes helped get the movie the go-ahead.  John McTiernan was the producers’ first choice for director but he turned them down.  The dialogue was given an almost complete re-write by Joss Whedon.  The scenes shot on the then unopened I-105 highway were filmed around the remaining construction work, leading to numerous continuity errors that appear in the movie.  The producers weren’t convinced about Reeves (especially when they saw his haircut), and wanted a big name actress to appear alongside him; de Bont insisted on casting Bullock.  And the production ran out of money before filming was completed; at very early previews the subway scenes were shown as animated story boards, but thanks to positive audience feedback for these scenes, extra money was found to finish the movie.

And yet, despite all that adversity, Speed is a triumph, a well-oiled adrenaline rush of a movie that rarely lets up, its central section so tightly orchestrated and edited (by John Wright) that there’s barely an ounce of cinematic fat to be found.  The movie is often breathtaking, its propulsive qualities keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat, maintaining an immersive power that makes watching it as exhilarating as if you were on the bus yourself.  Its tripartite structure, utilising various modes of transport – elevator, bus, subway train – is cleverly done, increasing the stakes as the movie progresses (as well as the speed these modes of transport can travel at), and providing each section with a satisfying pay-off (the bus/plane explosion is still one of cinema’s finest incendiary moments).  The famous bus jump – filmed for real even though it doesn’t look like it – is the movie’s big heart-stopper and even now, can get audiences willing the bus to clear the gap.

With all that action going on it would be easy to forget that the movie has a big heart, and can pack an emotional wallop when required – Helen (Grant) trying to get off the bus and ending up under the wheels, the bus hitting the pram (what a shocker that must have been when the movie was first shown) – and there’s also the movie’s often wry sense of humour and quotable one liners: “Jesus. Bob, what button did you push?”; “I already seen the airport”; and “Yeah, but I’m taller”.  It’s an inherently silly movie when all’s said and done, as preposterous an idea as you could possibly imagine, but it works, thanks largely to the cast treating it seriously and playing it straight (verbal quips aside).  Reeves though is horribly wooden, a big thick plank of wood in a tight t-shirt, but he’s still a good fit for the character.  Bullock takes a fairly nondescript role and turns it into a star-making turn, while Hopper, as expected, piles on the ham as Payne, chewing the scenery with barely restrained relish.  Annie’s fellow passengers, from Ruck’s slow-witted tourist to Carrasco’s abrasive construction worker, come in and out of prominence as the script demands, but each actor has his or her moment to shine.  And both Daniels and Morton are as dependable as ever as Traven’s colleagues in the L.A.P.D.

Viewers paying close attention will spot errors in continuity that should rankle, but end up being a part of the movie’s charm, and there are goofs galore including dialogue spoken when a character’s mouth is clearly shut, and Harry’s limp switching from left leg to right leg to left leg, and so on (and then being abandoned altogether when he and his team raid Payne’s home).  But none of this really has any detrimental impact on the movie, and under de Bont’s more than capable direction, Speed sets a high standard that few action movies made since then have come close to bettering.

Rating: 8/10 – for all its inconsistencies and dumb-ass leading character, Speed is a thrill ride – mostly set on a bus – that compels the audience’s attention and rewards it with escalating tension and drama; quite simply, one of the best action movies of the Nineties, and a movie that shrugs off its Die-Hard-on-a-bus premise to provide an experience that is still as exciting as it was twenty years ago.

Poster of the Week – Dracula (1958)

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Dracula (1958)

Dracula (1958)

Hammer Films not only made lurid melodramas and (for their time) sex-driven horror movies, they also produced lurid, sex-driven movie posters.  This poster, for the first in what would be seven movies featuring Christopher Lee as the titular bloodsucker, isn’t as daring as some that would follow, but in its own way it has a disturbing quality that perfectly matches, and complements, the mood of the movie it’s advertising.

First, there’s the woman, lying prone and unconscious, her neck and shoulders exposed, the intended victim who is unaware of the terrible thing that is about to be done to her.  She looks innocent, a perfect contrast to the beast in human form that has her in its clutches, the threat of its vampire fangs clearly visible, his intention equally clear: he is about to defile her innocence.  It’s a horrifying prospect: the woman is unable to defend herself and her fate is assured; she too will become a vampire.

The image has some clever touches.  There’s the bronzed, healthy skin tones of the woman which are in stark contrast to the unhealthy pallor of the vampire’s, his pale(r) flesh revealing another loss the woman will endure once she’s bitten.  And then there’s the proximity of Dracula’s hand at her neck: could it be there to caress her rather than keep her hair away from where he plans to bite her?  If so, this neatly ties in with the movie’s audacious tag line, its bold assertion giving rise to the idea that maybe Dracula wants more than just blood from his victim, that there’s another thrill involved here (they are both lying down); maybe the woman is a willing participant instead?

The warning in the bottom right hand corner is another clever piece of marketing, urging couples to see the movie, to experience the thrills and chills together (and thereby boost the box office).  The principal cast are given prominent billing, the director et al. appearing slightly less important as usual, and lastly there’s the added touch of the reminder that an X certificate movie is for adults only – perhaps as a further hint of the “terrifying love” that they’ll witness within the movie?

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

I Am Divine (2013)

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I Am Divine

D: Jeffrey Schwarz / 90m

Divine, John Waters, Frances Milstead, Mink Stole, Michael Musto, Greg Gorman, Holly Woodlawn, Jay Bennett, Helen Hanft, Tab Hunter, Belle Zwerdling, Rob Saduski, Ricki Lake

In most movie buffs’ lives, there is that moment when they become aware of a Baltimore-based writer/director called John Waters.  And unless that first exposure is one of the five movies he’s made post-1988, or 1977’s Desperate Living, then said movie buff will have also become aware of the extreme force of nature that was… Divine.  In a world where image is everything, and glamour is often very rigidly defined, Divine was the overweight, over-made up anti-hero who shocked everyone with her aggressive nature and perverse behaviour.  She was relentless in her efforts to unnerve and confound people’s expectations, and found fame (if not a fortune) in pursuing that same avenue of expression, and across a variety of entertainment formats.  She was a stage performer, a disco queen, a probable TV star, but most of all, she was – and will remain – a movie icon.

Of course, she was a he, Harris Glenn Milstead, a kid from Baltimore who grew up with a liking for women’s fashions, and a desire to be in movies.  Teased and bullied at school on a daily basis, Glenn was a compulsive eater who never stopped dreaming, despite his weight going up and up and his increasingly feminine tendencies.  An early relationship ended when Glenn discovered the gay scene in Baltimore, and that led to drugs – Waters talks of having LSD “early” in 1964 – and a lifelong use of pot.  But it was when he met Waters that Glenn’s life really changed, and his dreams of being a movie star began to be realised, starting off with an uncredited appearance in Waters’ second short movie, Roman Candles (1966).  It was Waters who saw the potential in the Divine character, and he tapped into Glen’s suppressed anger.  Writing specifically with this in mind, Waters created the first in a series of over-the-top cinematic monsters that would define Glen’s career, and make Divine notorious for her on-screen antics.

With Divine’s celluloid persona duly cemented in place over the course of four wildly degenerate movies – Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974) – she became instantly recognisable thanks to the roles Waters created for her, and also thanks to the look created for her by make up artist and costume designer Van Smith (Glenn’s hairline was shaved back to the top of his head because Smith thought there wasn’t enough room on his face for all the make up that Smith needed for Divine’s “look”).  As a “freak”, Divine took to performing in night clubs and theatres, touring America and spawning an even larger fan base, and leading to a secondary career as a disco star, as well as a stint in the play Women Behind Bars.  Reunited with Waters for two further movies, Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), Divine’s acting ability became more featured, and she began receiving more and more positive reviews.  Sadly, a foray into TV with a guest appearance on the sitcom Married… with Children never materialised: the night before filming, Glenn died in his sleep from a heart attack, his weight and unhealthy diet putting an end to a remarkable life.

I Am Divine - scene

There are several moments in I Am Divine where Glenn talks about Divine as another person entirely, and it’s clear from these moments that Divine is indeed a character that Glenn played, an extension of his own personality (as devised by Waters), but separate from his daily life and expectations.  It’s perhaps the most surprising revelation the movie has to offer, reminding fans or anyone who didn’t take to the character’s outrageous exploits, that being Divine was a job, and one that, most days, Glenn couldn’t wait to put aside.  In various contemporary interviews, he comes across as unfailingly polite, thoughtful, self-effacing and kind-hearted, the complete antithesis of his drag queen alter-ego.  It’s a reminder (not that it should be needed) that the person we see on screen or on stage, is playing a role, and not themselves.

At the heart of the movie is Glenn’s relationship with his mother, Frances, a bit of a glamour girl in her day, but unable to deal with his choices as an adult.  They were estranged for a long time, and the pain of that separation shows clearly when Frances talks about Glenn, her obvious pride in his achievements offset by a regret that they weren’t reunited any sooner than a short while before he died.  Frances talks candidly about Glenn with undisguised affection, and it’s these moments when she’s on screen that give the movie an unexpected emotional intensity.  As his best friend, Waters guides the viewer through Divine’s development from Elizabeth Taylor wannabe to gun-toting mistress of filth, and provides a unique insight into what made Glenn tick.  (In a cinematic sense, they were the movies’ first real odd couple, a depraved Laurel and Hardy doing their best to upset the establishment.  That both men’s sensibilities moved more toward the mainstream and wider acceptance as they got older is strangely comforting; shock and outrage are definitely pastimes for the young.)

I Am Divine brings forward a lot of friends and colleagues and co-stars to talk about both the private man and the public icon, and there’s enough  here to reinforce the image of a man who was larger than life and refreshingly down to earth at the same time.  Some aspects of his later life – his feeling suicidal when he couldn’t find acting jobs, his continued ingestion of marijuana – are glossed over or ignored, but on the whole, the movie is a compassionate, non-judgmental appreciation of a star unlike any other, and who Tab Hunter said was “one of [his] finest leading ladies”.  Anyone looking for a warts n’ all exposé of a star with terrible personal problems that they hid from view will be disappointed, but for those fans who want to know a little bit more about their favourite trash goddess – and thanks to director Jeffrey Schwarz’s skilful handling of the wealth of archive material and contemporary interviews – they will be entertained and informed throughout.

Rating: 8/10 – I Am Divine provides the cross-dressing diva with a heartwarming tribute and, in doing so, heaps praise on the most unlikeliest of stars; once described as “a Miss Piggy for the blissfully depraved”, the man also known as Harris Glenn Milstead would have laughed his filthy laugh, and heartily approved of all the attention.

Joy Ride 3 (2014)

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Joy Ride 3

D: Declan O’Brien / 96m

Cast: Ken Kirzinger, Jesse Hutch, Kirsten Prout, Ben Hollingsworth, Gianpaolo Venuta, Leela Savasta, Jake Manley, Dean Armstrong, Sara Mitich, J. Adam Brown, David Ferry

When a couple (Mitich, Brown) decide to lure someone to their motel room so they can rob them, they put a call out to any nearby truckers who might be listening on their CB radios.  What they don’t bank on is psycho trucker Rusty Nail (Kirzinger) answering their call.  Easily overpowering them, they find themselves chained to the axle of his rig and clinging to the bonnet; if they manage to stay on for a mile, not only will Rusty set them free, they’ll also be okay for coke.  Of course, Rusty has a trick up his sleeve, and the couple die.  When their bodies are discovered, the police put it down to some kind of animal attack, but newbie Officer Williams (Armstrong) isn’t so sure, especially when another officer talks about that particular stretch of highway being called Slaughter Alley, and the high number of deaths and disappearances that have taken place there over the years.

The movie switches focus then to a group of race car enthusiasts planning to take part in Canada’s Road Rally 1000.  Jordan (Hutch) is the lead driver, Mickey (Hollingsworth), the mechanic, Austin (Venuta) the owner of the race car and second driver, Bobby (Manley), Mickey’s assistant, while Austin and Mickey’s girlfriends, Jewel (Prout) and Alisa (Savasta) are also along for the ride.  Realising that by taking Route 17 – the aforementioned Slaughter Alley – will shave a day off their travelling time, the group take the road more dangerous, and even after they receive a warning from resident truck stop looney Barry (Ferry).  While Austin is driving the race car, he overtakes a truck, causing stones to fly up and hit the front of the vehicle.  The truck is Rusty Nail’s and he proceeds to chase them; they elude him however, and continue on to the border.

It’s not long, though, before Rusty catches up with them, and one by one the group fall foul of the angry trucker’s desire for revenge.  As the death toll rises, it’s left to the remaining two people in the group to face Rusty in a showdown at a scrap yard.

Joy Ride 3 - scene

Following on from Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (2008), this latest instalment in the franchise is yet another excuse for gory killings and the liberal spraying of blood and grue.  Brought in to breathe new life into what wasn’t exactly a failing series of movies – do two movies constitute a series? – writer/director O’Brien brings the overwrought bag of tricks he used to successfully exterminate any fun to be had with the Wrong Turn franchise, and uses it to create a movie that resonates more as an offshoot of the Saw movies than as another chapter in the saga of everyone’s favourite road-based psycho (outside of the one in Duel (1971) that is).

With O’Brien behind the wheel (apologies for the pun), anyone who has seen Wrong Turn 5 (2012) will know that characterisation, consistency, credibility and creativity will all be abandoned in favour of Nail doing what he does best: maiming, torturing and killing various poor unfortunates; or basically, anyone who pisses him off (which it seems is just about everybody).  While the set piece killings are this movie’s entire raison d’être, it’s still a shame that the same amount of effort can’t go into developing some characters we can actually care about.  Not one character in the entire movie is worthy of our sympathy or regard, and so, all the viewer can do is struggle through the dreary scenes that pad out the movie between killings.  As each death occurs, it’s almost with a sense of relief that there’s one less individual each time who won’t be around to spout the inconsequential dialogue that O’Brien serves up as either gratuitous exposition or wretched conversation.

It all adds up to poor performances all round, with Hutch and Prout proving more difficult to watch than their co-stars, both actors seemingly unable to pitch an emotion in such a way that the audience will recognise it.  Kirzinger provides the series’ first physical incarnation of Rusty Nail, though O’Brien focuses more on his boots than his mostly obscured features, and “gifts” the stuntman-turned-actor with the kind of quip-filled dialogue that Robert Englund would have rejected/struggled with in his Freddy Krueger days.  That said, Kirzinger is an imposing figure, and is quietly menacing, which does add to the required effect.  Sadly, though, it’s not enough to save Joy Ride 3 from being as derivative and difficult to relate to as any other horror movie sequel.  The killings are as well-staged as you might expect (and certainly not shy about spreading as much gore around as possible), but Michael Marshall’s photography is serviceable and not particularly attention-grabbing.  There’s also some dubious editing, courtesy of Michael Trent, that cripples any tension that might have helped the movie seem a little more accomplished, and a few attempts at humour that fall as flat as a burst tyre.

Rating: 4/10 – disposable and relentlessly disappointing, Joy Ride 3 proves an even worse addition to the franchise than its predecessor; gorehounds will probably enjoy it, but this is a horror movie that runs out of gas in the first five minutes.

Blackthorn (2011)

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Blackthorn

D: Mateo Gil / 102m

Cast: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott

Bolivia, 1927: An old man named Blackthorn (Shepard) writes a letter to his nephew saying that after spending too long in South America, he is planning to come back to the US and finally meet the young man he’s never seen.  Leaving behind the woman who’s shared part of his life in Bolivia, Yana (Solier), Blackthorn sets off on horseback.  Along the way he encounters Eduardo Apodaca (Noriega), a Spanish engineer with a nearby mining company who has stolen $50,000 and is being chased by what appear to a posse hired by the mining company.  Blackthorn agrees to help Apodaca in return for half of the money, and they head for the mine where the money is hidden.

As they make their way there, flashbacks show that Blackthorn is actually Butch Cassidy (Coster-Waldau), believed to have died in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908.  With his partner, the Sundance Kid (Delaney) and Etta Place (McElligott), he travels from the US down through Mexico and into Argentina, where in 1905 he is almost captured by Pinkerton agent Mackinley (Rea).  Later, Ella, now pregnant with Sundance’s child, returns to the States; Butch and Sundance end up in Bolivia where the aftermath of their encounter with the Bolivian army leaves Butch helping a wounded Sundance to escape.

Blackthorn and Apodaca retrieve the money and narrowly avoid the posse.  They return to Blackthorn’s cabin, but the next morning two members of the posse arrive looking for Apodaca.  There is a shootout in which Blackthorn is wounded, and Yana and the posse members are killed.  The two men attempt to flee the country by heading across the Uyuni salt flats and over the mountains beyond.  The posse tries to outflank them; the two men split up and in the process manage to kill their pursuers.  Blackthorn reaches a nearby town and is treated by a doctor.  While he’s unconscious, the doctor notifies a now retired Mackinley about Blackthorn’s presence.  At first, Mackinley plans to have Blackthorn arrested by the Bolivian army, but he changes his mind; he also tells Blackthorn the truth about Apodaca’s theft of the money: the mining company is owned by the mining families, which means Blackthorn has aided Apodaca in stealing from “the people”, something which is at odds with his principles.  He sets out to track down the Spaniard, but is pursued by the Bolivian army and the miners.

Blackthorn - scene

A slow-moving, often leisurely movie, Blackthorn takes a “What if…?” idea – what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in 1908 but lived on, what would he be like, say, twenty years on? – and spends an hour and forty-two minutes still trying to work out an answer to the question.  On the surface, Blackthorn is a handsomely mounted movie that aims for an elegiac feel but instead falls short, its pace so slow at times that elegiac becomes sluggish.  The main problem is that once it’s clear that Blackthorn is Cassidy, the mythic nature of the man is confirmed, leaving his involvement with Apodaca and the pursuing miners something of a letdown.  It’s perhaps more realistic in terms of the time and place, but it’s also less satisfying at the same time.  It’s as if the filmmakers, deciding to bring Cassidy back, then couldn’t come up with a better story to suit the man and his iconic status.

The character of Apodaca is also a problem, his callow treachery entirely to be expected, and Blackthorn’s inability to see through him as believable as Mackinley’s later change of heart.  It all goes to serve a plot that twists and turns in on itself with increasing frequency, the money stolen by the Spaniard proving no more than one of Hitchcock’s famous McGuffins, an unadventurous hook on which to hang the storyline and the action.  Also, with Blackthorn proving such a taciturn and irascible old man, it becomes difficult to sympathise with him as the movie progresses.  Even when he becomes aware of Apodaca’s lies, his reaction is less angry and more slightly peeved, which is in stark contrast to when his initial encounter with Apodaca leads to the loss of his horse and the $6000 in savings it was carrying.  Losing his horse makes him furious; duping him and putting his life in danger, well, that’s not so bad.

Shepard is a great choice for Blackthorn, but the producers decision to cast Coster-Waldau as the outlaw’s younger self, undermines the idea that only twenty years have passed since Cassidy’s “demise”, as there’s no physical similarity between them, and there’s such a disparity in their characters that any sense of regret that Blackthorn may feel at spending so much time in Bolivia seems false by comparison.  That said, Shepard brings a quiet authority to the role, as well as a requisite world-weariness, and is a commanding presence that is sorely missed in those scenes he doesn’t take part in.  As the Spaniard, Noriega is whiny and annoying in equal measure, but has little room to manoeuvre as the script by Miguel Barros doesn’t attempt to add any flesh to the character’s bones.  Rea is a breath of fresh air, his measured performance as Mackinley adding some true depth and pathos to the notion that these two men, once great adversaries, have seen their time come and go, and now deserve whatever peace they can find.

Gil is a capable director, and makes the most of the Bolivian locations, in particular the salt flats which are spectacular, but he falters when trying to find the emotion in a scene, or the connection between some of the characters; only Blackthorn’s relationship with Yana has any degree of conviction or truth to it.  Barros’ script attempts to extract some mileage out of Blackthorn’s age and situation but it often feels forced and unreliable.  Shot with the deliberate look and feel of a Sixties western, Blackthorn looks the part, and it has that Spanish feel to it that is reminiscent of international oaters of the time.  And there’s a great score by Lucio Godoy that evokes the period and the movie’s western antecedents with emotive aplomb.

Rating: 6/10 – not a bad movie per se, Blackthorn still falls short of its ambitions, stumbling through a too simple story that lacks depth and passion; often beautiful to look at, it’s for fans of speculative drama and the great Sam Shepard.

Phil Spector (2013)

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Phil Spector

D: David Mamet / 92m

Cast: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rebecca Pidgeon, John Pirruccello, James Tolkan, David Aaron Baker, Matt Malloy

In the aftermath of the death of actress Lana Clarkson at the home of legendary music producer Phil Spector (Pacino), his defence attorney, Bruce Cutler (Tambor) persuades Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), another attorney, to help with the case and the upcoming trial.  Baden is convinced at first that Spector is guilty and that the case can’t be won.  Her opinion begins to change when she meets Spector for the first time at his home.  Spector’s rambling, paranoid arguments in support of his innocence leave their mark on Baden, and she endeavours to find a way of combating the public’s view of Spector as a “freak”.  She dismisses attacking the victim, or any of the other women who have come forward to claim that the producer also threatened them with a gun at his home.  Instead, she focuses on the discrepancies that she finds in the ballistics report: principally that if Spector did shoot Clarkson by putting a gun in her mouth and pulling the trigger, why wasn’t he covered in her blood?

As Baden persists in her efforts to have simulations of the gunshot entered as evidence at the trial, Spector becomes impressed by her tenacity and places his trust in her and her instincts.  Meanwhile, disturbing evidence continues to be uncovered that points to Spector’s unhealthy interest in guns and his volatile anger.  Baden perseveres with the ballistics evidence but finds that the only way she can introduce it into the trial is by putting Spector on the stand.  To prepare him, she puts him through a mock cross-examination, but Spector reacts badly when shown videotaped accusations of abuse by his ex-wife.  The next day, Spector’s arrival at the trial causes a stir that leads Baden to question whether her decision to let him testify was too hasty…

Phil Spector - scene

Opening with the disclaimer that Phil Spector is a work of fiction based around the true events of the record producer’s trial for murder in 2007, the movie charts what may have happened behind the scenes both with the man himself and his defence team.  It’s a bold, heavily stylised approach, and one that allows for a great deal of conjecture to be indulged in.  Spector’s guilt or innocence is debated but the script by David Mamet never comes down on one side or the other (even if it seems to be saying that he couldn’t have done it because of the lack of blood spatter); instead it presents the evidence that was available at the time, and backs it up with references to the trial itself and how it was conducted.  From this it’s up to the viewer to decide if Spector was guilty or not.

Taking such dramatic licence, the movie could easily be accused of being pure fabrication but it has input from the real Linda Kenney Baden, and so its authenticity is more credibly established.  The nuts and bolts of the defence team’s efforts to find a way of getting Spector acquitted are often quietly intense, and are offset against the more sensational reporting of the trial itself (seen through both contemporary footage and scenes set outside the courthouse).  And then there’s Spector himself, a vain, arrogant, irrational, and lonely figure (as presented here) who may or may not be the real victim.  Mamet’s script allows the man several chances to express his views on the world, and the press, and fame, and his own self-importance, and it’s in these moments that the movie most draws in the viewer, as the apparent depth of Spector’s dissociation from “normal” society is revealed, and the script paints him as too egotistical to fully understand just how his behaviour and demeanour are detrimental to his defence.

It’s a powerhouse performance from Pacino, mesmerising and enthralling, his distinctive vocalising fitting a character who declaims as much as he discusses.  Looking out from under a succession of wigs – including the “tribute to Jimi Hendrix” wig he wore on the day he was due to testify – Spector is portrayed as a man with serious psychological issues allied to an unhealthy disregard for those around him; he only takes to Baden because she believes in his innocence.  Pacino chews the scenery as much as he ever does, but here it suits the larger than life personality that Spector forged for himself, and the actor applies himself to Mamet’s florid dialogue with undisguised glee.  As the quieter, but no less passionate Baden, Mirren puts in an award-winning performance that serves as the perfect balance to Pacino’s more grandiose approach, and in doing so, is so impressive that she steals the limelight from Pacino with ease.  Her no-nonsense attitude and glowering disposition speaks volumes throughout, and Baden’s patience with Spector, and her ability to “manage” him, highlights the sound judgment Bruce Cutler made by hiring her in the first place.  When the two are together on screen it’s nothing short of hypnotic to watch.

The supporting cast flesh out their roles with aplomb, and the recreation of events surrounding the trial is skilfully done – though the lighting is gloomy throughout the whole movie, as if the subject matter is ultimately too depressing to deal with.  Mamet directs his script in a deliberate, TV-movie-of-the-week style that actually seems appropriate to the material, and he cleverly manages to blur the distinctions between what actually happened the night Clarkson died, and what may have happened.  It’s a neat trick, and it makes the movie a more intriguing watch than you might expect.

Rating: 8/10 – an absorbing and unexpectedly gripping account of the downfall of a music industry legend, Phil Spector is sharp, intelligent, and features two hugely impressive performances from its lead actors; at its heart, a powerful insight into how one man’s insularity and overwhelming self-belief can lead to their eventual downfall.

Barefoot (2014)

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Barefoot

D: Andrew Fleming / 90m

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Scott Speedman, Treat Williams, Kate Burton, J.K. Simmons, Ian Nelson, J. Omar Castro, David Jensen

Jay Wheeler (Speedman) is a man with problems.  He doesn’t have a job, he owes $37,000 to a bookie, and to make matters worse, he’s on probation.  When his next brush with the law sees him assigned to community service mopping floors at an L.A. psychiatric hospital, Jay uses his easy-going manner to charm the staff and patients alike – except for sceptical Dr Bertleman (Simmons) who thinks Jay will screw up there just as he has everywhere else.  One day a new patient, Daisy Kensington (Wood), arrives at the hospital.  Jay is immediately attracted to her, but he’s not allowed to have any contact with her.  One night, Jay rescues Daisy from the attentions of another patient; having hit him, Jay knows he’ll end up back in prison and attempts to leave – but not without Daisy who tags along with Jay despite his best efforts to dissuade her.

Having already agreed to attend his brother’s wedding in New Orleans, and having lied to his parents (Williams, Burton) about his work and that he has a girlfriend, Jay decides to let Daisy tag along and be part of “the plan” to hoodwink them.  Daisy, who has never been outside the apartment where she lived with her mother until her mother died recently, has very little social awareness, and is easily stressed.  At the wedding reception she comes under pressure from Jay’s father and has a panic attack.  With his parents realising something isn’t right about Daisy (and her relationship with Jay), a confrontation between them all leads to Jay and Daisy heading back to L.A. in his father’s prized camper van.

As they travel across country, Jay and Daisy’s relationship develops as they try and avoid the police – Jay has violated his probation by travelling outside California, and the hospital authorities view Daisy as potentially dangerous to others (they believe she killed her mother) – and their increasing love for each other prompts Jay to reevaluate his life and turn things around.  But first, he has to get Daisy back to the hospital…

Barefoot - scene

Ostensibly a romantic comedy – albeit a deceptively dry one – Barefoot is a remake of the German movie Barfuss (2005).  It moves at a measured pace that suits the material, and offers the viewer two equally measured performances from its leads.  It’s a movie that treads carefully around the possibility that Daisy may have actually killed her mother, and underplays the seriousness of the plight she and Jay find themselves in while travelling back to L.A. (at one point they’re chased by a police cruiser but make a successful getaway without any other police being involved).  Even Jay’s estrangement from his father, potentially a rich source of drama, is neatly dispensed with after having served its purpose at the wedding celebrations.  Barefoot only makes a real effort with the romance between Jay and Daisy (deliberately named after the characters from The Great Gatsby?).

Fortunately, this is the area in which the movie succeeds the most, and with simple efficiency and a great deal of charm.  As the couple who find they can’t live without each other (even if one of them may be a matricide), Wood and Speedman are a great match, her curious expressions, coupled with wide-eyed amusement at the world she’s only glimpsed via TV, highlighting the naiveté and lack of guile that makes Daisy such an engaging character.  It’s a quietly impressive performance, not too showy and yet not so insular that Daisy lacks depth or is unsympathetic.  Speedman’s performance complements Wood’s, making Jay a good-natured heel who, despite some bad choices, knows when to do the right thing, and knows the value of his relationship and what it’s loss will ultimately cost him.  Like Wood, Speedman keeps it low-key, hitting the emotional beats with quiet intensity, and in doing so, makes Jay’s blossoming sense of responsibility to others entirely credible.

Wood and Speedman are ably supported by Williams et al, and if the script by Stephen Zotnowski opts for secondary characters that often serve as functions of the plot, rather than as fully fledged individuals, then they’re still competently played (Simmons stands out as the doctor who tries to give Jay a second chance).  In the director’s chair, Fleming handles the material well, fashioning an at times offbeat romantic comedy and making a virtue of its lightness of touch.  Even though it’s a predictable journey that Jay and Daisy take together, Fleming still keeps it interesting and draws the audience in with ease.  There’s some beautiful location photography courtesy of DoP Alexander Gruszynski, and Michael Penn’s laid-back score is augmented by the inclusion of songs by the likes of Nick Drake.

Rating: 7/10 – overcoming its lightweight, predictable storyline thanks to two accomplished lead performances, Barefoot won’t get the wider audience it deserves, but those that do find it will be amply rewarded; a treat for fans of romantic movies, and moviegoers in general.

10 Worst Movie Remakes…Ever!

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… (well, 24 May 2014 to be precise) I asked people what their three worst movie remakes were as a prelude to my revealing my ten worst movie remakes.  The response has been disappointing to say the least, but undeterred by this, I’m still going to inflict my choices on everyone (hey, it’s the least I could do).  So, here they are, the ten movies that made me want to go out and kill the people responsible (only kidding – I’d actually make them watch these movies over and over again for the rest of their lives).

10 – Diabolique (1996) – D: Jeremiah Chechik / 107m

Cast: Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, Chazz Palminteri, Kathy Bates, Spalding Gray, Shirley Knight, Allen Garfield

This is the movie that takes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s eerie masterpiece, Les Diaboliques (1954) and drains it of all suspense and tension, leaving little that’s unnerving or scary.  Stone and Adjani are miscast, Chechik appears to have directed with a blindfold on throughout, and that scene is about as frightening as an episode of Mork and Mindy.  Just completely horrible, Diabolique is like watching an old friend on life support and hoping that it’s going to be turned off so everyone can stop suffering.

Diabolique

“Are we really doing this?”

9 – Rollerball (2002) – D: John McTiernan / 98m

Cast: Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Naveen Andrews, Oleg Taktarov

Where the original was set in the near future and had a well conceived political element to it, this farrago of poorly edited action scenes and unsympathetic characters is set in the here and now, and fails to come up with a convincing reason for killing off its competitors.  Klein is completely the wrong choice to fill James Caan’s shoes, and McTiernan directs with all the flair of a disinterested man in a string museum.

Rollerball (2002)

“Okay, let’s play dodgeball!”

8 – The Truth About Charlie (2002) – D: Jonathan Demme / 104m

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins, Ted Levine, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Simon Abkarian, Stephen Dillane

Hitchcock’s Charade (1963) is the movie trampled on here, and like so many other Euro puddings, The Truth About Charlie struggles to create its own identity and ends up looking like an expensive tax dodge.  The real truth is that this should never have been made, and Wahlberg should never be allowed near this kind of material ever again.  And all this with Jonathan Demme at the helm?  What the hell happened?

Truth About Charlie, The

“Tell the truth – does this hat make my head look too small?”

7 – Swept Away (2002) – D: Guy Ritchie / 89m

Cast: Madonna, Adriano Giannini, Bruce Greenwood, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Elizabeth Banks

For anyone who has seen Lina Wertmuller’s vastly superior original, this is like a slap in the face with a handful of live wires.  About Madonna’s casting, Ritchie said at the time, “she was cheap and available”; he forgot to add “woeful and inadequate”.  At least the scenery is beautiful, but it’s the only good thing in a movie that stumbles along like a punch drunk boxer trying to find his way into the ring to fight an opponent who hasn’t shown up.

Swept Away (2002)

“I hope that’s just pilates you’re doing behind that rock.”

6 – The Haunting (1999) – D: Jan de Bont / 113m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes, Alix Koromzay, Todd Field, Virginia Madsen

If there’s one horror film that absolutely, positively didn’t need a remake it was Robert Wise’s sublime, 1963 original.  Shirley Jackson’s unsettling novel was intelligently handled and still sends shivers down the spine over fifty years later.  Under the auspices of de Bont, this tale of the supernatural is an excuse for some lame CGI and the kind of hokey fairground horror that wouldn’t frighten a four year old.  Add in a cast who all look like the real mystery is why they agreed to take part, and the recipe for disaster is complete.

Haunting, The (1999)

Jan de Bont: “Ah, guys, can you all look in the same direction, please?”

5 – The Stepford Wives (2004) – D: Frank Oz / 93m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart

“What that’s you say?  A remake of The Stepford Wives, with that guy who plays Fozzie Bear directing?  And it’s going to be a satire about consumerism rather than a creepy thriller?  Hmmm… let me think about that.”  Even the great cast can’t save this from being underdeveloped, and as funny as a bruise.  Painful to watch, and given the premise, destined to end up in bargain bins everywhere.

Stepford Wives, The (2004)

“What do you mean, Tom Cruise is replacing Matthew Broderick as my husband?”

4 – City of Angels (1998) – D: Brad Silberling / 114m

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Andre Braugher, Dennis Franz, Colm Feore, Robin Bartlett

Hopefully, Wim Wenders hasn’t seen this dreary and endlessly disappointing remake of his modern classic, Wings of Desire (1987), with Cage and Ryan both coasting on auto-pilot, and Silberling abandoning any attempt at sophistication or style (two elements the original has by the bucket load).  Ill-advised and clumsy, City of Angels also manages to make its colour photography look less attractive than the glorious monochrome of the original.  A waste of time, effort, money, and as pointless as hanging a mirror with the glass facing the wall.

City of Angels

“If I stare at it for long enough, hopefully the script will improve.”

3 – Taxi (2004) – D: Tim Story / 97m

Cast: Queen Latifah, Jimmy Fallon, Henry Simmons, Jennifer Esposito, Gisele Bündchen, Ann-Margret

Admittedly, the Luc Besson scripted original isn’t the greatest movie ever made but this version sucks the life out of the material and leaves it lying in the gutter like a blown tyre.  Fallon proves his limitations as an actor begin when he opens his mouth, while Latifah is the least convincing racing car enthusiast this side of Shirley Temple, and the less said about Story’s absenteeism as a director the better.  Even the sight of Bündchen and her “crew” in skimpy apparel can’t compensate for how bad it all is.

Taxi (2004)

“Smell my finger! Now tell me it smells worse than this movie!”

2 – The Wicker Man (2006) – D: Neil LaBute / 102m

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski

Fact: Robin Hardy’s seminal horror movie, The Wicker Man (1973), is an atmospheric, ominous and disconcerting masterpiece that is as effective today as it was forty years ago.  Fact: Neil LaBute’s remake takes its forerunner’s pagan rituals and hedonistic background and replaces it with uncomfortable levels of misogyny and makes Cage’s character too much of a blundering idiot to gain any sympathy.  The end result is a movie that barely works on any level, and proves that talent is no guarantee of intelligence, creativity or success.

MCDWIMA EC008

“On any other day, this might seem unusual.”

1 – The Pink Panther (2006) – D: Shawn Levy / 93m

Cast: Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Henry Czerny, Kristin Chenoweth, Roger Rees, Beyoncé Knowles

Trashing on the memory of one of the greatest comic creations ever seen on the big screen, Martin and friends pull out all the stops in making The Pink Panther look and feel more like The Stink Panther.  With more missed opportunities and lame gags than you’d ever believe it was possible to cram into one dreadful movie, this is the ne plus ultra of movie remakes, a low point for all concerned, and the greatest waste of talent and money you’re ever likely to have the misfortune to watch.  Could it be any worse?  For the answer to that, you’d have to watch the sequel.

Pink Panther, The (2006)

“Oh my God! The reviews are in!”

To sum up, two things seem obvious: if it’s a remake of a foreign movie then it’s likely to be a disaster; and if it’s a remake of an acknowledged classic, then it’s definitely going to be a disaster.  And for anyone bemoaning the lack of more obviously awful remakes, such as the plethora of horror updates made in recent years, they were just too easy as targets (and may have their own list one day).  If I’ve included something that’s a favourite then colour me surprised, but do feel free to let me know.  Now, where’s that copy of Get Carter (2000)?

 

Poster of the Week – Cul-de-sac (1966)

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Cul-de-sac

Cul-de-sac (1966)

This is the Polish poster for the movie, created by Jan Lenica, and is a fantastic example of how Polish graphic designers and artists approached the idea of devising movie posters.  The usual conventions of the movie poster were able to be ignored, or subverted, the projects being sanctioned by the state and the Polish film industry as a whole.  This gave rise to an incredible period of creativity, where the poster became elevated from traditional merchandising tool to (often) complex work of art.

Here, the potent “triangle” of Roman Polanski’s psychological drama is represented by three equally potent depictions of the characters played by (from left) Lionel Stander, Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac.  Stander is the brute, with both fists clenched and a gun pointed at Pleasance, his open mouth signifying anger and savagery.  Pleasance is the mild-mannered, almost blank-faced intellectual, his spectacles and slight frame at odds with Stander’s solid, brutish stance.  And then there’s Dorléac, her figure distorted and emphasised at the same time, facing the two men, her interest in both of them quite evident.  It’s an odd variation on the police line up, and yet tells us everything we need to know about the dynamic surrounding the trio.  There’s also the heart, eye-catching and red in the middle of Pleasance’s chest, a symbol of the love Pleasance and Dorléac have for each other (and this despite the abusive games they play).

The title is given due prominence, the letters seemingly cut out from a magazine or newspaper, and looking like badly cut jigsaw pieces; such an approach reinforces the fractured nature of the relationships, as well as the movie’s frequent shifts in tone.  And the principal cast have their names seemingly dropped into place rather than carefully arranged, this haphazard orientation again underlining the off-kilter essence of the movie.  It all adds up to a wonderful “companion piece” to the movie itself, a startling, original, captivating poster that draws the attention and doesn’t let go.

A Long Way Down (2014)

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Long Way Down, A

D: Pascal Chaumeil / 96m

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul, Sam Neill, Rosamund Pike, Tuppence Middleton, Joe Cole, Leo Bill, Josef Altin

On New Year’s Eve, four very different people find themselves on the roof of a London tower block, and all with the same idea: to commit suicide.  There’s disgraced TV celebrity Martin (Brosnan), shy, apologetic Maureen (Collette), politician’s daughter Jess (Poots), and pizza delivery guy JJ (Paul).  With all of them unable to go through with their plans (and each actively stopping the rest from jumping), the quartet decide to make a pact: that none of them will try to kill themselves until Valentine’s Day.  Later that night, Jess accidentally O.D.’s in a club; with the aid of Jess’s boyfriend, Chas (Cole), the others get her to hospital.  News of their attempted suicides reaches the press and they all become minor celebrities. Martin suggests they use the attention to make some money, and they take part in interviews, and talk shows.  When one talk show appearance goes wrong, the four decide to go away together on holiday.

The trip proves to be yet another disaster, with JJ unknowingly befriending a journalist (Middleton) and further tensions arise when he also reveals something about himself that only Jess knows (and has kept to herself).  The group return to London and go their separate ways (though each in their own way keeps tabs on the others, except for JJ).  As Valentine’s Day draws near, JJ vanishes.  On the day itself, the others find him back on the roof of the tower block, and ready to kill himself.

Long Way Down, A - scene

Adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down takes a serious subject and uses it as the springboard for a sporadically dramatic, essentially lightweight comedy that never quite fires on all cylinders, and has enough awkward moments for two movies, let alone one.  The problems lie in the characters themselves.  Martin’s back story includes time in prison for sleeping inadvertently with a fifteen year old girl, and this is treated largely as an excuse for amusement, with Brosnan mugging for all he’s worth when the subject is brought up.  Maureen has a severely disabled son, Matty (Altin) that she no longer feels she can support adequately, but it’s obvious that she has a really good support network around her so the dramatic elements of her situation never really ring true.  Jess is almost a caricature of every wild child and rebellious daughter of an establishment figure you’re ever likely to encounter, and her sadness over the disappearance of her sister is briefly explored and then forgotten.  As for JJ, his character is the most maddening of them all, with his failed musical background and resulting depression proving hard to sympathise with, or appreciate.

While the movie works hard to flesh out these characters, and make their individual problems worthy of our concern, it’s unable to do so by virtue of their predicament being too artificial for its own good.  At no time in the movie do you really feel that any one of these disparate people really, truly wants to kill themselves, and so any drama in the two rooftop sequences that bookend the movie is immediately eliminated.  And as mentioned above, their individual dilemmas, particularly Martin’s, don’t hold the attention as well, or as much, as they should.  This all leaves the movie lurching from one lacklustre scene to another, its attempts at humour proving occasionally successful, its dramatic approach having no bite, and its supporting characters – from Jess’s dad (Neill) to Pike’s deliberately insensitive talk show host – endorsing the view that the main four characters aren’t that interesting.

As a result, it’s fitting that the performances are as equally uninspired as the movie itself.  Brosnan plays Martin as a bit of a buffoon, good-natured but with an often spectacular misunderstanding of the people around him, his unfortunate “indiscretion” treated like a minor inconvenience blown out of all proportion.  Brosnan’s an accomplished actor but here he seems unable to get to grips with such a poorly crafted character.  Collette has the least showy role, and fares better than the rest, her understated performance as Maureen the nearest the movie gets to providing someone for the audience to relate to; her scenes with Altin are genuinely affecting, but belong in a different movie.  Poots plays Jess as a whirling dervish, snappy and borderline obnoxious, her quieter scenes more convincing than the ones where she’s supposed to be the challenging anti-establishment rebel.  Paul, meanwhile – the predictably token American in the cast – does his best with a role that becomes more and more important as the movie goes on, but he can’t overcome the clumsy way in which JJ is written.

There’s a better movie to be made here, and while it’s clear the material is a challenge, A Long Way Down doesn’t even attempt to play up the more darkly humorous aspects of the group’s situation or elevate the drama inherent in such a premise.  The movie seems determined not to make things too uncomfortable for the audience, to play things down to make them more palatable (and presumably, more box office friendly).  It’s an obvious decision on the part of the producers (unfortunately) but it doesn’t help the movie at all.

Rating: 5/10 – not as dramatic or as funny as it looks, A Long Way Down struggles to be as emotionally involving as it should be; with no one to connect with, the movie loses focus early on and never really recovers, leaving its characters to stumble on until the movie’s predictably feel good ending.

 

 

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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Last Boy Scout, The

D: Tony Scott / 105m

Cast: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Chelsea Field, Noble Willingham, Taylor Negron, Danielle Harris, Halle Berry, Bruce McGill, Badja Djola, Kim Coates, Chelcie Ross, Joe Santos, Clarence Felder

Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) is an ex-presidential bodyguard turned private detective who looks like a bum and is fast becoming estranged from his wife, Sarah (Field) and daughter Darian (Harris).  Taking a job protecting a stripper – sorry, exotic dancer – named Cory (Berry), Joe falls foul of her boyfriend, disgraced L.A. Stallions quarterback Jimmy Dix (Wayans).  When Cory is killed, Joe and Jimmy (reluctantly) team up to find out why she was killed, and who was behind it.  The trail leads to the owner of the L.A. Stallions, Sheldon Marcone (Willingham), and an audio tape that contains a recording of Marcone attempting to bribe an influential senator called Baynard (Ross) into approving a bill that would make sports gambling legal.  When the audio tape is accidentally ruined, Joe and Jimmy must find another way of bringing Marcone to justice.

However, it’s not as easy as they would like.  Marcone’s goons, led by urbane psycho Milo (Negron), are continually trying to either frame Joe or dispose of Jimmy, and their problems get worse when Darian ends up in Marcone’s clutches.  With Senator Baynard agreeing to a $6,000,000 bribe, Marcone arranges for the briefcase with the money in it to be swapped for one that has ten pounds of C4 instead.  With an important L.A. Stallions match coming up, and the Senator in attendance, Joe and Jimmy have to stop the Senator from being blown up, and amass enough evidence to stop the police from arresting them instead of Marcone.

Last Boy Scout, The - scene

Famously known for the price paid for writer Shane Black’s script – a then whopping $1.75 million – The Last Boy Scout is an action movie that combines often sadistic violence with a large amount of drily profane humour, and never once lets the viewer forget how clever it is.  Its plot is paper thin (and a little beside the point), and its principal villain borders on being constructed from cardboard, but it’s the attitude that counts: irreverent, flippant, and yet with a well-developed sense of decency at its core that offsets all the vulgarity and casual mayhem.  (It’s worth noting at this point that Black’s script was heavily reworked by Willis and producer Joel Silver during production; that the movie is as good as it is, is nothing short of a miracle.)

Viewed now, twenty-three years on, it’s aged remarkably well, with only the lack of mobile phones and the Internet highlighting its age (that and the amount of hair on Willis’s head).  The characters may be familiar, but they’re fleshed out by a cast that clearly relishes the whip-smart dialogue.  Willis’s world-weary turn as Joe Hallenbeck (a nice twist on the phrase “hell and back”) is a lesson in how to be laconic and expansive at the same time, and he invests Joe with a no-nonsense attitude that riffs on every other loner hero we’ve ever seen while still making him seem fresh.  Wayans has the more earnest role, but acquits himself well, his comic leanings put aside in order to provide the make the student/teacher dynamic between Jimmy and Joe that much more credible (though he has his own fair share of one-liners).  Willingham is appropriately arrogant and slimy as the villainous Marcone, while Negron oozes an oily menace as Milo, his outwardly refined behaviour masking the soul of a cold-blooded killer.  As Sarah, Field is unsurprisingly sidelined for most of the movie, which leaves Harris unexpectedly brought to the fore in the movie’s final third; she’s more than capable and takes on Darian’s troubled child persona and makes her instantly likeable (if there’s ever likely to be a sequel, it should see Harris reprise her role as an adult and inheriting Joe’s private detective business; it could be called The Last Girl Guide?).

The action scenes are well-staged and include enough twists and embellishments to make them stand out from the crowd, and there’s some sterling stunt work as well.  There’s plenty of casual violence (the scene where Joe warns Chet (Coates), “Touch me again and I’ll kill you” is still a highlight), and it’s all expertly orchestrated by Scott.  The director adds his preference for heavily filtered skylines to the mix, but keeps the attention-sapping, frenzied editing style of his later movies in check, and marshals what could be very disparate elements into a more than satisfying whole (quite an achievement given the production’s notoriously difficult shoot).

Rating: 8/10 – a wonderful mix of caustic humour and nonchalant bloodshed, The Last Boy Scout turns genre expectations on their head throughout and is all the more entertaining because of it; Willis is on top form and and the movie sums everything up perfectly when Joe says: “This is the 90’s. You can’t just walk up and slap a guy, you have to say something cool first”.

Cold Lunch (2008)

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Cold Lunch

Original title: Lønsj

D: Eva Sørhaug / 90m

Cast: Ane Dahl Torp, Pia Tjelta, Aksel Hennie, Bjørn Floberg, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Anneke von der Lippe, Kyrre Haugen Sydness, Birgitte Victoria Svendson, Ingar Helge Gimle, Jan Gunnar Røise

A Norwegian drama focusing on the lives of five people who all live and (mostly) work in the same small section of Oslo, Cold Lunch introduces us to Leni (Torp), a forty-something woman who has spent the majority of her life in an apartment with her father; Christer (Hennie), a young man who can’t pay his rent; Heidi (Tjelta), a young mother whose husband, Odd (Sydness) is controlling and abusive; Turid (Svendson), a fifty-something woman who does her best to live an active, fulfilling lifestyle; and Kildahl (Floberg), whose disabled wife hates and despises him.  When Christer leaves for work one morning and he gets bird poo on his clothes, the “accident” sets in motion a chain reaction that brings these characters into each other’s orbits.

Using the washing machine of the building next door to his, Christer realises his money is in the pocket of his waistcoat.  Unable to open the washing machine, he finds the fuse box and pulls out the main fuse.  As he retrieves his money, Kildahl appears and challenges Christer, who promptly leaves (without apologising for causing everyone in the building an inconvenience).  Upstairs, Leni’s father has been killed as he attempts to restore power to his flat using his own fuse box.  Leni sees his body but does nothing; eventually Kildahl and an electrician visit the flat and find the old man.  In another apartment, Heidi is looking after her infant son.  With the power having been cut off, some of her husband’s clothes aren’t washed or ironed; he gets angry and when Heidi pleads for his understanding, Odd slaps her across the face before leaving.  Nearby, Christer quits his job because the store owner he works for won’t lend him the money he needs to pay his rent.  Odd works for a property management company; he finds Leni at the flat and informs her that her father’s contract for the flat ended when he died, and she must leave within the next two days.  Later, Kildahl is having dinner with his wife; angry with him and her condition she urinates while sitting at the dinner table.

Over the next couple of days, their lives intersect and new bonds are forged, while others are strengthened (or made to endure), and one is curtailed almost as soon as it’s begun, and one more remains unchanged.  Leni learns how to cope in the outside world, Christer gets an offer to join a small crew taking a boat to the Caribbean, Heidi tries her best to become a better partner to Odd, and mother to their son (with terrible consequences), and Kildahl and Turid both take each day as it comes in the hope that their lives will improve in some way, however small.

Cold Lunch - scene

The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  And so it is with Cold Lunch, its characters seeking ways out of their individual predicaments, and not knowing how to find them.  It’s a bleak, unforgiving kind of movie, intent on showing what can happen when we all have a bad day, and the repercussions that, often, we’re not even aware of.  Happiness, the movie seems to say, is fleeting, and by no means guaranteed, even if you work hard for it, or deserve it.  By chance, Leni finds a job but she is still all alone in the world – a scene in a cafe sees her nodding in acknowledgement to a woman at the next table.  When she does it again, the woman is unimpressed and turns away.  Unable to connect with the world around her on a meaningful level, Leni (who appears to be the movie’s one “success” story) will always turn inward for comfort and peace of mind.

Likewise, Christer and Heidi find it difficult to connect with others.  Christer is almost entirely dependent on the people around him but he has a fundamental distrust of everyone.  He has a moment of self-awareness that seems to bring about a kind of personal salvation, but how long it will last is uncertain.  Heidi’s life is even more wretched, her proclivity for self-denial dictating her behaviour at every turn.  She too has a moment of self-awareness (mixed with a burst of self-confidence), but it’s fleeting and she renounces any chance of changing her life almost straight away.  Her future is the bleakest, and has a grim inevitability.  The same can be said for Kildahl, his relationship with his wife entirely one-sided, his attitude toward her more as a parent with a disabled child than as a husband to his wife.  They are both locked in a loveless marriage of co-dependency, and as both are middle-aged, they will continue to make each other miserable for some time to come.  And Turid, whose life, at least, is governed by principles, doesn’t realise just how these principles will continue to keep her alone.

From all this it could be assumed that Cold Lunch is a dark, depressing movie, but despite its subject matter, it’s an oddly positive movie that makes you root for the characters even when you know there’s very little hope for them.  Per Schreiner’s script also has quirky moments of dry humour and unexpected levity amongst all the gloom.  There are good performances all round – Torp and Hennie are particularly effective – and the photography by John Andreas Andersen is understated while also emphasising the bright, airy rooms and outdoor spaces the characters inhabit (which reinforce how alone they are).  Making her feature debut, director Sørhaug shows sound judgment in her approach to the material and alleviates the doom and gloom with carefully constructed moments of hope, along with the aforementioned levity.  At times, she walks a bit of a tightrope in getting the balance right, and there are moments when the movie stumbles under the weight of its ambition – an homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds is clumsily done, and leads to an accident that no one responds to in anything resembling an appropriate manner – but all in all, Cold Lunch is quirky, and oddly affirmative despite its characters trials and tribulations.

Rating: 8/10 – darkly humorous at times, and in a way that only the Scandinavians can pull off, Cold Lunch is not for everyone; too downbeat for its own good at times, it’s nevertheless a movie well worth seeking out and rewards on closer inspection.

Enemy (2013)

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Enemy

D: Denis Villeneuve / 90m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini, Joshua Peace, Tim Post

Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) is an associate professor of history, a little removed from his colleagues and students, but in a relationship with Mary (Laurent), though this has its ups and downs.  On the advice of a fellow teacher (Peace), Adam rents a movie called Where There’s a Will There’s a Way.  That night he watches the movie, but it’s only later that same night that he’s awoken by the realisation that one of the bellhops in the movie – played by Daniel Saint Claire (Gyllenhaal) – looks exactly like him.  Fascinated by his discovery, Adam decides to track down the actor; an online search reveals the talent agency that represents him.  Adam visits the building where the agency is based and is mistaken for Saint Claire.  He receives an envelope that contains a letter addressed to Anthony Claire (the actor’s real name) at his home.  Adam goes there but is too nervous to call at the man’s apartment.  Instead he telephones Claire but his wife Helen (Gadon) answers.

Adam calls again when Anthony is home but the actor tells him not to call again.  Later, he changes his mind and agrees to meet Adam at a hotel.  Meanwhile, Helen, suspecting Anthony is cheating on her, goes to where Adam teaches and briefly speaks to him (though she doesn’t tell him who she is).  Adam and Anthony meet and find they are entirely identical, even down to a scar they both have on their chest.  Scared by this, Adam flees.  Now it’s Anthony’s turn to be fascinated by Adam: he finds out where Adam lives and sees him with Mary.  Anthony becomes infatuated with Mary and manipulates Adam into letting him take Mary away overnight.  Adam goes to Anthony’s apartment and stays there until  Helen arrives home, and as the evening progresses, the two couples’ lives become inextricably entwined…

Enemy - scene

Right from the start, with its opening scene set in an underground sex club, Enemy lets its audience know that it’s not going to be the type of psychological drama/thriller where things are explained too easily.  That scene, with its ritualised stage show, serves as an introduction to the wider mystery that envelops Adam, and yet it remains frustratingly unexplored (though it is referred to later on in the movie).  For the casual viewer, frustration is the one constant the movie cleaves to, as scene after scene fails or refuses to give an explicit reason for what’s happening; very little can be accepted or relied upon at face value.  Enemy is a movie where inference and supposition will only get the viewer so far, and where the plot’s strange twists and turns only serve to make things more convoluted and disorienting.

And while some might find this counter-productive in terms of getting the most out of the movie, ultimately it enhances the experience, with director Villeneuve’s decision to make some scenes completely enigmatic while lacing others with complex misdirection, adding to the sense of unease that the movie builds up.  It’s an accomplished piece of deconstruction, removing key elements that most other movies would rush to include in order to make things easier for the audience.  Here Villeneuve avoids any attempt at clarity, and by doing so, creates a deceptively elegant, thought-provoking movie that rewards more and more with each repeat viewing.

He’s aided by an impressively layered script by Javier Gullón (adapted from the novel, The Double, by José Saramago), that makes a virtue of ambiguity and provokes as many questions as can be reasonably squeezed into ninety minutes.  It’s a delicate balancing act, providing just enough information to keep the viewer intrigued and baffled at the same time, while choosing to reveal very little through either characterisation or dialogue (unless you’re paying very close attention).  Between them, Gullón and Villeneuve have designed a movie that defies conventions and exceeds expectations with a great deal of audacity and artistic brio.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the participation of Gyllenhaal, who excels as Adam and Anthony, his performances so finely attuned to the material that he doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout, whether he’s required to play nervous and scared (Adam) or confident and predatory (Anthony).  It’s his finest role to date, and proof (if any were needed) that he is one of the best actors around today.  He’s ably supported by Laurent in a role that appears to be underwritten but which fits perfectly with the storyline, and Gadon (also seen in Belle), whose portrayal of Anthony’s loyal but emotionally scarred wife matches Gyllenhaal’s performance for intensity and poignancy.

The look of the movie (bearing in mind it’s set in Toronto) is suitably chilly, and the colour scheme – a mix of dark browns and greys – complements the often oppressive nature of the storyline, and the movie’s sense of impending doom.  There’s also a fantastic, unnerving score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jauriaans that is both portentous and imposing at the same time, adding a dark undercurrent to proceedings that is strikingly effective.  Technically daring, Enemy succeeds by grounding its ambiguous, sometimes fantastical, storyline and plot in a world where the mystery surrounding Adam and Anthony can be perceived as both rational and weird… and it still works.

Rating: 9/10 – a modern classic, precisely assembled and without an ounce of cinematic fat to it, Enemy is a psychological thriller that mesmerises with ease and ends with a visual punch to the gut that you definitely won’t see coming; the first of (hopefully) many more remarkable collaborations between Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal, and deserving of a much wider audience.

Mini-Review: The Panther’s Claw (1942)

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Panther's Claw, The

D: William Beaudine / 70m

Cast: Sidney Blackmer, Rick Vallin, Byron Foulger, Herbert Rawlinson, Lynn Starr, Barry Bernard, Gerta Rozan, Joaquin Edwards, John Ince, Martin Ashe, Frank Darien, Billy Mitchell

When gauche wigmaker Everett P. Digberry (Foulger) is discovered leaving a cemetery at one in the morning, it’s not long before the extortion plot he’s mixed up in leads to murder.  Having been sent a letter demanding he leave $1000 in the cemetery, it transpires that similar letters have been received by members of the New York Opera Company (or Gotham Opera Company if you read the headlines); Digberry has a connection to the company in that he provides the wigs for their productions.  The case is taken up by the police commissioner, Thatcher Colt (Blackmer), but his search for an extortionist who signs his letters with the footprint of a panther points increasingly to Digberry being the culprit behind it all.  And then one of the members of the opera company is found dead, and it appears that Digberry is guilty of that crime as well.  Is Digberry a cunning criminal mastermind, or is he being set up?

Panther's Claw, The - scene

Another quickie from low-budget movie factory Producers Releasing Corporation – the third and last movie to feature Anthony Abbot’s fictional detective, Thatcher Colt – The Panther’s Claw is a convoluted tale, with twists and turns galore and a large dash of playful humour, held together by Foulger’s dazed, nervous performance and a confidence in the material that helps move things along swiftly.  Foulger is effectively the lead and is afforded a lot of screen time, leaving Blackmer to sit back and appear knowing and debonair at the same time.  There’s able support from the rest of the cast, including Rawlinson as an impatient District Attorney looking to convict Digberry because it’s an election year, and Edwards as the kind of hammy opera singer with a drink problem that’s almost a caricature by modern standards.

Beaudine’s direction is as briskly efficient as ever, and while the sets are of the usual “bare bones” quality and the camerawork as bland and uninspired as you might expect, the movie has an energy and a surprising sense of its own silliness (which it embraces).

Rating: 6/10 – an offbeat, entertaining production from PRC that is better than most of their output from the period; Blackmer is a great replacement for Adolphe Menjou, and the mystery elements add to the fun.

 

Endless Love (2014)

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Endless Love (2014)

D: Shana Feste / 104m

Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Gabriella Wilde, Bruce Greenwood, Joely Richardson, Robert Patrick, Rhys Wakefield, Dayo Okeniyi, Emma Rigby, Anna Enger

Jade Butterfield (Wilde) is a quiet, studious teenager just graduated from high school.  She hasn’t made many friends, but she has caught the attention of David Elliot (Pettyfer).  He catches her eye at their graduation ceremony, and so begins a tentative romance made awkward by the difference in their social standing.  Jade’s father, Hugh (Greenwood) is an eminent surgeon; David’s father, Harry (Patrick) has an auto shop in town.  Jade is due to take up a medical internship in two weeks and follow in her father’s footsteps; David wants to follow in his father’s footsteps too – each has a sense of familial duty that’s important to them.  When Jade decides to hold a party for everyone in her year, it’s only David who turns up.  With help from his friend, Mace (Okeniyi), David manipulates their high school friends into attending.  Jade and David realise their attraction for each other, and Hugh becomes aware of this as well.  He’s not happy about it, though, and does his best to stop any relationship before it begins.

Despite his best efforts, Jade and David spend more and more time together.  They’re so passionate about each other that Jade decides not to leave to begin her internship, and instead opts to spend the rest of the summer with David.  When she tells her father this he reacts by forcing her to join him and the rest of the family – mum Anne (Richardson), brother Keith (Wakefield) and his girlfriend, Sabine (Enger) – on a trip to their lakeside summer home.  Jade retaliates by inviting David along.  Her father continues his enmity toward David and learns he has a history of violence.  When Jade and David run into Mace and David’s ex-girlfriend Jenny (Rigby), they’re persuaded to go with them to a zoo after it’s closed.  When Jenny (who still harbours hopes of winning David back) sees how Jade means to him, she calls the police and rats them all out.  When the police arrive, David draws them away from everyone else, but is arrested.

Jade expects her dad to help get David out of jail but he refuses and he tells her about David’s violent past.  Seeing how important David is to her, Hugh relents and gets David sprung from jail but they argue and David knocks Hugh to the ground.  When she confronts David about it, it leads to her being in a car accident.  Later, at the hospital, Hugh tells Harry he’s taken out a restraining order to keep David from coming within fifty feet of Jade.  With their relationship apparently over, Jade leaves for college and begins seeing a fellow student.  David meanwhile, stays at home, until a chance encounter with Anne leads to the realisation that, restraining order or not, he has to see Jade and win her back.

Endless Love - scene

The second adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel, Endless Love is endlessly sappy, and endlessly derivative of just about every other teen romance you’ve ever seen (viewers unaware of the movie’s literary origin could be forgiven for thinking they’re watching another Nicholas Sparks adaptation).  David only has to glance in Jade’s direction and she’s instantly smitten, her years of social and personal reserve dumped by the wayside in a matter of seconds.  She also turns out to be quite the hussy, acting provocatively and kittenish around David until the night she decides it’s time they should take things to the “next level”.  Throughout this period of getting to know each other, it becomes clear that Jade is the subtly demanding modern princess, and David the noble savage she has ensnared.  It’s an interesting take on the standard roles you might expect from the scenario quoted above, but it’s abandoned as soon as the script requires Hugh to take centre stage and amp up the villainy needed to give the story some actual bite.

Of course, Hugh is meant to be a misunderstood, over-protective father (more so in the wake of the recent death of Jade’s other brother, Chris), but as Jade and David are staple characters in this kind of thing, so too is Hugh that other staple of the romantic drama, the man that David has to wrest Jade away from.  Sadly, the script tries to give Hugh some depth, and has him vacillate over whether to welcome David with open arms or closed fists.  With Greenwood required to leap both ways – often in the same scene – and on more than one occasion, Hugh becomes a bit of a distraction, but unfortunately a necessary one, as leading thesps Pettyfer and Wilde have their work cut out for them making their characters worth spending time with in the first place.  It’s not their fault, it’s just that Jade and David are about as exciting to watch as those airplane safety videos.  Once they’ve had sex, their story heads for their inevitable falling out with all the haste of a marathon runner intent on reaching the next water station.

If there’s anything about Endless Love that isn’t dispiriting it’s the performance of Richardson; she at least recognises the paucity of the drama on offer and adapts her depiction of Anne’s unhappiness accordingly.  Whenever she’s on screen the movie seems to improve just by having her there.  The same can’t be said of Pettyfer, who looks uncomfortable throughout, while Wilde seems intent on doing the bare minimum required to  make her dialogue sound just this side of reasonable.  Both actors are more than capable but here they seem unable to raise their game and defeat the shopworn elements that make up writer/director Feste’s lukewarm script.  Her direction is unfortunately quite pedestrian and the movie lacks a definitive visual style that might have lifted it up a little.  With a soundtrack that offers songs as indicators of the emotional content on screen (like Cliff notes, but with added harmonies), Endless Love has the feel of a movie that had better intentions than those that were actually delivered.

Rating: 4/10 – bland, and with plot developments that are signposted in bright neon lights, Endless Love is a remake that probably sounded like a good idea at the time; however, the finished product is a salient reminder that not every “good” idea should be acted upon.

Poster of the Week – The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

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Titfield Thunderbolt, The

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

There have been many memorable Ealing film posters over the years, and to pick just one of them for appraisal might seem foolish or a little mad, but the poster for The Titfield Thunderbolt has a distinction that marks it out from the rest: this poster was the work of English artist Edward Bawden (1903-1989) (you can see his name near the bottom right hand corner).  It’s a wonderfully colourful, vibrant work, full of marvelous detail that’s been done in an almost offhand, cavalier way, its broad brush strokes complimenting the more finely worked details.  The mix of the main colours – blue, red, orange, yellow – creates a warm, inviting glow that seems able to spread beyond the confines of the poster itself, giving the illusion that the train could actually move out from the station.

The graphics are eye-catching as well, issuing from the smoke like messages, giving pride of place to the title, then surrounding it with the names of the principal cast (and if you were a moviegoer in the early Fifties, wouldn’t you want to go and see a movie with that cast in it?).  It’s funny too, to observe the creative minds behind the movie being practically squeezed in at the end of the smoke trail, director Charles Crichton, producer Michael Truman, and screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke added in but with their names reduced in size compared to the (much more important) stars.

But it’s still the imagery that draws the attention, from the clever little details – the dog collars on the train driver and stoker, the towing chain at the front of the train, the Xmas cracker style of the smokestack – to the rudimentary background elements (dog, church etc.), to the happy, waving people on the platform, their sense of pride in the train clearly evident.  And the train itself is a terrific representation, a product of a bygone age given a new lease of life in the movie, and in the poster, shown as the principal character, a vital, much-loved piece of living machinery that will transport the viewer to wherever they want to go.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)

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Angriest Man in Brooklyn, The

D: Phil Alden Robinson / 92m

Cast: Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Chris Gethard, Bob Dishy, Isiah Whitlock Jr, James Earl Jones, Richard Kind, Daniel Raymont

Henry Altmann (Williams) is having a bad day.  He’s on his way to a doctor’s appointment when his car is hit by a taxi.  Being the angry man that he is, Henry antagonises the taxi driver (Raymont) who drives off.  Meanwhile, junior doctor Sharon Gill (Kunis) is on her way to work, and feeling sad over the death of her cat.  Sharon is standing in for Henry’s usual physician, Dr Fielding.  When Henry gets to his appointment and is then kept waiting for two hours, and Sharon walks in instead of Dr Fielding (an uncredited Louis C.K.), Henry blows a(nother) gasket.  Sharon does manage to tell Henry that the result of a recent test he’s had shows that he has a brain aneurysm and that his life expectancy is uncertain.  Unimpressed by this, Henry bullies Sharon into giving him a timescale.  Flustered, and just to get Henry off her back, Sharon tells him ninety minutes.

Henry leaves the hospital.  He decides to spend his ninety minutes trying to tell his family – brother Aaron (Dinklage), ex-wife Bette (Leo), and son Tommy (Linklater) – that he loves them, but this is easier thought of than done.  Henry’s anger has alienated him from everyone, so when he tries calling them they don’t take or return his calls.  Back at the hospital, Sharon tells a colleague, Dr Reed (Gethard), what happened with Henry.  He tells her she has to find him and put things right.  While Henry attempts to put things right himself, Sharon tries to track him down but keeps missing him, enlisting the help of Aaron and Bette in her efforts.  Having tried his best with his brother and ex-wife, Henry is now hell-bent on seeing Tommy, with whom he has unresolved issues over Tommy’s choice of career.

Angriest Man in Brooklyn, The - scene

A remake of the Israeli movie Mar Baum (1997), The Angriest Man in Brooklyn jettisons that movie’s religious overtones and more “racy” content, for a somewhat distant and unremarkable look at a man for whom no slight should be ignored without ranting about it first.  Henry is a man who shouts first and has no intention of asking questions later, a bully who thinks it’s okay to castigate people for ruining his day.  As the movie’s main protagonist Henry is a thoroughly dislikable character; when he’s told about the aneurysm, chances are the audience will be cheering, so objectionable is he.  But the movie can’t sustain such a premise, and as the story unfolds, Henry’s attempts to reconcile with his family show a softer, less antagonistic side to his nature.  But then the movie remembers what it’s called, and once more Henry vents his spleen in ways that are neither funny or understandable.  It’s a problem the movie never quite overcomes: should Henry remain a curmudgeon until the end, or should he see the error of his ways?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because the script by Daniel Taplitz combines with Robinson’s leaden direction to create a movie where the actors are about as convincing as a cat conducting an orchestra.  The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is advertised as a comedy first and a drama second, but the humour is forced and the drama is undercooked, leaving the audience wondering if they were meant to root for Henry as some kind of underdog, or even Sharon, as she’s ostensibly a good person.  Sadly, neither is possible, as both characters are shallow to the point of being puddles, and possess all the fascination of navel lint.

It’s actually difficult to say just how bad this movie is.  There’s not one honest moment in the whole movie, not one moment that the viewer can relate to or empathise with, such is the ponderous, tired approach to the material.  Robinson, who gave us the sublime Field of Dreams (1989), seems to have no clue as to how to set up even the simplest of scenes, and some appear as if they’re filmed rehearsals rather than the finished item.  It’s also an incredibly cheap looking movie (highlighted by Henry’s walk across some girders on the Brooklyn bridge), and has all the visual appeal of a low-budget TV mystery of the week.

As mentioned above, the cast fail to bring anything remotely interesting to relieve the dullness of the enterprise.  Williams is a fine dramatic actor, but here he coasts along, investing Henry with the bare minimum of pathos, and never once making him sympathetic (even when the script tries to make him so).  Kunis is just as dilatory, endowing Sharon’s predicament with all the emotional resonance attendant on tracking down some kitty litter (hang on, no, she doesn’t need any, does she?).  Dinklage and Leo do just enough to avoid being tedious, while Linklater (Williams’ co-star in the short-lived TV show The Crazy Ones) sports the expression of someone whose just realised his career may be stalling before it’s even begun.

Rating: 3/10 – incredibly dull throughout, and unrewarding beyond measure, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn should be retitled The Man Whose Aneurysm Didn’t Kill Him Quickly Enough; a career low point for most everyone concerned (Williams still has Patch Adams (1998) and Bicentennial Man (1999) on his résumé), and not even worth a watch to see if it is as bad as it looks.

They Came Together (2014)

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They Came Together

D: David Wain / 83m

Cast: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Max Greenfield, Ed Helms, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Ian Black, Teyonah Parris, Lynn Cohen

At a restaurant one evening, two couples – Joel and Molly (Rudd, Poehler), and Kyle and Karen (Hader, Kemper) – get to talking about how Joel and Molly got together.  Their answer: that it was like “a corny, romantic comedy kind of story”.  Molly was getting over the break up of a relationship, while Joel had just found out his long-time girlfriend Tiffany (Smulders) was cheating on him with a work rival (Black).  Cajoled into going to a Halloween costume party by friends, Joel and Molly literally bump into each other on the way, and an instant antipathy is born.  They bicker throughout the party, and Joel is unkind about Molly who overhears what he says; she walks out.  Some time later, they see each other again in a bookstore, and their mutual love of fiction brings them together.

They go for coffee, Molly introduces Joel to her son, Tucker (Skylar Gaertner), and both discover they have a (kind of) mutual connection through their work: Molly has an independent candy store, while Joel works for Candy Systems & Research, a candy store mega-company that is looking to put Molly out of business by building one of their stores directly opposite hers.  They fall in love but things don’t work out between them, and they split up.  Joel takes back Tiffany, while Molly begins dating Eggbert (Helms), her accountant.  Time passes.  Joel realises he doesn’t want to be with Tiffany and dumps her; at the same time Molly is all set to marry Eggbert.  Joel races to the stop the wedding but he’s too late: Molly has left Eggbert standing at the altar.  Joel tracks her down and declares his love for her.  Molly and Joel are reunited, and this brings their story full circle with Kyle and Karen… albeit with a twist in the tale.

They Came Together - scene

From the outset, They Came Together is not your typical romantic comedy.  It takes the standard format of the genre – boy meets girl, boy loses girl due to silly row/misunderstanding/mistake, boy gets girl back again, they both live happily ever after – and messes with that formula to its heart’s content.  In many ways, the movie plays like a straightforward rom-com but director Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter are far more interested in playing fast and loose with the format to let a little thing like fidelity get in the way.  Indeed, the movie lets the audience know  from the start that this will be a story told with a knowing wink and a nod, and it gleefully tramples all over all kinds of genre conventions: Molly’s parents prove to be white supremacists; Tiffany’s return is predicated on her not being able to be faithful to Joel – and telling him; and Joel and Molly’s first night together sees them fall into bed kissing for all they’re worth, only for them to be shown the next morning fast asleep and fully clothed but with their lips still locked together.

In its efforts to be both clever and outrageous, They Came Together – unsurprisingly – is very much a hit-and-miss affair.  There’s a fair degree of subtlety as well, but it’s often lost amongst the more uncomfortable, gross-out moments (Joel’s sudden attraction for his grandmother (Cohen) is a case in point, though it does go somewhere that’s completely unexpected).  When it sticks to poking fun at the often sappy nature of romantic comedies (and some romantic dramas for that matter), the movie is funny, charming, and pitch perfect.  When it’s out to claim ground from movies such as American Pie (1999) or Bachelorette (2012), it doesn’t fare as well.  It’s a shame because when it is gently skewering those staple ingredients, They Came Together is relentlessly inventive and downright hilarious.

Wain movie regular Rudd, along with Poehler, are a great choice as the cute couple, sparking off each other’s performances and expertly grounding the more extreme aspects of the script.  Rudd is an old hand at this kind of material, and while Poehler’s big screen outings consist largely of voice work, here she invests Molly with a kooky warmth that complements Joel’s often confused naiveté.  In support, Meloni as Joel’s boss Roland demonstrates what not to do when needing a crap and wearing a superhero costume with an unreachable zip, Smulders plays Tiffany as a self-aware bimbo who isn’t all she seems (which leads to the movie’s most unexpected, and brilliantly surreal, moment), and Helms is both unctuous and creepy as Eggfart (sorry, Eggbert).  There are a number of cameos in the movie’s last twenty minutes – one of which leads to a wickedly hysterical (and unfortunate) encounter with a policeman – and there’s a musical interlude featuring Norah Jones that breaks so many “fourth walls” it’s frightening and ingenious at the same time.

Overall, They Came Together is an enjoyable, wacky deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre, blackly humorous in places, dubiously amusing in others, but always entertaining.  Wain and Showalter’s story may run out of steam two thirds in, but they rescue things for a flat out funny finale that encapsulates almost every rom-com cliché you can think of (including one stupendously silly sight gag).  And things are left wide open for a potential sequel: They Came Together Again anyone?

Rating: 7/10 – when it’s funny it’s a riot, but They Came Together stumbles too often to be completely successful; even so, it’s joke to laughter ratio is pretty high, and with this much effort involved, the movie qualifies as a guilty pleasure anyone can be proud to admit to.

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

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New Tale of Zatoichi

Original title: Shin Zatôichi monogatari

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 91m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Mikiko Tsubouchi, Seizaburô Kawazu, Fujio Suga, Yutaka Nakamura, Mieko Kondô, Tatsuo Endô, Kanae Kobayashi

Following on from the events of The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), New Tale of Zatoichi sees the blind masseur returning to his home village, there to find some peace after the showdown with his brother, Yoshiro.  Zatoichi (Katsu) is in a melancholy mood, and as reluctant to fight as ever, but it’s not long before he’s challenged by Yasuhiko (Suga), the brother of Boss Kanbei, who Zatoichi killed in the previous movie.  They fight, but it’s interrupted by the appearance of Zatoichi’s sensei, Master Banno (Kawazu).  Banno makes Zatoichi a guest at his training school, and introduces him to his younger sister Yayoi (Tsubouchi); she is meant to marry a samurai called Mooroke but has no love for him.  Her brother, meanwhile, is conspiring with a band of thieves called the Mito Tengo.  They plan to kidnap the son of a local businessman and hold him to ransom.

A bond develops between Zatoichi and Yayoi, one that leads to her falling in love with him.  She asks that he marry her and after confessing his past sins to her, and being forgiven for them, Zatoichi agrees and tells her he will renounce his old ways, including his sword fighting, in order that they might have a peaceful life together.  At that moment, Yasuhiko calls on Zatoichi to finish their duel.  He begs for mercy, leading Yasuhiko to devise an alternative plan for settling the issue between them: a throw of the dice – if Yasuhiko wins, Zatoichi will lose his right arm.  Zatoichi does lose, but Yasuhiko takes pity on the couple and lies about the result.  Later, Yayoi tells Banno of her love for the blind masseur, but her brother rejects her entreaties and tells Zatoichi to leave.

The kidnapping goes ahead as planned but Zatoichi becomes aware of Banno’s involvement, as does Yayoi.  He saves the businessman’s son, and faces off against the Mito Tengo.  He must then face Banno, knowing all the while that it will mean the end of his relationship with Yayoi.

New Tale of Zatoichi - scene

The third entry in the series, New Tale of Zatoichi retains the usual themes of betrayal and redemption, and adds the prospect of a romantic, settled future for our wandering hero.  If this had been the last in the series, such an ending might have been entirely appropriate, but the increasingly rootless nature of Zatoichi’s existence precludes such a conclusion (that and the success of the series so far).  He’s a tragic figure, always seeking a peaceful existence but doomed to a life of violence.  He’s also increasingly unlucky, both in love, and with his closest male relationships: first his brother betrays him, then his sensei.  With Fate proving so ineluctable, Zatoichi can only struggle on, hoping that his continued loneliness will eventually come to an end (though his love for Yayoi appears to be the closest he’ll come to achieving that).  It’s the kind of depth you don’t often find in a long-running series, and the fact that the makers have strived to maintain these themes throughout the series so far, is refreshing to watch.

Of course, such a wonderful character needs a wonderful actor, and once again Katsu puts in an incredible performance, his tender, compassionate nature seemingly at odds with his more aggressive abilities, but combining to paint a portrait of a man whose dual nature makes him so fascinating to watch.  It’s a beautifully modulated achievement, the quiet power of his scenes with Tsubouchi holding the audience’s attention like a vice, their characters’ mutual desire for happiness – against all the odds – breathtaking in both its painful longing and its simplicity.  That a movie which is essentially known for its fight scenes and good versus bad scenario can take the time to focus on its main character’s attempts to find joy, and make those scenes even more gripping than the rest, is truly impressive.

The first in the series to be filmed in colour, New Tale of Zatoichi doesn’t opt for a bright, colourful palette but settles instead for a dark-hued colour scheme that befits the subdued, sober approach to the material.  (In comparison with the first two movies, which were shot in dazzling black and white, this entry doesn’t look half as good.)  Behind the camera, director Tanaka retains many of the visual motifs used before, and encourages good performances from all concerned, especially Tsubouchi as Banno’s tender-hearted sister, the scene where she declares her love for Zatoichi demonstrating her skill at portraying someone whose yearning for happiness means everything.  Suga too gives a good portrayal of a vengeful samurai out-manoeuvred by love.  And there’s a terrific score by Akira Ifukube that complements both the emotional and the dramatic scenes, and is consistently rewarding.

Rating: 8/10 – another beautifully realised entry in the series, and one that reconfirms the care and attention that goes into each movie; more emotionally powerful than the first two movies, New Tale of Zatoichi takes its time with its characters, and this care pays off in dividends making the movie that rare beast: a second sequel that is as good as its predecessors.

Clowne (2014)

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Clowne

D: Jarand Breian Herdal / 34m

Cast: Henrik Plau, Ina Maria Brekke, Philip Bøckmann, Eirik Risholm Velle, Ruben Løfgren, Nicholas Rowley, Aksel Kolstad, Morten Müller

Having completed a two-year stretch in prison, Gary Clowne (Plau) is released, but there’s a catch: he must spend the rest of his sentence – three years – doing community service (he’s also tagged for his troubles).  Once on the outside, Gary’s belief that he’ll be sweeping streets or cleaning toilets is cruelly dashed when his new employer, Vitaly (Løfgren) tells Gary he’s going to be a clown.  Cue a selection of “gigs” (including a funeral) before Gary winds up at a hospital for patients with mental health issues.  There he meets Jen Fliers (Brekke), one of the doctors; he’s immediately infatuated with her.  To Gary’s surprise, Jen has sex with him in a supply cupboard almost immediately after he introduces himself.  Finding themselves locked in, Jen calls on her boyfriend, Richard (Velle) to get them out.  They leave the hospital together but get no further than Richard’s car; once inside they start having sex.  Gary heads for home on foot, feeling sad and dejected.

A passing motorist warns Gary that there are lots of monkeys in the area.  Baffled by the man’s comment, Gary continues walking until he finds himself in an alley, convinced someone is following him.  He’s not wrong.  A man in a monkey suit (and carrying a flick-knife) tries to attack Gary but he manages to run away.  The man in the monkey suit chases after him.  Gary finds himself back at the hospital car park where Jen and Richard are still parked up (and still having sex).  The three of them manage to get away from the man in the monkey suit but not before he’s fired a gun at them.  Later, at the flat Gary shares with his pothead friend, Tim (Bøckmann), Gary allows himself to be persuaded to feel better by smoking a joint, despite his initial resistance (his jail term was drugs related).  The next morning, Gary wakes up to find that Tim has taken a heroin overdose, and is close to death.  With the flat full of incriminating, drug-related paraphernalia, Gary can’t call the emergency services.  So…what can a tagged felon who happens to be dressed as a clown do to get himself out of such a predicament?

Clowne - scene

If you’ve seen Everywhen (2013), Herdal and moviemaking partner Jens Peder Hertzberg’s debut feature, then you may have wondered what they’d do next.  Well, wonder no more.  Clowne is the entirely unexpected answer, a short feature designed as a pilot for a potential television series.  It’s a bold move by the young filmmakers, and shows a growing confidence in their abilities.  As a director, Herdal displays a keen eye for composition and has an instinctive knowledge of where to put the camera, and with co-creator and director of photography Hertzberg, often chooses odd angles to heighten a scene or, on occasion, keep the viewer wrong-footed (a great example is the shot of a man in a bus shelter looking at a timetable, and then the camera pans left to reveal Gary with his clown face pressed against the glass).  Between them, Herdal and Hertzberg have come up with an offbeat visual style, and level of creativity, that belies their ages.

The script, also by Herdal, is inventive and irreverent in equal measure, the humour often laugh-out-loud funny, with a good mix of one-liners (“Jen, focus, I might get rabies here”), visual gags (Richard’s underpants, Tim’s new girlfriend), and the kind of crazy situations that only one of Life’s real unfortunates could find themselves in.  The characters, from poor put-upon Gary to conspiracy theorist Vitaly to Müller’s gay police officer, are clearly defined and, though sometimes prone to exaggerated personal traits, suit the material well.  Plau is great as Gary, his hangdog expression beneath the clown make up all the viewer needs to understand how he’s feeling.  He’s also more than adept at showing Gary’s more vulnerable, nice guy qualities (which go some way to explaining just how he ended up in jail in the first place).  It’s an assured performance, and Gary is all the more likeable because of it.  As Jen, Brekke proves more flaky than some of her patients, and Bøckmann invests Tim with the kind of naive tunnel vision that so many weed fiends exhibit.  Velle is a hoot as the passive-aggressive Richard, always apologising in a slightly whiny way, while Løfgren (in a role that would have been tailor-made for Alexei Sayle in his heyday), does paranoia with enough nervous energy to light several apartment blocks – and confirms what many of us have suspected about the Jonas Brothers for some time.

Inevitably, given that this is a pilot after all, none of the various plot strands are resolved, but as a self-contained short, Clowne succeeds in introducing us to a most unlikely “hero”.  At this stage the prospect of a series is one to look forward to, though a full-length feature might be the better option, but judged on its own merits, Clowne is an entertaining, often hilarious, black comedy that confirms the promise Herdal and Hertzberg showed with Everywhen.  There are some continuity issues: Gary’s red nose vanishes and reappears at will, often from shot to shot, and Tim’s car trails a vast amount of smoke when he’s the only one with a joint (it’s an easy visual gag, true, but still…).  And on the trivia front, fans of that movie may notice that its star, Harald Evjan Furuholmen, has moved behind the camera to serve as production designer and set decorator; perhaps he’s the one responsible for there being a 1931 Dracula poster in the supply cupboard.

Rating: 8/10 – an equally impressive follow-up to Everywhen, Clowne is a likeable, surreal treat of a movie; all that remains is for Herdal and Hertzberg to channel their considerable talents into making a spin off movie for Hunch Backed Man (Kolstad) – now that would be welcome.

The End (2012)

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Fin

Original title: Fin

D: Jorge Terregrossa / 92m

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Daniel Grao, Clara Lago, Carmen Ruiz, Andrés Velencoso, Miquel Fernández, Blanca Romero, Antonio Garrido, Eugenio Mira, Sofía Herraiz

Six friends who haven’t gotten together in twenty years meet up at a cabin in the mountains for a reunion.  Félix (Grao) brings along his new girlfriend, Eva (Lago), while Hugo (Velencoso) brings his wife, Cova (Romero).  Sara (Ruiz), who contacted everyone, is single, as is Sergio (Fernández).  This leaves the two friends who have married each other, Maribel (Verdú) and Rafa (Garrido).  With everyone arrived, there’s only Ángel (Mira) to wait for.  Ángel isn’t well-liked by the men in the group, their behaviour toward him in the past leading to Ángel having a breakdown and spending most of the next twenty years in a mental institution; only Sara has kept in touch with him.  It’s not long before old feuds and animosities begin to be aired, and round a campfire that first night, various personal grievances are revealed as still being close to the surface.  And with Ángel still not having arrived, things get heated until there they all hear a strange sound that seems to tear apart the very air. Moments later, they realise that there is no electrical power, and that batteries won’t work either.

The next morning, the group learns that there is still no mains power, that the telephone doesn’t work, and that Rafa has disappeared.  Everyone hikes down to the nearest house but they find it deserted, though there is evidence that whoever lived there, they left in a hurry.  Deciding to carry on to the nearest town, the group takes a short cut through a gorge but along the way, a member of the group vanishes into thin air.  Frightened by all these strange events, and by the realisation that any one of them might be the next to disappear, they continue to head for the nearest town.  The next morning, someone else has disappeared but the remainder continue their journey; the scene of a car crash provides a startling discovery, and stopping at a pool later on, the group is reduced to four.  At one house they find themselves pursued by a pack of hungry dogs, and this leads to four becoming three.  These three reach the town, and there they encounter a little girl.  The girl runs from them but when they finally catch up with her, it’s only one of them who discovers exactly what’s happening…

End, The - scene

Adapted from the novel by David Monteagudo, The End is a somewhat languidly paced end-of-the-world drama that, wisely, never attempts to explain what’s happening or why, and keeps itself focused settled on the characters and how they cope with the mystery unfolding around them.  The early scenes, with the friends’ long-buried grievances quickly being disinterred, suggest that the movie’s title may well be a metaphor for the end of the group’s closeness and love for each other (though the inter-relationships do appear fragile from the outset).  But from the moment when Félix notices that Sirius is no longer visible in the night sky, the movie begins to shift into something more threatening and mysterious.  Practical considerations give way to a growing sense of unease as their journey sees their numbers dwindle, and hidden truths are revealed.  It’s a deliberately low-key approach, with the screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez and Jorge Guerricaechevarría providing sparse character histories and yet making Ángel a key player despite his absence.

There’s much to like here but under the direction of Torregrossa there’s also a lack of heightened tension, with only one disappearance given its proper due, a beautifully awful moment that occurs in the aftermath of the remaining group being chased by dogs.  The rest of the journey fails to match up to that one moment and is more a matter of guessing which character will vanish next (and even that’s not too difficult to work out).  With such a limitation built in from the outset, The End risks underselling the gravity and enormity of its central conceit, and there are too many instances where the same observations are made over and over again, but thanks to some enthusiastic, resolute performances, the movie overcomes these obstacles with a large measure of understated confidence.  As one-time lovers, Verdú and Grao give the most appealing and solid performances, and there’s able support from Lago and newcomer Velencoso, but it’s Ruiz who captures the attention, her growing panic and fear realised with sweaty intensity.

The movie makes the most of its mountain locations and the sweeping vistas are breathtakingly filmed by cinematographer José David Montero (indeed, some shots wouldn’t have gone amiss in the Lord of the Rings trilogy).  There’s an interesting, relaxed score courtesy of Lucio Godoy that supports the emotional and dramatic currents that run throughout the movie, and despite the slow, deliberate pace, the whole thing is assiduously edited by Carolina Martínez Urbina.  Torregrossa handles the themes of betrayal, regret and redemption with assurance, and if not every plot strand is resolved or addressed it’s because the nature of the drama prevents it.  And the ending, despite all that’s gone before, ends on a hopeful note that stops the movie from being completely nihilistic.

Rating: 7/10 – a quietly atmospheric drama that unsettles its audience in small, unobtrusive ways, The End builds uncomfortably to an ending that is both tragic and promising; far more affecting than at first viewing, this is one movie that makes a virtue of being modest.

Chef (2014)

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Chef

D: Jon Favreau / 114m

Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr

Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) has been working at the same restaurant for ten years.  The food he cooks is well liked but when the movie opens he’s been cooking the same menu for the last five years, so when word gets out that influential food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) has booked a table, Carl wants to do something different to impress him.  However, Carl’s boss, Riva (Hoffman) wants him to stick to the existing menu and give Michel what Carl is famous for.  Carl reluctantly agrees.  In his review, Michel slams Carl’s efforts and wonders what happened to the culinary genius he first encountered ten years before.  The next day, with Michel’s review trending on Twitter, Carl – with the help of his son, Percy (Anthony) – sends Michel an angry tweet that he doesn’t realise will be seen by everyone.  A brief war of words leads to a challenge: if Michel comes back to the restaurant, he’ll cook food that will make Michel eat his words (excuse the pun).

This time, with the restaurant fully booked (thanks to Twitter), and with Riva even more concerned that Carl’s attempts to do something different will backfire on the restaurant’s reputation, he forces Carl to make a choice: either cook the established menu or leave.  Carl leaves.  Michel is bemused by receiving the same food again and assumes Carl has backed down on the challenge.  Carl reads Michel’s tweet and heads back to the restaurant where he lambasts the critic in front of everyone; unfortunately a customer films Carl’s rant and the video goes viral.  While all this has been going on, Carl has been trying to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, Inez (Vergara), and spend time with Percy, but his work has always gotten in the way.  Now out of a job, Inez suggests he start afresh with a food truck, making the food he wants to make, and being his own boss.  Carl isn’t keen on the idea, but with getting another job at a restaurant proving more and more unlikely, and while on a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy, he eventually agrees.  Given the truck by Inez’ other ex-husband, Marvin (Downey Jr), and helped by Percy and his friend and colleague from the restaurant, Martin (Leguizamo), Carl gets it up and running and the three of them embark on a cross country journey selling food that reinspires Carl’s love for his work, and goes a long way to improving his relationship with Percy.

Chef - scene

Each year, there’s always one movie that serves as an antidote or an alternative to the usual fare of summer blockbusters, a modestly budgeted, small-scale movie that entertains, moves, and delights audiences, and leaves them feeling that they’ve actually experienced something.  Last year that movie was Before Midnight, this year it’s Chef.  It’s one of those movies that inspires audiences to go home and take up whatever it is the central character does, and here it’s to make food that looks so mouth-wateringly delicious you want to jump into the screen and devour it (even the fried breakfast Carl makes Percy at one point looks heavenly).  Carl’s passion for food is his life, and while other parts of his life don’t fare so well, it’s his faith in food that keeps him going, even when his professional life goes into meltdown.  As played by Favreau, Carl is an outwardly positive man apparently in a good place in his life, but inwardly he’s stifled and lacking the drive to take his career to a new level.  Losing his job turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to him, and it sees him reconnect with the other important parts of his life.

In particular, this means his son Percy.  Carl is oblivious to Percy’s need for a proper relationship with him, and he doesn’t see his son’s unhappiness each time he lets him down.  Even when they do spend time together, such as when Percy shows Carl how to use Twitter, Carl can’t wait to get back to cooking.  The road trip from Miami back to California, where Carl teaches Percy how to cook, and father and son bond more effectively, helps Carl focus outside of being a chef, and brings him back to being the young(ish) tyro he was ten years before.  It’s these scenes that give the movie it’s heart, and a couple of minor lapses aside, make for often touching viewing.  There’s plenty of humour here too, with Favreau’s script hitting the funny bone with impressive ease.  There’s a pleasing mix of situational comedy, quirky one-liners (“Come here, amuse-douche”), and visual gags, all seamlessly integrated into the whole, and the cast judge their performances accordingly, the obvious fun they’re having with the material easily transferring itself to the audience; it’s just infectious.

There are some minor quibbles – Johansson’s character is jettisoned halfway through without a backward glance, Carl behaves stupidly towards his son until his behaviour appears stupid for the sake of it, Riva is unnecessarily antagonistic towards Carl (especially the second time) – but for the most part Favreau gets it just right, balancing the comedy and the light drama with aplomb, engaging the audience from the outset with likeable characters and familiar situations that leave the viewer smiling in affectionate recognition.  He’s also an unselfish director, knowing when to let his cast take the lead in a scene, and giving a largely unshowy performance himself.  Leguizamo and Cannavale make a great double act in the restaurant kitchen, Vergara adds just the right amount of sophisticated glamour, and Downey Jr almost steals the movie with his portrayal of an entrepreneur with cleanliness issues.

It would be easy to dismiss Chef as a feel good movie that never really makes Carl’s situation too dramatic, and there’s certainly large swathes of the movie that are both predictable and overly familiar, but again, it’s Favreau’s adept handling of the material that makes Chef so enjoyable, so much so that any reservations are swiftly cancelled (excuse the pun).

Rating: 8/10 – to borrow a title from Queens of the Stone Age, Chef is “the feel good hit of the summer”, a warmly funny celebration of food and its overriding importance in one man’s life; a treat indeed and one that should be returned to as often as possible.

Hypocrites (1915)

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Hypocrites

D: Lois Weber / 54m

Cast: Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman, Herbert Standing, Adele Farrington, Margaret Edwards

The present day: the Reverend Gabriel (Foote) is preaching a sermon on hypocrisy to a congregation who are by turns, disinterested, bored, or unable to see that his sermon has any relevance to themselves.  Even one of his own assistants is seen reading a Sunday newspaper.  Seeing this, Gabriel rounds on everyone there and focuses the message of the sermon on them.  With the service concluded, several of the congregation gather outside the church and plot to have Gabriel removed.  Back inside, one of his female assistants (Stedman), clearly enamoured of the cleric, attempts to speak with him but he is so lost in thought she that she passes up the opportunity.  When everyone is gone, Gabriel slumps in a chair, the offending newspaper in hand, his thoughts continuing to reach out to God.

He falls into a reverie.  In it he finds himself dressed in medieval robes, ascending a steep hill.  His parishioners pass by on the road below; some see Gabriel and others climbing the trail, but fail to follow him for various selfish or thoughtless reasons.  Two women make the climb with him (including the woman who is fond of him), but they fall by the wayside, leaving Gabriel at the summit, alone and beseeching God for a better understanding of his flock’s lack of moral probity.

The past: Gabriel is a monk living in a monastery where the other monks are shown having what looks like a feast.  Gabriel is working on a statue, a gift for the monastery and the people of the town where it’s located.  He works in secrecy until the day his work is ready to be shown.  The monks arrange a celebration to go with the unveiling, but when the statue is uncovered there is shock and uproar: the statue is of a naked woman, whom Gabriel calls Truth.  Gabriel is seized by a mob and killed.  Back in the present day, his body is found by his parishioners, the newspaper still in his hand; a later headline reveals their shock at his being found in such circumstances.

Hypocrites - scene

Hypocrites is a movie that has gained quite a good reputation over the years, and it’s easy to see why.  Though its moralising is a little heavy-handed by today’s standards, it’s still an effective piece, the use of the same actors in both time periods serving to highlight how little Man has changed over the centuries, his selfish, irreligious behaviour leading him further and further away from the path to true enlightenment and happiness.  Viewed like this it’s no surprise that the modern day congregation reacts in the way it does, seeking to oust someone who holds a mirror up to their vain, self-serving posturing.  This is further explored in an extended sequence where Truth (Edwards) – depicted as a naked young woman – shows Gabriel various examples of the hypocrisy his congregation indulges in, e.g. the politician whose banner reads “My platform is honesty” but who is then seen taking bribes (businessmen, lovers by convenience, and the clergy also come under fire).

The decision to portray Truth as a naked woman caused a degree of uproar at the time of the movie’s release, despite being passed by the National Board of Censorship.  Hypocrites was banned in Ohio, there were riots in New York (strange to think now that a movie could provoke that violent a reaction), and reputedly the mayor of Boston wanted each frame including Truth to be hand-painted to cover her nakedness.  In the movie itself, the depiction of Truth is achieved via the use of double exposure, thus curtailing the level of detail that can be seen (and Edwards holds an arm across her breasts for the most part), and her appearance is in no way salacious.  That the movie received such an unfavourable welcome in places must have been the best thing the filmmakers could have wished for.

As a piece of propaganda for the morality brigade, the movie is expertly handled by Weber whose background before entering the film industry was as a street-corner evangelist.  In this sense, her mastery of the material is to be expected, and she offers convincing portraits of moral backsliding, the cast of familiar (if uncredited) faces cranking back on the declamatory style of acting usually found in movies of the period (though Foote more than makes up for any shortfall).  Indeed, it’s refreshing to see a wealth of what audiences today would call more naturalistic performances.  Weber also displays a technical mastery of the medium, her use of the camera and location photography combining to bring an absorbing, fresh approach at a time when movies were still largely set bound and with the camera employed as a fixed observer.  The pace of the movie is well maintained also, and each scene is constructed to accommodate and/or support the fullest expression of the moral laxity it’s presenting.  It all makes for an impressive feat of moviemaking.

Rating: 9/10 – as relevant now as it was in 1915, Hypocrites depicts Man at his most shamelessly self-interested and duplicitous; a classic of silent cinema and clear evidence that Lois Weber was as talented – if not more so – than many of her peers.

Poster of the Week – Stoker (2013)

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Stoker

Stoker (2013)

If you’ve seen Stoker, then you’ll know that it has an often surreal, slightly macabre air to it, and this poster beautifully captures the mood and spirit of the movie.  The various items that make up the cornucopia on display are all relevant to the story in one way or another, but their individual placements give no hint as to their importance or even if they’ll feature prominently or not.  Some, like the sneakers, seem to have no importance at all, and yet, the level of mystery the poster affords belies their prominence or pertinence.  Others, such as the skull, seem too apposite, as if their inclusion were entirely to be expected given the movie’s subject matter.  And then there is the coffin, the focal point of everything, its occupant’s demise the reason for everything that takes place.

With such an effective illustration dominating the poster, it’s easy to overlook the effect of having still pictures of Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska almost growing out of the image.  Kidman’s veil and downcast visage indicates a grieving widow, while Wasikowska’s accusatory look in Kidman’s direction seems to say that not everything about Kidman’s demeanour can be trusted.  These portraits imply an animosity between the two characters that is both intriguing and compelling: just what can be so wrong for Wasikowska’s character to look that way?

Having so many provocative elements, the poster needs only to add its principal cast members and its title to round things off, but even then there’s a further, arresting aspect: the distressed green and white of the title’s letters.  It’s a slightly unnerving combination of colours, bold and eye-catching, and reinforces the sense of disquiet the rest of the poster generates.  All in all, the poster more than adequately reflects the movie’s rising turmoil and does so with a quiet effectiveness that creeps up stealthily and silently.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Tokarev (2014)

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Tokarev

aka Rage

D: Paco Cabezas / 98m

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rachel Nichols, Danny Glover, Max Ryan, Michael McGrady, Peter Stormare, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Max Fowler, Aubrey Peeples, Jack Falahee, Ron Goleman

Paul Maguire (Cage) is a successful property developer with a beautiful wife, Vanessa (Nichols), and a precocious teenage daughter, Caitlin (Peeples).  One evening, while Paul and Vanessa are out to dinner with the mayor, and Caitlin is at home with two friends, they’re interrupted by Detective St. John (Glover), who tells them that Caitlin has been kidnapped.  Her two friends, Mike (Fowler) and Evan (Falahee) tell Paul and the police that three armed men broke into the house and took Caitlin; the men were brutal, efficient and said nothing.  St. John warns Paul to let the police do their job and not use the skills he has to track the men down (it turns out Paul was part of a criminal gang but got out and has been straight ever since).  Paul pays lip service to St. John’s advice and enlists the help of old friends Kane (Ryan) and Doherty (McGrady) in searching for his daughter.

Their own enquiries reveal nothing; no one knows who is behind the kidnapping.  Then, after a few days, Caitlin’s body is found in a nearby river; she’s been shot in the head.  At her funeral, Paul is stopped by his ex-boss, Francis O’Connell (Stormare), who warns him not to stir up any more trouble than already exists between O’Connell’s gang, and that of the Russians, led by Chernov (Lychnikoff).  The warning brings back memories of a heist Paul and his two friends carried out nearly twenty years before, and which ended with them killing Chernov’s younger brother.  Having kept their involvement a secret all these years, Paul wonders if someone now knows, and Caitlin’s death is a form of payback.  Convinced this is the case, Paul, Kane and Doherty begin to target the Russians’ drug business, shutting down distribution houses and killing anyone that gets in their way.

Soon enough, Chernov begins to retaliate.  He abducts Kane and tortures him, while at the same time, Paul begins to suspect that Doherty has told someone what they did to Chernov’s brother.  With St. John doing his best to keep Paul out of trouble, and Chernov getting ever closer to finding out what happened to his brother, a sudden realisation leads Paul to the truth about Caitlin’s kidnapping and murder.

Tokarev, with its slipshod script and lacklustre mise-en-scène, re-confirms the downward spiral that seems to be Nicolas Cage’s career.  Since World Trade Center (2006), Cage has appeared in twenty-one movies before this one, and the number of genuinely good movies he’s made can be counted on the fingers of one hand*.  It’s also hard to believe Cage is an Oscar winner, such is the decline in quality of the movies he’s made since then (only Cuba Gooding Jr’s post-Oscar career contains more poor choices).  Either Cage has some serious bills to pay, or his critical faculties are all burnt out, but either way, Tokarev is an out-and-out turkey.

None of it makes any sense, from Paul’s having been able to walk away clean from his criminal past, to the hackneyed “secret-no-one-knows” subplot, to St John’s leniency in the face of Paul’s flagrant vigilante behaviour, to O’Connell’s warning to Paul to let it go.  Expediency is piled on top of artifice which is then topped off with preposterousness, and it all comes complete with a large side order of implausibility.  The truth behind Caitlin’s abduction and murder is so unlikely even Cage can’t make it work (not that he’s trying very hard; his performance isn’t so much phoned in as faxed in from a different decade).  It’s all so much nonsense it’s almost insulting, the script by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller adding up to a series of barely connected scenes and events that operate separately from each other, and sometimes, in complete isolation (the two or three scenes where Paul tries to persuade Vanessa to find somewhere safe to be while he does the things she’s asked him to do but really doesn’t want to know about).

Adding to the disappointment doled out by the script is the leaden direction courtesy of Cabezas, an amazing combination of apathy towards the material and disinterest in the characters, leaving the cast adrift and having to fend for themselves.  What acting there is in the movie is mostly unexpected, as Cage et al. deliver their dialogue with all the capability of people for whom English is a second language.  Doherty, in particular, seems unable to say anything without mangling the content, and even when he does manage a clean delivery, there’s no emotion or heart there; he’s like a robot who’s stuck in neutral.  Nichols plays the upset second wife and stepmother as if she’s grateful to be there, while Stormare (in a glorified cameo) attempts an Irish accent with all the purpose of a man who knows he’s probably not going to be called back for redubbing.  As for Glover, he’s hamstrung by a character so vapid and ineffectual (as a policeman) that he might as well be invisible.

It doesn’t help that the movie is also drab to look at, with uninspired lighting and camera movements, and pacing that kills the movie stone dead just minutes in (editor Robert A. Ferretti has the same problem as the script writers: he doesn’t know what to focus on or for how long).  Scenes that should be powerful and dramatic are regularly stopped from doing so, and thanks to Cabezas, any potential interest in the story is quickly abandoned, leaving the viewer to count the minutes until the movie ends.

Rating: 3/10 – with the action sequences providing a bare minimum of excitement, Tokarev – the make of gun that kills both Chernov’s brother and Caitlin – has little to recommend it; fans of Nicolas Cage might give it a go, but otherwise this is one quasi-revenge movie that should be avoided completely.

*Those genuinely good movies: Kick-Ass (2010), The Croods (2013), and Joe (2013).

Bad Words (2013)

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Bad Words

D: Jason Bateman / 89m

Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting

At a regional spelling bee competition, forty year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) takes advantage of a loophole in the rules in order to take part and win the competition.  This allows him to take part in the national tournament, which he attends accompanied by a representative, Jenny Widgeon (Hahn), of his sponsor, online newspaper The Click and Scroll.  Travelling to the tournament by plane Guy meets fellow competitor Chaitanya (nicknamed Chai) (Chand).  Chai tries to strike up a friendship with Guy but is rudely rebuffed.  At the tournament, Guy and Jenny are met by the director of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee Championship, Bernice Deagan (Janney).  She makes it clear that she thinks Guy’s presence and tactics so far are despicable, and that he shouldn’t be there.  Guy is dismissive of her (as he is with most people) and heads for his hotel where he finds his room is a supply cupboard.  That night he and Jenny have sex in his “room” and she leaves her panties behind.  When there’s a knock at his door shortly after, he thinks it’s Jenny come back to get them but instead it’s Chai; they end up spending the rest of the evening together.

On the first day of the tournament, Guy uses Jenny’s panties to help psych out one of the favourites, giving them to the kid in question and asking him to give them back to his mother.  The kid gets his word wrong and is eliminated.  Guy and Chai both advance to the next round. With pressure mounting from the parents of the other finalists, Deagan attempts to manipulate the outcome of the second day so that Guy gets the most difficult words she can find.  That night, he and Chai go out and have fun together, their antics forging a bond between them.  On the second day, Guy again psychs out one of the other contestants, while dealing easily with words such as antidisestablishmentarianism and floccinaucinihilipilification.  He and Chai advance to the final day, while Deagan’s plan is discovered by the moderator (Witting) and she is forced to resign.  That evening, Jenny tries to talk to Guy about something she’s found out, but he avoids her.  He heads to Chai’s room only to overhear the boy and his father discussing Guy and their strategy for dealing with him in the contest.  He bursts in on them and tells Chaitanya that he wants nothing more to do with him.

On the final day, Jenny finally reveals to Guy what she’s discovered, and he in turn reveals his reasons for taking part in the contest.  Still confident of winning, Guy sees the tournament come down to just him and Chai.  He spells his word wrongly, but so too does Chai, who wants to prove to Guy that he is still his friend, despite his father’s plotting.  With neither of them spelling their words correctly, the final turns into a farce, one that Golden Quill president Bill Bowman (Hall) cannot countenance.  But even after he intervenes, the two continue to try and let the other one win until…

From the outset, Bad Words is unafraid to show its main character in a bad light; in fact, it revels in it.  Guy Trilby is one of the most obnoxious, caustic, disagreeable, and rude people you’re ever likely to encounter in a movie, and has a putdown for pretty much everybody he comes into contact with – his response to the mother (Rachael Harris) of one of the national competitors when she tells him what he’s doing is disgraceful, is one of the movie’s highlights.  Guy has so little regard for other people’s feelings he’s like a whirlwind of bile, abusive and profane in equal measure.  As created by screenwriter Andrew Dodge, Guy is the acid-tongued, cruelly manipulative, don’t-give-a-shit person we’d all like to be sometimes (but keep locked away for fear of being punched).  He’s a wonderfully nasty creation, and while, yes, of course he has a softer side, it’s still on his own terms.

It’s a wonderful role for an actor and Bateman rightly plays it deadpan, as if Guy’s worked out that his disdain for other people should preclude any physical effort; only a stony-faced expression is employed, one that perfectly illustrates his contempt.  Bateman is clearly enjoying himself, and there are several moments when Guy’s behaviour strays toward being cartoonish, but the actor keeps this from happening, his largely quiet performance grounding both the movie and the character.  When the reason for his being at the tournament is revealed, it’s another quiet moment in a movie that has a stillness about it that offsets Guy’s conduct (and the same is true when that reason is confronted).  This approach to the material is a refreshing change from the usual heavy-handed, ultra-kinetic style of so many comedies made today, and bodes well for any further movies Bateman may decide to direct (and let’s hope the scripts are as good as this one).

In support, Hahn is the internet reporter who is fascinated by, and attracted to Guy in equal measure, her feelings for him keeping her alongside him even though there’s no chance of a long-term relationship.  As Guy’s main competitor and potential friend Chai, Chand is appealingly winsome and, surprisingly, plays his age with little of the pretentious introspection that some child actors bring to their roles – hello, Elle and Dakota Fanning!  Janney plays Deagan with a snide supercilious attitude that fits the character perfectly; it would have been nice to see her trade off against Guy a few more times but the movie has too many other targets for Guy to skewer.  And as the Golden Quill president, Hall adds a level of formality to proceedings that is hilariously undermined by Guy at every opportunity.

Aside from some of Guy’s aggressive turns of phrase, there are several uncomfortable moments where Guy’s interaction with Chai is so inappropriate you’d be calling social services in a heartbeat, but these moments are made palatable – just – by virtue of being very, very funny (check out the lobster in the toilet, and a lady called Marzipan).  And we don’t learn nearly enough about Guy to find out why he behaves the way he does, leaving his motivation for being so awful to people an unexplained character trait and not much more.  And in the director’s chair, Bateman opts for some strange camera placements and angles during the tournament scenes that often interrupt the visual flow.  But these are minor complaints, and bring no lasting detriment to the movie at all.

Rating: 8/10 – not a movie for everyone, but if you like letting out your inner malcontent from time to time, then Bad Words easily fits the bill; a great directorial debut from Bateman and when Guy vents his spleen, so funny and outrageous it’ll make your sides hurt.

Nymph()maniac Vol. II (2013)

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Nymphomaniac Vol. II

D: Lars von Trier / 123m

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe, Michael Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Kate Ashfield, Christian Slater, Udo Kier, Caroline Goodall, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Ananya Berg

Now living with Jerôme but still unable to achieve orgasm, Joe falls pregnant; she has a son, Marcel, but her maternal instincts are dulled by her efforts to reclaim her ability to orgasm.  Her sexual demands begin to alienate Jerôme, who suggests she takes other lovers as it’s clear he can’t give her what she wants.  She does so but it triggers a jealous reaction in Jerôme and proves unsatisfactory as well.  Joe then learns about K (Bell), a sadist, and visits him in the hope that by exploring this aspect of sexuality it might help her.  Her visits require the services of a babysitter while she is gone, and one afternoon the sitter fails to show up; Joe leaves to see K anyway, leaving Marcel alone in their apartment.  When she returns, Marcel is safe but Jerôme is aware of her desertion, and eventually he challenges her: be a better mother or he will leave with Marcel, and Joe will never see them again.  Unable to stop seeing K, Joe visits him again; when she returns home, Jerôme and Marcel are gone.

Having stopped seeing K, Joe reverts to having sex with any man she wants, particularly at work.  Told by her boss that her behaviour is unacceptable, Joe is pressured into attending a therapy group for sex addicts.  The counsellor (Goodall) tells Joe that in order to control her sexual addiction she must first remove anything that might provoke a sexual response; this will make controlled abstinence that much easier.  This proves impossible and Joe realises she is denying her true nature.  When she next attends the group, she rails against them before leaving for good.

The next part of Joe’s story sees her working for a man called L (Dafoe).  She works for him as a debt collector, using her knowledge of the darker aspects of men’s natures to get them to pay up.  Joe is successful in her work, but as the years go by, L suggests she takes on and train a successor.  L has a candidate for her, a fifteen year old girl called P (Goth) who comes from a family of hardened criminals and who is lonely and shy.  Unconvinced at first, Joe takes P under her wing.  Their relationship deepens over the years until, when P is of age, Joe reveals the work she does and P’s planned part in it.  P isn’t put off and begins to take a more active role in Joe’s work, though when she pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot a debtor, Joe is angry with her.  This leads to an estrangement between the two that leads to disaster when P is given her first solo assignment.  The debtor proves to be Jerôme (Pas).  Unbeknownst to Joe, they begin a relationship, seeing each other whenever P has to collect a payment for the debt Jerôme owes.  On the night of the last collection, Joe follows P to Jerôme’s house and sees them together.  She is unsure at first at what to do, but decides to kill Jerôme and is making her way through the alleyway where Seligman found her when she hears Jerôme’s voice.  He is with P.  Joe tries to shoot him but the gun doesn’t work and he beats her up, thus bringing the story full circle.

With the playfulness and abundant humour of Vol. I toned down from the outset, Nymph()maniac Vol. II is a different movie altogether, darker, more austere, less spirited (there is still humour to be found, though).  Joe’s quest to reclaim her orgasm makes her more sexually adventurous, but it also makes her more vulnerable, and her brief foray into motherhood shows how self-destructive she really is, placing her physical needs over the needs of her child.  The correlation between drug addict and sex addict is also given its strongest expression through her visits to K, as Joe desperately seeks a solution to her predicament.  In the same way that a drug addict will take stronger and stronger drugs in an effort to boost their being high, so too does Joe seek more extreme sexual experiences in her attempt to feel again.  (There’s an argument that Joe is also punishing herself during this period but as she finds release by manipulating the mode of K’s sadism, it doesn’t really hold true.)

If Joe’s addiction leads her into more and more “dangerous” territory, it also leads her to the re-confirmed belief that her sexual appetite is validated by her refusal to love.  But, in truth, it’s a defence mechanism, and shows just how scared Joe is of commitment; her inability to feel anything is brought about through Jerôme’s return and their relationship becoming more meaningful.  By reinforcing Joe’s avoidance of her emotions, von Trier shows the loneliness that she tries to hide, and how it distances her from the people around her.  Having her become a debt collector makes a certain kind of sense, as her neutrality in the face of others’ fear or pain makes her a perfect enforcer.

But as with all the best melodramas – and ultimately this is exactly that – Joe falls in love again, unexpectedly, with P.  But it’s a brief, not too convincing affair, with Joe seemingly ambushed by P’s feelings for her.  As P begins to assert her own identity, it becomes inevitable that Joe will not survive the encounter emotionally, and P’s betrayal of her with Jerôme sees her become an avenging angel, determined to destroy forever whatever fragile happiness she’s ever had.  It’s inevitable though that Joe’s plan will backfire because she’s only ever had control over her own body, and her distance from others precludes any influence she thinks she might have (except when she’s backed up by two heavies collecting money).

In the end, the viewer will find Joe’s emotional detachment either difficult to appreciate – it makes her hard to like, particularly in Vol. II – or a necessary conceit without which the movie would struggle to maintain any sense of coherence.  Either way, her selfish attitude to those around her, and her efforts to control them, make Joe a bold but regrettably galling human being to spend four hours with.  Some of her assertions during her badinage with Seligman are so pompous as to defy von Trier’s obvious intelligence: anyone who knows even the slightest bit about organised religion will know that the statement, “the Western church is the church of suffering and the Eastern church is the church of happiness” is so far from the truth to be almost (in its own way) heretical.  With quotes like these weighing things down, Joe’s assertions serve only to highlight just how remote she is from the rest of society, and even though von Trier champions her need to be true to herself, her lack of real introspection makes her appear, by the movie’s end (or beginning), shallow and intransigent.

There have been complaints that Vol. II, by being darker etc., is less of a movie than Vol. I.  But Joe’s story is one that follows a natural progression and the decision to split the movie in two appears to be more of a commercial decision than a creative one.  It is better to see both volumes in succession so as to retain the natural flow of what was always meant to be one four-hour movie, but, ultimately, von Trier’s decision to split the narrative makes no difference to the effect of the overall story.

On the performance side, Gainsbourg’s fearless approach to the material benefits the movie enormously and there’s rarely a moment where her conviction is in doubt.  She does her best to make Joe a sympathetic character but is equally unafraid to show her in a less than pleasant light, her commitment to the role going some way to mitigating the missteps in von Trier’s script.  As the outwardly concerned Seligman, Skarsgård maintains his inquisitive, supportive stance in the light of Joe’s revelations, but is given an horrendous final scene that destroys everything the character has come to stand for.  Martin’s presence, despite Gainsbourg’s proficiency, is not as missed as might be expected, while LaBeouf remains as hard to watch as in Vol. I.  The newcomers to the tale – Dafoe, Goth, Bell – acquit themselves well (Bell in particular is unexpectedly creepy as K), and it’s nice to see Slater and Berg (ten year old Joe) in flashback.

As before, von Trier’s technical control over the material remains in place, though some of the aforementioned missteps make it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt when some scenes appear included merely for effect (the restaurant scene involving a number of spoons is a case in point, but it redeems itself by being very, very funny).  He’s on less firmer ground with the philosophical digressions that occupy Joe’s time with Seligman, and they become more and more contrived as the movie develops.  And the photography by Manuel Alberto Claro is as beautiful and decorous as in the first movie (which shouldn’t be a surprise).

Rating: 7/10 – no better or worse than Vol. I, Nymph()maniac Vol. II concludes Joe’s story in semi-triumphant style but maintains the faults found in the first movie; archly effective in places, and dismaying in others, von Trier’s conclusion to his Trilogy of Depression shows the wily old fox of arthouse cinema still as infuriating and entertaining (in equal measure) as he’s always been.

Nymph()maniac Vol. I (2013)

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Nymphomaniac Vol. I

 

D: Lars von Trier / 118m

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Hugo Speer, Connie Nielsen, Ananya Berg, Jesper Christensen, Nicolas Bro

In a secluded alleyway, a man called Seligman (Skarsgård) finds a woman (Gainsbourg) lying unconscious on the ground; she’s been attacked.  He takes her back to his home, where she tells him the story of her life, and how she came to be in the alleyway where he found her.  The woman’s name is Joe, and she tells Seligman that from a very young age she was aware of her vagina and the pleasure it could give her.  She relates a number of instances from her childhood, and mentions her father, a doctor (Slater) whom she loved very much.  As a teenager (Martin) she chooses a boy, Jerôme (LaBeouf), to take her virginity, and so, begins a relationship with him that will continue off and on for the rest of her life.

Joe relates her time having sex with strangers on trains as a game she played with her friend B (Clark), and the club they subsequently form where members are not allowed to have sex more than once with the same person.  However, B falls in love and Joe ends their friendship in disgust.  Some time later, Joe applies for a job at a printing house, and despite having no skills or experience, is taken on.  This proves to be because her boss is the same Jerôme who took her virginity.  Jerôme wants to have sex with her but she refuses his advances, while at the same time she has sex with all the other men in the office.  But her willingness to see Jerôme suffer has a different effect and Joe stops having sex altogether; like B she too has fallen in love.  She builds up the courage to tell him but takes too long: when she arrives at work one day prepared to tell Jerôme how she feels about him, she finds he’s now married and travelling abroad.

Joe’s reaction is to have sex with as many men as possible, and to keep a string of lovers.  She tells of one man, H (Speer), who she tried to break up with by telling him he’ll never leave his wife and family, but this is exactly what he does, and it leads to an uncomfortable visit by his wife (Thurman) and their children.  But Joe admits the whole thing left her unmoved.  It’s only when her father dies in hospital that Joe is moved at all.  Continuing to juggle both work and several lovers, Joe finds herself feeling sad at times and while walking in a park one day, she is reunited with Jerôme.  He tells her his marriage isn’t working, and they go back to Joe’s place and have sex, but partway through she realises that she can’t feel anything physically.

With all the hype surrounding von Trier’s Nymph()maniac duology (particularly the explicit sex scenes – always guaranteed to draw people’s attention), the casual viewer might be put off by a movie that revels in its bad taste highlights and caustic humour, but with Vol. I that would be a mistake.  After the dreary, depressing Antichrist (2009) and the mock-opera bombast of Melancholia (2011), the wily old fox of arthouse cinema has decided to make a comedy about sex, and not just about sex itself, but a vast array of preconceptions about sex, and its relationship with pain, betrayal, neglect, lust, sacrifice, and perhaps worst of all, love.

As a young child, Joe is presented as thoughtful, intelligent, acquisitive and precocious.  Her relationship with her father appears to hold the key to her future behaviour – Joe seeks what her father can’t give her – and on a basic psychological level it’s obvious why Joe behaves in the way she does.  But Joe isn’t interested in the emotional mechanics of sex but in the overriding physical need that pushes her to seek out so many men and so many sexual experiences.  Joe wants to be true to herself – to her vagina – but what she learns, and resolutely pushes to one side, is that emotion can enhance her encounters.  And yet, as her relationship with Jerôme shows, feelings and emotions can augment her experiences and enrich them.  It’s her refusal to admit this, or even trust it, that makes Joe such a sad figure: she’ll never find true happiness unless she allows herself to love.

In telling her story, Joe and Seligman indulge in some philosophical game-playing as Joe keeps referring to herself as sinful, while Seligman refutes her assertions at every turn. These interludes often find von Trier at his most mischievous as Joe seeks to justify her behaviour where clearly she has no need to.  Alluding to various topics, such as fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers, Seligman acts as the audience’s representative, taking Joe’s revelations in his stride and remaining unaffected throughout.  Some of the connections von Trier comes up with hail from the wrong side of contrivance, but despite this they have a certain élan to them that keeps them amusing even if they do sound pretentious.

Again, it’s the humour that counts, whether it’s Joe and B trying to be sophisticated while seducing men on the train, or Joe and Seligman arguing over the attributes of a cake fork, or even LaBeouf’s horrendous English accent (even worse than Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney horror in Mary Poppins).  Joe’s bed-hopping behaviour has its own in-built jocosity, appearing in stark contrast to the laboured protestations of guilt that the older Joe regales Seligman with.  It’s fun to see her treat men in the same way that men often treat women – as objects there to provide pleasure and little else – and even the tirade offered up by Mrs H. is entertaining with its desperate, cloying sarcasm projected as barely disguised venom.  There’s also a nice line in visual humour – Jerôme stopping an elevator in order to seduce Joe and finding out when he’s rebuffed that it’s stopped between floors; Seligman envisioning Joe’s somewhat different approach to “education”; the penis montage – although the equivalent verbal humour isn’t quite as prominent.

On the dramatic side, Joe’s encounter with Mrs H is the movie’s highlight, while Joe’s (one-sided) romance with Jerôme appears more of a plot device to keep Joe shagging lots of men than a real development for either character.  That she meets up with him again at the end isn’t much of a surprise – there’s unfinished business to be dealt with, after all – but the movie’s cliffhanger ending successfully pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet with aplomb.  Her relationship with her father is honest and straightforward, and the scenes where he’s in hospital are genuinely moving (thanks largely to the playing of Messrs Slater and Martin).

As the younger Joe, Martin gives a stand-out performance, Joe’s initial enjoyment of sex before it becomes more and more of an addiction is so well depicted that it comes as a bit of a shock that this is her first movie.  But even when things begin to get darker, Martin keeps her focus and keeps the audience watching: it’s a bravura turn and easily award-worthy.  As the older Joe, Gainsbourg is mesmerising, her care-worn face telling of hardships that not even she can adequately talk about.  She dominates her scenes with Skarsgård, his nervous, twitchy style of acting at odds with her confident, self-assured determinism.  Skarsgård makes the most of Seligman’s “learned” naiveté, while there’s sterling support from Slater, Thurman and Clark.  Sadly, the same can’t be said for LaBeouf, who provides the worst performance in the movie, his attempts at creating a realistic character continually being undermined by his limitations as an actor.

Von Trier’s direction, as you might expect, is controlled and tightly focused, and he uses a variety of shots – often in the same scene – to show the fractured nature of Joe’s unique view of the world.  He’s on less solid ground with his script, with Joe’s often brittle approach to other people and her own feelings going some way to making her a little less sympathetic than expected.  Having said that, there are plenty of clever touches, and von Trier has a sure knack of cutting away from a scene at the right moment.  His cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, gives the movie an appropriately clinical look that reflects the sense of detachment that Joe feels with regard to her life and history.

Rating: 7/10 – brimming with ideas (not all of which are effectively rendered), Nymph()maniac Vol. I is a cinematic confection dressed up in serious attire; an intriguing movie for the most part, but hampered by its unnecessary lack of an ending.

 

 

In the Blood (2014)

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In the Blood

D: John Stockwell / 108m

Cast: Gina Carano, Cam Gigandet, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Luis Guzmán, Amaury Nolasco, Treat Williams, Stephen Lang, Danny Trejo, Eloise Mumford

Newlyweds Ava (Carano) and Derek (Gigandet) are on their honeymoon in Costa Rica.  One night at a bar they meet Manny (Cordova), a good-natured hustler who persuades the happy couple to go to a club he knows, and on the next day, to “the Caribbean’s longest zip line”.  At the club, Ava draws the attention of Big Biz (Trejo).  When he tries to proposition her, Derek steps in but gets knocked to the ground.  The next thing anyone knows, Ava has beaten up around a dozen or so of Big Biz’s men.  Ava, Derek and Manny leave the club and as planned, the next day they visit the zip line.  Manny and Ava make it across without incident but when Derek travels across, one of the straps splits and he plummets to the forest floor below.  Miraculously he survives, and an ambulance is called.  Unable to travel with Derek, Ava is forced to follow the ambulance to the hospital, only to find when she gets there that Derek never arrived.

With her husband missing, Ava enlists the help of local police chief Garza (Guzmán).  When his investigation stalls at the first hurdle – the zip line operator denies Ava was there – Ava begins her own investigation.  With Manny’s help she learns that the ambulance was a fraud, that local gangster Lugo (Nolasco) is behind Derek’s abduction, and Garza knows all about it.  She rescues Derek but Lugo and his men come after them…

Quite clearly a movie where logic and credibility were not on-set watchwords, In the Blood is like watching an updated Eighties action movie, the kind of action flick Arnold Schwarzenegger might have made on his way to super-stardom.  It has an exotic location, the close friend or family member in peril/needing to be found, the semi-amusing sidekick picked up along the way who provides all the clues, the nasty villain who can shrug off bullet wounds (literally – Lugo walks it off in minutes), a corrupt cop, and as a bonus the family member, Derek’s father, Robert (Williams), who thinks Ava’s bumped him off for his inheritance.  With so much familiar material, the movie drags in places, leaving the viewer waiting for each signposted plot development to go by so the next action sequence can begin.

Having Carano in the lead role helps, her physicality and MMA background making her involvement in the fight scenes entirely believable (and making those scenes possibly the only parts of the movie that are credible).  She takes some punishment along the way, but in a bizarre back story, we see her as a teenager (Paloma Louvat) being raised by her father (Lang) to be strong and overcome pain in a way that makes Big Daddy’s training of Hit Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) look sedate by comparison.  It’s akin to torture, and sits uncomfortably with the rest of the movie, begging the question, just what were screenwriters James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin thinking of when they came up with this idea?  Filmed in a dark, nightmarish way, these scenes seem to have been drafted in from another script entirely.

With the fight scenes choreographed to good effect, the movie at least has some things going for it, but otherwise is brutally inefficient in most other areas.  The performances range from amateurish (Carano – but she is still learning), to phoned in (Williams – “has my cheque cleared yet?”), to embarrassing (Trejo – like here, there are some roles he should just say “No” to).  Gigandet is sidelined for the bulk of the movie so has little chance to make an impact, while Guzmán plays the sweaty, deceptive police chief as if it’s a favour to the director.  Nolasco is about as menacing as an irritated tour guide, and Cordova underplays his role to the point of blandness.  It’s only Lang that convinces, his psycho father turn standing out from the crowd and putting a chill on an otherwise sunny movie.

In the director’s chair, Stockwell re-confirms his journeyman status, and as a result the movie never really gets out of third gear.  The script stutters and starts, and the reason for Derek’s abduction is as contrived, barmy and far-fetched as they come, while the relationship between Ava and Derek is painted in such broad strokes as to make it seem that Ava would do the same thing for anyone: brother, cousin, old high school classmate, neighbour six blocks over etc.  And Derek’s family turn up for a day and then head back home as if they were just passing through.  Other scenes are just plain ridiculous and/or embarrassing, but if there’s one scene that stands out as the most incredibly witless moment in the whole movie it’s when Ava stands by and lets the bad guys jam a huge needle into Derek’s spine.

Rating: 4/10 – with very little effort made by the filmmakers, In the Blood sinks under the weight of its own absurdity; with only its fight scenes to recommend it, this is a movie that should be watched with one finger hovering over the fast forward button.

Best Man Down (2012)

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Best Man Down

D: Ted Koland / 89m

Cast: Justin Long, Jess Weixler, Addison Timlin, Tyler Labine, Shelley Long, Frances O’Connor, Evan Jones, Michael Landes

When Scott (Long) gets married to Kristin (Weixler) in Phoenix, there’s only one choice for best man: his best friend Lumpy (Labine).  At the reception, Lumpy drinks too much and his behaviour becomes more and more unacceptable, until Scott is forced to intervene.  Back in his room, Lumpy continues drinking; he has a fall and cracks his head open before passing out.  While the reception continues, Lumpy comes to and stumbles outside of his hotel.  Unable to get back in he heads toward the party but collapses before he can get there.  His body is discovered the next morning.

The news of Lumpy’s death puts Scott and Kristin in a bit of a bind.  Hailing from Minneapolis, they’re unable to afford both their honeymoon and the cost of arranging for Lumpy’s body to be returned home for the funeral.  Deciding to put off their honeymoon, they go through Lumpy’s phone in order to let his friends know what’s happened.  One name that neither of them recognise is that of Ramsey (Timlin).  Tracking her down proves difficult at first but eventually they find out where she lives and travel there to let her know the news about Lumpy.

Ramsey, who is fifteen, lives with her mother, Jaime (O’Connor) and her mother’s boyfriend, Winston (Jones), who is a bully to both of them.  Having got into trouble before, Ramsey is also under the care of the local priest (Landes); he vouches for her when she gets into any further trouble.  When Scott and Kristin meet Ramsey, they begin to learn that they didn’t really know Lumpy at all, and his relationship with the youngster reveals problems that Lumpy was doing his best to deal with (and which go some way to explaining his behaviour at the reception).

Advertised as a comedy – and with the presence of Long, Labine and Long (who sound like a firm of comedy lawyers), who can blame the makers for doing so – Best Man Down is first and foremost a drama with comedic moments, and not the laugh-fest some viewers might be expecting.  It’s an often heartfelt movie with the central relationship between Lumpy and Ramsey having a depth and a persuasive quality that is at once unexpected and which has an initial awkwardness that is entirely plausible (even if the first scene in Lumpy’s hotel room stretches that same plausibility).  As the mismatched friends, Labine and Timlin shine in their scenes together, and it’s their commitment to the material that makes the characters’ relationship so feasible.

Alas, the movie is on weaker ground when focusing on Scott and Kristin, newlyweds who never seem to have really talked to each other before they got married.  They’ve also lied to each other about some of the financial aspects of their marriage.  They argue a lot; Scott announces out of the blue that he’s quit his job; Kristin denies her increasing reliance on over the counter drugs.  This is a couple whose heads you want to bash together, and not just to make them see sense, but because it would actually make you feel better.  Long wears his exasperated face for most of the movie, and while it suits his character’s story arc to be like that, for the viewer it quickly becomes monotonous.  And though Long plays glum for most of the movie, it’s still preferable to the kooky, wide-eyed mugging that Weixler opts for.

There are other problems inherent in the material: just where is Lumpy’s mother in all this (she doesn’t show up until the funeral)?  Why does the threat posed by Winston, even when he brandishes a gun, feel about as menacing as being pelted with marshmallows?  And why doesn’t Lumpy confide in Scott in the first place – just how close were they really?  (This last question, at least, the movie tries to answer, but in an overly dramatic way that feels designed to add some much needed angst.)  There’s a resolution to Scott’s unemployment that smacks of expediency, and Kristin goes cold turkey without a backward glance; the audience is meant to believe at the movie’s end that their relationship is now much stronger, but in real life, the jury would still be deliberating.

With the movie proving so uneven, it’s left to the cast to make the most of writer/director Koland’s wayward script.  As mentioned above, Labine and Timlin come off best, while Long and Weixler appear lacklustre by comparison.  In support, O’Connor takes a clichéd role and wrings some invention out of it, Jones mistakes pouting for intimidation, and Shelley Long is almost unrecognisable as Kristin’s mother (it’s only when she speaks that it becomes obvious it’s her).  Koland directs too carefully for the movie’s own good, and never quite knows where the camera would be best placed; it’s a very unadventurous movie to watch.  On the plus side there is some magnificent, wintry location photography, and a pleasant, understated score by Mateo Messina.

Rating: 5/10 – unable to overcome its in-built limitations, Best Man Down stumbles along like a punch-drunk fighter refusing to stay down; another movie with twin storylines, though with just the one that’s at all interesting.

Poster of the Week – Casablanca (1942)

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Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)

What I like most about this poster is its simplicity.  It tells you as little as possible.  There’s the three main stars, the name of the film company, the title, the supporting players, the director, and the producer.  From this, the potential viewer doesn’t have a clue as to what the movie’s about, or where it’s set, or if it’s a period piece, or more contemporary, or if it’s a drama – though with that cast it’s unlikely to be a comedy – or if it’s even the latest “screen sensation!”

Even the main image, of Bogart and Bergman huddled together, doesn’t give anyone a clue.  He looks pensive and sad, but as to why, well, it could be anything.  And she is looking off into the distance, apprehensive, worried perhaps, at what she sees.  Together they’re a couple who could be facing any number of problems, but until you see the movie you’ll never know what they are, or how much those problems will affect them.

In many ways, the poster is a bit of a gamble, using the stars’ brand-name recognition to entice an audience into seeing a movie that they don’t know anything about.  And the title could mean anything: the place where the movie is set, a character’s name perhaps, or even a code name (that’s a bit of stretch, admittedly, but from the perspective of ignorance, it could even be the name of a company or a product).  And back in the days when there was generally one poster created per movie, the deceptive brilliance of this particular poster has got to be admired.  It’s lack of artifice seems to be saying, “Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Casablanca – what else do you need to know?”  (Well, nothing – obviously.)  And to cap it all off, it’s clear that, in this instance, the movie’s title is also it’s tag line.  Just genius, sheer genius.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know.

 

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

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Jimmy's Hall

D: Ken Loach / 109m

Cast: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Francis Magee, Brían F. O’Byrne, Aisling Franciosi, Martin Lucey, Aileen Henry, Andrew Scott

Returning home to Ireland in 1932 after ten years living in New York, communist sympathiser Jimmy Gralton (Ward) finds himself welcomed by his mother and the rest of the local community.  He’s looked upon as a hero by both his own generation and the younger generation who’ve grown up on tales of his standing up to the church when he ran the local hall.  Jimmy fled then to avoid being arrested, and the hall has fallen into disrepair in the years since.  The church, represented by Father Sheridan (Norton), viewed the hall as promoting wickedness, with its dance classes and social events.  When the news of Jimmy’s return reaches him, Sheridan does his best to coerce the locals, and Jimmy himself, to leave the hall as it is, and makes it clear that if the hall does reopen, it will mean trouble for everyone.

Encouraged by the support of the local community, and undaunted by Father Sheridan’s threats, Jimmy decides to reopen the hall.  In doing so, he rekindles a romance he had with Oonagh (Kirby), even though she married while he was gone, and has had two children.  On the opening night, the hall is packed, much to Father Sheridan’s displeasure, and despite his taking the names of the people who attend.  Things begin to get out of hand when Marie (Franciosi) is beaten by her father (O’Byrne) for being there, and threats are made against Jimmy and the hall.  Soon, Father Sheridan is using Jimmy’s radicalism as a reason for having the hall closed, and with the local landowners – who stood with the church ten years before – accuses Jimmy of trying to introduce communist ideology into the community via the open door policy at the hall.  The state becomes involved, and it’s not long before there’s a warrant issued for his arrest.

Purportedly Loach’s farewell to moviemaking, Jimmy’s Hall, at times, plays like a movie that someone attempting to imitate Ken Loach might make.  It’s got his political and religious points of view, it celebrates the underdog, it has a real sense of the community it’s presenting, and it takes melodrama and makes it appear matter-of-fact.  There’s the expected camaraderie amongst Jimmy and his friends and neighbours, the hissable villain representing repressive authority, outbursts of unjustifiable violence, a clearly defined historical perspective, and naturalistic acting from its cast.  (In one sense, it’s like a “greatest hits” package.)

And yet this is also very much Loach-lite, as it were.  It doesn’t have the impact needed to elevate the material beyond its basic structure and set up, and it lacks the passion that the people at the time must have felt about the issue.  Watching Jimmy’s Hall is like hearing someone describe something really terrible but in a completely even tone of voice.  And even though it’s based on a true story, there’s little here that merits a whole movie’s worth of attention.  Gralton, as played by Ward, is a sincere man, thoughtful, considerate, politically astute, romantic, but even with all that in his favour, he’s a bit colourless at the same time.  Long stretches of the movie go by without his being on screen at all, and when he is on screen, he’s often the secondary focus or part of the crowd, leaving the audience to wonder just what it is about the man that has warranted so much attention.  Aside from a scene where he shows off his dance moves, and a showdown with Father Sheridan (that changes nothing), Gralton is almost a bystander in his own story.  (There is his affair with Oonagh but that feels like it’s there to add further tragedy to events that are already fairly tragic on their own.)

The movie firmly supports Gralton and the villagers in their aims regarding the hall – poetry and dance classes, social events etc. – and the importance of the hall in their lives is portrayed effortlessly and with approval, Loach emphasising the need for it in broad but efficient brush strokes.  With the cause given such attention, the opponents are given less consideration, and appear needlessly narrow minded.  Sheridan is blinkered in his approach to Gralton and the hall, and with Paul Laverty’s script demonising the man at every turn, it quickly becomes draining watching him refute the good the hall engenders, and all because of some misguided notion that it will encourage lewd behaviour.  It’s a measure of Norton’s abilities as an actor that Sheridan isn’t completely free of introspection, and a scene with Father Seamus (Scott) and a phonograph gives more insight into the man but arrives too late in the movie to do any good.  And then there’s Marie’s father, the opponents’ blunt instrument, a character whose sole purpose in the movie is to show brute, unreasoning force was used against the villagers and by doing so, elicit more sympathy for them (as if we might not have enough already).

This simplistic approach stops Loach from captivating his audience, and while his usual polemical outlook is well established, the actual slightness of the material as well stops the movie from achieving anything more meaningful.  That said, the assembled cast are well chosen and there’s not a false note to be found in their performances (even if their character appears underwritten).  Magee and Franciosi, in particular, deserve a mention.  The movie is also beautiful to look at, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography bringing out the best of the County Leitrim locations (where the original events took place), and there’s a fine score courtesy of regular contributor George Fenton that mixes Irish music with jazz and blues to often moving effect.  Loach’s direction is as effortless as ever, and while the material may be modest in its ambition and scope, he’s still able to place often quietly moving moments and some subtle humour in amongst the political diatribes.

Rating: 7/10 – not as sharp or poignant as expected, Jimmy’s Hall has more to say about what makes a community than it does the political landscape of the times; however, a Ken Loach movie is always worth seeing, and despite reservations, this is no different.

Mini-Review: Chinese Zodiac (2012)

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Chinese Zodiac

Original title: Sap ji sang ciu

D: Jackie Chan / 109m

Cast: Jackie Chan, Xingtong Yao, Qi Shu, Oliver Platt, Fan Liao, Laura Weissbecker, Rosario Amedeo, Qingxiang Wang, Stephen Chang, Sang-woo Kwon, Alaa Safi, Caitlin Dechelle, Ken Lo

JC (Chan) and his team of mercenary treasure hunters are tasked with finding the twelve bronze heads that the animals of the Chinese Zodiac are made up of.  Originally plundered from the Summer Palace, the whereabouts of some of the heads are already known.  JC’s boss, Lawrence Morgan (Platt), wants him to locate and/or steal each one.  JC and his team travel from Hong Kong to France to Australia to Vanuatu in their efforts to find the heads; along the way they’re joined by antiquities expert Coco (Yao) and Parisian heiress Catherine (Weissbecker).  Unaware that Morgan has an ulterior motive for collecting the heads, JC finds each head in turn and then discovers he’s been tricked.  With time against him, JC has to save the last remaining head from being dropped into a live volcano.

If that last bit sounds a bit over the top, then you’d be right.  But then this is an action comedy devised, written, directed by and starring Jackie Chan, and made first and foremost for a Hong Kong Chinese audience.  Platt’s presence aside, this makes no concessions to international viewers, and is the usual mix of injury-defying stunts, intricate fight sequences, slapstick comedy, desperate mugging, chaste romancing, and has a storyline that barely serves as a hook for the action scenes; there’s even the standard outtakes included in the end credits (as well as a recap of Chan’s career).  If you like this sort of thing you’ll find plenty to keep you engrossed, and to be fair, Chan delivers the action goods even at 58.  With everyone involved clearly having fun, Chinese Zodiac is only interested in giving its audience a good time, and its far-fetched approach merely adds to that fun.  Chan has a steady hand on the tiller, the action is expertly choreographed, shot and edited, and the whole thing has a welcome, Saturday morning matinee feel to it.

Rating: 7/10 – an exhilarating thrill ride of a movie, Chinese Zodiac will attract fans of this type of thing probably more so than newbies; Chan is still an amazing physical performer, though, and thankfully, the positives easily outweigh the negatives.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)

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Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, The

D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet / 105m

Cast: Kyle Catwell, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Niamh Wilson, Jakob Davies, Dominique Pinon, Julian Richings

On a ranch in Montana, ten year old T.S. Spivet (Catwell) lives with his mother (Carter), father (Rennie) and sister Gracie (Wilson).  He used to have a twin brother, Layton (Davies), but his death from an accident involving a rifle has left the family fractured and each member spends most of their time absorbed in their own interests: his mother studies the morphology of beetles, his father dedicates himself to running the ranch, while his sister tries to promote the virtues of the Miss America pageant (as well as her desire to take part).  As for T.S., he has an aptitude for science that is way beyond his years, and he spends his time drawing maps and conducting experiments.  When he learns that no one has been able to come up with a perpetual motion machine, he takes it on as a personal challenge.  He sends his plans to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and is surprised to learn that he has won the coveted Baird Award and is expected to travel there to collect his prize and give a speech.

T.S. decides to attend the award ceremony, and leaves home early one morning to travel alone by freight train.  His journey across the US is hampered by train guards and the police, but he is also helped along the way by kind-hearted strangers such as trucker Ricky (Richings).  When he arrives at the Smithsonian, he is taken under the wing of undersecretary G.H. Jibsen (Davis).  At the award ceremony, T.S. makes an emotive speech about the death of his brother, and reveals that he died during an experiment T.S. was trying to carry out.  The story, along with the perpetual motion machine makes T.S. an instant celebrity, and Jibsen arranges for him to take part in press interviews, and finally, a talk show.  With the addition of a surprise guest to the show, T.S.’s family begin to reconnect with each other.

Adapted from the novel by Reif Larsen, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is an appealing piece of movie-making from a director whose sensibilities and visual style are a perfect match for the material.  Jeunet, making only his second English language movie – let’s try to forget the giant misstep that was Alien: Resurrection (1997) – displays his fondness for odd camera angles, bold camerawork, and meticulous set design.  The movie is a visual triumph, ravishing in its depiction of Montana’s rugged landscapes, ingenious in its rendering of T.S.’s work and drawings (especially if viewed in 3D), and endlessly inventive on a technical level.  Even in relatively static scenes there’s always something to draw the attention.  Working with cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier, Jeunet has created a movie that is so wonderfully detailed in its look that the eye is seduced over and over again by what’s on screen.

Larsen’s novel – adapted by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant – with its own visual style, is regarded by many as a modern classic, but the same problem the novel has, sadly, remains in the movie, and Jeunet’s faithfulness to his source ultimately undoes a lot of the good work that’s gone before.  The last third, following T.S.’s arrival in Washington D.C., feels flat and lifeless in comparison to the rest of the movie, and isn’t helped by Davis’s pantomime villain performance as Jibsen (she takes annoying to new levels).  With the addition of a talk show host who is more caricature than character, T.S.’s time in Washington is let down by the inclusion of their inanity and the movie suffers greatly (a pat resolution to all the family issues seems forced as well).  Only T.S.’s candid, and quietly emotional, description of the events surrounding Layton’s death has any impact during this section, and that’s due to Catlett’s artless delivery.

Of the cast, Catlett more than holds his own against his more experienced co-stars, and invests T.S. with a genuine sense of bafflement at most of the ways in which adults behave, or how the world works.  Carter adds another quirky performance to her résumé, and Davis mistakes exaggeration for character development, while Wilson looks so much like Chloë Grace Moretz that it becomes distracting.  Rennie has little to do other than look manly (he’s like a modern day Marlboro man), and Jeunet stalwart Pinon almost steals the movie as one of the strangers who help T.S. on his journey.

With the storyline grinding to a halt two thirds in, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet falls short of achieving its full potential, and while some viewers may also have an issue with the whimsical nature of much of the movie, it’s more a strength than a disadvantage.  If you buy into Jeunet’s vision then there’s much to enjoy, and there’s more subtlety lurking beneath the movie’s artistic sheen than you might expect.

Rating: 7/10 – entertaining and beautiful to look at, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet may not be as fully realised as audiences would expect, but there’s still more than enough going on to still make this a (mostly) rewarding experience; an effectively grounded viewing pleasure despite its frequent flights of fancy.

Belle (2013)

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Belle

D: Amma Asante / 104m

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode

The illegitimate offspring of Royal Navy captain John Lindsay (Goode) and an African slave woman named Maria Bell, young Dido Elizabeth Belle is sent to live with his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and his wife (Watson) at Kenwood House.  Despite her mixed race heritage, Dido is brought up as one of the family though some social – or possibly, household – conventions are upheld: Dido is unable to take part in dinner parties but is allowed to take coffee with guests afterwards.  She grows up in the company of her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also a ward of Lord Mansfield.  When both girls become of age, Dido (Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Gadon) expect to “come out” and find a husband.  However, Lord Mansfield has other ideas: with Dido having received a substantial inheritance upon the death of her father, he feels that her financial independence would only frighten off any potential suitors; he wants her to stay on at Kenwood and run the household.

While Elizabeth attracts the attention of James Ashford (Felton), it is his brother, Oliver (Norton) who finds himself drawn to Dido.  Unfortunately for Oliver, Dido has affections for John Davinier (Reid), a headstrong young lawyer-in-training who Lord Mansfield takes under his wing.  When the two men fall out over a ruling Lord Mansfield has to give – he’s the Lord Chief Justice – on the matter of the Zong slave ship (where slaves were cast deliberately overboard to drown), Dido endeavours to help Davinier as much as she can.  While the Mansfield household resides in London in their efforts to secure a husband for Elizabeth, Dido secretly meets with Davinier and his pro-abolitionist comrades and supplies them with as much information as she can about the case.  As the time approaches for Lord Mansfield to give his ruling, Dido’s involvement is revealed and Oliver Ashford proposes marriage.  With her future happiness hanging in the balance, Dido must decide if the life she requires will be dictated to her by social expectations or by her own desires.

Based – very, very, very loosely – on a true story, Belle is a handsomely mounted, beautifully lensed movie that tackles its subject matter with intelligence and a keen eye for the vagaries of the social hierarchy of Britain in the late 1700s.  The ingrained racism of the times is depicted far more subtly than expected, and is best expressed in the actions and thoughts of Lord Mansfield as he displays public disgust over the concept and practice of slavery, but in the privacy of his own home, represses Dido with his notions of correct social etiquette (and that’s without mentioning the implicit sexism of his position as well).  With the crusading Davinier to root for, and his “colour blindness”, the movie gives the viewer someone to help navigate the maze of 18th century politics, and just as Dido herself has an awakening in this matter, it’s one of the strengths of Misan Sagay’s heartfelt screenplay that matters become as clear as they do.

With the racism and the politics and the social niceties of the period so well rendered, it’s disappointing that the romantic aspects of the movie aren’t as strongly defined or developed.  Elizabeth is the trusting young hopeful, an almost stock character of the period whose lack of experience with men is redeemed by her telling Dido, “We are but their property”.  Against this, Dido is necessarily more confident and aware of the pitfalls of relationships though her confidence is established too easily, and there are times when the movie’s need for her to be a support for Elizabeth becomes irritating (Elizabeth isn’t exactly vapid but she is unremittingly naive).  Davinier’s ardent pursuit of Dido is too avid at times, and his passion for both the cause of abolition and Dido’s freedom from social strictures, as written, leaves the character looking almost (but not quite) insufferable.

In the title role, Mbatha-Raw gives a perceptive, masterful performance that is both emotionally honest and fiercely intelligent, and she is skilfully supported by Wilkinson and Watson, the former imbuing a cleverly written and yet difficult character with sincerity and charm.  Reid is earnest and declamatory (thanks to the script), and Gadon’s coquettish take on Elizabeth is occasionally affecting but she too is hindered by the restrictions of the script.  Wilton, Richardson and Norton flesh out their roles to good effect but Felton is stifled by a character who is never allowed to be anything more than the stock villain (not only is he an outspoken racist but he assaults Dido as well, as if his odiousness was in some way in doubt).

In the director’s chair, Asante shows an assured and substantial understanding of the issues being examined, and is particularly impressive when exploring the curious anomalies of Dido’s life at Kenwood House.  Under her committed and often powerful guidance, Belle overcomes its romantic Georgian soap opera elements to become a potent, articulate condemnation of a period in British history when endemic racism and the commerce of slavery was beginning to be challenged both socially and in law.

Rating: 8/10 – the aforementioned romantic elements and Rachel Portman’s often intrusive score aside, Belle is a vivid, impassioned look at the often complex life of a woman whose social position meant she was too low to eat with her family and at the same time, too high to eat with servants; a powerful, accomplished movie from a powerful, accomplished director.

Oculus (2013)

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Oculus

D: Mike Flanagan / 104m

Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval

Upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, Tim Russell (Thwaites) is met by his sister, Kaylie (Gillan) and reminded of a promise he made when they were children: to destroy the mirror she believes was responsible for the deaths of their parents eleven years before.  Tim has done his best to overcome the trauma of that event, and has no wish to relive it.  But Kaylie has become obsessed with destroying the mirror, and since its time in their childhood home, she has kept track of it and has managed to get it put up for sale at the auction house where she works.  On the pretext of having it checked for any necessary repairs before sending it off to the buyer, Kaylie takes it to their old home; there she has set up cameras and various recording devices in an attempt to prove that the mirror is possessed of an evil force.  Tim is less than convinced, despite the number of bizarre deaths that have happened to the mirror’s owners over the years.  As the plan progresses, Tim begins to remember more and more about the past, and the events that led up to the deaths of their mother, Marie (Sackhoff), and father, Alan (Cochrane).  With the mirror increasingly able to manipulate their minds into seeing what it wants them to see, Tim and Kaylie fight to stay one step ahead in their efforts to destroy it.

At first glance, Oculus looks and feels like a throwback to early Seventies horror, with its slow build up and emphasis on tension and suspense.  The early scenes, where Kaylie and Tim are introduced both as adults and as children (Basso, Ryan) are well constructed and as the movie unfolds, they show clearly how Kaylie and Tim have become the people they are now.  Young Kaylie is headstrong and a little rebellious; adult Kaylie is forceful and determined.  Young Tim lacks confidence and is easily scared; adult Tim is reticent and emotionally withdrawn.  The conflict between the two siblings is well handled and credible – even if what they’re attempting to deal with is incredible – and the dynamic of their relationship as children is echoed in their behaviour as adults.  It’s a smart move on the part of co-writer and director Flanagan, and helps keep things grounded when the tension and suspense is dropped in favour of a more violent and gory approach.

The structure employed here is unusual too.  Both storylines are allowed to run side by side, and in doing so, the movie keeps Kaylie and Tim in peril in two different time frames.  Although we know their parents died all those years ago, the how is still a mystery, and as the two strands are allowed to dovetail closer and closer together, so events become inter-related, with scenes cutting from then to now, allowing us to see, for example, adult Kaylie running into a room and then young Kaylie facing what awaited her there in the past.  It’s a clever approach and serves to keep the audience on the back foot for most of the last thirty minutes, but sadly, becomes too clever for its own good.  A more linear retelling would expose some lapses in the movie’s internal logic, and its reliance on all the cross-cutting to hide some further inconsistencies in continuity (though the one big problem with the movie is never adequately addressed: why not just destroy the mirror in the first place, why go to all the trouble of setting up cameras etc.).

With the two storylines allowed almost equal running time, it also becomes clear that the events of the past, though occasionally sacrificing coherence for effect (Alan’s recurring fingernail problem, Marie’s apparent possession), are the more engrossing and thrilling, while there’s too much arguing amongst the adults (as it were) for those sequences to be completely effective.  And with the present’s dependence on its scientific hardware and Kaylie’s unwavering belief in its effectiveness, the ease with which she and Tim are regularly outmanoeuvred becomes wearing and just a little too predictable.  In contrast, the past has more of a “kids-trapped-in-a-house-with-a-psycho-killer” approach, and their fight for survival is played out more effectively.

It’s no surprise, then, that the younger actors provide the more compelling performances, and are ably supported by Sackhoff and Cochrane.  Gillan overdoes the older Kaylie’s obsession with the mirror to the point where it becomes uncomfortable to watch, while Thwaites is stuck with playing the older Tim as little more than a bystander.  There’s a couple of suitably nasty moments – older Kaylie making the wrong choice between an apple and a light bulb; Alan removing a plaster from over his fingernail (it’s worse than it sounds) – and there are undeniably creepy moments involving one of the mirror’s previous victims that add to the dread-fuelled atmosphere.  Flanagan, who made the even creepier Absentia (2011), is definitely one to watch and as a calling card for the big leagues, Oculus should secure his future.

Rating: 7/10 – a horror film that attempts to mix an original storyline with its sequel, Oculus is brim-full of ideas, most of which work with unexpected panache; it’s a shame then that the sequel strand lets the movie down by being so derivative and predictable.

Poster of the Week

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The first in a (hopefully) regular series, Poster of the Week is an idea borne out of my searching for movie posters to add to each of my reviews.  I often try and root out some of the more unusual versions that are out there, and often I see other posters that look great but which I’ve never seen before.  So… I thought I’d share some of those posters with everyone.  Feel free to make requests, and I’ll endeavour to include them as often as I can.  And here’s the first one:

Incredible Shrinking Man, The

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

I like this poster for many reasons.  First there’s the comic strip approach that, while giving away most of the story, also piques the interest quite a bit: if all this is in the movie just how well is it going to be done?  (And who wouldn’t want to see a little man fight a giant spider?)  And then there’s the couple in the bottom left hand corner who seem to be looking up at the comic strip in amazement – one of them has to be saying, “Honey, we’ve gotta go see this movie!”  The type face in the top left corner is great too, with the words getting smaller and smaller at first and then getting bigger to show how exciting it’s going to be.  In these days of simple tag lines that often need to be clever at the same time – e.g. There Is No Plan B, The A-Team (2010) – it’s good to see a poster that’s really trying to sell the movie rather than just make you smile.  And then there’s the colour scheme, a selection of muted pastel colours that shouldn’t work, especially the blue, but somehow does, and it doesn’t “hurt” the eye to look at it.

Most movie posters these days have a single image with the ubiquitous tag line added, so it’s nice to see a poster that tries to cram as much in as possible.  I like these old posters, they always try to make the movie sound like a major event, even if it’s a studio ‘B’ movie.  They’re a bit of a lost art now, though, which I think is sad.  True, times have moved on, and we may like to think that movie posters are more sophisticated now, but for me there’s a special attraction in a poster that gives you so much to look at and take in.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know.

The Borderlands (2013)

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Borderlands, The

D: Elliot Goldner / 89m

Cast: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Luke Neal, Patrick Godfrey

Following reports of paranormal activity at a church in Devon, a small team of investigators is sent by the Vatican to look into the matter.  The team consists of Deacon (Kennedy), an investigator with many years’ experience; Gray (Hill) an IT specialist who has been drafted in to set up and monitor various cameras and recording devices; and Mark (McArdle), a priest who is in charge.  Deacon and Gray meet with the church’s incumbent, Father Crellick (Neal) who shows them video footage from a christening where items on the altar are seen to move (apparently) by themselves.  Deacon is unconvinced there is any paranormal involvement, while Father Crellick believes his church may be the site of a miracle.  Gray is also sceptical but he and Deacon go ahead with the installation of several cameras within the church.

Strange phenomena continues to be seen and heard in and around the church, and Father Crellick begins to behave oddly.  As the possibility of a hoax being played out becomes increasingly unlikely, Deacon looks further into the church’s history, discovering a diary written by a priest in the 1880’s.  In it there are disturbing references to a nearby orphanage that was open at the time, and hints that the children were abused, all of which is somehow linked to the church.  Exploring the church itself more thoroughly, Deacon discovers a concealed doorway and steps that lead down under the building.  He also hears sounds and then a voice that references one of Deacon’s previous investigations.  Fearing they may be dealing with something far more serious than they’d originally imagined, Deacon calls on the services of Father Calvino (Godfrey), an expert on matters relating to pagan deities.  The four men make their way to the church to perform a cleansing ritual, but things don’t go as they planned…

The Borderlands – as you may have guessed – is a found footage horror movie, and while that particular sub-genre has been filmed to death over the last seven to eight years, there are several things that make this movie stand out from the crowd, and help make it a more rewarding experience than say, Grave Encounters (2011) or Devil’s Due (2014).  First and foremost are the characters, which are drawn quite broadly but with enough detail to make them credible as individuals, and their motivations and approach to events at the church remain consistent throughout.  Deacon is the world-weary pragmatist faced with something he can’t explain, while Gray has an initial happy-go-lucky approach that you know won’t last.  Mark is the uptight cleric whose faith only extends to the teachings of Jesus, and Father Crellick is the young priest who may or may not be looking for some publicity to bolster the attendance at his services.  There’s a good feel to their interaction with each other, and the dynamic of the team is quickly and easily established.

The Borderlands also boasts a very creepy vibe from the outset, and while there are the standard camera shots where nothing happens, the movie’s use of head cams makes for a steadier and surprisingly unsettling perspective than the standard shaky cam, and allows for each character’s reactions to events to be seen there and then.  The church – unused in real life for worship since 1981 – has an unsettling feel to it, and the scenes inside it, for the most part, achieve an unnerving quality that is quite unexpected.  Also, the pagan backdrop is used sparingly but to good effect, and the inclusion of allegations of historical child abuse has a resonance (thanks to the inclusion of a character called Mandeville – British viewers may pick up on this) that is given a distinctly uncomfortable payoff.

The denouement has Lovecraftian overtones, and there are some neat touches for those eagle-eyed viewers watching the background and not the foreground – look out for the headstone Gray stands near to at one point.  Goldner, directing from his own script, assembles the various elements to very good effect, and creates a palpable, nightmarish atmosphere.  There are a few narrative stumbles – an episode involving a sheep doesn’t lead anywhere, Crellick’s behaviour is odd from the word go, and Father Calvino arrives (at short notice) with information about the church that hints of the Vatican’s prior awareness of the site – but on the whole the movie successfully rises above the slough of other found footage movies and does so by virtue of working hard on the characters.  Kennedy gives an unusually layered performance, while Hill adds depth to a character who seems to be there just for comic relief but who actually serves as the viewer’s way in to the movie.  In support, McArdle and Neal have less to do but acquit themselves well playing secondary characters, and Godfrey arrives too late to make much of an impact but handles his exposition-heavy dialogue with aplomb.

Rating: 7/10 – With some comic moments early on that stem from the characters and their situation, and don’t feel shoehorned in to provide relief from the growing unease the movie is creating, The Borderlands is an effective little chiller; with good location work and a screenplay that subverts audience expectations, this is one found footage movie that can easily be viewed more than once.

 

Fruitvale Station (2013)

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Fruitvale Station

D: Ryan Coogler / 85m

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Ariana Neal, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Crump-Shears

Oscar Grant III (Jordan) is a twenty-two year old resident of the Bay Area in San Francisco.  On New Year’s Eve 2008 he has a number of  problems he’s trying to deal with: he’s had a one night stand that his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) hasn’t fully forgiven him for, he’s been unemployed for two weeks but hasn’t told Sophina, he’s holding drugs that he is expected to sell, the rent is due on January 1st and he doesn’t have the money, and to cap it all it’s his mother’s birthday (more of a welcome distraction than a problem, but still something to be added to the mix).  Oscar has done time and is trying to make a new life for himself, but all these problems seem to be holding him back.

As the day progresses we see him struggle with the demands of being a father – to his endearing daughter, Tatiana (Neal) – of being an ex-employee trying to get his job back, and how to put his drug-related past behind him.  He sees or speaks to friends and family, helps out a stranger in the supermarket where he used to work, antagonises his ex-boss, shows some kindness to a stray dog that gets run over, he gets rid of the drugs he’s holding, and he helps organise his mother’s birthday party.  After the party, Oscar, Sophina and some of their friends take the train to the Embarcadero to see in the New Year.  Returning home around two a.m., an altercation breaks out on the train as it arrives at the Fruitvale Station.  Transit cops at the station detain Oscar and three of his friends.  When one of them is handcuffed, Oscar protests enough for two of the cops – Officers Caruso (Durand) and Ingram (Murray) – to restrain him face down on the ground.  In the process of handcuffing Oscar, Ingram stands clear enough to draw his gun and shoot Oscar in the back…

By now, anyone watching Fruitvale Station will probably know that Oscar died from his wounds (though it does come as a bit of a shock to learn that had he lived, he would have done so minus his right lung).  In recreating the events leading up to and surrounding Oscar’s death, writer/director Coogler has created a fascinating and complex movie that doesn’t paint Oscar as a resolutely good man, but as a man beset by doubts and fears, and with a temper that can get the better of him – as best displayed in a flashback scene set on New Year’s Eve 2007, when Oscar was in prison (it also helps to explain why the altercation on the train came to happen).  He’s also a generous man, a devoted dad, and doing his best to get his life moving forward on a new track.  He has hopes and dreams, just like everyone else, and it’s this mix of good and bad that makes Oscar so credible as a person, and Jordan’s performance so convincing.

It’s a tribute to Coogler’s handling of the material that even though we know the eventual outcome of the movie, there’s little or no attempt to foreshadow the events that occurred on the platform at Fruitvale Station (the encounter with the stray dog comes close, highlighting as it does Oscar’s innate concern for others, a factor in what happened on the platform).  It’s not until his mother, Wanda (Spencer) persuades him to take the train that night, and not drive, that the often – in movies, at least – convenient hand of Fate steps in.  Once the fight breaks out on the train, the movie also speeds up, swapping its laid-back editing style (courtesy of Claudia Costello and Michael Shawver) for a brisker, faster-paced approach that lends an urgency to the inevitability of Oscar’s shooting.  And when the fatal shot is fired, the investment in Oscar that Coogler has built up, makes it all the more shocking.  It’s an unforgettable moment, and the suddenness of it is like a blow.

Being a true story there have been the usual claims and counter-claims about the movie’s authenticity, with various scenes coming under fire for not having happened at all (the scene with the dog), while Coogler has been accused of manipulating events to suit the needs of the movie.  It’s a very emotive issue, but any movie based on real events will always be “unfaithful” in some respects, and artistic licence will always play a part in how such a movie is put together.  And Fruitvale Station is no different.  But what it gets right is the everyday nuances of Oscar’s life, and the absolute injustice meted out to him by an officer who over-reacted in a situation he wasn’t fully in control of (it’s interesting that while Oscar and his family are known by their real names, the officers involved in Grant’s death have been renamed).  With these aspects so well constructed and identified, the movie gains a strength that is at once restrained and grimly moving.

Jordan (as mentioned above) is convincing throughout, and shows a range and quality to his performance that elevates his portrayal of Oscar, and he’s both sensitive and quietly eloquent.  It’s a bravura performance, as effective for its quiet moments as its dramatic ones.  The rest of the cast put in equally sensitive performances – Spencer’s turn as Oscar’s mother fully encapsulating the sadness she must have felt at the tragic result of persuading Oscar to take the train – though Durand is perhaps a little too heavy-handed as one of the cops that pin Oscar to the ground (he starts off as angry and unyielding and stays that way).

Rating: 8/10 – whatever your thoughts about the merits of adapting a true story for the screen, Fruitvale Station is one of the more honourable movies out there, and avoids any hint of sensationalism with ease; with a superb performance from Jordan, and inspired direction from Coogler, Oscar Grant’s final twenty-four hours are treated with both an admirable constraint and an unsuppressed sense of outrage.

The Look of Love (2013)

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Look of Love, The

D: Michael Winterbottom / 100m

Cast: Steve Coogan, Anna Friel, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison, James Lance, Shirley Henderson, David Walliams

Presented as a series of flashbacks as Paul Raymond (Coogan) reflects on his life in the wake of his daughter Debbie’s death, The Look of Love takes us back to his early years as part of a mind-reading act, his early attempts at providing a show including static nudes, and the founding in 1958 of the infamous Revue Bar strip club in London’s Soho.  From there he ventures into publishing, though it isn’t until 1971 that the publication of Men Only brings him success in that field.  With pornography proving such a lucrative business, he stages risqué plays, and in the early Seventies branches out into real estate, mostly in Soho (there’s a scene early on in the movie where Raymond and his granddaughter Fawn are being driven through London and she has to pick out the properties he owns; later the scene is repeated but with a young Debbie).

Raymond is a somewhat mercurial man, adept at persuading those around him to follow in his wake, though his more personal relationships don’t fare so well.  As he builds his empire his marriage to Jean (Friel) begins to show signs of falling apart, his affairs with other women proving too much for her (it’s a sign of the times that is cleverly subverted, this was the Swinging Sixties after all).  His time with Fiona Richmond (Egerton) shows him at possibly his happiest, even when it leads to his taking drugs, but it’s a relationship that is doomed to failure, especially when her fame begins to outstrip his.  And his daughter Debbie (Poots), who he hopes will take over his empire, has dreams of being a performer but she lacks enough talent, and he has to close the show he’s set her up in.  From there, Debbie’s insecurities take hold and Raymond’s inability to support her leads us back to the movie’s beginning.

The Look of Love takes a conventional approach to the biopic format, and charts Raymond’s life with obvious respect, but in many ways it feels as if there’s too much of a distance between the movie and its audience for it to be completely effective.  Despite the often challenging subject matter, and Raymond’s role in what was as much a cultural revolution as a sexual one, the movie is often like watching a mildly interested TV documentary, one that wants to say something about its subject but never quite manages it.  Under the auspices of its very talented director, The Look of Love is still an intriguing viewing experience, and its success in recreating the Sixties and Seventies and the vibe that was around during those times helps bolster the sense of a period when society was changing (though for better or worse is another matter).

Winterbottom is aided by a clutch of great performances.  Coogan, not a naturally gifted actor, works hard at presenting the various aspects of Raymond’s often contradictory nature, and – bad wigs aside – does an impressive, if at times awkward, job.  Raymond is still a character (albeit one that really lived), and Coogan displays a remarkable intuition at times that offsets any doubts about the man’s behaviour.  But there are also too many occasions when he affects a range of comic expressions that come across less as character detail and more as Coogan falling back on tried and tested habits.  The actor is clearly having fun in the role, but perhaps a little too much fun.

As his long-suffering wife, Jean, Friel manages to avoid being pushed to the sidelines, and imbues her with a no-nonsense determination that makes the poignancy of her (later) photo-shoot all the more effective.  Jean’s relationship with Raymond was mostly one-sided and her pragmatism in the face of so much “meaningless adultery” highlights the fortitude she had, and Friel brings these traits to the fore with an unshowy display that grounds her character completely.  As porn icon Fiona Richmond, Egerton expertly navigates the character’s transition from eager free spirit to self-publicising brand name with persuasive ease.  Her early scenes, as Raymond becomes more and more besotted with her, show both the carefree willingness to push boundaries alongside the more measured awareness of the benefits of doing so.  It’s a much more subtle performance than it appears, and Egerton never puts a foot wrong throughout.  As the emotionally wayward Debbie, Poots delivers an assured combination of vulnerability and self-destructive neediness, and her scenes with Coogan show the depth of their emotional co-dependency.  It’s an assured performance, and Poots displays a maturity and depth that belies her years.

There’s the requisite amount of nudity throughout, though nothing that would embarrass anyone – this isn’t 9 Songs (2004) – and the casual sexism of the times is adequately reflected in the attitude of Raymond’s advertising associate Tony Power (Addison).  The awkwardness and the inappropriate relationship between Raymond and Debbie is shown by their taking cocaine together, and there’s a perfectly judged moment at Debbie’s funeral where Jean accuses Raymond of failing their daughter by wanting her to be like him.  The emotional fallout from all this leaves Raymond adrift, and although the movie doesn’t cover his final years, he spent most of them as a recluse.

Rating: 7/10 – an absorbing look at the life of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love recreates the times of his rise to fame in an earnest yet thoughtful manner, yet doesn’t quite manage to be impassioned about its subject; the supporting characters prove to be more interesting, and there’s a great deal of misguided humour that only serves to undermine the tragicomic atmosphere.

 

 

Drive Hard (2014)

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Drive Hard

D: Brian Trenchard-Smith / 92m

Cast: John Cusack, Thomas Jane, Zoe Ventoura, Christopher Morris, Yesse Spence, Damien Garvey

Former race car driver Peter Roberts (Jane) runs a driving school but continues to dream of race car glory.  His wife, Tessa (Spence) and daughter Rebecca are not entirely supportive of him, and he’s very much stuck in a rut.  When a driving lesson with visiting American, Keller (Cusack) begins uncomfortably – Keller seems to know an awful lot about Peter, his family, and his past – Peter decides to end the lesson.  Keller persuades him to make a stop at a bank; when Keller comes out it’s clear he’s just committed a robbery, and Peter is now his getaway driver.  They evade the police and swap Peter’s clunky driving school car for a souped-up GT before heading further up the coast to where Keller can leave the country.

Of course, Keller hasn’t just committed any old bank robbery, he’s stolen $9 million in bearer bonds from a bank that acts as a front for the crime syndicate that left him high and dry after a job he did for them (Keller is a thief and spent five years in jail).  With the bank’s “security” staff after them, as well as the local police (who are on the bank’s payroll), and the Federal police, Peter and Keller have to try and keep a low profile on their journey, something that proves easier said than done.  And as their relationship develops, Keller shows Peter that his life isn’t as rosy as he thinks it is.  It all leads to a showdown at a marina that sees Peter and Keller working together to get both of them out of danger.

Drive Hard is best summed up in four words: it’s just plain awful.  This is movie-making of such depressing witlessness that it makes you wonder how on earth anyone could have thought they were doing a good enough job in the first place.  Watching actors of the calibre of Cusack and Jane trying to make any of it interesting or entertaining is like watching two ageing boxers trying to land punches but missing every time.  Jane is simply embarrassing; it’s like he’s decided that making his character seem credible just isn’t relevant or necessary.  It’s possibly the worst performance he’s ever given on screen.  And Cusack is only marginally better, again ditching a credible characterisation in favour of mangled line readings.  If there was ever a performance that shouted, “paying the mortgage here!” then this is the one.

At the reins, and failing to bring anything remotely interesting or new to proceedings is veteran director (and co-screenwriter) Trenchard-Smith, a cult figure quite well-regarded but on this outing, clearly going through the motions.  For a movie with a title like Drive Hard, it’s equally clear that the title came first, and the story and plot came along a very distant second and third.  Even the chase sequences – strictly speaking, one chase sequence split into two sections – are dull and uninspired, and you know things are bad when the budget isn’t big enough to come up with at least one decent collision or car wreck.  Otherwise there are plenty of shots of Peter and Keller driving through the (admittedly) beautiful Gold Coast countryside on their not very fast trip to the marina, and an encounter with a group of bikers that should provide some much-needed tension but which is resolved with a minimum of fuss and/or bother (basically these bikers are about as scary as a bunch of leather-clad Teletubbies).

There are other encounters along the way – a gas station attendant tries to steal the bonds but ends up like Marvin in Pulp Fiction (1994), an elderly woman at the site of a wedding reception goes gun crazy when she realises who Peter and Keller are – but these (very minor) highlights are still badly paced and edited.  The subplot involving the corrupt cops and the Feds is allowed to trundle on in such a contrived manner it makes its resolution all the more welcome, even if it is entirely implausible, and the main bad guy, Rossi (Morris) is so colourless he might as well be see-through.  Peter’s relationship with Tessa feels like it was adapted from an agony aunt column, and the solution to their problems proves to be unashamedly sexist.

The worst aspect of this absolute mess of a movie is without doubt the dialogue, with enough clunkers per minute to warrant some kind of award.  Cusack seems saddled with most of them, and his attempts to justify his actions are both lame and ludicrous at the same time.  Jane blusters his way through his lines with all the enthusiasm of someone who can’t wait to get them over and done with, and Rossi’s attempts to sound threatening are about as impressive as someone trying to intimidate a snail.  And as if things couldn’t get any worse, the end credits fail to list the young actress who plays Rebecca, but does list Cusack’s personal chef twice.

Rating: 3/10 – abysmal, and a low point for pretty much everyone concerned, Drive Hard disappoints on almost every level; leaden, tension-free and careless, this is filmmaking for the sake of it and as entertaining as watching your toenails grow.

22 Jump Street (2014)

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22 Jump Street

D: Phil Lord, Chris Miller / 112m

Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron

Having saved the day in 21 Jump Street – and to everyone’s surprise – rookie cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are given another assignment, but this time instead of going undercover at a high school, they’re off to college instead.  With the church at 21 Jump Street having been bought back by the Koreans, the pair are assigned to the Vietnamese church across the road at 22 Jump Street.  Still under the command of the ever-cussing Captain Dickson (Cube), Schmidt and Jenko have to find who’s dealing a new drug on campus called WhyPhy (pronounced Wi-Fi), and who the supplier is as well.

College life proves to be divisive for the duo, with Jenko being welcomed into a jock fraternity headed by Zook (Russell), while Schmidt finds himself welcome amongst the geeks, in particular, art major Maya (Stevens).  When Zook is revealed to have an incriminating tattoo, Jenko refuses to accept he might be the dealer; so strong is his new attachment to the fraternity life he decides he and Schmidt should go their own way.  When the college counsellor is arrested and the case officially closed, neither Schmidt nor Jenko is convinced he’s the dealer.  They resume their investigation and discover the supplier is a criminal known as the Ghost (Stormare).  They also find out he plans to distribute the new drug at the upcoming spring break celebrations at Puerto Mexico.  With the dealer’s identity still a mystery, Schmidt and Jenko travel here in a bid to apprehend him and stop the drug spreading nationwide.

The surprise success of 21 Jump Street meant that a sequel was inevitable, and returning writers/directors Lord and Miller have a great time subverting the pitfalls of such an endeavour, most notably in an extended sequence featuring the hangdog Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) where his instructions to Schmidt and Jenko to “keep things the same because they seemed to work the first time” are carried to their logical extreme (and then beyond).  There’s even a reference to the increased budget for the movie – $70m as opposed to the original’s $42m – when Hardy says the top brass have given 22 Jump Street more money to help them with their investigation.  It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and played to perfection by messrs Offerman, Tatum and Hill.

As it turns out, the investigation is of secondary (hell, even tertiary) importance, as the movie focuses on the break-up of Schmidt and Jenko’s professional and personal relationships, with Jenko’s bromance with Zook taking up a great deal of screen time (as if we didn’t get how important it is to him), leaving Schmidt to act possessive and look broken hearted, even with his budding romance with Maya taking off at the same time.  This jealousy angle, somewhat signposted from the beginning, is given far more emphasis than it needs, and there’s very little room for the actual investigation, other than a few half-hearted attempts at surveillance and a trip to the counsellor’s office that ends up mocking every couples therapy session you’ve ever seen.  But, despite these scenes being very well played by Tatum and Hill, they often outstay their welcome, and could do with some judicious editing.

With plenty of scenes that could have been excised or shortened, 22 Jump Street is a movie sequel where the saying “Less is more” is definitely not adhered to.  It’s as if Lord and Miller, by embracing the tropes and conventions that contribute to most sequels, felt that being self-referential was all they had to do, and that it would get them off the hook when things didn’t quite work out.  But by following the template of the first movie so closely, what little originality there is on display is overwhelmed by so much that is familiar.  It’s a tightrope walk, and one where not everyone manages to stay on.  That said, the jokes about the stars’ age and looks come thick and fast and are very funny, with Hill in particular being given a roasting on more than one occasion.

Hill and Tatum still make for a great double act, though it’s Tatum who edges it here, his physicality and willingness to look foolish having more appeal than Hill’s strident comic style.  Cube is, well, Cube playing every other foul-mouthed, aggressive character he’s ever played (he’s in danger of becoming his own caricature now), while the rest of the supporting cast deal well with a range of underwritten characters.  There are cameos from Rob Riggle and Dave Franco, and the usual attempts to make it difficult to work out who the dealer is (not easy but not difficult either), and there’s a great moment when Jenko uses a girl on the beach to see off two of the Ghost’s thugs (who appear out of nowhere).

Enjoyable for the most part, with one absolutely standout moment about halfway through – watch for Jenko’s reaction when he finds out something about Schmidt’s love life – 22 Jump Street coasts along for much of its running time, riffing off the previous movie and doing just enough for the most part to avoid being looked on as a “contractual obligation”.  There are laughs to be had, but the action scenes are low-key and not very exciting, and there’s an incredibly indulgent end credits sequence that is amusing to begin with but soon runs out of both steam and imagination.

Rating: 5/10 – too long, and too uninterested in its drugs-related storyline, 22 Jump Street will nevertheless please fans of the original; if there is a 23 Jump Street (as seems likely) then a tighter, less self-reverential storyline will be required.

Silent House (2011)

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Silent House

D: Chris Kentis, Laura Lau / 86m

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, Haley Murphy

While renovating the summer home her family hasn’t visited or used for some time, Sarah (Olsen) begins to experience strange phenomena that may mean the house is haunted.  She is particularly attuned to the strange goings on, and finds herself becoming more and more aware that not everything is as it should be.  A visit from childhood friend, Sophia (Ross), whom she clearly doesn’t remember, adds to the sense of unease Sarah feels.  When her uncle Peter (Stevens) leaves after a dispute with her father John (Trese), Sarah starts to hear weird noises coming from one of the rooms upstairs.  She gets her dad to investigate but at first they don’t find anything (though John does find some photographs that he quickly hides away).  When her father is attacked and injured, Sarah tries to flee the house but finds herself locked in and unable to get out.  With someone else in the house, stalking her, Sarah becomes increasingly terrified; she finds a key to the padlock on the storm cellar door and escapes.

Outside, she has a vision of a young girl (Murphy), and runs into her returning uncle.  She tells him about her father and they head back to the house.  Peter goes inside; while Sarah waits in the car she becomes convinced someone has gotten in there with her.  She runs back into the house and locks the front door behind her.  Peter can’t find her father’s body (though he does find some photographs that he quickly hides away).  They search for John but Peter is attacked and knocked unconscious by the unknown intruder (Barnett).  Sarah’s visions of the young girl become more frequent, and the intruder looks more and more like a reanimated corpse.  Once again, Sarah tries to flee the house…and runs into Sophia who begins to challenge her memories of the past.  With her visions of the young girl proving more and more revealing of a past tragedy that happened at the house, Sarah is forced to confront some horrible truths surrounding her childhood.

A remake of the Uruguayan movie La casa muda (2010), Silent House starts off well, its remote lakeside location just wintry enough to make things feel eerie from the start.  The house is a bit of a labyrinth and seems to contain more rooms than seems feasible when looking at it from the outside, and the basement seems twice as large again.  The lack of working electricity adds to the atmosphere and the battery lamps used throughout throw out just enough light to keep things hidden in the shadows, further adding to the sense of foreboding, while Olsen’s wide-eyed moon face reflects the building tension with unexpected authority.

With all this in place, it’s a surprise then that the movie doesn’t work as well as it should.  The main problem lies in the approach to the material. What begins as a haunted house movie mutates part way through into a psychological thriller with lingering supernatural overtones, and ends as an uncomfortable revenge drama.  Wearing and shedding so many identities leaves Silent House feeling as if the writer (co-director Lau) couldn’t decide which approach was the most effective.  This also leaves the movie feeling disjointed and incohesive, and there are too many moments when the requirements of the script make for forced (non-)activity on screen – is it unreasonable to assume that Sarah wouldn’t be seen hiding under the kitchen table by the intruder?  There’s also the issue of what’s real and what’s not real – there’s a good argument to be made for Sophia not being real throughout, but this isn’t confirmed one way or the other – and it’s unclear if what Sarah is seeing is happening at all, but in the hands of Kentis and Lau the ending is inconclusive (but maybe deliberately so).

While the directors try and decide what kind of a movie they’re making, it’s left to Olsen to shoulder the burden of selling the movie and its twists and turns.  Fortunately she’s up to the task, and even if she can’t quite make the final scenes ring true, it’s still a strong performance, Sarah’s increasing hysteria tempered by an overriding obduracy.  Trese and Stevens are fine, if underused, and Ross is realistically creepy in her manner; when Sophia gives Sarah a hug it’s so awkward as to be cringe-inducing.  When she returns towards the movie’s end, her appearance is a powerful boost to proceedings (even if it doesn’t make complete sense for her to be there).

Rating: 6/10 – it needs a better ending, but on the whole Silent House works well within its (for the most part) interior location; a great performance from Olsen anchors the more outlandish moments and there’s a degree of fun to be had in trying to work out what’s happening and why, but sadly the movie stumbles far too often for it to be completely successful.

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